Elemental Absolution: Old Man Gloom’s Aaron Turner Interviewed

Toby Cook talks to the former Isis frontman about the reuniting of avant-metal behemoths Old Man Gloom for the first time in eight years, and the story behind new album No

Every year, at about this time, during the fiestas de Santa Fe in Santa Fe, New Mexico, residents inscribe on various pieces of paper all of their worries and ills from the previous year. Each and every parchment is compiled into a veritable compendium of gloom, placed at the feat of the Zozobra, the ‘Old Man Gloom’, and torched; torched along with this near fifty foot marionette – the embodiment of their ‘gloom’ – to destroy any of the previous year’s troubles and anxieties, to purge the town’s sin and anguish in a blazing, elemental absolution.

Last year, however, as one Old Man Gloom was burning down another was quietly rising. Not an effigy this time but a band: the hardcore tarnished, avant-metal super group (and yes, it is fair to term them as such) Old Man Gloom.

Formed way back in 1999 by the coming together of members of Isis (Aaron Turner), Cave In (Caleb Scofield), Converge (Nate Newton) and Zozobra (Santos Montano), after the release of their fourth LP of bruising and schizophrenic noise-washed sludge, Christmas, they disappeared from view in 2004. Older, wiser and gloomier, last year without warning the various participants reconvened at Kurt Ballou’s God City studios to create a follow up to Christmas that was to eventually become their most coherent and (say it quietly) ‘serious’ record to date – No.

With the new record having been inflicted on a largely unsuspecting public last month, and with the Quietus being fans of any sort of metal that sounds like it’s the product of minds that have been living off K-rations in a fallout shelter, we caught up with the now former Isis man and Hydra Head records boss Aaron Turner for what turned out to be a lengthy and revealing chat.

So Aaron, it’s been eight long years since the last Old Man Gloom record. What brought you all back together – was it a case of one of you guys phoning the others up like "dude! I’m getting the band back together"?

Aaron Turner: [laughs] No, not really!

We had never intended to take such a long break – it wasn’t a break up, it was just a sort of informal hiatus. But the nature of Old Man Gloom was always supposed to be that we did it when we felt like doing it and when we could make the time to, and after the last record in 2004 there’d been a couple of tour plans that fell apart and discussions about other recordings that were supposed to happen, but time just slipped by and all of us were consumed by our other projects and by things going on in our personal lives. Finally, I guess early last year, we started talking about it again and it seemed like we could actually make it happen – like, it was actually feasible to try to do it again. We slowly started making plans and it just grew from there.

So, having spent so much time apart, was there that feeling of it almost being like a new project?

AT: It felt to me like it fell together very naturally. Even though we hadn’t played together as Old Man Gloom for a long time we had seen quite a bit of each other over the years and never really lost contact, so it did feel fairly natural to start playing together again – there was, if anything, a greater ease with the general proceedings, maybe due to the accumulated experience from the intervening years or maybe just a more relaxed attitude than ever before. I feel like all of us in our individual lives have come quite some ways since the early days of Old Man Gloom, so maybe we just feel better about where we are in lives or just have a greater ability to do things and not have it be such a frustrating and complicated process.

Obviously you yourself have got one less project in particular going on these days [Turner’s band Isis split in 2010] – was there a sense that there was this overflow of riffs that needed a home, and Old Man Gloom fitted the bill?

AT: Not really, I didn’t feel that I had been storing up riffs particularly, although I did feel a drive to make some more straightforward heavy music again. I had done a bit of that in Split Cranium, but I didn’t actually write any of the music for that project, I really just did the vocals, so Old Man Gloom was a different kind of outlet for me than I’ve had in the last couple of years and something I definitely felt like I needed to do. So there was certainly a drive there for that.

And, of course, back in the early days you were all a lot closer, geographically speaking – these days it’s quite the opposite, you’re all quite spread out between Boston, Washington State, etc. How did it work out logistically when you decided to start working on the album – was there a lot of file trading going on?

AT: No, we did everything in person. The other three guys all live in the north east, two in the Boston area and Santos lives in New York, so they weren’t that spread out and it was easy enough for me to just fly out that way. We all had some ideas prepared when we got together, but really most of the writing process – or at least doing the arrangements and the practicing – all happened in the span of a week leading up to the recording of the record. Then we took all those basic parts and spent some time at home with them and worked on some more ideas; I did some of my own recording at home and then we all got together again in Massachusetts to finish up the record. So there wasn’t really that much file trading – none at all I think. It all happened in person.

You’ve recently relocated from LA to the Puget Sound up in Washington State, right? It’s pretty isolated up there – are you bunkering down and preparing for the apocalypse or something?

