7 HORNS 7 EYES’ AARON SMITH: THE METALSUCKS INTERVIEW
7 Horns 7 Eyes’ debut album Throes of Absolution has been in steady rotation at the Vince Division of the MS Mansion ever since I first laid paws on it in January, and now that it’s finally officially out — after nearly two years of delays — you, too, can hear what I’ve been raving about for the past four months.
Aaron Smith is the engine that makes 7 Horns go. Not only is he their primary songwriter, but he also recorded and mixed Throes entirely by himself. If you’ve heard Jeff Loomis’ new solo record Plains of Oblivion, you’ve heard Smith’s work on the other side of the board already; he recorded and mixed that record, too, as well as countless bands from in and around Smith’s native Seattle.
All that made for a very interesting chat when I caught up with Smith by phone last week. Our chat, below:
The album is finally coming out. Are you stoked?
Definitely, it’s been such a long time coming for this thing.
How long have you been working on this?
We started recording it in early 2009. When we started working on it, we hadn’t been talking to any labels or anything. So the mindset going into it was that since I had the means of getting a pro-sounding record, let’s just put our money together, get a good album recorded and hopefully get that cost out of the way and maybe that would be a better incentive for a label to release it for us.
Before we were even done recording it we ended up having conversations with Solid State, and then being friends with Jeff Loomis it was easy to at least get an audience at Century Media. I totally didn’t think anything would come of it, but Steve Joh at CM really liked the band and kept up with what we were doing and we ended up signing with him. So part of the hold-up was label negotiations. We finished recording and there were still negotiations going on. And then, of course, not long after we signed with CM, our singer decided he wanted to get married and wasn’t sure if he wanted to commit to another five or six years of making records. There’s no hard feelings there but the timing was definitely rough. We had a six month long vocalist search.
No one could have anticipated it taking this long because these songs are three years old but we’re finally here.
And then you had to re-record all the vocals.
We could have put out the album with the old vocalist’s parts, but that wouldn’t make too much sense. Especially if people were attached to what the old vocalist sounded like it would be weird to tell them they’d never actually get to see him live. It sucked that we needed a new vocalist, but we decided that we needed to get a new one and re-do the vocals.
That makes sense, it would have been weird. How long has it been since you finished recording everything except the vocals?
Probably two years since all the guitars, drums and bass were done.
Like you said, some of these songs are three years old, some of them even older. Are you sick of these songs? Do you feel they’re a representation of what the band is now? Do you feel like you’ve moved on and you’re stuck with this old album?
I definitely still feel good about these songs. I still haven’t listened to them that much in the past two or three years. I think they still represent where we’re at today, but obviously being that these songs are two or three years old it’s not like I haven’t written any new music in that time span. I have over a half-hour’s worth of new tunes recorded, just pre-production stuff. The new stuff, you can definitely tell it’s the same band that you hear on Throes of Absolution. But at the same time, I’m always trying to push myself to do things a little differently and write riffs that don’t sound like riffs that I’ve written before. Just trying to take the same kind of idea of cool sections of melodic ambience and huge epic stuff, take some of the same vibes and approach them in a new way. I don’t even know how to describe how we would do that; just basically trying to do something that sounds different than before without being so far removed that people don’t recognize it.
So what’s the writing process like? Is it you on ProTools, writing and recording all the parts and giving them to the guys to play?
That’s a good chunk of it. In the past, when I was younger and in different bands I had more success writing songs in practice with other band members. More recently I feel like I’m totally comfortable and write the coolest stuff when I just lock myself away in a room and come up with a cool riff then record it, program some drums that go along with the vibe that I’m feeling once I have that done, and my brain fills in the rest of the gaps. I can get a lot of good productive stuff done when I’m all by myself with no distractions.
I write a lot of that stuff but at the same time I don’t want it to turn into a dictatorship, where everyone else feels like they have no say where they show up to practice and I tell them this is exactly what you have to do. I do really enjoy involving the other guys in the songwriting process, asking them what they think of a part, or what they think of a structure, what can we do to make this better.
Obviously I’m not a drummer, but I have a pretty good idea of what drum parts I want to hear. Ryan is a great drummer and I love his fills and his ear for things. He generally puts in a lot of his own drum fills and influences the song structure. Sean writes all his own solos of course; I don’t write leads for him or anything. And then my brother Brendan, who plays bass, he can come up with cool little bass touches too, stuff that I wouldn’t think of. So, I feel like we all have a pretty good relationship with each other despite the fact that I sort of put most of the material together. I don’t think anybody is afraid to voice their opinion. I can honestly say that most of the moments of Throes of Absolution are better because of the other guys’ influence. That’s what matters most, that we have the best songs we possibly can. I just want to make a good song.
You haven’t done a lot of touring, or any that I’m aware of outside the west coast. Why is that?
A few years back, before we had signed, there was this contest on Ask the Dude, the website run by Darkest Hour guitarist Mike Schleibaum. They had a contest where a fan from every city in the country could submit a question for The Dude. The winner would get into the Darkest Hour show in their town and The Dude would speak with you personally and help you answer the question. My brother did that and he posed the question, “How does someone go from having a day job, needing to pay bills, to actually going out on tour and making that your main source of income?” He was like, “Well, you know, it’s all about supplemental income. No one actually makes a living off touring.” He said a couple of the guys in the band in Darkest Hour actually go back to work at an ice cream parlor when they’re home from tour. He was talking about how his wife has a college education and her own income, and that’s what helps him be able to tour.
