Brainoil are a long-running band from Oakland who bring together sludge, crust and filth-slicked metal like few others. ‘Singularity To Extinction’ is their third full-length in something like 20 years, and it’s also their mightiest release to date.
This interview was conducted by email with Greg Wilkinson (bass/vocals), Nate Harris (guitar) and Ira Smith (drums) as they readied themselves for a nine-date Japanese tour.
Listen to the new record while you read the words.
Okay, so let’s start off with a history lesson: how, when and why did Brainoil get together? What was the original impetus, and what did you hope to achieve with the band?
Greg: I started the band under the moniker ‘Mrbrainoil’ with the intention of creating a noisy sludge style band wrung through a punk filter. A few shows and some rare comp tracks occurred in this phase. This was over the period of ‘98/‘99. The intention of expanding the project into a full band was always the point once I was able to find likeminded people. Nate, who I was in a very short lived crust band with, first joined up later in ‘99. Shortly after, word got out that Grimple was throwing in the towel and Ira was looking for a new project. We snagged him fast. We were up and running in ‘00 with a demo tape as “Brainoil” and playing shows / recording our first two split releases in ‘01 as a three-piece.
Nate: I met Greg in 1997 through Ty, the drummer of a short-lived Oakland Swedish-style D-beat band called Squalor. That project dissolved after a couple years, and meanwhile Greg had started solo jamming on new ideas that blended heavy music with more rock and roll. I had always played and written guitar parts for punk and crust bands but never anything with a bit more rock ‘n’ roll influence and I was into the idea. We combined forces, writing songs with a drum machine at first and then became a full band with Ira on drums by late 2000. We continued on that thread to this day, making heavy music with no preconceived genre constraints, just concentrating on writing songs with interesting riffs and less-than-typical time signatures and song arrangements.
Ira: I joined the band after a mutual friend told me that Greg and Nate were looking for a drummer for a project. I was considering selling my drums at the time, but after listening to their drum machine demo and playing through the songs I realized that Brainoil was exactly what I was looking for.
What can you tell us about ‘Singularity To Extinction’? What went into the record and made it the way it is?
Greg: It’s difficult to say honestly considering we spent a seven-year course writing it. We trashed a few songs early on once we discovered the sound we wanted. We made a concerted effort to blend the first two LPs while adding more extremes in all directions, including tempo, genre, production, and vocal styles.
Nate: Singularity to Extinction is wider in scope and more polarized. The fastest and the slowest Brainoil material is on this record. There is a little bit more old school 1989 death metal and crust influence, but it is not a death metal or crust record. Singularity to Extinction as a recording is also a showcase for some of the best studio engineering work we’ve had to date, thanks in large part to the evolution of Greg’s recording skills at Earhammer. I dumped a lot of resources into getting exactly what I want out of guitar tone over the history of the band and this is the first release where we really nailed the guitar tone.
Ira: Lots of practice, arranging, rearranging, re-rearranging…
Did you face any particular challenges or issues when it came to writing or recording the new album?
Greg: Not really. Everyone in the band has a very specific style and contribution to our sound. Brainoil sounds like Brainoil because of the combination of musicians and songwriters. There is a specific swagger our songs tend to have no matter how far we try to push the limits. If you ask me, it’s quite favourable when considering a discography. It allowed us to expand our sound and production quite a bit without sounding like a different band.
Nate: The opposite of challenges and issues, for the first time we were able to take our time and record it exactly how we wanted to. For example, on tracking day we had more time to record multiple takes of a few of the tracks to get the tempo just how we wanted it to be, or rearrange microphones, drum heads or switch out pieces of the kit as we started tracking to get the best drum tones possible out of everything we had to work with. The same for guitar tone, bass tone and so on. Leading up to the official recording we also did scratch recordings every rehearsal for three months on my 18-year-old 16-bit digital 8 track – the same device we did our original demo with. Having those reference recordings really helped in completing vocals, fills and fine-tuning song arrangements. In short, we took more time beforehand to go into the session well-rehearsed and more time in the studio to document it exactly how we wanted to.
How have the seven years between ‘Death Of This Dry Season’ and the new LP affected or altered the band?
