“I am so excited; it’s been a really long time in the making. The whole progression of things has been exciting to see," says Erin Severson, the vocalist of the Minneapolis-based Former Worlds. Severson's excitement is very much warranted. After a promising EP nearly three years ago, entitled Photos of Eve IX-XVI, the gazey sludge/doom trio is finally releasing their proper full-length debut. The four-song, 41-minute monolith, Iterations of Time, is a deep dive into sci-fi takes on reincarnation and artificial intelligence, among other ideas.
The striking thematic content of the album, inspired by writers like Ursula LeGuin and Kim Stanley Robinson, is only part of an engrossing collection of music and ideas by current and past members of Former Worlds. Iterations of Time offers a rare glimpse into the evolution of a relatively young band. The debut album features contributions of founding members Mike Britson, JJ Anselmi, and Boone Julius as well as Severson and new drummer, Eric Anderson.
The contributions unfold into long-form majesty. Swaths of doom and lighter, ambient passages coalesce into what the band and press call sludgegaze. The lengthy runtimes allow for ample space for intricate layers and loops in parts of the album where the heavier riffs and plods break. Early moments in "Variations On A Cave" and much of the sensational album closer, "Widow Moon," showcase these ideas wonderfully. Metal Injection caught up with Erin Severson about the album—the processes and inspirations behind it—as well as the visual art that she has done for much of her life.
Former Worlds formed back towards the end of 2015, what initially brought you all together to play this kind of music?
Erin Severson: Our original drummer, JJ Anselmi, and our bandmate, Mike Britson met through the Minneapolis music scene. Mike had started a new project because it seemed like his other two bands, Earthrise and Lesser Known Saint, were on hiatus. Mike wanted to start a new project and he had a bunch of stuff written for a new project for a new concept of his.
He met JJ when JJ moved to Minneapolis in 2015 and those two started playing together. Mike was using a rig that had ABY split signal from his bass to two different amps. He’d loop his low-end parts through one amp and his high-end parts through another. Essentially, he’s using a Bass VI and playing both roles of guitar and bass at the same time, but he wanted some more textural stuff. That’s when he brought on former bandmate, Boone Julius, who was the original vocalist and he also did noise.
They functioned as a three-piece without me for about a year. They played a show and were still looking to change up the dynamic. I moved to Minneapolis in 2016 and wasn’t playing in any bands at the time. Mike reached out to me to drum for one of his other bands and, in tandem, asked me to do vocals.
I wasn’t a vocalist and I told him “no,” but he kept poking at that. Eventually, I gave in and decided I’d give it a try. I went in for a tryout the summer of 2016 and then it kind of rolled into being the vocalist for Former Worlds.
Nice, so did you have any training, practice, or were there things you did to prepare for tryouts as a vocalist—after making the switch from drummer to vocalist?
Severson: I have a friend—a woman who lives in the Twin Cities—who found out that Mike wanted to bring me on into Former Worlds. She was really enthusiastic about helping me out. She’s a vocalist and I remember early on before her and I were close friends, she invited me over to her house to show me some vocal warmup techniques and other techniques to not damage your vocal cords while doing harsh vocals.
I sat with her and learned some of that right off the bat—get my feet wet with everything. From there, I went into play with Former Worlds. It took me a handful of months to find my own style, I guess? It was an organic learning process from there.
It sounds like it. Almost kind of “trial by fire,” right?
You have the demo [Photos of Eve IX-XVI] that came out a couple of years ago and that leads into Iterations of Time, what kind of goals or hopes did you personally or collectively as a band have going into this recording session?
Severson: I didn’t get to see much of the writing process. The EP and Iterations of Time were pretty much completed by the time I joined the band. The caveat was, they wanted me to write vocal parts for Photos of Eve so I could perform, but I didn’t want to put all the time and effort into writing parts for the EP and only have it as a performative thing. I wanted it to be recorded.
They were really kind about me approaching them and saying, “If we’re going to release this EP with me having written material for it, I want to go back and record my vocal parts.” So we did that for Photos of Eve.
