Minsk (USA) is kicking around for over a decade now and like fine wine gets better with age. Named after the capital of Belorussia, just like that city in Eastern Europe, the sound of Minsk stands out as exotic and unique in the rich scene of American progressive/post-metal. Their latest album 'The Crash and the Draw' is a 80 min odyssey through psychedellic and atmospheric soundscapes - massive production, complex layers of synths and majestic vocal performances.
I caught up with Christopher Bennet (guitarist/vocalist) to talk about writing process, influences and 15 years journey of Minsk.
“Our hope is that our sound has evolved to reflect our own experiences, moments of learning, moments of failure; the myriad dynamics of putting one foot in front of the other on this path through life.”
You are playing almost 15 years, am I correct? Quite a few members have changed, your sound have changed… from your perspective what was the most dramatic change or event in the history of Minsk?
Yes, Minsk was beginning to take a recognizable form in 2002, and I like to look at our first show, which was in March of 2003, as the official birth of the band, so we have reached 14 years at this point. As I get older, 14 years doesn't seem like a huge chunk of time, but I think we would have been quite excited if at the inception of the band, we would have been able to look into the future, and discover that this musical endeavour would have taken us on a journey that is nearly a decade and half long. We have had the pleasure of creating with some amazing individuals who no longer are in the band, but we are fortunate that most every step in the evolution of the band is represented on a recording. Our hope is that our sound has evolved to reflect our own experiences, moments of learning, moments of failure; the myriad dynamics of putting one foot in front of the other on this path through life. We are hopefully always changing, or most importantly, always growing, so our hope is that the music is reflective of that growth. I cannot point to one specific dramatic event in the history of Minsk, but I can point to an ongoing feeling of being fortunate and thankful for many things. We have been able to meet so many wonderful people and collect a lifetime of experiences through this music. We have had the pleasure of sharing the stage with many of our favourite bands, and have worked with labels who we have long admired. All of those combine into one overarching feeling of being thankful.
“...to die and become, as a means toward self-transformation, we saw a parallel between the history of Minsk, and the human experience.”
I know that is a dull question that music journalists are not allowed to ask. Yet since I am from Eastern Europe myself and grew up 200km from Minsk I will ask. So what about the name – Minsk?
The name Minsk was chosen for an amalgamation of reasons, but initially an interest in Eastern European classical music, literature, and history provided the spark which would ignite a desire to dive deeper into all aspects of that part of the world. The history of the city of Minsk as a crossroads between Europe and Asia, which would lead to it being burned down and rebuilt numerous times provided specific inspiration in the way that in order to grow as humans, we must allegorically do the same in our own lives. In the sense that this archetype can be applied in an alchemical way; to die and become, as a means toward self-transformation, we saw a parallel between the history of Minsk, and the human experience. As kids growing up in the U.S. during the "Cold War", it seemed that the true, rich, multi-layered, and beautiful history/art/geography of that part of the world was obfuscated from us because of the relations between the governments of the USSR and U.S. It was as if the richness of that part of the world was intentionally kept from us. Minsk felt like a far away place to those of us who grew up in that time period. One of our goals was to create music that felt like it came from somewhere "other"; somewhere unfamiliar and far away, even if only through our own lenses, and the name fit well within that vision.
photo: Maria Louceiro
“I love the way that an oscillated and/or filtered noise can completely change the feel of a part in a song. A Minsk song never feels completed until the elements of synths/samples are in place.”
Minsk has a unique sound and a lot of that comes from layers of synthesizer. When you are writing new songs, what place the synth has in the process? Many “traditional” metal bands are sort of afraid of using synths, keyboards or too many effects...
The synth more often than not is used to add an extra layer to accent the rest of the instruments, but there have been times when a synth sound or melody can be crucial in shaping a song. Sometimes the synth parts are the glue to hold everything else together. I love the way that an oscillated and/or filtered noise can completely change the feel of a part in a song. A Minsk song never feels completed until the elements of synths/samples are in place. We love albums that reveal new things with each listen, so we aspire to accomplish that same concept with our records. Building layer upon layer of keys/synths/effects has been one of the ways we have been striving to achieve that effect. We have joked that our recording process has an unwritten "more is more" mentality, with the way we use so many different pedals/synths/samples, and we enjoy that, but it doesn't necessarily mean that we will adhere to that way of operating all of the time. Simplicity is also of the utmost importance to the structure of the songs. It is a constant quest to find that balance between bombast, and quiet simplicity.
“Oftentimes, the vocals are the driving force behind the writing process. They are as, or sometimes more important than a guitar riff or drum part… The human voice is capable of such a wide range of emotional expression, and the intangible qualities of a heartfelt vocal are awe-inspiring.”
All of you have very good voices, how much vocals are important to Minsk? Who writes the lyrics?
