Prog Metal Composer/Arranger Randy Slaugh & Drummer Mac Christensen Discuss WHITE MOTH BLACK BUTTERFLY and Working With PERIPHERY, DEVIN TOWNSEND, Etc.
While the band members may be the meat and potatoes of an album, we often overlook the other major contributors involved in records. In the modern progressive and metal scene, the use of orchestration and choir are on the rise and it is icons like Randy Slaugh that are leading the musical movement. His impressive resume includes work with some of my favorite bands such as Devin Townsend, TesseracT, Silent Planet, Intervals, and more. For more information on Randy's work, click here.
Additionally, Randy joined the progressive rock project, White Moth Black Butterfly, which includes vocalists Daniel Tompkins (TesseracT) and Jordan Bethany, guitarist Keshav Dhar (Skyharbor), and drummer Mac Christensen. I spoke to both Randy and Mac at this year's NAMM Show about the band and their work with other artists. Check out the full interview below.
You guys both have varied experience in the music industry ranging from composing, performing, arranging, etc. For those unfamiliar, can you give a brief synopsis of your experience in the music and metal scene?
Randy Slaugh: I’m a producer and composer and I specialize in strings and choir for artists like Periphery, Devin Townsend, Architects, Unearth, Thy Art Is Murder, and a lot of people in the prog metal scene. It’s been a way for me to work on a creative level with a lot of bands I love and grew up listening to.
Mac Christensen: Currently, I drum in White Moth Black Butterfly, which is one of my primary projects right now. However, I’ve been doing a lot of session work and have some potential fill-in tours this year. 2019 will definitely be busy.
How has your NAMM 2019 experience been so far? Did you see any notable people or memorable performances?
Randy: Honestly, it’s been sick. It’s been exhausting, but amazing. The first day, we ran into Mike Shinoda, which was awesome because Mac and I both grew up as huge Linkin Park fans. He’s definitely been a bucket list person to meet. I connected with Mark Lewis, Machine, Joey Sturgis, Howard Benson, Plini, and a lot of producers and artists I’ve been meaning to connect with, as well as past clients I haven’t seen in awhile like Devin Townsend and Intervals. We also saw all of the Periphery guys minus Spencer [Sotelo]. Overall, it’s been an awesome place to connect with everyone all at once.
Mac: The biggest thing is that it’s so overwhelming. You can’t really be prepared for your first time coming. You walk in and see so many familiar faces and all this amazing gear and immediately want to see everything. It’s a lot to take in. As the days go by, you realize you have to take it slower and go booth by booth. It’s been incredible, but my feet have never hurt worse.
Randy, can you reflect on your involvement with certain artists and how hands-on or off they were in regards to your arrangement and compositions? I’m particularly curious about your time with Devin Townsend, Periphery, and Silent Planet.
Randy: Each of those projects that you mentioned actually had pretty different processes. Misha [Mansoor] from Periphery is a full-on “do everything” kind of guy. He composes all the orchestration and sends me the MIDI references for everything. I decide if we’re going to do each part with a quartet or eight-piece ensemble or just a solo violin. He has some incredible sample libraries and my job is to add some layering to give an extra level of realism to his arrangements. On the upcoming Periphery album, we worked on six or seven songs, and I helped with not just the strings but the choir arrangements with Spencer [Sotelo] as well. Regarding Devin Townsend, it was a little bit of both where he had ideas, but kinda gave me the reins to do some arranging. There are several projects I’ve done like with Misery Signals, Unearth, or Thy Art Is Murder where they’ll send over demos of the songs with just guitars and drums and I’ll compose all the arrangements from scratch, which is always a fun approach. With Silent Planet, that was a completely different experience where I was able to be in the studio with Will Putney and work with Mitch [Stark] on some of the sound design and production on the album. We had a lot of time to work with different sounds and textures. I got to do more electronic production and beats alongside strings and piano. I love doing orchestration, but there are so many other aspects of production that I love and am looking to branch out more into. There’s a pretty big client that I’m in talks with fully producing their next record and I’d love to do more work in that field in the future.
What would be your counter-argument to those who say in a world where a bedroom musician can program orchestration into their music through their computer, why bother recording real orchestral instruments or hiring someone like you?
Randy: This is actually a discussion Misha Mansoor and I have had because he’s got this incredible set of virtual orchestral libraries, but there are just some things that you can’t articulate with MIDI. With real strings, you can do all kinds of aleatoric stuff and very customized voicing and expression. A great example is all the weird viola work we did in “Prayer Position” off of Periphery’s last album. The same thing goes with choir. There are amazing libraries out there, but if you want specific lyrical content, there’s no way to do that in MIDI. It’s definitely a luxury item and is out of a lot bands’ budgets, but it noticeably heightens the production level of a record when you hear a real orchestra or choir.
Which producers/musicians do you guys see as influential?
Randy: In Fall 2017, I had a really amazing opportunity to work with one of my idols, which is John Feldmann, who produced a ton of the records I grew up listening to. I did an audition with him on a track by Fever 333 that ended up as “Inglewood/3” off their new album. Unfortunately, the work I did got cut from the track, but still being able to be a part of that and work with someone who I’ve admired since I was a teenager was amazing. I’m such a huge fan of Rick Rubin’s work too. He’s done everything from Slayer to Jay-Z, Slipknot, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Kanye West, Lady Gaga, etc. He seems like such a chill dude and would be incredible to work with.
