In March last year, ten days before we were all put in lockdown for the first time, Jon Davis took Ungraven out for a handful of UK shows in tiny club venues. At the so-small-you-can’t-actually-swing-a-cat-in-it Al’s Juke Bar in Bradford, Davis walked on stage, turned on his rig and instantly the room was filled with a deep, dark, intoxicating fug of hiss and amp vibration. In that moment we knew it was going to be loud. As he and drummer Tyler Hodges launched into the first of the pummelling, rhythmic, three-chord monsters which make up their Live At S.O.A.N. album and their half of the split EP they’re about to release with Belfast’s finest, Slomatics, you knew you were watching something a little bit special – a powerhouse outfit unlikely to be performing in such an intimate setting in the future.
Davis gave up a career in human resources back in 2013, making a living since then with sludge behemoths Conan as well as his label Black Bow records and artist and music management business Blackskull Services. A global pandemic was the last thing he (or indeed any of us) wanted or needed, with all touring firmly off the menu for the foreseeable. But he’s kept his head above water, and is on chipper form when we catch up with him on a cold, grim January evening.
You’ve been a professional musician for almost eight years now. Have you been able to keep the wolf from the financial door over the last twelve months?
Jon: Yeah. Merch sales have been pretty good, and sales of records through the label too. To be honest I’m patting myself on the back a bit for making this career choice when I did. If I had one source of income now and had been put on furlough then I’d be stuck now. So, it could be a lot worse.
It’s been an eventful seven years since I stepped away from having a day job. It’s been stressful but in a pleasant way. I’ve got more grey in my beard now than when I started growing it on tour with Ufomammut in 2015. I’ve always been happy with where I am right now, from those early days of the Conan demos to stepping away from my day job, to now. Every step along the way has been a new challenge.
It’s fifteen years since you formed Conan. Time flies eh?
None of the last fifteen years has gone unnoticed or unappreciated, I’ve got loads of good memories and loads of plans for the future. I feel like I’m in the middle of my path at the moment. As long as there are people older than me doing this then I’m fine. I was 33 when I gave up my day job to start working on music full time and most people thought I was mad to do it at that point. We had the studio (Skyhammer) creating an income, I was investing a lot into the label, but Conan wasn’t providing much financially. So I figured the way to build up that income was to take it more seriously, tour more, record more regularly, and over time that income has replaced the income I had when I worked in human resources. That HR job was one of the least pleasant things I’ve ever done in my entire life, the most stressful job I ever had, and I hated it. So, I’m much happier now. I get to spend time with the kids, I get to spend time with Sarah, I get to take the dog for a walk by the water, so I’ve got a really good life. But yeah, it’s flown by.
Have you missed touring over the last year? Or has it been nice to take a break from it?
The only tour I’ve ever done where I’ve thought “fuck me, I’m not doing that again” was in 2014 when Conan played Roadburn for the second time. I drove the van the whole way and it had no cruise control. Huge distances between shows. I came back from that tour with a nervous twitch, and I got plantar fasciitis which is the slight shrinking of the plantar tendon in your foot. I blame that on having my foot cocked halfway on the accelerator pedal for like ten hours at a time. One of those journeys was from Jyväskylä to Oulu in Finland. It was a twelve-hour drive there, we got to the show at Nuclear Night Club and played to about fifteen people. There were more people in the strip bar next door! As the lads were packing the gear away after the gig I went and had 40 minutes sleep in the hotel across the road, woke up, got myself a coffee from the Subway underneath the hotel, got back in the van and drove fourteen hours back to Helsinki so we could make our ferry back to Stockholm to play with Church Of Misery. I got back from that tour and thought “never again am I gonna drive the whole thing.” But every other tour has been amazing, and for that reason I miss it a lot. I miss everything about touring. A lot of my friends are all over the world so I get to hang out with them when we tour. I love playing and being active in a musical sense, which is good for me in terms of being able to express myself, so yeah I can’t wait to get back out there. I’m enjoying time off because I know I’m healthy and happy and will be able to get back on the road again when things start again. I can’t wait.
