ALIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL
The surface of our planet doesn’t get any deeper then the Mariana Trench, which is in fact the lowest point in the Pacific Ocean. So when a band names itself after such a unique, dark and lonesome place, you could be forgiven for expecting music with some depth and melancholy. Which actually isn’t too far off from the truth...
The Mariana Hollow were formed in London, England, around 2006 by guitarists Richie Walden and Danny Russell, who were later joined by vox Rebecca Spinks, bass player Scott Chesworth and drummer Adam Stanley. Since then the quintet has recorded 2 albums, the second of which is scheduled for release by the end of this year. Both were produced by Danny himself, who also happens to have a degree in music technology.
Just after The Mariana Hollow played a gig at London’s famous ‘Underworld’ venue I met with the band for a friendly interview. Unfortunately Scott, who is blind since birth, had to leave as soon as their set ended as he had another gig scheduled for that same evening. (Jeez, 2 gigs in 1 night…now that’s what I call a hard-working musician!) Anyway, here’s what emerged with the rest of the band...
This morning I discovered you’ve got a new domain-name website online...
Danny: Yes, the idea is to put that out and launch the new record through it. We felt we had some cool pictures from our video-shoots and we couldn’t just trickle them out on Facebook. So we showcased those and we’re going to launch the album and the video through that website and hopefully drive traffic toward it. There’s also some funny little things there such as our band-member profiles.
I believe the new album will be called “Velvet Black Sky”... how would you describe its music?
Rebecca: I think compared to our first album it goes to greater depths really. We kind of tried to push ourselves on this album. We listened to what people said about the first album. We’ve also grown as friends and as writing partners since the first album. So the new songs are more involved... they’re more fun for us to play, really, because we’ve got better as a group.
Were there any songs you found particularly hard to get right in the recording studio?
Danny: Yes, very much so.....all of them! [laughs] Actually there’s one song which closes the album, it’s called ‘The Fate Of Man’.....that song was almost just an idea that was kind of left on the back-burner until we realised that we needed something [at that point in the album] because we had nothing happening. We knew that there would be no big drum tracks to speak of, like in the rest of the songs, so it was left up to Richie to come up with some stuff in the studio and then we started playing around with different things such as pianos and loops....which we don’t use anywhere else on the album. So it was kind of a different thing for us to do.
Am I to understand you’ve used a piano on the new album?
Danny: There’s quite a lot of piano on the new album, actually. There’s also some live violin – courtesy of my friend Susie Gillis, who plays in a quartet called Sixteen Wires. She’s basically done us a favour by playing in our album as she knows we don’t have a huge amount of money or a huge budget. So she kindly offered us her services for a reduced rate. She’s probably one of the best violin players in the country at the moment.
What about the album’s title…..is there any deeper meaning behind ‘Velvet Black Sky’?
Rebecca: To me it suggests a ‘calm before the storm’ kind of feeling. Something that may be very beautiful but also possess a lot of sadness and a lot of watching and waiting to see what’s going to happen. That’s the kind of vibe it conveys to me. Similarly, a lot of the songs on the album deal with issues that worry us at the moment so that’s where it [the title] comes from.
Danny, I believe you are involved in most stages of the band’s music, such as composition, performance and production...
Danny: Production and performance definitely, but Richie’s got a lot do with the songwriting process. In terms of recording the albums, we tend to do that in my home studio and then we’ll outsource a mix engineer for a fresh set of ears so that we can take it home and it can hopefully sound like a complete record.
[That mix engineer was in fact Chris Sheldon, well known for his work with bands such as Foo Fighters, Skunk Anansie, Anthrax and many others.]
Funny you should put it that way because my next question was going to be: aren’t you concerned that this could make you selectively deaf to the band’s music?
Danny: That’s a very good point! In fact I have the utmost respect for people like Trent Reznor [Nine Inch Nails] who conceive, record, produce and do everything else involved in the creation of an album. I don’t know how they do it and remain objective.
