In the hottest August ever experienced, I rode my bike to south-eastern Milan, to the barren lands of the Barona, to attend what’s easily going to be one of the best death metal gigs of the year. Bedsore, Devoid Of Thought and Artificial Brain were playing, and I took advantage of the early arrival of the bands to sit on a bench in the park with bassist Sam Smith, drummer Keith Abrami and guitarist Oleg Zalman, to discuss the Artificial Brain universe. I expected these guys to be super-skilled musicians, but I was pleased to discover them to be also very easy going, friendly and super nice people.
First of all, how’s the tour going?
SAM: Really really well, we didn’t really know what to expect as this is our first European tour, but we’ve been surprised by a lot of shows, with people turning up and buying a lot of merch. Same goes for Devoid Of Thoughts, they’re a great band, we’re sharing the van with them and I couldn’t ask for more for our first EU tour.
KEITH: Yeah there’ve been a couple of shows that kinda got put together at the last minute, and we were expecting maybe low turnouts, but they were surprisingly all pretty decent, there was a good attendance, so yeah, we’re really satisfied.
Do you already have any juicy stories from the tour? [All laugh, Keith rolls his eyes] Yeah Keith you do, that’s the look of someone who has juicy stories from the tour.
KEITH: [laughing] not as much as you may think, unfortunately. It’s been just a lot of heat and maybe a little too much beer, but nothing crazy this time around.
SAM: We did lose some instruments though. We had kind of a rough start, to be frank.
Yeah I read about that. Did you get them back eventually?
OLEG: Nah. They’re with Lufthansa, somewhere in the world.
Oh, Lufthansa, really? It was Germans who lost your luggage? That’s unexpected.
SAM: Yeah, they’ve lost a lot of gear recently. They lost all Elder’s gear, and apparently they sent Mayhem guitarist’s guitar to Kenya, so we’re not alone in this. But no, we haven’t heard about our instruments yet, so we were loaned a bass from Gabriele from Cosmic Putrefaction, and Oleg found a lefty 8-string guitar in Denmark, miraculously. We made it out ok, but our instruments are who knows where.
I know you’ve been asked this question before, but you always gave some “temporary” answer, so… You had the first lineup change in ten years, with Will leaving the band last fall right after the recordings for Artificial Brain were completed. Are you looking for a full-time replacement?
SAM: We haven’t made a final decision as far as that goes, yet. We’ve played all the shows on this tour with Mike from Inter Arma, and we’ve played a couple of US shows with him as well, we have similar plans to play other domestic shows with him as well, and to record new material with him for an EP, but that’s as far as we go, we haven’t made any long-term plans about that.
Moving to a different subject, I think it was you Sam who mentioned in an older interview that the artwork for your first album was something done by Paolo Girardi without much “briefing” from the band, while you wanted the music on Infrared Horizon to be more linked to its art. How about Artificial Brain? And how does art intertwine with your music?
SAM: For this third record we had some discussion with Will about the themes we wanted to tackle. Infrared Horizon ends with the song “Ash Eclipse”, which is about a volcanic eruption, a catastrophic natural event that destroys this technological civilization. Artificial Brain picks up where that left off and its imagery is about nature growing back all over these machines, which was sort of inspired by Andrej Tarkovskij’s Stalker. But that’s just a discussion we had, knowing we wanted an album cover that looked like nature taking back over. We think the album is a little bit more melodic, even more melancholic than our previous efforts, so we wanted something with a color scheme that could reflect some of that as well.
OLEG: Less robots being blasted, more sadness.
Actually that was one of my questions, because I remember an older interview where Will said the last song on Infrared Horizon was about a volcano, not robots. And now we have song titles, in Artificial Brain, which give the hint that, well, the world has ended and nature came back to power. So if Infrared Horizon was the end of the world and Artificial Brain is its consequence, do you have any ideas what themes you will develop next?
SAM: We haven’t really discussed lyrical concepts for the new stuff. We have a lot of music written, but we haven’t really figured out where we’re going conceptually with it. We talked about starting a new trilogy, we talked about doing some way different stuff… I think it all depends on what Mike wants to do as far as lyrics are concerned, that’s not something we’re really down to yet. At this point in the process we’re really focused on the music and usually what we do is we write the music first and then we let that inspire us.
You also mentioned an EP, so I guess we won’t have to wait another five years before we hear some new music?
ALL: No no no no no.
KEITH: We’re trying to get there faster than ever, I’d say. I live in Denmark now [Keith is married to Amalie Bruun, better known by her stage name Myrkur], and the plan is to visit the States and try to get the EP done around Christmas time. It’s not gonna be five years.
SAM: Well, the drum tracking at least.
KEITH: Yeah, right. I recorded the drums for this album in October 2020. It was a while before it came out.
