Album of the Week: Stream Red Fang’s Sludge-Pop Triumph ‘Whales and Leeches’
"It's pitch black and sharks were swimming all around us. Would you prefer seasickness or sharks?"
The way the members of Portland sludge-pop crew Red Fang tell it, their third album, Whales and Leeches, was a total rush job. “We had almost no songs when we started,” bassist-vocalist Aaron Beam explains about the two-month window before their recording session. “It was like frantic-panic songwriting sessions.” The result of this frenzy is a record that’s heavier than their usual brutal boogie: hyper-charged bulldozer riffs, lyrics about a doomed winter and death tolls, and bellowed vocals that recall burly forefathers like Mastodon and Baroness. With a couple of songs featuring guest appearances by Mike Sheidt of doomsters Yob and Pall Jankins of mopey indie rockers Black Heart Procession, the group has upped their own ante, whether they intended to or not.
“I didn’t really like that pressure, because you can’t turn on and off the creative juices,” guitarist David Sullivan says. “But I do think the pressure kind of made us get it done.”
Hear all of Whales and Leeches below, read Beam’s and Sullivan’s track-by-track breakdown, and pick up the album, out today on Relapse.
Aaron Beam, bass/vocals: It stands for “Dead of Endless Night,” which is a reference to that 30 Days of Night movie. I loved the concept of the movie, but when I saw it, I was bummed out. It was just all right. So I was like, I’ll write a song that will make up for it.” My side-project metal band up in Portland, Ancient Age, was doing that song for a while, and then I stole it back for Red Fang. My bandmates were like, “Aw, come on, dude!” But what are you going to do? I wrote it.
“Blood Like Cream”
David Sullivan, guitar: Oh yeah, the title is pretty gross. It sort of conjures up food and blood at the same time. My girlfriend’s like, “Oh my god, you’re going to call the song that? That’s disgusting.”
Beam: My wife especially hates it….It’s kind of about trying to balance the pressures of having a family, having a wife and a kid, and trying to get this record out. I guess the lyrics are just allegorical. With the actual line, “Blood like cream,” I was trying to evoke the imagery of a kid who was breastfeeding and the milk was all bloody. But it didn’t fit rhythmically, so I just thought “Blood Like Cream” was evocative enough and sounds disgusting.
Beam: When we were writing, we just had piles and piles of music, and we weren’t really sure how it was going to fit together. We had this insane whiteboard up on the wall that had 15 different categories, like “Just a Riff” or “Needs Some Work” or “All Done But the Vocals.” “No Hope” is two song ideas fused together… We had a discussion like, “One good song is better than two mediocre songs. So don’t worry about the quantity right now, worry about the quality.”
“Crows in Swine”
Sullivan: Yeah, it’s another one with a title that sort of suggests food. We always joke that it’s a turducken. I don’t know where it came from.
Beam: Yes, it sounds like a disgusting turducken. I guess people “eat crow,” but that’s metaphorical, right? So maybe it’s a metaphorical crow inside of a real pig. I think it was originally called “Crows and Swine,” and we thought that “Crows in Swine” would sound weird enough that people would be like, “What the hell does that mean?” And we wouldn’t be able to answer them.
“Voices of the Dead”
Sullivan: The working title of that one was just “Banger.” That riff harkens back to a riff from a band I was in before Red Fang called Shiny Beast, back in, like, 1992. We were like, “Man, I really like that riff, I wish we could just rip that off. Well… let’s just change it up some.” So let’s call it an homage to an old Shiny Beast song.
Beam: At first we were like, “We’re just stealing from ourselves,” but what are you gonna do? Maybe we could start making money by suing ourselves.
“Behind the Light”
Beam: That one has a riff in it that we have been trying to put into a song for years and years. It was actually in “Blood Like Cream” for a while, and then we split those two apart. We also wrote the whole song “Into the Eye” [off 2011’s Murder the Mountains] around that riff and then we took that riff out of that song, too. So it’s this riff that just keeps generating new songs, but we could never figure out how to fit it into its own song. So we just forced it into this one with a crowbar.
Beam: That song features our good friend Mike Scheidt, who is in the best doom band in the world, Yob. We’ve been trying to collaborate with him for years, and finally all the stars aligned for this particular song.
Sullivan: He’s got an incredible range. He was like, “What if I did this a little bit higher?” And we’re like, “OK.” “Well what about a little higher?” And we’re like, “OK, if you can do it.” And of course he can do it.
Beam: We always have to have one slow, moody song on the record. It’s probably the scariest song on the record.
Sullivan: I remember when Bryan [Giles, guitar and vocals] first brought it into practice, and I was like, “Well this is kind of cool, but it’s kind of boring.” It seemed boring because I don’t sing and I’m sitting there hanging on this G chord. But now I really like it.
Beam: I think the function of songs like that, at least in a live setting, is to offer a little bit of a relief from the volume and speed. It’s not really fun to listen to. There are bands that I’ve seen that just play the same style song all night long, and after three or four songs, you’re like, “I can’t take it!”
Beam: It is the year a Bavarian beer-brewing law was passed. But that’s not where the title comes from.
Sullivan: When we were trying to work that out, John [Sherman] was having a little bit of trouble getting the drums right for it. He was trying to count it out, and he’s like, “There is something tricky here that’s tripping me up.” He figured it out and thinks the time signature is 15/16. So that’s where that title came from.
Beam: The lyrics are about when I went scuba diving with my wife at the Great Barrier Reef at night. She was seasick, so of course the relief for that is to get in the water. But it’s pitch black, and sharks were swimming all around us. So would you prefer seasickness or sharks? [Laughs] It was pretty awesome.
Sullivan: This is the one that, to me, sounds like Queens of the Stone Age the most. The working title for this was “Bryan’s a Queen.” And the “A” doesn’t mean, “Bryan is a queen”; it’s because most of the song was in the key of A, and it reminded me of Queens of the Stone Age.
“Every Little Twist”
Beam: You can hear the sound of a radio signal thing that was picked up by a satellite off of one of Saturn’s moons on this song. The mixing engineer found it online and was like, “Let’s put this on the album.”
Sullivan: Pall Jenkins from Black Heart Procession and Three Mile Pilot also sings on this song.
Beam: As I was cutting the vocals, I could tell it had to have a higher voice on it, and I knew my voice wasn’t going to work. I just heard Pall singing on it. Three Mile Pilot has this song, “Shang Vs. Hanger,” and that particular reedy tone to his voice is perfect on that song. He also brought a saw down and put some musical saw on there, too. It was perfect.