WHILE HEAVEN WEPT
TARTAREAN DESIRE WEBZINE
This live interview with Tom Phillips of the American doom metal band While Heaven Wept was done by Boris Van Berlo at the Frontline in Belgium on April 10th, 2004.
While Heaven Wept became one of the first American doom metal bands as they started out under the monicker Dream Wytch in November 1989. A couple of full-length albums later they are still around, now without a label home due to the recent closing of England's Rage Of Achilles Records. [The Editor]
You have a very extensive biography on the website, so I will not ask much about the history of the band, but could you maybe point out your personal highlights or most important moments in the history of While Heaven Wept?
Certainly when we first formed in 1989, all the releases that weíve had are milestones because every one is a progression of some kind, so that would be 1994, 1998 and 2003. And doing this tour is probably the biggest highlight. Apart from that there are some smaller things, like certain people that have really worked well with us, as you know we had many line-up changes over the years, but after almost 10 years when I hooked up with Jim Hunter who also played bass for Revelation, and he does them for Twisted Tower Dire as well, weíve been friends since college but itís the best musical connection so far. So thatís another highlight. I mean there are things like this, and I had the chance to play with some of the best musicians from our local area and now on this tour we play with friends from other places who we never played with before. Our guitarist is Angelo (Tringali) from Cold Mourning in California and Fred from Whispering Gallery in Holland playing keyboard. Itís a little crazy because literary last week this band wasnít a band, it was just five people that stood on stage playing this music and maybe not so good even, but in this amount of time weíve become a band and thatís cool.
What are the reasons that in the 15 years WHW exists, you only released two full albums and some 7Ē/demos? Are you a perfectionist, did the compositions require this amount of time, or were there other obstacles?
Itís all of the above. When you have so many line-up changes itís maybe not so easy to get something done, but itís been better for the past five years. The main reason is that we donít just sit down and write songs. They come when they do. Some songs may come in five minutes complete with lyrics and music and everything. Other songs may take years. And I donít believe in forcing the music to be, because otherwise there is no feeling. So everything is spontaneous and it comes through revelations as opposed to a particular way of writing, never sitting at a table or doing shit like that.
But why do you then like to rearrange older songs and bring out newer versions of them? You like to write the music spontaneous, but then after a certain amount of time you like to change it. Why is that?
Well, the thing is that most of the releases were very small pressings and a very cult kind of thing. So only people that knew about it would ever hear these things, and they are all out of print up to this point. But I didnít want that music to disappear, and they are naturally going to evolve with different people playing them and also as we are playing them live more we develop new things to keep it exciting and interesting for us. Because maybe I wouldnít write the same song in 2004 as I did in 1991, but I think the basis is still the same. So itís more like children growing rather than retooling anything, itís not like rewriting history itís just a song that grew up and maybe at a certain point it wonít grow any further, maybe they evolved to a point where there is no more space for any other notes left.
What do you think is the biggest musical progression that you or WHW underwent? Maybe losing the grunts?
The grunts, wellÖ in 1991 when I took over the vocals, I used that style for maybe six months but it didnít work for us. When we started we had a clean vocalist and since then we always had this except for these six months. But when we were recording the first album which ended up getting split into these different 7Ēs and EPís, one day I had a bad day in the studio and I was ventilating some aggression so the first 7Ē has grunts. But it was never mass released, it was only for our friends and local neighbourhood who supported us for like five-six years and they wanted something they could play at home, so we did this for them. More importantly is that a lot of the earlier songs were written eight, nine, ten years ago while afterwards I went to college to study classical music and composition. After my studies the arrangements got much more mature, there are a lot more theoretical ideas and practice. Itís much more orchestrated now, and I think the biggest thing is the transitions between despair at hearts, like things that normally never fit well together. It came to the point that we could do these strange changes and it sounds very natural because it is natural. I may have one riff for a song and nothing else comes for many months but then I play something else and I just know that it fits and it just starts evolving on its own when you put these first two pieces together and it writes itself. I guess that after the process of it coming together, itís the only time I sit down and I start applying what I learned at school and what I learned through listening to all the music that I have, about orchestration and arrangements and putting things together like the icing on the cake. When you strip away all the layers from our music, underneath that itís still a song, but I like to have a lot of colours and different tones and a lot of ear-candy. There are songs with like 60 layers of things happening between all the drums and different instruments, and thatís the maturing of arrangements I think. Itís not so much the song writing but more how they develop.
And do you use your classical/theoretical musical education for other things? In daily life for instance?
Well, I teach guitar but my approach is a little different than a lot of people do, because I donít teach people to play Korn or Limp Bizkit. I try to explain them the function of things, why itís like this, as well as the technique to do these things. So yes it does apply in daily life.
Where do you get your inspiration, lyrically, musically, now and in the past?
