Often when spending a couple of hours listening quickly through incoming promos, most just flow by without latching on, though once in a while some music just hits the right spot right away. Earlier this year I was listening to the new EP “Plague Hymns” from the American duo SARCOPTES, an EP that stuck right away, and made me seek out the first two releases the band had released, music that also is quite captivating! The band is delivering a healhty and interesting dose of Thrashy Black Metal with an heavy and dark atmosphere with an epic and symphonic touch. I got in touch with Sean Zimmerman, who was up for an interview, and he brought along drummer Garrett Garvey for the fun of answering the questions.
Will you please start this interview off, by introducing yourselves and tell us how you entered the path of Metal?
Sean– I’m Sean, I play all the guitars, bass and keyboards for SARCOPTES. I started listening to Metal back in 1994. The year prior I discovered classic Rock via THE BEATLES and subsequently found other bands such as THE DOORS, PINK FLOYD, THE WHO and LED ZEPPELIN. From there I quickly got into heavier bands such as GUNS N’ ROSES, ALICE IN CHAINS, NIRVANA and eventually METALLICA. It was really METALLICA who was my gateway band into Metal and after discovering their back catalogue I got into bands like SLAYER, MORBID ANGEL, CANNIBAL CORPSE, etc. And the rest is history.
Garrett– Hey my name is Garrett. I play the drums and “sing” in SARCOPTES. I want to say somewhere around 8th grade, so 2002 or so, I was introduced to Metal music. My friend was into random Internet bands and CRADLE OF FILTH was one of them. I was pretty much hooked instantly. I thought it was so bizarre and cool, the way his voice was and how creepy and insane the music was. Later on I met a few kids in my school that could actually play. They were into PANTERA and MESHUGGAH and AT THE GATES and stuff. After that, I basically listened non-stop. I really stopped caring about what happened in the rest of my life to be honest haha. I just wanted to always listen to and feel this incredible music that was describing something I didn’t know how to put into words. Before I graduated high school I discovered DIMMU BORGIR, and that was basically the capstone to my early Metal education. I decided I’d commit myself to becoming a drummer that could play that music.
How and when did you get the idea to form SARCOPTES?
Sean– Well initially I met Gar and his friend Mike at a concert. They were jamming together as a duo in Gar’s garage and I asked if I could join them on bass. We had a couple of rehearsals as a three piece and then Mike bailed. Luckily he left his amp with Gar so he and I just started jamming together as a two piece with me on guitar. That’s how it started.
Garrett– I can’t remember exactly when I met Sean, but somewhere within the small circle of Metal people I knew, we connected. I used to jam Metal drums extremely fucking loud in my mom’s garage, terrorizing the neighborhood and laying it the fuck down. Sean would come over and turn up and we’d play EMPEROR and SLAYER and shit. I honestly sucked ass at drums back then, but I really loved playing.
We continued to jam quite frequently. I ended up joining a few bands in Sacramento and getting access to a jam spot. Me and Sean would meet up late nights and jam out and then I’d get extremely hammered (if I wasn’t already drunk.) There were some pretty fucking funny times back then.
After some time, probably more than 5 years to be honest, we had still been jamming this CD of music Sean had written (which would later become “Songs And Dances Of Death”). I remember we were chilling at my apartment and he mentioned using the SARCOPTES name and making this recording happen. I’d say at that point we officially “formed” SARCOPTES.
You are delivering a quite profound piece of Black/Thrashing Metal – How did you end up in the that exact mix of genres?
Sean– Well I knew I wanted to do Black Metal but the fusion of Black Metal with Thrash and Death Metal influences was really just sort of accidental and not thought out. I just started writing riffs and eventually piecing together these riffs into songs and that’s how they came out. SLAYER, METALLICA and all those classic Thrash bands were in my DNA so that element simply came out in my own writing. It wasn’t really planned out.
Garrett– I’m going to give the credit of the genre fusion to Sean. His method of creating music allows for this blend. We talk a lot about influences, genre, direction, feeling, the essence of the music. He is always looking to be “unbound” by genre or expectation. We have our influences, and we gladly give nod to them every time we play. He has a lot of EMPEROR in him, but also SLAYER and CANNIBAL CORPSE and that old school Death Metal. I think by the nature of him playing the guitar and chasing the feeling he’s looking for, the blend of his interests comes to form. As for myself, I just constantly want to push. Anything short of total effort from me is a failure in my own eyes. So we meet in the middle somewhere in all that.
