If you are a reader of this here blog, you will know what a huge fan I am of Jess and the Ancient Ones. They are without a doubt one of the most exciting bands I have heard in my life. When I heard them I was so intrigued and infatuated with everything about them. Their sound, lyrics, musical arrangements, everything about them connected with me on more levels than I ever knew possible.
Jess and the Ancient Ones is also a band that shrouds them in a bit of mystery. They do very little press in the form of interviews so the opportunity to speak with guitarist/songwriter Thomas Corpse was something I couldn’t pass up. This is a marathon interview but it was so much fun getting to know what makes him tick, what inspired Jess and the Ancient Ones, his other band the Exploding Eyes Orchestra and a new Jess and the Ancient Ones album due out this year. Thomas is a really intelligent and funny guy so this interview was a real treat. It’s a long one but a truly great one so kick back and enjoy this journey.
Thomas, it’s so nice to talk to you finally.
Thank you, Don. Same here. Same here. Yes, it’s nice to talk to you as well. I usually keep to myself and I must admit that I don’t like interviews that much but I’m doing nice with them now I must admit and it’s nice to talk.
What is it about interviews that you don’t really like?
I think it’s because a great deal of the interviews are usually done through an email and it’s always this list of questions that are all the same and, for me, it takes like 5 hours to type answers and it’s just, blah.
Jess and the Ancient Ones is a band that I have been obsessing about for years now. I’ve always wanted to ask you how this band was conceived and born.
Yes, of course. I think that I have to start a bit earlier. When I was younger until when I was about 28 years old when Jess and the Ancient Ones was founded I was always more into really, really hardcore stuff; black metal, death metal, thrash metal. I was always listening to Pestilence, Morbid Angel, Kreator, Sodom, and all this Norwegian black metal, everything. I also always had a soft spot for The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath. When I heard Roky Erikson for the first time maybe 10 years ago or so from a friend, that brought rock music back to my attention and I realized that this is how I like my rock; raw and really eerie lyrics. That got me into garage rock and from there I’ve been traveling back through the 60’s to Captain Beefheart, Jefferson Airplane, The Beatles, and everything. I got excited about rock music again and with guitar playing again. I’d been playing only death metal for so long that I was getting quite bored of it. I started to learn blues guitar and more traditional stuff like the stuff that you should maybe begin with.
You told me once that Jess and the Ancient Ones was the beginning of a healing process for you. Can you tell me a little more about that?
I went through a rebirth as a guitar player and at that moment Jess and the Ancient Ones was born as an idea. I wanted to play something not so heavy; something more rock, and something more personal lyrically. Something that I could write about how I feel and not just writing about tales of HP Lovecraft or making up horror stories. I have been suffering from low self esteem all of my life. My father died when I was young and I started gaining weight and I was a really big boy and I always felt bad about myself. These things made me want to write more personal stuff and make a good soundtrack to go along with it.
That is definitely something that I can relate to and something I still deal with in my adult life. Anxiety, low self esteem, they are all things that are so ingrained into our psyche but somehow come out through our art.
This is so true. I have always been so unsure of myself and I like to keep my distance. I’m not always happy with myself but when I found rock music and guitar playing I started processing all that shit from my past and kind of let it go and looked to the future instead of dwelling in the past all the time.
One of the things that drew me to JATAO in the first place was the lyrical content. I’m a lyricist so lyrics are very important to me. I was just so interested in the fact that there’s a bit of esoteric content in your lyrics. Is this something that you just dabble in or is it a serious belief system for you.
It’s a serious belief system for me. From my background, it comes from the more underground extreme and black metal that I used to play. When I was in that world, everything I was reading was more left hand path philosophy and these darker ideas of how things go and how things are and how things they have been. I don’t belong to a church. I divorced with the church when I was 18 years old. I don’t care for religions but I understand why people want to believe. I don’t think that I know better but for me this is the only way it’s going to be. I think the lyrical side of Jess and the Ancient Ones is kind of the mixture of the things that came from my old life, like the philosophical side. I have keen interest in the occult and I love reading this stuff. It has mixed in my mind though in a more hippie way. It’s kind of like a hippie state of Left Hand Path philosophy.
