25 Dec 2021 - Thorsten
Number two on our new end-of-year-interview-series is a legend in two different worlds – hardcore and post-metal. Or was is avantgarde and doom? Whichever combo you choose, that is completely up to you. Indisputable is the fact that this man has been part of hugely influential bands: Iceburn and Eagle Twin – the connection between both collectives/bands is: Gentry Densley.
The Iceburn Collective is one of those bands from the 90s whose name is uttered in mere admiration by those who heard their groundbreaking records between hardcore and jazz. After the end of Iceburn, founding member Gentry Densley formed a band with Sunn O))) guitarist Greg Anderson and also a post-metal band called Eagle Twin. The later two released their music via Southern Lord where a new Iceburn record was released a few months ago (check out our review here). So we were more than happy, when Gentry agreed to do an interview with us. And here it is:
Gentry, you and your band just released a new record basically out of the blue after a long period of inactivity when we think about releases. How must we envision the status of the band between 2005 (the release year of that collaboration with Zu) and 2021?
That stuff was actually recorded in 2001 but took a while before it was released. At that point I was cycling back from complete free improvisation to more riff based post rock and metal type playing. I did some time with a few local bands and had some projects of my own like Furious Fire, Smashy Smashy, Longarm, and Form of Rocket. All of these culminated in forming Eagle Twin in 2005. In 2007 Iceburn was asked to reunite for a local anniversary show for SLUG magazine.
Your record is called “Asclepius” - is it another connection to your love for ancient mythology?
Oh yes, and the idea had been brewing for a while. When I was working on the Eagle Twin album The Feather Tipped the Serpents Scale there were some ideas that just seemed to work better in the Iceburn format- multiple guitars and bass etc. The snake songs took a different direction with Iceburn and we thought the title would give a nod to one of our old favorites, Hephaestus.
To what extent is it also reflecting the current status of the world when you release a record named after the god of healing in the middle of a worldwide pandemic?
We actually wrote it before the pandemic and our thoughts were that under the Trump presidency things were getting pretty crazy and we needed to come together and get some healing in the world. But then everything went next level when the pandemic hit and the was a literal virus to deal with on top of as well as the epic misinformation out there.
To me, Iceburn always felt like three bands – hardcore – free jazz – post metal – how did those three different phases come to happen?
We wanted to be learning and listening all the time and bring those things that resonate with us into our music. From classical music in the early days through jazz too free improv, we started expanding certain parts of songs like a rock band would stretch out and jam but then we were learning more about improvisation techniques and incorporating those more and more until we reached a point of ultimate freedom. After exploring that level of freedom there was a realization of the power of structure and unified voices that worked its way back into our music until we were making music the way we did in the early to mid 90s but with more experience and understanding and, hopefully, wisdom.
I love the beginning of “Poem of Fire”, the first track of Poetry of Fire, whose very first seconds of sound really resemble a classic hardcore song and then the differences to former Iceburn songs become apparent – much more open, much more un-hardcore-ish – we will still come to the question if this phase might not have been more hardcore than the former one. Was this “beginning” a really conscious one?
Poem of Fire was actually the 3rd song we ever wrote, after ”Burn” and ”Fall”. We would always play it last and that’s where we first started improvising live. It was always kind of a vehicle to do whatever we wanted and go nuts. The song refers to Prometheus who stole from the gods as a gift for us humans. We often got people saying, you know, you guys are way more ‘hardcore’ or ‘punk’ cause you just do what you want and don’t give a fuck about what people think!
I imagine it must have been a very different way of writing songs, too, right? Was that a difficult change for you?
Everything Iceburn did evolved very naturally, so we were just chasing our muse and things came together organically.
Whenever I listen to the free jazz period of Iceburn I feel as if the focus shifted from the guitar as the central element to the drums as the center of action?
Probably depends on the record but yeah we had horns and the bass guys were playing upright so me and the other guitarists used smaller amps to meet the group dynamic. The energy of course can still get very frenetic, plus we had some really great and creative drummers contributing so they were just doing their thing.
