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LAist Interview: Aaron Harris of ISIS
Los Angeles-by-way-of-Boston quintet ISIS are the type of band that your mother warned you about. They emit a gargantuan, unwieldy sound that could easily impair your hearing. But after some twelve years of rocking out—or what drummer Aaron Harris simply refers to as "beating the shit out of their instruments"—they've created their own niche. The distinctively heavy tone that many have come to associate with the group has helped develop a new wave of metal bands, including the likes of Cult of Luna, Pelican and Russian Circles. So it should come as no surprise that their fifth, hotly anticipated record entitled Wavering Radiant has found Isis in a fairly comfortable position, doing what they've known best the only way they know how to do it.
LAist: For starters, what's going on with the band?
AH: We're all done with the new record and we released the name of the record; It's called Wavering Radiant. We're just kind of in a weird in-between phase right now where the record is done and it's in the label's hands. It's due out May 5th on CD and the vinyl will come out April 21st, a couple weeks ahead of time. We're going to hit the road mid-May, planning that right now. We always try to put together an interesting bill.
LAist: And Adam Jones (of Tool) played a bit on the new record?
AH: Yeah, he plays on the first song and also on a segue-type thing that we did.
LAist: How did you guys meet?
AH: We had met Justin, the bass player, first. He had heard of us through his brother. At the time, he was working for Polydor Records in the UK. When we were on tour with Mogwai he used to come out. And I think maybe Buzz from the Melvins gave him a CD. I believe the first time we met Adam he came to a show at the Troubadour. Then we toured with Tool and just became friends.
LAist: Where did you record?
AH: We recorded the drums at Sound City in Van Nuys, which has a huge drum room—It's where Nirvana recorded Nevermind. That record was of major significance to me while I was growing up. It was pretty strange to be tracking drums at the same place they recorded that album. And then we did all the rest, guitars, vocals and mixing, in Joe Barresi's studio in Pasadena.
LAist: How does the record sound? How did it turn out?
AH: It sounds really, really great. I'm quite happy with it. For the last couple of records, a couple of guys were living in New York and it made it really hard to write to our full capacity. We'd only rehearse for a couple weeks and then take a few weeks off to go back home. It was really tough because the writing process for us is very involved. Recording is a true group effort.
So this time around, having everyone here everyday made it a lot easier; It made for a better result. We've always worked with Matt Bayles, the same engineer since the beginning of our career. It's always interesting working with someone new. Barresi kind of brought a whole new flavor to it.
LAist: 2002's Oceanic seems to be, amongst your fans, the quintessential ISIS record. Do all of you guys recognize that and/or feel that that's even true?
AH: I always kind of feel like our current record is our best effort. I say that because I feel like we're always moving forward, moving into new areas. I'm most happy with what I'm doing currently and I think that's probably how everybody feels.
But I understand why people return to that record a lot. It was the moment at which we became the band we are now. It was a pretty big step forward going from Celestial to Oceanic. I didn't really realize at the time, but now I can look back and listen to those two records and discern the progression we made. It makes sense to me why that's the record everyone is drawn to. It is a great record, but at the same time I feel like I'm moving forward still. And we're making better and better records.
LAist: How did the idea of 2004's Oceanic Remixes and Reinterpretations come to fruition?
AH: We've all been fans of electronic music. It was just kind of a way to collaborate with these artists that we really enjoyed without having to produce an entirely new record. We wanted to do some collaborative stuff and it seemed to make the most sense. It was really interesting to hand over your music to somebody else and to see how they interpreted it. It's always a treat to get the songs back and hear what somebody did with your music. We only asked people that we really trusted, but at the same time you never really know what they're going to come up with. It's a gamble.
For the most part, I was really content with the results. I would love to do something like that again. There's still a huge list of people I would like to get involved with. I don't know how big of a market there is for something like that. I think that it's more for the artist than it is for the fans. But then again, there's been some really great remixes that I've liked more than the originals.
LAist: What was the scene like in Boston when you first started the band?
AH: It was probably a lot like how our first record sounded: Young guys just beating the shit out of their instruments, trying to be as loud and as heavy as possible. But you can hear a huge progression from a lot of the bands that are still around from that era. If you listen to our first record or Cave In's first record and compare it to the next, we all kind of evolved. We were teenagers when we were making that stuff and it really sounds like it. We were just young and angry I guess.