I think that’s a perfect description. It’s like you’ve managed to take these dark subjects and present them in a beautiful way. I’ll be honest. I have printed out the lyrics just to read them and it’s some of the best reading. With that being said, are you the primary writer and how does the creative process work within the band.
Oh wow, that is so great to hear. Tuomas (Karhunen; former guitarist) wrote a few songs on the first album and also on Castaneda he wrote “As to be With Him.” I love his lyrics. Tuomas writes beautifully but all the rest are from my pen. Nowadays I write all the lyrics and I also write all the music. We have this nice system. I have the song, I have the lyrics, and of course everybody can arrange their own parts and give ideas and so on. I just do the basics back home by myself and then I take it to the band and we start connecting the dots and trying out different melody lines. It really works out nice that way. You have to keep everybody satisfied in a band. It wouldn’t work that way if you told everyone what to play and not let anybody bring their own thing spices into it. I think the bass player knows best how to play the bass and the drummer knows best how to play the drums and so forth.
That’s how I do things in my band as well. I must imagine that much like it is for me, as the creator it’s more fulfilling to see my band mates so passionate about something that I’ve created and to see them put their own heart and ideas into it.
Yeah, it is the same with me. I notice sometimes when we practice. I just say, “Ok, here it is.” and I just step back and notice that the others will all take it on themselves and start trying all kinds of different things and great ideas just fly all around. Then you just pick the best pieces and try them out and at the end of the day we usually end up with a nice version of a song. It’s definitely the best way to work within a band. You need to have everybody doing some because soon you’ll be playing by yourself if you are the ultimate dictator and you don’t let anyone else give something to the song.
The first song I ever heard by Jess and the Ancient Ones was “Astral Sabbat.” That was the song that really pulled me in and I knew right away I was hearing something really special. What gave you the insight to release that song with hopes that it would hook people in?
Thanks, Don. I love all this really groovy, Halloween themed, 60’s monster-a-gogo stuff. It’s really simple and kind of like a children’s melody but combine it with a more surfy sound. I just thought that maybe people would enjoy it because it’s a simple, catchy rhythm. I thought people would enjoy it and it seemed to be the song that gave us leverage to get to the next level. The video for “Astral Sabbat” was seen by King Diamond so yeah, that song did a lot for us.
I also loved that this song perfectly mixed that 60’s garage psych rock sound with the structure of a metal song with all of the dynamic changes.
Yeah, that’s cool that you can hear the metal in the background of us because the song structures we used, definitely on the first album and on Astral Sabbath were like rock songs with a hint of psychedelia with song structures that are usually used in metal music.
Even songs like “Sulfur Giants” and “Ghost Riders” embody this kind of Iron Maiden influence in the way the songs are structured with those dynamic changes.
I love that you hear that. I have been a total nutcase for Iron Maiden throughout my life. Iron Maiden is the first band that ever gave me the inspiration to start playing guitar. Oh man. Somewhere In Time, “Wasted Years” was the first song I heard in ‘88 and since then I’ve seen Iron Maiden 12 times. Their twin harmonies were a big influence on “Sulfur Giants.”
Jess, the vocalist, has such a unique and distinct voice that I couldn’t imagine anyone else singing these songs. How did you two cross paths and did you know right away that she was “the one”?
Our drummer Yusuf I knew before this band and he was the guy I asked to come play drums with me. I wanted a rock drummer, not a metal drummer and I know Yusuf was playing surf rock and punk rock and rock so I knew that he would be a nice choice. I knew he knew more rock people as I know only the metal scene so I asked him if knew of a singer male or female. He said, “My girlfriend Jess is a pretty decent singer so maybe we can ask her.” I said, “Ok, bring her to the practice.” I heard Jess for the first time singing when we got together to practice for the first time. The minute Jess opened her mouth and started to sing the songs, I knew right away that this girl was really fucking good. What the hell [laughs]?
Do you remember what songs you played?
Oh, yes [laughs]. We did Roky Erickson “Stand By the Fire Demon” and we did “Devil’s Plaything” by Danzig [laughs].
