Way back when I first started talking about Bandcamp, I highlighted a selection of stellar bands that were using the site as a platform to promote their music. One of those bands was The Sun Through a Telescope, a one-man drone/doom/experimental outfit creating eerie, unsettling tunes emanating from somewhere within Canada’s frozen wastes. I was recently contacted by TSTAT mastermind, drone overlord and all-around awesome dude Lee Neutron regarding TSTAT’s new EP, the excellent Summer Darkyard, which is out now digitally via Handshake Inc, Grindcore Karaoke and of course plain ol’ Bandcamp. Intrigued by his latest release, I decided the time was ripe to harass Neutron for some answers via e-mail, and the following interrogation transpired.
THKD: What were your initial inspirations for The Sun Through a Telescope? Tell me a bit about how you discovered “outsider” forms of music and how that discovery informed your musical path.
Lee Neutron: The 2 albums that specifically provided the catalyst for TSTAT were the self-titled Jesu album and Sunn O)))’s Black One. Up until that point, I had been waffling around with the idea of a “solo-project” but hadn’t bothered to zero in on a focus.
Metal was, without question, the portal to outsider/underground music, at least that was the case for me (although, prior to my getting into metal, I was completely obsessed with “Weird” Al Yankovic, which seems to figure in somehow…maybe not).
Anyways, it was a very fast escalation from Def Leppard to Maiden to Anthrax and Metallica to Slayer to Napalm Death, and from there, it was Skinny Puppy, Godflesh, Faith No More, Syd Barrett, Nomeansno, Voivod, Killing Joke, etc etc. Always looking for those cool, weird, unheard-of bands with the cool, weird album art. It was like I’d discovered this amazing, secret world that was completely established and just waiting there for me. This was like 1989 – 90.
As it turned out, underground music was not so different from the mainstream. After wading through about a billion bands, it was clear that, like the mainstream, underground music had about the same very, very low percentage of worthwhile music to offer. Just because something was obscure or “challenging” (usually another way to say “shitty and unenjoyable”) didn’t mean it got a free pass. It was coming to that realization that kept me from turning my back on entire genres of music due to elitism or snobbery or whatever.
THKD: What was it about SunnO))) and Jesu specifically that appealed to you enough to light that creative fire under your ass? Also, you say you had been playing with the idea of doing a solo project prior to TSTAT. Had you been in bands or recorded any other music prior to doing TSTAT? If so, how did that experience develop into what you’re doing now?
LN: From a songwriting standpoint, nothing is more inspirational or motivational than being exposed to something in music that sounds “new”. Granted, neither of those 2 albums exactly reinvented the wheel. It’s all about context – taking old ideas and rearranging their parameters. Those 2 albums filled me with a sense of urgency to stop sitting on my ass and get to work on my own weird amalgamation of heavy metal. Specifically, it was the delay-and-reverb drenched vocals over crushing doom riffs of Jesu and the track Báthory Erzsébet on Black One with the black metal dude doing his vocals from a coffin. Such a horrific atmosphere created by that song, so much more so than most of what would qualify as black metal. I felt like, while I could never be on par with those bands, I still had to step it up.
I’ve been playing in bands since high school and continue to play in a handful of bands. Lots of shows, lots of recording, tours in Canada and the United States. Nothing major compared to the typical routine of a person in a touring band but I’ve been around the block a few times. It all contributed to the ongoing learning process. How to write a decent song, how to filter out your horrible ideas and idiotic impulses, how to record something and not have it sound like garbage, how to deal with other musicians (most of whom are insane/unpleasent) etc etc. Still constantly learning.
Nothing I had done prior to TSTAT would fall primarily under the metal category, however. So, I guess those previous musical experiences also developed into a need to finally address my metal demons. BLARGHHH!!!!!
THKD: Can you guide us through a brief history of TSTAT following your inspiration to start the project? How would you describe the develepment of the project up to this point?
LN: The songs that make up the Orange and Green/Black EPs came after the initial inspiration. Getting to the point of being able to enter the studio took almost a year just because I knew I’d be doing it alone and wanted to be ready. Once the recording, mixing and mastering were completed, I sent sampler CDs to every metal and/or experimental record label imaginable. The response, as you could imagine, was a resounding silence. Not a “NO!” or even a “no”, just nothing.
