Ohio’s THE PLAGUE PHYSICIANS continue their experiments with sonic exploration (and even more eldritch, darker goals in mind, to be sure) on new release, In Arkham’s Shadow. Lord Randall joins vocalist Dr. Orange in the diagnoses…
FROM THE BANKS OF THE BURNING RIVER
Interview with Dr. Orange [Vocals] of THE PLAGUE PHYSICIANS
Interview By: Lord Randall
Rebel Extravaganza: So you began your practice in Cleveland in 2013, taking almost 5 years to release The Raven Mocker. How much of the persona was in place from the start, or was The Plague Physicians something you became over time?
Dr. Orange: I’d been in another band, playing heartland rock kind of stuff; Springsteen, Tom Petty kinda stuff. We were playing original songs in the same vein, but I was feeling in a bit of a rut. I listen to all kinds of stuff, and enjoying playing guitar enough to live the gig, but I also missed metal. Around 2013 – this’ll probably sound cliché – I revisited the old Black Sabbath albums. No shit. I just put on the first album and remembered how much I loved slow and heavy shit, next thing I know I’m on Sabotage, and I was feeling excited. Orchid’s Capricorn was getting played a lot at that time, too. And Mount Salem.
I tuned down a step and started riffing. First thing written was ‘Let Sleeping Gods Lie’. It was almost a joke – a loving joke. Actually, it’s probably more accurate to say it was a love letter to old doom.
I knew Lovecraft was old hat for the genre. I grew up reading horror fiction, and it felt natural to write the tune. I took the song and tucked it away. From 2013 – 2017, I would pick up the guitar, and play with heavier ideas until they turned into songs. During that time we had ‘When Cries The Whippoorwill’ and the opening and closing songs for The Raven Mocker. I had no idea what I’d do with the songs. I maybe had one or two friends who’d be into playing this kind of stuff, but we were all busy with life. The persona just kinda happened, really. Woke up New Year’s day 2018 and said “Fuck it, let’s give these songs a home”. Didn’t even know what I was going to call the project until I had 4 songs recorded. I’d always thought about starting a group with a buddy of mine that we’d call Dead Crow Band, but it didn’t feel right. Saw some old Halloween pics, and a shot of my oldest kid dressed as a plague doctor sealed the deal. That photo is the cover of The Raven Mocker, actually.
RX: Even so, bands (Uada, Portal, whichever Batushka you want to name…GWAR for shit’s sake) have adopted personae to varying degrees of success. Doesn’t matter how fancy your get-up looks if the tunes aren’t there, you know? You can easily become “that _ band”, “the dudes with the beaks”, what have you. What steps do you gentlemen (and or women) take in the writing/performance to avoid caricature?
Dr. O: Honestly, the persona is secondary to the music. We want good songs first. The robes and the beaks come later. I’ve always felt the best bands with personae could play their songs in plain clothes and still sound great.
RX: I mean, anything can be a gimmick, but if the performance is there to back it up, one supports the other. You think The Ramones would’ve become the godfathers of US punk in gold polyester?
Dr. O: Now I’m just imagining Joey Ramone looking like a caricature of Elvis. And I kinda want to see it in action to feel better about an answer to that question. I think the leather jackets helped more than hurt, but it still comes down to the songs. But then again, ‘Beat On The Brat’ covered by U2 lacks the, well, punch…
RX: One thing that’s struck me about TPP from the start is the fluidity of tone, the “incessant gurgling liquidity” of the music. Ever wonder why Lovecraft seemed so obsessed with water, oceanic terror, the sea, despite rarely travelling outside New England?
Dr. O: Well, New England is coastal, so he wasn’t far from water. I grew up a 10 minute drive from Lake Erie, and my family would go there to fish. I didn’t enjoy fishing. Hated sitting still. So I’d take my Walkman and walk around the breakwall or the piers listening to Alice In Chains while the sun went down and the water turned from light green to black. Kinda kickstarted my own love of water, and the horrors that might live therein. I was a kid reading Stephen King and Lovecraft, listening to grunge, with an overactive imagination.