Holy shit I would love to hear recordings of that.
[Laughs] I think we have a recording of that because we always record all of our practices to know how things sound. To this day, we record all of our practices because sometimes you have an idea that just passes quickly and you don’t remember it but if you have it recorded that’s really nice.
When Jess and the Ancient Ones started off you were a seven piece. Now you are a five piece. Is this a happy number for you or do you think you’ll expand the band again?
I think this is a very happy number for me. I just got the first mixed version from the album sessions we just did. It only has my guitar, drums, keys, bass, and vocals; no overdubs or no extra solo tracks. We recorded it live and it’s a mono mix and it sounded so good. I don’t miss another guitar to be honest. It sounds so full just as a five piece so I think this is a good number. At the beginning, when you have three guitar players, you are allowed to play a little sloppier because there are three guitars to make a lot of noise [laughs]. Nowadays I like it more because it gives us more space and room.
Does this transition make it harder to play some of the older songs?
Yeah, we have people asking us to play “Sulfur Giants” and I always say that someday we will bring it back into the set but first we will have to do some major arranging because now we only have one guitar and that song has twin harmonies all the way through the song. Maybe we have to have the keyboard player do the twin harmonies with some nice keyboard sounds. The old songs with the twin harmonies, of course it’s a shame that we don’t play them anymore. Right now we really play the more rocking songs like “Prayer for Death and Fire” which works really well with the one guitar. I think we tried out “Ghost Riders” with one guitar but I was missing the harmony too much that it just wouldn’t fly. We just haven’t had the time yet to really rearrange the songs because we’ve been doing shows and then writing the new stuff but I’m thinking that maybe in the winter I will try to arrange a couple of old songs to see what to do on the guitar so it doesn’t sound like it’s missing too much.
That also can be an exciting thing for you because it kind of allows you to go back and re-visit those songs and maybe find a new connection to them that you might not have had the first time because, like you said, you had two other guitar players where as now you have to into this on your own.
Oh, definitely. When I played our first show being the only guitar player, I was really nervous. If you fuck up, everybody so can hear it so you better do this right [laughs]. When I play live I play with a really heavy right hand and I always create some kind of background noise to fill the gaps when I play. I guess you can say that I play sloppy with a purpose, kind of like the Neil Young or Jimmy Page way of making some fret noise and scratch sounds. I like to fill it up a bit with this kind of chaotic rock but still being on spot with the rest of the players. I also love to improvise every night and play some riffs differently.
So why play this brand of occult rock as opposed to going the obvious and played out doom/Sabbath direction?
It was mainly because of my new found love for playing that kind of 60’s rock on the guitar. I didn’t want to play just power chords anymore. I was so bored because it seems that everyone is playing the same stuff over and over. It was like there was thousands of occult rock bands and everybody was sounding the same and doing this kind of Black Sabbath style riff and singing about 13 candles in the night yeah, yeah [laughs]. It just felt like too small of a corner to be in. I just wanted Jess and the Ancient Ones to go in a very different direction but still maintain the lyrical and ideology side of the band with a different, cleaner sound to get away from the metal side.
On the Second Psychedelic Coming album, the song “Goodbye to Virgin Grounds Forever” was so different from anything you had done yet it still maintained that Jess and the Ancient Ones sound. How did that song come about?
Well, we did that song in 2 or 3 takes but the making of that song; I sat many, many nights in my working room wanting to get something out of my head. It was an old memory that I revisited too often and tried to get it to paper but it had this way of haunting me. The lyrics came first and then the music followed. I think the version that is on the album is like the 10th incarnation of that song. It was a brutal song in the arranging sense. It took so long to get it to where it is now. I still remember after the record I was still thinking, “I should’ve done something different in there.” That was a hard song but I listened to it a couple of weeks ago and it doesn’t bother me anymore. This is how it should be. It was a hard song to make though. Many, many late nights spent thinking.
In addition to Jess and the Ancient Ones, you have another musical outlet in The Exploding Eyes Orchestra. At this point, EEO and JATAO are the same lineup. Are you going to merge the two or will they always be their own entities?
