Exclusive Report: Erik Wunder and the Return of Cobalt
All at once, the subject of Cobalt has come up a bunch of times lately. Creators of one of the most fascinating records of 2009, titled Gin, Cobalt underwent a major line-up change in December. It was the departure of vocalist Phil McSorely and it was not pretty. Plus, that sour episode arrived only months after McSorely’s return to Cobalt, which arrived just weeks after his March departure from Cobalt. So it’s been more than unsavory for composer-instrumentalist Erik Wunder to hatch a follow-up to Gin; it’s been frustrating and slow. And all the while, fans exert steady quanta of pressure as they wait. Like diners waiting for a restaurant table, following with their eyes the movements of the host.
But that’s not why Cobalt keeps popping up in conversation lately. One person mentioned Cobalt in connection with the arrival of May on Friday, noting that we’ll have reached the month before the one Wunder announced as the start of recording long-awaited new Cobalt. Another mention came from a chat about extreme metal albums destined to be viewed as classics of stature (not sound) similar to Seasons In The Abyss and Cause Of Death. Finally, we heard rumblings that Wunder was to be joined by a new collaborator for that new Cobalt album.
The cosmos was telling us something. So we listened: We begged Wunder for an update. Awesomely, he agreed! We sent him some questions by email, and in his answers came a feast of new info to both settle and stimulate fans. He hints at the arrival of a new vocalist, at the album’s projected length, his unusual creative process, McSorely’s spiritual presence and literal absence, and tons more. He even snapped us some new photos! Oh man it feels so good. Read on:
How many songs are written for the new Cobalt album? Do you predict that there will be more composing between now and the day you head into the studio?
EW: The album will have nine main songs, as well as a couple of intro/instrumental type of songs. The new songs are huge, and I’m looking forward to putting the record together. It’s always interesting with Cobalt, because I don’t demo the songs before I go into the studio. I write all of the guitar and drum parts and put it together in my head. So I know the song on guitar, and then I play the drums with the guitar parts going in my head. This makes it a real challenge when I get into the studio. But it’s a challenge I am prepared for.
I like to work under that kind of pressure, when I have to perform and put everything together in the short time I’m in the studio. Another perk of working that way is the songs have a spontaneous kind of energy to them. It’s always amazing hearing the final result, because the songs never end up sounding like they did in my head. It’s a process of carefully piecing everything together until it’s this giant beast that you can’t believe you made.
As far as the song writing for Slow Forever, the parts are all written and finished for guitar, drums, and bass. So when I practice, I’m basically playing through the entire album on each instrument, tweaking parts here and there. So there is going to be some arranging and experimentation between now and when I get into the studio, but the bulk of the music is already written.
Do you have a studio booked at this moment?
EW: Yes. I’ll be working with my good friend Dave Otero at Flatline Audio in Denver, Colorado. Dave has recorded all of the Cobalt albums so far, and it’s always great working with him. He knows how I write songs and how I like things to sound, and we have a good rhythm between us once we’re working in the studio. Dave always has new recording techniques; as I evolve as a musician, he evolves as a sound engineer. The start date for tracking is set for June.
Does former vocalist Phil McSorely have any connection to the new album?
EW: Conceptually yes — but not as far as actual music or lyrics. Phil and I came up with the title Slow Forever when we were in Las Vegas several years ago. I think we came up with the song name ‘Hunt the Buffalo’ on that same trip. And he and I have always shared a lot of the same philosophies on what Cobalt should stand for and what kinds of ideas we want to present: raw impulse, true individual strength, excess, animal instinct, existential thinking, nihilism, and a ‘noble savage’ type of outlook. So those elements/themes are still there, even though Phil isn’t in Cobalt anymore.
Fans want to understand an artist’s vibe in a situation like yours: Six years since last album. Kinda ugly line-up change. Following up an instant classic. Are you the type of person that reacts well to the extra “weight”?
EW: Sure, yeah I would say so. I’m never too worried about outdoing myself or making the new album consciously ‘better’ than the last one. The reaction to Gin was amazing, and it was awesome to see so many people embracing what we were doing and actually ‘getting it,’ so to speak. I mean, I knew that album was fantastic, and the creative juices were flowing in constant waves at that time in my life. I knew I could harness those warrior juices and direct them into the music to make something great.
But I don’t feel any pressure to try to make the new album as good as or better than the past albums. I wouldn’t be creating a new album if I didn’t think it was something important and something that would make a dent in music history. As long as the songs are exciting and powerful to me, I can usually assume others will catch the wave along with me. But Gin aside, I’m still extremely proud of Eater of Birds and even War Metal.
