Fresh Starts: An Interview with Azusa

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It’s the perfect combination of bands you didn’t know you desperately needed until now.

In early August, Extol hinted at some new activity in their otherwise dormant camp (cue my ravenous excitement). It was later revealed, however, that it would not be new Extol music (cue my dismal sadness). These stirrings were to be in the form of a new project called Azusa, featuring Christer Espevoll and David Husvik of Extol, Liam Wilson of The Dillinger Escape Plan, and Eleni Zafiriadou of Sea + Air (cue my wild, reckless elation). What a ride.

As a massive Extol fan for nearly two decades and a big Dillinger fan, I didn’t need to be familiar with Sea + Air to be unreasonably excited for this. When Extol and TDEP were active, every release had the feeling of being fresh, truly new, and full of surprises. Upon learning more about indie duo Sea + Air and Eleni’s past as the vocalist in the raucous punk band Jumbo Jet, I was beyond convinced that there was no way Azusa would disappoint. The first single, “Interstellar Islands,” cemented that with a wild ride of aggressive yet melodic thrash, full progressive twists and turns through ugly shadows and brilliant light. That fresh, new anticipation is absolutely there with this new band. Christer (guitar) and David (drums) were kind enough to answer some questions for me as they prepare to release their debut album Heavy Yoke on November 16th.

Hey guys! Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions. I, along with a whole lot of other people, were really excited and surprised with the emergence of Azusa. On paper it makes perfect sense: Extol and Dillinger Escape Plan never restrained themselves from a genre standpoint, so a new band featuring members of both should be a great creative match. However, I don’t think many people were aware of a link or relationship between the members, much less to Eleni Zafiriadou of indie duo Sea + Air. Can you walk us through how Azusa came to be?

Christer: Back in the winter of 2014 I met David at a Benea Reach show in Oslo, and it had been a long time since we met. I had not given the idea of playing in a band again much thought, but something that night inspired me to start playing music once more. I think David and I briefly talked about the possibility of doing something, but it wasn’t until 6 months later that we decided to start jamming. After that show, I gradually became more and more motivated to start writing music again. I had left Extol back in 2004 and then Benea Reach in 2006, so it had been while.

David: In Extol, we were always fascinated with TDEP and their unique musical expression. When we discovered that Liam was into Extol I curiously started envisioning ways we could do something creative together in the future. I simply needed the right project, and with Christer and Azusa it made perfect sense to get in touch with Liam. And he was into it right away!

In regards to finding a vocalist, our ambitions were high. We wanted something that few other bands have. After some failed attempts at getting some top-notch male hardcore/thrash vocalists to join, we shifted our focus to female vocalists. Quite early Eleni came to my mind. I had seen her screaming in the hardcore act Jumbo Jet back in the early 2000s and it was hard not to notice her crude voice and stage presence. After doing a couple of demos there was no doubt in our minds, we were convinced that she was the ideal singer for Azusa.

I must admit to not being familiar with her before this, but I did read about her time in Jumbo Jet with her Sea + Air partner. Was she really itching to return to something more aggressive with Azusa?

David: I think she had been missing fronting a band again. In Azusa, she has a more prominent role than in the Sea & Air duo. Eleni has a lot of energy and a bit of latent craziness inside that the world needs to experience. Just listen to what she does in our songs!

You’ve mentioned that it was a big relief to let these songs form naturally and for the creativity to flow without any outside pressure. However, did you have any style ideas or loose genre tags in mind when getting started, even if you ended up veering away from them?

Christer: Musically, the starting point of Azusa was similar to the vision that David and I had for Absurd2. Absurd2 was a project we did between [Extol albums] Undeceived and Synergy to satisfy our drive to dive more unrestrainedly into the thrash universe. We released an EP with three songs and that was that. Interestingly though, Azusa has evolved into something more, something none of us could have imagined when we started this. Aside from trying our best to create innovative music, the mere constellation of musicians creating and recording music for the first time has colored our musical expression in such a way that we feel Azusa has become a brand-new creation. The freedom we’ve had flying under everyone’s radar has given us the necessary time and space to explore some concepts that we were not even aware of when we started. Eleni didn’t join the band until most of the songs were already composed, so you can imagine her substantial contribution as we initially envisioned a scream only vocalist.

