Unsung Heroes No. 2 - Josh Graham

Josh Graham - Interview


For the second installment of our monthly series of interviews with frontrunners of the independent music scene, that are not mentioned often enough when talking about “the greats”, we had the pleasure of talking to Josh Graham, which many people first know as the mastermind behind the Neurosis visuals which were used in the middle phase of the Bay Area heroes.

However, Josh has also been involved or behind many other seminal bands in the post-metal scene. As the creative genius behind Suspended in Light he is also responsible for some remarkable visuals! Therefore the way that he visualizes music is the opening question and you will notice for sure how often we talk about theoretical aspects as well as personal and political topics. And we will even talk about one member of the Beatles!

So Josh, let’s start with a simple question – would you consider yourself a synesthete? Because over the course of your career the importance of the symbiosis of audio and visual elements seemingly has not lessened but maybe even increased? While I have never tested for it, I may have a mild form of synesthesia. I always visualize colors with musical pieces, albeit more abstractly than say a solid color, probably more along the lines of a multi-colored nebula combined with some kind of spatial environment.

Whenever I think of you, one of the first things that come to my mind are the unbelievably bright (not necessarily colorful, but bright) record covers for A Storm Of Light and the amazing visuals for Neurosis. Obviously that is something important to you – was this breach with the visual conventions of post-metal an intended one? When creating print artwork or concert visuals, I concentrate on finding a bridge between the music and imagery that can be executed within the confines of budget and time. Talking directly with the bands / artists, I attempt to extract their unique inspiration for their music, so that the artwork i create is unique to them, and synonymous with their music. Of course this process works differently each time but when it works, it’s really great.

That process is much more important to me as an artist, rather than comparing my ideas with the artwork trends in various genres.

Of course, with A Storm of Light, all of this works together as I am writing the record. Music informs the lyrics. Lyrics inform the art, and the art informs the concert visuals. With Neurosis, we talked about their inspiration for each record, and I worked both as an outsider interpreting their vision, as well as an insider with the artistic freedom as a band member.

In connection to our first question: How do you come up with the ideas for your visuals? Is there something in the music that makes you want to accompany THAT song with THAT imagery? Print and music videos are meticulously thought out before they are executed. With concert visuals, footage is usually put together quickly, and sourced online, be it legal or illegally. While I have created fully original concert visual content, that is generally for massive artists like Madonna, Drake, etc. For smaller bands, it’s about choosing themes that have enough imagery available to make a compelling concert experience for any specific song. Sometimes the edits can be more narrative, and sometimes they are more focused on a visceral experience. For Storm, the visuals loosely reflect the lyrical content on the record, but also work as genuine eye-candy (especially with Anthroscene). For IIVII, I think of more base elements (human infatuation with fire / dystopian societies / etc), and start searching for footage. For Jay Z, we took footage related to the time and circumstance around some of this shows. One good example is he played in Hackney, right after they had massive riots. We sourced as much Hackney riot footage online as we could and projected imagery of those riots (which were about 2 weeks before the show) while he played in Hackney. That was kind of an awesome mind fuck. I am not sure it even registered with the crowd.

Lyrics – which of your song lyrics are you most proud of and why? That’s a tough one for sure. I am hyper critical of my own work / lyrics / voice / etc. I think the Anthroscene album is my best lyrical work. “Rosebud” / “Blackout” etc. I also like “Death’s Head”.

Blood And Time

For a man who puts so much effort into his bands you seem to have many follow each other in a series of awesome outfits but there is one question: Why never focus on one band longer? Apart from ASOL most others were rather short-lived but obviously not because of lack of success? Each band has its own story. with Neurosis, I was in the band as the visual artist. After 12 years we all kind of came to the same conclusion, that the band’s live experience was moving beyond the accompanying visual experience. We’re all still great friends to this day. Red Sparowes was typical band drama, conflicting personalities etc. Battle of Mice was basically a total interpersonal war with me and the singer. Don’t date your band members! Blood and Time just kind of changed with Scott’s focus. I don’t really consider that one totally gone.

