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Greg Schwan - Witnesses

Interview with Greg Schwan from Witnesses
by Gary Hernandez at 08 August 2020, 4:36 AM

WITNESSES, a project of Cinematic Atmospheres and Metal, is the brainchild of Greg Schwan and was conceived in 2016. Over the last four years Greg has produced five full-length albums and at least four standalone singles under the WITNESSES moniker. His latest album, “Doom II,” was released on May 31, 2020. Gary Hernandez, staff writer for Metal Temple, caught up with Greg to discuss the project’s latest album, history, evolution, and future.

The WITNESSES discography can be loosely described in three categories: Ambient Electronic (“I,” “II,” “III”); Insurgent Folk (“The Ghost Of John B”; “They’re Hanging Me Tonight”; “Poltergeist I”) and Metal (“To Disappear And To Be Nothing,” “Everything Is Worse,” “Doom II”). What did you have in mind for the project back in 2016?

I think your breakdown of each head — like a three-headed monster — is correct. And there’s more coming for each, but back in 2016 or ’15 I had already done some Metal and then gave up on it. I wanted to challenge myself. I had been playing Metal and Rock my whole life, and it’s only a subset of what I actually listen to. I really love soundtracks, I really love ambient music, and I wanted to challenge myself to do that. Personal circumstances gave me a lot of time to write at that time, so “I” and “II” were written pretty much at the same time. It was a learning process not just about writing but also mixing. I’d later go on to master my own stuff but, in the beginning, it was an experiment.

Let’s talk about “I,” “II,” “III.” They all seem related — the cover art by Andreas Levers, the suggested storylines, the themes — did you have a trilogy in mind? What’s the story behind those three albums?

The song titles actually give little hints for what the music is about, but I never really want to answer what it’s about because I love the fact that people will hear it and they’ll say, “This is what I take from it.” Even though I give those little hints, I tend to pull back a little bit from saying more about the story I saw in my head because I don’t want to lead the listener too much. They’re not a trilogy, though. What it boils down to is: I just didn’t know what to name the albums, so they became “I,” “II,” “III,” and then “IV” is nearly done. I’m polishing up “IV” now, but I’m going to sit on that for little bit.

Are you doing “IV” with Suvo Sur (violin) and Jørgen Munkeby (saxophone) as well?

At this point, “IV” is myself, Jørgen Munkeby does play on it — he’s just a phenomenal collaborator. I have vocals from a Danish singer named Maria Malmö and probably some guitar parts from my friend and collaborator Matt Kozar. I think that’s the line up as it stands right now. I don’t think I’ll be adding any more collaborators, but I think it’s a progression over “I,” “II,” and “III,” so I’m really excited about it.

I found the cover art for these three albums really interesting. I saw you use the same photographer for all of them, Andreas Levers out of Pottsdam, Germany. How did you make that connection? What did the creative process look like?

Andreas is great. I’m working with him on a physical release of “Doom II,” by the way, and he’s doing the work for “IV.” To answer your question more directly, though, I just found him on Twitter. Somebody had shared that red image \[“I”]. I saw it and said, “That’s it. That’s the image for the music I’m writing.” It just found me. Then I tracked down his contact information and reached out to him. We had some discussions, and it just took off from there. He’s become a friend. I met him in Berlin during the last trip my wife and I took before COVID. We had dinner with him and his wife. He’s a really excellent guy. Artistically I think we’re starting to move in a little more collaborative direction, but previous it’s been his existing work has just matched perfectly.

What about Jessica Rosenberg? She’s done the covers for three of your other releases (“The Ghost of John B,” “They’re Hanging Me Tonight,” “To Disappear And To Be Nothing”). It seems obvious you were looking for something different for that cover art.

Jessica did a cover painting for a physical release of “Doom II” and Andreas will do the rest — the inner artwork and the layout. I knew of Jessica through a friend of mine in a Darkwave band called FOGHORN LONESOME. I knew she was a multi-talented singer, painter. When I saw her site I said, again, “This is it. This matches what I’m looking for.” I just give her very loose direction. She’s super easy to work with, super reasonable, turns it around quickly. What can I say? I’ve been very lucky with the artists. As you may have noticed, I’m super reluctant to put any logo on the cover art. I want the artwork to be front and center. I don’t want to cheapen it with logos or any kind of distracting text. I want the artwork to be an equal partner.

