Interview: Mountain Caller

One of my top records last year was a concept album that (almost) contained no vocals and was arguably not even metal. Mountain Caller’s Chronicle I: The Truthseeker is a magical 40-minute journey through doomy post-rock soundscapes that arrived with little fanfare but left a huge impression on me and many others. July will see the band release Chronicle: Prologue, a 3-track EP covering the start of their protagonist’s story. Ahead of reviewing the EP, we caught up with drummer Max Maxwell to chat about how the band came together, where the concept and story came from, the band’s writing process and more.

A Certain Taste: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions. Can you kick us off by talking a bit about how you all met and came to form Mountain Caller?

Max, Mountain Caller: Thanks for talking to us! The band was formed when guitarist Claire tweeted that she wanted to form a heavy band based in London, and that was retweeted onto my timeline. I wouldn’t normally reply to that kind of thing, but looking at her profile showed she had an immaculate taste. Reflections Of A Floating World by Elder had just come out at that point, and I think that was a real touchstone record for both of us, so seeing that Claire was a fan as well gave me high hopes that we’d be on a similar wavelength.

Claire and El, our bassist, had known each other for many years as well, moving in similar musical and friendly circles. So we set a date to meet up in a rehearsal room, just to jam some covers and get to know each other. Mountain Caller was formed from us playing together and seeing how our personalities intertwined, as friends and musicians.

ACT: Do you all have a similar taste in music or does each member bring different influences to the table?

MC: There are definitely points of commonality; Cult Of Luna, Elder, Metallica. But we bring different things to the table, and I love that about us. El thinks very visually and makes quite a conscious effort to come up with ideas that are beautifully crafted, imaginative and interesting. She’s a huge Queen fan for those reasons, as well as their ambition and grandeur. Claire loves stoner metal and grunge, as well as trippy psychedelic music, and I think that comes out in her riffs and her massive, expansive soundscapes. I love all those things too. I love exploring different kinds of music and seeing what I can take from them. Lately, it’s been country and bluegrass, but don’t expect any banjo on the next album.

I’m a very responsive and reflective player, coming from a jazz and blues background, and I love navigating the different musical elements we all bring and collating them so they’re cohesive. Our one rule in the band is that nothing is ‘too’ anything. We didn’t start out with a rigid genre in mind, so if one of us brings an idea in and says ‘is this too grungey?’ ‘is this too nu-metal?’ or ‘is this too ridiculous?’, the answer is always ‘No. Let’s try it’. So far, it’s tended to just sound like Mountain Caller when we play it together anyway.

ACT: Can you talk a bit about why you chose to go down the instrumental route?

MC: When we first formed, we did want to look for a singer. Anyone who’s tried to form a band will know how difficult that search can be, though. After a while of not finding anyone, we’d been writing music the three of us, and what we’d made started to become very personal to us; I don’t think it’d be quite Mountain Caller if any three of us was changed or removed. So we just kept continuing and writing as we were.

I think we’ve grown to love being instrumental anyway. It means all three of us have more room to take the musical centre stage at different points. It also makes our music much more open to interpretation. We don’t want to make our concepts too rigid or literal. We want the audience to be able to respond to the music in their own individual way. I think that’s easier without a vocalist spelling out the ideas verbally.

ACT: With each release giving us more background into the story you are telling, I am curious about the origins of this story and concept. Is it the brainchild of one member or has it come about as a collaborative effort?

MC: It’s come about very organically. I think it was El who originally started thinking of a story alongside the music. We’d written our first ever song, and she came to rehearsal one day and just said “I think this should be called Something Stirred From Underneath The Rubble”.

As mentioned, she’s a very visual person creatively, so she started to explain what she was seeing as we play the song. Claire and I loved it. That was the moment what we were writing became more than purely musical. As we’ve written more music, ideas, images and feelings have come with them, and we’ve tried not to question our instincts too much. The collaborative side of the band is one of the elements I love most.

We meet at key core ideas in the story and the music, but we all have our own views of those ideas and will all run with each other’s ideas in different ways. It’s a completely collaborative process, and it’s been nothing but rewarding and heart-warming since the beginning.

ACT: How many parts do you anticipate this story having, and will there be a Mountain Caller once the story is done?

MC: Good question! I really don’t know. I think the loose idea at the moment is for Chronicle to be a trilogy. But we delegate to what’s best for the story and the art as much as we can, so if it doesn’t end up suiting the structure of a trilogy we won’t restrict it to that. The whole thing is so through-composed with us just following our instincts, so it’s difficult to say where the story will go. Even if we diverge from the Protagonist (our main character in the story so far), there’s so much room to have fun with the universe and bring new elements in. I don’t think there’s any end in sight for the story or the band in the immediate future.

ACT: Did you always plan to release a prologue EP?

MC: No. The three songs on this EP were originally going to be on our first album Chronicle: The Truthseeker. But with those three songs the album would have been over an hour, and we thought that might have been overlong for an opening statement. Doom and stoner albums can often be overlong and repetitive, and that’s something we’re very keen to avoid.#

The EP transitions straight into the album and we’d definitely love people to sit and enjoy the two together as one piece. But they also work quite well separately. There’s a definite “beginning, middle and end” to the EP, starting with our introduction to the Protagonist, who then gets caught in a battle with a sea-beast on the second song, and then the aftermath and a bit of a cliff-hanger on the third track. So splitting the original collection of songs luckily suited the story too.

