Interview with Herd of Instinct
DPRP’s Roger Trenwith
Jason Spradlin, who describes himself far too modestly as “…the bloke who hits things and grunts”, is the drummer for mostly Arlington Texas based, and mostly instrumental collective Herd Of Instinct. Jason celebrates the release of the group’s fine work of alt-prog angular soundscapes Conjure (favourably reviewed at DPRP not so long ago) by rounding up the band and locking them in a cowshed somewhere near Arlington, where the unfailing gaze of the DPRP interview spotlight falls upon them, in the form of Roger Trenwith.
Settle down with a 4lb Buffalo Burger and fries and read on…
Roger: Tell us a bit about how the band came together, and your own musical backgrounds.
Jason Spradlin: Herd Of Instinct formed in 2007. After the breakup of our previous band, 99 Names Of God, Mark Cook and I decided to continue our music together. We knew another instrument was needed to fill out our sound, so we asked guitarist Mike Davison if he’d like to join us. We knew Mike from his previous band, Nervewerks. At that time we were calling ourselves Mirror People, and began writing and playing gigs. During all of this, our very own Mark Cook had a recording side project with Warr guitarist Dave Streett, which included Gayle Ellett from Djam Karet, and many others. Eventually, their side project merged with our band. After discovering hundreds of other bands with the name Mirror People, we changed our name to Herd of Instinct. As for my musical background, I’ve been playing drums since 1977 or 78. I can play ‘Mary Had A…’ on keyboards, and I know a couple of Tony Iommi guitar chords. Before Herd Of Instinct, and before 99 Names Of God, I was a member of the doom metal band, Last Chapter (I recorded one album with them). I am also a member of the psychedelic band Liquid Sound Company (we’ve recorded three albums).
Mark Cook: Yeah, Dave and I were working on a few pieces of music. After hearing the material Jason, Mike, and I were writing, Dave suggested combining the two projects. My musical background is experimental music. I’ve never played the blues or spent time learning how to play other people’s music. Jason and Mike are encyclopaedias when it comes to playing classic songs. It’s funny at rehearsal when they launch into Zeppelin or Sabbath to warm up… I’m always totally lost!
Mike Davison: My musical background stemmed from a lot of social anxiety as a young teen. I spent many years as a loner, locked in my room learning from all the great players of the 70’s and 80’s. I should mention that my dad had an acoustic that I first abused until I saved enough money to buy a Jimmy Page Les Paul lookalike out of the back of a Sears catalog. Anyways, since then my playing has improved a little and my social anxiety has improved a lot. I have 2 friends.
Roger: What are your musical influences? I’m sure I can hear John Martyn in A Sense of an Ending, for example.
Jason: I have a John Martyn album called ‘Solid Air‘ (on CD). Wow, you’re psychic, Roger!
Roger: No, I’m just a music nerd, Jason! And I know that JM album well, a veritable classic if I may say so.
Jason: My musical influences are rather broad, but mostly rock oriented. Currently, I really dig The Black Angels, and Gösta Berlings Saga. I still love hard rock and heavy metal – the music of my youth. I have an ongoing love for prog rock, but I also have a fondness for psych, blues, jazz, and old rock and roll. You could say that I’m obsessed with Black Sabbath, the Floyd, King Crimson, Zappa and the Mothers, Captain Beefheart, and early Residents.
Mark: I’m kind of a schizophrenic when it comes to influences. I love Crimson, early Genesis, Scott Walker, John Zorn, 60’s-70’s Ennio Morricone, Philip Glass, 70’s Miles Davis, Mick Karn, Derek Bailey, the last two Talk Talk albums, and lots of film scores. The music that currently excites me the most is being released by the Rune Grammofon label.
Mike: My musical influences have certainly changed quite a bit over the years. I’ve learned to like my veggies. When I started, it was all about Zeppelin, Hendrix, Floyd, Randy Roads, SRV, Metallica, etc. All that is still great, but man there was a lot of crap in the 80’s that I was listening to, and figuring out on guitar. Good times for sure, I wouldn’t change any of it. And for all of my friends…..OK, my 2 friends who still enjoy listening to the hair bands of the 80’s, I ask, “Do you still date high school chicks?” These days I’m musically influenced by a wide variety of music and artists. Townes Van Zandt to Porcupine Tree. Bright and funny to dark, cold, and mean. If it makes me feel good, scared or weird, I would call it an influence.
