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In Extremis

Forward, To Battle! An Interview with Conan
Sean McGeady , June 5th, 2013 04:47

Self-proclaimed merchants of 'caveman battle doom' Conan catch up with Sean McGeady to discuss being nominated for awards and the value of persistence

Even if it was, according to band member Jon Davis, "a bit of a joke at first," Conan have been producing colossal and menacing doom metal since 2006, with their first release Horseback Battle Hammer leading to the verification of their self-defined genre, 'caveman battle doom'. It's entirely appealing, however, that the band responsible for such an intimidating concept - born from suffocating and stentorian music possessed of titles like 'Dying Giant' and 'Grim Tormentor' - seem so comfortably down to earth. "We're just a band," shrugs Davis, who plays guitar and vocals alongside Phil Coumbe on bass and backing vocals, and Paul O'Neil on drums.

During Conan's UK tour with Leeds progressive champions Humanfly and Chicago sludge-peddlers Bongripper, the Quietus caught up with Davis to discuss being nominated for Liverpool's GIT Awards, Conan's recent split with Bongripper, metal's ever-changing underground and his unwashed jeans.

Casually stood amongst the punters, leant against the exterior walls of the Star & Garter, the affable and soft-spoken Davis has to raise his voice to be heard above Manchester's assailing traffic. Still, it's not quite the voice I'm used to. In the context of the band, Davis' vocals offer an icy, shivering contrast to Conan's unforgiving groan. He sings as if imprisoned within some unending exorcism, a priest by his side tearing demons from his throat. I'm rather grateful for his restraint during our conversation in person. Even unamplified, at this range his voice could probably strip the skin from my skull.

I wanted to ask about the GIT Awards. How did it feel, not only to be nominated, but to be nominated alongside electro-pop acts and singer-songwriters?

Jon Davis: To be honest with you, it was alright. We always enjoy playing anyway, y'know? People always say they like to play to new crowds, and we went down really well. It wasn't our crowd though. The band who won were like your typical trendy Liverpool band, which we're not into. But it was good. It was fun to play. Ten minutes is a weird time to play though.

Do Conan have many songs under ten minutes?

JD: We managed to play two short songs. They used all our backline as well.

Was it rewarding to see doom recognised alongside those commercially accepted acts?

JD: Yeah. It was. Notwithstanding that the night itself was a bit meh, being asked to play it was cool because we didn't nominate ourselves. It came to us out of the blue. It was good. It's sort of a field of music that's starting to get a bit more popular, and I'd hate for it to become trendy, so it's cool that they asked us, but I'm not particularly bothered if we don't get asked again.

'Hawk As Weapon', taken from the Monnos LP

Do you think your GIT Award nomination will help strengthen Liverpool's metal scene?

JD: Yeah. I'd say so. Maybe there were a few people there who wouldn't necessarily come to a heavy show. But maybe after seeing us for ten minutes they probably would think again, and actually decide to go see the likes of Black Magician, Corrupt Moral Altar or Iron Witch, y'know, the other metal bands in Liverpool. In that way it's cool, but I'm not sure whether it would, I don't know if that night itself would do a great deal within this genre of metal.

Having played with Sleep recently, do you still see Conan as set in the underground? How do you view Conan in the scheme of things?

JD: I don't know really. I guess, probably the same as we always have been. The way we approach things is exactly the same. It's just that we seem to be busier now. I wouldn't say we're any more important than we ever were. We're just a band, like. But obviously the benefits of persevering and picking up fans is that you get asked to do cool shows. Y'know, would we ever have thought we'd be touring with Bongripper? No. We are and that's amazing. I guess that's a sign that you just work hard and over time you build up a reputation, and I think that's really what it's all about. You see a lot of bands who try really hard and seem to be really impatient with it. When we started we couldn't be arsed doing anything. We just fucked around really. It was a bit of a joke at first. It was always fun so we carried on doing it, and here we are. I'd say yeah, we're still definitely 'underground', if you like. We're not getting asked to play main stages at big festivals or whatever it takes to not be in the underground. I just see us as a regular, normal band, but with a busier diary than we're used to.

Has anything changed since [2012 album] Monnos came out? It got great reviews, has anything changed since that critical acclaim started building?

JD: Yeah, things have. I guess in terms of changes we've noticed, we've always had record labels approach us and offer us stuff - 'do you wanna come and do this and do that?' - but the record labels that are approaching us now are much bigger. We've had offers from three sizeable record labels for the foreseeable future, one of which is an amazing label - UK based - and it was a very, very tough decision, but we've had to say to them that on this occasion we're going to say no, even though their offer was great. We're in negotiations now with a record label from Europe. I won't say too much obviously, but we're at the point now where we're nearly at an agreement with everything. We've just got to sign it all, I think.

As far as I understand you're working on a new album at the moment. How's that coming along?

JD: It's good, yeah. We've got five songs that we could probably stand on stage and play now.

Are you going to do that?

