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An Interview With Steve Janiak of Devil to Pay & Apostle of Solitude

If you’ll indulge me for a moment, let’s flash back to August of 1992, when my then 18-year-old self arrived in Muncie, IN for my first semester at Ball State. There used to be a pizza place in the Village called The Flying Tomato, which had live local music every Sunday night. The first band I ever saw there? Neurotic Box. I saw a lot of bands during my years in Muncie, but Neurotic Box was far and away my favorite. But eventually they broke up, and eventually I dropped out, but every now and again I would wonder whatever became of Neurotic Box…

Fast forward to 2009, and I see something on one of the metal blogs I was reading at the time about an Indianapolis band called Devil to Pay, who had just released a record called Heavily Ever After. I checked it out, and I knew I recognized the singer’s voice from somewhere, but for the life of me I couldn’t place it. Still, I enjoyed the record, and it’s follow-up, 2013’s Fate is Your Muse. Then I read that the singer/guitarist was also playing with a band called Apostle of Solitude, I checked them out and really dug them, too.

And eventually, I figured out that the guy in Devil to Pay and Apostle of Solitude was the same guy I used to go see in Muncie with Neurotic Box: Steve Janiak.

With Devil to Pay set to release their fifth (and probably best) record A Bend Through Space and Time on August 12, Steve was good enough to answer some questions not just about the new album, but about his entire musical career.

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Indy Metal Shows: So I do want to talk about the new Devil to Pay record, but before that, if you’re up for it, I want to go back in time a bit. I went to Ball State in the early 90’s, and I couldn’t tell you how many times I saw Neurotic Box while I was there. Was that your first band, or did Pub Sigs come first? And how long did it take that NB lineup to gel? I think you were a 4-piece the first time I saw you, but I remember the band best as a trio.

Steve Janiak: Technically, Neurotic Box was my third band, after my high school heavy metal cover band and the first iteration of the Pub Sigs (originally named Argo Navis, which eventually became The Subliminal Pigs). At some point I became friends with and a huge fan of a band called Soulpaint, from Kokomo. It was through Soulpaint that I hooked up with Jeremy Hammond and Kevin Rhodenbaugh in Neurotic Box. Kevin had been in Soulpaint previously, and he and Jeremy were trying to start something new musically in Muncie. I think we went through three guitar players before we ended up as a trio. Different guys with wildly different approaches, all of which were great, but things didn’t last for one reason or another.

parablesIMS: I also remember hearing not long after the Incinerator compilation came out that NB signed a publishing deal with Interscope. What’s the difference between a publishing deal and a record deal? Was there a chance that Parables for the Esoteric could have come out on Interscope?

SJ: A publishing deal is more of a co-ownership of the songwriting money. When your music gets played on the radio or TV, the performing rights organizations collect money on the songwriters behalf. We had a big supporter at Interscope Music publishing who discovered us on a compilation–it might have been the Rock the Ripple, I can’t remember–but we signed an agreement which put us on a path to find a record deal. So for a while we were getting shopped to labels and playing showcases and hoping for the best. Parables for the Esoteric had already been recorded at that point, so we put it out with the local Hipswervy label to keep things moving. Interscope Records was basically a sister company to Interscope Music, so our tunes crossed some desks there, but the sad reality is we broke up before anything materialized.

IMS: And sometime after/between iterations of Neurotic Box, you were doing Pub Sigs, right? And that was your main gig for quite a while, until you started pulling double duty with Devil to Pay. How did Devil to Pay come about, and at what point did it become your primary focus?
SJ: During my early time at Ball State, while playing with Neurotic Box, my roommate was Chris Coy (from the Pub Sigs). Once our friend (and drummer) Brady Wren landed at Ball State as well, we started jamming again for fun, doing improvisations and recordings. At the point when Neurotic Box first imploded, we decided to do Pub Sigs full time and that started the process of playing gigs and finding another guitar player, recording our album, etc. Later on, Neurotic Box got back together with a slightly different lineup and I was doing both bands yet again. Eventually, Neurotic Box broke up and the Pub Sigs moved to Indianapolis in 1996. There was a point where Devil to Pay started (2002) and I was doing both bands, but eventually our guitarist (Larry King) moved away, putting the Pub Sigs on a more permanent hiatus.

