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Vangough vocalist/guitarist Clay Withrow on the making of "Between The Madness"

Vangough
Vangough
Courtesy of Vittek Public Relations

New album, new band member, new approach — Vangough’s latest release, Between The Madness, is a 12-song, 70-minute, richly layered work of prog rock. Or is it? Band founder, vocalist and guitarist Clay Withrow agrees, but not within the expected parameters. “I have a different opinion of prog,” he says. “When I first heard Dream Theater in high school, I thought ‘progressive’ meant that the bands could do whatever they wanted stylistically. I thought that was awesome. I always had that mentality, and so the Vangough records were doing what I want because it’s my music and a part of me. As I learned, and this is something I don’t like as much, progressive metal is kind of narrow in terms of its sound. That’s one of the reasons I don’t really listen to a lot of progressive metal, but I hold the mentality that I’m going to do what I want and consider it progressive because it’s progressive. I like to think that we are related to that genre, but we’re not beholden to sounding like Dream Theater or Fates Warning. I like to offer something different, but I feel that it appeals to a lot of the same fans of the genre.”

Between the Madness is Vangough’s third studio project, following Manikin Parade and Kingdom of Ruin. The band — Withrow, bassist Jeren Martin and new drummer Kyle Haws — also released an instrumental project, Game On!, and an EP, Acoustic Scars, to benefit an Oklahoma rabbit rescue. Between the Madness was produced by Withrow, mixed by Sterling Winfield at Boot Hill Studio, and mastered by Garrett Haines at Treelady Studios.

In this interview, Clay Withrow discusses Vangough’s recording process and the tenacity required in order to survive the music industry.

You are releasing physical copies of the Between the Madness. How is that beneficial to Vangough, versus only releasing digitally?

Our fans prefer the digi-packs and special packaging that has come with the albums in the past, so we pressed a thousand of them for tour and for people who like to have that collectible item.

In addition to musical complexity, your albums are lyrical journeys. In a time when people communicate with 140 characters, or even fewer via text messaging, and buy their music one song at a time, is anyone listening that deeply?

I feel like our audience expects a lot of effort to be put into the complete album and package. Progressive metal fans expect as much as you can pack onto a CD, which has been the watermark for albums. It is a challenge because I was trying to develop the songs we have instead of trying to fill every inch of space.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of self-production? The buck stops with you, but at the same time, the buck stops with you.

I’ve been learning that it’s kind of a pain in the a--. I guess everybody is looking to me to ask the question, “Is this where it should be?” I’m almost always looking at other people to say, “Does this sound about right to you guys?” That was the hardest part in post-production. Writing, recording and getting it mixed was a fairly simple process, but everything else was a big challenge. I had talked to Sterling about co-producing the album, and he said, “You got the vision set for this long before we started recording.” I had brought him demos that were complete, essentially, and so we decided to move forward. I’ve always naturally taken the role, as opposed to looking out to see who we might work with. I don’t know what it’s like to work with a producer. It’s something we talked about before. It’s not something I would not do. I would entertain that in the future if I thought it would add something to the album that would help it break away from the previous album.

Outside of drums, everything was tracked at your home studio. What’s in the room?

We tracked at my home studio in my basement, because we all have basements in Oklahoma. I used the Mesa/Boogie Road King on this album and we added a Krank single-channel Chadwick amp. We layered those together. The Road King has a smooth, big, open sound and the Krank has a biting sound, and combined it had a better overall blend. Besides those two, I used the Music Man John Petrucci 6, and my favorite guitar that I used on this album that I swear by now is my 1977 Ibanez Destroyer. It’s modeled after the Gibson Explorer from that decade. That happened halfway through the production. I discovered it in my storage unit and we brought it into the studio and started tracking with it. It had the sound we were looking for, so my Destroyer is my new baby.

How did you mic?

We miked the Road King with a Sennheiser 609 and I played everything four times — once through the Road King, left and right, and with a Mesa Express 25-watt to give it something more in the mid-range. Then I did it again with the Krank, so there are six of those, but we miked the Krank with two mics — a Shure 57 and a Sennheiser 421.

Was this the first time you used the Krank?

Oh yeah. I only own Mesas, and I’m discovering that it’s a big limiting factor in my sound. Thankfully, Sterling came through. He had that single-channel Krank when I came to his house and we decided to give it a shot. We set it up, I had my Road King speaker there, we were tracking over the Mesas and it just popped. It brought the mix to life in a whole different way, so I think it’s time to expand my amp selection a little bit outside of Mesa.

Why did you select Sterling Winfield to engineer? What did he bring to your music and sound?

