This story is over 5 years old.


Toppling the Ivory Towers With VHÖL's Sigrid Sheie

Stream the new VHÖL album and read the bassist, piano professor, and new mom's thoughts on creation, why keyboards get a bad rap, and how she secretly hopes her son grows up loving Iron Maiden.

Photo by Craig McGillivray

Right now, and as always, creation is a huge theme in Sigrid Sheie's life. She's a classically-trained musician and adjunct music professor at the University of San Francisco who's been active as a bassist, keyboardist/pianist, vocalist, and flutist in the Bay Area's fertile music scene since she moved there from her Midwestern hometown over a decade ago. During her time by the Bay, she's played gigs, toured, and recorded multiple albums with Amber Asylum, Hammers of Misfortune, and her latest project, a don't-call-it-a-supergroup meeting of musicians called VHÖL. The latter is about to release a new record, Deeper Than Sky (out October 23 via Profound Lore), while Hammers of Misfortune is putting finishing touches on a long overdue follow-up to 2011's 17th Street.


Between practicing with her bands, teaching her students at USFCA, and working on her lounge act with Slough Feg vocalist and former Hammers bandmate Mike Scalzi (seriously), free time is already a fairly foreign concept for Sheie—and amidst all that, she's currently raising a new baby with her partner in life (and in music), John Cobbett. It's no wonder she sounded just the slightest bit tired when I called her up at home; she's spent the past year in a constant mental and physical state of growth, change, and creativity, and had just put the baby down for a nap.

Her latest creation alongside Cobbett and old friends and bandmates Aesop Dekker (Agalloch) and Mike Scheidt (YOB, Lumbar) , Deeper Than Sky, is an engrossing listen. It's also a challenging one—it demands a lot from a listener, and keeps you guessing in ways that few other bands can. The band's entire ethos is rooted in experimentation and gleeful weirdness, and this second helping of their strange, progressive, crusty space-thrash is definitely an album worth chewing over.

Listen for yourself, and check out our conversation below.

Noisey: Hey Sigrid! Congrats on the new record, people seem to be really loving it.

Sigrid Sheie

: Yeah, we’re happy with the end results. It was a challenging record to make for a lot of reasons, but it’s especially nice when people seem to dig it, makes things worthwhile.

What made it so challenging?
Well, I think all records are challenging, but as I guess you know, we finished basic tracks and then I had a baby! Tristan was just a couple of weeks old when John returned to doing guitar tracks so it was an interesting time, and getting it all finished and tracked and mixed with an infant was challenging.


That’s a double shot of creativity right there— you brought a new person into the world, and then had to get this record out there, too.
It’s funny, ‘cause John and I used to joke that whenever he was writing a new record or a record came out, it was sort of like giving birth, and he was sort of the mother and I was the proud papa cheering him on. Now he got a real-life dose of that! Sometimes it feels like that, giving birth, when you’re making a record.

Did having the baby around change the dynamic while you were working on the record?
Well, most of my work for the VHÖL record was done by the time I was about 8.5 months pregnant; for the Hammers record, there was more work done after Tristan was born. It was more work on John, just finding the time; he was kind of split. I was on maternity leave, and he had to go finish tracking. In terms of the dynamic when we were writing and recording to do basic tracks, you know, I don’t think it changed a whole lot—except that I was crabbier, because I had a lot of back pain and a few more pounds, and I probably couldn’t practice as long as I would have. The guys were really sympathetic; Aesop and Mike had gone through it before with their kids, so they took good care of me.

You’re all such veterans by now, it’s hard to imagine you having to practice much; what is it like when you get together in the rehearsal space?
We work hard, and still have to practice. You’re never at a point where you don’t have to practice. When we do get together, and especially when preparing for this record, we had a lot of parts to work out. It’s technically a pretty challenging record, so just getting bass and drums tight, it takes a lot of work. While we have a lot of fun—Aesop is a joker, and he’s always cracking jokes and making funny remarks—we’re pretty serious about it too. When the music clicks, there’s joy in that, too. When you work hard at something and it keeps getting better, that aspect to me is really fun, to hear how everything is going to finally sound. So, I would say that a fun part is practicing.


Photo by Sarah Brady

It sounds a bit like speed-raising a kid—you’re creating the record, putting it out, hoping people will like it and that it’ll do okay out in the world…
Conception is really fun, but then it’s a lot of work!

As a new parent, do you have a secret part of you that hopes your kid is going to get into metal and punk rock?
Yeah, I hope he likes Iron Maiden and Judas Priest and all those great bands because it’s great music. John and I joke that we don’t him to be a musician but like, an astrophysicist or something like that, just because we have struggled being artists and musicians. It’s not this straightforward path where you make tons of money and everything is laid out for you, but there’s something awesome in that too. I want him to be able to have a good ear for music and have good taste, but if he likes, I don’t know, the boy bands of 2025, then we’ll have to listen to that. We’ll see what happens. He may be a conservative Republican, who knows? We’ll just have to love him anyway.

Your own musical resume is kind of all over the place—besides playing in VHÖL and Hammers of Misfortune, you’re classically trained, and also used to play at punk bands. How did you get into metal?
Well, I moved to Oakland from Minneapolis, and I was playing in a punk band called Menstrual Tramps. I was playing flute in an Irish drinking song band with Aesop, and it was very interesting, but I wanted to play bass again, and I really hadn’t been playing piano or keyboards at all during that time. I was introduced to John at a Lucifer’s Hammer show and my friend was told him, “she’s a bass player, you should audition her!” because they were looking for a bass player/singer. That’s where I met John, and I’d say that’s how I started getting more into metal. I had really been more into the punk scene prior to that, but meeting John and hanging out with him and sharing a lot of his favorite records was a big influence on me.