Lyrically everything is based on events, relationships and circumstances of my own life, so itís very personal. Musically itís also related to this. There is usually an emotional catalyst and when I am playing I have this certain feeling and the music just comes out. But it is mostly because of someone passing away, breaking up with a girlfriend or fights with friends and family,Ö anything that happens in life, for example getting fired from a job. When there is an emotional reaction and a literal reaction, thatís how that all comes together.
Also on a musical level what influences me is basically everything I hear, I have this file in my head of all this crazy music. When itís something I identify with then somehow I integrate this into our music, but when there is something I donít like, I strive to avoid slipping into any clichťs that maybe some other bands do. And when it is something I really donít like then I ensure itís the exact opposite of these types of things, but thatís an inspiration as well, something that repels you as supposed to pulling you in. More specifically the bands that influenced us when we started were Fates Warning, early Queensryche, Candlemass, Kitaro, Bathory, Slayer, Voivod, Coroner and a lot of classical music. Now itís pretty much the same, I still listen to Cirith Ungol, Manilla Road and all these things, but also a lot of really obscure 70ís European Progressive Rock, a lot of German Krautrock and also the French and Italian stuff. From the 90ís the Scandinavian bands like ńnglagŚrd. There is very little in modern music that challenges me. I have around 7000 cdís and tons of vinyls, so I heard almost everything. In the last years the only things that have done anything to me that are new would be Arcturus, Ulver, Devin Townsend and The Mars Volta, thatís about it.
But you also follow the more modern scene?
I try to listen to everything because I think itís important to have as much of a repertoire as possible and it certainly doesnít hurt to see what your peers are doing as well. I support al of my friendís bands a 100%. Maybe I donít necessarily like all the music but still we are all in this thing together.
About this tour: I think itís the first time you tour Europe?
And how is it going so far?
Well, I love Europe to begin with, so I am very happy to be here. The interesting thing is that we have people playing with us that have never played together before. A week ago we were just five guys standing on stage playing this music. Now itís more like a real band but itís still like infancy. The earlier shows were not as united but now every show is getting better and better. Itís a crazy idea to begin with but I think we made the right choices because personality wise and musically everybody gets along very well. I wasnít very happy earlier on when it was a little rough but I shouldnít have expected otherwise because we literarily just got together.
There are some European people involved so are you going to continue working together in the future?
I would like to continue working with this group of people and also the other American members that are missing, so we will see. Technology these days allows us to maybe trade music through the mail or over the internet and all this, so who knows. We will have a band meeting tomorrow and then Iíll know more.
Can you tell me something about the future plans of the band?
Back in the US we will do a tour and some festivals. In October we will go to Greece for a couple of shows and then after this we will go back to the studio and re-record the ĎSorrow of the Angelsí album that came out in 1998 because itís out of print, and since we have a different line up now and we play these songs live now, itís going to be a different interpretation. I think its better this way because this is now the band that everyone is becoming familiar with, and we will also include five other songs that were from this time that have never been recorded, but they fit with this material. I also believe itís better to do this now because as you mentioned, we also have a lot of new material which is very different, and once that comes out there is no going back to the older stuff. The new material is much more diverse, it builds from where ĎOf Empires Forlorní left off in a way, on one hand it is much more aggressive but on the other hand itís much more spacey and orchestral. A little bit of both but very little doom, much more straight epic metal and spacey progressive stuff.
And are there already parts recorded or still in your head or on paper?
Everything is written onto paper already, at least the basic structure. We have demoed a couple of things already like the title track from the next album and also some other demos. We will continue to do more demos throughout the year but at this point basically everybody else has to learn the rest of the music and throw in there ideas for the arrangements before we are ready to do the recording of our new album. By the end of the year we will definitely be ready to do the re-recoding of ĎSorrow of the Angelsí.
And then come back to Europe for a tour?
I would like to. Our label is potentially signing some friends of mine that I recommended and if thatís the case I certainly love to have a tour with them. But it will be different after this year, not so many doom shows. Especially the way we are heading musically, and even after ĎEmpiresí it would make more sense for us to be involved with things around the ĎKeep it True Festivalí.
I have to admit that the first time I heard your music, I was convinced WHW was a European band, mainly because of the compositions and approach. So I was kind of surprised to learn that you are from the US. Is there an explanation for this you think?
As far as music is concerned 90% of our influences are of European origin whether you go back to Bach, Beethoven, Wagner and Mozart or all the way through Bathory, Candlemass and many other things. This is the music that I relate to the best and when I hear this music it feels like itís a part of me as well. And of course my family is originally from Eastern Europe so itís in the blood. And beside that for me personally there are also cultural aspects. There is a lot more culture here then in the States, there is better beer, women and drugs as well.
So are you thinking about coming to live here in Europe?
Actually we are contemplating this right now, some of the members, because it would be more logical. Over here we get to be who we are and over there itís like a miserable thing, so we will see, it is part of the plan I think.
Some last words for the readers?
Thanks to everyone that came out to the shows and spotted the album. Itís pretty likely that we will be back here in Europe as soon as we possibly can Ö and keep it true.
Links of interest:
While Heaven Wept