Tuesday, August 26, 2008

OJ OJEDA interview...The BYZANTINE man brings it!

Sometimes life just isn’t fair. One of those times, many years back, I was working in a record store and met a woman who was as close to a perfect “10” as I’ve ever seen, she was into metal, was single and thought my jokes were funny. She was also, as it turned out, a lesbian. Another time, I found out about a band from West Virginia called BYZANTINE. On the advice of another very astute writer (from The Ripple Effect), I picked up their 2008 release “Oblivion Beckons” and discovered that they combined the savage aggression of prime-time Pantera, the lead guitar prowess of a Danish guy named Hank and the creativity and melodic sense of the very highest order. I also found out they’d ceased operations as a band only a few days after the release of “Oblivion…” which was their 3rd album. And yet, so impressed was I with this shiny circular disc that I contacted guitarist/vocalist OJ Ojeda to discuss his band’s relatively short tenure. I discovered that he’s quite a thoughtful, cool guy who was willing to share a wealth about BYZANTINE, as well as the knowledge that the future may contain hope. (BYZANTINE was/is rounded out by: Tony Rohbrough – guitars, Michael Cromer – bass, Matt Wolfe – drums. )

RAY - I’ve always liked to think of myself as a pretty in-the-know kinda guy when it comes to heavy music, but once again I’ve been proven to be a complete ignoramus. You see, until I got a great tip on BYZANTINE from The Ripple Effect guys, I didn’t know anything about your band at all. So…with that in mind, I’m figuring there may be some readers in the same boat as well. Could you give us a little bit of history as far as how you came along becoming interested in music, your influences, how it led to the formation of BYZANTINE & what happened to have the band reach it’s current non-working status, just days after the release of your 3rd album?

OJ - A brief history of Byzantine is this… I decided to start another band in the summer of 2000 after my college band, New Family, disbanded. I brought along the drummer and bassist of New Family (Jeremy and Cid) and contacted a mutual friend of mine, Tony Rohrbough, after his band had broken up. He was playing for the Century Media band Chum for a while. We wrote some songs and gigged out once. Our drummer then quit after the first gig and we decided to go at it as a 3 piece with a drum machine. We did this for around 2 years. During that time we recorded two demos which got in the hands of Chris Adler from Lamb of God. He contacted us about opening for them on some shows supporting their upcoming album “As The Palaces Burn”. By this time we had found our 2nd drummer, Matt Wolfe. We gigged with LoG for about a week and they got us in contact with EJ Johangten at Prosthetic Records who then signed us for a 3 album deal. So basically fast forward 4 year later and we finished our contract with Prosthetic with the release of “Oblivion Beckons” and decided not to resign with a label. Now we are on a “hiatus” raising babies and whatnot.

RAY - As I’ve proven already, I never make things easy on myself. This includes such things as bowling tenpins off my wrong foot, purchasing a daycare center with my wife at age 47 and beginning my BYZANTINE listening with your 3rd album and working back. I have gone back and listened repeatedly to all 3 of your records and find the progression interesting. “The Fundamental Component” (2004) is striking in it’s combination of brutal riffing and aggression while mixing in quite unique lead guitar soloing and advanced song structures. 2005’s “…And They Shall Take Up Serpents” is an interesting development in that, while the fundamental components (I know, I should be shot) of the first disc are there, there’s a distinct nod toward a kind of southern, NOLA-sort of feel in something like “Red Neck War.” Then, to me, the development with “Oblivion Beckons” is just staggering. I mean, I just listened to it again and damn it, I’m staggering all It is one of the most unusual, different aggressive metalJover the place. records I’ve ever heard. Care to comment or have I dismayed you by getting everything completely wrong?