The new album is going to be a beast of similar nature, but more evolved. It sounds like a new Cobalt album. It will be a serious listening experience. When Gin came out I was getting ready to go on tour in Europe with Jarboe, and I moved to New York City. I was concentrating more on Man’s Gin [Wunder’s dark acoustic project] at the time, as I had an actual band together, and we were doing a lot of live shows and writing music as well. In the meantime, we recorded two full-length Man’s Gin records and I did two European tours with Jarboe and a Man’s Gin tour in the US in the meantime, so it certainly hasn’t been dull. Cobalt is always a part of me, and I was still writing riffs here and there, recording them on my tape recorder or computer. But it wasn’t really until this last year that I felt it was time to do another Cobalt album and actually started focusing on that as my main project.
I’ve been back in Colorado, which is the environment I like to write Cobalt records in. It gives me the isolation and concentration I need to put the music together. New York is my second home, but the city is very fast, and Cobalt is a very concentrated, methodical process. I don’t think I could write a new Cobalt record in New York. It wasn’t until I came back to Colorado that I could really get down to business working on the new record. Getting away from constant noise. Going through hours and hours of old demo tapes, writing new parts and sort of letting it all gel together. Reflecting on it, and then directing the final result.
Might you have an abundance of new material? Could you be talked into a double album? Cmonnn.
EW: Haha, it’s funny you mention that, because when I [first estimated the] length of the album, I thought we might have to do it as a double album. It’s right on the edge of being too long for a single CD. After closer examination I realized the record could be made as a single disc. But barely. As far as doing a full double-record, maybe sometime in the future. But I think the 70+ minutes on the new record should be enough satisfy people. I don’t ever want to create something so lengthy that it becomes boring. It’s a fine line.
I like to create big, colossal songs with lots of dynamics and movement, and really get the listener absorbed in what is going on … and then end it at just the right time. I try to make songs so intense that when the song stops, the room is silent for several seconds before anyone says something.
But to get back to the question, a double album wouldn’t be out of the question. The key would be writing a bunch of songs that end up being a double album, not going into it with the mindset of making a double album on purpose.
Of course we welcome all details: album title, song titles, cover art concepts, label, projected release date, tour line-up.
EW: Yes, Slow Forever is the album name, and I can say that the first song is called ‘Hunt the Buffalo.’ Beyond that, the song names haven’t been set in stone yet. I usually leave that partially up to the vocalist. The lyrics in the past have always been a collaboration of Phil’s lyrics and mine — but I’ve always given him most of the freedom with song titles. So it will be a similar process with the as-yet-to-be-announced vocalist.
I’m guessing the album will come out in early 2016 on Profound Lore Records. Possibly late 2015, but 2016 is more probable. We’re not going to rush it. [Profound Lore chief] Chris Bruni is a good friend of mine, and it’s been awesome working with him for the last decade. We’re lucky to have him backing us. And it’s cool to see how far Profound Lore has come as a label since its inception. I’m happy to be a part of it. Touring is certainly in the cards, but that’s not something I’m going to think about until the album is done.
EW: I feel comfortable with where Cobalt is now. I mean, it was a horrible experience having Phil doing what he did and acting the way he did, so I was pretty depressed about the whole ordeal for a while. But I’m the kind of person who keeps pushing forward. One foot in front of the other. I mean, it wasn’t the first time Phil abandoned Cobalt: After War Metal, he joined the army and basically left the band behind with me. So I kept diligently making music, and I made Eater of Birds all on my own. When Phil came back for leave a year later, he couldn’t believe how awesome the album was, and he got really excited to be a part of Cobalt again. We really created an amazing partnership of creativity after that night.
We had the dynamic of me writing all of the music and doing all of the musical direction, and then he would come in when he had time off from the army, we’d work on lyrics. He did vocals in the studio when we were working on a record. That was a truly inspired time for us. We were doing something that we knew was very rare and absolutely original.
But Phil has always been very volatile. And it recently got to the point where we couldn’t work together anymore. So once again I’m left to my own devices with Cobalt. Luckily this is the situation I work best in. I learned to play every instrument for this very reason. I’m comfortable taking full responsibility of it.
As far as Cobalt’s popular storyline of, as you said, “career military guy does extreme metal,” we never really paid much attention to that stuff when we were hanging out or writing songs. Phil never wanted to be known as a military guy who does metal. We were just two people making music. His army career really had no direct relation to the actual substance of what we were doing. It’s always been about the music. Everything else was just white noise as far as we were concerned. And that is the way I’m going to keep Cobalt as I move forward with it. It’s all about the music. It’s about leaving a mark on the world. Making an impact. Creating something that moves people at their core. Making something ultimately bigger than the individuals involved.
We welcome any other thoughts that a Cobalt fan would love to know!
On a side note, I am starting my own record label called Deer Head Records, and I’ll be releasing Man’s Gin Smiling Dogs  on vinyl LP this June/July as my first official release. The label will mostly be a way for me to get Cobalt and Man’s Gin records out on vinyl. I’ll be releasing a CD of Man’s Gin The Rum Demos after Smiling Dogs is out, and I’ll also be doing Cobalt/Man’s Gin shirts. More to come soon …
Photos courtesy of Erik Wunder. Get Cobalt’s classic album Gin here.