The insanely hard-working long distance band A CONSTANT KNOWLEDGE OF DEATH have now put out their third album this year – ‘Vol. III.c: Everything Was Possible And Nothing Was True‘.
Written by primary guitarist, engineer and producer Connor McCullough, we put some questions to them to find out what some of the inspiration and themes are behind the record, and where this unusual and unique band plans to take things next.
This is our third in a series of interviews with the band focusing on each of their albums so far. Part IV of the series will be coming up later in the year so look out for that.
Trigger Warnings: This interview contains references to sex abuse/assault/rape.
DID YOU WRITE ALL OF THE SONGS ON ‘VOL. III.C: EVERYTHING WAS POSSIBLE AND NOTHING WAS TRUE’?
Yes, although I was responsible for all the compositions and arrangements, some of the other members had some creative flexibility for their parts, and James was responsible for a lot of the lyrics and phrasing.
WHAT DOES THE TITLE OF THE RECORD MEAN TO YOU PERSONALLY?
The title was inspired by an article I came across when trying to write lyrics for the song “Untruths,” in which the author quotes Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. In short, she discusses how people can be easily manipulated by authoritarians through the combination of constant unbelievable falsehoods and instilling dependence on cynicism to cope with them; even when provided proof against what they say, people would not turn against their leaders, but instead say they had “known all along” and “admire their leaders for their tactical cleverness.” We see it every day when Donald Trump or any of his administration open their mouths. It’s an absolute farce. I highly recommend reading this piece – https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2019/01/the-absurdity-of-donald-trumps-lies/579622/
ASIDE FROM THE SONGWRITING, WHAT ROLE DID YOU HAVE IN THE INSTRUMENTATION AND PRODUCTION OF THE RECORD?
I’ve developed a pretty efficient workflow over the last couple years for demoing out songs I’m writing, and deciding how in-depth I want to flesh out every part. I programmed the drums for each song with MIDI samples, capturing the feel of all the beats as well as adding fills where I wanted them. Then I told Aaron part-by-part where I wanted him to follow what I’d demoed exactly and where he could have a little more creative freedom. It’s important to both get your vision across but also allow the musicians recording for you to be able to express themselves. For bass, I demoed and then tabbed everything out, but intentionally left it pretty bare bones and following the guitars closely so Mike could add his own touches.
Guitars were all me from start to finish. I demoed everything myself, then entirely re-recorded myself. Lyrics and vocals were a collaboration of me and James, with me directing conceptually but James having the final say on specific words and phrasing. Production and recording was led by me, with James engineering bass, vocals, and some of my extra parts, and Aaron engineering drums. I also mixed everything myself, with James and everyone else giving feedback.
DID YOU SING ON ANY OF THE TRACKS?
James and I split vocals about 70/30 respectively. Most of the songs I took a more backing role, with the exception of “Incineration” where I did the majority of the vocals and James performing backing. It’s definitely the most vocals I’ve contributed on a recording, and also the first time in years I’ve consistently done any vocals. I was a bit nervous about whether I could still pull it off, but it came together really naturally, almost more so than guitar tracking did.
HOW LONG DID IT TAKE YOU TO MAKE THIS PARTICULAR ALBUM FROM CREATION TO RELEASE?
In total, about 20 months. The first song I wrote was “Ash Winter” in December 2017. With the exception of the title track, the album was actually written chronologically from start to finish. “Incineration” came next in March 2018. All the parts came to me while I was traveling in Portugal; for some reason, I’m more naturally creative when I’m away from instruments and social media, just exploring. The first half of “Despoina” was also written around that time, and I almost ditched it but came back and finished it last October when I wrote “Drowning In A Burning Building” and “Untruths.” I completed demos last November and we started doing the final tracking shortly after, with Mike recording bass in December and Aaron recording drums in January. I took a break from this album for a few months while I was busy working on Vol. III.a and b, and in June I finally tracked all the real guitars, followed by vocals, interludes, and final mixing in July.
WHAT IS YOUR PERSONAL FAVOURITE SONG ON THE RECORD, IF YOU HAVE ONE, AND WHY?
