Back in May, Rip It Up alerted you to the fact that Mage were an original sounding band hailing from DeHud’s spiritual home, Leicester. I have recently been chewing the fat, internet style, with the band’s guitarist, Ben, about their new album ‘Black Sands’, which is due out soon. If you don’t know, Mage are a 5-piece band comprising Ben – Guitar, Andy – Drums, Tom – Vocals, Mark – Bass and Woody – Guitar. With admirable frankness, they describe themselves as “we’re basically five guys who’ve been around in a variety of bands over the years, brought together by a shared love of “THEE RIFF” and a desire to jam and see what happens.” My senses were alerted to them when I picked up on the self titled ep, released on the excellent Witch Hunter Records. Combing heaviness, riffage and a mixture of doom, metal and a splash of hardcore, I was intrigued.
So here is a taster and a short interview with Ben about the band and how they work.
I started by asking Ben a bit about how the first ep had been received and how the band had formed.
“I think the overwhelming response we got from the self titled EP was that people really enjoyed it, but wanted more, it was a scant 15 minute run time as we were sort of limited by budget and time constraints at the time so our first release had to be an EP really. We hadn’t been together long as a full five piece as when we first started it was just myself, Andy on the drums and Mark on the bass having a jam as we were sort of in between bands at the time, so we wrote some tracks together as we were trying to acquire a vocalist, Tom came along as a mutual friend of myself and Mark and we clicked straightaway, so we carried on writing with added vocals but something was still missing. That’s when Woody entered the scene, he knew Mark and again, it just clicked right away. The first EP was sort of written by three different lineups really with a definite focus on being a Stoner/Doom band Initial riffs and whatnot were done as a three piece instrumental, which then changed as Tom joined the fold and changed again to accommodate Woody on guitar.”
Ben continued by telling me a little about the style and influences of the band.
“The new material on Black Sands has been written as a solid unit, a full band, everyone bringing something to the table, and adds a lot more of our shared and individual influences. We have a shared love of the whole Stoner and Doom thing, Black Sabbath, Kyuss, Fu Manchu etc. but there’s a whole lot more there too and I think it shows in the new material. To use a clumsy cooking analogy Stoner/Doom is the base but we garnish with bits of Thrash, traditional Metal, Hardcore elements and a dash of whatever takes our fancy really. It wasn’t really a conscious effort, it’s just how the songs grew organically really, I’ve slipped into a clumsy gardening analogy now… Basically, we’re not constricted by genre “rules” and have no problem throwing in a galloping Maiden-esque section, a chugging Hardcore breakdown or any manner of other stuff that tickles our fancy.”
The new album’s teaser tracks show a cracking production, and a maturity in the song structures. I asked Ben to explain the way they go about songwriting.
“Our song writing process is pretty much exclusively jam based, we get together, plug in, stand around scratching our heads for a bit, then (all being well) inspiration will strike one of us, a riff will start and we all pile in and hammer away at it as a unit and see what happens. We have one of those handy little digital recorder things so can get stuff down at practice/jam sessions pretty easily as a bit of a rough sketch. It’s usually a good indicator that you’ve got something that “works” if you find yourself humming the riff you just wrote on the drive home or the next morning, there’s a lot to be said about a catchy riff, think of the famous Sabbath songs, catchy, direct riffs, but still heavy as hell, I think that’s what we strive for deep down.
After we’ve got a basic structure together, or at least a couple of riffs that feel right together we start to put it together, at first, in a traditional intro/verse/chorus/verse/chorus type of structure, record that and Tom works on the lyrics and vocals. Once there’s a bit more of a song there that’s when we mess with it, lengthen a section here and there, throw in a fast bit, make room for a solo etc. and we all contribute to that process, it’s very much a group effort which is why I think the Black Sands material has that variety of influence but it still grooves along and works as a solid album, it’s not just disparate elements welded together for the sake of it.”
So which bands have influenced Mage, both generally and in terms of the new album? I’d say the ubiquitous Sabbath, CoC, a little bit of early ish Metallica and a flavour of Fu Manchu fer sure?
“Our influences are all over the place really really, we have a shared base of: Black Sabbath, Blue Cheer, Kyuss, Fu Manchu, Clutch, High On Fire, Karma To Burn, Corrosion Of Conformity, Goatsnake and all the usual suspects, but individually we take inspiration from a variety of all the different flavours of Metal and beyond: Mastodon, Anthrax, Hatebreed, Lamb Of God, Metallica, Carcass, Entombed, Slayer, Iron Monkey, Helmet, Primus, Rush, KISS, Foghat, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Iron Maiden, Napalm Death, Cream, and all sorts of stuff in between.”
Rounding off, I asked Ben to explain the process of writing, recording and releasing the new album – which must be a fraught process I’m guessing….
“It’s been quite hard work getting Black Sands to a finished state, our initial plans were to write through the Autumn/Winter of 2011 and record sometime around March 2012. Which didn’t quite work out, we had a few gigs which set back the writing process as the scant time we could get together was spent running the set instead of writing so the plans kinda slipped to recording around May time, which again slipped, and we ended up hitting the studio in late July for 2 days and then doing half a day in August to finish off. Again, budget and time constraints meant that we had to focus on getting things as tight as possible before hitting the studio to maximise what we could achieve.
Our recording process runs a bit like this: full band in the same room together plays the song live (this is used as the base of the track and keeps a live feel and groove), myself and Woody overdub an extra guitar each at the same time, Woody overdubs any solos as required, Tom does a first vocal pass, then a second vocal pass, mix it all together and you’re sorted. Which sounds kinda easy, but fitting 10 songs of that process into 16 hours and leaving time for mixing etc. was GRUELING, hence us going back for half a day in August to finish up.
How do you feel about the end result though?
We’re all really pleased with the end result though, it captures what we’re all about and adds some funky studio based bells and whistles to bring it to the next level. I’m personally very proud of what we’ve achieved with such limited funds and time, there’s always gonna be niggles and bits that you think “ohhhhh, I wish I could re-do that little bit”, but at the end of the day you have to draw a line and say enough is enough, and you have to realise that these bits that you may personally obsess over won’t matter a damn to 99% of the people who listen to it.
It’s hard to separate yourself as a musician and a listener at times especially when it’s something you’ve written, played hundreds of times and know inside out. It’d be nice to be able to hear it as a “punter” hears it rather than thinking “oh no, I bent that note a fraction more than I usually do” or whatever. But once you accept that it’s never gonna be flawless, and just stick it on in the car or at home and turn it up real loud it feels great knowing that you had a hand in creating that.”
So when can we expect the album on the streets?
“The masters are away for duplication and print now and we should have the final product in our hands early October. The rest of the tracks will trickle onto the Bandcamp page at some point before then and I’m sure we’ll have an online source for purchasing a physical copy at some point too.”
Cheers to Ben and the guys – and check out the preview tracks below – we’ll let you know when the album is available.