The first sentence of the “About” section in the promo materials for Dunnock‘s second full-length little stories told by ghosts starts off by saying,”Hermetic San Francisco Bay Area duo Dunnock play untrue black metal.”
Now I don’t know about the rest of you Vault Hunters, but reading that was enough to give me a Renee Zellweger/Jerry Maguire “You had me at hello” moment. Hermetic? Untrue? Fuck – even San Francisco? I hit play on the promo imagining that I was going to be hearing something akin to a slo-core Bosse-de-Nage.
I did not get a slo-core Bosse-de-Nage. I got something even better.
Dunnock plays a sort of outsider black metal that I’m not sure anyone else is even attempting. Imagine Striborg and Godspeed You! Black Emperor doing a collaborative project, and that’s a good starting point. Musically, they combine primitive black metal, with field recordings, ambient passages, and other elements – as clichéd as it may sound, each track on the album truly does deserve the description “labyrinthine.” Thematically, it deals with four fictionalized murders that occurred near bodies of water, told from the victim’s perspective. it’s quite the album to attempt to wrap one’s head around. Regardless of how many times I listen to it–and I’ve listened to it many, many times over the last few weeks–I still can’t find the patterns in the ivy, so to speak.
little stories told by ghosts will be out this Friday, but our loyal Vault Hunters can start looking for the patterns in the ivy themselves two days early, courtesy of our exclusive stream of the album in its entirety. I also had the opportunity to talk to Dunnock mastermind Jacob Thomas about little stories told by ghosts. I was hoping that I might be able to get some insight into the writing and recording process for the album. What I got was so much more – it’s honestly one of the rawest, most unflinchingly honest interviews I’ve ever been a part of, and I cannot thank him enough for the openness and generosity of his responses.
little stories told by ghosts will be available on May 18th on CD from Acephale Winter Productions and on tape from Sylvan Screams Analog. Copies of the CD ordered directly from AWP or the band will include a piece of surf polished jade collected by Jacob from the beach that inspired the album’s third track.
Indy Metal Vault: For starters, thanks for agreeing to an interview. little stories told by ghosts is a remarkable album—so totally unlike anything else currently happening in black metal—so I’m stoked to have a chance to talk about it. In fact, I have so many questions that I’m not positive where to start. Instead of jumping right in with questions about the album, let me ask this instead: the PR materials call Dunnock an ‘untrue’ black metal band. And if I’m not mistaken, a dunnock is a species of perching bird – thus the very bird-like shape of the band’s logo. Is it safe to assume that you consider Dunnock ‘outsider’ black metal in the spirit of Sin Nanna? There does seem to be a pronounced Striborg influence on Dunnock’s sound.
Jacob Thomas: Thank you for the kind words about my little record. I think Dunnock is definitely an outsider act. I really, genuinely possess no talent or even baseline ability as a musician. That’s not hyperbole or self-effacement either. I literally do not know how to play guitar.
I couldn’t make black metal that sounded like Immortal, or Panopticon, or Wolves in the Throne Room if I tried. All of the black metal I started out listening to, and I didn’t really come to the genre until a decade ago in my late 20s, was extremely technically proficient and epic and complex. That stuff was like John Coltrane or Rachmaninoff to me. I loved it but I could never imagine myself being able to make something like it.
Whereas the first time I heard Striborg, it was literally a life changing experience. Here was this guy making great music, like legitimately brilliant albums, by himself in a manner totally divorced from conventional ideas of proper recording practices or instrumental virtuosity. And like, it was better than almost everything else I had heard up to that point.
I feel like I’m not really doing right by Russell talking about his project this way though. Like I want to be clear that I don’t think he’s ironic good, “bad good,” or good because of or despite whatever shortcomings he supposedly has as an artist. Nothing could be further from the truth. He’s good period.
Like you could draw up a list of a thousand folk singers with better voices than Bob Dylan, but not a one of them is a better artist than him on the whole. Same with Sin Nanna. He’s an inspiration. Finding his music was finding a path forward for myself in the genre. If it weren’t for him I wouldn’t play black metal at all, most likely. I’ve actually told him as much when we’ve talked online.
IMV: Conceptually, little stories told by ghosts tells the stories of four fictionalized murders that occurred near bodies of water, narrated by the victims. The album notes mention that the bodies of water are all in some way significant to your childhood/adolescence, making the album “an alternative autobiography of sorts.” I know you’ve been working on little stories told by ghosts sporadically since 2013 – at what point, though, did you decide that was going to be the album’s focus? How did you decide that these ‘fictionalized murders’ were the lens through which you wanted to construct this ‘alternative’ autobiography?
