Not Just Preaching to the Choir

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Interestingly enough, the same week this interview was conducted with Ben “Boss” Hogg the vocalist was also officially welcomed as one of two new writers for Teeth of the Divine. I always enjoyed reading Ben’s work in Metal Maniacs (R.I.P.), his preference for the gnarly ‘n nasty aspects of metal (not unlike mine) and I look forward to reading his contributions here.

Speaking of the gnarly and the nasty, in addition to his front man responsibility in Beaten Back to Pure (new album coming later this year), Hogg has been the vocalist of underground super group Birds of Prey for three albums strong now, including a brand new release called The Hellpreacher. A concept album about an inmate-turned-priest, Birds of Prey – also including guitarists Erik Larson (Alabama Thunderpussy) and Bo Leslie (The Last Van Zant), bassist Summer Welch (Baroness), and drummer Dave Witte (Municipal Waste, Discordance Axis) – continues with its southern ‘n sludgy brand of old school death metal and brings along with it an even better compositional approach. Read all about it right here, straight from the Boss’ mouth.

Before we jump into the specifics of The Hellpreacher, I’ve got to tell that I’m really missing Beaten Back to Pure. What’s going on with that band?

We’re in the studio and we’re rehearsing tomorrow night. We’ve been in the studio for like a year and a half [laughs]. That doesn’t mean anything specifically, but it does mean that tracks have been laid. It seemed like a lot of piecemeal stuff. You’d think that having your own studio [via Vince Burke] would make things smooth, but we get the extra time, the spare time. We’d decide to get two weeks just to focus on us, but then somebody gets lazy, mostly me, and things happen like that. But usually we’re getting in there whenever no one else is booked and Vince will make time for us. But when he’s backed up or fully booked we’re not in there. He gets pretty good business.

I remember when he first started his studio. We talked about it a few years back in the Beaten Back to Pure interview for Metal Maniacs. I seem to recall something about him maxing out all his credit cards to get it off the ground.

Yeah, yeah! I think he’s still deep in debt. Since then he built a whole free standing building for like $30,000. And that’s with the construction hookup; got materials cheap and did the labor virtually free. But still $30,000 is a big ass building. He just got done this past weekend with the new Hail!Hornet album plus a couple of splits that’ll see the light of day eventually.

How long has it been since The Burning South was released anyway, probably more than the few years I was thinking.

The Burning South was August of 2004, coming up on five years [laughs]. I think it either spells our demise with this next thing – and there is going to be a next thing, but I don’t know if it’ll be the last thing – or it’ll show that we can work at our own tempo and feel no pressure to cave to any structure or… Using that tempo we could continue playing into our fuckin’ 50s. We could just release a record every now and then and we’d be as old as fuckin’ Saxon. I do wish we could have pumped one out like in 2007 or so, which was the plan, but it didn’t happen. But we have the songs that we need now. We have like nine songs, maybe even a tenth.

That just means it’ll be an event when this one is released!

[Laughs] Yeah hopefully. Shit, I think we might need a new label. I’m not sure what the label [This Dark Reign] guy is even doing now. I think he just opened an art gallery or something; I’m not even sure what he’s doing. So I’m wondering, maybe we’re free agents and I don’t even know it [laughs]. I thought we still owed him an album, but maybe not. I have thought about doing my own record label for years, but now does not seem like the time to do it. I definitely don’t have enough dough to start up a vinyl-only cool ass thing. I just don’t have the startup capital. We’ve talked about doing a vinyl-only release when it does come out – 500 copies and that’s all there is. Then six months later we’ll put it out on CD. How’s that sound? We’ll see; I don’t know. I think that’s just talkin’ out our asses. But I think we’ll get the album done this year because we’ve got so much headway. It doesn’t seem like a long stretch from here and when we get it finished.

Remind me how the whole Birds of Prey project got started. I don’t even recall anymore.

The guy from Threeman Records had a side label called Dental Records, a subsidiary. He had talked to Erik Larson about getting some stoner rock guys that liked death metal and see what they can get together and do. Larson hit me up about the idea one time and then a couple years later it all came together.

And here you are still doing it.

Yeah, but it only takes a couple of weeks out of the year.

You kept the same lineup too, even though Dave Witte wasn’t able to play on Sulfur and Semen.

Yeah, the only time the lineup changed was when we were first coming together. Danny Nick from Suplecs was going to be the bass player. Then he got washed out due to Katrina and we had to find somebody else. I guess Erik had just done something with Baroness at the time and that’s how he found Summer before he started breaking rock-star big and here we go.

There is no loss of brutality on The Hellpreacher. It’s still gritty and ugly and all that good shit, but you’ve got a little more wingspan in those arrangements this time around I think.

You might be right. That could just be a function of the more time you spend together… If were a real band and rehearsed and played live and things like that we’d be light years ahead of where we are, but as it stands we’re a band of fairly veteran dudes that can take something from scratch and make it into something valid in a short period of time. We’re still a new ass band and every time we write a handful of songs instead of demoing them and fuckin’ around with them in the practice space, taking the best five riffs or the best five songs and all that stuff you’d encounter, everything that we write comes onto the wax and there it is. There is not much of a sieve there; it’s just straight from the mouth to CD or wax and there is not a lot of stopping in between. I think I read somebody on the Internet saying “Dude, they write and record their albums all in one day; that’s the charm!” Ah fuck, we don’t put in a ton of time and effort, but we definitely take more than one day. 

