So as Vault Hunters with slightly longer memories will likely remember, I reviewed Young Hunter‘s third full-length Dayhiker right when it came out a few weeks back. I may not have quite known how to describe the album, but I was deeply enamored with it just the same. I was only about halfway through writing that review when I realized that I really wanted to interview guitarist/vocalist Benjamin Blake, who originally started Young Hunter as a solo project back in 2011. Luckily, he agreed to answer a few questions, and he turned out to be just as thoughtful and articulate as I thought he would be.
So check out my interview with Blake below, and then head over to the Fear and the Void webshop to pick up a copy of Dayhiker on digital, CD, or one of several vinyl variants.
Benjamin Blake: Yeah, now that I’m finally getting to these questions, we’re actually home from tour. We had a great time. The two staples from the new album that were always in the set were “Black Mass” and “In the Shadow of the Serpent,” usually in that order at the end. “Black Mass” is always enjoyable live because it plays with your expectation of what its going to do so many times, and there are parts we can drag out and play with in the moment, that by the end of it the room feels much more present. The response to the record has been really positive, especially from people who have heard previous records and followed the trajectory of the band. There’s also a bittersweet quality to releasing an album you’ve poured so much blood, sweat and tears into during this internet age of complete music saturation. It’s like, we feel really good about that, but did anyone hear it? But you trust the songs, and the trajectory and lifespan of this little album/child you’ve released into the world.
IMV: I’ll get into asking about the record in a bit, but I want to start by asking about your/the band’s affinity with Coyote. In the “About” section on Young Hunter’s Facebook page, it says “Coyote leads you down a dark road, across a river and to the other side.” And your Bandcamp bio reads “Raised by Coyotes.”
BB: The coyote was definitely a large presence on our first album, Stone Tools. I lived in Tucson then, and saw them daily, heard them nightly. They are one of my favorite animals, and I think the trickster archetype fits them perfectly. I read recently that every attempt to rid an area of North America of them has only resulted in them growing more numerous. They’re the unassailable wild, living on the edge of every city, weaving silently through your quiet neighborhood streets at night. Also, Stone Tools was specifically about the desert and human’s relationship to it (both the modern and the civilizations that overlap over time in that place). The line “Coyote leads you down a dark road…” held a sort of double meaning- it was referring to the reputation Coyote (the Native American archetype) has for moving between worlds, and also the journey that people from Mexico take to cross the border into the United States (“coyote” being the term for a hired guide through the desert).
IMV: Along the same lines as the last question, it seems to me that there’s a very strong spiritual (for lack of a better word – I’m not necessarily referring to Judeo-Christianity or any other religion here) component to Young Hunter’s music. In your lyrics, you wrestle with a lot of the big questions about the nature of existence and humanity’s place in this world – i.e. the sort of topics that might trigger an existential/spiritual crisis. But Dayhiker isn’t a record that wallows in hopelessness. In fact, it’s actually a surprisingly uplifting record in some ways. Where does that balancing influence come from? Is there some kind of spiritual or philosophical center in Young Hunter’s music, or does it stem from somewhere else? Does the title Dayhiker somehow play into it?
BB: I’m no nihilist, but I’m not afraid to look deeply into darkness. I love life, even though it is excruciatingly hard to live sometimes. I think the philosophical center of our music is the lyrics themselves, and the transformational energies we conjure together. I guess what I’m saying is there’s no guiding philosophy, just an exploration of this world we live in, and how we interact with it. It’s full of hope, sorrow, suffering, ignorance, beauty, and to me there is always the glimmering possibility that all of the pain, war, upheaval, and darkness we go through is part of our evolution, individually and collectively.
The title Dayhiker is about one who moves between worlds. It means a few different things to me, but in the most personal way it’s about how I felt over the time we were writing this album. Many of the most important moments i have had in life have been in the wilderness, and being out in the forest or desert is where I feel most myself in some ways. But to do this band requires living in a city, working a job, etc. So all I’d get is little afternoon hikes in the closest forest. Longing for one world, obligated to another, a temporary visitor in a more eternal home.
IMV: I know you originally formed Young Hunter as a solo project, but you’ve been a full band for a while now, right? How different is your songwriting process now than it was at the beginning? Given the evolution in the band’s sound from the self-titled to Dayhiker, has it become more of a collaborative process, or do you still handle most of it yourself?
BB: I should say that Young Hunter was never a solo project in the sense that there’s ever been a live version of the band with just me and a drum machine haha. But yeah, in the beginning of the project, I was pretty strict about the parts people played, which came from recording I made. It came from both wanting to preserve the vision of this unformed thing, and also me being protective and kind of afraid of letting people into my creative process. That has definitely loosened over time, and Dayhiker is the most collaborative record we’ve ever made. I am really lucky to play with a group of people who I trust deeply, both musically and as friends.
