This week’s featured Meet The Band artist is Azusa. They are a new group, but their members have been around for a while. The lineup includes former Dillinger Escape Plan bassist Liam Wilson, ex-Extol members Christer Espevoll (guitar) and David Husvik (drums) along with vocalist Eleni Zafiriadou (Sea + Air). Their debut album is Heavy Yoke. Wilson introduces us to his band.
Chad Bowar: Give us a brief history of Azusa.
Liam Wilson: My version of the story goes like this: I first heard Extol back in 2002 or so. Sometime around 2008-2010, before tDEP was about to head into the studio again, I reached out via Facebook to Tor Magne Gildje who had played bass in Extol at some point and asked about recording techniques, equipment used, etc. because I really dug the way the bass sounded on their records and I was always looking to improve my tone. I don’t remember the conversations going much further than “I don’t remember, but thanks for reaching out, I’m sure the guys would be happy to know you’re a fan” or something along those lines. I assume things trickled down, and in late 2014 David and Christer contacted me about working together on material they had been working on.
They sent me a few demos and I was instantly on-board. More demos were exchanged and developed, and we had a lot of dead-end dialogue about who we felt would fit vocally until the Spring of 2016. I had spent a few weeks filling in on bass for Myrkur when they supported Behemoth in the U.S. and really enjoyed performing onstage with a strong feminine energy. When I got home I mentioned this to David and he remembered being really impressed by Eleni when he caught a set by her band, Jumbo Jet a few years earlier. I wasn’t familiar with Jumbo Jet, but after David reached out to Eleni and we heard the first demos she sent for what became “Interstellar Islands” and “Eternal Echo” we were all convinced she was the one, and things moved forward pretty quickly from that point through present day.
What inspired the band name?
If there was a Venn Diagram or pie-chart to map out all the inspirations behind the name, I believe they would include David’s love of Japanese culture and Azusa being a popular Japanese girl’s name, stories of a teenage Tongva faith healer named Coma Lee who was later given the name Azusa by a Chief miraculously healed through her prayers. I believe the city of Azusa in California is named after her, and the Azusa Street Revival in 1906 was the birth of the Pentecostal Christian Church, which some members of Azusa have ties to. If I understand things correctly, Azusa is translated to mean Blessed Miracle or Healing.
Describe the songwriting and recording process for Heavy Yoke.
The songs’ main infrastructures were built by David and Christer, and some of these ideas were seeds that started way back during Extol’s Synergy era. They’d share mostly fleshed out demos of drums and guitar via Dropbox, and I would work on them at my home in Philadelphia. Once we all agreed on the flow and structure of things, Christer and David would re-track their final takes at David’s studio and Eleni would fly up to Norway from Greece or Germany to lay down her vocals. Whenever I’d have a chunk of songs ready to record, and when it fit into everyone’s schedule, I’d fly over to Oslo and spend about 5 days tracking as much as we could get done – we never rushed, but it was a sprint from the moment my feet landed on Norwegian soil. Eleni and I were like ships in the night, usually leaving when the other was arriving. I think I tracked everything in about two visits. Once we got started with final takes, I’d say we were all finished, songs mixed and mastered in about 6 months.
What will be your strongest memory of the recording of the album?
I can remember tracking a few specific parts, and the positive energy we felt in the room when a certain section of a song just seemed to flow well, and I can also remember the frustration when a certain section wasn’t working for whatever reason and that energy seemed to get sucked right out of the room – in that sense, the extremes, the peaks of both joy and pressure poke through the cloudier memories. I’ll never forget the late nights David and I would spend in his studio after the tracking for the day was done, drinking a few crafty Norwegian “Christmas Beers” and going back and forth on Spotify and YouTube sharing unfamiliar music with each other, telling stories and discussing our strategy for the following days. The strongest memories about the process for me are as much about becoming close friends with everyone in such a short time as it was about actually working on an album together.
How would you characterize its style/sound?
Avant-Thrash is the only sorta tongue-in-cheek term we’ve used to describe it amongst ourselves, otherwise we sorta break it down like “The Joni Mitchell Part” or something along those lines when we’re discussing pieces of it. I think characterizing and labeling is for fans, critics, historians or computer algorithms more so than the artists creating the material.
