The Dillinger Escape Plan. Starkweather. John Frum. Azusa. Bass virtuoso and onstage stomper par excellence Liam Wilson has had many bands to his name, all of them knotty and forward-thinking, challenging and confrontational in their own ways. Azusa is his latest, a multinational collective comprising Norwegian guitarist Christer Espevoll and drummer David Husvik, both of the currently sidelined progressive metal band Extol, and Berlin-based Greek vocalist Eleni Zafiriadou, best known for the indie-pop duo Sea + Air. The band made waves with their cooing and crashing 2018 debut LP, Heavy Yoke, an unclassifiable fusion of prog, black metal, post-rock, shoegaze and beyond, but their follow-up, the new Loop of Yesterday, sees them transcending "supergroup" hype and coalescing into a creative force with real staying power. In the quarantine month of April 2020, we recently caught up with Wilson to talk about the band's origins and vision, what he misses most about life on the road, and what he's been up to outside of music since Dillinger's 2017 breakout.
WHO IS AZUSA? CAN YOU GIVE US A BRIEF HISTORY ON HOW YOU CAME TOGETHER?
LIAM WILSON Azusa is a musical idea revealed through the efforts of four spirit souls who live in Norway, Germany and the United States. Christer and David are cousins and two of the founding fathers of Extol, a progressive metal band from Oslo. With Extol on indefinite hiatus, and Christer's departure from the band after their 2003 album, Synergy, the two reconnected roughly a decade later and realized there was unfinished creative business to tend to and some orphaned song seeds that deserved to be cultivated.
They reached into the ether and pulled a few songs out, and sent them to me with an invitation to collaborate. They knew I was a fan of their music through a message I had sent them years earlier singing their praises and asking some questions about how they approached things in the studio regarding bass gear [and] tone. I was immediately hooked on the demos and we immediately started exchanging ideas via the internet. We went back and forth about the vocal styles we were envisioning, and after I did some fill-in gigs with Myrkur, I was intrigued by the idea of having a female in the band we were forming to balance energies and to explore something fresh. David remembered Eleni [Zafiriadou, vocalist] from seeing her performances with her band Jumbo Jet and he made the suggestion that we reach out to her. Within a few weeks we had some demos of our songs with vocals, and we all agreed it felt right and that we should push forward together.
IF YOU HAD TO DESCRIBE YOUR BAND'S MISSION STATEMENT, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
That's not the easiest thing to try and describe in a relatively brief way, but I'll try to make some broad stroke statements that speak to that. I would say we obviously want to honor our shared influences and previous efforts, but simultaneously save room for influences unique to each individual and approaches that may not have been as pronounced prior to this project. I remember voicing my strong opinions about certain artistic or "business" decisions by announcing that, personally, my goal was to create a new subgenre more than fit into one, and that ultimately, I'm trying to create a sound, or the recording I can't seem to find. Within that, we all have distinct voices, but the sum of the whole is greater than the parts, and when we go back and forth on some idea, some dialogue, the way each person unlocks some idea in another is truly something magical, and we save a lot of space for that unseen fifth member, that "spirit" or "muse" in the room to bring forth something beyond what any of us could ever claim full responsibility for.
Cultivating that attitude of not being the source of everything, nor the enjoyer, that we're creating on behalf of the muse takes a certain sense of humility, but at least for me personally, that's my goal. I've heard Alan Moore speak of this and say something like we can't claim to be the sun, or the sun that comes through the window, or the white spot that appears on the floor, we're merely the window, and all our rehearsing, writing, editing, etc. is just us keeping that window, us, dust and dirt free so that light can come through more clearly and honestly.
HOW DID YOU GET INTO HEAVY MUSIC?
My parents were both into music and my dad would listen to a lot of classic rock radio in the car. That started me on the path, but what kicked open the door was my grade school friends' older siblings. At around seven or eight I heard album's like Mercyful Fate's Don't Break the Oath, Slayer's South of Heaven, Metallica's Ride the Lightning ... Megadeth, Anthrax, Ozzy, etc., and I wouldn't leave their houses until I had copies of each on a cassette — thank the metal god's for high-speed dubbing. From there things snowballed quickly and I spent my prepubescent years with a Walkman practically attached to me like a parasitic twin. The more underground stuff, be it more extreme metal and hardcore, came a little later around 15 or so, when I started riding public transit and heading into downtown Philly and eventually New York, and beyond once I started driving, which allowed me to connect with other local musicians and made it easier to join bands, as well as going to punk spaces to see bands and networking to try and get my bands on shows.
