Interview conducted by Lieff in 2005
Their philosophy about music:
Immolation music is surprisingly memorable and it's replete with enveloping, twisted, brooding, dark energy. Once you really absorb their albums--especially their last two, the previous "Unholy Cult" and their most recent one, the excellent "Harnessing Ruin"--the sounds within can be surprising. Known for possessing an unrelenting, thick, coarse approach, physicality and aggression, the mood and the feeling of the songs is the element that remains after the all-out assault. "Harnessing Ruin" continues the massive step forward the band took with "Unholy Cult." This time around the music is dark and "disharmonic" as usual, but what's remarkable about it is its more immediate impact. One Sunday afternoon, when the guys were driving from New York to Ohio to rehearse with new drummer Steve Shalaty, I spoke with bassist/vocalist Ross Dolan. Steve stepped in for long-time drummer Alex Hernández after Alex suffered an injury and decided not to continue with the band. The band at this time was preparing to tour. I wanted to speak with Immolation because I have often wondered how it is that they come up with such twisted tunes and make them sound good. Here are some of Ross' answers.
The Outcast: Unholy Cult" surprised me because it was such a strong album. I was curious to see if the band saw it as a huge development, too.
Ross: Oh yeah, I think so, definitely, in that record there was a big progression. Even from 'Close to a World Below' to 'Unholy Cult' there was a huge progression. I think with each record we try to fine tune everything a little bit more and more. I think we succeeded up to this point.
The Outcast: We began talking about "Harnessing Ruin" and I'm not sure how we got talking about Judas Priest's "Angel of Retribution" and 80s metal influences. Let's just say Ross still gets excited talking about Dio's "Last in Line." At any rate, people should be able to get a chance to see band live in 2005.
Ross: We're doing a U.S. tour and Canada, too. We'll be touring with Deicide, Skinless, Misery Index and With Passion. After that, for the summer, we'll fly over to Europe and do the Grasspop Fest, The Fury Fest and maybe do other dates. We want to do a European tour after that and we're gonna try real hard to do another supporting tour in the U.S. by the end of the year.
The Outcast: The band has been doing this for a long time, since 1988, to be exact. There are a lot of death metal bands out there and Immolation does get pretty positive reviews and press, but do they feel any pressure/competition?
Ross: To be honest with you, we never really look at it like that. We try to just concentrate on what we do. We're fans of the music as well. We know what's out there, but we try not to get caught up in that. We try to do what we do, do the best we can. As long as we achieve that, we're happy. We don't try to outdo anybody or ourselves, for that matter. We just try to write something that's the best we can do at the moment."
The Outcast: Playing live is important for most bands, obviously. I wanted to torment Ross by asking him to explain why he likes playing live and what he gets out of people going bonkers. In Mexico, he observes that the audience is.....
Ross: "ridiculous, out of control! It's great, as a performer on the stage, to see the reaction that intense because we've played in Mexico City, in Puebla, in Durango, in Juárez, in a lot of places in Mexico and each place was just as intense. Probably the most intense show in Mexico was in Mexico City. The kids were so fanatical, it was unbelievable. We've also seen that reaction in South America and in Puerto Rico, but we've seen that in Eastern Europe, for example, like in Poland and Slovenia. The fans are very rabid and fanatical. In Spain and in Italy. There are a lot of places in Europe where the crowds are really intense. France is another country where we happen to do well. The French crowd is unbelievable, out of control. It's exciting for us, obviously. As a performer there's nothing more fulfilling than to be up there and have kids so into the music. Not only are they headbanging, moshing, but they're also banging their fists and singing the lyrics right in front of you and they're air drumming and they really know the songs. To me, that's impressive. That's what I wanna see, you know what I'm saying? I wanna see kids that are so enthralled in the live performance that they're just in another world. That, to me, is what really matters.
The Outcast: And the band, too.
Ross: You're in a totally different zone. When we're on that stage for an hour or however long we play, really, there's nothing else that matters. You don't really feel anything, you don't really sense anything. It's all about performing those songs. It's unbelievable, man, you know, you can be out there with the flu and a 102 fever and as soon as you get up on that stage and the first song starts, you don't feel anything, you're numb. And then when the show's over, the reality will kick in.
The Outcast: Immolation has a distinctive, inimitable sound that is characterized by songs that do not sound melodic, but somehow the music, while dark and brooding, is memorable, but it does take a few listens (for me, anyway) to get it. What kind of esthetic values does the mentality of the band depend on?
