Vangough are an amazing progressive metal band from Oklahoma, USA. Their first album Manikin Parade still remains an all-time favourite of mine. They also released an instrumental disc inspired by video games as well as a second full-length, Kingdom of Ruin, in 2011, which saw them blending their progressive rock sound with a heavier, more metallic drive. In 2013, complete with a new lineup, they put out Between the Madness, which hints at a more straightforward approach to songwriting, with heavy guitar lines, soaring vocals, and complex rhythm workout. Undoubtedly, their most realized effort, Between the Madness finds the bands working towards a more focused sound sonically with less keyboards. Fans are curious how the band will follow it up. The band is getting ready for their North American tour with prog metal giants Pain of Salvation in the coming months. Sea of Tranquility writer Murat Batmaz spoke to band leader Clay Withrow about their past three albums, his gig with Pain of Salvation, his views on other bands and their albums, and his plans for the future.
SoT: Looking back, how do you view your first album, Manikin Parade?
Clay: I still really like that album. I think it served as a springboard for a lot of musical ideas for our new one, Between the Madness. I'll freely admit that it was the manifestation of a lot of my influences at that time. It was just me in my home studio kind of experimenting with different sounds and arrangements. But it's still very satisfying to crank it up and let it consume my soul. Sterling Winfield did a great job mixing my hot mess.
SoT: I hear a lot of Flower Kings on the album with some earlier Pain of Salvation vocalizations. You've sort of abandoned this style of writing over the years.
Clay: Yes, those were two bands that I was listening to at the time. And really, it worked well on that album because it had my unique blending of the two.
SoT: You continued to work with Sterling Winfield for your album mixes, though.
Clay: Sterling is awesome because we've grown as friends over the years and he brings his own unique sound to the table. He's also taught me a lot about recording and mixing. I'd say on this last record he played a much more prominent role, as an assistant producer. He really helped me manage the project and helped me bring things together.
SoT: Have you ever looked at the possibility of getting an outsider's take on the mix, or even work with a producer?
Clay: Sure. It is something we, the band, have discussed before and it really depends on a number of factors. Will the right producer help us be more "us" than we are already are? I'd want someone who isn't going to make us sound like someone else, but more like us.
SoT: How much of what you wanted to achieve before writing and recording the album were you able to realize on Manikin Parade?
SoT: That's a good question because I have had this idea of a particular sound in my mind since before recording Between the Madness. I think in terms of the writing and arrangement, I hit it right on the head. In terms of the actual sonic quality, I'm still edging ever closer to where I want it to be.
SoT: What kind of a sound is that? Can you reference any bands or albums?
Clay: It's a combination of sounds. Qualities that I admire on older recordings that I grew up listening to like The Great Southern Trendkill and Load.
SoT: Do you feel your writing method has changed over the years compared to your debut? How would you describe the change in sound and style in your music over the years?
Clay: Absolutely my writing as changed. The first two albums were pretty much me by myself writing everything in a midi program so I could hear how the instruments sounded together. With Between the Madness I had Jeren Martin on bass and Kyle Haws on drums to help me expand on my original demos. Jeren's musical style in particular influenced me a lot going into Between the Madness. Right after we recorded Kingdom of Ruin back in 2011, Kyle joined the band. As it turns out he is also a big Metallica fan like myself, which opened a sleeping beast inside my soul that had been dormant for years.
So to answer the second question, I think since Kingdom of Ruin, there has been a big shift back to my roots. Back to what I loved about music when I first started playing, which was stuff like Metallica, Megadeth, Pantera, Danzig. And that's been mixed with Jeren and Kyle's influence a lot. We've pretty much abandoned the keyboard stuff in favor of a stripped down sonically focused sound.
SoT: So Jeren Martin and Kyle Haws come from a more heavy metal background as opposed to a symphonic prog rock background? Between the Madness is certainly the heaviest album of the three so far.