BEING IN A BAND, WHAT'S THE HARDEST CHALLENGE YOU HAVE COME ACROSS SO FAR, AND HOW DID YOU OVERCOME IT?
I guess it's realizing that if you're truly trying to make a career through making art, you may go faster alone, but you go further together. Dealing with other artists is something that comes with the territory if you want to be in a band — it's like being married to multiple partners simultaneously. Most artists are selfish and sorta crazy. That said, you have to be kinda crazy, or inevitably you will go crazy if you incessantly go against the grain of society, go against your parent's wishes, eschew financial security and essentially put most of the important relationships that stand in your path on the back-burner just to participate in a dog-eat-dog industry where the majority don't succeed on a sustainable level. I'm not saying I'm the best at it, but I think realizing that being the best bassist isn't the way to succeed, and that being a good human first and foremost, and learning how to be tolerant and flexible, as well as knowing how to be steadfast when you need to be, is a hard balance to achieve. You may have great chemistry with someone onstage, but what about the other 23 hours of your day? For me, yoga and meditation have been the best crash courses in trying to manage my own as well as everyone else's ego constantly reminders that "you're awesome" and/or "you suck."
THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC HAS SHUT DOWN THE LIVE MUSIC INDUSTRY RIGHT NOW, SO EVERYONE'S REALLY MISSING SHOWS. WHAT TYPICALLY IS YOUR PRESHOW RITUAL?
I try to spend as much of my day away from the venue exploring what food or attractions that city has to offer — big fan of Atlas Obscura. My immediate pre-show ritual usually consists of some meditation, maybe some light yoga asana or stretching, and then usually changing into my "show clothes," i.e. my spiritual armor, which, although usually pretty dirty, helps me feel like I'm getting into the character, drawing a metaphysical line in the day's sand and imagining myself turning from Clark Kent into Superman or whatever analogy fits for the next hour or so. If I feel like it feels right, I've been known to imbibe substances responsibly, but that's less and less a thing for me as the years roll on, but I won't deny that as having been a part of my process at some stage in my career. Nowadays it's usually just snobby light roast espresso. The rest of my bandmates have their own routines and rituals that aren't uncommon practices to me either: maybe rehearsing a tricky part of a song, light warmups on our instruments, writing a set list together, hanging with a close friend or special guest who came out to that night's performance.
I almost wish my answer was more stereotypically "rock-star backstage-ish," but if I'm being completely honest, usually the shows are pretty intense or demanding of a lot of focus, so the pre-show is a calm before the storm.
WHAT'S THE BEST PART OF BEING ON TOUR AND WHAT'S THE WORST PART OF BEING ON TOUR?
I love to travel, see the local tourist attractions, or just take a long walk, eat a good meal — basically just try to make that day stick out in some unique way when I look back on it. I love having had the opportunity to see so many great cities so many times so I can enjoy certain experiences over and over again to see if the feelings surrounding those things change as I do. That especially goes for people — being able to make new friends and see olds ones on the road is something I miss tremendously now that I'm not on the road as much. No matter how much I realized it when I was, I still ache to see certain people who I took for granted seeing every year or so.
The worst part is being away from my friends and family at home, especially being a dad. Missing weddings, funerals, birthdays of those closest to me because I was too far away to get there and couldn't plan around it without feeling like I'm disappointing my band or missing a big opportunity is a tough cross to bear. Detoxing from constant road life has shown me that wherever I go, there I am, and being home and rooted to one place with and my wife and daughter close is what really makes me feel complete, more than any show or tour could. I also missed being able to pursue other interests when I was spending so much time on the road. I dropped out of art school to do Dillinger, and now that I have more time at home, I'm working in the sculptural arts again and the creative feedback loop of being able to have more 2D and 3D output parallel with music projects is a really nice vantage point to work from.
WHAT'S THE WEIRDEST PLACE YOU EVER SLEPT ON TOUR?
