Gentry Densley knows the value of a good story. As one half of the Salt Lake City-based doom duo Eagle Twin—he plays guitar, longtime collaborator Tyler Smith plays drums—his love of myth, folklore, and poetry figure as intensely as his devotion to the riff. That, combined with the fact that he’s spent nearly two decades working as a librarian for a Utah county jail, gives Densley a unique perspective on the role that storytelling plays in people’s daily lives.
In conversation, Densley—who spoke with me over the phone earlier this month—is easy-going and plain-spoken, but prone to casually shifting the conversation into some pretty esoteric directions. One minute you may be chatting about ZZ Top, or the influence of jazz guitarist Sonny Sharrock; the next, he’s describing the visions of Comanche war leader Quanah Parker (“He saw this white buffalo that had wings and then it got struck by lightning … and the decaying corpse turned into honey and there were bees, and then the buffalo was back and offered some of his honey and the cycle kind of continued. You know.”)
And then there’s what Densley (who's also known for his long-running post-hardcore/free jazz/avant garde project Iceburn) half-ironically refers to as the Eagle Twin “cosmology," a storyline which is knotted and complex and always evolving. Populated by birds of prey and snakes—among other creatures—it’s a universe heavily informed by the poetry of Ted Hughes (see the band’s 2009 debut, The Unkindness of Crows) and Federico Garcia Lorca (2012’s The Feather Tipped the Serpent’s Scale). For their long-awaited follow-up, The Thundering Heard, the duo turns its attention to the mammalian world. Here, the ever-present snake grows antlers, which rip through the ground like growing trees, while hooved and horned animals flee burning forests.
If that narrative summary isn’t totally clear, it’s best not to get too hung up on the details. Myths, after all, are best approached as figuratively as possible, and, as Smith explains in a separate phone call, “What we’re all about is imagery.” In any case, what really sticks about The Thundering Heard—aside from the fact that it’s arguably the band’s heaviest, most rock 'n’ roll effort to date—is its overarching sense of ecological Armageddon.
“I’ve always taken a certain comfort in the doomed and apocalyptic outlook,” Densley says. “It’s kind of freeing if you can give into the power of the natural world. There [are] certain things you can’t fight.” That deference to nature has always been central to Eagle Twin, and is present in their blues-based sound as much as their lyrics: Densley’s rumbling low-end vocals (heavily influenced by Tuvan throat-singing) roll like summer thunder over earthy guitar tones and riffs that sound like animals calling out warnings. Inspired by hooved creatures, Smith describes his drumming on this record as simpler, “more ‘thuddy’ and more guttural.” Recorded with an old friend, SubRosa’ Andy Patterson, Densley says that Smith was given more freedom than usual to hit as hard as he wanted, adding to the heaviness of the record. “Plus we’ve been honing our gear and our sound for years, trying to simplify and at the same time maximize sonically.”
On paper, the content of The Thundering Heard be a little abstruse, but the music is viscerally accessible, and deeply cathartic. It’s tempting to associate the record with the chaotic present day, but the record had essentially already been recorded as long as two years ago. And “Heavy Hoof,” the record’s menacing, lurching third track, was the first song the duo wrote together after forming Eagle Twin in 2006. “We’ve always kind of kept it in the repertoire,” Densley says. “I think with [“Heavy Hoof”], that was the song that we played for [Southern Lord’s] Greg Anderson, and he was like, ‘I want to put out your records.’ So it does come full circle.”
As often happens in long-standing musical relationships—the two have been collaborators in one way or another since 1998—there’s a holistic, unhurried sense of long-haul commitment to the project. Life, of course, sometimes gets in the way of artistic productivity: Among other distractions, Smith and Densley have both welcomed new children into the world since the release of The Feather Tipped the Serpent’s Scale. But the music always remains, even if it’s sometimes left to grow a little moss.
“When music is part of your life the way it is for Gentry and I, it’s just like anything else,” Smith says. “It’s a permanent fixture and it has to work its way within our daily cycle. The time just seems to go by so quickly: I remember when the last record came out, and it does not seem like six years ago.
“I know that if there are people who were anticipating this record,” he adds with a laugh, “they probably gave up hope a couple years ago.”
In addition to parenting and various other distractions Densley has kept busy with his librarian work. He generally tries not to let his work life overlap with his music or personal life—“They kind of pound that into you,” he says of the jail culture. “You don’t want to cross those lines.” But, he says, providing books to incarcerated people is “incredibly important."
“It’s kind of used as a prisoner management tool, to a degree, but not a manipulative carrot on a stick kind of thing,” he says. “It’s more like, if you give [people] something to engage their minds they can occupy their time [thinking about something] other than who did them wrong or why this guy’s a jerk. … It definitely goes a long way to take the mind to different places, and that’s something someone may not have ever experience because of their circumstances.” And as a result of the library program Densley has seen literary creativity pop up in unexpected ways—one guy, for example, wrote a sequel to Pride and Prejudice called Sons of Pride and Prejudice. “So,” he says with a chuckle, “that’s different.”
I ask his thoughts on a recent (now cancelled) trial program floated by New York State that would have imposed stricter rules on what prison inmates are able to receive while incarcerated, which would have included many kinds of books. “We saw those stories come out, the ones about limiting prisoners,” he says, noting that since that program is mostly focused on restricting what is allowed to be sent into prisons, his situation—essentially working for a library outreach program—is a little different. Nonetheless, where he is, he says, “the officers [overseeing] these kinds of things tend to have a different mindset … and can see the value of what the library is doing. They know that if it went away, they would have some problems.”
Like any good librarian, he’s full of reading recommendations. I ask about the social influence of Mormon culture in Salt Lake City, and he suggests I check out Scott Carrier’s Prisoner of Zion and Jon Krakaur’s Under the Banner of Heaven. His own reading list is heavy on Native American culture and folklore, and he’s a big fan of the Hellboy comics, as well as fantasy writer Manly Wade Wellman's work. And all of it feeds back into the Eagle Twin universe.
Smith, for his part, is fascinated by myth and folklore as an ancient form of entertainment as well as a window into cultural understanding, but “I don’t think I really understood how important passing down stories was until I had kids,” he says. “Now it’s like, what are my values? And what are some ways I can pass down values in an interesting way to my children and make them awesome members of society?”
Ultimately, Eagle Twin is all about “the universality of these stories,” Densley says. “Not, like, ‘who stole the Jesus myth from what pagan,’ or whatever. Just kind of ‘Why does this story exist in the first place?
“I don’t know,’ he adds, after a pause. “It’s a broad concept, but that’s where my spiritual center is: with music and myth.”
Margaret Welsh is chasing legends on Twitter.