When I was thinking of ways to start off this intro, it occurred to me that I haven’t really interviewed many straight-up doom bands. Blackened doom, death/doom, progressive doom – sure. However, I’ve not talked to very many bands that sound like Yatra – maybe Sixes, and that’s about it. As near as I can tell, though, Yatra haven’t done very many (if any) interviews, so it seems appropriate that the Baltimore-based trio would be my first interview of 2019.
Actually, Sixes isn’t a bad place to start when trying to describe Yatra’s debut full-length Death Ritual, which is out on January 4 from Grimoire Records (order Digital/LP/CD here). Both bands add liberal doses of drone to their doom, but in differing ratios: Sixes lean heavier on the drone (and some sludge), Yatra sounds like they have more Sabbath running through their veins. Also, instead of the drug-fueled misanthropy that fires Sixes’ music, there’s something darkly spiritual at the center of Yatra’s sound.
I chatted recently with Yatra vocalist/guitarist Dana Helmuth about some of the elements that influence the band, and the writing and recording of Death Ritual. Check it out below, along with a couple of tracks from the album.
Indy Metal Vault: So I like to do my research before writing questions, and I’ve not been able to find any interviews with Yatra online, so thanks for the interview. Let’s start by talking a bit about the band’s name. Yātrāis a Sanskrit word that means ‘journey’ or ‘procession,’ and is generally used in Hinduism and other Indian religions to refer to a holy pilgrimage. I’ve read elsewhere that you first encountered the word while on a motorcycling through the Himalayas. What made you decide to return to that word as the name for this band after Blood Raven went their separate ways?
Dana Helmuth: Hello, and thanks for the interest. We really appreciate it.
The word just really resonated to me when I first heard it. Yatra sounded ancient and primal beyond the context of its ‘definition’ that you mentioned. It sounded like some kind of ancient heathen ritual, so like a Viking, I decided to take it, bring it back from my journey, and use it for my own purposes, haha.
Of course, when I learned the word Yatra, I was sitting on a river bank smoking temple hashish and covered in the ashes from families burning the bodies of their loved ones and sliding them into the river to carry on with life, so it was a really fucking heavy and dark experience. I was in Kathmandu and there were sacrifices everywhere all the time, and crazy monkeys, cows, and buffalos in the streets, and medieval-era living conditions, but to step into the beautiful mountains and waterfalls that surrounded me was a very profound experience, and a glimpse into a time that would have been the same all over the world many years ago.
IMV: One of the reasons I find your choice of band name interesting is that you are a really fucking dark band, and the word Yātrā seems to have mostly positive connotations. How would you describe the journey or pilgrimage at the heart of Death Ritual? Is it more a journey for you as a songwriter/musician, or are you trying to lead your audience somewhere?
DH: Yes, I definitely see music as a journey. All journeys have some darkness. Ours has a lot of darkness, but I think some people can become illuminated from that darkness. To me, darkness is a positive thing. The sun rises from darkness. Maria’s mother was dying during the time I was writing this and while we were recording the album. Mortality can take you to some dark places.
IMV: The promotional materials for Death Ritual mention that the album was written over the course of about a month while you were living out in the woods, in a cabin with no plumbing. What kind of influence do you think that kind of solitude had on your songwriting? Could you have written those songs in a different setting, or was that particular place essential to your process?
DH: Well it was a small cottage on an overgrown property that had been a goat and poultry farm years before. I wish it was a cabin, haha. The back side of the property borders on thousands of acres of untouched government land, so there was lots of room for adventures into the woodlands and marshes. Great for soul-searching. Incredible night sky and stars, and roaring silence.
IMV: Yatra straddles the line between doom and drone more effectively than any band I’ve heard in quite some time. Usually bands that try to mix the two end up spilling over into sludge territory, but if I had to describe Yatra’s style in one sentence, I’d say you kind of sound like Sleep if they were in a really foul mood. A large part of that comes from how locked in you and Maria Geisbert are on guitar and bass respectively. In fact, even with headphones on I frequently have a difficult time separating your two instruments in the mix. Were you that musically simpatico from the start, or did that take a while to develop?
DH: We just really connect that way and work well together. We both listen well and pick up subtleties that work and sometimes don’t work, and we aren’t afraid to tell each other when we suck.
