First of all, how are you?
I’m great. How are you?
I’m good, man. I’m glad we got this to happen. I will say I’ve been a huge fan of your work since Way of the Dead—
Not at all. So, your new record, Sutra, your first in eleven—admittedly for me—long and painful years [laughs]
[laughs] Too kind.
Everything I was looking for. So much dynamics on the record. Not as abrasive as some previous releases, but so cohesive. Beyul in 2012 was your last release, so this has been your longest period between two albums. Was this down to other projects? Any other factors?
Yes and yes. Other projects were happening since 2012, for myself, as well as the others. But life also comes into play. A couple of marriages. Matt [McClelland, guitarist], had a daughter in 2011 and then the thing that happened for a couple years where none of us could breathe on each other or talk to each other, that kinda stuff. We timed this release to go along with when the LPs would be available. Pressing plants are backed up quite a bit, sometimes eight to twelve months before you may see your music, so throw all that together and here we are, eleven years later [laughs].
The new record’s entitled Sutra, which in my basic understanding is a kind of aphorism in Hinduism and Buddhism. Buddhism seems to have always played a part in your imagery and lyrics. When did this interest begin for you? And did Sutra have an underlying conceptual theme?
No, actually. None of them really do from the onset of when we start to work on things. Jim Staffel [drummer] is the mind behind the visual art for our covers. He also titled this record. When he said Sutra I was like, “let’s go with it”. Lyrically, I’ve always tried to keep it open. I may borrow some things from different places, but it’s never definitively Buddhist in nature. I definitely appreciate a lot of what things like Buddhism have to offer but I’ve always tried to keep it open, depending on the song and where the words are going, that’ll dictate how it will play out and then we’ll move onto the next one.
The first single, ‘Alice’, unless I’m wrong, I thought was quite clearly about Alice in Wonderland but there were certain very interesting lyrics, for example, “imagination is the weapon in the war with reality”, which made me wonder whether there was an allegorical bent to the track, or is it simply a homage to Lewis Carroll’s work
It is a homage to Lewis Carroll’s work. The reason that it was even titled ‘Alice’ in the first place is because as we were working on the melodies and rhythms, we had temporary titles for all the songs as they were unfinished. The temporary title of this particular song was ‘Alice’ because there’s a riff—second or third riff in the song—that reminded Matt McClelland of something Alice in Chains might write, and of course, we’re old people and grew up in the 80s and early 90s and we love these things. We love Alice in Chains, especially from those days.
Lyrically, I’ve always found Yakuza fascinating. There are themes of what I could only really describe as—cosmic helplessness, chaos, self-discovery and self-ruin; lot of ideas of being at the will of powers greater than one’s self, whether that be a deity or something psychological; inevitability of death, delusions, some elements of asceticism, of course we mentioned Buddhism, where do you get a lot of your lyrical inspiration from and if there are any other literary influences, I would love to know about that.
Lately, with that time we had off from the world—I’ve always been a pretty avid reader, but I really doubled down, tripled down, reading three or four books at a time. Since the beginning of this band there’s been one book— two books that I’ve referenced occasionally. One of them is a book called Apocalypse Culture, it came out in the late eighties, a bunch of short stories involving everything from MK-Ultra to Hinduism and Buddhism, a lot of different sides of human existence; there’s a chapter on the history of violent criminals, then we go into religion, a lot of really interesting stuff; the internet, and before the internet existed, and what it could potentially become, and how it was thought to be some kind of mind; news, media, history, all this sort of stuff which we’re gonna parlay into the next book, 1984 by George Orwell and I’ve definitely written about things that are directly in that book, hinted at a couple of things. But, much like a good album, if you can go back to a book and read it more than once or twice, that’s a fucking good book, that’s a good piece of work, you know? Obviously, there’s a whole school of books that focus on sort of like a post-apocalyptic kind of future or whatever.