IMS: How did you end up joining Apostle of Solitude? How involved were you with the songwriting on Of Woe and Wounds? That album seems so much heavier to me than anything else in the AOS discography, and I’ve wondered if that was your influence or just a coincidence.

SJ: I was friends with Chuck (Brown) and Corey (Webb) before they really knew each other. When Chuck was still playing drums with The Gates of Slumber, we got together and I helped create the Gates first website. During that evening, he told me he was looking for a drummer for his other project, Apostle of Solitude. I’m pretty sure I mentioned Corey’s name, as Corey had just started jamming again. I may have even given one or the other of them a heads up about the opportunity. They eventually got together and asked if I was interested in playing guitar, but at the time DTP was playing full time and the Pub Sigs were trying to get a new lineup put together, so I passed. DTP and AOS had played many shows together and I had done poster designs and the layout for the first Apostle album, so when they parted ways with a couple of the guys I told them I would love to play guitar in the band if they would have me.

As far as songwriting goes, I think the only song I didn’t have any input on was “This Mania,” which was recorded previously for a three band split. It was such a great song that I pushed for it to be rerecorded for Of Woe and Wounds. The majority of that album came from Chuck’s rough ideas and I merely helped sculpt what it became: some riffs here, some vocal melodies there, and helped with the arrangements. I’m not sure it’s heavier, but I am really proud of that record, and really super grateful to have been a part of it. Especially to not only see my friends and their band evolve from point A to point B, but get to be on the inside as well and contribute to that intangible chemistry.

IMS: Let’s talk guitars for a minute. I feel like you’re kind of underrated as a guitarist, particularly in terms of how versatile a player you are—the riffs you were writing with Neurotic Box don’t sound anything like what you’re doing with Devil to Pay. How has your approach to writing riffs changed over the years? Who are your biggest influences as a guitar player? What’s your rig look like these days?

SJ: I appreciate the kind words. I guess I don’t consider myself that great of a player, really. It’s tough to excel at one thing when you’re kind of doing them all, you know? But my approach hasn’t really changed since I first started writing. I am listening to impetus of the song, whether it’s a guitar riff, drums, bass or vocals: that really determines how I approach my guitar part. Basically I’m trying to hear a finished song in my head. That goes for vocal ideas as well. I just need one bit of inspiration and I’m off. Since my focus has always been the song, I never focused any time on being a flashy player, and I’m ok with that. I think that was a conscious decision after walking in a couple music stores as a kid. It literally seemed like everybody playing a guitar in the guitar store was wanking, Wank wank wank. Where are the songs, dudes?

My biggest influences were always bands. Bands and great songs. I liked Walter Becker (from Steely Dan) because you could sing his guitar solos, and of course the songs were always killer. When I was younger I was all about Kim Thayil. I met him once outside of Bogarts in Cincinnati. I was just this annoying fan following him around asking him for advice. He was pretty nice, though. Brady Wren’s uncle Rocky taught me how to drop-tune when I was 17 years old. That probably had more influence on me than anything.

These days I’m playing a Gibson SG standard through a Marshall JCM 900. I finally got a pedalboard in the last few years, after playing without one for 25 years. I started playing through a Black Arts Toneworks pedal called the Quantum Mystic, which Mike Scheidt (YOB) helped engineer. It sounds killer. Then I picked up my first delay pedal and that can be heard throughout the new Devil to Pay record. It really made an impact on my phrasing.

