Were someone unfamiliar with Bong, they could be forgiven for expecting little more than another stoner rock band. Plenty of archetypal groove-reliant metallers decide to go with marijuana-inspired names, but amongst the bunch of weed-hazed names picked out by people under the influence of the devil’s lettuce, Bong are somewhat of an anomaly.
The Newcastle-bred group have acquired an extensive back catalogue throughout their twelve-year existence, one that boasts an eclectic mix of recordings that tend to forego the groovy riffs of their stoned brethren in favour of noisy drone so trance-inducing their prolonged track-lengths fly by. Since signing to Ritual Productions, the trio have been able to produce comparatively more polished albums backed up by solid studio recordings – as opposed to the raw DIY aesthetics of their older work – leading to some of their most hypnotic records yet.
As devoted advocates of the Geordie gang’s spellbinding compositions, we caught up with guitarist Mike Vest (also of 11 Paranoias, Blown Out, Melting Hand and Dodge Meteor, to name a few) before the band announced new album Thought And Existence to chat about a varied range of topics, including playing live, line-up changes, the advantages of using a studio, future plans and more.
What was the reason behind deciding not to continue without Ben Freeth and reverting back to a three-piece?
It wasn’t a conscious decision really. It was just the fact that we took a year off a couple of years ago because other people in the band, including Ben, were having children, then when we started getting back into it after Dave approached me. Ben wasn’t really around as much, we played a lot of gigs without him, to be honest most of the times we have played live it’s been without Ben, if you were to count.
So, we just thought it was a bit unfair, especially because he was featuring on all the records but couldn’t make the majority of the gigs. He did have a stressful job, which was a factor, but we kind of just said “look we’re going to do this as a three-piece,” but if he ever was available and could play a one-off, then that would be a bonus rather than a negative. We are disorganised enough without another person in the mix, it works better as a three piece currently, but I wouldn’t rule out him coming back!
What is your preference in Bongs output? Your newest releases have been done in a professional manner, with a proper studio with more care and clarity, whereas your older material has a rougher, more DIY aesthetic.
Well the last three full-lengths that came out on Ritual, We Were, Are And We Always Have Been, Manna Yuud Sushai and Stoner Rock were all done in a studio so we would consider those to be professionally done, and anything pre-Beyond Ancient Space was pretty much DIY, I suppose. A lot of the records, such as Idle Days Of The Yann, were pretty much DIY recordings. Going into the studio was better, because it’s easier to achieve what you want with better microphones and a better drum room, but back in the old days that’s just how we did it.
We didn’t have the opportunity to go into the studio back then, and there really weren’t many good studios in Newcastle because you’re talking almost ten years ago. Gladly, things have changed a lot since then.
Any preference on an album, in regards to whether it be studio recorded or a DIY recording?
Generally, Beyond Ancient Space is the album everyone in the band enjoys the most. The album reflects a time in the band when things were flowing quite well. It was our first record for Ritual and was a very exciting time for us, considering nobody really took any notice of us for years before that!
I would say though, if we were to do that album again in a professional studio then it would be one of our best if not the best album, I think that’s fair to say. The playing on it is great, but the recording not so much. When it was remastered for the double LP on Ritual, that brought it out a lot – it sounded way crisper.
I do also like Stoner Rock, I think that album is perfect to process your thoughts to, and when it came to mixing and mastering I found I didn’t really mind listening to it, it was quite soothing, but that did take quite a while because you just ended up getting lost in it!
I do like that record too, it’s a bit of a middle finger to anyone trying to say you’re this type of band or that type of band.
We do have a laugh about that one, it quite funny to us that it’s been seen as quite a firm statement. That being said though, that element is there, because we got sick of the idea of a band being called a “stoner rock” band, just because you show up and have a toot before you play and repeat a riff more than eight times!
The music itself we do take very seriously, but when it comes down to making statements we do take the piss a bit. We are right though, in as much as people, and especially media, categorising bands – it just ruins it for me, but people like that subconsciously. If you’re a punter, that would make it easy for you, “oh that sounds like that so I won’t really bother!” So, I’d say it’s not just a bash on people but it’s just something to worry about and it ends up with bands sounding the same, but I think that’s a bigger conversation for another time.
