John Gossard is arguably one of the most important figures in American metal in the last twenty years. In fact, if you’re a fan of either US black metal or doom, then there’s a good chance that many of the bands you listen to were influenced by at least one of Gossard’s projects. USBM fans will know him for his work with Weakling, whose lone 2000 album Dead as Dreams still stands as one of the landmark releases of the genre. Those who are more into doom may know him either from funeral doom/death metal band Asunder (whose lineup also briefly included Jackie Perez Gratz on cello) or the more death rock-influenced doom of The Gault.
If you’ve gotten into Gossard’s music at any point in the last ten years, though, you point of entry was most likely Dispirit, the black/doom band that he’s been the guiding force behind for close to two decades now. The band’s music draws from virtually all facets of Gossard’s musical personality, while adding in a few new ones besides. Fresh off the release of their fourth demo Enantiodromian Birth and a short run of West Coast tour dates – and with an appearance at this year’s Red River Family Festival less than two weeks away (get your tickets here) – I had the chance to ask Gossard a few questions about his lengthy, influential career. Fortunately, I seem to have caught him on a particularly talkative day, because he was incredibly generous with both his time and effort in providing very thorough, thoughtful responses to my questions. Give it a read below, and if you haven’t yet, check out Dispirit’s latest effort Enantiodromian Birth while you do so.
Indy Metal Vault: For starters, thanks for the interview. You have been such an influential musician throughout your career that it’s difficult to talk about your output through the lens of a single band. Dispirit, though, has easily been your most enduring project. You’re creeping up on 20 years as band, which is a bit of a surprise considering that Dispirit isn’t exactly prolific – three-ish demos (depending on whether you consider 11112 and 111112 to be separate demos or two variations of the same demo) with a grand total of nine original songs and one Slayer cover. Granted, it also took a full decade for you to release the first of those demos, 2010’s Rehearsal at Oboroten. I’m curious about that first decade of Dispirit’s existence, though. I know you were active with both Asunder and The Gault at various points during those years – was Dispirit slowly taking shape in between albums with these other projects?
John Gossard: Thanks for inquiring. First off a quick correction, we just released a new cassette last month, so now we are up to four releases and nine songs! Rehearsal at Oboroten (2010), 111112/11112 (2012), Separation (2015), Enantiodromian Birth (2018).
The first decade of Dispirit was definitely a long, slow transfiguration. At the very beginning, I had been playing in The Gault for somewhere between six months and a year when I started playing with Peter, our first drummer and co-founder. At the time he was dating Sarah from The Gault/Weakling and shared our rehearsal space. Weakling had been dead for around a year and I wanted to do something more metal/black metal/funeral doom than what The Gault was doing, but I didn’t really want to try to reform Weakling, or start something that would be “Weakling II.”Peter was completely into the idea of just meeting up and experimenting with ideas, so we began playing a couple times a week from that point on.
So at this time I was also developing a sort of new style of playing for myself in The Gault, using lots of chorus and delay pedals and incorporating a lot of improvisation. I had been playing around with digital delays and doom improvisations on my own since around the late 80s, but never really had any idea how to play it with another musician involved. So early on, inspired by what I was doing in The Gault, I started trying out the delayed-out, doom improvisation stuff with Peter playing really simple beats at first. Now, Peter had some interest in black/death/doom metal, but didn’t listen to near as much of that stuff as I did. Also, he had had past experience playing in some kind of progressive rock bands, and was a big fan of Neil Peart as well as Dale Crover, amongst others, so he brought in some influences outside of what I expected for minimalist black doom. Pretty soon, Peter started learning what to expect with my improvisations and was able to incorporate more heavy off-time fills, or shift into odd time signatures, so the doom stuff started taking on a kind of strange progressive turn. We also explored doing these total improvisations with a blasting black metal type soundscape, and even with a thrash soundscape. We recorded a lot of that stuff, and while we stumbled upon some really amazing sections, we also hit awkward rough spots where everything would fall apart. Meanwhile I was also bringing in some more composed riff ideas we would experiment with, and I was turning him on to more and more obscure bands. We occasionally worked on trying to write songs, but without a full band we would often get bored with the idea and just go back to ‘jamming.”
For myself, I had The Gault going until mid 2002 and had also started playing in Asunder in 2001, which lasted until 2009. So all through that time, I already had to deal with the pain in the ass of rehearsing and writing with a full band. Not that I didn’t enjoy playing in those bands, but there is always a bunch of shit, dealing with peoples schedules, conflicting desires, ideals, tastes, attitudes and aspirations that makes working on serious music a lot more difficult with a full band. So I really had little motivation to turn Dispirit into anything other than this thing we did in obscurity, just for ourselves.
