Enter Clear Mind: A conversation with Hamilton Jordan of Genghis Tron
It had been 13 years since Genghis Tron unleashed their groundbreaking record, Board Up The House, a vivid palette of sound and texture, giant riffs and frenetic beats that would later be remixed in five volumes by such luminaries as Justin K. Broadrick, Ulver, Tim Hecker, Danny Lohner and Nadja. Until now, the record’s bold synthesis of extreme metal and electronic music had never been matched. And after a lenghty hiatus, Genghis Tron returned to challenge their own best work with another brilliant offering – Dream Weapon. A monumentous occasion that also brought some changes to the band’s lineup – exit original vocalist Mookie Singerman and enter new vocalist Tony Wolski (Old Gods/The Armed) and drummer Nick Yacyshyn (Baptists/Sumac), who join founding members Hamilton Jordan and Michael Sochynsky in the studio.
On March 26th, Genghis Tron will be dropping Dream Weapon, a record that goes beyond the genre-defying, multilayered masterwork of their previous offering, combining hypnotic rhythms and densely-layered synth soundscapes with ethereal vocals and a more cohesive song structure overall. In lue of the impeding release of their third record, we spoke with Hamilton Jordan about the band’s mindset after a 13-year-long hiatus and the influences and lyrical concepts that drove the creation of Dream Weapon, as well as what it was like working with a new singer and drummer for the first time.
What led you into wanting to return after a 10-year-long hiatus and what was your mindset like going into recording a new album?
We always called it a hiatus and not a break-up because we didn’t want to stop with Genghis Tron. It was pretty clear to all three of us at the time that we really wanted to make more music, but at the same time, we realized it was going to be a while, at least several years if not longer. And so, we felt like we owed it to our fans to tell them, “hey, you’re not going to hear from us for a long time”. At the time, I think we probably just thought it was maybe two or three years and it ended up being much longer. We were all working in lots of other things in life, not really focusing on music. But the whole time, we always had a strong desire to keep making music and we had a strong feeling that it was going to happen again someday. That feeling never really went away; if anything it got stronger, especially after five or six years. Just speaking for myself, I really missed making and writing music with my friends and working on Genghis Tron, it was something that was starting to feel like there was a hole in my heart. I really wanted to do it again and it was just a matter of time before we were able to make it happen. I mean, we all just started doing other things, started families, we had other jobs and we all live in different places.
And it took until about 2018, when the planets aligned in a way that we finally were at a point of our lives where we felt like we all could start working on this again. The event that sort of caused that to happen was that my wife and I moved from California to Detroit, where we now live, and along the way we visited Michael, who lives in New York. We were just going to hang out, we weren’t going to work on music, we were just catching up as friends. But while we were there, without any planning, we started working on a song and it felt so good, Michael and I looked at each other and said, okay, if we are going to do this, we need to start doing it now. Like, this is it. That was on October of 2018, and then it took about two years of writing and recording until we were finished with the album.
For me, the mindset by the time we were working on it was one of excitement just to finally be making music again, it was wonderful. And also, an interesting part of the mindset too was that it had been so long since our last album that we didn’t assume that anyone would even still be interested in what we were doing. And frankly, the response to our returning and putting out new music has been surprising and overwhelming, we did not expect it. We weren’t even sure if Relapse Records would want to put out another album by us. We had no expectations; we just knew that we wanted to write the songs and see what would happen. So, our mindset, you could almost call it pure because we weren’t thinking about what the record label is going to think or what the fans are going to think. We weren’t really sure that anyone would be paying attention. It allowed us to have a very honest experience; it was just Michael and I working on music, with the only goal being to write songs that we were both happy with. I would never want to wait that long to write music again, but you could say that it felt like a clean slate for us, a fresh start.
“We always had a strong desire to keep making music and we had a strong feeling that it was going to happen again someday. That feeling never really went away; if anything it got stronger, especially after five or six years.”
Going into the creative aspect of the record itself, what did you hope to achieve that you hadn’t been able to before?
That’s a good question. I think we knew for a long time, probably as far back as 2009 or 2010, that our third album after Board Up The House would maybe be something a little more open, where the sounds were a little warmer, where the arrangements gave the instruments and the tones more room to breathe. That was something that we have wanted to do for a long time and I think that if you start with our first EP in 2005 and then go through our first two albums, there is a very gentle progression in that direction, of just having more cohesive songs, songs that have a little more atmosphere and having a more cohesive album overall. That was something we started exploring, especially in the last song of Board Up The House, called “Relief”, which is a longer, more meditative and more repetitive, kind of hypnotic song. Even in 2009 and 2010, we were listening to a lot of music that was like that and that continued over the years. And so, one thing we wanted to achieve was a warmer and deeper sonic space that you could get lost in, something that was still heavy and dark, but I think we wanted to try achieving heaviness in a different way. Not with crazy, brutal drumming or really abrasive vocals, but something where maybe the arrangements themselves are heavy and the way you sort of get lost in it is hypnotic or the sounds were really lush but the melodies are still dark and somber. We wanted to explore those different tones, those different sonic realms, for lack of a better word. More generally, our goal was to write something that reflected where our heads are right now and what we want to hear in music, and that’s sort of always been a goal with every album. It’s sort of cliché when you hear bands say this, but it’s true for us too, we just wanted to write the music that we want to hear and, in a way, that’s always been the principle.
Having heard the record, I do have to say that it feels like a progression from your previous material and, like you said, it does feel warmer and fresher. It doesn’t have those blast beats and that fast heaviness that you had before, but it does feel more expansive and crushing, in a different way.
Thank you, I really appreciate that, it means a lot! And just for the record, I still love blast beats, I still love that crazy, brutal music and maybe we’ll do some more stuff like that in the future, I don’t know. But for this one, it didn’t feel like an honest thing for us to do. We felt like if we were to do crazy parts jumping around, we would be trying to do an impersonation of our previous music instead of something that reflects what we really want to make right now.
Were there any specific influences you pulled from when recording Dream Weapon?
You know, even during those years where we weren’t really making much music, Michael and I were always really close friends – we were always in touch and always sharing tons of music with each other. Like, we are obsessed with music as listeners and as fans. This was still true when we were on tour in 2007 and 2008; we started listening to a lot of krautrock, but Michael got much deeper into it in the last ten years, especially the last five years. Bands like Neu!, Cluster and things like that, I know those were definitely strong influences for Michael, and I like that stuff too. For me, I can definitely think of some artists that have influenced me. It wasn’t as literal, it was sort of the way they approached things that influenced me and not so much how it sounds. The last couple of years, I listened to a lot of King Crimson and a lot of Peter Gabriel. I’ve known Peter Gabriel since I was a kid but it wasn’t until maybe two years ago that my wife started listening to him a lot and got me really into him, and I had never appreciated how incredible of a musician he is and how great his albums are.
And just things like, Peter Gabriel would do entire records without any cymbals because he thinks the cymbals crowd the mix. I would listen to albums during that period of Peter Gabriel and think like, wow, this stuff is amazing. And part of why it sounds so cool is because there is all this sonic space, I learnt little lessons like that. I didn’t take it to the extreme, we have cymbals in our songs – it’s not like we told our drummer Nick [Yacyshyn] that he wasn’t allowed to use the cymbals. But just thinking more thoughtfully about like, does every sound that you’re putting in the song really add to the arrangement or is it possible that you’re just having a bunch of crash cymbals at the top of every measure just because you’re used to doing that in rock music, and maybe the effect is that it creates all this unnecessary noise in the mix? So yeah, those sorts of concepts influenced me, and a lot of 80s stuff too, you know, Tears For Fears, Peter Gabriel, big tom drums… I’m not a drummer and now we have a drummer who’s amazing, but I’m still heavily involved in writing drums. So, even though I’m not a drummer, I think about drums a lot and several songs on this album started with just a drum beat, I would write minutes of drums before we would even have any melodies. And so, thinking about rhythms and things like that is an important part of how our music comes together.