For me it’s O.K. because everyone would have really worked and honed on their parts and consequentially much of the recording process kind of flows quite naturally. And when Spinky comes in, most often she’ll already have worked on her vocal and backing vocal parts. I’m really more like an engineer throughout this process…..and the setting of guitar sounds and bass sounds and drum sounds and things like that. But we all get involved in the recording.
Danny, I’m assuming the recording studio is your natural habitat. But how do you feel about performing live?
Danny: That’s an interesting question, actually, and it’s one I often battle with because by nature I’m very much a perfectionist and a bit of a control freak. And the recording studio lends itself very well to that. The live performance doesn’t – in a live performance there are loads of things out of your control but over the years I’ve kind of learnt to just let things go a little bit.
I used to play in a band called Season’s End where I used to be so uptight…..the sound wasn’t right……someone missed something…and other individual areas in the performance where something wasn’t perfect. Now I’ve learnt to get on stage and just enjoy performing.
Another question on the topic of sound engineering…..how would you react if you hear a recording with an excellent sound but mediocre music?
Danny: I’ll be blunt…..I do think there’s a lot of dross out there where people have a lot of money and a lot of backing behind them and they may look great as a band and obviously there’s a lot of money behind their recordings and to push them. [Pauses to think] Well, we always try to have a lot of substance behind our songs and our lyrics and in terms of the music I think that our songwriting comes from a very real place, at least for me personally. I always try to zone out and go into this trance-like place when I’m composing my parts.
Tell me more about how you write your songs…..
Danny: “Velvet Black Sky” and “Coma Heart” were written in different places actually but usually the songs are written in my home studio. Often Richie and I would meet up knowing we need to write some new songs and by the end of the evening we’d have nothing at all to show. But then there would be other times when we would have written 2 new songs in a single session.
Is your recording studio also in London?
Danny: It was until recently but now it’s actually in the middle of Wiltshire, in the countryside. [Wiltshire is a county in the South West of England.]
[Just as I’m about to ask my next question, somebody in the pub where the interview is taking place asks if he can take the empty chair which happened to be next to me. I’m tempted to warn him that it’s a cursed chair where the evil soul of a bloodthirsty bass player once sat…..but, in all my mischievousness, I just give this person the chair without any warning of what awaits him. The interview then resumes…..]
How did the experience of recording the first album – “Coma Heart” - change the way you wrote your newer songs?
Adam: I think this time around we made it heavier, in an intelligent way. The first album was more sparse and a bit more introspective, even though it was a heavy Rock album. But this one [“Velvet Black Sky”] has more exciting music. Listening back to what we had done on the first album and thinking about the process about how we did things, we just thought: ‘Fuck, we can work things out a lot better!’ And so we didn’t worry about certain things while we were building the songs. That way the songs came out way better, way quicker.
I know that several influences of yours aren’t related to Metal. Do you feel this makes it more difficult to communicate with a Metal crowd?
Richie: No. I actually think Metal audiences are quite discerning. It doesn’t necessarily have to be pinch harmonics, double-kick drums and screaming to actually affect people. For me as a fan of Metal and of many many bands, what I enjoy most is when I see a band performing that really cares about their music. And I think there is enough grit in what we do to pull in fans of, maybe, heavier genres than what we play. You know, I think we play with an honesty and a fashion that enables us to connect with Metal audiences more than some bands who might be heavier than us. We’ve played with far heavier bands than us that have been static on stage and don’t seem to care about what they’re doing. And they would sound very very heavy but sometimes I can’t connect with that because I don’t see them caring about the music, I don’t understand what it is they’re trying to portray. Whereas with us, we’ve got our hearts on our sleeves: this is what we are, this is what we feel, this is why we are playing music.
Adam: Following on what Richie just said, I think heaviness doesn’t have to come from the sound. It comes from the way that you put what you’re doing across. And I think that’s what we do, other than trying to be blatantly saying: ‘Look how heavy this is’.
