In conversation: Tad Doyle on Brothers of the Sonic Cloth

Brothers of the Sonic Cloth

Tad Doyle circa 2016 is a man with a hectic schedule. He’s performing guitar and vocals with his band Brothers of the Sonic Cloth and he’s also the owner/manager of Witch Ape Studio in Seattle where he’s professionally engaged producing and engineering numerous bands. It sounds like this is his idea of personal bliss. “Man, it’s good. I love being busy and being a guy who has had jobs and worked for other people most of my life it’s refreshing being self-employed even though I’ve never worked as many hours, or so hard, for so little. But it’s great! And it’s rewarding too. It took me a while to put Tad behind me — no one wants to see something they put a lot of years and hard work into doing go way. But it was freeing for me to let go of that and to let go of the identity that I am Tad in Tad. Then I was able to be ‘the uncarved block’ as the Taoists say. I find a lot more peace and pleasure in life from being undefined and unnamed than I ever did being named.”

People forget that in 1989 Tad — the band — were Sub Pop’s second hottest property, right behind Mudhoney, and well in front of a certain unnamed trio of upstarts. In the heady years that followed Tad released album after awesome album, while wrestling with the … pleasures of moderate success: the ‘Pepsi’ lawsuit; the ‘8-Way Santa’ lawsuit; being dropped by Giant thanks to a poster of Bill Clinton smoking a joint; being dropped by EastWest/Elektra Records after the firing of the A&R rep who signed them. Tad himself kept on moving forward, forming Hog Molly around the turn of the millennium — but the making of today’s reinvigorated soul seems to have come only having chosen to quit.

“I did step away from music for quite a while after Hog Molly — we broke up in 2002 and right through 2006 I was out of it. During that period I met my wife Peggy, we began our relationship, I’m married now and love her dearly. It was good to get out and really evaluate what was important to me and my life, do some reflection on what was going on. Realizing my mortality — you can go through life and not realize you’re mortal until you’re a certain age, I think this happens to everybody. I don’t think what I went through was unique, I think it’s a natural progression. I needed to ask “Is music something really important to me?” And it turns out it was. I’m definitely more at ease with myself and others than I have been in the past. I’m certainly sixteen years old inside in the way I think sometimes but I’ve got a maturity now — so it’s a good melding of experience and raw power, it’s good. Good for me! I love to play, so my desire is just that the band enjoys playing with me — I don’t have anything else to prove. I’m completely comfortable doing what I’m doing and I’m happy if other people like it — and I’m OK with it if they don’t. it’s not going to change what I do, I’m doing this because it brings me joy and I find it challenging too.”

The band in question — with wife Peggy on bass and Dave French on drums — is Brothers of the Sonic Cloth. They reach U.K. shores this week for a gig at the Black Heart in London on Saturday April 2nd. Versions of the band existed from 2009 but it was only with Dave’s arrival that the lineup solidified. “He’s the guy who was behind the Anunnaki, he played everything — he’s a multi-instrumentalist like myself. We played a show with his band — we had a different drummer at the time — at an outside festival in Seattle. It was the first time I’d seen them and I was really impressed with their tone and the energy. He was playing bass, I loved what he was doing; we hit it off and became friends. As I got to know him more I realized he played drums and that’s how it came about. We were friends first, then musicians and bandmates later. It’s how it always starts.”

That social aspect to music seems crucial. “Certainly in the early days in Seattle, around Sub Pop, it was very close-knit and we did all go to shows together. I think the camaraderie is still there, but it’s broadened. One of the things that led to us putting out the album with Neurot Recordings (the label founded by members of Neurosis) was because Tad played with Neurosis 25-30 years ago. So long as you keep going on in years, your universe gets bigger — you have more friends throughout the planet. I feel that my personal relationships are as important as my musical relationships and a lot of them intermingle, I think that enhances each of them.” Throughout our conversation he refers regularly, and warmly, to numerous comrades and fellow travellers. “One other band I really love is Mike Scheidt’s band Yob. They write amazing music that hits me on an emotional as well as a physical level which is what I always look for. If I took anything from anyone it’d be the way they meander and play with a riff, turn it into variations and rhythmic motifs. Lumbar — that’s one of the things we did together (a one-off 2013 album, the First and Last Days of Unwelcome). I also recorded Mike’s solo acoustic record as well (note: ‘Stay Awake’, released on Thrill Jockey in 2012) — I love to work on anything with him.”

