Pushing the punishment: an interview with WarHorse

WarHorse was a crushing, psych-addled doom band who released a handful of singles and, in 2001, an album entitled ‘As Heaven Turns To Ash…’. Southern Lord reissued it earlier this year, and bassist Jerry Orne, drummer Mike Hubbard and guitarist Todd Laskowski were decent enough to answer some of my questions.

Ok. Can you start off with the simple stuff for us: how, when, where and why did WarHorse get started?

Jerry: WarHorse started in 1996. Desolate (the death metal band I was in) had broken up and I was looking to start something new. I knew Krista VanGuilder and Mike Hubbard from their old bands.

Mike: The band was already being formed by the time Jerry called me up. I was between bands at the time. My old band Infestation has recently ended, so the timing was good for me. We didn’t really discuss a direction or anything, he just asked if I was interested in coming down to jam and I said yes.

What was the initial idea behind the band? Did you know how you wanted things to sound when you started out?

Jerry: We were all looking to do something heavy and crusty, but still pretty melodic.

Mike: Like I said, the band was already being formed by the time I showed up, so I can’t speak to the origins. But I know we wanted to do something heavy, something different, so we just sort of followed that path.

I think (?) some of you played in death metal bands in the early 90s. I’ve always been drawn to bands with that deathly sound to them, but it seemed for quite a while that people didn’t make the connection between doom and death metal. How did you see the two genres intersecting and cross-pollinating? Was playing slower stuff a ‘reaction’ to the speed of death metal, or was it some sort of logical extension?

Mike: Yeah, the early 90s was a good time for death metal. There were a few of us bands doing different takes on different styles at the time. I was drawn to bands like Entombed, Grave, Incantation, Autopsy which all had some elements of doom and slower parts. But I also liked fast stuff like Carcass, Napalm Death, Brutal Truth. But when I discovered bands like Cathedral, Eyehategod, the Melvins, I was hooked. For me, I felt like the slow to mid-pace vibe allowed for more punishment. You could hit a lot harder, and each beat felt massive.

Jerry: I think we just put our influences together: Sabbath, Sleep, Crowbar, Melvins, Autopsy, Buzzoven, Cathedral, etc.

Todd: Well, the guys in WarHorse were always into bands like Winter, Autopsy and Cathedral, so mixing in a little Sleep and EyeHateGod in just sort of came naturally. I mean it’s all extreme music and that’s what we all like. It was just an easy progression if you will.

Who did you view as your peers / comrades / competitors? Was there any sense that there was a ‘scene’, or were there just isolated pockets of slow-motion heaviness?

Jerry: We never really tried to figure out what we were. We played with metal bands, rock bands, punk and hardcore. Reactions were generally negative, really. Fine with me.

Mike: This was very early in the “stoner rock” thing, but I remember getting some of the first stuff from Electric Wizard and being completely blown away. Grief was another local band putting out slow, brutal stuff, but we never crossed paths. I think we would have been a good fit.

Todd: Ha ha, I’d say “isolated pockets” is a good way to put it. It all just kind of came to the surface. The influences just boiled up. It wasn’t a competition thing, but the bands I mentioned were definitely peers in our eyes.

Many of the US bands from that era I’d associate with more punk/hardcore-related labels and scenes (e.g. Noothgrush, Floor, Cavity and Grief being on labels like Bovine and Slap-A-Ham and/or playing fests like Fiesta Grande…) but I kinda think that WarHorse were very much a METAL band. Is this interpretation correct, and was there any crossover?

Mike: We were all into punk, hardcore, etc but metal was definitely the main thing we were going for. But we also had a lot of love for the early heavy stuff, 70s rock and heavy metal, 60s psychedelia. All of that started finding spots in our songs.

Todd – Yes, we love bands like Grief, Disrupt, Converge and Neurosis. We also all listened to a lot of D.R.I, Madball and Sick Of It All, but WarHorse is definitely mostly influenced by METAL!

What kind of bands did you play with? They were a bit earlier than you guys, obviously, but I remember talking to Stephen from Winter and him saying they were hated almost universally, whether they played with punk bands (with whom they shared certain ideologies) or bigger metal bands like Sepultura…

Mike: We played with a lot of that mid-90s alternative rock/metal that was all around us, and we were usually hated when we played with them. We’ve had the power shut off on us more than once. We opened for Godsmack when they were on the rise and people were visibly angry. Once we got into Boston, we had a little bit of a better reception. Fans there were much more tolerant.