You guys smartly avoided the pressure and expectation of the “supergroup” tag by having the album done by the time you announced yourselves. What was it like starting on something brand new after you’ve all had such prolific times in previous bands?

David: Very refreshing! In 2013 after the self-titled album I felt that the creativity in Extol had stagnated. Back in 2003 when we wrote the songs for Synergy there was an abundance of fresh ideas. The path from idea to recording was short, and there was hardly any censorship of the ideas. I can see a clear link from what Azusa is doing today to the mentality and excitement of writing music that characterized Extol back then. It’s like the creativity is expanding for every new idea we explore.

Christer: Doing it this way, with no time constraints and zero expectations from the surroundings, has allowed for a more playful approach to the creative process. I recognize the same childlike joy of discovering new ideas and pathways in the songwriting process that I experienced in the very early Extol days. For me, it has been almost like a musical born-again experience since I was away from the scene for so many years.

You can really hear that in the music, it seems like you guys were having a lot of fun writing these songs. Being that there is a few thousand miles of ocean and continents between some of you, can you walk us through the songwriting and recording process? How many times have you all been in the same room throughout all this?

David: Haha, 5-6 times? The way we do it is that Christer and I come up with all sorts of weird ideas in my studio in Oslo. Liam and Eleni will bring their feedback as the process moves along; there is a lot of chatting and emailing back and forth. Most of what we end up using comes to life and is being shaped as we meet in the studio and explore ideas.

For all the gear nerds over here, can you give a rundown of the instruments you guys played on the album?

Christer: The good old Ibanez RG770. Liam played the infamous cockroach – a customized Zon Sonus. Sadly, Heavy Yoke would be the last recording of the cockroach as a bus crash on a Dillinger Escape Plan tour in Poland not long after made it un-revivable.

David: DW collector series, Remo roto toms and Sabian/Zildjian cymbals. 21″ mega bell does the trick!

Man, my heart hurts for that bass. Christer, I think every Extol fan is thrilled to see you and David shredding together again. I read in interviews that you weren’t able to participate in the Extol reunion due to various time commitments. Have you had any other musical pursuits lately? If not, what was the motivation to start again with Azusa?

Christer: When we decided to write another Extol album after the Blueprint hiatus I was initially on board. I quickly realized however that I wouldn’t be able to contribute to the level of commitment needed to achieve what we set out to do. Even though I was happy for Peter, Ole, and David when the self-titled album came out, it was not without a hint of sorrow that I observed it all from the outside. As I mentioned I hadn’t been doing anything musically since I left Benea Reach in 2006. Since then I got married, became a father to two beautiful girls, finished my education and lived a quite straightforward, though exhausting life (everybody with small kids out there, you know what I’m talking about!). As I turned 35, in a midlife crisis of sorts, I came to realize that certain choices in life are increasingly important to get right as the immortality of youth had inevitably worn off. One of those choices was to start Azusa. I was strongly motivated by the realization that one of the things that I can contribute within this world is to create weird metal music. Strangely enough, there are people out there listening to that stuff, even enjoying it. If that is the case, creating weird metal is something I will do.

As a guy with a small kid, I know exactly what you mean, and we’re all glad you’re back at it. Alright, I know this is an Azusa interview, but I can’t resist: can we expect anything else from Extol? We all got a bit of a fake-out with the Azusa teaser on the Extol page, haha.

David: To be honest, I have no idea. Extol deserves a dedicated crew hungry for creative finesse and exploration. As you pass 40 it’s an uphill battle! The craziness and tempo of the youth is getting increasingly hard to maintain. Do we really want to see a limp, middle-aged Extol performing with half the energy and double the belly fat?   

I don’t know man, “Renewal” at half speed might be an absolute gem waiting to be discovered. Good point though! Anyway, basic question burning in everyone’s mind now: Are you guys planning on touring or any live appearances in general?

Christer: Yes, we are planning on touring! At the moment we don’t have any concrete shows/tours, but when the right opportunity presents itself we will definitely hit the road with Azusa.

That is excellent to hear. What are you guys listening to right now? Did you notice any of it creeping into your writing process?

David: Gal Costa, Leeway, Carla Bley, John Abercrombie. They are definitely inspiring artists.

Christer: Brand X, Bruford, Larry Coryell, Gong, Stanley Clarke.

Thanks a ton, guys!

Preorder Heavy Yoke here, and follow the band on Facebook

Photo Credit: C. W. Rosenhoff

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