Roger: Gayle Ellett of Djam Karet fame, who was a guest on the first album is now a full time member of the group. What prompted that move?
Jason: Let’s just say that we made him an honorary member of the group for this album, and the door is always open for him. He lives in California. We live in Texas. None of us are millionaires or owns a private jet, so the luxury of playing together in a live setting is, for now, difficult. Gayle has a wicked sense of humor, and is an excellent musician. We love the man.
Gayle Ellett: I love the music that Mark, Mike and Jason make. They are all great musicians and players, so when they asked me to be a part of their group I was super-happy!! It’s an honor to play with such talented people. ALSO, if they had not asked me … I would have been forced to hunt them down and kill them!! That’s how strongly I feel about it!
Mike: It’s an honor to have Gayle in the Herd. He’s a seasoned veteran, a master of his craft. Music aside, he has helped us out a ton and musically it only makes the Herd better. I would still be saying this even if he hadn’t threatened to kill us.
Roger: The sound on Conjure is altogether more intricate, spacious and involving. It seems to be less “heavy” than the debut; is that a direct consequence of Gayle’s greater involvement?
Jason: Gayle’s contributions did influence the direction of a few songs. On other pieces, there was enough happening within the music that he added only minor touches here and there. We are careful in the music writing so as not to come off as a prog metal band, and we like to have just the right amount of virtuosity, but not to the degree of a wankfest, or a shredder-palooza.
Mark: Gayle’s presence allowed us to explore other possibilities. It’s rare to find such a supportive musician who always adds something that enhances the music.
Gayle: I tried to add the right “foil” to the guitar/string sounds of the other players. I tried hard to add in textures and balance to the music, and I think it came out really well.
Roger: It sure does! DPRP is a “prog” website, whatever that means, as anyone spending five minutes skim-reading our reviews will know that our scribblers have highly disparate tastes and each would probably describe the dreaded “p” word differently. What I mean to say is, are you prog, and do you care?
Jason: I would say that we are progressive, but in a more contemporary way. There are no walls of keyboards, no revealing sciences of God, and we don’t plan on mounting a ‘Herd Of Instinct ON ICE’ production, but it’s the prog rock community that has latched on to us, and I feel it’s this audience that will allow our music to grow.
Mike: If we must be called something, I don’t mind being called “Prog”. The important thing is that somebody is calling us something other than “Nerds!”
Mark: Both as a listener and player I like music that takes me on a journey. I think that is one of the aspects of classic progressive rock that people really enjoy. I recently watched an interview with Buzz Osborne, from the Melvins, where he said the only interesting music currently is based on hybrids. That statement resonated with me because that’s exactly how we approach the band. We’re a hybrid of very different influences and definitely not centered around a specific genre or approach to making music.
Gayle: I believe that the goal is to make the best CD possible, regardless of style. Not in the same style as the musicians we look up to, but with the same amount of “vision” as the masters. And I think that when you make music with a truly unique vision, it often falls outside of specific genres.
Roger: The new album is a fine piece of work and a definite grower and feels like more of a group effort than the debut, as there are fewer guest musicians involved. Again was that a conscious decision or is it just how things evolved?
Jason: There was a conscious effort to bring the focus back to the core band, and to show that Herd Of Instinct is not a “project,” but a real band. I will say that, for me, Conjure was a difficult album to make, and there were times when the future of H.O.I. seemed uncertain. Life sometimes has a way of intruding and forcing one’s priorities away from making music. Every band has been there, I’m sure, and I’m glad that we pulled it all together in the end, and were able to make this album. It’s my favorite, so far.
Mark: The music was definitely more focused around a smaller number of players than the first CD, but at the same time we never tried to push it in a specific direction.
Roger: One of the few guests this time is Porcupine Tree’s Colin Edwin. How did you hook up with him?
Jason: I believe our association with Colin came from our friend and colleague, Dave Streett. Perhaps Mark has a better answer for this than I.
Mark: When we started recording I spoke with our friend, Dave Streett, who helped produce and write our debut CD, about adding a guest bass player on a couple of pieces. Colin Edwin was our first choice because Dave and I both love Colin’s fretless playing. We sent him an email about participating on the CD and he was interested after hearing some basic tracks. He did a brilliant job with his parts.
Roger: Tell us a bit about the songwriting process; are the songs pre-scored or do they arise from improvisations?