RX: As far as the overall Lovecraftian theme of band thus far, is this something you see yourself sticking with over time? Personally, you can never have enough Lovecraft in your life, but you can for fucking sure have poorly done pastiches, which are even worse. And metal, doom especially, is full to the brim of them.
Dr. O: Initially, I thought that would be the case. I thought Lovecraft would be the well to go back to, but it’s hard to do something like that without spiraling out into pastiche. That’s something we want to avoid. Right now, it’s more appropriate to think of our inspiration as literary, with cosmic horror being our aim. I mean, ‘Prove The Devil’ was inspired by Machen; ‘The Great God Pan’ is a creepy fucking tale, and the stomp of the song made me think of satyr hooves and arcane medical experiments. There’s still a lot of Lovecraft all over In Arkham’s Shadow.
RX: How was the recording done for the album? Mostly virtually, or in person? Do you find yourselves needing to “get into” the atmosphere, and is it harder to do so sitting in your house miles away from each other than beak to beak, as it were?
Dr. O: We spent the late part of 2018 and a lot of 2019 working out the music. Probably had the music finished around debut’s first anniversary. We recorded it the same way we did The Raven Mocker; into a laptop at Dead Crow HQ. Not the same one as The Raven Mocker though. That one died, literally, hours after backing up the multitracks and uploading the mastered files to Bandcamp and our other distribution platform. It was a fun way to spend a weekend here and there. We tried to get the music down while it was still fresh, so we came preloaded into the atmosphere. Then I took some rough mixes to work on lyrics and flesh out vocal parts.
RX: If you could, delve a bit into the lyrical inspiration behind ‘Carcosa (Cassilda’s Song)’ and ‘Difference In The Dose’.
Dr. O: ‘Carcosa…’ was inspired by a couple things. That was actually one of the first songs written, musically, for this album. I had a couple different ideas that didn’t pan out, and it ended up being one of the last lyrics finished. I’d remembered Carcosa being referenced in the first season of True Detective, and how it was tied to the Yellow King. So, went back to the books and read Ambrose Bierce’s An Inhabitant Of Carcosa and moved to Robert W. Chambers’ The King In Yellow. I became fascinated with the verse Chambers wrote as ‘Cassilda’s Song’, and actually used those as the choruses. Blessed the great old ones for public domain. I kind of put those pieces together and wanted to conjure an image of another world; a place with two suns that might be on the verge of destruction. It was dreamlike for me, really. I wanted to try to remember the bits that linger in your head when you first wake.
‘Difference In The Dose’ is another beast. That was the last piece of music recorded. My first lyric idea was to write that song as a tribute to Layne Staley. Alice In Chains is easily one of our biggest influences. Possibly the one band we all agree on? Some of that idea lives on in the B sections, but when I was having trouble with what I thought of as the verses, I just started letting out some feelings.
RX: Back in 2018 (or even late last year), could you have imagined the timeliness of your visual manifestation? Almost to the year, we get the current pandemic situation, and the Spanish Flu was killing off 1/3 of the world’s population, something Lovecraft certainly would’ve experienced, seen in the media of the day…tell me things aren’t cyclical…
Dr. O: Absolutely! Things always come back. If I can reference True Detective again; “Time is a flat circle”. We jokingly talked about waiting until the pandemic subsided, but after the time and work we put into this we figured maybe plague docs are exactly what 2020 needed a little of.
RX: How has the live experience carried over? Remember, live music was back when you… My favorite live music venue down here in Nashville finally reopened (with limits) this past week, but the music of TPP just begs to be played live. What’s coming up on that front, or just adopting the same “wait and see” mode we all have to?
Dr. O: I’m going to be honest with you – we haven’t set foot on a stage at all yet. This started as a fun thing to do when we were in a rut with our other musical projects, and we never got around to making the time to book anything. And of course now, it’s not really an option. That’s not to say we wouldn’t be glad to perform this stuff in front of some willing patients. So, yeah, it’s wait and see time.