That was eye-opening, because we still had this idea in our heads several years back that maybe if we really go for it that could be how we make our living. We started to realize it’s kind of unrealistic to bank on making a decent amount of money and living off it year round from touring. We always wanted to tour, but the other thing is I’ve heard so many horror stories of bands going out and doing little DIY tours and then coming home having burned off $2,000 of the band’s money. The only real lesson is the fact that it sucks to do DIY tours. We’re like, “Man, is it worth it to go out there maybe having to quit a job and go out for a few weeks at a time, to come back and lose money, only to learn it sucks to do it that way?” That’s what was in our head. We were like, “Well, let’s get a record made, let’s put out a good product that might be attractive to someone and then we can get some more help with touring to make it more feasible than perhaps it would have been just doing it independently.”
You mentioned you had assembled the studio to record this record?
I already had the studio together before we started. I didn’t really seriously pursue recording as a profession until 2004, but even a few years prior to that — with a band I was in in high school, which never amounted to anything — I had been recording that band with another guitar player. I’ve always been really interested in recording, and it wasn’t until 2004 when I got really into it and started accumulating gear and getting serious. When it came time to do our record, I had a good sense of confidence that I could make a legit sounding record and it wouldn’t come across as demo quality or anything like that. We did the drums at a local studio called Fast Back, a really great room, good guys. You can’t record drums in a bedroom really well and have it sound legit. Programmed drums are really cool in my opinion, but I love having the drummer’s real feel in there and having every single hit on the snare drum be its own unique hit. We went and did the drums at a real studio and I engineered that there, but everything else we did with my gear at the house.
Do you do that full time for other bands in the Seattle area?
Yeah, I do that full time now. The last real job I had here was at Albertson’s, a grocery chain out here. I haven’t done that for about a year and a half now. Since then I’ve been recording bands full-time. I haven’t been quite as busy as I’d like to be, but my first label release is this Jeff Loomis record, which has been out for a week now. I’m hoping once this Loomis record gets spread around and people hear it, and then this 7 Horns record, they’ll make some people realize that I’m out here.
How did you get hooked up with Loomis?
There’s a long time friend of mine who I played with in the high school band I mentioned earlier. About ten years ago he started doing monitors at local venues, then front of house and eventually tour managing, so obviously you meet plenty of people when you’re working in a venue. There was a Sanctuary DVD filming, something Loomis was involved with or at the very least hanging around, so my friend met him through that, got his phone number, and had a semi-close relationship with him starting then.
Loomis wanted to upgrade his home recording studio. He used to have this super old-school Boss recorder, probably the same thing he was demoing on in the early ’90s. He was using this old nasty drum sound and getting really tired of it, especially with younger dudes today making much better sounding demos than what he was doing. He had Reason running, which was his initial click. He decided he really wanted to step into the modern era by putting a ProTools rig together, but he didn’t know how to get all that set up the way he really wanted to. So my friend, knowing that I’m pretty well versed in that type of stuff — and midi controllers — called me one day and said, “Loomis needs some help getting his little recording studio running, and since you know about Midi controllers maybe you could come by and figure that out. Would you be interested?” I was like, “Yeah! I love Loomis. Yes, I would love to help him set up his studio.” Loomis actually lives two miles from me, we’re both really close by in the same suburb. Loomis is a super-humble, cool guy and we’ve been friends ever since.
So when it came time for Loomis to do his record, setting up his studio is one thing but that’s a pretty big step to take. I guess he was really impressed.
He had heard the 7 Horns record. Pretty much any production I do, I feel pretty proud about it and when I’m done with it it’s fun to show people, “Hey, check out my latest mix.” So I’ve always showed Loomis different stuff that I’ve mixed over the years and different 7 Horns things I’ve been demoing. He’s pretty familiar with my production aesthetics. Also, a lot of people all the time are asking Jeff to do guest solos for projects; he’s very sought after. He normally calls me up when he needs that, so he and I spend a good amount of time together engineering little things like that, guest spots. The Voyager DVD that Nevermore put out a few years ago, there were a few overdubs to do on that, so I engendered all those overdubs. A couple of vocal parts, a few little bass things. Having that background, we were good friends, we work well together, he likes my flow of things, and he asked me to do it. So I was flattered.
Sounds like a dream come true. Any other projects?
There are a few local bands I’ll slate for next month through the end of the year, but I guess one I could mention is a local band called Shaded Enmity. Their guitar player is Joe Nurre who’s on tour with Loomis right now as his rhythm guitar player. They’re sort of a melodic death metal band, a lot of blast beats. I’ll be doing four songs with them in a couple of months. It depends on what kind of touring lines up for 7 Horns. I’ll have to stick it in between tours
Any final thoughts for the readers of MetalSucks
Just that I’m excited that they’ll finally have the chance to hear the full record if it hasn’t already leaked yet. We’ve got our first tour coming up in about a month; we’re going out for a few weeks with Stealing Axion from Tacoma, WA. Sort of local, labelmates on Inside Out. That’ll be our first time venturing out beyond the west coast. There’s another tour coming up in early-mid July, which I can’t announce yet, but that’ll go full U.S. If you live in the U.S., there’s a good chance you’ll be able to see us play this year.