It's basically the metal we wish would have happened after '86," says Tauntaun guitarist Ian O'Dougherty of his band's music. "After '86, metal went in crazy ways, everywhere, and we didn't like anywhere that it went. This is the record that we thought should have come then. If we were playing then, this is the record we would have made."
Tauntaun's self-titled debut could easily serve as the third element of an unholy trinity with Metallica's Master of Puppets and Slayer's Reign in Blood. With its relentless rhythm section, blistering lead lines and gruff, powerful vocals, it embodies an admirably straightforward approach to a genre that has become burdened with gimmicks and pushed to ridiculous extremes in recent times.
"That was one of our goals from the beginning: We wouldn't be influenced by anything post-'86," O'Dougherty says. "I think we kept that, with all early metal influences. There were several times when we had a part we took away because it was too modern-sounding. I actually wrote three songs for the project, and we didn't use any of them because they were all too modern-sounding. But we try to keep them all between '77 and '86. We really have no connection to the modern metal scene at all."
While the guys may have no connection to modern metal, they definitely have deep roots in the Denver scene: Frontman and guitarist Chris Fogal was the leader of the Gamits; O'Dougherty has worked with Ian Cooke, Voices Underwater and Uphollow, among others; drummer Dave Barker is a veteran of Pinhead Circus, Love Me Destroyer and Drag the River and is Rocky Votolato's touring drummer; and bassist Matty Clark was a member of Grace Like Gravity and the recently disbanded Sleeper Horse.
The members first came together in 2006, with a very different musical direction. "It was not metal. It was an extension of what the Gamits were going for, sort of," O'Dougherty remembers. "It was sort of a post-punk pop thing — I don't know what. It was okay. We had like five or six songs, and we practiced a lot in the summer of '06. It just didn't really go anywhere; it didn't really excite anyone. We just sort of stopped that."
Spurred by the sorry state of modern metal as they saw it, the four found inspiration buried deep in their collective adolescence. "That was the thing all four of us had in common between us — listening to metal as our first genre, when we first started listening to music," O'Dougherty recalls. "We shouldn't be trying to play pop punk, we should be playing metal. And write it with pop structures, with pop ideas."
United by a shared love of classic metal, things just seemed to just fall into place for these seasoned players. "We never had to practice. We were all good by this point, you know? If we weren't by this point, we might as well stop, right?" O'Dougherty asks, laughing. "So we could all play, and we would send each other MP3s through e-mail, learn the song individually, get together and play it. That really made it inspiring. We wrote, like, eight songs right away; the first couple of weeks, we just wrote all these songs. And again, didn't really rehearse them so much, just got together and played them, because we knew what we wanted. We said it in the beginning, too, that this was the easiest it had ever been to be in a band. And we were good — right away, we could play. We didn't have to work at it."
A few months later, in February 2008, the group set about recording the album. From February through April, pieces were recorded in a variety of locations using Fogal's mobile recording rig. With a studio owner in the lineup, recording the album themselves was pretty much a no-brainer, and it followed easily from there that they would release the disc on Fogal's label, Black in Bluhm.
"We all grew up in the DIY, punk-rock kind of world, and that's what we did," O'Dougherty remembers. "We recorded our own albums and put out our own seven-inches, booked our own tours, silkscreened our own shirts and did everything ourselves. We wanted to keep up with that and do everything ourselves.
"After all those years of DIY, the part that remains is, it's easier to do it yourself," he continues. "Then you own your product, you make the money from it. If it's wrong, it's your fault. If it's right, it's because of you." This approach also allowed them to make some calls that wouldn't fly at even the most liberal of labels, like eschewing a CD release altogether, a fitting decision given the band's rejection of influences past 1986.
"Since we didn't like any of the new stuff that's happening with metal, it was nice to just ignore it," O'Dougherty proclaims. "That's sort of our aesthetic with the band, too, and why we're doing a record release instead of a CD release. Our music exists pre-CD. We're not releasing it on CD at all. (Digital fans, rest easy: The band is releasing the album as a download, a minor concession to the modern era.)
One of the final elements to fall into place was the name. And naturally, that ended up being the most difficult hurdle yet for the band's members. After adopting and discarding around fifteen names — including Defender, Descender, Throne, You Are Slaughtered and On High — they finally christened themselves Tauntaun, a name they share with the shaggy, bipedal camel-like mounts Han Solo and Luke Skywalker rode on the ice planet Hoth. O'Dougherty insists the connection to a galaxy far, far away is purely coincidental.
"There's no reason we settled on Tauntaun," he insists. "It isn't specifically the Star Wars reference. We all like Star Wars, but it's not meant to be a tribute to Star Wars — it has nothing to do with Star Wars, and none of the lyrics are about Star Wars. It was more just the sound of the words. It was easy to remember, and it sounded cool and was mysterious enough, because not everyone knows what it means."
It wasn't until months after the album was in the bag that Tauntaun played its first show. Even then, it looked for a while as if it might never happen because of the bandmembers' other commitments, musical and otherwise. "There were these times in September when we had mixed the album and we were really not even sure if we were ever going to play live," O'Dougherty notes. "We were really having trouble getting together and felt that we were out of practice. It actually took a little bit of a pep talk to get everybody together, like, 'Dude, we've been doing this band for years now. We did this album. We need to play at least a show.'"
The effort paid off. "I think we've just been excited over the response we've gotten from the crowds," he says. "We've played seven shows, which isn't that many at all, but they've all been great; every single one has been really, really good. It's been, for me, by far, the most successful band, this early on, that I've ever played in."
With an album in the can and shows under its belt, Tauntaun is beginning to feel more like a full-time gig for the members. O'Dougherty says there are plans for several small tours of the region in the near future, and he has his eye set on a Japanese tour sometime not too far in the future. And if none of that ever happens, at least getting there has been a great time.
"The whole reason for starting the band was just to play loud and fast and to have fun," he explains. "That was really the whole idea. Because I've been involved in so many slower, quieter projects, at least recently, it was really awesome to just turn up and play really loud. I bought a brand-new amp, a crazy hand-wired German amp that's really expensive and ridiculous, and it wasn't loud enough! I switched back to a Marshall.
"We had to be loud enough that I had to actually switch amps," O'Dougherty concludes. "We burned out an amp and had to send it back. We played the hi-dive, and Chris blew the diaphragm on his microphone, on a Shure 58. I've never seen that happen in fifteen years of shows. At that moment, we realized we were pretty good, that the metal was working."