JT: So the first track I wrote for the record was the third one, the one that takes place on Clam Beach. I think I wrote the lyrics on my bicycle on the way to work one day. The basic riff was recorded at that point and I had it playing on repeat on my mp3 player. Just going like over and over again, the same two or three chords. At the time I didn’t have any plans for it to be part of “the second record” or whatever, I just knew it was one of the better songs I had written up to that point.
I picked Clam Beach as a setting because it was a place I knew kind of well. And the lyrics are filled with all these details from my real childhood because that was what just came to me in the moment. I wrote about what I know, and that stretch of ocean along the top third of the Humboldt coast plays a large role in my memories of childhood and adolescence. I didn’t really do it on purpose or as some kind of statement.
But I really liked the idea of telling kind of fictionalized stories tied to bodies of water, so I wrote the other three songs pretty shortly after that. Or really just I wrote the lyrics and kind of mapped out hypothetical structures for the songs. The actual writing and arrangement of the music happened largely coincidental with the recording and, as you know, over the course of several years.
It was only after the record was done and I was thinking back on it as a whole that I realized how much of the little details in the lyrics came from my own early life. To the degree that the stories together say way more about me than they do about the characters or the real events that inspired them. So I guess I accidentally wrote an autobiography, one built the wrong way though, from the minutiae rather than the significant details.
IMV: Even though you’ve been working on little stories told by ghosts since 2013, Dunnock hasn’t exactly been idle in the meantime – you released four demos, a pair of splits, and an EP in the interim. How sporadic was the work on the album? Was the plan from the start to take your time with little stories told by ghosts and sprinkle in those shorter releases? Or was the gestation process for little stories told by ghosts more difficult than you’d been anticipating? Was anything that appeared on them originally intended for the album, but ended up not fitting?
JT: I think I just kept getting interrupted and distracted. I also joined Dhampyr and recorded a ton of stuff for my noise project Tyrant Flycatcher as well. But I think I also wanted to be distracted. This record was hard to make, not fun to make, and I largely didn’t enjoy the results as they were coming in. And it’s hard for me to stay focused on a really challenging task when I’m having a hard time seeing the value in it.
Three of the four tracks appear in alternate, shorter versions on the promo tapes. In my opinion they’re probably better in their directness. I mean, there are all kinds of neat textures and interludes that I explore on the album versions, but I’m still not convinced that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. This is probably a terrible thing to say in an interview for a new record, but I really don’t think it turned out as well as it could have. I don’t think it matches or surpasses the hopes I had for it in my head. I’m glad I did it, though. I’m glad I saw the project through to the end. Hopefully there will be someone out there who will maybe have a more objective view than me and can tell me if it was worth the effort and time.
Everything that was intended for the album that was also worth hearing ended up on the album. There were a couple of things recorded specifically as hints to the stories on the record that were released in advance. “Prelude 1998” from the Sylvan Screams Destroys the Holidayscompilation is probably the clearest example of this. It’s built out of the central riff of the last song on the album and the lyrics make direct reference to the forthcoming events in that song. The narrators are switched though. It’s the perpetrator of the crime who is speaking here, issuing the warning.
Also my split with Saturn Form Essence, which I was lucky enough to have released on the amazing Lurker Bias label, is assembled from various lengthy chunks of guitar ambience recorded for the third track about Clam Beach, some of which did make it onto the final version. Specifically the guitar wash that introduces the second major chunk of the song; the “krautgaze” section, as we called it during the recording and mixing process. It came way later than the first half of the song. Originally most of those guitar parts were supposed to be buried in the background behind the main riff of the metal section, but I recorded so many of them and they worked so well together and separate from the main chunk that they just became their own thing. An outro longer than the rest of the song.
IMV: I want to ask about your songwriting process for little stories told by ghosts, but it seems like I could come at that question from two different angles. On the one hand, there are the discrete riffs and other musical elements within the songs that definitely feel ‘written.’ And then there are the ambient passages, samples, field recordings, and other sort of musique concreteelements that seem more assembled than written, if that makes any sense. How exactly did you go about constructing the four 11+ minute tracks that make up the album?
JT: With tracks like this, outlining is important. Because of my epilepsy and the medicine I take for it, memory is an ongoing struggle. So I write things down. And I had a bunch of theory in high school and college but I can’t say it’s really stuck with me. I’ll write down the key, and the tuning of my guitar, which is usually to the lowest chord in the song. I’ll sketch out a little bit of tab for the main riffs that I’ve come up with, and then the rest of it is just prose. Like half a dozen or so pages of text describing every major thing that’s going to happen structurally in the song and exactly how and when it will happen. After that I create a project file in the DAW and start mapping out measures. Basically do an outline with labeled bars for where stuff starts and ends.
