Interviews

Interview with Core Atoms from Arcadea (side project for members of Mastodon, Zruda, Withered)

arcadea-mastadon-side-project

Arcadea is a new, ambitious project featuring Brann Dailor (Mastodon), Core Atoms (Zruda), and Raheem Amlani (Withered). Core Atoms came up with the idea of Arcadea as an exploration of what music would be like 5 billion years from now, when human life has died out, synthetic life has taken over, and the merge of the Andromeda and the Milky Way galaxies has caused some chaos in the universe. In our interview, I wanted to better understand the themes of the album and the creative process that produced it.

Thomas: Thanks so much for talking with us!

Core: Thanks for having me! I’m Core Atoms. I am the keyboardist, vocalist, and I do samplers in Arcadea. I have two other band mates: Brann Dailor on drums and vocals, and Raheem Amlani on keys and vocals. And they’re both on tour right now.

Thomas: Yeah, I was thinking about that! It seems like they’re pretty busy guys with their other bands.

Core: Yeah, definitely. I did a Zruda show last night and the night before- but we are just finishing up the new record.

Thomas: It’s awesome that you guys were able to take out the time and work on this. I know how busy professional musicians are these days. I feel like a bunch of musicians I know are in 10 different bands. So, before we get into Arcadea, tell us a little bit about yourself and your musical history.

Core: So, I’m from Western New York, Rochester, I believe it has several claims to fame- David Bowie was arrested there. At age 18, I started a band called Gaylord. It was a 3 piece. The idea was doing funk, prog, and punk and melding it together. The bass player and I were Rush fans but we also liked heavier, newer stuff, and we also liked a lot of jazz , like Charles Mingus, and, classical, like Beethoven. And we wanted to see if we could combine it all. And one of our favorite drummers was in Rochester- Brann Dailor. At the time he was in a technical metal band, and he came to see us play, and he said, “Hey, you should let me be your drummer.” And we said, “OK!”  And so we formed Gaylord together with him for a few years, and we recorded an album, and then he kind of did his Today is the Day (band), and then he moves to Atlanta and started Mastodon. Gaylord kept going and went through 7 different drummers, and one of them, one of my favorites, Drew Verstraete, is in Zruda right now.

So I’m a guitar player. I play kinda  differently- upside down and backwards. Not by any weird thing- I just picked up a guitar and thought it was the right way to do it. And I love great bass players and I love great drummers. And maybe it was a product of just feeling like I have guitar already. I played a little keyboard back then too. Brann has always been one of my favorite drummers. I love drummers that have an idea of music beyond, you know, percussion? And Brann’s one of those guys, so I always knew I would do something with him again. So when my band moved south for touring, I was already playing with a different drummer (who is one of my favorite drummers), but I thought, maybe Brann can play in this new synth project. And it was just the right time for all of us.

arcadea-band-1-675x418

Thomas: So this album. I’d like to talk about the concepts- both the lyrical and musical concepts.This album is full of really interesting stories and concepts- robots, space, the end of the universe, planets- lots of really cool themes going on. What came first- the idea of doing a synth project, or the thematic material?

Core: I would say they both were kind of at the same time. I wanted to do an album that took place post-human,  and I wanted to sort of leave out any kind of contemporary references to things. I thought, 5 billion years in the future is a really fascinating time that a lot of astronomers think about – you know, all the things that will happen. Our sun’s gonna die out, the Andromeda galaxy will collide with ours and form a new galaxy, and new planets will align. And so I just started really thinking about that.

I think as we wrote each song, I had an overall story. And so we sort of said, this song here calls for this idea, and so the music and the lyrics, [came together] like, here’s the music, and the statement- and we write a song around it. I mean, this is from my point of view. The other guys might approach it slightly differently. But for me, it was a definitely concept from beginning to end…a story I wanted to tell musically and lyrically. Now I know that everyone has their own feeling about their words, and then people can listen and not have any clue what anything is about, and it doesn’t matter, because it’s just good music. So I hope that’s still the case.

