Oct 2021 20

On the eve of his latest tour, Stoneburner founder Steven Archer speaks with ReGen about the culmination of his latest album.
 

 

An InterView with Steven Archer of Stoneburner

By Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)

Over the past several years, Stoneburner has successfully transitioned away from the tribally infused otherworldly soundscapes that initially defined it toward something more experimental, aggressive, and lyrically charged. Exploring a diverse range of topics from the sociopolitical status quo to the dehumanizing effects of mass media, from the pitfalls of a corrupt music industry to matters of emotional and mental health, the post-industrial outfit is an audiovisual tour de force that COP International was not going to pass on adding to its distinctive roster of artists. With the mixing and production assistance of the legendary John Fryer, Stoneburner’s latest album, Apex Predator, takes the sound into greater levels of sonic maturity and quality, sure to cause quite a stir on The King of Wolves Tour, co-sponsored by ReGen Magazine. Here, founder and front man Steven Archer speaks with us about the new album and tour, speaking about the conceptual character of the chaos wolf god whose story culminates in Apex Predator, and how it will translate to the visual component of an increasingly dynamic live show. As well, he speaks about his band mates Hemlock Wargrave and Nathan Rose, working with the aforementioned Fryer, his thoughts on life and touring in the (hopefully) ebbing wave of the global pandemic, and the industrial music genre as a whole.

 

Your most recent release, Apex Predator is your first full-length release with COP. How did you first come to be associated with COP? After releasing the ‘Sellout’ and ‘Spectrum’ singles, and now the full album, how pleased are you with this association?

Archer: I love COP. I had a horrible experience with my last label, and COP is the exact opposite. They couldn’t be more supportive and more enthusiastic about the work. When I first spoke to Christian Petke, I was so happy to find that they are running the label exactly the way that I would in this climate, which is to say, keep it small, focused, and supportive of the artists.
And of course, being on COP put me on the path to work with John Fryer, who did a fantastic job of taking my mixes and making them shine. By which I mean, he spent a ton of time fixing all the things I did wrong with both patience and grace.

COP, Distortion Productions, and many other labels in this scene seem to be smaller operations (many artist-run) than the major mainstream model. Not that the ‘record industry’ is in any danger of going away, but do you at all see any possibilities for them to represent a shift in how the music ‘business’ conducts itself?

Archer: I’m a big fan of record labels. We used to own an art gallery and I think that record labels, book publishers, and art galleries share similar roles – they act as curators for art. In the new digital world, it’s easy to drown in all of the available material. Curators, at least the ones I prefer to work with, act as trusted distributors who can both vet the work for the consumer and help support and develop the artists that they bring onboard. I’ve been very fortunate. The majority of the labels we’ve been on – Dancing Ferret, Metropolis, Distortion, and now COP – have been amazing; not to mention our publisher Raw Dog Screaming Press.
The TL;DR is that, yes, I think the right label can be a good thing for artists and bands alike. That said, I was recently handed a contract for review by a friend, and it was horrific. Even now, some independent labels are out to screw artists.

Outside of distribution, what do you find to be the major benefits of these labels… at least as it pertains to Stoneburner?

Archer: As I mentioned, hooking me up with John was huge. I mean, any time you get to work with an A-list producer, you’ve got to take it. Beyond that, Christian’s support has been invaluable. When I ask for input, he gives it, but he never forces anything down my throat. An added bonus is we are both art dudes of different flavor – my focus is on fine art and his is graphic design. So, for instance, when I was putting the packaging together, he was able to catch print elements that I missed, which is a huge deal to me, because normally, I don’t have a second line of defense with that sort of thing.
He also gave me a very insightful critique of the cover art early on, which caused me to rethink it and go with the final image, which is much, much stronger than my original design. But as I said, the biggest thing is just the support. I know that if I have a problem, I can call them, and they will help me work through and solve it… kind of like Vanilla Ice.

 

 

Hemlock Wargrave (Sister Sarin) has played live with you and performs some live drumming on the album. Would you tell us about her involvement in the band, how she first came to be part of Stoneburner, and in what ways you feel her performance enhances your vision for the band?

Archer: I’ve been part of the DC/Baltimore scene for over 30 years. And while I’m not always involved on the ground floor, I keep my ear to the ground about who’s doing what. Hemlock came under my radar maybe five-plus years ago and she struck me as someone who had a ton of drive to do the thing, but needed some help getting started. She reminded me of me at her age.
When I decided to change Stoneburner’s musical style from the industrial/tribal thing I was doing to more song-oriented, I knew the shows would also have to change because I would be singing. I needed someone to not just add to the show as support, but who could keep up with me as a performer. I’ll admit that after spending most of my life onstage, I have slowed down a bit, but even with age and some physical issues, I strive to put on the most energetic and engaging show possible. So, I need people onstage who will throw themselves into it at least as much as I do. And both Hemlock and my other drummer Nathan Rose (DJ Aesthetic from Atlanta) fit that bill. Nathan handles the more traditional drum sounds and Hemlock’s kit is made up of samples of car doors, boxes full of metal chain being dropped, trash can lids, etc. She’s also a very good visual artist, and her eye for style adds to the show as well.

Apex Predator‘s artwork is rather striking with the image of the bloody wolf, and the tour is called The King of Wolves (and from what I’ve seen, you’ll be wearing a wolf mask live as well); could you elaborate further on this image and how it relates to the themes of the album?

Archer: A year or so back, I released an EP called Red in Tooth and Claw, which is as a concept album about an immortal chaos god in the form of a 3000-foot-tall red wolf. The EP documents its time on Earth, helping humans evolve, falling in love with a she-wolf, and after her death turning on humans and attempting to destroy them. The EP ends with his apparent death and their spirits returning to the stars. Whenever I start work on a new record, I try to nail down a central theme. After the past four years in politics and all the idiocy surrounding the vaccine (by which I mean the myopic fools not getting it), there was only one option as far as themes go… anger. I knew I had to bring the wolf back.
 

 
The World Wolf is a fantastic vehicle for writing because it exists totally outside human morality. In a way, it’s totally objective. There is a line in the title track that sums it up – ‘There are no situations, just ever present needs, an all-consuming, bone-extruding obsidian blade of greed. I’m a singularity of rage and apathy. The world beneath the world, a spinning turmoil of teeth.’
So, I needed a way to bring the wolf back, which resulted in me creating an acolyte who calls himself ‘the king of wolves.’ He decides that his role in the universe is to create enough chaos to bring the wolf back to our planet… which works. The night the wolf returns, the king of wolves holds a press conference/rave on the roof of 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York, which is where the album begins – the first track being ‘The Return of the World Wolf,’ which acts both as an introduction to the mythology and a general thesis for the record itself.

Your work up to now has been largely self-produced, yet on Apex Predator, you got to work with John Fryer. In what ways do you feel his production/mixing strengthened or refined the sound of Stoneburner?
What sorts of ideas or techniques do you feel you might have learned from working with him?

Archer: It’s funny, when I got the first mix of ‘Sellout’ back, I turned to my wife Donna (Ego Likeness) and said, ‘Holy shit! This sounds so good! And I have no idea why or what he did! Because if I knew what he did, I would have done it.’ It was a very strange experience. I’ve been doing the audio thing for a long time now, and I have a pretty good idea of how most things work, but hearing my own work after a master like John has been at it was just amazing.
To be honest the record doesn’t sound drastically different between my mixes and his. I feel confident I can get it to 90% there, but that remaining 10% is a million miles out of my reach. And he took it there. My record was good; his is immaculate.
As to learning, he was kind enough to spend an hour debriefing me after he finished it. We went over all of the songs and he pointed out things I have been doing wrong, which was fucking great! The material I have worked on since then has greatly benefited from it. I actually went back and reworked every single song in the live set to bring it up to the quality of the record.

 

 

As mentioned, Stoneburner is about to embark on The King of Wolves Tour, and while live shows are steadily returning, there is the concern about how we will be able to ‘go back to normal’ with so many venues having to close down, everyone wanting to tour at the same time, getting people excited about going to live shows again, etc. What sort of difficulties do you anticipate for playing live again?

Archer: In a perfect world, I would make the shows vaccinated only. Because if you’re not vaccinated, I don’t want you there. Some people can’t get the vaccine because they are immunocompromised, in which case, I don’t want you risking your life to come see me. And if you willingly choose not to get the vaccine, I don’t want you coming because you’re an idiot.
We are putting our money where our noses are by touring with a pile of quick Covid tests that we take every few days to make sure we are safe and won’t make anyone else sick. Beyond that, other than the obvious concerns, I’m not too worried about it. I’m working with a new booking agency, Rocky Road, (Killing Joke, Bauhaus, etc.), who are amazing and conveniently take care of dealing with that for me.

Even before the pandemic, you were livestreaming, which then became a necessity for many who wished to stay engaged with the audience. What do you feel are the major lessons we learned (or should have learned)?
How do you feel touring/performing live will or should change – both across the board and for yourself personally – in the wake of the last year’s events?

Archer: Being able to do the show over and over in a controlled environment allowed me to try out a bunch of different, more theatrical ideas, which definitely went on to inform the current live show. I also learned how with a little work, artists such as myself can ‘go to their audience,’ which I think meant a lot to people who felt lost or trapped in their homes.

You’re a painter and an author as well. I’m not sure this question will make much sense, but having so many creative pursuits, what is your process of focusing each project? How do you focus all your creative energy?
Are there any art or literary projects in the works now that you’d like to tell us about?

Archer: Often as I’m figuring out how to nail down a record, I will begin developing the cover art. I think in pictures, so being able to see it helps focus the ideas. For instance, I knew what the name and logo for Stoneburner was three years before I knew what it sounded like. There is always interplay between the visual, the sonic, and text. But in the end, it all comes down to them being different tools to develop the same ideas.
It’s weird, I don’t really make a ‘on top’ decision about what I’m going to do with a specific idea. Sometimes it’s a priori, but often it’s just an unstoppable drive – something along the lines of ‘this idea is so cool, I want to explore it as holistically as possible.’ Even now, I’m learning new things about the events on the record that I hadn’t known before. Nathan had some great insight into one of the characters that, while I knew it on a subconscious level, I could never have put into words. Putting that into my mental database was very exciting and satisfying.

What is exciting for you the most in modern music? What do you listen to when you’re not making music in Stoneburner or Ego Likeness?
What about outside of music, what excites you the most? What activities, movies, literature, etc. do you find most rewarding?

Archer: That would be a long list. I’m sorry to say there isn’t a ton of music out there that has resonated with me, though I was recently turned onto Sonoio, which I find very interesting.
As I’ve mentioned before, Peter Watts’ fantastic novel Blindsight was a huge influence on the previous full-length Technology Implies Belligerence. And I’m happy to say that he wrote a short story based on the song ‘Contracting Iris,’ the text of which is available as a link in the packaging.
 

 
Currently, I’m not too knee-deep in anything particularly hardcore as far as media consumption goes. I have been mainlining House MD while working on shit for the live show, which is good, because that way if something goes horribly wrong on tour, I will be able to diagnose their condition and do some minor surgery.
I have been playing Disco Elysium lately, which really should count as literature. The writing for it is just fantastic. Though one of my favorite games, Dying Light just dropped for the Switch, so I’ll be playing through that again.

Some years ago in our last InterView, you’d mentioned moving Stoneburner completely away from the DUNE universe and imagery, although I’m sure there are some fans who still think of you as the DUNE-inspired band. That said, do you have any interest in the new DUNE movie directed by Denis Villeneuve?

Archer: I’m excited to see it; it looks lovely, and I think it will be really cool. In a way, the project has never been about the universe as such, but about the ideas and philosophies that universe was a vehicle for. Though I will say the aesthetics of the Lynch film were a huge influence on the work. For whatever elements they didn’t get correct, I believe that movie nailed the feeling of the book – the heat and oppression, the weight of the world.

Anything at all that you’d like to add?

Archer: I’ve been into this style (among many others) my whole life, I’ve seen trends come and go, and for me, this record is a direct response to the current state of music in the scene. While there are many amazing and original bands out there doing very creative and interesting things, it seems like a vast majority have decided that ‘industrial music’ or ‘EBM,’ whatever label du jour you want to go with is nothing more than vacuous predictable dance music.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with disco. I’m all for it. But for me, industrial music has always been an art form. I am forever thankful that, as a producer, I can pull in any kind of sound, instrument, influence, whatever, and make it work. I can write songs that range from discussions of the state of the world to totally serious songs about a giant wolf god to the cynical goofiness of ‘Sellout.’
I find it disheartening and sad that so many bands seem to go for a lowest common denominator when it comes to lyrics and content.
This idea follows through to the live show as well. While I, like all artists in the genre, play to tracks, I have done everything I can think of to make the show as live as possible. From the addition of both drummers to building my ‘Guitar Beast’ MIDI controller. My vocals and effects are as live as they can possibly be while still keeping them from being insanely complex or difficult to pull off. I have always believed that if there isn’t a chance (albeit small) of total catastrophic failure, it’s not live and you are shortchanging your audience, and from an artist standpoint, I find that weak as shit. I’m not talking about doing what you have to do so you can tour or do shows in a practical way; I’m talking about throwing everything on tracks, playing make believe onstage, and selling it as ‘live.’ It’s entirely possible those shows may sound a bit better than mine, but I’m willing to take that risk if it maintains some level of artistic integrity.
For me, this genre has always been artistic and intellectual and hearing it dumbed down or with all of its conceptual rough edges sanded off to make it more palatable on the dance floor is just boring and sad. Apex Predator and the current incarnation of Stoneburner is a direct response to all of the above.
 

 

Stoneburner
Website, Facebook, Twitter, Bandcamp, YouTube
COP International
Website, Facebook, Twitter, YouTubeL

 

Photography by Steven Archer – provided courtesy of Stoneburner

 

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