LAist: Isis relocated to Los Angeles in 2003. Was that a natural move or was it prompted by something?
AH: It was sort of prompted by something. As a band, we had talked about moving somewhere, but not anywhere specific. However, our singer Aaron, who runs a label called Hydra Head Records, was going to give Los Angeles a shot. I thought it was a good idea because we were really getting sick of the weather and the vibe of Boston. We all lived there for quite a while and just kind of needed something new.
I really didn't think that I would like it here. In fact, I thought that I would hate it. The only parts of Los Angeles that we saw on tour were the Troubadour and the general Melrose area. We used to go to Melrose and walk around at night. I just thought that this place was awful. But I decided to give it a shot and I really love it now. I had some serious hesitation moving here though.
LAist: And how do you feel about the scene in general here?
AH: I don't really feel like there is a scene for us. Boston is a very tight-knit sort of scene; It was a real scene by definition. Here, I just kind of feel like I'm in such a huge area for music and entertainment. There's all these great shows happening, but I can't think of many bands from Los Angeles that really unify our music scene. I mean, there's the Melvins, there's Tool and various other bands. Maybe it's because I'm older, but when I think of scene I think of how it was in Boston when we were younger.
LAist: What bands do you consider to be your contemporaries?
AH: People tell me that there's new bands that sound a lot like us. And that our name gets tossed around in interviews with other bands. I guess we've kind of moved to this stature of being a band that has influenced other bands. I never ever thought that would happen. It's really flattering. I don't follow music that much. I was talking to my girlfriend about this the other day actually. It's really funny because I'm not really a music fan, in the sense that I'm searching out new bands. I just like what I like and I tend to stick to that. But I'm obviously happy to be influencing people.
LAist: What are you listening to if you don't listen to anything contemporary? What records are always on repeat?
AH: The one that's been in my record player the most lately is 1971's Tarkus by Emerson, Lake & Palmer. It's a really strange record. But the more I listen to it the more I start to get it. The most recent thing I bought was Nine Inch Nails' Ghost Volume 1-4. It's really great. I guess when I say that I'm not a music fan, I mean to say that I count on my friends to fill me in on the latest and greatest. I guess I could be a little more involved.
LAist: Who would you like to tour with this time around?
AH: I heard the new Enslaved record and it's phenomenal. They used to be a black metal band, but now they're a little more progressive. I would love to get some shows with those guys. I'd really like to tour with Pelican. We always want to have an interesting bill that makes sense to us. We aim to tour with bands that are like-minded, but not too similar-sounding.
LAist: What do you think about the whole black metal movement?
AH: I think it's great. I think that metal has gotten a bad rap. The word makes a lot of people cringe. I even harbor negative thoughts when it comes to the word metal. It doesn't really sound like something most people would be inclined to give a chance. Terminology is kind of strange in that it's very loose. I have a hard time describing what we do. To say that we're a metal band wouldn't really cut it. I wish there was some other way to describe this sort of music. And then when they try to throw things together, like post-metal, atmospheric sludge, it doesn't make any sense to me. I think that there are a lot of really great things happening in heavy music. We're returning to the 70s, where music is integrating more texture. People are putting a lot more effort into making music. It was looking pretty grim in the 90s when Limp Bizkit, Korn and that shit was considered "heavy music."
LAist: Do you feel like that redeems the last ten years of failure?
AH: I think it's getting there. It's going to take a lot to get over that. But at least we're making progress. I think everybody probably felt as though it was looking pretty grim.
LAist: And what's the deal with your side-project, Zozobra?
AH: I don't even know what the deal is with Zozobra. Caleb Scofield is a good friend of mine. We lived together for a while in Boston. Even though he's the same age as me, I kind of feel like he was a little brother to me. Not a little brother, but the closest thing I had to a brother. We always talked about doing a record together and it never really panned out. He was writing a new record and he gave me some demos. So we finally decided to go through with it and we put it out on Hydra Head.
LAist: Finally, the last record debuted pretty well on the charts. I was wondering, what's going to happen to you guys if this record really hits big? Are you prepared for that?
AH: Not at all. I try not to think about that stuff because I just don't want to be disappointed. To be successful was never really a goal of ours. We're really lucky in the sense that people do like it and we've been able to do what we've done. But we're not a commercial band and it's not something a lot of people can get their head around or even have the patience for it. I would really love to reach a wider audience and I hope that that happens, but I'm not planning on it.