Describing 2020 as a rough year for the world is a significant understatement. But the amount and quality of extreme music released during the peak of the Covid pandemic cannot be understated. From the cloisters of the pandemic emerged a new act formed by veterans of the extreme doom scene. Led by Kris Clayton (Esoteric, Camel of Doom), Self Hypnosis rose through the darkness. Joining him is fellow Esoteric bandmate Greg Chandler, and the two together unleashed an epic performance with their debut record, Contagion of Despair.
Now, roughly one year after the release of this monstrous 80-minute opus, we catch up in a conversation with Kris discussing the many aspects of Self Hypnosis. We get into his past experiences and how he was brought into the extreme metal scene, the common threads that run through his different projects, and the uniqueness of Self Hypnosis. Everything surrounding the project’s creative process – their ingenious recording techniques, a vast amount of influences from progressive rock to industrial and hip-hop – is detailed. So if you needed an excuse for listening to one of 2020’s most brutal offerings, well, here you have it.
You are quite well known in the extreme metal scene, but please give our readers an overview of how you first got into this style of music.
I’ve always been into heavy music since before I can remember as it played all the time in my house growing up. I started making my music at around 12 and started my first band around that time, with Camel of Doom following quickly after that. It wasn’t an extreme band at all at that time; we were lo-fi stoner/doom.
I was introduced to extreme doom metal as a style by the guys from Imindain. I met them at a Camel of Doom gig. I joined Imindain in late 2004 and appeared on their demo and debut album, which was my first extreme doom release. Greg [Chandler of Esoteric, and currently a member of Self Hypnosis] mixed and mastered And the Living Shall Envy the Dead [Imindain’s 2007 debut], so that was how I met him properly. I had briefly met him at some gigs before that.
I joined Esoteric in 2007 after Steve [Peters, guitarist of Esoteric 1994-2007] left. I was with them for a few years before going back to Camel of Doom and taking that in a more extreme direction for a while. After that, Self Hypnosis came to be. Shortly after that, I rejoined Esoteric.
There’s always a psychedelic vein that runs through your projects. What is it about this type of sound that you find so fascinating?
Well, precisely because it is sonically interesting. There’s always movement in the sound, whilst a riff might repeat, but the audio FX vary. I listen to basically all genres of music, and in most, there are artists that tend towards the psychedelic, and those are always the ones that I most enjoy.
I like anything as long as it’s trippy. Of course, it’s fairly open knowledge that we enjoy psychedelic and other music-enhancing drugs, too, and that has something to do with it. But this is the music I listen to when I’m sober too and it always has the same effect.
Please tell us about the origins of Self Hypnosis.
Well, I’d already been writing the next album for Camel of Doom alongside the finding-a-label-and-getting-it-released cycle for the Terrestrial in 2016. I had got together a full line-up, and we were playing live again, but it just kind of imploded for various reasons.
After that, I got really depressed and didn’t want to make music for quite a while. I had a year, year and a half, of not knowing what to do. And I’ve always had these ideas that I’d like to do something where I incorporate all of my influences rather than to do a band that’s just one genre. It just took a long time thinking about what to do. I talked to a few people about possibly collaborating, but nothing went anywhere. Then at some point, I got the idea that I wanted to make it brutal, from the point of view of the drums sounding pummelling, and it was like, “I think I’m just going to go with a super-heavy drum machine sound now.” I’m a big Godflesh fan, so the drums and bass are a total Godflesh grind behind it all.
I had some songs that were completely unrelated, like ‘Divided’. I’d written it just because I was listening to loads of Yes. I composed and recorded the song in the style of Yes, so it didn’t have any heavy stuff at all, just a ’70s kind of production. I thought, “Why don’t I just bring this in as well?” Because it had really interesting prog-rock drums all over the place, it wasn’t going to work with the drum machine. So I got the idea to record it in a ’70s prog record style, with a proper drummer, and then treat it as though I’m sampling a prog-rock record and make it sound huge.