Is there a lyrical theme or thread?
The overarching theme for Heavy Yoke seems to be the metaphysical and emotional weight of relationships. Lyrically, most of the songs on the album are inspired by the archetypal themes of good vs. evil, illusion vs. reality, the past vs. the present and how upbringing, memory, mysticism, belief and betrayal play into how we relate to ourselves and others, our place in the universe and the wide variety of relationships we often find ourselves in, be it host/parasite, oppressor/oppressed, etc.
How did you come to sign with Solid State?
Since we were able to self-fund the recording expenses, which included things like our flights, lodging and meals, and other travel-related expenses, and David was capable of producing and engineering the whole album in his studio before we ever approached labels with it, we had some flexibility in how we wanted to handle those negotiations and its release. We decided to license the album per territory instead of doing a standard record deal. David had a longstanding working relationship with Indie Recordings in Norway, and they handle the European territories, but we still didn’t have good marketing and distribution in the U.S. Solid State came to the table with the best offer, the most genuine excitement and the best team and track record to handle things out of everyone we considered. Now that we’re most of the way through the pre-order campaign, I’m really happy with what all the labels have been able to deliver for us so far.
What has the response been to the singles you’ve released so far?
I’m conditionally biased, I think that goes without saying, so handicap this answer however you see fit. Disclaimers aside, this isn’t my first rodeo, and I feel like I can tell when people are just being supportive for the sake of old friendships, or so as not to hurt feelings versus when people are expressing bona fide excitement. By the end of tDEP’s run, I started to feel like we were immune to criticism, and if a critic or reviewer didn’t have something nice to say, they just wouldn’t say anything at all – so it was hard to believe we were always getting honest feedback.
With the singles Azusa has released so far, and from the friends who’ve heard the whole album, I’ve had more unsolicited and overwhelmingly positive reactions to this band than I have for almost anything I’ve ever done. As far as press, I know that my name comes with a certain caché because of what I’ve done in my career so far, and that obviously gives us a certain advantage as far as being noticed and written about, whether that’s unfair or not is not for me to say. What I can say is that the response has been nothing short of amazing, I feel like collective fans of all of our previous efforts, as well as entirely new fans, are reacting the way that we dreamed they would, and the good press we’ve received, the sincere tone in the voices I’ve done phone interviews with, not to mention the offers from different publications who never paid attention to anything I’ve ever done before and are more than willing to cover Azusa far, exceeds my expectations. My gratitude to our PR team, Amy at Atomsplitter and Jelena at Indie, knows no bounds.
What are your goals and expectations for the album?
My primary goals and expectations for the album have mostly been achieved simply by finishing it and being happy with the result, the rest is gravy. I want fans to truly enjoy it, I want it to transcend certain limitations of “genre” while still honoring where we came from, I want it to inspire people to chase their dreams and I’d like it to hear that the music and production still holds up years from now. I’d be honored if our peers in other bands like what we’re doing enough to invite us to tour with them so we may have the privilege to perform these songs for as many potential fans as possible.
Having been in bands for a long time, do you think it’s easier for a new band to build an audience today than it was back in the day, or is it just different?
It’s never been easy and I think it’s just different. I think it’s certainly easier for bands to take those first steps at breaking out without the help of labels – social media sorta homogenizes the on-ramp and allows anyone to learn what it takes to get the word out there. That said, just because you can invite a lot people to your event on Facebook with one post, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be out there beating the streets handing out show flyers too. Both/And, not Either/Or – that’s the name of the game. It’s also a lot more of a saturated market, everyone has the ability to get their music noticed on a site like Bandcamp, but the only way anyone can really make enough money to sustain themselves seems to be with merchandise and ticket sales, which isn’t always sustainable. It’s a Catch-22.
Do you have any show/tour plans?
We’re currently trying to book some appearances for Summer 2019, and after. If something comes up before then, we’d entertain it, but the marketing cycles for tours start so early that we’re already struggling to squeeze into 2019 at all.
