Words by Andrew Lampela
It’s not often Ohio gets to chalk one up in the win column. These days, it tends to be a State-shaped punching bag due to a handful of truly shitty and evil politicians making a mockery of constitutional rights. 2019 gets at least one point, however, in the form of Lo Pan’s exquisite new album.
Subtle reflects the band’s surroundings in Columbus, a record that is very angry about the state of the world around us without ever resorting to simply being pissed. There is a sense of direction and hope to both the knotty post-rock heaviness of Scott Thompson, Jesse Bartz, and Chris Thompson’s intricate heaviness and the soaring vocals of Jeff Martin. Subtle is the sound of a band shoring up their strengths, simultaneously streamlining their sound while expanding their sonic palette in a major way, resulting in on of the best heavy rock records of the year.
Off Shelf: I have to say, this album is fantastic. I’m a little south of you in Athens, so I’m pretty familiar with you guys.
Jesse Bartz: I’m so sorry! [laughs] No, I get it. We’ve been down there a few times, and have definitely been covering the area for years now. Adventures around every corner. It’s definitely made us wiser for all the experience. Glad you’re digging it.
OS: Coming out of In Tensions, a record I’ve just absolutely crushed since it came out, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but you delivered. It still has all of the twists and turns in the riffs, but it really feels like you guys focused on making this probably the most straightforward rock record you’ve ever done.
JB: Yeah, that’s how I pitch it too. I don’t know how else to describe it other than rock and roll, four guys just hashing out some loud guitars and sweet melodies.
OS: That said, there are some great new shaddings on this record. “Sage” has an almost Fugazi-esque thing going on. “Ascension Days” is amazingly upbeat for such a crusher. The farthest stretch, though, and one of my favorite songs, has to be “Butcher’s Bill”. I did not see that one coming.
JB: That’s good, right? We want to keep people guessing and keep them interested. That all comes from us being very different personalities, and all having different influences. The cohesion centers on the rock format, but you can certainly hear the nuances of all the different influences. Fugazi is a huge influence for me, I grew up outside of D.C. so Brendan Canty is a favorite.
“Sage” is something that Chris and I woodshedded for about two months before we even brought the idea to Scott. Then Scott came in and put his touch on it, we changed a few little things, then recorded it and let Jeff do his thing. So that started off as something Chris and I were working on for a little while, but actually took quite a few different versions of us to come up with what you hear.
“Butcher’s Bill” is one of Scott’s babies. He started writing that song about a year ago, I’d say. Scott had a very different method of writing. He likes to write by himself, even programming some of the guitars and drums, then come to us with a rough song that we then all sit down and try to figure out exactly what our parts are going to be. We ended up recording our stuff probably fifty times before we went to the studio, so things get changed here and there for sure.
OS: This is the first record with Chris. You, Jeff and Scott have been together for fifteen years now, how did Chris affect this core? I’ll freely admit that I’m a huge Scott fan from his previous band days, and his style doesn’t seem like the easiest thing to assimilate into.
JB: [laughs] Yeah, Scott is an incredible bass player and a beast of a musician, so Chris really couldn’t be gun-shy coming into this. It really locked us in, synchronicity wise. Chris is an incredibly gifted musician, and personality wise, he clicks really well with all of us. Over the years of touring and going through guitarists, you kind of learn to respect each other’s spaces a bit more, and Chris came into this completely open and he just fits really well chemistry wise, both in his writing style and as a person. We all felt we locked in with Chris and we knew it pretty immediately.
OS: He picked a great place to start, as you really went for it in terms of production. How did working with James Brown and, excuse me if the record nerd in me gets a little excited for you, Ted fucking Jensen come about?
JB: We’re working with Aqualamb Records again, and those guys are based out of Brooklyn. They’ve got a lot of friends that are in bands and that work with bands, so they were in contact with James for some other projects they were putting out. We actually talked to two or three other people before they suggested James. When we started talking about doing this album, we were set on doing it on our own and then approaching labels, but in talking with Aqualamb, they had the idea of us at least sitting down with James and seeing if it felt right. We met, and he had some really cool suggestions for us after listening to some demos, and literally as soon as we took those suggestions to our practice space, we all had that ‘wait a second’ moment. This guy really pays attention to what we’re doing and what we’re talking about. He suggested some tuning changes and some structural things and it was like, that’s so obvious. Why didn’t we do that before, you know? It made it more comfortable for everyone. James has worked with Ted over the years so he suggested we should get in touch, and Aqualamb had already started the footwork on that one. We knew by the end of recording that Ted was going to master it.
OS: It feels like Jeff really ran with this studio setting. There are some amazing vocal melodies and harmonies that really take it to another level.
JB: Jeff is an incredible singer, and he had the opportunity to really make the most of his creativity. His melodies… I mean, he’s a beast, and he listens to music differently. Every time he writes lyrics to what we’ve got, we’ll come back and he’ll sing and it changes the song for each one of us, like we hear the song in a different way. It adds a whole other voice to the conversation.
OS: Did the writing process differ on this album? I feel like you went two directions simultaneously. On the one hand, there is a lot going on with these songs as far as production and layering goes, but on the other it still really feels like a streamlined rock record that really gets at the strengths of the band.
JB: Not in any other respect than we had a fifty/fifty writing kind of thing between Scott and Chris this time. It’s still a completely natural and organic process. We don’t necessarily intend to write in any sort of vein, we just try to produce music that we like, that we want to play over and over again, if that makes sense.
Beyond that… again, Jeff’s influence has a huge part in that sometimes we change things up because of what he brings to the table, but we don’t necessarily write with the intention of doing it a certain way. It’s just us feeling out what we were writing. I think a big part was we were more prepared for this recording than we have been in the past. We had recorded these songs like fifty times before we went in, so we’d listened back a lot. It gave us time to pick out the nuances and pick out specific things that we maybe rushed in the past. It was a much more relaxed experience, much more mature in that way. We’ve learned a lot over the years, and actually had more time to apply what we’ve learned.
OS: One fascinating aspect of your band is that you don’t neatly fit into genre expectations, especially in regards to touring. For a band with as much melody as you have, it blows my mind that you have a tour coming up with Corrosion Of Conformity and Crowbar, but it also seems like a pretty great fit. How did that work out?
JB: Yeah, that’s a super awesome opportunity, absolutely incredible. We were out with High On Fire and Goatwhore in 2012, again, two bands that we wouldn’t necessarily be lumped in with but we worked well with them and it was great. Corrosion of Conformity joined on the West Coast for four dates and we met Mike and Reed and Woody and struck it off really well with those guys. We actually talked to Mike when we were doing In Tensions, we wanted him to do some mixing, but it didn’t work out. I just really clicked with those guys and kept in touch, and we did a show, I want to say, two years ago here in Columbus and got to reconnect and put the bug in their ear about going back out with them. And here we are. Long story short, it’s good to get out there and do it as much as possible and make friends on the road, you never know when that stuff will come back around.