CONAN’S JON DAVIS On Evidence Of Immortality – “I Focus More On The Feelings Of Panic And Anger And Frustration, But Then At The Same Time Triumph And Victory"
August 9, 2022, a year ago
Britain’s ferocious doom metal warlords Conan return from the ooze with their latest full-length effort Evidence Of Immortality on August 19 via Napalm Records.
Founding frontman and guitarist Jon Davis sat down with BraveWords for an in-depth look into the new album (and how the war in Ukraine may have bled into the writing), what he’s learned from bands on the road, the album and band that helped shape Conan and much more!
BraveWords: We're a couple of years removed from Existential Void Guardian. I know you guys had a split and a live record to tie fans over. And here we are now with Evidence of Immortality, which I guess is album number five?
Jon Davis: “Yeah, people say it's album number five. I like to say it's almost album number six, though, because it depends how you view Horseback Battle Hammer. That was our first ever studio recording. I consider that an album because it was longer than Reign in Blood. So if Reign In Blood is an album surely Horseback Battle Hammer is.”
BraveWords: I mean, it's a different thing, right? Because I know with guys like yourselves, you have a track on this record that's 14 minutes long and that's not unusual for Conan. So I've always found that interesting. What do we call an EP versus what do we call an album? Is it purely based on length? The number of tracks? Does it even matter?
Jon Davis: “When it's a band's first release, like that was for us, I think people are more inclined to call it an EP unless it's more obvious. And also, the album didn't really get press. We had a label on it, but it wasn't in the machine like our subsequent albums have been. And so I think because a lot of people sort of discovered it accidentally they refused to accept that it was actually an album. It was just like 'oh, it's just an EP. That's why I didn't notice it at the time'. But yeah, the fifth album will work for me too. I don't mind. I think all the press has gone out with that, so it's cool.”
BraveWords: When you look back at whatever you would have called the first record, certainly Horseback, and then I believe it's the ten year anniversary of Monnos. How do you assess that? Because obviously there were different band members at the time, very different stages of your life, the benefit of hindsight of ten years of career maturation and change of taste and the things you do performing in the studio. You probably have a different ear and a different sensibility than you did ten years ago.
Jon Davis: “Yes, that's true. I do listen to it in a different way. I remember when we recorded Horseback Battle Hammer. I got home at like 7:00 in the morning and I had to get up. I think I had 16 minutes of sleep and then woke up again and went to work. So that was horrible. So I listened to the album like all of that day and I listened to the album all of that night, just over and over and over again. And that was a consistent theme because that's all I've done with this album. You know, I'll just listen to it nonstop because it's almost like you've kind of given birth to it in a way, and you're just like enthralled by it the whole time. And it's a bit like having a new child.
“I mean, I'm a dad, so it's a bit like having a new child. You're just like obsessed with that child and obsessed with the new album and you're always checking in on it. Always, like in the music's case, always listening to it over and over again. And then as time goes on you sort of move on to the next album and then that one's amazing. But then you've also got another album now to listen to, so you got more and more to go off and that's a consistent thing. You know, having a large catalog means that each album takes you by surprise almost as it's coming out. And then it gets put in the catalog then. And then as the catalog grows, it becomes like a weird thing because you've got more to choose from, certainly when you're playing live. And for us now, having this album out there with every song really, apart from maybe "Grief Sequence", is going to find its way into our live set eventually. I mean, I haven't really done that since Horseback Battle Hammer. Back then that was all we had, so that's all we played live. And then when we wrote Monnos we were like oh yeah, so what songs are we not going to play live? We played ‘Invincible Throne’ once in Athens and it was terrible because we hadn't rehearsed it.
“So I guess as time goes on it's just as exciting to write each album and just as painful. It's not really that pleasant an experience making the record. Recording it is good. But the act of putting the songs together and all, I find that quite intense and I'm not sure I enjoy it, to be honest. But once the songs are all straightened out and they're all ready to go, then I really enjoy recording that. The writing feels like I'm ripping something out of me. I don't know. It's sort of pleasant, but not pleasant at the same time. It's weird.”