We did make an attempt to turn it into a band around 2005 or so, when we invited our friend Matt Luque to play with us. We actually worked together very well, and put together the skeletons of a few songs, but Matt was frustrated by our lack of interest in playing live, or even completing the songs we were in the process of writing, and so he just sort of quit showing up to rehearsal. After that, it wasn’t until around 2007 or so that I really thinking about finding people to fill out a full band again. That was inspired by two things. One was that I was pretty much sick of working in Asunder at that point, but loved the music so much I didn’t want to quit. I hoped if I got Dispirit to be fully realized as a band, it might give me enough satisfaction that I could continue on with Asunder. So around then I started looking for another guitarist. Then in 2008 a co-worker friend of mine, Jody Hunt, offered to play bass and we gave him a shot for maybe six months or so, but he ended up moving out of the area and had to quit. That was the point when Todd joined the band, as well as the point I told Asunder that I would be taking a hiatus from the band and let them know if they wanted to replace me, that was OK too.
I guess the last thing relating to my other bands that steered the influence of the sound in this first decade was this sort of isolated dedication to each band I have. Even though Dispirit has a lot of doom in it, as do both The Gault and Asunder, I was very conscious of the soundpicture of each band. If I came up with material I felt would be suitable for either The Gault or Asunder, I would always bring it to whichever of those two bands I thought it was best for and offer them the idea first for our songwriting. Likewise, there were just certain types of things that either Asunder or The Gault were doing that I did not want to incorporate into Dispirit’s sound. Likewise, there were a lot of elements of Weakling that I wanted to leave out of our sound, so we wouldn’t be trying to rehash some of my old ideas. Eventually my attitude has slightly changed though, and I ended up using one of my old Asunder compositions for the intro to “Odylic Void,” which also has a few old riffs from the Weakling days.
IMV: In addition to being your longest-running project, Dispirit is also your most singular in many ways. There are certainly elements in Dispirit’s sound that fans of your other bands will find familiar, but it also has the potential to be quite the shock to the system for anyone who discovers those earlier bands first. There’s a loose feel to Dispirit’s music – so much so that it wouldn’t surprise me if you culled riffs for your songs from lengthy improvisations. This may be a difficult question to answer, but do you think Dispirit is a better representation of who you are as a musician compared to your previous bands? Or is it more like each one is like a snapshot of you as a musician at different times of your career?
JG: I guess Dispirit is the most representative of myself as a musician in a lot of ways, though there are still stylistic things you might hear in my older projects I don’t incorporate in Dispirit that I think are still strongly a part of myself as a musician. Also, there are parts of those bands where I’ve been heavily influenced by the other musicians I played with. In Weakling, I wrote most of the riffs and skeletons of the song shape, but the rest of the band would work with me figuring out counterpoint, harmony, and more nuanced composition. Everyone’s input in that band helped shape how I approach all those elements. In The Gault, we all really had our own separate, individual styles that fit really well together, but came together really organically rather than by sitting at home and writing a song and bringing it in for the band to learn. Usually Sarah and Lorraine would write a section of bass and drums first, then I would improvise over the basic idea for a long time and record it and then try to isolate the best ideas to use in a more composed song structure. That improvisational writing style has been a huge part of how I write in Dispirit, and I definitely think about Sarah’s simple militant drum beats or Lorraine’s heavy and catchy as hell bass lines when Dispirit is writing, but those things originated with them, and I just internalized some elements of it.
When I joined Asunder, initially I just wanted to help with the song writing. I would add harmony or counterpoint to their riffs, or suggest ways to pace the songs to make them more powerful. Over time I brought more and more of my own riffs, but stylistically I always tried to make sure the kind of music I was creating was connected to the universe they had already discovered on that first EP before I joined the band. In the process of playing with them I definitely honed in on my own doom vibe, but I also took in a lot of the heavy drumming Dino did, or certain elements of Geoff’s riff writing. That influences how I end up orchestrating some of the doom elements of Dispirit.
The thing with Dispirit is that musically I am doing the majority of the composing. Almost all the riffs, song structures, counterpoints, solos are mine, but at the same time we still jam on the basic riff ideas at rehearsal while working out the compositions. We have gone through a number of members now, so as we experiment with riffs with each lineup I hear different musicians play with different inflections. That influences how I write, so the way we end up writing a song with each lineup is different depending on who the band is made up of at the time. We’ll often try the same basic riff ideas as a doom riff, or blasting black metal, or change the time signature, and I’ll adjust my songwriting ideas to fit what I think sounds best with the specific lineup I have at the time. So even though I am most in control here, and do a lot more work on the total composition, I am still guided in part by the players in the band and the way they channel and emit the music while we are in the writing stage.
