Interview + Track Premiere: Onkos – “Adens”

As a general rule, one doesn’t see very many metal musicians rocking tie-dye in their promo pics.

Then again, San Francisco’s Robert Woods-LaDue isn’t your average musician. And yes, I realize I left out the ‘metal.’ Given how preternaturally talented he is, it seems reductive to put any single genre tag on his musical – especially when he doesn’t seem to use any such strictures when formulating his own output. The word Woods-LaDue seems to use most often in discussing his own music is ‘experimental,’ but it’s not the sort of ‘free turf’ experimental music for which another group of tie-dye clad San Francisco musicians became known. It’s more controlled (and presumably not reliant on psychedelics), but no less of a mind-fuck as a result.

After over a decade of making experimental percussion-driven music with Dennydennybreakfast and avant-electronica as TFPP, Woods-LaDue is trying his hand at death metal with Onkos,

Sort of.

The band’s self-titled debut, which is due out on May 24 on Digital and Ltd Digipack CD from I, Voidhanger Records, does have a lot in common with death metal: it’s heavy as fuck, with gnarly riffs played on down-tuned guitars and subhuman growls. However, there are a few key differences. Those down-tuned guitars? They’re all acoustic. And instead of double-bass blasting, the percussion comes courtesy of a half-dozen differently pitched chekeré – the beaded gourd instruments Woods-LaDue is holding in the above photo, which he also makes himself.

As such, listening to Onkos involves concurrently experiencing musical and cognitive dissonance. The compositional density and overall complexity of the music is reminiscent of someone like Gorguts, but the textures feel completely alien. There’s no better example of this on Onkos than “Adens,” which we’re thrilled to be premiering here today at Clandestine Sounds. The longest and possibly most challenging song on the album, it’s also probably the best entry point for those unfamiliar with the unique character of Woods-LaDue’s music. If you can wrap your head around “Adens,” then you’ll be more than ready to experience Onkos in is entirety when it drops on May 24.

I also had the opportunity to chat with Woods-LaDue about the album, and he’s as fascinating an interview subject as he is a musician, and pretty damned insightful to boot. After you’ve finished digesting “Adens,” you can check it out below.

Clandestine Sounds: Hey – so first off, thank you for the interview. Onkos is one of the more unique and fascinating projects I’ve encountered in a long time, and I’m stoked to have a chance to talk about it. You’ve primarily done experimental and avant-garde, percussion-heavy music with bands  like TFPP and Dennydennybreakfast – projects that don’t really fit neatly into a single genre or described in a few words. Onkos seems almost straightforward by comparison – death metal-influenced acoustic music using non-traditional instrumentation – but the music is still anything but. I’m curious – where did the impetus to do Onkos come from?   

Robert Woods-LaDue: With regards to my musical background, I essentially grew up playing music in a variety of contexts.  I took piano lessons, learned to play guitar and sing songs, played percussion in band and orchestra, as well as drum set in rock and metal bands all when I was rather young.  I even got the opportunity to study composition and music theory in high school, for which I am rather grateful. I’ve been interested in all sorts of genres, including Metal, Avant-Garde/Experimental, and more since I was really young. I went on to study percussion at University of Miami, Florida and then composition and percussion at California Institute of the Arts.  For the past ten years or so, I’ve mostly been studying Afro-Cuban percussion in the San Francisco Bay Area and pursuing musical efforts such as Dennydennybreakfast and TFPP.

With regards to Onkos, it has taken a while for the project to emerge.  When I first started writing material for ensembles of chekeré in 2012-2013, the particular ensemble of Onkos was one of many experiments that I conducted.  The Onkos material got moved to the back burner as I continued with other efforts, and I would go back to it now and then and try out things. It was sometime after my last DDB release in mid-2018 when I was inspired to finally work to complete a full album of this material.  I had many seeds of ideas I had generated over the years, and I needed to sit down and develop them. Once I can imagine how an album will take shape it’s like seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and from that point forward it’s just a matter of hard work to bring the thing to life.

CS: Since you mention the chekeré, that is something I wanted to specifically ask about. The PR materials mention the musical foundation for Onkos is “six chekeré and a battery of acoustic guitars,” and you’ve been making chekeré yourself for close to a decade now. For any readers who aren’t familiar, what is a chekeré? How did you become so interested in that particular percussive instrument?

RWL: So the chekeré is a percussion instrument that is a dried gourd with a net of beads around it.  It is found in all kinds of cultures worldwide, but most commonly in traditions that come out of the African Diaspora. One of my teachers of AfroCuban music specifically taught me how to make my own chekeré and encouraged me to make some.  After that I kept doing it, mostly as a hobby. I play chekeré often when I am playing Afro-Cuban music, but I always saw a potential for the instrument to be used in other ways. There’s plenty of other applications of the chekeré you can dig up on the DDB/TFPP sites.  The five or six chekeré ensemble that is used for Onkos was settled on actually because it has nice stereo image on recording. I typically will pan the highest two pitches of gourds hard right and left, the middle-pitched gourds will get panned to the center, and the lowest gourds slightly panned right and left.  Ensembles of three or four were not quite enough instruments to be “heavy” and interestingly varied, while ensembles of nine and twelve chekeré were too complicated to perceive the details.