In 2017, you started to put out a kind of Insurgent Folk. You started with “The Ghost Of John B,” which is a remake of the Bahamian folk song “The John B Sails.” Back in the 60’s everyone and their dog was covering it (Johnny Cash, THE KINGSTON TRIO, THE BEACH BOYS). They called it “Sloop John B.” Yours is “The Ghost Of John B.” You slowed it down, changed the tempo, and gave it more of a Doom feel. What was it about that song that intrigued you?

I consider it a lullaby and my nieces corroborated that. \[laughs] I think I went through a period when I was obsessed with “Pet Sounds” (THE BEACH BOYS), and I think “Sloop John B” was the track that I always had on repeat. I love everything about it. I said: “Well, I might as well do my own version. I’m going to slow it down and make it a lullaby.”
There was some risk there. WITNESSES is an independent project. It’s not like I have thousands and thousands of listeners, but I wanted to establish that this project was going to be whatever I want to do whenever I want to do it. I don’t care if a lullaby version of “Sloop John B” fits with Doom Metal or not. This is what I want to do, and I want it to be all under one moniker, which is WTINESSES. That’s it, it was just a tribute.

Then there’s the cover of Marty Robbins’ 1959 murder ballad, “They’re Hanging Me Tonight.” Tell us about this single and how you came to discover Marty Robbins.

I think Outlaw Country is some of the heaviest music ever made. The lyrical content is so terrible, right? Alcoholism and violence and murder. I think a lot of people in this day and age, their experience with Country is like Pop Country. Super polished, over-produced, mass-manufactured music, but the old Outlaw Country, like Marty Robbins, is so raw. It’s just heavier than anything I’ve ever heard. I’m actually 100% sure where I discovered Marty Robbins. It’s used in an episode of “Breaking Bad.” In the scene, Jesse has a Marty Robbins cassette in the car. I believe it’s “Big Iron” that’s playing, I could be wrong, and I just said, “What is that? I have to know more about this.” And so it was down the rabbit hole with Marty Robbins. “They’re Hanging Me Tonight” was the track that I wanted to pay homage to.

You mentioned earlier that you might be doing more of this type of music.

Yeah, I have an EP that’s done. It features the same vocalist from “III,” Gabbi Coenen. It’s some of the most deeply personal stuff I’ve ever written. If you started listening to us from “Doom II,” you might just be like, “skip, next” and that’s fine. I have no problem with that, but it is the most personal stuff I’ve ever written, and to me there’s nothing more personal than a great singer and a guitar. That’s it. That’s all you ever really need. It has those just very basic elements, some field recordings as well. I look forward to releasing it once I get the right PR support.

Let’s talk about your Metal. I think the Metal community really took notice of WITNESSES with “To Disappear And To Be Nothing.” Was Doom the particular type of music or sound you were going for, or did it just happen that way?

Doom is in my blood. The British Doom stuff from the early 90’s is what really turned me to Metal when I was in my teens. You know a lot of people have stories about MEGADETH, METALLICA, IRON MAIDEN — I guess I just missed that boat. I don’t know where I was. A friend of mine turned me on to stuff like MY DYING BRIDE, PARADISE LOST, ANATHEMA. I said, “Wow, this has been missing from my life.”

I don’t follow new Doom bands too much. I think there’s a lot of really good ones from what I hear, but I don’t follow it too much. For me it always goes back to that early 90’s sound. I guess some people would call it Gothic — I don’t really see it that way. For me, when I’m writing my riffs, I can’t get that stuff out of my head — those guitar harmonies and big heavy chords. Then when I heard Kody Ternes (vocalist), I said: “You know what? That’s the vocal I want. It doesn’t fit that old template, but I don’t care.”
So, to answer your question directly, yes, as subgenres go Doom is the nearest to my heart. It goes without saying I love SABBATH and all that stuff, but in terms of my music education, in the early- to mid-nineties when I heard that British sound, I just fell in love with it. I think Doom also has the most emotive lyrical bent, so it works for me because that’s what I want to write about.

“Doom II” was released May 31, 2020. Was it difficult getting it out during this period of quarantine?

A lot of the recording was done pre-COVID, so that was convenient, but the reality is that WITNESSES isn’t a band. This room I’m in now is where a lot of it happens, and this is a small NYC apartment. Kody is based out of Tennessee. He tracks all in his home studio; the additional guitars were tracked in home studios by Scott Loose from WHILE HEAVEN WEPT and Matthew Kozar. So, it was actually no problem.In March it was pretty stressful. I think there were and are a lot of unknowns. I live close to Elmhurst Hospital which was one of the first places that just became a morgue — like an outdoor morgue in the parking lot with freezer trucks and bodies piling up. Really, really serious stuff. There are no words for it in the English language that I know of.