But I tried to kind of imagine not only  planets- but also that they [the planets] would embody some human elements or human emotions by 5 billion years from now, since we are all gone. Biological life isn’t gonna be the same that it is now, and I imagined that planets, like the Greek gods, would take on personalities. So like, Mars, is the God of War…so there are  all these emotional things that accompany those names, those big heavenly bodies that float around. And the Greek Gods were oddly human. And I thought, well, let’s revert back in the future, to this state where these planets have God like emotions and activities then. So they’d have the same types of emotions and motivations that were were more human, yet there are no humans anymore… and we’d see how this played out in the changing galaxy. So, that’s overall the idea of the album.

Thomas: Right- I noticed some of the song names alluded to planets- Rings of Saturn, Neptune’s Moons. I hadn’t considered that. And it’s interesting that you bring up the whole discussion about artist’s intentions- some would say (like a famous literary critic Roland Bathes, “the author is dead”), but I personally think it’s valuable to know what the artist was thinking, or what was in their headspace, because I feel like,  what you just described, it’s cool to me that the concepts came together, because in order to fully appreciate this album, I feel like you have to embody the headspace. I think of robots, synthetic life, space, the coldness and loneliness of space…and if you think about how those themes play in to the music, the music makes a lot more sense.

Core Atoms: I agree with you. I think that is the world that the album occupies, and yeah, it’s like anything- I feel like it helps to know the space where it was envisioned.. But,  I remember when I first got the Lamb Lies Down on Broadway album, and then later I sat down and ready the words and listened to the music, and to me, the music and the story unfolded, and it was not the same as what I was reading. I’d talk to people and they’d say, “No, it was this or that.” So we can all interpret things in so many different ways.

Thomas: Yeah, it’s cool you brought up that album. I had a similar experience. Me, as a 15 year old, didn’t really understand the extensive literary and mythological references, but nevertheless, it still was a really personal album for me.

Core Atoms: Yeah, you personalize things.

Thomas: Speaking of background and context, is there a linear storyline to this album, or is it more snapshots of the future?

Core Atoms: They’re snapshots, but presented in a linear way. So, for example, the first song, “Army of Electrons”, to me, that, is starting with the Sun. The SUn is this big ball of energy. And  so it’s more or less, from that to the last song, moving through the solar system- Starting with the sun and moving outward. And there’s also an alien race that is floating and looking for a new home, and that’s where “Rings of Saturn” came from. They are in suspended animation, floating around and orbiting Saturn, and they’re contemplating all these  things, unable to get anywhere, because they’re floating in the debris.

Thomas: In the Gas Giants video, which you hand drew, there is an alien race that’s featured in that. Kind of robot looking?

Core Atoms: Yeah, that’s the idea of- I’m calling them Arcadeans. They’re the observers. And they’re kind of the voice of the album, and they’re kind of narrating what’s happening in a lot of songs. Also there’s this song that’s called “Motion of Planets”, that is about a drone (from our era) gets sucked up in space and keeps going, well past human life, and keeps collecting data. So it’s watching the motion of planets change and keeps  recording things. So there are little interludes that come in. But I’m well aware that anyone could listen and say, “I’m not sure what story this is!”

Thomas *laughs* sure.

Core Atoms: Yeah,we all do it. It takes a little getting into sometimes. Or not. I’m totally fine with someone just rockin’ out to.

Thomas: So you play guitar and you sing, but on this album you decided not to use guitars. Is that correct?

Core Atoms: Yeah, that’s correct.

Thomas: Just synth- really heavy, sawtooth, in your face synth. And from what I’m ascertaining, that decision was made to inhabit this vibe that you wanted to create.

Core Atoms: Yeah, Absolutely.  Raheem and I both play guitar ion our other bands, and that’s our primary insturment. For me, in Zruda, I play both guitar and keyboard, and I swich back and forth, but on recording albums, I usually just add things like tubular bells with synth, or whatever. With this album, I thought, Mastodon has their guitar, Zruda has their guitar, Withered has their guitar. Lets say something different. Let’s do something different. I’m a huge fan, like I said before, of great drummers, and drums, and I feel like I didn’t want to have electric drums at all. Not with one of my favorite drummers. So I wanted the textures and organic sound of drums. But I decided I wanted to confine the sound to keyboards.

