Published May 14, 2013Along with acts like Incantation, Suffocation and Malignancy, Yonkers, NY death metal pioneers Immolation paved the way for the New York brutal death metal scene of the late '80s and early '90s. Over the past 25 years Immolation have been consistently creating this extreme music that is true to their roots and maintains the sound they started with, while incorporating innovative twists that allow them to progress and stay relevant without alienating their core fan base. Their ninth album, Kingdom of Conspiracy, is no exception. Vocalist/bassist Ross Dolan discussed the band's latest release, their songwriting process, as well as the album's Orwellian lyrical themes and being a part of the New York death metal movement.
Kingdom of Conspiracy is Immolation's ninth album. How are you feeling about the outcome of this record?
Vocalist/bassist Ross Dolan: We're feeling pretty good. It's the first time we've come out of the studio and everybody actually liked the album [laughs]. There wasn't anything about it that we were like, "Oh man, we should've changed this" or "I wish we could have made this better." We all like it, we thought it was a solid album. We've been sitting on it since August. I mean we recorded it back in August, so we've been listening to these songs since then and rehearsing them now. It hasn't gotten old yet, so I guess that's a good thing [laughs]. I think it's a very strong record, it incorporates all of our elements from all of our earlier stuff and it kind of adds a new spin on it. We kind of took what we were doing on, say Majesty and Decay and the Providence EP and we've moved forward from there. So it's definitely a strong record, it has everything I think an Immolation fan would expect, but it's very dark, it's very intense. We kind of weeded out all the parts that are just long and monotonous and boring because there was some of that on the Majesty album and we're aware of it. You know, when people say, "Yeah, it was good, but there's this and that," we always just file that away and the next time we go in to do another record, we remember, "Okay, we've got to look out for this and we've got to look out for that." But, overall I'd say we're very happy with it, we're very satisfied and it's the first time that we're actually getting feedback from people other than us and the inner circle, so it's good to hear people have positive things to say, so that's a plus. Hope the fans agree [laughs].
With nine albums in 25 years, did you ever think when you started the band that it would last this long?
No, definitely not. When we started we had very simple goals, we just wanted to record our songs so we could hear them on cassette tapes, because this is '88, pre-internet, there were CDs out, but cassette demos were very big back then. And to play the local club, you know, in front of our friends, it was always a good vibe, we'd always have our friends come down to the rehearsal room and we'd play little impromptu shows on a Friday night, a couple buddies would come down. So that was it, We really didn't have any aspirations to put out a record, much less be a touring band, it just kind of happened. When we got approached by Roadrunner in like '89/'90, we kind of thought it was a joke, we were like, "Yeah, these guys, what are they going to do with a band like us?" [laughs] But lo and behold, we eventually signed with them and we started the journey. So in retrospect, no we didn't think we'd be here 25 years later, I never would have thought I'd be here 25 years later, talking to you from Toronto, Canada about our ninth record [laughs]. No, never in a million years.
Musically, other than to keep doing what you guys have been doing so well, was there a specific direction that you wanted to go in for this new record?
We always want to retain the essence of the band. We know about that imaginary fine line that you can't cross [laughs]. It's good to progress and move forward, but you can't lose touch with your roots and we always keep that in mind. So, when we start the writing process for each new album it's always a clean slate, we never bring any of that old baggage forward with us, you know? We finish the album cycle of the previous album, we do the touring and the press and we play the hell out of it, and then that's it, we take a break for half-a-year or longer, we don't touch our instruments, with the exception of Steve [Shalaty], our drummer, he's constantly playing, which is good [laughs] because his job is very labour-intensive. But yeah, we take that break and it kind of clears your mind, clears your head and you kind of approach things for the new record with a fresh sense about you and I think that helps get us refocused on what we need to do. I think in all of the years we've been doing it, we kind of know where we want to take the band, nothing specific, like we don't start a record and say, "Alright, this one's going to be more aggressive or faster or slower or heavier." It's never like that, they just kind of evolve, there's no formula to it. Bob [Vigna, guitarist] just writes and we all have 100 percent confidence in his writing, there are never any issues, like let's say 98 percent of the riffs he presents to us are usable, maybe two percent we're not down with, you know what I'm saying? So we're all on the same page and I know what he's going to deliver is going to be dark and heavy and powerful, and once it's arranged and once we throw the drums in and add the lyrics and the vocals and the leads, it's going to be something that we'll be happy with, hopefully at the end of the day. And if we're not, we scrap it because we're our worst critics, it's got to get past us first [laughs]. Hopefully our fans never think that we've delivered a shitty album because we're very critical of ourselves [laughs].
