May 2011 - UNDER THE SUN
Drummer Mike Smail is no stranger in doom metal history; he was one of the co-founders of Dream Death, which is regarded as pathbreaking in the field of death/doom metal. Later, Penance evolved from Dream Death, which also played a crucial role in the history of heavy music. When the band decided to split in the last decade, Mike took the opportunity to join Internal Void and then later Pentagram. Neither should we forget that he was the one who played drums on Cathedral's legendary debut record 'Forest Of Equilibrium'. All in all, an impressive list of bands. It is therefore no wonder that this is not my first interview with Mike.
But it has been a little quiet around him in the last years, so that I was wondering what is going on. Did he withdraw completely? Fortunately, this turned out not to be the case. UNDER THE SUN is the name of his new project, where he teamed up with ex-Penance guitarist Dave Roman and Dennis Cornelius (Memory Driven, ex-Place Of Skulls, ex-Oversoul, ex-Revelation). Last year saw the release of the first full-length, 'Man Of Sorrow', which was definitely one of my favourite albums in 2010. Expanding beyond the doom metal tag, UNDER THE SUN have recorded a brilliant debut which is connected on the one hand with the musical past of each involved party and on the other moves into new territory. Those were enough reasons for another Cosmic Lava interview with Mike. It was naturally clearly that our interview was not only limited to UNDER THE SUN, and that is why we talked about his time with Penance, Internal Void as well as Pentagram. A further topic for me was the 20th anniversary of Cathedral which took place in London last year. Now it's up to you to check out the epic result of our virtual talk that took several weeks.
Hello Mike, it's a while ago since our last interview. To be precise, it was in summer 2002. Since then a lot has happened as, for example, the sudden end of PENANCE. First of all, let us talk about that. I was very suprised about the break-up, especially because your last album 'Spiritualnatural' was absolutely magnificent. What was the reason for the decision to close the chapter of PENANCE?
Has it been that long?........Where does time go. Not so sure that it was sudden as we had a decently long stint at it. It seems as if that Euro tour was the last gasp of it all. Thanks for the kind words about the lp though. It just seemed to fade out after the tour and I suppose it was time. Honestly, I really can't even remember as to why it happened, other than it happened. It wasn't like some big fight or anything of that sort. It just seemed to be a natural progression and we all just went our separate ways.
It's good to hear that there was no "bad blood" between the ex-members of the band. How would you assess the time with PENANCE in retrospect? Is there anything you regret and what do you think about the albums? Do you have a favourite one?
Overall, I'm proud of the catalog that Penance has put out. Some of which is quite varied, but that was always the point. We never wanted to be pidgeon-holed into just one sound and that shows even more looking back on things. I don't really regret anything. I really like them all, some better than others, but they all have something to offer. As far as a favorite goes, I would have to say that 'Parallel Corners' is my fave. That lp really came together both song wise and production wise.
I agree with you on 'Parallel Corners'. It's a mindblowing album. But how did you get in contact with Century Media and why hasn't it been released through Rise Above Records?
If I remember right, Century Media contacted me a little after I had a "handshake" deal with Lee and Rise Above. So, we went ahead and did the one record with Lee and when the time came around to do a second, we went with Century Media. I know Maria at Martyr was interested in doing a re-release for it like we had with 'Proving Ground' but it never materialized. Not sure Rise Above would want to put it out.
I'll keep my fingers crossed, because a re-release of 'Parallel Corners' is long overdue. Especially the younger people should have the chance to get a copy of this masterpiece. Speaking of the past, have you ever thought about a Dream Death reunion and what do you think about reunions in general?
We've tossed around the idea of it, but I doubt it will ever happen. Reunions usually are pretty lame. They sound good in theory, but generally the performance and intensity just isn't there. There is really no substitute for youthfull piss and vinegar!
That hits the nail on the head! Well, ok, let's change the subject. Most of the readers here probably know that you've joined Internal Void after the end of Penance. How did that come about and what's going on with I.V.? It's been seven years since 'Matricide' has been released, and I guess that I'm not the only one who would be glad too see a new album. Does this option apply?
