INTERVIEW WITH FABIAN DEVLIN AND SIMON BARR BY KEVIN STEWART-PANKO
Strange as it may sound to say, what stands out most about Liverpool based trio Dawn Ray’d is that the black metal sound is all that’s really attaching them to the black metal scene. Hailing from the same boundary pushing outskirts as outfits like Wolves in the Throne Room, Alcest, Panopticon, and those who dare weave other genres around black metal’s DNA helix—in their case, classic folk and protest music—Dawn Ray’d has found kinship with the DIY scene, squat and underground independent venue touring circuit, and make no bones about their far left politics.
They may sound black metal, but they don’t have a black metal moniker, they don’t look black metal, and certainly don’t think black metal. Still reeling in the glow after a western US tour and an appearance at this year’s Northwest Terror Fest, we caught up with guitarist Fabian Devlin and vocalist/violinist Simon Barr for a Skype assisted chin wag to discuss the band’s second album, Behold Sedition Plainsong, what’s plaguing the planet, and how to form a band in an afternoon.
What brought you to where you are today? What are your heavy music backgrounds?
Devlin: Growing up, we were all into different types of music like most people and maybe two of us were really into punk and hardcore, and metal after that and getting into crust and particularly the European DIY scene. The squat scene in Europe was a huge mixture of crust, metal, punk, and screamo. It was just a huge underground scene. [Matthew] Broadley, who drums for us, would listen to classic metal and then came to the underground scene via that. It was like a huge mix of lots of different extreme musics and then coming into black metal that way.
Where does your previous band, We Came Out Like Tigers, fit in?
Barr: We met each other, started doing that band, and toured for four or five years. It was great. It was our first band, the band that taught us how to tour, how to work with labels and release records. It was very DIY and definitely part of my formative years in music. It was something I was very proud of and enjoyed doing, but I’m also glad it’s over and glad to be on to something new.
Devlin: It came to quite a natural end as well. We were listening to quite a lot of different extreme music than we were playing and it kind of ran its course. When one of the original members couldn’t do it anymore, it seemed like a good time to end it outright and start something new rather than try and go on and patch it up with different people. We figured we could do something we really wanted to do at that time.
“THE DAY WE DECIDED TO END WE CAME OUT LIKE TIGERS, WE DECIDED TO START A NEW BLACK METAL BAND. IT WAS LITERALLY THE SAME AFTERNOON.”
And that led to Dawn Ray’d?
Devlin: The day we decided to end We Came Out Like Tigers, we decided to start a new black metal band. It was literally the same afternoon. Matthew had been drumming in We Came Out Like Tigers for the last few tours, so we phoned him to tell him we were starting a new band, asking him if he wanted to do it and he did. So, later that same day we started writing for Dawn Ray’d.
In your minds, is there a drastic difference between the two bands? What did you want to do with Dawn Ray’d, and as you’ve gone along, what have you noticed as the differences between the bands?
Barr: We were listening to a lot of black metal at the end of We Came Out Like Tigers and we got a little bit jaded on screamo. We talked about doing a black metal band at some point, and as soon as it finished, I think we all just knew what we were going to do next. We Came Out Like Tigers was definitely a big mix of all types of music. There were elements of black metal and crust and screamo, whereas Dawn Ray’d is a bit more forward and straight up black metal, but ultimately it’s the same people writing the music so there are going to be a lot of similarities.
Devlin: With We Came Out Like Tigers, we started it when we were still very young. We had never toured and we found our way as we went along, whereas with Dawn Ray’d we had a very clear idea of our image and ethos, how we were going to conduct ourselves, how we wanted it to be, and what we wanted it to sound like. That helped a lot, that we didn’t have those few years of trying to find out who we were.
“THE THREE OF US HAD ALREADY STARTED PRACTICING AND WRITING SONGS AND WE REALIZED WE HAD A COOL AND HEALTHY DYNAMIC”
A lack of bass is a historical and ongoing joke in black metal, but was your plan from the start to not have a bass player?
Barr: We did plan to have a bassist. There were two people we asked and it turned out they weren’t able to commit, but by that point the three of us had already started practicing and writing songs and we realized we had a cool and healthy dynamic between the three of us already. We thought that adding other people might end up negatively impacting that dynamic. Things were just working really well the way they were, so we felt that, naturally, this is what this band was meant to be.
How does not having a bassist alter your approach to songwriting? Was it a big adjustment, or is it something you’re constantly working on?
Devlin: Simon and I have been writing songs together for more than 10 years now, so we write very naturally together. I’ll write violin lines and hear parts where the violin could come in, and Matthew knows when to blast and play and when to pull it back a bit. We write what we know, so it didn’t feel unnatural to be writing without a bass and to fill that space in any way. It felt like, “This is how we want the sound and this is how we’re going to get to that sound.” It didn’t feel like we were having to compensate for not having a bassist or not having keyboards or anything else. This is what we’ve got, this is how we want to sound, so the songs are structured to be that way.
