“I’m incredibly, incredibly forgiving of what you would call a ‘bad performance.’ I basically think that that doesn’t exist.”
Colin Marston listens to a lot of music. As a recording engineer – he owns Menegroth, The Thousand Caves studio in Queens, NY – his skills are in near-constant demand, and his lengthy production resume includes artists ranging from Panopticon to Oneida to Lydia Lunch. Then there’s his own roster of bands including, among others, avant- death metal stalwarts Gorguts, instrumental prog outfit Behold the Arctopus and experimental black metal band Krallice. As a guitarist (and bassist) Marston is known for his technical proficiency, careful composer’s ear, and an intuitive blend of heady and visceral. In one recent Bandcamp profile, musicians Weasel Walter and Brandon Seabrook both described Marston’s work as “fastidious” in the most positive sense.
MIGRATION FEST. Fri., July 27- Sun. 29. Mr. Smalls Theatre, 400 Lincoln Ave., Millvale. $45-200. www.migrationfest.com
This Saturday, Krallice – which in addition to Marston features guitarist Mick Barr, drummer Lev Weinstein and bassist Nick McMaster — headlines Gilead Media and 20 Buck Spin’s weekend-long Migration Fest, at Mr. Smalls in Millvale. The band’s densely technical songwriting manages to maintain speedy precision, even as it sonically expands, threatening to spill over into a kind of cosmic shapelessness. Marston doesn’t consider Krallice as exacting as many other technical metal bands – “None of us are, like, Yngwie Malmsteen-type players,” he says, in a phone interview earlier this month. “None of us are super, super precise. We play weird shit and maybe the rhythms or the counting is strange, and it has the impression of being extremely complicated … but really we’re, like, fairly sloppy musicians.
“Or, at least,” Marston adds, “that doesn’t get taken out of the music.” (And, of course, sloppiness is a very relative term).
For a band that is as technically complex as Krallice, I’m curious about what role spontaneity plays in live performances.
The music is 99.9% composed, so it’s basically the exact same thing every time. There is one section of a song on the Loüm record — the first song on the album — which has an actual improvised section, where there’s no real decided thing that we do, but it’s pretty brief. There can be a looseness sometimes … I would say the biggest thing that varies for us is tempo and feel. The sequence of notes, the sequence of riffs and so on is pretty much completely decided but we do seem to have a pretty large — from my standpoint — fluctuation of how a pace of a song will be from time to time when we play it. And as it the case, probably, for most bands, whenever you play live the tempos tend to be faster. And I’ve noticed that’s particularly the case for Krallice and for Gorguts and the bands that I play in. ….as soon as we get to the show we’re sort of ripping and it kind of changes the nature of the material. I don’t know if that’s super perceivable to the audience, it’s extremely noticeable to me when I’m playing.
I’ve read other interviews where you talk about the value of imperfection, so I was curious about where – for you — the line is between human imperfection and a bad performance?
When I’m watching someone else I’m incredibly, incredibly forgiving of what you would call “a bad performance.” I basically think that that doesn’t exist. I think that any level of competency or accuracy could be good or bad. … Good and bad are dangerous terms. You can get something out of something that’s done incredibly well or incredibly shitty. The whole appeal of punk rock in the beginning was that it wasn’t played well – well maybe not the whole appeal, but some of it was that – it felt very human and very relatable.
Have you always felt like this, or have you had your personal battles with perfectionism?
I’ve always felt like it more or less. I think it wasn’t clear on it when I was younger, I just kind of made records the way I made them and gravitated towards the music I gravitated towards, which was music that tended to be a little more human. It was music that was complicated and weird and maybe a little unsettling but that sort of had an underlying atmosphere or organic humanness …. One of my favorite guitar players growing up was Robert Fripp from King Crimson. He’s an incredibly fast player … but he’s not very intricate. And that definitely caught my ear.
I don’t remember ever having the [thought of] “I’m not good enough, my playing needs to be more perfect for this record.” I think I’ve been lucky in the sense that I’ve always been able to do my best and then be like, “Alright, that’s fine, let me move to the next thing.” But working in the recording studio all the time I come face to face all the time with other musicians struggling with being perfect and their ideas of perfection. So even though I don’t personally feel it that much I’m dealing with it with other people a lot, and sort of having to figure out the best way to be diplomatic about it, and not disrespect someone’s idea of what they want their music to be like, but kind of encouraging them to maybe loosen up on how it has to be.
I was thinking about the role of recording engineer as almost a therapist.
Totally! [Laughs] I think about that all the time.