OJ - No, you are right. Each album is a little different from the others for a reason. The first album “ The Fundamental Component” was mostly written before we were signed. A lot of the songs were penned by myself and I was listening to a lot of Meshuggah at that time. On “…Serpents”, the writing was split up more between Tony, Wolfe and myself. The melding of our 3 styles brought about a more diverse and more southern feel to it. I thought it made for a good evolution. When we recorded “Oblivion Beckons”, we landed a new bassist (Skip Cromer) who became a part of the writing team as well so the 3rd album had four writers which expanded our palette even further. I believe each album stands alone and most of our fans have different albums they like the best which keeps it interesting for them and ourselves as well.

RAY - I have to say that the cover art of “Oblivion Beckons” is completely striking. What is it supposed to represent…or is it the kind of thing that can represent different things to different people, in your opinion?

OJ - It was the concept of our friend, Donnie Searls who took the photograph. Donnie directed our music video for “Jeremiad” and also directed our DVD, “Salvation”. He never really explained what the cover meant but we all agreed the simplicity of it was striking and juxtaposed well with the music. The cover is actually his girlfriend. She is double jointed and was able to pull her arms back, looking as if she was an amputee. He made a wrap dipped in week old coffee and wrapped her head with it and then placed a jawbone of a deer in the skull portion. It turned out pretty cool! She is also the dead girl in our video as well.

RAY - I noticed that, with “Oblivion…” all 4 guys in the band are listed as playing lead guitar. This is quite unusual. Did you watch YouTube videos of Blue Oyster Cult doing “ME 262” one too many times or did you decide you just wanted to upstage Colossus in the lead axe # department. Seriously, the soloing on the record, including the acoustic interludes, is breathtaking. How did you work out who was going to do which leads?

OJ - Actually, we planned this out right after Skip joined the band. You see, Byzantine was a band comprised of 4 guitar players. Our drummer and our bassist are both excellent guitarists who decided to play other instruments for the band. We thought it would be a cool idea to have all of us take a solo in one song for extra wankery! Over the course of the album, most of the soloing is done by Tony, who is head and shoulders above the rest of the band on gutiar. I pull a couple of solos out of my ass every album just for fun but I am mainly a rhythm guy. Our drummer mostly writes the acoustic stuff. He wrote and played the acoustic intro to “Redneck War” and the instrumental “Renovatio”.

RAY - RED LIGHT CHALLENGE! What is the weirdest thing that a woman attending a BYZANTINE show ever said to you…allowing for the fact that any women ever attended a BYZANTINE show and weren’t afraid to talk to you anyway?

OJ - No women ever attended a Byzantine show!!! It was always full of sweaty fat guys who were into comic books and could play better guitar than us! HAHA. I do have one memory. We played a festival in Boston 2 years ago and after we played we had to be rushed to the signing tent. We were scheduled in the tent right after Disturbed. They walked out, we walked in. We saw a big line for us and we were like “FUCK YES!!!” But over half of the people in the line thought we were Disturbed and that I was David Dramian. I had some dude yell in my face “I’m down with the Sickness!” And then did that monkey thing Dramain does!” We started signing every thing “We suck cock” and “Disturbed blow horses”. That was a fun signing.

RAY - You guys are/were from West Virginia, a place never really known as a hotbed for metal (sheesh, like Baltimore ever was!). What kind of effect, positive or negative do you think that had on the development of the band, gigging, etc.?

OJ - I think it had a plus minus effect. The minus is that it took forever for us to get a fan base since there are not a lot of venues to play in WV and people are so spread out. The plus is that we were not inundated with other forms of metal. We were free to choose what style we wanted since WV was not a hotbed for a certain style. I think that helped us form a uniqueness that a lot of bands from urban areas might not have. We were able to pull from all genres and not sound so “cookie cutter”.

RAY - I’m interested in the lyrical concepts in your music. Being of advanced age, it’s kind hard for this ol’ scribe to read the words in the CD inserts and let’s face it…while I love the kind of aggressive vocals on a lot of your stuff, it doesn’t always make following things easy while listening. Could you take a few, say maybe 3, songs off “Oblivion Beckons” and give us a sort of synopsis, a snapshot of what they’re all about? I always considered 3 to be “a few.” Moreover, I also have always thought of a shitload as “about 20.” You think?

