EMIL WERSTLER OF DAATH & LEVI/WERSTLER: THE METALSUCKS INTERVIEW
I’ve already expressed my love of Levi/Werstler’s Avalanche of Worms (read my review here) so many times I’m running out of synonyms for “awesome,” so let me just put it this way: it’s one of the best albums of 2010 thus far. And as much praise has been heaped on Emil Werstler – whose day job is playing lead guitar for Daath – he deserves more. If you love great guitar playing, you need to hear this record, and then you need to bow down before Werstler with a cry of “I’m not worthy!” He is, simply put, the man.
Emil recently took time out from the writing and recording of the new Daath album – which, if all goes according to plan, will be out in the fall – to answer some questions for MetalSucks via e-mail. After the jump, learn how he started playing guitar, how he first hooked up Eyal Levi, his secrets for writing a great guitar solo, how he thinks the lessons of AOW will spill over into the new Daath release, and more.
Let’s go back to the very beginning… when did you first pick up the guitar, and what inspired you do so? Are you trained? Self-taught?
I was self-taught up until about seventeen or eighteen. I originally played the piano from about eight until I picked up the guitar at twelve. I never really wanted to practice, but as far as I remember, I always assumed it would be a worthy investment in the end. Once I actually started playing the guitar, It was only an issue of technique due to the harmonic awareness the piano installed. I started out with Testament’s Low and Pantera’s Far Beyond Driven and wound up really getting into more harmonically technical bands like Death and Cynic. Once I acclimated to a more “fused” sound, I got really interested in a straight ahead jazz approach to the instrument. Not dinner music, but the hardcore shit like Pat Martino. I then realized how endless it was, so I decided to go to school to pursue the idea and make sure I wasn’t just being an idiot. All the effort had a profound impact on my perspective. I really do just enjoy playing guitar and seeing how far I can push it more than anything.
How did you and Eyal even meet in the first place? During your site take-over, he said he “convinced” you to join Daath; how did that come about?
I moved to Atlanta when I was eighteen to pretty much get the hell away from the glorious shit-hole Alabama. I was in music school and had no interest in being in a metal band. I was really trying to grasp the harmonic content of a hard bop player. I was introduced to Eyal by a mutual friend named Carter Arrington (who is literally one of the best guitar players out there). I remember him saying, “You guys are really serious and would probably work well together.” I was still really dedicated to doing something outside of metal, so I was not really into the idea of committing to a band just yet. Time had passed, and we would run into each other around town, which eventually led to me dropping by the studio to give him lessons.
Once we started doing the lessons, a lot of the things he’d want to work on was like, “Show me how you would go about playing this,” and that’s pretty much the beginning of us collaborating musically. More time had passed and I was hit up to take on guitar duties on [Daath’s] Futility. It sounded like fun and It made sense because I was growing tired of being around musicians that were soul searching. I then left and moved out of town for about two years to pursue a band I put together while, all along driving to Atlanta on the weekends to just be involved with serious-minded people. Once I realized the band I was in was only going go be as serious as the front man was (which was basically weekend warrior bullshit), I started entertaining the idea of getting involved in another project.
The whole time, I was still involved with Daath, and while my old band was basically deconstructing, I had a meeting with Eyal, who was on the verge of taking the next step and needed a guitar player that would fully commit to taking things to the next level. It took a little time to figure out exactly what I was going to do, but then the singer made things easy for everyone and quit.
I borrowed a bunch of money and moved the whole band down to be closer to our singer, who was experiencing financial problems. Once I got into town and signed a six month lease, he showed up to tell me he was done, which was good because I think him being a musician was part of an identity crisis anyway. I started teaching again, and wound up building a large student body. I was teaching around fifty-four students a week, and playing with whatever band needed a guitar player that evening.
I always said “I’m not moving back to Atlanta unless I have a good reason” due to the fact I was twenty-two and raking in cash teaching and playing guitar with whoever. I then remember hearing “Check your email, the final draft of the record deal is in there.” We’ve been making moves ever since.
How did the idea to do a non-Daath project come about? Were any of the songs on Avalanche of Worms initially considered for Daath material? Was there any tension within Daath when you guys told the rest of the band you two were doing a project without them?
We did some work on the Guitars That Ate My Brain compilation, and shortly after got the offer from Magna Carta. The material had 100 percent nothing to do with Daath. it was written or contributed to this project whenever we had downtime. The rest of the guys have been totally cool about it. I think stepping out and recording AOW will only benefit Daath in the long run anyhow. If we have the opportunity and are capable of putting out more than one record every two years, why not?
How did Sean Reinert get involved with the project?
Magna Carta asked us to compile a list of potential drummers we would like to work with. Reinert was definitely the first person that came to mind, but we did not know the possibilities [of that being realistic] due to building a schedule and figuring everything out. It turned that out he was interested, and we wound up touring with Cynic shortly after. I am very stoked that things worked out the way they did. I have quite a fan of Sean’s playing for years.
How, if at all, did the songwriting process for AOW differ from that for Daath?
With Daath, we develop songs in more of a group fashion. Most guys in the band are present while songs are in their infant stages, shedding their parts until it is time to track them for real. AOW was written and recorded in its entirety by two guitar players, then sent off to Sean in L.A. Once we got the drums and bass, we were in the studio with Mark Lewis tracking parts and mixing the record simultaneously until it was sent off to be mastered. Also, there was a different “filter” when it came to deciding what kind of riffs were appropriate for the song. There are less preconceived intentions in virgin territory. In other words, we know how we want things to sound in Daath. In the case of Levi/Werstler, there were more foreign elements to acclimate ourselves to, which made the record sort of take on its own identity.
