Davide Tiso is the inspired creative mind behind Ephel Duath as well as the truly progressive Manuscripts Don't Burn, why then isn’t he a household name in metal?
During his tenure at the helm of Ephel his talent for asymmetric diamond edged music won many accolades from critics and discerning metal fans alike. However, when he pushed the boat further from the shore with The Breathing House (Manscripts Don't Burn, 2010), the same people left him stranded. Were the prog-metal purists so attached to goblins and fairies, synths and faux-jazz, that they missed the most important point that now more than ever music must be honest?
Arguably, Breathing… was the most under-appreciated ‘metal’ album of 2010. Soaring claustrophobia and jagged nerves pouring from a real musician bored with the circumlocutory clichéd postures; how relevant, how apropos, and what better way to start the new decade.
The Breathing House’s bare room aesthetic of raw drums and spiraling guitars should have ushered in a new way for the many, instead it was a major revelation for a minority. For Tiso himself he found what he was looking for, his natural state: creatively alone and brutally honest. Breaking through the silence, Trebuchet caught up with Italian émigré Davide to discuss the epoch defining Breathing House and future plans.
Trebuchet: When you’re putting together an album like The Breathing House, apparently from years worth of riffs, did you have a theme in mind?
Davide Tiso: I composed the album in a very important and transitional period of my life. Ephel Duath just lost the singer, I remained the last active member and I had to put the project on hold to keep my sanity.
In the meantime I was asked to be part of the production team for the Karyn Crisis solo album, I accepted and worked hard for months composing nonstop. After song number 16, Karyn and Eraldo Bernocchi, the producer, started to have some artistic issues and just before the vocals were recorded the whole project blew up. So, I took the whole production task on my shoulders and fell in love with Karyn in the meantime. During that period I also decided to move to California as I realized that I didn't have any reason to remain in Italy.
My creativity reached a peak during those days and music erupted from me very fast and without any effort. The MDB songs initially were supposed to be for Karyn, but soon we both agreed that there wasn't space for vocals. I started to compose for her from scratch and in the process I decided to start the one man band I had dreamt of since '97.
In my mind the theme was basically a search for haunting melodies, the ones that remain stuck in the brain and yet were not so simple that they could be recreated by one voice. I wanted spiderlike guitar webs supported by powerful yet busy rhythms.
Trebuchet: THAT drum sound tell me about it?
Davide Tiso: I spent days and days on those drums, it easily turned in an obsession. They are programmed using one of the best software packages commercially available but I've done my worst to give them that one mic in a shitty room vibe. I've distorted the bottom end of each piece, picked the biggest toms and snare sizes and tried to have the cymbals as muffly as possible.
Stylistically I thought about Dave Lombardo all the time. The question was: what would Dave Lombardo play in here? He would hit hard till your ears are ringing and he would go on those damn Toms big time. And that’s what I've tried to do.
I saw that guy doing a sound check from few feet ahead, and I'll never forget it. There was a whole tribe in those two hands.
Trebuchet: Tell me about the recording process? Much of this release is very immediate sounding, seemingly with little to no effects or processing. It seems as though this is a reflection of where you at the moment can you explain further?
Davide Tiso: I recorded the album myself and, funny enough, it took me really a lot of time to give that immediate sounding to the songs. I avoided a clean and sterile production, preferring to risk a more organic, lo-fi and noisy sound. I wanted to sound sincere, almost naked.
In that period, my life was changing day after day, fast, similarly the choices I made were made – fast. They made perfect sense to me at the time but from an external point of view were radical and extreme. I decided to leave Italy for California, booking a one way ticket with the only money I had left, all in less than an hour.
Composing and recording these songs my head was busy with ideas but free of any doubts, all my thoughts were having the same flow: like those songs, busy in the arrangements but extremely direct in terms of emotional release. A rough production was the only option I considered to express all of that.
I've had a lot of criticism about how the album sounds, some of it even made me suffer a bit. Some people stopped at the rusty production and didn't want to enter the songs, the majority of people simply considered the album boring.
