Photo by Michelle Pullman
Early on in Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel, Slaughterhouse Five, the narrator describes his breath after a night of heavy drinking with the phrase “mustard gas and roses.” Those words are repeated several times throughout the novel. However, its most significant use is saved for the last few pages, to give weight to a graphic depiction of a corpse mine during the waning days of World War II.
The phrase's pointed contrast between sadness and beauty is prevalent in the LA-based instrumental group that bears its name. Mustard Gas and Roses is the brainchild of former Isis guitarist Michael Gallagher; originally a solo side project during his time with post-metal stalwarts Isis, it became a full-time affair after a period of inaction following Isis’ dissolution. Now the band is gearing up to release Becoming, an album that strives to find hope underneath the rubble of a lost generation. The title track (which we're debuting below) is an anomaly, with its patient vocals and more structured design, though the weaving guitar melodies and strident rhythm work are highlights that runs through the entire record.
If the band name didn’t make it seem obvious enough, Gallagher is a huge Vonnegut fan, which seeps not only into the music, but his own personal views on the unstable political and social environment around us. I called him up to talk about it ahead of Becoming's release (the album's out October 14 via The Mylene Sheath).
Noisey: What immediately caught my attention about the band is your name, based on a phrase from Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. What was it about Mustard Gas and Roses that stuck with you?
Michael Gallagher: I think it was Roberto Benigni in Down by Law that said, "It's a sad and beautiful world," which it is, and that quote is indicative of that, I feel. That quote encompasses to me a full range of emotional perspective. A lot of what I feel I am as a human is incorporated into that.
With that being said, is this band a way for you to show off that full range of emotional perspective?
That's a fair question. I've expanded my palette since we started doing this. I've been trying to push myself in ways I haven't in a while. That has been extremely rewarding and also very scary, as any artist of any field would tell you. I'm peeling back some of the layers and seeing what's underneath and having at it, which is extremely exciting.
Is it tougher to peel back those layers of yourself when the music on Becoming is largely instrumental, save for the title track?
Yes, it is. That is changing, though. I wrote a riff about a month and a half before we went into the studio. The time was already booked, and I thought, 'Okay, this will be our last song. I think we can go good places with this.' I wrote a song and then I wrote lyrics for it. I said, 'I've never sang, so we'll see what happens.' Obviously, it was terrible, but it got a little bit better. Then we recorded it. Since then, I've been wanting to push that a bit further.
Bryan (Tulao, guitarist) is busy with Chelsea Wolfe, and he and Sasha (Popovic, drummer) have also been on tour with their other band, so we haven't been doing much as far as practicing, so I've been using this time to write more material for whenever it is we get in the same room together again. So far, of the five songs I have written, four have lyrics. It is more difficult to explore that range with instrumental music, but I think there are ways to do it. You can layer some interesting things on there and color it in such a way that will ideally take the listener to fun and interesting and scary and beautiful places.
What is it about Vonnegut's writing that first caught your interest?
The first book of his I read was Slaughterhouse Five, and that really got me, but it took a while to sink in. What really turned me into a slightly rabid fan was a scene description from Hocus Pocus. The main character is in the Macy's in New York and the elevator he's in breaks down. The main character is a young child, somewhere around seven. It's the scariest thing that's ever happened to this kid. He's terrified, he doesn't know what the heck is going on, what he's going to do.
The door opens up finally, after so many minutes of complete and utter stress and terror, and it's business as usual. Everyone's walking around the floor like nothing’s happened. The kid saw this and thought to himself, "Why is there not a parade for me now? I was such a good boy. I didn't freak out. I did everything right." He really wanted acknowledgement and validation and celebration for his good behavior, and that was exactly what it was like for the Vietnam vets coming home. When he landed there, I was like "Holy shit! This is a guy that looks at the world in an incredible way." I think it was realizing the gravity of that quote for me, and that's what got me.
With as much Vonnegut as you’ve read, has his views of the world rubbed off on you in any way?
I'm sure it has now. I see it more now when I pick up one of his books again. The wheels start turning again in that direction. I'm pretty sure they're always turning in that direction, but I just don't know it or I'm not that aware of it. Little magical things he does...okay, so he wrote a letter to these kids that was passed around on social media a while ago. It was a writing class, like, "Oh, what can you say that's inspiring to these students?" He said, 'Just write for you. Write everything down on a tiny piece of paper and make it as beautiful as you can or as stupid as you can and throw it away.' That's not critical. It's just express yourself and love what you do.
Though Mustard Gas and Roses is an instrumental band, did any of Vonnegut's work seep into the music tonally?
I think the sadness and the beauty has. I'd like to think of it as both of those things. Especially with the new record, I think there's a fair amount of joyous moments on it too. His range of emotions is present in the band, but as far as specifics, I don't really think so.
What's your favorite work from Vonnegut?
I go back and forth between Hocus Pocus and Slaughterhouse Five. I think it depends on which one I have most recently read.
No love for Cat's Cradle?
Oh, it's great! I like that one too. I feel more at home with those two books though, especially Slaughterhouse Five, which is such a weird and fun ride.
What do you think Vonnegut would think about the current political state here, especially with the presidential election going on right now?
So, take this all with a grain of salt, as I have a hard time putting words in people's mouths. However, I will say that it seems to me that he would perceive it as all part of the deal. It's just the direction that the wind is blowing right now. Of course it's happening like this, because it's meant to happen like this.
Dan Marsicano is trapped in the amber of the moment on Twitter.