Shaun Emmons of haarp
From the murky bayous of Louisiana rises haarp, a crushing sludge metal outfit launching from Phil Anselmo’s Housecore label. Pulled together from various bands that disintegrated in the mass exodus away from the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, haarp has remained loyal to the NOLA scene by persevering through the tragedy and building a new empire of obliterating rock.
In the short time haarp have been around – releasing two EPs and November’s full-length offering The Filth – Shaun Emmons, Grant Tom, Ryan Pomes and Keith Sierra have relentlessly chiseled a new standard in their slow-burning sonic devastation. The music is laced with grand lyrical narratives, hidden meanings and mythological reference, a gold mine of depth for fans eager for more musical meat on the bone.
In anticipation of haarp’s upcoming six-date tour with Warbeast and brutal supergroup Arson Anthem, we tracked down frontman Shaun Emmons to find out more about the band’s unique approach to songwriting, the special relationship among the Housecore crew and what to expect when these maniacs hit the stage later this month. Also, why the hell they insist on spelling their name with a lower-case ‘h’.
Beyond the record deal, how deeply are you personally involved with Housecore Records?
I hang with Phil and Kate a good bit, where me and Mike Williams and a couple other cats take turns running the store. We’re actually selling a bunch of haarp CDs and T-shirts, lots of Arson Anthem stuff, so business isn’t bad, man. It’s pretty good.
A lot of news stories are starting to blame the HAARP government program for all these mass bird deaths we’ve been having all over. What do you have against birds?
Absolutely nothing. I like birds. We got ducks right outside the barn right now. But no, the name haarp really has nothing to do with that, to be honest. Everybody assumes it does because of the two "A"s, which is one of the main reasons we write it in all lower-case. Where the name really came from was… the harp is an enchanting instrument. It’s the favorite instrument of the gods. God Orpheus played a harp, and was so skilled at his harp and creating moods and enchanting feelings with his harp that it actually granted him access into Hell and back. There’s a Celtic god named Dagda who actually uses his harp in war. It’s more or less like a musical weapon. With the harp you can summon control over motion, can enchant and leave you open for domination. But yeah, we often get confused with the facility in Alaska that controls the weather and manipulates radio waves and stuff. I guess it could play a part, but that wasn’t really what we were going for.
I heard even the lyrics begin as a two-or-three-page short stories, and lyrics are pulled from it later.
It’s definitely a long process. A lot of times Keith will come to me with these crazy what-if stories, or he’ll pluck an idea out of some section of mythology and want to apply it to some current-day situation, and then what if this? What if that? And Keith’s girlfriend Megan is an English professor, and she specializes in folklore and mythology, Old English… stuff that we can’t even read. She’ll challenge us with some fucked up idea or some piece of an idea, and I’ll be in my notebook writing until I can’t write anymore, coming up with some kind of story. It’s almost like homework. I’ll sit there with Keith and work it over, talk about it, examine all the what-if this, what-if that, and then if there’s any special thing that needs more work we’ll take it to Megan, and she’ll help us out. It works out really cool. We’ve got some songs where one story spans two or three songs. There’s some stories we’ve written where one song will be this guy’s point of view, but another song will be another’s point of view of the same story, just a total different perspective. We make sure there’s continuity and everything’s cohesive.
That’s pretty unique for the genre and your arena of music, something that’s a real draw for fans looking for deeper layers in the music. Tool fans spend years and years digging into their records, deciphering time signatures and double-entendres and deeper philosophies that the band puts the time in to weave throughout their music.
That kinda stuff is awesome. It gives the fans something to think about. If you pick up a CD and every song on the CD is just "I’m gonna rock! And I’m gonna drive my car real fast!," it gets old. We like to have meaning behind everything. There’s certain parts in songs where the mood in that section of the song depends on what I’m singing about at the time. And it seems to work for us. We were really pleased with the results and the way a lot of our stuff has come out. Especially on The Filth, there’s a common theme throughout the album, and there’s common personifications that happen throughout the entire album. Every line means something. Every word means something, and you have to kind of pay attention and dig into it to understand what the fuck I’m talking about. And even if you don’t, it still turns out to be pretty cool, I think. It’s still better than me singing 500 different lines about how I’m gonna Rock n’ Roll tonight…
Or "Fuck you, you broke my heart.."
Yeah, exactly. We like stories. We like thinking. We like challenging ourselves. We like the what-ifs that come with it all. You can go anywhere with this.
So in terms of a hype man signing off on your work, it doesn’t come much bigger or better than Phil Anselmo. How does that relationship work, being a huge fan and a friend, but also a boss who’s tied to the success of the record?
We really don’t think about it too much. We’re all good friends… I’m in his barn right now, he’s about 100 feet to the left of me if I walk outside the barn right now. I could go drag him out of bed, but nah… that’s a bad idea (laughs). We’re good friends with the dude, he likes us, so anything we come up with we let him hear. There’s never been anything that we’ve let him hear that he didn’t like, so it all just kinda falls into place.
