Originally, this frickin’ boner was supposed to go out to the tragically unsigned Secrets of the Sky, an Oakland, CA collective who specialize in black-splashed prog-n-doom awesomeness. Now that Secrets of the Sky are untragically signed to Gravedancer Records, you’re hopefully going to hear a lot more about them in the coming months and years. Earlier this year, the band offered a two-song preview of now-finished full-length To Sail Black Waters, and the complete album only builds more interesting melodies, textures, and grand crescendos into an already diverse (yet cohesive) palette. To Sail Black Waters should snuggle into music store shelves on January 22, 2013, but right here right now you can dig on the record’s second track, “Decline,” while reading what guitarist/keyboardist Clayton Bartholomew and vocalist Garett Gazay have to say about their music and their experiences as Secrets of the Sky.
Who are Secrets of the Sky? How and when did the band form?
Clayton: Well, Chris Anderson (guitar, keyboards) and I first started talking about doing a project together back in 2009 but I would say we actually got our act together in early 2010. We got Lance Lea (drums) to join and basically the 3 of us started writing. We had sort of a revolving door of bass players, but basically the 3 of us wrote the instrumental material for “To Sail Black Waters” and recorded all of the instruments over the course of 6 months or so. I should mention Benjamin Strange, who is an incredible bassist- he did add quite a bit in the brief period he jammed with us. Garett came in on vocals after we put an add out for a singer- he was the first and only guy we tried out and he just blew us away. John Mananquil (bass) was recommended to us and Andy Green (guitar) is an old friend so it wasn’t very difficult to round out the line-up.
What musical/personal ambitions drive the band’s music?
Clayton: I think we set out with a clear idea of what we wanted to do with this band. We wanted to create really dark sonic landscapes and initially wrote the music as if we were writing a movie soundtrack. We wanted to forego the old formulaic way of writing and try something new. I think we pulled that off on the record. It did take a while to develop and we really took our time getting it right.
How did you guys end up signing with Gravedancer Records?
Clayton: We were actually working with Josh Eldridge and The MuseBox for PR purposes and looking around for a label. It just so happens that Josh also owns Gravedancer and was interested in releasing the record. We all felt like it was a good fit for us. We like the other bands on the label (Nachtmystium, Yakuza, Chrome Waves (ft. members of The Atlas Moth, Gates of Slumber, etc) and Josh is a really good guy. He spent years at Century Media as their Head of Publicity and Promotions and is a huge advocate of metal that falls into not-so-mainstream categories. So it was an easy decision for us.
Were the songs on To Sail Black Waters written by the band collectively, or by individuals and then brought to the group?
Clayton: Musically, the songs on the record were written and arranged by Chris, Lance and I. Chris and I demo'd stuff at home a lot and sent it to each other to work on. As far as vocals are concerned, Garett handled all of that. Now that we have a full band, we write together at practice a lot more. Everyone is involved in fleshing out their individual parts.
How does the songwriting process affect the recorded outcome? How (if at all) does the recording process affect the songs?
Clayton: Hmm. Well, we had the songs pretty polished and ready to record for the most part before going into the studio. I would say we recorded the songs without consideration for playing them live as we added tons of guitar layers and keyboards... which is why we now have a 6 piece band so that we can actually pull it off live! It’s weird, you write and jam the songs in your rehearsal space and they sound a certain way and then you go to the studio and track everything properly and they come out a bit different, usually for the better. So then you have to get back to the rehearsal space and figure out how to make them sound as good live as they do on the record. I guess that’s been our experience anyway.
Two of your songs - “Winter” and “Sunrise” have been around a little while. Did the remastering have a particular positive effect on the sound, or was it simply to make the album sound more uniform?
Clayton: Ya, we chose to take those two songs and press a sampler as a “sneak peak” or whatever of the record. Mostly for promotional use, booking shows, etc. The record was basically all recorded at the same time except for vocals, which were done in several sessions. After everything was recorded, Juan (Urteaga, Trident Studios) mixed and mastered it all so that everything was uniform, etc. There were some tweaks made to keep everything in line, yes.
Is there a particular lyrical theme or thread that carries through the album?
Garett: To be honest, all the songs are different lyrically. When I joined the band, the songs already had names, for instance there was "Winter". When I sat down to write lyrics to the song I found myself digging through piles of old poetry for a piece I did in high school that I had actually named, "Winter", which I used for the song. The reason I did this was I saw how much the guys had put into the songs and I wanted to preserve their vision, but put words to it. Over the course of a few weeks after joining, I was introduced to more of the band's existing work and began to write new poetry to the pieces. I found them to be perfectly in tune with my own inner vibe and vision as a vocalist. Put simply, the lyrics on the record can be summed up as esoteric visualizations of myself in different metaphorical scenarios that illustrate the true definition of me as a person and as an artist.
Are there musical or lyrical cues that dictate when you use harsh vocals and when you sing?
Garett: You know what? I never thought about it like that, but in retrospect I guess there are. The guys will weave beauty and beast together and I am totally caught up in it. I can only explain it like this; when the head of the snake moves, so does the rest of its body. The changes in vocal element follow I think the vibe of the instrumental magicians in this band.
Is To Sail Black Waters a moment of completion for Secrets of the Sky, or an open door to further work similar to it?
Clayton: That’s a great question... and one that we are still in the process of answering. I think we are looking at it as the first chapter of many more to come and as we write the second record, there will be certain musical themes that carry over. I think To Sail Black Waters defines what we are, and we are looking forward to expanding on that for future releases. Stay tuned!