Originally, I didn’t know who he was. A guy who was in my band at the time recommended him. I was a huge Pantera fan, but I didn’t know Sterling’s attachment to that band until I met him and learned that he had mixed some of their albums and was co-producer on their last one. I brought him our first album, Manikin Parade, and we spent three days mixing two songs. I had never worked with anybody on our music. I had always done everything in my studio, so that was an eye-opening experience. That was when I took the training wheels off, so to speak, in terms of production. I remember getting the two mixes back and they weren’t mastered. I got in my car and listened and I thought, What’s wrong with these things? They’re so low volume. I didn’t know what I was hearing. Then, as I learned, yes, it gets mastered and you leave enough room so that someone can take it and make it huge. I went back to Sterling a month or two later, because he was in the middle of the Hellyeah record and that was a huge deal in his life. It was taking up a lot of time and he was putting a lot of resources into it. We waited for him to finish that one to finish our record. That’s how our relationship started. I remember seeing how stressed he was over the Hellyeah record and thinking, I hope we can do this. Finally, he was done with it and he mixed Manikin Parade. After the next album we did, our relationship started to combine a little bit better and now we’re really good friends. I trust him totally. Without Sterling, I would be up s--t creek in a lot of ways.

In the midst of the complex lyrics, you have instrumentals. Do those tracks write themselves as such, and vice versa for the tracks with lyrics, or do they take that road as the composition process moves forward?

I don’t put too much thought into that, but I always felt that the instrumentals were meant to be instrumentals from the very beginning. I don’t know exactly why. I always intended to pad the album for pacing reasons, because there needs to be a break, there needs to be a moment of respite. “Between The Madness” plays a pivotal role in the album because we need a place where people can rest their ears and spirits for a while. Vocals have a very profound effect of pulling us to another level, and the absence of vocals plays an important role as well in keeping us in our place. With “The Flesh Consumed,” I felt the vocals would add something, but their absence provided for an interesting texture, and I don’t think the song is lacking without vocals. It’s one of my favorites. It’s very haunting, and without my voice being there, it lets people paint their own interpretation and their own idea.

Who influenced you vocally?

The first is James Hetfield from Metallica, and I’m sure I probably just disappointed a bunch of people by saying that. Nobody really knows this, but Metallica overall is one of my biggest influences, and I’m not afraid to say it and I don’t give a s--t who knows. The other one is Pain of Salvation and their lead singer, Daniel Gildenlow. When I discovered them in 2000, when they put out an album called The Perfect Element, I had never heard anything like that in my life. It was the music I had been waiting to hear for a very long time. Since then, I have listened to them every day in my car and I use their songs as my vocal warm-ups in the morning. I was lucky enough to go on tour with them last May. Daniel and I became very good friends. I spent some time with him in Sweden for his birthday over the summer, and we got to hang out and talk music. Now I’m part of the band. I’m going on their cruise tour in February. They’re doing a tour with Mike Portnoy and Transatlantic, and I’ll be on that tour just helping out. We’re going to play Prog Power together in September in Atlanta, so it’s interesting how one of the people I’ve respected and admired throughout my adult life ended up being a friend as well. That has helped me with staying motivated and staying in the game, so to speak.

Have there been times when you lost your motivation and considered leaving the game?

Oh, absolutely. It’s a hell of a business and it’s not for the weak. It really is not. It wouldn’t be possible for me if it weren’t for the support group that I have around me, especially my parents. They’ve been so instrumental in keeping me motivated. My dad, especially, has helped me keep my focus. It’s been very trying. Things happen in our lives that make you reconsider what you want to do, and at the end of the day, I’m glad I got through those periods. I love what I do and I pulled through it, but yes, I think everybody goes through that period where they say, “This is madness. What am I doing? I should be clocking in 9 to 5 and contributing to society in a different way.”

Your roots are in thrash, but there’s so much more going on in your music — classical influences, classic rock influences.

I’m not a huge heavy metal fan, but there’s something about Pantera that spoke to me on an emotional level. Phil’s vocals were some of the most passionate and emotional of any metal band, and the way he was able to emote was very genuine to me. Whenever I listen to most metal bands, it sounds so fake. They’re all trying to sound like someone else. I always felt detached from guys who say they’re the most brutal and this and that. It all sounds like bulls--t to me, like they’re pandering to the audience. It’s not genuine at all. But Pantera, especially The Great Southern Trendkill, sounded genuine. I grew up not listening to any rock and roll until I was in high school, which is strange for a rock musician. I listened to a lot of Motown because that’s what my mom had on records. I listened to Marvin Gaye, the Temptations and Michael Jackson, and that music was amazing. I loved Billy Ocean, stuff that had a groove to it and this cool feeling. That is still what I like to listen to. I’ll go from Pantera to Billy Ocean to Metallica. That’s my weird mix of music. And film soundtracks. I was obsessed with movie soundtracks as a kid. I had everything from Danny Elfman, everything from John Williams, and I would listen to that more than anything else. I would sit in my room and take a tape recorder and record so that I could listen to it in my mom’s car when she drove me to school. I’m grateful that it didn’t drive her crazy listening to crappy tape recordings of movie soundtracks.