I think they will always remain separate entities. In fact, with EEO, I have some different ideas and we also have a different line up going so it can continue as its own entity when it continues. At the moment we have a couple of songs done with the new lineup and it’s kind of more like a shoe gaze kind of sound.
How did EEO come to be?
At the time JATAO had a break at the time to just recharge the batteries and we just didn’t have anything to do. Some of the members were up to playing some more so we had this EEO to fill that hole of one year’s rest for JATAO and we at the same time had new songs to play and learned new stuff about music and get some more experience playing different kinds of styles. That was like a collection of misfit songs I made on the acoustic guitar when my hand was broken. It was more like a singer/songwriter approach to the writing but then I took it to the rehearsal place and we just went crazy and did what we wanted to them. Some were more classic rock sounding and some were more garage rock stuff and really distorted but then there were also some ballads. There’s no theme to it at all.
So now you have EEO as an outlet for those songs that you may right in the future that you say, “This doesn’t feel like a JATAO song.”
Yeah, exactly. I have a certain vision for JATAO music and I instantly know if something won’t fit. Maybe it’ll be too folky or something. I love psychedelic folk but you have to keep in mind what you are doing. I don’t want to go to wild with it and have JATAO go into Black Metal [laughs]. I think we have found the sound of JATAO and we are exploring it to the fullest at the moment.
You mentioned new recording sessions earlier. You guys have been teasing the hell out of us on Instagram with all these clips of you guys working it out in the studio. What can you tell me about the new album?
We have 9 original songs and 2 cover songs. One of the covers is from a Finnish band called The Hurriganes. They were very popular here in Finland in late 70s and maybe early 80s. They were this trio that was kind of like noise rock. The other cover is from a band called The Honeycombs which was a 60s band and it’s a song called, “I Can’t Get Through to You.” That song represents one sound of music that I really, really love. The original songs, two of them are something like 6 or 7 minutes long but the rest are like 2 minutes and 3 minutes long.
Oh wow, that’s a huge change from what JATAO has done in the past.
Yeah, they’re pretty short and very straight to the point but we have spent so much time on them. It’s hard to make many short songs because you start to soon run out of ideas on how to arrange them. You have the verse and the chorus and you have to try and be inventive about how to make every song different from the other when it comes to the structure. That was a lot of work that we put in it. We wanted each song to not have the same structure as the song as the other so they are completely unique. Even though they are short, they were really demanding and it was surprisingly hard to make short songs. The sweet thing with the new material is that even though the songs are short, they weren’t forced to be short. They just came out that way.
I’m actually really looking forward to this because I love that we’re going to get to hear yet another facet of JATAO.
Exactly. I don’t want to be repeating ourselves all the time and put out the same album. We always want to move forward and try new things and continue to go forth. Of course there are bands like AC/DC who sound like they’ve been playing the same song for 30 years but with all respect, I love AC/DC. I don’t know. Maybe they enjoy it? I always wonder if they enjoy the music or do they enjoy the life that it brings them. Like, is the music more on the backside for them? I don’t know that I would be up for doing that for 30 years.
Did you go into this album with any extra tracks that didn’t make the album or did you just have the tracks that made the album?
For this album, we had 11 or 12 originals at one point but at the last minute we just deleted them because they just weren’t feeling quite right. One of the songs I had been struggling with for a whole year was called “The Horse” and I think we also played it many times live. We also had like 7 or 8 different versions of the “The Horse” and I think we played 4 different versions live. We had a surf rock version, a psychedelic version, a more garage rock version, and then we and an acoustic version, and then and I don’t know what the fuck version [laughs]. The lyrics were the only thing that ever stayed the same but we were always changing the arrangement and the tempo, the melodies, and it just never seemed to quite fit. It’s a shame because the album was named after that song and we’re not going to change the album name even though that song isn’t on the album [laughs]. It’s called The Horse & Other Weird Tales. This is the first time I’ve told it to anyone in the public.
Are there other tracks from previous sessions that have never made it to a record that maybe we’ll get to hear someday in one way or another?
