YOB: Zen and the Art of Crushing Skulls

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By Adrien Begrand

“It was an education, to say the least. Legally we can’t even say the band name.”

No matter how lousy your 2008 might have been, chances are it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as it was for Mike Scheidt. Following the break-up of Eugene, Oregon doom masters YOB in 2005, the guitarist formed a new band, choosing the seemingly innocent-sounding moniker Middian, and released the impressive The Age Eternal on Metal Blade in 2007. However, that band’s name would open a can of worms the size of an oil drum, thanks to an overtly litigious, defunct nu-metal outfit from Milwaukee, Wisconsin that went by the name of Midian. Unlike here in Canada, where a football team called the Roughriders can co-exist with another team in the same league called the Rough Riders, Midian With One D had a major bug up its hoo-haw in regards to Middian With Two Ds, and after making every effort to offer an olive branch, from changing the band’s name to Age Eternal, to dropping off Metal Blade, Scheidt and his bandmates were hit with a lawsuit in the tens of thousands of dollars that threatened to take the musicians for far more than they were worth. By the time September 2008 rolled along, the strain the court case created had precipitated the break-up of The Band Formerly Known as Middian, and Scheidt was left to pick up the pieces.

“It was just a very, very dark time,” he laughs, as only a person who has been to hell and back can do. “It just seemed like there was no end in sight for a while.”

Funny how things work out, though. Here we are in the middle of 2009, YOB is back in business, reunited with a brilliant new record to flog, and the outgoing Scheidt couldn’t be happier to talk about something that doesn’t involve the circuitous American legal process. “I’d been tossing around the idea that it would be fun to record a YOB record,” he says, on the phone from his home. “Around the same time, Travis [Foster, drums] shot me a message and said, ‘Man, it would be great to do a reunion show.’ I was like, ‘Wow, that would be great,’ and I said, ‘Why don’t we just make it a studio project only? Let’s just record a record.’ And he seemed pretty open to that, so our idea was Age Eternal was the new band name for Will [Lindsay, bass] and Scott [Headrick] and my band, and it would be my priority, and the YOB thing was going to happen on the side. As it worked out, in Age Eternal we’d already had some internal tensions that reared their ugly head here and there, and once we started getting into the stress of our lawsuit it basically tore us apart…So what was a side project became my main project. We’re YOB again, we’re playing a few shows, recorded an entire new record, and who knows what’s going to happen at this point?”

With bassist Aaron Reiseberg replacing original YOB bassist Isamu Sato, the trio found a new home on the great Canadian label Profound Lore, and hit the studio in March and April of this year to record their fifth album. Unlike past records, which were all overseen by Scheidt, veteran producer Sanford Parker would be at the helm, and anyone who has heard such great albums as The Gates of Slumber’s Conqueror, Indian’s Slights and Abuse/The Sycophant, or Minsk’s last three full-lengths, knows full well just how perfectly suited Parker’s style is to doom metal. Consequently, not only does Scheidt step up with some of the best work of his career on The Great Cessation, but its tone, created by the talented Parker, is phenomenal: warm, rich, and utterly punishing.

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“It was something I had been intrigued with doing for a long time, just having somebody one, to produce, and two, to mix in our absence, having somebody that was objective behind the mixing board,” Scheidt explains. “It’s not that I’m an engineer, but for all of the YOB records and for Age Eternal, I worked right with the engineer on every single step of everything, twiddling knobs, finding sounds, mixing…it’s very hard to be objective when you’re also a musician and songwriter. You start trying to mix it for yourself instead of mixing it for what other people want from you…[Parker] understands heavy music, and he’s a real pro, he isn’t shaken by anything, he brings an air of professionalism to what he does that’s just fabulous. And he pushed us, especially with vocals, because I was singing really well, so it wasn’t a scenario where we were trying to get a take, we were getting lots of them. According to him they were really good, but he kept pushing me for better and better ones, so it just really became a rad creative process.”

Zen Buddhism has always played a central role in Scheidt’s songwriting for YOB, especially on the two previous albums, 2004’s The Illusion of Motion and 2005’s great The Unreal Never Lived, but on The Great Cessation a considerably more blunt approach, which often seems to border on despair and even anger, permeates such tracks as “Burning the Altar” (“Heavy heart clenched like a fist grasping hope with hands in flames”) and “Breathing From the Shallows” (“Sharpened razor’s edge burst at the seams fit to be tied tried and defied / There’s no better time to die”). However, Scheidt is quick to diffuse any notion that this is simply a pissed-off record coming from a guy who had a really miserable year.

“Whatever language a person wants to use to describe a feeling, whether it be emotional or spiritual, the word is meant to point to the thing,” he explains. “If you get caught up in the language, you don’t see the thing that it’s pointing to. I think that there is a frustration for sure in the new album, and it’s meant to be genuine and not finger-pointing per se, but it’s meant to be personal, and instead of it being the softer metaphysical view, it’s more of the ‘Zen monk who hits you with a stick’ kind of feeling. [laughs] Even though it’s darker and there is more anger in it, it’s still not nihilism, it’s still not condemning the world to fire and we’re lighting the match. It’s more like a trying to shake ourselves awake kind of thing. ‘Come on! You know better.’ It’s meant to be more of a mirror than something that we’re telling other people what to do.”