When did you first know you wanted to pursue music as a career?
I was always drawn to music and musicians. If there was a live band at some event during my childhood, I was always fascinated. MTV also had a big influence on me during my childhood. How could anyone watch the “Paradise City” video and not want to be a rock star? I remember air-guitaring on tennis rackets and mini-lacrosse sticks while watching the Top 20 Countdown and Headbanger’s Ball. I clearly remember “getting the calling” to play bass while hiking on the Appalachian Trail when I was about 11. Once I started on that path, I felt like every other diversion in my heart of hearts disappeared, even though I still pursued other artistic outlets in parallel. I dropped out of an art university to join The Dillinger Escape Plan when I was about 20, there was no turning back at that point.
Was your family supportive?
My family was always really supportive of me developing my talents, but when the conversation about leaving school came up, there was a lot of mixed feelings. I had a hard time understanding how my Mom was so supportive of my drive to be the best I could be, but when it came time to put that to the test, there was a lot of tough love involved. It took years before I convinced her that I made the right choice, and the way her feelings about that decision have rebounded since has only brought us closer in the years since. I think it’s still hard for my extended family, as well as the family I’ve started for myself, to have me away from home for extended periods of time, missing weddings, funerals, birthdays, etc. is really taxing on my relationships, especially when protracted over two decades, but I feel like they’re all my biggest fans and I’m blessed to have such a great support system. I truly couldn’t do it without them.
Read any good books lately?
Before I became a father, and when I was touring more, I was a voracious reader. Lately its been tougher, but I still try to make time for it. I’ve been really into this writer William T. Vollmann, his “Rainbow Stories” and “Europe Central” really blew me away. “Fishboy” by Mark Richard is a book I always return to. “Wild: An Elemental Journey” by Jay Griffiths was pretty incredible. “The Age Of Wonder” by Richard Holmes is probably the last book I was able to hold and finish.
Lately I’ve been really into Audible, and although I miss certain aspects of ‘analog’ books, that has allowed me to burn through some of the more intimidating classics I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. I was on a Russian writer kick and “read” Anna Karenina and The Brother’s Karamazov and Lolita within the last few months. Listening to Nick Cave narrate his book, “The Death Of Bunny Monroe” was a real treat as well. “How To Change Your Mind” by Michael Pollan was a great listen about a subject I feel needs more public attention.
What’s currently in your heavy musical rotation?
I’m still stuck in the ’90s in many ways, Death’s post-Human catalog and Disincarnate’s Dreams Of The Carrion Kind will never get old for me. As for more contemporary bands, I really enjoy Plebeian Grandstand, Craft. I just realized that I’m probably reading this question wrong, and you mean “heavy rotation” and not “HEAVY rotation” – if that’s the case, I’m really into Dead Can Dance, so not surprisingly the latest Lisa Gerrard album Hireath has been keeping me company. The latest Low album Double Negative is really cool. Anything Jaco Pastorius played on will always have me groovin’. Dungen is another band whose catalog I seem to never tire of. I often recharge with the Emerson String Quartet’s recordings of Bartok, and Glenn Gould’s Bach: Goldberg Variations – both versions.
Anything else you’d like to mention or promote?
Hmmm. (10 minutes pass) Okay, I’ve got a few other random things to mention that get my goat. I have a Transcendental Meditation practice, and I think adding some sort of mindfulness practice to your toolbox is essential. The “Yoga With Adrienne” YouTube channel has allowed me to maintain a regular home practice that, although not as great as working with a teacher/studio, is better than nothing and the lengths and variety of her videos allow me to squeeze something into my morning routine.
Scott’s Bass Lessons and Janek Gwizdala’s online bass lessons are both great at keeping me in shape. “Manhunt:Unabomber” was a great TV series on Netflix. I find Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies really fascinating at any price. I enjoy Joe Rogan’s podcast, especially the Duncan Trussel episodes – I recently heard one with a sleep neuroscientist named Matthew Walker that blew me away. I think MAPS.org is doing God’s work and deserves a lot more attention and funding. And cut. Thanks!
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(interview published November 17, 2018)