Greg: I don’t think it has considering the gap between the s/t and ‘Death Of This Dry Season’ was also seven years. The only thing I can think of is it gave us time to expand our songs with more craft while juggling a lot of responsibilities in our personal lives.
Nate: Seven years is the average span between all of our LPs, so the total perceived difference between the s/t and ‘Death of This Dry Season’ is probably equal to the difference between that album and ‘Singularity To Extinction’. There is change in each case, but the core Brainoil sound is still there. I think the next LP will be a similar rate of change but maybe not seven years from now until we get there. So by deduction, does that mean the next record will sound closer to this last LP? We’ll see.
Ira: Over the last seven years, I have been listening to more death metal, thrash and lots of punk. I think those influences come through on the new album.
To me the crust influences have been brought even more to the fore with this album. Was this a conscious move, or just how the songs evolved?
Greg: Both. Brainoil is its own living organism. It does what it wants. We are just along for the ride.
Nate: Not a conscious move, it happened naturally while writing songs for ‘Singularity To Extinction’. If you think of crust as punks playing slightly-sloppy, less-technical death metal, that is not a thought we will reject! We had a few different threads going in writing stuff for this release and some worked better than others across multiple songs to make a cohesive LP. Some of those other ideas were completed songs that we worked on over weeks or months, but ultimately shelved for now. I played crust and death metal influenced stuff with Destroy back in 1992 and then again with Stormcrow in the mid-2000s, to have a little bit of that style again with Brainoil is a welcome return. For me personally it is things coming full circle, and an opportunity to expand on and enjoy again playing a little bit more of a style that was the beginning of playing live music for me.
Ira: For me it kind of just naturally happened that way.
What do you think it is that makes crust and doom such comfortable bedfellows? The tone? The riffs? The general sense of dirt and desperation?
Greg: Not sure. We all listen to many forms of music and many sub factions of that. If you break riffs, production, gear, vocal styles and song treatment down to an unplugged guitar, you will notice these are no more than an outfit for the song. For example, I feel like you could have Bolt Thrower and Asunder play an identical riff and it would still in the end sound just like the respective band performing it cause of how each band treats the riff, tones, tempo etc. That being said, both genres do have a gnarly vibe and underground cult energy that do sleep well together.
Nate: There’s a natural tension/release between both crust and doom and when the two styles are mixed on the same LP it accentuates that tension further. I really enjoyed blending different guitar and bass tones to highlight the differences in some cases and meld them together in others. And that range of tones is something you will hear us recreate live with multiple guitar and bass amps. To your last point, yeah I will say there’s probably more than an ounce of dirt and desperation and frustration as part of the equation too.
Ira: Crust and Doom are complementary styles. Adding the right tones and riffs makes it complete.
In the time you’ve been together, both doom and crust have gone from being total outlier genres to (slightly!) more above-ground ones. Has it been weird seeing the terrain change like this, and has it had an impact on what you do with Brainoil?
Greg: Not really on either realm. The underground scene in regards to whether you discuss music, art, beer, film, literature, etc. will always become popular once it’s discovered and used by major label bands. The internet just makes all this become easier and work at a faster pace than before. As far as impact with Brainoil, I would say none. Stick around for 20 years and you get a lot of time to process things.
Nate: It is enjoyable in some sense to watch the styles change and for more people to get into it but I don’t personally read too much into it and I don’t think the band does either. I don’t think they will ever be fully above-ground genres and that’s fine.
It seems like Brainoil always makes us wait a good ol’ while between releases. Why the lag, and what is it that tends to bring you folks back together to make music?
Greg: In reality we practiced almost every week in between these two albums. It’s just we want a discography that is balanced. Not more of the same, but still keeping a consistent statement “this is Brainoil.”
Nate: Even when you don’t see a new release from us we have not been silent. We continue to play local shows, work on new material or just experiment with ideas. We won’t force something just to get a release out.
Ira: We continually practice and play local shows. We also set aside time for writing where we don’t play out as much. I can’t really explain the lag other than “time flies”!
You all have various other projects on the go, so what sort of itch does Brainoil scratch that your other bands/outlets might not?
