Fast rising Huntress speaks to Heavy Music Artwork
With their distinctive and seamless blend of heavy sounds encompassing thrash, death, black and a healthy slice of classic rock, Los Angeles quintet Huntress have blazed a significant trail around the globe since their inception in 2009 and subsequent signing to Napalm Records in 2011.The combination of impeccable musicianship from guitarists Blake Meahl and Anthony Crocamo, bassist Ian Alden and powerhouse drummer Carl Wierzbicky and the relentless leather-lunged howls of Juilliard-trained vocalist Jill Janus result in a style of metal that’s familiar without resorting to being throwback.
Huntress have received both rabid fan responses and cynical criticism that derides the band as a vehicle for Janus’ obvious good looks. However, seeing them in action quickly reveals there’s a lot more going on. Janus’ well-documented Pagan beliefs and inauguration into a coven at the age of 15 permeate their lyrics and visual presentation in a way that suggests that rather, the band is about expressing a love for no-nonsense heavy metal and a genuine interest in things not of this world – a classic combination.
What really stands out about Huntress is their unwavering work ethic and focus. Pretty much unaided by a full road crew or a personal sound engineer, the band managed to effortlessly slay Brixton Academy on their January tour supporting Lamb of God before packing up their own gear and manning their own merch stand, meeting fans in person.
The other undeniable attribute of Huntress is the eye-catching artwork adorning both of their releases and merchandise. Laced with heavy symbolism and a distinct magickal symmetry, the covers for ‘Spell Eater’ and ‘Starbound Beast’ at once complement the band’s classic stylistic leanings and unite many of Janus’ core beliefs. As a result, some of their more interesting songs (such as the pairing of ‘Spectra Sprectral’ and ‘Alpha Tauri’) result in epic sonic journeys that are alternately as introspective and thrashing as their lyrical content would suggest.
Adam Stanley of Heavy Music Artwork met with lead guitarist Blake Meahl and bassist Ian Alden before their London show to delve a little deeper into what’s behind their artistic concepts and how their creative process works.
HMA: Starting with the artwork for both ‘Starbound Beast’ and Spell Eater’,they were both created by Vance Kelly. Why did you choose to work with him – was it his association with other great bands or…?
BLAKE MEAHL (LEAD GUITAR): Well to be honest, our record label Napalm said, “You know who would be a great artist for you, you know who would be great, is Vance”; and we just looked at some of his art and it was awesome, and then we just haven’t stopped working with him because he’s so incredible you know. He took up the first job and he was just so flexible and willing to, you know [get involved]… and we’ve dealt with artists who are just so, “Oh here’s your art, it’s in pen, deal with it.”
IAN ALDEN (BASS): He does a hell of a good job, trying to listen and trying to incorporate with the artist, you know, that’s what he’s good at.
BLAKE: And Jill [Janus, singer] will come up with all kinds of crazy ideas, like “Well I need three of these and five of these ‘cause the numerology is going to take us to the space dimension!” And he’s [Kelly] really, really cool about actually working with us.
HMA: Yeah, I noticed there’s quite a lot of consistency in, not so much what it looks like in terms of the content, but the style of there being a lot of specific things in each cover…
BLAKE: Yeah. That’s the goal, it’s to make them iconic and individual while all seeming similarly tied together.
HMA: The cover of ‘Spell Eater’ – could you talk about the significance of any of the specific things in the image? There’s a wolf that stands out to me, which I see used by other bands as a symbol for something strong…
IAN: Yeah… wolves just look cool! [laughter all round]
BLAKE: I mean, she’s [Janus] got, like, uh… there’s the witch at this altar of, like, tree roots and, like, all kinds of spell books and, you know there’s a whole bunch of stuff that Jill won’t say, “THIS is what it is” – you have to dig and kind of find it for yourself and stuff… but the numbers of even the horns on the skull that’s on the altar and the number of candles that are there are all significant.
HMA: Yes, I was going to ask about that, as I’ve seen she wears that kind of stuff onstage sometimes – I don’t know how much that extends to your props and if there’s any significance to how or why it’s used onstage?
