They Seem Like Owls is a home-studio project with a broad range of musical influences including progressive rock, post-metal, experimental, and non-musical influences including Albert Camus, David Lynch, and Justin Bieber.
How are you? Thanks for accepting this interview with The Pit of the Damned. Your band has been founded recently, but it appears that you have a clear idea about what you are doing. Could you let us know more about the history of They Seem Like Owls? Why this moniker and what is your background?
Dan: Hi Franz, thanks for reaching out to us like this! The band name comes from a frequently repeated phrase on the TV show Twin Peaks, “The owls are not what they seem.” This show was very influential to my writing process for a couple reasons: it was a wonderful and seamless blend of genres, andit frequently illustrated the power of perspective. If you analyze what I’m playing on the album, you’ll find I use a lot of the same chords and even progressions throughout the album… but I used different tones and context. To me, this is just exploring the full potential of an idea, but what I got was a nice way to connect different songs… with fewer ideas, haha.
As far as history goes, we don’t have much just yet. About 4 years ago I committed myself to writing an album and slowly figured out how to do that. I got Jason on-board within the first year, but we primarily communicate via Facebook chat. Jason and I have over 20,000 messages. Billy and I have 194… I think that pretty much sums up the differences in my dynamics with Jason and Billy, haha.
During my review of your 'Strangers', I have mentioned Ne Obliviscaris as an influence in your first song. Chatting with you, I was very surprised that you didn't know the Australian band, but now (looking at your facebook page) it seems that you were very impressed by the music of them, am I right?
Dan: Yeah! So glad you brought them to my attention. They’re fantastic, what a great blend of genres and incredible musicianship! Australia really has some heavy hitters, between them, Karnivool, and Caligula’s Horse.
Writing about your excellent album, I have also mentioned Riverside, Opeth, Katatonia, djent and post rock as sources of your influence, do you agree with my analysis?
Dan: For sure! It would be impossible to say those bands and genres haven’t influenced me. But I also have some very specific influences. Brian Cook from Russian Circles and Jeff Caxide from Isis greatly influenced my tone choices and presence for my bass. Even though only one song would be considered djent, sort of, Tesseract definitely influenced my heavy guitar tones throughout.Many songs had particular influences upon starting the writing process, but came out completely different no matter how hard I tried to steal other peoples’ ideas, haha. Bands such as Eden Circus, The Contortionist, Isis, Between the Buried and Me, Amia Venera Landscape and Maserati all had very specific influences on this album. I could list a whole bunch of other bands, but they’re all somehow less tangible. Although, I will say Porcupine Tree, Demians, Between the Buried and Me, and (no joke) Supertramp were probably my biggest influences in terms of composition. 'Crime of the Century' just makes me want to melt everytime I hear it… so emotive, and the dynamics are perfect.
'Strangers' was released last June and its title is linked to the fact that all of you live in different cities, including the mixing and mastering engineers. How was 'Strangers' born considering that you are four musicians staying easily seated on the sofa of each of your own homes writing music? What is the composition process like? How did you meet the other guys in the band?
Dan: I tried doing the whole project myself, but after a while I realized I was no good at writing drums and definitely not a good singer. Bands like Skyharbor made me realize good music isn’t restricted by geography… my band could live anywhere.
I found Jason (who lives in Washington, DC) on Bandmix.com; I simply searched for vocalists who liked Dan Tompkins. Thankfully, he could also record from home and eventually brought Billy into the project (who lives all the way on the other coast in Portland, OR)… they used to be in a band together, so I guess they weren’t strangers. But the entire album was written before I had met Jason, and I still haven’t met Billy. Our sax player, Mike, lives in Los Angeles. I’ve actually known him since high school but neither Jason nor Billy has ever met him. Jason came to Chicago just to hang out for a weekend after the album was finished, and I saw him while I was in DC for business once. Not sure I’ll ever meet Billy, to me, he’ll just always be this mysterious and quiet master drummer out in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, haha.
And I don’t think it’s a stretch to consider our artist, Shawn, a part of the band. He sang in one of my old bands back in college, Melon (https://melon.bandcamp.com). I just really feel like he gets what we’re doing musically,as is evidenced by his artwork. I gave him free reign with almost no guidance other than our music and lyrics, so to me, it really is the visualization of our album. And of course, Shawn hasn’t met Jason or Billy either.
