J. Bennett is a self-proclaimed Masshole — the first of many things I learned about the scribe-turned-musician during our interview. He spotted the ‘617’ phone number from my landline, so we also briefly discussed his growing up in Mansfield and seeing Willie Nelson at Great Woods as his first live show. But there was a laundry list of topics to get to — women in Metal, writing professionally, important life transitions — not to mention the typical tangents that break into the conversation.
The whole section on beards feels admittedly bittersweet, as I am recently freshly shorn for the first time in five years, and the seed was inadvertently planted by you, J. Bennett. Expect a followup email with both links to this article and requests for advice. I feel… I dunno… “heartbroken” is the closest emotion; that same pit of emptiness — a black sucking void — which must be either forgotten or filled (…with follicles, perhaps?).
Ides of Gemini have come, beware.
MetalMattLongo: To say women are “absent” in heavy metal is a gross misconception as a whole, but it feels like momentum has been building in various subgenres, especially in the last five years or so. As someone who has been on the road in a variety of ways, have you seen the climate shift appreciably?
J. Bennett: Yeah, absolutely. When I started going to shows, not only were there hardly any women on stage, there were hardly any women in the audience. Sure, you can go back to the 80s and there was Sacrifice and Bitch, then you’ve got your Lita Fords and all that …but [overall] it was much more rare. I also think it goes hand-in-hand with Metal becoming more accepted in mainstream circles.
Tell me about it. I work for FedEx Office and our [then-current] ad campaign about shipping golf clubs features a black metal band. But they sorta blur the genres together and seem kinda Slipknotty at the same time. They don’t get it exactly, but it’s weird to see that at all.
That’s part of it, but Metal is splintering into so many subgenres. In the 80s, there were only so many things that were happening, so anyone — male or female — were limited in terms of what they could do, or at least what was acceptable. It was like one thing becoming various degrees of extreme. But now genres don’t just pursue speed and extremity, but also subtlety, and I think that’s where there’s been a lot of room for not just women, but anybody who likes heavy music, but is not necessarily into death metal or grindcore; they can [create] something heavy that’s not over-the-top brutal.
As someone who — like yourself, I imagine — hears hundreds of new releases every year, I actually appreciate the classification. I’ve seen “dream doom” tossed around your press releases, and honestly, I’m okay with that; it’s got brevity, clarity, and ambiguity all at the same time. I can get an idea of what you might sound like, and that’s what genre tags are for, really.
I wrote that press release; I didn’t actually come up with that term, but I’m okay with it. Obviously, for a new band it’s important to be able to say something to draw people in… but are we a doom band? I don’t think so. We have elements of that, but I also went out of my way to say that “dream doom” will do for now, because I don’t know if the term will apply on the next record.
Are there certain subgenres you have a hard time digesting?
I think subgenres are becoming overly descriptive to the point where it becomes hilarious. John Darnielle did a great ‘South Pole Dispatch’ column about that in Decibel years ago with all these great subgenres like ‘midnight blue metal’ and ‘foodist black metal’…it’s a little much.
It’s hard to say in a few words what you’re trying to go for, but at the same time, not being so specific that you pigeonhole yourself. You can only divide of the whole so many times. If you’re the only band playing your genre, then it’s not a genre — that’s you.
Let’s talk writing. When is it easiest for you, and when is it most difficult?
Writing is almost always difficult for me. I have those moments, like anyone else, when you’ve done a lot of something: it comes out really fast and it’s what you want it to be and requires very little changes. I have those moments, and I cherish them, but they don’t come nearly often enough. I struggle with that, and it’s a combination of being really particular about the way I want things to be, procrastination… so it’s all self-inflicted. But you have to be in the right headspace to get it right, and when you’re working with a deadline, I can’t just call my editor and tell him I’m not feeling it today. That doesn’t fly, and as a result, some things come out better than others.
Something else that didn’t fly was you and Sera when Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010, and then you decided to collaborate. What was your first major productive accomplishment together?
We had both set aside about two weeks — got all our work done and coordinated our schedules — to tour in Europe with Black Math Horseman. We’d already talked about doing this, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity. We already had the songs; it was just a matter of getting them recorded and adding Sera’s vocal parts.