BraveWords: I'm curious, particularly with a record like this that was written in between 2019 and 2021. If we think about the changes in the world, pretending for a minute we didn't go through a global pandemic. But socio-political events or the war in Ukraine. These are things that could not have not been on your mind. I know you guys have always made it a point that, in the back of your mind or not, you're drawing inspiration from film or literature or fantasy to take on those overarching themes. Can you separate yourself when there is a pandemic, war and trauma?
Jon Davis: “I think we've always kind of just refused to write about the real world, that's for sure. Separating ourselves from sort of what's going around us. I mean, there's always that firebreaker of never writing about the real world. That's a given with us, that's like one rule that will never break. However, I think probably the real things that happen in the real world may make it sort of like the feeling behind the song or the vibe within a song. If the song sounds kind of angry or whatever then it may sort of be influenced by what's going on. I mean, in particular this album.
“We started writing towards the end of 2019 when we were on tour with Cavalera Conspiracy and we had booked a day in the studio, recorded some riffs. The pandemic wasn't on the agenda then. Nothing else was, really. We were just in the studio starting work on the new album.
And then the next time we started working on the songs was sort of just as the pandemic started in February, March. And we quickly realized that we weren't going to be able to get in the studio together. And I think really the effect that the pandemic had was just lengthening the whole writing process. I don't think it made the songs sound different or anything like that. It just made it more difficult for us. So maybe the frustration came out in the songs. I don't know, I'm not sure that happens with us, to be honest.
“But the lyrics, you could maybe say that the real world made it in there. Now that you mentioned Ukraine and Russia and all that, I wrote the lyrics for pretty much all of them like the evening before the invasion started. And I remember sitting on my computer, like obsessing over BBC thinking shit, this is going to happen. What does that mean? Like, what's going to go on? What's this mean for us here? And that sort of gave me a sense of panic and whatnot. And really I think that influenced the lyrics quite a bit.
“So the lyrics aren't about the Ukrainian war at all, but I focus more on the feelings of panic and anger and frustration, but then at the same time triumph and victory and all those cool things that you think about when you think of warfare, when that war doesn't involve you and your family. You think of all these things, which I guess fear and anger are the only emotions if you're in Ukraine right now. But being over here, it's got me thinking more creatively about conflict and that kind of thing. Which really helped me write the lyrics, to be honest with you. So it brought those emotions out in me. But the main ones were more like anger and panic and frustration and hope, actually.
“A lot of that comes through in a lot of the lyrics as well. ‘Levitation Hoax’ you know, "I am a force for good. My hands of fire and death. My eyes are burning brightness. This thirst is never done." I'm like the hero in that story and I'm coming to save everyone. It's sort of like losing myself and letting those feelings just kind of run away with me and turning it into a story. The first step or two was to do with the Ukraine war and then the lyrics just kind of ran away with themselves then. And then you get into the realm of does this rhyme? You're not really thinking about warfare then, you're just thinking does that sound cool? But yeah, a lot of it was influenced by that. And we recorded the lyrics the very next day, as the whole thing actually started for real. So I definitely think that album will always make me think of what's happening over in Ukraine, no matter how things end up there, because it's sort of like ingrained in the lyrics.”
BraveWords: What I've always found with this band, while it is crushingly heavy and aggressive and angry a lot of the time, it also has that kind of epic, sweeping feeling. You could probably draw your own conclusions and say these guys were thinking about X, Y and Z and the current social political happenings, or you could envision Krull or The Lord of the Rings and make up your own fantasy scenario. It's always threaded the line between that. It can be an escapism, it can be fantasy and doesn't necessarily need to be rooted in these shitty times presently. You can go to a different world with this band.
