Witnesses is a doom band from New York City. The trio, featuring guitarist Matt Kozar, violinist Suvo Sur, and multi-instrumentalist Greg Schwan, has just released their new album titled ‘To Disappear and to Be Nothing.’
Schwan spoke for Prog Sphere about their work, the latest release, and more.
Define the mission of Witnesses.
“Mission” is an interesting word; I’ve never thought of art in those terms. To simplify the discussion, though, I just want to reach people. Every single person who comments that the music is beautiful or meaningful to them is a high for me. I think it’s bad faith to say that one does art for themself. At least in my case I know it’d be comically bad faith to say that. So I guess reaching people is the goal, and I derive particular satisfaction reaching people abroad. Breaking through cultural barriers with art reveals a kind of lingua franca, I guess. Surely the world could use more of that.
Tell me about the creative process that informed your recent album “To Disappear and to Be Nothing” and the themes it captures.
The creative process is a bit tough to explain. I write and arrange the songs, but allow the collaborators to express themselves with the constraint of making sure we do not stray too far from the original vision. As an example, I’d never imagine trying to write drum fills for Mark Zonder. That said, if a certain part is supposed to open up into a big groove, I do lay out that framework and will stick to it unless a compelling alternative reveals itself. Same goes for the other musicians, whether it be Matt’s additional guitar harmonies or Suvo’s violin lines. And this is especially the case for vocals. Telling Kody what to sing would have been a sure way to destroy these songs. But to be clear, the original progressions and arrangements are mine, and the goal is to have very strong collaborators pile on and complement this original vision.
Thematically, TDATBN focuses on a few key themes–namely, identity, loss, and history. I’ll have to leave it up to the listener from here, though.
What is the message you are trying to give with “To Disappear and to Be Nothing”?
I wouldn’t say there is a message. Something about an explicit message to me disempowers the listener; it potentially means they cannot interpret and think for themself. That said, the artist who developed our recent t-shirt design remarked that the despite the gloom, the album also had a lining of hope. I think that’s very fair. After all, we do end with a song that has “hold the light inside” in the title. But holding the light inside is in a “dark age”. I think there is a lot if ill in the world; I think there is a lot of very good reason to be pessimistic. But I wouldn’t completely eliminate hope. That’s about as close to a message as I can get, though.
How did you document the music while it was being formulated?
It depends on what you mean here. I certainly didn’t score the music; I don’t even know what chords and scales I am playing. I have no theory background to speak of, for better or for worse. So while I have some chords and such written down in tablature, that’s only because my memory is terrible. In terms of tracking the songs, that’s all just done in Logic on my end. I’m not entirely sure what DAWs everyone used, but since we were sharing WAV files it of course doesn’t matter.
Is the dynamic flow of the pieces carefully architected?
Yes. Dynamics are key–extremely key. I think I’ve actually gotten to an unhealthy place in terms of measuring DR. It’s just a number in the end, and while a very low DR has a clearly brickwalled sound, I don’t think it’s realistic to aim for Tchaikovsky-level dynamics. But music without dynamics at all I find very tiring. I’m a fan of a fair amount of extreme metal, but what I find as I get older is that after three songs I’m just exhausted. God forbid it’s a show with four extreme metal bands in a row and I’m standing in a big fire hazard mob of people. Anyway, the challenge is that we still have Blackstar amps cranking, so to some degree we’re boxed in. But we do have the arrangements at our disposal, and we certainly made an effort for a stark contrast between a quiet section immediately followed by something heavy. If those were the same volume it’d just be a travesty.
Describe the approach to recording the album.
The recording process for this album was in a sense very modern. I basically wrote the songs with scratch guitar and Toontrack–EZDrummer of course being for arrangement purposes, not to write specific fills or anything like that. We then hired Mark Zonder to track the drums out in his Hollywood studio. It’s a blur from there, but then in some order I can’t remember, Matt and I recorded live guitars, Suvo tracked his violin parts, and Kody Ternes tracked his vocals local in Tennessee. If it isn’t obvious, there was never any kind of band rehearsal or anything. I’ve never played a single riff off this album with anyone else.
In terms of mixing, I had intended to take it somewhere professional. But honestly, that got more complicated than I would have hoped, so I decided to just mix it myself. That brought with it some serious limitations; I had never mixed a band before, so just took a stab at it. The results obviously have a lot of room for improvement. But I think that’s OK; it’s out there, and the songs are I believe powerful.
How long “To Disappear and to Be Nothing” was in the making?
Too long. The songs were written in 2016 and I nearly gave up on them numerous times. The last I recall was over vocals. I just wasn’t having any luck finding the right singer for this music. I recall even deciding that the project was effectively on ice–and then I found Kody Ternes online I believe the following week. He wasn’t doing metal or anything remotely close. But it was clear his timbre was perfect. That saved the project, full stop. From there it was just a matter of time to get it all done. As an independent project we didn’t have any real time pressure.
Which bands or artists influenced your work on the release?
I try to shy away from being too forthright on this question as it relates to music, and will probably be a bit vague. But we certainly have an affinity for some of the earlier British doom acts. I’d prefer not to talk about specific bands and albums as that would reveal too much. But certainly if you want to learn about this era, just Googling “1990s British doom” will lead you down the path.
Otherwise, it’s really important to note that other bands/musicians are not the only influence. I’m a bit more forthcoming about this area, actually. From the category of film and television, most notable would be Twin Peaks and 2001: A Space Odyssey. And then from comics, The Sandman. Some of these references are very explicit, others less so. I hope listeners find them and discover the connections.
What is your view on technology in music?
With some caveats, I have zero concerns about technology. I am not a purist or luddite; I really just care about the outcome. I think things do get a tad questionable if you use technology for something you want to pull off live, and just end up embarrassing yourself. But if all you aim to do is a studio record, then I say game on. I truly do not care about using pitch and timing correction for a good result. If you use that to the point that thing sound inorganic and stale, well, that’s your own problem. But the technology is not bad in-itself.
I’d add that as a city dweller, technology has empowered me to a great deal. I’d love to fire up some ENGL amps in my home, but it’s not at all feasible. So Bias FX it is.
Do you see your music as serving a purpose beyond music?
I certainly don’t view our music as pure entertainment. That sets an extremely low bar and to me sounds like some kind of escapism. I think art can be entertaining, but the two are certainly not synonymous. I think one of the ultimate experiences one can have with music is for it to be something of a soundtrack in their journey. There are certain albums for me that mark specific periods in my life. That is something extremely unique to me and also very powerful. If we can earn that place in the experience of listeners, it’d be truly amazing. And I think that is more powerful than entertainment. Don’t get me wrong, I can reminisce about when I saw certain silly movies in the 1980s, etc. But when I think about the years during which I was discovering Dead Can Dance, that association is something far more meaningful and profound.
What are your plans for the future?
We’ll have a follow up single hopefully this Summer, which will be in the style of TDATBN. Otherwise, we have two cinematic albums in the works and will do another full-length in the style of TDATBN. After that, I would like to do a dark folk album. This will of course span a few years, which means things could change. But from this vantage point and with the information I have now, it’ll look something like I’ve described.