Guitars, Classic Rock, and Pissgrave: A Very Sumerlands Interview
Acclaimed underground metal producer Arthur Rizk, alongside vocalist Phil Swanson recently dropped a self-titled debut album as Sumerlands and I can’t say enough good things about it. Sumerlands is a record that embodies the sound of traditional heavy metal without succumbing to the many pitfalls of traversing well-trodden ground. Rizk and company have formed much more than a tribute band or, even worse, a genre parody act. I was stoked to talk with Arthur about 80s metal, Pissgrave, guitar pedals, and everything in between.
Joe: Sumerlands played their first show in 2 years just a few days ago with Eternal Champion at Union Pool in NYC. One of our writers caught the set and was blown away. What was the experience like for you? And do you have any intention of playing more shows with Sumerlands in the future?
Arthur Rizk: The show was awesome. It was great that people were into it. We felt great playing the show in front of a sick crowd. We definitely wanna do some more shows. We basically have a circle of bands that we’re friends with, bands that we’re into. We’re gonna play smaller shows here and there, but probably no big tours.
You’ve been been involved in hardcore, thrash, noise, black metal, and everything in between. What was behind your decision to form, for lack of a better term, a more traditional heavy metal band? And how did you get together with the rest of the guys?
I think the reason I wanted to do trad heavy metal is because it was more or less the first thing I was into. I had some older cousins from Lebanon that got me into heavy metal at a younger age. It’s always been my favorite thing. I did a tour in Japan with a band I played with Cold World. I had just got an iPod and I had nothing but CDs from my parents house to put on there. I had Queensrÿche, Running Wild, Fates Warning… it all ended up on there. I lost my mind in Japan obsessing over them, all my favorite guitar records when I was younger.
I was planning on playing drums with Hour of 13, but it never took off. We were doing a video shoot for the band and I met Phil Swanson (Former vocalist of Hour of 13). We became friends but we never even really played. We struck up a friendship even though Hour of 13 broke up pretty soon after. I was like, “Phil, you wanna do a demo?” I wrote some songs and Phil did vocals over it. I thought it sounded awesome.
Sumerlands debut full-length has been getting a pretty glowing reception. I’ve seen kvlt nerds flipping out about it as well as dudes who don’t normally listen to any metal. How does it feel to see this project take off?
It’s awesome. As far as what you’re saying, that’s one of the more rewarding aspects – that there are people who don’t really listen to heavy metal that dig it and people that know the real deal have been giving it praise. It’s cool. I wasn’t really expecting it but it’s cool.
I sent the record to my boss, who doesn’t listen to metal but loves classic rock. He dug it.
I love metal but some of my favorite stuff is classic rock. 70’s AOR rock stuff, y’know? It’s great to see people get into it. Classic rock is corny but it’s obvious. Zeppelin, Rush, Yes were all part of the inspiration. I didn’t want this to be some new retro band. There’s a lot going on around that but it’s formulated around style rather than content. A lot of these bands just want the sound but they don’t have the riffs.
You not only played guitar on this record, but you recorded and produced it as well. What was that process like of both writing with the rest of the band and also producing?
It was really… overwhelming! I ran pretty much everything. I played bass on the record, played most of the guitar stuff on the record. I had to streamline it; do everything as we go along and make decisions. The other guys did great. I could see how this would be a pain in the ass for everyone else, to not feel like their ideas are respected, but we were all on the same page. Everyone’s ideas were respected.
Once you’re done with a record and you’ve wrote the riffs, you’ve mixed it, you’ve mastered it, and quality checked it in between. At the end I was like, “Is this even good? It sounds like shit. I don’t like this record.” But I took a break for about a month and came back and said, “This is good. I was tripping.”
How does the process of recording this very bright and sonically clear record differ from recording something ugly and violent like Pissgrave?
Pissgrave is awesome. We recorded that record and Sumerlands in the same studio, Creep Records in Philadelphia. It’s not a big name recording studio. It doesn’t have tons of crazy gear. It’s a room and the whole workflow is in that one room. When I work on a record I’m hands-on, mic’ing the drums and doing everything. A lot of people stick to one style, but I wanna work on everything I’m into. What I hear with Pissgrave is like Deicide and Revenge mixed together. I try to bring out all the influences. I was on a tour with Deicide a while back. I hung out with them and asked them a million questions about recording. They gave me some great tips and tricks. When it came to Sumerlands, I wasn’t thinking anything other than, “Big kick, big snare, big guitar, big vocals.” And it all just came together. What more could you ask for that fucking around with guitar tones for an infinite amount of time?
