Dark Castle's Stevie Floyd on the genius of Death, her band's artwork and Woven Hand

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Dark Castle (due tonight at the Larimer Lounge, with Yob and Clinging to the Trees of a Forest Fire) from St. Augustine, Florida, is often lumped in with doom or death metal -- or whatever heavy music seems to be at least a few steps removed from mainstream metal. But the eclectic blend of sounds and influences heard in Dark Castle's songwriting ensures that it will never quite be pigeonholed by an even passably discerning listener. The band's 2009 album Spirited Migration, especially when witnessed live, often sounds like incredibly dark space rock, with a raw energy that much of that music never really achieves.

The group's latest effort, Surrender to All Life Beyond Form, is a leap forward, with the non-Western and electronic elements of the duo's music fully integrated in ways that expand the palette of what a band of its ilk can do and still be accepted by metal fans. We recently spoke with the gregarious and insightful Stevie Floyd, Dark Castle's guitarist and singer, before she left on the latest tour, and discussed the influence of Death, Woven Hand and the songwriting process of the new record.

Westword: You recorded Spirited Migration with Phillip Cope of Kylesa. How did you meet him, and how did you come to record with him?

Stevie Floyd: He just approached us and said, "I really want to work with and record you guys." Kylesa lived a couple of hours away -- them, Baroness and Mastodon. They played a couple of house shows with my old band. I sorta knew them from that, and he asked if he could record our next album. He has a really good grasp on getting the vibe of a live and raw recording.

He hears a lot of things a lot of people don't hear. There were moments when we were struggling, and he'd come in and say things like, "What is this song about? Tell me where this comes from. Go to that place, and don't even worry about what you're playing." We'd play it again, and it would turn out awesome. He has a way of pulling that out of you.

In a number of interviews you often cite the band Death. How did you find out about them to begin with, and if someone wanted to explore that band's music, where would you tell them to start?

Not only are they my all-time favorite death-metal band, but the reason they're so special is because when I was a kid, I lived in kind of a crappy, poor neighborhood, and I didn't have a lot of access to metal and stuff like that. So I used to ride my bike a couple of miles to this record store and buy shit that looked cool, you know? If the album cover pulled me -- and that was one of them -- I'd go home and listen to it. There wasn't the Internet then, obviously, so I tried to keep researching how I could. The reason I liked them so much was because every album is of the time.

Leprosy is super death-metal and old-school-sounding. I like Human because it has them branching into being a little more forward-thinking. And then I like the albums after Human a lot. A lot of people that are a little older than me who grew up on Death are like, "No, it's all about the old albums." But once they started having more exotic, crazy time signatures combined with the riffs and the composition of the albums and the songwriting techniques -- they were always ahead of their time, regardless of when the album came out. After Human, I'm really into Individual Thought Patterns, Symbolic and The Sound of Perseverance. I love all those albums. There's nothing like them, and no one's ever come close to doing anything like that.

As for where to start, I don't know, maybe get Symbolic, maybe Individual Thought Patterns and Human. Definitely get Leprosy. The stuff he did right before he died is really out there. Maybe just go buy all of them. [laughs] Chuck Schuldiner is a genius; it's everything. It's his songwriting, the way he writes riffs, his melodies, the way he leaves space vocals and where they fit in -- where the drums fit in. His lyrics and how he annunciates his lyrics. He's all-time for me, for sure.

You did the artwork for Spirited Migration?

Yeah! I'm actually standing in front of it right now. It's a painting on a big piece of wood.

Was there a particular theme you were going for with that image?

All the albums sort of have a theme. The EP was sort of the flight of Pegasus, as in flight, and we were taking off, because it was our first EP. With that album, we were both searching for a lot of stuff, both individually and with our music. We were digging deep and trying to draw influences from all directions. That's why it's called Spirited Migration.

The girl covering the horse's eye, a cap on her head behind her -- it's symbolic. But it's also sort of whatever everyone wants to take from it. For me, the art and lyrics are deep, but in terms of whatever anyone else wants to take from it, I like to keep it simple and minimal so people can take what they want from it.

Did you do the artwork for Surrender to All Life Beyond Form as well?