I kind of wanted to approach keyboards like a guitar. You can make all sorts of sounds with a guitar, but you can also manipulate synthesizers. And so it was a real exploration into sounds and guitar pedals. I love that when you play guitar, you have this great manipulation you can do, with fingers on  strings, or feet on pedals, and I wanted to see if you could get as many ranges from keyboard playing as well. Cause when you play keyboards, I feel like it’s a little more flat, because when you touch a not, there’s no bending or movement. Well, I mean, of course there is-

Thomas: You can use modulation or pitch bend, yeah? But I guess for you, it’s more about creating something more raw, intense…maybe more expressive?

Core Atoms: Right.

Thomas: It comes across as really cool. If you’re imagining the future of the universe, this is great soundtrack music for what will be going down.

Core Atoms: Definitely. Hope you’re having fun while it’s going down.

Thomas: Did you write all the lyrics?

Core: Yes, I did. Well,  I wrote the majority of the words. I mean, sometimes, Brann would sing it, and we change words because it’s hard to say. Maybe 98%. But I definitely had my story that I wanted to get out. It’s funny- couple of the songs came about because we were discussing this concept, and how the album would play out, and we would write around that. Or he would sing a melody and not sing the words, and I’d say, “that  word kinda sounds like this word. That works well.” So I tried not to be like, “Everyone play this way, exactly how I say.” That’s boring and it cuts down on creative input. So there’s definitely a lot of input from everybody, but I wrote all the lyrics. And most of the songs were written ahead of time. The “Motion of Planets” one was written from jamming together. Brann had this funky drum thing going, and we just wrote to that.

Thomas: I bet those practices were fun!

Core: They were great. Brann is the most busy of us, so he’s not always in Atlanta. Which is fine. He just flies in the morning, and is super jazzed, and we have a nice studio. Raheem’s studio, actually. Good vibes. Right across from this really nice neighborhood in Atlanta. We just hang out, get some lunch, rock out for a couple hours, and then go back to our different lives.

Thomas: And these people who you knew and trusted how they played, so it’s different than getting musicians from a classified ad, you know? You knew there would be chemistry. and you knew they’d play to your vision.

Core Atoms: And I think the key is to cut down on the members of your band. For example,  in our 3 piece, Raheem’s great, he has this really great passive personality, so he has to be the guy who does engineering and recording. He’s like- “Ok, let’s see how we can make that sound happen.”

Thomas: So like, the nuts and bolts, the technical side.

Core Atoms: Which is much more than I do. I do some home recording, and I’ve recorded some stuff, But I don’t have that kind of morale. But we each brought something useful to this project.

Thomas: Like a superhero  crime fighting trio. So, there are two keyboards going on- you and Raheem play keyboards. Was there any sort of consistency on who played what sounds? I guess I’m trying to ask, was there a bass keyboard and a treble keyboard?

Core Atoms: Yeah, so in a lot of ways, I try to approach it like that. We’re a three piece, bass drum and guitar, so we need to fill in the sound. But sometimes I’ll play more of a bass line and Raheem will play lead, and sometimes we’ll switch, but that’s the approach we were taking.

Thomas: And vocals too. I thought at first when I was listening to the album, that I would be able to pick out Brann’s voice, but in some songs, there are so many effects going on that it’s hard to tell who is singing what. How did you decide who would sing on what?

Core: Some of the stuff I wrote with Brann’s voice in mind. He’s got a certain thing. Even with our first record with him, I was the first guy to get Brann to sing. You know, something required a singer, and he had a great voice, and I was like, “Man, you’ve got a great voice. Why don’t you sing?! You should totally sing. “ And he was like, “Well, I’m a drummer”.

Thomas: Maybe he doesn’t want to turn into Phil Collins?

Core: Right. We’ve had that Phil Collins.conversation. And we’re all huge fans.

Brann Dailor Editorial Portrait

Thomas: Ha, yeah, I’m a fan too.

