Rebirth through struggle: An interview with Fabio Brienza of Varaha
Chicago has a long history of doom metal greatness, running from Trouble to Bongripper. One band that has recently been making waves in the scene is Varaha, who unleashed an atmospheric take on the venerable genre with a debut EP earlier this year. The record reveals a group fascinated by the possibilities of mingling evocative melodies with crushing riffage and features a guest appearance from saxophonist Bruce Lamont of Yakuza and Brain Tentacles. After catching Varaha’s excellent set as an opener for Amorphis, I exchanged messages with vocalist/guitarist Fabio Brienza about the band’s sound, inspirations, and future plans.
Jason Kolkey: Many great bands have mingled doom metal with gothic and atmospheric elements. What do you think makes Varaha’s approach different or special?
Fabio Brienza: Here I can speak only for myself because every member of Varaha is a very different individual who constantly brings to the table their own personal vision, touch, musical backstory, and sensibility. Together, we complement each other by sharing these very disparate views – a key factor that ultimately defines our sound more than anything else.
Personally, when I decided to be musically active again my immediate desire was to do so within a music world that did not restrict my ideas, and metal, more so than any other genre, is indeed that beautiful and wide-ranging world that allows for musicians to basically do whatever they want and to use whichever tool is at their disposal in order to achieve their vision, whether it’s a wall of distortion, a classical instrument, a guttural scream, a subtle guitar melody, a strong, pulsating drum beat, or a moment of silence. The doom and atmospheric metal movement is vibrant with new ideas and new means for experimentation. Within this world we hope to portray a merging of different genres and hopefully abolish pre-established canonic patterns, focusing on content and emotional response.
How does Varaha write songs? Do you collaborate heavily on material or spend more time working individually?
Everyone is very involved in the final arrangement and songwriting process. Essentially, Joel Hollis (guitars) or I come up with a concept—sometimes we provide a thoroughly thought-out song structure, and sometimes the music starts with the title of a song before the song is even written—the true magic happens when we share that idea. Together, we dissect and analyze, and deconstruct and reconstruct the initial vision, and we do so implementing everyone’s views and sensibility. At times, the original structure has completely reshaped itself into something new, yet always maintains its core message, mood, and story. This “kill your darlings” collaborative effort can be very stressful at times but is very important to me right now. As far as my personal songwriting process, as crazy as it may sound, I treat music the same way that I treat writing a screenplay. I start by sitting down and asking myself one basic question: “What am I trying to say?” When I zero in on a specific concept that I’m going for, I write an actual storyline around that theme. As I do so, I visualize the music around it – as if imagining a cinematic score playing to the background of a film. Like in filmmaking, each passage of the song becomes a climactic sequence that portrays a defining moment within the story arc … in mere words, as I compose, I think out loud “and this is when this happens…” and consequentially write music around that story development.
What was the recording process for your EP?
The recording actually started in 2015 but took a very long time to finalize due to lineup issues. I am grateful that when David Swanson (drums) and Bryan Gold (bass) joined Joel and I, things finally consolidated and started moving fast and efficiently. We started tracking guitars and drums independently and then moved the operations to old-time friend Mike Lust. As far as mixing, we decided to collaborate with Adam Stilson at Decade Studios. Personally, I was very excited to work with Stilson; I knew that he would understand our musical sensibility, and I was very eager to see how a non metal-centric engineer would internalize our sound and add his personal touch.
Tell me a little about what went into shaping your guitar tone. Do you have favorite pieces of gear that are essential to Varaha’s sound?
We all ended up collaborating as a group to shape our guitar tone; even our drummer had a very strong input in regard to shaping our guitar sound and distortion levels. The guitars in the EP were recorded using my Peavey 5150; we agreed that we needed a big, round, and warm tone with a minimum amount of distortion. We needed for the melodies to stand out, for the rhythmics to be big and deep, and for all note variations to be recognizable. As far as effects, Joel has a lot more freedom to play around with equipment since I am preoccupied with singing while playing. This being said, I am a big fan of Strymon Engineering pedals and I love the almost endless resonance of the Flint. As we write new music, we are constantly experimenting and implementing new ideas and we are always looking for new sounds.
Varaha is an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, incarnated as a boar. What made you choose that name for this band?
Naming a band these days is hard and we specifically wanted to break away from common imagery. We were looking for something that was meaningful and that represented our journey, something that wasn’t banal or cliche – it was a hard ride, to say the least. The name Varaha was actually suggested to us by someone who had Indian origin. At first I wasn’t certain; I liked the imagery of a boar-god lifting the earth from underneath the ocean because it was a representation of hope, a representation of rebirth through struggle, but it wasn’t until something else happened that I was truly convinced it was the right name for the band. I was randomly talking with a friend who lives in Puerto Rico and I told him about possibly naming the band Varaha. He misunderstood me and interestingly replied: “Baraja? like the deck of cards?” I was very intrigued by his reply and asked for him to explain further. He replied that in Spanish, baraja means “a deck of cards, like the cards that you’re dealt in life.” I’m Italian and maybe I like to romanticize things but I was very captured by that idea. With its ambivalent meaning – Varaha representing “to strive” and baraja representing “fate” – the band’s name is a portrayal of my internal struggle between free will and predestination.
