Meet The Band: Cortege

In the Meet The Band spotlight this week is the Texas doom/drone duo Cortege, who just released their debut album Capricorn. Mike Swarbrick and Adrian Voorhies introduce us to their band.

Chad Bowar: Give us a brief history of Cortege.
Mike Swarbrick: I started what would become Cortége in the fall of 2012 with Thomas Collard, ex Thunderkeif. We started playing as Cortége in early 2016. It had a slow start mainly because I was focusing on other projects. Adrian replaced Tom in the fall of 2017.

Adrian Voorhies: When I joined the band around this time two years ago Mike and I really had no idea where this journey would wind up taking us, but by the end of that first tour, going off of just a brief month or so’s worth of rehearsals, we really locked in with one another and the music quickly captured me. With just two musicians in the group it obviously becomes very intimate very quickly, but I didn’t think our playing styles would mesh as well as they really did in those first shows. We have similar personalities, as the name of the new record illustrates, and we became fast friends in addition to bonding over our respective roles in the performances. 2018 was a great year for us having those first few singles out and exploring the country over two relatively expansive tours. We made a lot of friends and began to sort of refine and polish what we were doing on stage by just constantly gigging. This year has been even better and we’re eager to finish it off strongly with the Capricorn release and this upcoming North American jaunt.

Describe the songwriting process for Capricorn.
Mike: After I came up with some loose melodic ideas, we practiced them a lot until we were happy with them. Then we would then do a live recording of bass and drums. Afterwards I add keyboards to help fill out the sound and create the mood of the album.

Adrian: Mike’s compositional process is a bit like his playing – it’s methodical, creeping and purposeful but once it starts happening you’re really cooking with gas. He’ll present an idea and usually has some sense of where he wants it go rhythmically and I’ll incorporate my interpretation and we sort of mold it from there. I try leave a bit of refinement space for improvisation later in performance. Sometimes themes work themselves out and the tune changes slightly over a period of time. The live performances and the records are different experiences; at the same time retaining the ethereal, cinematic sort of flow that permeates both.

What will be your strongest memory of the recording of the album?
Mike: My strongest memory of the album is watching the songs take shape in front of me. A lot of this album was not written out ahead of time, most of it was ideas that were floating around in my head. The whole A side of the album took its shape in the studio.

Adrian: Likely the drum theme in the front half of the title track. I wanted to utilize an evolving, breath-y sort of progressive statement behind the eerily static bass guitar melody. I toyed with a few different motifs and fills when we first put the tune together and I think I might have used one or two of those ideas but mostly what you hear on the record is studio improvisation and I continue to play that section in that manner in live performance depending on any given night’s energy and pacing. That was especially fun. Another memory is listening to the completed opening of the record for the first time. Mike was just holed up in the studio with our engineer, Kevin Sparks, trying out different sounds and seeing what they could come up with to really make the scene come to life. All the spaceship noises, the crash and the huge dynamic swings – on good headphones it really was like watching a movie. That was really exciting to hear. And then the main theme comes in on bass and it’s just like “whooosshhhh”, haha. Amazing.

How would you characterize its style/sound?
Mike: I would characterize the music on Capricorn as a sonic journey. It’s very much heavy experimental soundscapes mixed with post western film score themes. With lots of prog, ’60s instrumental rock, and drone doom overtones.

Adrian: We have a term we like to use, although I’m not sure how gratifying it necessarily is for anyone else: post-western music. That’s taking into consideration the aesthetic concept of our music as well and how we might describe the base soundscapes. A dystopian time in the western world perhaps not so far off in the distant future. The sound honors that basic concept, and vice versa, in arrangement, pacing and production. Capricorn sounds distinctively different than anything the band has released before and flows through drone ambient, doom metal, progressive rock, cinematic music and cowboy psychedelia within about 45 minutes of music so it’s difficult to tackle down to any one simple characterization. If I had to add one other phrase – “twang filled.”

How do the comic book and video tie in with the album’s theme?
Mike: Capricorn is a conceptual narrative with a concrete storyline. So naturally the comic follows the story. Also the video, illustrating scenes about halfway through the record, outlines what’s going on during that part of the story. Kat Albert, who’s a wonderful Austin based director, really helped us flesh out the story in a practical and manageable way considering how fantastical and otherworldly the subject matter is.

What led you to go the independent route for release?
Adrian: Lack of patience! (laughs) We’d been sitting on the initial tracks for some time while we toured in late 2018 and early 2019 and we used that time to plan how unique we wanted to make the release. Once we solidified those ideas, we dove into post production and really got enthused about the product. We figured if we could make a proper occasion of it and do the record justice in that sense then we would be ready to work with a label in the future.

What are your goals and expectations for the album?
Mike: I guess some goals for this record are to create more of a following and to move people through the power of music. I feel that this album is a musical journey which is intended to take the listener on a ride that you’re not expecting from a heavy album.