Once that is done the actual writing and recording tends to happen simultaneously, and everything gets fleshed out and moved around and basically often doesn’t end up sounding all that much like the way I thought it would on paper. And everything gets done in chunks cause that’s easier for the computer to handle. So there will be a new project file for the “ambient intro,” and then another one for the “fa st black metal section,” and a third for the “FM bells/ field recording of a brook/dropping coins on the floor” section. Then it all gets stitched together and a track is done four months later. For better or for worse.
In the end I think it all feels “written” to me, if that makes sense. There was almost no improvisation on this record. And it almost didn’t matter what the element was, a guitar riff or a field recording or a synth pad. Stuff was meant to go together, and if it didn’t it went somewhere else or it got tossed. Writing for me is really a process of moving things around and seeing what fits. In that respect I guess I’m still an “experimental” musician in the literal sense of the word. I’m trying this and trying that until I find an experiment that works. That mostly works anyway.
IMV: What was your process like for writing the lyrics for little stories told by ghosts?I’ve only seen the lyrics to “Young Boy’s Body – Deritis Playground – 1996,” and they’re fucking heartbreaking: “no girl will ever kiss me / your bullet killed that in me / before it ever had a chance to grow.” My guess would be that you approached them the same way a fiction writer would a story, but did you have any difficulty getting inside the heads of these characters to whom you were attempting to give voice?
JT: Every character I’ve ever written has really just felt like me. This is true when I was writing prose poetry books with dozens of characters too, people with lives and motivations that are nothing like mine. So if you read the words to that song and it felt believably like someone else entirely then I’d say that’s a real success for me. And because I was really just writing about myself the lyrics came really easily to me. I had them all done years ago, usually in one sitting each. Like an hour and then maybe I revisited them a little when it came time to record the vocals. Since they mostly predated the music and even the structure of the songs, some adjustments had to be made. A verse shaved off here or there, a line repeated, etc.
If I had the chance to do this again I’m not sure I’d write the same stories, actually. I think I hopefully succeed in sympathizing with the victims, but I’m still not as comfortable with the idea of writing about violence towards women as I was when I wrote these songs. There’s like a lot of that in metal lyrics, obviously. And most of it, again key word “most” of it, is just for fun. But as I get older, as I witness what has happened to the real women in my life, to my students at their most young and vulnerable, I’m having a harder time finding that fun myself. And even though this record is supposed to be a serious work of art, or whatever, I don’t know how comfortable I am putting more of that violence out into the world. Even if it is fictionalized. Even if it is inspired by real stories. I think the fact that there is this element of realness is what has started to make it so hard for me. I used to write about murder a lot. Murder ballads are an Appalachian tradition, right? But I don’t know if this is a lyrical thread I’m going to pursue going forward.
And then with the track set in Philly, the one on the ball court…I’m just an educator, okay? I’m not from the inner city. I’ll never really belong in any of these neighborhoods, even though I’ve been doing this for almost 18 years, since I was a teenager myself. I’m a guest. And I’ve known students who have gotten killed, who have had family that have been killed, parents even. Like in random stuff too. Stuff intended for other people. Like you’re just out buying a hotdog with your friends on a Friday evening and then you’re gone and your mom’s on the front cover of the newspaper crying for her baby.
That’s real. That’s happening somewhere that I live or used to live every day. And it’s happening because of economic inequality and social neglect of urban communities and because of deep-seated institutional racism. And people have been speaking up the past handful of years, really loudly and visibly about all of this. And I’ve watched the sort of story I tell in this song, of random inner city violence, get used as a propaganda tool against the people doing the speaking up. Like “how dare you speak up against systematic oppression when there’s people of color hurting each other every day?”
It makes me sick. Like especially since violence and crime in an impoverished and systematically oppressed community is in large part a function and product of that oppression. See also the fourth song, the one set in West Virginia. Marshall County, where I grew up, has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the country. That’s not a flaw in the character of the people who live there, or a shortcoming in their genetics. It’s nurture, not nature. I’m worried that my song could be seen as this kind of critique, to the point where I almost regret writing it.
In the years since I penned the lyrics the climate in this country has changed a lot. The climate in the metal scene has changed a lot. I don’t think people are more likely to have odious views today than a decade ago, but they sure feel more emboldened to share them. I don’t want to ever be mistaken as being a part of that. My music isn’t terribly political, not overtly, but I feel like I need to explain everything in political terms now. Even for as minor an artist as I am. Maybe just for my own sake.
