Brandon Ellis: The MWR Interview
Updated: Jul 10, 2020
Brandon Ellis was kind enough to answer some questions we had about the band, the new record, and a little life in general. He says "The heavy metal attitude lies in the human element." It's not hard to see, or to hear, that he's right.
As a self-taught, virtuosic shred-master, he helped shape this new album not only in songwriting, but in engineering and mixing too. Not only has his intuition and constant learning led him to joining one of the most impactful and most recognizable bands in the extreme metal underground, it led to one of that band's best releases (check our reviews; both Jake and Nick love Verminous). "I know we're a good enough band to sound both lively AND tight at the same time and do it for real. There is an entire era of modern metal music that is so overproduced I can not even bare to listen to it." We couldn't agree more.
Check out the interview in full below!
What songs or albums do you go to in TBDM’s discography to find inspiration or to stay on brand?
Actually I honestly can't say that I do that, I don't think it usually works out well to go into writing music with the aim to recreate something. As far as staying on brand, we play hundreds of concerts a year and I am very much imagining how any new song will sound alongside the staple songs that we usually play in our set. But it's actually kind of the opposite for me, I am always looking for something the band HASN'T done before, a part unlike anything in our set that can add some diversity. So it's moreso that I'm lucky my own musical ideas happen to work well for TBDM than that I am trying hard to recapture the old magic. Always thinking ahead, never behind!
The emotion expressed in your solos is truly remarkable, particularly the solo on “Sunless Empire.” What kind of state of mind are you in when you write pieces like that?
Thank you! I'm of the opinion that a solo can only be as good as it's backing...so at first I am really listening hard to the backing chords, and the rhythmic pacing of the part I have to play my solo over, because the most effective thing I can do is milk the notes of those chords that are already there for all of the emotion they've got, and lock in my pacing with the drumming. A good spotlight kind of guitar solo tells a story, it goes through several sections within itself, an introduction, rising action, a climax, etc, it might restate or build on a theme or melody from elsewhere in the song. I try not to do every solo with the exact same strategy so I'll keep in mind what I did on other songs and try to shake it up, but mostly I am just trying to feel the music that is already there as much as I can and follow my intuition!
You’ve cited your influences like Eddie Van Halen and Yngwie Malmsteen. Were you ever nervous about bringing that virtuosic style to TBDM or was it pretty natural?
Not at all, it was already there with Ryan Knight, but he had more of a country/blues/jazz influence than I do with his soloing and I maybe rely more on my neoclassical and 80s heavy metal, or rock n roll thing. So it only felt right to come in and steer what was already expected in my own direction. Also it's just a ton of fun to apply that style over death metal because suddenly you've got way stranger chords and harmony to play over than a rock song so it is ripe for creativity.
I apologize if you’ve answered this before; I can’t seem to find it. What has your formal guitar training looked like throughout your life?
I'm self taught actually, all of what you might call "formal" training just comes from studying whatever online resources or books on music theory and harmony I got my hands on. My actual guitar techniques developed by learning from ear and from rips of old VHS tape instructionals from some of my heros. Lately new development comes from me just finding my own new tricks. I started playing when I was 10 and by the time I was 16 I could do probably 95% of what I can do now with a guitar, technique-wise. Around that time I switched my focus over to deepening my understanding of musical harmony and songwriting, and to recording the songs I was making.
If I remember correctly, you guys wrote and recorded the entire album remotely. What was the writing process like?
The band has been working that way for a long time. Basically the band will come off tour and we each go our separate ways, at a certain part of the album cycle its like, "It's time to write, go!". Brian's process is pretty similar to mine but this is generally how a Brandon song gets written. I fire up my recording software every day and I hash out some riffs, their harmonies, I program the coolest drum ideas I can think of to make the song flow and I lay down some scratch bass tracks and I structure a full song together instrumentally. It takes usually 2 or 3 days to actually finish the initial demo, but then I have a complete demo of a song to pitch to the guys. If everybody digs it the next step is for Alan to learn the parts and rework them his own way. He has an electronic drum kit and the same Superior Drummer software I use, so we'll send midi back and forth and the demo starts to develop. Then Max and I will work out the bass parts, usually they change after Alan gets involved because the bass guitar has to sync up with the kick and snares in certain parts to achieve maximum grooviness. The last part is Trevor writing his patterns and lyrics and naming the songs. Brian writes his songs parallel to mine and he'll tell me where he wants me to record solos on them.