BLAKE: Well, you know we haven’t had the opportunity to – mostly due to finances – to really do up the stage how it’s possible and how I think someday we’re going to be able to. And to be real honest, we can’t afford a second set of art so we just blow up our cover art really big in a different form and put that as our backdrop (laughs)!
HMA: Is there anything you could say about which direction you want to take the stage decoration in?
IAN: We’ll think about that when we have the money and space!
HMA: You mean drive off that bridge when you come to it?
BLAKE: Yeah, yeah, haha! Rather, now we are packing everything that is required for the band, which is our backdrop, whatever merch and everything’s tucked into everything, and we have to get these bags to exactly 23 kg so we can get it on the plane without having to add extra luggage… that’s our stage production! (laughs) Like, “Holy shit, we got our guitars here!” [laughter all round]
HMA: Yeah, I play music as well, and I went to play with some friends overseas and had, like, socks around the bass drum pedals, you know, economising on space!
BLAKE: Yeah and then you’re carrying them in and they’re with the scanner, all, “What, so you’re trying to blow up the plane?” (laughs) and we’re like, “No…”
HMA: “Would you like a demonstration?” [laughter all round]
HMA: Anyway, what is your interpretation [from a perspective other than Jill’s] of the symbols you’ve incorporated – there’s the animal skulls and death, there’s a pentagram, there’s various runes – do these things hold significance?
BLAKE: The runes definitely all have significance and she [Janus] hand-chose what they all symbolise. To be honest, I can’t remember what they were, but even the talisman gough (sic), which is in the witches’ alphabet, spells ‘Spell Eater.’ But as far as what’s on the altar, that’s as far as I know are the tools that Jill uses in her personal time.
IAN: To be honest, I don’t know what any of that shit means man! (awkward pause, then laughter)
IAN: Yeah, it looks cool, and I think Jill has probably a million things going through her brain when she kinda comes out with designs and outspans and artists like that, but uh… I don’t know what any of that stuff means man.
HMA: Fair enough! I’m carrying on with the theme of symbolism here, so stop me if you don’t have any comments, but on ‘Starbound Beast,’ I see there’s Taurus as a really strong symbol there. Is that important to you guys?
IAN: There’s a lot of beasts, a lot of symbols…
BLAKE: Well the last track on the album is ‘Alpha Tauri’, and that is the constellation in which Aldebaran resides, and so the Taurus is a symbol that represents… you know, Jill feels that she is communicating with the Annunaki and Aldebaran and is literally beamed lyrics in far-out trances and that’s where it comes from. So she fully believes in that symbolism, in that Taurus and everything.
HMA: So I’m listening to bands like Dissection, Watain and Behemoth who are a lot more occult. I know that’s not what you guys are all about, but I can see there’s a lot of mysticism going on there, and they’re using specific symbology in their newer album covers which is kind of tied in to the way that they conceive their art.
BLAKE: You mean the whole left-hand path kind of thing, yeah.
HMA: I appreciate that’s not what you guys are into.
BLAKE: Yeah, but the thing is, to say that it’s all just Satanic, and… we’re still inspired by that… it’s not like we share the same belief systems but that whole thing about a kind of true belief in what you do and, like, the symbolism, tying them into the music and creating an entire package and persona of a group is really cool and it’s what we strive for. You know, none of us guys are particularly spiritual or religious so we really do get to play off of Jill’s wild belief systems, you know.
IAN: And everyone can enjoy some kind of stories about space aliens and pyramids and things like that… it’s just all in good fun, good imagery and stuff to play around with artistically, and fun to write music [to].
HMA: Well does it inspire you when you see art like that when you’re actually writing the music – do you take anything from that? I heard Jeff Ament from Pearl Jam saying he’ll look at art and then go and create music because he’s all charged up from it. Do you relate?