Given the layering and textures in your music, you don’t use many effects.

I’m not a big fan of lots of processed sounds and effects. For better or for worse, I like it to sound like a band rocking out. I disappoint a lot of guitarists and pedal enthusiasts. It’s about the player, not about the gear, because I play with some of the best musicians in the city, I’m blessed to have that opportunity, and these guys will plug into a little Boss Blues Driver and make it sound amazing. It doesn’t matter what they play through. It sounds amazing because they’re amazing musicians.

Was it easier to find string musicians than it was to find band members?

Circumstances led to that. I met Justus Johnston through my parents, who are friends with his parents. He came to our Kingdom of Ruin CD release show. He bought the CD and said he liked our music. My mom said, “Justus plays the violin.” I filed that in the back of my mind with, Get to know this guy. As it turns out, we’re very similar in a lot of ways. We like the same things and the same kinds of music, so that was really easy. I met Jose Palacios because I gig around the city and he was a cello player at one of the places where I gig. I called him and asked if he’d be interested to do this and he was all about it. I didn’t have to go through a lot of trouble. If push came to shove, I might be able to put together a small orchestra in the future.

Do you want to take them on the road?

The studio was an easy sell. As far as the road, I never brought that up. Jeren and Kyle and I talked about it a lot, but we’re more about backing tracks, keeping things simple and focusing on us and our performance. I don’t want to think about miking a cello and a violin at a rock show.

Good point. You also have an additional guitarist on this album.

Jay Gleason is really good friends with Jeren, and Jeren and I talked for quite a while about bringing Jay in to record some songs. He was a trooper. He came in and busted those solos out and it sounded great. We thought about him playing a few shows with us and he said yes, so now he’s the unofficial fourth member. That’s how Jeren got his start. Before we worked on Kingdom of Ruin, Jeren told me he didn’t want to be in a band; he’d just record the album and that was fair enough. As he was recording, it took on a new role and all of a sudden he was a member. It just kind of happened.

How long have you played Ibanez guitars?

The Ibanez Destroyer was the first real good guitar that I got. I was in ninth or tenth grade and my dad took me to a used music store. It was just sitting there for $300. It’s a $1400 or $1800 guitar. I bought it because I wanted to be James Hetfield, so I had to have an Explorer-style guitar. That seemed like the best deal at the time. I had no idea what I was buying. I played with that a lot, and when I got into Dream Theater’s music, I continued using Ibanez guitars because John Petrucci was an Ibanez guy through the 1990s. I got the Japanese-made Prestige, the RG series. Those are great guitars as well. I use his Music Man, but I prefer the more neutral tone of the RG guitar. It has a better, more middle-of-the-road tone, whereas my Music Man is a little bassy. It has a very unique sound, and I think it’s easy to tell that this song was recorded with a Music Man and that song was recorded with an Ibanez. The more I played the Ibanez on this album, the more I liked it. It sound better on the clean tone, it has a little more grit, and I prefer it on the heavy parts because it has a better mid- and high-range bite. I haven’t modified the Music Man, but my six-string RG is a very special guitar. I didn’t use it on this album, but I used it a lot when we were playing live. It’s one of the Roland Ready guitars. It has a Roland digital pickup in it. I have a Seagull acoustic and it was an incredible find. It’s what we used on Acoustic Scars and Between The Madness. It’s one of the coolest guitars I have in my collection, because it has a little condenser mic inside the guitar that points at the strings and you have an additional output. We miked it and we sent a DI from that condenser mic. Sterling gravitated toward the DI pickup because it sounded so good, and we were able to get a really neat blend with all those things together.

What’s in store for 2014? Is there a tour planned?

We had our CD release show for family, friends and local fans, and we’re planning a CD release show in Chicago early in the year. Then we have Prog Power in Atlanta, opening for Pain of Salvation and Theocracy. That’s a pretty big show for us because it’s probably one of the biggest venues for progressive metal in the world. We are working on a tour and we’ll announce the details as we get a little closer. We’re working on that now.

Gear list courtesy of Clay Withrow

Guitars:

Ibanez 77 Destroyer - ash
Ibanez Prestige RG seven-string with maple/walnut neck, rosewood fretboard and basswood body
Seagull Performer CW Cedar with GT QII with rosewood bridge, maple neck and wild cherry back and sides

Amps:

Mesa Boogie Road King SII
Mesa Boogie Express 5:25
Road King 4x12 half-open slant

Pedals:

DMB Stellar Drive four-knob pedal
Ibanez Weeping Demon wah