ex-Berzerker member speaks The Senseless
A monster metal musician unmasked. An album four years in the making. Sam Bean (ex-The Berzerker, ex-Mithras) waxes poetic on the injustices of the extreme music industry and the science of metal solitude. Bean's solo project calls on the services of some of the most well-respected musicians in HRH's secret cabinet.
With an exclusive full-stream of The Senseless's "The Floating World" [due February 18th] below.
"I needed to come up with a band name quick."
Who is the Senseless?
Me! Me, me, me, me, me! Sam Bean, ex-Berzerker/ex-Mithras and general metal band whore. I did the entire first album, but on “The Floating World,” I was joined by Leon Macey from Mithras.
When and why was The Senseless born?
In 2007, I had just finished an especially acrimonious Berzerker tour with a French band called ‘Happy Face' and sent their manager my demos. Turns out he worked for the European branch of Anticulture Records, and he signed me. I needed to come up with a band name quick, and I pounded out the debut album "In the Realm of the Senseless" and that was the start of it.
Can you tell about your experiences leading up to- and being in The Berzerker?
I don’t have much pre-Berzerker history. I played once live, doing Morbid Angel’s “Visions from the Darkside” during a charity event.
I joined The Berzerker because my flatmates were tired of me blasting guitar all day and suggested I join a band in order to play somewhere else! I put a bunch of handwritten ads in stores, saying I was a metal guitarist who liked playing fast, and Luke from The Berzerker was the only one who answered. He’d just returned from the UK where he’d been offered a deal with Earache Records, and I was the only guitarist left in town who’d work with him.
I was onboard from 1999, and my fulltime involvement wound down in 2005 because I saw no life in it for me. There was no camaraderie, no money, and we were totally anonymous [because we wore monster masks]. I was running around the world on next to no money, and Earache didn’t give a fuck about us. I remember Gary [the drummer] had his foot broken one week before the end of a US tour. We got a screaming phone call from a promo chick cause word leaked, and promoters were worried about us pulling out. We had no money, no vehicle, were stuck in a swamp shack in Florida, and one of our guys was crippled. We had ten days to find a drummer for "The Fastest Band in the World" and train them to do a headline set.
I turned 27 that week. I was sleeping on a dog blanket on a concrete floor when it was my birthday, and I thought to hell with doing this. My label doesn’t give a shit if I live or die... I’m off. I think the last time I left the US, I had about half a dozen serious death-threats hanging over my head.
Is it difficult to play in bands where the music is mostly under the creative force of a single entity?
I'm an adult. I'm alright with some compromise.
With Berzerker, I was mostly grateful to get an opportunity to play metal at a level that literally no-one else in the country had achieved.
The tricky bits I’ve found isn’t so much the music, it's the business side where bands self-sabotage… where a good band with a strong leader ends up going so insane trying to achieve perfection that they end up driving away people who can help them.
Your first The Senseless record "In the Realm of the Senseless" came four years ago and had a record label attached to it. The new record "The Floating World" has appearances by Akercocke's Matt Wilcock, Evile's Ol Drake, and Leon Macey from Mithras but struggled to find a label. Why?
The release of "In the Realm of the Senseless" was so incompetently handled that there was no way I would gift Anticulture Records another free body of work.
I spent over one thousand hours writing, recording, rehearsing it. I flew to Australia to mix it, drove halfway across England to master it. Negotiated a bidding war between album cover photographers. Spent a week doing artwork, a month of spare time creating online content, made a video for free. I did it all on my days off from a normal, stressful corporate job. I then absolved Anticulture from paying mechanicals, so they could budget for promotion, and handed them all this work with all these big names [Matt Wilcock from Akercocke, Ol Drake from Evile]. And they cocked it right up.
They lost their US distro. They gave away exclusive video rights and a few hundred pounds to stock my CD at Play.com, who carried only eight copies. The album sold out on the first day, and they never restocked. Christ, they even forgot I was on the label and forgot to invite me to their Christmas party!
Do you have theories on why "The Floating World" was difficult to sell?
Most of us are over thirty. We don’t play live. We don’t make deathcore. Our videoclips don’t have millions of views. The Facebook page doesn’t have thousands of hits. I don’t look particularly metal. You’ve really got to promote yourself to the point where you don’t need a record label to get a contract!
I didn’t get any meetings over it. I sent out about twenty or so mails and packages to labels and did not get a single reply. All I wanted a label for was to take care of distribution and promotion, because I’ve got my own life to live.
What is the current state of the record industry from an artists' perspective?
The industry is suffering. Labels are doing these 360-degree deals, ensuring the artist never makes a cent, then wondering why bands pack it in by the third album.
The internet is forcing musicians to have the skills to run their own businesses before any labels show up. It’s getting to the point where bands would ask, "What’s the point of signing to you anyway? We book our own shows, do our own merch, and distribute our own music. What do we need you for?"
Has there ever been a time in your career when musicians could actually prosper and live?
Almost everyone I know in metal bands makes nothing. Metal just has that demographic that everyone downloads everything illegally. On the other hand, my old housemate plays in Wolfmother, and he makes a good living. I know people in the electronic scene - running labels, DJing - and doing really well.
