Cannibalism, Snakes and Visits to the Seaside: The True Misery of Old Man Lizard

Artists have been taking inspiration from nature ever since people started drawing buffalo on cave walls in chalk, but in the modern day, nature is often looked at as a place of peace and innocence. Untouched by the bleak reality of city life, it is a place to escape, to get some fresh air and sit in solitude, marvelling at the last remaining portion of uncontaminated beauty. But we’ve all seen nature documentaries with lions tearing antelopes limb-from-limb so callously that even Attenborough’s rich timbre can’t make it seem any less distressing. Look at it from another angle and nature holds many a tale of misery.

The trio that comprises Suffolk riff-mongers Old Man Lizard have certainly spent their fair share of time delving into nature’s more upsetting stories. Their fantastic 2014 debut LP was entitled Lone Wolf vs Brown Bear, and their new album, True Misery, features a cover with a crying deer with arrows in its side. If anything, True Misery is the result of one too many nature documentaries and many a riff-writing session – “General wildlife. Rural affairs” as drummer Dan Beales puts it when we met up with the three-piece at this year’s Riffmass, a one-dayer hosted annually in Brighton by hometown heavyweights King Goat.

Before their set, it’d been a good few months since Old Man Lizard played a show, and longer still since their last recorded material. Whilst the latter is down to the members’ other engagements, from master’s degrees to other bands (guitarist/vocalist Jack Newnham, for one, is the sticksman for Slabdragger), the former is, unfortunately, the result of a recent health scare. In the interest of raising awareness, Newnham tells us: “I had to have a couple of months off to deal with having cancer. I don’t want to go into too much detail, and I’m absolutely fine now, but lads, remember to check yourselves regularly.” Tonight marks Old Man Lizard’s first UK gig since it all happened, but onstage, there’s nary a sign of the band being out of practice. Newnham, alongside Beales and bassist Gav Senior, provides one of the day’s best sets, packed with clobbering grooves and gargantuan riffs.

It’s a testament to their stellar riff-wielding ability, which is on full display on True Misery. The band’s undeniable knack for a riff remains as strong as its always been, but they’re not merely churning out predictable doom either. The album is dominated by progressive, often epic, sludgy doom spearheaded by Newnham’s powerful but mournful yells, but the album can swiftly drop back into more conventional stoner grooves or drift even further afield, mixing in touches of psychedelia, blues and even Americana. Indeed, the flawless convergence of a variety of different ideas is perhaps the album’s greatest strength.

Crammed into a van outside The Green Door Store, mostly in an attempt to drown out the meaty riffs of Consecration, Old Man Lizard give us an insight into those different ideas. “We started writing it five or six years ago,” Newnham tells us. “It’s been ages since we wrote the first songs for it and because of that, it’s a weird mix of influences. Some of the stuff is more similar to what we were listening to five/six years ago and some of it we finished writing when we were in the studio, so there’s a mixed bag of stuff in there.” So would they say it’s different from their past material? “It is, but it isn’t,” Newnham says after some deliberation. “It’s still got the same things going on in terms of the song structures and everything. It’s a progression, but it’s not massively different.”

The band certainly aren’t opposed to experimentation, though. “We rammed in some novelty instruments,” Beales tells us. He, Senior and Newnham contributed, respectively, extra percussion, organ playing and some banjo, but they also tracked down a local fiddle player for one track. “We got this guy who plays in The Allen Family Band and is like this amazing bluegrass fiddle player,” Newnham explains. “We set it as a pipedream to Jason [Frye], who was recording the record, and he goes ‘oh, there’s a really good fiddle player that lives in this little village’, and we were like ‘what?’, and he goes ‘yeah, I’ll give him a ring.’ He came down the next day!”

Whilst the first side is, to use Senior’s words, “a bit more upbeat,” the latter half of the album “ends miserable,” according to Beales. “The last song’s called ‘Return To Earth’,” Senior explains. “The idea is it’s a bit of a stupid happy song about having a lovely day. So it’s like a return back to normality.”

Normality isn’t an overly familiar concept on True Misery, and yet, many of the tales that inspire its lyrics are based in reality. “The name’s True Misery because most of it is based on true stories that are really miserable,” says Newnham. “The first song, ‘Shark Attack’, is about a cruiser that got lost at sea moving some guy’s boat,” he begins, before allowing Senior to explain the story: “So they got hired by this Australian guy, John Want, to take this vessel from Southampton to Sydney. Basically [the boat] was not suitable for this journey. They got into trouble off the coast of South Africa and got sunk. So they were in the lifeboat and after a few days of fighting off sharks and things like that it went into weeks and weeks and they’re all starving. There’s this old custom of the sea where you draw straws and whoever gets the short straw gets killed and eaten by their cabin mates. They went to do this but the young cabin boy was seriously ill because he’d been drinking seawater, so they drew straws but then decided to eat him anyway and about a day later they got rescued.”

