In the past few years, rarely has a debut album by a completely unknown act taken me by surprise – and won my approval –so much as Herd of Instinct’s self-titled album, released in the late spring of 2011 on the brand-new label Firepool Records, legendary southern California outfit Djam Karet’s own label. With an impressive roster of guest musicians, and a sound that brings together atmospheric, cinematic and ethnic elements, the album garnered a lot of praise in the progressive rock community, though some people have tended to overlook the actual band members in favour of the high-profile names. However, the Texas-based trio are experienced musicians who deserve much more exposure than they have got so far. While we wait for their second album to be released later in 2012, the three members of the band – Jason Spradlin, Mark Cook and Mike Davison – joined by Gayle Ellett (Djam Karet founder and unofficial fourth member of Herd of Instinct), have kindly agreed to answer some of my questions.
Let us start from the basics, for those readers who are not yet familiar with your history. How was Herd of Instinct born?
Jason: Herd of Instinct formed in 2007. We’re from Arlington, Texas. Before Herd of Instinct, Mike Davison had played in a band called Nervewerks, while Mark Cook and I were in the band 99 Names of God. Both bands were friends, and we played many shows together. A few months before 99 Names broke up, I invited Mike to come out and jam with Mark and I. A great time was had by all. When it was official that 99 Names was done for good, the 3 of us decided to form a new group. Meanwhile, in a separate project, Mark Cook and Warr guitarist Dave Streett were writing and recording music and employing various guest musicians. At some point it was decided to merge our group with Mark and Dave’s project. That is basically the birth of Herd of Instinct.
Mike: As Jason mentioned, over several years both bands (99 Names and Nervewerks) had seen each other’s live performances, played shows together, enjoyed each other’s crafts. , when 99 Names had a show on my side of town, 40 miles north-east of Mark and Jason’s home town, I would go see them play. It was after one of these shows, Jason asked me to come out and jam with Mark and himself. Nervewerks had already disbanded into a few different projects, and 99 Names had, unknowingly, played their last show the night Jason invited me out. The three of us have developed a great chemistry over the years, and with the addition of all these amazing players, it just took the CD over the top. There’s a lot of nice flavors being added to the Herd Trio on the upcoming album as well.
Gayle: My involvement began many years ago, when Dave Streett approached me about recording on some of his songs. And through Dave I later met Mark, their great drummer Jason Spradlin, Mike and the other members of Herd. And later I decided to release their debut CD on a new record label that I created with Chuck Oken jr., called Firepool Records. And we are very happy to be releasing their new Herd CD too. A few months ago Herd Of Instinct flew me down their studio in Dallas, Texas, for a week to record on their second album. That was really fun and productive, and it’s been very enjoyable for me to be working with these great musicians!
Your very striking name comes from an album that is somewhat of a cult item. What led you to choose it?
Mark: Jason and I are fans of O.Rang’s album Herd of Instinct. The recording is a masterpiece of texture. We spent some time trying to come up with a name that was open-ended. HoI just seemed to feel right.
Jason: Before we decided on the name Herd of Instinct, we were calling ourselves Mirror People. Just when you think you’ve picked a name no one else has used, a search engine reveals otherwise. Mark and I are fans of Talk Talk, and one of our favourite albums is by an off-shoot of them – .O.Rang, and their 1997 LP Herd Of Instinct. The 3 of us each made lists of possible band names. As it turns out, Mark and I both had the name Herd of Instinct on our lists. We hope that Lee Harris and Paul Webb can find it in their hearts to forgive us!!
What is your musical background? Was the music of the 70’s (prog or otherwise) influential in your development as individual musicians and as a band?
Mark: I started playing guitar when I was very young and moved on to the Warr guitar. King Crimson, Genesis, Pink Floyd, and Rush have very much influenced HoI. Other musicians, outside of “prog”, that have influenced the way I approach music are John Zorn, Philip Glass, Bill Laswell, Ennio Morricone, Scott Walker, Brian Eno, and Miles Davis. I should also note other art mediums have had a major impact on my playing – Salvador Dali, Philip K. Dick, Kobo Abe, Margurite Duras, Nicolas Roeg, David Lynch, William S. Burroughs, and David Cronenberg. The way these people approach their craft is a great source of inspiration.