Well, thank you for the kind words. The vocals are absolutely integral in the creation of our songs. Oftentimes, the vocals are the driving force behind the writing process. They are as, or sometimes more important than a guitar riff or drum part. With each album I can see how we have slowly become more comfortable with our voices, and with the idea of the vocals playing such an important role. I find myself being drawn more and more to a vocal performance as much or more than a sick riff, or whatever else. The human voice is capable of such a wide range of emotional expression, and the intangible qualities of a heartfelt vocal are awe-inspiring. We really set out to make sure that the vocals and lyrics are never in danger of being an afterthought. It can be deeply satisfying, humbling, and life changing during the process of writing and recording our vocals. The lyrics are always a collaborative effort, with Tim and I historically being the ones who do a bulk of the arranging and writing. Solitary writing is extremely important as I feel that sometimes the divine spark can be found in that manner, but do find that once we get together and combine our individual lyrical ideas, they all come together to form a cohesive piece. Aaron and Zac have been amazing with their abilities to expand our vocal capabilities beyond what we had done on previous records. We are all very excited to see where we can go from here with our usage of the human voice.
“A walk in the forest, Black Sabbath, Henry David Thoreau, Manly P Hall, an ocean breeze, June Of 44, Lysander Spooner, Colin Wilson, Zdzislaw Beksinski, Starkweather, Hermes Trismegistus, James Corbett, Neurosis, Amebix, a spirit quest, rivers, tides, fire, anarchy, Kluster, Hawkwind, fucking, falling in and out of love, Craw, Unwound, valleys, mountains, plains and on and on and on.”
When I was listening to “To The Initiate” and you sing “imagination” (9:20), I remembered the episode of South Park – imaginaaaaaaaaaaaation (song)...
Ha! I had never seen that South Park episode, but indeed it is quite humorous. Everything we have experienced up to this point in our lives has influenced our music. Those influences are so wide ranging that is seems daunting to even attempt to narrow them down. Living, and making the effort to be a traveller on the path, with all of the detours, the triumphs, and the tragedies that we encounter along the way, are influencing us every minute of every day. It is our hope that we can pay attention to all of those experiences, and transmute them into our songs. It doesn't have to be all mystic sounding though. A walk in the forest, Black Sabbath, Henry David Thoreau, Manly P Hall, an ocean breeze, June Of 44, Lysander Spooner, Colin Wilson, Zdzislaw Beksinski, Starkweather, Hermes Trismegistus, James Corbett, Neurosis, Amebix, a spirit quest, rivers, tides, fire, anarchy, Kluster, Hawkwind, fucking, falling in and out of love, Craw, Unwound, valleys, mountains, plains and on and on and on. The people who we love, and have loved, and who we do not love are hugely influential. The influences will remain fluid, some unchanging, and some in constant flux.
“Bombast and volume is extremely important to us, as is quiet and restraint. Figuring out how to make sure all of those dynamics are honoured, is the biggest challenge in a live setting.”
Playing live always has challenges. What are the hardest things to get Minsk sound exactly as it should sound live?
We have so many things happening within each song, and so we know that it can be challenging to listen to, and to approach from the perspective of a sound engineer. With four different vocals happening, it can be difficult to achieve the dynamics we desire. We want everything to lock together into one cohesive slab of sound. Bombast and volume is extremely important to us, as is quiet and restraint. Figuring out how to make sure all of those dynamics are honoured, is the biggest challenge in a live setting.
“We cannot grow unless we can envision going beyond where we are currently, but of course we aren't truly living if we aren't in the moment.”
Your music is capable of evoking elation, catharsis. Is that something you are trying to achieve deliberately? A transcendental sound?
Yes, we want to try to touch on every subtlety of emotion. I wouldn't say that we set out to follow any specific dynamic, as I feel that our goal is to tap into the creative stream that exists despite us, and we are there to provide our own translation of that stream. But often, those terms “elation” and “catharsis”, are important elements that we want to hear in music we love to hear and create. So much of what we see on a day to day basis requires us to transcend. There is a battle for our minds, our attention, our time, and our energy. We have to figure out how to discover the higher self and honour it. It is a lifelong pursuit but well worth it. This requires us to transcend both physically and mentally. We cannot grow unless we can envision going beyond where we are currently, but of course we aren't truly living if we aren't in the moment. Again it comes down to the art of balance. I don't know how to quantify a "transcendental sound" in music, but I feel that if the listener is searching for such a thing, they will find it, and we desperately hope that the noise we make can have that quality within it.
photo: Pedro Roque
When can we expect to see Minsk in the UK again?
We don't tour as extensively as many bands do, but we have been quite busy since "The Crash & The Draw" was released so now we are going to enter into creation mode. We are all eagerly anticipating tapping into new song ideas and doing the work to see them become fully formed. New Minsk music will be our focus this winter and we will keep working until the songs tell us to stop. We have a few projects in the works and some shows here in the states later in 2017 but a trip to the UK/Europe might be farther down the road for us. We are always excited for the next chance we can get to fly across the Atlantic. Next time we hope we can do a handful of UK shows rather than just one. There are many places we have yet to play, so we hope to expand our touring scope with each opportunity.