Contrast and space: an interview with Bismuth

Bismuth are a two-piece playing doom metal that’s both considered and crushing. Their debut album, ‘Unavailing’ came out in 2015, and since then they’ve released splits with such horrors as Gnaw Their Tongues and Legion Of Andromeda. Their most recent LP is entitled ‘The Slow Dying Of The Great Barrier Reef’, and is out via Dry Cough, Medusa Crush, Rope Or Guillotine and Tartarus. You can listen to it here.

These questions were kindly answered via email by Tanya Byrne (vocals, bass, synth) Joe Rawlings (drums) /

Okay, get us up to speed with Bismuth: how did the band get together – what was the original impetus, and what were you initially setting out to do?

Joe: my previous band Spore (musically relatively similar) dissolved and a mutual friend put me in touch with Tanya, who was looking to start a project stylistically compatible with my own ideas – I was very lucky with the timing.

Tanya: I’d been wanting to play in a two piece for a while, so I put an ad up in Stuck On A Name Studios in Nottingham just before Christmas in 2011. I listed a few bands (ASVA and Burning Witch, I believe), and (most importantly) that the drummer would want to play REALLY slowly and hit REALLY hard. Joe responded to the ad and, when we first met up, we were wearing the exact same OM t-shirt, so that was a good sign!

Having played bass in many bands over the years, I wanted to experiment with what could be achieved with just bass, drums and vocals. It took me six months after starting the band to do vocals in front of Joe at practice – luckily it worked out. We really wanted to experiment with what kind of layering and atmosphere could be achieved with such a stripped-down setup. Space, timing and layers have always been the most important parts of this band.

It’s been a couple of years since ‘Unavailing’ came out. What’s happened in the interim, and how has this changed or challenged the band?

Joe: I’m loathe to use a cop-out, catch-all phrase such as ‘evolving’, but that, in essence, is what we’ve been doing. Tanya moved away from Notts which I suppose came with a small adjustment period, but I wouldn’t say it’s really been an issue. We’ve ramped down slightly in terms of general practicing, but conversely each session is approached with a heightened focus – quality over quantity, if you will.

Tanya: In the interim between the two albums, we put out a couple of splits; one with Gnaw Their Tongues and another with Legion Of Andromeda. The time has allowed us to refine our sound. As Joe said, we may practice a little less these days, but we are very focused when we do get together. That is the main change in the band – focus is more refined as we know how the other ticks as a musician. I moved away from Nottingham to study in Lancaster, so we always have a specific aim when we do meet up. In addition, some personal issues got in the way of writing an album, but I have repurposed these in a positive way; I am definitely angrier when we play live these days…

What can you tell us about ‘The Slow Dying Of The Great Barrier Reef’? Did your approach to writing/recording change, and was their anything you wanted to expand upon or develop with the newie?

Tanya: We really took time over this album, especially at the compositional stage. I had started using a slightly different backline and pedal configuration early in 2017. We really wanted to explore dynamics and ways of being heavy without relying on standard crushing riffs all the time. Contrast is always more interesting than just punishing the listener with volume; constant loudness diminishes in its impact over time. We wanted to expand on cleaner sections, to see if we could still make them sound ‘heavy’, without relying on the usual doom tactics (lots of volume and fuzz).

I really like the fact that the title track really makes you engage and listen: the quiet intro and the subtle changes mean you really have to concentrate, and there’s a definite sense that you’ve pieced this together with care rather than set out just to crush and crush alone. What was the thinking behind the track, and what was the process when it came to piecing it together?

Joe: The great thing about being a two piece band is there is one other person you have to gel with. Because of this, and if nothing else the length of time we’ve been doing this now, bouncing ideas around is an extremely efficient process – We’ll try something out (usually a riff) and see how it goes. As mentioned, we collectively know the nuances, styles etc. of each others’ playing inside and out by now, so it’ll either work or it won’t – rinse and repeat. I think it’s safe to say we are also both musically very like-minded, which helps.