Trebuchet: Unlike Ephel Duath there is a lot less emphasis on unnatural ambience (Pads, Synths, etc) with this record, which I think allows a sense of roomy space (ahem – Breathing House). Is this particular direction that you’ll continue sonically?
Davide Tiso: I'm glad you noticed how much emphasis I put on natural ambience. I didn't feel I needed any synths for this album, instead I preferred to experiment with a lot old school reverbs, different rooms and digital microphones.
Even if I played everything by myself in my studio I wanted to sound like a live band. I didn't mind to give an old school metal quality to the mix.
The new songs I'm composing for MDB have a different appeal, more experimental, much more spaces, strong contrasts of empty and full parts, tones of drones. I'm integrating analog synths passed through guitar and bass amps and I'll work hard to make it sounds like a natural progression from The Breathing House.
Trebuchet: Compared with Ephel Duath this album has a very direct quality. There seems to be something specific you want to say?
Davide Tiso: I wanted to let the listener lose himself into the music, without imposing a sound but being gentle. The MDB compositions are labyrinthine but not in a confusing sense. I wanted to bring the listener to a form of relaxed awareness.
I always put a lot of tension and extremely anxious vibes in Ephel Duath. I know I'm an anxious person and ED never helped me to get rid of that side of me. Putting all my stress in Ephel Duath music just made me… more stressed. After 12 years of tha, I wanted to enjoy composing music without over thinking every little detail or arrangement. I wanted to start to going with the flow.
Getting older I realized that I'm naturally driven to melody. There are millions of melodies in my head that are ready to erupt as soon as I take my guitar in my hands. For some reasons the fact that ED music is supposed to be complex and challenging managed to slow down the flow of melodies I have in me. MDB does the contrary, it frees my natural inner self and I really enjoy this process. It's liberating and cathartic.
Trebuchet: In other interviews it seemed as though one of the main reasons for putting aside Ephel Duath was financial (‘They were often complaining, without even realizing how many problems I was hiding in front of their eyes. Now it's just me, and I'm pretty comfortable like this’). With more support would Ephel Duath been able to continue or was it that that particular chapter has closed (for) now?
Davide Tiso: Yes, I'm sure that with more support, better promotion and some reasonable tour supports Ephel Duath would have reached a greater audience than what we did. All the DIY promotional work I did turned out to be not enough for the band to remain alive (even though I was working at least 6 hours a day on that front).
The label should have let us go long time before. Since day one they didn't know what to do with us. On the other hand, we should have accepted Ipecac’s offer in 2004, but we had 4 other albums with Earache and part of the band was scared to break the deal. Not me. I should have been less democratic on that occasion.
Trebuchet: Consistently throughout Ephel Duath there was a strong jazz quality to the music, this is noticeably absent from Manuscripts Don’t Burn, why?
Davide Tiso: I wanted MDB to be more primal than Ephel Duath, getting rid of the jazzy embellishments was one of the first choices I took to obtain the vibe I was looking for.
Jazz arrangements would sound too polished for this release, I wanted something more instinctual this time. Jazz arrangements combined with extreme music is basically the ED trademark and I wanted to be free from my former band's bulky shadow.
Trebuchet: From a songwriting point of view you seem to have dispensed with strongly chorus-type sections?
Davide Tiso: I wanted the songs to have a lot of ‘build up’ moments. I'm not talking of simple crescendos but more like bridges that are catchy as choruses, and choruses that follow with even higher emotional peaks. The result I was hoping for were songs so full of emotions that seem ready to explode.
I feel a very positive vibe around them. These songs have a good karma, it's palpable.
I like the fact that the songs are full of all these melodies that are constantly running after each other, it makes me somehow happy. I put a lot of heart in this project, I hope people will notice it.
Trebuchet: You have referenced Bulgarkov in ‘Manuscripts Don’t Burn’ can this be seen to be a statement that as the Master you’re recreating the work of the burnt template of Ephel Duath?
Davide Tiso: I like your metaphor and yes, I feel that for a lot of different aspects I adhere to it, but the reason why I choose the moniker MDB is very connected to the original meaning of the sentence.