BLAKE: Jill will do that… the way her and us work from time to time is, she’ll come up with song ideas or just themes or concepts to begin with, and then… for instance, with ‘Aradia’ from the first record, she would be like, “This is kind of the vibe and personality I feel for this song and it’s heavy and it’s sad and it’s angry at the same time.” And she’ll even collect images of whatever embodies that and send them over. Half the time I’m just sitting at a small desk in front of a computer just flipping through pictures, and it was the same thing on this last record. She was working on a song called ‘Worship the Serpent’ and it became another song on the album, but that was a piece of artwork that I was trying to create an auditory… what’s the word… equal for.
HMA: Do you think that a really great, memorable band has to have a strong, defined worldview, spiritual bent or other outside motivating force to really capture people’s imaginations, as opposed to just having a strong sonic idea of where they want to go?
BLAKE: Not necessarily, but certainly a spiritual one is not required. I think it’s important for bands to have an entireness of what they’re trying to embody, something that you can grab onto both visually, emotionally and sonically so that it makes sense. If you’re only just like, “OK we sound like a black metal band,” without tying it all together – then why do the best black metal bands stand out in the first place? Because they brought it all the way out, you know? And that’s one thing that’s so hard to do. As a kid and playing in bands and everything, it’s so easy to be that kid in the baggy pants and oversized goofy t-shirt playing a completely eclectic bunch of music from funk to metal and be like (adopts camp voice), “Oh I just like everything man!” That’s great and that’s fine, but to really impact a general republican audience that stuff’s [having a strong identity] really important, you know.
HMA: Yes, I heard someone saying, “Oh it doesn’t convince me when I see someone in fuckin’ sweatpants and a Cannibal Corpse t-shirt playing death metal, [laughter all round], it doesn’t make me feel afraid or whatever, it doesn’t work.”
BLAKE: Exactly, and if it’s fear you’re trying to evoke then that’s not the angle to take. I think we’re riding the line between there; we’re not like Ghost all in the exact same costume and really doing that kind of thing, but we know who we are and we try and convey that, you know.
HMA: So what are you trying to put across artistically, the kind of sound you create and the way you play onstage; what would you say is the ultimate thing that you want people to walk away with saying, “THAT’S what Huntress is”?
IAN: We just want to write a good song, man, when it comes down to it; that’s what we want to do – just make a good song!
BLAKE: It’s about playing heavy metal in the modern day that doesn’t just all sound like computers and triggers, and suffer from a lack of melody and a lack of songwriting thought. We want to bring that home and not make it… we’re not trying to be a traditional metal band, we’re not trying to be throwback, we’re not like, “It’s just Priest or bust,” but Priest wrote the best goddamn songs, so there you go, take that from that angle. But you’re going to get a real raw performance from people playing their instruments and banging it out the real way, you know.
HMA: How do you track [when recording]? Are you tracking live when you do an album, is it everyone doing their parts one at a time? I don’t know how you guys do it – are you treating the drums or shit like that afterwards?
IAN: Well, if time permitted it would be a lot more live, and obviously we can’t; but you know when you’re under the pressures of time and money and what a band is given in 2014 to make a record, it’s not a lot of money, and studios cost a lost really – so you have to take shortcuts. But I would say we try to keep it as organic as we can.
BLAKE: I think the goal is, and there’s a line… I know some bands and people that are like, “Oh I did it that way, and it has to be that way so that I know it was done that way – I have to play a whole thing in one take and it had to be on a two-inch tape”, or whatever. It’s like, “OK, no, we want it to sound like that and that’s our goal, but at the end of the day if we’ve taken other means to save time or resources that you have to do in this era, fine, you know. We want it to sound the best it can but… and the two albums were produced very differently from each other. We really got the second one closer to the ‘realness’ feel that we wanted, you know.
IAN: And we hope to take that further.
HMA: I’m noticing a lot of bands now – and this again ties in with the symbolism you use and the experiences some of the members go through – really representing a kind of apocalyptic and dark view on the state of things. Does that find its way into your lyrics at all, because you’re expressing ideas that strive towards transcending where we are now?
BLAKE: I think that the things that this music tries to transcend are timeless, you know. It’s the same strife and bullshit that people have always had to deal with. Since the dawn of time people have striven to be more than just miserable asses going to work every day, and it’s real-life experiences and how terrible things are things that inspire everybody to think and write, but we try and keep modern politics directly out of lyrics, you know.