But I think for me, it didn’t slow me down at all. I’m relatively old and a lot of what I want to do at this point is mix, master, write. So, it kind of just took off. And releasing it, it’s only digital right now, and there’s tons of services that make it easy. I would say the hardest part is that I’m not an engineer, and so I’m teaching myself how to mix and master with WITNESSES. Knowing when to let go and say this is probably as good as its going to be. The tweaks I’m making now are imperceptible to the listener, and I’m starting to go into like a psychosis \[laughs]. That’s the hardest part.

It was written earlier. Kody tracked well before COVID. And then COVID hit and I just said, “What the heck happened here?” I wrote an album about a plague. This is very, very bizarre. I thought about it for a second. Were people going to think this was written really quickly after COVID hit, but, no, the lyrics were written well before October 2019.

Along those line, “Doom II” is about a plague ship that runs aground and infects a village, which is really an interesting story in and of itself. I’ve probably read ten or more reviews on the album and every one of them makes a connection to a much more profound and metaphorical message to the album. Were you surprised at this reaction?

Yeah, I was. Your review with Metal Temple included the response to the lyrics has been one of the most reaffirming aspects of the process. We’re Metal fans. There’s cliché abound. Some huge percentage of Metal music, the extreme stuff, you know Chris Barnes, Barney Greenway-esque stuff — I like some of those lyrics, but some are more about a percussive aspect. But I really wanted to tell that story. All I wanted, if nothing else, was to create something in the listener’s head. I wanted them to see as they listened. And it seems to have landed.

You’re right, about every reviewer has picked up on it. I was surprised, because I was projecting that most reviewers would be like me and say, “Yeah, lyrics, whatever. Same old crap we’ve been hearing. Nothing new under the sun.” But, as it turns out, so many reviews really paid attention to it and that has been fantastic. It’s given me more confidence with lyrics in general and for the follow-up which I’m working on the lyrics right now.

Let’s take a step back now and talk about your music in general. I could be mistaken, but across the WITNESSES catalogue there seems to be a recurrent maritime motif. Is this deliberate?

That’s insightful. It just might be subconscious. I love the sea. You know, some people feel very uncomfortable on boats. Whereas for me, I feel very comfortable there, but in the air I feel deeply uncomfortable. I’ve always found the sea romantic and terrifying and awe inspiring. Perhaps growing up on the coast has led to that. WHILE HEAVEN WEPT has an album called “Vast Oceans Lachrymose.” You really feel your insignificance when you’re on the ocean.

You mentioned field recordings earlier. One of the things I enjoy about your music are the sound effects you integrate into the compositions. For instance, the storm and ship sounds in “Doom II” and the use of “Walking On Dry Leaves” by BENBONCAN in “Poltergeist I.” What can you tell us about these?

I read an interview with Brendon Perry from DEAD CAN DANCE, which is another foundational music act for me. When I first discovered them in my teens, I was floored. I go back to those 80’s albums on 4AD and they are as powerful for me today as they were then.

In this interview Brendon Perry pointed out that there’s a lot of free stuff out there. It’s all creative common, free to license with different levels of attribution. So, I haven’t done any myself because it’s all out there on the public domain. I said, look, I can invest in field recording equipment, I can go find dry leaves, I can go try to create boat sounds but it’s out there, it’s free to use, and I’ll credit where credit is due. So, that’s been it. I said to myself, if Brendan Perry can do it, I don’t care. \[laughs] That’s what it’s for. They put them out there for use.

It’s really about the placement. Like any sample, its about putting it in the right place. “Poltergeist I” is a very lonely track and I felt that sound of someone walking alone in the woods matched. In “III” there’s traffic sounds, in “Doom II” there’s that creaking ‘cause I want to put you on that boat.

On Bandcamp your music is in part described as “Cinematic Atmospheres.” I also saw on YouTube that you entered a scoring competition for Spitfire/Westworld. It seems that cinematic scoring is a passion of yours. Can you tell us about this?

It’s in everything I do. I think I mentioned to some interviewer that part of what made me want to situate the plague story in this village — and it doesn’t necessarily have to have a specific time or place, it’s not historic — was the film “The Witch.” The way “The Witch” looked and felt, I wanted to listener to see what was happening in that type of setting.

I went through a period in my life, probably in my 20’s, when I wasn’t doing any music at all. All I was doing was educating myself on film. Kubrick, Bergman, Ozu — this pantheon of great directors that I could carry with me going forward. And then in my own listening Johan Johannsson, Ryuichi Sakamoto . . . I mean I listened to those guys constantly and so this cinematic aspect of visual and sound is core to what I am trying to do.

