Latest release: Renaissance in Extremis (Peaceville)Website: www.akercockeofficial.com
English extremists Akercocke originally parted ways in 2012, however, forces have since aligned to bring most of the band back together and in doing so, allowed them to focus on creating more new music that both challenges and inspires. They hinted at things to come in early 2016 by releasing a new song titled ‘Inner Sanctum’ and then in late August of this year, released more crushing new material with the album Renaissance in Extremis. Loud Online spoke to the jovial, hugely entertaining front man and co-guitarist Jason Mendonça to discuss the captivating new album and how it all transpired since their previous album Antichrist was released ten years ago. For a band with such an extreme sound, Jason is one of the most instantly personable conversationalists with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek.
It would appear that you’re back into it, much to the relief of extreme music fans.
Oh, it needs doing, hey. Heavy metal needed to be made and we were the men to do it.
The latest album has a lot going on. The segue ways between styles flow without being jarring.
That is great to hear. I’m really glad you think that because we’ve always tried to keep things a little bit different and interesting. I think that this album is the most varied and most diverse release yet. It is cool that a lot of people seem to be digging it, including the old fans who can distinguish the nasty stuff. It is great that heavy metal fans are very open minded people.
Presumably by now you, David [Gray – drums] and Paul [Scanlan – lead guitar] have a sixth sense with timing in the way you play together?
Ha-ha, it is fair to say that when you’ve played together for as long as we have then there is definitely a lot of unspoken communication that goes on. One of the biggest pleasures of making music for me is when you can anticipate each other’s moves and changes without having to say anything. That is great and comes from playing together for a very long time.
A song like ‘A Particularly Cold September’ which is the last track on the album has so many transitions in it. The rehearsal side of things must have been interesting.
It is funny because we are just learning to play that one at the moment, really. For that one, David did the drums over a weekend and then Paul and I spent probably about six weeks at my house recording bass and guitar plus other instruments and bit and pieces. So a lot of it was done on the fly when we were recording. Paul wrote that in its entirety as part of a musical trilogy but what has been both fun and challenging is bringing that stuff into the rehearsal room and playing it live. It is a tremendous challenge but it is great fun.
Some of Paul’s guitar solos have elements of Joe Satriani and Allan Holdsworth’s approaches to chromatic styles on guitar. It is very fluid and well executed.
Mate, I tell you what, Paul laid those solos down in my house and you know, I hadn’t seen him for around ten years. He has always been a gifted and unique guitar player which I think is quite difficult to achieve. There are a lot of good guitar players out there but not many have a style that is really special. In the ten years that we didn’t hang out or whatever, he improved so much and when we put those solos down, we weren’t precious about it at all, we were just decided to get things happening and get some vibe going. He did those solos in a couple of takes and it was beautiful to watch someone just unleash that level of musicality and do it with such great aplomb. When I tell him that you said Satriani and Holdsworth, he’ll be stoked mate. Ha-ha. I hear some Frank Zappa in there as well.
‘Inner Sanctum’ was the song that you used to announce to the world last year that Akercocke had reformed. How do you think fans will receive the new material?
I just hope they dig it, man. We’ve always been a bit of a woodshed kind of band with some old men in it who ought to know better but are just basically trying to make each other laugh and make music that we think is cool, you know. If we weren’t in Akercocke then Akercocke would be the band that we would want to go and see, you know what I mean. We find the music is stimulating.
Possibly some music fans out there haven’t followed bands such as Opeth along their progressive trajectory and so Akercocke might offer some stylistic similarities with Opeth’s earlier works, if that makes sense.
I don’t really know Opeth’s music that well but I do respect them. I know Mikael Åkerfeldt personally a little bit and I’ve bumped into him a couple of times over the years. He is a fabulous guy and there are certainly great musicians but some of their music left me a bit cold. The acoustic stuff that they do is far more interesting than the heavy metal that they make but I do not mean that disrespectfully. It’s just life as such that everyone has their own tastes and they’ve never been an influence on us but it is an interesting point.
Fair enough. The drumming on the album has plenty of blast beats happening yet there are still some very Neil Peart of Rush type drum fills in there too.
Definitely and Rush is a band that has always been a massive influence, whether it has been audible in our music or not. David, Paul and I are huge Rush fans and particularly for their 70’s and 80’s stuff. I cannot say I’ve kept tabs on their recent albums but there is so much epic and wonderfully crafted material such that those albums are like old friends. You go back to them and they always hit the spot. Fantastic.
I can hear that influence in the guitar solo for the song ‘Insentience’, that Alex Lifeson style of guitar playing is all over it.
Oh man, Paul is going to be your best friend. Yeah I heard that too and I think that particular solo that he played is a real high point on the album. It is phrased so beautifully and it definitely smacks of Alex Lifeson.
Are there other bands that gave you an impetus in the early days?
I think that in the early days of the band, we were…what we set out to do was be different but not for the sake of it. For us, the bands that really hit the spot were always the bands that stood out on their own a little bit. So, if you think of a band like Voivod, when I was a kid in the eighties, they were labelled as a thrash metal band but I cannot think of another band that sounds like them. If you think of someone like Killing Joke and the seminal Killing Joke albums, well, people can say there are loads of post punk bands out there or even new wave bands, whatever you want to call it but there is no other band that sounds like them. So we had this lofty idea that we wanted to be making music that no one else made, really. I don’t think we always succeeded with that by a long stretch but that was certainly the intention. We just want to make Akercocke music and that, to do this day, is kind of the way we roll.
That makes sense. How were the production aspects covered on this album?