Clay: Right. Although Jeren is a big fan of bands like Opeth and Porcupine tree, as is Kyle. I'm not so much into those bands though. I can listen to Porcupine Tree, for example, because it's very melodic and agreeable. But it's not my bread and butter.
SoT: After Manikin Parade, you released Game On!, a tribute to video games in a sense. How did the idea come to you?
Clay: Game On! was something I just wanted to do personally. It didn't make much sense in the context of Vangough, hence why I called it a bonus release at the time. I think somehow wires got crossed and websites assumed it was an actual studio release. But it's really not. I mean, there are no vocals, no original songs. In all honesty it should have been a solo album because it was more feeding my ego at the time. It doesn't even sound like Vangough.
SoT: I agree, and honestly, I very rarely play it. I need to hear your voice when I listen to Vangough.
Clay: It surprised me that websites listed it as an album. At this point, I'd say it's a pretty rare item because it's not for sale on most websites.
SoT: Do you consider Game On! a studio release or an experiment?
Clay: An experiment. I even said it in the interviews back then. This was a "bonus" release just for fun. But you know, I guess because it had ten tracks, was mixed by our friend Sterling, I think websites assumed it was an official release. You never see it mentioned on any of our websites. It's not an official release or anything like that. We don't even sell it on CDBaby.
SoT: Did you press many copies of it or are they already sold out?
Clay: Our management at the time recommended I press 1,000 copies! Ugh. And a bunch of t-shirts for it. Maybe that was a bit much. My initial thought was to make it download only, because I just wanted this to be purely a bonus thing for our fans, but I was told that people still want CDs so I said, "ok, how about 500?" But again, I was told 1,000 would be better. That didn't work out so well. But I learned a lot from that experience.
SoT: Manikin Parade was such an amazing release progressive metal fans anticipated the follow-up with great excitement. Do you think Kingdom of Ruin matched it musically and compositionally?
Clay: I remember saying at the time that Kingdom of Ruin was kind of a necessary evil. It was always going to be the black sheep of our albums. I knew that from the very beginning. But it felt like a necessary journey to take. And it helped me kind of get everything out of myself that I needed to get out in order for me to focus on the next chapter of my career. Does it match the previous album musically? Well, had Jeren and Kyle been in the band at that time it would've probably been a different record. Moreover, if I had not set a hard deadline for myself to finish it, we'd be listening to a different record. But I had the mindset that it was a race to the finish line to get something out in 2011. I've since then left such ideas behind. My mindset since then is, "it'll be done when it's absolutely done." So to come full circle, I feel like the period from Game On! to Kingdom of Ruin was this necessary journey I had to take to find my path. To re-discover who I really was musically. Those two CDs helped me gain a lot of perspective.
SoT: It's funny you mention setting a deadline for yourself. I guess bands can't help it. Many a band have said they rushed albums in order to get it out. It's like you can't help it at the time, right?
Clay: At that time I thought I needed to set a deadline or it wouldn't get done. I now know that's not true. Vangough has a good rhythm for making albums.
SoT: I remember you signed with IntroMental for the promotion of the record. What was their contribution to the band?
Clay: We actually signed with them to manage the band. They helped us get signed to Nightmare Records for the release of Kingdom of Ruin, so really Nightmare was responsible for the promotion of that album.
SoT: So you're no longer working with them?
Clay: That's correct. We no longer work with them.
SoT: Overall, do you find it is easier to be an independent artist or have people actively promoting and supporting a band?
Clay: I thought being independent would be easier but as it turns out Kingdom of Ruin got a lot more press and attention, which surprised me. I guess the label channels still have a lot more pull than I thought.
SoT: I guess the latter comes with sacrificing a thing or two.
