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Erik Larson Interview

by Travis Becker

I recently sat down and talked with Erik Larson, guitarist for Relapse Records, southern metal stalwarts, Alabama Thunderpussy. Formerly the drummer for hardcore Punk act, Avail, Larson has also recorded with numerous bands including Kilara, Mighty Nimbus, and Axehandle, and has released two solo albums through Small Stone Records. With the July 25th release of Weight of the Wound, by Birds of Prey, a death metal band comprised of established stoner rock musicians, Larson remains one of the busiest recording artists working today. 

Travis Becker: Starting off with the Birds of Prey record that's coming out the 25th?

Erik Larson: Yup, on Tuesday.

TB: How did that all come about?

EL: Like how it got started?

TB: Yeah.

EL: Winter of 2004, Daniel from Threeman, he works for Threeman records, which is Entombed's Label. They put out the Might Nimbus record that I played on. He asked me if I'd have interest in putting together a group of stoner rock people to make a death metal record and I said sure, I could do that, sounds really interesting. And then ATP went on tour pretty much almost 7 months of 2005. So, by the time I got home he was still bugging me about it and I was like Ok, and I got serious about it and asked all the people involved to be a part of it. The only person who actually didn't get to do it, that was initially asked, was Danny Nick of Suplecs. Not that Summer was my second choice or anything.

TB: Regarding stoner rock, how do you guys feel about that label? Is it something that's really being embraced within the scene anymore?

EL: You know, I don't even know cause I don't pay attention to that crap. I mean, I remember when that term first came out for bands like ATP, it's basically just, I would say, kind of bluesy hard rock meets metal and it just so happens that a lot of people who listen to it smoke weed. I don't really care. Labels are labels. They're just tools to give people an idea of what you sound like. I don't necessarily think ATP falls completely under that moniker, but it'd be untrue to say there aren't moments.

TB: ATP was kind of instrumental in pioneering the genre when the "southern" tag was starting to be applied, do you feel that's appropriate, as a tool, to group the music that way?

EL: I guess. I mean, it's interesting that you say we kind of pioneered it. When we started the impetus of the band was like Eyehategod, Sleep, and Neurosis. But initially we wanted to do the 77 Skynyrd lineup style so you had backup singers, three guitar players, and keyboards but then when we started playing we realized we really didn't know what the f*** we were doing on our instruments. So it ended up coming out like that.

TB: Birds of Prey is more strictly a death metal band. On Relapse's site they even mention "death and roll"?

EL: To me that's f***ing, a huge compliment because it's a reference they use for Entombed, which is my favorite band. I think it's appropriate to call Birds of Prey kind of a death and roll band. It's death metal with rock grooves, you know? There's a few black metal moments in there too, courtesy of Mr. [Dave] Witte's [of Municipal Waste] amazingly fast blast beats. Whatever. Like I said before, labels are tools.

TB: Moving over to ATP. How's the new record coming and how's the new singer [Kyle Thomas]?

EL: Awesome and Awesome. Basically what we had to do-we started writing. Alright, we got off tour with COC the 27th of July, last year. The last day of the tour our trailer exploded, you know, the gear was fine but like literally it just died on the highway about an hour from the last show. We rented a trailer and got home. So when we got home, after seven months of touring, it was just alright let's take a couple of weeks and off don't call me. So we did that and started writing almost immediately when we came back together in early August. And so we were writing all through the fall and pretty much had about 8 songs done by the time [former ATP singer] Johnny Weills decided his heroin was more attractive than being in a band. So, then he left and you know we basically were like that sucks because it pushes us back time schedule wise. We were planning to record in February and have a record out now and be touring. So we kinda sat back and said f*** it, let's just keep writing, put the feelers out, and find a singer. We found a singer in April, that's Kyle, Karrie who runs Real Deal Merch. Kyle came up once, he sent in an audition tape and it was perfect. He was exactly what we were looking for. He came up, that weekend Orange Goblin played here, and we just practiced all weekend and he had a bunch of great ideas already and by the end of the weekend it's like 'you're in the band if you want it' and he's like, 'I want it.' He's been down in New Orleans since, writing lyrics and patterns for that and he'll be up in August to start tracking. We're going in with the intention to start tracking the album, but he's got to get in and get some bare bones vocals down first so we can sit down and review it and make changes as needed. He'll be back up a couple weeks after that and pretty much all September we'll record it.

TB: So you're looking at an ATP record sometime in 07?

EL: March 07.