As with any YOB album, the new record climaxes with a long, epic title track, but the elegiac “The Great Cessation” hits listeners especially hard, thanks in large part to Scheidt’s inspired vocal performance, his unique howl hitting soaring melodic heights. While he’d rather leave his lyrics open to the interpretation of his audience, he is quick to explain the significance of the title, and although the lyrics are a little more ambiguous this time around, the metaphysical theme is unmistakable. “‘The Great Cessation’ is a Zen Buddism term, it means when all struggling and striving stops. Stop trying to figure it out, stop trying to name it, stop trying to convince others of a version of it, it being the capitalized It, whatever you want to call It. What has been called many names but is captured by any name. It is when a person is no longer struggling to find meaning in what is outside of themselves, and so therefore can relax, because it’s no longer about trying to please the world, it’s no longer trying to fit in and conform. It’s not to say that those things don’t happen, that a person can’t find a place in the world or that they can’t choose to be a part of something, but they’re not defined by it. They’re defined by something that’s bigger, that’s unspoken, something that will never be grasped in any language. But part of our process is to continue having discussions about it. This Great Cessation is just to stop. Let it go. Let the space of not knowing what the fuck is going on be okay.”

Of course, hearing that explanation, it quickly becomes apparent just how valuable that philosophy had to have been when things were at their absolute lowest for Scheidt a year ago. “No matter how shitty something is, it’s temporary,” he muses. “It’s just a matter of breathing through something and trying to, sometimes in vain, to not knee-jerk and say or do things that you regret. Within the members of Age Eternal there was a number of philosophies on how to handle our lawsuit and how to handle the people we were in struggle with. At any given time, any one of us could have said or done something that could have very much hurt us and made it to where they could have really gone farther with their thing than they did…I’m not saying I didn’t have my moments of incredible anger and lack of objectivity, because I totally did, but the thing about any kind of practice, whether it be a life philosophy practice, it’s just given that you’re going to fuck up. There’s just no way around it, you’re gonna fuck up, somebody’s gonna fuck up, everybody does. It’s just a matter of whether a person has enough humility to go, ‘Yup, there it was, the thing I didn’t want to do, I did it again.’ Stand back up, dust off your knees, and continue on, and just try to do it differently. Not to be ‘a better person’, but to not participate in things that are futile. That in itself creates the space for better things to happen, for things to just roll off your back.”

With all that strife behind him, it’s full steam ahead for Scheidt and YOB. Though they won’t be touring extensively, they will be making appearances in most major markets in the States, especially on the West Coast, where they’ve been a fixture for years. And if things weren’t already looking up for the band, they got a little reminder of the respect they’ve earned in the metal community this past May, where they brought their unique brand of massive doom metal to a small but enthusiastic group of kids at a Portland area high school.

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“Oh man, it was great,” beams Scheidt. “What happened was when we were getting sued, there’s this high school up in Portland, and they have a heavy metal club. And how cool is that? The kids get together once a week and they sit and listen to heavy metal and they have discussions about it, whether it would be lyrics or things that are going on in the heavy metal climate, or bands that they like, turning each other on to music, et cetera. A couple of teachers oversee the whole thing. They were selling t-shirts to raise money; I think it was to buy themselves a new stereo system. And one of the first bands that they’d heard when they started up their club was YOB and Age Eternal, because both teachers were really big fans of those bands. So the kids had a connection, almost right from the moment the club formed, and when they heard about our situation, they decided to donate the money to us instead. We were just like, ‘Oh my god, how amazing is that?’ We were utterly beyond words about it. So fast forward to 2009, the guys that run the club contacted us. I guess they have shows at their high school once in a while, and they asked if YOB would play for the club. We were like, ‘Yeah, we totally will.’ And I have kids too, my twins are turning 14 in July, I have a ten year-old, I just think about when I was in high school, man, it was brutal for a heavy metal kid where I went. It was a bunch of rednecks and cowboys where I went to school, and I got into fights from time to time, it was just a nightmare. So to go play for these kids and be a part of that…it was really fun.”

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He continues, “The funniest thing of all was we solidly ran out half the room. They were just like, ‘Uh…’ There was a solid core of kids that were still there and a bunch of adults, actually. A bunch of teachers came to see us upon recommendation of the teachers that ran the club. The bands that opened for us were very much like metallic hardcore or screamo, things that are really popular with the kids, whereas here we come lumbering along…they weren’t ready for it. But that’s alright,” he says, adding wryly, “That’s doom for you.”

http://www.myspace.com/yobdoom

YOB’s upcoming album The Great Cessation will be released on Profound Lore later this month.

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Sean Palmerston

Sean is the founder/publisher of Hellbound.ca; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.