I’ve been arguing with my podcast co-host on this – he hears a lot of Manilla Road in your album, and I hear a lot of 80s Ozzy Osbourne. What were the bands that most influenced the sound on this record?
There are so many. It’s hard to say. I could just drop a list of like 15.
80s Ozzy is great but so is 70s Ozzy. So is late 70s Black Sabbath. Jake E. Lee is an incredible guitar player. Everyone loves Bark at the Moon but we also love Badlands, his hard rock project after playing with Ozzy. Queensrÿche, Running Wild, Fates Warning… Fuckin’ Helloween, Jag Panzer. All that stuff. Black Sabbath without Ozzy is great. Vinny Appice is one of my favorite drummers. I like Dio’s laid back vocal performance on Dehumanizer to match Vinny’s playing. I’m also a big Glenn Hughes fan. And Tony Martin. Everybody in Black Sabbath was sick. The circle of musicians between Deep Purple, White Snake, and Black Sabbath was pretty amazing.
I do like Manilla Road though. You should tell your co-host that.
I’ve heard your “Kerry King” story, in which you bested Kerry at his own solo when you were just 14. At what age did you pick up the guitar and when did you really develop a command of the instrument? And what was your first guitar?
It might have happened when I was 15 or 16. I started playing when I was 13. That story is great, but I think about it now and I could easily see some kid doing the same shit to me. There’s a great chance I could forget a guitar solo for a second. BUT BACK THEN IT BLEW MY MIND. He forgot his solo but I could play it! There’s a video of it somewhere. One of my buddies has it, I’m gonna try to unearth it. We all know Kerry King can shred though. He gave me a signed B.C. Rich shirt, but my mom washed it like a week later.
My first guitar was an Ibanez. The model was an AR-50, I think? It was a ’79 Ibanez that looked like a Les Paul double cutaway. My grandparents lived in Lebanon, and a family friend gave me my first guitar. It was his son’s guitar and he gave it to me. I had a sick guitar to start with! One piece, solid body, very nice guitar. Somehow that guitar got wrecked and lost. On that Deicide tour I somehow found the same guitar! Well, not the same guitar but it was within 300 numbers of the serial number of the one I had. I bought that motherfucker. Almost maxed out my credit card.
What does your rig look like with Sumerlands?
Do you have many gearheads that read your site?
Dudes love pedals and shit, man.
Man, who doesn’t? I have an 80s Charvel with a Seymour Duncan Distortion humbucker, going into my effects chain. First it’s my tuner, then the Boss CE-2 chorus pedal from Japan, then this Ibanez Turbo Distortion mod I bought on a whim in Germany when I was on tour with Inquisition. We went into this little music shop and we figured there wouldn’t be anything good inside. I saw this pedal that looked like a Tubescreamer. I didn’t know what it was but I bought it because it looked sick. Then I tested it and hated it and wanted to throw it out. But it turns out it sounds amazing with my JCM-800. I have like five different delay pedals that I use at any given time, but the best are my Boss-DD5 and this Moog mini delay that’s completely analog with a natural overdrive. It gives your delay a little dark distortion.
What one piece of advice would you give to other guitarists?
I’m going to start doing instructional videos to teach people how to play these songs. If someone wants to know, who the fuck am I to not give it to them?
I watched you perform here in Austin with Power Trip as a triple guitarist attack, a performance that I can only describe as “extremely righteous”. Have you tried to convince those guys to add a full-time third guitar player?
No. Those guys I love them, they’re my brothers. I played with them for a while. I tour with them sometimes when someone can’t come along to play guitar or drums. It’s usually just when I have time. I had to turn down a couple of tours with them recently. Always good vibes in Dallas and Austin for good crossover.
There’s word that Ozzy wants to put out a new solo record. Have you guys pitched your services to him yet?
Do you know him? *laughs*
I could ask Sharon but they may or may not be on the rocks right now.
Tell her that I will take nothing for it. I don’t want any credit. I’ll write, play, record, mix it, and she can replace me afterwards *laughs*. There are so many stories about Sharon and her hijinks. I respect her as a cutthroat business manager but there are so many crazy stories about her removing stuff and not giving musicians credit for their performances. No, I’d rather write for Phil Swanson than Ozzy Osbourne.