Basically one guitar player writes riffs and the other will travel to the other one’s home – either Bo goes up to Richmond or Larson goes down to South Carolina. They hang out for a weekend, drink some beers, hammer out these riffs, get them in sort of an arrangement, put them in front of Dave Witte who sits down and does something with ‘em, and then they rehearse. Then Summer and me get a tape of those actions and we try to start working on arrangements for our parts. Summer comes up there and he’s a pro. Whenever he has problems, he can hammer right through it in a couple of takes and everything else he nails down. Luckily, I get to go last so there is less of a time crunch on me. When Summer comes up there, there is a deadline – he’s got to catch a Greyhound or whatever on a Sunday night, so he’s got to get his shit done then and there, no ifs, ands, or buts.

Did it take any longer at all compared to the previous two releases?

It took me a longer time to write the words, but I don’t think the recording process took any longer. Dave is kind of a perfectionist in the studio. He’s got an ear for things; not like in a dickhead way or anything like that. He just knows what he wants and he know how to get it. Larson, on the last album when he played drums, is more of a slash and a bang, and he’s not going to complain if he does a hit on a drum that is not exactly where he wants to hit the drum. There is a slightly different sound if you hit it at the three o’clock position or the nine o’clock position. Erik is just more slash and burn, hard hitting, head down head-banging kind of guy, and Dave is more cerebral. That’s why he can work so many different angles, whether it is Municipal Waste or Discordance Axis and all that shit. As far as recording, maybe it was even a little bit more linear last time. When Erik comes up with these songs as a guitarist/drummer I think he has drums in mind while he’s writing on guitar. No one else is inside his brain, so we don’t get the same advantage ahead of time. He’s that far along in the process. When he’s physically doing both it’s pretty fluid. But having Dave there it’s an extra set of ears for quality control and all that shit, which is invaluable.

So this is a concept album about an inmate-turned-priest. Is this something you had been thinking about for a while?

No, it wasn’t my idea to do a fuckin’ concept album, I’ll tell ya that. That was Larson’s idea. He didn’t have any ideas; he didn’t know of a concept, he just said he thought it would be a good idea to make a concept album. At the end of the day it’s kind of his baby. I went kickin’ and screamin’ into it. I said “dude, it’s fuckin’ dumb, it’s hard.” It’s a lot more involved to do a concept album than meets the eye right off the bat.  Before I could even write word one I had to determine what the first song was going to be, what the second song was going to be, the order of the tracks. You can’t have two slows one side by side, you can’t have the up-tempo numbers too close, you’ve got to space them out, and whatever. So I had to get the track listing and decide on that before it even began to be written, more or less. I think I shook up a few things along the way. I think it’s some pretty decent lyric work I did. Then there is the whole thing that you’ve only get 10 chapters. There are 12 tracks, but two of them are intro sorts of things. I had to start somewhere and kill the guy off somewhere at the end. I couldn’t be at song eight in the buildup. I had to figure out where to put a story arc like in the movies. When you watch a movie, every funny movie about two-thirds of the way through the main character has problems with his girlfriend or something, that jostles the movie, and then he lands it in the last five minutes and everything is fine. It’s the same premise. When I got to song six I was like ok I’ve got to get this fuckin’ thing rolling; he’s going to have to get killed off here in a few more songs. I kind of had to outline where I was going. If I had my way I would have probably had a couple more songs in the middle that I could just focus on. But I think it worked out ok; maybe that would have been overkill.

It works out where he’s being born and then he goes to juvenile hall, and while he’s in juvenile hall he finds religion, but he found that it was weak and he wanted to make it much more stringent and a backbreaking sort of religion. It was kind of loosely based on “Lice Halo,” a song on the last album. I think the guy on the cover that Orion from Relapse came up with, I think that’s the song he based the artwork on. For whatever reason that seemed like the story that would be easiest to spread into 10 chapters.  So then he goes and rounds up a bunch of fuckin’ people and develops a compound, the government busts in… Kind of David Koresh stuff with a twist, a necessary amount of twist to keep it from sounding like David Koresh. Unfortunately, David Koresh is pretty typical in the compounds and all that. I guess there is some of that, but he never thought about fuckin’ blinding his congregation and moving them into the underworld; those were some twists. I think it came out ok.

The difference was all the pre-planning you had to do.

Yeah, on the last album I took a whole week off of work. There were 10 songs. Monday morning I woke up and wrote two songs, that night I went to the studio and recorded those two songs. The next day I wrote three and recorded those three. I guess I had a few ideas, but I didn’t have any ability to write something and really quality-check it. It was from my pen that morning to the microphone several hours later. So an idea like “Overfucked and Underage” in retrospect I’d read through it and think man, that’s a fuckin’ sick song [laughs]. But I didn’t really have a chance to think it through. I just wrote it, sang it, and it was done. I didn’t have a chance to over-think anything. There is something to be said for that too. But boy if you hit a writer’s block and you had to do two songs that night it’s a bitch of a way to go. You have to snap out of that shit quick.