IMS: I also want to ask you about your visual art. Your show flyers are pretty distinctive, and I really appreciate the aesthetic of them—the limited color palate, the B-movie monsters, the lettering. What’s your process like on those—are they mixed media? Do you do any visual art aside from gig posters?

SJ: I normally find some vintage thing online and mangle it in Illustrator into something new. I don’t really do any other art these days, but I did minor in art for a few years at Ball State before giving it up. If I had time, I would be painting and drawing, as well as working with clay.

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IMS: Okay, let’s talk about A Bend Through Space and Time. I’m really digging what I’ve heard from it so far. “Kerfuffle” in particular is a total earworm, especially that verse riff, and the production is really crisp and punchy—it just sounds fucking great. Is it a pretty fair representation of what the rest of the album is going to sound like?

SJ: “Kerfuffle” is an ear candy version of the tip of the iceberg. I can say that nothing else on the album really sounds quite like it and the songs all vary slightly from each other. If you listen to the last record, Fate is Your Muse, you can hear some different styles here and there. A Bend Through Space and Time is similar, except the songs all have different flavors, if that’s possible. All of the songs came from improvisations, then we hacked at them like lumberjacks into their current forms. Except for maybe “The Demons Come Home to Roost,” which, minus a few sections, is this epic jam that stayed 90% intact from the night we spat it out. We recorded the album with Mike Bridavsky at Russian Recording. Mike also recorded Apostle’s Of Woe and Wounds, so I knew what he was capable of. He has a great ear and a love of vintage gear. He’s not afraid to say what’s working and what isn’t, and he’s always focused on getting the best performance out of you. I think he had a huge impact on the performances as well as the overall sound.

IMS: I know you’ve talked about it elsewhere, but how did “Your Inner Lemmy” come about? Was that always going to be the title of the track, and was it always slated to appear on the album? Did you ever have the chance to meet Lemmy at any point, at a festival gig or something?

a1939982769_10SJ: Unfortunately, I never got to meet Lemmy. My one opportunity came when the Pub Sigs played a show at the Roxy in Los Angeles. Lemmy was next door at the Rainbow, playing Centipede or something, and I never knew. A couple of the other guys told me after the fact.

The song came from a riff Rob (Hough) was playing one night at practice. I asked him what it was and he said he didn’t know, so I suggested we should finish it as our own little Motörhead tribute. We jammed on it for a while and I titled it “Your Inner Lemmy” and I knew I wanted it to represent what Lemmy meant to me. This was sometime in early 2013. We eventually finished it and I pulled my favorite Lemmy quotes to piece the lyrics together. I had originally planned for it to be a nice B-side when we did another 7″ single, but as we got closer to recording, we all really liked the song too much and had to put it on the record. In my mind, I imagined meeting Lemmy and hoping somehow he would hear it. Of course that didn’t happen. He passed away five months after we laid it down. RIP Lemmy!

IMS: I’d like to ask you about the lyrics as well. The promo blurb from Ripple that accompanied the premiere of “Kerfuffle” makes reference to a “mind-expanding epiphany” you had a few years back that’s influenced both your reading habits and your lyrics. Listening to “On and On (In Your Mind)” and “Kerfuffle,” there seems to be a recurring theme in the lyrics of reality perhaps not being quite what it appears to be. Is that a fair interpretation? And I’m curious as to what you’ve been reading—any recommendations?

SJ: Back in 2003 I had a crazy medical emergency and surgery. After the surgery they kept me in a drug induced coma for several weeks. I had a bunch of surreal experiences and alternate reality, past lives type of weirdness during that time but I kept it mostly to myself. Devil to Pay got back to doing what we do and it became an afterthought. Then, randomly in February of 2011, I was sitting with my laptop watching TV and BOOM, there was this voice in my head, talking to me about the nature of reality, the oneness of all things. I had this strange little chat with ‘something’ about something very heavy, and it was talking to me and answering me. Very odd, and it lasted only for a few moments. Then nothing. At first I didn’t know what to think, but pretty soon I was asking what the hell just happened. My wife came into the room and I’m pretty much freaking out about it. It’s very hard to describe what it was saying but the gist was there is a physical and a non-physical. “All things are one thing.” From that point I started seeking out all the paranormal and new age books I could to try to see if I could wrap my head around it. Add in all the unusual experiences from being in a coma and things really started to get downright weird.