Mac: I really like the songwriting/production work of David Maxim Micic. Bilo 3.0 was a perspective changing album for me as far as what was possible to achieve as a solo artist. Everything David puts out is inspiring. As far as drummers, I can go on for days. Currently on the modern prog side of things, Chris Allison, Matt Garstka, and Anup Sastry of course come to mind, but Navene Koperweis is and has been a huge influence for me. I love his versatility because even though he’s done a lot of extreme metal, his foray into the electronic side of things and self production with the Navene K solo releases were so fresh. It’s very inspiring to see drummers put solo projects together as I feel it’s often more typical for guitarists to do that type of thing. Oh, also Ryan Van Poederooyen from Devin Townsend Project is just incredible. I bumped into him earlier and I was a bit starstruck.
Let’s talk about the project that both of you are involved in, White Moth Black Butterfly. What’s going on with that band and is there an update on the follow-up right now?
Randy: We have a Dropbox folder of a couple dozen or so short demos for the third album.
Mac: It’s still trying to find its legs, but it’s interesting how the band has hopped on this new track. Atone was very contemplative, orchestral, and moody. We want to bring some of that to the third album, but really inject it with some more modern and fresh production. This week at NAMM has introduced me to a lot of new possibilities. As far as the overall sound goes for the third album, it’s still up in the air, but right now it’s really starting to seem like it may have a firm electronic influence.
Randy: Not in the same way as the first record though. Right now, we’re testing the limits of what can be acceptable in the White Moth Black Butterfly umbrella. We’re messing with weird, experimental ideas as well as some more poppy styles and different regional sounds. We’ve also been looking at all the tools that we can potentially use for the next record. I’m a big fan of Native Instruments' stuff. I love and use everything Output has released too and was kinda bummed that they didn’t have a booth [at NAMM] this year.
Are there any thoughts on bringing that project to a live setting right now because I don’t believe the band has toured previously?
Mac: They had played a few shows in the UK years ago. This was prior to Randy and myself joining. Currently, I couldn’t speak with authority on it. It seems there may be shows in the future. We definitely want to get there and even though there’s a moniker that we’re a studio project, it’s definitely still within our hearts that at some point we’ll play it live.
Randy: It would probably end up being one-off special shows rather than a full tour. Dan [Tompkins] has shown interest in that. The downside is we all live on different continents and it would have to be something that would justify the travel costs for all of us. We’ll see. We’d love to play something sooner than later. All of us are performing musicians. We do also have to work around TesseracT and Skyharbor’s schedules because that’s first priority for everyone. We’d absolutely love to, though.
I also extremely respect your involvement in the Indian music scene, Randy. Can you discuss how you got involved with that region?
Randy: Thank you. My initial connection to that whole world was through reaching out to Keshav [Dhar] of Skyharbor. I think it was in 2013 where we first connected and worked on “Patience” from their album Guiding Lights, and then again on “Out of Time” from the new record. Keshav is a very well established producer in the Indian scene and has a ton of contacts. He initially started referring me to some of his clients who were interested in strings. I actually just got to work with a composer from Mumbai named Shamir Tandon on a Bollywood film score that comes out later this year. I’ve worked with about a dozen or so clients from different parts of India and everyone has been so kind and amazing to work with. It’s opened my eyes to a lot of extremely talented artists that I was never aware of like Kamakshi Khanna or Shravan Sridhar.
Randy, your catalog is mostly metal, but you certainly have some experience with pop artists as well. Do you have a passion for pop music as well or is that to an extent a way to pay the bills more-so than metal projects?
Randy: A little bit of both. Of course, I grew up on metal and post-hardcore, but I do have a passion for pop and hip-hop production. As much as I love metal, it’s generally pretty limited to guitars, bass, and drums. With pop or hip-hop, almost anything goes, so you can do such a variety of sounds with the production. I recently did a project with a singer from The Voice named Madilyn Paige. I worked on her EP and the sound was definitely more Top 40’s Pop and EDM focused. I’d love to do more stuff like that and work into that scene. Michael Montoya from Winds of Plague is a great example of someone who has recently shifted beyond the metal scene to doing hip-hop beat production for artists like Lil Xan. I know Michael’s here at NAMM too and I’d love to run into him and chat because I love the work that he’s been doing.
Are there any albums or projects either of you are currently working on that you’d like to discuss or reveal?
Randy: The upcoming Periphery record, which should have a single dropping pretty soon. I’m very excited for people to hear this album. I’m working with Anup Sastry on his new EP too, as well as with I Am Abomination and Misery Signals. With the new Misery Signals record, there probably won’t be as much orchestration as we did on Absent Light, but there will definitely be some featured moments. I recently had some music I composed placed on MTV, VH1, and the Discovery Channel too and I’m looking to get a lot more into that type of work this year as well.
Mac: To keep it simple, 2019 will be chock full of drumming. Whether it’s White Moth Black Butterfly, session work, and/or some potential fill-in gigs, I’m going to be incredibly busy this year.