[ there's no place like home ]
by Craig Young

Aaron Turner is a busy man -- and by busy, I mean busy. Co-founder of Hydra Head Records, he spends much of his day dealing with the minutiae of both the musical and business ends of his well-respected post-hardcore label. As a designer, he spends endless hours creating artwork for many of the bands who call Hydra Head home. And as a musician, he has his fingers in a diverse array of side projects, including Old Man Gloom, Lotus Eaters, and The House of Low Culture. But his mainstay as an artist is with Isis (for which he also designs the artwork), a collective formed in 1997 with drummer Aaron Harris and bassist Jeff Caxide, whose numbers are rounded out by guitarists Michael Gallagher and Cliff Meyer (who also plays keyboards).

Like their namesake, the band's sound is epic. Of their latest release, Oceanic, I wrote in review: "Imagine the members of Neurosis DJing a show and spinning nothing but a mix of Mogwai and Godflesh -- paced interludes of quiet solitude that build ever so patiently toward leviathan moments of primal release." Funny thing that Mogwai reference. When I phoned Aaron up for this interview Isis were preparing for a west coast tour as main support for our favorite Glaswegians -- something that should really come as no surprise when you consider their respective sounds share much in common, with Isis' night complimenting Mogwai's day. It's a pairing that's been well talked about and much anticipated, and should serve both bands well by exposing them to audiences that they might not normally get the chance to play in front of.

[ cliff meyer, aaron turner, aaron harris, michael gallagher, jeff caxide ]

On top of running a label, designing artwork, and playing in his numerous bands, Aaron and his bandmates also just recently relocated to Los Angeles from their longtime home of Boston. While en route from Guitar World to their new practice space to rehearse for their tour with Mogwai, I caught up with Aaron, who was nice enough not only to kindly suffer my questions with patience, intelligence and good humor, but to apologize for the interview being so haphazard -- all while giving driving directions to his bandmates, fielding questions from his girlfriend, and answering mysterious cellphones that he somehow ended up in possession of. Did I mention that on top of being extremely busy, Aaron is also an amazingly nice and congenial person?

There are few bands whose releases knock me flat upon my back with the first listen. 2000's Celestial was such an album. Its follow up, in the form of the collaborative remix SGNL>05, along with last year's critically acclaimed Oceanic, are further testament to Isis' prowess at creating immense sonic tapestries. Imagine licking your tongue across the sun's battery. That's the sound of Isis.

Meet the new heavy.

Aaron Turner: Sorry about that, I thought I was going to be out of there sooner.

Not a problem. How was Guitar Center?

Aaron: It was a fucking nightmare, as usual! I hate that place.

It's the Wal-Mart of rock 'n' roll gear.

Aaron: Exactly! You have to stand around and wait for somebody to help you, then you have to wait for them to ring you up, and then you have to wait to get out of the store. It's terrible!

What did you buy?

Aaron: We were picking up a PA for our new practice space.

So you've relocated from the east coast to Los Angeles, right?

Aaron: Yup, we were all living in Boston, and everybody has just now arrived here as of the last few days.

Why the change of scenery?

Aaron: A lot of us had been living on the east coast for most of our lives, and we were just ready for a change. I think California and the west coast in general was pretty appealing, but LA was one of the few cities here that was actually affordable, as compared to a city like San Francisco.

You know, no more winter to have to deal with, nicer places, and all that. And we're going to make it! [Laughs] We're determined to make it in this business, and LA is the place to do it... or so we hear.

[Laughs] I was reading on Hydra Head's site that you're now sharing offices with Big Wheel Recreation and Doghouse Records.

Aaron: Yup.

I had to chuckle at the comments you had for them!

Aaron: We were sharing office space with some of those guys in Boston, too, actually, and they relocated as well, so it just made sense to pool resources once again.

What kind of effect does that kind of long-distance relocation have on both your label and the band?

Aaron: I don't know. I mean, it's good just to be around people that we enjoy being around. It's hard to say how it affects us other than we're just in an environment where we're around a bunch of other creative and inspired people. And even if they're not working with music we like, necessarily, they are still working with music. It's just a good environment to be in and, like I said, we can pool resources as well.

Sorry, what I meant to ask was if there were any logistical difficulty in the move with either the label or with the band?

Aaron: Not really. Just the normal logistics of moving geographically from one place to another. I don't know. It definitely was difficult to get uprooted from Boston. The band and the label had been there for quite some time. It took us awhile to dig ourselves out, but we're out now and everybody's starting to get settled.

