by Niklas Göransson
In a candid and personal conversation, Greg Chandler speaks of crafting Esoteric’s tortured soundscapes from lessons learned in the deepest recesses of their minds – and how to fortify one’s sanity by plunging into the fires of lunacy.
Since there are several acts out there going under similar monikers, we should perhaps begin by clarifying that these are the British doom/death metal veterans.
– THE ESOTERIC from the US actually tried preventing us from using our name in the States by having their lawyer send us a cease and desist letter as were about to release our fourth album, “Subconscious Dissolution into the Continuum”, in 2004. We formed in July 1992, put out a demo the following year, and our first album (“Epistemological Despondency”) which was released in ’94 had distribution over there.
Their metalcore-peddling assailants on the other hand, only formed in 1996 – and once ESOTERIC’s label Seasons of Mist got involved the Americans were forced to retreat without compromise.
– Then there’s the rap artist in the US named Esoteric. This is less of an issue I believe because the styles are so different, but somehow we still get confused for him. I can understand someone hitting ‘Like’ on a Facebook page without looking too closely, but promoters of his shows keep tagging our page and posting his gigs there.
While on the subject of promoter ineptitude, I noticed that ESOTERIC were supposed to play the ill-fated Temples Festival.
– The organiser was obviously way out of his depth and couldn’t make the numbers balance regardless of turnout. We didn’t have far to travel, Bristol is only about ninety miles from Birmingham so it wasn’t a big risk for us. The fee they offered was lower than we’d get for playing a small local venue, but the line-up was really good and included bands we wanted to see.
Still, Greg remained somewhat wary as he’d heard plenty of talk stemming from the previous year’s edition.
– Friends of ours played there in 2015 and had warned us that a lot of bands either didn’t get paid at all, or several months later and some at lower fees than promised. So we weren’t at all surprised when it was cancelled. Luckily, we managed to get on a replacement show with MAYHEM and FUNERAL THRONE in Bristol.
Most festivals are financially dependent on attendees who travel from other cities or countries, which makes twilight cancellations a growing problem on the European live entertainment market. The potential of events not going forward as advertised will deter some while others won’t bother getting pre-sale tickets, instead playing it safe and buying on location. Poor advance sales will in turn increase the likelihood of a festival pulling the plug.
– It’s a difficult situation because having so many festivals popping up nowadays is a positive thing but – it’s very negative when they fall through at a late stage. It creates situations where people will think twice before forking out the money required to make it to events outside their home town.
An article from April 2015 stated that ESOTERIC were finishing up their new album, but I have been unable to find any subsequent updates.
– I think that statement was slightly misconstrued, or perhaps a little over-ambitious on our behalf. Most of the material is written but we’re still developing parts and experimenting with arrangements.
The as of yet unnamed album will be another Double CD, just like the previous two. Greg adds that he hopes to record it this year but is unable to say for certain.
– In recent years, we’ve had less opportunity to rehearse as often as we did previously, for one reason or another. Progress has been slower than it was between the fifth and sixth albums. I don’t want to give too much away at this point but I will say that all of the usual elements of ESOTERIC are there, with perhaps a few surprises.
Speaking of which; I noticed some grumbling regarding perceived ’post-rock’ following the previous record, “Paragon of Dissonance” from 2011.
– Well, from our point of view it’s a case of these elements always having been part of our sound to some degree. Most members appreciate at least some post-rock, and it’s quite a varied genre in sound and style with the likes of GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR, STARS OF THE LID, NEUROSIS and so on.
While ESOTERIC’s influences vary greatly, when they formed it was their intent to manifest their very minds into music.
– That could be emotional and chaotic, representing mental states during the writing process or a countenance of past experiences – we wanted to explore this far deeper than simply compounding musical influences, to create something we couldn’t hear in other bands at the time. Some facets will of course creep through regardless of how different you try to be, but strip the music down to its core notation and I still believe it’s fairly unique.
‘Psychedelic’ is an adjective often used in connection with ESOTERIC, both by the band and their following.
– For us, the use of that term in conjunction with our music has always been a reference to soundscapes we create and the effects used in doing so, along with the feeling of heightened audible perception as experienced when imbibed.
Greg adds that it’s also a nod to the various ethereal adventuring that went into the forging of their musical style.
– We experimented with LSD, magic mushrooms and cannabis – both in the listening of our music and when trying to create it. Various other things too, but it was mostly psychotropics that really expanded the mind.
Having been granted access to additional sonic dimensions, and the visualisation therein, the fledgling ensemble was able to bring back ideas that might not have been uncovered under more conventional states of perception.
– Psychedelics often create moments of profound introspection, much like a journey into the deeper recesses of the mind. This can in turn alter the nature of what we visualise and perceive, and therefore experience in this state of consciousness.
In light of this reality-warping inspiration source, combined with music that in the early days was particularly harrowing, oppressive and unsettling – I’m taking the liberty of assuming that its composers have endured the ordeal known as a ’bad trip’.
– The most memorable one was during an especially strong LSD experience which lasted over twenty-four hours before I could finally sleep. With this one, we also took a small amount of amphetamines whilst the trip was coming on. At the peak of it I became nauseous and proceeded to vomit, which is quite intense when on acid. I was hallucinating strongly and could see pools of blood in my vomit – you could say it went on a downward spiral from there.
Trying but failing to keep anxiety at bay, discomfort soon took over and left Greg with what he can only describe as a persistent feeling of his head literally dropping from his shoulders.