After spending way too long in a “well, now what?” kind of limbo, I smartened up and planned to self-release my stuff exclusively on cassette with a digital download option. Seemed like a fun and cheap way to get things done on my own terms. I figured no one but me and my own laziness would be standing in the way of releasing TSTAT music. The self-release manifesto turned out to be unnecessary, however, when I was given massive support from Dwyer Records in releasing the Orange and Green/Black cassettes and from and Handshake Inc., Spettro Records and Grindcore Karaoke in hosting the Summer Darkyard digital downloads.
The project has developed a lot more quickly and fruitfully than I imagined it would. The reaction it’s gotten has been mostly positive and the number of listens on Bandcamp and LastFM are astonishing. Over the years, I’ve become very accustomed to and okay with the idea of no one but me caring about the music I work very hard on.
THKD: What made you decide to embrace both the cassette and digital download formats? I think there is an interesting dichotomy there between the two.
LN: Interesting, indeed! The most up-to-date format and the most out-of-date format coming together as one.
The decision to go with cassettes was primarily economical. Vinyl would have been my first choice but there’s just no way. Far too expensive for a man of my meager resources. Plus, the idea of paying through the nose for TSTAT on vinyl only to sell a few pity copies to friends and family and have the rest sit in my basement alongside various other boxes of past failed releases, well…..no thanks. Cassettes are really cheap to buy in bulk with lots of potential for them to look really cool. There’s also a certain novelty aspect that comes along with them (at least, that’s the case in 2012). I was always a big cassette guy so I have a certain nostalgic affinity for them. They seem to be kind of a hot item in the underground metal community so that’s another plus. Just a cool and easy format to work with.
The digital download option just made sense as I’m not sure how many people who buy cassettes actually listen to them. Or have the means to listen to them at all. I mean, the very idea of selling someone a cassette in 2012…you kind of do it knowing it’s more of a novelty item than something utilitarian. So yeah, a digital download to go with it. So you can come away with something to stick on your mp3 player and actually hear the music you just paid for. Thank you very much, come again!
Vinyl and digital are where it’s at right now. Nobody wants a CD anymore. But again, I’m not rich, so cassettes are a nice substitute for vinyl.
THKD: Ok, so I think that pretty much brings us up to the present. Tell me a bit about your latest release, Summer Darkyard. What were the circumstances surrounding its creation? What were you looking to accomplish this time out?
LN: I really like the idea of, instead of putting out one full-length after another, shorter releases and lots of them. The results are potentially a lot more weird and interesting than, say, 45 – 60 minutes of “A – material” every 2 years or so with a huge void inbetween. It honestly bothers me that more bands don’t employ this tactic. So many bands are in the position to basically do whatever they want and so many end up doing almost nothing. The Melvins are one band that is constantly putting out crazy stuff on multiple formats. They have such an extensive discography that runs the gamut of just about every variation of heavy music you could imagine. It’s one of the many reasons that they’re my heroes.
I’ve been working on a full-length to follow up the 2 EPs that came out last year and Summer Darkyard was something I came up with to fill the gap. 3 songs (plus a short bonus track) recorded and mixed by me; no studio this time. I also imposed upon myself a rule of no live drums on any of the songs which removed the possibility of anything overtly heavy. I wanted to focus a little more on the ambient side of things with this release. Plus, I don’t have the means to properly or even improperly record a drumkit so that made the decision fairly unconditional. Compared to the 2 EPs that precede it, it’s a little more esoteric. Like I said, no drums and really only one song that is guitar-driven.
The idea was to then offer it as a free download with no physical format to accompany it. So that’s what happened. Released on Halloween of last year. E V I L ! ! ! ! !
THKD: Can you elaborate a bit on the recording process for Summer Darkyard? What was your setup for the sessions? Did you run into any obstacles recording the release yourself? What were the pros and cons?
LN: My home setup is very sparse and probably very dumb. One mic, a mixer, a guitar pod, a Korg, a PC, cracked software…and one guy at the helm who almost has one clue.
