Intereview: CONAN’s Jon Davis… Posted: 16/10/2018 by Philip Morrissey
“This business is not one that you can totally rely on at times. But it is what I love. When you are out on stage in front of an audience, you want to keep that feeling with you.”
The words of Jon Davis from Liverpool based doom metal band, CONAN. As the sole remaining original member, he has seen the band from the very beginning, to the heights of today. I spoke with him recently and in the course of our conversation, we covered a variety of different topics such as their connection with the metal underground, their new album and the redemptive qualities of doom metal.
His band were, of course, on the back of a quick-stop visit to Ireland. They took in shows in Limerick, Cork and Galway in August. Earlier on in the year they had also rocked up in Dublin and Belfast. I started by asking him how these shows went for them. “Yeah it was great. The shows we played in May (Dublin and Belfast) were very enjoyable. We play there quite often so it was good to catch up with friends of ours from there. The crowds were fantastic, and everything was on the mark. Cork and Limerick were obviously more recently. Both places we have not been to in quite some time. I can’t remember the last time we were in Limerick, if ever. It was a few years since we played Cork, so it was fun to get back there as well. The crowd seemed to be really into it which helps”. The former show was put on to celebrate Bad Reputation’s tenth birthday in Dolan’s. Davis expressed his pleasure at playing such an event. “We were delighted to play for it. It was Big John who had invited us over to play at this event. He is obviously well known around with anyone involved in the Irish music scene. We got to play with the likes of Full of Hell and a couple of other bands”.
On the issue of independent promoters, I inquired as to their relationship with them. Many touring bands will issue stipulations as to who can support them and what particular genre. CONAN appear to be more hands off in that respect. “We would leave that up to the promoters. They normally know who is best to pair us up with. We would rather not butt into how they are running these kind of shows. If they asked for our opinion, we would obviously give them a listen, and let them know what we think. But we would let them decide on the most part”. Some cracking bands provided back-up on each night and Davis had particular praise for one band from Galway. “I really enjoyed TEN TON SLUG. They are a band who have played a couple of festivals over in the UK. They have a lot going on about them. We were very impressed by them”. That is not to cast scorn on other bands though, as he explained. “The problem is that we are generally away in the back-stage getting ourselves ready for the show. Often, we might only get snatches of particular bands, or not at all. I believe most of them went down quite well though”.
One of the main reasons they had visited Ireland, was the release of a new album. “Existential Void Guardian” has received considerable praise so far and positive reviews. Some pointing to a sense of focused aggression, whilst others being impressed by their incorporation of different textures and sounds. Most agreed that it was their shortest album to date. I checked to see if there was a particular reason for this.
“I think we were able to instill the ideas and concepts into the songs that we produced. There is certainly no lack of aggression in there. It is probably one of the heaviest albums we have made. Repeating ourselves, it not something that we wished to do. People maybe have a perceived idea what our albums are going to sound like and we sought to contest that”. And much of the songs seem to be related thematically. According to Davis, this was deliberate. “We had started off with a concept regarding a world where the feelings of absolute loss and despondency dwell. Guardians exist to keep people out or trapped within. Its about facing up to that challenge head on. Some of the songs reflect a sense of nihilism and conflict, whilst others are definitely more on the existential frame”.
One of the aspects which may have puzzled some upon listening to it, was the inclusion of four live tracks at the end. These had been recorded at the rebellion club in Manchester primarily for this purpose. He provided an insight into this. “It was essentially down to the record label. We had everything finished off and they asked us if we had anything else to make it longer than what it was. We didn’t want to go down the route of just throwing together some tracks just for the sake of it. That wasn’t something we felt comfortable with. If your heart is not in it, that comes out in the music. So, we decided to use a couple of tracks that we had recorded live”.
Part of the new sense of power and hostility is being attributed to the new man behind the sticks. Corkonian Johnny King is, of course, familiar to all Irish metal fans on these shores through his involvement with bands such as MALTHUSIAN, KRAWWL, DREAD SOVEREIGN, SODB and ALTAR OF PLAGUES. It was sharing a stage with the latter, that CONAN first crossed paths with him. They quickly built up a friendship. He was not in frame when the position became available though. Jon explained more, “Not that we didn’t want him. More that we didn’t expect him to be available or interested. He is a guy who could play with anyone. We got to talking and asked him to try out a few bits and pieces with us. He was well on board with it. Of course, he played to a tee”. The band was left with a decision to make as a result. “Do we go with what we have here or check out somebody else? We did not want to go down the route of having to advertise for a drummer because it can be such a difficult process and you don’t know who shows up. The connection was solid enough and felt so natural, so we went with it. He played on the album and it felt really good and has been on top form in the recent shows”.
Recent shows have seen the screening of ‘The Doom Documentary’, focused on the origins of the genre, and the trials and troubles of the British scene. A major part of this was speaking with CONAN. As a band who have been around since the mid-2000’s, they are perhaps now seen as a senior constituent. This might be hard to imagine for some. Including Davis. “Yeah it feels kind of weird alright! Ha Ha. But I suppose if you look at it, we have been on the go for over ten years now at this stage. And we have put a lot into this band. It took a lot of time and commitment, especially in the early days”. Those early days alluded to is usually where bands have that sense of devil may care and bravado. “When you are young, it is grand to travel across Europe in the back of a van and come home with hardly anything in your back pocket. But you do get to meet a lot of great people along the way. They might buy a few t-shirts, get drinks for you or allow you to sleep on their coach. You do it for the love and passion for the music”. But as much as they have gotten out of the scene, they have also put a lot back into it. “I have my own home studio, where bands record out of. We also ran our own independent label. It obviously released our own work at the time but also a number of other bands that we were associated with”.