Jason: My love of music has been snowballing since I first sat behind a drum kit in 1977. Music of the 60’s and 70’s was very influential to me as I learned the basics of rock drumming. As the 1980’s rolled in I developed an obsession with hard rock and underground heavy metal. Along with some school friends, I helped formed the doom metal band Last Chapter. While I was in that band we released a CD called The Living Waters, which has become a minor cult favourite in doom metal circles. I guess it was the late 80’s when I developed a love for jazz, prog rock, Krautrock, and psychedelic music.
Mike: For me I think it was the “Whole Lotta Love” solo that started my guitar addiction. I learned as much Zeppelin as I could, which for a study is good with the wide range, acoustic guitars, open tunings, the picking techniques, blues, rock, metal, folk, and so on. Hendrix, Floyd, Jeff beck, rush, I couldn’t get enough of it. I was into everything from SRV to Metallica. It was the early 90’s when I fell heavily into King Crimson, early Genesis, Frank Zappa, Miles Davis and on and on. From Townes Van Zandt to Porcupine Tree, classical to jazz, night to day, it’s all influential. I’ve played with rock, jazz, pop, folk, prog, and flamenco bands. That’s been some of the best influence and inspiration for me. Playing the different, and with many great players, you can’t beat it!
Gayle: I was a teenager in the 1970’s, and the music of your teen years is always very influential and significant to a person’s view and appreciation of music that stays with you for the rest of your life. So I am heavy influenced by the music of the 1970’s, especially groups such as Pink Floyd, Allman Brothers, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Gentile Giant, Yes, King Crimson, ELP, Return To Forever and others.
Your debut album took four years to complete, which is not unusual nowadays. What prevented you from releasing it sooner?
Mark: HoI builds songs slowly. It’s a process that takes time, and when a piece “feels” finished we move on. Sometimes it’s a waiting game for a piece of music to settle.
Jason: The musical tastes within this band go in many directions. So much so, that our music goes through several evolutionary phases. An aging process occurs with the music as well. The politics of merging our band with the side project, along with job schedules, and just the ups and downs of everyday life all combined in such a way that it took forever to complete our debut album in a timely fashion. It was a learning experience for all. We now work at a quicker pace.
How did you manage to involve artists such as Pat Mastelotto and Gavin Harrison in your debut?
Mark: Dave Streett and I began collaborating on a recording project that included material with Gavin. When HoI was formed, the approach was very close to the music Dave and I were writing. Dave was also participating in the material HoI was developing. We eventually came to the conclusion to combine the material and focus on making it a band effort instead of two separate projects. Dave would periodically fly to Texas to work with the core band. Pat got involved because Dave and I were working with Markus Reuter on the track “Anamnesis”. Markus was in Texas working with Pat a few days before he came to our studio to work on music. He mentioned Pat might be interested in participating. We were honored to have musicians of their caliber collaborating with us. They both created some amazing parts that really took the track to another level.
Touch guitars seem to be an essential component of your sound. What is that first attracted you to those instruments? What about their role in the musical context of Herd of Instinct, both live and in the studio?
Mark: Initially the attraction to touchstyle instruments was the expanded range. Having very low notes and high notes increases the palette and choices I have when writing. Warr guitars are stereo, which allows me to play two distinct parts or utilize two radically different processed signals. HoI’s live sound is very full for a trio. I’m usually doing two parts. Mike plays guitar and guitar synth, so he can also have two distinct sounds happening at the same time. This layering of sound can give the impression of a lot bigger band.
One of the most intriguing features of your sound lies in the world-music suggestions, particularly evident in tracks such as “Road to Asheville”. What role does ethnic music play at the compositional level?
Mark: The harmonic and rhythmic characteristics of non-Western music have been very influential on our melodic writing and our use of repetition. How we incorporate the influences varies. On “Road to Asheville” the approach was to blend the Middle Eastern tonalities with other genres. The whole approach of the track “Possession” was basically influenced by dub music. The new material continues to have strong elements of ethnic music. A few tracks feature Gayle playing the dilruba, which is a bowed Indian instrument.
Jason: As a band, we are very curious about music from around the world. We try to incorporate various ethnic elements into our compositions when we feel it will make the music more interesting. When I first began playing with Mark in 99 Names of God, they were already using drone techniques and Eastern-flavoured sounds. Naturally we continued this tradition when we formed Herd of Instinct. Some of the most beautiful music can be found outside the Western world, and we do not shy away from these influences.
