Pyrrhon's Doug Moore on singing for an orchestra, gallows humor, and thematic mysteries
Interview and photos by Noé Loyola
Pyrrhon is one of the wildest mind bending acts out of the New York metal scene. Their latest album, What Passes for Survival, uses a mix of death metal, grindcore and math rock to take a stab at capitalism and to reflect on the bleak future that awaits humanity. As part of their 2018 tour of the West Coast with Succumb, we caught up with vocalist Doug Moore at their Portland show to get some insights into the caustic lyrics that define their vision, their humorous side and the orchestral rendition of one of their new songs.
First of all, thanks for agreeing to the interview. I hope you have found some glorious trash in the way.
Oh yeah. Any urban space in America is gonna have a nice roster of trash to choose from. We've found what we've found.
Something that is seen sparingly in the bleakness that is Pyrrhon is humor. The song "Goat Mockery Ritual" makes fun of "the kvlt" with sharp wit. I've also laughed more than once with your Instagram stories highlighting heaping piles of trash as if they were piles of gold. Is humor something you like to explore from time to time? How does it tie in to the band's dreary outlook?
I would say that early on in the band we didn't feel very comfortable expressing that side of our personalities just because we are a death metal band and self seriousness is a standard part of the genre's presentation. We are goofy people; we like to joke among ourselves a lot and a lot of the time we spend together is passed making stupid jokes. Over time, especially after our new drummer Steve [Schwegler] joined, that become more and more a present part of the art itself, as well as what happened behind the scenes.
As for why we think that fits with the rest of what we're doing, that's just how people cope with the more unpleasant aspects of life in a lot of cases. Gallows humor is something that is common to all human cultures whenever things are bad. It seems pretty sensible to me now even though it's not a super common part of the very bleak, intense death metal image.
As for the Instagram thing, our bass player Erik [Malave] does that. It comes out of a bunch of in jokes from the band. There is a song on the newest record, Trash Talk Landfill, that just has a bunch of trash related metaphors in it; it started with that. It's part of the natural substance of the band and it has grown with time.
Talking about that song, I have a question about it. In it, you seem to be exasperated with the inevitable disposability of words. Are these thoughts related to your interactions in daily life, or to your writing process as lyricist?
That was something that just came out of my general life experience through the written word. Sounds kinda pompous, but I've done a lot of writing related work. I was a music blogger for years, my current day-job involves a lot of writing, and the lyricism of the band obviously. Just like anyone who spends a decent amount of time in the Internet, a lot of what I experience in the world is through the written word. I feel that when you spend so much time in that medium it can start to feel a little frivolous and to reflect on you. That's a fairly accurate read on the tenor of the song.
You present an impressive vocal variety, going from beastly growls to blood chilling screeches. Do you use these as an intuitive response to fit the instant, or do you plan ahead of time to find the most appropriate moment to convey certain emotions?
I think it is a mixture of those two things. There's not a very concrete or specific process for choosing which vocal delivery I'm going to use on a given part. It's something that I do intuitively based on both the music and the lyrics. I just shoot from the hip for those kinds of decisions. It's usually pretty apparent to me from a few trial and error runs what general thing I want to do on a given part.
In a lot of cases, when we're working on the instrumental component of a song before I write the lyrics, I do some death metal scatting over the band and try a few different feels and effects in there. It's an iterative process that comes from a mostly intuitive place; in response to the music and what I'm saying. The content of the lyrics affects the way your voice sounds, so I make some decisions based on that. It's definitely not a very thought-through thing in that sense.
I do remember when listening to "Goat Mockery Ritual" that I could see a character when you do very deep growls. It sounds like the preacher of "the kvlt" trying to keep his voice down mindful of sales.
(laughs). There's something theatrical about it in a way. It lends itself to the idea that there's multiple, different people speaking, which I think gives it a somewhat theatrical tone. This wasn't really something that i had in mind when I developed that approach for vocals in this band, but that's just how it developed. I think it's cool.
I've always found "Tennessee" to be the most cryptic song in "What Passes for Survival". The lyrics depict a vivid landscape that seems to be attached to a particular story of someone fighting through sickness and abuse. Does it come from personal experience, or were you hoping to capture your audience in it?
The song is based on personal experience of someone that I know quite well. I don't really want to get into the details out of respect to this person's privacy. While it's a depiction of a specific person's experience, I would hope that it still resonates with other people in spite of that. It's pretty common for songwriting to deal with one individual in a way that resonates with others. Hopefully it has some of that effect. It's a true story but I don't wanna say much else about it.
I remember from another interview addressed to you I read that an important part for you was for the listener to make their own part of the story through the lyrics.
In most cases for my lyrics I have something concrete and specific in mind because that's the kind of thinker I am, but I don't necessarily want the experience of reading those lyrics to be a didactic or a hanged, cut and dry thing. I think that most lyrics are best when you can project yourself into them to some degree, and I try to leave latitude for that.
"Empty Tenement Spirit" is my favorite song on the record and one of the most forlorn and astonishing pieces I've heard in recent memory. The lyrics exemplify the concept of the album, showing humanity at the verge of self destruction. Its strongest moment comes at the end, with the violent sound of chains being slammed repeatedly. These can also be heard at the beginning of the record. How does this chain (pun intended) the ideas of the album as a whole?
