Disregarding Genres and Avoiding Pigeonholes with Stoned Jesus

It’s myself and trusted audio expert Phil (he had a working phone and I did not), standing around in the Sheffield O2 media room. It’s mid-afternoon, and HRH Doom Vs Stoner III is well underway. Igor Sydorenko, frontman and creative lynchpin of psych-doom-blues-metal darlings Stoned Jesus, bounds into the room, practically bursting with energy. He’s easy to spot too; a gentle giant wearing a bumbag and a grin that wraps around his entire head. The band have been touring for some time now, but show no signs of flagging; later that evening they deliver a stunning performance, covering material from both their new album Pilgrims and a few older tracks, including their (so-far) biggest hit, ‘I’m The Mountain’. We grab a booth and instantly he’s chatting, cracking jokes and offering insight on everything from the divisions of musical genre to Soviet propaganda…

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So, congrats on the album – could you tell us a little about the recording?

Well, we’ve been working on the new record [Pilgrims] for about three and a half years. It was basically inspired by the touring process, the state of your mind during touring. The feelings that you get, exhaustion, depression, detachment. I also lost my father a year and a half ago and all that fed into this. It’s interesting, I’ve not heard of anyone doing anything like this in metal – it’s not common to hear metal musicians writing about just being musicians, the touring life and stuff. But I did a lot of digging, and I found some bands that write about touring, so we’re not alone in this!

Musically it was a natural progression from The Harvest, which was very much inspired by what was going on in Ukraine – very aggressive and dark, almost full-on metal. We felt really pissed and angry.
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On that point, do you feel like your music is a good vehicle for political expression?

It’s not like socio-political, it’s more like the way we feel, very personal. It all comes through us, and I think that’s one of the things that makes us different from the ‘genre crowd’. Lots of people are like ‘Hey, let’s play like Electric Wizard, let’s play like Sleep, let’s wear ridiculous hats and sing songs about witches and the occult and shit’, and for me it’s my art, it’s my music, this is something that I and the guys in the band relate to.

For Pilgrims, I was doing something I’d never done before. I was singing gibberish during rehearsals and then trying to build lyrics around that. You know for bands like us that don’t speak English as our first language, you come up with a lyric, you basically do it in your native language and then translate it. Many times it sounds really cringy and corny, unnatural. For this I was trying to sing something I’d want to sing later instead of just vocalising, which doesn’t feel natural when it’s recorded!

Pilgrims is like a 180° from The Harvest because that was very extroverted and aggressive whilst being dark and personal; the new album is still dark and personal but it’s very introverted, feeding into itself. There’s something there that I also notice from the reviews, people are saying there’s no ‘I’m The Mountain’ on this one, and I’m like ‘Yeah, because it’s on Seven Thunders Roar’. I know what they mean, there’s no instantly catchy song that they would relate to, because the album is instead a set of seven songs that work as a whole, and when we play it live it’s really funny to see how people react differently. I would say that in one territory they prefer the longer cuts; in other places fans prefer the shorter songs. It’s really interesting to see how the album functions in different ways, and I love it because you know, we could have played ‘I’m The Mountain’ until the end of time and be safe!
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It is a massive tune to be fair. The length, the time signature changes... No matter how often you listen to it, it’s just amazing.

Thank you! I feel really blessed that our biggest song is not a fucking three-minute long radio deal. It’s like a fifteen-minute-long prog epic. I also feel blessed that people connect with it so much, and each time we play it there’s always a different audience, so each time it almost feels like a different song as they react to different things. Some audiences sing at certain points, others sing at other points. When we’ve played in Greece, they basically sing the whole song and I can just stand away from the microphone ‘cause they’ll just sing the whole thing. If we play in Germany they just stand there when we sing, but they’re totally digging the instrumental parts, fucking moshing to 5/4. I’d never seen people moshing to proggy time signatures before and I was like ‘Yeah, do it!’ So yeah, we still love ‘I’m The Mountain’.
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Your sound is an eclectic mix of stoner, folk and strong progressive elements, and you’re saying you don’t think of yourselves as a ‘genre’ band. Where are you drawing your influences from?

Well, firstly when I write, I bring a 90% finished song to the guys, who recommend something like changing the structure or some shit and there’s always a little improvisation here and there. For me as a writer I never think in terms of genre, though I think in terms of bands sometimes; ‘this is a Kraftwerk-y song, this is a Deftones-y one’. I never think ‘we’re gonna write a prog album’ or ‘we’re gonna write a doom album’, because that doesn’t connect with what we’re like.

We like a lot of different stuff, like our bassist [Serhij Sljussar] is really into old-school hip-hop and electronica, weird shit like Death Grips and all that. Our drummer [Dmytro Zinchenko] is a ‘90s kid, Pavement and Sonic Youth, Oasis, all this stuff. I’m sort of an old-school guy, with the prog influences and all, but recently I’ve discovered a lot of bands like Tangerine Dream and stuff like that. When you get tired of guitar-based bands, like the whole of summer last year I was listening to just Tangerine Dream and Sol Invictus, like British folk… you know he built all these songs around the same two chords, just amazing. So yeah, that’s why we have a lot of stuff to use as a starting point. It’s also why I get really disappointed when critics try to review from a genre standpoint, because from that point of view it may seem weird or weak or different, because it’s not a ‘genre’ album. So when I’m reading reviews like ‘On Pilgrims stoner metal band Stoned Jesus didn’t do their best’ I’m like ‘Of course, because we’re not a stoner metal band, you newb.’ This is something I’m trying to maintain with Stoned Jesus, our own identity, not in terms of genre but more like name-recognition, similar to Melvins.
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I see, building your own distinct brand and image for the band. Speaking of imagery, there’s a lot of references to Native American imagery in the band’s work. So do you feel a particular connection to the culture, or is it more of an aesthetic preference?

