Musical collective JOHN FRUM released A Stirring In The Noos, their debut album, this past May via Relapse Records. Hellbound’s Garren Ustel had a chance to ask guitarist Matt Hollenberg some questions. Read below for what transpired.
JOHN FRUM is:
Matt Hollenberg (John Zorn, Cleric)/guitar
Eli Litwin (Intensus/Deveykus/Knife The Glitter)/drums
Derek Rydquist (Ex-The Faceless)/vocals
Liam Wilson (The Dillinger Escape Plan, Starkweather)/bass
Q&A with Matt Hollenberg of JOHN FRUM
Hellbound: Did you really come together focused around the date of 11.11.11? It makes for a cool story at the very least!
Hollenberg: It wasn’t intentional or planned that way, but that just happened to be the date that Liam wrote Eli and me back saying that he was interested in working together. Eli and I had done some jamming a little bit at that point, but didn’t yet have a clear direction, until we started writing songs with Liam. I agree that it makes for a cool story, even if it’s a coincidence.
Hellbound: Let’s look into your background. Liam is known for his role in The Dillinger Escape Plan and Derek for his work with The Faceless. What can you tell us about the playing background of yourself and your drummer?
Hollenberg: I had a strange path. I started my musical path pretty conventionally with getting into rock and metal when I was in high school. Toward the end of high school I discovered progressive music like Frank Zappa, Mr. Bungle, infidel?/Castro!, Dysrhythmia, John Zorn and Mahavishnu Orchestra. It was around this time that I really began to appreciate adventurous music. In the early 2000s I got way into the mathcore and post-hardcore stuff that was coming out like Botch, Converge, Deadguy, Dazzling Killmen, and DEP. After that point I was really inspired by Colin Marston and Mick Barr and all the stuff that was happening in the New York underground scene at the time.
I started my other band Cleric right out of high school, and it was into this project that I poured a lot of my more experimental leanings. Cleric even did a show in the mid 2000s with Eli’s other band Knife the Glitter. In 2014, I started recording albums for John Zorn with the organ trio Simulacrum with John Medeski and Kenny Grohowski, which was a thrill! Zorn was one of the main musicians to get me into more adventurous stuff.
My path has kind a led me to a place where I am equally into avant-garde experimental and hardcore and metal stuff, so as a result I haven’t really fit in either scene completely. I’m not metal enough for some metal-heads, and I’m too extreme for some jazz-heads.
Hellbound: How did you all come together? Each member seems to be from a different part of the map, literally speaking.
Hollenberg: Eli and I began jamming around 2010, but not with any intention of really forming a band. We were kind of in an exploratory phase of just seeing what happened. The jams tended to be more towards the improv side of things and less riff-based or death metal in the approach. We reached a point where we were kind of going around in circles, which was when Eli suggested that we reach out to Liam to see if he was interested.
Our first few songs that we wrote together with Liam were just whisperings of what would later become a much more defined style. The first song we all wrote together from scratch was “Presage of Emptiness”. As we progressed we would meet in the morning and spend two to three hours writing each rehearsal. Over the next two to three years we honed in on an aesthetic that we were all into doing together.
I try to not be too contrived or heady about what we end up sounding like from a guitar standpoint. It’s more important to me that we have a natural feel together, but I will say that conscious influences in the beginning of the writing process were Gorguts and Nile mixed with my natural style on guitar.
Hellbound: Your guitar work is highly technical, yet unlike most playing I have ever heard before in the death metal genre. Is this something you consciously strive for?
Hollenberg: Thank you, I appreciate that! I personally don’t feel that I’m as technical as some other players. I am terrible at sweep picking, for example. Beyond going for an overtly dissonant sound with a dyad-heavy approach in the lower register of the guitar, I did not focus on trying to be a “different” sounding player. I am sure that most who have heard John Frum can hear the Gorguts and Nile influence in the riffing style, but it was more my intention to assimilate that type of riffing language into my own style that was not consciously thought about.
Honestly one of my favourite reviews I read of John Frum acknowledged that the riffing style wasn’t completely original and borrowed heavily from both of those bands. I acknowledge this, but I feel that mixed with my other influences I end up in a place that’s not copying those bands, but just using them as inspiration. I also feel that moving forward to our next songs that we make together, those influences will likely recede a little more and we will assimilate other more compositional-based influences into the riffs.
Hellbound: Can you detail some of your major musical influences?
Hollenberg: Secret Chiefs 3, Colin Marston, Mick Barr, John Zorn, Frank Zappa, Dysrhythmia, Gorguts, Godflesh, Neurosis, Kayo Dot, Infidel?/Castro!, Meshuggah, Pig Destroyer, Asterix, Converge.
Hellbound: Can you maybe get into some non-musical influences? You guys seem to have such an elaborate vision.
Hollenberg: Liam was the one who really wanted to pursue the cargo cult John Frum angle. Once Eli and me learned about the story of what it was, we thought it was extremely compelling and spoke to many issues facing contemporary society like groupthink, idol worship, materialism, mind control, and propaganda through the media just to name a few.
