How do you follow up the best metal album of 2009? By putting out one of the best Americana albums of 2010, of course.
"I went down to New Orleans when I was still at college, my buddy John had an aunt who lived there," says Erik Wunder. "We crashed at her place, went out and just discovered the city for a week. We ended up seeing Deadboy and the Elephantmen play in Lafayette, and after the show we ended up going back to this apartment party with the band and everybody else and having this big jam session with Dax Riggs and everybody. It was really inspiring to me because he was singing with the same energy as he was on the stage in front of everybody on the living room couch. So that really inspired me to write my own stuff and sing out my own songs with that kind of energy."
Best known as one half of the stalwart extreme metal band Cobalt, Wunder is on the phone from his home in Brooklyn to talk about his new musical project Man's Gin, and while the name of his new band will immediately remind Cobalt fans of the brilliant 2009 album Gin (yours truly's easy choice for best metal album of that year), musically it's about as severe a departure as a metal musician can make.
Of course, it's never uncommon to see musicians create side projects to explore different musical ideas separate from their current bands, and it certainly happens a lot in metal music, but while metal fans are used to seeing artists splinter off to form solo acts or supergroups, the music more often than not still fits under the metal umbrella. It's rare that a well known metal artist sets off to create new music that's far removed from that genre's extreme sounds, and even rarer that the project actually yields music that's actually exemplary. One of the more memorable disasters in recent years was Giles, an obnoxious, Fischerspooner-inspired electro-pop effort by Between the Buried and Me's Tommy Rogers that was a miserable listening experience for anyone unfortunate enough to hear it.
In 2010, however, we've seen a couple of non-metal side projects by metal musicians that have turned out to be resounding successes. One is Sabbath Assembly's Restored to One, Jex Thoth's frighteningly reverent tribute to the Process Church, and the other is Man's Gin's stark debut Smiling Dogs. While Cobalt is best known for being some of the most cathartic, intense music in American metal today, Man's Gin sees Wunder ditching the blastbeats and towering riffs in favor of an Americana-based sound inspired by the likes of Dax Riggs, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, and Will Oldham. "I just generally started to appreciate good singers in the last few years," Wunder explains. "Before, I was more obsessed with instruments. I still love drums and the interaction with guitars, and I'm working on new Cobalt stuff to do that, but I'm discovering and getting a lot of enjoyment out of writing lyrics and melodies and singing them out with a clean voice…It's always important to be exploring new kinds of music. I respect Slayer, Slayer's a great band, but I don't know if I would like to just be in Slayer for 30 years. I like having different outlets."
With a sparse, minimalist arrangement of acoustic guitar, bowed and plucked upright bass, and piano, the dusky songs on Smiling Dogs place more emphasis on Wunder's voice than he could ever have done in the metal milieu. Having shown signs of being a strong clean singer on the Cobalt standout "Dry Body", there's a richness in Wunder's vocals on this record that we've never heard before. With a deep baritone voice that fits neatly alongside such singers as Michael Gira and Nick Cave, he shows surprising range, from the falsetto of "Free", to the driving rockabilly of "Stone on My Head", to the murky, ominous tones of the title track.
This music has a lot more in common with alt-country greats 16 Horsepower than underground metal, but the genius of Smiling Dogs is that it can easily appeal to both audiences. "I think the music is unique in a way that we could for example open for a metal band like we did last weekend, or we could play with something like the Woven Hand or any of those kind of bands," he says. "A lot of my favorite bands have been that kind of way. I always loved Clutch over the years, and they've toured with blues bands but they've also opened for Cannibal Corpse. I think this can reach a wide audience, and whatever the setting is, I just think it's good music in general."
That's all well and good, but the fact is, an album like Smiling Dogs is a hard one to promote. Metal publications are leery of publishing features about a record as distanced from the genre as this one is, while the anti-metal bias of mainstream outlets might prevent them from covering the album based solely on Wunder's connection to extreme metal. Meanwhile, not all metal fans like folk and country music, let alone music without distorted guitars, and those who cannot stand the harsh sounds of metal might ignore Man's Gin simply because it's on the cutting edge label Profound Lore. So needless to say, Wunder is fully aware of the challenge that lies ahead. "I'm interested to see how this album's going to hit people," he admits. "First of all it's obviously not metal. I don't think any of the reviews are going to be able to say this isn't a metal album, because it's so obvious that not metal that you'll have to actually analyze the music. [laughs] I think it's got a lot of spirit to it. It's a pretty brave album also, I think, just because they're songs that I wrote and that I believe in, and I think other people should like too."
