Since 2011, funeral foursome Usnea has gained quick momentum with three full-lengths, a split, Roadburn, Psycho Las Vegas, and a Black Sabbath cover already under their belt. Emerging out of Portland, Ore., Usnea has earned a spot within the gold standard of boundary-pushing doom incubating within the gold standard of American beauty, the Pacific Northwest. While their landscape may be the perfect condition for embracing reversion to our primal draw, slower times do not equate to simpler. Usnea personifies a world in which every step means triumph while every forage ends in futility. Between celebrating recent release of Portals Into Futility via Relapse and packing for an extensive European leg, guitarist/vocalist Justin Cory was kind enough to spare an hour to pontificate the complexities of amps, satanism, and, well, ravioli.
So I’m assuming Usnea is a reference to the plant of the same name? Or is it a fungus? Author’s note: I passed biology by a narrow margin
It’s a lichen, so it’s actually a symbiotic organism. Zeke, our drummer, came up with the name. We were just kind of jamming and hadn’t really formally solidified what we were doing. He was thinking of names and, you know, band names are kind of hard. We wanted something simple and short and memorable and we were all interested in doing extreme doom metal, funeral doom, really gnarly shit, and he kind of was inspired by bands like Laudanum and Samothrace — words that aren’t necessarily a part of the vernacular in day-to-day speaking. They have meanings, but also take on a mythology of their own. He was telling us about usnea, and we thought it was cool.
Basically, it’s that lichen that hangs from trees and looks like the tree is dripping. You’ve probably seen it in Louisiana. There’s a ton of it here in Oregon. There’s a bunch in Scandinavia. That also helps because it’s got that black metal vibe to it. Over the years, we’ve gotten a lot of interactions with hippies and herbalists and naturalists since obviously they use usnea as an herb. They make medicine with it and stuff, so we’ve learned a lot about usnea just through our name.
Which style of vocals are you responsible for? Usnea clearly utilizes a bunch.
I do any of the high, kind of shrieky ones — the more black metal-sounding ones. I also do some of the chanting, but Joel also does some of that too. Our chants are necessarily very distinguishable. I do the only clean vocals that we’ve ever done, which is on the new record. I do the softer passage in “A Crown of Desolation.”
I’ve been in bands for a long, long time and I’ve done other projects with clean singing. But honestly, in this band, I never thought I’d want to do that, and clean singing in metal can also sound pretty cheesey. But, there are examples where it can sound amazing. I was a bit apprehensive and self-conscious about it when we were writing it and recording it. Even after we were done and waiting for the album to come out I was definitely wondering if it worked. You have doubts, but the response seems to have been pretty good and when we play it live people really respond well to it.
So I enjoy doing clean vocals occasionally, but I wouldn’t want to make them the main vocal style, but I could see doing more of them down the line — sparingly. There are some bands where the clean singing is pretty amazing, but I don’t think I have that great of a voice. I couldn’t see myself doing Warning-style vocals. That guy has a really soulful voice.
Well I think you’re pretty great! But I agree in that sometimes, mostly more in, like, stoner, I’ll be really into it, and then the vocals hit, and it’s like ooh, I don’t know if that quite works.
I think a lot of people got into stoner and doom through a couple of entry-level bands, which are great bands, I’m not talking shit at all. I like Sleep and I like Electric Wizard. But I think the thing is we’ve seen enough times where people will just emulate the vocals in Sleep or emulate the vocals in Electric Wizard, and that’s definitely not something neither Joel or I want to do. I love those vocals, but they’ve been done their way in those bands and we want to do our own thing.
Asking very much in laymen’s terms — how do you guys achieve your guitar/bass tone? It’s distinct in that it’s very satisfyingly distorted yet simultaneously bright and clean.
Thank you. When you’re playing slow and loud there’s kind of this quest for the holy grail best tone, and it takes you in many directions. Johnny and I have spent a lot of money and a lot of time trying to find better sound. When we first started the band, Johnny and I both played different amps than we have now, played different guitars than we have now, we both had different pedals than we have now. I’ve pretty much changed my whole pedal board except my distortion.
The main thing I would say that contributes to the sound that you’re talking about is that we both love 70’s tube amps. When we started I had an Ampeg V4 from the 70’s and Johnny, well, he had a bunch of different amps. I can’t even name them all. On this album, the main amps are my Hiwatt, which I bought only last year from Aaron from Yob and it’s a super good amp — the one I had always wanted but could never afford. Someone hit my van and I got an insurance settlement so I was like fuck it. So, instead of fixing my van I bought a Hiwatt; very irresponsible, but I’m a musician, so what do you expect. Johnny played an early 70’s Marshall JMP, like a plexi one, and it sounds so freaking good. I don’t usually like Marshalls, but his is a really good-sounding amp.