Ross: I think the key to what we do is the fact that we try to do something different. It comes from different sources. We're inspired by everything we hear because we're big fans of music in general. Whether it'd be pop or classic rock or jazz or blues or death metal or just plain old heavy metal. We're just true lovers of music. You look at a broad scope of influences right there. That's a big factor, but I think one of the main things that makes us a little different is the fact that we try to write and create not only a mood, but a certain feeling and atmosphere and we do this by giving the songs texture. Beginning with 'Failures for Gods', 'Close to a World Below', and especially with the last two albums, 'Unholy Cult' and this new one. There are definitely a lot of layers and textures going on there: the guitars, there's multi-guitar tracks, even if it's a little one-note, there's two guitars playing completely different from the other. With all the stuff on top of each other, it makes it less one-dimensional, it gives it more depth to the song. One of the main things that we do is that we're a little bit edgy and not as standard as the other stuff that's out there and the fact that we pretty much try to write with feeling and nothing else. There is no formula when we come together. It's pretty much a blank slate, there are no rules, especially when it comes to the drums and adding those very bizarre-sounding, off-sounding guitar chords that's very disharmonic-sounding. All of that coming together to make the sound and the feeling very intense and very edgy, in a creepy kind of a way. We've always tried to make the music very dark. We're not a happy band, musically. We're very upbeat people, we're not miserable people, but all the resentment that we have for life in general comes out through the music. It's the perfect outlet for us. The music, in turn, has to reflect that feeling that we're trying to convey, the feeling that we're trying to bring out. That's why we strive with each record to make the songs very dark, very twisted and very haunting-sounding. I think with the new record we scaled down things a lot, we made things less complex, but the new album is very heavy with that dark vibe, that creepy feeling. It really comes across because the guitars on this album are very heavy and you can really hear all the little guitar nuances that Bob (Robert Vigna) does and adds in all over the place. I think those little nuances is what really brings it home. That's what really separates us from what other people are doing. Not we're saying that we are complete innovators. Let's face it, nothing that's being done in music hasn't been done in one form or another, but it's how you do it, how you try to convey it that makes the difference. That's what counts and we try very hard not to repeat ourselves, and more importantly, not to repeat something that has been done."
The Outcast: What's going on with Bob and those twisted guitar parts he comes up with? Is the guy practicing all the time or what?
Ross: Well, he has a four track and a drum machine. A lot of the times Bob will come up with a part and he'll come up with a part to go along with that and will layer them on top of each other and then he'll program his drum machine and put something down. Everything is thought out, nothing's just haphazardly thought together. Very rarely will that happen. We don't settle. He'll put it together before we start rehearsing and he lets me hear it and we decide together whether it works or not. By the time we put things together he'll have a couple of tapes of a lot different records and a lot them never make it to the record. Sometimes, even if it's one good riff that has a lot feeling, that could be the building block. That riff will serve as the foundation. We keep working on it and fine tune it until it comes together, but I think that 90% of the time he has a vision of where he wants the song to go. Sometimes I throw my two cents in. Sometimes that will throw a monkey wrench in what he was thinking, but we have been doing this for so long that we always find a medium point where we can agree on. We bring it together so that we're both happy with it and that the other guys will be happy playing as well.
The Outcast: And the vocals?
Ross: With my vocals, I have no problem once I get on the road, and once I do it every night. I have a problem getting back into it, like now, I haven't really rehearsed the voice in a while. Now we're starting to prepare for the tour. I'm gonna start using my vocals on a regular basis. I will take me about four days before I work out some of the rawness of my voice and my throat. Once I get on a steady routine and I'm doing it everyday I have no problems. Knock on wood, I've never had any problems with my voice. It gets better the more I do it when I'm on tour. I get more confident and it gets more intense and it's where I want to be. When I do a record, at least two weeks before, when I go in and do the vocals I'm singing to the previous record. When I was doing 'Harnessing Ruin' I was singing the entire 'Unholy Cult' record in my car on the way to the studio or in the studio, in the sound booth, just singing along to the songs. That's how I prepare, but there is no secret, there is no trick. It's just a matter of getting your voice ready because it's not an easy thing to do, it's not difficult, either, but you just have to prepare for it, just like anything else. Death metal vocals are the fifth instrument. They tie everything together. They are like the story line. I'm like the narrator to the very dark, black, melancholic soundtrack. That's how I see it.
The Outcast: I realize the following matter is not the most important thing about Immolation, but since I wanted to ask, I did. What happened to the old, very death metal logo from the early days? Did you get tired of people not being able to read it?
Ross: That's the reason for the change. I'm gonna tell you a little story. When we first signed with Roadrunner Records, one of the guys at the label, the guy that signed us, said to us, 'You need to do something about your logo.' You know, the bottom line is, if people, new fans can't read the logo, then they don't know who the band is. That's not a positive thing for the band. We were much younger back then and we were stuck in our oldschool ways. We said, 'No! The logo has to stay!' You know, it's part of band. Once we got to the second record, we were very adamant about the logo, but we started to see that it took away from the artwork, so we began using the outline and people couldn't read it and we just got tired of that. The logo doesn't dictate what the band sounds like. People got that misconception. When we changed the logo some kids were like, 'Why did you change the logo? Is the band going in a new direction?' We just wanted something you could read, something bold, like our music."
The Outcast: Finally, I wanted to get Ross' views on (some) metal fans supposed "rebel" mentality. A lot people think they are "rebels" but are against gay rights, anti-women's rights, pro-war, etc. Any thoughts on this?
Ross: A lot of metal kids need to put two and two together and see what's going on (with politics) and what could happen. This affects everybody. For example, if you are an artist and you try to live in a country where people have freedom of speech and where a woman has the right to control her body, you can kiss all that good-bye. We don't want the government involved in people's personal lives. Nobody should have the right to decide what a woman should do with her body. They have no right to do that.
The Outcast: Ross has a lot more to say on this, like the whole terrorrist/Arab stereotypes and how he sees ignorance is the basis of that, but that would be a whole other interview. With that, the band reached their destination in Ohio. It's was time to settle in and begin rehearsing.