Clay: For sure. You never know how they're going to promote the album, whether they'll do a good job or just send it to die. You also don't have a lot of say in how it gets packaged, whether it's a jewel case or something else. I don't like not having control over those things. Finally, you get something like $1.90 for each CD sold and when you go on tour you have to buy CDs from them. I think the best route is to directly sell to the fans through BandCamp (link: http://vangough.bandcamp.com/album/between-the-madness).
SoT: Do you feel you could have split the album into two rather than merging both the new Vangough and your second disc on it?
Clay: I think if I had not been in that temporary mindset I was in then, it would've been much more fleshed out on the dark side. The lighter songs would've had a bit more balance, going through the necessary twists and turns that you'd expect from a Vangough song. But no, I would've probably helped merge the two sounds together into one disc rather than split it into two. I for sure would have made the darker songs longer. Let them breathe a bit more, which is exactly how we play them live now anyway because they always felt to truncated to me.
SoT: Wow, that sounds exciting. I love the album, but it does feel a tad too stretched out musically.
Clay: It needed more time to bake in the oven. But it is what it is. And sometimes that is a beautiful thing in itself. It captured a moment in time of where I was musically.
SoT: Your third album Between the Madness displays signs of growth and evolution. Was that conscious effort or is it due to the arrival of new members?
Clay: A conscious growth and a reaction to Kingdom of Ruin. I realized there wasn't enough of me on that record. Not my natural vocal style. Not my natural guitar style. And it kind of lingered in me, growing like a diseased cysts that became more and more infected. So a lot of that emotion and anger bubbled up to the surface on this new one.
SoT: Do you ever sit and listen to your albums in their entirety or is it just bits and pieces?
Clay: I do, yes. They are very fun albums to listen to and have very addictive qualities to them.
SoT: I hear some bands listen to the whole thing in so many different ways before and during mixing they hardly ever play any of their albums after release. I've always found that interesting.
Clay: Not the case with me. I listen to Between the Madness all the time. It rocks my car speakers and almost shatters my windows. That's how I like it.
SoT: It's been almost a year since Between the Madness came out. How do you think it sits in your discography?
Clay: I think it's the album that should have followed Manikin Parade. It's way more bold and chilling. It's not afraid to show its wounds. For me personally, it's exactly the style of songwriting that feels most natural to me.
SoT: Tell us about the writing of the album. What was your goal when you were putting the songs together?
Clay: I wanted each song to have enough space to breathe and find its identity. Initially my plan for the album was to have it augmented by a live orchestra that would kind of connect all of the songs and themes together. I ended up ditching that idea but you can still hear those remnants. For example, most of the songs have subtle use of orchestra, such as "Infestation" and "Alone."
SoT: "Alone" is one of my favourites on the disc. Are you planning to incorporate any live strings on a future release?
Clay: Definitely. We used live strings and woodwind on Between the Madness, but just a small three to five piece depending on the arrangement. We had a cello, violin and oboe player for most of the parts and then when needed I would fill it out with some VST double bass and clarinet.
SoT: Do you have any particular favourites off of the disc?
Clay: I do. "Alone," "Infestation" and "Thy Flesh Consumed" are three of my favorites. I think it's the atmosphere and, in the case of "Infestation," the lyrics.
SoT: Do you mind sharing with us what the lyrics are about?
Clay: Those who know me well know where my inspiration comes from and so they know what some of the lyrics are about. I'd rather not say what the songs mean as I think there is room for listeners to draw their own interpretation.
SoT: I've always considered your multi-angled vocal style in the style of Daniel Gildenlow since I heard your first disc, so I wasn't that surprised when you were asked to fill in for Daniel when he couldn't do the show. How did that happen? Did you offer them your services or were you asked to do it?
Clay: I was already invited by the band to join them on the Prog Nation cruise to just help out as a drum tech, which is code for "good friend who carries a few things around in exchange for a free room and booze." But as Daniel's condition worsened I was asked if I could step in to help Ragnar out on guitar and vocals, since I had already toured as their guitarist the previous year. The part I played was rather simple, as I only sang a handful of songs, while playing guitar and leads on the rest.