Mike: I’m a huge fan of what artists like Bill Laswell and John McLaughlin do with combining Eastern and Western music and musicians…..or whatever it may be. Having easy access to the sounds of instruments from all over the world through a guitar synth has opened new paths for me personally.
Recording mainly instrumental albums with only one or two vocal tracks seems to have become increasingly fashionable. Why did you decide to do so on your debut, instead of going the totally instrumental route?
Mark: The voice is something people immediately connect with. We placed “Blood Sky” in the middle to break the cd into two instrumental halves. The piece is kind of like a pacing element for the listener to latch on to something sonically very different from the previous tracks and also to lead into the 2nd half of the album.
Jason: For the kind of music we play, I prefer taking the all- instrumental path. However, the human voice, whether it is spoken word, vocalizations, or singing actual lyrics, does seem to be a necessary ingredient for most music lovers. Unless the singer is very good, or charmingly unusual, I prefer instrumental. Kris Swenson’s vocals on the track “Blood Sky” are, in my opinion, beautiful, and are what absolutely MAKE this song. For us, vocals are another color to paint with, and they are not used as a device to make a song more accessible.
Mike: Some of my favorite songs that I’ve been listening to for 30 years, I still couldn’t tell you how the words go. Usually the words are the last thing i focus on. When I’m listening to music, i never think, this has a voice or words…or it doesn’t. Not to demise the importance of a singer or vocals in a song. It usually ends up being the most important ingredient. It can certainly make or break a tune.
Your second album is already well under way. Is it going to sound noticeably different from its predecessor, and, if so, in which way?
Mark: We’re still trying to take the listener on a journey with lots of twists and turns. There will definitely be some sonic surprises. We’re very happy that Gayle’s elegant keyboard playing is heavily featured in the new music.
Jason: The album is coming along nicely, but is very challenging for me in that an attempt to play outside my comfort zone has been established. Old habits die hard. Having said that, the new album will contain many of the hallmarks of our debut. There’ll be more use of various electronics and programming, and less involvement of hi-profile guests. Gayle Ellett from Djam Karet is providing most of the keyboards for this album, so expect a more pronounced dynamic there. My one word description for our new album: cinematic.
Gayle: To my ears, the new Herd CD will be similar to their debut album, and that’s a good thing! Their music seamlessly combines elements of electronic space, with lots of strong grooves, beautiful melodies, and wailing solos, all in equal share. Their music is dynamic and interesting. But it is always flowing smoothly along in a very natural way. It’s a real treat to record with this great group (and yes, I am biased).
This question is mainly meant for Gayle Ellett. How did Firepool Records come to be, and why were Herd of Instinct chosen for the label’s “test drive”, so to speak?
Gayle: Dave and I had been talking about the new CD they were recording. And while they were working on their debut album, they asked me for help in finding them a record label to release it. We tried approaching a few labels, but then I thought “HEY, Chuck Oken jr. and I should just form a new record company and we could release their CD for them.” And so, Firepool Records was born, initially to release their CD. Then Chuck and I thought we’d use that label to release some other CDs, and so far that has included the Henderson/Oken album Dream Theory in the IE, and a CD by my free improvisation group Hillmen (named after our jazz drummer Peter Hillman) called The Whiskey Mountain Sessions. So far we have been VERY happy with our relationship with the members of Herd of Instinct. They are really nice guys, but more importantly, they are all GREAT MUSICIANS! So its been a real pleasure to work with professional players such as them. And now we are recording music for their second CD, and it is all going very well.
Are any of you professional musicians? Are you involved in other projects besides Herd of Instinct?
Mark: Jason and I participated in a Liquid Sound Company CD last year, called Acid Music for Acid People, with John Perez (Solitude Aeturnus). This is John’s psychedelic solo project. I’ve also recently worked on music for the gaming company Acceleroto.
Jason: We all still have day jobs for now. Since 1996 I’ve been the drummer for Liquid Sound Company with my friend John Perez, of Solitude Aeturnus. We’ve released 3 albums, the most recent being 2011’s Acid Music For Acid People, which includes Herd of Instinct’s Mark Cook on Warr guitar. It would be nice to see Liquid Sound Company become a live act, and those details are being worked out. I know for certain we’ll be making another album.
Mike: There is the day job….must support the music habit. I’m currently playing some nylon guitar and guitar synth in a Nuevo Flamenco band with an amazing guitarist, David Gallegos, and some old mates from Nervewerks.
