Melodic death metal, crust, d-beat, black metal, doom, post-metal . . . It doesn’t really matter how you label Nux Vomica because it’s pretty much impossible to adequately describe their wayfaring sound in terms of genre alone. Yeah we went for crust in this headline, but that was more of a convenient adjective, headline shorthand, and in no way intended to be a definitive adjective. Feel free to designate your own generic handle of choice. It doesn’t really matter. Nux Vomica is band that exists defined only by their own internal logic. They formed in Baltimore, back in 2003, before relocating to Portland, Oregon. Originally, Nux Vomica was a side interest while the band concentrated on Wake Up On Fire. Nux Vomica was meant to be a pared down beast, a project, quite distinct from Wake Up On Fire’s doom, sludge ‘n’ crust. So says their press release anyhow. But their first record in five years, the self-titled Nux Vomica, suggests that whatever their original intent, Nux Vomica was always going to outgrow anyone’s expectations of where their sound could possibly go. Vocalist Just Dave is the first to admit that they don’t have a plan, never had a plan, and that the band just write what they write.
“It’s like we got a band together with a basic idea that we wanted to play heavy music,” he says. “We just started putting ideas together. The world in general influenced us to have a band like this.”
But even for a band rooted in the extreme metal/punk underground, the result is iconoclastic. Crust punk was never meant to be extended into twenty-minute songs, but Nux Vomica augment their apocalyptic sound on a whim and don't stop writing until the song is through. Maybe the safest way to describe them is that they are a bunch of punks who play metal, underground polyglots who are as likely to mine Second Wave BM for inspiration as they are Crass or Mob 47. But truly the only way to truly get a hand on them is to spin their record and figure it out as you go.
Nux Vomica is out now on Relapse Records. Here is Just Dave on the making of the album, and how they chanced upon a sound that just kept on growing.
You started writing for this record years ago but they are only appearing on wax now; did that long gestation period contribute to their length? “Well it was like a long time ago. We started writing these songs a long time ago. I think it was as far back as 2008. I think there was a shift from playing raging, fast songs to just expanding everything and making the songs bigger. We just kept going with that and ended up with this song eventually being 25 minutes long! It was really weird. We were almost laughing, like how did that happen? And we trimmed it down to 19 minutes for the LP. You can’t even fit 25 minutes on the side of a record. I don’t know [why], we just wrote songs as they came to us and that’s how long they ended up being, and it wasn’t planned out in any way at all. It just worked out that way.”
Considering that every change, especially in the more physical, heavier parts needs to be bang on, there must have been endless eye-watering discussions on how to take the songs forward. “Yeah, you’re completely right. Ha! There was tons of discussion. That’s why it took so long to get this out—that’s part of the reason. We have lots of conversations about how every little part of a song goes, especially transitions between parts. We’ll sit there and work on a transition that is sometimes like 30 seconds, or just a really, really short transition between two parts to try and make it blend together and not have this thing where one part stops and the next riff starts and the next part starts. Instead of smashing all those parts together we try to make them morph together, and I think that was a huge part of having these songs long, and having them be cohesive.
Did you feel like you had the luxury of time? Hypothetically, if you only had a few months of being together or say a month where you were all available to write and record, how different would the record be? “There is no way these songs could have happened that fast. I’m sure we could do something if we had a couple of months but once we had written all these songs, and pretty much while we were recording them when we wrote another whole group of songs, probably about three or four songs that were a lot more thrashy and raging, a little bit shorter. We were definitely wanting to take it in another direction because we wrote all these long songs, but it made for a good album, I think. It works as an album; we’re album writers, I guess.”
Which is good to hear in this day and age, as a lot of people are of the opinion that the album format is dead. “Oh yeah, we’re definitely album people, for sure. I’ve noticed there are still some younger people that have this album mentality, too. I think there are a lot, but the consumers of music don’t seem to give too much of a crap about whether they have a whole album or not. The people who make music do want to make an album still. It seems like that to me.”
I guess it’s all part of getting into the practice space or wherever to write, and you’re all in the same headspace where you are not really done until the ideas are out and explored. “Yeah, we don’t usually have a plan. We just like writing stuff and then later figure out how to put it to an album or whatever. We have another song that we put on a seven-inch that was definitely a bit different to these three songs. It would have been weird to have that song on the album. Also, we would have had to put out a double LP probably, if there was any more music on it.”
