Banner Photo: Jorge Pacheco
Back in December, I had the opportunity to meet with Retch's drummer, Thom, at Aldgate in Shibuya. He was kind enough to give me an interview over dinner and beers about Retch's history, his own experiences living in Japan, and their upcoming (now released) full length Anathema released on Obliteration Records.
Since it's release, Anathema has received very favorable reviews and the Black/Death Metal duo have been performing regularly around Tokyo. More notably, they just completed a tour of Taiwan with Sendai's Funeral Doom outfit Begrabnis. And it's no wonder, their debut full length is a mature offering that is no doubt the product of two talented musicians who feel at home in the rehearsal studio together. Though their sound has changed from the former releases due to lineup changes (and reduction), Anathema sounds more raw and pared down. You can appreciate every riff and note just a bit more. Every blast and snare is notable and resounding. With Thom and Tom (guitarist) both sharing vocal duties, there is a variety in presentation that fits squarely in the atmosphere they've established. Though less chaotic than the Mass Homocide EP, Retch's latest plants both feet firmly in the grave.
So Thom, You've been living in Japan for quite a long time now, haven't you?
It's going on 8 years in a month. Which is totally unbelievable to me.
And did you always live in Tokyo or did you live elsewhere before?
Always Tokyo. And when I moved here I decided I definitely wanted to live in Tokyo. I had visited a couple times before.
Why did you move to Japan of all places?
I'm getting a little bit better at telling that story. So I moved here in the beginning of 2010, and I decided a year before moving that I would move so I saved up money for a year. I'd been playing in a couple bands in New York. They're not really of note to anyone outside of NYC, but they were Amputee and Haunted Castle. Those guys are still active in other projects. One of the reasons that made me feel OK to leave was that although it was super fun to play, I didn't feel the NYC scene was going anywhere fast. Once I got here I started playing with bands right away and I felt some momentum. I played in two Japanese bands before I started playing in Darkcorpse. That band was moving so fast and right after I joined we were playing with notable bands really quickly like Abigail and Anatomia and I just felt the members of that band had their shit together, whereas in New York I was always struggling to make something happen. That's the hardest thing about being in bands, it's not so much the finding members and playing good stuff. I think the hardest thing to find is people who can make shit happen.
So did you come here initially on a tourist visa then transfer over?
Yeah, I just came here. I had saved a bunch of money and hoped it would work. And it did by the skin of my teeth. But I already had some Japanese friends here. So I went to a party and a guy I met said "oh, you play drums! I’ve got somebody who needs a drummer, I'll call them right now." [So] they did, the guys came over and I met them. I totally couldn't speak Japanese at the time. And they were like "Let's try it anyways. What do you like?" I said "I like Black Metal and Death Metal and stuff. What do you like?" They said they liked Hardcore. So I was like OK, I like some of that too. They said “Teach us Black Metal!” And I said “Ok, I'll give you a crash course.”
So how long was it between here and starting Darkcorpse?
For the first couple years I spent about a year each in two bands. And then I got a message from the leader of Darkcorpse, Kraahl. We had stage names. All the original members of Darkcorpse were Navy guys. A lot of people try to have Black Metal names to be tough or whatever, but they actually had to conceal their identities. In any case, I got a message from him saying they wanted to shift around members. They actually had a drummer but they wanted to put him on bass. Actually, for a minute he was on second guitar, but then we kicked out the bassist in the recording studio. I joined for the second demo, and that bassist couldn't play his lines at all. So one of the other guys grabbed [the bass] and was like "give me that" and he just laid down the bass line. So that guy got kicked out because he couldn't make it through the demo which was only like three songs. At that point we shifted members. And because these guys are Navy, one by one they left back to the States as they finished their time in the Navy. But they always considered me an honorary original member. I got pretty close with those guys over the years. It was a really awesome time. Writing a lot of music, playing good, raw Black Metal.
So Mark used to be in the Navy, wasn't he? He was originally in Retch right?