Your career is laid out with amazing bands – Neurosis, Battle of Mice, A Storm of Light, Red Sparowes – but also with more unknown acts such as IIVII or The Fallen Black Deer. When do you notice that this new music in your head is not suited for one of your bigger, more prominent and thus more constant bands? Thanks. Fallen Black Deer was a project I did with Greg Burns from Red Sparowes. We had an opportunity to record for Southern Records Latitude Sessions while Red Sparowes was on tour. It was originally intended to be the whole band, but the rest of the guys didn’t feel rehearsed enough, so The Fallen Black Deer was something we improved on the spot in the studio.

You always seem to be a very “driven” person, someone who is (at least musically) full of unrest – is that a correct observation? (And if yes – are there any other areas where that also becomes noticeable?) Music is a major factor in my sanity, yes. If I am creating, I feel more personally balanced. I definitely start to feel more scattered the more time I take off from music, so I try to always be working on something. I am currently working on a few new projects / collaborations, so hopefully these will flourish into the light of day.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of one of your seminal records As The Valley Of Death Becomes Us, Our Silver Memories Fade was released by Profound Lore on May 10th, 2011. How do you remember the production, release and the time afterwards? That record as a lot of fun to make. We recorded with Joel Hamilton in Studio G Brooklyn. Nerissa Campbell did a lot of backing vocals on the album. That was also our first record with Billy Graves, a dear friend and one the best drummers on the planet. We toured our asses off after that record…with Converge, Tombs, Today is the Day, Sleep, played a show with Slayer, etc. Very cool times.

While going through the ASOL releases I have the feeling that there seems to be thematic break somewhere between Valley of Death and Nations To Flames - is that correct? I think thematically they are still connected, but the lyrics changed from a more post-apocalyptic vibe to more of a current human-condition vibe. [note: that is definitely noticeable from the cover already, when you compare Anthroscene with Valley Of Death] Musically we always want to make each record unique, working as a continual evolution, rather than - A Storm of Light sounds like X. It’s more important for us to allow the music to evolve, as we evolve as people.

You had some really interesting guests on that album, for example Kim Thayil from Soundgarden, how did that happen? And how did that part with Lydia Lunch come to life? I’ve been working with Soundgarden since 2010, doing all of their artwork and design. Of course things changed in 2017, but I have been lucky to keep working with the guys, and keep working on art for Chris’ legacy as well.

[And] I literally just emailed Lydia and asked her if she would be willing to record on “Forgive Us”, and she said yes!

Your band has seen quite a few line-up changes over the years.How did the last line-up come about? [Yeah, we] did change the lineup ahead of the last album, Anthroscene. Billy was busy with being a new father and wanted to step away, so we worked with Chris Common on drums. We also added my old childhood friend Dan Hawkins to the band.

Second, why was there such a long break? Did it need a certain spark to work on new material with ASOL? Taking time between releases is important to keep the sound evolving. so yeah we definitely needed some time between those releases.

A Storm Of Light

I saw A Storm Of Light on your last European tour in 2018but what is the present status of the band for your last real ASOL-related post on Facebook for example is two years old? Storm’s status is unknown really. Right now I am working on a new heavy project, which would most likely re-direct my focus for the foreseeable future.

When you look at the clear stances that Josh has taken over the last couple of years (including some very clear lines on the last ASOL-release showing an artist not at ease with his own country) you simply must ask him about his clearly Anti-Right-Wing position and thoughts.

Over the course of your career you have been very outspoken on political issues and social problems – for example you totally supported the BLM movement last year with several posts, ASOL’s last record has a very clear image against police brutality on the cover or “Blackout” features the line “What The Fuck Is Wrong With Us? America Is Sick”. So what is wrong with America? Ha! well, 74 million people voted for a racist sex-offending narcissistic sociopath. Our right-wing government represents 40 million fewer people than the left-wing, however they have equal power (and sometimes more), and are able to push their xenophobic / homophobic ideals on the majority of the people.

