Conducted by Robert Williams
Emerging from San Angelo, Texas in the late part of the nineties, Vex have weathered the ups and downs of musical differences, lineup changes and defining their overall sound and ideology on their way to crafting the brilliant debut full length "Thanatopsis" that was recently released through underground indie label Horror Pain Gore Death Productions. Now on the brink of completing a follow up record, founding member and Vex guitarist Ciaran McCloskey took some time out of his hectic schedule to chat with Metal-Rules.com and provide our readers with some further insight into the storied back history of one of South Texas’ most criminally underrated acts.
How are you doing today Ciaran?
Just fine thank you, just another hateful day in the confines of my cubicle. I would say that I can’t complain but I probably could.
Vex has just released your debut full length album titled "Thanatopsis" through Philadelphia based indie-label Horror Pain Gore Death Productions and so far the new album has been met with positive reactions from the underground metal media and fans alike. I guess my first question for you will be "What took so long?" I’ve been aware of Vex since at least 1999 and I know you probably go back even further than that as a band, was there a lot of meticulous crafting on your part as a band, carefully branding your material over the past decade?
That’s a good question and certainly a prescient one among journalists and anyone else who is aware of our history. While I would like to attribute the delay to meticulous crafting, that was really only part of the process. We actually recorded what could be called a rough draft of "Thanatopsis" with a slightly different track list in 2003 at Amplitude Studios with Kris Nunez. The production and overall quality was great but we were not all pleased with our own performances. After about a year and a half of gigging and squabbling about what to do with the recording, we decided to salvage 3 of the best sounding drum tracks and re-track everything else at Noise Farm Studios with Tim Bartlett for a promotional release.
After another extensive period of gigging for the next few years, we failed to attract any legitimate label interest with this release but we did have a few new songs so we decided to give "Thanatopsis" another go at Noise Farm. This was around January of 2007; the delays and frustrations that Life threw us between then and the album’s release in September 2010 were extensive, including lineup changes, jail time, graduate school, label changes, and bankruptcy. Perhaps as a way of avoiding personal accountability, I now speculate that the delay was a part of a curse that I was under while writing the thesis required for my Masters in Literature from Texas State. Although the fact that it took so long is a source of personal shame for me, I can at least content myself with the fact that the continual emphasis on live performance kept the songs in a constant state of revision until we found the right arrangement. It also helps that the album ended up on a few best-of lists last year; that was about the last thing that any of us expected.
How did the record deal with Horror Pain Gore Death Productions originally come about? Was it a standard demo submission or how did you initially garner their attention?
Our association with HPGD Productions began when they agreed to release a split-7-inch vinyl with us and Divine Eve. I was in touch with the head of the label, Mike Juliano, a few months after the release and he offered to put out an album for us. Thankfully, we were just finalizing the mixes for "Thanatopsis" at that time so we didn’t hesitate to accept. We have been more than pleased with our experience with them so far.
There was a recent change of personnel in Vex that found vocalist Orlando "Logan" Perez (Against The Plagues) leave the band, leading to the addition of new singer Joe Jackson (Sakrefix) Why the sudden change in your lineup, especially considering your new album just dropped this past September and how has Joe been adapting to life in Vex thus far?
Logan is an immensely driven and talented dude who did a world of good for us, not just musically but also in terms of artwork and promotion. However, we were never fully agreed on what would be the best vocal approach for Vex and this had stalled us a bit in the studio sessions for the split EP. As the rest of us began writing for the next album, we began to see our sound moving away from where Logan wanted to take it. Rather than have both sides compromise to create a sound that neither is really happy with, we felt that the most efficient way to operate would be to find a vocalist more suited to our newer sound. It was a terribly difficult decision to make. Joe is an old friend of the band who offered his services so we called him for an audition and then basically decided we didn’t need to audition anyone else. Joe’s energy, performance and overall approach are exactly what we’re looking for and his presence has fired us up to an extent that we’ve never really experienced before.
With the addition of new blood in the band, has that been the shot in the arm you guys needed to get started on some new material? How far along are you in the songwriting process for the next Vex record and how would you describe your new music?
It absolutely has. All the material for the next album was written before he joined but he totally gets what we’re looking for so the arranging process is much quicker and seamless than it ever has been. There’s even talk of getting him on third guitar for some of the new material. We are set to begin tracking in July or August; all of the songs except one have been demo-tracked.