We’ve always produced our stuff at home meaning we’ve got a little studio near London where we rehearse and apart from this record, all of the records were recorded there and then we would just ship the stuff over to the States for Neil Kernon to mix. We’ve known him for donkey’s years. He mixed Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone, Renaissance in Extremis and Choronzon as well. This was an interesting proposition because with Choronzon and with Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone because for the former mix both David and I were both present in Texas and for the latter mix I was present in Chicago. For this one, we just fucking sent it to him. Ha-ha. He just did a test mix and fired it across the Internet and would ask, ‘What do you think?’ to which I’d say, ‘Fucking brilliant, mate, crack on’. That was the way it went for the whole project.
Was there any material left over from the Antichrist album for Renaissance in Extremis?
No, the songs ‘Unbound by Sin’, ‘A Final Glance Back Before Departing’ and ‘One Chapter Ends For Another To Begin’ were songs I wrote immediately after Antichrist was put to bed back in 2007 and once I’d gotten my thinking cap back on. They were the songs that I came up with but then the band fizzled out for one reason or another so when we started playing together again about a year and half ago, we used those songs as kind of footholds to remember how to play together again. That was great because it breathed life into songs that were written ten years ago and that they made it onto the album as well it pretty cool.
Does doing your own production make it difficult to swap hats to look at your own music objectively and to not insult each other, musically speaking?
It is, yeah. What I will say is this, we haven’t insulted anyone in because honestly, making this album has been the biggest laugh that I have ever had in terms of being a musical project. There was no pain, no angst, no stress or any pressure because it was just some mates doing what they enjoy without any fucking concerns and doing the best that we could, But yeah, you’re right about the hat swapping that goes on because you have to sit back and look at stuff that you’ve done or that your mates have come up with and then lot at it from the perspective of the song so that it doesn’t end up being some sort of collection of riffs. You have to take a holistic view and think about the whole value of the song. There are a couple of things that we did very differently this time around. One of those things is that none of the material is down tuned. When we discussed recording we talked about putting the instruments back into their natural registers and of course, I’ve read some hard heads on the Internet complaining about it not being very heavy which just makes me laugh. The old material was really down tuned and I think that with a lot of death metal and what not, the instruments are so far down tuned that they fight for frequency space amongst the low mids and the low end. So, you’ve got this really down tuned guitar, low bass and drums meaning it all gets a bit seepy. We said, ‘Fuck it, you know what, why don’t we put the instruments back where they started, where they were meant to be and so give them space to breathe’. Another driver for that I don’t have a particularly deep voice for my speaking voice and so my singing voice is naturally not very deep. So, it gave me an opportunity to work within a range that is far more comfortable than for all of the previous albums. I think that is one of the reasons why there are so many different vocal textures on this album. I had the opportunity to do that as opposed to sounding like a dog locked in a coal shed.
Ha-ha, somewhat unintelligible vocals in death metal tend to lead to utterly unintelligible vocals.
Yeah, that’s the thing. You change as you get older. Your physiology changes and so with those really deep kind of Suffocation style vocals, I don’t really think I can do them anymore. Ha, look, when we play the old material live it is quite a challenge but hey, you just do your best.
Speaking of playing live, do the changes entail having a bunch of different PRS guitars with various tunings?
That’s a good technical question, I like that. The way we work it is that Paul travels with a couple of guitars so that he can actually physically change tunings. I use a piece of technology which transposes the guitar to different keys for me. So, when we play old material, we play it in the key that it was recorded and written [C] and when we play the new material it is just normal as the key of E. It is just like a box of tricks that actually does that which means I don’t have to carry four guitars, I can just carry one guitar and a backup. That is cool as it is much less to carry around in my old age.
Also, it just goes that you can make extreme music without having to use an eight string guitar.
I struggle with six strings, I wouldn’t know what to do with another two. I wouldn’t know what to do with a seven string guitar. Ha.
Lyrically, there is a more positive position that for previous material. Can you elaborate on that?
Yeah, I think that this is like Akercocke 2. We have rebooted the band, to use a crass fucking popular term. We’ve covered all that other stuff of before so I said to Dave, ‘Look man, the music has shifted a little bit so why don’t we push ourselves lyrically to do something different again?’ He said, ‘Well, if we’re not going to write about tits, goats and the Devil, what are we going to write about?’ I replied, ‘Dave, we’ve both had such a fucking mad ten years so there is so much source material to draw upon, let’s just write about that.’ So we did and I think the album therefore touches upon things such as loss and bereavement – some pretty melancholic stuff – but in amongst that, I think there is quite a lot of hope in there as well which is quite a new spin for us and really refreshing actually to have some positive messages in there.
Does that infer that the next album will delve into lots of acoustics?
Oh fuck no, man, I can’t play an acoustic guitar. I haven’t got strong enough fingers so definitely not. We’ve started to think about the next album and I think it will just be more, weird Akercocke music. I fucking hope so.
Finally, any chance of a return tour to Australia?
Oh mate, if someone invites us, we’ll be there. We’d love to come down. When we toured there in 2007 we had such a blast hanging about with those renegade and rogues from The Amenta who were fucking top boys and The Berzerker dudes. Oh man, it was amazing to see. I’d been to Australia once before and seen some of the East Coast and North Queensland and whatnot but to get to go to all of those different places was amazing and being able to play heavy metal for the fans was brilliant. So, yeah, if there is ever an opportunity for us to come back, just try and stop us.
Sounds good. Thanks very much for taking the time to have chat to us.
An absolute pleasure. Thank you so much for a stimulating and engaging interview.