Mothman and The Thunderbirds: An Interview

Mothman and The Thunderbirds is a band from Philadelphia, PA.

At times melodic and driving, at times sludgy and head-bobbing. The Philly band's debut comes out on May 21st. I first caught wind of them through last summer's mention in Sleeping Village. Been looking forward to the new album as well as the opportunity to have a conversation and learn more about the band.

Weirding: Philadelphia has an interesting and complex musical history. Are you originally from the area?

Alex: Yeah, I was born in and grew up in the area. I grew up in Delco — Delaware County, for the uninitiated. Just outside the city. One of the big urban legends growing up in Delco was Satanville — a supposedly haunted road in Chadds Ford. I think the stories of Satanville are what initially sparked my interest in the weird and unknown.

As far as Philly goes, I do see some of it reflected in my music — at least instrumentally. There's an obvious Relapse Records influence on many of the tracks on this debut album — and they are based in Upper Darby. 

And while there are obvious non-Philly Relapse bands to make comparisons to like Mastodon, High on Fire, or Torche, there's a bit of Philly's own Nothing in the album's DNA. 

But more obvious is my Baroness influence — John Dyer Baizley lives in Philadelphia. I own their Philly fuzz pedal and I mess around with it a ton when I'm writing riffs. Seeing Baroness play with Nothing and Pallbearer at the Union Transfer several years back sent me further down the rabbit holes of both doom and shoegaze — and made me realize how well the two genres go together. 

Lyrically, I feel like there's a wealth of Philly, and Pennsylvania in general, oddities that I have yet to tap into. Some of the most obvious Philly examples would be the Mütter Museum and the Philadelphia Experiment conspiracy theory. Outside of Philly, PA's got things like Centralia and the Ray's Town Ray. 

Weirding: Any local oddities make it onto the new album?

Alex: The Pennsylvania oddity that I reference on this album is on the song "Squonk". [ed. — “The squonk is a mythical creature that is reputed to live in the hemlock forests of northern Pennsylvania”.]

The squonk is a cryptid that goes about its day crying because of how ugly it is — not really the terror many of its cryptid brethren are thought to be. While the song serves as a transitional piece on the album with only two lines of lyrics, it means quite a lot to me. That's the funny thing about this album — two of the songs with the dumbest names, namely 'Squonk' and 'The Simpsons = Real Footage' have the most meaning behind them.

Weirding: I really like your approach to soloing and the way that the guitars on the song 'Nomad' sort of seem to reference each other -- with the initial riff sort of referencing and building from the acoustic intro and then the solo building from and then blending back into that riff. Talk to me about your approach to writing and performing guitar parts.

Alex: So for me, everything starts with a riff. Some of my favorite riffs came to me when I was just casually noodling on my guitar. Usually I will record voice memos every time I write a new riff. I'll listen back a few times and then anything that sticks with me, I try to work into a song. I use Guitar Pro to flesh out strong structures — well at least the core elements of the song like rhythm guitars, bass, and drums. Once I get the skeleton of the song set up and have everything ready to record, that's when I start toying around with the bells and whistles. And that's where the guitar solos come in. Where riffs are the first thing I write, guitar solos are one of the last things I write and record. 

I don't really have a formal process for writing solos. It's kinda just trial and error. Trying to transcribe solo ideas is too tedious for me.

In the case of 'Nomad', it started with two riffs — that main chorus and the acoustic chord progression. After that I sorta had an idea of how I wanted the song to progress and wrote around that. For the solo, I knew I wanted three parts — a shred part, an atmospheric part, and a left-right panned call and response. Once I had everything else tracked, I played around with a few solo ideas and what you hear on the track is the best of my noodling session for that song.

Weirding: I always love when musicians put time into the album art. I love the cover of the new album and it looks like you'll be releasing different artwork for each single? Tell me more about working with Drahma and your thoughts on the relationship between music and visual art.

Alex: I think matching up music with the right artwork is crucial. Sure, there's the whole "never judge a book by its cover" adage, but having great visual art is like a statement of intent. A potential listener will get an idea of the general vibe of a single or an album by the artwork that they’re presented with. I think visual art has an impact on the listener's experience with new music — whether that's consciously or subconsciously. 

