Five years ago in Colchester, I saw Bismuth open for Conan in a tiny venue in Colchester called Hole in the Wall that is sadly no longer hosting gigs. Bismuth in the 30 minutes they had, blew my mind. Five years later before their tour with ultra nihilists Primitive Man, I had a lengthy chat with Bismuth vocalist/bassist Tanya Byrne who was a genuine pleasure to interview. During our chat (which is about the length of one of their songs), we talked about Tanya’s musical upbringing, Bismuth’s origins, amps, their upcoming with Primitive Man, Desertfest and volcanos among many other topics.
Jack: Hi Tanya, thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. How are you?
Tanya Byrne (Vocals/Bass): I’m not bad thank you, I’m just drinking my first coffee of the day, so things can only improve from here.
Jack: What was the first instrument you picked up?
Tanya: I started playing piano when I was five and had formal lessons for both clarinet and piano from 11 years old. Around about that time I was kind of forced into a choir as everyone that studied an instrument and music theory at my school had to join! At 14 I started studying violin for a short time, just to investigate what playing a stringed instrument was like. My piano and clarinet teacher was great: – as well as teaching lots of classical pieces to pass grades, he was also into jazz in a big way as well as an excellent saxophonist. I had early introductions to Miles Davis and John Coltrane, although I didn’t appreciate it at the time, I sure do now! I think my time with him certainly helped develop improvisational skills that I still use to this day. I started playing bass relatively late really, I was 17 and I feel I didn’t find my own voice with that instrument until around 9 years ago.
Jack: How does being a classically trained musician help with playing in a drone act?
Tanya: Some forms for classical music, such a minimalism and the avant-garde movement, have very strong parallels with drone. All three genres utilise (usually) long form pieces. The music is very much about the space between the notes, and subtle shifts in tonality and timbre. My classical training has helped recognise the importance restraint, dynamics and layers. This is especially important in drone, where the change in volume, and the holding of a note for even a little longer or shorter can change the whole atmosphere of a song or performance. That said, I also love the simple pleasure of feeling the physicality of our sound in my body, vibrations caused by the extreme volume at which we sometimes play.
Jack: What bands got you into music?
Tanya: I struggle to choose specific bands that got me into music as it’s something I’ve loved since a very young age. One of my earliest memories is running around to Bananarama’s Robert De Niro’s Waiting. I was 2 when that came out and this was the first single my Dad got for me. My Dad loved 70’s rock, so there was always Black Sabbath, Queen, Thin Lizzy, King Crimson and weirdly Erasure playing, although I rejected “guitar bands” for the longest time in preference for ambient music such as Brian Eno and Cluster or bands like Faust.
Jack: Were you surrounded by music growing up or was it something you had to discover for yourself?
Tanya: While no one else in my family can play any instruments, my Dad loved music, and as soon as he saw I had an interest, he encouraged me as much as he could. Although I initially rejected what he played me, he and my Mum always came to concerts, made sure I could practice and encouraged me when I couldn’t play something. My Dad always wanted t-shirts of my bands when we made new designs, and always wore them when I went back home. Dismissing Black Sabbath as boring in my youth is still something I wish I could tell my Dad I made a grave error about. He was right, they are great!
Jack: What’s the music scene like in Nottingham?
Tanya: Nottingham has one of the best music scenes I have ever been part of. Everyone involved is so passionate about what they do, whether that’s playing in bands, making art, putting on bands, running practice spaces that are also venues (Cheers Boulty and Phil!), making amps and printing t-shirts (cheers Phil R) or taking part in anything else that makes a music scene stick out. There are so, so many good bands in Nottingham, and there are always many different sorts of gigs to go to. I would say we are lucky to be part of it, but it’s more hard work by everyone, rather than luck, that makes Nottingham so excellent.
Jack: What was the first metal album you bought?
Tanya: I’m not sure if Earth count as a metal band, but one of the first “heavy drone” albums I bought was (probably predictably) Earth 2 by Earth. It remains one of my very favourite albums. I’m quite a late bloomer when it comes to metal in the traditional sense. Joe’s first metal album was Sepultura’s Chaos AD – he got it while in school.
Jack: How did Bismuth form?
Tanya: An old band I was in had recently finished, so in 2011 put an ad up in Stuck on a Name studios. It said something like “Looking for drummer who can hit hard and play VERY SLOWLY” I think I listed some bands too and luckily Joe (Drums) replied. We met up in a pub soon after, and realised we shared a common interest in all things low and slow. We had some practices, decided it was working, and we are still going seven years later.
Jack: What made you want to name yourself after the element?
Tanya: The name was chosen by Joe. Bismuth is very slowly radioactive (with a half-life of than a billion times the estimated age of the universe) and the heaviest metal that is so. We thought it suited our sound quite well.
Jack: What made you want to be only a two-piece as a bassist and drummer, foregoing a guitarist?
Tanya: Since I started playing in bands it had always been the format “drummer / guitarists / bass player and sometimes a separate vocalist”. One day I realised that I probably had enough equipment to cancel out the need for a guitarist. I want to explore what can be achieved by a two-piece band, and to push against any limitations we find. Scheduling practices as a two piece is much easier, and I can explore the kind of music I want to make without having to “answer” to a guitarist. So many bass players in “full” bands are resigned to being “just the bass player”: – I wanted to show that bass can be just as diverse and important as a 6-string guitar.
Jack: What are Bismuth’s influences?
Tanya: For me ASVA, Khanate, Earth, Arvo Part, Trees, Cluster, The Body and Boren and der club of Gore are very important bands.
Jack: When I was listening to your music I forgot how great a song ‘Collapse; was. What makes playing long songs so enjoyable? Is it therapeutic in a way?