Todd – We played with everyone from Bongzilla to Goatsnake to the heaviest death metal bands. We had a death metal background, so we pretty much fit in with everyone we played with but it was mostly doom-oriented bands that we did shows with (Evoken, Unearthly Trance etc.) or death metal bands that already knew us personally (Cryptopsy and the likes of them). We also played the first ‘Stoner Hands of Doom’ fest, which reunited Pentagram and Trouble.

Am I right in thinking you had a female vocalist when you first started out? Can you tell us about those early days, and what led to the change?

Jerry: Yes, Krista VanGuilder was first on vocals and guitar. Great player and singer. We did our first cassette, then CD with her. I’m not really sure exactly why she quit. She was in college. We still all get along great now.

Mike: Yeah, Krista was the original guitarist/vocalist when I joined the band. Those days were fun. We had some good songs I think, and at the time, heavy bands fronted by women weren’t that common. It made us stand out. Unfortunately she decided to leave the band to pursue college, which is fine. There was no animosity, and things worked out for everyone.

How would you say WarHorse grew and developed over the course of its existence? How would you characterise the changes – be they physical, sonic or personal – that the band underwent from release to release?

Jerry: We just kept pushing the punishment, getting heavier every step of the way.

Mike: With each incarnation of the band, we got heavier and more psychedelic, more nasty. After Krista, we played with Matt Smith for a while, did the ‘Lysergic’ 7″ and the ‘Priestess’ EP with him. He brought a lot of the experimental/noise elements into the mix. But that didn’t work out and it was just Jerry and I. At that point, Jerry decided he would take over vocals so that if we kept changing out guitar players at least the vocals would be consistent. I supported this decision. Never hurts to have a Lemmy worshipper as your frontman.

Todd: Well I lost 50 pounds between the USA tour and the European tour. But, other than that we definitely grew as a band. We became sonically tight. And, grew to know each others’ moves. I didn’t know how to play lead guitar when I joined. I was a rhythm guitarist. I learned to play lead really fast – just in time to record.

How would you describe a typical WarHorse gig, practise or recording session?

Jerry: Loud and loose.

Mike: Early gigs were pretty random. It took us a while to break into playing clubs, and like I said, we usually went over pretty badly. We were loud, tuned down, slow, with long songs. Everything people tend to hate in a live band. But we kept at it. Practices were usually pretty productive. We never had a proper rehearsal space, we always played in basements. We started out in Krista’s mom’s basement, then moved to Jerry’s. It was cramped and loud. Full stacks and no ear plugs. We played as often as we could, usually twice or three times a week. Didn’t have too many recording sessions. Basement tapes, a couple sessions with Bill T. Miller, and then the ‘Heaven Turns To Ash’ and ‘I Am Dying’ sessions at New Alliance. Everything we did was quick, usually in a day. Not a lot of takes, all live, then threw on overdubbed guitars and vocals. The AHTTA session was the most pro session we did, and we did that over three or four days.

Todd – Lots of weed and drinks. Just energy and lots of volume. In the beginning it was just serious power and fury! At the end it was a lot of tension at rehearsal, but the shows were always killer!

I think I read somewhere that Grief’s Terry Savastano was somehow involved in the band. Is this right?

Jerry: Yeah, after the last time we split up, Terry and I started writing songs for a new band. I called Mike and asked him to play drums. After a couple of practices, we decided to continue WarHorse. We did a few shows, but broke up after a few months.

Mike: Yes, this is true. It was months after we had called it quits after our European tour with Electric Wizard. Jerry and Terry started jamming on some new ideas for a new band, went looking for a drummer and Jerry called me again. The new ideas were heavy, and close to the WarHorse stuff, so we talked it over and decided we could reform the band with Terry, play some of the old songs and start working on new songs. Made sense to start with an established name. But, sadly, that didn’t work out either and we finally called it quits for good.

Todd: Terry was in a version of the band after we had broken up the last time, after I didn’t come back. It didn’t last long.

Beyond the sheer heaviness of the records, I always liked the more frazzled, psychedelic elements at play – they added another layer, and one that added to the unsettling vibe running through things. Where did this come from?