What were the influences for Iceburn at that time? Cage? Zorn? Coltrane? Miles?
Cage more philosophically. Zorn was a big influence harmonically, Masada had me deep into learning all I could about Klezmer music. Plus he was a big influencer with everything on his label Tzadik. Coltrane for the modal format and the energy. Miles was probably the biggest influence for a while, especially the electric stuff. There was a lot of other influences coming in though from John McLaughlin and Mahavishnu Orchestra to Slint and Soundgarden.
How much had Iceburn been part of the SLC/Utah scene of the 80s with bands like Insight, Maimed for Life, Massacre Guys, LDS, and Censored Reality?
The late 80s was when I started going to shows in SLC. The Massacre guys were just ending and Stephen and Karl went off to join the Descendents. I was buddies with the Insight guys and my first band was me and Chubba (Iceburn drummer) until he went to join Insight. I played in hardcore bands Brainstorm, Better Way, and Headstrong for a couple years before joining Insight on their last tour. Which led to the formation of Iceburn, earliest incarnation of which was all Insight guys plus me.
How did the local and the national scene react?
It was really huge locally in the beginning. I think as we went our own way we did so at our own peril. Confusing people nationwide with our crazy music!
What were your influences personally before founding the Iceburn Collective?
It was more because the core group was evolving the bass player Doug Wright had left the band after the first recordings and tour, he was replaced by Cache Tolman. In 1994-ish Cache and Chubba left the band and Doug Wright rejoined with a new drummer and percussionist. Later on some records like Power of the Lion have both of them on bass and then some have neither. We had written Meditavolutions with Chub and Cache and I really wanted to keep going with that material, so that became the point where there was a shift and it didn’t matter who was in the band anymore. As much as it became a ‘collective’ of a variety of musicians, it was also me at the creative helm guiding it all.
Was the term “Collective” added as a kind of sign for you being open towards (basically) anything? Because then people could have been aware of the non-conformity of your song-writing approach, right?
I don’t think people got that at all! Maybe a few, but it was a bit of that even though we had our own filters of what we liked to do and hear, and what we wanted to put out in the world.
Iceburn have published on several labels, among them also such big-players as Victory Records and Revelation Records – how did these collaborations happen?
Victory was because Insight had worked with them and the early Iceburn being almost all Insight guys made it an easy and logic choice. We always felt we were getting ripped off, from the beginning, but that is the way of much of the music industry. Our friend and booking agent Stormy Shepard was also booking Revelation bands and had a relationship there, as did our friend and artist Rich Jacobs, so that’s how Jordan Cooper was introduced to us. He liked Firon so he wanted to put our stuff out, little did he know what he was in for!
Even on those labels, you seem like kind of outsiders, right? Because even with a record like Hephaestus you were not the kind of angry, fast, exuberant hardcore that Revelation was known for?
Yeah we were definitely going our own way at that point. So much growing and evolving and we’re lucky Revelation was so supportive.
You have released the last record on Southern Lord – an interesting change away from the purely hardcore oriented labels of the beginnings? Did that collaboration come naturally as you have released the Eagle Twin records through Greg and Stephen’s label?
Oh yeah well Engine Kid was Greg’s old band that was on Revelation, we did a split record together and many tours as well. We had actually met years before when his band Brotherhood was touring with the Accüsed and my band Better Way and Insight opened the show. We have stayed in touch throughout all the years and that’s what led to doing our collaboration record Ascend and the Eagle Twin records. So when I said Iceburn was writing some new stuff they were excited to put it out.
Are you aware that Iceburn is a “bands’ band”, in the sense that a lot of bands quote you as an important influence. Does that make you proud?
I am sure you are aware of the international popularity of your band – but is that important for Iceburn or is this more music you are making for yourselves?