Dystopian, yeah, there’s that book that came out before 1984 called We. I think it was Russian [by Yevgeny Zamyatin from 1921 – Ed.]. And then it got translated into a bunch of languages. You’ve got your Brave New World. I’m always fascinated by those kind of books
Totally. But yeah, George Orwell, that book has some really significant meaning for me because the first time I read it was in the year of 1984 when I was twelve years old. I even remember that the teacher at the time made some kind of remark like, “oh, can you imagine all those things happening, we’re so lucky—
—that never happened. And even looking back, I’m thinking, “what are you fucking kidding me? Oh man, wow”, and again, I’m paraphrasing what she actually said, but it was something like that, and, so, almost forty years later—
[laughs] Right so, Yakuza’s jazz influences—arguably what makes you guys so unique and that’s not just down to the inclusion of a saxophone, but very much to do with the band’s delivery. I’ve always felt there was a kind of freeform energy. Who are some of your all-time favourite jazz musicians and beyond that, any current favourites or influences? I know Coltrane is one.
Number One. He is the heavyweight champion for a reason. I like a lot of the freer stuff. I was always a big fan of Albert Eyler, Ornette Coleman—I went back and listened to this record recently by a guy named Joe Harriott, it’s an album called Indo Jazz Suite and it is really awesome, it’s exactly what it is, it’s like Indian music-influenced jazz from the 60s. It’s really neat.
Sorta like raga-fusion kinda jazz?
Kind of, yeah, but there’s some really nice soloing. Joe Harriott never really got his just due but, a really fucking killer player, really creative and interesting. As far as modern stuff—I’m very fortunate to live in Chicago where there are a lot of local players who are known internationally. When they’re in town, I can go see them, and that’s great; probably my favourite living player that I know personally is a guy named Mars Williams. Jazz is only one thing that guy can do. He’s in the Psychedelic Furs and has been for a number of years. He played in a band called The Waitresses back in the 80s and he joined the Furs a little later but he’s been with them for a long time.
So there’s a wealth of jazz clubs in Chicago at the moment.
Yeah. Back in late 90s or early 2000s, there were these weekly series at, like, indie rock clubs, one of them being The Empty Bottle, a world-famous little hole-in-the-wall that I’ve been working at for almost twenty years. They would have jazz on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and that was some of the best shit I’ve ever heard in my life, you know, every week, I would go every Tuesday for like two years straight. I lost a girlfriend over it.
Your first release, Amount to Nothing (2000) was what I would consider it—whether you wanna call it hardcore, or post-hardcore, it was very punk. You broadened out with subsequent releases, into the realms of, for argument’s sake, post-metal. I’m being very careful in this interview to label—
No really, Yakuza doesn’t need labels, but that comes to my question, which is, you guys always broadened out but you never lost the raw delivery. There are so many kind of Neurosis-clone squeaky-clean production post-metal bands out there. Yakuza has always been very much separate from that with your spontaneous and loose sound. Many years ago, I actually edited the Way of the Dead Wikipedia page and described your sound as “jazzcore”. I even said “some people refer to Yakuza as jazzcore” and I couldn’t actually remember if I had just made that up or other people were actually using that.
[laughs] Don’t sell yourself short. It’s all you. You created jazzcore [laughs].
[laughs] I always felt that those were the two elements that made you guys so unique, the jazz, and the hardcore delivery. Can you tell me a little about the process between the songwriting and the recording, when it comes to your studio releases?
We’ve done it the same way as far back as I can remember and it starts with the riffs and the rhythms and they may not go together right away, but we see how things flow. I’m in the room while we work on these things. We don’t talk a whole lot but when we do, you know “hey, this, this, whatever”—we like each other, don’t get me wrong, we talk to each other
Just wanted to get that out there, don’t wanna cause any controversy, you know the whole world’s just waiting for this!
Anyway, I’ll get my horn, and start playing over the top of some things, just to see where it goes, Matt McClelland is playing a certain guitar riff, and he’s like “you know what, I don’t wanna play that,” and he’ll completely change it to something else, and I’ll be like “ah man, I really like that riff, hang on a second” and I’ll take that riff he didn’t like and play it on the saxophone instead. I don’t do that very often but occasionally that’ll happen. There are certain parts of the songs where I think we have the intention of keeping them open and loose, so there is some room for spontaneous creativity and improvisation so when we do play them live it keeps it interesting for us and it’s a unique experience for anyone that’s coming to see the band, The songs you hear on the record, us executing those songs exactly 100% the way you heard it, hell no. Never. We’re not gonna take the song and all of a sudden like go half-time on it, but there’s room, there’s space for us to do all kinds of things with and let it breathe.
