Sunday, January 15, 2012

Brimstone in Fire Interview 01.07.2012

I spent the holidays in Manila, Philippines, and got to hang with my buddy Ian, who was getting ready for his band Brimstone In Fire to play a big show in Davao City on the southern Filipino island of Mindanao. Ian invited me to join them, but unfortunately I had to be back in Malaysia before they were due to leave. I did tag along as the band recorded an EP for the show; it was pretty amazing to see a band actually record an entire EP live without any overdubs (besides the vocals). I'm not sure if that's been done since the days of Black Flag. On a break in the recording, I joined them for dinner and turned on my pesky Sony recorder.

[This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]

photo by Ian Cuevas
Dreams of Consciousness: Do you want to start by introducing yourself and the instrument you play?

Mikah Azurin: I'm Mike, I play drums.

Dondi Bunye: I'm Don, I play the lead guitars.

Isa Pilapil: I'm Isa, I play the "other" guitar.


Ian Cuevas: I'm Ian, and if you can call it that, "singing."

Christian Igna: Christian, the bass player.

DOC: Okay, I'm here with Brimstone In Fire. Where are we right now?

Ian: Casa Roces in front of the Presidential Palace, Malacañang.

DOC: I spent the day with them while they were recording a new 6-song EP. Why don't you tell me a little bit about the EP and why you're recording it?

Don: Actually it's a rush job, really. We didn't have any merch to bring to Davao, we're going to be playing a gig there in a week. So we thought, "maybe we should record something on the fly." And then it got kind of involved, and now it's this big fucking production! We really weren't planning on this! We thought we'd just stick a couple mics in the air and go.

Isa: It sounds great, though!

DOC: So what are the songs that are on the EP?

Don: Relative to the other songs, there are three "old" songs and three "new" ones. But actually, they're all kind of old… We thought we'd make it representative of what we sound like now. Actually the older songs are reworked versions, they're not exactly the same songs as [when] we wrote them ten, twenty years ago. There's a little updated input, so they don't exactly sound the way we conceived of them, when we wrote them the first time.

DOC: Different versions aside, are these available on any other recordings?

Mike: [sarcastically] NO! We wrote them for THIS EP! [much laughter]

Don: Well, the three new ones aren't available anywhere else except on this EP and on the upcoming full-length. Two of them we've released before; one is "Winter," which is a really, really old one from the really early days - '93, I think. Then "War in My Thoughts," which I suppose you could call our signature song. The three new ones are "Gouging the Eyes of the Clairvoyant," "Putrescence," and "Glimpse of the Future."

photo by Ian Cuevas
DOC: So your band recently underwent a major line-up change where you assimilated Isa and Ian from the band Demiurge. Can you say how that was brought along? What precipitated the changes? What effect did these line-up changes have?

Mike: Well, our previous singer/guitarist Lloyd Isberto had to leave because he had to focus on his business. Supporting a kid and all, through school, it's not easy. We invited Ian [to join], and then Ian suggested we add Isa as well.

Don: We've been hanging out with them for a while…the thing is, here in the Philippines, when you get new members, sometimes you just get the guys who are available. But after a while you figure out you don't get along. These are guys that you wouldn't drink with if you didn't have a band [with them]. But Ian and Isa we've known for 2 or 3 years. They're pretty much "us," but from a different background. It all fell together and we said, "Hey, fuck it, let's just take them and see what happens." And it turns out, it was the right thing to do, because they make us [sound] pretty good.

Isa: For the record, [though] we have different social backgrounds, it's nice to have peers who are from the same intellectual bracket…

[much laughter, a few "ooh"s]

DOC: Somebody just got all "Norwegian Black Metal" on us!

Isa: But seriously, we all have our own things, but somehow we can all get along. We can all discuss [the music] and be objective, and say, "This part isn't so good." And it's not personal. And no one has that Dunning–Kruger syndrome.

Don: Not that I know of.

Isa: Everyone's accommodating to the new ideas and suggestions. And to me at least, it's a really big deal. Because you'd be with other band [members], and you'd always be compensating; you'd always have to dumb things down. And honestly, it's been a while since I've been with people where I don't have to do that.

Christian: About getting new members…talent isn't enough. Mike and Don, with the scene they're in, they know a lot of people, and talent isn't enough to be members of our band. What happened with Isa and Ian, they became [our] drinking buddies first before they became members. And we thought, "Should we invite them to become members?" It became the natural choice. And it all worked out pretty well.

DOC: A question on my mind is, listening to your [Brimstone's] style, and being familiar with Demiurge, how much of what they were doing before matches with what you guys were doing, or are doing now? Was that at all on your minds? Was that at all a factor in assimilating them?