The band’s name isn’t a traditional sounding black metal name. What’s the story behind it?
Barr: It’s actually a deliberate misquote from an anarchist poet called Voltairine de Cleyre. It’s meant to be a double entendre. First, is like the sun coming up at dawn and illuminating someone, and the second meaning would be the cops kicking down your door first thing in the morning. Picking a name is tough. You have to pick something that sums up your band and incorporates as many different factors as you can. We were reading a lot of poetry by de Cleyre at the time and quite liked the idea of specifically referencing one of those classic anarchist writers.
Devlin: And Darkthrone was already taken (laughs).
Is the folk influence that’s been worked into Dawn Ray’d something that comes from your youth, or is it something you discovered and have grown into over the years?
Devlin: Both, really. We all grew up around music and particularly Irish and English traditional folk music. So, it’s been part of our musical development for as long as any of us remember, really. We listen to a lot of that sort of music from bands like Lyceum and contemporary folk and traditional bands through to classics like Shirley Collins, and these are the songs that are really protest music, really thoughtful, perfectly crafted songs.
Barr: And very working class music as well.
Devlin: The ethos and themes fitted with what we were talking about in Dawn Ray’d as well. So, it was very natural. There’s a tradition of black metal using folk elements. That’s not unique to Dawn Ray’d, and given that we have this background in folk music, we didn’t really think about it. It was very natural for us.
From the beginning, were you hell-bent on the prominent anarchist and anti-fascist stance, or did something happen to steer you in that direction?
Barr: Our last band was fairly political and we almost entirely toured within the squat and DIY scene in Europe, which is obviously predominately anarchist and left wing. To be a part of that you have to fit with the ideology. There’s no tolerance for the right wing bands or any kind of bigotry. Unfortunately, black metal does have a bad reputation in certain parts of Europe for having some right wing connections, so we realized if we were going to start touring the only way we knew how, which is through the DIY scene, we were going to have to make it very clear that we were not one of the right wing bands, that we were decent people, and that our ethos actually fit in with the places we wanted to play. Initially, that was the thinking. We then realized there weren’t a lot of black metal bands talking about anti-racism, anti-fascism, anarchism, and anti-capitalism, so we started getting more and more political. Our last record did have a couple of personal songs on them, but on our new record every single song is political, and that was definitely a conscious decision.
Have you found yourselves having to justify your politics early on because, one, you play black metal, and two, your stance, opinions, and politics weren’t widely known?
Barr: Sometimes, yes. Sometimes people were a bit suspicious of us, and when you’ve got squats that are illegal, anti-state, very important communities for marginalized people and really important safe spaces that are well defended, people are naturally very protective of those spaces. Especially when the state has a history of sending in spies and undercover cops to catch people out and occasionally Nazis have attacked autonomous spaces in Europe. So, people are naturally protective of what they’ve worked very hard to build. There have been times when we’ve been grilled a bit at shows about what our name is about, what our t-shirts are about, and what our lyrics are about. Initially, it seemed like an imposition, but I’m fine with it. If you choose to play a style of music that notoriously sometimes has Nazis involved, I believe you have a personal responsibility to make it very clear you have nothing to do with that ideology and I’m very proud to say those things.
“WE GENUINELY BELIEVE THAT CAPITALISM, RACISM, SEXISM, HOMOPHOBIA, AND ANY SORT OF EXCLUSION POLITICS ARE OBVIOUSLY WRONG”
Have you ever been booked on a show with bands with right leanings, and, if so, have there been confrontations?
Devlin: Only one time, ever. Some guy came up to me and the promoter after a show. He was kind of drunk and saying stuff about how he believes in white power. That person was robustly removed from the venue, let’s say (laughs). That’s been the only time anyone has ever dared say anything. I think there are a couple of memes about us online, but the Nazis never dare say anything in public and nobody has ever confronted us. We’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response to the things that we say as well. I don’t think we’re talking about lofty abstract ideas and I don’t think we believe in some crazy die-hard ideology. We genuinely believe that capitalism, racism, sexism, homophobia, and any sort of exclusion politics are obviously wrong and everybody’s welcome to come out and enjoy music as long as they are decent and respectful of other people. I think most people with any common sense realize that’s a good thing (laughs). It’s been really cool to see how positive the response has been, and I truly believe that most people involved in this music are good, decent, and kind people.
Do you find yourselves confronted with that whole “Keep politics out of metal” and “Keep metal dangerous” belief system?
Barr: I think we do see it more online instead of anyone saying it to us directly.