What was the writing process for this record like? Has Bob always been the main songwriter?
Yeah, he always has been since day one, since the '88 demo, so he's pretty much done everything musically and that's because he's great at it, he does it well, I love to hear what he comes up with. That's my favourite part of the process, hearing him create the music, and when he sends me the files or when I go over to his house to listen to the stuff, that's kind of like the best part of the whole process for me because it's like you're kind of hearing the stuff in that infant stage, you know? So yeah, he's always been the songwriter and the last record, Majesty and Decay, and the Providence EP, as well as the new one were all done very similar. Technology today is great, so he's got one of these recording programs on his laptop and he records everything into that and he'll throw in some mock drums beats and we'll get the arrangement together. Then he'll email it to everybody and Steve will start working on it out in Ohio and Bob and I will start practicing it at home and Bill [Taylor, guitarist] will start working on stuff at his place in Florida, and that's pretty much how it goes. The main difference with this record is a lot of it was written while we were on the road, which is a first for us. Bob wrote probably about half the record when we were in South America last June and he did all the leads pretty much when we were on the Marduk tour in Europe back in October of last year. So, that's a first for us because it's so damn hard to write stuff on the road because you're just so distracted and there's so many things going on, even when you have a lot of down time, it's just really not quality down time where you can just sit and work. But, we actually had a lot of time on the last couple runs and thanks to technology that made it possible [laughs].
How do you feel the band's sound has progressed or changed over the years?
It has definitely progressed, it has changed in a good way, I mean if you listen to some of the earlier stuff, Dawn of Possession was a great album, but it still had a lot of our influences in it and I think we broke free of that by the second record. But just the second and third records we were still kind of floundering, we were kind of trying to find our own place, trying to find our niche. We had that identity already, people knew it was Immolation when they listened to it, which is good, for a band to have their own identity that early in the game is very important. But I don't think it was until the later releases that we really locked into what we really were truly trying to go for back then. And then we kind of trimmed a lot of the fat and fine-tuned everything and made everything a little bit more concise and that's kind of what you see on the new record. It's all the good stuff but just better because it's more concise and more to the point and more aggressive and more in-your-face, and a lot of the unnecessary crap was cut out, like the long, monotonous drawn-out parts. And, you know, some people still like that stuff, but we wanted to make it a little bit more dynamic.
Over the years a lot of bands tend to lighten up, but it's the opposite for Immolation. Your music keeps getting more aggressive.
Yeah, I guess that's a great compliment, thank you [laughs]. We try, we strive for that. The last interview I did, the guy was like, "You guys write a lot of really dark stuff" and I'm like, "Yeah, but we're not really that miserable as people, we're kind of upbeat as people" [laughs]. But the music is so freaking miserable and dark, but that's what we like to do, our style of death metal, our style of writing has always been on its own kind of plane and that's kind of just what we do. We always look at the darker side of life and the music reflects that, it's just the way it is [laughs].
With each release, you've been able to evolve your sound slightly so that each album is different, but you've also been able to maintain that core sound that you started with. Is it ever a challenge to maintain that balance?
It's not really that much of a challenge because at this point in the game, we're at least confident in the sense that we know what we want to achieve and we know how to get there. One thing from doing this for 25 years, you kind of know how to achieve that end result, and we know right away when something's not working, when something's really out of character for us. We have tried a couple things in the past here and there, but we have done different things. The EP for example, "Illumination" had the cello intro, which was very different for us, we've never done anything like that, but it worked well with the song, it's a very dark sounding intro piece but it worked and it kind of wove its way around the song and it worked for what the song was about. So little things like that, but we know not to go too far across that line because once you do that you alienate your entire fan base and it never ends well when you do that shit [laughs]. So yeah, we are very conscious but we are also all on the same page and we do know what works for us and what doesn't work. We're always very critical, specifically when we get in the studio because sometimes on that rare occasion, stuff does get past us and we're in the studio and we're playing it and you're just not feeling it, we will make changes. We've scrapped entire songs in the studio, we've eliminated entire sections out of the songs because they didn't work.
The guitar work is a big part of the band's iconic sound. Do you have any insight into Bob's method for coming up with material, which is always so innovative and brutal, yet darkly melodic?
