Signal Fills the Void

An Interview with Mike Gallagher of Isis

by Cosmo Lee


There’s a new cult of Isis now. Instead of Egyptian temples, the gathering places are clubs and theaters, where nightly the five members of Isis blast forth electric odes to the Sabbathian gods. Hearing Isis is not only a spiritual event, but also a physical one. With two and sometimes three detuned guitars roaring through massive distortion, Isis shows are floor-shakingly, teeth-rattlingly loud. Many bands play loudly, but few bathe the listener in waves of sound like Isis. Perhaps in the interest of preserving its fan base, the band sells its own branded earplugs at shows. Two dollars will buy much more than earplugs, though; the expense is a ticket to a communal, incredibly moving experience.

Isis began as a sonic experiment in Boston in 1997. On initial outings, the band unleashed earthy, pulverizing riffs influenced by Neurosis, Godflesh, the Melvins, and other purveyors of drone metal. On 2000’s Celestial, the band’s sound began opening up with melody and ambience; the following SGNL>05 EP featured a remix by Godflesh mastermind Justin Broadrick, who, too, was opening up his sound with his Jesu project. The world of drone metal is small; Jesu’s debut album is out on Isis singer/guitarist Aaron Turner’s label Hydra Head, which is the imprint of indie drone metal darling Pelican. Isis continued evolving on 2002’s Oceanic, which explored female vocals and themes of drowning, and 2004’s Panopticon, a stunning sonic treatise on surveillance and observation. The band still carves out deep, rumbling grooves, but dark melodies and slowly spiraling chord progressions now leaven the heaviness. Having been mainstays of Boston’s music scene, Isis moved to Los Angeles in 2003 for business reasons. In between writing for Isis’s next album and preparing for its current tour, guitarist Mike Gallagher, under the name MGR, has released Nova Lux, a gorgeously ambient album created with guitars and effects pedals. After an intense show in San Francisco that featured a rare Isis moshpit (to get an idea how strange that is, imagine slam dancing to Black Sabbath), PopMatters caught up with Gallagher for some post-gig analysis.

I saw you guys in San Francisco at the kickoff of your tour. How did you feel that show went?
I felt it went really well. San Francisco has always been very friendly to us and we all love not only playing that city but [also] visiting it, so it was very rewarding to be there again. We hadn’t been there since two Novembers ago, so it was nice to get back. My only regret, however, was that that was the first show of the tour, and that you usually work out the kinks the first two, maybe three nights. We were scrambling a bit to hold it together all night, but I think it came off pretty well. Everybody seemed satisfied with it.

What kinks do you think still need to be worked out?
We haven’t played shows since July, basically, so we’re a little bit out of shape. We’ve just been in our practice space writing new material, so taking not only our old songs but [also] the new songs into a live event was a little bit challenging—you know, just getting back into that way of looking at the songs.

A moshpit actually formed during the set. Is this unusual for you guys?
That is a very unusual occurrence. Maybe in somewhere like Buffalo, where people that go to shows are more prone to express themselves that way—I can see it in that context. Not only does it not happen often for us, but in a city like San Francisco, I was even more surprised to see such an event happening.

How has the relocation to Los Angeles from Boston worked out for the band?
Pretty well. One of the guys lives in Queens, NY, with his wife, so he has to travel back and forth to make sure he’s there enough to write material with us and prepare for shows. He wasn’t really loving LA, so he got out, but he might actually move back because it’s obviously impacting on the wallet as well as everything else. I kind of float around whenever the band is not busy. I go back to the East Coast to hang out with friends and work on stuff out there. I was born and bred on the East Coast; I’m a little more comfortable there. But I do enjoy LA. It’s been good for the band. The weather’s very nice, of course.

Do you think the environment affects the band’s sound?
I feel like the sound would evolve no matter what. So, yes, I think that is true. How living in Los Angeles has affected Isis’s sound, I really could not tell you. To me, it just seems like we’re doing what we would do basically anywhere—try to challenge ourselves and come up with the best material we can. It’s difficult for me to identify exactly how a city like Los Angeles would affect our sound. It’s not like we’re writing pop songs or pop-punk songs.

Isis has made a point of being anti-image. Has living in Los Angeles changed this?
No, not all. We all go out and we all have friends there, but we keep to a certain amount of places that are accessible for us. Not to sound snobby at all—Los Angeles has a lot to offer—but I can probably count the places that I feel very comfortable at on one hand. Generally, I stick to a certain routine there. [Those places] are bars and restaurants you could find in any cool city in the country, basically.

The vocals on Isis albums are often mixed way back. What’s the thinking behind this?
To try to have it be more of an instrument, rather than something that’s upfront. We all like [vocals] to be audible, but there’s that certain point when there’s a lot going on, where we want every instrument, including vocals, to have room to develop. So [the vocals] are a part of the song, and not really meant to fit on top of the song.

When dealing with record labels, have you ever been told, “We wish your vocals were mixed higher”?
No, we’ve been fortunate enough to be dealing with people that let us do whatever we want. From the beginning, it’s been our call all along. So far the labels have been happy with the results.

On the Oceanic Remixes [a 2004 compilation of artists remixing songs from the album], was it difficult to cede control of your material to others?
It was actually not difficult; it was kind of exciting. What started that whole idea was [that] Justin Broadrick remixed one of our songs from Celestial on the SGNL>05 EP. We got really excited about someone getting their hands dirty in one of our songs and reinterpreting it entirely, so it sounded almost 100% different. It was very exciting to all of us to have that happen, so we got the idea to do a whole record on it. It’s not really our record—[that was] at least my thinking going into it. I was more than happy to let whomever was working on it work to their full capacity and do whatever the hell they wanted.

How is writing for the new album coming along?
Writing is going very well. We have six songs pretty much totally done, and we are now currently working on a seventh, which we’ll chip away at in between our West and East Coast shows. We’re all very, very excited about the material. We’ve been fortunate enough to be able to demo this stuff in our practice space, so we can bring it home and digest it more thoroughly than we have in the past. That’s been very rewarding, because it’s different hearing it in your stereo at home and actually playing the songs in practice. You have time to think about what’s working and what’s not working. We’ve had time to be able to be a little more analytical about it and more involved in it, basically.

Will the new album have a central theme like your previous ones?
Yes, it will. But it’s not totally fixed up yet, so I can’t really say.

What piece of musical equipment could you not live without?
There’s only one?

I guess it would have to be the guitar, number two being the computer so I can manipulate the sounds properly.

Recently you came out with your MGR solo project. It’s unclear from the liner notes how you actually made the sounds on the album. Can you shed some insight into that?
Basically everything you hear on that CD, with the exception of bass tones, is all guitar, with little or no computer processing. I did most of it with effects pedals and trying out different sounds to get different types of loops or washes or whatever I was in the mood to tackle that day. So, basically it’s about 95% guitar.

Panopticon dealt with themes of surveillance, but it’s been said that Isis is not a political band. Given the recent wiretapping issue, has the band reconsidered this?
Officially, no, we’re not a political band. We don’t really sing about politics. I think politics affect what we come up with in the end, so it’s hard to escape entirely. The official stance is [that] we’re not a political band, but talk to any of us individually, and we’ll probably bend your ear pretty hard about how we feel about certain issues.

If, God forbid, one day you went deaf, what would you do?
I’d have to start working more with bass tones, so I could feel them, how the different notes relate to each other.

So you would continue with music somehow?
I would attempt to, yes.

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