Barr: But what do people mean when they say, “Keep black metal dangerous?” Do they mean upholding the conservative oppressive values that every single cop and government…
Devlin: And church…
Barr: Upholds? Upholding those right wing, Christian conservative values doesn’t sound particularly dangerous to me. I don’t know what people mean when they say, “Keep black metal dangerous.” One, it’s a style of music. Two, do they mean radical, social change and revolutionary politics? Then surely they should be supporting the anarchist bands and not the right-wing Christian conservative bands that want the same thing as their government and police want. You’d have to ask those people what they mean, but I get the feeling what they actually mean is to keep black metal for them and their friends and not for other people who don’t look and act like them.
“WE STRIPPED AWAY A LOT OF THE GUITAR LAYERS TO KEEP IT MUCH SIMPLER IN THE ACTUAL RECORDING PROCESS AND TO KEEP THE GUITARS HARSH AND UPFRONT.”
Okay, on to the new album, Behold Sedition Plainsong. With the stripped-down instrumentation, how do you approach recording? Do you do multiple layers of guitar tracks?
Devlin: This is something I spent a lot of time thinking about. On previous records we used lots of layers of guitar and really tried to fill things out using lots of layers. This time we recorded with Jaime Gomez Arellano at Argonne Studios and we spent a lot of time together talking about what we wanted the record to sound like and we spent a long time going back and forth discussing guitar tones and styles. He came to see us play live and he listened to our old records and demos for this record to get an idea. This time, we stripped away a lot of the guitar layers to keep it much simpler in the actual recording process and to keep the guitars harsh and upfront. We actually tried to get really perfect takes that were going to sit upfront, be really aggressive sounding, and let the rest sing through. That was something we did differently that we were really stoked for, and Gomez helped us a lot with that.
How was the record built?
Devlin: We did drums and scratch tracks in order to keep the energy high. We spent a long time getting drum sounds, and once we had the right sound, the actual tracking was done really quick. A lot of the stuff on the record, we spent a day or maybe two getting the right tone and tracking it in half a day so that everything was perfect, sounded exactly how we wanted it to, and got as many energetic first takes as much as possible. That’s one of the things Gomez helped with and he gave us a lot of advice about how to get the tones we had in our heads out quickly rather than belaboring things and having the energy drop by piecing songs together. We are a live band that tours a lot using one of our best skills to get the best on record.
Was there anything from the amount of roadwork and playing live you’ve done since The Unlawful Assembly that was either consciously or unconsciously applied to the new record?
Barr: Umm, I don’t know if I could say any specific thing, but we’ve just developed a really good relationship between the three of us and writing the songs is fairly straightforward and fairly easy now. Everybody knows their place and what they specifically bring to the song. There are only three of us and we all do different things, don’t step on each other’s toes, or take up space that somebody else should be taking up. We just have a really good dynamic and working relationship, and because we play these songs so much, we’ve become quite proficient at playing this very specific style of music.
Devlin: I think we all enjoy playing live as well. We play very fast and loud live, so there’s no point in trying to do something completely different when it’s time to record. We know that we can play really aggressively and very fast, so let’s use that skill that we have rather than try to piece things together to do something different. Gomez was very keen to capture that, especially after seeing us live, instead of trying to do something that wasn’t in our skill set.
Barr: For me anyway, I definitely try and write lyrics and vocals and things I think will be exciting live. I don’t think we’re this super atmospheric band, though we definitely try to create an energy.
Was there anything you learned from The Unlawful Assembly recording sessions that you definitely wanted to capitalize on, or on the other hand, avoid doing?
Barr: I’m much happier with the clean singing on the new record. It’s something I’ve worked hard on and gotten a lot better at. I also think the songwriting in general is just better. The changes are much better and the flow and structure of the songs are really good this time. I don’t think it’s a crazy departure from the record before, I just think it’s a better and more proficient version of what we were doing.
Devlin: I think there’s the luxury of having more time to spend. Every time you record a new album, you’re refining what you’re doing, and we’re getting better at recording and understanding the recording process, where we’re going to record, what we’re going to record, and using that knowledge to our advantage and not just doing the same thing again because that’s what we’ve done before but also not doing something completely different. We’re just trying to enhance every part of it. The big change this time was how long we spent planning the recording rather than just booking a week in the studio, going down, and doing it.
“IT’S SOMETHING THAT DEFINITELY REFERENCES THE POLITICS WE HAVE BUT ALSO SPARKS THE IMAGINATION”
What’s the story behind the title of the record?
Barr: Behold Sedition Plainsong…a plainsong is a type of hymn, a very simple working class religious song. Sedition is about anti-authority, anti-government, anti-crown. I do quite like the slightly religious, spiritual, magical side of black metal and it’s tied into that a little bit, but ultimately this is grounded in very real politics. It’s something that definitely references the politics we have but also sparks the imagination a little bit.