That’s a funny one, I was called ‘Indian’ at school because of my appearance, though mostly people were talking about South American natives because I’ve got a flat face. That’s actually what inspired me to write the Indian songs, from that standpoint. We don’t really feel the connection though. I remember one fan suggested I should wear a headdress during the songs, and I said ‘Nah, that’s a little…’
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It’s cultural appropriation.

Exactly. It’s not my culture although I can write songs from that point of view, and some people already find that offensive, so we wouldn’t go deeper.
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Sure. I’ve theorised that because you guys are from ex-Soviet territories you might look toward American culture as a post-Communist reflex, toward cultural tropes from the West. Do you think that’s true or was it more of a personal affectation?

That’s an interesting question because most of the bands we have nowadays in Ukraine, Russia and so on are very much influenced by Western music, because we don’t really have our own tradition of rock music. We have cool classical traditions and such, but while you guys had The Beatles and ABBA we had guys singing awful songs, filled with propaganda, ‘For the glory of Soviet rulers’ and shit. I know this first-hand because my father was in a band and they were touring in the Soviet Union. They played two sets; the first set was like government-approved ersatz folk tunes, and once the officials had sat through the first set and said ‘Alright, very good’ and went home, the second set would start and they’d play Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, ABBA, Beatles, all this kind of stuff. During the first set everyone would be like [Igor sits still and looks politely interested], and once the officials had left everyone would just groove the fuck out. It’s amazing because I picked up lots of influences from my father, Uriah Heep and Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, it all comes from him.
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That’s really interesting. I’ve also thought about the way bands use desert-type imagery, the vision of a lone wanderer going out into the wilderness as an expression of complete freedom.

That’s interesting, because we were never too much connected to the whole stoner rock imagery, and that’s why when we did get linked to stoner metal and stoner rock I kinda cringed a little. The first record was 100% stoner doom, because I was heavily influenced by Sleep and Electric Wizard, it was about playing slow, not about being cool and ripping off Kyuss. Then Seven Thunders Roar was more psychedelic, The Harvest was more metal and angry, so each time we get called ‘stoner rock’ I’m like ‘We never played that!’ I’m too nerdy about this stuff, but I guess it’s something that every band worries about, pigeonholing you know.
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Are you going to make more of the Seeds improv/jamming series? I thought the live jam setup, recorded in a couple of weeks was an awesome way to pay your way towards the next full-length album.

That was exactly the idea, a crowd-funding method. Our drummer has a portable recorder and he always has it on, but we never based actual songs on these jams, these were just a way to flex our musical muscles, just jamming and having a good time. It was funny because when we were listening back to them, Serhij was like ‘Dude, this totally sounds like God Is An Astronaut, we could do one of their albums in one rehearsal’. Not to say shit about them, but I sorta agree!

We’re not really planning any more Seeds because I feel at some point it’ll take attention away from the actual albums. On some sites it’s listed as a compilation, but on others it’s listed as if it’s part of the band’s official discography, and we don’t want people clicking on it out of all our albums. In my opinion it’s not as good as our studio albums, it’s just jamming. And we love our songs, we work on them so hard, sometimes we work for fucking two years. If someone knows us from Seeds, I’m like ‘Dude nah, that’s not the way to get into us’. Maybe at some point we’ll do a double vinyl, limited edition for those 20 people who like it…
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So after this tour, what are your plans next?

We’re playing a Pilgrims tour in Ukraine in October, then a tour across Eastern Europe, France, Spain and Portugal in late October and November. Then we have a month off, and then back on the road in March for Poland and the Baltics and in April we’re going to Scandinavia. Then we’ll wrap the whole tour with Desertfest, hopefully London and Berlin. Then another month and we’ll be off, we’ve got a 10th-anniversary tour so we’ll be playing a greatest hits kind of set, some songs we kind of miss, like ‘Red Wine’ which we haven’t played since 2015, or with our new drummer. Right now we’re playing a lot of Pilgrims, which is fine because we love it, but by next May we’ll be tired of it. So we’ll play like three songs from Pilgrims, two songs from Harvest, four songs from Seven Thunders Roar and two from First Communion, like a 90-minute setlist. And then, once that’s done in like 2020, we’ll start working on a new record.
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Wow, what a schedule! Last thing: The band’s old name was Stoned Jesus From Outer Space. Was that just a random assortment of stoner-ish words thrown together?

Well usually I hate the ‘Why are you called Stoned Jesus?’ questions, but yes. It’s just a collection of clichés about the genre, and I was just throwing together weed, space, religion… When people heard our first demo they were like ‘The music is amazing but your name is ridiculous, you gotta do something about it’, so I just cut it in half. Some people have said we should do rarities compilation called From Outer Space, so it’d read Stoned Jesus From Outer Space. Maybe for our 20th anniversary…
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Pilgrims is out now on Napalm Records. Purchase here.

Words: David Burke

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