I first met Joe many years ago when DeathCrawl played a Blackout Cookout at the Outpost alongside Venomin James on the side stage. He’s been a busy guy, riffing his way across stages all over the place since, currently melting faces as part of the atmospheric-metal power trio that is Sparrowmilk. He was kind enough to sit for an interview today. Be sure to check out all the bands we discuss if you’re up-for-it. Thanks to Joe for his time!
Jason – In recent years you’ve been primarily playing in Sparrowmilk, although I know you also spent years slinging riffs in Venomin James. What are some of the other bands you’ve played in over the years?
Joe – Hmm. There have been a few that actually lasted long enough to record and play out – when I lived in Kansas City (from 1990 to 2000) I was in “Snapper”, “Redshift”, and finally “Avondale”. In 2000, I moved to NYC and joined an industrial metal band called “handful of dust.”, which coincidentally had drummer Joe Letz – who went on to Genitorturers, Amen, Combichrist, and now Aesthetic Perfection. Dude was 18 – and possibly one of the greatest drummers I had ever played with until I moved back to Cleveland in 2002. Then in Clevo, I started playing with Tom & Erin in band with Matt Shack from Pale Creation and Integrity. I left that band when Tom played demos for what would become Venomin James. He had written, performed, and recorded some songs… and I kinda knew that was the direction I wanted to go.
Another aside, Paul from “Shiner” engineered Avondale’s record along with Joel Hamilton… the same time they were recording “Starless”. I have a CD-R of rough mixes they gave me from that time.
Jason – Sweet! Are you originally from Cleveland?
Joe – Yeah, I grew up in Mentor. I decided to go to art school in Kansas City – trying to get a Disney internship.
Jason – I’ve never been anywhere near Kansas City. Is it a “music town” where local/regional bands can thrive?
Joe – I think so! When I was there, it was booming with killer bands. Shiner, Season to Risk, Tenderloin, Stick, The Get Up Kids, Coalesce, Origin, Molly McGuire, The Anniversary – to name a few. It reminds me a lot of Cleveland, except more of a Red Decibel/Am Rep/Sub Pop feel vs. a metal town. At least in my experience.
It’s super close to Lawrence, KS…which was the home of the Outhouse…considered a pretty legendary place akin to the old Euclid Tavern. One of those “I saw THAT BAND there back in the day…”
Jason – Nice! Sounds like my kind of place! Have you always been a guitar player?
Joe – Pretty much…I started when I was 13. My Dad and uncles fed me a steady stream of heavy & classic rock since I was a little kid, and the guitar always seemed like something a cool guy would play.
My aunt had “Alive II”, and I was hooked on trying to do that on a stage someday. I was 6 when that came out.
Jason – Did anyone else in your family play in bands, or was it something you took to on your own?
Joe – In my family? No…they were more listeners and appreciators of music than players. That said, I was encouraged by them to keep at it. My Dad was always asking me to play some licks & riffs: “Play that line from “Layla” or “the middle part of Stairway” – Haha! One time I was in my room playing to the first Samhain LP and Danzig 1 – and he popped his head and asked if it was me playing or just the record. He seemed kinda proud that I had played all the way through “Twist of Cain” without jacking it all up.
The real moment, though, was nailing “Aqualung” by Jethro Tull. He always played that record.
Jason – I often wish I had spent the time learning to play other people’s stuff. When I first started, we immediately started creating. Over the years, we’ve naturally done some random covers at shows, but I never bothered to learn much of anything. That was a mistake, in retrospect!
Joe – I started getting bored of spending the energy on other people’s music – I wanted to make records that teenage me would love.
Jason – Yeah, I think that’s why we went straight to writing stupid punk songs in the summer of ’98 with little regard for trying to learn from others.
Sparrowmilk evolved out of Venomin James, right?