AT: [Laughs] Err, yes! I’m not convinced that it’s coming, but I would much rather be where we are now than a place like Los Angeles if there is some sort of catastrophic economic collapse or something like that. And beyond that, I just feel more at home in a more natural or rural environment. I grew up that way and maybe for a time I felt like I needed to escape that and be in a busy, more metropolitan type of atmosphere, but after eight years in Boston and five years in LA I’d had enough of that and I was ready to move back to the woods basically – and I’m very happy with that decision!

You’ve briefly been back on the road with Old Man Gloom – how has the reaction been from both within the band and from audiences so far?

AT: Much better than expected!

Oh, really?

AT: Yeah. It’d been so long we had no idea if people were going to care anymore by the time we got out to play shows. We had played so few shows in the early years of the band [but] we were never really able to gel completely, and I feel that this time around we played much better as a band than we ever did before. And we had a lot more fun doing it because it was less nerve wracking; it didn’t feel like a train that was about to derail at any second during the performances. So that was really nice! And actually I felt that the band was for the most part just a studio project in the early years, and now I feel like we’re equally able to communicate our ideas in a live setting as we are on record, although maybe some of the more delicate, abstract elements don’t really get worked into the live show – it’s just more of s straight up rock show.

Is there a plan to make Old Man Gloom more of a going concern as a live prospect – are you looking to book tours and maybe play dates outside of the states?

AT: We’d like to, but again we’re still following the same sort of attitude that we’ve always had, which is not to turn this into a band the way our other bands have been – in the sense that we don’t want to make really rigid plans or have concrete expectations placed upon it, we really want it to maintain its sense of fun and spontaneity, so we’ll do tours when we can but I don’t think that we’ll ever really do anything extensive. I hope that it’s not another eight years before we do another record and another round of shows, but we’ll just have to wait and see. For the time being we’re just looking forward to the few shows we have on the west coast a couple of months from now and then maybe sometime next year, if it works out, get over to Europe and possibly Japan.

I understand that there’s quite a weighty concept behind No; that it’s a reaction to the modern ‘yes’ culture, or something – can you elaborate on that?

AT: I feel like there’s a lot of different angles to answer that from, but I’ll explain it from my own personal point of view which is that for a long time I think, either verbally or just by my own actions, I agreed to a lot of things that I didn’t actually want to do and got myself into a lot of situations that I didn’t want to be in; I followed a lot of patterns that had been set forth early in my life that led to fairly destructive situations. And so learning to, for lack of a better term, set boundaries within my own life and to speak for myself all the time. Learning to say ‘no’ is a very important part of that process and that goes for my personal interactions but also in terms of how I interact with the rest of the world. I definitely don’t see it as a negative perspective or a negative world view – if anything I think it’s led to more positive ends in my life.

It’s probably a stupid question and I’ve no doubt that you’re probably sick of being asked it, but does it still feel like the right decision to disband Isis?

AT: Yeah, I definitely think so. I feel happier not being a participant in that anymore. I just think, as we had alluded to in our press release at the time that we broke up, it had really run its course in the sense that all five of us couldn’t come together to write music that we felt was representative of our individual creative voices.

There were aspects of the last couple of records that I really enjoyed but overall I just felt that it couldn’t be my main project anymore. It didn’t encompass all the different things that I wanted to do and from an operational perspective I didn’t want to be on the road for four or six or eight months of the year and I didn’t want the personal connections that I had with everybody in Isis to deteriorate because we were involved in something that not all of us were 100 percent committed to – y’know, essentially living with and being around the same five people all the time can be really difficult if you’re not all really enjoying what you’re doing or feeling like you need to do other things with your life, which was certainly the case for me. And beyond the creative restriction of the project itself, just the time commitment too made me feel like there wasn’t room in my life to do other things, and I certainly felt like there was a lot of other things musically and personally that I wanted to be able pursue that I couldn’t because of my involvement in Isis. It seems to me now that everybody is getting to do things that they didn’t get to when we were all in Isis – everybody is active with other musical projects, exploring different things stylistically and doing different things with their personal lives and I feel like it makes perfect sense for everybody to be going in the directions they are now.

So presumably there’s no sense of animosity between you all?

AT: I don’t think so. I mean, it would’ve been hard for us to part ways with completely clear feelings and no lingering resentments, but I think for the most part we’ve done a pretty good job of being open with each other about what happened and where we are now. I don’t think we’ll ever have the same kind of relationship with each other that we did in the early years of the band but that’s fine, relationships evolve and change and I think it’s okay for us to have gone our separate ways to a certain extent – and I would also say that we’re comfortable being around each other and can get along just fine, so that’s a good thing.

Just finally then Aaron, I remember in amongst the art work for the last Old Man Gloom record, Christmas, there was this list of something like ’27 things that would make my life better, in no particular order’ – have you achieved any of those? The talons or the hyper-colour tuxedo perhaps?

AT: That was actually Nate [Newton]’s personal list, but I hope for his sake that, yes, some of those goals were met!

Old Man Gloom’s new album, No, is available now via Hydra Head records

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today