Yeah he was the original singer. The fact that he was in the Navy is kind of coincidental. When Darkcorpse eventually fell apart, we just - Matt and Tom and I - wanted to continue. We saw no reason to stop playing music. Obviously without the founding member Kraahl, we had to move onto a new project (which became Retch). Somehow Mark seemed like the most logical choice and he was down for it. We knew he had his own thing with Visual Justice making documentaries and such. We were aware of his efforts in the scene, which we thought would be good for everyone involved. So we asked him to join. Technically he was still in another band but they were, for all intents and purposes, defunct anyways. So he joined and stayed in the band for a couple a years.
So around this time the members of Retch had a kind of transition. What year was that?
Oh man, 2014. We started in January 2014.
The members I knew (from before) were Mark on vocals, you on drums, Tom Giles on guitar, and Matt on Bass.
Nope, other way around on strings. Tom was originally the bassist. In Darkcorpse he was the bassist and Matt was the guitarist, so they kept those positions. Actually, this is an interesting detail in the whole thing. Tom spent a good year or two in Darkcorpse, but he was always a bit hands off in the writing process. He didn't contribute whole songs or anything. He would of course put in his two cents - we would all write songs together - but Tom wouldn't actually bring in the riffs. This is mostly because originally a lot of the songs were written by Kraahl and a couple by the other guys. Later on, Matt stepped in and starting writing stuff. You can kind of hear it on the third demo, and with Matt's sound it changed a bit. So from there, when Darkcorpse broke up, we took what was unrecorded and they became Retch songs (partly because we just wanted to be able to play live right away). A few of the very early Retch songs were also played live as Darkcorpse songs. But from this point, Tom started contributing a lot of the music. About a year or more into Retch, Matt decided to leave Japan. So at that point it really started to be Tom bringing in all the riffs and song ideas. Occasionally, just Tom and I would jam and he would have a riff and we'd just work it out and see what happens. That's a part of our process too. So that's kind of a big change - I'm sure people notice that the song writing style of Tom and Matt are different than Kraahl.
After Matt left, Aaron took over on bass, right?
Yeah, Tom moved to guitar and then Aaron took over on bass.
Retch had one release that was Mass Homicide right?
Yeah, we released that EP a couple years ago. And then actually about one year ago we had another EP which we recorded. We did it all ourselves and we were set to release it, and then Mark announced he would be leaving the band. We were like, "Oh shit". We were just ready to get it released. But four months after recording it, he said, "I'm out." Oddly enough I've seen very little from him at all, even online. After the break he said, "Let's still be friends," but I didn't hear from him. I haven't been able to talk to him about it, but I think whatever his decision was, he had a big shift in his lifestyle.
So we were talking about the new transition from 4-piece to a 2-piece.
So Mark left, then Aaron fell like a domino. Initially we tried to replace those guys in some way. Mind you, it's never been a matter of wanting to be a foreigner band or anything like that. It was never a conscious decision for either band. It just kind of worked out that way. When I stopped playing in Japanese bands I initially thought it was related to some issues to do with the cultural differences, then years later I started to understand that it wasn't really about that at all. I think it had more to do with the guys I was playing with. We didn't share much of the same tastes in music. Their favorite bands and the stuff that really got them was pretty different from what I'm into. And with Darkcorpse and Retch, there’s been so many listening sessions just hanging out at each others’ house and just throwing down records. You know, exchanging our opinions and tastes and such. Both bands and how they come across really stems from us listening to the same stuff and having a large area of our individual taste which overlaps with other members. I didn't really experience that with the other Japanese bands, but again I don't really think it had to do with those guys being Japanese. But to find anybody to play in a band that you are able to connect with is pretty special I would say. It's hard to find someone who gets the same stuff you do and wants to create kind of the same stuff as well. So when Mark and Aaron left and we wanted to find someone to replace them, we thought there's basically three requirements. We needed a good player with a schedule that works who also likes some of the same stuff as us or at least has a bit of overlap. But nothing was coming up, so eventually we just decided we wanted to focus more on the music and not on the search. But hey, if anyone wants to help us out, we're still looking. But for the moment we're going ahead as just a two-piece.
So you guys are going as just the two of you now, but you're working with the same songs.