I suppose that’s a lot of the jazz mentality.
Sure. I mean that’s where I feel most comfortable. You’re under the gun, but I don’t feel pressure by any means. This kinda started with the Samsara record, more so than with Way of the Dead, where we really started to have these sections that could really breathe and open up. There’s a song, Dishonor, it’s very hardcore for the first couple of minutes and then it just kinda breaks down and opens up. Sometimes we’ll play that live for maybe ten minutes.There’s a couple of songs on the new record that have that too. The end of ‘Echoes from the Sky’ has that; ‘Nevertheless’, the end of it, we go on for twelve minutes, the same riff, overlaying saxophone and vocals, using looping pedals.
This question—this is interesting for me, because when I saw it, and for my sins I was still using Spotify, I saw a release from a band called Yakuza, called Kabuki Mono, and first of all, I thought, no, surely that can’t be Yakuza, but then of course I listened to it and it was this almost—crazy, like, bridging on Naked City-style extreme jazz kinda thing . As far as I know, it wasn’t promoted. What’s the story behind that?
Well—it was never supposed to come out. It was total improvisation, in about 2001, we got into a friend’s studio. Jim wasn’t even playing his own drum kit; we thought we were just gonna go in and screw around and we ended up just starting with one thing and next thing you know, thirty-three minutes later—and that was what happened, one take, and never mixed. We had an alter-ego band there for a little bit called Kabuki Mono where we would wear masks and just improvise for the entire live set.
So this was more of a live thing, Kabuki Mono?
Exactly. We did that up until the mid-2000s or so and recently we were just re-issuing some stuff through digital media and I found that and I knew that no-one in the band back then was .particularly into it except for me, but I thought, fuck it, and just threw it up. I’m glad you found it
Yeah, I just kinda came across it, and was sorta surprised, cos I was thinking, is this a different Yakuza, but then of course as soon as I listened to it, I was like, that’s Yakuza. You recently release Beyul on vinyl, which I can’t have jumped on sooner.
Well, actually, I’ll admit I bought it as a present for my girlfriend, but the jealousy hit me so hard that I just had to get one for myself as well.
[laughs] Well thanks to both of ya.
Not at all. So, yeah, Beyul on vinyl. I can’t remember if I misread this or it was a dream or wishful thinking, but was Way of the Dead the next one on the roster to be released on vinyl?
It is, eventually. [laughs] But yeah it totally is.
And do you plan to eventually release the whole back catalogue?
That’s the goal. When the money’s there, we’ll make it happen. Hopefully sooner than later, and with Way of the Dead, Eric Plonka, the original guitarist, we’re still friends, and he reached out and was like “I would happily help fund that, get that out”, so that has a better chance of seeing the light of day than any of the others.
One of my biggest wishes was to see Amount to Nothing on vinyl, always felt like such a rarity that release and I’m gonna have to admit this to you now, I had to download it, I couldn’t find it anywhere else.
Oh, yeah, that’s cool. I mean that was a self-released demo thing. It wasn’t intended to be a full-on release. But that record’s really interesting because I was in the band for three months, when we recorded that, so it has some moments where I cringe.
So, I was almost reluctant to go onto this, but when I Google your name, I’m thinking, “why is Yakuza not coming up more than this”, but—Led Zeppelin 2, tell me the story.
In the early 2000s, it was a thing on Halloween at this club called Double Door where all these bands would dress up as their favourite rock n roll heroes. My band was never invited. I was sad not to be part of that so some other friends of mine and I did another club in the same weekend, and I convinced them to do [Black] Sabbath but we were only gonna do a very short set and not do any very well known songs, so I was like cool, and we had a whole lotta fun—and this writer from Chicago Sun Times happened to be at the show, his name’s Jim DeRogatis, he wrote a book called Let it Blurt, about Lester Bangs.
Oh wow, cool!