“And the book that Gav read on it was written from prison,” Newnham adds. “Yeah,” Senior agrees. “They all went back to England and got arrested for cannibalism!”

Miserable indeed, but there’s also more than the odd touch of humour present on the album. “Some of them are a bit stupid,” Newnham admits. “The next track, ‘Snakes!!!’, that song we wrote in about 25 minutes – all the riffs, the lyrics and everything. The lyrics were so easy because we watched the episode of Planet Earth the day before where there’s an iguana being chased by loads of snakes so the only lyrics are ‘Oh no! Snakes!’ repeatedly.”

General wildlife. Rural affairs.

Elsewhere, there’s a song about a tree that survived in the middle of the desert for years. “In the ‘70s some truck driver got pissed and fucking ploughed into it,” Newnham says. “And now there’s a monument that stands there in memory of this tree that managed to survive for hundreds of years before this pisshead destroyed it. It’s all sort of miserable stuff like that.”

From survivalist trees to adventuring tortoises, ‘The Adventures Of Rupert Biggins’ follows the voyage of Beales’ old tortoise, which ran away for a year then came back only to be eaten by a dog. Though the drummer admits it was most likely wasting away the months in a flowerbed, the band have concocted an epic quest for the creature, which begins as he’s whisked away by a hawk and ends with him crawling home having narrowly escaped death. “We assumed that might’ve happened,” Senior explains. You never know.

The band are keen to discuss the various tracks on display on the album, rattling off the meaning behind the lyrics of each track without hesitation. “There’s one song [‘Cured Ocean, Relentless Sea’] about a guy who went to the sea for the first time in his life,” Senior mentions. “Another true story,” adds Newnham. “That’s my mate’s neighbour. He’s a pensioner, like in his 70s. He’s a farmer who lives near my mate’s mum that went to the seaside for the first time and was absolutely astonished by it. My mate was describing how he explained it like – *puts on strong Suffolk accent* ‘Well, it go out. And it come back again! And it go out. And it come back again!’ and we were absolutely fascinated by that level of rural isolation.” No wonder, considering – as Beales and Senior point out – the band only live about twenty miles from the coast.

As the band talk excitedly about the album, they laugh and joke with all the camaraderie of lifelong friends, because, frankly, that’s what they are. “Me and Gav are cousins,” Newnham explains. “And we were always in the same year and in the same class at school and then Dan is –“ he trails off as Beales interrupts: “They roped me in ‘cause there was no one else to play drums.”

“We’ve known each other for like twenty years,” Senior estimates. That friendship seemingly aids the band, too. “We don’t argue as a band, which is quite rare I think,” he adds. “Apart from about driving,” Beales reminds him. In many ways, True Misery is an album that could only have been made my good friends messing about in the studio after a session of watching Planet Earth or telling each other weird stories about cannibalism and local farmers who were obviously deprived of seaside holidays as a child.

old man lizard field
Running through fields of wheat. Photo by Carole Munro.

Old Man Lizard certainly bring something a bit different to the doom scene, boasting a sound that’s unafraid of doing whatever it wants as well as a refreshing approach to songwriting that doesn’t take itself too seriously and yet is still responsible for some of the most gripping metal currently in circulation. “We always manage to do something that’s a bit different. Which has sort of worked for us and against us, I guess,” suggests Senior. “We’re not a standard doom band at all really, are we?” Beales admits, before Newnham gives his thoughts on the matter: “It’s not all 4/4 and pentatonic scales. We try to play some slightly weirder things.”

Weirder? Probably. Better? Most definitely. Keep an eye out for the band as they embark on further touring in support of the album. “We’ve got a couple more shows left this year,” Newnham says. “We’re playing in Edinburgh with Dvne, who are really rad, and then the day after we’re playing in London with Telepathy. We’ve got a show in Norwich, which is almost a local show for us. It’s like an hour and a half away but there’s not a great deal going on where we are. Other than that, we’re organising a few weekenders in March, we’ve got a Euro tour we’re doing – can’t say much more about that for the time being – and possibly a few other things in the pipeline. We’re trying to get more done next year compared to this year where we didn’t do much. We’ve played just a few but really rad gigs this year, which has been cool. Next year we’re trying to do more.”

More shit gigs!” suggests Senior.

True Misery is out 30th November on Wasted State Records. Purchase here.

Words: George Parr

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