Yes. I think we have like 10 – 15 JATAO songs that have never made it to the daylight and we were thinking about a year ago that we should start a kind of like 7” vinyl set which would have all of the B-Sides of JATAO and release them like 3 a year, each with maybe 3 or 4 songs on them. All these misfit songs that never made the albums. I don’t like to revisit old material and try to force them to be on a later album. I want an album to have all fresh songs on it. I don’t want to drag some old weight on my shoulders. It just doesn’t work that way for me. Maybe we will do that set someday but I don’t think it’ll happen this year.
I love that idea of putting out just a little at a time. It keeps us wanting more. Is this something that Svart Records (band’s label) would get behind?
We were thinking we would just release them as an ongoing set until there would be no more songs and then maybe release the final 7” with some sort of box which would fit all of the 7”s in it. I always liked bands that do that kind of small, collectable stuff. We also talked with the label and told them that we want it to be cheap for the fans so it wouldn’t be a fucking rip off set and maybe limited to like 200 or 300 copies. That’s another thing that I love about Svart Records. They understand that and they understand that it would mean a lot to our fans. We also know that only the fans would buy this kind of stuff.
I’ve heard a lot of musicians say that they don’t like to listen to music because they’re afraid it will cramp their creative style. You are obviously not one of these musicians.
I’m a huge music love and I can endlessly listen to music. I listen to all kinds of music. I work at a record store and I hear so much great soul music, funk, everything. Just beautiful music all around. I’m always listening with that kind of an ear that I always am picking up ideas and inspiration from all around. All the good stuff from all these different genres just sticks with me. Music inspires me a lot. I tell people all the time. Even if all you write is black metal music, I would say listen to the Beatles, listen to African Music, listen to everything and you will be surprised how much when you go back to writing your music, you will notice that you will do things differently after educating yourself in different areas. I’ve been writing death metal lately and its fun to see what some time in JATAO has done to my writing when I write metal. It’s brought so much more to the table than I could ever have dreamed when I was younger and not so open minded.
It’s so true. It’s like when I was younger, I remember feeling like you couldn’t do certain things if you were a metal band but after all these years of playing folk music, I can say that I’ve heard people do things with acoustic music heavier than Slayer and by that I mean with how much feel and intensity they play and write with.
Oh yeah. I’ve always said that there are some songs from Neil Young that can be more crushing than any Cannibal Corpse song. I don’t get it. We are all metalheads when we were younger because we were renegades and rebels and wanted to be outside of society but then we play this music which has the most rules you will ever find. In black metal, it’s so written what is black metal and if you don’t play that kind of black metal you will get a lot of shit and hate if you dare to call yourself black metal. I think black metal should be about freedom but yet there’s such a huge amount of chains on what it should be.
This must be why you enjoy JATAO so much because you don’t have any these rules or barriers to keep you boxed into one way of doing things.
Exactly. Everything Jess and the Ancient Ones is just good ol’ love. We spread the message of love even though we have the dark sounding themes. The origin of all of our lyrics is definitely love.
Finally, I have to ask, when is this album coming out because I’m growing more and more impatient.
[laughs] Oh no. Well, we’ll be releasing a 7” single before the release of the album which will have one track per side. Side A. will be an original and Side B. will be the Hurricane’s cover. The single may be out in a month or so and then the album should follow before Christmas because we are hitting the road in early December and we’re hoping the album will be out in late November.
And maybe we’ll get to see JATAO in the US again?
We really hope so. We’ve had many offers since the King Diamond tour but everything seems to always crash in some small detail or problem. Hopefully with the new album we’ll be over there again and our new promoter, Continental Concerts, have some plans for us so we’ll see. When we get there, we will meet up and have a few beers. I love stout and porter beers. Ooo, mama [laughs].
Thomas, I really enjoyed talking to you today. I’ve been looking forward to this for sometime and I hope it was worth your while.
Oh yes, very much and thank you, Don. This was very nice. People like you make it all worth the while because I always hoped that people out there would read the lyrics and think about them and maybe find something in them. It’s really nice to hear that and it warms my heart, Don. Talk to you soon, my friend.
For more on Jess and the Ancient Ones, head over to https://www.facebook.com/jessandtheancientones/