Joe – Yeah, Sparrowmilk evolved out of Venomin. We had a lot of downtime because our drummer was in so many other bands, and he had a hard time making rehearsal sometimes. I had gotten a baritone SG, and was messing around with drop tuning on it… I brought it to practice one time, and Tom jumped behind the drums and we started just jamming on these sludgy riffs that I had. Erin was jamming along on bass. Venomin had played some shows instrumentally when our first singer, Jim, was deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, so there was certain level of comfort in doing it that way for Sparrowmilk.
I was always pushing for Venomin to be even heavier, and this baritone was giving me the sound I heard in my head.
Jason – Well, you’ve certainly got the heavy down from what I’ve heard.
Over the years, I’ve admired your guitar rigs. Have you always been a gear hound?
Joe – I would say so. I’ve always been fascinated with how my heroes got their sound. I started humbly, like most people with just straight garbage gear. How can I get better tone? What is the dude from Slayer using? What amp & guitar is on “Master of Puppets”? Always searching for the guitar that felt and sounded “right,” like coming home. Always wanting that amp to sound like they do on my favorite albums. It has evolved into me just going after a bunch of different textures, I guess – so now I just research the bejeezus out of gear, listen to the bands we play with, try stuff at the store – and buy or trade for everything I can get my hands on. If I hear something live that sounds amazing, I immediately start plotting a way to get one. It’s not good or healthy, but at least it’s not just getting wasted all the time – throwing money away on nonsense. My savings and 401k are actually pieces of gear – Ha!
Like, I got “Dimension Hatross” and “Leprosy” in the same weekly record store trip…and I was like, “WHAAAAAT?!?!?” Heavy music was evolving so fast at that time, and I had no clue how these dudes were getting their sounds.
Jason – What about go-to pieces of gear at the moment?
Joe – At the moment, it’s my 5150 II through the twin Tyrant Tone 112/115s. Straight in, no pedals. Either the Gibson SG baritone, or the Dunable R2 with the EGC neck.
On bass…I’m loving the Fuzzrocious Bongripper, the Boss ODB-3, and the EQD Life Pedal.
Gotta say, too, that Skot from Lo-Pan turned me onto the MXR M80 Bass D.I.+ – holy smokes!
Jason – The ODB3 is a great pedal that doesn’t get enough love just because it’s a Boss pedal. I’ve never tried that M80.
Joe – ODB-3 is a dark horse!
Jason – I couldn’t help but notice the Sparrowmilk aesthetic often borrows from the Alien Universe (Weyland-Yutani). Is Sci-Fi a huge influence on the music, or is it just a personal thing?
Joe – It’s both – I’m a huge sci-fi fan and I feel like the “used future” aesthetic of Alien, Escape From New York, Blade Runner, and Star Wars fits how we view where the sound comes from. Blending in synths feels that way to me. What would a sludgier band put together by someone in the Weyland-Yutani universe sound like? That’s where we are trying to get. I’m hoping to get more out there with things, looping and weird sci-fi soundscapes. I’m a designer/video guy for a living, and the well realized iconography of the Alien series, and the Syd Mead futurist design really appeals to that side. I try to imagine scenes from an imaginary chapter while the songs are going, and visualize starships and space freighters breaking the event horizon and the heliopause. Seems to lend itself to exploration, and I want to do the same for this weird hybrid we’re attempting to develop. In short – trying to make something as iconic as those films/universes is as lofty a goal as trying to sell a million records to us.
Jason – That’s an awesome way to approach your sonic vision! Sometimes, I think bands are afraid to embrace aesthetics for fear of being labelled gimmicky, when really gimmicks and “style” really don’t have to be the same.
Joe – Just growing up with those movies and comics, etc… I think it’s hard to extract the shared experience of so many classic and formative albums coming out at the same time as all of that. It feels combined to me.
The way I feel about how truly great some records are, is the same way I feel about iconic sci-fi.
Jason – Agreed! I’m a total sci-fi nut!
What’s your current go-to for a sound that hits ya’ where it counts?
Joe – I’ve got a trifecta at the moment. Maybe a little bit cliché at this point, but right now it’s SUNN “Life Metal”, Goatsnake “1 + Dog Days” OR “Trampled Under Hoof”, and Black Breath “Heavy Breathing”
There’s always Sabbath and stuff like that, but it doesn’t thrill me like it used to.