Each song on this album stands above anything else I’ve ever written. It’s a close choice between “Incineration” and “Drowning In A Burning Building,” but I’d probably lean more towards the latter. It has a bit of every style I’ve played in the last 10 years. The composition and post rock feel in the beginning follow in the vein of “Hillsides of Stampeding Elk” from Vol. II: Organic Emotions, and the doominess is a nod to my other band, Vivid Illusion. The guitar solo was intentionally in the style of what James and I wrote for our first band, Demise of Itylus, back in 2010-11. It captures both the raw creativity and inspiration I had back in those days, along with the maturity and refinement I have writing now. I used to careen pretty recklessly between ideas, which I certainly still do on “Drowning,” but now all the parts in the song are based on a three note melodic motif, which brings it all together really well.
THIS PARTICULAR RECORD ALSO HAS AARON STECHAUNER ON DRUMS. HOW DID THAT COLLABORATION COME ABOUT? IS HE A FRIEND OF YOURS?
We’ve known Aaron for about ten years now, before he was in Abiotic and Rings of Saturn. He was the drummer for Demise of Itylus back when we were all in high school (James and Aaron met there). We were around 18 at the time, and he was 16, but he honestly had his shit more together then than we do now. It’s been wild watching him become one of the most talented and sought after drummers in metal, but also not surprising at all. I hit him up for this album because I knew he’d be able to pull off what we were going for better than anyone else I know. He has a talent for fitting the sound of whatever band he plays with. Fun fact: I lived in Miami in 2013 when he called me about joining Abiotic. He ended up sleeping in my closet for two months, playing for them while I was going to school.
PARTS OF THIS ALBUM DEFINITELY MOVE MORE INTO THE METAL SIDE OF THINGS, AND IT GETS PRETTY HEAVY AND BRUTAL AT TIMES. IS THAT BECAUSE IT’S MORE YOUR TYPE OF SONGWRITING AND THE NATURAL SOUND YOU GRAVITATE TO AS A WRITER, OR WAS IT A CONSCIOUS DECISION YOU MADE AS A GROUP TO PUT OUT A ‘HEAVIER’ RECORD?
I don’t have a specific genre of music I’m attached to writing. One of my other bands, Dreamwell, is a straight up post-hardcore screamo band, and I’ve dabbled in electronic and ambient production as well. I have a set musical language, and it translates pretty clearly into any genre. The blackened, sludgy style is something I wanted to explore in depth, and it worked well with the shorter 30 minute release format. Mike and I had just gone to Psycho Las Vegas right around the time I started writing, so I was vibing a lot of the bands that played that year, particularly stuff like Inter Arma and Sumac. That being said, heavier music is the style I’m most comfortable with writing.
WOULD YOU SAY IT WAS HEAVY IN TERMS OF SUBJECT MATTER TOO? TELL US ABOUT SOME OF THE THEMES AND TOPICS THAT HAVE INSPIRED THE LYRICS ON THIS ALBUM?
The subject matter itself is absolutely heavy, but we took a variety of approaches to it, from the very serious to the tongue in cheek.
“Ash Winter” is dedicated to the most pressing issue of our lifetime, climate change. We wanted this track to start off our album because it is drives home the severity of all our other political and social issues. The song itself is about how, despite being aware of the damage we are causing the planet, we are unable to relinquish ourselves from the overconsumption driven by capitalism, and instead make decisions to further our extinction rather than curbing our insatiable desires. Lyrically, we channeled the abstract vignette style of bands like Bosse-de-Nage, who we are all fans of, while musically I wanted to paint a picture of an earth that is actively on fire (as it truly is). I listened to an NPR story about one of the recent California wildfires and how it moved so fast that families were left to try to survive in their pools while everything burned around them. I wanted the song, particularly the slow bridge section, to capture this apocalyptic sense of urgency and desperation; to make what is often an abstract and distant problem into an imminent one.
The idea behind “Incineration” was to re-imagine the final scene of Quentin Taratino’s Inglorious Basterds but set in modern day America – just an over-the-top, unrealistic scenario where all the fascists you loathe the most are completely annihilated. All of them have gathered for a convention to protest the fact that the sun burns white people the worst, and is therefore racist. The speaker at said event, while initially expressing sympathy for their cause, reveals themself to be an antifascist and promptly murders them all in poetic fashion – flamethrowers for the white supremacists, packs of rabid dogs for the cops, etc. It’s fun.