Tanya: As Joe mentioned, we’ve played together so long together now that writing is very efficient, and we are generally trying to reach the same space within a song. We always record our practice and we discuss parts we think are working (or not). Communication is very important when writing together… and for us it is truly a collaborative process. If one of us isn’t happy with a section, it gets binned. Crushing for crushing’s sake can be fun, but that is not the point for us. Each section has a purpose, and if a part doesn’t need to be full of volume, it won’t be. Contrast and space are the most important aspects for us. Heavy riffs are enjoyable, but they are not needed all the time.

What would you say the knack is when it comes to writing a long, slow, heavy song that doesn’t bore the arse off the listener or render them wearily complacent?

Joe: this is a very difficult question to answer as this kind of listening (and playing) is my norm, and as such it’s next to impossible to bore me. I’d say the music needs to be purposeful, and to flow and conclude in a natural way – if you’re only going to hit four notes in a minute you need to be sure I as the listener am going to understand why.

Tanya, you’re a volcanologist. This is (a) perhaps the most metal job in the world and (b) really, really cool. What does it involve on a day-to-day basis, and what inspired you to follow this as a career?

Tanya: I’m still studying, but on a day-to-day process it involves a lot of programming and reading. There is always more to learn. I have always had an interest in volcanoes; they are the most perfect representation of the Earth’s power and beauty.  When I visited Mount St. Helens for the first time I knew I wanted to learn as much about volcanoes as I could.

Tell us something cool/mind-blowing about being a volcanologist…

Tanya: The landscape surrounding an erupted volcano is what I imagine a Martian landscape looks like. There is beauty in the sparseness, and it gets more amazing each time I see it. It is a great privilege.

Concern for the environment and what people are doing to the planet are themes that run through the record. Other than weighing their heads in, is there anything you’d like listeners to take away from blasting the hell out of ‘The Slow Dying Of The Great Barrier Reef’?

Tanya: My main hope is that listeners contemplate the effects our species is having on the planet. Inaction is the main driver of a lot of the problems related to climate change; governments are stuck in the blame game, but it doesn’t matter who is at fault. Our whole species must work together to negate these issues.

It seems like we’re at this weird point right now: many, many people understand that the world is messed up, but there’s a strange sense of inaction in terms of actually doing anything about it. While most normal folk are at a considerable remove from what politicians are(n’t) doing, witnessing the lack of personal change can by just as demoralising: I’ve just left one job where people liked to cluck loudly about how sad that episode of Blue Planet was and insist on having cardboard straws, but at the same time routinely chucked their recycling in the wrong bin. What can people do on a micro level to make a change, and how do you prevent yourselves from being utterly disheartened by how punishingly stupid and lazy people are?

Tanya: Most people are not stupid,  but I do think that many people in developed nations are only prepared to change when something directly affects them. It can be discouraging, as to reduce some of the worst effects, people will need to give up many of the little pleasures they are used to. One of the main ways to make a change at a micro level is to eat less meat. Cattle production makes up to 65% of all greenhouse gas emissions due to agriculture. I am not advocating that all our species goes vegan, but eating less meat would really help. A balance in how use we resources is needed… humans always seem to push resource-use to extremes.

I am disheartened by the state of everything, but all we can do is try to educate others. Ignorance and finger pointing will not prevent environmental decline.

You’re about to embark on a tour with Canuck sluggers Vile Creature. What are your top tour survival tips, and what are the best, worst and most challenging things about hitting the road as a two-piece?

Tanya: The worst part of touring is moving our backline, haha! Hmmmm tour survival tips, buy food at the supermarket rather than a service station! It’s much cheaper. Also, get enough rest. Sleep in the van, find a dark corner during sound check, ask if you can get an hour on your own in the van – being grumpy on tour is not good, and if you need alone time to recharge, like me, this tip is the most important!

The best part of touring is meeting new people and late-night discussions. Touring with other bands is always the best, you really get to know them!

Joe: Don’t shower so people leave you alone.

What’s next for Bismuth? How do you see things growing and developing?

Tanya: We are due to record our third album in August 2019. We have a few tours and festivals in the works. I suspect that we will explore more noise based music… and I may record more clean vocals!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *