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Band Interviews Features Interviews

An Interview With Marsh of Swans

If I had a dollar for every black metal promo that ends up in my inbox, there’s an outside chance I could afford to quit my real job and just do this Vault thing full time. Only a fraction of them, however, grab my attention enough within the first few minutes and make me want to listen to them all the way through.

Even fewer grab me like From Ashes Beneath, the debut EP from Kansas-based duo Marsh of Swans.

Right from the first notes of opener “Dreams of Light,” it’s clear that there’s something special about this band. With a sound that draws  from both the atmospheric and Cascadian movements of the Pacific Northwest (it’s no a coincidence that they’re wearing Agalloch and WITTR t-shirts in their promo pic), they make the sort of black metal that hits almost all of my sweet spots: epic, grandiose, melodic, and flat out fucking beautiful. And with their lyrical focus on Kansas’s Civil War-era history, they also speak directly to the nerd in me. It’s a fantastic record that will undoubtedly end up on my year-end best-of list, and it’s currently available as a ‘name your price’ download from their Bandcamp page.

I was lucky enough to get a chance to chat with both members of Marsh of Swans, CJ and BC, about From Ashes Beneath and a couple of other topics. So follow the link above to stream the EP while checking out our conversation below.

Indy Metal Vault: So first off, congrats on the release of From Ashes Beneath. I absolutely love the record. From what I could glean from your Bandcamp page, you’d been working on it for a little over two years? I imagine it must feel good to finally have it out there for people to hear. What’s the response been like so far?

CJ: Thanks so much for the positive feedback. Honestly, the response has been more remarkable than we imagined. For us, the project was largely about expressing these ideas we’d had stewing in our heads for some time. Our tastes in black metal and a few other genres have some overlap, so it was easy to get together and make something happen. “Dreams of Light” was the song that kind of started things off, and that’s where the two-year timeline originates, given that that song was something I wrote guitars and drums for back in the summer of 2015. I wouldn’t say the EP has been popular in our niche, but the random comments we’ve encountered online have been encouraging and quite motivational. Kim Kelly from Noisey and Vice even shouted us out on Twitter and apparently liked the album. I was surprised it even got noticed at that level, and it’s an honor to have our ideas heard in general. The release isn’t perfect, but we’re very proud of how it came together for a debut.

BC: As CJ mentioned, his original demo of “Dreams of Light” was the catalyst for the project, but we’ve only been together as a band for about a year and a half. Considering that, I feel very proud about what we were able to bring together for the release. The positive reactions have been great to see and very encouraging, but ultimately we created this EP for ourselves as an expression of our thoughts, ideas and feelings. In that sense, I’m prepared to call it a success. It led to significant growth for us as artists and acts as a compass to guide our future endeavors with this project.

IMV: So Marsh of Swans hail from Kansas, and the history of the state plays an important role in your music, and I do want to get into that. First, though, I’ve been racking my brain to come up with other metal bands from Kansas, and the only two I could come up with are Origin and Manilla Road. I know that Lawrence is a big college town – is there much of a metal scene around KU, black etal or otherwise?

CJ: Well you’re not wrong about Origin and Manilla Road! There are quite a few projects that really thrive in the underground scene, especially in Northeast Kansas. BC even has another band he’s in called Existem. We share the Lawrence scene with a great atmospheric/post-black metal group called Aprilmist, and Kansas City hosts its share of a few great black metal and death metal acts. I moved to Lawrence from central Kansas – which has next to no metal scene, so BC is a bit more of an expert on this topic having lived between Kansas City and Lawrence. I did spend three years as KJHK’s metal show host, so that helped me get more familiar with the creativity and talent within the region.

BC: Lawrence has a strong and unique music scene, but there’s not a lot of heavy metal happening here in the greater scheme of things. However, there are some worthy bands putting out great stuff. Amenaza creates suffocating, sludgy doom metal. Horned Wolf delivers Satanic doom and roll. CJ mentioned Aprilmist, who are one of the only other black metal bands in our immediate area. And as he also said, I play in another band, a progressive/post-metal act called Existem. There’s a wider variety of music when you get closer to Kansas City, but the Lawrence scene stands as its own entity.

IMV: What is it that drew you to Kansas history, and specifically Civil War-era history, as the band’s focus? Even the name Marsh of Swans is a reference to the site of the Marais des Cygnes Massacre, one of the last major episodes of violence in Bleeding Kansas before the start of the war. Are you both originally from Kansas? (Side note: my money’s on at least one of you being a grad student…)

CJ: We wanted to associate our music with a topic that was close to home, yet sufficiently macabre. Perhaps the biggest driving force came from how underrepresented these themes of historic strife seem to be in USBM. Because of our locale and interest in the topic it worked well. We are both originally from Kansas, and in fact I only recently moved away to give Colorado a try following graduation from (you guessed right) my master’s program.

BC: When we were discussing a name and focus for the band, I thought of the Scandinavian black metal bands who came before us, who drew from their own heritage and history to create their message. I wondered if we could do something like that, which lead to our research into the Marais des Cygnes Massacre and the following Civil War battle, which took place close to our home. The stories we discovered were fascinating, as well as underrepresented in our local history, and we immediately knew it would make a fitting theme to our music. It even gave us a name.

IMV: Your musical approach seems to draw influence from what I would call “pretty” black metal bands – Agalloch and Alcest primarily, along with some of the more melodic Cascadian bands. I’m a huge fan of that style, but when I think of war-themed black metal, I think of bands like Marduk. That melodicism does seem a bit incongruous given the heavier (but poetically rendered) nature of the lyrics, but there’s also a certain tension that results from it as well. Which came first: the lyrical focus or the musical approach? Were you aiming for a certain synesthetic effect as a result of that musical/lyrical juxtaposition?

CJ: The lyrics took inspiration from the events of the massacre and some Civil War-era writings we researched, but only took form once we had been in the studio doing our final instrumental duties. I think the sound grew from discovering the topic we wanted to express, and though we probably do fit in with prettier-sounding bands that also naturally stems from how hugely influential groups like Agalloch, Alcest and Wolves in the Throne Room are for us. I’d say there’s some chance things go in a slightly darker direction in the future, but don’t hold us to that. Sometimes particular inspirations strike, and you just run with them.

BC: Our music is what it is. We can’t control the sounds and styles that come from us. It’s better to embrace it and allow the expression or our natural impulses and emotions- at least, that’s our philosophy with this band. It’s true that musically we sit closer to bands like Alcest and the Cascadian scene. Our lyrical approach is different than other war-themed bands, in that while many of them attempt to portray the horrors of war, we treat our music more as battle hymns to inspire and drive the listener into the fight. In that way I find the lyrics and music support each other. Blame Bathory for influencing this approach of black metal as a war cry.

IMV: I’m always curious about how bands approach recording, especially ones like Marsh of Swans where live recording isn’t really an option. How much studio experience did either of have going into making From Ashes Beneath? How long did it take to dial in the sound you were looking for? Also, I would have never guessed from listening to it that the drums are programmed – what software did you use?

CJ: I’d say we were decently prepared to handle recording on our own after all the demoing we had done leading into the final recorded material. BC has also done plenty of recording with his other band. I turned producing my own ideas into a bit of a hobby and over time that’s what allowed my songs to manifest. Live recording wasn’t in the cards, so you’re on the money there. Everything was direct input, with some reamping on the guitars to nail the tone. The drums were honestly just EZDrummer 2, but I take particular enjoyment from working within those limitations and it’s a powerful VST in its own right. I tried to compose the drums as realistically as possible, while the mixing and mastering process sent the sound into more believable territory. I’m very glad to know that it’s convincing, though we’re open to getting a real drummer involved given the chance.

BC: I’ve cut a few records with Existem over the last several years, but that was always from the perspective of an instrumentalist laying down tracks and not acting in a producer capacity. One of my personal goals when starting this band was to become more comfortable and skilled at producing music, and I certainly learned a lot during the process of demoing, tracking, mixing and mastering this EP. Much credit is owed to my Existem bandmate Brad Trinkl, who provided a great deal of support and assistance during this process. As for dialing in the sounds, we had a clear vision of how the music should sound in our heads, it was just a matter of tweaking and exploring options to make that sound come through. That’s one of the benefits of working in the box- it’s quick and easy to change and compare sounds and make adjustments as you go. While this approach worked well for From Ashes Beneath, it’s a dream to expand into proper studio recording for our future endeavors.

IMV: I’m a bit hesitant to bring this up, but given the current political climate I’d feel remiss if I didn’t at least touch on it. The Bleeding Kansas confrontations saw pro- and anti-slavery groups clash in the lead-up to Kansas finally being admitted into the Union as a free state. In your lyrics, you approach the subject in a fairly abstract, poetic way. Are you concerned at all that someone might look at your lyrical inspiration and label you a racist band? I don’t think it takes a particularly close reading of some of those lyrics, particularly “Blood in the River,” to conclude that isn’t the case, but you definitely see a lot more hot takes these days than close readings.

CJ: I don’t think we’ve discussed this too explicitly with anyone before, but I’m glad you asked about the lyrical content in this context. First, you’re completely right that “Blood in the River” is a good example of our clear opposition to all forms of racism, or to be more expressly topical for today’s climate, forms of white nationalism. The purpose of the lyrics themselves is meant to amplify the perspective of the Free Staters victimized by the massacre, though abstractly, as you’ve mentioned. In some ways, the lyrics also extend beyond the war as expressions of death and existential numbness. We imagined those soldiers murdered in the Marais des Cygnes Massacre as extensions of the horrors associated with extreme human ideologies.

BC: Standing against the causes of white supremacy and other forms of oppression is an important topic to both of us and a core tenant of this band. As you say, we took a more abstract approach with our lyrics, but again that’s just how we operate as artists. In this genre of music, there are many bands that explicitly endorse National Socialist policies and ideologies, and we have been open about our opposition to this. During our research into the Battle of Marais des Cygnes, we both agreed that if the Union hadn’t been victorious, we wouldn’t have pursued this subject for fear of being labeled as something we’re not. It’s tragic that in our times this is a concern that must be addressed, but we feel we’ve done just that.

IMV: Are there any hopes or plans for a physical release of From Ashes Beneath? Any chances you’ll flesh out the lineup to play any gigs, or is Marsh strictly a studio project?

CJ: We are interested in a physical release, though we may have to prioritize getting some shirts and patches made as we’ve had those kinds of requests more frequently. Since we’re focused on getting more music written and recorded, we’re open to future releases taking on physical formats as well as embracing the opportunity to play live at some point. At the present, it’s a studio project, but there’s no intention to define it that way.

BC: I would love to eventually bring Marsh of Swans to the stage, but it presents some logistical challenges. As it is, we’re focusing on our studio work, but if the right people and circumstances present themselves I could easily see things changing. We’d also be into creating a physical release, but as CJ said we have other items we’d choose to prioritize. We’ll see what the future holds on both counts.

IMV: Thanks again for taking the time to answer a few questions. I’ll leave the last word to you – anything else you’d like to add?

CJ: First of all, thank you for taking time out your busy schedule to not only offer an interview, but to provide poignant questions and interesting talking points for us to expand on as a new band. We’re currently demoing new material with loose plans to do a split before turning to an LP. We make music because we’re intensely passionate about its place in our lives, and we’re happy to know that people seem to enjoy what we’ve been able to create. Thanks again for giving us some exposure and keep an eye out for more from us in the near future.

BC: We appreciate all interest in our music. Again, we make this for ourselves, but it’s gratifying and encouraging to know that others are connecting with it. Keep an eye out for new music from us, we still have more to say.

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