April 1, 2010
Guitarist Omar Afzaal is in two (or is it three?) bands, works and goes to school. Bassist Ty Brinneman is a founding member of the Soma art collective and is in three bands, including nationally known post-rock band Metavari. Drummer John Cheesebrew has kids and a wife, recently fronted metal band Graves of the Endless Fall, runs Old Crown Coffee Roasters and is looking to start a stoner metal band. Guitarist Bob Haddad is in three bands. Afzaal and Haddad, two founding members of classic Fort Wayne band All Nite Skate, also play rare shows with their former band. And much more.
The point is that the four members of experimental rock band Castles, unquestionably one of the area's most interesting - and complex - bands, are busy dudes. So busy that, after several failed attempts, I had to meet them at Nick Fabini's Cardinal Tattoo for an interview. This while Cheesebrew was elbow-deep in needle.
"John and I were working together at Old Crown, so we decided to start playing together as a two-piece. And that was our plan. Two and no one else," Afzaal said while needles buzzed and metal blared from speakers. "Bob was living in Chicago at the time, so [his involvement was] out of the question. One thing led to another and we eventually asked Ty to join because we wanted a fuller sound - a bottom end. Bob was thinking about moving back, and I really wanted him in the band."
"Omar and I started playing together back in the winter of 2008. By the spring we were playing as a three piece with Ty," added Cheesebrew, noting that Brinneman wasn't able to meet up for the interview because he was currently in Austin, Texas, playing South by Southwest shows with big shots Metavari.
"I was working at the library in Chicago and considering transferring schools. But that wasn't going to work out, so I came back," Haddad said. "They recorded a garage demo for me to check out. So I started working on that and jamming with them, and it ended up sounding a lot better than I expected. But they already rocked before I came."
Once Castles had established themselves as a four-piece things began to really take shape. Though we didn't talk about the pressures that come along with starting what is more or less a local super group (in addition to the above-mentioned bands, Afzaal was in the Plane Crashers, Cheesebrew was in Dead Letter Auction and Haddad was/is in The Poseidon Adventure), I'm sure it ran through the band's collective mind at some point.
"This was the first time I've been in a band where we openly and explicitly talked about finding our sound, because usually that just sort of happens," Afzaal said. "Initially I think we were all just happy with doing what we do. And I suppose that's still what we're doing, but "
"But we're definitely concerned with cohesiveness, which I think shines through on our EP," Cheesebrew added. "You know, someone wrote this song and someone wrote that song and someone wrote this song, and when we play them together they sound great, but they don't necessarily work together fluidly. But the EP all sounds like one band. When we first started playing, just Omar and I, things were different. But once Bob and Ty came things have changed."
"We all sort of like the same music. Well, John and Ty like the heavier stuff. And Bob, too. Okay, maybe it's just me who doesn't," Afzaal said. "I really like my metal, but not as much as the other guys. So I guess I sort of lighten the sound a bit. But we agree to meet halfway."
"We're changing him. Omar is getting heavier," Haddad quickly added.
"I just like that we're talking about metal," laughed Cheesebrew, red stuff (is that blood or ink?) smeared on his arm.
After playing some shows and getting together regularly for many months, Afzaal, Brinneman, Cheesebrew and Haddad decided to take their batch of originals into the studio to record their self-titled EP which is available at Wooden Nickel. To be exact, they headed to the Ensomberoom studio to work with producer Geoff Montgomery, whom Cheesebrew had recorded with during his Graves days. Haddad, too, had worked with Montgomery with his Poseidon mates.
"Geoff usually works with metal and black metal bands, so I think working with us was good for him," Cheesebrew said, Afzaal adding that he knew Montgomery wanted to "branch out and expand his portfolio."
"I was so impressed with the sound. I walked into the studio, which is a basement, and didn't know what to expect," Afzaal said. "I wasn't sure how he was going to capture our sound because it's not just a wall of guitars with screaming on top. We have a little more nuanced sound, and he got that. I was so happy with how it sounded."
"Trying out different ideas was fun, but I think we maybe spent more time than we had money for," laughed Haddad.
"We recorded over four days, I think. Four days in the studio, total," Afzaal said, correcting Cheesebrew, who had previously insisted that the EP took two months.
"It sounds a lot cooler when you say a couple of months. I mean, it wasn't really four days," quipped Cheesebrew. "Well, it was, but those four days were spread out over several months, which sounds so much cooler."
