For those who may be out of the loop, Nashville, Tennessee’s Howling Giant are steadily growing to be one of the finest up and coming acts out of the East’s progressive rock/doom scene. With a reputation for nerdy, sci-fi/fantasy conceptualism, varied songwriting, and highly energetic live performances, the band embodies much of what sets prog/doom apart from other genres, and have made a name for themselves with their self-titled EP, as well as their two most recent offerings under the Black Hole Space Wizard storyline (Part 2 of which we happened to review last year). As the band neared the end of their most recent tour in May, I was fortunate enough to grab a small booth with Tom (guitars) and Zack (drums) in the back of Reggie’s Tavern on 42nd Street in Wilmington, NC and ask about their humble beginnings, what it’s like living in the music capital of the world, upcoming projects and more.
Indy Metal Vault: Thank you guys for agreeing to the interview, how’s the tour been treating you so far?
Tom: It’s been really good! Very smooth, especially when compared to the last tour. The last tour was great, but this one has already been…I would say ten times better. People are starting to show up and even know some of the words to the songs. Actually seeing fans that are coming out that already know our set is pretty new for us and we’re excited.
IMV: Nice, are you guys hitting a lot of new places or are there more spots you find yourself coming back to?
Zack: A mix of both! We’ve been here, to Reggie’s, before – it’s such a cool spot and we have a lot of friends in the area so it’s always cool to catch up with everybody that you know. Asheville we have been to a couple of times before, but never at the venue we’re gonna be at tomorrow. We played The Auditorium there before and we did something at New Mount, but we’re playing with an awesome band we’ve played with a couple times before called Electric Phantom so we’re excited.
IMV: Asheville is a crazy place [laughs]
Tom: I always wish we had a little more time when we play Asheville. We kinda show up, play the show and leave, but it’s one of those towns where if you have a day to spend, man, you can have a good time for sure [laughs].
IMV: So for the readers’ sake, I’d like to get a couple of the more basic questions out of the way. When did you guys start out playing music together?
Tom: Man, I think we started playing in college in Boston where we met. We were both playing in different projects at the time, and they were both simultaneously kind of falling apart, so we just as a joke started playing songs as a band called “Skulldozer,” playing songs about our Dungeons & Dragons campaigns [laughs]. The first song we wrote was called “Anthos the Minotaur,” and it’s just hysterical, riff-y and heavy…that was probably like, 2011? 2012?
Zack: Yeah, that was more of a “one-show-a-year” sort of situation. Then when we moved down to Nashville in late 2013 we actually started trying to do things as a band beyond just hanging out and jamming, you know?
IMV: So you are based in Nashville, but not from there?
Zack: We’re kind of from all over, but we all went to school in Boston. I’m from Minnesota originally; I’m an army brat, my dad moved us around every two years, but we ended up meeting at school up in Boston where we had a bunch of songwriter friends, and…we didn’t know where we were going, but they kind of sold us on the move to Nashville. And it’s been great down there! It’s a great place to be from, you can really cover some serious ground touring-wise, even on just weekends, it’s so centrally located.
Tom: Yeah, from there it’s a quick shot even we wanted to get to Atlanta, Louisville, or even Indianapolis. Being in a central location is kind of the key.
IMV: I have family from Nashville, I’ve only been once myself, but even after going that one time you can definitely see how deeply the music scene is ingrained into the city’s culture.
Zack: For sure! I wouldn’t say the heavy scene is newly emerging, but maybe kind of like…re-emerging, you know? There was definitely a heavy scene in the past, but very recently you’re starting to see a lot more bands come up than before.
Tom: There’s a resurgence of sorts, for sure.
IMV: I was gonna ask, did being in that environment sort of push you guys to think more creatively when writing songs?
Tom: I feel like our inspiration for songwriting has always come from a kind of nerdy concept, you know? [laughs] I guess you could say it’s not that Nashville has inspired our songwriting so much as it has kind of shown me other songwriters. Listening to a singer/songwriter playing country or bluegrass, or playing folky kind of stuff and listening to their song-form and how they put a song together? That was inspirational. I love to listen to songs that are like a twelve minute riff, that’s rad. But I think kind of focusing and studying some tight kind of songwriting coming from natural arrangement is very important.