So yeah, we both have British 70’s tube amps, and then we dial them in and use distortion and reverb and delay and try to get tones that make our ears happy. That’s a whole nerdy realm that I won’t make you go down any deeper.
You’ve described Portals as a journey, both in terms of it being a linear–or maybe non-linear–concept album, in addition to the writing process behind it. Could you describe this journey a bit more? The toll it takes is always something I’m curious about, especially when you’re writing about such heavy topics and playing music that’s very low and slow and said to disrupt your inner feng shui, to mess with the alignment of your chakras (if you’re into that).
I guess there is a concept that is somewhat linear in terms of the structure of the album. It’s based on a bunch of science fiction albums Joel and I both mutually enjoy. When we decided that that was what the concept was going to be, we talked a lot about which stories make sense together and weaved a kind-of narrative. It furthers what we talked about on Random Cosmic Violence–our previous album–and even our first album [Usnea]. Even though our first album didn’t have a concept so-to-speak, it is our view of this stage of humanity, where we’re at, what we’ve done in the past, and where we’re going.
So the general thing we’ve talked about in all three albums is that We have this view of ourselves in the universe as the apex. At least on earth we act that way. We do whatever we want with mountains and rivers. All of us sort of lean to the left politically. We don’t try to be a political band at all, but I think that definitely influences things in terms of reflecting on the way human beings have conducted themselves, how we’ve treated each other, and how we’ve treated the world around us. All three albums are sort of a criticism of human selfishness and human debris — this notion that we are the best and that we deserve to do whatever we want, which we obviously all disagree with us. I think that [this notion] is something that’s gotten Us into a lot of trouble at this point. So there’s a lot of subject matter when you start talking about that. That’s what science fiction is really about. It’s the anthropological study of what human beings are. There will be a fictional lens that you’re looking through, of course, but with the books we chose, like Gene Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer, there are a lot of parallels you can see to the world we live in and Our real selves.
That’s the journey, symbolically, but if you’re also talking about the journey for the band to get to this record, I think when we released Random Cosmic Violence, we were on this roll of putting stuff out. We started the band in 2011, we started recording in 2012, and the first record [Usnea] was out early 2013. We were moving. We had a split [with Ruins] come out. We did the Black Sabbath cover for CVLT Nation. We didn’t expect to get signed to Relapse. We had sent our demo out to a couple of places, but didn’t think to submit it there. But, we had a friend at Relapse who showed it to the art director and he contacted us saying he loved it and that he’d totally put us out.
So, between the two albums and all of the other activity we engaged in, we were really busy, but then we did a lot of touring. Our song writing began to mature and slow down a little bit. I mean I don’t think we rushed at all through the other stuff — I’m proud of what we did on the other records, but there were three years between Random Cosmic Violence and Portals. One thing was all the touring, but we also got a little more meticulous with the writing on this one. It took us a while to really write riffs to fit in cohesive pieces that we could really feel good about. But touring shouldn’t be underestimated, either — we did an extensive US tour with Ufomammut in 2015 and then last year we did Roadburn, and it uses so much of your energy. Getting tickets to Europe and taking off work for a month is not an easy task. None of us are making any money playing music. I’m not complaining at all; I feel very lucky to have gotten to do all of the things that we’ve done, but you do have to put your life on hold, and then you get back and your life is still there. You have to make up work and responsibilities, and then the band gets put on the backburner for a little while you catch up.
There was also a lot of emotional stuff that’s happened in the past year, too, for us. The world seems to be descending into ever-darker times and we’ve all had friends pass away as we get older and it’s always really hard every time no matter how jaded you start to feel. While negativity in punk and metal can be a great outlet, some people can’t really escape from that negativity. So that was part of the journey, too; dealing with sorrow and grief from dealing with losing people.
Are there any other outlets that you like to use besides music? In addition to being a journey, you’ve also described Portals as an “emotional reprieve.” What other sources of reprieve have you found?
Alcohol. No, I’m joking. Well, I mean it’s true, but I make art outside of music. I draw and paint and have done a lot of art for Usnea. I also work out, which is not necessarily about trying to be muscular or anything. It’s kind of like a high. I do it for me to feel better. If I don’t do it, I get really anxious and I don’t feel good mentally or physically. Zeke and Joel work out as well, actually, and Johnny skateboards a lot, and that’s a good release for him, and when we’re on tour he brings his skateboard all the time. He brought it to Europe and all over the US. When he needs a little alone time or gets sick of sitting in the van or being around people he goes and skateboards. All of us have outlets for our demons. Joel also DJs and so do I. We’re really wrapped up in music.