"A lot of the writing was done in the studio," Afzaal said, noting that the band members - who all take turns singing on the EP - refused to perform vocals in front of each other in practices, instead waiting until the studio clock was ticking.
"Lyrically, yeah, some of that was done in studio. But the songs were pretty much down," Cheesebrew said. "We ad libbed a bit, but we had harmonies worked out and I had a lot of stuff written. We just had to decide who was going to do what."
"I have trouble getting comfortable performing vocals. John definitely doesn't because he fronts Graves. Ty had no problem, and Bob has strong vocals, but it was hard for me to find my place in the band because I'd gotten so used to just being a guitarist," Afzaal said, promising that the band will be more prepared next time they hit the studio.
"This is the first time I've ever [sung] and played drums at the same time," added Cheesebrew (easily my personal favorite scream singer ever).
"We're still trying to get him to wear a headset," laughed Haddad.
"I resist it, but it's probably necessary. Maybe I should get all Phil Collins on ya," said Cheesebrew, still covered in red and now talking with a passerby about rebuilding vintage bicycles.
Back to business, Afzaal added that the band had their five-song EP (great, by the way) mastered by Carl Saff, who has done work for many national-level indie bands, including one of Afzaal's favorites, Xiu Xiu.
(Side rant: The EP, if you've not yet heard it, is fantastic. This writer's favorite Fort Wayne release from 2009. It's often heavy and full of the guitar interplay All Nite Skate was known for. The arrangements are complex and the riffs instantly memorable. Everything solid. The vocals are more screaming than singing, but not in a way that will put anyone off. If you like Dischord Records, Chicago metal, Slint or even early Smashing Pumpkins, you'll find very much to like on the Castles EP.)
Though the EP was nominated for a Best Album Whammy last fall, the band has done little to promote or push their still-new record.
"It's been hard this time of year because of everyone's schedules, but I guess later this year, once things slow down, we'll pimp it around," Afzaal said. "But, as far as record labels go, I could take it or leave it. It's more so a matter of just putting out a record. We're not concerned with getting signed."
"The idea of getting signed poses a lot of questions. Graves was at that point - years ago - where we actually had to look at that," added Cheesebrew. "Being signed changes the whole dynamic. And, you know, just to meet up with us you had to come to a tattoo shop to get us all together. And being signed means other things, like being on the road, which isn't really feasible for everyone right now. But that's not to say that, if the right offer came up, we wouldn't be up for it."
Despite being a generally busy batch of musicians, Castles do have quite a bit of material that's more or less ready to be recorded.
"We had to set aside a whole cluster of sounds because they didn't fit with the five on the EP, so I guess we'll do another EP with the more poppier songs instead of those sludgy stoner songs," Afzaal said. "Right now we just want to pump out EPs. I don't know if we'll ever even do a full-length. We just want to keep putting things out to show people where we're at."
"Jay Reatard style. We don't want to get bored," Cheesebrew added.
"It'd be nice to get an EP out this summer and then another out this winter. If both EPs are as short as the first one it shouldn't be too hard," Afzaal said.
Haddad then adding that there's a local label - started by members of Karloff - that might be interested in helping the band release material.
"It's a pseudo-label that would maybe help us out. They'll break even in the end, and we'll get an EP out of it. It's minimal, but, considering we all have so many other things to worry about, it would definitely help us keep putting things out," explained Afzaal.
In the meantime Castles are keeping busy with practices and the occasional show. They'll be sharing the O'Sullivans stage with Streetlamps for Spotlights and Chicago's The Interiors on Saturday, April 10 and the Tiger Room stage with Wooden Satellites and Rocket Lazerz on Saturday, April 24.
And, of course, they have their side projects. There's one in particular that Afzaal and Haddad are focused the most on.
"We are so pumped about House of Bread right now. Full speed ahead at this point," Afzaal said. "I started working on the new album in 2007 and have been slowly plodding along. Once Bob moved back he started to help. It was my solo project, but he wanted to join for "
"Forever," Haddad interrupted. "He wouldn't let me join at first."
"We're probably two weeks away from finishing the new album. It sounds really polished and poppy compared to Castles. It's all production," Afzaal said. "It's electronic and organic stuff mixed together. We're trying to making the catchiest album we can, pretty much."
"It sounds like Michael Jackson. Thriller. So super poppy," Haddad joked.
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