It was once pitifully common for rock 'n' roll philistines to label all things metal as vulgar juvenilia, but in 2017, you'd have to be pretty snobby (or pretty stupid) to condemn an entire genre based on its oldest and broadest clichés. Case in point: Loincloth, the Southern Lord-backed instrumental quartet who specializes in impenetrably dense acrobatics marked by sinew, economy, and hypercomplex time signatures that consistently avoid baroque frills and cartoonish machismo. Founded in 2000 by Steve Shelton, master drummer for left-field doom pioneers Confessor, and Tannon Penland, former guitarist for the Kenmores and the Gwar-related Köszönöm, Loincloth has maintained a relaxed, long-distance existence with its personnel split between Raleigh, North Carolina, and Richmond, Virginia.
Onstage and on records like 2012's full-length debut Iron Balls of Steel, Loincloth's neck-snapping rhythms stutter, pause, and double back upon themselves as they seamlessly lock into chugging, atonal riffs while dissonant counterpoints hover above the music like incandescent clouds of noxious gas. On their new album, the splendidly christened Psalm of the Morbid Whore, the group offsets the songs' intrinsic seriousness via tongue-in-cheek titles such as "Necro Fucking Satanae," "Let the Snakes Decide," and "Ibex (To Burn in Hell Is to Refine)," not to mention that deliberately ridiculous band name.
But that's all history now. Streaming here and released by Southern Lord Records on September 29, Psalm of the Morbid Whore will be its final burst of tightly choreographed violence. In celebration of that, three of the participants sat down to explain their bittersweet announcement to quit while they're ahead. This being metal, of course, they also engaged in a little friendly banter about the semantic significance of Lucifer himself.
Noisey: What inspired that title, Psalm of the Morbid Whore ? It's evocative but also kind of ridiculous.
Tannon Penland: First and foremost, it references our collective worship of Celtic Frost's Morbid Tales and Trouble's Psalm 9—two truly unfuckwithable records! Secondly, the original cover idea was modeled after a photograph based on the Marquis de Sade, by the French Canadian surrealist Jean Benoît. It's of an ominous figure in an odd S&M outfit standing in a murky, water-stained courtyard, with some kind of Voivodian looking sculpture next to him and a door leading to an unknown room of horrors. Although we didn't wind up using the image for the front cover, we kept the title it inspired. Thirdly, I think you nailed it by describing it as being both evocative and kind of ridiculous. Pretty much sums up the Loincloth mantra.
What exactly appears on the cover?
Steve Shelton: A close-up of the orbital socket and horn of one of my ram skulls. Other than the creep factor and it being more than a little ominous, the image simply means that I have a camera and I love to play with dead things.
Your first album was called Iron Balls of Steel. Are your balls really that heavy?
Steve Shelton: Our balls were that heavy once. So heavy that they actually ripped our sacks right off! Very painful. But it helped create a sort of intensity that cannot be matched by people whose balls are like tiny walnuts—useless and light.
How can something be iron and steel at the same time?
Steve Shelton: One of the things we set out to do was to poke fun at how seriously metal takes itself. There was a character in the Steve Martin movie The Jerk named Iron Balls McGinty who popped into my head as we were thinking of titles.
Tannon Penland: Yes, our balls are that heavy!
Steve Shelton: Someone once mentioned to Tannon that the title was actually an oxymoron. It was as though the guy had just done his good deed of the day by pointing out the error. I wonder if he ever figured out that he had completely missed the joke?
The songs have pretty absurd names, as well. "Necro Fucking Satanae," for example.
Tomas Phillips: "Necro Fucking Satanae" alludes to Celtic Frost's "Synagoga Satanae," though we decided to throw the "fucking" in as a kind of fist-in-the-air celebration of metal. "Bestial Infernal" works in a similar manner, as a reference to Destruction's Infernal Overkill and "Bestial Invasion." Both silly but somehow compelling.
Steve Shelton: Sometimes pieces of the songs' working titles make it into the final draft. Believe it or not, those are really lowbrow, even for us. They have names like "Mega Chunk" or "Turd Helmet." These are just examples, but for a nominal fee you may use them.
How about "Underwear Bomb" from the debut album?
Steve Shelton: I think [early bassist] Cary [Rowells] said he left an underwear bomb in his pants when he heard the song for the first time. "The Moistener" got its name because it was so much fun to play that Tannon and I both got somewhat aroused.
Yikes. But you're such a serious-sounding band. Is the dualism of the music against this exaggerated imagery an ironic comment on metal iconography?
Tomas Phillips: So much in Loincloth's aesthetic is about playing with the genre's conventions, "play" being the operative term. We all grew up with metal and thus, we have fun with it but not in a derisive way; we have a healthy sense of its excesses while remaining 100 percent celebratory. The irony has less to do with kitsch or facile consumption than it does with a meaningful and pleasurable expression of appreciation. And, of course, we take the music very seriously in so far as it's the core of the art form.
Steve Shelton: Predictable song titles and imagery are yawners for me. You learn to take the bad with the good in underground metal. There was a very intentional attempt to make that frowny-faced, long-haired dude in his black t-shirt think about the fact that serious music doesn't have to wear a uniform. Music is whimsical by nature but commercialism has dumbed everything down by insisting that it follow rules in the way it's structured, its delivery, and, especially, in its imagery. Loincloth wanted to challenge those conventions by forcing people to associate our music, however serious it seems to us, with silly titles that may, in the best circumstances, actually make them laugh.
What does Satan mean to you?