Well, things were coming to an end with Penance and the chance to play with Void came around which I didn't pass up. I've always loved those guys and having a chance to play with them was something that I just couldn't pass up. It was a transitional point in my life as I seemed to be spending more and more time down there working and staying at Koz's (Chris Kozlowski) place like a second home so the distance wasn't too much of an issue. Then the whole Pentagram opportunity came around as well. Basically we were pulling double duty with both Void and Bob (Bobby Liebling). We all know how that worked out and it was quite a shame really. It's even more of a bitter sweet pill as well, because it eventually spelled the demise of Void.
I think back and think that if we would have put all the time that we spent on the Pentagram thing into Void that we'd still be going, but............those guys haven't played since, other than the one time get together at Brenner's festival a while back now. Can't believe it was that long ago already! I'd love to hear a new record from those guys, even if I wasn't playing on it. I feel that we never really got to really do what I know we could have with the whole Pentagram distraction. Sad really. You never know, but I'm not sure how those guys feel about things. Magic (Kelly Carmichael) is still playing his solo blues gig, but that's about it. Adam isn't really playing and I don't think JD is either, but I've been seeing some things about War Injun so I'm not sure.
Retrospectively, what are your thoughts on 'Show 'Em How' and what do you think about the time you've spent in Pentagram? Are you still in contact with Bobby Liebling?
It's a bittersweet pill and more bitter than sweet. While I can't say that I hate that record, I can say that I was dissappointed with the way that it came out production-wise. No disrespect to Koz or Bob. Especially compared to what we sounded like live and in rehearsals for it. I envisioned it being more stripped down and raw like a studio recording of our practices or the older stuff that was on 'First Daze Here'. I have several cd's of us rehearsing that stuff and it sounds great. We really did that old stuff justice both playing wise and even the tone cause Magic (Kelly) didn't use his regular I.V. gear. He mostly went in straight through an old Orange head with no distortion other than the natural break up you get when you crank it up and his playing was just fantastic. He really nailed those old solos all the way around. I honestly think he was the best guitarist Bob ever had.
It sounded like those old tapes we used to listen to when we were kids - some of which eventually became 'Human Hurricane' etc. - all those old practices that we all had on cassettes forever. I listen to them and if I didn't know better I swear it's like you found some old buried stuff from back in the day. As it turned out, they went for more of that modern sound with a ton of layered guitars etc. That being said, I think it was just a shame that Bob couldn't get it together so that we could have done something more. There were some European shows lined up as well and it all just tanked out. It was a great opportunity that just never panned out. It could have been so much more, but we all know how it turned out. I'm glad that it seems that he's got his shit together now, for his sake. Even more of a sad thing as I've said earlier that it helped the demise of I.V. as well. That's the biggest thing that I regret about the whole thing. I really enjoyed playing with them and with all the time we spent on the Gram stuff, we never really had a chance to launch what I.V. could've been. We only had one song that we wrote with me in the band. I'd be curious as to what we would have come up with as we were a well oiled machine at that point. I'm thinking it would have been some pretty heavy stuff. No, I'm not in touch with Bob and haven't been since the Black Cat "no" show.
It's sad to hear that the whole Pentagram helped the demise of Internal Void. That price is definitely too high for such a short adventure. As much as I like 'Show 'Em How', but I have to agree to what you say regarding the production. It could've been better, but it's no worse album and the most 70s sounding record that has been released by the band after 1980. Well anyway, let's change the topic. In musical terms, I can well imagine that 2010 has been a good year for you. You've released the debut album of your new band/project UNDER THE SUN and you was part of Cathedral's 20th Anniversary show in London which took place at the beginning of December 2010. Where did the idea come from and how did it feel to play 'Forest Of Equilibrium' on stage after 20 years?
Yes, it's definately been a bit busy for me. Once again, I got an email (not regular mail like the first time for 'Forest Of Equilibrium') from Lee asking if he could put something together would it be feasable for me. Griff said yes straight out of the gate and Adam joined in as well. I agreed providing I could make arrangements to cover my store (it's still a one man show). Once Lee knew everyone was in, of course he put it all together and it came out rather well. They were suppossed to have 5 cameras recording it as well as going to tape, but I think in the end there were only 3-so I'm not sure they'll have enough footage to do a DVD, but something live should/could come out of it. It was a great time for me not only to play a bigger gig again, but to see the boys again and hang out. On top of that, it's the first vacation I've had from my shop in 3 years. I rehearsed the stuff by myself about a month before I went over, just so I would be tight and not let the boys down. Overall, I think we sounded pretty good and it was all quite natural for me to break that stuff out again. Definately a highlight for me. Would be cool to do a couple more with them as well.