IMV: Lyrically, the album is an interesting mix of influences. The references to Norse mythology – like the Jotun in “Hour of the Dragon,” or Freya in “Four Directions” – are fairly easy to pick out, but you combine them with more unexpected sources. For example, “Hour of the Dragon” is also the name of a Conan short story by Robert E. Howard. There are also numerous references to crimson skies, serpents, bodies of water, and smoke/fire. Going back to the idea of a pilgrimage, is there any kind of spiritual aspect to the lyrics? There are certainly darker aspects to some of the pagan and heathen religions.
DH: Good job! You got it very well. All those things are very non-Christian. I’m a big fan of Howard, of course…but yes, as far as my writing goes, it is an allegorical expression of those things I touched on earlier. Sacrifices and offerings and snakes and oceans are all very mystical and symbolic images that portray very specific things to the listener when submerged in heavy riffs.
IMV: Even though I’ve been following and writing about Grimoire Records since at least as far back as the Myopic/Torrid Husk split, you’re the first band I’ve had the chance to talk to that’s worked with the label. They’ve had a unique approach right from the start in that they’re a hybrid studio/label and record, mix, and master all of the albums they release. How did you end up hooking up with them? What was the recording process like – did the fact that they also own the label make it feel any different from other studio experiences you may have had?
DH: We had heard some of Noel’s previous recordings and were interested in working with him. We made a shitty handheld recording in our rehearsal room in the cottage I mentioned above and sent it to him. He was enthusiastic and we set up recording dates. He has a sort of magic we like. Noel was very easy for us to work with because he’s a real dude. I have recorded in previous bands and also solo for many things, even including background guitar work for an HBO documentary, so I had a fair amount of experience to compare it with. He’s got his sound floating close to his fingertips at all times.
IMV: I always like asking bands about their gear, and since Yatra uses such unique tones I’m particularly curious about your setup. What did your studio rigs look like – do you tend to use vintage/analog gear? Are they the same setups you use when you play live, or did you augment your setups with Grimoire’s studio gear?
DH: I have an old Orange OR-120 head that I primarily use. It sounds great. Big Crunch in Baltimore has done some work for me to keep it better than ever. I use two different 4×12 cabs live, with different specific speakers in each one. Noel had some great stuff in studio that I also used for some things, like a Damnation Audio ‘Ugly Twin’ all-analog octave/boost/fuzz pedal, but most of it is my Dunable Yeti guitar into a 1983 Green Box, then into some other things that are either very Vermin-esque or like this German box I have called a Fuzzo that has all the darkness and light in one little footstep. I’m a total gearhead, and have been since I was like 12.
IMV: Aki Pitkänen’s cover for Death Ritual is really striking. I actually thought it was some sort of mythical creature at first, until I noticed the human hands. I saw a couple of pieces with that same figure on his Instagram page – did you commission the artwork from him specifically for the album, or was it something you saw elsewhere and thought ‘that’s it – that’s the cover’?
DH: We had seen his work and been following his Instagram for some time and are big fans of his stuff. I am also an artist and a tattoo artist, so I do most of our artwork for everything. However, for the cover I really wanted something done in a more photographic style and not have it at all be mine. I wanted to be able to enjoy my new album as a fan, and not end up criticizing my own artwork in addition to my own music. I also wanted to support an artist that I felt represented my album, and I feel that his work is perfect for this record.
IMV: At the moment, most of your live dates for the first few months of 2019 are in and around Baltimore, with the exception of SXSW in March. Any plans to tour a bit more extensively at any point?
DH: We play in NYC almost as often as in Baltimore. Where we live is very rural and the local seaside towns don’t really support original live music, so we have to travel at least three hours for every show we play. I feel like our live show is the best way to experience us and our music, so we travel a lot to play. We are also really into live performance and we really feed from that energy. I think we have played a show at least once a week for the past four months. Right now we are working with Hi-Wattage Booking to plan a two-week tour in March around our SXSW show on March 14. We also will be touring again in June, and are eager to be on the road as much as possible from there.
IMV: Thanks again for being willing to answer a few questions. I like to leave the final word to the artists – anything else you want to add?
DH: Thanks again for the conversation and opportunity! We are looking forward to playing for, connecting with, and crushing as many mortals as possible!! We are coming for you!