Big Sounds, Big Ideas: Funeral Sutra's New Album

Some bands play with a frequency that amazes me, and some play with a frequency that frustrates me. On the one side you've got bands like Coffins and Self Deconstruction who will play, at a conservative estimate, about fifty-seven shows every month. GUEVNNA plays so often that I'm beginning to think their performances are accidental, like the members are all suffering from some peculiar form of somnambulism. I legit think they wake up many mornings and don't know where their pajamas went or why they're dressed for rocking out. Then we have bands like Funeral Sutra, and it's only a small exaggeration to say that some comets appear more frequently than Funeral Sutra.

Which is a shame, because they put on a dynamite show. I can count on one hand all the black metal bands I really like but Funeral Sutra never disappoints. Their sound isn't just enormous and chaotic and awe-full, it has a way of pulling you in despite the sheer enormity of what you're witnessing. Their sound is the kind of sound that can't be faithfully described with a Macbook's internal speaker, or possibly any speakers at all. It immediately feels too contained, like it's been caught and bound and brought to you in chains.

As such, when I heard they had a new album coming out I was immediately intrigued. Tom Giles, host of the Kaala Radio podcast, managed to get one of the new tracks for episode 3 and it was absolutely worth the wait. And since Blood Rite XII is celebrating the release of this album I decided to reach out to their bassist and vocalist Paul to ask some questions about "Grace", about impermanence and being, about coming to grips with the reality that we're all walking skin-sacs full of goo running from death.

I remember getting a copy of your first album, “Meditations”, and upon opening it a little piece of incense fell out. For an entire day my apartment had the scent of eastern mysticism instead of the usual odor of greasy alcohol sweat and rank animal fear. Can vinyl purchasers expect any other such treats when they receive their record?

Unfortunately not (we learned that incense tends to break when included in an album, and don't want to give people records covered in dust, however sweet-smelling!). We will however include a full digital download for people who buy the album, and it is worth acquiring even if only for the cover artwork, which was kindly done for us by the great traditional Japanese tattooist Asakusa Horicho II....

We’ve been told the album is being released on vinyl and only on vinyl. You’ve all been in Japan long enough to know the locals love their CDs, so what’s your angle here? What can those of us without a record player do to hear it? Perhaps there’s a digital version we could buy online somewhere, perhaps with a handy link we can include right here?

J (Funeral Sutra guitarist) and I debated intensively about this. In the end, after being involved in underground music in various countries and bands for 20 years each, our "commercial aspirations" in terms of selling lots of albums ourselves without a label are basically zero. So we worried less about what would sell, and more about what we would be proud of having created when we look back on this 20 years from now. Rightly or wrongly, we felt that vinyl was the only appropriate vehicle for us to release the album ourselves. At this time we do not intend to do a digital-only release. We plan to make a digital version available (only) to those who purchase the vinyl, so at least people without a record player can hear the music (and acquire a beautiful visual representation thereof) if they acquire the vinyl. It may be apocryphal, but I always loved the story about Weakling doing a very limited number of releases and burying them etc. We are not elitist in any way, but also feel that music does not need to be highly accessible to everyone at a tap of their phone. This is not manufacturing scarcity, but rather simply asking people who appreciate what we do to properly reflect such appreciation in their actions.

We had a chance to hear “Grace” during your appearance on Kaala Radio, and my first thought was “it doesn’t sound as much like their live shows as Meditations did, but it still somehow feels much more like being at one of their performances”. That’s a neat trick to pull off. What sort of changes did you make in terms of recording and production this time around, especially in regard to the vocals? I think that’s where I’m hearing biggest difference on “Grace”.

Vocally, I've fundamentally changed how I use my voice, to get a much different sound than I was able to do on Meditations. When we started the band, I was a lousy vocalist to be honest, and we seriously considered replacing me with someone else. In the end, I'm pretty happy with how it turned out - my favorite metal vocalists are Charlie Fell and Mortuus, and while I'm only about 10% of where they're at, they have definitely inspired me to keep improving. More broadly, we used a different studio (Voidlab) and the engineer (Inari san) really *gets* metal and was fantastic to work with. So, we were able to move very quickly into the soundspace that we had envisioned. Another big change to the recording process is that this time round we focused on recording one song at a time, rather than the normal tracking process of sequentially doing all the drum tracks, then all the guitars and then vox tracks. This gave us a lot more time to really focus on each song, and we could listen to each song in its entirety which gave greater momentum and sense of progress. We also changed up some gear, guitars flipped to 7-strings (extra bass note) etc.

Speaking of “Grace”, the title makes me wonder if there will be a similar naming schema on the new album. Meditations had four tracks -- “Emptiness Sutra”, “Hope Sutra”, “Time Sutra”, and “Death Sutra”. To my knowledge there’s no such thing as a “Grace Sutra”, but it’s still a concept closely connected with if not religion, then certainly mysticism. I grew up in the Church and I heard that word used a lot (strangely, nobody ever had a very satisfying definition). In the New Testament, for instance, the Greek word χαρις (charis) is used almost 200 times to describe both physical grace as well as gratitude (which is in line with gratus, the latin root of the English word “grace”), but also a third something, much harder to define, that seemed to belong in the same group as “Hope” and “Time” and “Emptiness”. Anyway, since this is Japan, would you translate “grace” as 恩恵、雅致、品、or 恵み?Or something else?

Great question. Yes, we have a somewhat similar naming convention on the album, minus the specific sutra references. Lyrically, all of the songs continue to dwell on the same themes as Meditations, which are coming to grips with the inherent impermanence of our existence; grappling with the plagues of desire and ego; and facing extinction of the simultaneously existent (ie. the corporeal body existing at a point in time and space) and non-existent (ie. the illusion of an independent object) self with acceptance. This last point was the intended meaning of the song title "Grace" - basically, as is paraphrased in the song lyrics based on some writings of my favorite zen author Deshimaru Taisen, it is to be able to step into your coffin with open eyes, without suffering, with equanimity, knowing that there is nothing left for you.

You guys have any new merch to go with this new album?

Sadly, not at this time. A lot of time and effort went into the music and the vinyl and we were pretty worn out in many ways.... Playing the music itself is strangely energizing and exhausting at the same time, and with organizing the vinyl production ourselves, we just had nothing more emotionally or in terms of time to put in. May do some shirts etc. as schedules open up and we plan for some shows in 2017.

If any unfortunate fans miss your show on the 24th, where and when can they see you next? Do you have plans for another tour in the coming year?

Nothing booked yet. We have been very focused on writing and recording for the past year and basically dropped out of circulation. We are very much looking forward to getting back on stage as much as possible in the coming year, including hopefully some tours to Taiwan, China, and further afield if the stars align.

This question is for Paul. The other day Tom Giles (Kaala Radio host) said the following: “One time Paul got mad and threw a baseball so hard that it killed a dog”. He said it was “absolutely a true story”, and that it was “completely amazing”. My question: did that dog deserve to die?

Tom got mixed up a bit, but I won't blame him as it was a heavy combini wine night for him and he was a bit cross-eyed when it all went down. To be clear, it wasn't a baseball, it was an iron hammer. And it wasn't a dog, it was a frost demon. So yeah, he deserved to die. I'd never throw something at a dog, unless it was attacking my French bulldog!