Ross Dolan and Robert Vigna of New York Death metallers Immolation talk to eFestivals

Incineration 2016 interview

By Elena Francis | Published: Mon 16th May 2016

Saturday 7th to Sunday 8th May 2016
The Dome, Tufnell Park, Camden, Greater London, NW5 1HL, England MAP
Last updated: Wed 4th May 2016

On the second day of this year's Incineration Festival, eFestivals catches up with Ross Dolan and Robert Vigna classic New York Death metallers Immolation to speak to them about their forthcoming album, their impression on the Immolation-sounding new death metal bands and what their experience was like in their sole side project Gospel of the Witches.

How has your tour been so far?

Ross Dolan: Great, very good. It's been strong, the shows have been really well attended. It's actually been better than the last time we were here with Marduk in 2012, a lot stronger. So it's been good, no complaints. We've got a good package with Marduk, us, we've got Origin from the States, representing that more chaotic technical style and from Greece, we have a young band called Biocancer representing the old school thrash scene so we've got all different genres.

Robert Vigna: It's a mixed up tour, something for everybody.

Are Marduk's black metal fans receptive to your death metal?

RV: Absolutely.

RD: Yeah, we both kind of transcend those fucking dividers. Our fans are into Marduk, their fans are into us.

RV: When we tour with them it, you get a nice combination because like Ross said, you get a lot of black metal people that are into us and vice-versa with the death metal and Marduk. People come out from the different genres, they enjoy both.

RD: And we're both dark bands but in a different way.

RV: We both touch on the same themes too, whether it's war or religion or whatever but thematically, we're both in the same ball park but coming from different directions. It works.

You were supposed to do a European tour with Origin late last year but it got cancelled. What happened?

RD: Bill [Taylor, guitarist] had some family issues. He had a death in the family right at that time and our drummer right after that broke his ankle in three places. He had to have surgery, he's got a metal rod in his leg, he's got a plate in his ankle.

And that hasn't affected his playing?

RD: No, since September he's been in rehab, therapy, surgery.

RV: He's been working hard at it.

That's insane and immolation's drumming isn't straight-forward.

RD: No, so it's been a long road for him so this is the first test for him and he's killed it, he's done fine. I think he needed to get out there and do this to get that mental motivation back and that confidence back and he's there now.

So that's why the tour fell through.

RD: That's why and we felt really bad because we worked hard to get this tour with Origin. I'd been dealing with their management for months prior to that. We got every band on board and then we kinda shit the bed because we had so much shit. It is what it is. We're here now and I'm glad we got Origin as part of this so everything's good and everybody's happy.

How would you say your last album 'Kingdom of Conspiracy' compares or contrasts with previous Immolation albums?

RV: I'd say it was more straight-forward maybe. I think we've developed over the fast few albums of trying to make the songs get to the point, do what they need to do. We're always trying to make them that much more catchy and at the same time more interesting. Over time, I think that's the way the writing has developed. They hit a little bit harder than the previous stuff has.

RD: A little bit more concise, a little less rambling like some of the older stuff but we're constantly learning and evolving. It's never like: “Ok, we got it!”

RV: It's a learning process. We always look back – we love all our past stuff – you always look back and there's one song or another and it's like yeah, that was great but it could have been about five minutes less long and eight riffs shorter.

So you're quite critical of your old stuff?

RV: Yeah, that's just the way it is. Everything's a learning process, both the recording, the writing.

RD: You're never gonna achieve perfection. It just doesn't exist in this world. It's just a matter of moving forward and not backwards.

RV: It's building on what you're doing and trying to make it better with every record, we're just trying to do what we do that much better and the best we can.

Robert, I understand that you write most of the music. How does this work out – you write everything then send it to everyone and everyone feeds back?

RV: I pretty much write the stuff on the computer. I present it to Ross and Steve [Shalaty, drums] and Bill a link to the song. You're listening to a song, kind of like how it would be on record because you're hearing the drums, sometimes the solos, overlays, everything except for Ross' vocals so it gives you a good idea of what the song is and how it's gonna be. That's helped us tremendously over the past few years because we're all separated: Bill's in Ohio, Steve's in Florida and we're in New York but rehearsing and all that has been tough to do these days.

RD: It doesn't happen; we don't rehearse.

Not even a couple of days before tour?

RV: So it just makes it easier to work on things and now Steve's kinda in that mode too. He can just record drum stuff and send it to us. I'll send him guitar tracks with a click, without the drums and he'll record his drums to that and send it back to us so we kind of listen to the stuff but the overall music, I'll write and send out to the guys. If we have anything, we can always change it. Most of the time, I write the stuff, they hear it, they say “cool, let's go” and that's it. Over the course of that time before the studio, we might want to fine-tune a couple of things before we go, which does happen. That's how it works but being on a computer and everything, it makes life a lot easier.

RD: That started with 'Majesty [and Decay]'.

RV: Prior to that, it was me waving my arms in front of Steve saying: “I was kinda thinking of something like this for the drums.” And just sitting there, driving for eight hours to Ohio, practising for a total of eight hours for the weekend then driving back.

RD: That was a nightmare. That was a fucking nightmare.

RV: So now it's: “Here, this is what I'm thinking” and you can hear everything – all the drums, all the guitars. All the ideas come through clearly and I think for Steve especially, the guitar riffs whereas if you're in a live situation and you're playing stuff and “Ok, let's try this,” he's hearing it differently because he's in a room with all this noise. Now he can hear the guitar riffs. I think of them as they are as opposed to hearing the record after the fact I have to record it and he's like: “Oh, I didn't know the riff went like that!”

RD: He'll say: “What about this part?” and he'll hum a part and I'll be like: “What the f*ck is this?” “The second riff.” “That? That's the sound?” He's always hearing it differently. Honestly, the drums can make or break a riff. If he has a specific idea in mind for the feeling of a riff and it's a slow, dirge-y kind of riff and Steve's seeing it as a fast riff, that totally kills the vibe. At least he has a template so then he can add his style, his flair to it and he has complete creative control over what he does. He's got the template now. It's not like try this, try that that Bob [Robert Vigna] was saying.

RV: It works out better because if there's a certain feeling you're looking for, you can present that. Sometimes he leaves things the way it is, sometimes he'll change it, then we listen to it against the guitar tracks. It's just a matter of listening to it and seeing how it works best.

How do the vocals come together?

RD: It's always easier when the music's there. I kinda need the music. We'll sit down, we'll say: “Ok, I was thinking of hearing vocals over this part.” “Yeah, that'll work” and sometimes it won't work like that: “I'm not feeling it. We'll do it on a different part.” That's not uncommon but for the most part we're always on the same page musically and lyrically. Probably since 'Unholy Cult', we've worked together on all the lyrics now, which is better because after a while, there's only so much you can say about a certain subject. Even I need that extra head in there so it's cool. Where I come in and approach something from a different direction, he'll come in and have a different point of view on it. He'll add his two cents and I'm like: “Wow, that's perfect. I was not thinking that,” so it definitely makes the lyrics stronger. I'm all for it [laughs].

RV: We try and make the lyrics reflect the music too because there will be parts where we have something and it's a very strong epic part and the words will have to be strong and epic, they have to make the point of the song here – this is where it needs to be made. That's the kind of thing we try to do, we emphasise everything musically, lyrically, all the power in that same spot. It works out good. For those two weeks we're in the studio, we write all the lyrics but this time, we're a little bit ahead of the game, which is unusual so we're going to try and write all that before we get in the studio.

RD: Having the ideas and concepts is key. When we don't have that, then it's a fucking nightmare but for the last couple of records, we went in and we had most of the concepts laid out and it was just a matter of developing them. That's easy and we can do that very easily but when you have a blank slate and no direction, that's a fucking stress ball. That's a fail.

What does this new album sound like? What can the fans expect?

RV: It's what you'd expect from us and maybe some different stuff, nothing too crazy different – we're just trying to write new songs.

RD: I like it. It's really strong. He's just very humble [laughs]. Each song has all the elements – you have your fast, your slow, your dirge-y multi-layered stuff. He's done some different things on it - but not in a stupid way – things that are dark and I think the fans will be happy because it's a very intense album and much darker, I think, than 'Kingdom'. Lyrically, some of the ideas and concepts that we have are similar in the direction of 'Kingdom' but not as much. 'Kingdom' was the most political non-political album that we put out. It's very under the radar but it was intentionally done like that because I don't want to be labelled a political band but the ideas and concepts on that record apply to everybody. It's the world today and our very cynical and very straight-up view of what's happening. I think there's gonna be a lot more of that but a lot darker. That's the direction we're going in.

Still kinda contemporary, just a bit subtler, I guess.

RD: That's the direction it seems to be going right now. It's still a little early in that stage but musically it's strong. I like it.

RV: It's definitely a lot darker than the last one. Don't get me wrong, that was dark but this one has a little more darkness hidden there [laughs].

Is there a release date?

RD: November.

Ok, November. Have you got a title?

RD: No nothing yet. We have ideas. Once we get the lyrics going, that will all develop. We've got 11 songs so we've got a lot of good stuff. Every song is all over the place – slow, fast, explosive, multi-layered. I think the kids will dig it.

Maybe you're aware – there are loads of modern death metal bands now that take a lot of influence directly from Immolation. How do you feel about that?

RD: It's great. It's weird because I don't think of us as that band, you know what I'm saying? It's so complimentary. Someone's like: “Wow, these guys…you can definitely tell.” I'm like “What?”

Have you heard Dead Congregation?

RD: Absolutely, yeah! The weird thing is a lot of the time, people will say: “These guys are totally [like you]” and I'll be like: “I don't know, I don't hear it.” It's weird! I don't see it sometimes but I get it, I get the nod and it's awesome. Dead Congregation were one of the bands that were in my head and it's funny you should say that. Everybody's said that and I'm like absolutely. I can totally hear it with those guys. We were actually thinking about throwing the idea around of bringing them out with us. That would be awesome. It is cool. It's flattering because we don't take it that seriously! When you actually step outside of the whole thing, you're like that's pretty cool! Other than that, you play, go back to work, do your fucking day job and life. Shit happens.

You've been around for over 25 years and you're still making new music now. Do you have new musical influences?

RD: We're all over the map and we listen to everything: jazz to classic rock to weird shit like Bohren und der Club of Gore. I love that shit because it's dark and it has the feeling! Anything that has feeling. A lot of the pop shit that you hear, zero feeling, it's all manufactured. That's' soulless. I like shit that has soul and heart.

What do you listen to, Robert?

RV: Similar stuff, all mixed. I probably get more inspiration from non-metal stuff than anything else. I like all kinds of music that is dark, like even Depeche Mode or something like that. It's dark but it's dark in a different way. I'm always looking for that dark feeling, that mood kind…when I'm writing, I try to make it as dark and atmospheric as possible so that's the kind of stuff that I like.

Speaking of non-metal stuff, you guys were working with Karyn Crisis. That must have been amazing.

RV: We had a great time with that. She originally approached Ross on a 2013 tour in the United States about doing some backing vocals on a couple songs. Two months later and eleven tracks into the album [laughs]... The album is phenomenal. I love the album. Eventually, they asked us to do live stuff with them. We played four shows last year and it was awesome. It was really nice because both me and Ross have discussed this a lot. People are always talking about side bands and side projects. I barely have time to do the band that I'm in now so we wrote that off. Once she approached us and we heard the stuff, we were like we don't have to write anything. We're just there to help out so let's give it a shot. I'm so glad we did because we love it. Playing live was awesome because we love the music for one and Karyn and her husband Davide are super cool people and to play something live that's still in the genre but obviously different to what we do. It was cool.

RD: But still dark.

RV: Very dark and emotional and that's the stuff we're into. We listen to all kinds of music like that so for us it was like we get to do this in this really cool band too.

RD: And the fact that they're such really super talented, very passionate good people.

They're really creative, those two.

RD: Totally. We've known Karyn since the Crisis days in New York. Once we heard the demo, I was like wow, this is really cool. When I finally hear the record, I was like holy shit, this is very cool. She's got such a great voice but she's all over the map.

She's got those growls.

RD: Yeah and those screamed vocals are just spot on. I'm still in my comfort zone because I'm playing bass and doing the heavy vocals and Bob's playing guitars so it was natural. It worked great. I hope we can do more with that. We really want to take that on the road in a really big way. I know there's potential in there but everybody's involved in their own thing. They told us: “We will work Gospel of the Witches around Immolation,” which I thought was super awesome of them. She's a medium and she's writing a book now and she teachers and she does her radio show. She's extremely busy. Davide's super talented and he's involved in another project so everybody's doing their thing. Once the album's done and the Immolation thing is ready to go out there, I want to start pushing the Gospel stuff so we can go out there.

RV: It has been tough because our writing process is being pushed back a little longer so once that's out of the way, that will alleviate us from that and we can say: “Ok, let's go do some touring with Gospel as well.”

RD: The shows were so well received. I had a feeling they would be but we were a new band, nobody had heard of us, the album had just come out and the shows were great. They were really well attended and Karyn is like a superstar. She's got such a huge following from the Crisis days. She was one of the first early female vocalists that was ever doing that style but in a real way. There was no bullshit, she was the real fucking deal. We've seen her play live with Crisis and she was the real deal. She still has that following from back then and she's so humble and so talented. It was a pleasure to work with that. She brought a lot of that to the table. We saw that and we were like: “You're a superstar, Karyn!” [laughs] It was cool. It was weird for us.

RV: It was weird for us to be on stage for a full set and not break a sweat [laughs]. That was cool. I was like: “I can get used to this!” It was more relaxing.

RD: Totally, very cool.

So after this tour, what are your immediate future plans?

RD: We've got a busy year.

RV: Yeah, we're going to the studio in June. Right after the studio, we go to Iceland to play a festival over there, beginning of July. The end of July, we come back to Europe for six festivals and hopefully a few one off shows. In September, we're going to Australia and New Zealand to do some more shows and hopefully, we'll come back here at the end of the year once the new record's out. That's our plan. That would be nice.

RD: We'll start touring either early next year or late this year. Maybe we'll come back and start Europe first and then go to the US spring time.

That's the end of my questions. Do you have any final words for the readers?

RD: Thanks for your continued support over these decades [laughs]. Thanks for the interview.

interview by: Elena Francis

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