Jon Davis: “Yeah, and I think if we started doing that it would date the band a little bit and I don't want to be writing stuff about present day things because then what do we do with those songs then if the situation over there turns a different way or whatever? And in general, we don't really want to be putting the anchor down in any particular waters just to try to pigeonhole ourselves. We're not Rage Against The Machine, so we'll let them deal with all that kind of stuff. I do read the news about whatnot, but I'm not really into politics. While you're worrying about politics you miss out on your own life. I'm not involved in politics, so I'm not going to take an interest in it in my own personal life. What will be, will be and I'll live my life around it. And musically, that's our stance as well.”
BraveWords: You had Dave (Perry) on board with "Grief Sequence", which I think is a very cool Easter egg for long time fans of you guys. A cool thing to have come together, particularly on an epic album closer.
Jon Davis: “Yeah, he's been a friend of ours for a while. As you may know, he played bass and keys on the split that we did with Slomatics. He really gave a specific sound to that recording. When we wrote "Grief Sequence", the more I thought about it, the more I realized I didn't really want to put lyrics on there. Because I couldn't think of anything that would fit. And it didn't really sit right putting lyrics on that track, mainly because of how long it was, to be honest with you. And it was quite linear. There's not much going on with that song if you take away the keys. It’s quite straightforward, quite simple. So I thought, well, how can we leave this song? Then we thought let's try and make it a bit like a soundtrack.
“And so the best person to talk to about that was Dave because he's obsessed with synthesizers and everything else. And then we just gave him the song and said do you fancy doing something with this? And he took it away and he dealt with it. And he did a great job. And it sounds a bit like an old zombie movie. Something by Fulci or something like that. And it’s different from the rest of the album for sure. It's not something we've done. The only time we've ever had synths on our albums was the split with Slomatics, apart from ‘Sea Lord on Horseback Battle Hammer where we used the Leslie whatever, playing in the background. But it wasn't the real one. It was an emulation, just to get the end of ‘Sea Lord’ to sound a bit bigger. That's the only time we've ever used it.”
BraveWords: You mentioned it can be a little laborious or taxing before you get into the studio, like the conception of everything. With a band like this that's so riff heavy, does that become, after ten or 12 years, how am I going to reinvent this? Or you're playing a riff and you're like, Fuck, I did that on Blood Eagle or this on Battle In The Swamp. Does the creativity in that department come as easily?
Jon Davis: “It's definitely a concern, but fortunately it's not something I've really tripped over yet. We clearly don't want to sound like anything we've put out previously. And we're a band who likes to record a lot. So yeah, it’s sort of like a hazard that we have to be aware of. Honestly, it's not something that worries me. I don't come up with riffs that sound like anything we've done very often. So I think that I probably still got a bit of mileage left in it. Our music is quite simple, but I think there's lots of different ways that we can mix it up and be refreshing with it too. So yeah, so far so good. But on this album, a lot of it was written on a drum machine.
“Because of that, it kind of went in a different direction anyway with some of the riffs. Some of the riffs were more repetitive, almost industrial in feel. And I took inspiration from Nailbomb on some of those things. I'm a big fan of them. On this album we became less concerned with writing something that was catchy and with lots of hooks and just wanted to write something that still had a bit of that, but was more riff heavy and a bit more, I'm going to play this riff 20 times and I don't care. On our last couple of albums maybe we've shied away from that a little bit. We didn't want to do that in this one.”
BraveWords: You just mentioned Nailbomb, and thinking about the Cavaleras, how much would you learn from being on the road with someone like that? Someone you'd look up to as a peer in the industry. Have there been particular moments in tours in recent years where you leave a tour package being like damn, I learned so much?
Jon Davis: “Well, we've not toured with bands bigger than us very often, actually. We did it with High on Fire back in 2014-15 ...well, Black Label Society, that's an example of a band that we've toured with where you're looking at their operation and thinking whoa, that's kind of intense. But learning lessons from them personally? When I'm touring with these bigger bands, a lot of the time they've got lots of help, which we don't tend to. We don't bring a big crew or anything like that, but some of the other bands that we toured with do. Naturally. When you can afford that, you will, because why wouldn't you? And we would do the same for sure.