– It was like a loss of reason and awareness, a step towards death. During the worst phase I was convinced that I would die that night. Once you embark on a trip there’s very little that can be done to shorten it so I spent most of the evening battling to retain my sanity, and only managed to control it several hours later after going on a long, fast walk with the guys who were tripping with me.
Many say that while difficult ventures are undecidedly distressing at the moment, in retrospect they’re often the most beneficial.
– I struggled with anxiety at various points throughout teenage and early adult years, mostly as a result of extended periods of depression, but the regular angst seemed rather insignificant after a panic attack like that on acid so I was able to control it much better. At the time it certainly didn’t feel beneficial, nor during the days following – it took me some time to start feeling grounded again. But the experience did have value in that I learnt from it and made some changes for the better.
Greg says that bad trips can yield a most stark and vivid insight into what lies within the mind.
– They bring up memories, thoughts or parts of the self we prefer to leave dormant and kept from ourselves. I believe it’s important to be self-aware – and this is perhaps an extreme but very efficient way of understanding the self; facing aspects we may consciously ignore, wish changed, or seek to forget.
He adds that it’s difficult to adequately describe the phenomena to someone who lacks a frame of reference. It’s not like the fear of injury or death as induced by impending physical violence, but rather an existential terror. Sort of an apprehension for one’s soul and the certainty of going mad, simultaneously.
– It’s hard to explain due to how significantly perceptions change. During the trip you mostly know what’s real and what isn’t, but there is this inherent questioning that comes with the experience… and such depths opened within the mind where you can feel how intricate and fragile the chains of thought and human consciousness really are.
Then suddenly it dawns; the realisation of how easy it is to spiral into madness, even when believing oneself fully sound. The trepidation of going insane is not something most people are previously familiar with, which adds another spectrum to the dread.
– It’s very easy to become philosophical when tripping, to question absolutes and the nature and purpose of existence. I think for most people it’s the perceived lack of control that puts them off taking psychedelics and I’d say for sure, if you’re genuinely worried then you probably shouldn’t use them.
Greg mentioned in our pre-interview email correspondence that writing without limitation, unburdened by both emotion and mind, is the basic philosophy and ethos behind ESOTERIC. That sounds precisely like ’flow states’, as they’re known in modern terms, or being ‘in the zone’; allowing flesh to transpose what’s coming through the spirit without involving the cerebral. A practical example being that of playing guitar by feel and suddenly churning out a killer riff without having a clue where it came from.
– This is usually the aim when writing music. Of course some ideas come at random moments and others when simply spending time playing, which in itself is important in order to get into the right frame of mind. For me personally, the best time for composing is when I feel compelled to release intense emotions and channel this through my instrument.
He adds that creation is rarely as rewarding or productive when trying to force it, or feeling consumed or constrained by everyday aspects of life.
– I believe that capturing a specific moment in time through sound makes the music more powerful and personal. We try not to limit ourselves when writing, so any idea everyone likes can be integrated – regardless of how unusual or whether it might be considered ‘normal’ for what’s expected of us.
You mentioned this tying into your outlook on life, does that mean that you have an improvisational manner of processing reality?
– Perhaps not entirely improvisational, but I think it’s a good thing when you can fully immerse yourself into the artistic processes. I’m fortunate enough to have a profession which requires creativity as well as methodology.
Greg is a sound engineer by trade and runs his own facility, Priory Recording Studio. I noticed with interest that he appears to have undergone his audio education as a result of frustration from not finding requisite recording competence.
– It was during the recording and mixing of our second album (“The Pernicious Enigma”, 1997) that I decided to train as an engineer. Mainly because I liked being in the studio, and also due to our dissatisfaction with the people we had previously worked with. Back then there weren’t many professionals experienced in recording and mixing extreme music, especially not with our approach. We were looking for something entirely different from what the usual death or black metal offered.
In the early nineties it was quite rare to find albums containing a huge amount of low end, and this was an integral component in ESOTERIC’s sound.
– Heavy use of effects in metal was also more or less non-existent, and what proved especially difficult was finding an engineer who would both understand what we wanted and be able to capture it with enough weight and clarity. There were elements of the music we created that were just not coming across well enough in the mix.
Although they had created all of the sounds themselves, they had yet to learn enough about how to interpret them faithfully.
– We didn’t have enough studio experience at that point to know how it would translate to a standard hi-fi home setup. The other part of the problem was that in addition to the lack of familiarity with the style, the engineers seemed to find the music too heavy-going for them so there was an issue with disinterest I believe too.
It’s curious what sends us down certain irrevocably life-changing trails. In this case, a source of annoyance laid the foundation for what appears to be both a career and a passion.
– Yes, it’s always interesting to note particular turning points. Had I not become a sound engineer, I would likely have been even more broke by pursuing further studies in English literature and philosophy.
Do you believe that how one’s human experience is spent has any bearing on the afterlife?
– I am quite empirical concerning death; there are many theories, but it’s the riddle that can have no answer that we as mortals know. If anything, the very notion of post-mortem judgement simply raises more questions for me. Supposing it to be true, how would such a system be determined and who would preside over it?
Greg mentions sticking points such as what criteria would decide the outcome, and on which body of evidence to base it on.
– Once you start challenging the why’s and how’s, it begins to feel like a man-made theory concocted in order to make sense of and give some direction or purpose to our existence. I think that even if any kind of afterlife did exist, it would be beyond our current comprehension.
Or possibly, he speculates, it might be as simple as that which we can see in our surroundings.
– Perhaps our matter merely transforms into something else and becomes a link in the chain that is an eco-system, or even nothing but dust and ash. I don’t profess to any greater knowledge on or insight into what happens when we die, I only know that it is the one certainty we all share.