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Castles Made of Rock
By Ben Larson
Fort Wayne Reader
Local band Castles, comprised of John Cheesebrew on drums, Ty Brinneman on Bass, and Omar Afzall and Bob Haddad on guitars, just released their first self-titled EP, which is available at their shows and (soon) your local Wooden Nickel. I sat down with Omar and Bob to talk about how the band has progressed from their formation to where they are now, and here’s what I got:
Castles first formed around the end of 2007/beginning of 2008. At that time, Afzaal had known Cheesebrew from the latter’s bands Dead Letter Auction and Graves of The Endless Fall. When by chance the two began working together, Afzaal said “we were immediately like ‘let’s start playing . . . [our] initial idea was just to have a drum and guitar duo with no bass,” adding “and maybe not even vocals.” The two knew Brinneman through his other band Metavari, and brought him in when it became evident that the band needed some low end.
In regards to how Haddad came to be in Castles, Afzaal said “I had wanted Bob to be in the band, but he wasn’t in town” (he was living in Chicago at the time). When Haddad moved back to Fort Wayne, Afzaal wasn’t shy about how he went about recruiting him, saying “I begged him to join the band.” Haddad and Afzaal were former bandmates in the now defunct (yet recently reunited) All Nite Skate, and Haddad and Brinneman had gone to school together in Huntington. “I was really nervous about [joining the band] because they already sounded awesome,” Haddad confessed to me. “They had recorded some of their practices, and so I just started listening to what they had, trying to paint some musical texture over the top.”
At this time, Castles was still an instrumental band. When I asked how they wound up incorporating lyrics into the songs, Afzall said “it was a slow development. At first we had this idea of what the band was gonna be like, but it never is what you think it will be,” later saying “the way the songs were coming out we knew we needed vocals. John was adamant about that.” Haddad elaborated on this, saying “since [Omar and I] were in an instrumental band before, and Ty’s in an instrumental band, we needed to try something new,” meaning that they did not want Castles to wind up being a mash-up of All Nite Skate and Metavari.
As far as writing, the band writes everything together, without any one member taking creative control. Acording to Haddad, “We’ll come together with some melodies, but I know Ty will come up with bass lines on his own, and we’ll start writing around his bass lines. John will come in, and we’ll have a structure together, and he’ll be like ‘well let’s try it totally different.’ Then we’ll try it and it’ll work.” Afzall added to this, saying “I’ve never been in a band with a drummer that’s this outspoken, but in a good way.” Haddad and Afzaal both agreed that any time you have four separate creative minds in a band, it’s a lot easier to come up with something that’s unique.
The next logical step was then to record the aforementioned EP. Castles did the initial recording with Geoff Montgomery at The Ensomberoom, and both Haddad and Afzaal said that working with Montgomery was a positive experience. Cheesebrew had worked with Mongomery before, when he recorded with Graves of The Endless Fall, and Haddad had done so with The Poseidon Adventure, so the band was already familiar with, and liked his work. Haddad said “I think we lucked out because he has a really good, small setup,” adding “and it’s not too expensive.” “I was absolutely blown away with what he could accomplish in that studio,” said Afzaal.
The band recorded all five songs on the EP in one day. Instead of tracking each individual instrument, they opted to record the guitars, drums, and bass live-to-tape, and only overdubbing vocals and a few guitar solos. Speaking of vocals, Afzaal had this to say. “None of us had even heard each other sing until we got to the studio to record the EP.” As to why this was, he added “We didn’t have the balls to try out any of our vocal ideas around each other until we were standing in front of a microphone in a studio paying for our time.” Haddad gave his opinion on this method by saying “it’s probably the worst timing ever,” and Afzaal finished the thought with “but we lucked out because everyone was really happy with how it turned out.” Haddad then added “I think the next time we go into the studio it’ll be more efficient. Hopefully it will be just as good, but it’ll take a little less time figuring everything out.”
They then had the tracks mastered by Carl Saff at Saff Mastering in Chicago, who has also worked with a wide variety of bands from Von Iva to John Fahey, Xiu Xiu and Child Bite. According to Haddad, “He did a good job bringing out the tones and the more balsy aspects of the record,” and Afzall added “he compressed it to a point . . . where the dynamics are still there.”
The band was goodly enough to give me a copy of their self-titled EP, and I wanted to take the last part of this article to give a quick overview of it. The fist track, “Body Thetans,” has a heavy sound reminiscent of late 80’s post-punk, but without sounding dated or like some kind of imitation. With dueling guitar lines throughout, clipped vocal lines, and pounding drums and bass, this song brings in the EP with a whallop. There’s a very nice, slowed down bridge section in the middle that lets you rest for a second, and then amps right back up for the last section of the song. “The Catalyst” is a little more toned down of a rocker, but still keeps your head bobbing. Centered around a syncopated guitar riff, the song actually reminds me a little of the band Hum, a criminally underrated group from the 90’s. The vocals are less clipped, and serve more as another textural element to the music than they do on track one.
Haddad himself described “Ol’ Diesey” as sounding “like stoner rock,” and I have to agree. This one sounds dirty and muddy, but in that good way. There’s almost a Jesus Lizard feel to this one, but not quite, and that’s the devil of this album. Each song seems vaguely like something you may have heard before, but manages to remain fresh and new. “Short Arms/Warm Heart” is no exception. This track also has the same kind of dueling guitar lines as the first track, but it’s like the band has moved to more of a late 90’s/early 2000’s Dischord feel to it, and I’m reminded specifically of Q and Not U. It’s no imitation, though. I mean only that in order to describe the way the guitars interact, and the way the singing just borders on yelling, without quite crossing that line.
The last track, “Oh, Captain!” takes a stylistic shift into something akin to what would happen if Eleventh Dream Day decided to cover a song by Excuse 17. In other words, it’s a bit gritty, a bit clean, definitely rocking, and uses real chords (which is a nice change of pace from bands who think rock and roll is only power chords).
Overall, the EP is instantly familiar and accessible, yet different enough to draw you in and warrant repeated listens. The styles move around, while still sounding like they came from the same band. The rawk is great, and by that I mean it causes fits of head bobbing and arm pumping. Personally, I see this one having a nice home in my car stereo for quite a while. And from a band who feels, according to Afzaal, that they have “just hit their stride,” I would expect some more great things to come from Castles.