I have my side project. It’s really new–we just recorded our demo–but it’s this dark, dancy post-punk band called Over. Totally different from Usnea. I don’t know how much crossover there will be with fans, but we’ll see. I love metal, don’t get me wrong, and I think I’ll play metal for a great portion of my life, but I like a lot of other music. The continuous strain in the music I like is that it reaches me on this deep, emotional level. There’s a lot of music that does that; metal isn’t the only one. I Iike darkwave and post-punk and gothy music. I like hip-hop. I can’t make hip-hop, but I’ll listen to some of it. Everyone in the band will. When we’re on tour we don’t even really listen to metal at all since we’re already listening to it when you play every night. When we’re in the van we listen to spoken word or comedy or hip-hop or something else. Or silence. It’s like a re-set for your mind.
In addition to your indication that you guys are left-leaning, you appear to be the one sporting the Satanic Feminist shirt in Usnea’s promotional picture, so I was hoping to pick your mind about some political topics. I know I was pretty shook up when I heard about the hate-driven stabbings in Portland back in May. Extremely sad. What’s the climate been like in the local punk/metal scene since then? Are people more hesitant to use their platform to discuss political things out of fear of retaliation? Or has it done the opposite? Do people want to speak out even more?
I guess you could say there are the two extremes — the people who feel really inspired by the actions of the everyday people using their platform, but then there are people who feel like it’s not their place. I definitely feel both of those things, in a way. On one hand, you should be able to speak out when people are listening to you about things that are important and you should use your relative place of access to make things better for other people just through awareness. But, I totally understand why an artist would feel unsure if they need to be a voice for a political situation. So I respect both of those positions. In Usnea, although we all have our own strong political persuasions in the band, we don’t want the music to be the mouthpiece for any kind of political agenda. But, I think that we, at the base of it, absolutely believe women, people of color, queer, and trans people should have equal access to voices in society and specifically, the metal scene.
Some metalheads love to be edgelords and there’s definitely a contingency of commenters on metal websites who don’t reveal themselves in [real] life because they know there will be repercussions. They use the anonymity of the internet to be totally vile — misogynistic, racist. That’s not to say all metalheads are like that because I know a lot of awesome ones, but it can be a very jarring thing when people attack Kim Kelly for reporting on issues for women in metal, and that’s fucking bullshit. People are defending Decapitated, saying “oh, they’re innocent until proven guilty,” even though [their case] looks pretty bad. People just don’t believe survivors. So I would definitely say everyone in Usnea is a feminist and we’re also all anti-racist. Sometimes that puts us in bad standing with people in metal, but I don’t give a fuck. I don’t want them to be our fans or come to our shows if that’s their point of view. I don’t want to cater to those people.
Wearing that Satanic Feminist shirt, I didn’t think it would really create any kind of controversy, not that it necessarily created any, but I’ve definitely gotten a few snide comments about it, but I’m just like whatever. I don’t respond to that shit. There’s no point. But it’s kind of funny — it’s a tongue-and-cheek shirt. The woman who makes it lives in Stockholm and she’s a really awesome graphic designer and artist. She made it to be like haha, society’s scared of satanism and feminism, so I’m going to put those concepts together. People are rattled by it, which is actually kind of funny. The fact that it’s even political is funny to me because it’s just a design, just a tongue-and-cheek shirt. It’s kind of like how “black lives matter” becomes such an incendiary comment and offends people to their core. Like, why does that offend you? You should analyze that. This is a common sense thing. If someone is being treated differently by society at large, we should rectify that. It’s very telling that these slogans can really rattle people and make them have a visceral, angry response to it. It’s very telling that society has a long way to go. A very long way to go.
About a year ago, I explored the topic of identifying with both satanism and socialism, which is why your shirt really caught my attention. On one hand, they could be taken as a contradictory pair — satanism is I, I, I, and socialism, is, well, you know. But, I make the argument that the I has room to be fully explored when basic needs are met by the embracing of the We. How would you reconcile the two terms? Are they contradictory or do you think they go together really well?
I was having this discussion with my bandmate last night, actually. He works across the street from the bar I work at and we were both having drinks and talking about this kind of concept. People make a lot of assumptions about human nature — are we selfish or are we cooperative? Are we violent or are we beautiful, passive creatures? I think human nature is completely malleable. I don’t think there is a static human nature. In psychology we have the terms nature and nurture, and I think human nature is very dependent upon the conditions in which humans grow up or evolve. Where you grow up is going to say a lot about what your values will be. Your family will say a lot about what your values will be. Then you grow up and go out into the world and actually change those values through what you come into contact with. So, I don’t think humans are good or bad or inherently socialist or extremely capitalist. The tendency isn’t inherently in us; it’s all about what you’re exposed to and what you do.