Lyrically speaking, were there any concepts you wanted to explore specifically in this new record?
We had what I would describe as a loose concept for the album lyrically. It’s not a super literal, strong concept album but it’s something we decided on years ago, honestly. I mentioned that last song on Board Up The House, the song is called “Relief” because it’s sort of about the idea that at some point in the future, humanity is going to expire. It’s inevitable, we are not going to last forever and our expiration will probably have something to do with the poor decisions we’ve made as the human race. And, of course, there is something sad about that and something frightening about it, but there is also something sort of beautiful when you think about the fact that no matter what we’ve done, the planet is going to continue on in some other capacity, other species will survive and a new growth and different sorts of development will happen. And so, that song was called “Relief” because it was about the idea of the planet feeling relieved when that phase happens. That was something we felt powerfully in 2007 when we recorded Board Up The House and it’s not like things have gotten any better since then, it’s something that definitely still weighs on us and it’s something that I still feel just moving throughout life, so we thought that there was a lot there to explore emotionally. So, I would say that this album is an entire meditation on those sorts of thoughts and feelings about the fact that we’re doomed. But you can also try to find some beauty in the fact that things will go on and, in the meantime, while we’re still here, there is a lot to be grateful for, there is a lot of beauty in the world. There’s that sort of a duality between the sadness and the fear, but also acceptance and appreciating, you know, trying to find love and beauty in the world while we’re here because it’s an amazing place. That’s the very loose concept that informed all of the songs and our singer Tony [Wolski] wrote the lyrics with some loose input from Michael and I. We described this concept to him and Tony liked it, and he had plenty to say that fit within that framework very loosely.
“I would say that this album is an entire meditation on those sorts of thoughts and feelings about the fact that we’re doomed. But you can also try to find some beauty in the fact that things will go on , (…) there is a lot to be grateful for, there is a lot of beauty in the world. “
This is your first record with Tony Wolski on vocals and Nick Yacyshyn on drums. What do you feel they brought to the table during the creative process?
To summarize it, Michael and I wrote the rough demos of the whole album – the instrumental song structures without vocals -, and then, Tony and Nick helped us convert those demos into fully-fledged songs and they really brought everything to the next level. I’ll start with Nick; we would still write our songs by programming drums like we would do in the old days. You know, fake drums showing roughly what we thought Nick could try to do and we brought those ideas to him. In some cases, he liked what we came up with and he would just stick to our original ideas, but in lots of instances, he would come up with amazing improvements. In some songs, he completely rewrote the drums, like the song “Alone in the Heart of the Light”, Nick came up with a completely different drum arrangement that was just amazing. And even for the songs where he stuck closer to our original ideas, he would add these incredible flourishes and variations that just pushed everything to another level.
As for Tony, in addition to writing the lyrics, he wrote all the vocal melodies too. So, all of the stuff that Tony is singing was stuff that he created. Michael and I gave some input on like, you know, Tony would try different ideas and we would say, we like this one, not that one. We’d give some feedback in that sense, but Tony generated all the ideas and after a couple of months working together, I think he really came to appreciate what we were going for. I’m still amazed by the stuff he came up with because on the one hand, it definitely feels like it fits with the songs, but on the other hand, to Michael and I, Tony was coming up with ideas that we never would have imagined being in our music. So, it was really cool for us because Tony would send an idea and we would be surprised like, wow, we weren’t expecting vocals to be in this part of the song, we thought this part would be instrumental. But then Tony would add something that we would never imagine but we just loved it, and it felt so cool, it felt like a perfect addition to our music that we never could have come up with ourselves.
Beyond the specific things that Tony and Nick added, they are also both really amazing songwriters. They both play lots of instruments, Tony is a drummer himself, Nick plays guitar in addition to drums, and they both have a better appreciation of music theory and stuff like that, that Michael and I don’t have. So, even though Michael and I finished the demos, Nick and Tony offered some really important critiques of the song structures. The title-track, “Dream Weapon”, used to be like eight minutes long, there was a whole other section that came at the end but we were never really able to get it to work very well and Tony was just like, “guys, it doesn’t need to go on, it can just end right here”, and we wrote a new ending and it was perfect, it solved the puzzle for us. They definitely added a whole lot. Even though Michael and I would say we are the initial songwriters, the songs completely transformed with their involvement and it really was a special collaboration.