I would describe the sound as “Thanatopsis” but moreso: more death metal, more folk influence, more textural and rhythmic exploration, and much better arrangements. We tried to just let the sound go where it wanted to, which after listening back, seems to be away from “death/black metal” to some sort of folk-ish death metal. I could be completely wrong though.
Going back to your current release, from what I understand "Thanatopsis" was recorded at Noise Farm Studios with producer Tim "Malydios" Bartlett. How was it working with Tim on "Thanatopsis"? Would you consider all of that time in the studio a valuable learning experience?
Well as I mentioned earlier, there were a lot of delays in the recording but none of them were the fault of the engineer. In fact, the album was itself an act of generosity on the part of Tim. Since we couldn’t afford studio time, he would squeeze us in the breaks between sessions with real bands; Teratism, Inquisition, Viral Load, Insidiuous Decrepancy and probably several others all recorded albums there and released them during the 3 ½ years that we were working on “Thanatopsis.” The infamous Shawn Whitaker from Insidious Decrepancy chose to stick around after his sessions one day to offer mixing advice and to keep us all entertained; I thought that was awesome of him.
How long did it take Vex to record the new album from start to finish? What proved to be the most challenging part of the production process? Are their any songs on "Thanatopsis" that stand out as having a particular signifigance for you personally speaking or maybe you just have a personal favorite track(s) from the new record?
Recording and releasing “Thanatopsis” was an incredibly draining and intense experience for us. The biggest challenge was just finding the will to continue as a band, which was admittedly pretty dismal around 2009, when literally nothing was happening. Each time we would make progress with the tracking or mixing, we would run into another setback that threw the whole thing into question. We also had to start completely over with the mixing process a few times ‘cause the sound just wasn’t where it needed to be. However, amidst all of that, I still think it’s a pretty decent listen; my favorite track is probably the opener “Thanatos” because it reminds me of the summer of 2006, which was a great time for us. We were all living together in a house in San Marcos, we had just come off of a successful tour, and we all had the chance to work together on the arrangement. “The Past is Frozen” is an intensely personal track that was written around the same time so I dig that one as well.
I remember hearing some rumblings about Vex releasing a vinyl split with Divine Eve on the Japanese label Obliteration Records. In this harsh post-tsunami reality, is that still in fact a possibility or are is there potential plans to shop this split to a different label?
The Obliteration release was actually going to be split CD with 3 tracks from each of us; HPGD released the vinyl edition with one song each. We had been excited about this release for a while because the 3 new songs represent our strongest material. The art and packaging were finally settled earlier in the year but that was before the earthquakes and the tsunami when obviously everything changed in Japan. I’ve heard that Naru from Obliteration is OK so that’s obviously our main concern; beyond that, we haven’t asked about the release because it would be disrespectful and completely disproportionate for us to do so in the face of a natural disaster. Divine Eve released their side of the EP in the US through Ibex Moon Records; we’ve talked about finding a different label for our side but it almost seems a moot point since those tracks – with the exception of “Circular Ruins,” a.k.a. the lost vinyl track – will be rerecorded for the upcoming full-length in July. We’ll probably put the EP versions up for download.
Last summer Vex teamed up with the Canadian metal band Woods of Ypres (Who recently inked a deal with Earache Records) for a string of dates and as it stands now it looks like both bands will once again share the stage this summer for at least one show here in Texas. How did you guys enjoy doing the tour you did with Woods of Ypres? You must be excited to catch up with your Cannuck friends again…
We had a great time with Woods of Ypres last summer. Their guitarist Joel is also a graduate student in English so he and I had ample opportunity to nerd out and give each other lectures; luckily there was plenty of whiskey and “Conan the Barbarian” drinking games to keep everyone else from being bored to tears. I think that our styles match well so I’m glad I was able to book another date for them in San Marcos this summer. I believe that both bands will also be playing the Goregrowler’s Ball in San Antonio in November.
A lot can be said about the many influences that flux together and infuse to create a Vex composition. Let’s talk about who you would recall as your primary musical inspirations when Vex originally formed versus your current musical influences… and not just musically speaking, what else would you factor into the equation to achieve the end result as can be heard on the debut record "Thanatopsis" ?
The influences from the “Sphereith” era are pretty obvious I think; Iron Maiden, Morbid Angel and a lot of the melodic European bands from the 90s like Dissection and Dark Tranquillity. As I began writing for “Thanatopsis” I was reacquainting myself with the originators, mainly Celtic Frost and Bathory, and correspondingly wanting to drop the synth and go for a much more earthy and organic kind of intensity. I think you can also hear the beginnings of the obsession with 70s prog and fusion – mainly Yes, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Gentle Giant — that dominates our collective listening these days. Lyrically, “Thanatopsis” draws a lot of inspiration from the lyrics of Van Morrison, the poetry of W.B. Yeats and William Cullen Bryant, the plays of Samuel Beckett, the psychoanalysis of Walter A. Davis, and the experience of trying to endure a hangover in 100+ degree heat.