I also ought to mention you are correct about using pieces of improvisation as source material, though use of improvisation has changed over the years. There are specific riffs from when Peter and I were doing all improvised jams where we found some random isolated riff we only played a couple of times in an improvisation, but then relearned it and developed it into something with more layers. There is also a part of “Bitumen Amnii” that is a long non-repeating doomy section in the middle that is basically several minutes of one improvisation that we just relearned. Nowadays we don’t do that pure improvisation. The “pure improvisation” meant without any forethought or discussion we would just say “GO!” and start playing brand new, unrehearsed music and just attempt to stay in sync with each other. Nowadays we jam around pre-composed riffs, so the drummer may change the drum beat completely, or guitars start experimenting with counterpoint or solos or harmonies or whatever, but we are all structured around a main riff. The early style of improvisation resulted in creating new riffs or progressions that we stumbled on in the moment. The newer way we work with improvisation is to develop layers on top of a pre-existing composition. In both situations, I try to utilize improvisation to force our writing to use more instinctual ideas than intellectual ideas about composition. I am always inclined to overthink things, so I am always looking for tools to escape the kind of order I know I will eventually impose on the songs.
IMV: You’ve been fairly low-key in terms of recording and releasing music with Dispirit. If I’m not mistaken, everything is recorded live at Oboroten Studios, and then you self-release them digitally and on cassette. What made you decide to take that approach with Dispirit? I can’t help but wonder if your previous experiences dealing with labels somehow soured you on the whole thing?
JG: All your assumptions are correct. Without getting too deeply into it, basically with the massive amount of work I have spent in various bands writing, bands paying rent, bands self-financing recording costs, paying rehearsal rent, gear repair, etc. I have basically lost a fortune doing this stuff. I was very against releasing the Weakling album, and so when I was finally talked into it by a friend’s label, I made pretty good terms for the band, but stupidly only did this on a handshake deal. We agreed that once the label made back the money to press the album, any future income would pay the band back for the recording costs, and after that we would split profits between the band and the label. A few years later the label denied we made such a deal and only ended up paying us what is probably a sort of average deal, but in effect, after the three or four CD pressings it meant we only made back about what it cost us to record the album. We actually only got fifteen copies of the DLP out of a pressing of 500, so that was a huge letdown as well.
When The Gault posthumously released our album, there was a lot of tension between band members due to the way we split up that lead to a bunch of problems with how we handled communicating with the labels and each other, and ultimately a CD was pressed with digital glitches (on the Flood the Earth version), which was another huge letdown. The vinyl with Ván and the Asunder albums didn’t have those problems, but taking the sort of standard contracts we were offered, usually 20% of the pressing, we really only ended covering our recording costs and a few months rehearsal rent. Asunder did a little better for ourselves, but still never made any money beyond our costs, either. Near the end of the band we had the bad experience of doing some business with that shady ass Kreation Records guy and his stupid ass 50 copies of ‘test pressings’ for $50 each, and other scummy shit.
Now doing tapes and Bandcamp ourselves with Dispirit doesn’t really do any better for us than a record deal, but I don’t have to live with the fact that all my efforts are making someone else money while I a still losing a fortune. What it all comes down to is that if I am not going to profit of this stuff, I’d prefer it if someone else isn’t profiting off our work either. Ideally we would be more functional as our own record label, but issues with financing, time, and space to run something more substantial haven’t panned out yet. Also, while I grew up on LPs and cassettes, and still like CDs, the reality is that there is just way too much stuff in the world. If you want to hear our music, it is easy enough to hear it from Bandcamp, or YouTube, or steal it from a torrent or Soulseek or something. I hope to get vinyl versions out at some point because I really do prefer the whole vinyl experience, but in this horrible modern age, it is not really a necessity. The biggest problem as far as releasing more materials in more formats ultimately probably has less to do with my frustration in dealing with labels, and more to do with my constant battles with my own nihilism. I do get motivated to work on LP releases from time to time, but usually the futilitarian in me takes over and stops caring about wanting to make a product. It actually annoys the hell out of me.
IMV: Speaking of recording, how ‘live’ is ‘recorded live’? Do you add vocals and overdubs later, or do you actually do it all in one take and that’s it?
JG: It is all recorded live, including vocals, solos, etc. The only things we have not done live so far are the acoustic intro on Enantiodromian Birth and clean vocals on the song “Golden Scar.” Also, on Separation and Enantiodromian Birth we didn’t play the whole demo live from start to finish. On both of these we did multiple takes of the songs. On Separation, the ‘intro’ for “Funeral Frost” came from a different take of the song than the latter part. The same happened with “Besotted by Feral Whims” on the new one. The first two recordings, Rehearsal at Oboroten and 111112 were actually recorded from start to finish in a single take.
