Godsticks: Heavier Than Heaven

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“I think a label of any sort benefits you, in terms of marketing at least, and I think that’s worked against us as we have many different labels,” says Godsticks frontman Darran Charles with a rueful chuckle. “People label us a rock band, a prog rock band, a technical band. It seems we’re not firmly in any camp, genre‑wise.”

Examining Charles’ influences, it’s hardly surprising this has become a problem for the band. Starting with listening to Deep Purple, Rainbow and Black Sabbath in his father’s car, his taste now spans the gulf to Rufus Wainwright, whose music Charles describes as being a massive influence, and himself as “a little bit of an obsessive” fan.

Godsticks come from a slightly different place, however. After forming around 2008 to play covers of the likes of Frank Zappa and Steve Vai, they moved on to originals, with debut album Spiral Vendetta setting the tone for their technical, almost jazz-fusion stylings.

“I think Jason [Marsh, former bassist] and Steve [Roberts, drums] both have a strong jazz influence in their playing, especially Steve – they introduced me to a lot of the jazz stuff,” says Charles. “I listened to it and I studied it down in London for a bit. I really like listening to it as live music, but sticking it on in the car is a bit different – it gets a bit tiresome, to be honest with you.”

Charles describes new album Emergence as evidence of Godsticks settling into their skin more as a “heavy progressive rock band” to produce a record of which they are rightly proud, the highlight of their career so far. “I know bands always say this, but this is the first album that delivered on our expectations. We 100 per cent achieved what we wanted to achieve.”

Boasting their hardest material yet, it’s a more immediate, muscular affair that takes a very different tack from their previous work. It’s at once recognisably Godsticks, and yet clearly new ground for the band as well. “As we played the stuff from the last album live, we found that the stuff we enjoyed playing most was the heavier material,” explains Charles.

He points to bands “with some sincerity” like Devin Townsend and uptempo metallers System Of A Down as the catalyst for reawakening an enjoyment of metal that had been marred by a sense that the genre had slipped into cliché.

“I wrongly assumed for some reason that System Of A Down were just some Korn rip-off. I’d got that into my head, but then I found Steve had an album and I discovered them again that way. I discovered Mezmerize, which has to be one of my favourite albums of the last 10 years. There was a point about six months ago where that’s all I would play, so they’ve become a big influence. The kind of guitar parts that Daron Malakian writes are Beatles-esque for the metal world – hummable, memorable parts.”

It’s harder to come up with memorable hooks than write in weird time signatures.

As Charles wryly observes, though, Godsticks have got a reputation for being technical. However, that’s certainly not a conscious goal – nor indeed a desirable one. “It’s easy to come up with things in complex time signatures because a lot of the time it’s just chugging away on the guitar to a metronome, and I’m guilty of that myself! If someone notices an odd time signature then I’ve failed as a songwriter. I don’t think a listener really gives a toss what kind of techniques you’re using to perform something, and nor should they. It’s harder to come up with memorable hooks than write in weird time signatures.”

It’s been a long path for the band to reach this point, so it’s no wonder it feels like such an achievement. They lost a founding member to tragic circumstances even before their first album. “Our drummer was a school friend who I’d known for a long, long time. He was in a pretty bad way with personal issues and died a few years later,” explains Charles, adding with a note of black humour, “We must have gone through 12 different drummers, but not all of them died in a Spinal Tap‑esque way.”

Thereafter, Steve Roberts was brought in to play on drums by Charles, and the collaboration stuck. “We couldn’t get rid of him, basically,” laughs the singer.

However, Jason Marsh decided to leave before Spiral Vendetta. “I actually admire the fact that he said, ‘I don’t want to do it any more,’ so we’re still friends. He didn’t waste my time by hanging on and doing something half-arsed,” reasons Charles.

Discovering a young Dan Nelson playing a Godsticks tune on YouTube, the two-piece were instantly interested, leading to them approaching him to complete the band’s current line-up. “We were impressed with the way he played it, rather than just being able to play it. He came in and was about 17 at the time – a big age difference, but we’ve managed to corrupt him now!”

Even when all is well, their compositional process is exhausting to an outsider, with music written “in the most convoluted way possible, really”, and their albums painstakingly assembled during a lengthy collaborative back-and-forth. “I’ll come up with ideas, usually a guitar riff, then I’ll try and do something with a drum machine. That never works, so I’ll take it in to Steve and then we’ll say, ‘I’ve got this, what have you got?’

“He’s a genius at putting weird things in context, and making something that’s weird sound a little more simple. He’ll give me that drum part, I’ll put it on the computer, put it together and often then I’ll go off somewhere completely different and have to edit his drums, take bits and bobs and form a rough track until I’m stuck. Then I’ll go back to him and say, ‘Look, I need another part!’”

The band describe the music on Emergence as being meticulously vetted to ensure it hangs together cohesively, both musically and thematically, but the lyrics are born of a new impulse. “There’s a different approach – they’re more third-person than personal,” reveals Charles, adding, “To be honest, I don’t really have any fixed opinions on things any more. I’m more of an observer. I wanted to write from other people’s points of view as I find that easier.”

‘Zen’ wouldn’t be the correct word, but there’s certainly something refreshing about Charles’s candour when asked about why he creates music. He admits, “If I knew the answer, I’d probably stop doing it,” describing music as “the closest thing I’ve got to religion, I suppose. If there’s a glimmer of positivity every now and again, it’s so addictive that you’ve got to keep looking for it at all times. Maybe during the recording of an album, something gives you that buzz and you go, ‘God, that sounds great!’”

Emergence is out on September 4 and Godsticks tour with Tony MacAlpine in October. For more information, see http://www.godsticks.co.uk.