Yeah. I was trying to go pretty far out with that. Art is so important to me with music. Music, obviously, you only hear it, but with the art and the lyrics, it is all-encompassed into this one piece of art. I wanted to do a painting for each song to resemble what that song was about and have a theme, and every time you turn the page, the lyrics go all around it -- especially on the vinyl.

I did eleven paintings on that album. So there's an album cover, a gatefold and I think a nine-page booklet. Then Orien did the layout, and he nailed it. I wanted it to look like an ancient book with the pages all weathered. Bleach stains. Then I wanted symbols and mandalas all burned into the pages. There are watermarks. I wanted it to look like an old Bible or something.

Did you start doing visual art before you started playing music?

Pretty much at the same time. My dad has been an artist since he was a kid. He does mixed media. He's an amazing photographer and an amazing painter, and he's a graphic designer now. Since we were little kids, he always had art stuff everywhere, so I immediately took to that. As I got older and started doing tatooing and art shows, it was all day, every day. Then my mom got me started doing piano lessons when I was four or five, and I started doing that seriously, with recitals and competitions. I was in choir and stuff. I'm from the South, so I was in church every Sunday. It's kind of funny, but I was actually in a touring choir.

Right when I started finding out about metal and punk and stuff, around twelve years old, I got a guitar and didn't want to play piano anymore. My best friend, Christina, and I started playing, and her parents had old Spanish guitars lying around, and we'd mess around on them and go to the store and buy guitar magazines and try to learn the tablature. There wasn't Internet then, so that was all we could find. It'd be like Pantera, Metallica and Megadeth and stuff like that. Shortly after that, a lot of grunge was going on, like Nirvana, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, who I still listen to.

For the website Jersey Boot, you listed bands you were listening to, and you included Woven Hand. How did you hear about that band, and what is it about them that you find interesting?

The first time I heard them, I didn't even have words. They're so heavy and so deep and honest. Doing all these things I've never heard anyone do, other than, maybe, Dead Can Dance, with all the eclectic instruments he plays. And when that guy sings, it's like hearing some old man from a long time ago, far, far away. It sucks you in right away. It's almost like God himself is singing to you. I've tried to see that band live many times, but every time they came through, I was gone, and I missed them by a day in Chicago and a day in Portland. The first person that got me into that band was Sanford Parker from Minsk.

Did you ever hear 16 Horsepower?

Yeah. I haven't heard them as much as I have Woven Hand, but I like 16 Horsepower a lot.

The song "Spirit Ritual" is reminiscent of Dead Can Dance, but spookier in some ways. What sort of things do you feel were artistic breakthrough moments on the new album?

Oh, man, like the whole album. We always let things flow naturally. We try not to force or push anything. We obviously have ideas that we connect on. Or we'll be really into industrial music for a couple of months and be like, "Oh, let's put some compressors on this." Or we'll be into Dead Can Dance and world music for a couple of months. We listen to traditional Japanese Kabuki and music from other parts of the world. So we have visions ahead of time, and we listen to a lot of things that aren't metal from which to draw an influence.

For some reason, me and Rob [Shaffer] have individual, different lives, but when we come together to write music, we're on the same page, and we have this weird connection. When we were first writing music, it was kind of all over the place. We'd been coming from death-metal bands where we were playing faster.

We just have sort of melded our styles over the years. I tend to write riffs in a weird scale, like Japanese or Hungarian, and Rob has been a huge influence on me that way, because he got me into a lot of different multicultural scales. I'll write riffs that are off time, but there's an underlying groove to them. And he'll do the same thing.

We don't just come together and say, "Let's write an album." We both write all the time. I have a notebook and a tab book with me all the time. Rob is always writing on guitar, because he's a guitarist as well as a drummer. When we bring it all together, it's kind of important to be that way. If you write an album in the same environment over the same period of time, when you're cramming it together in a month, while you're recording, it all has that one vibe.

But if you're writing all over the place over a year -- sometimes I'll be back stage writing or I'll be writing on a plane or I'll be sitting out in the grass writing, or I'll be in my bedroom -- it's all different times, and you're in different moods and different places.