I initially came up with the name “Despoina” because I wanted a cool name based in Greek mythology. Upon further reading of the Wikipedia page for the goddess Despoina, I found it to be a striking example of how normalized sexual assault has become in every aspect of our culture. Poseidon had an unrequited lust for Demeter, and to escape him she turned herself into a mare. He, in turn, transformed into a stallion and raped her, resulting in the birth Despoina; however, it was Demeter who was given the nickname of Erinys, meaning “raging,” for being upset at her own assault. The timing of this song coincided with two other disturbing events: the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, and the assault of one of my close friends by a family member. In regards to the former, while just one of many examples of straight white men being awarded for their atrocities, the confirmation of Kavanaugh strongly symbolized how there is no possible justice for victims of abuse when those in power are abusive themselves. As for the latter, one of the most striking parts of my friend’s response to her assault was she feared her abuser would harm others in retaliation, and that she would be at fault for not stopping him. In “Despoina,” vigilante murder of these abusers is not just revenge, but keeps the vulnerable members of society safe under a law enforcement system that has betrayed them.
“Drowning In A Burning Building” explores the question of why life expectancies have decreased in a country that prides itself as the most advanced. It captures the hopelessness that the vast majority of our society experiences, confronted both with an inability to achieve our dreams and escape financial ruin due to the systemic barriers of society, and the knowledge that we have no future due to impending climate catastrophe. While “Ash Winter” is a cathartic, angry fight against it, “Drowning” is the realization of just how fruitless that fight has already become.
The final song, “Untruths,” is a pretty satirical take on centralists and how yelling about politics doesn’t actually do anything beneficial for society. Having a moderate stance in today’s political climate is no longer merely insufficient, but actively enables the right to have a robust platform to push their incredibly perverted worldview. The only way to fight fascist extremism is with equal antifascist extremism, and taking a backseat lets the former gain far more ground than they ever should have been allowed. Sometime in the last couple decades, writing overtly political songs became uncool and cringey, replaced by disaffected nihilism. We wanted to pay tribute to bands like Dead Kennedys and Rage Against The Machine who had entire careers based around activism and political music, and lean into the apparent silliness of directly addressing current events within the format of a song.
YOUR PREVIOUS ALBUM WAS PRETTY SOCIAL AND POLITICAL TOO. IS IT SOMETHING THAT MEANS A LOT TO THE BAND IN GENERAL?
It’s never been the explicit mission statement of the band, but it has been a part of our ethos for a while now. While James and I both viewed the world from much more sheltered lenses five years ago, our first album, Vol. I: Enculturation, was an attempt to examine the toxicity of western capitalist culture. These criticisms have become much more pointed and pressing to us in recent years, and we’ve reached the point where these sorts of topics are what we are able to write about most convincingly and passionately.
DO YOU THINK IT’S IMPORTANT IN THIS DAY AND AGE FOR BANDS TO BE COMMENTING ON POLITICS?
It’s important that bands at least direct the effort they put into music towards positive change. I’m working on a much more personal and reflective album with Vivid Illusion right now. You can’t continually ignore your own wellbeing, and the purpose of that record, for me, is to look within and figure out what my path is meant to be. That being said, there is no place today for bands to completely separate themselves and their music from politics. If you have the privilege of a platform that allows you to reach thousands of people at once, it would be selfish and cowardly of you to not use that to promote antifascism, or to fight for the rights of the disenfranchised.
THE POLITICAL CLIMATE IS VERY FRACTURED AT THE MOMENT. HOW DO YOU FORESEE THINGS PLAYING OUT, AND IS YOUR ALBUM A FORESHADOWING OF THAT OR A CALL TO ARMS? ARE YOU INCITING REVOLUTION? 🙂
I wish it was a call to arms, and maybe there’s artists out there that still have that fire in them. When I look at how far along we are now, and the path we’re still on, it already feels too late. I can’t imagine a world where we collectively make serious progress to combat climate change, fascism, and capitalism; it would be too much of a shift from the feedback loops that are already engaged now. What this album really is meant to be is a catharsis for the victims of oppression and abuse. It creates a fantasy world where we can have our poetic justice against the most violent and destructive members of our society. Our trajectory only seems to be getting worse, but we hope to provide our listeners a temporary respite where they can imagine getting revenge upon their tormentors. We wanted to capture the helplessness of a generation that knows they have no future.
WHAT DO YOU THINK WE CAN BE DOING AS PEOPLE, AND AS ARTISTS, TO HELP MOVE OUR SOCIETY IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I have a lot of doubts about whether making music is the best thing I can do to move society in the right direction, or whether there are any musicians making a sizeable impact right now. We spent 80% of our time writing, recording, and mixing this year, while we spent a very small amount of time actually discussing lyrical concepts and promoting ourselves. I could’ve made such a larger impact dedicating that time to educating myself about social and political issues, or volunteering to actually help fight for the causes we discuss in our music. Part of me feels like this album is reconciling a hobby that is ultimately selfish and egotistical.
