(originally published in Star News, additional Q and A below)
By Brian Tucker
If there is a theme to Irata’s latest album Sweet Loris its fighting, the will to carry on and move ahead. It’s one thing to write music about such things, but it bears more weight when it’s personal. This is a theme that would have greater meaning after the album’s release.
Based in Greensboro, Irata is a progressive hard rock and heavy metal trio – think Rush meets Tool, groove heavy, and seething. The band – Jon Case (bass, vocals), Cheryl Manner (guitar), and Jason Ward (drums, vocals), recorded their third record with Phillip Cope of Kylesa and released in October on Kylesa’s Retro Futurist label.
They were set tour with Kylesa when disaster struck. Ward contracted a type of bacteria that caused a severe infection in his leg. The drummer was hospitalized for seven days receiving an immense amount of antibiotics. A combination of them fought off the infection but Ward, precise and wonderfully ferocious behind the drums, was physically and mentally drained. Plus, they were unable to tour, the biggest yet for the band since forming in 2007.
“It is not easy to drop off a tour like that. We work hard at what we do and to watch it slip away while I was hooked up to IV’s was heartbreaking,” Ward said. “It was probably a month after I was released before the band got together and it wasn’t to play, which is odd for us. It was simply to talk to find where each of our head space was. It was hard on all of us to not be able to finish the tour.”
The band is playing shows again but with a longer tour planned in March. Irata performs at Reggie’s on Saturday with local bands Waul and Lionized.
Their new album is relentless, caustic and hard hitting to be sure, but there’s substance behind the thunderous music and scorching vocals that pummel and engage. “Daisy” is demonstrative of struggle, a song Ward says is inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. It’s a tense song, sonically moving from calm moments to heaps of intensity, echoing the battle of man against nature, against self.
“I think (our sound) is more natural or sub-conscious than something planned,” Ward said. “There is a heaviness to (songs) but there is also a what I would call a dark prettiness to them. We write with dynamics in mind. We think about leaving space in the music, about spotlighting certain parts, phrases and instruments within the song.”
The band’s music vibe serves the themes well, built on distorted, throbbing bass, thick, blazing guitar, and weighted, tribal drumming. Irata has a distinct musical personality (in the band’s early days it was augmented by eerie saxophone), measured and ominous like a prelude to war of the ensuing battle.
“This album is heavier. Somewhat by design. There is some drop tuning in there…It mimics life. If you listen to the lyrics each song is about a fight. Whether it is for respect, or your life, or someone else’s life.”
Additional Q & A with Irata’s Jason Ward
First, how are you doing? Are you totally healed and playing well on the tour?
Jason Ward: I don’t know if I am 100% yet. But I am doing fine. We are currently not on a tour but we have a few local dates coming up and a CD release party Jan 22nd in Greensboro. We have a week long tour 99% booked for the first week in March with our Retro label mates Caustic Casanova, that announcement will come out soon! Looking forward to a healthy 2016.
Have you had to adjust or even learn to play differently?
Luckily the doctors at Orlando Regional Hospital found a combination that fought off the infection and I came out relatively unharmed. That whole experience took a lot out of me physically and mentally. More than I expected. It has not affected my playing style other than getting winded easily when I first came out of the hospital. Almost three months later I feel like I am pretty much back to normal.
The new album, then the touring delay, how did you three remain positive? Was that the biggest tour yet for the band?
The new album being released by Retro Futurist was fantastic news for us. That alone is enough to stay positive. Then being asked to join the Kylesa tour was something we were not expecting. We were hoping, but not expecting. So we have some really positive and promising things present themselves in 2015. Our tour in October with Kylesa, Interarma and Indian Handcrafts was by far the biggest tour the band has been a part of and the biggest tour that I personally have ever been a part of. Needless to say, but I will anyway, it is not easy to drop off a tour like that.
All in all we decided to look forward. I think that is what you have to do. It is not easy. But you have to keep moving and create more opportunities. So that is what we are doing. We had some good things happen in 2015 and we had to remind ourselves that we can keep doing it. Irata has evolved. The way you play and sound now, do you feel it’s where things were always headed? Or is it another step in the evolution?
I think it is both. I think Jon and I knew we wanted to move into a heavier direction after the first album. The instrumental version of Irata was awesome for me. It got me to a creative place where I had wanted to get to. I think we knew at some point we wanted to add vocals and get heavier. I think that was part of the reason we lost our first guitar/sax player. I think he had a different vision.
Adding vocals was certainly not natural. Neither Jon nor I had ever sung in a band before, not to mention (that to) write lyrics and melodies we had to literally force ourselves to do it. The Vultures EP was our first attempt at vocals and I think that was us separating ourselves from the instrumental past. It was received very well and it gave us confidence to keep singing. The newest release Sweet Loris was an attempt to combine some of the instrumental past with some of the future. I like how we have evolved. We have pushed ourselves to do more than just play drums or just play bass.