IMV: Since the subject of gear kind of fascinates me, what does your recording setup look like? How close is it to your live rigs?
JG: All our recordings are set up the same way we set up live, I guess with the exception that the drums don’t go through a PA system. We use two amps (one tube and one solid state) on each guitar and run the output in an x pattern so each guitar has one cabinet on both the right and left side of the drummer with the bass in the center. Guitars are run through an assortment of chorus/delay/reverb/distortion. Drums in the middle, and vocals through a delay pedal run into the PA. The recording setup has varied on each recording, however. Rehearsal at Oboroten was all played live from start to finish, at full volume, at Oboroten (our often moving rehearsal space). 111112 was recorded in the same space, again live and playing the material from start to finish, but this time only with a stereo mic setup in the middle of the room. Separation was done in I guess what would be considered Oboroten III, again live, but each song tracked separately. This one was done with a stereo room mic and additional mics on the kick, snare and PA speaker. Finally, the latest sessions for Enantiodromian Birth returned to recording with multitrack close mics, and again recorded each song independently (at Oboroten IV). For each of these recordings, after we have the initial tracking completed I put them in my DAW and play around with mixing for a few weeks to try to get it to sound close to what it sounds like to me while we are playing it live in the rehearsal space, though I may have added extra reverb delay at the end of songs to make better transitions or fade outs. When I mix, it is usually very subject to a trial and error basis, and I am never exactly sure how I end up with the final tones.
IMV: One thing I always appreciate is when a band’s song titles send me down internet rabbit holes, and Dispirit’s definitely fit the bill. However, I can’t seem to find any sort of real pattern in your references: there are environmental references, psychological terms, a bit of esoterica, and an appearance by the Mayan goddess of suicide by hanging. How would you characterize your lyrical themes with Dispirit?
JG: The themes are not strictly bound to any sort of ideology or theology. For me Dispirit is a slowly expanding universe, so the themes grow and stray from whatever central focus I began with. As a very general idea, I kind of stole the concept of the Voivod character and thought of a being, “the Dispirit,” which is a spiritually negative and oppressive entity obsessed with various ways to dispirit the living. Outside of that, I am always interested in obscure, esoteric, absurd, and strange things I find from mythology, religious studies, science/pseudoscience, as well as aberrant behavior and psychosis, so those are all things feeding my ideas of what Dispirit’s songs are about. So there is generally a dual theme of a strong oppressive force that is entirely imaginary, and a struggle to defeat this force, which generally results in insanity.
IMV: The current iteration of Dispirit includes drummer Harland Burkhart and guitarist Greg Brace, both of whom are also in Wild Hunt. How did that pairing come about?
JG: Todd and I have known both Greg and Harley for years through their other bands Wild Hunt and Dimesland. When Peter left the band in 2013 we had actually asked Harley if he was interested in trying out with us, but having two other serious bands going at the time, he didn’t think he could make it work. Last year when I was forced to kick out Trevor, we decided to ask Harley if anything had changed. It turned out both he and Greg had quit Dimesland. He had also been a fan of Dispirit for years and was sort of pissed off that he hadn’t tried to play with us when we first asked him, so he was really motivated to play with us this time. He just really fell into place right off the bat.
While this was going on our old guitarist Ryan was not happy with my decision to kick out Trevor, so he just quit coming to rehearsals. Meanwhile, since we shared the rehearsal space with Wild Hunt, Greg had occasionally been around for rehearsals a few times, and he had heard Todd and I wondering if Ryan had quit or what, so he mentioned he was interested in playing with us if we ended up needing another guitarist. Finally after five months, Ryan finally showed up to rehearsal. This was only a couple weeks before a gig with Profanatica we were preparing for. This would be the first show with Harley on drums, and a show we did not want to be at all half-assed about. Well, the next rehearsal Ryan didn’t show up again, so I told Greg I would show him all the riffs from the songs, give him a recording for him to work with, and if Ryan didn’t come to practice the next time I would give him a call. Next rehearsal Ryan didn’t show up again, so we told Greg to come down and play. The very first practice, he already knew the whole set, and could play it almost as well as Ryan. At that point Todd and I had been so certain Ryan was planning to quit anyway, and we were so impressed with how seriously Greg took the music, we just asked Greg if he wanted to stay in the band. So far it has turned out great. Greg and Harley have a lot of history together and a good dynamic with each other, but they are also really serious and dedicated to understanding the sound of Dispirit, so it has been really easy bringing them both into the band. It is still strange to have half the band changed so abruptly, as well as that change seemingly destroying a few friendships, so that is still pretty saddening and maddening.