OLEG: It was about a full year before we got the first mixes from Colin [Marston, who mixed and mastered all Artificial Brain albums].
May I ask why it was five years? Was it because of Covid, because of Keith’s relocation, what happened?
KEITH: First and foremost we were just so busy traveling and working, doing little tours here and there and kind of building up songs and seeing what we should do with them, and then in 2018 I moved to a new apartment where I couldn’t bring drums with me, I was pretty burnout from traveling with the band, I just got married and was trying to figure out my move to Europe. My mind was not on music, and we kind of agreed to take a nice little break, see where we’re at and then come back. Once I got to Denmark, we were supposed to record in April 2020, and we all know what happened. After Infrared Horizon we just wanted to try get out on the road, meet different people, play different cities, then life kind of kicked in and the world went crazy. This time now we’re all settled, two members moved to Virginia, I’m in Europe, the other guys are still in New York, but we’re now settled in this new routine that we have. We’ve become more proficient with our recording setups, getting stuff done and practicing, and I think it’s going to be a lot easier now, even though we’re not in the same place, which is… Funny.
SAM: Yeah, we recorded Artificial Brain remotely: I recorded at home, the guitar players recorded in their home, now we have the confidence this is something we can actually do, and this will move things faster.
So the fact that this was your first experience working remotely had an impact.
OLEG: Definitely. Before covid I think most of us were going through major life shifts. Work, family, they took priority, and then covid hit.
SAM: And then my apartment burned down. And the lineup change with Will happened in the recording period, also. After the songs had been written, we agreed with him that he would be on the album, but that slowed things down a bit, too. There’s been a bunch of obstacles.
Of course you have some interest in artificial intelligence, but is it just to be intended as escapism, or do you have some kind of “philosophical”, deeper thoughts behind that? I’m asking this because last month Google put one of their engineers on forced leave when this guy claimed the chatbot he had been working on became sentient, and I thought this was news worth discussing with Artificial Brain. [all laugh]
KEITH: I think this will be a personal question for each member, but my personal relationship with this kind of stuff is that I try to understand what my role as a human being is in this modern world. I know it’s kind of cheesy to say, but at this point I feel that the norm for humans is to be so detached from humanity itself and Earth, that it’s almost as if we don’t really remember what we are. This artificial life is the new normal, and if you’re not keeping up with what’s happening online you feel like you’re left behind, and social skills and love for simple things now almost seem weird. That brings me a lot of sadness and even anger, when I play.
I just had a kid, he is two now, and sometimes I’m terrified that I brought a kid into this, because I have no idea what to expect in the next ten years or so. So these new songs I’ve been working on in my new home, when my bandmates were not with me anymore, and my kid was just six months old upstairs, led me to ask myself what’s happening in this world. Our songs from all three albums are emotional, at least to me, and when I play them there’s this mix of sadness and anger, and I think that this whole push towards… Damn I know it sounds like I’m talking about Terminator 2, but machines taking over, well, you don’t stand a chance. You either keep up or get left far away, somewhere. Which maybe is not that bad, who knows.
Another interesting hint I found in an older interview is that you Sam have an interest in transhumanism, meaning that you’re not really on the same page with the human race working to remove their natural flaws. It’s peculiar, but this topic has come up in several interviews I had with other metal bands along the years, it’s like the western society wants everybody to be perfect, everybody needs to be flawless and special at the same time.
SAM: This is something I’ve been thinking about in the last few days actually, in relationship to bands. The metal scene is filled now with super produced music, and when I watch bands that are unbelievably professional and tight and there’s not an ounce of imperfection in what they do, I find myself bored to tears. Even if I like their music, even if I think they’re doing something interesting. I bring that up because I believe that what makes people interesting, unique and worth getting to know, what makes them produce art that’s worth experiencing, is often some imperfection. I just watched David Cronenberg’s latest movie, Crimes of the Future, which is really gross, and it’s funny because he’s being lauded and given awards for something that’s wrong with him.
Well, David Cronenberg has been praised for forty years for his harsh critics to the whole western world… Through gross movies.
SAM: If I can add a slightly optimistic take.
Sorry man, we don’t do optimistic here. [all laugh]
OLEG: Well I like to see it as pragmatically as possible. We’re living through a digital revolution, akin to something like the industrial revolution, when society sort of blew up in terms of speed and efficiency. There’s good and bad things to take from that, and I think the same can be said of this. If we didn’t live in the digital age, we wouldn’t be able to continue as Artificial Brain. I love the fact that we’re still able to stay connected, and make human art through this medium. Humans will always try to be perfect any way they can, but I think they’ll always fail at that, because, well, we are humans, so the flaws will still be there, just in a different environment or perspective. When it comes to things like, I don’t know, the Metaverse, I think it’s sensationalism, people’s enthusiasm is way too far ahead, for now. We don’t have the technology to connect through that kind of medium, yet. I don’t know what that’s going to be, but I think that having the technology to connect humans to other humans, I think that’s great, and I believe it’s important to focus on the positive aspects of this situation, and utilize them to our own advantage, and keep humanity alive.