Being able to share something like that with someone you care about makes that kind of musical discovery even better.
Yeah, it was this whole kind of new world for me that I knew about, and I knew a lot of the bigger bands, but hearing bands like Storm for the first time, I was just like, wow, blown away. Stuff like that that I would have never have found. And when we were talking about me getting into Hammers I didn’t end up being the bass player/singer because I don’t have the commanding lead singer voice, so John wanted me to play keyboard. I was like, “Well, I don’t know,” because to that point I had hated keyboard in metal bands and punk bands because I thought it was kinda cheesy, but he started showing me things like early Genesis and I was like ‘Okay, I get it, keyboards can be really cool.’

Yeah, they still get a bad rap.
They do! I mean, I understand why, I think people misuse them. They can sound really cheesy and digital, and I think that’s terrible, and we really tried to avoid that with Hammers. And getting back to VHÖL, when John and Aesop put VHÖL together, and asked me if I would play bass, it was great to come back to where I started on this whole process into the metal world. It was coming full circle; it was kind of exciting, and now I get to do both, and to me that’s the ideal situation.

You did get some keys in there, though. "Paino” is the most metal piano song I’ve ever heard!
Are there other examples of thrash piano? It’d be great if we can create a subgenre! [laughs] The name for “Paino” came from a student I had when maybe she was 7 or 8 years old; she brought me a sticker on a window decal, a little craft project she did with her mom, and she meant to write “piano” but wrote “paino,” which I just thought was the funniest thing. It’s still sitting on a window in our practice room.


In your day job as a piano professor at the University of San Francisco, you work with young musicians all the time. What have you learned from teaching them about music?

One of the greatest things about teaching is how much you learn from teaching. Just teaching every day can improve your own musicianship. That’s one thing, you realize shortcuts and ways of getting to where you want to go faster because you have to help someone else navigate it. If you need to look at a song in a different way to get an end result, that’s something you can find out teaching. But I also think that you realize that you can’t make assessments about students and kids right away. There are people that are inherently talented at music, and then there are people who seem like they’re not at first but then something fits. The idea is that everyone has the ability in them. I think that’s changed my perspective of people over the years; I don’t know if it has changed anything in myself as a metal musician, but as a person it has.

Do your students know you’re in a bunch of metal bands?
Some do. The college students occasionally will Google me and find out, or find out through their peers. Sometimes I tell my younger kids if they seem interested. I’ve even invited students to come see me play. It’s not something I hide, and I think kids feel a little more comfortable with me because of that. I’m not a typical stuffy classical teacher, and I think that helps them to feel more at ease.


You straddle the academic and the metal worlds, so I’m sure you noticed the uptick in certain circles of people trying to interpret metal through an academic lens. As an academic, do you think it makes sense to do that?
I certainly think it can be studied; I think the music is intricate enough and complex enough to have a valuable form and analysis type study. You can break down all the parts, and could apply music theory so easily to metal music and really learn something from it. From a sociological perspective? I don’t know. That’s a good question. I think there’s a kind of danger, even in classical music, where when we study it, we study the masters—like Beethoven is a mythical god figure that’s done no wrong. I think we get a little detached from the music, and when we break down some of those barriers, it’s easier to understand and play, if it relates to your life more. If you find a deeper understanding of it, it’s not just pieces or a score in an ivory tower that we worship. A danger is that it can get stuffy or dry, and I don’t want that to happen to metal. And I think by doing a lot of academic study on certain bands or on legendary musicians, it might help understand them further, but you could also argue that it may distance them more. That’s what I think.

Circling back to your bands, you just finished a new Hammers record, right? That‘s like your third baby this year.
We’re done on Wednesday night! Having one record and having a baby was enough, but we decided to do two, ‘cause we’re crazy [laughs]. That was another crazy challenging endeavor, and finishing it is such a relief. It doesn’t feel real. That was done over in kind of two sessions. Not only did we have Tristan but our singer, Joe Hutton, was in a really bad motorcycle accident. His entire pelvis is held together with screws, and miraculously he is walking without canes. He’s singing, he’s back to 100% of his voice, and it’s a miracle. We’re playing a show on October 24, almost a year to the date of the accident. It’s sort of a triumph for him, and us, and the fact that this record even got made is kind of incredible so… yeah, we’re ready for a little vacation.

About a year ago, you did a show with Mike Scalzi with you two trading off piano and vocals; will we ever see that again?
Yeah, we’ve actually been rehearsing pretty regularly! We’re going to do another gig soon. Mike has such a unique, wonderful voice, and we had talked years ago about putting together a Sinatra-style lounge act, and we finally did it. We performed once, back a year and a half ago, and we’re trying to get ready to perform again, maybe make a recording of it. It’s pretty fun and lighthearted—it’s me on piano, him singing, occasionally he’ll play guitar.

Do you think you'll ever make a solo record?
I never have. If I ever feel that I have a strong point of view that I have to get off my chest, I’ll do it. I’m not there right now, and I don’t consider myself a composer. If I did anything… I had this idea of doing gothy doomy versions of Ulver’s Nattens Madrigal, and when I have time, maybe I’ll pursue something of that. I’d have to figure out a lot of stuff first!

Kim Kelly is reliving the locust years on Twitter.