Where do you get your melodic sensibilities from? “I definitely need to say that I don’t really write the music, so I’m really speaking for other people when I’m talking about the music, but I can definitely say that we listen to so much music. We have the most eclectic music tastes. It is really hard to tell people what we listen to and what we are influenced by; it’s like everything you can you can think of, all genres of music, pop music, metal, anything . . . Hip-hop, the Grateful Dead. Like one of us actually likes The Grateful Dead. It’s just like we slam all these things together and try to put something out that is this original sound. We won’t even think that much about whether people will like it; we want to have our own sound. I think that is the main thing, and to be satisfied ourselves in playing music.”
Yeah, you can hear all sorts in there; of course you can hear the black and death metal, crust punk and hardcore, but there’s even a hint of new wave and post-punk melodies in there too. “Definitely. This thing that we’ve got going on, especially with everything being so dark, coming from the punk scene it’s like we’ve got this sense of ‘We’re all in this together.’ All these people that believe in something, and even though we are not necessarily out there—we’re not like as ‘punk’ or activist as we used to be, for sure, but we have this ingrained mentality that we are fighting for something together, and that is kinda hopeful. Like, you put all these dark themes out there and hope that people relate to it because if they relate to it they feel better, and it isn’t actually that dark when you think about it in that way. I don’t know if I’m talking about the music any more.”
Yeah, like a problem shared is a problem halved. It’s kind of funny; when you research a band you can go off on weird tangents, and here are Nux Vomica and you take your name from a medicinal cure-all that alleviates the symptom of pretty much everything from emotional stress to constipation. “Haha, and hangovers."
How do you feel when you play this music? "Drained. It’s funny, I don’t think that we were thinking about that so much when we named the band but band names affect how the band acts, and I definitely feel that. It’s in the back of my head sometimes. We are friends with this band Drunken Boat and I think that they were all worse alcoholics when they were in that band, just because their name is Drunken Boat. And our band is called Nux Vomica and it’s like this big release, and I definitely think about that. It’s funny. My favorite shows I play are when we’re connecting with someone, like in a room full of our close friends, or if it’s just like people relating to us, coming up to us and telling us how they feel about the band; that's the best shit.”
It feels like you are expressing an anxiety that seems to be ever-attendant in modern life. I mean, I don’t know about you but I am anxious all the time for no real good reason. It’s like our resting state is anxious, and what this album does really well is somehow articulate that anxiety. “That’s really cool. But I get that all the time, anxiety. I wake up in bed and can’t fall back asleep because I’m so full of anxiety. I don’t even know why. And that makes total sense—I never thought about that in relation to the record until now but you’re right.”
There have been doomsayers throughout every period in history but in this day and age it is almost impossible to ignore them and really hard to be an optimist. “I’ve got a lot of lyrics about that kind of stuff on the newer songs that we haven’t recorded or done anything with. That Choked at the Roots song is talking a lot about how got the way we are as a species. It’s talked about so much—comedians, movies, mainstream pop stars even sing about this sort of stuff. It’s everywhere, this doomsday outlook. And there is always something; in the year 2000 they thought the world was going to end; 2012, they thought the world was going to end, and there is going to be another one. I don't know when the next the-world-is-going-to-end time is; I haven’t heard about it but somebody’s planning it, y’know what I mean!”
Somebody is no doubt shooting the documentary about it now, with an authoritative panel of talking heads doing a convincing job of spelling out our fate. This is the sort of thing that Nux Vomica might sample though. You’ve sampled a variety of dark texts; like Equus when you were doing Wake Up On Fire. “Oh yeah! Equus. I had never even heard of Equus, and somebody took me to see the play (somebody knew somebody in the play so we went and saw it). I was really into it, then I read it. I didn’t know there was a movie from the ‘70s. I watched that and the guy who wrote that play [Peter Shaffer] was the brother of the guy who wrote The Wicker Man [Anthony Shaffer]. It was like, ‘Oh my God!’ All those connections blew my mind. But that's how Equus ended up on there. There is a lot of psychological stuff going on in Wake Up On Fire and that song, [a lot of of] getting into people’s heads.”
Of all of your samples, Jesus Camp must be the most disturbing. “We watched that movie on tour and decided to sample it. We watched it on tour and then we were in the studio—also on tour, it might even have been the same tour. We went and rented the movie and brought it into the studio and said, ‘We wanna us samples from this!’ It happened real quick. There is a lot of crazy samples that we’ve used that I don’t even know because Danny found a lot of those samples, like on the end of Sanity is for the Passive. I’m not even sure where they came from. They are really disturbing.”