These days you play huge festivals with Conan, but with your Ungraven hat on you’ll perform at Al’s Juke Bar in Bradford. Do you still enjoy playing intimate venues?
Yeah, I do. It’s all in my head anyway, ‘cos I sing with my eyes closed a lot of the time. When I’m playing, honestly, it doesn’t really matter to me where I am. Obviously there are certain pluses that go along with playing a big festival, you do get that ego boost that comes with it, but in terms of actually enjoying the show itself and playing onstage I enjoy them both just the same. In some ways I really enjoy the challenge of playing to people who perhaps haven’t heard Ungraven yet, it reminds me of how it was when Conan started, which was a very happy time for me. So, I’m enjoying that same process with Ungraven, and I accept that if Ungraven grows that’s great, but if not that’s also great. Conan’s got its own sort of vibe and style, and I’m trying to keep Ungraven slightly different from that. There’s obviously a sort of gravitational pull towards the style of writing I have, but I think pulling in Tyler and Dave [Ryley] definitely makes Ungraven further removed from that Conan sound.
When you started Ungraven it was just you. Then you brought in Tyler and Dave. Was it a plan to go to a three-piece or was it just a happy accident?
When Ungraven started it was meant to be a solo thing, I wanted to be a solo act but a bit like Godflesh. But the first live shows I did put me off that idea straight away, they were some of the worst and most embarrassing attempts ever at playing live haha. The first show I played as Ungraven was in Hull. I couldn’t hear the drum machine, so I might as well have been playing guitar to a click track in my own head. Honestly, it was shit. So, when I thought about getting a drummer in, I was looking for someone who could make up for my relative simplicity on guitar and someone who played in a different style to Johnny [King, Conan drummer]. Having watched Tyler’s live performances with Tuskar he’s got a really good stage presence himself, and so I asked him if he wanted to jam, and then we did a couple of shows when Conan were touring – a secret show at Desertfest in Antwerp and another show in Denmark – and that went well, so we just kinda went from there. On bringing Dave in, I just thought we might as well get a bass player, ‘cos it would help fill the sound out a bit more, more like a noisy rock band, more towards Fudge Tunnel than a doom band, and that might create a bit of separation from Conan. Dave was well up for it, so we’re a three-piece now. We haven’t rehearsed together yet, but I’m looking forward to writing with them and coming up with an album.
The three Ungraven tracks on the Slomatics split are pure four-to-the-floor heavy rock ’n’ roll. Conan has groove, but this is a whole different kind of piledriver.
I’m glad you said that because that’s what I want, to differentiate Ungraven from Conan. I want them both to have their own fan bases which overlap a bit. I want to try and make it not a doom band at all. Although saying that, ‘Onwards She Rides To A Certain Death’ – if I’d thought twice about it I probably would have kept that one for Conan haha. It’s more of a doom track than the other two. I think that’s one of the best songs I’ve ever written. It’s like if Nirvana were only half as talented as they were, and if Kurt couldn’t sing properly, that’s a song they would have written.
That song was inspired by the Doom Hag forum on Facebook. I just thought it would be really cool to write a song that celebrated heroes who aren’t male, because most doom songs tend to focus on masculinity. I thought I’d write a song which flipped things on its head a bit – for the focus of it to be not about a man but still about power, perseverance, cunning and strength. I’d never really thought about the gender of a song before, because most of my songs aren’t about people. But that one’s dedicated to the wonderful people in the Doom Hag forum.
I think when we start writing new material there will be a more deliberate effort to make the songs even more different from Conan. Conan is just how I play naturally, so I have to push myself to make Ungraven different – almost retrain myself and write something that’s a little bit out of my comfort zone. These three tracks aren’t miles away from the Conan sound, I know that, but Tyler’s drumming is so different from Jonny’s that I think it creates a distinction. It will be nice for us to start a new chapter with Dave.