I could tell too many stories about gross, creepy or arguably dangerous houses and practice spaces whose floors I've curled up on, but the thing that sticks out as being the most unique is probably the overnight train that runs from Moscow to Saint Petersburg in Russia. Between the sardine-style four-to-a-cabin bunk beds, the restaurant car with all the locals getting hammered drunk and partying loudly, the layers of overlapping conversations and announcements I can't understand, the cold and confused look on attendants' faces when I try to ask any questions, the windows that until morning are just a constant sheet of darkness with the occasional distant light from a village or stop along the way. It's hard to describe all the nuances, but it's an experience I'll never forget.
WHAT'S YOUR ESSENTIAL ITEMS THAT YOU HAVE TO BRING WITH YOU WHILE ON TOUR?
Besides the obvious — toiletries, headphones, clothes, gear — I always have a few books, family photos and little relics from home, like maybe a drawing my daughter made for me, or perhaps a crystal or small deity statue my wife gifted me for protection. I usually bring an Aeropress, preferred beans and a hand-grinder for coffee I can make using hot water from a gas station or rest area, and then just find a mug at a thrift store or a cafe along the way. I actually bring a lot of "backpacker" style items like inflatable pillows and a set of interlocking utensils, a metal bowl or Tupperware container for making simple meals, storing leftovers or making myself a to-go container from whatever catering is available.
DO YOU HAVE HOBBIES OR PETS? YOU MENTION SCULPTURAL ART, BUT WHAT DO YOU DO OUTSIDE MUSIC?
I adopted my wife's piebald Dachshund named Sandwich into my life when we met in 2010. He used to come with us on most of the U.S. tours Dillinger did around that time — my wife was our tour manager for about four years. Sadly, he passed away in 2018. I'm not ready to fill that hole in my soul with another animal anytime soon.
I'm not sure how to classify it, but being a dad to my daughter, Ziggy, has been the most exciting and absorbing thing I'm fully engaged in outside of music. As for hobbies, I left art school after completing three years of it to join Dillinger back in 2000, while I was there I studied crafts with a focus on furniture and woodworking, since then I let a lot of my art-making propensities take a back seat to music for the last two decades or so. Lately, I've been making more two- and three-dimensional art again and actually started working in a metal sculpture foundry doing sand castings and tig-welding bronze statues together. I also moved onto a new property where the previous owner worked for a local horticulture society, so I'm busy trying to keep up with learning as much as I can about what has already been planted here, and how to maintain it as well as clearing out more space in the backyard for my family to start growing our own food and being more self-sustained. Otherwise, I love home renovations, traveling, and the outdoors, specifically camping/backpacking.
WHAT BAND OR MUSICAL ARTIST ARE YOU A BIGGEST FAN OF? PROVE YOUR FANDOM.
The bands I've seen the most are the bands we've toured with. The ones who stick out as being or becoming bands I'm a huge fan of as individuals and as a unit are Bent Knee, Mastodon, Hella, Orthrelm, the Locust, Meshuggah and Deftones, to name a few. I think the other artists I've seen more than most are David Eugene Edward's bands 16 Horsepower and Wovenhand, Nick Cave with the Bad Seeds as well as Grinderman, Sunn O))), Thundercat, King Diamond, and dare I admit Phish ... That said, I've also never seen some of my favorite artists like Dead Can Dance and Tom Waits, or Cynic and will never see Leonard Cohen or Jeff Buckley now that they've left us. I feel blessed to have seen bands like Death, Discordance Axis or Anal Cunt at all.
IF YOU COULD ONLY PLAY ONE OF YOUR SONGS FOR SOMEONE TO INTRODUCE THEM TO YOUR BAND, WHAT SONG WOULD IT BE AND WHY?
If I'm allowed to answer for all the bands I feel have been the most significant in my career, it would probably go something like this, and the answer for each would probably be the same: I feel like these songs display a full spectrum of what each band did well, a fractal of our whole output in a single song. They each serve as a snapshot of what I think made us unique at least at the time we recorded it. These songs also represent areas of personal growth, or a feeling that I tapped into something greater than what I was able to accomplish alone, or that the end result was beyond what I thought I or we were capable of achieving.
The Dillinger Escape Plan, "Understanding Decay."
Azusa, "Interstellar Islands."
John Frum, "Memory Palace."
Starkweather, "Machine Rhythm Confessional."