There's definitely albums that I've listened to solely because I loved the artwork — and then later fell for the music as well. I hope the artwork I've chosen has a similar effect on people.

And yes, all of the singles will have different artwork. I found Drahma through Instagram actually. I had seen a few of his pieces shared on one of those Stoner/Doom curation accounts. I had followed him back when he was going by Burn Illustration. I started this project with 'Nomad' as a single back in August of last year, and given my lack of drawing talents, I knew I had to get Drahma's artwork for the release. The 'Nomad' single cover was a piece he already had available, so working with him to get it set up as the single cover was pretty easy. Once I had an idea for what the album would look like, I reached out to him again to get an original piece for the album cover. I gave him an open-ended idea of what I wanted and what he came back with is better than I could have imagined.

Weirding: The recording quality of the new album is excellent. I especially admire the quality of the clean vocals. Some really precise harmonies there. Tell me a bit about how the album was made.

Alex: Glad you like it. I'm still somewhat of an amateur at this whole producing thing, so that means a lot. The album was mostly home-brewed. I have a Scarlet 2i2 that I plug into a gaming laptop to record all my guitar, bass, and vocal parts. The only parts that weren't recorded at home were some of the more intense screams and higher clean vocals parts. I didn't want to scare the neighbors, so I went to a rehearsal space — The Boom Room in Philly to track those parts there. 

Given the whole pandemic situation, I was the only person there during the time slot I booked. And honestly that was very freeing. I'm still finding my way as a vocalist, so being able to just go all out without having to embarrass myself in front of anyone made all the difference. And I like to think the results show for themselves. For example, the belted choruses on 'Infinite Ocean' and 'Agarthan Riders' were done at the rehearsal space. And so were those tortured screams in 'Indrid Cold' and the latter half of 'Hollow Earth'.

The vocal harmonies were all done at home, where I had much more time to experiment with things and sit with harmony parts to figure out what works and what doesn't. 'The Simpsons = Real Footage' initially had me harmonizing with Kirby in the chorus. But I scrapped that because I didn't feel they were of any benefit to her already stellar performance. But I had a ball messing around with different harmony chord voicings on songs like 'Cloud Giant' and 'Squonk'. And being able to pick things up and put them down on my own schedule really benefited those songs.

Weirding: I'm an unabashed fan of effects on vocals. So, I love the vocals on ‘Hollow Earth’. Because on a song like that they almost create this character who is acting through the song. It's really memorable. Could you talk about what you are doing there and where the sound came from.

Alex: So the vocals for that song, and some of the others on the album, were the result of me experimenting with things as I tried to find my footing as a vocalist. For 'Hollow Earth' I used a microKORG vocoder to get that robotic sound. It's several layers of vocoder actually, mixed with my real voice. I had to do my vocal takes early in the morning while my voice was still groggy because that low G2 is hard for me to hit regularly. I then ran one of those takes through the microKORG to reamp the take with several different vocoder voicings. A few of those reampings were harmonizations in fifths that I added to emphasize certain lines.

My goal with this vocal experiment was to match the contrast that goes on in the verses and choruses lyrically. The song is obviously about the hollow earth theory, but it all ties in the real-life threat of climate change. The use of effects reflects this double narrative — with the verses taking on the more fantastical robotic effects, and the choruses using my real and confrontational growls. 

There was a bit of experimentation with the chorus vocals too. I initially had it so that both choruses had that call-and-response thing, but using the same lower timbre that I use for the main lines. That proved to be a little too on-the-nose. So when I was recording the more intense vocals in the rehearsal space, I ended up tracking those higher pitched harrowing screams you hear in the second chorus. They were supposed to layer on top of the main vocals, but when I tried them as response vocals it sounded too good not to resurrect that idea. So yeah, I had a lot of fun experimenting with the vocals. I ended up making it a single because I thought it showed a wide range of what I could do vocally, and I also wanted to show off something heavier in comparison to the other singles.



Twitter: @MothmansTbirds

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