Speak to Birds – An Interview with Cormorant’s Matt Solis

I first heard Cormorant back in 2009, during my freshman year in college. Their debut LP, Metazoa, made a splash in the underground that year with its eclectic mix of metal genres, progressive songwriting and DIY aesthetics. With the release of Dwellings (2011) and Earth Diver (2014), they’ve solidified their name as a Bay Area beacon of complex and passionate metal music. I reached my antennae out to guitarist Matt Solis shortly after his run on a most interesting festival…

Can you tell me a little about the White Shark Fest that you guys played recently?

Yeah, the festival was a two-day thing, the weekend before Halloween. We closed out the Sunday show. Nick and Brennan and I have another band and we opened that set, and then closed so it was a pretty long day.

I can imagine… So I heard the show was sponsored by this Ocean Research Foundation. What do you know about the organization? Did you meet any of the members in the audience?

The whole thing was put on by our friend Aaron from Giant Squid (and various other bands). He’s a big time marine biologist; he used to, not sure if he still does it, he used to be a tank diver for a couple aquariums here in the Bay Area. He’s really into ocean conservation…he’s the one who got the ball rolling on this. I think maybe he went to school with one of the members. They had a couple of representatives there, the lead shark tagging expert was around all day, doing shark trivia and giving out some prizes to people. Talking about what they were raising money for, tagging the White sharks for the upcoming mating season. We’re all big animal people, so it was kind of a no-brainer.

Did you know any of the other bands that played in the Fest going in? Any recommendations?

We know most of the bands. Waning played and we played with them in Sacramento last year. They’re a great band. This band, Shark in the Water, played right before us. We hadn’t heard of them before…they showed up wearing shark outfits, they had crab hats and were playing this down-tuned surf metal, it was pretty fuckin’ cool. They were kind of mind-blowing actually.

Aequorea from Grass Valley were really good, kind of like post-rock, instrumental stuff, Mouth of the Architect style. Who else… Squalous played, basically all the guys from Giant Squid minus Jackie, it’s two basses, keyboards and drums. They ripped, really monstrous sludge/doom stuff. All their lyrics are about the movie Jaws. Aaron’s obsessed with that movie, so he made a band as a tribute. They were super heavy.

It was just a fun day – everyone there was friends and hanging out. There was a pretty easy-going vibe that whole day.

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So I’m a little bit of a Biology nerd as well, I’ve always loved animals. Do you have a favorite critter?

My favorite animal is the octopus. It’s funny, anybody who knows me knows I have like seven tattoos of octopuses on various parts of my body. At my desk at work I have octopus toys everywhere, there’re octopus paintings in my house. I’m fuckin’ obsessed with octopuses.

I’m an owl guy myself. Along with being little weirdos like cormorants, they’re both used as symbols in literature. Animals and symbolism are a great mix.

When we were thinking of stuff to call Metazoa, we almost called it Totem. We were noticing a lot of the lyrics had these animals as representations of ideas, metaphors. That’s been a theme of ours for years now.

When it comes to lyrics, Metazoa dealt with human history, like the Reign of Terror in “Uneasy Lies the Head,” and Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion (“Blood on the Cornfields”). You also had a lot about non-human animals. But with Dwellings, there’s a big shift in lyrical content towards the struggles of mankind. Was there anything specific that marked this change from focusing on a lot of different kinds of animals to mainly humans and their affairs?

I can only speak to a certain extent on this subject because Arthur (Von Nagel), our former bassist and vocalist, wrote the lyrics on both of these albums. I will say that from a musical standpoint, it really seemed to fit what we were going for, making this change. Metazoa was a little more on the melodic death metal side.

If I was to grab onto anything that all four of us were into at that point in our lives (back in 2009), we were really into the whole Agalloch style of metal, incorporating these nature themes. There’s a lot of stuff like that on Metazoa…lyrics about walking into the waves, and we used some samples of the ocean. A lot of nature.

