Graveyard Dirt | Interview
Long after its release in 1995, many still considered Graveyard Dirt’s debut demo ‘Of Romance And Fire’ to be one of the best, if not the best, recordings in Irish metal. Unfortunately the Donegal five piece mysteriously disappeared shortly thereafter, in spite of much talk of a promising record deal with Ars Metalli.
Almost thirteen years after ‘Of Romance…’ Kieran O’Toole and co. returned seemingly from nowhere with ‘Shadows Of Old Ghosts’ – a comeback that made it seem as if they’d never been away.
Another three years down the road and the release of the highly anticipated full length debut ‘For Grace Or Damnation’ is finally but a few weeks away -and from the snippets aired over the last few months it seems certain to be another milestone in Irish Doom Metal.
Kieran, what led to the split in 1995/96? You recorded a fantastic demo, attracted record label attention, and within a matter of months the band had disappeared from the face of the Earth.
“To begin with, our drummer at the time decided to move on and although a replacement was found, he too opted to travel. So, that was a continual problem. Interest within the band was at a bit of a low, nothing was progressing with Ars Metalli and David (Reilly, guitars and keyboards) was advised not to play the guitar for the foreseeable future due to a muscular complaint in his arm and hand.”
“We eventually accepted that things weren’t going any further at the time and, yeah, kinda disappeared without a trace. I kept in touch with a few people within the scene for a while, but only very sporadically.”
And what prompted the reunion in 2007?
“Getting back together again was something we considered a few times and a couple of short-lived attempts were made. Paul (Leyden, vocals) and myself got together and started on a few new ideas at one point but again we let things slide. But as the core of the original line-up all live within reach of each other for the most part, the desire to pick up where we left off won out in the end.”
What about the other two original members, Ade and Mark?
“Mark (McConnellogue) is still around, we visit each other from time to time. He lives about 15 miles from me in Letterkenny. He’s busy doing other things these days and has in the last 2 or 3 years played guitar in a band called Zafaranchos, and played a few gigs in Dublin I believe. I last met Ade (Allkin) about five years ago in Galway by complete chance. He’s probably elsewhere by now, brewing his own beer or something like that!”
At the time of the split there was all sorts of talk about a record deal with Ars Metalli. For a long time – as late as ’98 – Christoph was still talking about an upcoming album, even though as far as everyone in Ireland was concerned the band was finished (much as with Thy Sinister Bloom). What was happening there? Just Christoph’s ‘eccentricity’?
“We had signed a two album deal with Ars Metalli. I don’t remember what year exactly but it was the same time that he signed Arcane Sun. After Arcane Sun had recorded their debut we were next up.”
“Originally we were asked to go to Weimar in Germany to record ours but that plan changed, due to financial constraints we assumed. After some time, and a few visits from Christoph (Dobberstein, Ars Metalli boss) later, with things grinding to a halt I recall writing to Christoph to tell him we had packed it all in.”
“I know he blamed himself for a while, feeling he had let us down by not getting things happening quickly enough. I also felt that we could have done more, though with the benefit of hindsight, it might’ve been a big ask for us at that time.”
“I think perhaps he was just reluctant to give up, hoping that we would sort things out so that might explain his hanging on to the notion that the album would still happen. I never really saw much evidence of his ‘eccentricity’ at the time. Again with hindsight and seeing what Christoph has since done with his life, I doubt if ‘eccentric’ even comes close! Each to their own I suppose.”
The response to ‘Shadows Of Old Ghosts’ when it came out was even more positive than the reaction to ‘Of Romance And Fire’ in 1995, and that’s still viewed as one of the best demos to come out of Ireland. Did the reaction surprise you?
“We were pleasantly surprised at the response. I think we all felt at the time that ‘Shadows…’ was a strong statement but there were always going to be doubts. What would the older chaps who remembered us from the glorious mid ’90s think of us now? Would the younger metal fans even care?”
“Those type of things run through your mind but we never got too concerned about it. First and foremost we had to record those tracks for ourselves and take it on the chin if we failed to impress others.”
“The piano/strings arrangement on ‘Gathering Storm’ was something that I thought might be a bridge too far for a band like us. I think it worked in the end, although its not something we’ll be overdoing from now on. We might never do another track like that one and if I’m honest there are a few sections that I’m not that keen on having had time to digest it all.”
What amazed me most upon hearing ‘Shadows…’ was that in spite of all the time that had passed so little had changed in terms of the Graveyard Dirt sound. Granted the guitar tone and the vocals are a little different, but the songs could almost have been on ‘Of Romance…’
“We’re a bit surprised that so many people have said that. It was important that we sounded similar to the old sound, but much fresher at the same time. I think the guitar tone achieves both those goals. I think though that the songs are better than the early stuff. Better arrangements, much more thought put into things.”
