Desert Storm: Mike Vest Of Bong Interviewed

On the eve of their appearance at Desertfest, Bong guitarist Mike Vest speaks to Matt Ridout about the philosophies behind their new album We Are, We Were And We Will Have Been. Band portraits by Mike Savage

There doesn’t seem to be an easy way to describe the experience of listening to Bong and in the past ten or so years of their existence the Newcastle-based collective has been called doom, drone, stoner, metal and all manner of different things to try and package their sound into a neat categorisation. I’d say the best effort I could make would be: "Like being next to a herd of stampeding elephants whilst being given a shoulder massage." Or perhaps just calling it cosmic music should suffice.

What is undeniable is that the simultaneously crushing and meditative nature of their sound has won the band many admirers over the years. In doing so the group has built up a substantial calalogue of recordings that amasses dozens of official and bootleg releases.

This week Bong head south to play at Desertfest in London and tQ managed to grab a few minutes of affable guitarist Mike Vest’s time to chat about their new record, spirituality, and what it takes to do outsider music as a full-time job.

Tell us a little about the new album We Are, We Were And We Will Have Been, starting with what inspired the title.

Mike Vest: It’s an album reflecting on what we have done in the past. The title comes from Marcel Proust’s Remembrance Of Things Past. It’s interlinked with us looking back as a band on what we’ve done over the years and it’s about the idea of the inevitability of time. Musically I would say it’s more concentrated because we spent more time experimenting in the studio, it was a lot more relaxed.

The cover art is a piece by JMW Turner, what made you want to use Turner and that piece specifically?

MV: Well we’ve used Turner before on our first LP we released years ago, the self-titled record. For that one we used The Snow Storm, a picture of Hannibal and his army crossing the Alps.

Allegedly the last words Turner uttered on his death bed were, "The Sun is God" does that fit into the theme of the track on the new LP ‘Find Your Own Gods’ or is that a happy coincidence?

MV: Well, I have read that before somewhere, but what really drew us towards Turner was his impressionism. You look closely at the picture and it’s blurred whereas you look far away you get the whole piece. It’s similar to Bong’s music where you’ve got to be in it for the long game [laughs].

When we were doing the record we were always fascinated by the pagan idea of understanding. This is not really about the typical idea of religion. Instead you have people worshipping the ground that they walk on, worshipping the Sun, worshipping the rain. It’s the idea of an individual finding their own place within the world. The idea of finding something that makes sense to them or finding what they consider to be a God or something they can look to for inspiration. What Turner said about the Sun being God is just a coincidence really, but it seems Turner maybe had a similar mind-set that fits with Bong when you read about him or look at his paintings.

The last LP, Stoner Rock, was a tongue-in-cheek dig at the lazy classification of the band over the years as stoner rock, which is a bold confrontation and suggests the band has a sense of humour about it all. Do you think you have managed to shake the stoner rock tag by doing so?

MV: We did laugh about it when we came up with the title. We’ve never tried to hide that we like having a laugh, however with Bong’s music it is very serious. As people though we are pretty relaxed about things.

With Stoner Rock the main thing was we were sick of the turn of phrase being used. We always get called a stoner rock band or a doom band and we thought calling our record that might just flatten the comparison. This band’s album title is now called Stoner Rock and it’s a flat land of heavy frequencies you know? To do that we thought it would be a joke but that it would also get us past it.

We got a really nice review from Julian Cope for the record and he made reference to the fact he thought Bong were like the LaMonte Young of stoner rock. Not that I’m saying that we sound like him because we don’t. LaMonte Youngs’ stuff is insane and a lot more minimal than what we’re doing, but it shows that a reviewer can make a more interesting comparison and maybe expand on the stoner rock idea.

It’s the most I’ve ever really thought about an album title, I’m not going to make a habit of doing that or making these kind of statements but when the LP came out it was really well received and everyone seemed to get it. Because it got seen as being a kind of joke people took a closer look at what we were actually doing, everyone gets sick of being pigeonholed.

At current count on Discogs there are 36 releases by Bong, covering CDRs, LPs, cassettes and splits. What are you most proud of and where would you say someone uninitiated should start their journey with the band?

MV: Probably Beyond Ancient Space is the best one to pick up. The album was remastered and came out as a double LP on Ritual Productions last year. At the time we did it all ourselves, recording and mastering it so it has that rough mentality but it’s still pretty solid. All the LP’s after that are better recorded as we were in studios and more experienced but that LP is a nice introduction to Bong and I have a soft spot for it as we had such a laugh doing it.

A lot of the other releases that you will see out there are weird CDRs that someone might have done 20 copies of. I can’t remember off the top of my head how many studio albums we’ve done, but we’ve done three for Ritual Productions including this new one, but most of these CDRs are just live shows that got bootlegged and make us look like we are really prolific [laughs].

I’m sure you get this a lot, but the North East music scene has really developed in the past five years, and now it seems like a whole industry of labels like Box, and Golden Mantra are around to help support the DIY scene there. What do you think it is about Newcastle and the North East in general that has created such a fertile ground for new music?

MV: I don’t know really, I’ve been asked this question a few times, there have always been good bands in town. It’s just a shame that a lot of bands in Newcastle never made it to other parts of the country. A lot of bands don’t get that chance, but sometimes it was the case that some local bands sadly didn’t play well with others [laughs] especially ten years ago. At that time I was saying "Come on let’s go play shows out of town" as I played bass in a few hardcore bands at the time, and they’d say "I’m not going there it’s full of twats"[laughs]. At the time I thought they were right but I was really young and in hindsight that’s maybe why a lot of the bands here didn’t play more back then.

Maybe it’s getting more attention now because people are starting to do the full package in Newcastle, with labels like Box Records actually putting out records for local bands. I mean there have been labels before in Newcastle but there’s not been a label that puts out contemporary rock bands, or weird bands, on record here before. Box are the first in Newcastle to cater for what we are involved with.

I suppose it’s a bit like Dischord for Washington DC, or Sub Pop for Seattle, or AmRep… A record label catalyses whats been going on in a specific area. There were always bands in those towns but those labels came along and got those bands noticed elsewhere.

MV: Yeah that’s true, Although, I don’t know if anyone else has ever released records that sound like AmRep.

You are involved with your fair share of bands, with Haikai No Ku, Blown Out, Drunk In Hell, 11Paranoias, Bong, & Lobster Priest to name a few. How do you find the time to fit all of the demands of doing so many bands into your day to day life?

MV: Well you just get on and do it. The thing is this is my job, and it’s all I do. I’m not going out six hours a day doing something else.

The thing to remember as well is it’s not just me in all these bands, sometimes that can be lost when people talk about it. Take Drunk In Hell, most of those songs, in fact all of those songs, are not written by me because I wasn’t in the band at the start. I joined the band after a few years playing bass and switched to guitar when they got another bassist. So there are loads of other people creating within the hemisphere of what I’m doing.

It’s not something that I ever planned, but I’ve never wanted to work in a typical job because I’ve got a childish problem with authority that I’ve never shaken, I just don’t like hierarchies. When I started doing music properly, I just joined every band and I thought, you know, I could make a go of this. Then I started more bands because I thought if I can make some money in one band then if I’m in loads of bands then I can make twice as much, which isn’t actually the case in reality [laughs]. So the original idea was I would saturate and that would generate releases, merch, stock, all of which I would really like and would be proud of.

I suppose in a way it’s similar to how jazz musicians in the 50s would have concurrent projects going to make ends meet as working musicians and would play with many different people who would then add their own style or voice to the collaboration. It’s just not that common within the rock genre outside of session playing, which is obviously different from creating and playing your own music

MV: Yeah exactly, I’ve never thought about it like that but you’re right, they would play three shows a night and then go and record or something.

At Desertfest, you are playing on the Quietus stage this year but you have played before, what are your impressions of the festival as a whole?

MV: It’s a good fest, it’s really well run and I’ve enjoyed it when I’ve played it before. The Underworld is always good to play, and the Black Heart is a venue I like as well. Bong usually play better at festivals I think compared to one-off shows, we just seem to get along well with festivals.

I guess Bong are quite different from a lot of the other bands that are playing Desertfest, but then the Quietus stage brings together some of the more eclectic bands that are playing the weekend, with Sex Swing, Shit&Shine, Sly & The Family Drone, Palehorse and Anthroprophh all appearing alongside you.

MV: Yeah it’s good and I think we are probably on the right stage as far as it goes. Whenever we’ve played though I’ve never been that bothered about where we are playing within the festival. I just hope that we can get down from Newcastle early enough to see the rest of the bands.

Bong play the Quietus Stage at Desertfest London on Saturday April 25 at the Underworld, Camden

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