We enlisted our artist Jorden Haley to give the record a listen and name the songs based on what he heard. He did a great job and we have been getting great feedback about it. We did this because we’ve always felt ridiculous having to name a song with no lyrical content. We also wanted to be as far away from other solo records as possible and do our own thing. Having a track name like “Dura Mater” is a lot better than “Harmonic Hemorrhage” or “Brutality In Drop C” – that would really bum me out. Jorden might as well be listed as a band member. He’s been a bro for so long and always sharpens our statement with his art.
One of the tracks on AOW that really caught my attention is “Trepanation and Bliss” – it’s super short, but it still stands out because it’s the first time I’ve ever heard you guys do anything acoustic. I assume the approach to creating acoustic material differs in some ways from the approach to material on the electric guitar…? Any plans to do any more acoustic stuff?
You never know. Eyal actually wrote that song on an electric. He then thought it would sound better on acoustic. Really cool stuff. We have always been fond of acoustic guitar on recordings. I’m sure it will happen again at some point in time – possibly on the new Daath. I think if there is an acoustic around the studio it would eventually get used on something.
How planned out are your guitar solos in advance of recording them?
Some of my solos are laid down during the writing process and make it on the record as is. Other times, I’ll lay a solo, and rewrite the weaknesses, or adjust notes while the song develops, like on “Dura Mater.” Oddly enough, some of the solos go through a weird phase of me writing something as a place holder and then at the last minute, something completely different comes out. A good example of this would be the solo on “Wilting The Vine.” I never even know a lot of the time.
Eyal has discussed his hatred of shredding for the sake of shredding; since you’re a lead guitar player and you just recorded an instrumental album, how do you approach this particular issue? In other words, where is the line between “betcha can’t play this” and keeping some sense of song structure in your soloing?
I think really as long as a line or phrase is musical and honest, then it is just a matter of taste. In the case of “shredding for the sake of shredding” I feel the same as Eyal. The song has to really call for what you do as a player. I definitely come from the Nuno Bettencout school of “treat your solos like a miniature song.” I think there is only so far a lot of notes can go. Composition, tension and release – these are things I’m fond of because they are in all great solos on other instruments as well. As far playing fast for sake of sounding fast, I think it is like computer graphics in a movie. It can rule at the time, but four years later it looks dated. Composition is where it is at.
When you did that video for Guitar World awhile back, some people accused you of speeding it up or cheating – you actually posted a second video showing you performing it in a room full of people to prove that you could, indeed, play that lick. What goes through your mind when someone talks some shit like that – “Oh, he can’t really play that?”
It’s all hilarious to me, and anyone that knows me personally. I’m a high strung person, yes. I walk fast and talk fast, but I could give two shits about playing fast for sake of playing fast, so it’s laughable that people would assume I’d go to that length. If anything, I’m not doing myself a favor by showing that side of my playing. These days, if I do anything besides jar the fuck out of people with speed, everyone thinks it’s garbage. That is a good amount of modesty speaking though. The other side of me is thinking, “People actually think my ‘Betcha Can’t Play This’ is so fast they are accusing me of speeding it up?” The problem is people’s perception of speed. That speed ain’t shit compared to Oscar Peterson, Shawn Lane, or Jason Becker on an off night.
I think Eyal has addressed this in some other interviews, but just once more for the record, why can’t I go see Levi/Werstler live again? Is there any way I can convince you to incorporate a song or two from AOW into Daath’s set?
Unfortunately, it is just a logistical issue. Cynic and Daath are two very busy bands and we live on completely different sides of the country. I can give you a lot of reasons why it won’t work out, but instead I’ll just say that we’d love to do it. As soon as the next Daath record is done, we will certainly be talking about the next Levi/Werstler and most likely writing riffs for it. I’d like to have another Levi/Werstler record out in 2011. I can say with two Levi/Werstler records available and more of a demand for the project live, it will be much more possible.
Now that AOW has been out for almost a month… if you could change any one aspect of the recording, what would it be and why? (It’s perfectly okay to say “Nothing, it’s perfect, fuck off.”)
I would not change a thing. It’s not like we knew what every detail of the record before it was written. It was more like an opportunity that we jumped on and it maintained the fun element all the way through. I’m very proud of the record. Some of the solos on it are more me than I’ve ever been on any other record. I’d like to expound on this with the next Daath and Levi/Werstler. LOL
Absolutely. We learn a ton every time we make a record, so having another notch on the belt is great. All the other Daath dudes have been busy doing other things that are going to make this next Daath release a fit of rage musically. As far as spillover goes, [From Exile’s] Eric Guenther is spearheading the synth department on this next Daath record. This will not only improve our overall sound, but free the rest of us up from synth duties and allow us to focus on other things.
Speaking of the new Daath album, can you give us a little tease of what you guys have in store? How it’s coming along, how will it be similar/different from its predecessors, etc.?
So far, it has more synth and is much heavier and pouncing than anything Daath has done up until now. The verse/chorus moments are catchier than ever, and the in-depth musical stuff is out of control! The vibe on this record is either extremely wreckless and groovy, or horribly sad and sometimes angry. I feel like we’ll be on a new level once this thing sees the light of day. If The Concealers got people’s attention, this one will make them believers. It stomps in a very hateful way, which makes sense. We’ve all been through a lot since The Concealers was recorded.
Finally… have you ever considered quitting music to either start your own religion or in some other way follow your “intensive purposes?”
Ha! No. Not at all. If I wasn’t put on this planet to do what I do, I like to think I’ve earned my keep by sacrifice and hard work. I’m too deep in this to turn back, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Levi/Werstler’s debut album, Avalanche of Worms, is out on Magna Carta, and you can order a copy here. You can also follow the project on MySpaceand Facebook. Daath hit the studio this month; their new album will tentatively be out in October.