Jerry: Mostly from the bands we like, Hendrix, Allman Brothers, Skynard, Mountain, plus the psychedelic shit from the 60s and 70s.

Mike: This came from our love of 60s bands like Hendrix, Pink Floyd, etc. It seemed to create a lot of tension, but also some serene moments that helped set up the crushing parts.

Todd: Well I didn’t know how to play leads well, so I added a lot of effects (flanger, delay and fuzz). I would experiment with solos and it became natural to sound trippy. Eventually, it became ‘the sound’. But we were also into Hendrix and lots of 60s stuff and we also started out to intentionally have a psychedelic sound. I mean, we have a song called ‘Lysergic Communion’. It’s our roots – I grew up on my mom and dad’s Doors and MC5 records.

What would you say influenced WarHorse beyond music?

Jerry: Anger, Frustration, Stubborness, Hate…

Mike: Music was the main thing. We just wanted to make the heaviest stuff we could manage.

Todd: DRUGS! And Drugs! But, also just wanting to sound cool and trippy, you know?

How did you hook up with Ellington for the ‘Priestess’ 12”? To me, at the time, they seemed very much into the whole crazy, technical hardcore thing, what with releases by Barritt, Converge and Shadow’s Fall. I guess Ire were a bit slower and sludgier, but WarHorse kinda stuck out like a sore thumb…

Jerry: Yeah, that didn’t work out like we wanted.

Todd: Well, that was before my time. But, I know the guys were friends with the Ellington guys, and they dug WarHorse. I love the Priestess 12” but hate playing the song. I dunno why.

Mike: Mike Mannix was a local guy that we knew from the early death metal days. So he knew what we were all about individually, and was following the band. When he approached us to do the record, we didn’t think at all about what else he was putting out. We were just stoked that someone wanted to put our stuff out. That record came out great, and I still have people tell me how much they like it.

What was the motivation behind the Wargasm cover? I picked that album up in a charity shop many moons ago, and there always seemed to be something a bit weird about it…

Jerry: We recorded songs for a split, but no one would do one with us. Then we wanted to do a 10” but the songs were too long. The Wargasm cover was for a thrash comp, but it never came out. Ellington did the best they could; the red vinyl rules and the cover kicks ass but it’s just kind of a shit show. The Wargasm cover was done out of respect, and Mike is a big fan. I heard Wargasm hated it.

Mike: There was some talk of a possible thrash tribute compilation, and Wargasm was the biggest band around here for thrash. They were huge. For me, they were as big as Metallica or Slayer. We had the idea to do a slow version of that tune because we felt it fit with our vibe and the vibe of the original song. It was our attempt at a tribute to the band.

Todd: That was before my time as well. I played on ‘As Heaven Turns to Ash…’  and the ‘I Am Dying’ 7”. I ran into the drummer from Wargasm, Barry Spillburg, and he told me he hated the cover. I let him know I didn’t give a shit. He was a dick to me, straight up. And I loved Wargasm when I was a kid. I used to go see them play every week in Providence RI when I was like 16. It was my first realization that your idols can be shit. It’s ironic that Mike (drums) now plays in a band now that Barry was in.

What’s the story behind your relationship with Southern Lord? Who discovered/reached out to who?

Mike: I was following the label, and I liked their aesthetic and those first few releases like Thors Hammer, Goatsnake, etc were so heavy and good. I had sent Greg some demos and he was kinda lukewarm, but said he wanted to hear more. So we did some more demos, and he was a little more interested. As luck would have it, he was coming out to the East Coast to a show in NJ that we were playing, so he got to see us live. I won’t say we got “signed on the spot” at the show, but it wasn’t too long after that Greg asked us to maybe do a record for him.

What can you tell us about the writing and recording of ‘As Heaven Turns To Ash…’? What kind of themes/ideas were running through the record, and what kind of headspace were you in while you were putting it together?

Mike: By the time we went to record, we had been playing those songs for a while, so there wasn’t much to work out. We knew we wanted to create some cool intros and outros, some quiet parts to break up all the heavy stuff. Todd was the one to come up with the idea that it should be a ‘concept’ album, with the theme running through it. All the quiet stuff, like ‘Amber Vial’, was put together pretty quickly, in the studio, based on some ideas we had floating around. It all seemed to work out.