You said it yourself, it’s how Artificial Brain could survive, but probably the metal community too. I’ve made lots of friends over the last twenty years with whom I shared the passion for extreme metal, while where I was born nobody even knew what that was. I’ve been able to make friends who shared my interest, and they all lived hundreds, thousands of kilometers away.
OLEG: Same here. I grew up with a pc in my living room as early as I was maybe five years old, so just going online to find communities and share interests and learn new things was normal, and that’s something I keep close to my heart. Without that I’d have probably been just a weird, loner kid, if I was born a hundred years ago, whereas I’ve been able to connect with way more people. Obviously connecting with someone online is not the same as meeting someone face to face, but it can lead to more. As long as the transfer of digital information is not the focus, but the beginning of something else, I think it’s a beautiful thing. You don’t remove the physical, you help it with the digital. If you remove the physical then you’re just entering the Matrix, fueling something having weird digital imaginations and dreams.
KEITH: I’m wondering about that, I was listening to a podcast with Mark Zuckerberg, and he was talking about the Metaverse and how he was so excited that there could be opportunities for companies to create fashion for your avatar. Companies will be able to create special ties and shirts and stuff like that and he was telling how he couldn’t wait for it to happen, of course, since he’s the one leading the project, but it all sounded very, very sad to me. Yeah, of course it’s great to be able to connect with people, especially now that I live in Europe, but there’s something about using the physical world only to get food and go home to enter the Metaverse that sounds terrifying to me. I wonder what it’s going to be in twenty years or so, if we even get there.
SAM: Communicating on the internet, we do it all the time, as a band, as friends, with these very communities we’ve built being online all these years. It has wonderful things about it, we’ve built all this stuff, but it’s also very difficult to develop or experience genuine empathy, in those kinds of communication. I’ve read studies about people who reading a story over a tablet or over a newspaper have different emotional responses. You can see the way that people interact with each other on the internet, especially strangers, is really vile and lacking.
KEITH: It’s pure primitive brain.
SAM: The idea of substituting human interaction is terrifying. Something like the Metaverse as a complimentary environment could be fascinating, but substituting the real world…
OLEG: I think if we ever get to that point, where we actually have the technology to enter a store, get some food and then go home and log in, I think that society will fracture, and there will be a lot of rebellion against that. I can imagine communities where people will be completely anti-digital living or whatever you would call it.Some will be happy to be avatars with cool Facebook ties and others will have bonfires and acoustic guitars and drinks.
SAM: Rather than bonfires we’ll probably have wildfires, seeing the climate change we’re experiencing.
Before we all melt in the desert then, what kind of plans does the future hold for Artificial Brain?
KEITH: More of the same! We’re always trying to create as much music as possible. Dan [Gargiulo, guitarist] is kind of the main songwriter for the band and he has dozens of demos that we never used before. It’s usually about getting as much material as possible out there, and then cherry-picking the stuff that really sticks out, that we can work with. The main idea is to continue doing so, as much as possible, continue to amass lots of material and then choose from that.
SAM: It’s funny, “Celestial Cyst”, the first track we released from the new record, there are riffs in that song that pre-date Infrared Horizon and even Labyrinth Constellation. Some of those riffs were among the first things we ever wrote for the band. We have these amounts of material and we pick what’s best, but then there are other riffs and ideas we tell ourselves we need to get back to in three years or something, and we usually end up doing it.
KEITH: We have the advantage of being friends. We’ll keep pushing each other to do more and learn more. We’re hoping to be able to do something in Europe maybe once a year, they’ll keep touring the States too, and just try to keep our presence and our little universe out there.
It’s actually kind of rare that you refer to yourselves as a group of friends, rather than bandmates.
KEITH: Me, Sam, Jon and Dan are all from the same town. I’ve known Jon since I was seven.
SAM: And I’ve known Dan since we were born. We were in strollers together, literally.
KEITH: Yeah, he’s from Brooklyn, my parents grew up nearby, so we were friends first. I think this is what makes this whole thing special. It’s not just making music, it’s making music with each other. Moving to Denmark, I’ve had people asking me if I wanted to join other bands, but I don’t really want to play in any band, I want to play with my friends. There are so many other things we have to focus on in our lives that it’s good to have this band to keep putting ideas into and see what comes out.
OLEG: Yeah, first and foremost: fun, friends. Music, maybe.
SAM: And money somewhere down the road. Maybe.