It is also the third time you recorded with Kurt Ballou, how was it working with him again after so long?
First off, it was nice working with him just because there had been so many changes for us. Our previous singer was no longer involved, we have a new singer, we have a drummer for the first time and plus, Michael and I hadn’t been in the studio in 13 years, I hadn’t played guitar in front of anyone in 10 years, we were very rusty. We were excited about the songs but I didn’t have the full confidence that someone would have if we had been playing all these years and if I had been touring playing these songs. Given that there were so many changes, it was really nice to have a familiar face steering the ship and being involved in the process, someone who we felt safe working with and who we could trust to help translate our ideas. Just that familiarity of working with Kurt was really comforting, but more importantly, he has always been an amazing engineer. He was an amazing engineer when we first recorded with him in 2005 and now he has 13 more years of experience since Board Up The House, so he just got even better and he has recorded many more different kinds of bands in the last ten years. That helped because we wanted all of Kurt’s talents, but we weren’t going for what you might call the Kurt Ballou signature sound that a lot of bands get, with the really noisy guitar tones and the brutal drums. We wanted him to bring that heaviness because he knows how to do that, but we wanted more warmth, more clarity in the mix. And it was great working with him because he listened to us and we were able to have enough time in the studio to do some trial and error. Most of the time was spent on mixing and not on tracking because it just takes so long to mix our songs to where we get them just right. It took several days before we were all on the same page of what we were going for, but once we were there, he was really excellent in helping us translate our ideas. In the end, it was something that we were super happy with and he is happy with it too.
The artwork of Dream Weapon was done by Trevor Naud. When choosing the artwork for this record, did you select it from an existing piece that Trevor had or did you commission the work?
We commissioned the work. Trevor is an artist who lives in Detroit, where I live, and we actually met him through Tony, he is a friend of Tony’s. We had just seen some of the art he had done and thought that he could be a really good fit. We had an hour-long phone conversation with him where we talked about some of our favourite visual art influences and we had so much in common with him, we felt really good that he knew that he’d be able to come up with something special. I love what he did. We told him that we wanted someone to be in a record store flipping through records and to see that cover and be like, “what is this?”. You know, something that evokes maybe another world or another time, something that stands out.
Do you always seek to create a connection between the artwork and the music?
Yeah, I think so. It’s interesting, Trevor is only the second artist we’ve worked it, our previous releases all had the same artist doing the cover and, in all cases, we’ve given them some direction, but then pretty much just let them do what they want to do and be inspired by the music as they see fit. We told Trevor about some of the lyrical themes and that we were going for warmth and things like that, so in that sense, yeah, we did want there to be a connection. One thing that is maybe obvious is that we didn’t want it to appear like a genre album, like, oh, this is a metal record, you know? We wanted there to be some mystery where maybe if you look at the cover, you can have a guess of what the music might sound like, but it’s not totally obvious, and I hope that’s something we achieved with this one too.
Despite the current pandemic situation, do you have any plans on touring with this record in the future?
We currently have no plans but it’s something we hope we’ll be able to do. It’s something we are thinking about and hopefully, at some point this year, we will be able to make a decision either way. But if it’s feasible to get everyone together… You know, we are at a different point of our lives and everyone has a lot of things going on, Nick has a lot of other bands. But despite all that, if we can find a way to make it happen, I’d love to make it happen. And I hope that, if we do tour, we’d love to play Portugal, we have never been there before. I’ve never visited the country and I’d love to do that.
“We wanted there to be some mystery where maybe if you look at the cover, you can have a guess of what the music might sound like, but it’s not totally obvious, and I hope that’s something we achieved with this one too.”
Interview by Filipe Silva
Photo by Trevor Naud, courtesy of Genghis Tron