“I look at it the other way when we're touring with other bands who maybe think we are the bigger band. I sort of try and learn off them a little bit more. Like how do they approach being on tour with a band that they might look up to or they may hate. They just accepted the offer because it made sense. But if they're on a tour with us and then maybe they're a fan of ours or they think we're like a good band to be on tour with because we're bigger than them or whatever you wanna look at. I always put myself in their shoes and I wonder how they stay cool and how professional are they? Look how good they are, finishing dead on time and loading the gear off straight away, helping us with our equipment. That's always a big one for me.
“So I was trying to learn from that and trying to implement that when we tour with other people. But like I say, we've not had that many opportunities to tour with bands bigger than us. It hasn't happened all that often, but I'm sure it will at some point in the future. You know, we've got a few things lined up this year coming up.”
BraveWords: Anything you're looking forward to, or bucket list bands you'd like to tour with? Whether it be contemporaries or a bigger band or labelmate? The sky's the limit with this record for getting out and touring.
Jon Davis: “Can't really name any bands. We don't have any tours lined up with any other bands right now. We do have our own things lined up. We got some shows lined up already, festivals. We got a tour of Canada which will probably be announced by the time this interview comes out. That's happening late October, early November, and that's going to be like eight or nine shows starting in Montreal and going over to Vancouver. So that's on the agenda. We're just excited to tour in general, to be honest. We really want to get back to Canada and the U.S. because that's where more of our fan base is. So it makes sense logistically or business-wise to go over there because they tend to be the bigger shows and whatnot.
“But for now we're just kind of taking it easy because there's that many festivals happening and we're getting plenty of offers. And what's happening is that a lot of the bands who had their shows canceled over lockdown are now on the road again. So a lot of the touring opportunities are already taken. We haven't yet been able to arrange a European tour for this album because it's jam packed full of American bands who have been locked up from COVID, which is completely fair enough. So yeah, no bucket list right now, honestly. But I'd like us to play with Napalm Death or someone like that. That would be cool.”
BraveWords: And the juxtaposition of that too, like this crushing doom sludge with grindcore legends Napalm Death. The juxtaposition of that in a package would be awesome. I love that lately you're seeing a lot of tour packages where it's not five doom bands or five hardcore bands. You're getting a piece of everything.
Jon Davis: “I agree with you. We just played Obscene Extreme in Czech Republic. That's like a crust and grindcore festival and we played that on a Wednesday night and the place was packed out and everyone was going crazy. It was like, this is cool. So that's a direction that we'd like to head in slightly. Not musically, we're not going to start writing that. But it'd be cool to play to that crowd more often. Because they appreciate what we're doing.”
BraveWords: I'm always curious with artists in heavy metal, was there a gateway band or album for you that really changed everything? Like once you heard this, you couldn't go back to listening to Simon and Garfunkel.
Jon Davis: “Yeah, I mean, in terms of Conan and I would say Flooding the Weir by Slomatics. I always say Slomatics and it's kind of predictable, to be honest, but it's true. You know, they are the band that made me start to really seriously think about fuzz pedals and valve amps. You know, I heard ‘Evil Eye’ by Fu Manchu, and the next thing I wanted to buy a fuzz pedal. And I spoke to this guy … in Rotherham, in Yorkshire, and he said oh you want to try this particular pedal like this meathead fuzz pedal and here's a song where they're using it and it was one of the songs from Flooding the Weir.
“And so those lads from Slomatics in Belfast are good friends of mine now. And you know, their friendship has endured. I've released their music on my label. I've done vocals with them in Las Vegas. It's kind of crazy how it went from the butterfly effect of getting a fuzz pedal similar to theirs to being on stage with them in Las Vegas, it's kind of crazy. Slomatics Flooding the Weir, for sure.”
(Photo - Charley Shillabeer)