[ oceanic ]
[ give a listen! ] "Hym" MP3

I guess these Mogwai dates are kinda like an introductory thing for us for the west coast.

How did the tour with Mogwai come about?

Aaron: Our bass player, Jeff [Caxide], actually started to become friendly with Dominic [Aitchison], the bass player from Mogwai, who I guess was a fan of Isis. Even before Jeff met him, he had all our albums and liked our music a lot, and he turned the other guys in the band onto us as well. They were looking for support for the west coast and they knew that we were out here, so it was just one of those things where we made the right connection.

You've not toured with them before, correct?

Aaron: No. This will be the first time.

I find the match up interesting, because I think you're both very similar onstage, in sonic terms, with what you do.

Aaron: Yes.

But your respective crowds seem to be a little different in make up.

Aaron: Definitely. For a very long time we were touring almost exclusively with metal and hardcore bands. When we were able to do our own headlining tours and could curate the bills ourselves we started to break it up a little bit. Now we're trying to do that in our role as a support band by hopefully exposing ourselves to some new people.

I think there are some similarities between the two bands, and certainly we've encountered plenty of Isis fans who are also Mogwai fans and who are excited about the combination. I think it's going to work out well.

These types of line-ups is something you've done previously. Dälek comes to mind. Same sonic aesthetic, just a different way of expressing it.

Aaron: Yup. As I said, we have different audiences to some degree, but I think we have something in our music that most Mogwai fans will be able to relate to. Though we do come from different genres, there's enough commonalities where people won't be completely confused about what's going on and why we're there playing.

I find situations like that really good. On the band's side, playing in front of a crowd that's not your own makes you step up or fall -- either one of which I can respect much more than finding a comfort zone in the middle where you don't have to move one way or the other. And then on the crowd side, I always find it interesting to see somebody you weren't expecting.

Aaron: We're supposed to a "metal" band, or we've been classified as such, but I have a feeling that we'll do much better with Mogwai's audience than we did with Napalm Death or Cradle of Filth -- two bands we've played with whose audiences hated us for the most part.

[ jeff caxide - photo by craig young ]
photo by craig young

That cannot be fun.

Aaron: It doesn't really bother us. Sometimes that kind of adversity can be good. But it just seems like it's less about how it's classified and more about how it sounds musically. Not too much more to say about that except that we feel fairly confident we'll be able to win over part of Mogwai's crowd, if not most of it.

When you released Oceanic last year, its tone and tempo seemed to be the yin to Celestial's yang. It was an album that was darker, more ambient, and not quite as straightforward and in your face as Celestial. It also garnered the band a lot of attention and critical praise. Celestial seemed to be the realization, the culmination of the previous albums leading up to it, whereas Oceanic seems to be a step away... or a step forward, I should say. It's definitely it's own beast, and I'm wondering if that was a conscious effort to turn a corner musically, or if that was the natural progression the band's songwriting was headed in to begin with?

Aaron: I think it was just part of the evolution of the band. I agree with what you're saying about Celestial being a culmination of what we had done leading up to that, but I feel that we've been constantly progressing as a band from the get-go. Oceanic was just a step further in that direction. I think we were more focused on the arrangements of the songs, and as individuals I think we were able to sort of -- not simplify -- but pare down the parts we were playing and really give everybody their own space within the band. When someone had an interesting part, rather than everybody try to play that part with them, we focused on just letting that part shine, so to speak. I think one of the major things we've learned is how to use space in our music, and how to control ourselves a little bit better and listen to each other more, rather than just listening to what are own parts are.

I think Oceanic is a good balance between the heavy and the ambient and I'm looking forward to what lies ahead with the music.

Aaron: Thanks!

How do you go about the songwriting? Is it a collective process or is it more individual?

Aaron: Often it's Aaron [Harris] the drummer and myself who sort of start off with skeletal song structures, and everybody else will come in and discuss the arrangements. Everybody writes their own parts. Often I come up with the basic riffs and then we flesh it all out together, but it's very much a democratic, group process -- everybody contributes. If there's something that one person doesn't like, the rest of the group will work on it until everybody's happy. Sometimes the "committee" aspect of composition can be pretty difficult, but I think in the long run it's definitely beneficial as far as having everybody maintain a high level of interest in the music, and ultimately being happy with the final outcome of a song once we actually do complete it.

[ celestial ]
[ give a listen! ] "Celestial (The Tower)" MP3

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