Cobra Khan Interview Milon Williams (vocals / guitar)By Dave Borgioli-Jones
COBRA KHAN’s debut album ‘Helgorithms’ (2008) came straight out of left field for a band who had previously released an EP in the vein of hardcore rock n roll. The album went down in history as one of NZ Metal’s most epic ambient metal recordings.
21 November 2011 marks the release of COBRA KHAN’s new magnum opus ‘Adversities’. Produced independently by the band this recording builds on it’s predecessor, this time exploring dark sweeping soundscapes and heavy hardcore with a triple whammy of brutally raw guitar riffs, thundering low end, and multi-layered ambience. Frontman Milon Williams (vocals / guitar) gives us the rundown…
NZRock: I’ve been waiting eagerly for this album to come out and it was totally worth the wait! There was a massive jump between ‘Sleepless Lions’ and ‘Helgorithms’ and it’s another one with ‘Adversities’. Where do you feel the band is at now compared to where you were on the previous album?
Milon: It’s funny because about 80% of the songs on ‘Adversities’ were written in late 2009, so it was only a year after the release of ‘Helgorithms’. I feel both albums are structured quite similarly, as far as there being twists and turns, super slow/super fast sections, and departures that veer off towards more ambient moments. The writing process was done much the same way, where all the songs were demoed at home quickly and sporadically over the summer holidays when I felt loaded with a lot more inspiration. I think with ‘Adversities’ we were sticking to a theme with our releases becoming more of a journey through from start to end, with the progression of the album taking slight tangents here and there. I’m not sure if that was a happy accident from running-on after writing ‘Helgorithms’ either, it just happened naturally and almost sounds like it could be the ‘sequel’. I feel like the band now, given our line up change and stronger sense of determination to tour this album and play more, is in a far better place.
NZRock: There were DEVIN TOWNSEND / KILLING JOKE vibes at times on ‘Helgorithms’. You’ve kept the synth elements on ‘Adversities’ but I think this time the album is truly unique to COBRA KHAN. How important was it for you to progress your sound in the way that you have on the this album?
Milon: There were a lot of references to KILLING JOKE on ‘Helgorithms’ for sure, and I think there’s definitely some moments that are still there on ‘Adversities’. However, A lot of the newer songs are a bit thrashier and have a stronger sense of urgency which didn’t leave much room for those anthemic kinda choruses that exist on the last record. I think that’s going to be the biggest indicator behind the mood of this album. I didn’t necessarily see it as being important to ‘progress our sound’, I almost thought it was more important to maintain some level of consistency to project that there’s no identity crisis present with the band. Then again, it may be the production and the overall sound of the record that marks
the progression towards a rawer, less clinical approach but I do love the sound of each record in their own way.
NZRock: You have this abrasive thrash/groove/hardcore guitar attack on the new album and as the cover suggests it’s quite dark and moody as well. Ticks all the boxes for me haha! What brought out your darker side on this recording?
Milon: As all the music for these songs were written within a short space of time together I guess that’s why they’ve remained consistent with their darker mood. The lyrics and the music really worked hand in hand as far as getting a more morose and uncomfortable vibe from the music, which then naturally translated to the lyrics. The nature of the song whether it’s the tempo, the layers, the keys, the riff etc really do paint a picture for me of a time and a place to help trigger some emotions. Sometimes after that, the lyrics just fall out naturally. Probably about issues and experiences every man and their dog goes through but shrouded based on what I can see within the music behind them. The lyrics on ‘Adversities’ definitely harbour some morose feelings and bad situations, yet at the same time I’m not really wearing my heart on my sleeve. I like it that way.
NZRock: Craig Radford from STICKY FILTH does guest vocals on ‘Borderlands’. I know he’s a big fan of COBRA KHAN. How did he come to be on the album? Are you a STICKY FILTH fan as well?
Milon: Absolutely a fan. Craig has been a fan of the band since we put out ‘Sleepless Lions’, and when we bump into each other it’s always a pleasant surprise. The way he speaks about music, life, work, or a piece of toast is always so passionate and heartfelt and sincere. I had finished ‘Borderlands’ and always felt it was 90% complete because I could only hear Craig chanting away in the second verse. It was his conviction and vocal timbre that was needed to make it that much more evil. I sent him the demo and he was so stoked to be part of the record. Months later when he came up to Auckland, he had written a whole bunch of lyrics and parts based on the same theme. Turns out the song was really only 60% complete to start with, because what he added was pure magic and it got me super excited. When he tracked it at my house, watching him was quite inspirational. Mincing around the microphone like Peter Garrett (even with an injured leg) and summoning spirits with his hands.
NZRock: COBRA KHAN has this ability to output intense music but also music that includes amazing melodic atmospheres and soundscapes at the same time. How’d you learn to do this and what got you hooked on this style of music?