Until 2005, it was possible to make something of a living doing extreme metal. I think with The Berzerker, if we wanted to go on the road for eight months, we could have done it for a living. But what sort of life is that? Twelve- to fifteen-hour days, living on a bus, eating pizza constantly... bollocks! There’s no safety net, and the health risks you endure over a prolonged period isn’t worth it .
How long has the "The Floating World" been finished? Why have you waited to release it?
It was mixed and mastered by January 2011. But waiting to release it was no masterstroke. I finished it and went, phew. At that exact point, I needed a big life change. I had been in England for seven years, through a load of failed friendships/relationships and working an extremely stressful job. I contacted everyone in the music industry who said they’d give me assistance with the album, sending CDs out to them, and didn’t so much as get a “thanks for sending the CD. "
It felt like music was a black hole, and I was just dreading anything related to it. My nervous system equated it with losing friends, wealth, time. I just couldn’t do it. So I quit my job, packed up my life in England, traveled for a few months. Now I’m back in Australia, re-energised enough to go ahead and release this!
What songwriting techniques were used in composing this album?
Every song turns up differently. Sometimes I get an idea for a tune when I’m working, and then I’ll take time to get it out of my head. I record a lot of riffs and arrange them; they’re the tracks that take a few years.
I also try to play a lot of mainstream music. Like, I’ll work out the piano line to a Massive Attack song and figure out how to trem pick it, or with U2 or Depeche Mode. If you do that on a distorted detuned brutal guitar suddenly another world of progressions opens up that metal doesn’t touch. I also learn old Commodore 64 songs on guitar, and that just gives you another massive music lesson.
If I need to write something vicious and misanthropic and dripping with hate, I watch Big Brother for a week and that usually does it. Most of the time I just get a melody and try and write a song around it. I think there’s a lot to be said for getting out of your own way and letting your unconscious do most of the work.
I demoed the songs against click tracks, and we rehearsed for two years to get them up to speed. Leon [Macey] has a studio setup in his basement, so he recorded drums and FTP’d me the files. I have a POD XT and did the entire guitar recording onto a laptop in my living room and arranged everything. I did overdubs with a small Marshall Practice amp miked up with a Shure SM-58.
The things I was driving for was flexibility, the ability to take time and evolve things. My recording philosophy is leftover from my time in Berzerker, where we mistrusted everyone and did as much ourselves as possible. God bless POD XTs. You can get a better guitar sound with some rare producers, but there’s a ten-grand abyss you have to cross if you want to get there.
How would you describe "The Floating World," musically?
Musically, it’s progressive grind, heavy mental. Extreme metal that isn’t scared of being happy. Each song is a different style. Every song is a stand-out ass-kicker, and the album is so far ahead of its time I should have delayed it by another two years.
It doesn’t seem experimental to me, but I like different sounds, stuff that just takes you totally unawares, and I’ve always felt that that’s one of extreme metal's primary purposes. To be the musician that’s brave enough to just to mess with your ears and come at you where you’re not looking.
Why do you think that so many metal bands' music is written and recorded by a single person? The riffs are more complicated than most genres of music, yet the responsibility seems to often boil down to one person.
Oh, there’s a simple reason – because you can’t jam casually and come up with a death metal song. Not a good one, anyway. It’s the same reason that orchestras don’t jam and come up with a new movement. It's near impossible to write involved, deliberate, dynamic, and complicated music democratically.
It’s not a philosophy, or being introspective, it’s that you get a very detailed vision of a very weird song, and writing it yourself is the only way to get that vision out of your head.
For work, I look after mainframe systems. Most of my time is spent traveling, cooking, doing sport, and beating the ever-loving shit out of my guitar. I prefer surfing and adventure, hanging out with positive people doing brave things. Metal isn't my life. Mostly, I listen to other stuff. Old grunge, triphop, soundtracks, opera. M.I.A. The Libertines. Melt Banana. Metal is music that I love to play and listen to, but I never identified myself by my tastes.
Do you have advice for aspiring metal musicians? Would you tell them to go for it or to be very careful about what they wish for?
If you’re young, go for it. Being in a band full-time is a young person’s lifestyle, it’s like an extension of high school. You need to be young to handle the lack of sleep and food that comes with touring.
The three biggest bits of advice I have are:
1. BE DIFFERENT. If you are doing something different from everyone else then you’ve effectively reduced your competition.
2. PLAY OVERSEAS. You get more profile and exposure playing one international show than playing a dozen local ones of the same size. Don’t wait for booking agents to pick you up. You can play locally until all the hipsters love you and put off playing overseas until that ill-defined moment when you all think you’re good enough, but your career only BEGINS once you’ve played that first overseas show.
3. MAKE YOUR MONEY OUTSIDE METAL. Otherwise you’re always going to compromise your music. The industry loves their musicians poor. If you’ve got your own money, if you start a tour and the booking agents decide to fuck you, then you’ve always got the option to leave.
What is the best way to support a metal musician/band that you like?
Buy their albums! I could do albums like this once a year if people bought them, I’m sure the same goes for many other musicians. Another way is to contact them. Bands are available with social media these days, and sometimes just hearing from an appreciative fan can fire you up to make more music.
Where can people get "The Floating World"?
From February 18th, it’ll be available worldwide on iTunes, Amazon, CDBaby, and all major digital retailers. If in doubt, head to www.thesenseless.com.