Tell me about the early origins of Vex when the group was formed in the late nineties in San Angelo, Texas. Obviously you and your drummer Owen are brothers, how did you find the other members to round out your lineup? Were there any other like minded metal bands for you to jam with in San Angelo at that point in time or was that a motivating factor to eventually relocate the band to "Live music capital of the world" otherwise known as Austin, Texas?
Bill and I first starting writing songs in 1996 in F.U.K. with a couple of local punk rockers from a band called Insanus. The sound was kind of in vein of Gangreen or Dayglo Abortions because of the punk/metal cross current. The songs were short and goofy and it was a lot of fun but the drummer eventually moved to Lubbock to pursue a graduate degree. At that time, ’98 or so, Bill and I were starting to get back into the whole Florida death metal thing and we were looking for a more extreme sound. A metal drummer named Chad Petrie – cousin of the departed Acid Bath bassist Audi Petrie — had moved down the street from Bill so we invited him to jam and found another guitar player named Johnny Aramvula through a want add. The singer Clint LaBaume (now in Viskus) had just joined F.U.K. before the demise so he carried over to the new project. This was the first lineup of Vex. We recorded demos and gigged quite a bit around the area, but once again, the drummer and the singer jumped ship so we were again in a position to pursue a more extreme sound with the addition of a local piercing specialist named Javier Baquera (now in Death Rites 666), an old friend from high school named Ted Evans and my brother Eoghan in 2001. After we recorded the “Sphereith” EP in 2002 with this lineup, we started to get some attention and offers to play in other cities. The gigs in Austin went particularly well so we decided to relocate to the Central Texas area because there was only so much we could do in San Angelo and because Eoghan and I had enrolled at Texas State University in San Marcos.
So with one excessive and terribly convoluted paragraph, I can answer your question by saying that there has never been a shortage of personnel to work with; I think we have been very fortunate in this sense.
How did you decide on the band name "Vex" and what does it mean? Ditto for the title of your debut album "Thanatopsis"…
Our former singer Clint LaBaume came up with the band name a few days before our first gig, with dictionary in hand. He dug the fact that it meant “to irritate or disturb provokingly.” Although it isn’t true, I sometimes like to tell people that the name came from the Yeats poem “Second Coming”: “Centuries of stony sleep were vexed to nightmare.”
Eoghan chose the name “Thanatopsis” based on the William Cullen Bryant poem of the same name when he noticed how thematically similar it is to the lyrics on the album, which advance a view of death as the beginning of a physical communion with nature. The infant skull on the cover was chosen as a nihilistic monument to the futility of human life in both the cycles of nature and the grand narrative of history (not as reference to “Hamlet,” as one German ‘zine had speculated). Each lyric is meant to read as a sort of inscribed personal history emanating from the stone monument on the cover.
I know there were some early demo recordings, has there been any interest from any of the labels that you’ve been working with to at some point re-issue any of those early demo recordings, possibly as bonus tracks? Have you given any thought to putting them up on your website for download?
There has actually been talk of giving “Sphereith” a proper release, as well as the short live album we quietly released ourselves in 2004. I didn’t think anyone remembered “Sphereith” but we do occasionally get requests for it. After we get the next album all sorted out, we will see if there is sufficient interest for either a digital or a physical release.
Let’s talk about who or what inspired you to pick up a six string in the first place. How old were you when you began learning to play guitar and what would you say originally motivated you to become guitarist?
I was around 13 when I started seriously approaching the guitar. Eoghan and I came from a very musical household where The Beatles, Van Morrison, and Irish folk groups like The Chieftains, Altan and the Bothy Band were constantly playing. Some of my earliest performance memories involve Irish folk guitarists like Dáithí Sproule and Mícheál Ó Domhnail (R.I.P) playing songs in our living room in Dublin. I was only around 5 or 6 at the time but they would sometimes invite me to sit in and try to follow them; this was probably the beginning of my association with the guitar. If I remember correctly, it was Eric Clapton, the music videos of Megadeth and Metallica and the prospect of attention from female classmates that inspired me to begin noodling on a Sears Harmony guitar around ’93 or so.