HMA: Yeah, I didn’t mean politically.
BLAKE: Maybe the desperation [is reflected in the lyrics]…
IAN: I don’t think our songs really have that grim a vibe you know. It might be dark at times, but I wouldn’t say they’re that depressing.
HMA: No, no, it’s just always interesting because you can see there’s a mystical thing behind the lyrics and you want to see where that’s come from. You know, is it kind of fantastical or is it more an interpretation of what’s going on? Anyway, I was going to ask Jill about her being present in the World Trade centre the night before 9/11 happened [Janus used to run a club night in the World Trade Centre prior to the disaster], and how that affected her and the way she creates or the way you guys create everything – kind of tied into the question before really.
BLAKE: It played a massive role in us ever even meeting her. I mean, if that never happened we would not probably have ever formed this band, ‘cause she went broke completely because the whole nightlife thing she was doing just went to shit. She ended up moving out to the West Coast and I met her a few years after that, and that’s when she saw Professor [previous incarnation of Huntress]. So without that, there wouldn’t even be a creative process – now I don’t think that individual experience really is in the back of anyone’s mind when working on new music, but it played a major role in events leading to the formation of the band.
HMA: When you go to write and record, can you talk about the kind of mindset each of you has to get into – how you get into that headspace to really play the best you can and create a vibe when you’re playing. I appreciate recording and playing live are two different animals.
IAN: I think it’s tough to do. You never know when you’re going to be in that kind of frame of mind or it’s just slow. So I think our tack is usually just write as much as you can and spend as much time as possible on this as you can, and then in that amount of time you’re bound to have some good moments.
BLAKE: Broken clocks write twice a day, right? For me, I’ll never forget, my Dad was buddies with Eddie Van Halen back when they were kids in Pasadena, and Eddie told him once that (adopts old man voice), “the good shit didn’t come until after you’ve been playing for eight or twelve hours” (laughs), ‘cause he’s a maniac, he would do like 16-hour-a-day practices, you know. But I never manage to pull off anything close to that. I never really get material I’m proud of unless I’ve been sitting at my computer or in front of my amp or whatever I’m doing for hours. Usually when I’m working on writing I’m drinking a retarded amount of coffee and smoking a bunch of grass and just staying up til four or five in the morning, and it’s really between the hours of between two and five that I can start getting hot you know. Recording, that’s a whole other nightmare. That’s just being in the hot seat of pressure and agony (laughs)!
HMA: It’s [recording] a bit like an office or something, you can’t just go “I’m excited now, I want to listen back to this and hear myself being excited!”
BLAKE: You’re just hanging onto that feeling of, hopefully you’re warm enough and then it’s “you’re up for this song, it’s noon, you get the coffee, I’ll fire up the computer, let’s go!” and it’s like (adopts pained voice), “ohhh, dammit!” [laughs all round]
BLAKE: But every time you miss a take, it’s like, “that’s another 20 bucks!” you know (pretends to operate slot machine)! (laughter). So there’s that pressure there you know?
HMA: My last question is, I can see from the get-go that Huntress is a band that’s, not based on but is aware of the importance of presentation quite early on. How did you come to realise that it’s an important thing, not in a cynical kind of way but in terms of just inspiring people?
IAN: I think everyone should have a general image. It’s like what Blake said earlier, you can’t have that one dude in the band wearing a sideways hat and then a dude who’s [here Meahl interjects: “Wearing sweatpants and a Cannibal Corpse t-shirt!”] a really good guitar player but who doesn’t look right, and it’s just little things like that make it look sorted and like it’s meant to be. And it’s not that hard to do. We’re lucky to have someone like Jill who’s always thinking about that, who’s always changing the way she looks or having a new costume for each tour, trying all these things; just looking forward to doing the next thing, and that’s just been really cool from the start.
HMA: Thanks for you time guys, great talking to you.
HUNTRESS: Thank you, good to meet you.
Interview by Adam Stanley – Copyright 2014 © Heavy Music Artwork. All Rights Reserved.