That was one-half of the sound I wanted. The other aspect was that I wanted to work with top musicians who were also my kind of people, as there was a breakdown with Camel of Doom. First off, I wanted Greg to sing on this stuff, but I didn’t know if he would be up for it, so it took forever to ask him (this was running concurrently with solving the drums, of course). But when I finally did, he was up for it. Not only are his vocals some of the best in the extreme metal scene, but he and I have been very close friends for at least 15 years now.
For the same reasons, I got Tom Vallely [also drummer of Omega Centauri, ex-Lychgate] on board for the recording of the album to handle the live drums. He had done the drums on the final Camel of Doom album and is a great guy. At the time, we just got him as a session player, but he is now a full-time member of the band.
You and Greg have worked together on several projects, from Esoteric and Lychgate to Camel of Doom. What’s different about Self Hypnosis?
The most obvious point of differentiation is having electronic drums as the main drum sound, with live drums being used as a lead instrument in a way now. We’ve also put much more emphasis on both the extreme and progressive elements of the later Camel of Doom records whilst practically eradicating the stoner/doom influence. We’re also generally going for a more in-your-face, aggressive sound, with fury being the main drive. The lyrics are and will remain angry nuggets of satire and frustration. We try and do everything we can sonically to back that up with real force – the electronic drums and live drums in tandem being a big part of that and the overall drum/bass/rhythm guitar sound.
Can you detail a bit how the creative process works for Self Hypnosis?
For the first album, I’d already written all the music and lyrics, the only real area of collaboration was arranging the vocals, which we did together in the studio. We worked quite a bit on how we split up the vocal parts. Some things sounded better with Greg, some things with me, and then quite a lot sounded really nice with both of us at once. Our new bass player is a singer too, so maybe from now on, we can have a triple attack. I like that idea; it adds to the intensity even more – similar to Neurosis in the ’90s. For the second album, I’ve again done all the writing, but now we have a full line-up and we will work on the songs together in rehearsal, which will be more collaborative. Maybe from here on, we can actually do some writing in rehearsal too.
You and Greg are also both members of Esoteric. How do you separate the two bands creatively when working on new ideas?
Well, generally, I will set out to write a song with a band in mind. In Self Hypnosis, we are playing seven-string guitars almost an octave down from standard tuning, so if I want to write a Self Hypnosis song, I will be playing that guitar. There can be a little cross-pollination, though. There are a few bits on the album that are ideas I originally had for Esoteric back in 2007-2009 that didn’t get used before I left. Generally, Self Hypnosis has more of a groove to it, more riff-based compositions compared with the more classical style often used in Esoteric.
You started working on a new Camel of Doom record, but at some point, you realized that the material was divergent for Camel of Doom. What do you think triggered that?
Well, it had been an uphill struggle to get anyone to take Camel of Doom seriously over the last few years of the band, due mostly to the name. What fitted the band I’d started as a kid didn’t fit the serious tone of the music and lyrics anymore. I also saw creating a new band as a way to start fresh and bring in more disparate elements. Camel of Doom had always changed from album to album, but it was always within stoner/doom territory. Self Hypnosis doesn’t really fit into that style at all, other than continuing to be psychedelic as you’ve mentioned. The makeup of the first album is four songs written for Camel of Doom, albeit pretty out there one, and three that I had lying around for years that were written without any project in mind that I just adapted to fit. So, the defining moment in the process was when I tweaked these seven songs to have a uniform style in terms of how they were produced.
The album title was inspired by a radio show that discussed “contagion of hope”. What made you think about hope’s antithesis, despair?
Yeah, it was just some random five-minute snippet of radio I heard in the car. They were talking about positive news going viral and creating this “contagion of hope”. For me, this did not represent my experience of the media at all. The media is more interested in the opposite, spreading negativity and despair. The album is all about that, citing various pieces of media-created misery, division, mob justice, authoritarian behaviors, and hypocrisy. It wasn’t hard to come up with lyrics with this topic to inspire me, as I didn’t have to think too hard about it.