And the band have certainly put in the hard yards over the years. Recording, touring and gigging is not an easy thing to constantly do year after year. This is especially true when combined with work and home life. Davis is committed to this life as it is his primary business concern. “This is my full-time occupation. I am a stay at home dad, so I do not have that 9-5 aspect to consider. My wife is working full-time, so I take care of the kids during the day. Some of the other members of the band have other commitments that they have to take care of, so it is a case of working around that. This business is not one that you can totally rely on at times. But it is what I love. I used to be involved in a normal job doing HR. I was good at it, and it provided well, but it was not what I really wanted to do”. But even at that, it can be a struggle. Not being around the children growing up. “The kids recognise when dad has to go to work. Not that it is easy not being around them when they are growing up. There are times that you can’t ever get back. I try to be around them as much as I can when I am at home”.
Perhaps the dedication to the touring life was proven clearly on the recent Irish sojourn. Many were puzzled when it was announced that NOMADIC RITUALS were to swap positions with CONAN. This was later revealed to be a health concern. Jon was experiencing severe pain as a result of a pulled hernia and needed the opportunity to rest on it. It is credit they did not cancel the dates. Jon explained more. “Yeah that was a complaint that I had. Not fun at all! Whatever way it happened, I am in the situation where I have this thing protruding out where my belly button is. It was lucky that we were able to swap with NOMADIC RITUALS, so we could perform first. It was primarily so I could be able to lie down and get some rest with it. That is all I can really do with it at the moment. I am booked in to get surgery on it as soon as I can”.
The state of UK doom metal is a topic heavily covered in the documentary. As a band who has played up and down the country, along with many up and coming outfits, they are able to administer an opinion regarding the health of the scene. “I do think it’s in pretty good condition at the moment. It is always in a state of flux as bands come and go. We do have a problem in terms of venues available as many of them have closed over the past couple of years. It forces bands and independent promoters to have to look elsewhere. It can’t be easy for them at times. Obviously, it is a tough slog as well when you are starting off. There are enough of really promising young bands knocking around though”.
Doom metal is one of those genres that is often stigmatised and critiqued. People from the outside tend to focus on the heavy crushing tone, and themes of annihilation and despair. Davis provides an example of a major band perceived guilty of this when in fact it is to the contrary. “You can look at a band such as CROWBAR and imagine that the band is covering very dark material and hence very downbeat. This is not the case at all. They are choosing to cover issues from their past and show how you can get through them. I can’t speak for the band themselves, but the lyrics seem to be about getting through personal strife, rather than dwelling in it”. It has provided a cathartic experience to many and he is perhaps one of those. He explains via an insight from his past. “When I was growing up, I would have been listening to a lot of rave and techno music. It was probably because a lot of the people I knew did the same. I did enjoy it, but I always found myself feeling isolated at house parties. Everyone would be living it large and I would be in the corner smoking dope. I was going through a mild period of depression at that point as well. Not to the point where I was destructive to myself or anything like that, but I definitely struggled with it for a while. I gradually begun to move away from that particular scene and into the music which I am involved with now”. Despite leaving all of that behind him, it still penetrates the music he makes. “Subconsciously, you might find aspects of it seeping out however. Reading into some of the song titles on the latest album, some of the aspects of recovery and all that make themselves known. It is still fairly ambiguous in a sense, but it perhaps seeps through without you being aware of it”.
Having been involved in smaller labels previously, and self-releasing, they are now signed to Napalm Records. They are associated with other bands of the doom/stoner genre such as KARMA TO BURN, MONSTER MAGNET, BRANT BJORK, MONKEY 3, CANDLEMASS and more. It is a relationship that has worked out well for both parties. Davis agrees, albeit leaving his options open, “On the whole, it has been pretty positive. We have the option of another album after this, before the deal is finished. After that, it remains to be seen. We might decide to go down to the independent route again. Having a record label behind you, certainly has its advantages. They are a label who have a lot of great bands on their roster. It certainly takes much of the pressure off in terms of organising stuff. Being related to a label, does raise the profile for a band, and give them that exposure they might not get generally. Obviously, there are some points that you might not agree on. That is only natural”.
Finally, we closed off the interview by asking him what the plans are for the band in the future. It seems they have much on their plate. Starting with taking control of their own bookings. “We have taken on the bookings and management of the band in-house and that gives us a lot of control over this side of affairs. Up until fairly recently, we outsourced all of that to someone that we know. I do think that my background in HR certainly assists in this regard. I was well used to negotiations and working out particular concerns and I do think I am able to bring this into the running of this”. They already have enough of booking scheduled for next year but unfortunately none that can be revealed so far. Whatever happens, I am sure they will maintain to deliver top quality music and powerful live shows. Long may it continue!
Interview by Philip Morrissey.