Slowly from that point my mind peeled out like an onion and all things made perfect sense. What was down was now up. Granted, it all sounds very “woo woo,” and I can’t argue that point, but I am here to tell you, your beliefs are like building blocks. You get what you put into them. I was looking into shamanic experiences, the placebo effect, and the power of the mind. I was heavily into the Seth Material, reading and listening to the work of Jane Roberts, Abraham Hicks, Walter Russell, Edgar Cayce, and Napoleon Hill, freaking out bit by bit, while at the same time being drawn to the theoretical science wormholes of Brian Greene, Hugh Everett III, Werner Heisenberg, and Albert Einstein, seemingly reconciling all this with ideas about quantum mechanics.

Naturally this changed me as a person, my outlook on life and reality in general. So it became a passion for me to express in the lyrics. All the songs on the last record reflect this to some degree… including the second half of “Black Black Heart” which has a striking key shift and mood change that parallels the epiphany, and the lyrics detail the event itself.

A Bend Through Space and Time is a continuation of these themes, with some straight fantasy tales (“Kobold in the Breadbasket”), a eulogy for our ideas on health and healing (“Recommended Daily Dosage”) and of course our Lemmy tribute mixed in.

IMS: Speaking of Ripple, this will be your second record for the label, which is starting to gain some attention with the success of bands like Devil to Pay, Mothership and Wo Fat. How did you hook up with them?

SJ: You’re going to laugh, but I simply meditated on it. I literally focused on the idea of finding a label that was a perfect fit for us, then let it go. After about a month and a half my buddy Jason hit me up asking about our next record, I told him we were going to release it ourselves. He asked if we had sent out any demos or songs, and of course we hadn’t. I think I stopped sending out demos in 2003. Long story short, he sent out a few mp3s to the Ripple guys and they were into it. We had a phone conversation and one thing led to another.

IMS: Any touring plans once A Bend Through Space and Time comes out? I know Apostle is heading over to Europe soon, but will Devil to Pay be doing anything around those AoS dates? I know the record release show is going to be on August 20—any other upcoming gigs you want to plug?

SJ: At the moment we are looking to set up a tour of the south for DTP in October, then get back to the west coast early in 2017. We would love to get out as much as possible and will pretty much play with anyone, anywhere, any time. So if you’re out there, get in touch!

IMS: Last question: you’ve been kicking around the Indy music scene for a little while now. How has it changed over the years, for better or worse?

SJ: It’s hard to quantify. Not better or worse, per se. Things ebb and flow. There was a moment when IMN (IndianapolisMusic.net) was around and everyone was really networked together, lots of people out doing their own thing. More venues seemed open to original music. Then we had the Myspace era and now Facebook is the current soul-crushing entity.

I remember things being much more difficult when I was younger. People used to listen to FM radio because that’s all we had. So you would try to knock on doors and get your songs heard on the radio. Record companies paid through the nose for payola to get their songs on the radio. Record stores were raking in the cash. Things eventually shifted away from all that. The music industry that I remember seems all but demolished these days. It’s like someone came up and kicked the legs out from underneath it, and it collapsed, and all these creepy-crawly bottom feeders scurried away when the light hit them. So maybe these days it’s more pure, in a sense. You can start a band, slap up a web page with some music and videos and directly reach people. Just don’t expect to get rich!

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New Interview up at Indy Metal Shows | devil to pay dot net July 19, 2016 at 11:29 am

[…] Steve was recently interviewed over at Indy Metal Shows. You can check it out here […]

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