I teamed up with Boone to do a lot of the vocal patterns and lyrical writing. Towards the end, when he left the band I took over the writing for that. We had to seamlessly get through a complete lineup change besides Mike and I. Eric Anderson started drumming for us when JJ moved to California. We had another dynamic shift with Boone leaving and having to reorganize all the vocal parts because we had some dual, call and response type vocals—basically had to reimagine how those songs were going to function before we went into recording.
JJ had already tracked all of his drum parts, so it was up to Mike and I to figure out how the rest of it was going to shape up. That was one of the things we were hoping to seamlessly tie up. It was really rewarding to see. With everyone that touches the music, it has this evolution. It was cool to see that process—to see how the collaborative nature changed through each person touching the material
That’s a really interesting thing because you don’t often see that with a lot of bands. You typically don’t see lineup changes or personnel changes to that extent within a recording session. It’s a unique glimpse into the evolution or transition of Former Worlds in that case.
With this album, Iterations of Time, and from what I understand you’re working on the next one as well, is there more of an exclusive trio working on this upcoming album compared to Iterations of Time? Or are there still contributions from former members?
Severson: This will be completely Mike, Eric, and I’s collaborative efforts. There may still be some influence from JJ on the drums aspect, but Eric is coming at things from an entirely different approach. This will be Eric’s first time writing with us. We’ve been working and writing together for almost four years, but Eric’s a little newer to the mix and he’s bringing a lot really cool new dynamics to the band.
It’ll be exciting to hear what you all come up with following that record. As it pertains to Iterations of Time, the album title itself seems to suggest repeated sequences of time itself leading to possibly different outcomes within each sequence itself. Could you dive into some of the central themes or the reason for naming your album this?
Severson: You kind of nailed it with that interpretation. We’re very much influenced by science fiction and there are certain themes we gravitate towards. The way Mike composes songs from the bass/guitar standpoint—there will be a riff that will be repeated throughout a song, but it will have tiny variations. It’s never really the same when it comes back. It’s morphed a bit. It’s the same with the lyrical style. There are themes that I repeat and things that are derived from other aspects of songs.
There is this concept we were working with from a book Mike is really into called The Years of Rice and Salt. The concept of this series is kind of like reincarnation for a group of people on Earth. The Bardo is where all of these people after living their former lives, meet up in limbo before they're pushed out into their reincarnated life.
I carried that underlying theme with me through what I was writing for the album and also matching it stylistically with the music. That’s the overarching theme of Iterations of Time’s title.
So, it’s this idea of life in limbo before reincarnation, these various sequences or possible outcomes—it’s a loose theme of what these people could have been or what they became in their new life?
Severson: Yeah, I wouldn’t say every song is telling this one story. Each song has some thematic elements going on, but in an overarching sense, each song has an aspect of that.
Looking through some of the song titles, like “Palimpsest”—something initially written and then scrubbed away in exchange for new writing—how does something like that subject fit into the overall theme you came up with?
Severson: I read a lot about AI and this notion of the creator and created. I was rolling with this topic of AI becoming self-aware and having gripes with the creator not really understanding why they’re there, what is happening, why they’re programmed the way they are, and wanting to be released from the creator to be a free entity.
What sort of materials were you reading, watching, or taking in? Loosely, it sounds like Asimov’s I, Robot or more popular stuff like Westworld.
Severson: During that time, I was reading a lot of Ursula LeGuin. Then, I was reading Left Hand of Darkness. Right now I’m reading Lathe of Heaven. I was influenced a lot by some of her dynamics. I was definitely influenced by the modern pop culture sci-fi but also digging into past iterations like Ursula LeGuin.
Admittedly, I haven’t read too much of LeGuin’s works, but I have heard of some of these stories you mention. As far as some of her writings go, what are some of your favorites you gravitate towards?
Severson: I honestly haven’t delved into too many other sci-fi writers. It wasn’t something I really gravitated towards stylistically until Former Worlds started happening. Mike would introduce me to things—some things I would gravitate towards more than others. Ursula LeGuin was one that really caught me.