I usually start with a very vague concept of what I want a song to do. That, or I have a very specific idea that I want to rip off from some other band. The song Darkyard, for example, started out very simply: I wanted simultaneous bursts of guitar and vocals coming out of virtually nothing with no drums to augment the bursts. That seemed like a decent enough idea to build a song around. The last song, I’ll Die, Goodbye, is the result of shameless thievery. It came from sampling large portions from 2 different songs by 2 different well-known artists, laying them on top of one another, then spicing them up with effects. It was something I’d been wanting to do with those 2 songs for a long time and I finally got around to it.
As far as working alone goes, there’s really only one specific set of obstacles I’m always dealing with – constant self-doubt and second-guessing. That’s a definite con of the one-man show. Lyrics are another big problem for me. I can’t stand writing them. Music is a pleasure, lyrics are not. Worse than homework.
On the upside, I find the quickest and most efficient way to get things done is to do as much as you can by yourself. Pro. Big pro.
THKD: Earlier you noted that only one song on Summer Darkyard is guitar driven. Were you making a conscious effort to get away from the guitar? If so, why?
LN: Removing guitars (and drums) as central instruments provided more opportunities for the drone/ambient aspects to be pushed to the foreground. It was definitely a conscious effort to do so, the reason being to possibly make things interesting. Not so much a need to get away from guitar because of being sick of it or anything. Guitars are good.
THKD: What are some of the lyrical themes you’re tackling on Summer Darkyard? Vocally you seem to be coming from a black metal place, and of course we talked a little about Black One’s influence on you earlier, so I guess I’m wondering if the lyrics are dealing with black metal-type themes, such as misanthropy.
LN: There’s a definite black metal aspect that is slowly but surely creeping into TSTAT, much moreso now than on my first 2 releases. That said, I’m more into the idea of black metal than black metal itself. Black One seems to encompass the spirit of black metal without being an overtly black metal album which is one of the reasons why I love it.
As I said earlier, lyrics are not my thing. I don’t really feel like I have any story to tell so, more often than not, I can’t be bothered with themes or a concept or anything like that. Darkyard, for instance, is just a bunch of random words. They mean absolutely nothing. Cro-Magnon Nightmare, on the other hand, is a little more specific. I thought that up as kind of an imagined epilogue to the movie Quest for Fire. Kind of a not-so-nice vision of the future for a doomed species. Boo hoo. I’ll Die, Goodbye is mostly based on my own excruciating high-school-era experiences. There’s one part about this girl I knew who was on acid and slashed her hand up with glass from a broken beer bottle she found on the ground. Other parts are just invented for effect. Kind of a cut-and-paste type approach. On my first 2 EPs, I used lines directly from books and movies as lyrical fragments. It usually boils down to what I’m obsessed with at that particular time.
I wouldn’t call what I’m getting at with the TSTAT lyrics misanthropic. They’re far more insular than that. I’m basically panning my subconscious for gold. There’s not a lot there, unfortunately.
THKD: What were some of the books and films you were borrowing from? Are there any particular authors or directors that inspire you and how do you translate that into music? What about soundtracks? TSTAT definitely has a cinematic vibe to it.
LN: There’s one song with lines from American Psycho. Awesome movie and an even better book. I especially like towards the end when things are completely unraveling. Not that I aspire to be Patrick Bateman or anything. I just like the idea of a person becoming slowly but surely unglued from their reality. Someone else, not me. No thanks. Another source for stolen lines was a comic book called Cerebus the Aardvark (which I’m currently re-reading for the 4th time). It’s a series of books I’ve known about for awhile but only checked out a few years ago. It’s not your typical comic book. Very strange, very long and really amazing. Some parts of it are awful and unreadable and even that I find amazing about it. I was also borrowing from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. A great story though I find it gets a little worse with every re-visiting. I sample dialogue from movies a little bit as well (though not on Summer Darkyard).
Movie samples and book-thievery aside, I can’t say that either mediums have a huge influence on what ends up being a TSTAT song. I don’t think I have the same kind of vested interest in movies or books that I do in music, even though I love all 3. I’ve never been a huge soundtrack guy but there are definitely a few that I’m really into. Sunshine, Altered States, Blade Runner, Conan the Barbarian, Twin Peaks, the Argento/Goblin stuff.
THKD: I think it is interesting that the album starts off really angry sounding both vocally and musically and then kind of gets more mellow and sort of vulnerable sounding as it goes along, especially with the Jesu-esque vocals that pop up on “I’ll Die, Goodbye” was this also intentional and if so, what does it represent?