The family you guys have going down in New Orleans is pretty serious, and a daunting concept for people outside of that, your competitors.
Yeah, man. I don’t know how it works everywhere else, but we’re family. The tightest family that I have besides my mom and my dad and my wife is my band and even Phil’s mom. We call her Ma. We’re just family, we do everything together.
What do you take away from bands like Eyehategod, Down and Crowbar in terms of perspective and drive?
Mmmm…. to be honest, not much, if anything at all. A lot of people have compared us very strongly to Crowbar, and when I listen to Crowbar I can kind of hear where people get that idea when I hear the chords. But nobody in the band really listens to or tries to draw anything from Crowbar or Down or Eyehategod. We all grew up listening to Pantera, but I mean I listen probably to more jazz than anything. Our drummer Keith listens to a lot of rock n’ roll, heavy metal – really good taste there. If I went and got in our bass player Pomes’ car, I’m probably going to hear the Wu-Tang Clan or Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds or something. And Grant listens to metal too, so yeah, it’s all over the map, man. We draw influence from a big variety of stuff outside this box. When we get in a room to write, we’re only writing for the four guys in the band.
It’s been covered to hell and back, but your band history is tied strongly to Hurricane Katrina. You can definitely feel that residue of that darkness of Katrina’s aftermath. A good number of songs on The Filth were written just as you guys were coming together as a band, with the EP material coming later, right?
Somewhat, yeah. One of the songs on The Filth is actually the first song we ever wrote as haarp. "A New Reign," which actually had different lyrics at the get-go. When we first started, I was still stuck in that mode of writing songs for Rat in a Bucket, our old grindcore band. Closer to when we were ready to write this album we revisited the "New Reign" lyrics, and we wrote it from the perspective of… Well, that’s for the listener to figure out, really. Can’t give too much away.
There’s things that the attentive listener can pick up on, is what you’re saying. There’s hints to be found through who you guys have aligned yourselves with. It’s clear that the narrative tale about the Glutton King was spread out over "Plurimus Humilus, Ciacco" and "A New Reign," and it’s exciting to know that the rabbit hole goes so much deeper. For the gap in between the two parts of the story, you guys called macabre artist Paul Booth to create the visual to bridge the songs together.
Yeah, that’s exactly it. That snapshot that he created for us. Keith had talked to him, I sent him the story I’d written as well as the lyrics and the music. He did great. And I’ve actually read a couple places where people are talking down on the artwork, and everyone’s entitled to their own fuckin’ opinion and judgement or whatever, but I think Paul did a great job of snapshotting the moment between those two songs. The picture that’s on The Filth is that snapshot right between those two songs. So it’s kind of the last piece of the puzzle.
Has there been any new material, and how’s it compare to the previous stuff?
Actually yeah, man. We’ve got two songs completed that are probably a total of about 25 minutes of music. And one of the songs is 16 minutes long. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the best song we’ve ever written. In my eyes, it’s our masterpiece.
How do you plan to put it out?
We’re just about finishing up writing a third song for the record, and we’re pretty confident that this next one is gonna be three songs…. and it may even be a full album. We’re not sure. But we’re toying around with the idea of some moody parts to go in between those three huge fuckin’ songs. As of now, we’re planning to get back in the studio in March to record the next one. I’m actually going to band practice tonight to work on some of this new stuff, and to rehearse for this tour coming up at the end of the month.
This upcoming tour with Arson Anthem and Warbeast has been a dream in the making for a lot of people – what kind of pummeling can fans expect?
More or less depending on how long we have to play, I know we’re planning on playing a majority of The Filth at these shows. We’ve been practicing everything except the first and the last songs on the record, which actually…. well let’s just say there’s some really cool stuff to uncover if you’ve got a free 15 minutes or so. Listen closely… that’s all I’ve got to say about that.
At haarp live shows you’ve been known to get up in the crowd’s face, breaking the comfort zone and infiltrating that "I’m just here rocking out casually at a show with a beer and my girlfriend" sensation. What’s the gravity in that for you?
It’s a total release. When we play live, that is my one creative outlet and it’s the one time that I ever get to let loose and take every bit of energy that I have and throw it into the crowd. Hank (Williams III) is pretty tied up with his stuff. We’ve got these six dates coming up, and we’re just looking to crush those, man.
Hear what you’re missing at haarp’s MySpace page, and see below for tour dates with War Beast & Arson Anthem.
haarp tour with Arson Anthem & Warbeast:
01/25 Spartanburg, SC @ Ground Zero
01/26 Atlanta, GA @ The Masquerade
01/27 New Orleans, LA @ The Hangar
01/28 Forth Worth, TX @ Rail Club
01/29 Fayetteville, AR @ Drifters