Satanism, to go back to your question, is not something I practice, but I do find satanism very interesting, obviously, and I’ve been an agnostic atheist for a long time. I’ve definitely studied Aleister Crowley, LaVeyan Satanism, and the Temple of Satanism. The Satanic Temple — they’re doing really cool stuff. I think their political trolling is awesome. Joel, our bass player, is actually a member of that. They wanted to start a satanic afterschool kids club and anywhere people were trying to put up Christian statues they’d be like well, we’re going to put up a satanic statue too because of the First Amendment. But anyway, I’m definitely interested in dark esoteric thought, not necessarily from a spiritual point of view, but a philosophical and psychological one.
I don’t think there’s one form of satanism. I guess in the initial stages there was the worshipping of Lucifer and the concept that god banished Lucifer for being too honest and smart and for demanding that there not be a tyrant, aka God. The reading that I’ve always gotten from that kind of satanism is that we become our own god. Instead of negating impulses, we hedonistically encourage them. I’m not against that, but I also think that there’s the importance of selflessness and compassion, too. That form of satanism doesn’t seem to encourage that.
Rectifying satanism with socialism could be kind of rough, but I do think it’s possible because at its core, satanism is about rejecting social norms and authority, for one. The authority of God. I don’t think satanists necessarily absolve themselves to Satan. Many don’t even believe Satan, as an entity, exists. They use the idea of Satan, one, to troll Christians, and two, to be a standard bearer for rebellion and making your own rules and living on your own terms. Socialism is definitely against hierarchy. Inherently, true socialism attempts to get rid of class hierarchy and get rid of dominion and coercion. Obviously we’ve never seen a real example of that played out in human affairs because all of the influences of greed and corruption. But still, I think those two concepts are very aligned. I don’t know if economically you can say satanism and socialism are similar because I don’t even know what most self-identifying satanists would say their view of how human society should be organized is.
Perhaps they can’t inherently be at odds if each concept can’t be defined in singular terms.
Yeah, I think similarities and differences can be found within both. Satanism doesn’t have a super clear political view of how society should be organized from what I can tell. Socialism doesn’t necessarily answer any spiritual questions. A lot of socialists tend to reject spirituality altogether, which, you know, can be a mistake. Even though I don’t have strong spiritual feelings, spirituality is definitely an important and informative experience for humans. You don’t really need to believe in a god to enjoy the way that it feels to be alive. There are other spiritual experiences — looking at something amazing on earth, like, say you’re at the Grand Canyon or something. Or, the way Carl Sagan talks about looking into space at the cosmos and how that’s like a religious experience for him. He was an agnostic, too, and I really like his form of agnosticism because it’s all about instead of there needing to be an afterlife or a creator who cares about you, we can look at what we know, or what we think we know anyway, and just kind of feel in awe of and derive importance from that.
Carl Sagan has a large shadow on our band. The last album was definitely all Carl Sagan influenced and one song on the new album is. He was pretty badass.
Thanks for tackling that one. Well, let’s leave things a little more lighthearted. I was curious to hear about your favorite plant-based places in Portland, aka the land of dank vegan eats. The one full day I got to spend there I had, like, three dinners. It wasn’t even okay.
Oh, are you vegan? Joel and I both are. Well, we keep getting more and more stuff because, you know, Portland has become this silly, comic book gentrified city, so they keep multiplying. One of the places that was my favorite is gone. Portobello was the best place ever. That’s why I’ve learned to make my own vegan ravioli. It’s really easy; you just need a little pasta roller and a stamp. Basically, Portobello was vegan Italian food and I don’t even know if I’ve ever seen another place like that. So that was one. I love Homegrown Smoker. The older is an old stoner and his kids are part of the business, too. They’re both really cool, kind of, like, hardcore kids. They got their dad to be vegan, actually. He was wanting to open a BBQ place, and they were like dude, there’s so many BBQ places, why don’t you make it a vegan one. At first he was skeptical, but then he got really into the process of trying to smoke tofu and tempeh and then making his own fake meats and sauces and it got really good. So the next time you’re in Portland, go there.
European friends can catch up with Usnea on tour this fall. All dates listed here.
Thank you to Liz at Earsplit for setting up this interview.
Thank you to Justin and USNEA for being goodly enough to sit with us for a spell.
You can send Jenna your demo and or nudie pics by clicking that shiny link.