In a lot of ways, Ides of Gemini reminds me of Black Math Horseman (probably because of Sera), but you guys are more primal, hypnotic, and stripped-back; I think [IoG's dual female] vocal harmonies really set it apart for me. But like we were saying earlier, there are so many bands with retro riffing and female frontwomen who receive monikers like ‘occult rock’ or …I feel dirty even saying this: ‘vest metal’ [which is NOT a fucking thing ~Ed.] …bands like Royal Thunder, Christian Mistress, The Devil’s Blood, Kylesa …I find it hard to pinpoint the allure, but I think it’s something to do with balancing strength and fragility — for both men and women, especially frontpeople. How do you feel about that?
I think that’s true, and I like all the bands you mentioned as well. This goes back to what we talked about before with the splintering of genres. One of the nice things about that is, when you allow for varying degrees of subtely, you open the door for new things. If you look at The Devil’s Blood or Royal Thunder, they’re not really metal bands. They’re both rock bands, but Royal Thunder has an almost bluesy vibe, and The Devil’s Blood is like Satanic Heart …and that’s what I love about them.
I think the world is starting to realize how awesome Heart was. You know who was on the ball with that? Jerry Cantrell …he had Ann Wilson on Sap back in the day!
Yeah, and then Cameron Crowe had the Wilson sisters do that Led Zeppelin cover on the Singles soundtrack!
Oh, yes… “The Battle of Evermore” is excellent!
But let’s get straight-up manly for a second — I wanna talk beards with you, sir. I’ve got one right about your size* [Editor's note: see first paragraph.] and was wondering how you care for yours, and long you’ve had it for.
I’ve had the beard for — what year is it, 2012? — mostly since ’99, consistently. I’ve shaved it twice. A couple of years ago I shaved it for a few months, and also back in the early 2000s. It may be more aesthetic for some, but the process made me reaffirm why I have a beard: I really don’t like shaving! Not only do I not like it, but I’m not particularly good at it. I think it’s because I do it so rarely that I cut myself all the time.
[laughing] YES — me, too! That’s so funny. I used to keep part of my neck shaved too, but got sick of that and had to grow it out and even it up. Now judging from your promo shots, it looks like you’d have no lack of hair on top, so why do you shave your head?
Well it’s safe to say that I have less hair at 35 than 25. But I used to have long hair, and when you start to notice that it’s not as thick and luxurious as you’d like it to be… plus trying to maintain any kind of in-between length… and shaving your head is way easier than shaving your face; I use clippers, not a razor. Plus I take, like, four-minute showers — in and out.
[This is somewhat out of the ordinary. During this next section, we talk all about what made him more productive, including composing while bedridden for 5 months in the wake of spinal surgery. This topic and much more that J. and I discuss — including Constantinople recording details, tour info, and comparisons with the Disruption Writ demo — is well-covered by my dude Danhammer Obstkrieg at MetalReview.com in HIS recent interview with J. Bennett, which you should totally also read! ~Ed.]
So we further related on multiple levels, what with me doing chiro and my sister experiencing the same lower spine disease, and if you wanna hear about that, plus everything ELSE we talk about in the last (and first!) half of our interview, the podcast is forthcoming. We touch on:
- His origins as a music writer: “In ’96, I wrote some music reviews for a local publication in Boston called The Noise. I believe some show reviews were the first to actually get published. Yup, that was the beginning of the end!”
- The same, but Decibel, specifically: “I started writing for them in their first issue. Albert contacted me before the magazine even started, which was around late 2003. I had sorta been the Metal guy over at Alternative Press and he’d seen some of my reviews.”
- Quality in reviews: “It’s all about the voice of the writer, and if you get a sense that the writer knows what they’re talking about. But beyond that, it’s a matter of personal preference. I do the same as anyone else: bring to bear my own experience on whatever topic I write about.”
- Invocations ranging from Frank Zappa to Tiny Toons… this video, in fact:
If there’s anything I’ve been reminded of during this past week, it’s the importance of time, the futility of dwelling, and the inevitability of evolution. Whether or not you’re on-board is a whole different matter. Open your skull to Ides of Gemini — Constantinople is available via Neurot.