Yeah basically in November 2016 we recorded the 5 songs that were set to be in the EP I mentioned earlier. Those are pretty decent takes, but I'm not sure if they'll see the light of day eventually. I think the songs are gonna’ sound a little different on this new recording. But we decided to scrap the whole thing (the previous EP) and do a full length because now we have enough songs to do a full length release. So we wanted all the production to be the same across every song.
So you're keeping the songs from Mass Homicide?
No this is after Mass Homicide. After we released that EP, we wrote 5 more. Then Mark quit and we decided we should hold off on releasing the recording because we don't want to put out something that doesn't represent what we sound like playing live. So we decided to scrap that recording entirely. It was a waste of time, but whatever. So we're re-recording those 5 and we have a handful of other songs. But all the lyrics were rewritten entirely because when Mark left he took his lyric book. And honestly, I think we can do better.
Tom did say something similar that he named the song "Disfigurement", then Mark went in a completely different direction than he was anticipating.
We like to name a song as soon as we can, and often the title changes a few times, and a few of them stick from the start. This is how we operate and I heard Slayer also names songs before writing lyrics. We try to have an idea for a song title early on because the sooner you put a label on a song, the easier it is to get through all the scratch recordings. As you said, we titled one song "Disfigurement", but Mark went in a totally different direction with that. After he left, Tom rewrote the lyrics himself. Another example is the song "Temple of Vermin", which now has lyrics written by Tom. Originally Mark wrote them about suicide, but with the title, his lyrics didn't fit. I wrote some lyrics for it as well early on, but they were never finished. So Tom ended up writing that one too because he titled it. On this album it was about 50/50 for Tom and I in writing lyrics.
We also decided to re-record the song "Mass Homicide" for this, but the tuning is different and the lyrics are different than the EP version. This and one other track are the only old songs though that Matt and Tom co-wrote. Mass Homicide was one of the first songs that Retch wrote that we were like, “this is the foundation, this is our direction”. I rewrote the lyrics after becoming a 2-piece and I suggested including it on the album and Tom said he liked the idea.
I like it when bands do this, like Taake, who's had several songs that he released over and over again. I think that's cool to release the same song but recorded at a different time with little details that have changed. I don't know if people who have listened to our first EP will notice or care. I like when bands recycle shit, like Darkthrone recycling lyrics on Goatlord or something like that. It's the same but different. I also feel that Mass Homicide still feels lyrically very in step with our other songs. Lyrically, I have a complete view of this. Going into the studio, what Tom and I have written, there's a lot of reoccurring themes.
So there's an overarching theme in the new material.
Yeah, well I proposed the title Anathema. I saw it in the music we were writing and lyrics as well. So I proposed the title and Tom liked it. And I think that's kind of the binding thing. I think in today's society it really works. It's this bit of a zeitgeist, there's a lot of hate and discontent. A lot of word slinging and badgering. A lot is going on people to people, and a lot of our lyrics have that.
Are you talking about society here in Japan, or the media, or USA or the West?
That's the thing. I'm American and he's British. I feel like it's something going on in the whole world really. I feel it's this kind of unhealthy problem where people are just exposed to this culture which you're constantly connected to whether you like it or not. You're constantly being documented whether you like it or not. So all of these things I think lead to unnecessary stress. The pressures of modern society are simply not healthy and people are lashing out. I don't have to recount a specific story, it's just a daily barrage. And I think it's related to how connected we are, but in a very superficial way. Even then, that is through a very controlled apparatus. So I think that's quite stressful and we'll see where it leads us. I think it’s pretty obvious the answer is not anywhere good. At least that's what I'm thinking about when I write, because that's a part of my stress. I feel it and I want to write about it. A lot of other Black Metal bands might try to do something differently about it or not even try to relate these issues, but I think our lyrics are more Death Metal style. A bit more humanist. I think our sound is somewhere in between Black Metal and Death Metal, but lyrically I would say that it's more Death.
So far I've only heard "Disfigurement" from you guys as a 2-piece so far. And it's definitely pared down but I really liked it. I don't want to draw comparisons, but Electric Wizard just released Wizard Bloody Wizard which is also cleaner and more Sabbath. But similarly with Mass Homicide, there's a lot of layers and stuff going on in there. It's a great EP don't get me wrong. But with the new "Disfigurement" with you guys in the studio, it sounded cleaner but it was still great Metal.
