Death and the Miser: An Interview with Sarcoptes
In which we discuss the inherent evil of cats with Sarcoptes.
I admit I’m a pretty jaded guy when it comes to thrash metal. With it being the first “real” genre of metal I explored, I quickly explored almost all of the greats, only to discover that the genre had more or less stagnated quite a long time ago. It was with great pleasure, then, that I stumbled upon California’s Sarcoptes, a pair of most excellent thrashers blending the very best of their home genre with the stunning grandeur of black metal to create something that feels just as fresh and exciting as it does stately and classic. Sean Zimmerman (guitar, bass, keyboards) and Garrett Garvey (drums, vocals) were kind enough to let me pick their brains about art, STIs, and playing with your heart.
Thanks for agreeing to this interview. I know it took me a little while to finish the questions, but I promise I was super eager to interview you. Songs and Dances of Death blew me (and a lot of our readers) away when I first heard it. How has the reception been to your album? Did you expect this much acclaim for a debut record?
Sean: Overall it has received very positive reviews. Honestly I was surprised. Not that I ever doubted the quality of the material. We both knew it was excellent. But rather we had spent years grinding away at these songs in rehearsals and virtually no one cared when we played for them. Even when we released the EP only a few people really seemed impressed. To get such a positive response from people all around the world was amazing.
Gar: It’s no problem dude. We sincerely appreciate you taking an interest. I am extremely pleased to hear of the positive reception of the album. Having spent the amount of time we have going back and forth on this project, to have it come to form and be heard is inspiring and validating. The reception has been majorly positive. There have been a few criticisms, and one or two fully tanked it, but by and large the reaction was positive and excited. It sounds like many people heard what we were hoping to put down, which was a new interpretation of long-standing sounds from within the metal genre. As far as expecting acclaim, I think we were pretty content with just the mere completion of the album. Having other people enjoy it and want to share that feeling is a great and unexpected bonus. For this album to have the weight it does, having been made while we were stretched so thin, I am more than satisfied.
Garrett and Sean, you’ve said the biggest difference between the Thanatos EP and Songs and Dances of Death is that the production is better, namely in terms of the drums and keyboards. I definitely think the full-length shows a lot of growth and maturity, but it seems that stems from more than just production. Do you think the songwriting improved as well?
Sean: No, the songwriting didn’t improve at all because all the songs on this album were already written by the time we recorded the EP. My initial plan was to record 3 different EPs with all 6 songs spread out over them and then re-record them all as a full-length. After we finished the first EP I said “why don’t we just record the whole album now?” So that’s what we did.
Gar: Sean had completely written all of Songs… before Thanatos was ever recorded. We had more experience left to gain on the recording side of things before we were ready to make this CD. My second time around in the studio on the drum kit for Sarcoptes was much better, and much closer to my ideal sound for this band. I would say I had begun to gain a tighter grip on what translates best from drum kit performance to a song. It is humbling to record yourself, and sometimes requires the maturity to go “wow, I sound like sh*t!!” It has been rewarding to watch both Sean and myself continue to open our eyes to the difficulty and possibilities behind production. No doubt it took everything we had at the time to get what we put down, and it is fair to say Songs… was an absolute best effort of the time.
There’s a sense of scale and grandeur to Songs and Dances of Death that I don’t hear on a lot of albums. How did you capture such a triumphant sound?
Sean: Not sure it was any one specific thing, more of a combination of factors. I think my love and interest in classical music was probably a factor. I started playing piano when I was about 10 or 11 and was really into classical music at that age. Later when I went to college I earned my BA in music theory & composition. So I learned a lot about form, structure, what makes music work. That’s not to say I was sitting down with a copy of the score to Bach’s B minor mass and analyzing it during the writing of this album or anything like that. My influences were very much rooted in 90s 2nd wave black metal and classic thrash. The classical background however I think did provide a foundation to my understanding of how music works and how to put together musically compelling compositions. More than just the sense of grandeur the album works because it is very musical. It is dynamic. All the elements work together to make a cohesive whole. I would also add that my interest in literature and history was important too. The music on this album is quite serious and needed similarly serious subject matter. The idea for example behind the lyrics to Barbarossa came from reading Sozhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and from watching the BBC documentary The World at War.