Bulgakov was born in the wrong place at the worst time. I've been lucky to be born in much better conditions but most of the time I can't help feeling that the heavy censorship Bulgakov had to deal with, has been substituted nowadays by a much more subtle and scary one: a massive lost of values that impress itself on any form of art like a sort of intellectual censorship.
Take a look at the kinds of books, art and music today that are massively successful. Is this pile of crap really representing the public? Or is the public the victim of a massive campaign of distraction that prevents them from opening their eyes to all the disgusting mechanisms, all profit oriented, that govern our society?
Keeping this to the musical field, I'm overwhelmed by the low level of musicality and retarded messages that an average teenager is exposed to these days, especially when buying or downloading a hit.
Looking back, I don't remember any worse period than this.
I've chosen the moniker Manuscripts Don't Burn because, starting from my band's name, I want to be out from all this killing campaign of nonsense.
Trebuchet: Tell me about the titles of the songs? They all seem to be based on references to literature and or alternative Christian beliefs. Rather than give the game away too much can you talk about your references and the aspects that you found relevant to you and your music (if not the songs themselves)?
Davide Tiso: All the album titles are inspired by situations that me and my wife Karyn experience living amongst the ancient nature of Tuscany where we met two years ago. At the time we were guests in a little haunted cottage (The Breathing House), we were completely cut out from the world yet extremely peaceful in our symbiosis (Connubium in Solitude). At the time I was breezily composing as fast as the wind (Like a Zephir), in the meantime Karyn was invoking nature primary forces and angels (Invoking Metatron) to protect us and our new path together. Sometimes the responses were so powerful that they were frightening (When Uriel shakes the Soil).
At least one time a day we were going to the sea, she was doing Reiki, I was reading. We often sat close to a big pipe coming out of the sand, few feet from the sea. It had the shape of a dog looking at the sea (The Iron Dog Protecting The Sea).
Trebuchet: In your work you regularly mention dogs, coincidence?
Davide Tiso: I'm kind of sure I was a dog in another life, I think it's natural for me to put dogs in my most primary form of expression: music.
I trust my nose as much a dog does. I can feel the vibe of a person from his or her smell and the more I get old the more this side of me gets more precise and sometime ridiculously demanding.
Some smells intoxicate me, they send me into a blank state, some others scare me. I can feel the vibe of a place or a house from the smell. I chose my wife from her smell, and every day I repeat to myself I did the right choice.
Trebuchet: Do you have a reasonably set process for writing songs?
Davide Tiso: I usually write music first, starting from guitars, then I add drums, bass, synths if present, and vocals at the very end.
Trebuchet: Have you thought about changing the process, i.e. writing words first, writing music for those words and then leaving the words behind (making music to follow vocal structures) or is the process for you much freer?
Davide Tiso: I changed the process for the last Ephel Duath album "Through My Dog's Eyes". I wrote the lyrics first and built the music around them. It was a good experience, but I think I work better and faster starting from the music.
When I have a strong concept that is supposed to tie all the songs in an album, like TMDE was, it makes sense to start from the lyrics but on that occasion I added a second challenge on my plate: writing the words not in forms of lyrics but short stories.
That had been a huge step to deal with simply because there was not enough space to sing all those words, and I loved and wanted to use each of them. I remember I gave the short stories to the singer Luciano and he extracted the sentences he thought sounded better for the songs. My whole concept became much more volatile and open to interpretation and still today I'm not completely sure of the result. I think the main problem has been to combine the most direct ED music we did with the most ambitious and long lyrics written for the band.
The key tool I use for songwriting is time: I let the material breath as much as possible, months if it's necessary. I enter in studio, both for preproduction and final production, with very clear ideas of what I want to reach and I use all the extra studio time left to obsess with details.
Trebuchet: Have you ever thought about examining what makes something musically ‘right’ and by that I mean unwrapping what the strange attractor is for a particular sound, melody, whatever?
Davide Tiso: I'm not sure that too much analysis is good for the composer, maybe not even for the listener. Of course, it’s useful for the critic and whoever is interested in reading criticism but music should be probably more connected with a vibe than with something "right" or "wrong".