Zack: Yeah, and sometimes it’s nice to have friends in that scene to give second opinions on things we might be working on. At the end of the day, we’ll always go with what we feel, but it’s cool sometimes to get those opinions from people not necessarily in the same scene.
IMV: So you guys have a song on MER’s [Magnetic Eye Records] The Best of Pink Floyd cover/compilation album coming out later this year, and I really love how you put your own spin on “Mathilda Mother” without disrespecting the original. I was hoping you could shed a little light on what it’s like covering a song from such an obviously legendary band. Did you pick that track specifically, and was there any pressure on deciding what direction to go with it?
Zack: Yeah, there were a few things that happened with that cover. Jadd, from Magnetic Eye, reached out and asked us if there was a song we wanted cover. We chose to do “Mathilda Mother,” it’s a song we always dug, we would listen to it in college a lot, it was also the first song Pink Floyd ever recorded.
Tom: Yeah, it’s just a very cool and deep song. It has really awesome melodies, and the theme and the concept of the lyrics really spoke to us, being fans of the fantasy/storytelling aspect. Being able to listen to that and take some of the melodies but put them in a heavier setting, without casting out a lot of the melodic value to the lines, was a lot of fun for us.
Zack: And I’ve always liked bands, when they’re doing covers, to put their own spin on it. Covering it exactly the way it was written…you can do it well, and there’s a great live presence to something like that, but I think giving it your own identity is almost the whole point of the Redux itself.
Tom: It’s almost harder covering something like Dark Side or The Wall, which is so epic that you just sit back like “WHAT CAN I DO WITH THIS?” [laughs] So taking something from Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, which has that sort of 60s/70s flower child, rock and roll vibe is a lot easier to put into a heavy setting than taking something that’s already as epic as can be.
IMV: The artwork for each of your albums is really dope, the covers are always simple but I feel like they reflect the music and epic, nerdy kind of vibe rolled together that you guys use in your songs.
Tom: Yeah, being conscious of comic-book culture is kind of key for us. My mom did all of those album covers. Sue Davies – she’s amazing.
IMV: Really? I was just about ask, what is your relationship with the artist? [laughs]
Tom: Yeah, I’m her son! [laughs]
Zack: She really just kind of reads our minds somehow. We’ll get on the phone with her and say, “We’re thinking something like this,” and we’ll send some awful sketch to her of what we think, and then she sends something back that is done and go “Something like this?” and it’s PERFECT. [laughs]
Tom: Especially with the first EP, I almost like that she used more of a horror-comic approach. I think that works really well for those first four tracks we recorded, but then we were able to say, “Okay, slightly different wheelhouse here: Black Hole Space Wizard, we want this 70s kind of sci-fi depiction,” and she just absolutely killed it both times.
IMV: In the stoner/doom scene especially, I feel you can bend your creativity as much as you want and still have it fall under that flag. Both Black Hole Space Wizard [BHSW] EPs specifically feel really unique, what was the writing process behind them like?
Zack: I think we always try to write around scenes. It’s almost like thinking about a movie score for us. Sometimes a song will come out of nowhere, sometimes we’ll slave over it for a year, and not everything always makes the cut, but we try to grab the ones that we feel embody the story itself.
Tom: It’s almost easier to write when you’re thinking of a concept. At least for me – I’m a very visual writer, I want to see something if I’m writing a song about it. I don’t want to say it’s NOT emotional, but it’s not quite as emotionally driven for me as much as storyline-driven. For [BHSW] Part 1, we were contacted by Converse Rubber Tracks. Converse, the shoe company, has this program called “Rubber Tracks” where they will give artists free recording time, and they contacted us and said, “Hey, we can fly you to Boston in three weeks if you want to record.” We were just like: “Okay, rad…we need to write some music.” [laughs] So we had some stuff that was half-written and we just forced it together and finished it. I would say it was that time-crunch that really made Part 1.
