On December 2020, MWWB were ready to start their next chapter. With their last album, 2019’s Yn Ol I Annwn (translated from Welsh as ‘Return To The Underworld’), the band formerly known as Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard had closed off a trilogy of expansive, transcendental releases that had explored existence and time, and solidified their unique, progressive take on doom.
Then on March 13, 2021, days before they were due to release their fourth album, Harvest, MWWB posted a shocking update on Instagram. Their guitarist and main riff writer, Paul ‘Dave’ Davies, was “fighting for his life” in hospital after contracting Covid earlier that year.
“Just after Christmas , we were supposed to try and get together to do some promo photos,” remembers vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Jess Ball. “So in December, I was messaging Dave and he said, ‘I’m really poorly, I’ve got Covid.’ Then he said, ‘I think I’ve got pneumonia.’ Then I got a call from his girlfriend saying that he’d collapsed at home.”
To everyone’s dismay, Dave had had a stroke. He was taken to Clatterbridge Hospital in the Wirral, where he was placed on a ventilator before being put into a medically induced coma.
Following the announcement, the doom and metal community flooded MWWB’s social media with well wishes, while the band immediately postponed Harvest’s release. “He was such a big part of it,” Jess says firmly. “The thought of releasing it without him was not even an option.”
Jess is speaking to Hammer over Zoom from her home in Cardiff. Bright and positive, she’s keen that the strength of Dave and his family, and the details of his recovery, should be the key takeaway from everything that’s happened over the last year, but it’s clear everyone involved has been through a harrowing ordeal.
Unable to visit him in person due to Covid restrictions, Dave’s bandmates were kept up to date via lengthy messages from his partner, Charlie (“She’s amazing. She’s so positive”). By April 2021, Dave’s prognosis looked good. His oxygen levels were improving, and while he was still in a coma, it looked as though, finally, he was on his way out of the woods. Nurses even blasted MWWB’s music for him, although with a wry smile, Jess admits it didn’t exactly go down well with everyone else on the ward. “They knew he was in a band and any kind of stimulation like that would have been good for him,” says Jess. “How amazing to accommodate him… even though he’s in a band called Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard. It’s not like it’s nice folk music!”
Suddenly, after four months in hospital, Dave’s family and the band were dealt some devastating news: his condition had deteriorated and, according to doctors, he only had days to live. “Everyone was just so shocked,” recalls Jess. “Completely shocked. It was like, ‘What?! We thought he was getting better.’”
Dave was moved to a private room in the hospital where doctors removed him from the ventilator and withdrew his food and water. Family and friends were invited to say their goodbyes. Restrictions meant that Jess was forced to say what she thought were her last words to her best friend and bandmate over FaceTime. “I didn’t want to say anything too morbid, so I was just saying hello to him and that I loved him,” she says quietly. “It was very brief and, obviously, it was very emotional.”
After that, all the band could do was wait. “The next day came, and we were waiting for the call and it just… he just didn’t go!” Jess says, with a huge smile. “I think it was having his family around him and hearing their voices. He must have been, ‘Hang on a minute, this isn’t my time.’”
Describing Dave’s against-all-odds recovery as “as close to a miracle as you can get, if you believe in miracles”, Jess says she and the band are soberingly aware of how fortunate their situation has been against a horrific backdrop where, to date, 156K people in the UK have lost their lives to Covid-19. “It’s absolutely heart-wrenching to think people… don’t have their families around them [when they’re ill],” she says sadly. “Because that’s what you’d do in that situation.”
Today, Dave is still in the ICU. Jess reports he is recovering slowly, but steadily. “He’s not at the stage of walking yet,” she says. “It’s been a case of starting to learn to lift his head and to be able to sit up, which he’s doing, and he’s moving his arm.”
She has been delighted to see videos of him arm wrestling and laughing with his young son, and although she has still not been allowed to visit him in person, they share frequent selfies and video messages. “He’s relearning speech so we’re not able to communicate in that way,” she continues. “[But] he’s got his tablet, so it’s slowly understanding how that works again and he knows how to find me in the chat. He called me on his own and it was really nice. It was obviously one way, but there was a big smile on his face, and I was showing him my new guitar and just chatting away. He’s definitely still Paul. He’s his normal self, you can tell.”
Given everything that’s happened over the last year, understandably all things MWWB-related have been on the back burner. As soon as Dave fell ill, the band immediately threw their planned campaign for Harvest out the window, deciding to postpone for a year until a time when they hoped Dave would “be awake and able to share in the experience and joy of the release”.
In order to cope with the upheaval, Jess immersed herself in other projects during the pandemic. As well as running her own clothing brand, Juniper Clothing, designing sustainable leggings from her Cardiff flat, which has “blossomed” during lockdown, she also started “gothic electro doom” side-project Eye with her partner. “In a nutshell, it’s ultimately been a very reflective time,” she says. “You always have a dream or a goal and sometimes things don’t work out that way, and how you deal with those situations… you have to manage your expectations. When Dave fell ill, nothing else really mattered.”
We’re glad that Harvest is finally seeing the light of day, because it’s a record that deserves to be heard and pushes the band’s sound in a new, tighter, more immediate direction. Dave started writing the riffs in 2019, before the pandemic hit, passing the foundations onto the rest of the band to build on. It was recorded with producer Chris Fielding, who has worked with MWWB on their previous records, at Foel Studios in Welshpool. Due to fears around Covid, not all of MWWB’s members played on its recording, with drummer James Carrington and guitarist Wez Leon sitting out the sessions, and Dom McCready, from ex-stoners Black Moth, stepping temporarily behind the drum kit.
“Covid was so new then,” explains Jess. “It was scary. There are no bad feelings, no one’s out of the band. It depended on who felt comfortable enough to come out [and record], how much people wanted to isolate and how much they wanted to risk. At the same time, we maybe thought we were being a bit mad going and doing it. I personally had to weigh up, ‘Which way do I want this to go?’”
Described by Jess as “a natural evolution”, on Harvest, the band’s meandering, dense grooving riffs have taken on a new urgency. Tracks such as Logic Bomb and Betrayal have introduced an immediacy that’s compounded by Jess’s ethereal melodies, albeit still thrusting the cosmic flourishes and John Carpenter-indebted synths that make their monolithic sludge so distinctive to the fore. “This one was… us sort of coming into our own,” she explains. “I think that might be a result of becoming more familiar with our craft. Now it’s more refined, and as a unit [we understand] how each other works.”
It might very well prove to be their swansong, with Jess admitting the future of the band is uncertain. There are no live shows planned – hiring a stand-in guitarist for Dave, she says, was an absolute non-starter. “Without Dave it would be a different band, it wouldn’t be Mammoth Weed anymore.”
Instead, the campaign for Harvest has taken on a new meaning – getting what might well be Dave’s final artistic statement out into the world while solidifying his seminal legacy on the genre. “Now the reality of the album coming out, it is bittersweet,” says Jess. “But ultimately, because we were so low, everything else is just a high now, that’s the way I genuinely feel about it. We could have been in a very different situation now, a very much darker situation. To share this album with him is an absolute gift.”