She was born to a house of anthropologists and she’s very scientific in her approach—a lot of research-based fiction. She writes a lot about psychology, environmental issues, and societal issues. This was stuff she was writing about in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I’m currently reading Lathe of Heaven and a lot of the environmental issues and climate change she is noting a lot of things that were not in discussion during that era, but are becoming a big focal point in modern society.
I think that’s something I really appreciate from her aspect and other sci-fi writers who make inferences about things that were seen at a microscopic level being an issue and grow into bigger issues. It’s an interesting idea and that general mindset is something I like doing with my own writing and I think Mike likes doing with the way he writes.
It seems like what these people, not necessarily prophesized, but inferred—like you said from research-driven fiction—you four or five decades later are living what they picked up from their research. It has a larger impact now in that sense.
Stepping more towards the overall presentation of the album and the art for the record. In addition to music as art, you’re a visual artist and you’ve been doing a lot of other art including the art for this album. Where did the decision come from for you to step up and do the art for Iterations of Time?
Severson: Before I was a musician, I have been a visual artist for almost my entire life. I do photography and printmaking. I’ve worked as a letterpress printer for the last decade. For me, I have a hand in writing the music and I’m really attached to making visual art, it just made sense to also make the visual components for Former Worlds. It’s easier for me to envision what I want instead of telling someone else, “this is the aesthetic we're looking for.”
It was an innate thing. I don’t’ think anyone in the band expected me to step up and take that one, but I feel it was important for me to do. I’ve done all of Former Worlds art since Photos of Eve.
You make a great point. Instead of trying to take your ideas and give them to someone else—you’re so intimately tied to the music you’re writing, it almost seems like the obvious choice to have you do the art. Especially considering you’ve been doing this kind of work almost your whole life.
Severson: It’s been awesome, and the band has been super supportive of everything I’ve done so far. It’s been an easy process creatively and in every sense.
You’ve been working in letterpress for the last ten years and through most of your life you’ve done photography and other things, what have you found to be your favorite medium to work in? Is it more of the artwork-related things you do with Former Worlds or is it more in another realm?
Severson: Former Worlds is a platform for a culmination of everything I like to do. My favorite thing to do letterpress print. There are so many different components that you can use to make artwork for letterpress. Now, modern-day letterpress you’re not just secluded to wood type or linoleum blocks for carving images.
I have this process where I really love to work texturally with photographs and hand-drawn components; I’m really into making pastel and charcoal drawings. I’ll digitize those and scan them in or take hi-res photos of them, bring them in, and refine them in my design suite.
I spend a lot of time in nature and I do a lot of backpacking, so I’ll take a ton of pictures. I prefer to shoot in film instead of digital, so my camera is pretty much with me anytime I’m outdoors. I’ll scan in all of my negatives and make a bunch of digital collage compositions as well as bringing in the hand-drawn art and meld everything together that way.
Severson: Yeah, it’s really fun!
It sounds like it! From everything you mention, it sounds like it affords you a great opportunity to get out into nature and flex a very creative side of your mind as well.
Severson: It’s interesting, I had a very, very specific vision for the artwork on Iterations of Time. I had it in my mind I was going to drive down to these caverns in the middle of the Ozarks and photograph them. I needed these photos of caves, but we just didn’t have the right ones here in Minnesota. I was putting myself through school at the time, going through finals, and working six days a week. Then the record label said, “Okay we’ve got to have everything finished in one week.”
I’m thinking, “Okay, I have week to drive down to the Ozarks, photograph it, then finish off this album design.” So, I just got in my car, drove down to Missouri and ended up photographing these caverns, getting back, and then, for two or three days straight, all I did was finish the design work so I could send it off so we could get the vinyl pressed.
I was out in Europe for a month and upon my return, everything was finished. So, I finally got to see the finished format and I was so enthused over it. You know, you send things off and you can get digital proofs of things, and I think you’re a bit anxious to see the final product, but everything has turned out well.
From what I’ve seen, it’s turned out really well and it’s a beautiful setup. I’m sure people will love it when they get their hands on it.
Severson: Thank you so much!