Gar: Well, I would say much of the triumph comes from the composition, which is Sean. He draws influence from all kinds of artistic sources he is drawn to, not only music. To have an insight into music, and know what layers will do best, what direction for a song to take, and wrap it behind a direction of theme and experience is a skill that takes years to refine. I think being able to have the performance for guitar, bass, and keyboards all come from one source has had its benefits here as well. His vision is total and he is able to back it up in performance. We have always known and felt what a truly great CD was, and agree on many of what CDs we feel were the “best,” often reminiscing on how impactful certain albums were to our life. This, we have kept in mind when approaching our music as well. I focus entirely on the energy. I want the passion and determination of this music to grip you and force you to a heightened state of consciousness. Whether you come to question your mind, become paralyzed in fear, or start ripping push-ups and punch holes in the wall, my drums are there to make you breathe the air like the warriors of old.
Where do you see yourselves in the great lineage of black metal and thrash? Revitalizing a classic style or pushing the genre forward?
Sean: That’s an interesting question. Honestly I’m not sure. I’ve never cared for retro movements per se. But at the same time I don’t really see black metal or at least the current directions that black metal seems to be going to be in line with what we are doing. I’ve always just thought of us as doing our own thing and not being concerned with our place in the greater spectrum of black metal or thrash.
Gar: Man, what a heavy question! You know, for me I will always be a “fan.” There will never be a point where I stand up and say I have passed any of the icons or great musicians in the genre. To be compared is awesomely inspiring, and if given the opportunity I would proudly stand on the shoulders of the greats and carry the torch for my time. As far as our place in the immediate space, I think the opportunities are many and the road long. This band’s origin is little more than some kids wanting to do what they found to be the coolest thing they knew at the time. Songs… has been a fantastic entry into the music world, and if we did nothing more, then Sean and I could both sit proud knowing we brought our songs to life. I will say I am still very hungry. I want to do more, and I feel myself coming around to another point where I can really deliver something. Before this band is retired I am confident we will have made a mark worth knowing.
Garrett, I read in a previous interview that you don’t think you could play black/thrash like this at such a high speed if the music didn’t move you. What do you mean by that? Is the music catharsis for you?
Gar: Yes, this music is extremely important to me. When I was a younger drummer, I ran entirely on passion. A jam could either shimmer with glory or die in the mud depending on mood, inspiration, passion. I always wanted my songs and music to lift my spirit, take me to a sacred place where I could be free from my woes and fears. As I have grown and matured as a man, this music is still very significant to me, but my ability to draw upon its strength has changed completely. There is still nothing that quite captures that unique balance of drama, mystery, strength, and wisdom that black metal does for me. It has the awe of a divine nature, while burning bright with rage and the release of deep frustration. When I hear our songs, I can feel a spark inside, and I do everything in my power to chase that. I’ve explained this to other drummers before and they typically laugh. I am not a conventional musician, and proudly so. If your songs don’t make you light up from within, why even play them? I want to be a part of something that makes my life better when I do it. I insist on this.
How does that tie into the general theme of the album?
Gar: Yes, I think the theme certainly has something to do with the catharsis. Relief from inescapable tension and torment inside. Self-awareness, an attempt at actualization, a grasp for greater things. The lyrics draw from both introspective thoughts and historical elements. It is an examination of man, from history and also a man’s own perspective. “Veil of Disillusion” is an awakening inside the narrator’s mind, as he describes his coming to consciousness about the unnerving truths of our world. “When Stars Hide their Fires” is about celestial ideas, formation of things in space and our universe. There is a range, but undoubtedly the theme of passion and willpower is throughout the album.
The origin of your band’s name is pretty funny/gross. Mind sharing that with us for those unfamiliar?
Gar: *laughs* Sure. Our band’s origin is due to the efforts of a young man I went to high school with. He is the founding member, and were it not for a few hastily made “vocal” (freestyle shrieking) tracks I had emailed to him while he stayed in Texas, I’m not sure we would be called Sarcoptes. Nonetheless, one brazen night in the South, he entered into a cash-only arrangement with a young woman which left him with a case of the sarcoptic mange. Being the unabashed musician and artist he was, he decided to name his project Sarcoptes and began laying down shredding black metal songs on his little recorder. We elected the name out of its originality and connection to the band. It is shocking and grabs attention, without being too many words, and also allows us to pay tribute to a fallen friend.
Sean: When Gar and I started jamming we were at a loss as to what to call ourselves. I suggested we just use the name Sarcoptes since his friend had passed on (not from scabies mind you) and the name wasn’t in use anymore. I liked the sound of the word itself. It just looks cryptic and sinister. And of course the very ‘rock n’ roll’ story behind the name’s origin is pretty funny. So we researched the net and found that no one was using this name. This was probably back in 2008 or so.
Right now, Sarcoptes is a duo, and you’ve indicated that rapport and friendship is important to functioning as a band and would affect the chance of adding another musician. This seems a bit in contrast to a lot of bands where the members dislike each other. How important is this rapport to you?