Do you think that the new administration can really bring the people together? Or are the trenches so clear-cut and unbridgeable that we should consider the idea of a new American War? Biden is great, but no, we’re looking at several generations before the country can really advance beyond our current status. A civil war is pretty unrealistic. The Civil War was geographically divided between the north and south. Today, it’s not about state-sized regions, it’s about metropolitan cities and the surrounding rural areas. The only way to create two separate countries that share their own ideals, would be to basically make all of the metropolitan areas one country, dotted around the US, and the rural areas be their own country. I guess that could end up with every major city looking like West Berlin in the middle of East Germany after WWII.

A few years ago, Omar El Akkad wrote a really great book on the topic by presenting a new a post-second-Civil-War-America. Now I think you live outside of New York City in the Hudson Valley – where would we find you? Would you withdraw further from possible points of attack like NYC or would you rather stand up and fight? I will have to check out that book. Actually my wife and I left NY in 2019 and now live outside of Seattle near Bainbridge Island. As far as fighting, I think what we all witnessed in Trump’s attempt to start a civil war last year, is the reality of what would or might happen in another right wing assault on our democracy. I mean, i guess it is possible the right wing congress could stage a coup d’etat and start the Republic of Gilead [the extreme conservative/fascist state in The Handmaid’s Tale] for real, but it would take some luck for that to happen. In that kind of scenario then yeah I would definitely be fighting. […]

We bought our place in Washington in December 2019, just in time to unpack for the lockdown. It has been a weird year…very isolated and trying to explore our new home while staying safe. We’re fully vaccinated now, so definitely looking forward to a bit more freedom, as long as no super mutant covid version come out of the chaos in India. I hope they can get it under control.

Josh with Red Sparowes

And then one should not forget all the other amazing projects he was involved in – from Red Sparowes to IIVII. We had some questions for many of them, but a review of all his projects would probably take way too much time. Hope you like our selection!

IIVII – a total turnaround from all the work you did up to then, or so it seems. Why? Is this just another part of the endlessly creative Josh Graham or is this the future of Josh Graham? IIVII is a totally different beast. The entire project is based around the idea and approach of scoring film / television. With the first two albums written to imaginary films, I have been able to begin some actual scoring work, albeit small projects so far.

The first is a score for the behind the scenes documentary for Darren Aronofsky’s film, Mother. That music was reinterpreted and released as the Obsidian album, which is coming out on vinyl for the 2021 Record Store Day. I also scored the short film, Don’t Forget to Remember, which is currently featured on the DUST channel. The score for that short film was re-worked into Zero Sleep, which is half of the double album with Grinding Teeth, released right at the beginning of the pandemic.

Zero Sleep features live strings and female vocals. Grinding Teeth I opened up a bit more and asked some friends to play on the album: Dana Schechter (Insect Ark and Swans) / Ben Weinman (Dillinger Escape Plan) / Kim Thayil / Jo Quail / Sarah Pendleton (SubRosa), and more. Zero Sleep is more orchestrated, ethereal and dark. Grinding Teeth explores more metal territory and dark crushing atmospheres.

I hope I can keep creating! I will do that as long as I am supported by amazing labels like Consouling Sounds.

Sometimes I have the feeling that IIVII is to A Storm of Light what Tribes of Neurot is to Neurosis, a wonderful complimentary. With the difference that there is no seeming connection between IIVII and ASOL. But where do you place this project among your miracle body of work? Oh thanks. I guess that must just my own writing style coming through both projects. They feel pretty separate to me, but I guess the argument could be made that if I removed everything except the keyboard tracks in Storm, they might possibly sound close to an IIVII album.

This kind of music – or your music in general – is that stuff you listen to privately? Because somehow I can imagine you sitting at home and listening to stuff like thisquietarmy or Aidan Baker, A-Sun Amissa or Mamiffer on the one hand, but on the other not quite. What does Josh Graham listen to at home? I am so all over the place with what I listen to. I am currently listening to lot of Nick Cave, Grinderman, various soundtracks - Thom Yorke’s Suspiria - Radiohead, Anna Von Hausswolf - Insect Ark, Portishead, Skinny Puppy, Einsturzende Neubauten, Kate Tempest, Hillary Woods, Teho Teardo, Coil, Pontiak, New Model Army, Abdul Mogard, Butthole Surfers, ZZ Top, Meshugga, Funkadelic, Lawrence English, Barn Owl, Ministry, Oranssi Pazuzu, Swans, Curtis Mayfield, etc etc.