So when you bring it together, it's got all these feelings and vibes and moments, and then you try to put it together into the composition of an album. It's crazy feeling. When I listen to that album, I don't even know what's going on. A lot of people say that, too, and I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing. [laughs] But I put my soul into it, and I think that's all you can do.

Someone asked me the other day, "What makes you different from all the other doom bands?" And I said, "Maybe because we're not just trying to play doom." I'm not just trying to play doom. I know we get thrown in that category a lot. I don't sit down and go, "I'm going to write a doom song."

Music doesn't come into my head that way. That question made me think about that, because we get called a "doom duo" all the time. That's cool and fine with me. Of course, when you put anything through a wall of vintage cabinets with distortion, it's going to sound a bit like metal. There's no way around that.

But I think the contrast between the two is cool. Writing things aren't metal. Rob did a lot of the writing on "Stare Into Absence," which I think may be my favorite song on the album, and it's written in a straight-up Japanese Kabuki style, and you would never know. It's got distortion and it's loud, and it's straight-up written as that, and there's nothing about that song that's metal at all.

"To Hide Is to Die" starts with almost motorik beats and synthesizer and then goes into really different territory, and you can't hear that and think, "This band is just metal."

I love that. I love not fitting into one thing. I love putting things on an album that make people feel uncomfortable. When we first finished that song, "To Hide Is to Die," I felt really uncomfortable. I felt really fuckin' good about it. Something about the way that song came together blew my mind. I really wanted something like that on the album, but it wasn't forced. Afterward, I was like, "I don't know, man..."

Because I was like that, that made me want to do it. I love putting things on an album or listening to albums that make me feel weird. "Wow, did they really just fuckin' do that?" That's what it's about to me -- having no boundaries and letting what happens happen. There's no way I couldn't put that on the album. It happened so beautifully.

Rob had this weird, off-time beat, and he kept doing it over and over, and to Sanford I said, "Dude, just do some Tangerine Dream weird synths, like micro-synth stuff over it." I was just going to use it as a transition song, and Sanford said, "No you need vocals on it." It was written in parables and rhymes. I read it out loud, and Sanford said it was perfect and to "do it like spoken word." Really? This is why Sanford is so rad. It's kind of his song, it's all of ours. I trust his recommendations, but I wanted him to be as much a part of the record as Rob and I, and I love the ideas he has.

I read somewhere that there was a spiritual aspect to your music on Spirited Migration. Did you have a unifying theme for the new album?

To me, I can only write lyrics and music from where I'm from in my true self. As I try to grow every day, I try to open my mind and extend my horizons and do things I haven't done before. Leap forward and not be afraid, and shed, little by little, this world from my true self and my spirit and become more in tune with that. Everyone has their own path and journey, and it comes out in my music.

For me, it has to be authentic and from my truest source; as far as the albums, lyrics, art and music, it has to be this flow of energy of my growth over the year I'm writing the album -- it has to come naturally. I feel that if I'm going to scream about something, it needs to be not too serious, but it needs to come from something that really means something to me.

I love playing live, and so does my drummer. But when I'm up there, I want to feel that shit so strongly. Obviously preaching about something but feeling so much. On your favorite albums you feel where that artist is coming from. Like Woven Hand -- you feel that guy coming through the speakers. I'm a spiritual person, for sure -- whatever that means. I feel we're all connected, and everyone is living and breathing, and every flower and tree is such a mystery, and there are no words to wrap around it.

So writing lyrics can be so hard. I thought about calling the album ten different things, and I was like, "I'm just going to say it how it is; I'm just trying to surrender to all life beyond form." And all the songs are about that. To some people it might be spiritual, and for others it's simple, cool stuff.

It's important to me to always be trying to move backwards and unlearn all the brainwashing instilled in our minds. Move forward and grow every day toward our true selves. Needing less and getting rid of things -- getting rid of all the baggage in your life. Not thinking about the past or yesterday, just the moment. That's all that life is to me. I'm human, and I'm in this body and material framework of a world, and there's nothing you can do about it. Music and art is what pulls you out of that.

Dark Castle, with Yob and Clinging to the Trees of a Forest Fire, 9 p.m. Tuesday, July 5, Larimer Lounge, $12, 303-291-1007, 21+

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