With Dwellings, the way we started writing that music…it was coming from a darker, more grounded place. I was sort of new to the band when we were doing Metazoa and by the time we did Dwellings, I’d been in for four or five years. We were writing in a little more aggressive style, maybe because I came in and added a bit of that and brought it out in the other guys. I think that led to the change in the lyrical content. 

The way it worked on that album, the way it works usually, is we’ll write all the music first and then mold the lyrics into the song. If the song was making us feel a certain way, we would match with the lyrics. We did this with “Funambulist,” I had seen that documentary about the wire-walker, “Man on Wire.” The song has a lot of airy parts, going into faster galloping parts, so it kind of lended itself to that story-line. I think it was a natural progression of the music we were writing.

I’m sure you get this question a lot – with Arthur’s departure, the lyrics morphed again, towards the fantastical and the personal, as opposed to the historical. Was Arthur the one who brought most of the interest in historical events, or was it a natural shift in interests that led to telling stories of your own creation?

Since he was the one who handled all of the lyrics, we pretty much let him do what he wanted. I think it was more of what his interests were. He was very interested in digging up the facts of certain situations and events in history and exploring the emotions around them based on the facts of what happened. I remember when he was writing “A Howling Dust” off of Dwellings, he had five or six books from the library…historical accounts of Old West towns. He was trying to get into the mindset of a Chinese railroad worker. He was reading up about all of this shit, and I was just like…man, you’re really going for it here! That was his thing, that was what he liked about lyrics.

When Arthur left I took over the lyrics (and Marcus does the lyrics as well, so we kind of tag-team it). It’s not that I’m not into historical things, I just find it more interesting to keep the narratives more nebulous. On Earth Diver, for the last song “A Sovereign Act,” I wrote the lyrics based on this documentary called “How to Die in Oregon,” about the assisted suicide movement out there, and it was a powerful movie for me. I sort of approached the lyrics in a personal way, like what if I was faced with this crazy decision of killing myself to end my suffering. What would I be going through when making that choice? That’s more interesting to me, more personal.

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If I think about Arthur’s style, he’s more of a reporter. He’s a great writer… he uses a lot of colorful imagery in his lyrics. Especially in a song like “Junta,” that’s an account of a historical event. If you read those lyrics, that’s what went down in that part of the world at that time. If I was to write the lyrics, I’d think about the event and then try to put myself into the position of one of the people there, or maybe as an outsider, looking at it like a god from above.

I’ve noticed overarching themes as your albums progress: on Metazoa, there’s a focus on mankind’s relationship with nature, and moving toward Dwellings, it’s more about humans interacting with each other. With Earth Diver, it’s more abstract, like mankind’s relationship to myth and imagination. Do you write with a theme in mind?

When we write these lyrics, I like to have an overarching theme, and the stuff we’re  working with now has a theme. You’re right about Earth Diver in terms of humanity’s relationship to myth. That’s exactly the theme we were going for with that. I don’t necessarily think of it as a concept album, where every song has to be like “Okay, this means this and this means this,” but if I look at each album as an overall piece, you’re right on with that. There’s a lot of stuff to be taken from Metazoa with Man’s relationship to Nature. Dwellings is all about Man’s relationship to legacy…to physical legacy and to personal legacy. What do we leave behind, both physical and nonphysical? And how does that effect other people?

Earth Diver, like you said – Man’s relationship to myth and why is myth such a huge part of human culture? How does it inform our physical, every day lives? What happens when myth becomes too much of a reality – what are the consequences of that? Keeping these things in mind when I write the lyrics is helpful.

To my ears, Earth Diver is your darkest work yet as Cormorant. It’s pissed off, it’s got a more overtly black metal sound than your previous albums. Even the new band logo is covered in barbs. What brought about the shift to more blast-beat heavy songs? Is this just a reflection of what you’re all into now?