It’s a professional relationship that’s also bordering on a friendship, sometimes bordering on a marriage, if you’re recording your own band. And then you have that added element of sometimes [being] the therapist: you’re sometimes having to figure out the root of why the person is upset about what’s going with what’s being recorded or what its sounding like. And sometimes they might be under the impression that it’s something that it isn’t really. They might think “I can’t play this part,” but maybe they’re focusing so hard on some aspect of it that it’s providing a bad feel for the music, and once they start to think about it differently and play the exact same thing it’s fine.
You’ve said you prefer listening to a recording to listening to a band live, and I feel like that’s kind of an unpopular opinion. People are like, “No, live music is the THING!”
[Laughs] I didn’t really think of it as being less popular. I think in a certain way, sure. And I also accept that those people with those contrary viewpoints are right, in a certain way. Because there is a sort of power to a live performance that a recording can’t even come close to. In a way, live performances are better, but if you consider the audio quality and the balance of any — I would say metal show specifically but I would even go so far as to say most live music in general — you close your eyes at a show and imagine that that was a record, 99 times out of 100 it would be the worst record you’ve ever heard. The sound is so bad. And that’s kind of a testament to how powerful live music is, is that the experience of being there and seeing it makes up for how horrible the sound is. It’s kind of a compliment to live music that it is that way.
And of course there are those times where you do see a show that’s mixed really well, or maybe music that’s more conducive to seeing live. Then you’re just like, wow, holy shit, live music really is where it’s at. I kind of like the control of the studio, and I’m just a fan of recordings. I can listen to a good recording of acoustic instruments and be excited about that. Because I’m a nerd. So I have that pushing me in the direction of liking records more. And making them myself it’s like, I can actually decide, make so many decisions that someone else would have made differently in the way that I want. So that’s a very gratifying experience.
I sort of feel the same but I think it’s because I’m short and hear things differently because I’m often blocked by people.
That certainly is an aspect of it, because if the sound is being blocked by taller people around you, you’ll lose a lot of the clarity of the show. For sure. That’s not an illusion.
People will be like, “That was great!” And I’m like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
And not to mention too, if you’re below the height of most other people, you can’t really see, and the sound is even worse, so what’s left for you?
The hearing damage.
Yeah, “I came for the music, I stayed for the hearing damage.”
All the sort of experiences I had in the first couple years of doing both, all those same things are true now, but I’ve sort of had time to understand them on a deeper level. But yeah, I kind of always, always felt like sound at shows was bullshit, and now I’m like, “Yeah, it is bullshit. I know that it is.”
Obviously there’s a lot of taste involved too, I’m talking about things in very objective terms but really everything we’re talking about is subjective. Their point is just as fair as ours.
What do you remember as the first thing you heard as a kid that just blew your mind with how viscerally insane it was?
One thing that I remember from being pretty young was hearing The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky in school. The music teacher played it for us. So either the intro or the Sacrificial Dance, it was one of the super jarring intense parts. And I do remember being terrified and intrigued at the same time. And that feeling, and that sort of music is still the stuff that gets me excited. I’m much more open to much more variety now, but I think that that was a really formative experience for sure. And then when I first started playing guitar, I heard King Crimson, [and] started listening to all the records of all the different periods, so that was another big one for me.
When you’re a kid, your mind is constantly being blown by things you’ve never heard; as you get older it’s hard to really tap into that.
It’s almost a weird discipline to keep yourself open minded enough to have that experience later in life, because it’s very common for people, myself included to a certain degree, to very much specialize in your taste … In order to get really inspired you have to check out a world that’s incredibly alien to you. ‘Cause that’s the whole point of why you were inspired when you were young, because EVERYTHING was alien to you. So it’s a good encouragement to be open to whole other styles of music, and other formats of art that maybe you wrote off at first, or just didn’t have time for, I think that’s kind of the only way.
Ironically, for me, I’ve been enjoying so much music – we touched on this earlier about bad playing – but I’ve been enjoying sloppiness and bad musicianship and bands making mistakes live. I’ve been enjoying that sort of the most. [Laughs]. Because especially for bands that are very traditional, and metal bands who like to stay traditional, there are no surprises.
The other day I was watching a band, a very traditional black metal band, and there was this one moment where the two guitars split from each other, and there was this really interesting harmony and the drummer kind of stopped for a second and then picked up and went into this other beat, and I realized that they’d just completely fucked up. One of them had gone to the wrong part…but for a split second I was completely captivated. It happened to be a mistake, but … they could have written something that sounded that way and I would have been like, “Woah, cool.” The intention wouldn’t have really mattered.
I love that.
It’s just funny: you end up maybe listening to so much tight music that that’s not interesting anymore. You kind of need to hear people who can’t really play to get something that you maybe never would have thought of before.
Margaret Welsh is the Pittsburgh Current Music Editor. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org