You could probably throw Disfear “Live The Storm” in for that Black Breath album…it’s basically swedish chainsaw recorded to perfection by Kurt Ballou at Godcity.
I’ll also throw in that I think Trent Reznor is a great riff guy and love his sound. I listen to the soundtrack stuff, like Watchmen and The Vietnam War OR the Ghosts stuff more than I listen to anything else lately.
Jason – I’d love to hear Kurt Ballou’s take on many bands. That dude is one of the wizards of heavy music record making. Regarding Reznor, I’ve never really explored his soundtrack work, I guess I should.
Are there any smaller bands out there that you feel more people should get to know?
Joe – You and I both play with some amazing bands – so many that impress me. Horseburner. Weed Demon. Maharaja. I think Hiram-Maxim is great. It’s hard to think in terms of bigger or smaller, because I think we are around a lot of people sort of “In the know”, so I’ll list out some of varying notoriety or awareness: Pillärs, Lord Fowl, Daughters, Fistula, The Midnight Ghost Train (RIP), Murderedman, Terminal Lovers, anything Dallison does. Sumac, YOB, Enhailer, Sunnata, Red Giant/The Great Iron Snake – pretty much anything Damien does…I could probably go all day.
I thought that Cavern was great when we played with them. Kind of a different take on Russian Circles/RLYR type of stuff.
I dig what Frayle is doing a lot. Not only the music, but they’re sweethearts and are savvy as fuck.
Jason – That’s a legit list, for sure! I just met John (Panza) last year at Earthquaker Day, and I really need to see him drumming in Hiram-Maxim – would be even better to play a show with them! I wish I had seen Murderedman more than once.
Joe – I’m a fan of Mr. Kretsch.
Jason – What’s next in store for Sparrowmilk?
Joe – We’ve worked up a new song – which makes 5 for a new LP. We’re hoping to get back to rehearsing them and get them recorded soon. We had a bunch of dates lined up, which got canned like everyone else’s. The main thing is to keep momentum as best as we can, writing and experimenting and trying to make stuff that people can appreciate and get into. I’d love to get out and do some small runs when things open up again. We have a lot of invites and goodwill out there, and we’re fortunate to know some really nice people who want to help.
Jason – Have you guys been able to keep practicing through this, or are you, like us, completely shut down?
Joe – Completely shut down, so far. I think we’ll be able to reconvene this weekend, unless they start arresting people for driving or something. We’ve all just been basically practicing the songs at home, or playing along to recordings
Jason – Any advice for anyone out there still thinking of being in a band?
Joe – Hard to not flippant or cynical here and say “Don’t!” – haha! My real advice, and it’s not meant to sound nasty or like I’m some dickhead, but:
1. Already have a job that pays decent, because you will need to buy stuff and bands cost money.
2. Make sure you’re playing music because you love it, and not to become famous.
3. Get the right equipment, because it helps the inspiration.
4. Don’t follow trends – play from the heart.
5. PRACTICE A LOT, REHEARSE A LOT – these are different; practice is alone at home, rehearsing means you’re ready when you show up.
6. Pay attention to what other bands around you are doing, and learn from them. Not steal – learn.
Jason – All great tips! The notion of being a broke layabout and somehow being in a great band seems impossible these days – it probably never existed, but perhaps stolen equipment was more prevalent than anyone wants to acknowledge?
Anything else you’d like to share or plug today?
Joe – Hmm. I’ll close by saying that I’m thankful I get to live at a time and in a a place where we can do this. No joke…I feel very fortunate to be here in Cleveland at this time. We are one or even zero degrees separated from some of the greatest, most talented people around. I’m glad to know some of them on a deep level, and I’m thankful that I get to go on a stage and lay down riffs for people that seem to enjoy it (most of the time – ha!)
Other than this, I hope PressureFest goes on in August – ’cause we’re on it! Haha!
Jason – Thanks so much for your time today, Joe! Good luck with everything and hopefully we’ll all be back to shaking stages soon.