Milon: That comes from some deep seeded nostalgia, some proud loves and some guilty pleasures. I’m mad about SIOUXSIE, SLOWDIVE, KILLING JOKE, SKINNY PUPPY, MINISTRY, old Creation Records bands etc which to me can illustrate way darker and heavier moments through soundscapes and an uncomfortable ambience rather than a low tuned guitar bludgeoning your ears. Cobra Khan has always had a point of difference I guess by having Sarah on keys, who’s got a great ear for melodies and ideas while keeping her array of tones limited. She was the last person to track, so that the keys could compliment vocal patterns and other aspects of the rhythm section. Once they were laid down, they almost sounded like completely different songs. As with Helgorithms, some layers are pulled low in the mix to add some level of ambience, and some layers ride high above to melt your face off. There was one patch we consistently used called the ‘Chaos Choir’ on her Juno D. The tone alone summed up Cobra Khan as a whole, with it sounding like a choir of Gregorian Monks with a glassy sheen. That’s where it could have taken us to the realm of Clannad and Deep Forest which we constantly joked about. Not sure how we ‘learned’ this style of music, it’s just that we’re strongly influenced by it.
NZRock: I watched the drum tracking video that you’ve got on the COBRA KHAN Myspace page. There’s some great stuff going on with both Ant and Evan playing drums at the same time, then another part where there are three drummers in what looks and sounds like an empty brick building with a serious echo. Was there a lot of experimenting with different acoustic environments to get the variation in drum sound on this album? What about with the other instruments?
Milon: That was a lot of fun. I can’t remember who’s idea it was, but we decided to go out to the York Street carpark to record the drums for ‘Swan Rider’. It was Evan, Ants and me with floor toms and snares smashing away at them with reverb that was absolutely enormous. There was mainly experimentation in the percussion department and as you said, there were some ‘tribal’ floor tom beating moments with the odd shaker and tambourine picked up here and there. All the percussive stuff is probably the most apparent on ‘Borderlands’ where the shaker sounds like a rattle snake and the tambourine sounds so Krishna. Aside from the percussion, Sarah blew the cobwebs off her old flute which she recorded on ‘White Fire’. I had that
in mind when the demos were were written, because that song was so reminiscent of BLACK SABBATH’s ‘Solitude’ and it kinda painted a picture of sitting around a campfire post-battle or something with entertainment provided. Love it.
NZRock: Every time I listen to the songs on ‘Adversities’ I hear something new in them. There’s so much texture in there. How much time did you guys spend getting everything “prefect”.
Milon: I think that partly has a lot to do with the keys. All the other instruments are large and almost fighting each other in the mix while certain elements of the keys pop and surprise you here and there. It didn’t take that long to get everything sounding the way we wanted, I think there was one issue in the early stages of mixing where the vocals were a bit wet with delay etc. As soon as that was cleared up everything sounded a lot more separated, punchy, and raw.
NZRock: There’s a noticeably warm feel to the recording quality on this album’. I heard part of the production process involved recording the album onto tape. Who’s idea was that, was it a tricky process, and are you pleased with the result?
Milon: That was Evan’s idea to run the mixes through Chris Chetland’s (Kog) Studer A80 tape machine to soften the transients and warm up the mixes. It seemed absolutely necessary as the mixes had a pokey frequency that I felt needed to be simmered down. We went out to his studio in Titirangi and ran them through, but unfortunately there was an issue with the Dolby SR Noise reduction units which caused weird high frequencies to pop up here and there while one side of the mixes was dipping in and out. It was such a shame because they sounded so much better but the only guy who could repair them lived out in Kerikeri and wasn’t due in Auckland for months. It totally wasn’t Chris’s fault it was just one of those things that comes with old gear. Luckily, Evan managed to get them transferred through Stebbing’s 1/4″ tape machine last minute and we’re stoked with the result.
NZRock: How else did the writing, recording and production of ‘Adversities’ differ compared with the process of creating ‘Helgorithms’?
Milon: With ‘Helgorithms’ we tracked the drums at The Lab in Mt Eden and basically charged into recording and mixing the rest of it with Zorran that month. With ‘Adversities’, we tracked the drums at York St in May 2010 and we hadn’t booked or planned anything after that session. Ants did a stellar job learning those songs in just over a month, which really equates to 5-6 band practices in total with the rough demos in hand. Evan had put his hand up to track the rest of the record with guitars and bass at his studio (Mercury Audio) in Kingsland and attack it whenever he had time to do it, which ended up being Jan/Feb 2011. As being an audio engineer is his bread and butter, we didn’t want to put any pressure on him to get it done as soon as possible because he had the David Dallas and PNC records booked to complete as well as a whole load of mastering jobs. To become doubly ‘efficient’ while he was busy with other projects, I recorded the vocals and keys at home between a bedroom setup and the studio out the back, which is owned by my flatmate/landlord who uses it for his voice-over work. It was a strange process coming back to a record that you seem hardly familiar with in bi-monthly intervals for a matter of a couple of days at a time and we vow never to do that again.