Todd: Well the record was complete when we went into the studio. We just worked out a couple of the instrumentals. But it was a great headspace. Andre Schneider was great to work with. He gave us a lot of space and he liked the music, so it went smoothly. It was a great time – the best recording experience of my life, and I’ve recorded at least six or seven releases.

Did you set out to do anything differently with the full-length, given that you’re previously only put our shorter releases?

Todd: We just ripped out the songs that we could tell were working when we played them live and we just had a good time doing it. It all just fell into place.

Mike: I think we just wanted to document all the material we had, and make a cohesive, heavy record.

Jerry: Well by then Todd was in the band, and we were all on the same page as far as pushing things as far as possible.

How do you view ‘As Heaven Turns To Ash…’ now, looking back on it? Do you think of it as any kind of landmark? 

Jerry: It’s definitely the best thing we did. And recording at New Alliance with Andrew Schneider was great. It really raised our profile enough that we got to tour the US, Europe and the UK. We got to meet and play with many bands we respected. It was pretty cool.

Mike: I’m very proud of that record. At the time, we just wanted to do something heavy. I never expected it be included in the same breaths as records by Sleep, Cathedral, etc, that it was later on. The fact that it’s still talked about enough to warrant the reissue it pretty crazy to me.

Todd: I love the record. It sounds great, and our contemporaries have really praised our shit, so… As far as a landmark? I mean it has its place in time and, it went over well. It’s not my place to say.

The album came out at a time when doom was just starting to peep above the parapet: it had been a minority concern for years, but with the internet and bands like Sunn O))) etc. raising its profile. Were you aware of this at all at the time? Did you notice things shifting around you?

Todd: Yeah, it came out at a time when doom was beginning to blossom so it was probably perfectly timed. I mean Anderson and O’Malley are no fools. I think they saw a bright light and went for it.

Mike: I just noticed that our shows were getting bigger and better, and we were playing with bands we were into. It was pretty great.

To this day, some my friends and I are seriously pissed that we didn’t get to see you when you played over here with Electric Wizard and didn’t even know it was happening. How was the experience for you, and how did you find the UK?

Todd – The UK was the time of my life. I turned 30 in London. I can’t say enough about the hospitality we received in the UK and all of Europe. I’m sorry you missed it. I would have loved to have seen those shows myself. I really wanna record and tour something again that can come close to the Electric Wizard/WarHorse tours. DOOM/STONER heaven man!!!

Jerry: Yeah, the tour was a trip for sure! I’ve always been into British motorcycles, Monty Python, The Young Ones, plus all the great bands, so the UK was a high point for me. Great people, great shows. The warm beer took some getting used to though…

Mike: Both tours with Wizard were pretty intense. The US tour was the first major tour we had done. Until then, it was nothing but one-offs and long weekend things. We learned a lot on those tours. I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

What led to WarHorse’s dissolution? Where do you think the band would have gone if you’d not broken up?

Jerry: We were getting along less and less, by the end we were just fighting all the time. It really started to suck, so that was it.

Mike: I think we just ran out of steam and it seemed like the right thing to do. I think we all needed a break. It was a tumultuous run.

Todd: It was just personality issues. I know that’s cheesy, but it’s true. We’ve all played together since. Nothing important. But, we jam well. It would have been big if we could have kept it together. But, it wasn’t in the cards at that time. Now? Who knows? It would’ve definitely been something great if we stayed together. I know. I have the material written, still.

What did you all go on to do after the band?

Jerry: I didn’t do much for years, but then Desolate reformed, and I’m also in a new band called Conclave.

Todd: Started a band called Sin Of Angels. Wrote one album with them. Never recorded. But, they put out an album with another guitarist called ‘Eucharist’ that I wrote. I’m definitely proud of that music but it wasn’t my cup of tea. They still play today. So…. It’s a business. This music world. And, if you can’t make your mark, you may as well keep on moving.

Mike: I took a break from playing for a couple of years, then starting kicking around in some small bands with friends. Nothing too serious. I did a rock band for a couple years called Cheap Leather, and after that I ended up getting the Gozu gig, which has been awesome.

What did your time in WarHorse teach or inspire in you? What have you ultimately taken away from the experience?

Todd: WarHorse was the shit, man. I took a lot away. It taught me a bit about the biz. Like I said. I love the recordings we did and I’m proud of them.

Jerry: It was great because of the things we got to do, the people we met. I still hear from people, sharing what WarHorse meant to them.

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