At the moment I’m diverting my creative energy towards Conan as we’re hoping to go into the studio in March. I’d hate to come up with an amazing riff just now and not be able to use it in Conan.
Your association with Slomatics goes back many years. How did you first meet them?
The first time I ever met them in person was in Liverpool in a DIY practice room venue by the 147 Snooker Club. Anyone who’s reading this who’s from Liverpool will know it. Backtracking a few months before that, I got in touch with a fuzz pedal manufacturer called David Main of Differential Audio Manifestationz in Yorkshire, and I was talking to him about this pedal I wanted ‘cos I was thinking of starting a two-piece doom metal band called Conan, and he recommended a particular one and said “here it is in action”, and he sent me a link to Flooding The Weir , and I listened to that album over and over again on repeat literally all day long. I couldn’t believe how awesome this music was: so simple, so much atmosphere, and it was a completely new style of music for me.
Back then I didn’t know Black Cobra, High On Fire were a recent thing for me, I hadn’t even discovered Sleep at that point. Anyway, Chris Couzens posted me Flooding The Weir on CD and I was absolutely blown away. In fact, I’m the only person on the planet with a vinyl copy of that album, they pressed one copy of it just for me which was so cool. When I found out they were coming to Liverpool I went along with this young lad who I was rehearsing with at that time, he was gonna play drums in Conan, obviously that didn’t work out, I don’t even remember his name now, and I said hello to them. And now I’m really close friends with all of them. I could talk about Slomatics forever, ‘cos I just love them.
Y’know, Dave Main was really the reason Conan kept going back in the early times, around about the time I made the decision to go record [2010’s] Horseback Battle Hammer. Back then I didn’t know if I wanted to do it, was it gonna get in the way of my career? I was finding it really frustrating getting a line-up, up until Paul [O’Neil] joined, but Dave said “it sounds really cool”. The Battle In The Swamp demo tapes we recorded in January 2007, which had my old mate Richie Grundy playing drums on it, Dave was saying “you could really do something with this, you need to stick with it.”
You first came up with the idea of Ungraven when you were driving in Richmond, Virginia. Tell us what happened.
I was in the van, Nate was driving, the other guys were asleep, and I started making notes on my phone, thinking “how can I do something that’s completely not Conan?”. Essentially, I wanted it to be a more visual thing and a big wall of noise. Something a bit like Sunn O))) or Godflesh with maybe an awesome backdrop. I actually commissioned a guy to make me a backdrop which is like the aurora borealis blossoming and fading over the space of an hour with an industrial wasteland in the foreground. And I thought cool, that’s what I’m gonna do: this completely experimental thing and see where it goes. I was maybe a little bit frustrated at the time. Doom metal had become trendy and popular and I had this inclination at the time to move away from it slightly, and I failed haha – I made another three-piece just like Conan. Maybe I’ll revisit that idea some time, a bit like Boris’ style of weird noises, on a limited-edition thing. I don’t know.
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March will be a busy month for Jon, because as well as the Ungraven/Slomatics split, Conan are releasing Live At Freak Valley on Napalm Records. “That show was awesome,” says Jon as our chat concludes. “We arrived early and were picked up from the airport and given ice cold Jägermeister. I’m not a big drinker, but it was a nice way to start the day. The show was really good too, I remember the weather was amazing and everyone seemed to be into it. I’d love to play Freak Valley again when we can.”
As for Ungraven’s future plans? As well as an album, a full tour is likely. “Yeah, I’d love to tour with Ungraven too. I don’t really want to play on the same bill as Conan, ‘cos I have different frames of mind when playing with either band, and don’t want to switch between the two at the same show. Me, Dave and Tyler have spoken about it, we’ve had offers already, so yeah I think we’ll definitely get out on the road when we can.”
Ungraven/Slomatics is out 5th March via Black Bow Records. Conan Live At Freak Valley is out 12th March via Napalm Records.
Words: Andrew Field