Don: A couple years ago, Ian gave me a copy of their album. I read through [the lyrics] and I said, "This guy is thinking pretty much along the same lines that we are, so I suppose it would work out." But this was before we were thinking of taking them in, because at the time that I read [the lyrics], Lloyd was still with us. So it was at the back of my mind.

Ian: Not just common beliefs, it's like we think along the same lines. Especially here in the Philippines, where everything is dictated upon by church and state. So we have major issues; like right now there's the "Reproductive Health Bill" that's being [opposed] by the church; they're trying to railroad [legislation], to work with large conservative power. Which is really sad, because the country really needs to work on [controlling] the population. It's bad - we've got too many problems, and in a few more years we'll have more mouths to feed. And along those lines too, the [religious] hypocrisy that goes with it.

Isa: Musically…when we made the Demiurge cd, I was really much younger then. In terms of music, I knew what I liked. In terms of composition, it really wasn't all that clear to me until this point in time, when I became a part of this band. Although I had to adjust to the already composed songs, in terms of the newer songs I have the freedom to do what I want to do. The new stuff is really quite exciting, it's an amalgamation of the stuff I really like.

DOC: What's your writing process like? Do you guys compose individually and bring songs to the table? Or do you jam together, or compose songs based on music that band members have brought in?

Don: The origin of every song is different; in the early days it was down to three guys writing: Me, our original guitar player Ado [Ortiz], and Mike. We'd write the lion's share of the compositions and we'd fuck around with it for a while; the other guys would bring in their input, and then we'd smooth things out until it got to the point [we could] say, "This is a song we wouldn't be ashamed to let other people listen to."

That was in the old days; now, with the current songs, especially the ones that will be coming out on the full-length… not to toot my own horn, but I did most of the heavy lifting. And then I brought it to Mike and Christian, [and they] put in [their] input. So for the full length, you won't be hearing much of Isa and Ian's input, because the songs were pretty much over and done with [when they joined]…we already had the final versions in mind, we just had to teach them how to do it. If you want to hear the new stuff [they co-wrote], it's not on the upcoming full-length, but maybe on the next one you're going to hear what Ian and Isa brought to the table.

photo by Ian Cuevas
DOC: When exactly did Ian and Isa join?

Christian: May of 2011. Initially it was just Ian, because at first we were just looking for a vocalist, somebody who could just blurt out the lyrics…

Ian: [death metal voice] Blurrrrrghh…..bluuuuuuuurgh….

Christian: Then Ian suggested, why don't we bring Isa along? He mentioned something like, "She already learned 2 or 3 songs in one sitting."

Ian: How I remember it was, Mike was the one who mentioned something about Isa. Like, "do you know anybody [who can play guitar]?"

Mike: I had to think about that, because I knew they were already in a band, so I didn't want [to impose]. They were actually trying to make a new line-up [for Demiurge] with our buddy Abdul on drums, but shit happens…

Isa: We know people have children and stuff...

Ian: People have kids. And they ruin your life.


Christian: One question I ask if somebody auditions, is "Do you like our songs? Sincerely?" And it showed with what she brought to rehearsals. Compared to the other people we auditioned, she learned really fast.

Isa: I liked the songs to start with, it was just the style I had to cope with, initially…

DOC: What about the style did you have to cope with?

Isa: The "jazzy parts"…the parts where you have to "feeeeeel the rhythm"…


Ian: It was really groovy, in a couple of weeks she played her first gig. 5 songs. Short set, but…

Christian: ..she pulled it off!

Isa: It's only now that I'm not counting every bloody thing. Holding my breath, [thinking] "This is the eighth! This is the eighth!" It's only now that I'm not worrying about that too much. It's not a big deal anymore.

Christian: She told me, "It's not so much about following [the beat exactly], it's a mixture of keeping in time and the feel of it." We gave her guide tracks for the songs, and when she got into rehearsals, she was so text book about the speed of how the guide tracks went.

Isa: Like he [Mike] would skip a beat, and I'd be like, "Nooo! You changed it! It's completely different! It's a whole new song!"

Mike: It's not!

Isa: Yeah, it's not. And it took a while to get used to that. Based on his influences, a lot of latin (music), jazz, and drum and bass stuff, he'd skip the second or the third beat…

Ian: He'd skip the "one"…

Isa: … and it would really just throw me off. Like, [exaggerated Filipino accent] "Wat are you dooeeeng? Wat are you dooeeeng?"

[much laughter]

photo by Ian Cuevas
DOC: Those "jazz parts," for lack of a better term…that kind of loose feeling seems to be very prominent in the songs you're playing. How important is that to, if not how you write the songs, then how you play the songs? Because it really separates you from other metal bands.

Mike: Well, it's really important to me, because that's the way I play.

DOC: You're not a "metronomic" drummer...

