Chad Bowar: Give us a brief history of Pillaging Villagers.
David Frazer: Pillaging Villagers is a concept I came up with when I was 15, daydreaming in classes while scrawling crude drawings of barbarians and wizards on my spiral notebook. Back then, I was just getting introduced to the magical world of heavy metal after really embracing punk. I heard bands like Manowar and they really connected with my interest in medieval history as well as sword and sorcery art and storytelling. I became fascinated with the idea of creating a band that merged these various influences together. I bought a BC Rich Warlock Bronze Series in 2001, carved the word ‘WARLORD’ into the side and Pillaging Villagers was born. I even took bagpipe lessons hoping to one day merge metal and Celtic folk music – even back then, the shorthand ‘thrash Dropkick Murphys’ was a guiding star musically.
After cobbling together some half-baked punk-infused metal tunes as a teenager, I moved on from the project to take on more ‘serious’ themes in college and directly afterwards, but I never lost sight of the vision of Pillaging Villagers. As my musical influences grew, embracing melodic death and other more extreme sub-genres, the seed of the Pillaging Villagers concept also expanded. After a 10 year break from performing/writing metal, I pulled out that very same BC Rich from its dusty case in the back of my closet in 2020 and began to seriously write the album I had dreamed about creating 20 years earlier.
Describe the songwriting process for your self-titled debut.
Musically, I really had a strong philosophy of what I wanted to create, which was the first step – strong, anthemic choruses with bagpipe backing were to anchor the songs, with melodic thrash riffing building to them. Typically, I would write the bagpipe melody for a song like “Wretched of the Earth” in MIDI using a program called Guitar Pro, then write guitar parts under it. I like to write melodies in my head and then transition them to a medium that I can loop over and over. That helps me find the right sound for the underlying chords. Once I found a melody I wanted to use to convey a certain part of the story, I would write riffs to build to it.
I would focus heavily on one song before moving on – writing constantly, sometime dozens of riffs that I would eventually narrow down to three or four, and singing parts into my phone recorder app when I wasn’t near my computer. That way everything was anchored to the main melody, which gives each track a distinct feel. This was also really key to making the music tell the story of the concept album. For example, tracks 3-6 have a completely different feel than the rest of the album, as this section comprises act 2 of the story, where the antagonists and the crisis are established. The process of centering all songs on a key moment not only helps anchor them in terms of the part of the story they comprise, but helps make each song really memorable.
What will be your strongest memory of the recording of the album?
I had spent 10 years away from harsh vocals and it took a ton of work to get them back in shape. I worked for 8 months with a vocal coach, the amazing Mary Zimmer, on building my chops up and learning whole new techniques. I adopted a whole new style from that which I had used on all past projects, focusing more on that frantic, blackened tone that you hear in the voice of the narrator in the story. I was also able to really geek out on the techniques involved and give life to the characters of the story. Each of the four characters (The Count, The Bishop, The Emperor and the main narrative voice) uses a different vocal technique to help them stick out more in the narrative and give the music an operatic feel.
I felt really good going into the studio. I did all the vocals for the main narrative voice on Day 1 (10 hours in the studio), just needing to do the three villains on Day 2. After a good night’s sleep in my AirBNB in Minneapolis, I woke up on Day 2 with no voice whatsoever. I was freaking out, thinking I’d have to drive back to Milwaukee with only part of the album recorded, or maybe never finish it at all. But luckily the hosts of my AirBNB had left for the day and I had a few hours to myself. I used the vocal warm up techniques I learned from my coach and miraculously was able to get my full range back after about an hour. There were so many moments in the creation of the album where I thought it just wasn’t going to come together and that was the scariest one!
How did the pandemic affect the process?
The pandemic was crucial to the creation of Pillaging Villagers. I don’t think I would have ever had the time to do it without it. The combination of the decreased workload at my job gave and the doomsday feeling that I had at the start of the pandemic really gave me the motivation to try to fulfill this dream at long last. Not only that, but I really connected with music during the period, using it as a life raft to stay sane amidst the isolation and hopelessness. I tuned in regularly to Devin Townsend’s pandemic livestreams and they not only helped me to realize the power of music in making others happy, but helped inspire me to be creative, as Devin is one of my biggest heroes. I wanted to create something not only to make myself happy, but something that might help someone else get through their day, or just escape into a world of fantasy for an hour or two, one where the listener could imagine his or herself slaying enemies in their lives, figuratively speaking.
