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Engineering Madness: Stephen Schwegler of SEPUTUS Breaks Down the Machinations, Observations, and Hallucinations Behind Phantom Indigo

Photo by Gene Smirnov

For Seputus, and its main creative force, Stephen Schwegler, the heavy metal he's listened to for decades are simply components—relays and switches that provide a basic framework for the extreme and original music his project makes. Schwegler's (compositions, drums, guitar) joined by his Pyrrhon bandmates, Doug Moore (vocals, lyrics), and Erik Malave (bass). Together, the trio's efforts on Phantom Indigo result in extreme metal that is unlike anything else to arrive in recent memory.

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Phantom Indigo is a nearly infinite jump forward for Seputus. As Stephen Schwegler describes later, the processes that went into the band's newest album were much more organic and the years in between albums allowed the ideas to breathe and grow. The selection process was pickier and more meticulous than the work for their previous album, Man Does Not Give. Schwegler's engineering framework for the album saw him formulate abstract ideas and create sonic renderings of these ideas informed from his real-world experiences and other media.

Joining Schwegler, Moore, and Malave are a handful of guest soloists that take Seputus' ideas even further. Evan Void contributes to "The Will to Live," Dan Gargiulo (Artificial Brain) appears on "The Learned Response," Dylan DiLella aides his Pyrrhon bandmates on "Tautology, "and Pete Lloyd (Replicant) joins the group on the title track. Each musician adds their own unique wrinkle to an already complex Phantom Indigo.

Ultimately, Seputus' newest full-length effort showcases a rare moment in extreme metal. Phantom Indigo stands out as a wildly distinctive and avant-garde piece of music that seems to morph with every listen. Each trip into its compositions unveils new ways of looking at arrangements. It's a showcase of Schwegler, Moore, and Malave's penchant and abilities to bend and defy the very construct of extreme genres like death metal, black metal, and grind. Moreover, it stands as one of this year's highest points in heavy music.

Read an in-depth interview with Stephen Schwegler and listen to an exclusive early stream of Phantom Indigo now ahead of its official release tomorrow on Willowtip Records.

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Phantom Indigo has been in the works for a number of years now–since the beginning of 2016–and Seputus itself has been a project you began around 2004/2005 during your early days in the Navy. Its purpose seemed to have shifted over the years. You've set it down, returned to it at times. What does Seputus mean to you in a personal manner and as a musician who is also a part of a handful of other bands?

STEPHEN SCHWEGLER: In the beginning—we're talking pre-Pyrrhon for Doug and I—it was really just like a tribute to the music that we liked a lot and to us just trying to do it. It's like, "Let's fucking try it and make an album even though we know nothing."

At that time, I didn't play guitar for more than a couple of months and I was just trying to force myself to do it basically. Through stubbornness and youth, we basically came out with one album and that's all. All it meant to us was the end of making it.

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So, we made that and finished it in 2006 and tried to make another album along the same lines, which was a minor improvement. We ended up scrapping it because I had some hard drive problems and went through hell trying to recover the stuff.

By the time 2016 rolled around—I mean, it's so much time in the blink of an eye. I heard a lot more metal at that point, a lot more kinds of music. I wanted to try and use Seputus as my engineer's toolbox of genres, basically, and take apart all of the stuff dealing with different subgenres and what rules people followed and put my own version of everything together without worrying about labeling it a death metal band or a black metal band. That's really the point of it for me. It's an experiment.

As this experiment's unfolded over the last 10 or 12 years. Has the meaning, the impact, or the mental or emotional effect of the project changed for you at all? Have you found that you use Seputus differently now compared to when you first started?

SCHWEGLER: I'd say the more emotional aspects of it crept in with the last record, Man Does Not Give. I was still Navy and I was doing a pretty stressful job at the time and having issues with depression. It was a good outlet for me. I was looking to try and phrase it in a way that was productive—trying to take negative energy and turn it into something while also conducting the experiment.

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As I was working on Phantom Indigo, it took such a long time because I really wanted to take my time with it. I decided I want to take as much time with it as I needed and not rush it. This is especially after I joined Pyrrhon then Weeping Sores. That started getting off the ground and after Seputus had an album out already. I didn't need to rush an album. Seputus wasn't really going to be anything beyond a studio thing. So, I'd say it's a really good emotional outlet and experiment—it's fifty-fifty, I guess you could say.

You mentioned taking your time with the writing process. Given the time between starting and finishing this record and as well as Pyrrhon, Weeping Sores, and everything else, how specifically was the writing and recording process different for Phantom Indigo compared to Man Does Not Give?