Jason: There are times when one of us will have a fully formed idea for a new song, but our music often materializes through improvisation. Someone will put an idea or riff on the table and then we expand upon that. For Conjure, Mark went on a writing spree that yielded much of the album’s material.
Mark: We keep all options open for developing the music. One piece might be composed around a specific keyboard sound or a drum loop. The next piece might be a tightly composed Warr guitar arrangement where all the parts are scored. We do set up conditions that will hopefully lead to something interesting. When Gayle visited Texas, we created the piece Vargtimmen by improvising through some very basic ideas for the sections of the song. Once we had the form of the piece mapped out we added additional sounds and layers to add texture and mood. Alice Krige Pt.1 was the result of inviting Joel Adair, a trumpet player, to improvise.
Roger: The track Brutality of Fact has an ascending sequence that sounds very Crimson-like. Artists are known for hiding little “tributes” in songs, particularly in the prog field; was this an example or purely coincidental?
Jason: Mark Cook’s musical vocabulary is very Fripponese, and this comes very naturally for him. I’m sure this was an actual coincidence. However, upon hearing this song for the first time, I got a big smile on my face and looked at Mark with a knowing nod of the head.
Roger: In my ‘umble opinion, lyrics are possibly the hardest thing to get right, particularly in a “prog” (sorry, that word again!) context. One of the highlights of the debut was the lone tune with lyrics, Blood Sky, which had a lovely vocal from Kris Swenson, and it worked a treat. Did you consider having a “song” on Conjure? Was there a specific reason for going the entirely instrumental route this time?
Mike: I think if the music and the musicianship is interesting enough, I wouldn’t even notice that there’s vocals or not. The average music listener needs that vocal line to grasp on to. For them it’s the melody, and the words are how a song makes sense. I think if we were catering towards the average music listener we would have to have a vocalist. As a band our instinct steers towards instrumental. It just kinda happens that way for us.
Jason: I might be the one who’s most vocal about keeping our music instrumental. It just seems to suit us. If we knew of a young Peter Hammill, or Bowie soundalike, I’d rethink my stance…but then we’d have to change our style. There was a song or two written and recorded for this album with vocals, but for some reason these were not used. In fact, there are about four songs that got chopped from the final cut of this album.
Gayle: I believe that music with lyrics is like a movie with narration. It makes the music way too obvious and literal, and lacking in subtlety. So I personally greatly prefer instrumental music.
Roger: Wow, that’s some statement, Gayle! We could mention Bob Dylan for starters, but keeping this within the realms of an alternative musical sphere, Scott Walker and Peter Hammill, to name two entirely different “oblique” lyricists might well disagree with you. And sometimes a literal lyric works in a way that adds to and even transcends the music; Indiscipline springs to mind. Sorry, but I couldn’t let that go!
Gayle: I feel that when you listen to music with lyrics you can usually tell what the song is about, what the subject is, and what the musician is trying to communicate to us. But with instrumental music the subject matter and intentions of the composer are always less clear. Is instrumental music restricted to just being “abstract” and incapable of representing the real world in which we live? I used to think this was true. But about a decade ago I realized that instrumental music can, at times, be a literal representation of our world. And one way is through the use of “theme and variation” as is used in Classical music and other styles such as Jazz. A crystal or snowflake is totally symmetrical, without variation, much like modern pop music. But when you look at a forest or a mountain range you see that they are asymmetrical images. They are not random, nor are they totally “ordered”, but instead they are images made up of theme (one oval leaf, a triangular mountain peak) and variations of these, that when combined … make up a complex image that is representational of the dynamic world in which we live. Make sense? Probably not. But that’s how I see it. And it is a quality that I often try to impart into my instrumental music.
Roger: A tradition is maintained from the debut album with some fine artwork on the cover, courtesy of Mark Cook. The design of the Conjure cover is linked to the title in that it is highly mysterious. However, what I want to know is where you got the idea for the “forest burning inside a head” of the debut album cover. Love it, by the way!
Mark: Thanks for the comments. The cover design of the first CD began with a few basic elements – the baby, the men with funny hats, and some photographs of a huge bonfire that I had taken. I experimented with different combinations of these components waiting for something to fall into place. The baby was initially to be used inside the cover, but when it was combined with the fire element everything came together to hopefully create a striking image that was open for interpretation.
Roger: I make reference in my review of Conjure to the treated photograph in the CD inlay possibly being The Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, as it reminded me of Zep’s Houses Of The Holy cover. Have I passed the geography test?