On this album, we got interrupted during writing a couple of times to go on tour, so we were able to get away and listen to these songs for like 30 days in a row on a tour bus, feel each other out about the flow of the songs and the album, critique every nuance. I kind of added a new layer of detail to my songs after going home from that, small tempo bumps where I thought a riff needed to be a little faster or slower than the part before it, or reconsidering how many times a certain riff should repeat, it was nice to have that time to step back and reflect this time before actually recording for real.
Are there any up and coming bands you’ve been into lately?
Idle Hands is one that impressed me with their album Mana, it's awesome to hear a young band come straight out with really refined songwriting, and with style. To me it's kind of a goth rock heavy metal thing which is up my alley. I've also gotta plug Sentient Horror who are a band from here in New Jersey who do the throwback Swedish style death metal thing really well, with more ease, attitude and virtuosity than other newish bands doing similar things right now. They also use the same cover artist we used for Verminous, Juanjo Castellano, and Dan Swanö from Edge of Sanity himself mixed and mastered their latest album. It's called Morbid Realms and I'd definitely check it out if you're into old school swedish death metal!
You guys made a sweet D&D one-shot game for this release. Do you play any tabletop/D&D? If so, what’s your favorite character style to play?
Actually I have never before but I am looking forward to having a band session playing it! It was amazing the demand there was for that, I think it sold out quicker than anything we've ever sold, and as soon as we restocked it it was gone again. It's exciting and for sure, it gives the album a deeper layer of atmosphere.
Do you have an audio engineering background? What did you find most challenging about recording this record?
When I was a teenager I used to write music by tabbing it out into Guitar Pro and playing back the midi, I knew that wasn't the way to go, so I bought an audio interface when I was about 15 or 16 to be able to actually record music as I wrote it. I took it really seriously and I was equally impassioned about making my recordings sound good as I was with playing guitar, but also self-taught. So I've been recording and mixing my own music, and friends', for a little over 10 years. Along the way your ear improves and you pick up bits of wisdom and I'm always developing my "producer ear" alongside my own guitar playing. It was a lot of pressure to work on the album, I was basically like, "Guys, I think I can do this job for us as well as anyone and I would like to handle a lot of the audio work this time around," and they trusted me with that. Alan recorded the drum tracks in Michigan with Ryan Williams at the helm, and then the rest of the band stayed over my house and we recorded everything else in my home studio. I think the biggest challenge in being the tracking engineer or producer is treading the line of overproduction where the band sounds quantized and robotic. I know we're a good enough band to sound both lively AND tight at the same time and do it for real. There is an entire era of modern metal music that is so overproduced I can not even bare to listen to it. I think the trend has come to an end finally in recent years, but there is still a pretty rigid industry standard of "perfection" that people expect. So it takes guts when you're the producer and you can actually see the band drift off of the click track a little bit and you've got to trust your ear and make the call if this sounds energetic and human, or if it sounds sloppy. The heavy metal attitude lies in the human element. So it was my job to make sure In the end, it sounds like you're really in the room with a band that's on fire and not listening to a sterile "product" of a record. I think we assembled an awesome team of audio professionals to do the job, the album came back sounding exactly how I hoped it would, and the feedback from fans about the production has only been resoundingly positive, so I couldn't be happier!
On the same note, what were some of your favorite moments to record this time around?
We did a cover for Megadeth's Go To Hell, it's a bonus track for Europe and maybe also Japan? It was really refreshing after recording the rest of the whole album to walk in a different band's shoes for a second, play my guitar in standard E tuning, try to nail these Friedman and Mustaine solos, record Trevor doing a totally different voice, and to layer all these gang vocals. I'm at the control desk and Trevor's in the vocal booth, we've both got microphones yelling GO TO HELL!! That was a ton of fun!
How has life been treating you since Shelter in Place orders have gone into effect? What’s keeping you from going stir crazy?
It's alright so far, when I'm home from tour I don't maintain a social life really at all, I'm just a suburban house dude, I like to play with my guitars and amps and work on music in my home studio. The loss of our future tours is a huge hit as far as income goes, we live off of touring, so I'm doing skype guitar lessons every day and that's been great. See some faces, play some guitar, and try to hang in there financially. I've also been doing a little mixing and some session/guest solos. Then my wife and I cook dinner, watch some movies, and life is good. I think for this album I'll be working on a bunch of playthrough kind of things to make up for not being able to do it on stage!