SoT: Do you remember what songs you sang?
"Conditioned," "Mortar Grind," "Iter Impius" and maybe one other. I put "Conditioned" up on my YouTube channel if you want to check it out. (link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bGhWTSdWsWc)
SoT: Did you pick these songs or were they given to you?
Clay: I picked the songs. I actually picked the songs shortly before the show and we rehearsed them in my cabin.
SoT: You also thank Daniel Gildenlow in the liner notes of Between the Madness. Would you say you'll be part of Pain of Salvation live in the future?
Clay: I thanked Daniel for giving me the opportunity to come along on the US tour and play guitar, as well as spending time with him and his family over the summer in Sweden. But I really need to thank the whole band for being awesome as well. Leo, their drummer, is a good friend who is a tremendously talented person. I don't think people realize how talented he is. Pain of Salvation got a huge upgrade when they hired him. I'm very grateful to have gotten to spend time with him in Sweden as well. I think my role with the band is more a fan than anything else. I'm just happy to help out when needed and enjoy the ride. Also, Mikael, their guitar tech needs a special mention since he purchased an obscene amount of vodka during that tour and I just want to thank him since I drank an entire bottle myself.
SoT: Leo actually has a very jazzy background, but it doesn't come through in their music. Is it because the songs don't require much improvisation?
Clay: I'm not sure, but he is very good at adapting and very musical, which helps his playing. He can also play guitar and sing very well. And I know he likes a lot of heavier music so that probably comes through in his playing.
SoT: How would you compare Pain of Salvation's recent output to their The Perfect Element I and Remedy Lane discs? Do you gravitate towards a certain era of the band?
Clay: Personally, I prefer the Road Salt albums to their earlier stuff. It's just more streamlined, raw and emotional. They're all better songs in my opinion. I think I've listened to Road Salt II every day for the last two years! But then again, I'm always a fan of when bands evolve their sound. I loved Metallica's Load and Reload more than their previous stuff. It was rawer. More personal. Some of James' best lyrics. I was also the one that requested to sing the Road Salt songs live at Prog Nation, since those are my favorites. It's hard for me to listen to purely prog metal stuff. It's just a bit too much for me.
SoT: Have you started writing for the new Vangough disc yet?
Clay: It's something on our minds but we haven't yet spent a whole lot of time working on new songs. There are a few ideas here and there that we've fleshed out, but I think we're hoping to get back into the studio next year to properly begin recording again. Right now the focus is on playing live and growing together as a band.
SoT: Are you still in touch with Brandon Lopez (former Vangough drummer)? Has he heard Between the Madness?
Clay: I do talk to Brandon from time to time. It was funny when I played him the songs from Between the Madness he was like, "so now you're writing the dark heavy stuff when I'm out of the band? Damn man!" in a very humorous way. Because he loves the heavy stuff and I think Kingdom of Ruin was a stretch for him.
SoT: How did you guys decide to part ways?
Clay: He was feeling the strain of Vangough becoming a full-time gig and didn't feel he could commit. So he recommended Kyle Haws to me, which as it turns, is my musical soul mate. If I had met Kyle in high school, Vangough would be ten years old today! We both love Metallica and Pain of Salvation. We both love Nintendo. It was a match made in heaven.
SoT: He just released his first album with his other band Broken Flesh last year. Are you a fan of death metal or other extreme forms of music?
Clay: I am not.
SoT: What could the fans expect to hear once the new disc is completed?
Clay: It's really hard to say at this point since I imagine the songs will go through so many changes by the time it's all said and done. But given that Between the Madness kind of took us in a darker more emotional direction, my goal is to outdo ourselves in that regard. To dig deeper to the core of who we are as songwriters and then blend it together in a meaningful way.
SoT: What's your take on album lengths? Are you more of the "the longer the better" guys or do you think an album can be in the 50-55-minute range to hit the mark?