OJ - 20 is a shitload! If someone says to me, “Can you get those 20 bricks and bring them over here?” I would be like, “Man, that’s a shitload of bricks!” Anyways…
Centurion - This song is drawing comparisons between the guys I grew up with who had to go underground and mine coal to make a living and the guys I grew up with who had to go to war in Iraq to make a living. It is all about sacrifice. I know too well about this since my 1st cousin was killed in Iraq two years ago by a roadside bomb. Soldiers and coal miners are very similar… they never know if today’s shift will be their last.
The Receiving End of Murder - This song is basically a big FU to our record label. We had a bad relationship over most of our contract with them. It was very hard to get one guy from Los Angeles, CA to see eye to eye with four guys from Tree Stump, WV. We got chewed up and spit out and the only real help we got was from bigger bands who dug our music and us as people. So this song was about the stifling we felt and how good it was going to be to breathe again.
A Residual Haunting - This song basically was spelling out in no uncertain terms the end of the band as we knew it. A residual haunting is a term for a ghost or apparition that gets caught in the fabric of time and plays itself out over and over again. We want our music to be like that. A snapshot in time that people can go to and get the same feeling again and again via our music. The last paragraph in the song basically lets everyone know that we were done… for now. Kinda like the end of a good trilogy.

RAY - “Oblivion…” has, like I said, a real “breath of fresh air” feel to it, like you’re taking a form of music that’s somewhat familiar and then stretching it, expounding upon it and basically raising it to some previously unreached plateau…sort of like chewing up a whole bunch of Altoids and then washing ‘em down with an ice cold drink all at once. In that sense, it reminds me of a disc from a few years ago by Orphaned Land called “Mabool.” I relish the fact that, even on repeated listens, I’m never completely prepared for it? Am I just babbling at this point?

OJ - Yes, sir… this sounds like babble. But if babble is in our favor than babble on! We appreciate all forms of positive reinforcement babble!

RAY - I notice from your myspace site that you just had a new baby, OJ. First off, congratulations to you and your wife. Secondly, does having children affect or influence the way you write, or how you consider your music in any sense? We (my wife and I) have 5 ourselves and I’ve had a completely different view on a lot of things since they came along.

OJ - It affects it immensely. First off, I don’t have nearly as much time to play guitar or write music but that is quite alright. Everything has its place and for 8 years Byzantine was top priority and now my family is top priority. I just hope when the time comes to write some evil shit, I still have it in me.

RAY - I see that you’re working on a solo release, doing some covers of classic metal/thrash stuff. What was the motivation for that and how’s it been coming along?

OJ - Right now I am working on a cover album of my favorite thrash tunes from the 80’s and 90’s. It will be recorded under the name Black Cap Miner. I have always liked rerecording other bands stuff on my home pc studio so I thought now I have the time to do it for real. I have also wanted to collaborate with friends that I have met through the music byz and this is the chance to do that. I am getting some badass shredders from other signed bands to play on this so watch for it. It should be ready to unveil sometime late Fall 2008!. www.myspace.com/blackcapminer

RAY - Would that possibly see a release on Prosthetic, like the BYZANTINE stuff?

OJ - Hell no! I might actually make enough to break even if I do it myself. Prosthetic was like a bank, a lending institution with a high APR. They give you a little cash to do a project and then no matter how hard you work, you seem to owe more than you took! I will keep this one indy, thank you…

RAY - Back to the ol’ West Virginia thing, isn’t there a place up near Harper’s Ferry where West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia all come together? I’m thinking there is, because when I was younger, I once fell off a horse near there. Have you ever fallen off of anything?

