Dana Schecter's résumé stretches back nearly 20 years in the NYC experimental, metal and goth scenes, so her debut outing on heralded record label Profound Lore — Insect Ark's Marrow Hymns — isn't exactly her first rodeo. Having spent time with her own outfit Bee & Flower, Swans main man Michael Gira's folk outfit Angels of Light and caustic noise crew Gnaw (featuring Alan Dubin of Khanate), Schecter is well versed in NYC's musical outer ring, and she and new bandmate, Ashley Spungin, dive headfirst into it with Insect Ark, tagging elements of post-rock, ambient and doom metal along the way. (You can order Marrow Hymns here).
With the new LP out now, and so many different and fascinating projects to discuss, Revolver met up with Schecter to discuss growing up during the boon of Bay Area thrash, how she adjusts to collaborating with different musicians and what led to her decision to add Spungin as a permanent member of her longtime one-woman outfit Insect Ark.
AFTER DOING INSECT ARK BY YOURSELF FOR SO LONG, WHAT MADE YOU WANT TO BE DEMOCRATIC ABOUT THE MUSIC?
Well, I'm a bass player — that's my background. Starting a band by yourself is a daunting task and I think that over time the thing that I missed more than anything is playing with a drummer, just being part of the rhythm section. I was sort of loosely looking for a drummer, and when I was ready for some input, Ash and I totally hit it off. I really like her drumming and she has a really good approach to music. It worked out really well, so we just kept going with it.
I KNOW YOU PLAY A LOT GIGS ON YOUR OWN, BUT DO YOU EXPECT TO PLAY WITH HER OR JUST A BACKING TRACK DRUM MACHINE?
Occasionally, I do perform solo under Insect Ark but I try to make some kind of note that its solo because really Insect Ark is the two of us now. We're definitely going to be doing as much live stuff together as we can, including playing a record release show April 15th at Elsewhere with Martin Rev and Wolf Eyes. The next day were leaving to go to Europe and Roadburn and a bunch of shows with this band Gnod. We're doing a whole bunch of stuff together in the spring, hopefully doing East Coast and West Coast regional tours. The goal is definitely to support the record as a duo as much as possible.
I THINK IT REALLY SPEAKS TO YOUR MUSICAL INCLINATIONS THAT THE LINEUP OF THE RECORD RELEASE PARTY IS SO SCATTERSHOT AS FAR AS GENRE IS CONCERNED.
When I started Insect Ark,I didn't really have a sense of what genre it was. I was just making sounds that I thought were interesting and deeply rooted in experimentation. A lot of the earlier shows that happened before the metal community really opened their arms were on bills that were experimental artists. I grew up as a metalhead but I don't want to write just metal music because I can't really play traditional metal on the lap steel — it's the limitation of the instrument. And as a duo there's limitation in composition — what you can do with song structure using two people. I feel like we can fit with a lot of stuff whether it's metal bands, experimental bands — not almost anything, but quite a lot. I like that.
GNAW WAS AN ESTABLISHED BAND BEFORE YOU JOINED ON. WOULD YOU CLASSIFY YOUR ROLE THERE AS MORE "MECHANICAL" FOR LACK OF A BETTER WORD? AS IN PLAYING ESTABLISHED PARTS.
No, I've written everything I'm playing. I was called in to replace someone who could take a creative approach to adding textures to the songs, so I'm really playing a lot of noise, ambient sounds, melodies and chords. So yeah, I haven't actually learned anyone else's parts.
IT SOUNDS LIKE YOU ARE FOLLOWING YOUR OWN GUIDANCE AS FAR AS WHERE THE MUSIC IS GOING, AND WHAT YOU THINK FITS WITH IT.
For sure, yeah. I always said to them if they had something in mind just tell me. So they'd say, "Play something that sounds like a screeching dying animal," and they'd react with "Oh, that's great." It's really fun for me and I'm doing a lot of improv with them. I have parts, but they are able to be reinterpreted depending on what's happening.
SPEAKING OF IMPROV AND EXPERIMENTATION, I WOULD IMAGINE THAT WORKING WITH MICHAEL GIRA IN ANGELS OF LIGHT WOULD TAKE THOSE SKILLS TO ANOTHER LEVEL.
Well, working with Gira was a long time ago as a bass player — I didn't play lap steel. Pretty much just bass and keyboards. Around the time that I started playing Angels of Light, I started my old band Bee & Flower, which I was the songwriter, bass player and singer. Working with Gira was a really different model — I hadn't been in anybody else's band. Gira doesn't define specific instruction about what he wants — he approaches it more like a director and throws everybody in the room together and has general terms about what he wants.
So you come up with something and he may say, "Try it like this." So he's not coming in with composed parts — although I wasn't on the first album so I was following parts defined in that case. It was a collaborative writing situation, but the basic skeletal song structures were already there. I wasn't really much of an experimental player at that time, but I had to use ideas of approaching parts in a creative way.
DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOU'VE FLOURISHED BECAUSE OF THAT, FEEL LIKE YOU'RE A BETTER PLAYER BECAUSE OF YOUR TIME AS PART OF OTHERS' VISIONS, WHETHER THAT WAS WITH ZEAL & ARDOR OR ANGELS OF LIGHT OR ANY OTHER NUMBER OF PROJECTS WHERE YOU CREATIVELY NAVIGATED ANOTHER PERSON'S MUSIC?
Yeah, I think it's interesting to use that perspective for coming up with parts for somebody else's music because I've played with other people and I can imagine what they want or what the mood of the song is without stepping on people's toes. Just because you came up with a killer part doesn't mean it's going to stick in the song as a whole. So you have to remove your own ego and help them realize their own vision is part of that. If you come up with something that isn't used, it's not my band — I have to respect that.
LET'S TALK ABOUT YOUR UPBRINGING, HOW YOU GOT INTO METAL. I'VE HEARD THAT YOU GREW UP AROUND CLIFF BURTON? IS THAT TRUE?
Well, I didn't grow up with him, but I'm from San Francisco and at age 12 I started to go to metal shows with my older sister and a pack of equally underage girls. It was right when Metallica was moving to the Bay Area, and there were already ton of bands like Exodus and others. When Metallica came to town, we started to see them and became friends with them. That was a very tightly knit scene and so everybody hung out a lot — there was really just a couple of places that bands played so everyone got to know each other.
Cliff and I were friends. I had already been playing upright bass in high school and we used to hang out. Everyone would say, "You're so young, you should start to play music because when you get to our age you'll be so good." They were five to 10 years older than me. So I said, "Cliff, give me bass lessons," and he said, "I will. Get a bass." A month would go by and I'd say, "Cliff, give me bass lessons," and he said it again: "I will. Get a bass." I never got the bass. I ended up getting into other stuff — I got into darker music, so I didn't see those guys as much. We all know the history of what happened with Metallica and what happened with Cliff. I was devastated because not only was it an enormous loss to the community, he was a really exceptional person and we were friends. After he passed, I went out and got a bass right away and started playing. The bass that I bought is the bass that I still use to this day.
Cliff was a really an exceptional human, the nicest, coolest guy. He didn't really look like everyone else — he wore flairs when everyone else was wearing these super pegged jeans. I remember a bunch of us were drinking in the parking lot, because that's what we did before the shows, and some dumb asses started giving him a hard time because he wore this denim coat, denim flares, and his hair was all one length. He looked like he was Sabbath era and these guys were giving him a hard time, like, "You fucking hippie." He almost got into a fight and then someone came up to the kids and said, "Dude, do you know who that is?" They were mortified. He didn't give a fuck about what anyone thought.
WHEN YOU MET HIM, WERE YOU AWARE HOW FUCKING AMAZING HE WAS AS A BASS PLAYER?
Oh yeah. Absolutely, that was really clear.
I CAN'T EVEN IMAGINE BEING ABLE TO SEE METALLICA AT AN EARLY AGE. DID YOU SHUT YOURSELF OUT OF METAL AS YOU GOT INTO DARKER, GOTH MUSIC OR IS METAL STILL PART OF YOUR LEXICON?
It is. I sort of veered off of it for a while as far as what I listened to and certainly as far as the community. That was when I was developing my skill set, if you want to call it that, as a songwriter — getting into things like Nick Cave and things that were less heavy and less aggressive but still really dark. Then I got back into it and was listing to a lot of experimental music, as well.
I think that's really beautiful because people heard something in my music that I probably didn't even recognize. None of what Insect Ark has done has really been deliberate in the sense that it wasn't started or continued with an idea of any genre — it was just about exploring sonnets and using elements of texture and noise but also having stuff that's really heavy, dense and dark or really, really spare.
HAVE YOU BEEN TO ROADBURN BEFORE? MAYBE WITH ANOTHER PROJECT?
I've never played Roadburn, but I was there last year for the first time and I had an excellent time and met all those fine folks who run it. I had a really good time and I was there all four days, I actually relaxed. That was amazing and I'm really looking forward to being part of it.
IN THE IDEAL SITUATION, WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE LISTENERS TO TAKE AWAY FROM MARROW HYMNS?
Music, when it's most effective, reaches me. I feel like it completely engulfs me and everything else is eclipsed. That is what I would hope for.
WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU FELT THAT?
I actually had it yesterday when I was listening to Pink Floyd's The Wall, which I haven't actually sat straight through in many years. I have a lot of really strong memories from seeing that film as a really young person because it's so complex and bonkers. That music, being really young and experiencing those things together, and psychological impact that it had on me was just totally full and I got kind of choked up a couple of times — just having feelings. I was listening to some Scratch Acid. Scratch Acid actually does that for me, just total mayhem in a whole different sense. It gets me every single time, just like Morricone's score from John Carpenter's The Thing. It's a super, super favorite.