It’s been mentioned that each song on the album is a response to a particular political struggle?
Barr: All the songs are political and about some sort of political topic. Some of them are a bit more abstract and objective and maybe about our emotional responses to certain struggles. Some of them are much more direct with lyrics specifically calling out certain problems and issues. We have references to modern anti-fascism and modern anarchists, green anarchists, and eco struggles. There are references to the Kronstadt Rebellion in 1921 Russia. When you write 10 songs, you have to write about a lot of different things (laughs), and I tried to write about as broad a spectrum as I could without repeating myself or covering the same ground twice. I was quite pleased about the spread of politics and how it ended up in the end.
Considering the scope of troubles going on in the world, what do you feel are the top issues facing mankind and society today?
Devlin: I think all of the issues are intertwined and none of the issues we talk or sing about exist in isolation from the others. There’s an intersectional aspect to all of it. Saying that, though, the ecological threat, the threat of climate crisis and chaos that exists is so stark and frightening that if you’re going to give primacy to any struggle, it’d have to be that. But in order to look at addressing the climate crisis and preventing ecological disaster, we have to start looking at what’s perpetuating it, and that’s where all the other struggles come in and where they all intersect. The reason why we’ve got climate chaos and the reason why we’re unable to address it is because we live in damaging capitalist hierarchies that don’t allow space for us to address these things properly. When we start to organize against that, and when capitalism starts to come into crisis, you start to see the rise of fascism and that’s why assertive anti-fascism becomes so important. Without it we see groups getting demonized, victimized, and exploited by fascist groups straight from the hand of the capitalists. These things all prevent us from addressing what we need to address, and that’s the climate chaos on the horizon. Ultimately, I don’t think we can live in a world that has hierarchy, power, and capitalism if we want to see any sort of liberation. If we have that as our focus and have all these other battles going on, that’s when we can do something.
“THE THREAT OF CLIMATE CRISIS AND CHAOS THAT EXISTS IS SO STARK AND FRIGHTENING THAT IF YOU’RE GOING TO GIVE PRIMACY TO ANY STRUGGLE, IT’D HAVE TO BE THAT.”
I don’t want to call you contradictory or hypocritical, but how do you justify your stance on capitalism and the climate when you’re in a touring band that gets on planes, uses gas guzzling vans, etc.?
Barr: We all contribute in some way to some of these problems. I think it’s very easy to beat yourself up about the small impacts we each have on the environment. As an example, a lot of people are concerned about the plastic in the ocean and trying to reduce the use of plastic utensils or bags. Ultimately, 60 percent of the plastic in the ocean is actually discarded fishing debris—nets and floats and stuff. So, there’s very little that changing packaging use and using plastic straws is going to do. Ultimately, the thing that will protect the ocean is the end of industrial fishing. I think it’s the same for petrol use. I drive a diesel van for work and we drive a diesel van for this band and take flights—things that use a lot of gas. But when you actually look at the energy wastage of capitalism and the huge energy use by massive corporations compared to the tiny amount of use and waste we do, it pales in comparison to the intensely destructive nature of capitalism. I think it’s very important we don’t blame ourselves for this and that we lay blame at the right door. Everybody I know wants to save the planet and protect the world we live in, but the tiny things we can change in our immediate lives aren’t going to be enough.
How does the cover of the record, an old castle on fire, apply to these themes and topics?
Barr: We’ve used a lot of castle imagery and historical imagery in our artwork and on our merch. I love all that stuff, but there is a weird conflict for me because these amazing castles were just the palaces of the super rich 500 years ago, and the people that built them were desperately poor working people who never got to live in these places. That is a weird contradiction or turmoil there. Even though I wanted to have a fantasy based cover, it also had to tie in with what we believe politically. For me, the burning down of this castle was meant to be a cool image, but also seditious, anti-authoritarian, and anti-rich.
Now that you’re signed to Prosthetic, is there going to be anything different about the way you’re going to support the new album or tour, with a larger independent label behind you?
Devlin: We toured before we even released our first EP [A Thorn, A Blight], and Dawn Ray’d has always been a touring band. Initially, we toured in Europe and then we got the chance to go further afield. So, we’re just planning to tour as much as we possibly can and get to as many places we haven’t been to before. We’re going to tour the UK, Europe, and the US, and hopefully we’ll get further than that as well. I think it’s just about doing what we’ve been doing but using the opportunity, the momentum that we’ve got and the support from Prosthetic to try and take it to new places and take it further.
Barr: And if someone wants to give us an energy drink or Club-Mate sponsorship as well, that would be cool! (laughs)