It’s funny you mentioned “Overfucked and Underage” because I was writing down some of these Birds of Prey song titles and laughing at how outrageous some of them were. “Overfucked…” was one, but nothing beats “Mangled by Mongoloids (Ripped Apart by the Retarded)” from Weight of the Wound.

Well, I asked Larson what kind of death metal band we were and what do you want me to be writing about. I pitched him like five song titles and one of them was “Mangled by Mongoloids” and he loved it, so I figured that’s what kind of band we are then. I thought it sounded kind of jokey.  I think “Landfill Burial” was another one that I had on that list. I knew we weren’t going to be a Carcass-y death metal band because I don’t know that many terms for “sternum” [laughs].

At the time I had collected some notes here and there. I don’t have big notebooks full of material like T-Roy from Sourvein does or like Ben from Soilent Green does. I find loose little pieces of paper with two or three lines on ‘em here and there. The years will go by and I found new shit every time I move.  It’s just to get a jumping off point to get the ball rolling or if you’ve got writer’s block it’s something great to refer to.

Is it just me or are your vocals a little more intelligible this time?

I don’t know, man. I was in a really weird place. A lot of panic attacks, a lot of coming down off of booze and this and that, a lot of things really getting me down, and I was pretty anxious. I don’t know if it means they were more intelligible. Sometimes they were I guess. If it was just too muddied up I’d just do it again.

It’s not like you couldn’t understand anything you said before; the vocals just seemed easier to decipher this time.

Maybe I backed off some. It wasn’t intentional. And honestly, I haven’t listened to it in two months. I listened to it a few times when it came out and then I said I can’t even fucking listen to it; I’m too close to it. Actually, Saturday night I had a friend over and I spun it while we were talking, so I didn’t really listen to it, but had it playing just so he could check it out. But when I get the actual package I’m going to read the CD along with it, make sure it all makes sense, and it was in order and things like that. Perhaps they’re more intelligible. In the past I’ve not given a damn about that shit. Vince would be on me and say something like “it sounded like you said somebody was gay,” so I’d be “alright, let me do it again.”

On “Taking on our Winter Blood” it seems like you’ve got a few references to classic metal acts, like the line “I’m not crazy, you’re the one that’s crazy.” That is a Suicidal Tendencies reference, isn’t it?”

Yeah, there are shout-outs to a bunch of bands, or call backs or whatever. That’s one of them.

Then your Celtic Frost “Heeeyyyyy.”

That’s another one. At the end of the song, the last verse, there is something from “Evil has no Boundaries” where I just changed around a few words because the tempos are similar. Then one thing from Voivod “Warriors of Ice” and there is Hallows Eve, something about plunging to mega death. Is started doing that and got on a roll. So anybody that listens to this album that liked those albums if they read along carefully and keep up they’ll see those tributes, which are completely intentional.

I also liked “Juvie,” which has that slow crawl that’s just plain filthy. And when you yell “Let the beatings begin” and the solo takes off, it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. That’s a seriously metal moment.

[Laughs] I’ve noticed that when I listened back to it. The first couple of songs are just kind of focusing, and then we’d start talking and drinking beers and before I’d know it the album was over [laughs]. Yeah, that one is pretty cool. But Bo does all the solos pretty much exclusively. Larson’s the ideas guy and Bo implements them.

You’ve never played live with Birds of Prey. Do you think you ever will?

Uh, I don’t know. I’m not that into. I wouldn’t mind doing a few things, like New York. I like New York. But I don’t have any burning desire for it. The older I get the less I feel like doing that shit. I get nervous, I get anxious, I get drunk as fuck [laughs]. I don’t know, man. When I was a kid I would have totally shit all over Fenriz from Darkthrone who would say he never “got off on lives shows; I like albums.” I kind of get that. I like attending live shows, but I like writing and recording albums. Playing live? Not as much. Lots of pressure and a lot of variables, gig  control, shitty sound guys, broken strings… I don’t know that I enjoy it that much. But if all four of the other guys wanted to I’d have to do it. But if I did do it I’d have to learn the fuckin’ words to the old songs. I’m wrote ‘em and recorded ‘em that day and never had to think about ‘em again. I’ve listened to them enough that I could probably do some of them [laughs].

Are you surprised that you’ve already got three Birds of Prey albums under your belt now?

Yeah, all in the length of time it’s taken Beaten Back to Pure to work on one album [laughs], since The Burning South came out in 2004. We recorded the first album in December of 2005. So yeah, three albums, that sounds ridiculous. There have been some little side things here and there too, like King Travolta.

So I guess Relapse must still like you guys.

I think we make just enough to cover up their nut [laughs]. It doesn’t lose ‘em any money, so why not? I guess that’s what they figure. Maybe we’re developing a fan base. I think most of their staff is probably wondering “Why the fuck do we keep doing them?” [Laughs]


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