Having known of Tad Doyle as a vocalist, a guitarist, as drummer on Mark Lanegan’s Whisky for the Holy Ghost, I had to confess to not being aware of how deep his professional production expertise had become — that he’d been producing music for around a decade now. I asked him whether his work back in the Nineties with so many big-name producers — Butch Vig, Steve Albini, Jack Endino — influenced his current direction. “Most of the time when I was working with those guys I had no idea I’d be doing this all these years later, so now I wish I had paid more attention to what they were doing and asked more questions. But I was being a musician — ‘on the other side of the glass’ as I call it. I was concentrating on my crap — now I get to do both sides. It’s a fun place to be for me. Part of it was the necessity of being DIY, I come from that aesthetic, I always want to be able to do things myself without relying on paying others to do it. Also it became a matter of economy — anyone can put together a pretty darn good demo now in their own basement or home. That’s how it started and I wanted to take it as far as I could. I’m a professional and I have a passion for it — I love being part of the process not just of songwriting but right through into the production of it, taking different approaches to make things sound unique in a pleasing way. It’s what I’m really after. Usually the bands will contact me and I love a challenge so I haven’t really turned down much of anything yet. It’s starting to get known that I’m doing this, so it’s a really exciting time for me. I suppose there’ll come a time when I won’t work with somebody for some reason, but currently I like to look for those challenges and I don’t think there’s been anybody that I’ve recorded that I didn’t like. I always ask the bands to send me demos of their stuff so I can get a feel for what they’re doing; I ask them what their goals are and what it is they really want to do.”

The debut LP from Brothers of the Sonic Cloth benefited from Tad’s decade of production experience and the facilities now available to him at Witch Ape Studio. In case you haven’t heard the record, it’s immense: a precise combination of Sunn O))) ambience, doom metal expansiveness, structural twists and turns, laden throughout with killer riffs — it straight up rocks. Again, like Tad’s emotional journey during those four years away, the album comes from a deep place. “A guy said to me a long time ago ‘you have your full life to write your first record,’ and that’s true to an extent. I approached Brothers as being a completely new thing for me and just wanted to put out the best possible music with the very first record — you only have one chance to make a first impression. I’ll never take that long to record a record again — it was a long time, a decade, we didn’t finish up until 2015. A lot of it was doing demos that led up to the recording, finding what worked, discarding what I felt didn’t work or didn’t serve the music. All of the actual recording, the official recording, started 2012 maybe? Then continued on until just before we released it in February 2015. A lot of it had to do with Brothers starting as a solo project; it wasn’t until 2009 that we started playing as a band when I enlisted Peggy and we started playing with drummers. Over the span of the band we’ve had more drummers than Spinal Tap.”

Tad laughs easily throughout our conversation, he’s clearly relaxed talking about his current work and just very open about what has gone into making this particular record. “I think that Peggy, Dave and I all come from punk rock backgrounds; I love the chaos and looseness of punk rock, plus I’ve always admired the ferociousness of metal and the precision of it — those are the things I come back to in those two genres. A lot of things I’ve done have taken from that. I’m very picky about how I want things done, the nuances of how to play it, the tone — it took this amount of time to find people who were willing to support this particular vision. A lot of the stuff was recorded at Witch Ape Studio — we tracked some guitar and vocals here, a bit of bass — then we turned it over to Billy Anderson for the mixing because I love what he does with other bands. Most bands are a democracy at best but I think that I’ve always had a fully realized vision of what I want to do in all my bands, especially this one. So it’s not like we were creating altogether as a unit — which we’re going to start doing with our next record. This first one is very much a vision I had of how I wanted it to happen, I wanted it executed a certain way and that’s how it turned out.”

I point out that after the album’s centerpiece and highlight, ‘La Mano Poderosa’, the bonus tracks on the end of the CD felt like such a natural coda and comedown that I hadn’t realized they were ‘extras’. “That was the concern. I always looked at the album more like the old classical music masters, the way they put together music. There’d be an intro, then the meat of the subject, then in some cases it would taper off and dwindle — much like life; you’re born with a whimper and you go out with a whimper but there’s a lot of roaring in between.” The cover art featuring a massive fireball pressing down over a landscape of silhouetted trees, again seems to speak to these larger themes. “Definitely there was an intention to have the art work come together with the music — I felt it was important. The subject matter of a lot of the lyrics and the sound we’re playing with on this one meant I wanted it to be conveyed in a way that was immense, natural, the power of planetary events and how vast the universe is, elementals — fire, water, wind — we wanted those to be in the artwork. Like I say, I draw most of my inspiration from orchestral music — I don’t listen to a lot of what people call my contemporaries because…I don’t know, being in the studio a lot, recording a lot of other bands, I like to take a step away and listen to orchestral stuff — it’s where my head’s at in terms of listening to music.”