Mike: Well, I practice with a metronome, but no. I don't even want to go there. This is the way I play. Don plays the way he plays, I don't force him to play any differently. Because if I did…well, one: he wouldn't agree…


Mike: …and two: it would sound like a jazz band. So it's a mix, it really meets in the middle.

Don: You mentioned "metronomic play" vs "playing by feel;" the thing is, I have a background in music that's pretty much metronomic. I listen to a lot of industrial, I listen to a lot of synth pop, I listen to a lot of power noise. So all that is electronic music, following a straight-forward beat that's determined by a machine, that plays mechanically. The funny thing is, that's how I play [guitar], and Mike plays from a completely different aesthetic. I don't know how it works, but it does. I actually like to play "dead-on" all the time. But we sort of make it work, even though in theory it shouldn't. I guess that's part of where the sound comes from. I don't know if it's important to us, that "jazz" feel, or that "organic" feel…

Mike: We don't think about it that much.

Don: It's not a conscious decision, that "we have to hit every beat like this." We just fuck around with the shit and it comes out all right. We find some middle ground that works for everybody and then we try to smooth it out and polish it, and hope it works. Sometimes it doesn't though!

Isa: What happens is we "quantize" each other; you limit the output based on certain parameters. With the new songs, he writes something, and then I write something based on what he writes, and then we hear it alongside the drums, and he [Mike] has a completely different feel. Which modifies what we initially wrote, and so we have to adjust the tempo. And then there are nuances added to the compositions in general, you realize it's not just a metronome, there are certain hanging notes. And sometimes it's intentional and sometimes it just happens spontaneously when we're all working together.

Don: I suppose you could think of it like 4 guys and a girl smacking a tub of water. The splashes on one side influence the splashes on the other side. And it turns out all right, sometimes! [laughter]

DOC: Christian, as the bass player, a lot of that "jazz", "spontaneous" feeling comes from what you're playing. What are your thoughts on finding the middle ground between the guitarists, who seem very tight and absolute, and the drummer who plays a lot from "feel"?

Christian: For the record, I don't even know what "jazz" or "how to play jazz" is. The things I put on the table for the band, is basically the result of hanging out with Mike and Don for the longest time. Because when Brimstone was formed, I was just a friend who would always be at their rehearsals. I had a different band, I would just hang out with them. I got a couple of tips, a couple of techniques from what they were doing. From the original music that Don presented to me, I tried to make it my own. Because as he said before, most of the music was already done. He made the bulk of it. He's one hell of a conceptual bass player. I just wanted to put my own stamp on the songs. With all the songs that we've done, it has worked well.

One band I could always reference with how I approach the way I play is Disharmonic Orchestra, especially the Not to be Undimensional Conscious album. It was an array of all "counter" parts. The bass player wasn't always following the guitar player. That's what I usually want to accomplish, or how I attack the instrument. It usually works, but there are some times that it just sounds better if you went along with the guitar player, copy what he's playing because it drives the song better. [Sometimes] it just sounds better that way.

Don: When he does follow the guitars, he never doubles my parts. He actually finds a different voice on bass, it isn't exactly harmonies…it's like an inversion. Imagine if you're playing a full chord, he inverts it. It's not exactly doubling [the guitars].

Christian: When I make bass parts, I usually try to sing it first. When his guitar part is played on a loop, I try to sing something over it that complements the part, to their [the band's] approval. It usually works; sometimes it doesn't. There are times they say, "No, you can't do that!" [laughs].

Other than that, listening to a lot of genres other than metal. If I was listening to just metal, probably [my approach] would be very limited.

Isa: You're hurting my feelings!

[much laughter]

DOC: What other genres are you listening to that are influencing your approach?

Christian: Right now, it's a lot of pop tunes! Right now I'm listening to a lot of pop tunes where session bass players like Leland Sklar and Pino Palladino have played. The way they have approached their particular jobs when they're playing tracks in the studio is, they have to make something very musical but not [outshine] the vocalist. Other than that, when I got serious with the instrument, I listened to a lot of jazz fusion like Bill Bruford from the seventies. I listened to drum and bass as well. It's just appreciation of music you like. You're not forced to appreciate music because someone says it's cool. If you like it, that's basically it. It's a buffet of sounds that you can get a lot of stuff from.

DOC: When you say pop music, it sounds like you're talking about local pop music.

Christian: No, Palladino and Leland Sklar usually worked with Paul Young, even James Taylor…

With local music, now that you mention it, there are a lot of local CDs I have that aren't from the metal genre, they're usually from, say, Cynthia Alexander to Up Dharma Down…it's not even a nationalistic thing, because getting music from abroad is so hard. I can get [local music] at a gig, I can get it at a cheaper price; I don't have to pay shipping for it.