Core Atoms: The older I get, the more I appreciate pop. So a lot of the stuff was written for Brann’s voice or mine. “Motion of Planets” is Raheem, because I play keyboards on it, and he’s been doing some really heavy vocal stuff with his other group. He can do the scratchy, heavy tone. And then some, like, you said it was hard to tell. I wanted some of it to be basically a future voice that doesn’t have such a specific character. Some of it is Brann’s voice and mine together, so it’s more nondescript-  not all Brann or all me. Oh, and “Neptune’s Moons”. That would be Brann’s wife singing on that one. I wanted a female voice for that.

It’s basically about this moon of Neptune, sick of waiting hundreds of years to revolve around the Sun, and just, being cold all the time. But all the sudden,  this giant body floats into the newly forming solar system that isn’t quite a planet. It’s a dark matter object. (that’s the last song- “Distant Star”), and they’re trying to convince the moons and other distant cold  planets to join the ranks. It’ll become the new sun- sort of like a new religion. So Neptune’s moon is this distant cold, fragile object, and I wanted that delicate voice for that.

Thomas: That’s so interesting- I couldn’t tell it was a female voice, but that totally fits. It’s sometimes hard to tell because of the effects- I guess that was intentional, though?

Core Atoms: I didn’t want anything to be too human. But at the same time, I wanted to keep the organic quality.  But Raheem is all about…he didn’t punch in and punch out- it was more like, you start it, and you finish it. Which I love.  The old fashioned way- everybody comes in knowing their part and nails it. Not to digress, but it’s kind of a 60s, 70s thing. Because back then, you couldn’t waste recording time. So yeah, it does all sound processed, and the vocals are sort of out there, but I still wanted to have a human heartbeat.

Thomas: There’s an immediacy that happens then.

Core: I wish we could have all spent a little more time developing the project, but at the same time, I’m super pleased with these songs.  But I have about 5 or 6 more that we had been working on that will be on our next album.

Thomas; And it’s a cool concept that challenges you, with keyboards and futuristic sounds being the focus. One major theme I see in artists and creatives is that sometimes restricting yourself to a specific format (in this case, keyboards)is where you are able to make really creative stuff happen. Like, Iron Chef musically- you are given certain ingredients, and you set parameters for yourself.

Core Atoms:Absolutely. So, I never look at things as genres, or try to play things in a certain way that fit in a genre. I’m never like, “Oh, it’s not metal, so I cant play it.” That doesnt’ matter. So not limiting myself that way. But I will say, because I do a lot of writing for Zruda, but because I’ve limited it to keyboards, and created the concept of Arcadea, it’s very different than the world of,  let’s say, Mastodon, or Zruda.  I do think it was great to have borders on: no guitars. I wanted to create this specific world. SO borders were helpful creatively.

Now, I know artists that are in a ton of different bands, and I don’t know how they do that without getting burned out creatively, because if you put so much, you wanna make a product you’re proud of . But for me, it helped in a way that, you know, [to focus on keyboards only]-  I save all my guitar parts for everything else, and I save my keyboard parts for Arcadea.

Thomas: So will there be a follow up album!

Core Atoms: Definitely, if we’re still alive, and still like each other, then yes. *laughs*

Thomas: Awesome. Have you thought about taking this project to a live stage? I know you mentioned how busy everyone is.

I definitely plan on doing this live. I’m not sure how it will play out. We didn’t record it all live, so it might be a challenge , but I’m really looking forward to playing this live. I hate to add further  to everyone’s schedules, but I think we’re all really looking forward to jamming.  We’re probably looking at the Fall before we start playing live?

Thomas: Awesome. Really hope I can check it out. 

Arcadea’s self titled debut, Arcadea, is out today (June 16, 2017). Check them out, buy it here, and stay tuned for live shows!

arcadea-band

And if you want to support the other projects of band members:

Mastodon (Brann’s band) just released Emporer of Sand, which can be purchased here.

Zruda (Core’s band) just released Maze of Medusacheck it out here.

Withered released Grief Relic in 2016- buy it here.

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