Zack: And that’s just such a different vibe from [BHSW] Part 2 altogether. We had much more time writing wise.
IMV: The first EP does have a much more aggressive kind of sound to it.
Zack: Yeah, there are a lot of clashes and battles in the story, and that’s what we really tried to capture there. Then Part 2 is about this character stranded on the husk planet of Earth, and is a tale of his travels. So for us, how we decided to portray that, was with that slightly groovier, doom-ier approach. That’s what makes Part 2 special. Explosions are fast riffs! Explosions are metal. Self exploration and dire circumstance inspires doom, that’s the approach for me at least. [laughs]
IMV: Are there any current plans for a ‘Part 3‘ to the BHSW saga? If you can’t say anything that’s okay.
Tom: Man…we have a general outline of the story, and we have a lot of riffs and parts of songs-
Zack: We’re also writing a lot of material that we love that just doesn’t fit into Part 3. We’re kind of at a point where we have material for a full length, and material for Part 3, so I’m honestly not sure which one will come first.
Tom: We’re racing against ourselves, essentially. [laughs]
IMV: That’s not a bad situation to be in!
Tom: Totally! It’s super fun to write within the BHSW universe, but it’s also very refreshing to write stuff that’s…well…not about space wizards [laughs]. But I mean, if I had to just write about space wizards forever, it wouldn’t be too bad. [laughs]
IMV: Do you plan on sticking with a concept album for your eventual full length, whenever it happens?
Tom: I will say there will probably be a concept, although it might not be as linear as just telling a story, so much as that of a theme. What’s the name of that Misfits album? The one with the monsters…I don’t know why it’s escaping me-
IMV: I’ll just put it in brackets in the final interview [laughs]
[Editor’s note: The album being referred to is Famous Monsters. You’re welcome, Tom!]
Tom: Yeah, but I love that idea of a theme tying everything together.
IMV: As far as getting the sound you want, what gear do you guys prefer to bring on tour with you?
Tom: Man, well right now we’re a little confined to whatever we can fit in the hearse, although we’ve actually been able to fit quite a bit. I’ve been running two amps in stereo, I have a 1969 Marshall Plexi and then I also have a 50-watt Lani, and I’ve been running those two in stereo with two different fuzzes. Being able to use those two different sounds helps you sound larger as a three piece from a guitarist’s point of view.
Zack: Drum wise, I bring the drum set that I started playing on when I was in high school, so I still have this piece of junk Tama SwingStar that I basically re-wrapped to make it look a little nicer. But you know, slap some solid heads on it and it sounds okay!
Tom: It’s totally fair that I am here using multiple amps, and Zack has to lug around his rusty old kit! [laughs]
Zack: I’d love to bring my studio kit on the road with me – maybe once we get more room – but with drums, I feel like if you put some good heads up there and tune it, it’s still gonna sound like a drum, you know? I’m sure there are purists out there who will totally destroy my theory, but…oh well [laughs]. One thing I do that’s a little different for the three piece setting is that I don’t use any crash cymbals – everything is a ride cymbal. I have two 21″ rides that I crash on, and then my actual ride is a 22″. They like to sustain a little longer, and they have a lower frequency that fills out the sound on stage a little more for a three piece, which works for us.
IMV: Last question before I let you go, and it’s completely unrelated to anything we’ve discussed: what releases have you guys been jamming so far this year? It doesn’t have to be metal, could be anything.
Tom: I know it didn’t come out this year – although I think it was re-released – but Toke’s Orange, I love that album! It’s so good. That and King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard’s newest stuff, of course.
Zack: I’ve had some friends – and this isn’t really from this year either – who have gotten me on this huge Opeth kick. I never really listened to them that much, but early on I had so many friends that loved that band, and I just never really dove in. But this past year, I’ve just been really getting into it! Sorceress? That album is so good! I love it.