“Gary (Sweeney)’s drumming is also much more metal-influenced than Ade’s style, which suits us better. Perhaps people think that way because ‘A Tearless Lament’ and ‘Gathering Storm’ were two tracks that were originally written for the follow up to the ‘Of Romance…’ demo, though they now contain old and new sections.”
I presume your influences are still much the same; while sounding very much unique, I find that after hearing Graveyard Dirt the next thing I want to reach for is usually an early album by either Paradise Lost, Anathema or My Dying Bride?
“As far as influences go, it’s a very mixed bag, a lot of which doesn’t necessarily surface in our own material that I can hear. The usual suspects are there too of course, early Anathema and MDB were influential in the beginning, but less so now. I’d stick Morbid Angel on that list too.”
I love the sound you captured on ‘Shadows…’. Even though you produced it yourselves, given that you had only recorded two demos you couldn’t have much production experience. Yet the sound is perfect; raw but crisp and clear, and very heavy.
“David has a little bit more recording/production experience than the rest of the band. During our long hiatus he worked at composing and recording bits and pieces of music for TV, incidental music type things so he was at least a bit familiar with that side of it. So though it was still uncharted territory, there was no pressure either, which undoubtedly helped.”
“The first track we recorded (‘In Ruins’) didn’t really turn out how we had hoped it would, so from then on that was our template for what not to do! We may re-visit that track sometime in the future though as we all like it but for now it doesn’t really fit in with our newest ideas.”
Which takes us on to the upcoming, much anticipated and long overdue debut album, ‘For Grace Or Damnation’ … what can we expect from it? Is it a continuation of the gradual progression between the first two releases? Or has there been a bigger evolution this time around?
“I think it’d be fair to say that there’s some evidence of natural progression, as one might expect. But it’s still very obviously Graveyard Dirt at the same time. The focus has always been to try to blend a coarse and heavy sound with memorable melodies to varying degrees, so nothing’s really changed there.”
“Sometimes the emphasis is more on one than the other, quite often reflected in the lyrics. On the album there are some moments when one or the other of those elements is dominant, depending on the mood of the song. And I’d like to think there are a couple of moments that could surprise….in a good way of course. So I’d say while some progression is evident it’s not a radical shift sideways by any means.”
Is it all music you’ve written since ‘Shadows…’ or have older ideas been incorporated in the new songs as well?
“All the tracks were written after the ‘ Shadows…’ MCD so there’s nothing older in there at all. A few tracks have been around in a slightly more primitive form than others since shortly after ‘Shadows..’ and have been played live a few times now but all the tracks were intended for this album…more or less.”
How did the recording process for the new album go? Is ‘For Grace Or Damnation’ a collection of tracks recorded individually over a longer period of time, or was it recorded as ‘an album’?< ?b>
“The album was recorded in Trackmix Studio in Clonsilla, Dublin, with all of the tracks done together in two or three sessions split over three weeks or thereabouts. Including mixing and re-mixing we were in the studio approximately 14 days. We may have used another day or two for some last minute changes.”
“I think it was important that we were able to record the way we did to keep a continuity within the sound to a large degree. Also important is that we felt comfortable working there. We had demo-ed two tracks there previously which we were happy with and we felt Michael knew what we were after so that was our ‘happy place’ … so to speak.”
You mentioned at some point that you were driving the producer crazy with all your ‘nit-picking’ and at times over the summer you yourself gave the impression of being pretty worn out and tired of the whole thing. I take it the recording was a trying process at times.
“Yeah, there were times when I found it tough going, I’ll admit. It was a worrying time for me personally for other reasons, and driving 3 hours up and 3 hours down from Donegal to Dublin each week and kipping semi-rough (cheers Dave!), eating fast food, etc., etc., kinda took its toll a bit.”
“The actual recording was fairly stress free for the most part. Mixing can be testing at times as we all have strong ideas about what needs to be higher or lower or whatever so that was probably the most ‘nit-picky’ time, I’d say. And my hat is off to Michael at Trackmix for all his input and effort …and patience!”
What’s the significance of the title? Is there an underlying theme to the album? You mentioned that the ‘old ghosts’ might have been a reference to the band or to the songs, a reflection on ‘then and now.’ Should ‘grace or damnation’ be interpreted as a make it or break it moment for Graveyard Dirt?
“There’s no common theme linking the tracks, each tells its own story. Regarding the title, ‘make or break’ is probably a bit strong, though kind of on the right track. My loose interpretation would be along the lines of a ‘for better or worse’ vibe.”
“Probably more so it also refers to the lyrical theme of one of the songs, ‘These Hands Defiled’. I’ll refrain from divulging too much, but it concerns a religion-crazed character whose actions are undertaken with the intention of achieving ‘grace’ in death yet are more likely to do the opposite, i.e. ‘damnation.’ Probably most importantly, it’s just a great title that hasn’t been used already!”