I would rather people call me a snowflake or an SJW or overly PC or whatever than ever assume I was carrying water for either some kind of alt-right/NS ideology or even just the mainstream conservative and neo-liberal political systems that allow the oppression of people in Philadelphia, Baltimore, West Virginia, and rural California to continue. That won’t fix the tap water in Flint, Michigan or the cries of “but Chicago, Chicago” every time people get rightly upset when another video of another police officer shooting an unarmed person of color gets released to social media.
IMV: As a follow-up to that last question, how fictionalized are the murders you write about on the album? I looked through the list of 1996 homicide victims in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and there were a couple of young boys who could have possibly been the subject for “Young Boy’s Body – Deritis Playground – 1996.” Were there real-life inspirations for any of the songs, or is it just the places that are real?
JT: I think it’s important that these are works of fiction, first and foremost. Secondly, they could be said to autobiographical in certain details, and as a distant third they are all, yes, inspired by real events. Real murders in three of the cases, and an attempted murder in the fourth. In the first three cases I kind of created a story in my head, something that I felt could have been real, and then I started researching and found these true stories that shared some of the details. Then I started to fiddle with things in my head, usually during my bike ride or while walking around, and I would change my story to be more like the true story in certain respects and vice versa.
The song set on Clam Beach is probably the most heavily removed from any true story in that no murder like that ever happened anywhere on the coast in Humboldt County, as far as I can tell. Also the specific details are almost entirely a mix of fiction and stuff from my own life. This was the first song I wrote as I said earlier, and I didn’t completely have the storytelling structure down yet. Having said that, there are an alarming number of old and recent news articles from around the world that sadly confirm that the story I told is not as speculative as I might have thought while writing it.
The stories set in Philadelphia and Baltimore are both inspired by real and specific events, though still heavily fictionalized. I drew from a couple sources for the former, some of which you probably read, and in the case of the latter was thinking of a very specific murder. Again though, I changed a lot about it. A dear friend of mine, for example, convinced me to move the setting to Fell’s Point for the sake of storytelling and also out of respect for the actual woman who was killed.
That ended up being a big motivation for why I changed as many details as I did, to preserve the anonymity of and out of respect for the people involved. This is especially the case for the last song, which is about people I knew growing up. I should say it was inspired by people I know. If it’s about anyone in specific now, it’s probably about me. But yeah, there was someone I knew growing up who put a bullet in his father’s back after a fight they had. He survived thankfully, and they’ve gotten on with their lives. And this inspired me to tell a story about my own childhood, and my own shortcomings as an adult, which are heavy and numerous. I’d rather talk about that than exploit a real family’s pain for my own fun and profit.
IMV: Since the promo materials describe the album as having been recorded in “living room ‘studios’ up and down the East Bay,” I’m going to guess that means you recorded it DIY. Given the way the songs are structured, I can imagine what a painstaking process that must have been. What did your recording setup look like? I’m particularly curious as to how you got some of those instrument tones, especially the guitar and drums – did they come from your rigs or from the recording/production?
JT: My recording set up is extremely minimal. An old Focusrite Saffire 6 into an equally dated tower running Acid Studio 10.0. For pretty much the whole record I played a $100 Ibanez Gio direct into the interface. Then I’d re-amp that recording through twenty or thirty odd pedal combinations (most reverb into dirt) and bounce the best half dozen or so results into a single layered track and that’s my rhythm part. Live drums are a Roland Octapad plus some actual percussion like tambourines and stuff that I recorded through the same $50 Radio Shack mic I used for all my vocals.
The vocals and drums get treated to a lot of plug-ins, reverb, EQ, a little dirt, etc. The guitars, as I mentioned, get that sound from being re-amped and bounced again and again and again. Synth parts, of which there are always dozens, mostly get run through pedals as I’m playing them live. Once again a lot of reverb, plus chorus, delay, and occasionally a little vibrato. The guitars are usually the most time consuming part of the process. There’s a whole lot of fiddling with knobs and a whole lot of takes that end up getting tossed. Like probably 70-80% of it comes out in the wash.
I have a lot of pedals. Way more than I need. Way more than anyone who doesn’t own a real studio needs. I think at last count it was somewhere around 60, though I keep selling stuff to get new gear. When I first started working on this record I was obsessed with the cheapest dirt boxes I could find. Like $10 used bin stuff. Forgotten 90s Danelectro pedals, Soundtank series, stuff like that. I was mixing that with boutique modulated reverbs from Strymon and Dr. Scientist, trying to make something that sounded “good bad.” That’s where the guitar tone on the first track comes from, and also all of that wall of buzz from The Rainy Season EP.