SCHWEGLER: I had so much more space, time, and equipment to work with. With Man Does Not Give, so much of it was digitalized. The guitars were DI, the bass was DI, the vocals were done in an abandoned hospital room with Amy Mills out in New York City somewhere. It was all pieced together over the internet and the drums were all programmed with sounds from my drum kit. I didn't have any good mics or anything at the time to do all that. It was just a whole big mess of trying to piece this stupid digital thing together and do all the work for that.

This time around, I picked up a Verellen amp when I was living out in Seattle from Ben Verellen when they were first coming up as a shop. So, I got to use that, record that stuff in my basement in Ambler, Pennsylvania, and got to work with Erik in person this time. And I got to record real drums this time too.

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I got to develop it more. Also this time, I wrote stuff and demoed it one or two times, and cut songs that I didn't want. I didn't worry particularly about the order of writing it. Last time, I wrote all the songs from beginning to end. So I wrote more open-ended and I left more room for mistakes and errors.

Artwork by Alex Eckman-Lawn

It sounds a little bit more organic than the previous album–having that space, that room to breathe and just let it unfold. You had said a couple of minutes ago, you had the first Seputus album out, there's no need to rush a second one, especially with what's going on with your other projects. Let's say, sans-COVID, how is managing multiple projects? I imagine it's got to help to have Doug and Erik in the same bands.

SCHWEGLER: The easiest thing for us is to split things up. I think of it as when several planes are trying to land at the same airport. Like, this one's coming out and it's like, okay, you do a bigger circle for a while–there's Weeping Sores out there just floating around.

Doug writes all of the Weeping Sores stuff himself. I'm in charge of Seputus and we all come together with our individual things for Pyrrhon. So, just from the standpoint of our individual responsibilities, that sets each project apart. As far as developing, recording, and rehearsing time, Pyrrhon is always kind of going throughout the year.

That's cool to know. I'm always curious to see how people who have multiple projects are able to manage them, whether it's the temporal constraints or some of the creative constraints that might come along with it.

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SCHWEGLER: Yeah, some of it is an urgency. Like, "Look, while we're still young, we need to put as many albums out as we can."

Diving into the album a little bit more. Phantom Indigo draws influence from the late neurologist Oliver Sacks' book called Hallucinations. The book draws from some of Sacks' personal experience with hallucinations and dives into a number of other clinical cases, too. I'm curious to know how you came across Sacks and his work.

SCHWEGLER: Yeah, it's super random. I'm a listener of Fresh Air from NPR and Terry Gross's work—she records her podcast in Philadelphia. I started just picking up a lot of podcasts one year and I came across his interview and I don't know, I mentally I just connected to his experience because I live in my head a lot personally.

I've daydreamed my entire life about different stuff. It happens to this day. The idea of hallucinations and living in your head and also the idea of it going beyond something that you can control. I talked to somebody about it the other day. I mentioned a low-level hallucination in my mind is: you're just hanging out with your friends and you remember a joke or something from like a year ago. Nobody knows what you're thinking about and then you start laughing really loud because you remember and nobody has any idea what you're laughing at or what you're talking about.

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In my mind, that's kind of a hallucination in a sense, because this is just a temporal thing that came out of nowhere. In real life, you're having this response and nobody knows why you're doing it, you know? So I just connected on that level and I just kind of dug until I picked it up.

It was funny. I didn't mention to Doug that I was reading it and I went over to his house one day and he had the book, too. I said, "Oh, shit, when did you read that?"

He said, "Oh, not long ago."

There's a lot of interesting content in there but I don't go back to it that much. There are individual stories that I think are very interesting. Sometimes you read or you hear a thing that makes you think about other things in your life very differently.

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I read the transcript of that NPR interview. It's really an interesting one. He dives into a lot of the book itself and his personal experiences. I find a lot of it's pretty fascinating. There are negative connotations that a lot of this stuff comes with for some reason, right?

SCHWEGLER: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

I had never framed it that way before reading this. So I think it's interesting how he gives a positive spin on this phenomenon. My favorite instance was Sacks talking about how people hear their dead relatives or see them around and things like that. I found that story pretty interesting.

SCHWEGLER: The story I was talking about the other day was the Carl Linnaeus story. He's a biologist from Sweden and he was talking about autoscopic doubles. It made me actually think of that movie Annihilation, which also gave me ideas about Phantom Indigo. There's that scene where they're in the temple and she is dancing with this choreographed thing where it is manipulating and copying all her moves. It's like this weird, colorful specter.

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You need to see it. The book is great too. I mean the Southern Reach series is fantastic, but you've got to see the movie. It made me think of how guitars in metal usually just copy each other when they lay down two, four, six tracks of guitar.