Greg: The combo. I write very similar riffs across the board. Although, not super fast stuff for the most part in Brainoil. But every band will translate them so different. If you reference Deathgrave, for example, we don’t sound like Brainoil cause it’s a different filter. I alluded to this earlier how music gear and delivery is just an outfit. This is a strong example of that. No other band would sound like Brainoil without these members.
Nate: Brainoil is it for me at the moment and I am OK with dumping my guitar playing energy into this band. Brainoil has its parameters but they are not fixed, for me there’s a lot of room to try new guitar riffs and parts without specific constraints. Someday maybe I will decide again that I need a different outlet but maybe if I did it would be something very different like playing drums again. For now I’m happy not to be juggling two or more different band schedules.
Ira: Brainoil is my only outlet nowadays, so it scratches all the itches.
Greg, the work you do outside the band at Earhammer must bring you into contact with stacks of hungry, gnarly young bands. Do you think your work as an engineer filters into what you do with Brainoil, either in a proactive (e.g. “we should do this…”) or preventative (“we definitely shouldn’t do this…”) way?
Greg: In a way to both. But not in a marketing “the kids are into this so let’s incorporate that” sense. I write and record my own music to help me understand and work through obstacles I encounter while working other bands sessions. It’s usually inspiration that brings me to this. Some of these ideas wind up in bands. Song writing is a conversation. So if I wonder how can I get this fast riff to cut through some bands production? I may try recording myself playing fast stuff. With that, I am able to think “Brainoil needs a fast part and this one would fit them” so I will bring it to practice and bounce it off them. Oakland has a lot of inspiring musicians, bands and people in the scene which really keeps me writing frequently (obviously not only for Brainoil since we do take our time between albums).
Both crust and doom tend towards a negative, nihilistic world view, and it has to be said that records like ‘Singularity To Extinction’ serve as an effective soundtrack for what is a screwed-up and terrifying moment in human history. Do you think there’s any scope for hope right now, and what are the things that get you through the day as a band?
Greg: Although there are many great humans out there, the human race as a whole always resorts to greed and power. Right now it looks bleak as racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, nationalism, etc. are becoming more acceptable in this country (and world). But I really can’t predict. Escape through the underground community, culture, arts, and beloved friends deliver a temporary reprieve from the harsh reality. My practice spaces, studio and wife are my sanctuary.
Nate: The insanity will inevitably continue in one form or another, a comment not to be confused with hope or fatalism. And a troubling majority of people will continue to be complicit with the status quo, no matter what type of lies, discrimination and abuse becomes normalized. Any frustration and anger in the music for me is not coming from a place where it is a binary question of one person on the outside looking in and pointing the finger at others with simple answers. We are all in the middle of it and all complicit on one level or another. That anger or frustration becomes its own creative outlet, for me that’s playing and listening to heavy music and brewing and drinking beer and I’m lucky enough to be privileged enough to indulge my creative energy in those, at least for now. So if Brainoil connects with people as some noisy product of that greater dysfunction, awesome. I have no illusions about that though either.
What are your immediate plans for Brainoil, and is there anything you’d ultimately like to achieve with the band?
Greg: On a plane to tour Japan at the moment. That’s the most immediate. It’s hard to predict what will come after that. Guessing would only put the cart before the horse. At minimum, it would be great to play some west coast dates next year.
Nate: There is no specific push for lame growth metrics or some achievement goal schedule. Brainoil will continue on a path where there is room for us to do even more with the foundation we have, but on our terms. That might mean a tour here and there in places we’ve never been before, or it may mean working on a new release sooner than later. First and foremost, Brainoil has to be true to itself without being fixated on a specific strategy. This is not a business for us. Unfortunately, surrounding us obsessive, competitive strategy has become a way of life for many everyday people in the SF Bay Area, that complicates things for us to do as much Brainoil as we want to do. Thanks for this interview as it helps people know we are still alive and kicking.
Ira: We are on our way to Japan for a nine-show tour with Black Ganion. This has been a life goal for me and I’m glad I can share that experience with two of the best bandmates one could have.