TB: How is Kyle Thomas's style compared to some of the other singers you've had [in ATP]?

EL: Alright, well, unbeknownst to most people we've had quite a few singers. Our first singer never really sang with us, this was back in the early days when we didn't know how to play our instruments at all. This guy, Luke Trimmer, who was a friend of the bass player, Bill Storms, he would come to practice, sit in the corner and write notes. Then when we would play live, basically we would show up and jump on shows or show up and be like 'open up your basement we're going to play,' he would either not come or tell us I'm not playing with you guys until you get good, because you suck right now. He used to sing for a band called Crackhead. Anyway, after Luke moved away or some crap, I don't remember exactly how it all fell off that he wasn't going to sing for us, we had Adrienne Droogas who sang for Spit Boy, all all-girl punk group from California. She was living here. She saw one of our instrumental performances and asked if she could try out. She played one show with us and moved to New York. And that was in late 96. Then we found Johnny Throckmorton, through Bill Storms again. And Johnny, as a singer I always felt, had more of 'hardcore kid' approach to things, not just in his performance, but his vocal style was more like throaty, kind of shouty. He could rein it in a little and sing to some extent but not live all so much. Partly our fault, cause we're so f***in loud, but he'd blow his voice out almost every night until he got it trained. And, without talking too much s***, let's just say his idea of what the band should be doing and what he wanted to do just didn't work out. Parted ways with that guy in 2003 and then Johnny Weills shows up. And I'll tell you this, and I have to preempt this by saying, I am still very pissed off at that man, and we will have words if not other things when I find him again. The Johnny Weills that joined the band was not the Johnny Weills that left the band for obvious reasons, drugs being the main one. With him as a singer, he fancied himself as more of kinda like an Exile on Main Street-era Rolling Stones vocalist which worked sometimes and sometimes it didn't.

Whereas Kyle, is a classically trained singer. He can hit all the notes that Rob Halford can hit. I know this because I saw him sing along to 'Sad Wings of Destiny' that weekend he came up and he was hitting every f***ing note. He approaches things in a more instrumental way because he uses his voice and his vocal patterns as a sort of fifth element, like a fifth melody to the music. So it's definitely less of, 'here are the songs figure it out', than it is, 'here at the songs' and he adds to it.

TB: Probably an irrelevant question at this point since Kyle's on board, but I'll ask anyway, given the Spinal-Tapian nature of the singers in the band-

EL: Bass players too…(laughs)

TB: Bass players too, and with you singing everything on your solo stuff, did it ever come up for you to just handle the singing yourself?

EL: It had been suggested and right before we found Kyle. The idea was tossed around that I should do that and start writing some lyrics and thinking about things like that. I countered that with well maybe we can just have it so we all just sing a bit. At least between me and Ryan [Lake, ATP guitarist], cause Ryan has a good voice, a little higher register than mine. The thing with that is, I can't really sing and play guitar at the same time. I can do like gang backup vocals and s*** but I can't carry a tune especially with some of the intricate guitar lines that we have, I just never can do it. I can do it from behind the drums all day long, but can't do it with the guitar for some reason. I think it's…uh, smaller targets. Fortunately we found Kyle so I didn't have to. And I didn't want it to be the whole like…then you start crossing over into weird territory.

TB: Is the solo stuff then something distinct for you? A different kind of outlet from your other bands?

EL: For the most part. Pretty much the way we write, at least initially, I bring in a tape of way too many songs for people to handle and say pick the parts you like and we'll build from there. And stuff that's rejected I don't throw away, I just add on or slightly change and end up making a song out of it. I don't believe in not pursuing those songs; just because they're not used for my main band doesn't mean they're not good songs that can be recorded.

TB: Is there more solo material to come?

EL: I have a third one musically done. It's not recorded, but I have the songs. It's just a matter of money. You know the last one I spent 5 grand on. The one before was about the same, around 5 or 7, something like that, and that's a lot of money that I have to front myself.

TB: That's for recording then?

EL: Yeah, for recording. If Scott [of Small Stone Records] was to say, 'hey, here's three grand' I could bang it out pretty quickly. But for Scott, I'm not a touring act, so why throw money at a non-touring act.

TB: Is that ever a possibility, touring on the solo stuff?