Keeping on the subject of influences…..many bands that influenced The Mariana Hollow – such as Paradise Lost - have changed their music significantly over the years, consequentially alienating many of their original fans. Do you consider the expectations of fans to be more important than your musical freedom?
Rebecca: That a tough one! I think to be honest we would always write what we care about. We would always write what feels good. Unfortunately if not everyone would like that, then that would be how it would be. We just hope that people would connect with and enjoy what we write…..we always think about that. Ultimately, however, we write from our hearts.
Danny: We’re quite selfish in the way we write. We always write what we’d want to hear. It tends to be that we’ll write music that is a kind of amalgam of all our influences with what I’d like to think is a fresh voice.
Rebecca, of all instruments the vocals are probably the most susceptible to physical health and psychological temperament. So how to you enter the right frame of mind just before going on stage?
Rebecca: First of all, I take it really seriously. I do try to prepare as much as I can. I psych myself up before a gig and I even do a few exercises to warm myself up. I also try to be better every time. Each song has a certain story which I see unfold in my head so I just throw myself into each song when I’m performing. I do think it’s important to be fit and to look after yourself.
Danny: Plus she gets a sort of slap in the face to get her psyched up…..
Danny: She keeps telling us: ‘Punch me in the face, pleeease!’ [everyone laughs]
Rebecca: All true!
Until now, most of your efforts were focused on spreading the band’s music throughout the UK. What do you think are the challenges of building a fanbase in mainland Europe?
Adam: How do you get people to give a shit about you? That’s the biggest challenge, because there are so many bands out there. From our experience we’ve discovered that even if you come up with something very good, that’s not an automatic passport to achieving success. You’ve got to make people care. You’ve got to connect with them. Unfortunately the music industry is a bit of a popularity contest and we are more concerned about quality music. This is one thing I have personally learnt – that it’s not enough for us to do good music but we also have to connect with people in some way. I think we’re getting there, though……
Adam, your accent doesn’t sound entirely English. Where exactly are you from?
Adam: I am from South Africa. [Said with an intentionally heavy South African accent.]
Did you start playing drums before coming over to the UK?
Adam: Yeah, I’ve been playing since I was 15 years old. I’m 30 now, so I’ve been playing for 15 years. I don’t think my playing reflects the time I’ve put into it, but, anyway….[shrugs his shoulders and smiles]…..I’ve been in loads and loads of bands.
What can you tell us about the Metal scene of South Africa? What Metal genres are most popular there?
Adam: The Metal scene in South Africa is small. There are some good bands but I don’t think it’s as good as Europe as a scene. Nu-Metal used to be really big. Now it’s a Killswitch-Engage-type-of-Metal…..I don’t know what the fuck you’d call that……oh yeah, ‘Metalcore’.
Before I ask my last question, there’s one other thing I forgot to ask. Earlier on you referred to a video-shoot. In fact I know you’ve prepared another promo-clip – can you tell me more about that?
Rebecca: Yes, it’s a video of the song ‘Your Halo’ which will also be our first single from the new album. The video is coming out on Halloween, this 31st October. So we’re spreading the word about that, from now until the end of October. The video was shot where Danny lives and was shot in an old dilapidated pig barn. It looks great and we’re really pleased with the result. So we can’t wait for people to see it!
Danny: [whispering] And there’s real bits of pig in the video. [laughs]
The Mariana Hollow, where do you see yourselves in 5 years’ time?
Richie: Well, I hope very much we’ll still be doing what we’re doing now. There’s never any guarantee of success playing any kind of music. But I actually feel all of us need to be in this kind of band and we need to play this kind of music. I think we all feel for it and I think everyone puts their hearts into it. No-one here’s in it just for the ride. Every gig, every song on every record…..it’s absolutely us. 100%. There’s no posing, we’re not trying to be another band.
And you think all that will become evident in the music?
Richie: I think it already has. And I hope it will also come across in our shows.
© 2011 Chris Galea
Interviewed by Chris Galea