Formed nearly a decade ago in Austin, Texas, the Sword, with its sludgy guitar work and the fantastical themes of its lyrics, is often assigned the stoner rock designation, and understandably so. But while the band certainly bears the clear influence of bands like Black Sabbath, Sleep and Led Zeppelin, it has also developed into a solid hard rock band in its own right that merits consideration outside of some subgenre tag. On the outfit's latest record, Apocryphon, frontman J.D. Cronise displays a clever use of obscure language and a willingness to expose his personal experiences in the lyrics rather than relying on pure fiction. We recently spoke with Cronise about Led Zeppelin, misconceptions about people in metal bands and how his interest in the mystical stemmed from his desire to know the truth about the world beyond the official version.
See also: - Tuesday: the Sword at Bluebird Theater, 12/4/12 - J.D. Cronise of The Sword shares advice from Lars Ulrich of Metallica, 6/21/11 - Profile: This doom metal comes endorsed by Metallica, 4/24/08 - Review: The Sword at the Ogden Theatre, 10/06/10
Westword: Led Zeppelin is probably a band most people under a certain age has heard their whole lives. What is the significance of that band for you?
J.D. Cronise: They're arguably the greatest rock band of all time. They were the reason I started playing guitar. They're a weird band in that they were able to do what they did, sounding the way they did and being as kind of all over the place as they were. Sometimes it's not hard to believe those rumors of black magic and deals with the devil when it comes to them because there seems to be a kind of supernatural quality to their greatness.
Jimmy Page owned one of Aleister Crowley's houses for several years. So that helps to cement that image, too. How did you get started playing guitar?
As soon as I heard Led Zeppelin, I felt like that was something I had to do and never looked back. I believe I was thirteen. [I started on] an Ibanez RG-550 Road Flare Orange. I had friends I played with, but we weren't much of a band initially, and I took guitar lessons.
What took you to Austin fairly early on in your career as a musician from Richmond, Virginia?
Mainly the music scene, you could say. I was wanting to get out of Richmond. I don't know how it is now. I think it's maybe a little nicer, but when I lived there it had kind of had its heyday with punk bands in the '90s. After a while, that all kind of went away and then it became a kind of depressing place to live for a lot of people. Then me and a bunch of my friends, around the same time, made an exodus from Richmond.
What made that an attractive place to go to instead of some other bigger town with an established music scene like L.A. or New York?
L.A. and New York are nice places to visit but I don't think I would ever want to live in either of them. I'm not really a big city kind of dude. Richmond, Virginia was big enough for me. I actually don't live in Austin anymore because it got kind of too overpopulated for my comfort. At the time, in 1999, Austin was the ideal place to move. A lot of people still move there, and a lot more people are moving there now than were moving there then, but for as far as what I was looking for, in terms of a laid back music town, that's what it was then. It's still a music town, but it's just not so laid back anymore.
What was your first exposure to the work of George R. R. Martin? And what do you appreciate about his writing?
My first exposure was reading A Song of Ice and Fire. Me and some friends picked up on that series at around the second or third book and have been following it ever since. It's fantastic. It's sort of a soap opera for adults; a brutal, bloody page-turner. The whole world is well done: the houses and the names; everything fits and makes sense. A modern classic.
The first book, A Game of Thrones, has been turned into a TV series. Have you been able to catch that? What do you think of it?
Of course. It's great, and I think it's one of the best shows on TV.
You did an interview with Onion AV Club a few years ago where you talked a bit about Michael Jackson. What is it about his music that you connect with the most?
He's MJ, man, the King of Pop. It's funny how often that gets referenced. I don't know how many times I've been asked if Michael Jackson is an influence on us or something. No. I think I mentioned R. Kelly more times than Michael Jackson, but the Michael Jackson one gets brought up more. That just illustrates the point that as a band that we don't just listen to rock and metal. We have very diverse tastes in music. We actually, usually, don't listen to a lot of rock and metal collectively when we're riding in the van or anything like that.
A lot of people have an image in their mind of how a hard rock or heavy metal band behaves and acts and how they are as people and what they do in their spare time. Then it leads to these weird images and conceptions that people have, and then they treat you in a weird way because they think that you do these things that read about other people doing. We like to dispel that as much as possible and remind people that we're just regular dudes.
The age of superstar rock bands is kind of at an end, for the most part. We're just working guys that get out on the road and play shows. Rocking is our job, but it's not like we're on MTV or on the radio. It's not like the '80s or something. There is a minority of fans that see you that way from their little Internet bubble or whatever. In their world, you're enormous. That's great and flattering, but we like to remind people that we're just four musicians.
You worked with J. Robbins on your new record. Why did you want to work with him on Apocryphon?