Gayle: I’m a full-time professional musician, I’ve played on over 90 CDs, and currently I am playing/recording with 6 bands: Djam Karet, Herd Of Instinct, Hillmen, Fernwood, Joee Corso Band, and the Jim Crawford Band. I also write music for TV shows such as General Hospital and Knock First on ABC-TV, Swingtown and Rebecca’s Garden on CBS-TV, Next and Exposed on MTV, The Osbournes Reloaded on FOX-TV, Bad Girls Road Trip on Oxygen-TV, House Hunters International on HGTV, Surfer and Powder on ESPN-TV, Clark Howard on CNN/HLN, etc. And I’ve also written music for such projects such as Brad Pitt’s feature film Year Of The Dog, Kiss The Bride (with Tori Spelling), The Devil’s Muse (directed by Ramzi Abed), and others. I’ve also written a lot of music for TV commercials, art installations, animations, music libraries, computer games, educational websites, and numerous corporate applications.
As I have often pointed out in my writings, finding gigs is becoming increasingly difficult for non-mainstream bands. What have your experiences been in this respect? What is your local scene like, and have you ever had the opportunity to perform outside your home turf?
Jason: In the Dallas/Fort Worth area there is a thriving metal and indie scene. For progressive rock, however, the bands that play this music, or anything avant-garde, it is difficult to build a dedicated following. We are still able to book shows for ourselves, but we are rarely on a bill with like-minded bands. To give you an example of this, at the last show Herd of Instinct played, a mariachi band opened the show, followed by HoI, and then after us there was a metal-ish cover band. It begs the question: whatever happened to continuity? As far as playing away from our home turf, this has not happened yet. We hope to one day play at one the prog festivals that happen annually.
GE: Speaking of Los Angeles, where I live, I’d say that finding any good-paying gigs is difficult these days. But there are also many places where you could perform live, if you did not mind not being paid any money. I think that it is better for a band to spend a year making a new CD, instead of spending a year just doing live performances.
And now, a loaded question to wrap up this interview… A little bird told me that you do not like to be tagged as “prog”.While I cannot blame you for a number of reasons, this attitude seems to be increasingly common in artists that, nevertheless, keep on sending their material to prog websites and magazines for review. Can you expand a bit on this topic?
Mark: Definitely there is a contradiction there. If “prog”defines an approach to making music then it’s a positive thing. If the label “prog” sets up a list of rules to follow then it’s a negative thing. I think most artists generally do not like being limited by the expectations of a specific label. On the other hand, if a band is tagged with a label this can bring a certain acceptance and openness to what you create.
Jason: Haha!! I think I know who that little bird is! Well let’s face it: The progressive rock community is the one audience that would most likely connect with Herd of Instinct’s music. We don’t sit around and play Yes, Genesis, or Gentle Giant albums exclusively, but we do own those albums. We’re not musically trapped in a world of aerie faerie nonsense. What we play is a kind of hybrid music that fuses together many ingredients. We are definitely progressive and moving forward.
Mike: Unfortunately, everything in this world has to be labeled, categorized, and narrowed down. Louis Armstrong said “There is two kinds of music, the good, and the bad. I play the good.” When it comes down to it, that’s all that matters. How old or new it is, who or where it comes from, what matters is…..is it good, or is it bad?
Gayle: If the term “prog” included the style of music known as Art Rock (music made as an art-form, not towards commercial success), then I would say Herd of Instinct is a prog band (and Djam Karet is as well). You could also say that the term progressive rock is about rock music that has been pushed forward (progressed) by the composers into new and complex forms. And if prog rock has “progressed forward”, from the early years of Genesis and Yes (and Marillion and Dream Theater), to now include new groups that really don’t sound like them at all, such as Herd of Instinct, then you could say that Herd is a prog band. Speaking just for myself and my group Djam Karet, we do not refer to ourselves as a prog band because we feel that a large amount of our music falls outside of that category. In Djam Karet there are influences of surf guitar music, electronic, hard rock and other styles.
Thank you very much to all of you for your patience in answering my questions. Looking forward to your new album!
Mark: Raffaella, thank you very much for all your support.
Jason: Thank you for giving us this opportunity Raff! We are extremely grateful.
Mike: Thank you for all you do!
Gayle: Many thanks for giving Herd of Instinct the exposure I believe they truly deserve.