I really like Spitfire audio plugins. They’re tops. So, when they had that Spitfire/Westworld scoring competition I said, “Alright, let’s enter.” It was really fun and really challenging. It was a chase scene, which was so far away from anything that I would ever think I’d do. It was a lot of fun.

How did you do in the competition?

Oh, I lost just like everyone else. There were 11,000 entries and only four winners or something like that. So yeah, you had to set your own expectations. You had to do it for fun because the odds of winning were lottery-esque.

Your musical output is diverse and eclectic, so I am assuming the input to that has been diverse and eclectic. Who are your musical influences?

It varies. There were musical influences when I was 15, there were musical influences when I was 25, there are musical influences now when I discover new stuff. We talked a little about it. I had an older brother and that older brother exposed me to ZEPPELIN, then NIRVANA, and then Hard-Core Punk. So, I’m a teenager and I’m super idealistic and political so that perfectly made sense at the time. Then I met Matt and he exposed me to Metal and that’s where a lot of that British Doom stuff came from. Then you have a lot of stuff like DEAD CAN DANCE as well which I must have listened to nonstop in my late teens.

I think from there probably the biggest spiritual, if not literal, influence had been ULVER because I think they set the template for “Hey, Metal is in our blood, but there’s all this other stuff we want to explore as well.” I think their middle period is my favorite. It was just unpredictable. It was soundtrack or “Blood Inside.” I think ULVER was the one that spiritually made me say, “Yeah, you can keep one moniker but do whatever you want.”

From my mid-twenties ULVER has been my biggest spiritual influence, but then more recently indeed like Sakamoto and Johan Johannsson have been the most inspiring things. Then also WARDRUNNA from Norway have also been a big influence on me and HEILUNG as well. It depends on what snapshot of my life you’re asking about, but eclectic is the word. There are so many great artists doing so many great things. To be narrow-minded about what you listen to is cheating yourself.

If we were to look through your personal music collection, what is the one thing we’d find that would surprise us?

I can answer that pretty easily — some of the early 90’s Hip Hop. When I was a kid, I liked that as well. I think Hip Hop is sometimes derided by more instrument-based or traditional music, but there is real talent in that type of music whether it is record scratching or composing beats or just having a lyrical flow. Some of that stuff from the early 90’s — they called it the Boom Bap — I think is really great music. A TRIBE CALLED QUEST, GANG STARR, NAS — I think that stuff is really, really cool. And it’s socially conscious as well. I think there came a point in popular Hip Hop when it really became materialistic. To me what was cool about Hip Hop was it was about skill. You’d have this master of the microphone, Eric B & Rakim, microphone fiend, right? I think that’s really cool and it’s just as technical as Metal. It’s just they’re using poetry spoken as opposed to wailing on a guitar.

If you had a crystal ball, what do you think it would tell about the future of the underground music scene?

My first instinct is to say, I don’t know. I guess I would answer with what I hope it will be and not necessarily what it will be. What I’d hope for is more blending and breaking down of genres. One of the things that gave me apprehension about putting out Metal albums is that to me Metal has a lot of rules. There’s always this litmus test of “How Metal is this?” I got that a lot with the vocals of my Metal albums. People would call it Alternative Metal. I don’t know what that means. The vocals to me just fit. So, I hope that Metal evolves a little bit past this fetishism with genre and subgenre and becomes more diverse, more interesting, more complicated.
I’m sure I’ll get some hate mail for this, but I think Metal limits itself unnecessarily. So, while I can’t say that it will do this, I would hope that it would take its next step in its evolution.

What’s next for WITNESSES? Greg Schwan?

I have 30 minutes of new Metal. I started that pretty soon after “Doom II” came out. I just felt confident and encouraged. You know, I’m still really humbled by the reception of “Doom II.” I think I could count the negative reviews on one hand. So much of it has been positive, and I just felt that maybe I have something here, maybe this is resonating with a certain subset of people so it made me want to write and strike while the iron was hot. Thankfully, I didn’t hit writer’s block, and it just kept flowing.
So, I would say three things: A dark folky piece, “IV,” and then the next Doom release. Anything goes after that. Minimally those, but the faster I write, the faster something else will happen.

Before we close, is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Stay tuned. I realize that some listeners maybe attach themselves to “I,” “II,” “III,” some to “To Disappear And To Be Nothing” and “Doom II,” but I hope folks will approach the entire catalogue with an open mind. It doesn’t mean they have to like it but give it a chance.



https://www.facebook.com/witnesses.nyc/



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