One surprising thing about the album is just how heavy a tone it has, even though it's largely an acoustic album. Colin Marston's production brings out the low-end tones exceptionally well, whether it's Wunder's resonant voice, Josh Lozano's deep, brooding upright bass, or Scott Edward's sporadic bursts of electric guitar. For Marston, who is best known as an extreme metal producer and member of Krallice and Disrhythmia, it was a severe departure from what he normally does, and it's no accident his mix is a lot punchier than something we might here from an established country producer. "I think it's cool to try to mix the most unexpected things together, it kind of comes up with the best results…[like] doing an acoustic-based Americana band with a death metal producer," Wunder laughs. "I really like that aspect. [Marston] really added a lot…I think guys who do metal recordings generally are more into music and creativity. If we went to some high end studio, you'd have some asshole telling you, 'Well this song should sound like this.' Fuck you, man, the songs are already written, let's record them the way we want them to sound. With a metal person, it's like, 'What do you sound like? Let's do it.'"
One thing fans of Cobalt will be interested to know is that much of Smiling Dogs and Cobalt's Gin were written at the same time. While the albums aren't exactly companion pieces, they are still thematically similar, with much of the man's Gin material written back in 2005 when the band was based in Colorado and comprised of Wunder and guitarist Clint Kamerzell. "We recorded the first batch of demos, The Rum Demos, about five years ago when I was still living in Fort Collins," explains Wunder. "The Cobalt thing was already going, I was writing Gin at the time, but I wanted to have a different kind of outlet, because Cobalt to me was always focused on the interaction of drums and guitar, expressing through the music itself. With the Man's Gin idea, it was expressing it through vocal melodies and the interaction with music, rather than the music itself. At the time I was playing a lot more acoustic guitar and switching up when I was listening, remembering when Soundgarden and Alice in Chains were cool. I was living with guys that were listening to a lot more bluesy kind of stuff, and it kind of just stemmed from there, just hanging out in the living room and jamming together and making that demo.
"The energy at first was definitely both of us," he adds. "In those days almost every night we'd be hanging out smoking joints, and just playing guitar in the living room all night. I wrote all the songs myself, and [Kamerzell] would just play with me. He would do lead guitar, he had this really cool Jerry Cantrell style of guitar playing. It added a lot to the music. When he moved away I was sitting there realizing, 'Well, I'm not just going to stop singing these songs because he left.' They deserve to be heard no matter what. It was more about the message than the people involved….I was just more dedicated to the craft, whereas everybody else was just having a good time. But I felt I should take that energy, put a message behind it and get it out to people."
And what about that name? What is it about this dude and gin? "Both my grandfathers like to sip on gin in the afternoon smoking fine cigars, that kind of thing, I like to imagine myself as an older guy, sipping on a nice gin, smoking a cigar, sitting on a nice char reading a leather-bound book," Wunder laughs. "It's a name of powerful individualism. I just wrote it down one night on a piece of paper when I was writing lyrics, and we thought it just sounded good. It rolls off the tongue. And I like having a band name with an apostrophe in it."
As for Cobalt, the follow-up to Gin is still in the writing stage, but if there's one thing fans should know, it's not to hold their breath. With vocalist Phil McSorley a sergeant in the US Army, there are very few windows of time that allow the duo to do any recording together. But although we likely won't get that fourth Cobalt record until 2012, the band is very much alive, and Wunder says there will even be live performances in the offing. "I have two full songs written for the new Cobalt album, and I have tapes and tapes and tapes of guitar riffs that will possibly new Cobalt songs, so it's going to be finding the space and time to put it all together," he says. "And we do have time because Phil's going back over to Iraq in October for a year, so we'll do the album after he gets back from that. But things are going good for him, he has a new baby coming pretty soon and he just got married a few months ago, so he's happy, he's got a new family going…We already have the album name, and we have song names written that don't have a song yet. The conceptual ideas are already there, so it's a patience factor. But it's something that's going to happen. Whether we're playing live this year or in three years doesn't make a difference, the music's already there and the people that care about the music will come out to the show regardless."
In the meantime, Man's Gin will take top priority. Wunder hopes to play CMJ in New York this fall, and fully expects to tour in support of Smiling Dogs, be it playing the metal circuit opening for bands, or something outside that scene. Regardless of genre, it's an album that deserves to be heard, and all Wunder asks from his potential audience is that they be as open-minded about music as he is. With a record this good, there'll be no complaints from either side.