Byzantine's return with "...And They Shall Take Up Serpents" is undoubtedly one of the most intense pure thrash metal albums of 2005. Recently, The Gauntlet caught up with OJ to talk about the new album. Here's what he had to say...
The Gauntlet; There has been a lot of turmoil in regard to the band as of late. Have things settled down at this point?
OJ: Yes, If you are speaking of the problems we were having with us being kicked off of the International Extreme Metal Festival Tour, then things have totally cooled down. We were in a heated debate with the booking agent, whom we had hired to work our two previous tours, and the argument got took to the internet which caused a lot of people to see the dispute. I was not very happy about how that was handled on either side but it has since died down and everything is cool.
The Gauntlet: "And They Shall Take Up Serpents" is a stellar album. Tell us a bit about what went into the creation of the record. Did you feel that you had achieved your original vision for the record once it was finished?
OJ: When we sat down to start writing this album, we mainly wanted to keep the momentum we had built with our debut album, The Fundamental Component. We wanted to expand on the first one by making the songs stronger, the recording better and the overall feel of the album to be more dynamic. "Serpents" came about pretty quickly, since we wrote the album in a span of about 3 months and rehearsed about 15 times before going into the studio to record it. We had the specter of the "sophomore slump" looming over our heads and we really wanted toe second album to step it up and keep the forward progress moving. By the time the album was in its mixing stage, we really felt happy and secure in the album we were making. I still feel that way today.
The Gauntlet: What was the most exciting aspect of the creation of the new album?
OJ: Knowing that we had the opportunity to prove our naysayers wrong. We had a lot of album reviewers state that our first album was a good jumping off point, but if we jumped the wrong way we could end up just another nu-metal clone with shitty choruses and no future. I think we jumped the other way and made a heavier album and a pure thrash metal album. It was also very exciting to go back to the same studio and have the ability to fix what was wrong on the first album. Having a second chance to make a first impression is very rare.
The Gauntlet: The lyrical content of the album is intensely political at times. Do you feel that it is your responsibility to discuss certain topics in your music? Are these issues that you felt needed to be brought to the forefront?
OJ: No, I feel no responsibility at all to discuss anything. I just write about what is circling in my head at the time of the writing process. I have had some resurfacing themes like West Virginia history and religion but politics were never mentioned until this album. When I write lyrics, I tend to open up a word document and just start typing. I try to write things down that are deep, no matter what the subject matter. After the music is written and I have enough scribblings, I start piecing stuff together and try to make a song with a coherent meaning. It is a fun process and I don't feel limited to any certain topics. I do however believe it was important for me at the time to let people know how I feel about our current political state. It was not so much preaching to the choir as it was just having a voice.
The Gauntlet: "Ancestry Of The Antichrist" is a song that stands out in particular as being very intense. Where did the inspiration to craft this track come from and how did the sone come about from both a musical and lyrical perspective?
OJ: This song has been a topic of discussion more than once! Our guitarist Tony wrote the music for this song on him home recording studio and all of us immediately fell in love with it. It reminded me of something off of "�And Justice for All" because it goes through the gamut of emotions. I feel it is one of the best crafted Byzantine songs to date. I had the lyrics for Ancestry sitting around on my PC and luckily they fit like a glove. This is the most anti-political song I have ever written and I have had a lot of people ask me about the lyrics. My favorite line on the album is in this song. "I'll die in shameful agony knowing the Antichrist has a southern drawl just like me." This song has an epic feel to it and I think the solo Tony rips out on this song is awesome.
The Gauntlet: What do you feel to be the most major change in your songwriting since "The Fundamental Component?"
OJ: This is a hard question since I don't think we really had any change in approaching our song writing. I truly believe the only thing that changed was the maturity of the band. I do know that some of the songs on "The Fundamental Component" were pretty old so maybe the freshness of the songs on "Serpents" makes it feel different. I really believe maturity in the band was the defining factor in the album being a better album.
The Gauntlet: What types of things did you do in the studio this time around that were different than the last? Did you approach the recording of this album in a different manner?