All the stuff that I like is when two dudes are doing completely different things and they're all over the place. That bled heavily into my own ideas of what I wanted to do with the genre. It's on display with anybody hearing the album and hearing two different spins of things. That's an abstraction of just an everyday thing. I'll read this one thing and then it goes all the way over here in the space of a month.

Elsewhere in that book, I thought the stories on Dostoyevsky and Lewis Carroll are fascinating. Both have really interesting cases of neurological disease or disorder that causes them to have these sorts of hallucinations or epileptic triggers, but that breeds their creativity. They write classics based on their personal experience.

SCHWEGLER: It made me happy that I don't get migraines, too. [laughs]

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You made a comment about something in the piece with Langdon Hickman at Invisible Oranges. You talked about this learned response. I was hoping that you could dive into that a little bit. How that kind of pertains to the album.

SCHWEGLER: Part of it is habitual behavior, you know? It's like a Pavlovian idea, which is an easy psychological thing to talk about. Yet, it's very present in your everyday life and it's not just a matter of a bell rings and then a dog gets hungry. Let's take me going to band practice up in New York City.

I'll have to drive two and a half hours up there and it's braving a lot of highway and travel. The more you do that kind of travel, the more you don't like car honking. Generally, the most stressful points in those trips, the honking is the loudest–people are dumb and they do dumb things on the road or they get really angry. There's a negative emotion between people separated by glass and steel.

That's an example in my mind of a learned response where you do something over and over and over again. It's like water torture. You get this little drip on your forehead that's annoying. Then, after a year, you have erosion from the drip in your head.

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I think thoughts can be like that sometimes. You can't get rid of a particular thought or idea and it drives you nuts over a long time. You try to get rid of it or think of ways to let it go.

Does this bleed into the idea you mentioned about these mental loops that occur from repeated fixation or are meaningless daily routines and negative thoughts?

SCHWEGLER: Yeah, and the vibe is like when you have uneventful days right back to back. I don't know if you experienced the phenomenon of where you have a very uneventful day, nothing really happens. You eat a few times and you go to sleep and you can't remember anything that happened during that day. The day flew by because there's nothing worth remembering. Whereas, if you have a long, eventful day and you're doing a lot of different stuff, you have different experiences.

It's a very reptilian idea of every day being the same. That gets explored in the themes of "Tautology." Everything kind of informs each other on the album on different tracks.

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In addition to this idea of mental loops, you mentioned a chapter in Hallucinations where Sacks envisions a shade of indigo that his brain created after taking extensive psychedelics and things like that. He then hallucinates the shade of indigo again later in life at a concert while he was not under the influence of these same drugs. How does this story affect you and how does it affect you and the themes you convey with Phantom Indigo?

SCHWEGLER: That's a great question, man. It's an abstraction to my life where I've never visually seen a color like it. I don't have a direct parallel experience to it, but I fixate on–I was saying this in the Decibel interview that I'll drive around and I can hear lawnmowers, generators, and that sort of thing.

Sometimes, if you listen to the humming of it long enough, you can hear a melodic tone or musical note. I feel like the longer I'm alive and the more days repeat, I'm driving around looking at stuff and thinking about things. I just hear that stuff more prominently all the time. It's a strange experience where if you pay too much attention to it, it stays with you and you drift off for five or ten minutes.

The color itself, I think the significance of it for me is the idea that I want to block out all this bullshit that happened all day and just think about images. Let me give you an example. Sometimes, when I'm trying to remember something–I'll put the pencil down on the table, I'll look at it, and I'll blink my eyes then look at it. If I turn my head away, I can see the image of the pencil on the table.

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It's that idea of this floating image. Where is that hanging out in my mind? It's just such an odd thing and that's what music is to me.

The energy and the location of different notes in the music makes no sense to put together. It's an abstract thing, but it can mean so much if you arrange it in the right way and you look at it in the right way.

Are there specific instances on the album that you can think of right now that really stand out and encapsulate that idea?

SCHWEGLER: "Tautology" for sure. "Tautology" refers to my self-reflection and that phrase “it is what it is”. I wanted to use the same two or three guitar riffs in multiple ways without changing the note qualities or the values of them. I just wanted to change the way that the rhythms of them were presented. It sounds like there are a lot of different riffs in that song, but really it's the same phrase, just changed, repeated, rephrased, and sped up or slowed down.

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It's supposed to emulate the idea of every day being the same. Some days feel faster, even though the events are the same, some days feel slower and the events are the same. I wanted to illustrate that. I thought, "OK, well, I can take the same riff or two riffs and I can just change how I'm phrasing them, change the order they're in, and change how fast they're played."