But onto the writing process. The majority of the album is based on a rhythm guitar. I’d write half-decent drums to record to. Then I’d fill in the gaps with bass, synths, or more guitar… often improvised just to get something down for the sake of progress. At this point Jason would own the song for a while, write and record vocals. Then we’d send it to Billy, which was nothing short of magic in my opinion. I got essentially no communication from him until it was done and whatever he gave me the first time was gold. I think the only real feedback I ever gave him was on the opening of Light Field when I told him I wanted the drums to get more attention and be the real driving force… he just said something like, “I gotcha.” After Billy finished, I’d re-record everything to make sure I was really in time with him. And finally, Jason would re-record. There were no deadlines. And everyone had free reign on their parts, which was hard for me to let go of ownership. But I couldn’t be prouder of what everyone has done.
Your sound is peculiar not only for a large range of influences, but also for the use of sax (I think that it is a great idea, already done in the past by other heavy metal bands) for a result quite original: why did you decide to adopt this solution? How was it born? And how would you describe it?
Dan: The sax was Jason’s idea for Thanksgiving. Frankly, I was really nervous about the idea. But I’m not very good at lead guitar and we needed something in the middle of Thanksgiving. Since I knew Mike had gotten back into playing the saxophone and had a way to record at home, I let him give it a shot. And it came out great! But when Jason suggested sax on Thanksgiving, I immediately thought of the opening of "Light Field", which desperately needed something else. I suppose I kind of had Klone’s album, 'All Seeing Eye', in mind and then just avant-garde in general. I just wanted something ambient and distant to contrast the busy and specific drums.
Mike: Yeah, this was just one of those things where the timing happened to work out. I had recently begun experimenting with recording at home, and I had sent Dan an original tune for feedback. When he asked if I was interested in playing on his album, I was a little hesitant at first since I had never played in a rock/metal setting before (my background is jazz/blues/funk). But I recorded some initial ideas for Thanksgiving and got some great feedback from Dan and Jason, and we took it from there. Then Dan sent me Light Field, and I immediately recognized that the sax would sound cool in the intro with effects like growling and overtones, and a lot of reverb added on top of that. I'm really pleased with how it came out!
What about the lyrics? Who is responsible of their content? Are they influenced by your daily life, personal experiences or by the crazy daily facts that happen in the world (I think to ISIS, the political world wide instability or to the fact that very often are involving the police in US)?
Jason: I pulled from a selection of works in existentialism, politics, and social movements. Most salient among them (I think): those of the French absurdist, Albert Camus, who played a very significant role in my intellectual development. I borrowed themes (heavily) from Camus’ novel, L’Étranger (1942), and his essay, Le Mythe de Sisyphe (also 1942) – particularly in Chasm, Elevator, and Sisyphus. (How apropos, right?) Camus’ earlier works largely focused on the absurd struggle – that is, humanity’s passion for, and effort to discover absolute meaning, where none (apparently) exists – or its inaccessible to human reason. In facing the absurd, we’re left in a frightening state of non-belonging in our own existence. Do we kill ourselves? Do we distrust and/or abandon our reason, and turn to faith? Or is there another way to create purpose in an apparently purposeless existence? I throw-in with the latter (*See songs "Elevator" and "Sisyphus"). These questions can be intersectional with salient world issues – from terrorism and multiculturalism, to “social justice” and human rights. (Shooter is probably the least subtle in its political undertones.) I don’t think you can answer the question of ‘what kind of world do we want to live in?’ without first addressing absurdity.
You may find elements of said discourses on absurdity and related topics in Strangers. But take away from the album whatever you like; it’s just music, at the end of the day. While, at times, my lyrics may have a polemic attitude, I mostly wanted to have fun with some difficult/interesting ideas. But if you feel at all offended throughout the course of 'Strangers': (1) I’m glad you read the lyrics. Bravo! (2) Ask me a good question and I’ll write a song with my response.
What about the artwork of the cd, could you explain us it’s meaning?
Shawn: All of the artwork was inspired by the lyrics and the feel of the music itself.
I would start out drawing an image based on a more literal interpretation of the lyrics. Then once I experimented with color and the use of negative space, they would eventually evolve into abstract designs. I don't have Synesthesia (the ability to see a color and hear a sound or seeing a number and feeling a strong emotion), but I've been reading a lot about it and I tried to imagine what I would see while listening to the music. I created a color palate for the CD based on that approach.
The clean, simplistic design of the layout mixed with the more intricately detailed illustrations, mirrors the atmosphere and visual imagery of the music. I pictured a vast multiverse landscape, with each bubble being a window into another universe.