I’ve been trying to get away from that more lately, though. I unloaded most of those pedals and started collecting Big Muffs, which I avoided for a while because they were so popular. I’ve got a couple now from the late 70s/early 80s before they shipped production to Russia. They’re all over the main riff to the last track. I feel like they give it a much smoother sound. Like you can actually tell that the rhythm guitar is a guitar and not just sputtering static.
IMV: Where did the photograph that adorns the cover of little stories told by ghostscome from? It looks like it’s considerably older than any of the stories on the album. Is it one of the locations from the song titles?
JT: It’s of one of the beaches at Withernsea, which is a tiny coastal town in the UK. It’s a scan from a late 19th Century book called Summer Holidays in North East England and the photo is by Payne Jennings, which is about the extent of what I know about it.
I actually really struggled with the art for the record. I knew I wanted something old and in the public domain, both for aesthetic and fiscal reasons. I also wanted it to relate fairly directly to one of the settings for the songs, even if it wasn’t specifically from Baltimore or Philadelphia or Humboldt County, etc. I ended up probably looking at a thousand or so old pictures of beaches, resorts, old piers and waterfronts, and assorted Appalachian settings. This is one of the ones that spoke to me the most. The distant faded quality of the picture, the fact that the texture of the paper from the blow up has become as much a part of the image as the photo itself…It just felt haunted, which was ultimately appropriate. This is, after all, an album about ghosts.
IMV: There’s a sentence near the end of the album notes that I found really striking: “Dunnock are a band that have often defined themselves in terms of their failures, and little stories represents the band’s best effort to fail ambitiously.” How do you actually feel about little stories told by ghosts now that it’s finished? Do you think of it as a grand but failed experiment? Are there things you wish you’d have done differently throughout the process of making the album?
JT: As I kinda mentioned before, I think my biggest problem with the record is that the whole doesn’t feel greater than the sum of the parts. It feels a lot smaller actually. And it’s not that all the parts are perfect, there’s probably a lot I’d do differently, but there’s a lot of stuff on here that I really like quite a bit too. A lot of things I’m really proud of. I don’t think I’m every going to be able to listen to the whole thing and come away with a positive impression though. And that’s okay. Maybe it’s not for me.
As far as concrete examples of things I’d change though, if I had it to do over again I might redo the guitars for the first half of the record. The second track is way too bass heavy compared to the other three, and the first song has an interesting tone but one that sacrifices weight for interesting texture. It robs the track of a lot of its dynamics. And given that the tune is almost a quarter of an hour long it really could do with all the dynamics available.
I’ll say this about the record, though; it was a ridiculous thing to do. People who don’t know much theory and know even less guitar shouldn’t write 14-minute songs. It was an absolutely terrible idea and it probably should have been abandoned long ago for the sake of my brand and my own mental health, such as they both are. But I did it. I finished it. I have another full length under my belt and I continue to live my absurd fantasy of being an experimental black metal musician. People can say I made a terrible record, with some justification, but they can’t say I didn’t try. That’s what it comes down to. I might have failed, but I tried.
IMV: What’s next for Dunnock after little stories told by ghosts is released? I can’t envision the material on the album translating very easily into a live setting. Is Dunnock essentially a studio project, or do you intend to try to gig behind the album?
JT: I really look forward to working on stuff that isn’t this album or even related to Dunnock at all. I wanna make more Harsh Noise Wall and techno, maybe work with some of my friends on their music. There will be another promo tape before the end of the year, because there’s always an annual promo. I’ve been saying I’d start working on it over the summer, but that’s coming up pretty quick.
I don’t think we’ll be gigging in support of this record. I don’t really have any plans to gig at all. There’s just the two of us, and efforts to put together a fuller line-up have fallen apart. Plus previous live performances have never gone great for me, I’m way too anxious. Way too weird and awkward of a human being in general and I’m well past the age where such things are charming. They’re just… weird.
I’m not completely opposed to being a part of a live project though, having said all that. I’ve talked to people about doing things in the past, but it would have to probably be their thing. And so far it’s largely been talk.
IMV: Thanks again for being willing to answer a few questions. I like to leave the last word to the artist – anything else you want to add?
JT: I just want to say thanks. Thanks for covering my silly little band. Thanks for these really thoughtful questions and for letting me ramble on endlessly in response to them. I really, honestly do appreciate it.