Red Sparowes – If I look at all the different projects at all the different projects you were musically involved in – to me the most magical was Red Sparowes. How do you now see that band? Why was it able to gather such a cult surrounding? That band happened to come around at the exact perfect timing. ISIS was blowing up and Neurosis was making their comeback, soon to be bigger than ever. The fact that the band could be marketed as having members from both bands instantly got it on people’s radar. I am definitely proud of the music we made together before I left. That said, I was wanting to go into a different musical direction at that point and really just explore music with like-minded people.

Battle of Mice – the band was “quickly done” although the music was so big and overpoweringly good – did you never want to follow that path again? Unfortunately we will never be able to get along in a normal working fashion, so despite the shared love of the music, we both know that it’s just not a real option. Julie may play some of the songs live at some point, so I would be curious to see that, considering I wrote all of the music.

Battle Of Mice

Can we expect a Battle of Mice - “reunion” just like we can obviously still hope for a Red Sparowes-one? Battle of Mice will never have a proper reunion – we actually never even played a single show before we ended the project. Red Sparowes may play again, but since I left in 2008, any reunion for them would be most likely be with Emma Ruth Rundle, who replaced me after I left.

As mentioned earlier, Josh is a well-known visual artist doing poster, covers and all sorts of visual media, with the most famous maybe being a collaboration for Ringo Starr on several albums – of course, we had to ask him about that, too!

Whenever I look at some of your visual work, I see a man playing with the possibilities of blurred photorealism – how do you come up with your ideas for the images – is it first the idea for a photo that will then be the basis to develop the later cover art, screenprint etc.?</b> It’s really totally different for each release, something which i touched on above. Every visual idea starts with some element that is linked to the music and expands from there.

When you then have the photo itself (for example for Neurosis’ Honor Found In Decay?) - how does the process continue from there? For Honor Found in Decay, I built that entire room in my attic in NY. It took a couple of months to source and collect all of the artifacts, and then about two days to photograph. From there it’s just the process of laying out the CD and LP releases.

Some other images are very natural – like the cover for the Vattnet Viskar release which seems very simplistic. Intentionally I figure? The band actually approached me for layout at first. They wanted to use the very similar looking photograph of Christa McAuliffe, the doomed teacher that won a trip to space on the space shuttle Challenger which blew up in 1986. They didn’t want to use it in a negative connotation though, it was in respect reaching out for your own goals, but failing to achieve them. When it became apparent that licensing that photo was impossible, I suggested we recreate it. Our kitchen was in the middle of renovation, so i hung up the model from the rafters and composited the rest of the cover. Very cool experience actually. Killer record as well.

A third group of visuals seems to be completely designed on the computer (like ASOL’s And We Wept The Black Ocean Within) - but several of these seem to be older works of yours – is there a development with Josh Graham, the visual artist? As with music, having one visual style and always repeating it would just be a recipe for disaster. I am always looking for new inspiration and looking to expand my skills. It’s a combination of continual evolution and respecting the unique integrity of every project i am lucky to work on.

That Ringo Starr collaboration – how must we envision it? Are you sitting at home in your apartment and all of a sudden Ringo calls? I wish. I’ve never talked to him or his management, despite doing his last three covers. It’s all in the hands of an awesome art director at Universal. Each time a new project comes up, I have been invited to pitch ideas, and somehow Ringo has chosen the last three. It’s super cool and huge honor.

Thank you very much for taking your time! Thanks Thorsten!

Here are some further links for your deep dive into Josh and his art:

A Storm Of Light on Bandcamp

The Battle Of Mice/Jesu on Bandcamp

Red Sparowes on Bandcamp

IIVII on Bandcamp

Blood And Time on Bandcamp

Suspended in Light - Josh’s artwork