Sean: I have too much stress in my life as it is. I feel that if we genuinely disliked each other we’d have called it a day by now. It’s not like there’s a huge financial incentive to doing black metal anyway *laughs*. I wouldn’t want anyone else involved in this project who wasn’t on the same page as us or who we didn’t like or who was just unprofessional.
Gar: The teamwork in this band is the band. I have been in bands where no one likes each other. The tension in the room from sitting feet away from a guy you want to strangle is laughably non-conductive to music. There are many musical “bullies,” or egos so big that they panic in a childish form if things are not perfectly to their delusional standard. Fortunately, I want this band to succeed, and that requires me to be adaptable and seek results for the greater good. We will not climb to the peak only to fall because of our arrogance. That is the maturity of a child. If there is one thing I can say from my experiences, it is that bands are not a robotic quantity. You cannot just say “learn the songs, show up, perform them,” and everything will work out. There are moods, personalities, connections that need to be made and maintained between band mates for your music to come to life. It is the subtle things that make the difference between a temporary band arrangement and a brotherhood. Our sound is in part because there is mutual respect. I have erred enough times in my personal life to commit myself to this standard. I will never become so skilled at anything that I do not need to treat others with respect, and doubly so for my band who has carried me when I was sick and weak.
If the stars (and finances) aligned properly, are there any musicians you’d like to recruit for a touring act?
Sean: Honestly I always felt that if we decided to tour we would have made some solid professional contacts by that point. I haven’t really day-dreamed about specific musicians I’d like on drums or bass or whatever. I do know some very talented local musicians who I would probably reach out to for local shows as well as possible guest appearances on future releases. But as far as recruiting well known or famous musicians in the metal world I haven’t really given it any thought. Mustis maybe? Then again I’m sure he’d overshadow the rest of the band, so perhaps not a good idea *laughs*
Gar: Sure man! Frost on drums, Mustis on keyboards, and the Predator on bass. Though to be honest, if we were serious about opening up the tryouts, I’d love to see what we could draw from the talent pool of today. It doesn’t take long for me to find drummers who I learn from on YouTube who are 6 to 10 years younger than me.
What would your live set-list be?
Sean: Well that would depend of course on what point in our career we’d be doing this tour. If we had several albums out or only one, etc. etc. I’m sure no matter when we did said tour there would be several cuts from this album.
Gar: Whole CD, front to back, with some original keyboard intro and outro.
Are there any producers with whom you’d like to work?
Sean: I’ve always loved Peter Tagtgren. He worked on a lot of our favorite production jobs in the past like Enthrone Darkness Triumphant and Vobiscum Satanas.
Gar: Peter Tagtgren. I almost always like CD’s he produces and performs on. He helped set the standard for the bands that influenced me the most.
Gar: That’s one for Sean. I had never seen it until he pitched it for the cover, but it’s pretty tight.
Sean: Bosch has always been one of my favorite artists. I already knew going into this album that I wanted death-themed artwork for the cover. So I started researching and looking at pieces of art. Some of the initial paintings I was interested in were already in use on the front covers of other metal albums. When I ran across this piece in particular it just fit. I hadn’t found any other groups using this art. It fit the title of the album, the theme of the lyrics, the tone of material. It was just perfect. I’ve had several people hit me up saying they were compelled to listen to the album based on the cover art alone and subsequently became fans.
You both seem to enjoy books and other forms of art. Are there any pieces of art that have been significantly impactful for you?
Sean: Absolutely. I’ve already mentioned Solzhenitsyn but there were other influences as well. Medieval and renaissance death-themed art was a huge influence. Just looking at those great grim masterworks really transports you out of your normal frame of mind. Also I incorporated some scientific concepts and even some Taoist concepts on a few of the lyrics. I’ll let the listener figure out which in particular I’m referring to. The album title is actually named after a composition by Mussorgsky. That was his musical interpretation of the topic of death. This album is ours, hence the use of the same title.
Gar: My wild mind travels pretty fast, so what is influencing me one week may be forgotten in the next. I try to stay where I’m at, and so I don’t have a huge library of things which are influential to me. It is always with me when I need it. Sean would know much more of actual works and their importance.
Sean, I think I read somewhere that you enjoy playing with cats. What makes cats such a perfect fit for metal?
Sean: They’re evil! *laughs* Actually I don’t know. I’ve just always loved animals. I always had cats and dogs growing up. When I was I kid I even invented my own cat-based religion *laughs*
Thanks again to Sean and Garrett for the interview. I really enjoyed getting to hear from such genuine, earnest musicians. Make sure you swing by Facebook to give Sarcoptes a like. Also toss them some dough at their Bandcamp page and on the Cimmerian Shade page!