At the same time I remember that years back I asked myself the same question you did and I arrived to the conclusion that the right balance between major and minor scale plus a shit load of tension in terms of vibe and chords choices was at the root of my pleasure as composer.
Trebuchet: Why the move to America? Are there more opportunities for you there?
Davide Tiso: I moved to California almost 2 years ago after I met Karyn Crisis. We decided to move to the US to finish her debut solo album with local musicians and start a life together. We did indeed started a great life together but we didn't find any suitable band mates to work with. We are still working on her solo album and no, I would not say that there are more opportunities for me here in the US. SF is such a mellow and relaxed place for music. Sometimes it gets on my nerves. I think I'm more a New York type of person in terms of a rigid work ethic and vibewise.
Trebuchet: Taking the album on the road? Backing musicians? Reworking some of Ephel Duath material in the sets yes/no?
Davide Tiso: I would love to bring MDB and some reworked ED material on stage. I just need to find the right musician. I didn't put enough efforts in searching for them and I plan to change this soon. Music is more fun when is shared with someone, staring at Pro Tools for months can become alienating.
Trebuchet: The new album, what stage are you at now?
Davide Tiso: I’ve just started to compose for MDB. I'm still at the early stages but I already have the whole album figured out in my head. A lot of riffs are already been collected and recorded and once again the main focus will be on melody. I want to put it out before the end of the year.
Trebuchet: New album, new concept?
Davide Tiso: I think all songs will be tied up by a general mood more than a proper concept. The mood will be kind of grey.
Trebuchet: There seem to be some symbolic gestures to Magick in your records, is this intentional?
My wife is a follower of old Italian witchcraft and thanks to her my ties with Italy and my natural roots are becoming less problematic. Being Italian is not simple, being Italian and living outside Italy is even more complicated.
To sit and watch your country rotting day after day is revolting. Italian's politic corruption is reaching a level I didn't believe was possible to reach. Puppets paid like rock stars are helping Berlusconi to bring the country to a level of intellectual and moral misery: most of Italians seem completely numbed by TV.
That's the fastest way to control a country: TV, with distorted news, advertising with subliminal messages, tits and dancing asses, mobile telephones. Italians have more telephones than everyone in Europe. Apparently they talk all the time but obviously not about politics because somehow they manage to vote for Berlusconi every time.
My wife and her studies are making me to think about an ancient side of Italy; connected with natures, rural rituals, forgotten words. I love to seeing Italy through her eyes and the magick presence in the album has been brought to me, on the plate, by her, her studies and the situations we experienced together in Italy when we first met.
Trebuchet: You mentioned drones? Do you think we can expect a more flowing ambient album?
Davide Tiso: Yes, the new album will be rich of drones, it will be slower and more ambient. I will let the melodies take their time to develop and I'm excite by the idea of letting the material breath. I always composed extremely busy music, my goal with the next MDB is to slow down the process to a point of relaxing me while composing, and the listener while enjoying the album.
Trebuchet: You talked about re-amping synths (recording the playback through speakers and monitors) seems like you're adventuring into capturing roomy vibes again?
Davide Tiso: I'm really into experimenting with sounds. For years I’ve been the guitar player that loves to work in the studio, now I'm becoming a studio geek that would love to have more time to play guitar. Guitar is a great instrument but it’s limited, there's no limit with a Pro Tools and I’m addicted to that freedom.
I love to have questions and problems that can be solved with machines: new software is getting more and more intuitive and most of the time the answers are right in front of your eyes. For instance; “How to get a warmer sound? Hmm, let's pass that sound through my amp. Ah!” From there a whole new world opened up, continued with questions like "what happen if I put the amp on a semi distortion?"
Davide Tiso: No vocals for MDB, this is my selfish one man band project and I would use vocals only if I was able to sing… and I can’t.
Trebuchet: Next steps?
Davide Tiso: To finish the Karyn Crisis Band album before summer and keep composing new songs for MDB.
Few weeks ago I've been asked to play guitar and bass in the upcoming album of an Italian cult band that I can't announce yet. I really hope this collaboration will take shape soon.
Trebuchet: Can’t wait. Thanks for your time.
Davide Tiso: Thank you for your interest and support.