Yeah, Bob's a unique character [laughs], he's probably one of the most talented dudes I know. I see the guy in action first-hand, he'll just come up with stuff on the spot, he'll come up with phenomenal leads. He'll have nothing and he'll just sit there and say, "Just loop that section," and he'll just go for it and I'm like, "Damn, dude" [laughs]. He's a talented dude, you know, and he's not a cocky dude at all, he's very grounded and I don't even think he realizes how talented he is, but I'll tell you first-hand, he's like a brother to me and he's very talented. So it is cool to watch him work, but he just has a genuine knack for coming up with great stuff that works really well with this band and I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that his musical taste is all over the map. I think he's more inspired, actually, by non-metal stuff, if you can believe that and I think that's where he gets some of that unique, more avant-garde kind of stuff comes from the non-metal stuff that he hears. Obviously, he's not going to incorporate something he likes from a non-metal source and incorporate that into our sound, but he'll take that idea and develop it and see how we can make it work in our music. But yeah, he just goes for it, he just sits there and he comes up with riff after riff after riff, and he'll play them for me and like I said, 98 percent of them are good, usable riffs.
Being the only two original members in Immolation, what's your relationship with Bob like?
Oh, we're best friends, we're like brothers. I mean, he's like my brother from another mother, totally [laughs]. I hang out with him all the time, he's over here a lot, I'm over there a lot, our families are tight. We've gone through so much together, we've altered our lives and we've made so many sacrifices together in order to do this, we really have, you know. We all work full-time jobs, we don't make a living off of this at all, so it's not an easy task to keep going [laughs], especially when you're in your 40s, you know, I'm 43, he's 42. So, yeah it gets very hard, the older you get you have a lot more responsibilities and blah, blah, blah, so it's not easy to kind of like just separate from your life and go on tour for a couple months, it's very difficult. So, we've made it work and we've been through a lot together, we've traveled all over the world together and yeah, he's my best friend and he's like a brother to me totally.
Lyrically, is there a specific theme behind Kingdom of Conspiracy?
Yeah, it's our first concept album that we've done, intentionally. People have said to us in the past for different records, "Is this a concept album?" Especially with Majesty and Decay, and they really weren't, even though a lot of the themes on those records were connected in some way and kind of applied to the new record as well. But the new record conceptually is about the world today, and we've always had that great knack of honing in on the darkest side of humanity, you know the first bunch of albums were heavily religious-themed. Whether it's a religious type of thing or social type of thing or just a personal type of thing, we've always seemed to have that knack [laughs], so the new album is no different, it just talks about the world today and all of the really bad things that are happening all over the world, not just in our country or in your country or in Europe. It's not an overtly political album because that's not what we're about, but there is that underlying sense of politics in there. But, it's really about the human side of everything and how we all play a part in this total unravelling of our world, in a lot of ways. I think we're at a really weird point in our history right now and I hope things go in a good direction, but there's so many really negative things that are happening right now and that's kind of what we focussed in on. So it's dark in the sense that it does touch on a lot of things that are happening and are our reality, unfortunately, but we do throw in that very Orwellian kind of twist and make it even darker. When I read 1984 back in grade school, it was a very dark book to me and it was a very scary book, and unfortunately, a lot of what Orwell was writing about back in 1948 I think when he wrote that book, a lot of that stuff is starting to happen now. So that's basically what the album is about, and each song has that common thread running through it and each song is kind of like a different symptom of this sickness that we see today all around us, so that's what it's about.
In comparison to the music, how important is the message that you convey in the lyrics?
Very, very important. We've always taken the lyrical end as seriously as the music, they go hand-in-hand. You can't have great music and shitty lyrics, or lyrics that mean zero. So we've always spent a lot of time on lyrics. They're not ambiguous, but some people say, "Yeah, you guys are very direct, you're very blatant," and we are in a sense, but there's also a lot more going on that we don't make as obvious. I think it's always fun for the listener to kind of take their own personal take of a song, you can have ten different people read the lyrics to any one of our songs and they'll probably get ten different things out of it, but that's good though. That's why I liked lyrics so much when I was younger, I still do, but I'm saying when I was first getting into metal I was always really into lyrics, what the bands were talking about, what was on their minds. And I loved stuff that wasn't right upfront, I loved stuff that you kind of had to dig and think on for a while, you know, those are always the best lyrics to me. So we try to keep that in mind when writing, to leave it a little bit open-ended for the listener, but obviously each song is very specific to a specific theme and idea when they're written. So the lyrics, yes, to answer your question, are extremely important and we take them as seriously as the music, absolutely.
There's some intense imagery going on, the music is really aggressive and your vocals are also very dark and menacing, but you're such a nice guy. Is it relatively easy to separate yourself from the darkness of Immolation in your everyday life?