Mark: Nope, sorry! 🙂 The stones were actually photographed on a beach in South Texas where my wife and I were visiting.
Roger: Is there a prog community in Texas? From an outsider living in the UK, Texas seems an unlikely place for a progressive band to spring up. Visions of the “stage behind chicken wire” scene in The Blues Brothers come to mind! Are gigs hard to come by?
Jason: If there is a prog community in Texas, Herd Of Instinct have never been invited to any of its summit meetings or luncheons. There are prog rock bands here in Texas, but they’re scattered about. My favorite Texas proggies were The Underground Railroad. Two of its members are involved with Thinking Plague now. Gigs are not hard to come by (the tip-jar circuit is never ending), but the audience for our music is. I think the last time instrumental music was popular was during the surf rock craze, or when Booker T & The MGs released ‘Green Onions.’
Mike: There is a prog community here in Texas, but they only come out at night. All 4 of them showed up at one of our gigs.
Roger: With the boom in bedroom recording these days it must be difficult for even a band that produces such high quality music as Herd Of Instinct to get noticed above the vast sea of mediocrity. What are your views on illegal downloading? Does it help get you noticed, or would you have those indulging in it strung up?
Jason: I’m a little on the fence with downloading or file sharing. One thing that is perfectly clear, is that downloading hasn’t killed the music, but it has killed the industry. We have never earned a living making music, so we don’t know what it’s like to be a big group or artist that has been affected by downloading. There will never be a shortage of ‘bedroom’ geniuses that operate outside of the industry, who have found a way to prosper in this new age of technology. On the plus side of file sharing, just tonight… a friend and I listened to the lost Group 1850 album, Live On Tour 1976. Actual vinyl copies of this are so rare that they sell for hundreds of dollars to collectors. We were able to enjoy this album as a result of downloading.
Gayle: Personally I am totally against illegal downloading. It’s killing the music business. When the business of music is gone, then no musicians will invest their money in making albums. Then the only “music” you will have … is the junk you yourself make in GarageBand. Every person I’ve met who says to me that, yes, they do illegal downloads, but they then BUY the CD later … is a liar. As musicians, if we want to give our music away for free, that’s fine, but its OUR decision. Within a week of releasing a new CD, I see it listed on over 100 illegal download sites on the Internet. And that is a terrible situation. People who steal music are not our “customers” or fans, they’re criminals.
Roger: That debate is never-ending for sure, and there you have two sides of a many-sided coin. We’ll leave it at that! What’s next for Herd Of Instinct? Probably a daft question, but are we ever likely to see you in the UK?
Jason: Currently we are doing some intense woodshedding to get ready for playing live again. It’s been awhile since we’ve played shows. I’m very enthusiastic about hearing our music in a live setting again. As for gigs in the UK, that is a big question mark. A few festival shows would be nice for now, but it may take another album before we have the momentum to organize a small tour. We shall see, the future seems very bright at the moment.
Roger: I like to end these things with a bit of silliness, usually involving food. So, at the Restaurant At The End Of The George Bush Jnr’s Ranch do you order Indian, Chinese or Italian, or possibly a huge bucket of slop from a burger chain? If you pick the latter I’m not buying you lunch, or probably speaking to you ever again!
Jason: Indian…chicken vindaloo for me!
Mark: What, no Mediterranean or Thai option?! 🙂
Roger: Of course! Thai happens to be my favourite, actually.
Mike: I like tacos!
Gayle: Horse (I wish I lived in the UK). I have a sticker on my truck that says “Meat Is Yummy”.
Roger: All those horse stories are exaggerated, it’s all horse mythology…I’ll get me coat… Many thanks to the band for taking the time to answer questions they’ve no doubt been asked before, and probably in far better English. Best of luck for the future from all here at DPRP Towers.
Jason: It’s nice to be here in DPRP land. Thanks Roger, you’re a good man yerself.
Mark: Many thanks for the exposure and support!
Mike: Thanks Roger. Thank you for the support. Kind regards.
Herd Of Instinct are:
Jason Spradlin: drums and programming
Mark Cook: Warr guitar, ADG fretless bass, guitar, and programming
Mike Davison: guitar, 12-string acoustic, and guitar synth
Gayle Ellett: Moog, Mellotron, Hammond organ, Rhodes, and dilruba
Band website: http://herdofinstinct.wix.com/herdofinstinct