During recording, can you explain the technique of wiring up the whole building to create spacious, expansive recording spaces?
Well, we wanted to create larger natural reverb on the drum sounds. We had microphones at various remote locations in the studio, letting the sound echo around before being picked up. We also went for the ‘When the Levee Breaks” approach by recording some of the drums in the entrance to the studio. It’s got like a big stone lobby with a staircase, and for ‘Omission’ we set the drums up there. We had the close mics on the drums, but then an additional microphone was placed way up at the top of the stairwell and other mics way back in the control room. So, we were getting the sound of it echoing around the whole building.
You also digitized human drums to create an ’80s hip-hop-inspired groove in the mix. What was the influence on this?
Yeah, ’80s hip-hop (N.W.A, Public Enemy), ’90s UK big beat (The Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers), and trip-hop (Portishead, later The Third and the Mortal). That’s just all stuff I really love, and I love sampled breakbeats. Now, breakbeats like that wouldn’t suit our style of music, but we had the idea of recording our own beats with retro setups and then sampling them, which is something Portishead used to do. So, for example, “Divided” started originally as a 1970s prog-rock song – it was trying to sound like Yes at their most extravagant – so we set up an authentic ’70s kit with retro mics and recorded Yes style drums over the top of the song.
We then did the usual processing that one would hear in those records, added the ever-present electronic drums to accent the ‘loop’, and there you have it. Again, going back to the previous answer, for the post-rock section of “Omission” we recorded out in the entrance/stairwell. All the ‘lead drums’ parts on the album are pretty unique in terms of recording setup, with different drum kits, locations, and mics giving us a variety of sounds.
Given how adventurous an inclusion this is, do you think there’s any type of sound you would not experiment with?
I’m happy to experiment with anything, but it’ll only get included in the band if it enhances the feel we are going for. Sometimes you don’t know till you try.
How was the process of recording Contagion of Despair during the lockdown?
Well, the album was recorded throughout 2018 and was finished in February 2019. We then spent a while getting artwork and photos done and signed to Svart in November 2019. So the only real impact of COVID was pushing the release date back a little from late spring to late summer of 2020. If anything, it has given us time to get into shape as a live band.
Since both of you are sound engineers, do you believe that this discipline has helped you in crafting sounds and in what way?
Yeah, of course, that is the case – although the opposite is also true, as our interest in sound engineering in the first place comes from wanting to make these sounds. Greg was making the most insane vocal effects I’ve heard to this day back in 1994 before he ever took up audio engineering as a professional. I’m not a pro sound engineer, although I did study this discipline at university. I’ve been using effects myself for 20 years now since the first Camel of Doom recordings, and I’m pretty confident in doing crazy things now. Generally, in terms of crafting sounds, the whole pounding rhythm section with the electronic drums, bass, and rhythm guitar was purposely crafted to be just one big wall of power, underlying all the trippiness at all times.
So, what is the current state of Self Hypnosis, and are there any updates on a follow-up to Contagion of Despair?
Well, even before the album was released, I’d already written music for the second Self Hypnosis album. It’s a little more cohesive due to all being written with one thing in mind. The progressive elements have been increased, and there is a King Crimson influence seeping in. We’ll also work closely on integrating the live and programmed drums to do some really interesting effects, which is exciting. Just from developing the songs together now that we have a full line-up, we should be able to experiment further. Lyrically, I am angrier than ever because everything that I was reacting to on the last album has just got worse in the intervening years.
I believe that although initially, Self Hypnosis was mainly a studio band, this has now changed.
It was always at the back of our minds, but pretty far back until the album was released. Once the album was done, we just wanted to start playing live to reach more people, and because playing shows is fucking fun! We now have a full line-up, and we will be performing live from the start of 2022 onwards.