We aren’t overtly thinking about cargo cults when we write every piece of every song, but the vibe of dystopia and bleakness is something we wanted to put through the music. Even though I am not a violent person I enjoy violent music, and I wanted our sound to be bleak, violent and unrelenting. I sometimes look at the state of the world in awe, confused as to how it’s supposed to work out for humans. It seems on so many levels we are lost. Making an album that expressed this bleakness, violence and nihilism of the modern world was something that we wanted to pursue.
Hellbound: Who came up with adopting the name/idea of John Frum? How did the band come across such a strange story?
Hollenberg: As I said previously, it was Liam that came up with the concept. I believe he first came across it from attending a Burning Man festival. After finding out about it he became very obsessed and inspired, as it’s very crazy that those events actually took place.
Hellbound: Can you give me your feelings on the current state of heavy music?
Hollenberg: I think heavy music is in a very good place and is experiencing a healthy dose of experimentation and high artistic integrity amongst the bands. Obviously this doesn’t apply across the board, but I think there are a lot of people doing it now that get into this kind of music understanding that at this point you are not going to succeed in amassing fame and wealth from playing extreme music.
So what you see is a grassroots musical movement centered around sites like Bandcamp and Soundcloud. The record labels around now are those who value integrity and sincerity over mass commercial appeal. Thus the incentives of why people get into this kind of music to begin with is based more around love of doing it than the need for popularity and album sales.
This is definitely a positive development. There are more metal bands than ever in more sub genres than ever and it can be very hard to even keep up. While this may make the value of metal go down overall, it is better that there is a “fractal-izing” going on in the scene that is exploding the language in unprecedented ways.
Hellbound: You have some notable members of the metal scene in your band. What has the reception been like?
Hollenberg: I’ve seen reactions all across the board, from “meh” to “AOTY” to “this is bullshit”. When you are being compared to bands like Dillinger Escape Plan and The Faceless the artistic bar is very high. Ironically some of the best reviews we’ve gotten I haven’t completely agreed with. And some of the criticisms I’ve heard about the record from some of the lukewarm reviews I have agreed with and have taken to heart moving forward.
There is something exciting about something that is so subjective that you can get every reaction from it. I was under no illusions that everyone in the metal scene would fully embrace us, but I was happy to see how many people did. This is the most “death metal” record I’ve ever been a part of, and it’s exciting for me to be experimenting with a style I haven’t played around with that much.
Hellbound: Do you feel this is a benefit or a handicap to your unique identity as artists?
Hollenberg: I think it’s both. The handicap would definitely be that we want to stay away from similar artistic territory. Sometimes an idea I might have may sound similar to DEP or The Faceless, and I guess that makes us hyper aware of our aesthetic in relation to those bands. At the same time we really try not to think about it as it’s pretty irrelevant to when we are all in a room working out something that everyone digs.
The most obvious benefit is that you get more people checking you out then would if you were an obscure band. It’s important to all of us that the band is not a gimmick but a full band that stands on its own artistically.
Hellbound: How do you feel about the massive changes in the record industry within the last two decades?
Hollenberg: I think like any changes that occur, there are positives and negatives. As a negative, while it is harder than ever to make a real living playing music, the over saturation and economic scarcity that plagues the music industry at the moment does seem to be creating more sincere artists. One would really have to be deluded to endeavor to get into this kind of music with the intention of making a lot of money. I think a lot of underground music nowadays is extremely artistic and high-minded in its approach.
Another positive is that vinyl is more popular than ever and CD sales are starting to go up again. Also with the advent of YouTube, artists, in order to be viable, need to pursue multiple media mediums. This is forcing people to be more creative than they needed to be before, which is positive. I think a downside of the endless information of the Internet is there is just simply too much to listen to.
Hellbound: Is downloading or streaming your band’s music something that you consider offensive or in any way a problem?
Hollenberg: Well, you’re not gonna fight that. If people want to do that they’re going to do it. Me being offended by it isn’t going to change much. I will say that if you want to support musicians it doesn’t seem like spending 10 or 15 dollars on a CD when some people spend more than that on lunch is a big ask. On the other hand, when you have the levels of income inequality that we have right now when so many people are struggling, it’s not a hard thing to understand why there is not more financial support of musicians. There is a thin slice of the pie that goes around, and most people have limited resources, so why would you pay for an album that you can easily hear by streaming or downloading?
Personally, if I love a record, I want the artwork and the artist’s presentation of their music as they intended, and I want to support them by paying for it. Streaming and MP3s sound like crap compared to real records. In a lot of MP3s you can’t even hear all of the sounds the artist recorded because of how squashed it is. Making records is not easy and costs a lot in time and money. Obviously I want as many people to hear the records as possible, so streaming seems like an inevitable step. There just currently is not a model in place for streaming that properly compensates artists for their albums and hard work.
Hellbound: Will your next album be as terrifyingly spooky as A Stirring in the Noos?
Hollenberg: One can only hope! It’s kind of a subjective thing, isn’t it? We are going to aim for “level two” though, that’s for sure, so we won’t be pursuing anything that isn’t a concrete step forward artistically and musically.
Hellbound: Can fans expect a large-scale tour any time soon?
Hollenberg: We probably will not have a large-scale tour any time soon. There are too many professional constraints in the way at the moment. We are planning on going to Europe for a week next February to play Complexity Fest and hopefully tour a little. The band is an evolving situation though, so who knows what the future will hold. Any tour that would happen like that would likely happen during the summer.