Tomas Phillips: Satan is a mythical figure that, like any deity, assumes the form of whatever one chooses to project onto it. From the pages of William Blake to Anton LaVey to dualistic, fundamentalist Christian screeds, he wears many outfits, some of which speak to productive, amelioratory rebellion while others compel one to steep in paranoia and self-loathing. In keeping with Loincloth's particular relationship to metal, Satan is emblematic of the darkness that pervades an album like Psalm of the Morbid Whore—darkness that is both enjoyable and inherent in the musical form. He's the creature on a Mercyful Fate album cover, the iconic goat on Venom's Black Metal. He's the face of Norman Bates merging with a mother's skull, the thing that possesses a little girl in Georgetown. He signifies liberation from tyrannical forces. And, of course, he's the embodiment of any person whose egotism rises to the degree of enacting violence, be it physical or otherwise. No doubt, there's also a critical edge to Loincloth's depiction of Satan that works in tandem with the levity and the general horror-inspired aesthetic.
Tannon Penland: The devil, along with the many complexities surrounding canonized concepts of hell as applied to social corralling, has always been a significant muse for metal and a great attraction. It's fantastic pushing the buttons of those who would have you believe your soul is at stake for listening to or playing this kind of music. It's a preposterous notion to me, one that invites a kind of antagonism. Beyond that, devil art throughout the ages—from Baudelaire, Lautréamont, Dante, and Bosch to Mercyful Fate and Celtic Frost—provides genuinely captivating realms to enter. Darkness compels us!
Musically, how does the new album differ from the debut?
Steve Shelton: When Tannon and I were throwing out ideas for Iron Balls of Steel, we had no intention of continuing as a band. So we kind of put everything we had into that, thinking that it would be our one statement. For this go round, we decided to take a slight step back from the free-for-all approach in an attempt to make a more focused second album. It's quite a task to try and absorb an entire Loincloth album. There is a lot of information to sift through. I think the second one is much more manageable.
Tannon Penland: I agree. This record breathes differently. There are still plenty of convulsions and moments of falling down the stairs to meet your ugly, broken fate. But, on the whole, it's more straightforward.
Loincloth has been rather reclusive since the start. Why? Steve Shelton: We initially set out to release one album and nothing more. It wasn't until 2012, when Tannon and I were doing interviews for and reading reviews of Iron Balls, that we decided we simply had to play live [necessitating that Tomas and second guitarist Craig Hilton join the band]. But working 50 to 60 hours a week makes a long-distance relationship even more difficult. And the way that Tannon and I wrote required that entire practices sometimes be devoted to no more than five or six seconds of music. We both were incredibly meticulous when composing our individual parts, sifting through everything note by note, beat by beat.
Aren't you ever tempted to just play basic, four-on-the-floor drum beats or stupidly straightforward rock riffs?
Steve Shelton: I enjoy playing around with rhythms and accents way too much to really get much out of straight beats. I have no desire to play music that doesn't challenge me. The world is full of boring music; I want no part of it. Maybe later in life I could enjoy simpler music but my mind wanders within a few seconds if I'm not doing something interesting. NeitherLoincloth nor Confessor would ever write the kinds of riffs that warrant straight beats. I was very fortunate to have joined Confessor at such an early point in my development as a drummer. I was all about finding new ways to flip rhythms on their heads or to emphasize one note within a riff over another. The guys in Confessor were completely behind what I was coming up with, so I was actually able to be very creative before I had any drum basics down. My style developed around adventurous ideas that I had to figure out how to reproduce, as opposed to spending the first several years learning the basics we have all heard a million times and trying to figure out interesting way to apply them. I would never have stood out as a drummer had I learned things the traditional way. All of my friends who took music theory spent a lot of time talking about the things you "can't do," and that always seemed surreal to me.
Why did it take five years to get the sophomore album together?
Tannon Penland: We were living in different states and being in a car accident made it increasingly difficult for me to travel down to North Carolina with the same regularity. Loincloth has always been a band that is extremely productive in spurts and then long periods of nothing.
Would you mind talking about the accident?
Tannon Penland: I had gone up to see the Melvins in DC. On the way home the next day, a lady pulled into our lane and came to an abrupt, dead stop. I was with my mom and dad. It was a 55-mph stretch of road. We had no time to do anything other than run right into her. I spent some time in the ICU with a broken sternum, several broken ribs, twisted spine, severe concussion, and some breaks in my hand that led to a couple surgeries. I now have screws in my left hand. Metal on metal. Fortunately, we were all wearing seatbelts. Otherwise, we would have been the subjects of a new Cannibal Corpse record cover. The greater bearing it had on making Psalm of the Morbid Whore involved travel: I was simply terrified anytime I had to be near a car, even going 10 miles to a train station.
Understandable. The new album is as good as anything you've done. Why is the band breaking up?
Steve Shelton: Loincloth was never supposed to be a lifestyle. It was just a fun project that brought four metal fans together to pursue their own ideas of what metal could be without the distraction of vocals. One-sixth of a century later, we have at least twice as much recorded material as we envisioned. But trying to keep up with [playing in both Loincloth and Confessor], on top of a job that sucked up six days a week and a marriage that means more to me than music ever could, was getting to be too much. Traveling had become incredibly complicated, schedules seemed like they might never line up, and other musical pursuits were left in limbo while Loincloth turned into something much more permanent than was ever intended. This second album seemed like a perfect point to call it a night.
Steve, you'll obviously keep playing with Confessor?
Steve Shelton: Confessor takes up virtually all my creative time and will be my primary focus. Having more downtime in the last few months has translated into some very fun, focused riff writing and I am getting more and more excited about how things are shaping up for the next album. Being able to take what I learned from the two Loincloth albums and to apply it to this process with Confessor will be an enormous help. I feel like going into the studio for a more normal recording will be a breeze after the intense experiences with Loincloth.