Having previously played in a band in Italy (progressive death metallers Another Day), how has your experience been different in the U.S.?
They are two very different worlds, and in the past two decades everything has changed drastically as well. Back in the 90s, I was a young teenager, inexperienced and somewhat isolated. I had so much free time but very modest gear and very limited resources. There was no Internet, no Facebook, no Myspace, no Bandcamp, and the music community was still developing. Rome is a powerful city that inspires, motivates, and mesmerizes … But, in the end, Rome is nothing but a big blur for me nowadays, a flashback and a deja vu, an effigy of both mistakes and victories. Don’t get me wrong, being an adult during the age of the Internet and technology definitively has its challenges too; even though we have access to so many resources and everything is at our disposal. Bills, work, and life’s complications get in the way.
What do you think of the Chicago metal scene? Is there anything about it you find exciting or distinctive?
This city has one of the most wonderful music communities in the country: the best promoters, numerous fantastic venues, many insanely talented and hard working bands, and a very strong support from concert goers. My two brothers still live in Rome. One day my younger brother told me that he had an issue recording something because he didn’t have a specific microphone. Shocked, I swiftly replied, “well, send out a text.” My brother got quiet, “Well, things are not that way here …” I felt sad and mortified. Here in Chicago we share practice spaces, we share gear (at times even musicians), we collaborate, we book shows together, everyone is willing to help each other out and “lifts each other up on the way up…” I was very humbled by how positive our reception was by the Chicago music community, and I am and always will be grateful for that. This is a city that is very receptive to new sounds, new ideas, and new forms of expression – a place where artists collaborate and “cross genres,” hence redefining new ones. Historically, Chicago has always been a blue collar, DIY-minded city made of very resolute, determined, and independent individuals with a very strong work ethic – this tenaciousness is very present within the city’s music history, and it is something that nourishes me.
Which of the Peaceville three – Paradise Lost, My Dying Bride, or Anathema – is your favorite, and why?
Every band that we love is attached to a significant moment of our life. I remember when my father handed me my first Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden records, it was life changing, especially during those pre-teenage years while I was learning how to play a guitar. As years went by, I discovered new sounds and many fantastic metal bands, including Anathema, Paradise Lost, and My Dying Bride. Those were very special years and changed me as a composer, changed the way I saw music, and pushed me to both expand my limits as well as to start implementing what I nourished from my Italian background into my own style of songwriting. Above them all, Anathema had a very special place in my heart. Their focus on melody and mood over technicality was the one aspect that impressed me the most. Many of their early records are the soundtrack of my youth and helped me through a period of change and uncertainty.
What are your goals for this band? Do you anticipate touring or releasing a full-length album in the near future?
Right now we are finalizing the arrangements of our full-length release. The core of the songs has been written for some time now, but – as we discussed earlier – we are now deconstructing everything and trying to finalize all the tracks before we start recording. We are very grateful that many have been asking for a full length release from us and we promise to deliver soon. As far as shows, we have been pretty active playing some fantastic bills in Chicago (most recently with Amorphis and Swallow the Sun) but at this very moment we are focusing on songwriting and eventually touring as soon as the LP is released.
How does the sound of your new music compare to what you have already released?
Without spoiling anything, we are hoping to provide a very dynamic and diverse experience to the listener. Life is not monochromatic and, as I stated before, each song will be a a short story with a different setting and tone. I can only speak for myself here, but I know that once we enter the studio everything will change organically, and I am very excited to experience that. In the past, I “used” recording studios to strictly “record” pre-established ideas. I’ve swayed away from that mindset. Nowadays, I walk into the studio with an open mind, listening to the engineer’s ideas and suggestions and trying new things and sounds until the music firmly and vividly complements the message that we are trying to convey – treating it as a collaborative creative experience.
You also compose and conduct orchestral music. Tell me about the pieces you’re working on and the challenges you’ve faced in transitioning to conducting an ensemble.
Without any misinterpretation, I only recently started working with an orchestral ensemble. I always wanted to hear my music being performed by classical instruments; it is a very different kind of creative experience which is now deeply affecting me. This endeavor is both gratifying as well as very challenging. I am learning to work with many talented and fantastic professionals who come from a completely different musical world – they inspire and motivate me. One of my first official attempts in mingling with a classical ensemble was during the composition of “La Mela.” To achieve it, I simply reached out to my peers: I messaged [cellist] Josie Boyer and Bruce Lamont, they were into it, and we all made it happen. Ever since then, I kept on writing music intended to be played by orchestral instruments, but truthfully I did not find the spark to get it going. Recently, I was asked to perform my solo material as opening act for Xasthur (acoustic); this was the opportunity and motivational deadline that I was looking for. I started asking for help and referrals and I immediately received a great amount of support and local interest … In life, sometimes you just need to do it, to take that leap, and hopefully everything will fall into place. The first and immediate challenge with working with an ensemble of professionals was to mediate between so many people’s availability and to schedule rehearsals. To be efficient, I divided the ensemble in different groups: at first, I started working with a smaller brass ensemble, then I introduced the strings, and once the musical foundation was established I began working with everyone as a whole and fine-tuned counterpoints and arrangements. As far as the music itself, I am currently working on three suites and I can’t wait to share them publicly.