Oh, thanks [laughs]. Yeah, because it's almost like two different worlds for me. The band and regular life are just two separate entities and as a person it's very hard for me to bring them together. It's hard to articulate what I mean by that, I don't know if I'm making sense of that, but for example, when I work and I'm on my job during the day, I don't really talk about the band. Really, I don't speak about it, I kind of downplay it when someone asks, "Are you a musician? What's with the long hair?" And I just say "Yeah, yeah," but that's it. I don't like to bring attention to that, it is what it is. When I'm in the band mode, then that's what I'm about, that's all it's about for me, when we're playing, when we're in the studio, you kind of live that. But we are the same people throughout, I mean we're not all gloom and doom, we're not totally pessimistic people, I think we're very optimistic in a lot of ways. So yeah, there is that total separation of both of those worlds so it is kind of easy to keep them separated, but when I do jump into the band side of my persona [laughs], or however you want to say it, that's when all that ugliness comes out. It is a good way to vent because when you look around, there is a lot of very upsetting things and you kind of just want to scream and say, "What the hell is going on?" So it's a good outlet for that, I think it's very healthy, actually to have that kind of outlet [laughs]. I think it's a very positive outlet because you're getting your message out to like-minded people all over the world who get it, because our fans are sharp. We have very intelligent fans who get it, they get what we're saying, they understand it and they are very much dedicated to what we do, musically and lyrically. I respect that a lot about them, I always say they're the best fans.
Do you think you'd be a less pleasant person to be around if you didn't have this band as an outlet?
Well, I'd have to find something else, I guess [laughs]. I would need another outlet, but luckily I have this.
Along with bands like Incantation, Suffocation and Malignancy, Immolation have paved the way of the New York death metal scene. How does it feel to be a part of that movement?
Yeah, I guess we've done our part by just being there and doing our thing, just like the other bands. Every one of the bands you mention, which is a very cool thing actually, are very different musically and lyrically. You mention Suffocation and Incantation, you mention Malignancy and ourselves, so that's four bands right there who are all part of this scene, yet are all very different. I think that says a lot about the diversity and the type of people who are involved in this type of music. We've all come from the same place, yet we've all interpreted it very differently. The New York scene has always been a very unique scene, a very strong scene. All the bands you've mentioned, we're very good friends with, we've pretty much played shows and toured with the bands, we've seen them at shows, we're tight on a personal level, you know? It's a very cool thing, and I think that goes for metal in general, metal is such a worldwide movement, but it's a movement that has never really been accepted by the mainstream, it's always kind of existed in the shadows, yet it has continually grown and gotten bigger and gotten more ferocious over the years. That really says a lot about this music, whether it's extreme death metal or heavy metal or thrash metal, I'm just talking about it under one general umbrella. We don't really think about that side of it, like "Oh, we're pioneers," or this or that — we do what we do, we're just very happy and fortunate to still be relevant and still be doing it [laughs], that's the main thing. But it's nice when people do acknowledge the fact that you have been around and that you're not just a bunch of new jocks, we've definitely put in our time like all the other bands and it's nice to at least get that kind of acknowledgement.
Do you ever feel any pressure to keep up with trends in the underground death metal scene, like being more technical?
No, I couldn't care less about trends. When things are trendy and people say they're quote unquote cool, that's when you avoid that shit because it's all a bunch of nonsense, it means zero [laughs]. It really means zero at the end of the day. It's about doing what you feel comfortable doing and what you feel strongly about and that's what we all do. That's why popular music sucks so bad, because everybody's too worried about trends and what's popular. You don't get into this kind of music because it's popular, in fact it's quite the opposite. When we started people were like, "Why the fuck are you guys wasting your time?" Funny story, when we signed our first contract with Roadrunner back in like 1990 or whenever the hell it was, we got an attorney to represent us, so we wouldn't, like, sign our souls away [laughs]. And the funniest thing, the first time we met this guy, he's like, "Wow, you guys are playing some crazy stuff, have you guys ever considered being a rap band? That's where the money is at. You guys should really consider doing that." The guy actually told us that [laughs] and we just thought it was the funniest thing. We're like, "Nah dude, we're not about that. We know this isn't popular and we know we're not going to make any money off of it, but this is what we want to do." So, you never get into this because you plan on exploding or making money, I mean that's irrelevant. It's about having fun and doing something you're actually passionate about and I think we're fortunate to have that because I know a lot of people don't have that, so it means a lot to us.