IMV: Dispirit will be appearing at this year’s edition of Red River Family Fest in Austin at the end of September (as will Wild Hunt). For a lot of bands on this year’s lineup, the Fest will be their first time playing in Texas. Is that the case for Dispirit as well? What can those who’ve not seen the band before expect from your set?
JG: We played at the absurd Rites of Darkness festival in San Antonio in 2011, but have not played anywhere else in the state. I haven’t ever seen us play, so it is hard to say what to expect from watching us. We usually play with a ton of fog and minimal low red lights so we and the audience all feel more isolated from each other, minimal stage show, simple dark atmosphere. Lots of venues these days seem to get pissed off about the fog, but we’ve requested it from the festival organizers so hopefully we’ll have it with no problems. Musically…well, its some sort of fucked up black metal with influences from psychedelic decay, drunken funeral dirges, suicidal fractal worship, narcissistic meditations on masochistic humility, guitar solos, melancholy hatred. We’ll just do our best to channel whatever darkness we can grasp onto.
IMV: Okay…I saved this for last, but I can’t interview you and not ask a question about Weakling, because Dead as Dreams is probably my favorite USBM album of all time. Does it surprise you at all that people are still talking about and being influenced by that album? It’s now been fifteen years since the last time Dead as Dreams was reissued – is there any chance of it ever being reissued again?
JG: I am not surprised people are still talking about Dead as Dreams exactly, just surprised at how much it is talked about and who is talking about it. I was working on a lot of the ideas for that album for years before the group actually materialized, and when we had the full lineup, we worked tirelessly on writing, performing, and perfecting the material for two years or so before recording it. We knew how strong the album was when we recorded it and fully expected it to be taken note of. I suppose the weird thing for me is the number of bands playing some sort of “post-black metal” or “blackgaze” that cite the band as a big influence, because I don’t really like much of that kind of music, though I do love old 80s shoegaze/post-punk, 80s/90s noise rock and still think Hvis Lyset tar Oss and Vikingligr Veldi are “true blackgaze.”
Anyway, it is strange for me knowing how much I/we put into creating album, but I don’t really enjoy hearing the album now. I mostly hear things on it I want to ‘improve’ to fit my tastes today, but I know I better ought let it be. I have heard from many musicians over the years who have put out some of my favorite albums who now dislike or hate those albums they did when they were younger. Hearing that album brings up so many different thoughts about how fucked up my life was at the time, and then all kinds of ideas of what I would do differently with the material now, it is just impossible to hear it objectively. I don’t hate the album or anything, but it is just not pleasant to listen to for me, so it is strange to see it is still talked about as much as it is. Of course I am thankful that people still appreciate it, I just feel a bit…eh, disconnected maybe. I am considering doing my own re-release of the vinyl. This December will mark the 20th anniversary of when it was recorded, so maybe that will inspire me to get it done.
IMV: Thanks again for being willing to answer a few questions. I like to leave the final word to the artists – anything else you’d like to add?
JG: I’ll use this space to mention a few other projects going on.
First is a Dispirit side project called White Phosphorus, which is some stuff I have been working on for a few years. We’ve done a few shows, but no recordings yet other than a few live sets on YouTube. Some of it uses different versions of Dispirit material in a more experimental setting, some is sort of like baroque black metal doom noise drone, some of it is more influenced by stuff like early Swans and Melvins doom/noise rock, guitar loops, noise/samples n’ stuff. Hoping to record a tape sometime this year.
Second is Consummation, which is not my project. It’s just something I have contributed some guitar solos to. Hard to describe using simple genre terminology, but it is pretty twisted black/death stuff with a lot of doomy passages. Craig, who used to play drums in Impetuous Ritual, is doing most of the writing, but he is on guitar here. I did solos for the first EP, which was a bit more blasting, but the new one is a lot more varied. Musically it doesn’t have a lot in common with Impetuous Ritual, although it does share a love for dissonance and obscure riffing, but it is altogether more layered, melodic, and more varied. Some of it reminds me of Ruins of Beverast or even Dispirit, though still has some of that dense abysmal quality you hear in a lot of the better Aussie stuff. Anyway, the new album is phenomenal. Not sure what label they are releasing it on, or when to expect it, or whether they will even use solo the material I submitted, haha. But remember the name and check it out when it is released. The first EP can be found through Invictus Productions.
Thanks for the interview, and thanks for asking some good relevant questions, and apologies for taking up too much space with my long-winded answers.