Above all, it is for ourselves but we probably wouldn’t do it without that reciprocated love we get. Whether it’s from fans or bands or the label or from the sound engineer.
If it is the latter, then excuse the following question: How personal is the music you are making on each of your records then? Reflective of your personal life, your personal stages of life or your personal tastes in music?
It is always connected sometimes more so than others, but as those instances or phases fade, the memory is there and a renewed perspective. We are lucky now to be able to constantly evolve and reexamine our music while playing it in a way many others don’t have the luxury. Never playing things exactly the same way forces us to be in the moment and constantly creative in a way that is pretty unique to our way of doing it.
Now, Gentry, whenever I see videos of your live performances (no matter if it’s Iceburn or with Eagle Twin) I am quite in awe. First of because of the musical performance – there are videos where you seem to be playing minuscule notes and then all of a sudden you explode into heaviest riffing. How difficult are these changes for you?
Ha, it’s basically second nature at this point, I wouldn’t call it difficult at all. Dynamics were always an aspect that we felt holds power so we tried to tap into that. Playing subtley quiet often takes more control than blazing loud. Same thing with playing slowly, if you’ve ever really tried, it’s like holding back a flood of energy with just your fingertips.
And then again there are those videos where we see you rocking and riffing the hell out of the songs – a sheer mountain of a voice towering over everything else. Is playing live your kind of catharsis?
At the end of any set I am pretty spent though so it can definitely be physically demanding but that’s cause I can’t really help but give it all I got when we play live.
To some of your other bands. Is it correct what I heard – that you have been involved in the compilation of SLC legends Insight?
Those are all my bros! And yes I did do some time in Insight way way back. Chubba (drummer of Insight and Iceburn) and I had our first band right before Insight wanted him to join. We mostly played fast punk edge stuff and a lot of Black Sabbath covers.
You have been part of Ascend together with Greg Anderson and released Ample Fire Within – another side of your body of work. Was it planned from the beginning as a one-and-done project or can we expect a second record?
We have some more I think that may come out. We both just got really busy him with Sunn 0))) and me with Eagle Twin, and both of us having kids and living 1000 miles away.
What I also loved about Ascend was the combination of two people with a hardcore background as Greg was in Engine Kid just like you in Iceburn – and then there are these two guys creating this colossal mountain of noise! Do you think the hardcore roots shine through somewhere?
Yeah, that’s the cool thing about getting older and embracing where you came from, then drawing on those energies when the time is right. I think the approach we developed early on where we adapt our other musical influences through the lense of hardcore was essential to creating this.
Eagle Twin has been your over major project over the last 13 years or so – a duo that is able to purvey a sound different from Iceburn (although there is a slight approximation with the sound of Asclepius). What was the intention behind starting Eagle Twin a few years ago?
Ed Rodriguez, now in Deerhoof, was in Iceburn and of course a great friend and very influential on guitar. He was experimenting with using a separate pickup to just get bass tones and ran that though an octave down and other amps. I was very inspired and started evolving my own bass/guitar setup that eventually led to Eagle Twin. It became my main mode of expression and the drummer and I have a long and rich history along with a shared love of heavy music.
We also realized early on that all of our songs came from a particular place and we adopted the Crow, of Ted Hughes, as our own protagonist and the nature of that became our central theme.
Did the approximation between Eagle Twin and Iceburn also happen because you might have used a similar setup to the Eagle Twin and Ascend records?
Oh yeah, we used Greg’s amps on the Ascend record and that started my love for the Sunn 0))) Model T which is now a very coveted amp. Also those two most recent records were recorded in the same studio but Andy Patterson, and he knows how I like it to sound.
How nerdy are you about pedals, amps, cabinets, etc? How much a sound-geek is Gentry Densley?
I can nerd out with the best of them! With Tyler from Eagle Twin and a couple other guys, we make amps, cabs, pedals, etc under the name Hex Cabs or Hex Electrics. I am always questing some aspect of my gear, and usually I end up making it myself or working with the Hex dudes to create or recreate what I want.