How do you work when writing music? Do you write the tunes together in the band? Or do you come up with bits and pieces and assemble them together or how does it work?
Sean– Well like I said I usually have a bunch of riffs lying around and when I find parts that seem to work well together they start forming into songs. As the song structure comes more into focus I can then start filling in the blank spots in the arrangments with material that’s purposefully crafted to fit the surrounding context. Sometimes I’ll have various unused riffs lying around for years before I figure out what to do with them. The lyrics almost always follow once the song is completely written although sometimes I’ll have certain lines or even a full verse written beforehand. Often though I have an idea for a song’s subject matter written before I even write any of the music and that subject matter is what drives me to compose the song. Once I have a song written or mostly written I bring it to Gar and we start rehearsing and demoing it. Sometimes the arrangments will change depending on how things work out in rehearsal or while we are doing the demos.
Garrett– The music writing starts with our guitarist and composer. Very happy to have it all coming from him. I’ve been in bands where everyone’s writing bits and pieces. I hate it. The direction goes all over. One vision, total direction, total clarity. Straight to the point. Headshot every time.
That being said, my experience with writing in SARCOPTES is he will come in with a song. We will play it through with me on the drums. As we go, he’s talking about parts, describing what’s the verse or chorus and what not. It’s important to me to know where these parts are so I can write drums that best accompany the song. I want to make room for the vocals, or fill the space, or change up a repetition. But I’m always looking to play to the song.
I don’t contribute much to what he writes on his instruments. We’ll jam the songs a few times and agree on what drums we like. Then we pre-produce the whole thing and listen back. That’s where we can get an audience perspective on what we’re doing. Then I’ll make some edits to the drums and we’ll continue rehearsing until it’s set in stone.
As far as vocals, Sean takes his time on lyrics. They’ve always been significant to the song itself. In our conversation about vocals, it’s important to him that the vocals are not forgettable. He will scratch up a track with how he wants the phrasing, and then I’ll take it home and rehearse it until I find some kind of flow and breathing pattern with it that feels natural to me. Then we will start running vocals after we run the drums at rehearsal. I just look to satisfy the band. If it’s sounding like what was invisioned, then I’m doing my job.
Besides being to the point and quite brutal at times, the music is also very atmospheric and captivating. When starting writing a song, do you have the setting for it in mind, or do the songs show up, as you play? Do you have to be in a special mood or setting to write the music?
Sean– Sometimes as I’m writing a song I’ll come to a part of the song that really needs to have a big, epic section. If the song’s subject matter has enough gravitas it kind of demands that I have parts like that.
Garrett– Well, I’m the drummer. I like to be pissed off before I play this music. I’m always so jealous of the guys with fantastic pocket in their blast beats. They’ve got the physical disposition of making a ham sandwich while they’re up there blasting at 260. I’m just not that guy. I have to do a bunch of pushups and get pissed off about something. Then I can find that feeling.
What inspires you to write music?
Sean– It could be anything really. History, movies, philosophy, anything that just speaks to me and makes me want to attempt to contribute something to that subject matter creatively in my own way.
Garrett– Music and drumming is very significant to my life. I will not die a proud man if I do not take this to the highest possible point I can. I’ve had some experiences, and I know in my heart that this is not something to take for granted. I’ve had it almost slip away more than once, and now that I’ve got an iron grip around it, I will never let it go. I won’t speak for my bandmate, but I know that everything about me goes into these songs.
Was it a plan from the very beginning to utilize keyboards, or did they show up along the way, as the music evolved during the composing?
Sean– I always intended to use keyboards. EMPEROR and other so-called symphonic Black Metal bands were a big influnece on me and seeing as how I already knew how to play keyboards and compose and arrange multi-part music it was just a no-brainer that they would fit into the mix.
Garrett– It’s always been there. He can play classical piano as well, and has experience with composition and orchestral music. I think it’s just another voice to the total music that he hears while he’s creating.
You have a solid mix of songs around around 6 minutes and then +10 minutes tracks. Is this a planned thing from when you start a track from scratch, or are they getting their own life during the composing and when hitting the right mood?
Sean– I’ve always tended to gravitate to long songs so its only natural that I would start writing them on my own. Having said that I don’t usually plan out how long a certain song is going to be. I just work on it till it feels done. There have been times when I have specifically known that a song was going to be longer than the others though. For example when I started writing ‘Barbarossa’ from “Songs And Dances Of Death” our first full-length, I knew it was going to be longer than the other songs on the album that I’d written thus far but I initially thought it would be about 9 minutes or so. It ended up being over 13! There’s some songs that nobody has heard yet on the other hand that I purposefully kept shorter than normal for us. But usually a song’s length isn’t planned.
Garrett– I know Sean is big into older movies and epics. We’ve talked a bit before about how he likes to take the listener on a journey. So, the lengths and repetitions are in there as an important part of the total expression. The length of the tracks for me brings in another layer of the struggle. Often times the subject matter is something like war, death, inescapable fear, existential dread. These topics aren’t short to describe or quick to resolve. In that way, the songs reflect their topic. You dig deep into this fearful world and cling for your life until the end.
Have you thought about doing an album, consisting of one long song? I really like it, when your songs stretches and you keep them going – And from my little knowledge of you guys and your music, I think you are one of the bands that can pull it off!
Sean– I’ve briefly considered it. But it’s not where my head is at the moment.
Garrett– I would be completely down for it. I want any and every challenge for this band.
What is the concept of your lyrical universe and how do you come up with it?
Sean– The lyrics are all based on real world subject matter. Whether its historical events, or aspects of human nature or inner struggles, its all based on real or at least plausible ideas. Personally I find exploring the dark aspects of human nature far more frightening than fantasy lyrics about the devil or the occult.
Garrett– I’d love to take more credit here, but I’m no lyricist. I will tell you Sean is one of the most well-read people I know (which isn’t really saying a whole lot these days, but still.) I know he’s always curious about something, delving into an author’s total body of works or becoming more informed on things he knows little about. This intellectual pursuit certainly gives life to inspiration for lyrics. In one particularly good conversation about the subject matter of Metal music, we discussed the question of what is truly scary. When you peel away the imagery and the edginess of symbolism, often times there is little else left. But real events, real deeds carried out by very regular people like you and me, the horrors of humanity throughout history, these things are truly frightening. And so they make for great Metal lyrics.
The title of your first full length album “Songs And Dances Of Death” what does that symbolize, as I get there is a deeper thinking to it, as it is connected well with the cover artwork, Hieronymus Bosch’ “Death And The Miser” – And how did you end up with that painting as the cover artwork?
Sean– “Songs And Dances Of Death” is the name of a composition by Mussorgsky. The lyrics of that work depict death in several settings such as war, infancy, etc. Most of the songs on our album touched on the theme of death in some manner or another, so it seemed fitting for me to name it after the Mussorgsky work. Its sort of our way of treating the same subject matter that he did. I was searching for a traditional work of medieval or renaissance art that depicted death to be used for the cover. I searched for months on end until I finally came across the Bosch work and it just resonated with me. I hadn’t seen any other bands at the time that had used it so that’s how I settled on it.
The cover artwork on the EP is a more traditonal Black/Death Metal cover, though still strongly represented with death/afterlife… Who has made the artwork, and what are your thoughts behind it, this time around?
Sean– The artwork is an original work which I commissioned from an artist named Ze Burnay from Portugal. I actually came across his work online and knew immediately that I wanted him to do the cover for us. I also knew precisely what I wanted the cover to depict. The title of the EP is “Plague Hymns” which is an obvious reference to the Black Death. The second song on the album is called ‘La Moria Grandissima’ or “The Great Mortality” which is a traditional name or title for the Black Death. So with the cover art I wanted to symbolically depict that subject matter. There is an enormous amount of medieval and renaissance Black Death themed artwork. Often times in these works there will be skeletal figures cavorting amongst mortals or it will depict skeletal figures doing ordinary every day kinds of things. In this case, the cover for our EP depicts skeletal priests serving the Mass. The symbolism of the art is that the Black Death had penetrated every avenue of life and affected everyone. Whether you were rich or poor, the pope or a king or a peasant or a priest the Black Death was everywhere and inescapable. You weren’t even safe from it in the one place you would most expect to be, IE in church under God’s watchful eye. The art is actually modelled on a very common artistic depiction. There are many, many paintings with priests in this same or very similar positions. The only difference with ours of course is that the priests are skeletal and meant as an homage to traditional Black Death themed artwork.
Even the title of your first demo “Thanatos” (Which also features a Hieronymus Bosch painting as the cover artwork, how did you get into his work?) circles around death, as Thanatos is the Greek god of a non-violent death, what fascinates you guys about death (and the afterlife?)?
