Photos by Chris Calloway
My fellow children of the ‘80s know how influential bands like The Cult have been on the world of dark rock, and innovative bassist Chris Wyse has built a sterling reputation both in and outside of that iconic group – he’s played alongside rock heavyweights like Ozzy Osbourne and Alice in Chains' Jerry Cantrell, jammed with supergroup Camp Freddy, and through the years has repeatedly demonstrated his skill in a wide range of unusual bass techniques.
Not too long ago, Chris decided to form his own group – a platform based on pure love of music, free from corporate restraints – and established what he calls “the kind of band I would want to hear.” To achieve that dream, Wyse invited drummer Dan Dinsmore (of horror-inspired act The Clay People) and esteemed “dirt-rock” guitarist Jason Mezilis into the club, and OWL soon spread their dark wings. Their self-titled debut CD hit the market earlier this year to wide critical praise for its exotic, surreal and dreamlike sound – which often ventures into dark thematic territory – as Wyse explains, “unveiling places you might not want to go.”
Well, as you might expect, we happen to love going to those kinds of places. So I decided to check in with all three members of OWL to ask about their various journeys into the world of darkness – through music, movies and even real-life supernatural experiences – and it’s all below the fold, so jump on through!
Chris, what inspired you to put this group together?
CHRIS: The thing that most inspired OWL’s formation was all the inventive kind of music from the classics like Zep, Floyd, Hendrix, Sabbath and many others. I love how those bands broke boundaries musically and still wrote songs… Eddie Van Halen's magic sounds are a great example – he would weave in sounds and techniques into the tunes he wrote.
What are your own favorite techniques?
CHRIS: I think some of the sound effects I play on my upright electric have to be pretty up there. In the middle of ''Pusher'' there are examples of wah/bow/overdrive/ and harmonics. That’s always fun. The end of ''Waves," I do some tricky bits on bass guitar where I slap paradiddles [a rhythmic four-note pattern – GB] in 5 and do wah/filter over it with a delay. Either instrument – bass guitar or upright – I like mixing up techniques with or without FX, and create new ones. My overdrive tones have been a big centerpiece for me too. Check out “Degeneration” – that’s a straight-up bass guitar solo with lots of tapping tricks. I did that bass solo on Duff’s [Velvet Revolver/GNR] Fender bass. We did the album at Matt Sorum’s studio in LA and my basses were in transit with The Cult touring gear.
You’ve also said your music isn't overtly "dark," but for me it seems to create a mysterious, almost supernatural world.
CHRIS: I guess that fantasy element would be some of the “soundscaping” we do as a band, with little bass tricks and guitar sounds with tribal drums, etc.
What would you say was the key to creating that mood?
CHRIS: Well… to me, dissonant chords and melodies are great up against pretty harmonies and parts. That’s part of the fun and the moodiness, when you’re trying to sway emotions in music. “Violent Center” is a great example of a mixture of nasty and pretty, for mood mixed with lyrics... It’s like taking the listener on a journey with musicality, similar to a scene from a movie. The end of ''Waves'' can take you on a trip like that.
Speaking of movies… Jason, I was told you're seriously into horror flicks.
JASON: Yeah, I'm a big fan.
What are some of your favorite films and filmmakers?
JASON: My tastes tend to gravitate more towards the melancholy, mysterious nature of certain films which touch base in the horror genre. I enjoy the discovery process of a story, being led down an interesting path but not really knowing where you're heading... and of course, there's an obvious tie-in towards the idea of really nasty things potentially happening to you, which blends well with horror. Films like Alien, Jacob's Ladder, The Dead Zone, Exorcist III… yes, that's actually a really good movie!
I agree! That flick totally got a bum rap, but people are coming back around to it now.
JASON: And George C. Scott is amazing! I suppose you could technically refer to some of those as "cross-over horror" films, but those are my favorites. I'm not as much into hack n' slash flicks, although I have to say the first Nightmare On Elm Street definitely gave me the creeps. The whole 'body bag in the hallway' shot is creepy as hell. But generally I prefer the psychological horror, with the shocking and gruesome thrown in when necessary to make the point of the story.