Yes, indeed. I really would love to see the 'Equilibrium' lineup on tour as well as a DVD of that anniversary show in London, simply because it's my favourite Cathedral album. Well, ok, I've seen the band in 1992, but you were missing. While we are on the subject of 'Forest Of Equilibrium', how did it happen that you joined Cathedral for this record?
While it would be cool, it's quite doubtfull especially now since they've announced their retirement not too long ago. I think the best you can hope for is a live record of the show at this point. Lee sent me a letter in the mail one day asking if I'd come over and record their record as they had studio time booked etc. They were fans of my old band Dream Death (especially Gaz) as well as Penance and were familiar with me from that. They were having problems with their old drummer as he hurt his arm or something if I remember right. Of course, I said yes. I had 12 days rehearsal time to learn everything and then lay it down in the studio. And I think the result is something to be proud of, Mike.
Before we drip the subject Cathedral, let me ask you two more questions. First of all, what do you think about 'Forest Of Equilibrium' today and secondly, what memories do you have of the first European tour with Penance, where you played together with Cathedral and Sleep? As far as I remember, I had seen you in Essen at Zeche Carl and it was quite impressive.
I'm proud to have been a part of what has become such a landmark album for so many people. I never imagined it to be what it has turned out being. That was a great tour with lots of great times. One of which was - I can't remember where exactly, but - we showed up for a gig and there were only a handfull of people there (around 10-15) so Sleep went out and improvised for their set and played just one entire long jam, which was great!
Pity that it didn't happened in Essen. Well ok Mike, I would now like to turn my attention to UNDER THE SUN, which is your new band/project. Last year saw the release of your fantastic debut album 'Man Of Sorrow'. And, by the way, I was also pleased to see that you're still playing heavy music, because I've heard not very much about your musical activities in recent years. So, when did you come up with the idea of UNDER THE SUN and how did you get together with Dennis Cornelius and Dave Roman?
Well, as I've said before - after the Pentagram debacle and the fading out of I.V. , I put my efforts into opening up my own store. I still continued to play I hooked back up with Ron Leard (who played bass on 'Proving Ground') and we were doing an acoustic cover bar band here in town. Nothing heavy or original just playing around town and try and pick up a couple of extra bucks etc. I did that for a couple of years along with growing the store. Started to get the itch to do some original heavy stuff again which is where Roman and I started jamming. He only lives about 15 minutes away from me. We talked about still doing a heavy band, but with Christian lyrics. Since it was just him and I, it was easy to do without having to agree on things between several people like in a regular band. We were both on the same page. Originally, I had Spice in mind for the vocals as I heard a more heavy, aggressive sound, but that never materialized. There's a guy in town who has a great voice to I asked to do it as well, which never happened either. Roman suggested Dennis as we've known him and liked his style for years. I got a hold of Dennis and he agreed to do it. It took a while, but it all worked out in the end.
We have to talk about your shop later, but first I would like to know if you mean Spice, the former singer of Spiritual Beggars and Mushroom River Band? What was the moment which made you want to write Christian lyrics and would you say that Place Of Skulls are kindred spirits?
Yes. That was more of what I originally had in mind for this stuff. Well, I believe if you look back upon my lyrics they tend to speak for themselves. While they might not have been so overtly Christian, they were coming from the same place of wondering, suffering, love, loss etc.......In Penance, after a while Butch took over the lyrics and he wasn't up to singing stuff he wasn't on the same page with etc....... I had been wanting/heading more and more in that direction while the rest of the band wasn't. With this set up of just me and Roman, it's easier to agree on stuff. I wouldn't go so far as to say kindred spirits as I really don't know Victor outside of playing a couple of shows with him throughout the years. From what his lyrics are with Place Of Skulls, I'd say he's on the narrow path as well. I never like to speak for other people.
I see. It is interesting that you mention Penance, because I always thought that album titles such as 'Alpha & Omega' as well as 'Spiritualnatural' have been the main indicator of the changes towards a more spiritual direction. Speaking of 'Man Of Sorrow', I think that you covered some new musical ground with tracks such as 'Joy' and 'Forgiveness'. How did this come about?