Adrian: Bingo, that’s it in a nutshell. We enjoyed challenging ourselves on the production of this record, everything from the actual recording and equipment utilized to the packaging and presentation. We’re trying to see how wide of an audience this specialized sort of sound can appeal to and try to garner some of that audience while continuing to strive for innovation at best and original effort at worst. If we put wind up pressing another orders worth of records, that’ll be beyond any expectations we initially set.

What has been your most memorable Cortege live show?
Adrian: For how niche our sound is we’ve been blessed with a small but righteously dedicated audience and we’ve been fortunate to have been a part of many outstanding shows thus far. Earlier this year we had the pleasure of opening for the unbelievably talented African Tuareg-style guitar player Mdou Moctar in Albuquerque. Along with all the standard things that make a show outstanding, i.e beautiful room, sound and staff, the crowd was incredibly supportive. Our music couldn’t be more different than Mdou’s (he’s basically Hendrix in Nigeran garb, absolutely insane player) but it was amazing seeing his crowd willing to take the plunge with us. That was really special.

Mike: There’s been a lot of memorable shows, but I’d say the one that stood out the most on our last tour in Eugene. There’s nothing like playing in front on a packed house and we were really on it that night. House shows are great too!

What are your upcoming tour plans?
Adrian: We’ve wanted to do a proper northeast tour for a while now and we felt Capricorn afforded us a nice opportunity. Last time we were in the neighborhood we only went as far as Philadelphia but this time we’re going all the way to Boston and working our way down to Florida, with some select shows in the Midwest and southeast as well. This will also mark our first international expedition as well with shows in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal (two of which with our fellow Austinites The Well!), so that’s very exciting.

How did you get started in music?
Mike: I got started playing music at a young age, piano at 5 which didn’t take. Various brass instruments in grade school which also didn’t stick. My hairdresser’s son played guitar and I thought that was cool. However I found out my cousin just bought a guitar so I ended up getting a bass instead. I wasn’t hugely into it until I really got into music in high school. I was also in jazz band in high school where I picked up a little theory.

Adrian: Wanting to play my favorite songs and make noise with my friends – similar to most people’s story I imagine. I started gigging as a late teen with Humut Tabal and we went to Germany in ’11 to work with Markus Reuter on the Dark Emperor record. I really buckled down after that, working in multiple projects in usually opposite styles, and started regularly touring in ’14 or ’15.

Who were your early influences and inspirations?
Adrian: I sort of bubbled out a lot after reaching a certain level in my playing, almost as if I had learned how to learn, in a sense, and so I feel like I’m still constantly influenced and discovering new things all the time. That being said, a lot of my personal hall of famers made their mark in the proto-fusion world; Tony Williams, Billy Cobham, Bill Bruford, going backwards in time cats like Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes, going forwards Vinnie Colaiuta, Steve Smith, really expressive players. A sense of adventure is something I really love hearing. Mike has loved Van Halen since he was old enough to walk, that much I know!

What was the first rock/metal concert you attended?
Mike: My first concert was The Mighty Mighty Bosstones when I was 12.

Adrian: My father helped manage a bar here in Austin through the late ’80s and ’90s that showcased many incredible names and I was always wandering around somewhere during the shows when I was with him. I have brief memories of seeing Bad Brains somewhere in town when I was very young. But one of the first heavy shows I attended out of my own cognizant decision making was a local death metal band in Austin called Hatchetwork. I think I was 12. That set the stage and I wound up going back to that same club, the Redrum, for many years.

What are some of your non-musical interests and hobbies?
Mike: I’m a butcher by trade so I enjoy cooking. I also dry age meat at home.

Adrian: Swimming in the beautiful rivers and lakes of Central Texas, trading stories and battle scars over Lonestar beers in my little neighborhood bar and spending time out on the family ranch west of town. It’s a simple life with many treasures.

What was the last thing you binge-watched?
Mike: Last thing I binge watched was the Dark Crystal series on Netflix.

Adrian: Ken Burns’ History of Country Music. Jaw dropping. One of my favorite documentarians, musical traditions and subjects all wrapped in one.

What’s in your current heavy musical rotation?
Adrian: 2019 has been great for heavy music. I’ve been enjoying some dirty new Gilead releases from the likes of False & Falls of Rauros (Portent and Patterns in Mythology, respectively), fellow Texans Pinkish Black’s new record (Concept Unification) and though it’s not heavy per se but absolutely brooding, our Portland based songwriting friend Ms. Erin Jane Laroue just released her debut record Chalant whose release has been much anticipated and it does not disappoint. I’ve also been enjoying the new droneroom offering via Mr. Blake Edward Conley out of Louisville, Kentucky who creates these wonderful western tinged soundscapes.

Mike: Even though it’s not heavy, lots of ELO in the car and Duane Eddy at home.

Anything else you’d like to mention or promote?
Mike: I use Serek basses on the road. They’re a small boutique builder out of Chicago, Jake makes some of the nicest basses you can buy!

Adrian: Serek has been truly been wonderful to us. He’s a fantastic luthier. Thanks to you, HMHQ, for checking in with us and to all reading this! See you on the road!

(interview published September 28, 2019)

Listen To Cortege – “Horizons”

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