As far as directors, I think the strongest example of good direction strengthening a horror film would be [Kubrick’s] The Shining, and John Carpenter's remake of The Thing. As a general favorite though, I would probably argue David Cronenberg seems to “get it” pretty consistently.
Are you into any other macabre media (books, games, etc)?
JASON: My single biggest love [from] horror media is actually comic books & graphic novels. My biggest (and still my favorite) introduction to the genre stemmed from issue #1 of the Cry For Dawn series. I still remember the day I saw that on the shelf: it was beautiful, stunning in its presentation and wholly original… I bought two copies! Since then, of course, that series has come to reach legendary appeal and status among horror comics.
Does your love of horror influence your music in any way?
JASON: My love of movies in general has definitely had a big influence on my musical sensibilities. Music for me is a very visual art. I tend to "see" music, rather than hear it, and the medium of filmmaking naturally translates the marriage of musical and visual in a beautiful way.
One thing the horror genre does particularly well in regards to films is the use of sound. Some of my favorite horror films are virtually devoid of a “soundtrack” per se, but rather rely on sonic emptiness to really create an uncomfortable place, and then employ creative sound design to really make your skin crawl (or whatever the intended effect). It exists solely and purposefully to put you in a specific emotional place, for the rest of the material to do its job – be that to scare or excite, make you sweat, or simply entertain.
A great example of this is the opening vignette of The Exorcist, when the snarling dogs give rise to an undercurrent of screaming... that sneaks up on you and really makes your skin crawl. OWL employs similar effects to create a “sonic landscape” during a few instrumental passages on our record. Check out the tail end of "Ghost In The Starlight" for a great example... it's not exactly "horrific", but definitely intended to transport you someplace. A lot of what the band does towards the end of that song ceases to be about the notes we're playing and more about the sonic effects. It works relatively seamlessly, because we simply employ the instrumentation already at hand (Chris's bow work, for example) instead of “dropping in” too many musical non-sequiturs or sampled effects… although there is a repetitive musical "Easter egg" in that passage.
Is it true that particular song is based your own supernatural experiences?
CHRIS: It's about a ghostly figure in a Hollywood Hills home I lived in. People would describe what they saw and I'd finish their description and they would turn white. I would always go, ''We have all seen her." I always felt as though her Hollywood dreams got shattered, and maybe more. She seemed very sad, and lights would flicker when the band would play the song in the studio… she also knocked on the door during the first demo of ''More on Drugs'' and I was so excited because my engineer was there and said, "What the hell was that?''
Have you figured out her true identity yet?
CHRIS: We speculated on many Hollywood actresses, but never figured it out. There are lots of stories [about her] up on Wonderland Avenue, where I wrote the song and lived.
Dan, you've also been the drummer for The Clay People, whose music is likened to the sound of a horror movie, and you’ve actually worked in the horror genre directly before. Do you enjoy exploring darker musical themes?
DAN: I love exploring many and any types of themes musically. Darker themes really are so much fun to explore; you get to convey emotions that you’re not supposed to have. I’ve had the chance to actually write for a few horror movies with the Clays, and that was great fun. I did one song for Dee Snyder's movie Strangeland and one for Death Sentence.
It’s obvious you guys are pretty comfortable on the dark side… so we want to know what really scares you. What’s your greatest fear?
CHRIS: My greatest fear in life is going on stage with my upright bass and I can’t hear it. That makes me sweat like I’m in the gym!
DAN: My greatest fear is hitting someone while I’m driving… just tweaks me out. Sometimes I can [just] envision it and get chills.
JASON: My consistent plaguing fear throughout my life has been heights, vertigo, falling dreams, that sort of thing. I actually get shaky knees looking up at tall buildings! Strangely enough, I went skydiving once and it completely removed this fear, mentally and physiologically... for about 3 months. Unfortunately the fear is back now.
Many thanks to the OWL team for their awesome input... and for putting together a wicked cool album that's one of the best I've heard this year. Be sure to check out the band’s official site for some sample tracks and you'll see what I mean… but first, dig this awesome anime teaser (featuring excerpts from “Pusher”):