You said the band was almost a duo, then you found Cheryl. Was that sort of eureka, finding that missing piece?
We were a duo not by choice after our first guitar player left. We wanted to keep playing so we started writing and playing as a two-piece. That is when we added vocals. During that time, approximately two years, we searched for a full time guitar player, we only did a couple shows as a two-piece. When Cheryl tried out she was able to pick up the riffs more quickly that most other people that tried out. Cheryl is a really good guitarist, we were certainly happy to have her join the band.
Was she a band member while making Vultures or after? What about her playing helped shape the music – thrashy riffs or the ambiance of them?
Cheryl was a member before we recorded Vultures and that is her playing on the album. Cheryl has a heavy sound. That has certainly had an influence on what we present. Mix that with our producer’s heavy ear, Phillip Cope, its like gold to me.
There is a distinct sound to the albums. Can you elaborate on its personality, what you wanted a band sound like back in 2007?
There is a distinct sound. We work hard on tone. I think it is more natural or sub-conscious than something planned. If something doesn’t sound right to us we call it out pretty quickly and we work on it until it sounds like what our hearts and heads want to hear. I think what we go for, and why we hear that we have a distinct sound, is that there is heaviness to them but there is also what I would call a dark prettiness to them. I also think we write with dynamics in mind. We think about leaving space in the music we think about spotlighting certain parts and phrases and instruments within the song.
In 2007 I didn’t know what I was wanting or looking for. I was kind of on a walkabout with music. I had played with so many bass players that only played clean. I didn’t realize this until I met Jon. Jon came in the studio with his P bass and his Ampeg amp, and at the time I believe it was a 4×10 with a single 15 on the bottom of his Ampeg cabinet and a pedal board. He cranked it up hit his distortion pedal. You mentioned a eureka moment earlier, I think that was my eureka moment.
And I had that feeling like “holy fuck, that is what I have been searching for.” What is crazy to me is, to this day, when he cranks up, I still say holy f— that is awesome! That bass tone and Jon’s style is the back bone to Irata.
Sweet Loris sounds more abrasive, angrier than Vultures. Did the songs come from a specific period of writing?
Yea, I agree with you. This album is heavier. Somewhat by design. There is some drop tuning in there that helps, but beyond that, if there is a constant theme in this album that theme is about “fighting.” Every thing this band has accomplished as relatively small as it is we have had to fight for it; every opportunity, every show, every chance. It mimics life. If you listen to the lyrics each song is about a fight. Whether it is for respect, or your life, or someone else’s life.
I think that feeling that we are fighting and will have to continue to fight comes across in the music. I remember Phillip saying in the studio “I don’t remember y’all sounding this heavy.” Kind of sums it up for me.
Was making the album easier than before, working with Phillip Cope again? Did you record quickly or ‘live’ on material?
It was easier in the sense of we new how we wanted to record and we were prepared and we new what to expect on that side of it. It was harder for me because I felt there was more pressure to get it right and impress. Retro Futurist had already committed to release the album. Phillip is co-owner of label. That added pressure that I was not prepared for and had yet to experience in a recording situation. I think the other guys felt that way too.
Phillip is an intense person in the studio. He not only produced this album but he co-engineered as well. I think that added to the stress. All in all I think it turned out well. We recorded this album a little different than the Vultures EP. On Sweet Loris Jon and I recorded live together. Cheryl came in a couple days later and laid down her guitar parts. Then Jon and I laid down vocals and then I laid down synths and keys and little things here and there.
Do you and Jon share vocals or is it mainly Jon? Was taking on singing as daunting as it sounds?
We share vocal duties but we all consider Jon the lead singer. I think we share because of the work involved but also because we are both not real comfortable with singing. Daunting is an understatement. As I mentioned before, neither of us had ever really sung in a band before. It took us a while to grow the balls to do it. It is easy to hide behind an instrument, especially when you know how to play it. We had to push each other out of the hiding place. It is not easy to put yourself, your own voice, good or bad out to world for everyone to hear and judge. We knew there would be singing eventually, we didn’t realize it would be us doing the singing.
How far away is the band making fans?
Overseas is a big market for us. We hope to play for our fans over there sooner than later. We have fans as far away as China, Japan, Thailand, Australia, with the largest concentration in European markets. With the internet the world is so small right now. I am surprised everyday when people we do not know, no matter how far away or close buy albums or download songs or send us messages.
How do you view the band now, looking back on its changes and successes?
I think our band is coming into its own. The members are stable now and working toward the same goal which is to play music. We all participated and contributed to the writing of the new album. We have had some great opportunities this past year and we are looking for more in future.
This band has afforded me the opportunity to be on a label, not to mention three, to be on a real high level tour, albeit very short lived we were there at the beginning, to write, record, play our own songs. This is cheesy as it gets, but all these things mentioned were goals and dreams of mine since I was twelve years old. I am so thankful that this band has helped them come true. I think this band has some more to say and more songs to put out. We have bright future with more opportunities to look forward to.