How would you characterize the album’s style/sound?
I have used the monikers ‘thrash Dropkick Murphys’ or ‘punk Ensiferum’ in my promotional materials, but I really like the term ‘peasant metal.’ It really conveys the raw, underground feel of the music in contrast to the elaborate orchestrations and symphonic approach of contemporary folk metal. In addition, the music is really too melodic and uses too many other influences from melodic death to traditional metal to be classified as thrash, as the thrash genre has generally become pretty stagnant and dogmatic in its approach. In my mind, the music feels like a rowdy medieval tavern, bagpipes screeching in the background, as crowd of drunken peasants sing out their sorrows, tankards raised.
What lyrical topics do you cover?
Pillaging Villagers is a concept album. It tells the story of the medieval working class caught in the machinations of the political, religious and economic elites, who they eventually overthrow in triumph. I am a big medieval history buff and have always been fascinated by peasant rebellion, such as the Jacquerie and English Peasants Revolt of the 14th century, the latter of which saw the decapitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury by a mob of disgruntled serfs. These rebellions were always brutally put down, with little to no changes made to the societal or economic structures the opposed.
I wanted to imagine a world where the peasant class emerged victorious, for once. The album mixes these themes into a sword and sorcery world where barbarians, demons, wizards and epic battle combine with themes of justice and freedom that are still relevant today. It is no accident if a listener connects with “Smash the Factory” or “Crush the Enemy” – the forces that oppressed the masses in the 14th century are still with us today, albeit in a slightly different form. This album offers a chance to overthrow the oligarchs that profit at our expense, to cast down the corrupt establishment, to found a just society based on freedom and peace, even if only in the mind of the listener.
What led you to go the independent route for the release?
I didn’t have much choice! I didn’t have any contacts in the music industry and I didn’t know the first thing about promoting a metal album. I financed the recording, the hiring of session musicians, etc. all on my own, but I relied immensely on my promotion company, Clawhammer PR, for promoting it and getting it heard. When I finished the album, I initially just wanted to share it with some friends and maybe get reviewed on my favorite metal blog, Angry Metal Guy. I tried sending it out to some places, but never heard back from most of them. I got some advice to reach out to Clawhammer and they have been tremendous. As an independent musician, one who believed that getting my self-financed metal album heard would be impossible without label support, I was really blown away expectations-wise by Clawhammer’s success. Honestly, I don’t even know at this point what good a label would do me! But that could be my ignorance talking!
What are your goals and expectations for the album?
Honestly, the only goal is to be heard. My expectations have already been blown away by the reception of the album. I have had bloggers and journalists that I have followed for years go out of their way to share and promote the album, all for their love of music. When I set out, my only tangible goal was to be reviewed by Angry Metal Guy – it not only happened, but the album earned a score that most bands with armies of promoters and enormous budgets seldom earn. Every step I have taken in this process has been unexpected. I never thought I would actually finish writing the album when I started it, and I never thought I would record it once it was done. All I can say is that my goals have already been fulfilled. If this album can make one person happy for the 40 minutes it takes to listen to the album, I will consider my efforts a success.
Do you have any plans to play live in support of the album?
I have been asked about this a few times and honestly I don’t see it happening. Pillaging Villagers is all about creating an illusion, a narrative concept that listeners can immerse themselves in and escape into fantasy. I feel like that approach would be ruined by having a bunch of guys in t-shirts at a crappy bar or whatever play through the album. If I were ever going to do something live, it would be better to take a Dracula: The Musical approach and do it with marionettes or something. I would love to work creatively with set designers and/or physical effects professionals to create a live experience – who knows what the future would hold? But I definitely don’t see the project touring. There are no permanent members (all the performances other than vocals were by studio musicians I hired to perform the music I wrote) and I did enough touring/live performance in my youth. I think I am too old for the rigors of the road.
How did you get started in music?
Music has always been a big part of my life. I have so many memories of moments that music made possible. I remember buying Epitaph Records’ Punk o Rama Vol. 6 compilation album and just playing it nonstop in my room when I was 15. I met a girl in marching band who had the same album (we’re married now). I remember playing my first concert with a drum & bass punk band called The Miscreants around that time, at Wheels N Motion Roller Rink in Green Bay, WI and I remember when I played my first gig at a real venue, The Klinic in Madison WI with a band called Erebus.