That's one of things I'm starting to hear as we get closer to the recording. I just want our two voices to be distinct. And I think that could add something really cool because there isn't much going on there with other layers. There's a ton of bands that have dual vocals where that works great. A lot of them are crusty style like Tragedy or Nausea, but I like listening to that stuff too.
Do you find it easier to get shit done with only two of you now?
Yeah. Tom and I have always been on the same page. I can't imagine or think of a time when one of us played something and the other was like "no, no, no." It's always been like, "that's cool." and we work it out. It’s really easy. And we each know our playing abilities. Sometimes I think he wants more spastic drums, but I don't know. I think it works out.
So you mentioned that sometimes Tom expects you to play faster, like this is a Black Metal riff, and that's actually what he told me at ADF. He said, "This is basically a Black Metal song, play faster!"
Yeah some of his ideas can be specific. He kind of let of the issue go; he wanted me to play some specific footing on a song, and it didn't work for me. But there are some songs where we do cruise pretty fast. But the way I do it, or the way I think is best, is to only blast if the song really needs it. I can play a song blasting the whole way through if need be. On the first EP there's the song "All Roads Lead to Dust", and with that song I'm playing double bass the whole way through for like three or four minutes.
So basically Tom was saying, "I expect this," But you’ll be like “Let’s do this instead”, and he said your instinct is on point every time.
That's good to know. Because I rarely get that feedback from him.
And he's not the only one, when I did the Worship Pain interview, Paul said "Thom is probably one of the most talented drummers here. He's always trying to push to the next level while also knowing what he can do now."
I like working with all those guys. And I feel fortunate that I'm able to. Like I said, it's so important to find people who like the same shit. There has to be a lot of overlap. Especially in the sort of situation where they are saying "play it this way" and often times I'll try to come their way a lot and ask them what they’re hearing as a beat. Because I can play any number of things over a riff. After, I'll digest it and it probably doesn't come out how they're thinking. Perhaps what they’re thinking is something I don't think is within my ability or on the other hand a line that can be improved. I feel I have a style that I'm developing constantly as my abilities as a drummer grow. To me it's a great thing when a musician has an undeniable sound, and you can go back to it. I've only heard a few tracks off the new Morbid Angel, but I can guarantee you it's not going to sound like Pete Sandoval, as much as somebody tries to blaze away or do something intricate like him. I can tell the difference of what he would be inclined to play versus any other player. You can have all the chops in the world, but I think it's the coolest thing to have a very recognizable sound. I always like it when you're listening to a song, and maybe you hear something for the first time or something really catches your attention and it makes you turn your head like “that's not what I personally would have done there.” I love it when I hear those interesting choices made by players. I consciously try to make these choices too. But more than that, my personal mantra as a drummer is that I'm a slave to the song. I have my own style, but I wrestle with wanting to go one way and thinking about if the song wants it or not. That's the way I work. I don't know if these guys think about that so consciously, but in the end it seems they do. But that's the way I process songs when I'm writing. What does the song need and what can I offer it? How can I fill that space best? That's how I operate.
How often do you practice by yourself outside of the studio with Retch?
Between the two bands I practice 2-3 times weekly without much time between that and work to practice otherwise. Recently, I’ve been practicing more vocals in my spare time.
Do you do the shower growls?
Haha, I don't do it in the shower but I do have a thing. Especially since one of our songs has some very fast passages and I have to sing it while doing a blast. My vocal practice routine is practicing on my bike riding through the city. A lot of people might be shy or think it’s embarrassing to do that, but I kinda have this attitude where I figure if anyone passes by and hears me on my bike they’re not gonna know me. I'm just passing by, so I don't care what they think. So my bike rides are like my studio, especially for Tom's lyrics. I want to memorize them and get the cadence down, but it's a little harder because I didn't write them myself. In the faster song I’m referencing, “Temple of Vermin” there's three verses of rapid fire lyrics and each one is different. It's 6 times, back and forth between Tom and I. These days I've been practicing that a lot as well as some of the songs I wrote lyrically.