DOC: The only reason I brought up the local vs foreign pop artist thing, it seems that with the local pop artists, there is a strong musical base behind the pop music. Whereas with most foreign pop music, it's all heavily processed and heavily digitized. There could never be another human perform besides the heavily auto-tuned and pitch-corrected pop singers.

Ian: I wouldn't say it separates Filipino musicians in general, because we do not lack talented musicians...

Isa: …and we do not lack pretentious musicians…

Ian: …the talent is there. I'm not jumping for joy over [their] songwriting. I firmly believe that OPM (Original Philippine Music) is dead. All that I hear on the radio, because I had the misfortune of listening to the radio on New Year's Day…everything [local[ that you hear on the radio, it would either be a blatant rehash or a cover.

Mike: They say "cover" when they mean "rip-off"…

Ian: Well, yeah. There's nothing original. It doesn't just stay in the pop scene; even in the underground, you'll hear bands where you just know where they're coming from right away. There's no sincerity in the music that they write, there's no originality. It's like one Morbid Angel riff after another. You can't fake it, you have to be true to yourself and your roots in order to write real stuff.

Isa: It's like what happened in the visual arts. People see a costume, and there's a mass appeal to that; or they hear a riff, and it's catchy….and they just rip off the chunks, and they completely forget about the context of all these things. So immediately you have something that is totally presentable to the ignorant masses. But to those who understand, and those who've been there, those who've been listening for a while, you realize how superficial it all is. In a gig scenario, where everyone's just drinking beer and listening to live bands, yeah, such music will definitely survive. But there's no enduring quality.

Christian: They don't even make an effort to trying to be different. I've already heard that riff; I'm trying to make another riff.

From hanging out with Don and Mike since they formed [the band], they always made an effort [to be original]; "Dude, that sounds like that Death song from Individual Thought Patterns. We can't do that." Even if it's a good riff, even if it's accidental. "It sounds like somebody else. It doesn't sound like us." They edit themselves before they present it to the rest of the band.

Mike: That's really just us; me personally, I don't demand that other bands have the same attitude. There are good local bands, and I don't have the time to find out if they have cred or not. Either I like their music or I don't. If I never meet them personally, then I'll never know whether they have the background or not.

Ian: On the other hand, I am very stingy with credibility. Because right now, it's about how many Facebook "likes" you can get. Or whether you can get enough votes so you can be eligible to perform in the big, big music festivals. Everyone is after attention and popularity, and there's just no stop to it. When you have questionable motives like that, where does your music stand? Everyone's like, "Let's do this because it's melodic or technical…"

Isa: …like, "Gothenberg is the thing now!"

Ian: Everything is completely out of context. We have Filipino bands who are writing stupid things based off of ancient cultures that we have nothing to do with. You can do whatever you want, but to me that's just plain old stupid and n00bish…

Mike: "Babylonian Punk!"

[much laughter]

Mike: "I was into it before the Babylonians were!"

Ian: That gives you more cred!


DOC: So in closing, what are the next 12 months going to be like for Brimstone in Fire?

Don: First of all, we have to finish the full-length and release it, and we'll probably be spending the bulk of this year promoting it…I don't know, maybe people are going to like it, or they'll say "What the fuck is this shit?"

Ian: Which is a good thing!

Don: Basically that's it. I really don't plan ahead more than 3 or 4 weeks. Either I got something new to write, and I can present it to these guys or…let me put this way, once we finish the full-length that we're producing right now, I already have some material that I already let these guys listen to, they're fucking around with it, that's enough for another one. We're working on material right now that's enough for 2 albums. But after that I don't know, I really have no plans after that.

Mike: Me personally, one of the things that I'd like to improve about Brimstone is the rate of writing songs…

Don: You can't rush excellence, man!


Mike: …but if you just do the math, we have 10 songs over 20 years…so that's like one song every 2 years. [laughter] Which is not good, either…

Don: Gauss said: "Few, but ripe."

Isa: Few and far between, but…fantastic!

Don: In case you didn't get that, that was a math reference. You want to talk about fucking math metal, you don't get more "math" than Gauss!

DOC: In terms of the EP that you're producing now and the two full lengths that you're planning on, when will people be able to get those?

Don: The EP will be available by the end of this week, we're going to push through with that; come hell or high water it'll be available by the end of this week. And the full-length…? [laughs]

Mike: We're going to have a band meeting in Davao. To set some personal deadlines for ourselves.

DOC: How many songs can we expect on the first full-length?

Don: Ten.

After the interview we went back to Dondi's studio, where Ian finished recording his vocals. Word is the band kicked all kinds of ass in Davao. Fuck, I should have been there. Ah well. Next time.

For more info about Brimstone in Fire and the upcoming EP, click here:

Glimpse Of A Future:

Mixtape 20:
Brimstone In Fire