Yeah, check it out. Anyway, they were doing a book release show at the Empty Bottle and he asked us to play, and as we were rehearsing for that—and, this is no secret—I was a way bigger Dio Sabbath fan than Ozzy Sabbath, so I tried to convince the others to do a couple of Dio songs and they weren’t into it, and then none of us wanted to do Sabbath, but then just for shits and giggles, our guitar player started going into ‘Custard Pie’ [Led Zeppelin] and we just sort of fumbled our way through it, but what came out of it was—I think it was the bass player on the project, he was like “dude, fuck Ozzy man, you sound way more like Robert Plant.” We played a couple more Zeppelin songs and I was like fuck doing Sabbath for Halloween next year, let’s do Zeppelin, and we did, and again, we didn’t wanna do any well-known Zep tunes, no ‘Kashmir’, no ‘Stairway [to Heaven]’, none of that shit, we played ‘The Wanton Song’, we did a version of ‘In the Light’. If you’re a hardcore Zeppelin fan, you know all this shit. So we did this set, and people went apeshit and so we did another Halloween. I never thought that years later, it would be a thing where we kept selling out shows and they were getting bigger and bigger and then agents started coming our way, like “hey, you wanna take this on the road?”, and I was like if we can make some money then sure, I’ll make it my day job.
I can’t remember what interview or article I was reading but I was reading about you doing Psycho Las Vegas and you mentioned doing acid or shrooms—
[laughs] I know, I’m terrible, I’m sorry.
I’ve never heard of these things! What are you talking about?
I only just read about them on Wikipedia today.
Was that that stuff that made all those people in the 60s start wearing colourful clothes and go crazy and jump off buildings and stuff like that?
I have a feeling it might be that, yeah.
Ohhhhh, that stuff! I love that stuff!
I love that stuff!
Acid I don’t take anymore but, yes I still partake in psilocybin. Microdose, macrodose, whatever you got.
I tend to prefer the macro-macrodose.
There you go, I like it. Macro-micro?
I don’t know about that.
When people are like “are you still microdosing?”, I look around and I’m like “I’m more macro-micro right now”. I still bartender, have for thirty years and sometimes I have to do that, so I can just, you know, be at peace with myself, and I’m so much more of a pleasant human-being.
Some of your artwork—I know you mentioned that’s more down to Jim—especially Transmutations, is very trippy. Have hallucinogens ever been an influence on your music? Have you ever used hallucinogens to inspire songwriting?
Yeah. Totally. All of us, for sure
Good. I mean, I think that’s what I wanted to hear.
Oh yeah, I mean, even growing up, I was a drinker, a smoker, I didn’t smoke a lot of weed, but—not the first time I took acid, cos nothing really happened, honestly, but that second time, man that’s it.
That seems to be a weird thing about acid, and this seems to be the case with quite a few people I’ve spoken to, nothing ever happens, and I think that’s just down to the guy you go to, they’re like “man, this guy’s never done this shit before, let’s just give him some fruit pastilles.”
Yep, that very well could’ve been the case. And that second time was pretty profound, and this is when I was eighteen years old and then for the next couple of years, it was my weekend activity.
After we think about so many famous artists, writers, a lot of it is drinking, uppers, downers, all of which we’ve done—sorry, not to lump you in with, you know—
Oh you can—I’m just thinking if I indulged in all those things while in the UK, and yes I have. I think what hallucinogens did for me was open my eyes and ears to a lot of things that I might not have been aware of and I sought out things, in reading and art and music, and then took all of that in.
So more of a case of opening yourself up to other influences you may not have found otherwise.
Correct. And then absorbing all of that, internalising it and using that to create—I mean, I’ve definitely eaten some mushrooms and gone into the rehearsal space and just freeformed it for a while and that’s always fun. We’ll jam, sometimes under the influence of maybe some mushrooms, maybe not, sometimes I’ll hang loose, have a couple of beers, those guys will smoke some weed, maybe I’ll eat a little bit of an edible. It’s not what’s necessary for us to create but—it doesn’t hurt
No, it’s not necessary, but—why not.
Lastly, I have to ask, is a European tour a possibility in the future?
Well, I sure hope so. We played one show in Europe. Roadburn. We were supposed to play in 2010, then that volcano happened, and we did not, and they asked us back the next year and we played one time, and yeah it was awesome. I hope we can put this together. We have a Scandinavian label [Svart Records] so maybe they can help us at least maybe get there, make our way over somehow. I know it’s possible.