(laughs). Thank you. Good question. That wasn't something I would say was meant to be. That kind of happened more than it was deliberately conceived in a conscious way. For that part of the song, the sound you hear is a big steel trash can being hit with a 40 pound chain. I was doing some vocals at the same time. That was initially the only time that was going to appear.
Then, we were at the studio where we recorded with Colin Marston, and we wanted to put together a little noise and sample based thing just for the very beginning of the record. We used a bunch of sounds that we made in different ways. Parts of it are the band jamming, parts of it are layered guitar tracks and parts of it are various noises we made with this trash can.
It happens that the sound of chains has a thematic resonance with the lyrics. But that is something that I almost don't want to unpack because it is something that i feel just happened to us as opposed to something that we conceived in a conscious way. That's the case where I would just say: "What do you think?" It is a corny way to answer the question but I don't really have a good answer either. I think that one is up for interpretation as desired.
That's a good way to do it.
You know, there has to be some mystery in it for the people making the music too. That's part of what makes it fun.
Speaking of "Empty Tenement Spirit", you recently shared a version of the song arranged for a 17-piece orchestra by Charlie Looker. How did this rendition come into existence? Do you see yourself experimenting with formats like this one in further projects?
As for how that came together, Charlie is a friend of ours who we've know for a few years. We toured with one of his bands, Psalm Zero, about four/five years ago. We've just been friends with him since. He is another guy who has one foot in the world of metal and one foot in the world of avant/experimental music and the classical tradition which is a big thing in New York.
We have always gotten along well with him because we liked the interdisciplinary style of what he does, and vice-versa. Charlie recently released a solo album that was composed for this chamber orchestra because he has a big compositional background, so he basically wrote a whole record with this ensemble in mind. For the record's release he did a performance where he brought the entire ensemble into a space to perform the record in full.
One of the things he wanted to do to add a little extra to the performance on top of just the record was picking a few songs that friends of his who were vocalists had written or performed, and arranged them for the orchestra so that person could sing. So he asked me to do one of these, and he was like "What song would you like to do? We can do a cover, we can do a Pyrrhon song". I picked that song after some deliberation.
He didn't end up doing any other arrangements like that for the show. He just did that song, probably because it's a pretty elaborate, complex song (laughs). I imagine he spent more time on it than he might've anticipated when he initially agreed to do it. It came out really incredible. It was one of the most fun music experiences I've ever had. Something I certainly never thought I would ever do: perform with an orchestra doing Suffocation vocals. You don't anticipate that ever being anywhere near in the future. That was really cool.
As for whether I would do more of that stuff, I've been doing a little bit of tooling around with performing in very small format, like weird improv and new musicky kind of settings. I can't imagine another orchestra thing happening just because it's incredibly expensive and it is a one of a kind situation. For that specific format, I would be very happy if that happens again, but I don't think it is very likely. As for performing in contexts other than death metal, I will probably do more of that stuff. I'm enjoying what I've done, it's always an interesting challenge to use your voice in a way that's not what you're familiar or comfortable with.
One of your newer projects is the band Glorious Depravity. How is this band coming to life? What ideas, distinct to those you pursue in Pyrrhon, are you hoping to explore with the group, both musically and lyrically?
For that band, I was asked to join after the rest of the lineup had assembled. The band is Chris Grigg and Matt Mewton from Woe, George Paul from Mutilation Rites, and John McKinney from Cleanteeth. They are a bunch of guys that have been in bands on New York City for a number of years now. They were putting the band together as a way to play some fun music and blow off steam with friends. They are all in established bands that tour, have relatively serious day jobs, and are pretty stable people.
They just wanted a fun project so they could be a little less tied in I suppose. They were looking for a vocalist. I had known Chris for a number of years and talked about jamming a bunch of times, so he asked me if I was interested in joining. I really haven't played a lot of shows with bands other than Pyrrhon, so I thought it would be a fun way of playing music with other people, and seemed like a thing that would be fun and simple to do.
Musically, it's more straight forward. More of an overtly conventional style of death metal that focuses on songwriting and trying to write though, catchy riffs instead of weird, sprawling, crazy experimentation. And lyrically, instead of being a super hectic, intense personal project I'm just writing whatever death metalish idea that comes to mind, without a lot of pondering the deep philosophical implications of it. I obviously like to do that as it is what's going on with Pyrrhon, but it is also fun to be a doofus and write some dumb songs that make you laugh.
That's basically the vibe of the band. We just played our first show recently. We are going to record an EP sometime in the near future when our lives permit it. I'm on tour now obviously. Matt, the guitarist, is also on tour. Actually, he's playing here with another band called Belus tomorrow. He and Chris are going to tour in fall. Mutilation Rites, George's band, put out a record recently. It is just a product that we'll make happen when we can. It's low pressure.
I know that you are working on new material. Can we expect a new album in the near future? Is there any concept that is being taken in mind to approach it?
We are working on new stuff. There is no timeline on when it's going to be done. The last one came about a year ago, and we probably have about 15 minutes of music written for the new one. I don't wanna say that there's a concept for it really, I don't think that there is. It's very embryonic. It will be different from the previous stuff. Hopefully we can say that about all the releases this band will do.