In general, people need to take to the streets and actually fight for their rights. The impact of protest and organization has had way better results than electoral politics, and this is true globally, not just nationally. All of us are forced to sell our labor to companies that ultimately further the destruction of the planet. However, there are ways to help curb this impact in your daily work life – fight for the right to unionize at your job, or to have clear communication of expectations between you and your boss. Things like that. Ultimately, degrowth is the only way we can curb the worst of climate change, and there are ways to covertly achieve this in each of our positions. People just need to collectively put in more effort to do so, ourselves included.
WE’VE DISCUSSED WITH OTHER MEMBERS OF ACKOD THE POTENTIAL DIFFICULTIES OF RUNNING A LONG DISTANCE BAND. WHEREABOUTS DO YOU LIVE IN RELATION TO THE OTHERS, AND HOW DO YOU MANAGE THE DISTANCE PERSONALLY?
I’ve lived in Massachusetts for the last 4 years, and have definitely been the most isolated member of the band until quite recently. I fell into the groove of working on things on my own and then sharing them with the rest of the band, to the point that it was difficult to shift to writing with other bands in person. Here’s the cool thing, though – James actually just moved out here in July, right in the middle of recording this album. Having been used to working alone, waiting for feedback, and then making changes, our cadence of working has accelerated to a dizzying pace. We managed to track all the vocals for this album and finish the mix in about two weeks, well ahead of the schedule we made. The one thing about mixing, however, is about 60% of the time is spent doing mindless editing where you really aren’t looking for feedback or help. I shifted my workflow to get most of that done when James wasn’t around, and then in the final stages of mixing, which are more subjective, work with him to make sure we’re happy with the end result.
HOW MANY BANDS DID YOU PLAY IN PREVIOUS TO ACKOD, AND WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THOSE PROJECTS AND THIS ONE?
Depending on how loosely you define a “band,” about 5 or 6, not counting the other two I’m in now. The most major was was Demise of Itylus, the band James, Aaron, and I were in from 2010 to 2012. While I have good memories and kept relationships with most of the people in other projects I’ve been in, the difference with this band is the degree to which we’ve actually followed through with everything we’ve done. I was apprehensive at the beginning of the year and am actually shocked that we’ve finished 3 of our 4 albums so far, and at the three shows we managed to play 2018, which required me to fly out to California and learn a set in three weeks. While other bands I’ve been in would’ve imploded under the pressure, we’ve somehow managed to pull it off every time.
WHEN YOU’RE NOT DOING ACKOD, WHAT OTHER HOBBIES AND INTERESTS DO YOU HAVE?
Having recorded and mixed three albums so far this year, it’s hard to remember! As I mentioned earlier I’m in two other bands, Vivid Illusion and Dreamwell. The latter is my only band where we actually live near each other, so we get to play shows fairly often. Other than that, I mostly enjoy cooking and eating. I’m a vegetarian that leans vegan, and I like coming up with clever ways of making comfort foods. I travel when I get the chance, and am actually heading to Spain quite shortly. New England is a pretty good place for snowboarding, too, so I try to get out a couple times a year, and I go hiking in the summer as well. Also, I adopted a sphynx cat in March of this year, so cat things have been a big part of my life.
AND FINALLY, WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO ACHIEVE WITH THIS ALBUM AND WITH ACKOD IN GENERAL?
We’re definitely feeling a hype with this album we haven’t before, and while it’s hard to say what will come of that, it will definitely be a new era for the band. Collectively, we’ve decided we wanted to continue writing in this direction with the heavy, sludgy, dissonant sound, but obviously it will take a different shape with everyone contributing. I want to continue evolving and continue exploring the same themes we have been. With James and I finally living together, I think that will give our writing a more organic quality. I would love to have some sort of following across the world and feel like we are getting our message out. At the same time, I’m not interested in the life of constant touring, or the distraction and stress that come with too much notoriety. My answer to this has been really all over the place. Honestly, I’d just love to have all our albums on vinyl.
‘Vol. III.c: Everything Was Possible And Nothing Was True‘ by A Constant Knowledge Of Death is out now: