Always Something New: An Interview with Dan Johnson of Age of Infernal

Dan Johnson is a musician based in Edinburgh, Scotland. Performing as Age of Infernal, he has released an album of incredibly tight prog-influenced tracks titled Just for the Hell of It. As the project’s name may suggest, the album strikes an interesting balance between darkness and light. I recently had a chance to talk with Dan about this curious balance as well as the journey that took him away from — and eventually led back to — music.

Your lyrics are ostensibly about magic and madness, but I also get a sense that there’s some social commentary going on, especially with respect to technology and possibly social media. Am I on the right track?

Absolutely, you’re along the right track with regards to the lyrics. I had the intention not to make anything too explicit, or obvious, in regards to the meaning behind the words generally (although I’m sure most people would get the gist of what I’m talking about if they were to have a read through the lyrics!). I’ve always quite liked things to be as open to interpretation as possible. The first track on the album ‘Conjurers of Magick’ is possibly the most explicit in what the lyrics are getting at, and of course technology, and all of its unintended or unaccounted for side effects, is part of what that song is talking about, and also something that’s playing a big part in the world right now. Social media also comes into it! I suppose even more generally, that song is about oppression. 

There are many interesting and exciting things going on in the world, but in amongst it all, one can’t help but wonder sometimes if the incessant driving towards convenience isn’t actually making things worse, in many ways, for the planet and all of the species that live on it. 

Most of the other tracks are coming from more of an introspective place. So there’s all this stuff going on in the world, and it’s easy to look outwardly and blame all of your problems on other people, but what happens when we look at ourselves, and how we are acting, interacting, reacting to what’s happening in the outside (of our own heads) world?

Am I a model citizen, or father, or partner, or neighbour (etc)? Am I even a ‘good’ person? The answer to most of these things for me is NO, so that tells me that there’s a lot of work to be done on a personal level first and foremost!

That said, I feel like your songs fall comfortably in a tradition of what might be considered socially-conscious prog rock. I’m thinking about bands like Pink Floyd, Rush, Genesis, and maybe even King Crimson—bands that are interested in what’s going on behind the curtain, as it were. Do you feel an affinity with bands like these? What attracts you to them, both in terms of lyrics and music?

Yes! I love Pink Floyd, and King Crimson. Genesis too, although mostly there earlier stuff has been of interest to me. Rush I am not overly familiar with somehow, I’m not quite sure how that happened (or didn’t happen!). I think lyrically, in my view, Roger Waters is just so good! Whether or not you agree with him politically or not, there’s no denying the heartfelt and pure, honest truth (in regards to his own experience, that is) that he manages to put across through his words. Musically, Dave Gilmour was probably my first ‘favourite’ guitar player! I spent many an hour back in the day trying to imitate old Dave, haha! King Crimson I’d say is more of a musical inspiration too, Bob Fripp is such a unique guitarist and composer, its no wonder he’s played on records for just about everyone! And then the 80’s line up with Fripp, Adrian Belew, Tony Levin and Bill Bruford, is like another band altogether. I love tracks like ‘frame by frame’ from this period/lineup. 

There’s obviously something dark about your songs — the project is called Age of Infernal, after all! But there’s also some humor. How do you balance the two, and why do you think it’s important to do so?

I think one has to maintain some amount of humour in the face of life, and all it can throw at you! When humour, or the ability to laugh at oneself, or the hardships of life etc. is gone, you’re possibly getting into hellish territory! Of course it’s necessary to look at things in a serious context sometimes, and some things really aren’t funny, so there has to be some amount of balance between the two perspectives.   

What was the recording process like forJust for the Hell of It

The recording process was pretty tricky actually. Everything apart from bass and vocals was recorded on my little laptop, using Logic Pro. 

The guitars were tracked at home with an amp (Blackstar HT-5), and mic. It was a case of trying to be ready, so as when a window of opportunity appeared at home, I’d quickly get the stuff set up and record as many parts as I could in the time I had free. It was also a case of hoping that the neighbours wouldn’t come banging my door down and tell me to shut up, haha! 

With the bass, I’d recorded some tracks with my guitar and octave pedal, and then sent those to my friend John, and he’d interpret my parts and record them with a real bass.

The vocals were recorded with Guillaume, who done the mixing and mastering too. He had me down to his home studio and the vocals were all recorded over three days. That was a great experience for a couple of reasons; it was good for me to get out of my own comfort zone, and actually feel like I was almost a ‘professional’ for a few days, and; the gear that I was singing through I believe was about 8-10 grands worth! So that was possibly a one off, as I’m not sure if I’ll ever be singing through that standard of equipment again!

All in all, it was a process of learning. I’m over the moon that I was able to get it together, and come out of it with something I can be relatively happy with.

I was actually surprised to see in your Bandcamp notes that the drums on the album are programmed. How did you get them to sound so live? 

The drums… I had some help from my old drummer and friend Tam, and also the drummer function in Logic Pro! Anyone using logic will know what I’m talking about there. Basically I would use the drummer function to get things started off, and then when Tam was involved he’d get into the parts and make them more fitting to the riffs or whatever of each song/parts of songs. We ran out of time for Tam to finish off, so I done a bit of that myself too. But I think it’s really the logic drummer that enabled this whole thing to happen, without that I may have been struggling to get most of the songs together! I did actually play some real bongos and tambourine on the track ‘Disillusionment’ myself, those were also recorded in Guillaume’s home studio. 

I understand that you took a break from music for a while and then returned to it. Why did you take a break, and what led you to come back? How does it feel to be making music again?

It feels really amazing to be creative again, if a little frustrating with the time constraints! There are many reasons why I took a break from music, and it wasn’t necessarily by choice that I spent as long as I did (probably the best part of eight years or so!) without playing the guitar or writing. My band had basically fallen apart, and during the course of that my partner fell pregnant with our second son, so it became clear that I’d have to step up to the plate and get a real job again, so as to provide for my family. The band break led to some (musical) depression, and generally my involvement with, and enthusiasm for music eventually whittled down to nothing. I didn’t actually listen to much music during most of that time either, or not intentionally anyway. Of course I heard things on the radio, or if I was somewhere that music was playing etc, but I went from listening to music every day to barely listening to anything! 

I’m not exactly sure how or why the urge to play and write came back. I’d began to dabble in learning about writing fugues for piano (after rereading a book which had sparked some interest), and after a while I had developed a bit of a creative buzz within myself again. That led me to pick up my guitar and see if I could come up with anything that felt fresh and good to me, and basically that was the start of the process of writing what became the album. 

You liven Edinburgh. What’s the music scene like there? Any bands I should look for if I’m ever in town?

I have to be honest and say that I don’t get out much to see live music at this point, so I can’t really answer this question! I’m not sure there’s an Edinburgh music ’scene’, so to speak, but there may well be, and I just don’t know about it, haha! I’m currently looking for a drummer with the view to getting a band together and playing live again, so maybe I’ll be more enlightened in that respect soon enough (if I manage to get a band together, that is!)

I know it can be tough being an indie musician. What keeps you going?  

I guess what keeps any musician, or indeed creative people generally going, is the potential that there’s always something new to be created.

There’s something really cool about how many amazingly good bands/artists/creative people you can find nowadays (perhaps that’s one of the the upsides to social media!). In the past, a lot of guys will have had practically no means to get there creations ‘out there’, whereas now one only needs a laptop with an audio interface, and boom, you have a basic studio at your fingertips! On the other end of it, it can be a bit difficult to self promote, certainly I’ve felt that myself recently while trying to do a bit of online promo! You don’t want to annoy people, but also you don’t want your album/ep/single (which you’ve likely spent a lot of time and energy, and perhaps even money, on) to disappear into relative nothingness! It can feel like a precarious rope to tread. I’ve been trying to maintain the point of view of; if ANYBODY is listening, or has listened, than that’s a win! Any feedback received from fellow musicians and creative people is also helpful, and I’ve found a really good group of folks on twitter who are all in the same or similar boats, so that’s been good finding like-minded people that are happy to engage and give each other little bits of feedback etc…

To put it another way, why does indie music matter? 

It matters because; anything that someone has poured their heart and soul, time and effort into, is worthwhile. Just because you’re perhaps not going to hit number one in the charts, doesn’t mean that what you’re creating is worthless. In fact I’d go as far as to say that it’s worth MORE, haha! It’s the creative endeavour, and process, that for me is the important part of it. I think that’s something I’ll always try to keep in mind.

What’s on the horizon for you?

Currently I’m working on a collaboration for a track with an artist I met on twitter, We Have Divine Fire. I’m looking forward to getting that done. Then I will be working on some new material for the next Age of Infernal project (which right now I have no idea what it’ll be!). Also there’s another couple of collabs in the pipeline for later in the year. I have some acoustic songs, old and new, which I’d like to get together as an album or an ep at some point too, although that may not be done/released under the Age of Infernal name… 

Plenty to be getting cracked on with when time and brain allows it! 

Interview by Marc Schuster

Track-by-Track: “66th and City”

Back in June, I read an article about prog rock in the New Yorker. If you’re not familiar with prog, it’s a category of rock exemplified by bands like Yes, King Crimson, early Genesis, and arguably Pink Floyd whose songs tended to be fairly long pieces marked by various movements akin to those in classical music. One point the New Yorker article made was that prog pushed rock far beyond the boundaries of the three-minute pop song, an idea that inspired me to explore alternative song structures in tracks like “Thank You for Holding” and this one, “66th and City.” Not coincidentally, before I started writing and recording vocals for “66th and City,” its filename was “Progger.”

Many prog acts of the late 60s used an early ancestor of the synthesizer called a Mellotron to give their music the full, lush sound of an orchestra — or at least to attempt to do so. Mellotrons have a fairly distinctive sound, and I used Mellotron samples in a few different places throughout Thank You for Holding, most notably the flute solo that makes appearances on various tracks. For “66th and City,” I used a Mellotron sample that sounds more like a string section than a flute, and I played it against a fairly rudimentary drum beat and guitar riff.

At about the same time I was reading the New Yorker article and laying down the basic track for the song that would become “66th and City,” my wife and I were painting our living room, stairway, and upstairs hallway. One thing that kept occurring to me as I painted some of the more obscure corners of these spaces was that nobody would ever see them — and that, in fact, I would probably never look at them again myself, at least not until the next time they need a fresh coat of paint. Hence, “I painted corners of this house nobody will ever see.”

From there, I started to think about houses that have been reclaimed by nature. Every now and then, I’ll be driving somewhere and see an abandoned house with weeds pushing through the basement windows or trees poking through what’s left of the roof. Whenever I see a house in such a condition, I think about the people who lived there once — what their lives were like, what they did to keep the house up, how they loved their home before it fell on harder times. That’s essentially what this piece is about.

The title “66th and City” refers to a house I saw once while I was driving through a particular city. It had all the telltale signs of an abandoned home, and I started thinking my usual thoughts about such places. That’s when I connected my train of thought regarding painting my own living room to the kinds of dilapidated, abandoned homes that always catch my eye: At some point, someone who lived in this house also took the time to paint corners nobody would ever see!

Then I started thinking about all of the people and various families who may have lived in that house over the years– and how the house itself is a kind of repository of memories. What if all those people left impressions in the house? What if those impressions — or ghosts, for lack of a better word — started to blend into each other? What if as the house started to deteriorate, the boundaries between all of the ghosts of the people who once lived there started to blur?

That’s basically what’s going on in the song. The house is trying to make sense of all of the memories it holds, but the memories are starting to bleed into one another. That’s why I included the otherwise howlinglly unlikely line, “We had a child once if I remember right, but then again it could have been a dog.” The house, having taken on the identities of everyone who’s lived within its walls, remembers at least two of its resident families but has clearly confused them.

Granted, its an odd conceit for a song, but prog rock is full of odd conceits. Consider, for example, “Tarkus” by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, which follows the adventures of a tank-like Armadillo. By comparison, the ruminations of a confused abandoned house come off as somewhat pedestrian.

Another way this track reflects elements of prog is that I recorded it as three separate movements and considered making them separate tracks on the album before eventually deciding to splice them all together. The first movement is the “I painted corners of this house” section, the second is the the confused dilapidated house segment, and the third is the part where the trees and other plants take over and nature reclaims its territory.

66th and City

I’ve painted corners of this house
Nobody will ever see.
These lives I’ve led.
These tears I’ve shed.
I’ve painted corners of this house.

We lived, we laughed, we longed, we loved within these walls.
We dreamed, we planned, we fought, we cried, we played.
And now old photographs are all that’s left of us,
The memories have all begun to fade.

And now the weeds grow
And now the weeds grow
And now the weeds grow
And now the weeds grow
Where people used to sleep.

We had a child once, I think, if I remember right.
Then again it could have been a dog.
We drift like ghosts and pass among these plasterboards,
The house a living catalog.

And now the weeds grow
And now the weeds grow
And now the weeds grow
And now the weeds grow
Where people used to sleep.

The sun shines bitter on the roof.
The rain falls uglier than truth.
Windows crack, the ceiling drips,
Floorboards rot, lead paint chips.

Thick roots wrap like fingers
’Round rusted sewer pipes
Green shoots poke through cracks in concrete
Reaching for the light.

The sun shines bitter on the roof.
The rain falls heavier than truth.
I’ve painted corners of this house
Nobody will ever see.
And now the weeds grow
Where people used to sleep.