'Strangers' was released in June, but I believe that the writing process begun maybe in 2015: are you already thinking or composing new material? Do you have some new ideas?
Dan: I have begun writing a couple of new songs. Since completing the album, I’ve purchased a new guitar, a new effects board, and a piano… all of which are inspiring me in very different ways. One song has some really heavy bass with melodic guitar and an ambient piano. Another feels like a mix of old-school, really heavy Isis mixed with Skyharbor… if that makes any sense. But who knows how all of it will come out in the end. That’s what I loved about working with everyone in this project: finding out how different the final product is from my initial brainstorming.
Considering that They Seem Like Owls looks like a studio band, will there be the chance to see you on stage?
Dan: I sure hope so! I’ve been jamming with a drummer here in Chicago. I was worried about finding someone who could play the insane drums written by Billy. But I have no doubt Parth has the chops for it! We’re currently auditioning for a 2nd guitarist and bassist, and Jason would fly in for occasional shows once we’re all ready to perform.
Here in the Pit of the Damned are very thirsty about interesting underground bands: considering your cities (Chicago, Portland and Washington DC), are there any bands you would recommend us?
Dan: My music collection consists of primarily European bands by far… but I think I can find some domestics in here somewhere J
For current local Chicago metal/rock, I’d suggest Outrun the Sunlight (https://outrunthesunlight.bandcamp.com) and Fire Garden (https://firegardenmusic.bandcamp.com). Outrun the Sunlight has opened for The Contortionist and Tesseract… they had a very polished sound and were very tight when I saw them. Fire Garden recently opened for Haken and also had Bruce Soord mix their latest album, which was pretty cool to find out.
One of my favorite local bands back from my Boston days was Irepress (https://irepress.bandcamp.com/). Both of their albums, 'Samus Octology' and 'Sol Eye Sea I', are fantastic (check YouTube for those two albums, not on BandCamp for some reason).
I know them very well as I have both those albums...
Dan: Although I never lived in Nashville, and they broke up at least 10 years ago, Shun is still one of my top underground “local”picks… maybe on the mellow and more straight-forward rock side for your site, but their album 'Michael in Reign' is definitely worth checking out. Billy White is still one of my favorite singers.
Not sure if Rishloo (https://soundcloud.com/rishloo) got much international attention, but they’re a local band in Seattleand are pretty damn good… 'Feathergun' is one of my favorite albums. Billy actually got to share the stage with them in his band Wellwalker. OH YEAH! Billy plays guitar in another band (https://wellwalker.bandcamp.com)!
And now my recurrent last question: during my face-to-face interviews in my radio show, I am used to ask for the desert island list: three books, three records and three movies you cannot live without?
Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid
Many Worlds in One
A Case for Solomon: Bobby Dunbar and the Kidnapping That Haunted a Nation… full disclosure, my mom wrote that one :)
'Anthropocentric' by The Ocean
'Crime of the Century' by Supertramp
'Gently Disturbed' by Avishai Cohen
The Royal Tenenbaums
Books (I don’t think I can limit myself to three; here are three books I care about):
The Stranger, Albert Camus (of course)
Letters to a Young Contrarian, Christopher Hitchens
Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville
'Polaris' by TesseracT
'The End of Heartache' by Killswitch Engage
'Controller' by Misery Signals
The Fountain (Aronofsky, 2006)
A Most Wanted Man (Corbijn, 2014)
Man of Steel (Snyder, 2013)
Now I leave you the last lines for the Italian fan that maybe don't know They Seem Like Owls...
Dan: I think more than our music, I just want people to know that making an album isn’t this crazy impossible thing. Certainly we’re not the first group to make an album from home with strangers, but I hope this becomes a bigger trend. For me, it was bands like Skyharbor, Demians and Cire that made me realize I don’t need a live band first. Again, they weren’t the first to do that either, but one day I realized an increasing number of my favorite bands were just some really passionate musicians that weren’t afraid to try unconventional paths to get their music out in the wild. Maybe for you, it’s just some normal guys in random US cities?
And since it didn’t come up in the previous questions, I’d also like to give our mixing engineer some well-deserved credit. Julien Fehlmann (http://www.studiomecanique.ch) was able to give a lot of life to our raw home-recordings, and he also took some liberties with a some of the tones and synths… which wasactually very much appreciated. He’s got an impeccable ear for this stuff.
Thanks a lot guys and good luck for your incredible music!
(Francesco Scarci for The Pit of the Damned)