Clay: I don't think you can put a number on it but the quality should be consistent. Every song needs to be sculpted to be great. That was a Michael Jackson thing. He believed that every song on the album should be just as good as the single.
SoT: You'll also be playing at ProgPower in September, 2014.
Clay: Yes, with Pain of Salvation! How funny is that? I guess it's not funny but it's awesome.
SoT: Any chance you may hit the stage with them?
Clay: I kind of hope not. I would like to enjoy a Pain of Salvation performance from the crowd for once!
SoT: Has Daniel heard any of your music? I would love to hear his thoughts on Manikin Parade, especially.
Clay: I'm not sure. I know he's heard Acoustic Scars, our EP. He had it sitting on his mantle at home when I visited last summer. But you have to remember Daniel is very very picky with his music. He basically hates everything except for two bands. Kiss and Jeff Beck, I think. I could be wrong on those two. You should ask him.
SoT: It really is one of the greatest debut albums I've ever heard. Well, I probably sound like a fanboy, but I consider myself more of a fan than a music reviewer anyway.
Clay: It's amazing you feel that way. My hope is that the album could be heard by many many more people.
SoT: Do you have any other touring plans for the near future?
Clay: Yes, we're doing a full North American tour in September with Pain of Salvation, right after ProgPower USA actually. And then there's this European tour. Who knows who that will be with…I hope that becomes a reality next year.
SoT: Do you know what countries you'll be covering in Europe yet?
Clay: I don't yet. I know there are tentative plans but I haven't heard any progress yet.
You shouldn't only focus on Western and Central Europe. Make it further south to Greece and Turkey, too. Daniel would probably agree Turkish fans are quite enthusiastic about great music.
I hope we can cover as much of Europe as humanly possible!
SoT: Is there a possibility you'll release a follow-up to your debut solo album, Dissonance Rising?
Clay: Kyle and I have toyed with the idea of recording an EP of reimagined Dissonance Rising songs. But I think what tends to happen is we get focused on more Vangough stuff and it's just not something we want to expend too much energy on. You can imagine, even a three or four song EP, would take a lot of our time and resources to make sound good with the kind of quality you'd expect.
SoT: How do you like Dissonance Rising after all these years? It certainly hinted at the dark songwriting vision you'd further explore in Vangough.
Clay: I still enjoy listening to the CD because it was this messy experiment that works in a peculiar way. Obviously, had I met Sterling when I made that album it would sound very different. But it's good that I didn't because now it stands as a very unique snapshot of myself. I didn't know what I was doing at all back then and it shows! But the love and heart is there, which is always important.
SoT: Are there any progressive rock and metal releases you have enjoyed recently?
Clay: I really enjoyed Leprous' Coal from last year. And while this isn't new, I've gone back to my thrash roots listening to a lot of Great Southern Trendkill from Pantera. It's easily my favorite album by them. Also, St. Anger from Metallica is another recent discovery of mine that I have been really enjoying. I love the ugliness and rawness of that record. It's so fucking hideous that it's beautiful. And underneath that layer of filthy pornographic grime and soot is one of my favorite albums. It just sounds huge.
SoT: Wow, I didn't know you were such a big fan of Metallica's recent output. I personally can't listen to anything they did after the Black album.
Clay: I like the Black album, not as much as their other stuff. But to me, it'll always be Load and Reload. All day, every day.
SoT: Well, Clay, thanks a lot for your time. Is there anything else you'd like to say?
Clay: Please check out and listen to Between the Madness. Hell, listen to it for free on Spotify! It doesn't matter where. I can't quite put into words how painful a birth that album was. It was made in the blood of artistic ambition and sincerity with a lot of heartbreak and sacrifice. You can also stream every track at our BandCamp (link: http://vangough.bandcamp.com/album/between-the-madness ) Thank you!
(Photo courtesy of Hilary O'Neill.)