You revealed the cover here on MetalIreland quite a few months back. What’s the significance of the photo – does it fit in with the idea of ‘For Grace Or Damnation?’
“As far back as the Ars Metalli deal that photo was a strong contender for the cover of the debut album that never happened. At the time it suited the title that we had, ‘Amidst Dawning Suns.’ The original is a black and white infra-red image and it looked like a sunrise we thought, hence the ‘dawning sun’ link.”
“Shoot forward X amount of years, and having an album deal again, we still really like that image and it’s kinda ‘our thing’ to have a ruin on the cover after all! We had several ideas but that one got the nod, so for the first time we actually added the colour rather than removed it.”
“If there is a link to the title I suppose you could say the ruin in the background has now or at some point elements of both grace and damnation. That’s stretching it a bit thin though.”
There must have been considerable label interest in the band after ‘Shadows…’ How did the deal with Ashen Productions come about?
“There was little or no label interest from most quarters. I was quite content for this to be the case actually as I didn’t want to be obliged to anyone or anything, and I stubbornly refused to send the MCD to ANY label, though I know the other lads did send some. As time passed I had to accept that it was unlikely that we could afford to do this without some form of help from others.”
“Then Robert of Ashen Productions emailed. He said he loved the MCD and asked if we’d consider a deal with them. We accepted pretty quickly. There was no way we were going to get it done ourselves this time and Robert seemed a genuine bloke willing to take a chance on us so that’s about it really.”
When last we spoke, it was just before the comeback gig with Primordial and For Ruin in January 2008, your first in over 13 years. What was it like for you after so many years away from it all?
“Nerve-wracking about sums it up. Exciting of course and the nerves settled quickly enough on the night. That was a special night though for many reasons, not least of which was meeting people I hadn’t seen for years, renewing old friendships and making new ones too. I think we went down pretty good on the night. But my strongest memories of the night are of all the fun afterwards.”
You’ve managed to gig quite frequently since. Has there been any noticeable developments in the attendances? Is it still the same old heads coming to see you or have you managed to get through to a few more people?
“Steady on, I don’t like the thought of being prolific on the gig-front. Ha. Familiarity breeds contempt I tend to think, so frequent gigging doesn’t fit well with that. However, I do see your point … I’m not sure, to be honest.”
“Certainly there are some familiar faces that we see when we play. Attendances vary depending on the bill I’d say, though there seems to be a core that attends most gigs of this nature. I find it difficult to notice such things actually, not sure why that is.”
Could you envisage touring as a possibility at some stage? Or is that not something that the five of you could take time away from your normal lives to do?
“It’s unlikely to happen on any significant scale for many reasons. Taking lengthy time away from our everyday lives would be difficult for some of us. It can almost be an ordeal for one-off gigs at times even. Add to that the cost of such a venture and problems arise.”
Even without touring, there’s no shortage of Doom Metal festivals throughout Europe that can only benefit from having Graveyard Dirt on the bill. Actually, I’m surprised you haven’t featured at a Doom Shall Rise or Dutch Doom Day, or one of the other genre festivals yet.
“Dutch Doom Day ‘09 was actually a possibility at one point. The wrong point as it happened. Again there were a couple of factors preventing that offer from taking off and that’s a can of worms best left unopened for now. It was great to be considered, though, as for the most part we do tend to fly under the radar.”
The album has been recorded for a while now. Are you already thinking ahead to what comes next? Or are you just going to sit back, see what the reaction to the new album is and take it from there?
“Immediately after completion, and even during the recording of ‘For Grace Or Damnation’ I was nursing the idea of a follow-up. Then the mastering of the CD became a slightly thorny subject which we eventually overcame, again largely down to Michael at Trackmix doing a killer job, three or four times, before we all copped on a bit and agreed upon what is now the finished album. Anyhow, after all that, the last thing I wanted was to even look at a guitar.”
“I don’t know if the rest of the lads felt the same at that time but I’d guess they did. We’ve recently started learning a new track which is one of three or four currently under scrutiny and in varying states of completion. Early days still.”
The big question I suppose for now, though, is how much longer before we finally have the CD in our hands? And will there be a release party of any kind?
“We’ve been told we can expect it at the end of October or very early November. As far as I know its on its way to the pressing plant already. As for a release party … I might mix up a batch of my own recipe Sangria and raise a glass or ten.”
“Any interested parties are welcome to join me. Actually, we are considering something to mark the occasion, possibly in the New Year though as there are already a load of gigs happening from now ‘til Christmas. Nothing concrete as yet but I wouldn’t rule it out.”
Something to look forward to in early 2011 already so. In the meantime, though, there are just a few more weeks of thumb twiddling before ‘For Grace Or Damnation’ is finally unleashed on Graveyard Dirt’s long suffering public. Arguably fifteen years overdue, the signs are that this debut is going to have been well worth the wait.
- Interview by DBM, photos by Simon Ward ::: 27/10/10