I played in Erebus for almost five years and I remember braving threats from Texan meth heads while on tour, wielding sledgehammers on stage and screeching into a beer-soaked mic at dirty house shows, surrounded by friends that I would die for even now, years later. I remember sitting out in my backyard hammock in Milwaukee in the summer of 2020, listening to the industrial facility I live near pound away as I wrote the chorus for “Smash the Factory.” I guess this is to say that I can’t think of when I first got started in music – it feels like it has always been a part of me.
Who were your early influences and inspirations?
Dropkick Murphys is an obvious one. They were one of my first true loves musically and their spirit is clearly present in Pillaging Villagers. As I matured musically, I began to connect with street punk bands like The Virus and Onward to Mayhem. I loved their anthemic choruses and anti-authoritarian stance, elements that remained alive in Pillaging Villagers so many years later. One of the first metal bands I heard was Hatebreed and the aggression and speed really connected with me and brought me closer to extreme metal. When I was in college, I was driven by the melodic death golden age of 2003-2008 – Wintersun, Amon Amarth, Dark Tranquility, Kalmah, Children of Bodom all released their best work in that five year span.
Devin Townsend was a huge influence overall – the man is a genius. I really felt inspired by his musical journey from the raw aggression of SYL to the contemplative, diverse and often concept-driven experimentation of Ziltoid the Omniscient and other solo albums. Probably the biggest influence on Pillaging Villagers specifically is Ensiferum, but I listen to so much across so many genres it is hard to separate many of them, to say nothing of the non-music influences that inspired Pillaging Villagers, from Magic the Gathering to Monty Python and beyond.
What was the first metal concert you attended?
Metallica’s St. Anger tour at the Resch Center in Green Bay. I was 17. St. Anger is an easy target but I still love that record. How often do you see an industry fixture like Metallica completely change their sound? It would have been so easy for them to just write another Reload or cover album and it probably still would have sold. I’d rather have the risky approach of St. Anger than a dozen mediocre by-the-numbers thrash albums that some of their scene contemporaries (who shall remain nameless) still see fit to put out every 2-3 years. It’s so aggressive in ways that all their other albums since Burton’s death are not.
How’s the metal scene in Milwaukee these days?
I wish I knew more about it! The pandemic really sapped my energy for going to local shows. With a studio-only project like Pillaging Villagers, it is hard to be connected to the scene, but I recently heard a pretty cool black metal band called Auxeptheon. I also feel like I am more closely connected to the punk scene, especially bands like my buds in Avenues and other bands like The DUI’s. It is a great music town that deserves more attention from tour promoters – we’re all sick of driving to Chicago!
What are some of your non-musical interests and hobbies?
I am a huge history buff, especially medieval and military history. I just finished Runciman’s tome on the Crusades and have been really inspired to explore some of the historical themes from that era musically. I love camping in remote areas – my wife and I go up to Boundary Waters in Northern Minnesota every year. All the campsites are only accessible by canoe, so you end up running into maybe one or two people a day. It’s so pristine and tranquil, a true refuge.
What’s currently in your heavy musical rotation?
Right now, I am digging the new Amorphis, probably the album of the year for me as of now. I also really like the 2022 releases from a Dutch folk metal band called Vanaheim (I am here for their Sagas-era Equilibrium vibes) and a Greek power metal band called Validor, which has such infectious energy and charm you can’t help but smile as you pump your fist. My favorite bands from the past few years are definitely Atlantean Kodex (epic traditional metal from Germany), Judicator (U.S. based power metal with historically-based concept albums) Dark Forest (folk-y traditional metal from the UK) and Dream Troll (high energy traditional metal from the UK).
Anything else you’d like to mention or promote?
I definitely want to thank my wife for all her support in this crazy journey. I also want to thank Brian Koenig, Jason Hirt and Adam Tucker for their session performances and, in Adam’s case, incredible job producing and mixing the album. Major shoutout to Scott at Clawhammer PR for everything they’ve done to get the album out there and huge props to all the publications that promoted and reviewed the album, especially Angry Metal Guy, Heavy Blog is Heavy, Ghostcult Mag, Teeth of the Divine, Noob Heavy and so many more. And thank you for the opportunity to interview and share my thoughts – if anyone reads this and wants to connect, please hit me up on social media, I’d love to hear from you!
(interview published April 2, 2022)
Listen To Pillaging Villagers – “The Count”