OJ: We approached this album in the exact same manner that we did the first one. We just had a bigger budget, more time to perfect things and we had some help on the mixing. We had Drew Mazurek (Nothingface, Gwar) and Brad Divens (Wrathchild America, Souls at Zero) mix the album and I think that really helped it sound the way it did. The only thing we really changed up was the way I recorded my vocals. On the first album we did it song by song, no matter what the style of singing was involved. On this album we recorded the clean vocals first. Our producer, Aaron Fisher, wanted the clean vocals as strong as the heavy stuff. Then we moved on to the heavy singing and then to the screaming. I had much better results by working on one style of singing at a time.
The Gauntlet: What do you feel is one thing that's really missing from today's metal scene that Byzantine can provide for the metal fans out there?
OJ: I really don't know. From talking to fans and friends, they all say we have something special about our songs and that we fill a certain void in today's modern heavy metal but I don't know what the hell they mean! All we try to do is be somewhat unique and hold ourselves to a certain criteria. We try to hold ourselves to certain standards and if we achieve those standards than I think most people will be happy with the results. We really hate letting our friends and fans down so we work real hard on making smart musical decisions.
The Gauntlet: How do you go about interpreting the songs of "And They Shall Take Up Serpents" in a live setting? Do you intend to play these songs exactly as they are heard, or is there room in your live performance to move things around a bit?
OJ: We have rehearsed basically all the songs on Serpents and the ones that we play live have no problem at all getting across to the audience. We try to keep the songs as consistent with the album as possible so the audience is not let down. I would hate someone to come to our show wanting to hear the solo on this song or the chorus on this song and we puss out by omitting something. We do have fun with these songs but we try to stay within the construct of the song and not alter the impact of it.
The Gauntlet: You actually include the guitar tablature for the tracks along with the disc. Why did you decide to include this feature for the players out there as opposed to going the traditional route and selling the guitar tablature in a separate format?
OJ: For 2 main reasons. 1: We are in the computer age and it is much easier to reach the guitarists by including the tabs along with the album than having people have to go out of their way to look for the tabs. The program on the album has great features like midi playback and performance notes from Tony and me. 2: It is cheaper for the fans since the cost of the tabs is absorbed into the cost of the CD. Tab books cost $10 to $15 while putting the tab on the CD might have raised the overall cost of the CD by 1 or 2 bucks. We are always trying to find ways to please our audience.
The Gauntlet: The main riff of "Red Neck War" really stands out as being quite powerful. Where does the inspiration for such strong riffs stem from?
OJ: I am glad you liked that riff! The first half of that song was written by our drummer, Wolfe. He came at me one day with that riff and I loved it! He has a tendency of writing some really powerful rocking riffs and it made the album have even more facets to it. The hardest part about writing decent music is knowing what riffs to keep and what riffs to throw out. At first, Wolfe wasn't too sure that riff was strong enough but once we jammed it, he got real excited.
The Gauntlet: What was the biggest challenge in putting this record together for the band?
OJ: The biggest challenge was recording it as a 3-piece. Right before we went into the studio we lost our bassist, Cid. We knew we had to record the bass parts ourselves and have them cool enough that the next bassist would like to play them night after night. We really felt some pressure in producing a solid sophomore release with an incomplete lineup.
The Gauntlet: You've recently finalized plans for a tour in support of the record. Where will this tour be taking the band?
OJ: The tour is called Under the Underground Tour. We are on it right now with The Dream is Dead and Halo of Locusts (D. Randall Blythe's band) The dates are on our myspace site at www.myspace.com/byzantine
The Gauntlet: How do you feel this record is making an impact on the metal scene now that it's out there for people to hear? What types of feedback have you been getting from the fans in regard to the new material?
OJ: I don't think it has made an impact yet. We are still very much an underground band, mainly in terms of distribution and exposure. The record has been selling pretty well for a band our size but still has a lot of work to do to make any sort of impact. I do know that our fans really like the album and we have received some very good emails about the album, but it hasn't really gotten into enough hands to make an impact yet.
The Gauntlet: What would you like for those that have not yet experienced the group to know about your music?