Doom Not to Repeat History
Samothrace Survive Drug Addiction and Lineup Changes to Keep Reinventing Themselves
It's late December, and we're at ex-Wormwood member Brandon Fitzsimons's home/recording studio, Airport Grocery, in Georgetown. Airliners inbound for Sea-Tac push through the thick, clammy overcast. Oxbow Park—the one with the giant cowboy hat and boots—sits dark and wet a few blocks away. It's raining and not very late on a Thursday night. Samothrace drummer Joe Axler and bassist Dylan Desmond are on the couch in the living room listening to the rough tracking of their recording sessions from Jack Endino's Soundhouse studio. Fitzsimons hovers over the mixing boards at the far end of the room, turning knobs as the tracks play through. Tweak by tweak, the sounds pouring out of the monitors grow fuller and the relationship between them more balanced. Everyone aside from Fitzsimons is on a smartphone or computer. Desmond is busy searching for contacts and making phone calls, putting together shows for Highline, the vegan/metal joint above the sex shop on Broadway. Axler is searching for videos by entering various animal names along with the phrase "yells like a man." A zebra yells like a man. Several goats yell like men. Everyone laughs. But when Fitzsimons finally finds a stopping point and asks their thoughts on the mix, Axler and Desmond both snap to attention with specific suggestions.
The story of how Samothrace got here is a somewhat convoluted one. Sometime after releasing 2008's Life's Trade, the doom/sludge metal band's rightly venerated debut album, original drummer Joe Noel left for Chicago, while Desmond, frontman Bryan Spinks, and rhythm guitarist Daniel Nokes moved to Seattle, where Axler joined them on drums.
"I'd been wanting to get out of Oklahoma all of my life, and I'd made it just five hours north to Kansas," says Spinks, who's currently splitting his time between Pasadena, where his fiancée lives, Oklahoma, where he's back working on a business venture, and Seattle, where his band resides. "We just followed suit with that exodus of people going from Kansas to Seattle—it's been going on for years, for whatever reason—it started with the Wormwood kids."
But after a while here, things got dark. "Basically, we all got in a super bad way," says Spinks of he and Joe. "Drugs just pretty much took over, took precedence over doing anything musically—anything we had to do outside of just surviving went by the wayside. It came to a head when Joe went off to get some help. I was like, 'I can't keep doing this shit.' So I went off to get help, too. In the end, everybody took care of themselves." But somewhere in the thick of it all, Nokes and the band parted ways, and "we had to decide if we were gonna keep going or not," says Spinks. That was 2010.
Fast-forward to April of this year. Spinks is in town for a few weeks, and they've got shows booked in Seattle. By now, the record is mastered and going off to the press in a few weeks, due for a late-summer release. We all plan to meet up at a coffee shop before a practice so I can sit in. After they arrive 25 minutes late, we head over to their space. Desmond and Renata Castagna—the band's original guitarist, who has rejoined in place of the departed Nokes—are not there yet. We wait a while longer and decide to head back across the street to Axler's apartment to listen to the mastered record, where Desmond eventually joins us.
Perhaps due in part to kicking the heavy stuff, Axler now shatters the stereotype of the lazy, flaky drummer. As we listen to Reverence to Stone, the two-song, 35-minute follow-up to Trade, Axler barely stops to comment as he constantly texts away at his phone, coordinating details, sorting shows, wrangling press and tour logistics for any of his three bands—the ultimate high-functioning band member. When we get back to the practice space, Castagna is still absent, and for some reason, I am reminded of the saying at the top of the music listings in the New Yorker: "Musicians and night-club proprietors live complicated lives. It's advisable to check in advance to confirm engagements."
Axler sits down at his kit and starts practicing beats with a drumstick in one hand, still furiously texting with the other. Castagna finally arrives a few minutes after that, and she brings with her an immediate air of pragmatism. Desmond and Spinks quickly man their guitars, and by the time the amps wind up into the towering crescendo on "When We Emerged," I can feel my brain rattle in my skull.
Compared to stoner-metal tendencies and the relatively unwavering pace of Trade, Stone is an impressively dynamic work that floats through spare, placid moments of solemn vexing only to ramp skyward into surging onslaughts of brutish guitar punctuated by crashing, shivering percussion, an evolution Spinks credits simply to entropy.
"I never liked the term 'prog' or 'prog rock,' but I like the term when it applies to a band that actually progresses when they write... That's what you do in a band. It's like when you're an old married couple and you're bored with your sex life: You have to try new stuff to jazz it up. It's the same with music. You can't just keep regurgitating the same shit."
Here's to never repeating the past—in life or in art.
This article has been updated since its original publication.