ACT: Your music is composed in a way that each instrument almost takes turns, there isn’t really a “lead” in terms of driving a whole song forwards. What does your writing process look like?

MC: We’ll all often write parts or come up with ideas separately, but leave them rough enough that there’s room for the other members to put their stamp. We try not to be too precious about our own ideas and try to listen to where each other want to take the song. It almost always ends up being better when the other two have had an input, I think.

We’re all so respectful and trusting of each other, and that means collaboration is quite easy when we’re writing. Having equality to who takes the musical lead is something we’re very conscious of. I love bands where each member contributes their distinct personality, and the combination of those personalities adds up to more than the sum of its parts. Converge is a great example of that, I think.

ACT: Tying the music to the story must be a challenge when there are no vocals or lyrics. Do you decide on a theme for a song and go from there or is it much more organic than that?

MC: Usually the music comes first, but the images and themes come very soon after. We write so instinctively that the music we write probably reflects the themes we’re going for subconsciously anyway. But then sometimes we’ll be sitting around at rehearsal just riffing story or concept ideas, having fun and making each other laugh, and that’ll end up giving us an idea for a new part of a song. Lots of our favourite ideas have come from us just goofing around and accidentally stumbling onto something we actually really like!

ACT: It’s been a bit of a mad time for everyone recently, no less folk trying to release new music! People have dealt differently with successive lockdowns, how has it impacted you as a band?

MC: I think we’ve all really missed playing together. Rehearsals and writing sessions are so soul-nourishing for all of us, and not having that regular outlet for a while was frustrating. We’ve been working hard on ideas separately, and musically I think we have some great ideas for future material, but we’ve all really missed playing as a band in person. It’s been strange not being able to tour the first album as well.

But in the scheme of things, we’ve been really lucky. We all have separate jobs, so our well-being doesn’t wholly depend on this band. It’s been much harder on bands who do it full time, or touring crews, or promoters. Having festivals and gigs cancelled and postponed is frustrating for us, but it’s much worse for the people who have had to make that difficult choice at the expense of their livelihood.

ACT: The artwork for both The Truthseeker and Prologue is beautiful. I know Hannah Templer (GLOW/Jem and The Holograms/Cosmoknights) worked on The Truthseeker, but I’m not sure if she’s done Prologue too. With an instrumental project, the artwork can become a very important part of absorbing the music and story. What does the process look like when working with an artist to get this just right?

MC: We’ll generally come up with an idea for a cover based on a visual from the story, and then send a detailed brief to the artist. El’s been the guiding force on that. She’s a really talented graphic designer herself, so she knows well what to look for in an artist and how to write a brief that’ll help them understand what we’re going for. Hannah wasn’t available in the timeframe for this EP, so we went with Taylor Rose for the current cover. We’re absolutely delighted with it (as we were with the art for The Truthseeker)!

Every time I look at the artwork I see details I didn’t before. It’s been such a joy to see artists’ interpretations of our concepts. Both Taylor and Hannah nailed what we asked for in the brief while still making the art distinctively them. And they were both really lovely to work with towards the finished product. I’d be very happy to work with them again, but it’d also be amazing to see how another artist builds on their work. We’ll see!

ACT: We’re tentatively approaching a time where we can come back out into the world and start seeing other people and, dare I say it, live music. How are plans coming together for Mountain Caller getting out there and playing these songs to crowds?

MC: Tentative, as you say, but we’re so eager to be playing live again. We’re playing the Saturday of Bloodstock this year, which is amazing. I’ve never been to Bloodstock, but I’ve heard it has one of the loveliest festival atmospheres ever so I can’t wait! The same goes for Damnation Festival. Both of those line-ups are mind-blowingly good.

We’ve got a UK tour with our pals in Pijn in November this year, which we’re really excited about. We had a gig at the Black Heart last month, and it was surreal but wonderful, everyone was just so excited to be seeing live music again. Fingers crossed all the above go ahead, but there are still so many unknowns. All the promoters and our booking agents are having to change tack day by day. Hopefully, things settle down for their sake and ours!

ACT: Thank you again for taking the time for this. Is there anything else you want to plug or shout out before we wrap up?

MC: We’ve just released the second single from Prologue, which is called Something Stirred From Underneath The Rubble. That was premiered recently on Heavy Blog Is Heavy, and the song’s now on streaming services. Go to our Linktree for links to our music, pre-orders for Prologue, and info on live dates.

The Truthseeker and Prologue were recorded by Joe Clayton at No Studio, who’s got some time available in July and August, so go to his website if you need a masterful and producer/engineer! Also head to the websites for the portfolios of Taylor Rose, and Hannah Templer, who did the art for Prologue and The Truthseeker respectively. Thanks so much for talking to us!

Chronicle: Prologue is out on July 9th on New Heavy Sounds.

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