CS: I’ve mostly listened to the album via earbuds, so I’ve definitely been able to pick up on those differences in tone that you mentioned – it gives the record  a very full sound. Is there much bass on the album as well, or do the chekeré carry the majority of the low end in terms of the rhythm? I’ve been able to pick out synth in the mix, but I can’t tell if there’s bass in there among the layers of guitar or not.

RWL: Yes, there is bass. All the songs have at least: one vocal, bass, one synth, four guitars and five chekeré tracks.  Many of the songs have more than this, however. The bass is often in the same register as the guitars, as I am using a detuned guitar. The guitar tuning I use is C-G-D-G-B-E (low-high). With respect to the mixing of the bass, and I hear this a lot with metal in general, there is a prominent boost of the hi-mid frequency range and a de-emphasis of the low end.  The chekeré do occupy a very particular spot in the low frequencies, so it is necessary to make room for them by not boosting too much low end from other instruments.

There is an artifact you may be interested in seeing that came up as part of the mixing and mastering process for this album that shows the frequencies that are pronounced by each gourd per song.  All of the frequencies are within a rather narrow range of ~80-150 Hz. These exceptionally low frequencies made the mixing/mastering of this album very difficult.

A couple of interesting things about the frequencies of gourds that I’ve come know after making more than 40 of them.  

  • There are something like six different pitches that the gourds will gravitate towards. This doesn’t seem to be obviously affected by their size or shape  (e.g. small gourds can make some of the lowest pitches). The size and shape does seem to affect the volume of the tone, however.
  • I do have some gourds that sit well outside the common six pitches, but these are rather anomalous.
  • The specific pitch does seem to be affected by the weather and humidity on an ongoing basis.  Some of the songs used the same gourds, but they have slightly different frequencies from song to song.

CS: I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone create a table of frequencies as part of his or her process before – this is really fascinating. How aware of this – I’m not sure what to call it, frequency clustering? – were you while writing and recording the album? Was it something that occurred naturally via your choice of chord phrasings and harmonies, or was it more deliberate than that?

RWL: No, I did not consider the specific frequencies or pitches of the chekeré with respect to the harmonic content of the songs.  I made this chart mostly to see what was going on with the frequencies during the mixing process. I did, however, consider the relative pitches compositionally, which is to say that I thought of the gourds in terms of lowest, second lowest, etc..  I would notate the chekeré in the score, just one line per gourd.


CS: Then as you were writing, which came first: the riffs or the rhythms? Did you build the song structures around the checheré parts, or did you write the rhythm guitar parts and then add in the checheré? Or does it vary from song to song?

RWL: Almost every song on the album was composed from a different starting point, actually.  Some started with me notating chekeré patterns (“Idaru”), some started with me improvising the chekeré patterns (“Legko”), some are based on guitar riffs (“Hepatic”) or keyboard parts (“Adens”), and some are based actually on the lyrics (“Charred”).  

CS: That seems like a good place to segue into talking about the lyrics. Thematically, the record deals with cancer and its various treatments. I’m really intrigued by the way the lyrics themselves almost structurally devolve as the album progresses. It’s like the line between reality and hallucination starts to blur with “Adens” and then disappears completely when the lyrics take a polyglossic turn starting with “East.” Given that clear progression, I can’t help but wonder – is there any sort of narrative to the album?

RWL: Well, there isn’t really a through-line or a linear narrative, but the concept here is singular.  You’ve essentially captured the main points with the consistent theme of the lyrics. As with the songs themselves, there are different starting points and different methods used for constructing  the lyrics for each song. I start with a theme and let myself sort of wander around poetically just to see what evolves. I use a variety of techniques like personification of ideas or other words, translation and transliteration between a couple of languages, giving words my own nicknames, digging into etymologies a bit, etc.  Sometimes I will write out one idea about 20 different ways and sort of play my own game of conceptual telephone. Sometimes I take a bit of an exquisite corpse-style approach where I pretend I don’t know what I’m talking about in the previous word. Sometimes I’m just looking for alliteration or a rhyme. All these techniques get applied at random really, and it also makes a difference if I’m starting out with the lyrics first or writing them as I’m applying them to other things I’ve written already.  Sometimes I’ll go back a re-write things based solely on how easy it is to growl them.

CS: I was wondering if there were any surrealist elements in what you do, because I’ve tried running some of the phrases in “East”  through Google Translate and not been able to make any sense of them. Did you choose the name ‘Onkos’ for the project using one of those techniques? If I’m not mistaken, an ‘onkos’ is part of a mask from a Greek tragedy, right?

RWL: Yes, so I don’t want to give too much of the magic away, but just as one example, the last phrase in “East” is “masé yo nu дicдaнc.”  ‘Masé’ is in reference to one of the goddesses of the Arará tradition, ‘yo’ is literally just spanish, ‘nu’ I don’t quite remember but I think that is something transliterated in cyrillic and translated as if it was russian back to English, and the last word is like a half-transliterated version of ‘distance.’  The meaning of that phrase is well obscured, even from me. How I arrived at this particular phrase could have been from leveraging any of the methods I listed above. So Onkos, as you have guessed, is also arrived upon by these same type of methods. It is specifically one of the etymological roots of the word ‘oncology.’

CS: I was guessing it was a medical reference of some sort, at least until I looked it up. The link to Greek tragedy, however, seems oddly apt. Even before we started discussing it and I learned more about your songwriting approach, I got the sense that the album existed within its own, very particular mise-en-scene. The more we talk, the more removed (for lack of a better word) it seems from any other treatments of the subject – or musical approaches, for that matter – that I’ve ever heard. With that in mind, why did you choose to use cancer as the thematic basis for the album instead of opting for a completely Dadaist approach or something similar? Do you need a conceptual foundation for the kinds of ‘language games’ you use when composing lyrics?

RWL: I simply felt compelled to use cancer as my thematic base here.  It is something I knew I wanted to do since the very beginning of my journey towards this music. Cancer is both tragic and terrifying – it’s 100% real and nearly everyone has had to deal with it in some way.  Cancer is an existential threat to each individual, and that is compelling to me. I’m not sure I’ll stick with that theme for future releases, but there is certainly plenty more to be written.

The use of the ‘language games’ is bit more of a default for me.  All the things I described I use for my other projects as well. It’s a general lyric writing process I habitually use, although I go rather hard on some of the methods for Onkos specifically, such as the use of transliterations.

CS: I’d like to circle back and talk a bit more about your musical approach here, independent of the percussive elements. You use a lot of unconventional chord phrasings for a metal release, and the PR notes make specific mention of “interlocking harmonies” and “augmented, half-diminished, and octatonic chords.” I’ve seen writing and production credits for the album, but no musician credits. Did you create all of those interlocking parts and layers yourself, or is Onkos more of a traditional ‘band’ when it comes to recording? 

RWL: While the composition and recording process was entirely a solo effort, I have every intention of this music being performed live.  I have a group together now and we have one debut show planned thus far. Perhaps for another release I will try to leverage the band for the recording process, but I will most likely continue to drive the compositional efforts myself.  

With regards to the harmonies, I think I have to revisit percussion first.  I’m navigating between two genre-specific idiosyncrasies with the chekeré. Part of what makes an ensemble of six chekeré interesting is that they are organized in a manner that allows a space in the music for each voice to speak as you would do in Afro-Cuban music.  Conversely, what I think makes metal heavy in general is the tendency for everyone to play the same things at the same time (at least rhythmically speaking). It’s a balancing act going back and forth between these ideas while leveraging them to weave an interesting composition.  The harmonic and melodic content has to support and be supported by this concept. “Idaru” might be the best raw example of this.

With regards to those specific chord types, it is worth noting that octatonic harmonies have got to be one of the most common types of harmony in metal generally speaking, so that isn’t too terribly novel by itself. The Half-diminished chord is rather fascinating to me.  It is a chord that exists within a standard diatonic scale, but it’s use cases are so specific. Taking the half-diminished chord outside of its normal function in a progression, and building riffs that leverage it takes some work. The process of mixing all these things together and being generally adventurous creates a lot of augmented chords.  For some songs this effort was more focused, while for others I kind just did whatever seemed appropriate.

CS: I was planning to ask about possible gigs. How large an ensemble have you assembled in order to translate this material to a live setting? I’m guessing a four-piece wouldn’t really do it justice.

RWL: Yes it is indeed a large ensemble.  I currently have 13 people in the band, but I could perhaps do with as fewas seven or eight people.  One of the things that’s interesting is the guitar riffs actually sit very well on cello/viola because of the alternate tuning.

CS: I can totally imagine that. I’ve also been told that the cello is the instrument that most closely resembles the human voice in terms of its range and timbre, which could open up some interesting possibilities in terms of accenting or augmenting the growls. Switching gears, how did you end up getting together with Luciano and I, Voidhanger? Even for a label known for signing boundary-pushing artists, Onkos seems like a bit of an outlier.

RWL: I was turned onto I, Voidhanger around the time I was finishing the album. I contacted them because I could not think of a more ideal label for this music. Luciano has been incredibly nice and easy to talk to, and he was very willing to support my project.  I am honored to be a part of this incredible roster of artists.

CS: Pete Hamilton’s cover art for the album is really striking. How closely (if at all) did you work with him on the concept?

RWL: Luciano and I had a long back-and-forth, looking at lots of options for cover art. I felt like we were very much on the same page. He suggested this artwork, and he worked with Pete directly to make this happen. I could not be happier with the way it turned out.  

CS: Thanks again for taking the time to answer a few questions. I like to leave the final word to the artists – is there anything else you’d like to add?  

RWL: Thank you so much for your kind interview and support! This has been a pleasure.

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