IMV: The vocals are easily my favorite thing about the record. The way your and co-vocalist Sara Pinnell’s voices intertwine both creates and sustains a lot of the album’s emotional weight. The most remarkable thing, though, is how effortless you two make it sound – much like Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, or Ryan Adams and Caitlin Cary back in their Whiskeytown days. Did you two just have a natural affinity for singing together like that, or do you really have to work to make it sound so easy?
BB: Actually, we just kind of did it- it was incredibly natural. We didn’t have to talk much about it. Maybe it’s because we have the same birthday.
IMV: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about the production on the album. What was it like recording with Tim Green at Louder Studios? The pictures I’ve seen of the place online make it seem like this idyllic little wooded retreat. What made you decide to go with an analog recording on the record? It sounds fantastic, and I think that the combination of that analog warmth and the darker tones of the instruments give the record kind of a humid, paranoid vibe (if that makes any sense).
BB: Working with Tim was a dream. His place is so beautiful, he has incredible equipment and knows exactly how to use it. He’s so easy to work with too, offers great advice and guidance if you want it. He came down with an ultra wicked cold right when we got there, but showed up every day and did a killer job. We felt bad because he was suffering through it, but at the same time, we’d come all that way so we couldn’t just do it next week. We saw him on this last tour and he said he didn’t really remember recording it, which speaks volumes, because the album came out exactly how we hoped it would. Even on autopilot, he does a better job than most.
IMV: Speaking of tones, I always like to ask about gear setups. What did your guitar and bass rigs look like in the studio? Do basically take the same setups with you out on the road?
BB: We tracked our basic tracks with our normal guitar rigs- Erik plays an SG type guitar through an Ampeg V4, and I play a Telecaster through an early 70s Traynor. Sam used Tim’s house bass rig, which was a Sunn Model T, through a Sunn cab. When we went to do overdubs we used Tim’s Marshall Plexi, because who wouldn’t.
IMV: In the PR materials for Dayhiker, you say, “Heavy music is inherently cathartic.” I completely agree with that statement, but it also struck me as at least a bit odd since Young Hunter’s music seems to have gotten less “heavy” (at least in the “metal” sense of the word) with each successive release. Young Hunter obviously isn’t Cannibal Corpse, so I’m curious as to how you personally define “heavy” in terms of music. Do you still draw inspiration from “heavy” music in your songwriting? I feel like I hear more non-heavy influences on Dayhiker than anything else – who were you listening to when working on the new album?
BB: We each listen to a wide range of music, so it’s pretty hard to single out major influences. I hear what you’re saying, and I don’t call us a “metal” band, unless I’m trying to give someone who doesn’t listen to anything heavy some context. We tend to call ourselves “heavy psych rock” when someone asks the dreaded question. But I think there’s a heaviness to what we do, even though we oscillate between many other things. I think there’s many ways to be “heavy,” and we certainly don’t exactly specialize in the most crushing, earth-grinding, funereal sludgeworks, I think what we do is provide a context for when we do get heavier, which maybe makes it hit on different levels. Sometimes, if a band just does one thing the whole time that’s turned up to 11, it’s like, what you so mad about, bruh? When we play with non-metal bands, we feel like the Vikings from hell, and when we play with real-deal metal bands, we’re all just singin’ and dancin’ all over the place, feeling very un-cvlt.
IMV: Given how thoughtful your approach is to your lyrics, I’m guessing you must be a reader. If you were to compile a reading list to accompany Dayhiker, what would it look like?
BB: Yes, I’m definitely a reader. That’s a good question- Charles Bowden would be a good place to start, though he was perhaps more of a direct influence on our earlier albums. People should read Blue Desert or Some of the Dead are Still Breathing – he was a walker between worlds and unflinching witness to the many faces of life, the beautiful, the primal, the unfathomably horrible. He was a newspaper writer in Tucson who was assigned to the things no other reporters wanted to cover, because they were too horrifying. Child murders, kidnappings, etc -the darkest sides of humanity. He started doing punishing, hundred mile walks through the desert as a coping mechanism, observing its ways and soaking it into his cells. People called him a nature writer, and he bristled at the term. His work is beautiful and often difficult to read, because he doesn’t look away, and he brings you into this state that he existed in of observing all the horror, the beauty, and letting it wash through you, letting it change you, letting it be. He’s pretty under appreciated, and his song is the song of our future.
IMV: Any plans to tour anywhere outside the west/southwest for Dayhiker? Indianapolis has a pretty great stoner/doom scene and I’m sure there are plenty of people who’d love to see Young Hunter out our way.
BB: We don’t have any concrete plans, but we want to get outside of our little tour comfort zone, and we’ve got our eyes set on the midwest. Anyone who wants us out there, help us figure it out!
IMV: Thanks again for your time and willingness to answer my questions. I’ll leave the final word to you: anything else you want to add before we wrap up?
BB: I feel like we covered a lot of ground already. Thank you so much for the thoughtful, in-depth questions. It was a pleasure to answer them.