EL: I wouldn't think so. I'd have to f***in put a band together and deal with four other people and for me the solo stuff is pretty much all about everything being exactly the way I want it as opposed to the band dynamic. Even when we did perform stuff from the Resounding at 2003 Emissions [from the Monolith] fest and even though I showed everybody the parts, Bryan [Cox, ATP drummer] changed the drum parts slightly and Ryan is definitely ten times the guitarist I am, so he adds other things to the guitar parts…

TB: How long have you been playing the guitar now after starting out as a drummer with Avail?

EL: About 95. I was in this band called, Kilara and was writing a lot of the songs from behind the drum kit, just humming out the parts in conjunction with the other guys writing as well. I got frustrated with trying to explain to them what I meant vocally. Kilara was tuned to drop-D, so it was pretty easy to pick up a guitar and just with one finger, write. So I went out and bought a beat up acoustic and started teaching myself to play. I was still in Avail at the time and I asked Joe Banks some basic chords and he showed me that and I just rolled with it, and ATP started up about a year after that.

TB: And ATP grew out of that?

EL: Bog, who was the other original guitar player for ATP, he was Kilara's roadie and he lived with Bryan and I lived across the street from those guys. So that's how the band came together. It was just the three of us hanging out listening to records and we just said, hey we should do a band. Why not?

TB: You've been involved in Richmond's music scene for a while now, so you've kind of seen it grow then?

EL: Ebbs and Flows.

TB: How are you feeling about it now?

EL: I think it's pretty f***ing good right now. The only thing that's different about it now than say in the early 90's is that its definitely more scatter-brained, and less unified. Like back then, when I was first starting to play with Avail, you pretty much knew all the bands, you knew everybody and everybody had played together. At least at some point. 

Where now, because the city has grown, and there's a lot more people and a lot more different venues. That was the other thing. You really had very few places to play. Now it's just a lot more venues and lot more diversity in the musical styles. Almost every band if they want to could go on tour and figure it out, whereas back then very few bands went on tour unless they had a big record deal. Basically nobody in Richmond would have toured if it wasn't for Born Against coming into town and sharing their contacts with Avail. That was kicked out to anybody and everybody-this is how you do it. And now the circuit is so much easier with the whole internet revolution and everything. I remember having to pick up the phone every day or setting up a tour and having to be at my house at this time or that time so I could expect calls from so and so from South Dakota cause that was their window, that was their lunch break or something. It was a real pain in the ass. But you know it was worth it in the end, it was all fun.

TB: How old were you when you joined Avail?

EL: 19. Actually I take that back, I was 18 and turned 19 like four months later.

TB: So pretty much your entire adult life you've been touring and recording?

EL: Yeah, I started touring in 91. And I kinda laugh, that was the first out of town trip for Avail. It's like, "We're going on tour! We're going down to Florida for two shows, we're going on tour!" You know. Where years later you go out for like 7-8 weeks, that's a tour. Pretty much the entire time I've been here I've been in touring bands or playing music.

TB: Did you come to Richmond from somewhere else?

EL: Um, yes I came from Falls Church which is about an hour and half north of here. And I played in bands all through high school and junior high too, and prior to that I was born in Atlanta so I lived down there. Dad got a job up here. But its cool because I was there to see all kinds of DC hardcore bands which was really inspiring.

TB: Were they a big influence on you?

EL: Oh f*** yeah. Bands like Swiz, Ignition, Government Issue. I've seen Swiz probably dozens of times. I'd go see then anytime they play.

TB: What made you decide to go to ATP full time?

EL: There was a time when I was in Avail touring you know a good chunk of the year anywhere between four and six months out of the year. Kilara was also touring and ATP was just starting up and playing house shows. Plus I was married to a crazy woman and a full time student. So it was a little crazy. Essentially the reason I left Avail to do ATP full time was because Avail stopped being fun for me. Yeah, I had health insurance. Yeah, I was going to all these crazy countries playing shows and I enjoyed playing the shows and I enjoyed the people in the band I was with but it was just…it was a job. It wasn't the same as when we went down on tour to Florida for two days. Any my musical tastes, I was always kinda the underground metal guy. I mean, Tim Barry came from Venom and all that stuff, early Metallica, so he loves metal too. But to some extent my interests musically were just different and it just made sense for me to bow out than to continue in a band that wasn't inspiring to me at the time. And they just reissued three of the [Avail] albums on Jade Tree so it's interesting for me to go back, most of those pictures [in the liner notes] were taken by my wife, and just kind of remember those times, its just interesting. That's a good document of the good times.

TB: What are your goals for ATP at this point? Do you want it to get to the point where that's the only thing you have to do?