Tell me about what originally guided you down the left hand path or highway to hell so to speak and forever branded you a metalhead, how did you originally get into metal music? Can you even remember?
My interest in metal started around age 9 when I used allowance money to buy a cassette and a matching t-shirt of Metallica’s “…And Justice for All.” Like many others in 1989, I was fascinated by the video for “One” and I loved the speed of the riffing. I always remember loving the video for Maiden’s “Can I Play with Madness” at whatever age I was when that was released.
I will go ahead and risk what little metal credibility I have left by admitting that I was distracted by the alternate rock craze in the ensuing years. I can’t remember what prompted it exactly, but I didn’t get into extreme metal until age 16 when I bought a Cannibal Corpse CD. I was fascinated and from there got into Deicide, Morbid Angel, Death and Iron Maiden. Morbid Angel’s “Covenant” had a huge impact on Bill and I.
What would you guys count as being some of your long term goals as a band?
With fuel costs at an alltime high is it at all feasible that some at some point in the near future you might embark on a comprehensive tour of the US and abroad?
Who would you sever your limbs to tour with? What bands do you think would make a nice fit next to Vex for a package tour?
Our long-term goals are really just to release albums; we haven’t been too good about that in the past, as you have noticed. The second one is written and the third one is almost halfway written. We did a West Coast tour during the summer of 2006 with Godless Rising and Avenger of Blood and it went very well so we would definitely be willing to do that again. We talked about heading east this summer but decided to focus on the next album instead.
As far as package tour, we would tour with anyone, but a slot with Enslaved or Amon Amarth would be ideal ‘cause both bands do very well and their fans would probably dig what we do. Also Primordial –- I’ve spoken to Alan about supporting them for a Texas run but the only full tour they’ve done didn’t come down this far so obviously it didn’t work. The only thing holding us back at this point is all the usual mess about work schedules; as soon as we get all that sorted out, we will definitely be heading out again.
I know the musicians in Vex stay pretty busy with some outside musical projects, for instance you are also recording and performing with Nosferion and your brother Owen also pounds the skins for Bat Castle. Fill our readers in on the latest developments with those projects…
Nosferion is one vocal session away from completing our first full-length album “The Southern Scouring”; it will be released by the small Austin indie label Aethena Records. The album is sort of a concept based on our version of a Texas vision quest. Eoghan is engineering it and it sounds killer so far, with exactly the right atmosphere that we need to effectively advance the story.
Eoghan also performed and engineered the drum tracks for the upcoming Batcastle full-length which I can honestly say is one of most ambitious extreme metal albums I’ve ever heard; the composer/mad scientist Brian Lewis has seriously outdone himself. I also believe that Eoghan will be recording drums for Teratism this weekend. Mike is also in Ruins of Honor, a progressive death metal band from Austin, and plays in an indie rock band called the Stan Laurels with Eoghan. Mike also plays in an industrial death metal band called Alternate15 with Adrian Benavides, both of whom engineered our EP tracks and will be engineering our next album.
Bill plays in a melodic death metal in San Angelo called A Black Anatomy. We like playing music.
Speaking of you and your brother Owen, I know that the two of you originally hail from Ireland. Do you ever go back home and visit? Have you properly infiltrated the Irish metal scene with your Lonestar metal?
I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to visit about every two years. The last time I was there was December of last year and the mood was incredibly bleak, to an extent that I’d never seen before. I had the opportunity to meet one of my favorite Irish literature scholars, Declan Kiberd, at a Yeats reading and he told me that I was watching Ireland die. That comment had a pretty profound impact on me so I wrote a song about it that will be appearing on the next album.
Apart from that, I’m sad to say that I really haven’t done much in the way of Lonestar metal infiltration. I know some cats over there and they’ve told me to let them know when we’re ready to come over for some gigs so we’ll see what happens.
You’ve got some new material to record, you have some headlining shows lined up for the summer, what else is looming on the horizon for Vex? Anything else that you’d like to plug or address?
This novel I’ve written here is fairly extensive so all I will add is that we just set up a facebook page if anyone would like to give us a listen and toss over one of the much-coveted “likes”: www.facebook.com/pages/Vex-official/149190691803216
Thanks for taking the time to talk metal with me today Ciaran, before we wrap this up do you have any last words for your fans reading at home?
Yes – thank you for being patient! This new album will be worth the wait; it’s probably the best music I’ve ever made. I would also like to thank your readers for clicking on this link and indulging my tendency towards verbosity. And to you, Robert, hails and horns your way for sending such great questions. May the Gods be with You.