The difference between Eagle Twin and Iceburn is also visible as most of the Iceburn covers are much more colorful than the dark Eagle Twin covers are mostly different shades of black. Intentionally so?
With the Iceburn stuff we just did what we wanted but with the Eagle Twin art and covers we’ve been very deliberate and conscious of creating something thematic and cohesive. Southern Lord is also very into making cool packaging.
What becomes clearer year by year that you are not one to publish one record every year but rather when the time feels right and the record feels right. How do you send the rest of your time?
I work at a Library in the County Jail getting books to the prisoners, keeps me busy and is very rewarding. Also have two young children who are awesome little creatures, they run me ragged! I also have tons of renovating to do around our house and since I am cursed with being a fairly competent handyman, I usually end up doing it myself. Throw in reading books and camping, I don’t know, building speaker cabs and fixing amps and guitars. I like to play my guitar whenever I get a chance.
In former times, the Iceburn Collective was a pretty large group of people now it’s just three guys left – did that influence the sound as well?
It’s actually four of us now, it’s been this core for a long time now. All of us are founding members, except Cache Tolman who joined after the first record and has been a long time member. But yes instrumentation is always a factor, having two guitars is fun and frees things up. Cache can also make some crazy sounds so we figure out ways to exploit that.
Would you like to work with more people again or do you now prefer smaller combos, like trios or duos?
I like where I’m at now. The duo thing is great but requires a certain skill set and method of playing since I need to cover bass/guitar territory and everything else. With Iceburn having the dual guitars and the rhythm section makes something that is super fun to write music for and I’m able to play differently and play a different role there.
You live in Utah – how must we envision the scene there? Widespread or pretty much SLC-centered?
Yeah we are SLC based. Utah is a beautiful and wondrous state for a great many things but the playing of loud heavy crazy music tends to happen in the city.
Which bands would you say should we check out when looking to the Utah scene?
Oh man, there’s a lot of cool stuff! Tough question cause there’s a ton of bands but I’d mention our old buddies Cult Leader or adjacent things like DøNE. There’s heavy music like Otolith, that rose from the ashes of SubRosa, or Visigoth being metal AF, or psych stuff like Mortigi Tempo. Oh yeah, Swarmer doing some killer stuff, so many things.
Is the music you make appreciated by the Mormon community? Does that in any way influence you as a musician?
Maybe more the Jack-Mormons or the ex-pats. I think going up around it informed my views on religion and mythology and that tends to work it’s way into the lyrics and ideas. Ascend did a track named The Obelisk of Kolob, which is like a monument to what the Mormons call the star that is the closest to God’s throne.
How much do you still follow the new music around? Labels like Consouling Sounds are pushing a lot of the things you did with Iceburn.
That’s awesome, now I have some new things to check out. I’ve always got my ear to the new ground but there’s a lot to sort through these days. I did check out the latest Five the Hierophant and think, man, we need to get some more heavy sax going on.
And now onto our quickfire round:
Integrity or Neurosis? Neurosis, great people!
The mountains or the desert? If you said mountain or beach it would be easier. I’m a mountain lover for sure and in Utah we have the high desert mountains so we get the best of both.
Writing new songs – alone or all together? I’ve always loved creating things in my head, either while on long drives or working on some menial task where my mind can work through the songs.
Religion – important or unimportant? Inevitably problematic?
Utah Utes or Utah Jazz? Jazz
Million Dead Cops or Black Flag? Black Flag was a huge influence
John Zorn or John Coltrane? Apples and Oranges – but I come back to Trane most often.
Tom Waits or Townes Van Zandt? Oh man, both.
Blues or folk? Folk Blues from the Delta.
Straight Edge – yes or no? No but it did shape my world in many ways
Thanks for doing this and all the best for all of your musical projects and even more important – for you and your family! Thorsten and the whole VoS crew
Cool thank you and you’re welcome!