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Northlane – Josh Smith

Interview by Dave Borgioli-Jones

Devin Townsend Project

2019 has shaped up to be a massive year for NORTHLANE. The band – turning 10 this year by the way – dropped their latest studio album Alien in August. Now they’re heading our way for a one-off show in Auckland before seeing the year out with a European tour. Guitarist Josh Smith is here to take us through the band’s latest work, a dynamic offering exploring some dark lyrical themes and a more industrialised progressive metal sound than previous releases.

I’ve been listening to Alien on repeat these last few weeks and it’s awesome. How does it feel to have the album out in the public domain? 

It feels really good. We worked extremely hard at it. It was a big risk for us to take in a lot of ways and I guess we had more ownership over this record than any record before it, because we self produced it. So it felt like our little baby and for it to finally reach the ears of audiences it’s a pretty awesome feeling. Even more so the way that people have been reacting to it. We didn’t know how it was going to go. It’s always terrifying when you release new music then take risks with it. And for them to like it, it was awesome. 

You’ve incorporated industrial and electronic elements throughout Alien and it gives an extra dimension to your music. How do you see NORTHLANE continuing to explore and evolve along this path? 

Well, I don’t really know at this point. I think we’ve opened the floodgates so that things can only get weirder from here on in. Every time we do a record, we always have a change in mind that we want to put into the development of the record. There always has to be something else that we’re reaching for to do better. We haven’t started writing anything yet because I think we need a bit of time to recharge the batteries a bit and get inspired again. But I don’t really know musically where we’ll be led to next, it’s just way too early for me to say. 

Jon has been the riff-writer for NORTHLANE on all your previous albums. Was that the case on Alien as well or did you have more of a hand in it this time? 

The guitars, it’s all Jon. The process that we had on this record was that he would write the music. Then Marcus and I would take that music away and we would write the vocals for it and give it back to Jon usually with a few structural changes. Like if the progression wasn’t working well with a vocal we outlined that. And once we had something on the table in terms of the vocals we kept going backwards and forwards until we got it all right. 

The record dives into some pretty dark spaces lyrically. Did that have any part in shaping the atmospheres and textures that you put on top of it at the end. 

Well, all of the atmospheres came before the vocals. With our band we don’t sprinkle additions into the music after it’s been written, it just kind of comes out that way as a whole. When we started getting demos off John the music was so dark and angry that I sat down with Marcus and we kind of figured out very quickly that there probably wasn’t anything else that we could write vocals about because nothing else was going to match the ferocity of the music. So it’s a little bit of a chicken and egg situation but there wasn’t really another way to go about it. It just wouldn’t have served the tone of the music I think. 

Is there a specific person in the band who has a vision for the production and how it will ultimately sound? 

For other records in the past that’s kind of the producer’s domain but for this one I think we kind of had an idea. We did know what we wanted it to sound like and by means of working with some people that we trust a lot to realise that vision we were able to achieve it. A lot of the way the record sounds has to do with a guy called Chris Blancato who engineered all the instrumentals in Sydney and he definitely understood what our vision was. But it was a fairly collective thing I would say. When you hear the songs in the pre-production phase you know pretty quickly how they’re going to end up sonically. 

Back when NORTHLANE was putting out the first EP, how did you overcome that challenge of translating the music that you were writing into something that production wise was what you wanted? 

Well I think that Alien is probably the only record we’ve done that actually sounded the way we wanted it to, because what happens when you do an album the producer leaves a mark on it, how they see fit. Obviously, it’s a joint effort but it’s really just to do with the producer I’d say. But at this point in our career we know enough to be able to do it ourselves. It’s just something you learn from experience. 

The last 20 seconds or so of Vultures is truly epic. What does it feel like to play that part on stage? 

That particular part? I’m just trying not to fuck it up haha! 

I was writing down a list of my favourite songs to ask you about, but I ended up with most of the album haha. So anyway, what are your favorites on Alien and why? 

I really like Details Matter. That’d be my favourite song on the record. I like Jin as well. Jin was a cool one because we purposefully took an approach that didn’t make a lot of sense with the vocals on that one. We stitched that song up, like it didn’t really sound anything like it does from its initial phase of being written. And choosing to do the chorus in a falsetto is something that people seem to really like, it gives the song a lot of light and shade. And I really enjoy playing Talking Heads probably the most. I like Sleepless too. That song changed entirely as well, it’s only got about half of the lyrics in it that we wrote for it. We just stripped the whole song back and turned it into a ballad, but it was never like that when we first wrote it. 

NORTHLANE turns 10 this year. Have you got plans to celebrate? 

Well we’ve released an album and we’re doing a world tour. I don’t know what else we can do haha! Well actually… I do have something else I’m working on, but I can’t talk about it haha!

 Top secret huh? In that vein, you guys have put together a lot of Easter eggs for your fans to find. Whether it’s hiding the release date for Vultures in that poster or creating a secret website. Are there things you’ve done that nobody has actually noticed? 

When that happens, you tell them later on haha. But I think that with lyrics, obviously the listeners interpretation is very important too. So I might write something with Marcus that has a double meaning to it, and then they might take something completely different away from it as well. 

Brendon Padjasek (STRUCTURES) joined NORTHLANE in 2018 as the new bassist. What new dynamics has he brought to the band? 

Well Brendan is a producer for one so when he’s at home in Toronto he’s recording bands and artists so he has a wealth of ideas. He’s singing live as well and on the record. And we’ve noticed – especially live – that takes a huge amount of pressure off Marcus and it’s really enhanced our shows a lot. He’s an incredible player but most importantly he’s just a very lovely and kind person to be around and just really brought the vibe up quite considerably from when he joined the band. So now we have a lot more fun than we used to and take things a lot less seriously. That’s probably his biggest contribution I would say. Because it’s really important that we enjoy what we’re doing. When you’re on the road things can get tough sometimes. So to have someone there who will make a joke is very handy. 

You’ve got a busy tour schedule coming up. Something like 30 shows in a month and a half. Intense. how do you do that? 

We try not to go away for more than a month at a time without coming back home. Because after you’ve been on tour for about 6 weeks you start to burn out. So we’ve kind of identified what our limits are and when we book our schedule I use that for our baseline for what we’re going to do and when. When we’re on the road everyone has their own things that they do to maintain the own natural heath and wellbeing. John and Brendon write a lot of music. Marcus has his things that he does. I do a bit of yoga and that helps me because I’m always working. I guess we’ve just developed coping strategies over time. Kind of accidental in a way.