Well, they're heading down that direction for sure. A lot more people don't mind and can handle something "spiritual" as oppossed to something so overtly Christian. Once you cross that line things become quite divisionary for people unfortunately. Those were just some good songs Roman had laying around for a while that never made it with either Humbucker or Penance. This became the medium for them to surface.
Once again, you have worked together with Chris Kozlowski. Was this your first choice and, if so, why?
Absolutely. Working with Koz is great. He's good at what he does and he understands the music as well from a production standpoint etc. It's always good times recording with Chris.
Yes, he's definitely one of the best and I'm a huge fan of his work. I think that his warm and earthy production ties in perfectly with UNDER THE SUN. How many days have you spent at Polar Bear Lair and were all songs already finished before the recording or have you included some spontaneous ideas?
We were only there a couple of weekends to do this one and everything was pretty much all worked out. The longest time was getting Dennis back here to lay down the vocals.
Did he have any sort of creative input on the vocal lines?
I pretty much had everything laid out with a general rthym & meter to the lyrics, but I sent the stuff to Dennis and he came up with the melodies and how he broke everything down. Dennis has a completely different time than what I would expect, which turned out better in the end I think.
For my part, I think that Dennis is a great vocalist. His voice is perfect to the album. You've also sent me a cd-r which includes three magnificent songs that are not on 'Man Of Sorrow'. Why is that and do you have any plans to release these tracks?
Yea, I think it came out great as well. Well we didn't want to have the cd be so long. People get bored quite easy and I'm of the less is more theory. Plus that gives us a little layover to have some new material come out until we get some more stuff together. Svart Records in Finland has expressed interest in putting it out on vinyl as well as maybe doing 'Man Of Sorrow' onto vinyl as well. We'll see what comes out of it.
This is good news, because by doing so it's probably easier for people to get a copy of your album. By the way, how does it come about that 'Man Of Sorrow' is a self-financed CD? Were you not interested in getting an offer from an established record label?
Once again, less is more. Most record labels never really did too much more than most of the stuff I can do myself. Especially in this day and age and all the technology. I figured if it's good enough, people will buy it and what with the internet, it isn't hard to find it or me for that matter. I mean, if I do a search on it, there's places all over the world where you can download it - even for free..........nothing I've ever done, but it's there so it's like a weed that keeps growing etc. At least this way, I have a general idea of what we've sold.
This is an interesting point and I understand your reasons for doing things like this. What about tours and gigs? I can well imagine that a lot of people would love to see UNDER THE SUN on stage. Are there any plans?
Nothing planned for playing out as we're really not a band. Dennis still lives and has his own band out in Oklahoma. So it's just Roman and I writing songs and recording them etc. I really doubt a lot of people would really care to see us play live as we really haven't sold too many cd's to boot. I suppose it's not out of the question, but nothing in the works as of now.
Perhaps it would be a good idea to play at next year's Doom Shall Rise (if that is possible), because there are a lot of people who are interested in UNDER THE SUN.... However, I really hope that our interview will help to spread the name. But now it's high time to talk about your own drum shop, which is appropriately named Smail's Custom Drum Shop. When did you open it and what do you offer people who come to your shop? Please, give an insight.
That would be great as I'd love to get back over there and play again sometime. Just unlikely, since it's just me and Roman. Yea, I started my own music shop (not just drums) which specializes in drums. I'm coming up on 4 years now this coming August! I'm a full line music shop with anything you need. We do lessons (drums, guitar, bass,piano,banjo), repairs, trades etc.......This is how I make a living as music most definately doesn't pay the bills!.......
Congratulations on the little anniversary, Mike! Do you enjoy being self-employment and where is Smail's Custom Drum Shop located?
At this point of the game, I really couldn't see myself working for someone else and I pray that I never have to. Everything has it's pros and cons, but I like what I'm doing. I'm in downtown Kittanning, PA. (www.smailscustomdrumshop.com)
Hard to believe, but we are at the end of the interview, Mike! I wish to thank you for your endurance and, of course, for your answers. Is there anything you would like to add?
Thank you for you time and space here in cyber-space! I hope one day I'll be able to see you again in person and have a pint or two. Peace, Mike