JD: No. No. We've got two that we play well and three that would sound like, y'know, shit. Then we've got two which I'm writing myself but I've not shown the other lads yet. Album names, we've got a few different album names but I don't really want to say anything just yet because it might lead us to think we've got to choose one. It's sounding good. It's sounding quite aggressive compared to the others, like doom, but with, like, more of a 'Conan' thing. Conan would be pissed off, I suppose. We're not pissed off, y'know. We're not trying to be fuckin' Eyehategod or anything. But like, it seems a little bit more urgent and a little bit more in-your-face, and a lot heavier, I'd say.

Is there any timeframe on this or are you just seeing how it pans out?

JD: Well, I expect that if we nail everything on with the label that we're expecting to, then we'll probably record it later this year and release it early next. That's as precise as I can get. We'd like to record it in our own studio.

You're building your own studio?

JD: Yeah. My wife and I were fortunate enough to get an offer accepted on a really cool house near us, in the countryside, with some outbuildings, one of which we're converting into a studio.

Did 'Beheaded', from your recent split with Bongripper [listen via the embed above] come out of the sessions for the new album?

JD: No, 'Beheaded' was a song that was written by John McNulty. John McNulty was our original bass player. John and I, in the middle of Conan's early years, were in a band together called Horn, and we wrote a few songs, one of which was 'Dying Giant', off Horseback Battle Hammer. The other finished song was 'Beheaded'. So when we were looking for an idea for this split, it was the easy choice. It's a great song. So we asked John and the drummer Andy if they'd mind if we used it, and they said "of course, no problem". So we went with it. We recorded it with Chris Fielding again, but at a different studio than we're used to - a recording studio near where I live called Whitby Studios.

It's usually down in Wales you record.

JD: Foel Studios, yeah. That's always been, up to now, our studio of choice. But we'll follow Chris Fielding wherever he goes. So yeah, the [Beheaded] lyrics changed a little bit, I suppose. John wrote the original ones and I've tweaked them just to make them fit with the rhythm of it. Aside from that, it's as it was. It's changed a little bit in the drumming. But aside from that it's as the original.

How did that split with Bongripper come about?

JD: It was a Facebook thing really. Originally, a few people were saying on Facebook, 'You guys [Bongripper] should come over and tour'. Then someone else said 'You guys [Bongripper] should play with Conan. Come and tour England with Conan'. I then sent a message to Nick, I think - me and Nick talk quite a lot anyway - and said "do you know, a lot of people are saying 'why don't ya?', why don't ya? We can arrange it." At that point we had management - we've decided to walk away from that now - and I said "they can probably sort it out for you", and they did. They sorted this tour for us. It's gone really well up to now, with two shows. This show's looking like a really good crowd, too. When the idea for the split came about it just seemed like a natural thing to do. We'll release a split, sell it on the tour, put some fuel in the van. That's the reason really. We thought it'd be cool to get on the same release together, because Bongripper are a great band and they've got a really good reputation over here. So we were really keen to get something released with them.

This is Phil. [Introduces Conan bassist Phil Coumbe, who is wandering by.] We're just doing an interview.

I'll throw this question out to you both then. You [Jon] mentioned earlier that you wouldn't want doom metal to become trendy. Recently there's been a massive explosion in the doom scene - do you feel like it might get saturated? It's limited as to how mainstream you can take doom metal, but even still, it can swell.

JD: Oh yeah. It can swell. But for it to be saturated, the capacity would have to be limited. But I think there is a lot of capacity for this sort of music at the moment. When I say capacity, I mean people who aren't into it but will come into it. I think the more shows like this happen, you'll get metal fans who'll come to the gigs and they're like 'fucking hell, I didn't expect to enjoy that'. I remember Kurt Cobain talking about it when Nirvana first started out, and they'd have punks at their shows, and metalheads and skinheads, and they'd be expanding the audience, and grunge became big. I don't think this'll happen to this genre of metal. We're not really in control of what happens. We'll just see how it goes. We just keep playing regardless. We always have. When we started --

You've been going since about 2006?

JD: Yeah, just about. We weren't serious then. No-one gave a shit about us then, but we just carried on going. But we were actually shit back then anyway. [To Phil] What do you think?

Phil Coumbe: Yeah. In this band's experience you just strive to do more and to get better yourselves. It's great that people are enjoying it and listening to it. You don't expect it. It's awesome.

I guess it's been a long time coming for doom. Sleep started doing this 20 years ago and it only seems to be in the last few years that doom's really taken off.

PC: There's been a few more bands, that've come out of nowhere really, that sound so amazing, and I think that's what everyone's really appreciating. Especially when a lot of bands put stuff out, especially ourselves, that go straight to vinyl. That's one thing that people really appreciate.

That dovetails with the subgenre really nicely.

JD: What it's attracted though, unfortunately for me, is a lot of bands that are style over substance. They care more about how they look than what they sound like. They're the ones who fuckin' get all the big shows, which is a shame really. But it doesn't matter. We just keep on going.

You don't need to look nice if you're a doom band. It's not prerequisite.

PC: No. No.

JD: These jeans, I think I've washed them about five times this year. They fucking stink. But that's the way it goes.