EL: Yeah, that would rule. Being able to live off the band would be awesome because then I wouldn't have to get up in the morning hung-over and have to go to work. Actually I guess that's kinda the same thing. You're in a band, you get up in the morning hung-over, and go to work? [Laughs]. Ideally it'd be nice to stay at home…I did that with Avail, I lived off the band. Waking up everyday and going to band practice at noon a few days a week and that was what you did which is a hell of a lot more fun that what I do now which is sling wraps for corporate people downtown. The problem with that though, is to do that it takes so much time, and so much time away from home.

TB: I guess there are certain pitfalls in that too, just with the way the music industry works now?

EL: It's very fickle. All I've ever hoped for, I'll probably keep playing music until I can't, even if its just where I'm working ten jobs and taking care of the family and becoming a weekend warrior, for me all I ever really want to do is put out quality music that other people's lives will be enriched by. But twenty years from now when my kids sitting around drinking beer, male or female it doesn't matter, with their friends going, 'this record is awesome, can you believe they were doing this in the 90's?' I don't know, man, I save everything. I have multiple copies of everything I've ever been on from 1986-first band- to current stuff.

TB: A lot of bands in Richmond seem very keen to keep the city involved in their music. Avail was big with their references to the city. Is there something about the city that inspires people in that way?

EL: I don't know, Richmond's a very peculiar city. You could throw a rock anywhere and hit a musician in this town. I think the cool thing is that there's so much going on musically and artistically in all the different areas that no one really gives a s*** who you are. It's like, 'Oh you're in a band? Yeah great, so am I and so are ten of my friends.' Nobody cares. There's not the starstruckness about it, and I think that makes it a comfortable place to be a musician and to grow in that. And it makes people really appreciate their town so that's probably why there are a lot of references, especially in the punk community.

TB: I know just what you mean. I had friends in from out of town that were just blown away by the fact that all these people in well-known bands are just hanging around at shows and things. Do you feel like the bands are just as involved as the people going to the shows in the scene maybe as fans themselves?

EL: In a way you can make comparisons to like London in the Sixties where everyone's going to see shows. Kinda friendly competition. You could go out in London in the Sixties and see the Stones mingling with the Beatles mingling with Eric Clapton mingling with whatever. Everybody was just there and talking to people who weren't in groups too. I always kind of looked at it like I'm just a dude who's fortunate enough to do what I do and it doesn't make me any different or better because I choose to pursue my passion and my passion happens to be entertainment.

TB: What are the biggest influences on you musically and on ATP as a group?

EL: Well, musically I listen to a whole lot of death metal, but I also balance it with singer/songwriter, folk stuff, like Elliott Smith who's also a big favorite of mine and Iron & Wine who's a big favorite of mine also because he's Bryan's ex roommate from college. And there was a block of time where I was listening to a lot of classic 70's rock, like guitar hero stuff., Wishbone Ash. Currently I would say for the last 3 years, 4 maybe, I've been getting older I find I'm not mellowing, I need more anger, more aggression in my music to be inspiring. So I've pretty much just been listening to death metal and Crusty Punk. For me that's it. With ATP, Bryan and Ryan listen to a lot of classic rock and classic metal. Mikey listens to all kinds of weird s*** that I don't even know what it is. And Kyle obviously is a New Orleans boy, so he has a wide variety of tastes.

TB: Will there be any kind of tour for Birds of Prey or is this strictly and album thing?

EL: Well, considering that everyone's in different bands that tour and with the exception of me and Dave, everyone lives somewhere else, it's hard to tour. Summer's going to be in Europe all this Fall, but we are scheduling two weekends in Oct. that we're going to do shows, so we're going to have a fill-in bass player for that, but it's also contingent on whether or not Municipal Waste goes out and opens up for GWAR on their Halloween tour. If they do, we probably won't be able to do the shows. We're counting on now, setting them up for two weekend in mid-October, going ahead full steam and by the time GWAR gets home from Sounds of the Underground, we should have an idea of whether they're taking Municipal Waste out or not and can plan around it accordingly.

TB: I guess that's about all I've got, thanks a lot for talking with me.

EL: Yeah, no sweat. I appreciate it.

Photo by Chris Iguchi

Preview and Purchase The new Birds of Prey CD Online

Visit the official Birds Of Prey homepage

Preview and Purchase Alabama Thunderpussy CDs Online

Visit the official Alabama Thunderpussy homepage

Preview and Purchase Erik Larson solo CDs Online

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