LN: Totally intentional. There’s not a lot behind it actually. It’s the idea of a jarring intro – an attention-getter – and from there a short journey into unsettling, ambient oblivion. I knew I’d be taking the ambient side of things to a certain extreme on this release so that particular track seemed like a good place to end where it’s basically fading out into nothing.
THKD: Let’s switch gears a little bit and talk about the release of Summer Darkyard. How did you get hooked up with Handshake Inc and Grindcore Karoake to host the digital downloads for the album? What are the advantages of this as opposed to just throwing it out there yourself on Bandcamp or something?
LN: Handshake Inc is run by a good friend of mine named David Hall. He promised to include TSTAT amongst his initial releases even before he’d got the label up and running. It was Dave who was the link to Grindcore Karaoke as he’d made a video for Agoraphobic Nosebleed and, as a result, had been in close contact with Jay Randall. He recommended TSTAT to Jay who responded very positively and added my release to his roster. It’s also being hosted (along with my previous 2 releases) by an Italian-based online-label called Spettro Records.
The advantages of this increased exposure are, hopefully, an increased listenership. I could care less about making a dime out of this cuz I know it’s not gonna happen. If people are checking it out, that’s good enough. Even if they hate it, that’s fine. As long as they are aware.
THKD: What kind of feedback have you gotten so far for Summer Darkyard? Are you happy with the response? Has your music attracted any trolls or weirdos?
LN: The feedback I’ve received so far has been mostly positive, what little there has been. It’s always fascinating to me to hear what other people think of what I’m doing. The fact that they think anything about it at all is enough to blow me away. I’m happy that there is a response PERIOD. Good, bad, whatever. If it’s being talked about, that’s more than I ever expected. I had fully prepared myself for complete indifference towards my TSTAT music so anything to the contrary is great.
No trolls to speak of, at least none that are, as of yet, displaying any troll-like tendencies. No weird emails, no fanatical interpretations, no stalkers. No, nothing like that. I’ll know I’m definitely making some significant waves when those retards start coming out of the woodwork.
THKD: Would you ever consider performing live as TSTAT, provided you could find the right group of musicians to help realize your vision?
LN: I’ve actually already got the musicians all in place. Various members of Fuck the Facts and Alaskan have expressed interest in helping me out if that time comes. My concerns are more to do with being able to come up with a live TSTAT scenario that would prevent it from being just another mediocre metal show. I’ve thought about it a number of different ways, possibly with a full band playing along with a backing track or possibly just me and a guitar playing along with an even more elaborate backing track. I always imagine playing against a backing film of some kind too.
It’s definitely something I’m not worrying about right now. I’m not really at a point in my life anymore where I can get out there and tour my ass off. Playing a bunch of random shows isn’t gonna do a whole hell of a lot to promote the band. If the time ever comes that a sort of “demand” for live shows develops, then I’ll probably start thinking about it. So, short answer: TSTAT will never play live.
THKD: What’s next on the horizon for TSTAT? What are your plans for the project in 2012 and beyond?
LN: I’m really hoping to get a video made. That is one thing that is completely out of my hands as far as my being able to get it done on my own. I am at the mercy of other people so, suffice to say, it might not happen. But yeah, since there are no immediate plans for playing live, I think getting some sort of visual to accompany the audio is the way to go. That is literally the next thing I want to get done.
2012 will also see the release of the first TSTAT full length. 7 songs, 6 of which are in various states of completion and the 7th being only theoretical at this point. My plan is to record and mix with Topon from Fuck the Facts. He’s a good friend and runs a great studio here in town.
Beyond that, I’ve got plans for an EP of cover songs as well as a strictly black-metal release (or my idea of black metal). Lots of ideas, all of which are subject to change.
THKD: Are there any final thoughts you’d like to add?
LN: Just basically want to say thank you VERY much for giving me this opportunity to promote my music! The online blogging/fanzine community has literally been the lifeblood for this project. I can see it in the bandcamp stats and on the LastFM page. A review or a writeup gets posted and the numbers go up. Incredible. And with regards to shedding some light on completely independent, unheard-of stuff, the metal community in particular really steps up. I love that.