Sumerlands Make the Traditional Inspirational
Sumerlands, the latest in a long line of bands mining the roots of traditional U.S. heavy metal and hard rock, are set to unveil their eponymous debut LP on Relapse this September. Arthur Rizk is not only the guitarist, but also the engineer and producer on the record. Below, he gives his perspective on his role in the group, as well as the alchemy behind writing and recording a heavy metal album:
Sumerlands are basically a new band, despite releasing a demo a little while back, so I was hoping you could talk a little bit about your formation. Where did the idea for the music come from? What made you reach out to Phil Swanson as a vocalist? What about his voice did you connect with, and what do you think it conveys ?
Sumerlands was the most unforced, organically created band of my lifetime. Jason Tarpey of Eternal Champion and I were meant to be the live rhythm section of Phil's former band, Hour of 13, except the furthest we got was filming a music video with them. The day of the shoot, though, Phil and I struck a friendship, and when he was done with that band months later, we ended up chatting informally about doing some demos. I jumped at the opportunity because there was no pressure involved. I loved the prospect of doing some songs. Just friends — no band name, vision or concept. Obviously, it was a big advantage to work with a talented lyricist, arranger and overall great voice. What I love about Phil's voice are the many dimensions he brings to the table; like when we did the original [The] Guardian demo, I was really blown away by his falsetto. At that moment, I knew we could do any style of music together and it would sound awesome. I'm currently writing some songs for him for another project as well.
The first people that I knew who listened to heavy metal bands, I met at summer camp, and they were into stuff that was considered a bit serious-minded and ambitious, like Queensrÿche, some of the late '80s Fates Warning stuff, solo Bruce Dickinson even. There was this era of metal where you started seeing bands wearing, like, sport coats, and getting a little more heady in terms of the content and performances. Listening to Sumerlands, I'm brought back to that era, and I feel like it's kind of a forgotten moment with younger metal fans today. Do you feel like that's the lineage you come from?
Fair to say, for sure ... although, I don't see any sport coats in our future. [Laughs] Although maybe that is a nice turn of phrase for this style, which definitely pays respect to the aforementioned era: the "sport coat" years of metal. Queensrÿche had some inventive percussive stuff going on Operation: Mindcrime and Empire that drove a lot of their memorable riffs, and that's one thing I loved about all their stuff and was a big inspiration on Sumerlands, even as late as Empire with their rock radio jam "Jet City Woman."
You've been on a bunch of records in the past, but I feel like you've never had this kind of a guitar showcase before. What are your influences as a player?
I am most definitely always a guitar player first, and "Seventh Seal" is definitely the most fun for me to play. I can tell you that I love metal so much that I find ways to see other non-metal guitar players as super fucking metal. For example, Brian May of Queen, Steve Howe of Yes, Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees, Eddie Van Halen — the list can go on forever, but all these guys were full-on orchestras, and that is something I tried to do on this LP: orchestrate, rather than just shit out riffs.
I think it's obvious that you go outside the box and draw from guitarists not inside the metal bubble, but who are some of your influences on the more orthodox side as a guitar player?
There are so many to mention, but one that may be obvious is Jake E. Lee, who is an orchestrator and has an insanely powerful lead style. Some not so obvious would be like Chuck Schuldiner, Marty Friedman and Dave Murray. Dave is another guy with a genuinely moving lead style; to this day, I'm still blown away by "Flight of Icarus." There's plenty of other bands I was jamming around the time I was writing, like Queensrÿche, Warlord, Dokken and Fates Warning.
You're also the producer and engineer on this record. Can you talk about how you juggle those roles when you're making a record like this? Do you feel overwhelmed, or does it streamline the whole process for you when it's happening?
I am constantly recording my own stuff; it's why I became a recordist. The process tends to move fast in the tracking stage. In the producing / recordist world, the best guys are always saying, "Make great decisions fast and don't look back," so I apply this while I am doing my own stuff. I know what I want and the best way to get it, so opposition from the person I am recording is the only thing that will change that. When I am recording myself, that factor is taken out. It sounds egotistical, but whatever — that is why we have consiglieres. Also, having Justin [De Tore] as the drummer ... well, you know, it's like your drummer is a hit man and is just killing. He knows nothing else.
There was a moment when I was "finished" with the LP and I listened, hoping for a moment of relief. Instead, the mix sounded like shit to me. Granted, this can happen with any record, but when you wrote the music, played on them, and tracked them and mixed them, then mastered them ... that was the overwhelming part, thinking I fucked myself by keeping the whole process in-house. In reality, the songs were perfect to me, and I had just lost my perspective on what I was listening to.
Do you consider this record to be, for lack of a better term, "retro"? And if so, why?
That term, for some reason, always has seemed backhanded to me, and I can't quite pinpoint why. Maybe because "retro" to me brings up correlations to fashion rather than music and art. To me, the record is nothing more than inspiration from favorite metal spaced across all subgenres, and putting it through the Sumerlands filter, which has always been some form of big kick, big snare, big guitar, big wide vocals and a warm mix. If it happens to sound like it came from the '80s or '70s, that is very cool and humbling, but it's all influence, not imitation.
What do you have coming up for live appearances?
Our first show is with Eternal Champion, who also have an album out around then, October 1 at Union Pool in NYC. Also on that show are one of my produced bands, Crypt Sermon, who contain the best shredder I've recorded, Steve Jansson, a guitarist from the school of Shrapnel. I'd also like to add we did try to get Magic Circle, but they had a prior obligation. It would have been great. This show should not be missed, as it is a rare congregation of new USHM bands that play mostly on special occasion.
Phil has a reputation for not liking to play live. Do you think the band will ever tour?
Phil is up for anything with this band because it came together organically and with no poison. We never clash because it's our band and there is a lot of respect between all of us. Will Sumerlands continue to play live? There is no answer — we are all very busy, and it really does not matter to us what kind of tour package we could be on, or how much we could make at a show, or what Euro-fest we can play the 11 a.m. slot at. We are only interested in doing things that make sense with our ideals and schedules; you couldn't pay us enough to do anything otherwise.