When he's not playing music with a trove of inventive New York metal bands or sitting in the studio recording other such acts, guitarist and recording engineer Colin Marston is probably sleeping or in the shower. In addition to various ambient projects and solo ventures, Marston currently plays bass in kinetic prog metal outfit Dysrhythmia (playing live at Tempe Tavern this evening) as well as the reunited line-up of Canadian death metal stalwarts Gorguts.
He plays guitar in Krallice, a nuanced avant black metal band with fellow prolific guitarist Mick Barr, and also plays a monstrous 12-string Warr guitar in Behold... the Arctopus, his highly-technical metal ensemble for which he composes all the material. He also runs his own recording studio, Thousand Caves, in which he has recorded and produced a litany of the city's best metal, free-jazz and avant-garde offerings.
It certainly looks impressive on paper, but Marston indicates such activity is just part of working musician life in the big city. "It's very rare you meet somebody in New York that just does one band," he says plainly. Perhaps he just makes it look easy. Up on the Sun talked with Marston about composition, recording, and avoiding hand cramps.
Up on the Sun: Are your buddies back home doing okay after Hurricane Sandy?
Colin Marston: Yeah, as far as I know. The place I live, where the studio is, is up on higher ground. I know some places burned down from power-related shit, and lower Manhattan got flooded. Luckily, I'm out in Queens. My roommate said there wasn't that much rain where we're at, just crazy wind.
Well that's good to hear. With this new Dysrhythmia record, Test of Submission, what were some goals you had when writing it this time around?
We don't usually set any specific goals with the songwriting, it's pretty intuitive. But as far as the recording, the three of us wanted to make this record a bit heavier sounding, which we achieved through a few different avenues. Kevin wanted to do more overdubs of guitar, adding additional parts that wouldn't be played live. Just some more ear candy moments. I also made a production decision to have it recorded like a more traditional metal album. We used to treat the bass more like a second guitar. This has much more doubled guitars and bass in the middle. There's a little bit less distinction between the bass and guitar, but the overall effect is a little bit heavier. Also, some of the songwriting is more metal than before. It's not a huge departure, but it's more meaner, darker-sounding.
I've read that you take a classical composition approach to writing material for Behold... the Arctopus, that you notate all of your compositions. Is that a result of your training or is it just easier for your brain?
If I write a song, I'll be writing everybody's part note-for-note, except for maybe a guitar solo. It's all written out in advance before anyone plays it. There's more of a focus of going to paper and creating a map for a piece rather than an ensemble getting together and creating it in the practice space. It's more conceived as a written form first.
The thing I like about it is that you can compose for all the instruments at the same time. Most of the other bands focus on one person's instrument, and that denotes the entire structure. In the Behold writing, I can be writing vertically as I write horizontally. I have an entire passage and the way the instruments are interacting established as I'm writing the piece. You can do a lot more with trading ideas between instruments and get them a little bit more closely linked. All the ideas are coming from one person's mind as opposed to a collaboration of a few people's ideas existing in the same musical space. It can be a tighter composition, for lack of a better term.
Also, not having ideas come from your fingers or muscle memory or the shapes on the guitar you are used to playing. You're thinking in terms that are purely musical. I use a computer notation program, so instead of having actual paper in front of a piano, I'm using a sequencer. I can come up with an idea, notate it and listen back to it over and over. Even though it's on paper, I'm listening to what I've done and thinking about where it's gonna go now. It's very editable and there's a lot you can do in the initial stages. It's challenging to then learn the compositions, but you come up with stuff you wouldn't otherwise.
That sounds like an efficient process.
It's efficient in terms of writing, but not in terms of generating a final album and taking into account the time it takes to practice. In that sense, it's the least efficient way to work! [Laughs]
I imagine you would challenge yourself a lot. Like you said, push yourself past your fingers and your muscle memory.
I feel like that's true, but what's ironic about it is that you don't push yourself in ways you intend to. I kind of make a concerted effort to not write shit that's super fast or I know will be a nightmare to learn, I take that into account a little bit more now. What's funny is that the hardest parts to play in that band are usually not the parts that sound particularly impressive. They're hard because they don't lay on the fret board in a way that's particularly easy, or they're easy to fuck up and forget where the fret is.You play in a lot of bands, but I wanted to ask about Krallice. It's a more avant black metal sound. What is satisfying for you about playing in that band?
I've wanted to make music with all three of those guys for years. Everybody ended up in New York around the same time and the stars aligned. What's great about that band is that we put such a low emphasis on playing shows, and me and Mick write things pretty quickly. It's been really great to be in a band that focuses on writing music and making records, versus spending fucking five years making a record and touring and trying to get people to pay attention. We don't give a fuck; we just have fun writing music. It's a nice low-pressure type of band and I like what we focus on.
I imagine a musician who has a really varied skill set, both in recording and performing, would get overwhelmed by the unlimited possibilities at their disposal. Is it more empowering for you as a composer to have the awareness of an engineer, or do you simplify things for yourself when you begin writing songs?
I definitely don't ever need to simplify things for myself. I'm sure it plays a part in the writing, but I would say it's not that related. Yes, I think about how a record's going to sound when I'm writing, but I don't think it ever guides my creative process. I don't usually come up with an idea for sound and then write a record based on that. Maybe in more subtle ways, like trying a different amp. You listen to previous records and think about what you'd like to do better, or maybe try differently next time around. But I wouldn't say it plays a huge role.
You record a ton of metal bands, but a lot of really out jazz bands too, like Zs and Talibam. Do you think jazz and experimental musicians are kind of on the same team as metal guys in terms of appreciating technical proficiency and high-concept composition, things like that?
There's just so many really idiosyncratic musicians. Like Kevin Shea, the Talibam drummer; fucking nobody sounds like him. No matter what person he's playing with, he sounds exactly like himself. You have a great number of pretty interesting musicians who are also interested in a lot of different kinds of music. There's definitely your metal dudes who only go to metal shows and only exist in that world. But there's plenty of people who are just interested in interesting music.
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