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When I joined the band I was 24, so I think it’s a combination of being interested in different types of extreme metal, our tastes growing, our styles growing, because you know, Brennan, Nick and I have been playing together for ten years…there’s something that happens where you just kind of go through these phases. Especially with a band like ours that isn’t tied to a specific genre. Like with our other band, Ursa, we write doom. It’s a doom band. If it’s not a doom riff, it doesn’t go in the song. With Cormorant, as long as the music falls under the genre of extreme metal, which is such a huge place to be, you can go anywhere you want as long as it has this color that we’ve all agreed is “extreme.” So to that end, the progression of the sound has come from getting older, listening to more extreme stuff, and wanting Cormorant to express different shades of the genre.

So will the upcoming 4th album continue the trend of having an overarching theme?

I’d say the overall theme of the new album, if we’re going with a “Man Vs.” thing which seems to be a common thread here – I’d say that this album is Man Vs. Man. A lot of the themes are exploring the nature of hubris: what happens when we become so enamored with our own progression that we destroy ourselves and the world around us. But I feel like the hubris of Mankind can also be positive in a way. Pushing ourselves has led us to create many of the things we see around us, whether it’s technology or infrastructure. It’s pretty remarkable what we, as animals, have accomplished through our insatiable greed for becoming more…becoming more than we are now. The lyrics kind of explore that from different angles, both the positive and the negative…and I think that’s important because I never want to be a nihilistic guy. There’s a lot to be nihilistic about in this world, but I prefer to always have some sort of hopeful outlook at the end of the day.

There’s word of a 25-minute intro track to this new album. What’s the value of a long vs. a short song? What can you do in 20 minutes that you can’t do in 5 minutes if you play faster, have more riffs, and pack in more emotion?

For us, it’s always been about exploring dynamics. We never think of it in terms of song length, honestly. We’re often surprised when we’re writing and realize we have a 12-minute song. We don’t think of music in terms of “Ok, this song has got to be this, this song will be this way.” We write to express ourselves and what we want to hear, and we’ve progressed to a point where we don’t give a fuck if a song is 25 minutes long.

When I think of our new album, the benchmark I keep looking back to, as I told the guys, is 2112 by Rush…they’re a huge rock band and they put out an album with a 22-minute song as the first song, and it was super successful. It shows you, as long as the material is there, it doesn’t matter how long or how short the song is. If the material is there, the material is there. And I feel like the audience will be there if that’s the case.

Any other details you can share about the next album? Cover artist or medium perhaps?

It’s going to be 4 songs, and it’s 50 minutes long. We’re not totally sure on the title yet, and we still have to mix, we actually just finished tracking. We did a week of tracking at Earhammer Studios in Oakland with Greg Wilkinson. He’s done so much great stuff…Vastum, Lycus, Lecherous Gaze. He’s all over the place with his styles. So we had a great time recording with him, and we’ll be mixing this coming weekend and probably next weekend.

And then for the artwork, it’s being worked on right now actually…we’ve got a few preliminary images back…it’s pretty fuckin’ cool. It’s by Jeff Christensen, the guy who did some of the artwork for Ur Draugr’s albums. He’s doing an entire 4-panel painting for us, and the theme is along the grounds of migration. It’s super psychedelic and cool-looking, so we’re really excited. We haven’t had to give him much direction past the initial stuff because what he’s been sending us has been jaw-dropping. We should have the finished artwork by late December or January. Right now, we’re just focusing on listening to mixes.

This new stuff, Greg’s style is…crushing. Crushing death metal bands like Vastum and Necrot. He’s really brought out the filth I guess, but he’s also got a great ear for the melodic stuff. We have long, clean sections in this album. We also have cello, Jackie from Giant Squid played cello on two of the songs. My brother, Andrew, played keyboards on all four of the songs, just adding stuff here and there. So there’s a lot of that stuff going on, but also just this sonic crushing-ness that we’ve yet to really tap into. I think Greg is doing a great job with that.

I’m really looking forward to it. Thanks again for taking the time!

Thanks to you too man!

 

 

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