This unexpected detour brings surprising illumination to the album in question. “I take a lot of what I do from orchestral music, not necessarily classical, but orchestral — that’s a big influence to me. Currently I’ve been listening to — and this’ll sound funny — but Jerry Goldsmith’s original score for Planet of the Apes is amazing. I’m listening to Ennio Morricone, then there’s Edgar Varèse, a French-born composer from the late nineteenth century — I love what he does. He’s one of the first composers to use synthesizers in his music and I love that too. That’s a taste of what I’m into. Oh, a guy living with us now, in our time period — Peter Scartabello. He has a metal label he runs and he also does black metal stuff himself. I always stay in touch with what he’s doing.” This bleeds through into the LP very naturally. “I let the music lead me in the direction I need to go with things. If I was concerned with the attention span of the public I’d be writing two-to-three minute songs and certainly that isn’t the case here. The songs, within themselves, have a lot of movement and change that keeps someone with a short attention span busy. You could probably separate all the movements within each one of these songs out into their own songs so each one was shorter. I think it’s always been an organic process to me, I’ve never put a limitation on it. It’s always come down to the energy, the emotion, the feel of what I wanted the music to be — so then I’d say ‘well this works here, and this doesn’t work here — so let’s move this around, this needs to be shorter, this can be expanded.’ Plus there are variations on a theme that I like to do. That’s what I do in a nutshell.”

While still engaged in the touring and promotion of the current album, Tad already has a fair idea of the immediate future. “There are a few songs that’ll be on the next record that we’re always playing. And there are ideas floating around in my sketchpad and a lot of demo work we’ve already done — I’m always working on new stuff. But it’s a question of when, how and if it should be released to the universe — that’s always what it comes down to. Time for a breather after the tour — 2017 will be a good year to do the lion’s share of the work for the next record then a release in 2018. That’s the plan in my head at least. I’ve always said that in anything I work in, I reserve the right to completely change and go off in any direction. A lot of my essence and my heart is in heavier music so I don’t think that’s going to change much but we’re open to doing other things outside of where we’ve been in the past.”

Asking him to define what challenges and excites him about Brothers of Sonic Cloth brings forth another contemplative and self-knowing answer. “We always try to play above our means — in other words, we challenge ourselves to play the sound we hear in our heads and the same time we don’t do it to a point where it doesn’t sound natural. I think how I grow as a musician is playing above my skill level, the things I write are above my skill level. The hard thing for me is singing — it’s always been challenging to me, the human voice is tough to control and I have a profound respect for people who are gifted in that manner. There’s so much that can be done with the human voice that the possibilities are infinite. Getting the right vocal take is pretty much the only time it’s not fun for me — it’s always hard. And a lot of that might be because I’m hard on myself. I’m aware of my limitations as far as range, so I try to live in that range and be effective. A tuba is a tuba — it can’t play piccolo parts. A clarinet can’t play snare drum parts. It’s very specific and understanding where my voice lives has been really good for me to learn. I’ve never had any vocal training, I just pick up things. I don’t really do any singing as the definition goes — it’s not like there’s a vibrato there or glissandos up to a certain note or legato vocal textures and stuff. I have this huge voice I can do things with and finding how to use it has really been where it’s at for me — and I’m still learning.”

As a final question, I try to summarize and express how awesome it is to hear a man on fire, a man inspired — I’m left wondering what’s driving him now as an artist. The answer is to the point; “I think it’s your obligation to write a fresh record every time and not just rehash what you’ve done in the past — I think it’s real important. It’s an integrity thing and if you’re going to keep writing the same thing over and over — what’s the point?”

And that’s where we leave it; birth, death, celestial vastness, self-discovery, love, friendship. Tad Doyle’s life in 2016 is a place of spiritual and physical peace that allows him to stand firmly and joyously at the center of the Earth-shaking sonic storm Brothers of the Sonic Cloth unleash. “For me personally, I go to a place inside me that is outside of me — if that makes any sense — where I can focus wholly on what I’m doing; be in the moment of whatever’s happening musically. That’s one of the things that music has always brought to me is a oneness and a wholeness that comes over me and allows me to be present in a very specific ‘now’ moment that a lot of people are challenged by. Buddhists try to meditate to make it to that point — I guess music is my meditation.” Amen to that brother.

‘Brothers of the Sonic Cloth’ is out now on Neurot Recordings. The band commence their European tour on Saturday April 2nd in London.

About Nick Soulsby (46 Articles)
Nick is the author of 'I Found My Friends: the Oral History of Nirvana' (St Martins Griffin) and 'Cobain On Cobain: Interviews and Encounters' (Chicago Review Press - February 2016). He lives in Bristol.
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1 Comment on In conversation: Tad Doyle on Brothers of the Sonic Cloth

  1. Mitch Holmquist // March 29, 2016 at 8:26 pm //

    Tad is and always has been one hell of a performer, Brothers Of The Sonic Cloth are Flat out incredible ! the only band I have ever heard that can make the Melvins sound like the Beatles, I hope someday he will forgive me about the whole Melvan sale fiasco I Miss hanging out with him and Pegadeath. At any rate England is never going to be the same after this show !
    Peace Out

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