Sean– The cover for the “Thanatos” EP is actually a work called “The Triumph of Death” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Its been used on many, many Metal album covers. I chose the title because it specifically related to the theme of the second track on that recording, ‘The Sexton’s Spade’ which was an allegorical depction of the underlying motivation for religious belief which is the fear of death.
Garrett– Death is one of those unending questions all mankind must deal with. Accepting one’s own mortality, and then recognizing that what truly happens when you die is unknown. It causes people to behave in all numbers of ways. Man has tried to defy or understand or control death since the beginning. For me, it brings some relief in an odd way. It’s sort of like facing your fears. By embracing this idea that is ominous and ultimate, I think I get a little peace. I observe that I will die, and so in the time inbetween I aught to shred as hard as I can. Sounds good to me.
How did you end up with the band name SARCOPTES, a mite that penetrates your skin and on a bad day, causes scabies? And is there a hidden symbolism in the name?
Garrett– Well, when I was in high school, I had met a kid who could really play the guitar. He ended up starting a band on Myspace called SARCOPTES. At some point, I scratched up a cheesy vocal track to one of his songs, and thereby became the vocalist.
We lost him. He burned bright and quick as many of those stars do. It really hurt me and I honestly never truly processed that loss. Years later, when me and Sean were jamming, we saw a great opportunity to use a super Metal band name and also give tribute to my friend. I like to think he would be proud that I continued to chase down the drums and helped bring a band to fruition.
As far as the name’s significance, I liken it to those unshakeable thoughts. A feeling of dread, lingering anxiety, that tension that comes for you when everything is going so good that something must be wrong. It crawls under your skin and lingers, and you want to scratch it but you can’t.
Sean– I remember sitting in Gar’s apartment years ago and we were discussing what the band name should be. We had gone through several unsatisfactory names and were having a hard time choosing one. I suggested we just use his old group’s name SARCOPTES. For me it had a very mysterious and obscure vibe to it and I just liked the way it looked and sounded.
You are about to release the EP ”Plague Hymns” on Transcending Obscurity Records, how did that deal happen?
Sean– I actually got in touch with Kunal from Transcending Obscurity Records while he was doing promotional work for our prior label Cimmerian Shade Recordings. Kunal had already done a bunch of promotional work for the “Songs And Dances Of Death” release so he was already familiar with the band and saw the press we had receieved and saw our potential. So after we recorded this EP I naturally reached out to him and that’s how we signed with him.
Is the EP a one off with the label, or are you signed for further releases?
Sean– We are signed for one more full-length release with Transcending.
How do you feel about the EP? Did it turn out as you had planned? And how has it been received?
Sean– “Plague Hymns” is the first recording we’ve done where I’ve been totally satisfied with how everything came out. There are some things I purposefully wanted to do differently from our previous efforts such as how we treated the keyboards and how I approached the bass playing that came out exactly how I wanted. I’m very pleased with this release. Overall its been received quite well from most of the reviews that have come out so far. There have been a couple of mediocre reviews but that’s to be expected. Mostly the reponse has been excellent.
Garrett– I’m very pleased with the EP. In doing this recording, we stepped up our game and went to a much bigger, professional engineer and studio. Needless to say, I was nervous as hell. This became a proving ground for us. If we succeeded here, then we belong. If we failed, this was the limit of our abilities. I like to see things like this, it puts a little skin in the game. I think we both surprised ourselves in our delivery. I walked away from that session extremely proud, and with a long list of things to work on to improve.
The reception has been great. Overall people have really dug it, and for me it just feels good to give the people something that they like to hear. When my friends or my students come to me and say that it sounds awesome, I’m completely invigorated. That’s what I do it for.
I think Transcending Obscurity Records have been doing some interesting releases throughout the years! How much did you know about the label, before penning the deal with them?
Sean– Well like I said, I was quite familiar with them beforehand as Kunal helped promote our first album and I maintained contact with him and followed everything the label was doing from that point on.
It has been 4 years since you released “Songs And Dances Of Death”, is there a new full length album in the works or?
Sean– Yes. The new full-length is already recorded and we’re talking about a release some time next year.
Garrett– There is a new album completed. Last year we were on fire, and between my freelance work gigging and touring with other bands, we wrote, preproduced, recorded and completed an entire album. All I can say is that I cannot wait for everyone to hear it.
I guess you don’t get around to play a lot live, as you are a duo (not that there are many options for playing any concerts these wicked days) – Though have you ever played a live? And is it something you’d like to do more/or start to do in the future?