Then once you start adding the other elements of what Doug's going to do and what Erik's going to do and the drums, it doesn't sound quite as obvious.

That's sick as fuck, if I'm being completely blunt. That's super cool.

SCHWEGLER: [laughs] It's not always successful. When I was throwing songs away, I had one song that I titled "Gentrification ISAR." ISAR is Inverse Synthetic Aperture Radar. Basically, a plane flies around something and the object’s movement paints the target so you see a 3D image of it. So I was trying to picture and illustrate the idea of gentrification moving outwards from the center of a city—how it gets built from one spot and goes out. I couldn't make it work and I ended up cutting it.

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It's a lot of visual stuff. Trying to translate those visual ideas and ideas I see in movies and TV and trying to make them work in music form. There's no real way to explain how to make it work. There's no textbook for it.

That's such a neat breakdown of how that is done.

SCHWEGLER: Every song has something like that—a tool that was built, a device that was planted. That's the "engineering" idea of putting these songs together. The subgenre of the band doesn't matter. Taking the pieces and putting them in the way that makes these ideas work matters.

What is another instance on the record of this?

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SCHWEGLER: There's another one I like a lot that made Doug and I laugh like idiots. Right in the middle of "Phantom Indigo," there's a section that does not have notes. I have a Moogerfooger at my house that I wanted to use for a long time. I basically found note values on the guitar neck where I wanted to really try and drive home the idea of completely losing all your attention to the world around you and being so lost in your own head.

I found the values that I wanted. I was like, "OK, I'll use fret nine, fret 14, or whatever for this particular sound."

Then I just jacked the Moogerfooger to the rhythm and the tone I wanted. Then I wrote a drum part around that, which was like a tribal Neurosis thing but sped up. The idea of that was, "OK, most of the album has at least had notes. I don't know what's going on exactly, but I can tell that there are note values here and there are scales here."

I went right to the end and turned all the notes off. The only notes that are there are Erik's bass going with the drums playing a rhythmic thing. Then the guitars hit the rhythmic thing harder and I put a bunch of shit on there. Then when I got Pete Lloyd involved with it later down the road, he did a weird church organ thing with the guitars.

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That was the element where I was bringing other guitar soloists in to just give me the outside perspective. At that point, my ideas are kind of maxed out and I'm already lost in my own sauce. I can't see anything beyond what it is.

That's so cool. Still diving into some of the subject matter and your other ideas. Are there other reading materials or things that you've studied, learned, or seen that influenced Seputus' music?

SCHWEGLER: Yeah, I say this all the time. I said this with Caroline when we were doing the Age of Quarantine the other day—I always watch The Wire. I'm actually more informed by long-form storytelling via movies and television I like.

I'm obsessed with the fact that there's no music in No Country For Old Men. There's so much use of sound to illustrate what's going on. It makes you pay more attention to the sound.

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But I watch The Wire in its entirety—all five seasons of it—generally before I start working on another Seputus album, just because it gets me into the idea of people coexisting in a city system and the sort of weird nervous system that a city is. You think about the fact that the city is the future of American civilization and where people are going. Nobody can live in the middle of nowhere forever. If you just keep multiplying how many people are around—I'm starting to sound like the kooky guy now. [laughs]

I just trip out on the idea of watching it. People who see The Wire one or two times are like, "that's about the drug war and all of that."

Then after you watched it 20 times, you're like, "this is about American Civilization." [laughs]

It's another one of those things where it's an abstraction. Seputus has nothing to do with The Wire at all. It's just a catalyst of an idea.

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The album has well been in the works prior to the events of the last year or so. Yet somehow I feel like the subject matter of Phantom Indigo really resonates with these loops that we're bogged down in right now with COVID. How have you used some of your mental exercises or how has the writing for Seputus helped you during this pandemic?

SCHWEGLER: Thinking back on the experience of it—now that it's been done and I get to reflect back and listen to it, I get to enjoy it more. Ultimately, I make the album so that I'm happy with it, listen to it and say, "That's cool."

As for my mental space, after I made it, I guess all I can really say is that after I've made a few albums, it just makes me want to try more stuff and makes me want to write more and do more albums with a little time in between.

In my personal life, I've been very busy. I haven't had as much mental loop time. At the time I was writing the album, I had just gotten out of the Navy and I was making a major transition in my mental state. I basically took an entire year off because I worked 11 years straight in the Navy and I wanted to basically do nothing. Which sounds great, but was detrimental in a lot of ways mentally.

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My circumstances have changed. There's a lot more stuff going on. Making the album and putting it out has been nothing but positive, honestly. It was a major accomplishment to finish it and to see my ideas through to the end. Once you do that, you just say, "Alright, let's push another one out."

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