Tanya: I guess I’ve always enjoyed longer forms of music. For me, playing long drone is a cocoon, especially if I’m playing the same note for a while. All worries and thoughts of the real world fall away, and my brain becomes focused to producing that sound, the vibrations and small changes of feedback become the only reality that is important. It’s somewhat of a cliché, but long forms of music are like meditation in that for those moments you are playing it, your whole being is focused on making that sound and not moving too quickly. It forces you to contemplate each note and small movement of my fingers on the fret board, each hit of the drum kit. So yes, it is therapeutic. Often, after we have finished playing I am in a bit of a daze as I readjust to using all my senses.
Jack: When I interviewed Jon from Conan back in 2013 he said you talked a lot about amps online. What makes a good amp?
Tanya: [Laughs] Yes, I love amps, maybe more than I should. I will start this discussion with a disclaimer: I think it is important to use the amp(s) that suit what you are doing and what I like may not be to everyone’s tastes. I use the amps I do because they work for me, but I understand that for a lot of bass players, valve amps are far too heavy to be carrying around everywhere, especially when you factor in cabs. I’ve come across some people that think you need a specific kind of amp to play certain kinds of music, but this is not correct. What is more important is how the amps work for you and your style of playing.
I really love the sound of high powered valve amps such as Matamp and Orange, and older solid-state heads such as Acoustic. They provide a very good platform for pedals, have lots of head room and are very versatile in the kind of cabs you can use with them. They also retain this clarity of sound at high volume and fuzz and each has a slightly different voice. I don’t only restrict myself to “bass” amps, pedals and cabs. You can use anything with bass if it sounds good. You’ll usually find out within the first few seconds if it won’t work (usually fire and or smoke will be involved).
While vintage amps, such as the Sunn Model T, are cool, it is important that any amps I use can take lots of effects pedals well and are can also put up with the rigors of touring without breaking down. Each amp that brings something different to my sound. A pet hate of my is bands that use multiple amp set ups to produce the same sound in each stack. For those interested, I use a Matamp GT200, an Orange Thuderverb 200, a Philamp Black Hole Generator and an Acoustic 370. Thank you for asking me about amps – weirdly no one has asked me before!!
Jack: Last year you released a split with Gnaw Their Tongues, how did the split come about?
Tanya: Tartarus Records suggested it to both us and Gnaw their Tongues. We thought it was an excellent idea and so the split came into existence.
Jack: What do you like about Gnaw Their Tongues?
Tanya: Every single release I’ve heard from Gnaw their Tongues has this absolute and unrelenting commitment to sounding as horrible as it can, and every subsequent release seems to push this even further. The distortion, low bass and industrial clatter make such a bleak atmosphere. If you’ve not heard their most recent release Genocidal Majesty I suggest you do so, certainly an early pick for album of the year for me.
Jack: You’re touring with Primitive Man next month, how excited are you for the tour? Have this band influenced you at all?
Tanya: Both Joe and I are really exited for this. I’ve put those guys on a few times in Nottingham, and I know how excellent they are, just really looking forward to them being punishing ever night. They are another band that I admire for their commitment to sounding very horrible. Caustic was one of my favourite albums from last year and their touring ethic is inspiring.
Jack: You’re also playing Desertfest, how does it feel to be opening for Weedeater?
Tanya: The line-up for the Underworld stage on Sunday is ridiculous. When Planets Collide / Human Disease promo have outdone themselves this year. I think we’ve already decided that we don’t need to move all day (apart from for the for obligatory move to watch Hawkwind). I’ve liked Weedeater for a long time but have never seen them perform. It’s amazing to think that I not only get to finally see them, but also share a stage with them. The other bands playing that day are going to be great too: finally get to watch Fister and Suma. I can’t think of a better place to finish the tour than Desertfest.
Jack: Do you think the stoner, doom, sludge and drone scenes are getting more popular or are they just more united thanks to the internet and festivals like Desertfest.?
Tanya: The internet has definitely helped like minded individuals be able to contact each other more easily, and that really helps to build unity and a community around the music. I guess the more people become connected, the sense of something being popular grows; if you met all of your friends because they like drone, then selection bias would mean you think something is more popular is than it is really. I’m not sure these genres of music are any more popular now than say ten years ago
Jack: What does the future hold for Bismuth?
Tanya: Later this year we will have a new album coming out called “The slow dying of the Great Barrier Reef” as well as a split with Legion of Andromeda. Other than that, we will continue to write and play gigs.
Jack: Is it hard to find time for Bismuth with work, education and other projects?
Tanya: Bismuth and my study are the most important things in my life. You always make time for what is important, and while it can be stressful fitting it all in, if I could not create music in this band my life would have little meaning. Bismuth helps me manage my emotions in what has been a very difficult three or four years.
Jack: As someone who wears their Undersmile hoodie regularly, what do you miss the most about this band? Do you look back fondly on their split you did with them?
Tanya: It was such an honour to be able to do a split with Undersmile. I feel that they bought a new atmosphere and feeling that you don’t see with a lot of doom music. I still listen to their side of the split a lot and I’m sad they no longer make music. One of the best things about Undersmile was the interplay between Taz and Hel’s vocals and guitar playing. The wove in and out of each other. This band also understood the importance of space, it’s not really something you see in too many bands now. Heavy music does not need to be loud and distorted all the time to be heavy. Undersmile knew this.
Jack: Finally, I read in an interview with Echoes and Dust and it said you study volcanoes and comets, does this factor into the writing process for Bismuth at all?
Tanya: Lyrically, yes. I study Earth and environmental sciences, with a focus on volcanoes. Environmental issues seem to creep in, even if I don’t intend them to.
Jack: Thank you so much for your time and have a good tour.
Tanya: Thank you for your time!