OJ - Yes, Harper’s Ferry is the meeting place of those 3 great states. I have fallen off a trampoline once. I hyper extended my knee and had to lie there while a dog humped me! I fell off the wagon a couple times too, but I am back on… sorta.

RAY - You knew this was coming, I’m sure, but I feel like I’ve got to ask it. Do you ever see a day when BYZANTINE could reconvene, whether it be to play live and/or to record in the studio? If so, are there any new directions you would like to explore, any new sounds you can think of that would be interesting to incorporate in this music? If not, how would you sum up the band’s legacy, as displayed by those 3 albums?

OJ - I hope to God Byzantine can reform. We were all very different people personality wise but we got along famously when we were together. The industry kind of pulled us apart. When you are in your 30’s and can’t pay your utilities because you are trying to be a “touring band”, it sucks eggs. There was no way we could have continued on and not ended up bankrupt or hating each other. Maybe after we wash off all the muck from our contract, we can get back together clean and have fun again. We still need to play “Oblivion Beckons” live for our fans. It might take a year or three, but we all still dig each other. Right now we are spread out over a couple states doing our separate thing but, I see us kicking it again in some form or fashion. Let’s hope…

RAY - One of my favourite ?’s is always….in the history of BYZANTINE, please entertain, shock or horrify us with a story connected to the band that is amusing, terror-stricken, mind-boggling or just plain silly.

OJ - One time on tour, we played really late and stayed up ALL night! This other time, after a badass set, we decided to eat dinner really late and then immediately go swimming! WITHOUT WAITING!! We were fucking crazy!!! Sorry, we were kinda lame. If anybody wants to see our antics, try to find our DVD “Salvation”. My mind is mush.

RAY - I read somewhere online that your albums were all recorded in a studio that is actually part of a working daycare center! This is extremely interesting to me, as my wife and I own & operate a credentialed daycare center here in Baltimore with 52 kids currently enrolled. What is the story behind this?

OJ - Our producer on all 3 albums, Aaron Fisher, operates his studio inside his mother’s day care center. It is an old grade school building and one end of the building is separated off into a fully functional music studio. The other end has a bunch of screaming babies in it. But everything is soundproofed well so as not to bother either parties. We would take lunch breaks and go steal fruit cups and single serving milks. Good times at Little Kidz Daycare!

RAY - Any final thoughts for the people out there in “reader” land?

OJ - I hope you enjoyed the small amount of music we have given you. Our main goal was to just write some decent songs, be cool to all our friends and fans and never sell out. Drop us a line at www.myspace.com/byzantine and say hey! Montani Semper Liberi!

The best thing I can say to add to all this (besides hoping it does come true that these guys eventually rise to slay again!) is that anyone reading this page who likes any form of aggressive and thought-provoking metal should waste no time in checking out not only BYZANTINE’s “Oblivion Beckons” but their other 2 discs as well.


The RIpple Effect said...

Ray - Absolutely wonderful and insightful interview! First off, thanks for the numerous plugs! We appreciate the kudos!

I loved the Red Light Challenge, thought the whole Disturbed story was hilarious. Also, OJ falling off the trampoline had me in stitches.

Very enlightening commentary on the bands relationship with the label, and encouraging that OJ is completely open to the band getting back together to carry on.

Great work, my friend!

On a seperate note, Orphaned Land's Mabool is an incredible album that always offers something new with every listen. Have you heard what's going on with the new album? The last I heard was that Steve Wilson (Porcupine Tree) was signed on the produce it.


raysrealm said...

Thanks man! It's always fun to do something on a band who's not only bringing something fresh to the table but who seem like cool people as well. Hopefully they'll reconvene at some point.

Chris said...

Great interview, Ray.

Simon said...

Long live Byzantine. It still brings a tear to my eye when i think about them splitting up and never getting to see them live.
If i had the money I would pay for them to tour the UK!! (seriously)

Hope we see more Byzantine sooner rather than later!

(P.s. Serpents is the best album)