Sean– No, we’ve never played live as SARCOPTES due in large part to the fact that we are a duo. Having said that its definitely something we’ve both talked about and both want to do at some point. We’ve been so busy with writing and recording these last few years that it hasn’t been on our radar, but I expect we will do shows at some point in the future.
Garrett– I’ve never played live with SARCOPTES. I would absolutely love to, but I would want to do the vocals by themselves. It will take some time to find the right lineup. I do not comfortably turn over my drumming throne in this band to just anyone.
That being said, I love playing live. As a drummer, it’s all about energy. Feeling that energy, sending it into the drums, and that in turn goes into the crowd, who sends it back to you. It’s a wonderful thing, and something I would love to do with this band’s music at some point.
Which 5 Metal albums do you hold dearest?
Sean– This is actually a very difficult question and I’m sure if I were to answer it a few days from now my answers would change. Still, some of the answers that come immediatley to mind are: 1. SLAYER – “Decade of Aggression: Live”. SLAYER had a huge impact on me and this was my very first exposure to the band so there’s a huge amount of nostalgia connected with this release. I currently own 5 different versions of it! 2. METALLICA – “Master Of Puppets”. Everything about this album is perfect. The riffs, the bass playing, the lyrics, the arrangements, the solos, the harmonies. It blows my mind to this day how great this album is. I can’t think of a better album to be honest. The day I bought it I stayed up till four in the morning listening to it on repeat. That summer I listened to “Master Of Puppets” and “Ride The Lightning” every single day all day long! 3. EMPEROR – “In The Nightside Eclipse”. This one is probably the most obvious one on my list. For me its the benchmark of keyboard Heavy or Symphonic Black Metal. Every song is incredible. This album is absolutley gushing with atmosphere and yet never lets up with killer riffs. This record had a huge impact on how I write and arrange both guitar and keyboard parts. 4. MERCYFUL FATE – “Melissa”. The first time I heard this I was taken aback by King’s wailing falsettos. My initial response was “what the hell is this?” But there was something intriguing in it so I bought it. It quickly became one of my favorite albums and for a time I listened to it constantly. For me this is the best traditional or Heavy Metal album ever recorded. 5. MORBID ANGEL – “Blessed Are The Sick”. For me the first two MORBID ANGEL records are the gold standard of old school Death Metal. “Blessed…” was one of the very first Death Metal albums I ever heard and while it intrigued me I didn’t fully “get it” on that first exposure. Out of curiosity I ended up buying it (this seems to be a trend with me) and it quickly became a favorite of mine. I love the controlled chaos feel of the riffs and Lovecraftian madness to the solos. Dave Vincent’s sinister vocals have yet to be equalled in the genre in my opinion.
Garrett– Oof, this is a little tough. But I’m pretty sure I know 5 Metal albums I almost always spin. First is DIMMU BORGIR’s – “Spiritual Black Dimensions”. The atmosphere on that CD, and Shagrath’s vocals, its just too good. Next is probably 1349’s – “Hellfire”. When I first heard that CD in high school, I honestly didn’t know what to think. Frost’s drumming is so insanely brutal all the way through, I couldn’t get enough. I’ll go with EMPEROR’s “In the Nightside Eclipse” for my third pick. The songwriting and landscapes Ihsahn takes you into, and the way the crescendos build and fall, that CD is just meaningful to me. The time in my life when I heard it is important too. It became classic and unshakable. I’ll put OPETH’s – “Ghost Reveries” in at number four, though I’m not ranking it any lower. Martin Lopez’ latin feel on the drums has been a huge influence on my playing. You don’t often hear it in SARCOPTES, but his drumming really opened me up to possibilities of expression within Metal. The songs on this CD are fantastic too. There’s such creativity and range while also being a pinnacle moment for the band’s total sound. My last pick will be HYPOCRISY’s – “Virus”. That whole CD is extremely catchy while being brutal as hell the entire time. I love Peter’s vocals as well, very bright and piercing. This cd opened me up to understanding how to create hook and catch to your music without compromising any of the Metal edge.
Thanks a lot for answering my questions and for delivering some impressive music! Please finish this interview, as you wish!
Sean– Thank you for this interview! I always enjoy doing these. For anyone interested you can get our newest release “Plague Hymns” from Transcending Obscurity Records at www.sarcoptesblack.bandcamp.com. You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram. Our older recordings are available at www.sarcoptes.bandcamp.com.