It’s disturbing watching the conviction with how those evangelical Holy Joes give it up and lay into a bunch of kids with total abandon. It’s terrifying to witness. “It is disturbing. I dunno, they really, really believe what they are saying. It’s intense, and it’s dark; things like preachers, that’s a dark world to me.”
It feels like you’re witnessing a warping of the human spirit. “I think I feel that way about a lot of religion, a warping of the human spirit."
Do you think that in this day and age, with the instant access to different subcultures and subgenres of underground music, that music and culture is less tribal? “Less tribalism? I don’t know. It’s hard to say, ‘cos some places—everywhere is a little different. In this town, full of this really, really vast, sprawling music scene—it’s huge—I definitely feel a connection with my punk scene in Portland. We are all pretty close. Like we found out that somebody had cancer so there were like five benefit shows, so much stuff going on, and it’s like it’s this girl that I know really well though we don’t hang around that much, so of course we’re going to help out. But, at the same time, across town there is this other punk scene I don’t know anything about, and I might go to some punk show and see a lot of those people there, and I might give them a head nod and say hi, but you go to some small town it’s like they are in it to win it. [Tribalism] still exists. That tribalism existed before anyone called it punk rock; it was just people that found each other, who understood each other because they liked the same stuff and had the same beliefs. They just weren’t called punks; there were art communities; there were like beatniks; the hippies that weren’t idiots and were actually trying to do something! It’s always going to be around, it just might not always be punk. A lot of people don’t understand what punk is; it’s just another thing you can be. When you are in high school you can be a punk, be skater or a raver or something. People who really feel it? They still exist. I guess I just feel like the tribalism is still around but it is fighting to exist.”
Punk can be a contrary and troublesome beast though. The ethic can be alluring, but then there’s a real creative conservatism—prevalent throughout so many niche subcultures—that kind of roots it in something that’s aesthetically safe. “Oh God yeah. Well I think the punk scene evolved into where the music became extremely conservative. Like there are always rules! I am in this other band, and we pretty much just call ourselves a rock ‘n’ roll band but we are pretty punk. We’re just a raging rock ‘n’ roll band, just more of a fun band really, and people are like, ‘Are you like a punk band or a metal band?’ And I’m like, ‘No. We are not punk or metal. Too many rules.’ That was my answer: there are too many fucking rules! I’m not punk. I’m not metal. We don’t need all these rules. That's kinda how I look at the whole thing. The crust scene is where I think there are way too many rules. It’s like there are so many rules that it is not punk any more; it’s just like this genre of music where people are singing about brutal shit and how bad the government is. I dunno. And there has to be a certain look and sound to all of it unless it is not crust or d-beat.”
You mentioned unrecorded music, there; do you have a lot of music leftover that might give you an idea of where you will take your sound next? “It’s hard to say because, first of all, we haven’t practised in a year, literally. We played a show a year ago, almost to the date, and we’re gonna meet up on Monday [today] to figure out what we are doing next. Meanwhile, we’ve got about four new songs that we’ve already been playing a lot; we’ve already toured on these other songs. One of those was a Wake Up On Fire cover that Wake Up On Fire never released and we re-did with different words and stripped down a lot of the extra drumming. So hopefully we’ll record this stuff. All of it is more on the thrashier side except for the Wake Up On Fire cover. All of it goes into really fast metal and d-beat parts but one of them is really, really lyric-heavy. It is crammed with lyrics. I would say all of them are all shorter than the songs on the LP; I guess that was more of a planned thing. We just wanted to write some ragers. But they all venture off in all different directions too. There is definitely a lot of double-bass [drumming] going on."
It sounds healthy to have a year off, but it must seem weird not only to be talking about songs that were done so long ago but to contemplate the prospect of getting back in a room together to take it forward again. It’s going to be weird to get back into it, for sure, but we definitely needed a break. Every band needs a break. It wasn’t making all of us happy to keep doing this and one of us had a kid. We all have other bands that we are having a lot of fun with—and good bands, too. I think I really like all of our other bands a lot! It’s a good thing they got to happen. But now that this album is out we really have got to revisit all of this and figure out what we are doing. We definitely wanna play a few more shows and maybe take it from there, maybe become one of those bands that just play a couple of big shows a year. If it was up to me we would just go on tour for three months . . . But I don’t have a kid though. I think that we are finally going to be a band again, in a different way, for a while, and see where that goes. I am really pushing to record. I hate when a band stops playing and doesn't’ record their newest stuff; it’s always a little bit of a tragic thing. I’ve been in a couple of bands that have done that, like we wrote our best music and the band broke up and we never recorded it. It kills me!”