"I spent a portion of September in Siberia in the midst of the recording. I had the field recorder with me, but I didn’t expect any of the recordings I’d find to play a very prominent role on the new album," Will Skarstad says. He, and his brother Sam make up half of Yellow Eyes, a black metal band from New York. Yet, the brothers spend a good portion of their time in Eastern Europe. "We’d collected some sounds in Poland and eastern Czech Republic while on tour earlier this year and I didn’t want to duplicate anything we’d done on Immersion Trench Reverie.
The Skarstad brothers started Yellow Eyes as a bedroom project back in 2010. They released much of their early material through their own Sibir Records. Over the next few years, the brothers joined Gilead Media for their two most recent albums, 2015's Sick With Bloom and 2017's Immersion Trench Reverie. All of their music is heavily inspired by their time in Russia and the rest of Eastern Europe. Their field recordings and personal experiences seep into their compositions. That certainly won't be changing on their upcoming album, due out later this year.
"I ended up in a tiny village a couple of hours north of the city where I was staying and heard that a Kazakh choir was performing at a local museum. A woman dressed in full military garb with heavy makeup was awaiting our arrival (we had called ahead; they clearly didn’t get many visitors). The inside was a fluorescent-lit room with sun-bleached photos of churches and rusty farm tools," Will describes.
"A group of very elderly people went on to perform a collection of upbeat songs accompanied by a stubbornly on-beat accordion player. The military woman announced each song in broken English: 'This is a song about money because Russians love money,' she would say as she monitored my face for any signs of a smile, clapping loudly and loosely along with the beat when I abided. 'Will, do you like?' she would shout several times throughout each song. I would silently smile and nod as I tried to preserve the sanctity of the audio," Will continues.
"It was all fascinating, but none of it was right for our record. At the end of the performance, I asked if they knew any sad songs. The woman was perplexed. “Why do you want a sad song? Are you sad?” After a few minutes of confusion on all sides, she brought in two of the stronger singers and they performed an old folk song that they hadn’t rehearsed. It was spontaneous, raw and beautiful and it’s prominently on our new record."
"Following this, two children in Kazakh clothing emerged with a sword in each hand. They performed an old Kazakh dance routine, swinging the swords back and forth as they looked back at their father who kept encouraging them to continue. As soon as the music stopped, they put their heads down and hustled out of the room. It turns out they had been taken out of school to perform for me and had to rush back for a test. My limited knowledge of Russian didn’t allow me to accurately tell them how incredible it was and I still regret that."
Unique, real-world experiences like these not only provide a glimpse into a side of the world that many people don't see, they drive Yellow Eyes' wildly unique black metal. Between touring or visiting family, the Skarstads spend a good portion of the year in a different hemisphere. It's not always memorable experiences that become source material for new music. There's also a strong incorporeal driver for inspiration.
"I think we've gotten better at drawing from a non-musical stimulus to create a specific musical feeling. Which means we don't always know what we're going for melodically, but we sort of know the direction of where to find it, once our ears perk up we know we are close," Sam Skarstad states. "For me, it's as small as walking down the street and feeling an airplane's shadow pass over me. It's like a ghost or a sudden chill in the air. That can be enough of a beacon to sit down and work. It might have nothing to do with that in the end, but it's crystal clear in the moment and there is a certain kind if intangible terror there. I try to chase those things."
When it comes time to channel these moments into music—whether its for Yellow Eyes or their other projects—the band retreats to an isolated cabin in the woods of Connecticut. It's a change of pace from the overwhelming bustle of New York and the icy expanses of Russia. "This cabin happens to be the most remote place in any of our lives where we don’t have to pay studio fees. We are very lucky that a hundred years ago somebody related to us was part of a circle of friends who decided to buy a derelict farm for a few dollars. It used to be farmland back then—now it’s dense forest," Sam reveals.
"I moved to our cabin in Connecticut for two months during the recording of this one. I spent that time overhauling the studio and prepping for the intense two-day sessions where the rest of the band would come up," He continues on to describe. "I was also recording a solo album simultaneously, and I couldn't move any microphones around, so I just used exactly the same mic setup. It's hard to explain, but during that period it felt like I was living inside our album."
"Sometimes I thought I was losing my mind," Sam carries on to discuss. "Every day the same family of turkeys would cross the yard at exactly the same time and I would go out to watch them. The same owl made the same sound from the same tree every night. There were several simultaneous family emergencies that gave each day a sheen of unreality and darkness. I am a composer by trade, so to make matters worse I was also working on music for several cheerful Christmas commercials."
"Each week, seeing the other guys appear in the driveway was incredible. I was so happy to have company. We dug in deep every day, rehearsed and tracked until late, and went out for a huge breakfast each morning at a little country diner down the road," Sam concluded.
Speaking of the other guys, the same line-up from Immersion Trench Reverie returned to the cabin for this upcoming Yellow Eyes album. Mike Rekevics (drums; Vanum, Vilkacis, Fell Voices) and Alex DiMaria (bass; Anicon) join the Skarstad brothers again. The four of them—exquisite and intelligent musicians in every regard—continue to build immense cohesion as they tour together and prepare for new music. "In April we went to Europe to play Roadburn and Doom Over Leipzig," Will stated. "We ended up traveling to 6 or 7 countries together with the goal of collecting field recordings, even though those were our only 2 shows. We're all on the same page."
While the field recording process was roughly the same, the general writing scheme changed a bit. "We had the demos rattling around for almost 8 months before we recorded them. Usually, we finish the demos and record immediately," Will explains. "Once we started to record we made some changes in the moment. New riffs came into place as our guitars were in hand, ready to record the meticulously pre-written material. We let it happen, and they're some of my favorite parts of the new record. Mike and Alex were key as always, structurally and melodically."
The recording for the currently untitled album finished up recently, it too will be coming out on Gilead Media. However, in the time since the recordings, the Skarstads' cabin was broken into and equipment was stolen. Yet, Sam and Will remain positive and steadfast in their ability to complete their music. In fact, Sam has a request regarding Yellow Eyes and the missing equipment, "When you hear our album, think about the fact that much of what actually recorded those sounds has disappeared into thin air."
As for the rest of 2019, Sam has been working up his solo project and Will is in the process of working on next Ustalost record. Mike Rekevics' Vanum is releasing a new album in February, entitled Ageless Fire. The band also recently announced they'll be performing at Eternal Warfare Fest in Portland, Oregon this May. It's early, but it seems as though it's going to be a big and exciting year for Yellow Eyes.