We just thought he would do a good job. We heard he was cool to work with, and we liked the records that we had heard that he had done, so he seemed like a good choice. He just lets bands sound like themselves, but he knows how to make it sound like it's supposed to sound, for lack a better [way of putting that]. It's just a big, organic-sounding hard rock album. I don't think he approaches it from the perspective of what he wants it to sound like; he approaches it more from what it should sound like.
In an interview you did with Noise 11, you brought up something not many people do. You said something about how maybe on earlier records you shied away from using your own viewpoint and perspective in songwriting. Why do you think that is, and why do you feel it's easier to share your own perspective for your latest record?
I'm just older. At this point, honestly, I feel like I've gotten to the point where I can tell people what I think and not really give a shit about what they think about what I think. Whereas before, I was more hesitant to do that. When we were starting out, I wasn't looking to really ruffle anybody's feathers with my personal, social or political beliefs or anything like that, and didn't really want to make that part of our music. I still don't in any kind of blatant way. That's not really what it's about.
Much in the way a good science fiction story is entertaining and exciting and fuels your imagination, it will also have a theme or undercurrent, some sort of warning about the future, or a mirror to society, or something along those lines that makes you think on one level while entertaining you on another level.
For me that's a very delicate balance. If you're too heavy-handed with the message or the theme, it detracts from the entertainment, and that's something that I don't ever want our music to do. It's always about transporting people and providing a kind of musical escape. But like good science fiction: We want to have some kind of meat to it as well.
In that same Noise 11 interview you reference Gnosticism. What kindled your interest in mysticism, and did the knowledge of that specific kind of mysticism inform your songwriting? Perhaps it even suggested the title as the Gnostic gospels are also collectively called The Apocrypha. The title of your album being in the singular.
Yeah, a little bit here and there in the lyrics. Again, it was just something I came across in reading. I'm interested in a lot of things, but I am also interested in religion generally, and why it is the way it is, and how we've come to where we are. I just found the idea that what we know as Christianity is not necessarily the whole of what it was originally intended to be. It is what has become traditional through the years and the head of the church kind of decided what they wanted the church to be like and look like and how it got to the point where it's so polarizing.
You have some people who are crazy, religious fanatics, and you have, I see this a lot, people playing in a heavy metal band, being on tour and totally rejecting that, and being reactionary to it, and embracing all this Satanic imagery and things like that, whether they're serious about that or not. Just the reaction of, "Oh, these people that I think are ignorant or misguided believe this, so I'm going to believe the opposite." To me both sides are kind of missing the point a lot of the time.
I'm just a curious person and I want to know what's the real deal, what's the truth. And it can't be this cartoon-ish fairy tale that some people believe every word out of this book that was compiled centuries ago and so forth. It can't be their version. That can't be it. But it can't just be the exact opposite. You can't just say they're wrong because you don't like them and claim the opposite view, when neither side has any proof of any of their claims. That, to me, is where the interest in that came in, just trying to find out more and look deeper into things rather than just what has come to be the norm.
That connects in a way with the song on Apocryphon called "The Hidden Masters." Is that a reference in any way to Helena Blavatsky's ideas of theosophy as outlined in Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine?
It is a bit. It's the idea of these superior beings that taught humanity. That humanity has basically had contact with some sort of other life forms, or higher life forms or alien life forms or some sort of other beings that have kind of guided us and taught us some things along the way.
How did you get interested in that sort of thing?
I'm interested in esoteric topics like that. Originally I don't really recall. It's one of those things that kind of came up and I ended up looking into.
You also have a song called "Dying Earth" on the new album. Is that a nod to Jack Vance's The Dying Earth series?
Oh yeah. Absolutely. One hundred percent. Even the language of the lyrics is meant to kind of be an homage to his prose in those books.
What about his prose resonates for you?
The Dying Earth books you basically need a dictionary to get through a page, and you'll be using it at least three times. He uses the most kind of arcane, baroque, weird terms, or he'll just use some antiquated French term for some object that he could have just said "cup" or "chair," but instead, he chooses to call it this Fifteenth Century French word for chair, or something. It's kind of showing off his prose virtuosity in a way, and I'm a fan of clever use of language.
Have you read Gene Wolfe at all?
He does something similar in his writing, and the The Book of the New Sun series shows Jack Vance's artistic fingerprints of influence.
Yes. I believe he has said as much.
Why did you approach J.H. Williams III to do the cover art?
Just been a fan of his for a long time. He's an amazing artist in general. Even though he's known mostly for working in comics, his artwork really surpasses the normal level of comic book art. He's very talented.
Which of his comics do you read or had you read?
I read Batwoman, which he does now. His work on Promethea is more along the lines of what he brought to the artwork in terms of the kind of esoteric and metaphysical aspects, like using [Austin Osman Spare's] "the alphabet of desire" in the album artwork. And various kinds of magical symbols and things like that. We're very pleased he was willing to do it.
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