You got your start in live music playing in grindcore/hardcore bands like Joe Pesci and Fuck That, which obviously have a very different sound. Was there any particular reason behind reverting to a slower tempo and more considered drawn-out songs, or was it just the natural order of things?
Well primarily it was due to switching to guitar, because in those bands you mentioned I played bass, you see, but I played in loads of other bands like noise bands and experimental stuff as well. When I was younger, I was obsessed with noise and the rougher end of the avant-garde spectrum – no singing but just instrumentation.
At that time, it was just mates and stuff, anybody who offered me to join their band I would. But yeah, I was mainly into grindcore and hardcore as a kid, but playing bass in bands is totally different to guitar.
To add, I’m pretty sure Bong existed during that time as well, but we just never really did anything serious. We were just messing around, we might have played a few gigs around Newcastle here and there but nothing major.
With Fuck That, Joe Pesci and Ultratrashinferno, they didn’t really last that long, only about a year then they would just implode because it was so chaotic but it was more just something to do as opposed to being inside the music. You would just do your bass bits and then get drunk and play a gig, that sort of thing. It just lacked depth for me at the time, and I don’t really know how the Bong stuff came about, it was just playing together really. There was no real switch, all the music I’ve ever wanted to do in bands is heavy guitars and psychedelia – it’s always been the case. Plus, when you live in a small town and someone asks you to join a band, you just do it!
It’s been almost two years since the release of We Are, We Were And We Will Have Been. Any word on a new record, or something in the pipeline of any sort?
We are going to record an album very soon, we’re just wanting to get a few gigs out of the way first to kind of warm us up for it – it gets your bones and your mind ready for it. The next album will be out on Ritual Productions, we’ll probably lay some stuff down around September but we’ll see.
We’ve been listening to a lot of chanting music so we’re going to try an incorporate that somehow. Another thing we want is the drums to sound like an instrument, rather than just something that keeps the tempo, same with the vocals and guitars to a certain extent, just experiment and make it more psychedelic. I feel the last album, which was good, was quite pastoral whereas for our next we’d like to focus more inwardly, like an infinite spiral. Most of our other output has been quite expansive and outward, we’d like this next album to be very much inward, more of a journey into the mind and more heavily influenced by psychedelia. Who knows? The album could be ready by the end of the year [it is! – ed], you never know!
When performing live, how do you decide what you’re going to play? Considering you have a lot of material and can’t exactly play many songs considering the nature of their duration.
Normally what we do is when we have a few gigs coming up we’ll stick to the same set for those gigs. Sometimes we’ll do it for eight or nine gigs, that way we find it just evolves naturally. Recently we’ve been playing a new one, which we play at the end of the set and will probably end up on the new record, and we’ve been playing ‘Polaris’ or a variation of it. But we can’t just play one song then randomly play another, they have to blend into one another so selection is quite key to our sets. We usually know what set we’re doing in advance, even if it is the first show in a series of upcoming gigs, and obviously there’s room for improvisation, especially after an all-dayer!
Do you find it easy to just switch between a different band every night, even different bands on the same night?
Well, when I’m playing for two bands in one night it’s kind of weird because your night pretty much disappears, but I never really get mixed up at all. There are very distinct flavours in all the bands so there’s never confusion, but I do get very tired!
There had been a lot of rumours that Bong had possibly called it a day, to the extent that you and Ritual put out a statement putting the myths to rest. What would your take on that be? And do you think that the mystery behind Bong amplifies the rumours and myths that occasionally surface?
Yeah, we had to put out a statement basically saying we were taking a break because Ritual Productions were being asked about it so they said we better say something. We don’t really pay too much mind to it really. People just assume that if you haven’t played in a while that you’ve split up, but in Bong, we definitely like our rests and lie downs!
Interview: Tom Kirby
Intro words: George Parr