NZRock: Were there any songs that you recorded but left off the album?
Milon: There was only one that we messed around with at the time. It just didn’t fit and it was only an interlude really. We did go and record a song called ‘Cold Creation’ in the practice room though to release as a bonus track with the digital copy of Adversities.
NZRock: You released ‘Liquid Separation’ on a 7″ vinyl. Are you looking at doing anything like that for ‘Adversities’?
Milon: I hope so, especially with the artwork we have. It’s hard for Dean though as it’s so expensive and the turnaround is so drawn out. We’ll see how the album goes first.
NZRock: ‘Grave Weight’ is one of my favourite songs on the album, every element is just perfect, guitar, groove and atmosphere and melody from the keys. And ‘Cellar Sleep’ is just epic. What tracks are you most proud of on this recording and why?
Milon: My favourite tracks on the record are yours too, and I think it’s because I’m treating them as polar opposites. Favourite heavy track, and favourite departure. I love ‘Cellar Sleep’, because as it’s probably the slowest song on the record it’s nice to take a break from all the chaos. Also the tempo allows the song to breathe more and really take in the keys and atmosphere. This one really kicks in the nostalgia trip for me.
NZRock: Lyrically there are recurring themes of black, and fire throughout the album and then at the end there’s ‘White Fire’. Were all the songs written around the same time and is there a story being told here, or did they just naturally tie in like that?
Milon: A lot of the lyrics were written early this year when I really got to absorb the demos and get a feel for what I was inspired to write about. The whole album isn’t one solid story, but a lot of the songs are different approaches towards the same subject. As the album title suggests, all the songs are about some form of struggle I’ve had in recent times. Whether it’s with friends, relationships, family, or personal regrets. No PhD’s in Philosophy or Political Studies here, just the same bullshit everyone goes through and some stage in their life projected in a different light.
NZRock: Where does the album cover artwork come from and what does it mean?
Milon: Our friend Logan Muir designed that out of a loose idea to have some kind of crest with lions and snake tails. He came up with that and we were stoked. Not sure what it means, but it looks nice.
What’s happening with LORD OF TIGERS at the moment? Are there any plans to release an album or EP with that band or is the focus mostly on COBRA KHAN now that Ant has joined?
Milon: LORD OF TIGERS still kick around together when we can. Ryan has been super busy with his business and recently gone on a well deserved holiday. We have some songs on a hard drive waiting for vocals to be laid on top and mixed later down the line.
I really liked the last track ‘Sixteen’ on ‘Helgorithms’ but I don’t think I’ve ever heard it played live. What stopped it from making your set list? And just out of interest, what are the lyrics of that song about?
Milon: You’re quite right, we’ve never played that live. I’m not really sure why, I know Andy really wanted to play it once upon a time. I think it was one of those songs that was the most ‘finicky’ to play off ‘Helgorithms’ so we though we’d save it. ‘Sixteen’ is purely about a trip down memory lane. I remember I was dreaming a lot about the old house I grew up in, and waking up with chills down my spine because they were so vivid… especially the soundtrack that seemed so prominent in my youth. ‘Soar with Mazzy’ refers to Mazzy Star, and ‘Mocking Birds for GLB’ refers to Grant Lee Buffalo. The whole song is about being comfortable as a youngster and being blissfully unaware of all the bullshit you come to realise at a later age.
NZRock: You’ve released two amazing albums now, their quality would rival anything on the international stage. So how are you going to push COBRA KHAN to an even wider audience than what you have here in New Zealand? And is that a priority or is creating epic music the main aim?
Milon: We are definitely determined to work this record and tour it before life starts getting in the way for most of us. We also want to start being more prolific with recording, as we’ve got a nice little setup in the practice room now. Plans for Australia are kinda in the pipeline and that’s the part I’m most looking forward to at the moment. Then, I guess we’ll see.
NZRock: Are there any new COBRA KHAN music videos in the pipeline?
Milon: Not in the pipeline, but we need to sort that out soon.
NZRock: Listening to ‘Adversities’ do you think you have your job cut out for you to make a recording that’s even better next time?
Milon: Who knows! I’m sure Evan will agree.
NZRock: You’ve got Stonerfest coming up. What are your other plans for the rest of the year and into 2012?
Milon: We have a sprinkling of shows over the summer, and a potential national tour planned for Feb/March 2012. Shows are still popping up here and there and we’re taking them thank you very much!
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Tomi Joutsen (vocals)
Josh Eppard (drums)
Ola Flink (bass)
Andrew Baena (vocals / guitar / programming)
Josh Bain (vocals)
Justin Hawkins (vocals / guitar)
Jimmy Bower (drums)
Janne "JB" Christoffersson
Rich Simpson (Vocals)
Richie Allan (guitar)