When I was fourteen, fifteen, it was very much the time when record labels would have songs to download and that kind of thing and I remember being on Century Media, I downloaded ‘Cancer of Industry’ and ‘Chicago Typewriter’ and these were two tracks which I would just listen to at some point every day on the way to school, but at the same time I was listening to bands like Mastodon and Pig Destroyer and stuff like that and I’d very much considered you guys being at the same level and as I got older, when I realised Yakuza was not as much on the radar as these bands, I was a bit confused. That’s when I started editing your Wikipedia pages because I thought, well more people should read about it. So what is your mentality when it comes to promotion because I don’t like throwing around the word underrated because it doesn’t really make sense as a word. I think if anything, that thing is going to be underpromoted, and I hope you don’t take that the wrong way. Are there any thought you have on that, because I’ve always considered Yakuza as—if the world was perfect, you guys would be at the forefront of avant-garde metal, not just Chicago-wise, but you know America-wise, so what is it for you guys, in the sense of promotion?
There’s a lot of layers to this, you know, we did a record with Century Media, and you know, I didn’t know this until we actually got out and met some label people—I only knew one person, Steve Joh, he’s been helping us for years, longtime A&R guy, he worked at Century Media, Prosthetic, but we’ve always been one of his baby bands, he always took care of us, because he really loved the band; he’s the one who signed us and all these things but I came to find out there was like a huge division in the label staff [of Century Media]. 80% of the staff absolutely hated us, and 20% loved us, and they were like young kids, assistants to other people. We actually went to their office one time and people just did not give a fuck, they didn’t care about us, and I’m not blaming Century Media, I get it, people have their opinions.
Century Media, they had some big names.
Yeah. Shadows Fall was their biggest band at the time. Sometimes they would send out promotional VHS tapes to record stores, it would have, like, a Shadows Fall video, but they included us as the other video to help us along a little bit which was okay, but that guy, Steve, left Century Media and we were dropped within months after that so we kinda never had a home, then we went to Prosthetic through a guy E.J. who worked at Century Media, one of the guys that actually liked us, his label so he was like let’s do this, and then they dropped us. The good thing was that we didn’t sign away the rights to the records, so we were one of the few bands that actually got our masters back, and then the next album, we didn’t know what to do. I kinda gave less of a shit about promotion and things like that , in the grand scheme of things, we’re more concerned about the music, recording it, getting it out, whoever likes it, likes it, whoever doesn’t, who cares; and I was having a conversation with a couple of guys from the band Dysrhythmia, Colin [Marston] and Kevin [Hufnagel], we were just shooting the shit, we’re old friends and Dysrhythmia’s another band that never really found their audience. We played shows together all the time, we love each other’s bands, I mean, they’re fucking killer—anyway someone mentioned Profound Lore so I looked at a couple of their records and I looked at the roster and I was like, “oh, I like this a lot”, so I hit up Chris from Profound Lore and just asked him and he was like, “fuck yeah”, and we did Of Seismic Consequence. We ended up on tour with Triptykon and 1349 and we got to play to a lot of people. Tom Warrior [Celtic Frost, Triptykon] really liked what we were doing and we were getting fucked with by crowds the first couple days of the tour in New York and Boston, people would shout shit during our quiet stuff. Anywho, the night in Montreal, we played our set, 1349 were playing and I went up to the dressing room to get something and Triptykon was in there and I’d walked into the wrong room and I was like, “oh, I’m so sorry” and Tom Warrior was like “No, please! Come In!,” and he goes “Bruce, Bruce, my name is Tom,” and I was like “I know, thank you having us on the tour,” and he was like, “your fucking band is amazing. Fucking amazing,” he would not stop, and then he was like, “that guy in New York, talking shit during your music, I was ready to fucking kill him! I was so fucking angry!”
“And it didn’t even faze you, you didn’t give a shit.” I mean, I’d thought about jumping off the stage and beating the guy with my horn, but I didn’t do it—but Tom went on Blabbermouth the next week to give a tour report, and he went on a two-paragraph tirade just about us, and I was like, if Tom Warrior gives us a pass, no-one can fuck with us.
Sutra is out now via Svart Records and can be purchased here.
Words: Rory Hughes