.:.A MOMENT OF CLARITY.:.
An Interview with the Vomit Arsonist
For just over a decade now, Andy Grant has been punishing fans of the power electronics and death industrial genres while lurking behind the Vomit Arsonist moniker. Currently a Malignant Records artist from the Providence, Rhode Island area and label head for Danvers State Recordings. Grant has worked with everyone from the Cipher Productions, Force of Nature, Annihilvs, Phage Tapes, and L. White Records imprints to Theologian, Caustic, and Regosphere. Our own Kathleen Chaussé was recently given the opportunity to speak with Grant about his latest album, Only Red, the themes expressed therein, the struggles of mental illness, and the joys of collaboration.
Heathen Harvest: Hello Andy, and thank you for agreeing to this interview. Being based out of Providence and having played many shows on the East Coast and in the Midwest, which areas have caught your interest the most as you’ve passed through on tour? What makes you curious about them?
Andy Grant: Cleveland has consistently been my favorite city to play in. I’m not really sure why; it’s a pretty shitty place, to be honest. Maybe that’s why I like it. I’ve performed in warehouses, someone’s living room, a coffee shop/bar place … it’s always something different. Additionally, a lot of my favorite projects and people are around there; Stephen Petrus (Murderous Vision) is a great friend and incredible artist, and I’ve actually traveled out there with the sole intent of hanging out with him for a few days and doing a couple shows. I also really like Chicago—I’ve played there twice and both shows were great: good people, good food, and good record stores.
HH: You’ve been featured on several labels and are currently running your own respected imprint in Danvers State Recordings. How do you feel about being an artist on someone else’s roster as compared to releasing music through your own label?
AG: I find it more gratifying to be on a label that isn’t mine. It tells me that this person believes enough in the project to put some time and effort behind it. It also gives me the opportunity to work with other artists that I respect or am influenced by; Malignant Records is the best example of this. Working with Jason Mantis has been great. He’s really passionate about what he does, and because of my working with him, I’ve been introduced to a number of other artists on the label—people I’ve always admired but have never been in touch with. Obviously I don’t mind releasing my own work, but I’d usually rather have someone else do it.
HH: Running a cassette label, what is it about the lo-fi sound of that particular format that you enjoy versus the other mediums that are widely used today?
AG: I’m not really sure what draws me to it. I grew up with cassettes, and I had many albums that I played so often that the tape would eventually fall apart. But before it falls apart, it turns into a different album. You get that warble sound, the sound of the tape being stretched as much as possible over the tape heads before it snaps. I’ve always liked that, but in all seriousness, the reason I started releasing cassettes was because I got a huge box of blanks for free, and I needed to do something with them. It’s a boring start, but that’s how it happened.
HH: You’ve worked on tracks with several artists, but one that has stood out for me is your work on Caustic‘s ‘Chewing Glass at the Zoo’. There’s a hip-hop flavor which pervades that track. How did you bring that out in your work with Caustic?
AG: I’ve known Matt Fanale for a while, probably a lot longer than I’m even remembering. We’d worked together in the past; we started working on a cover of “Christbait Rising” by Godflesh that literally took about eight years for us to finish (for many reasons, including both of us abandoning it for about six years then rerecording it from scratch). It finally came out a year or two ago. When he released the Booze Up & Riot album, I obtained a copy, listened to the title track, and said to myself, “this is a punk song.” So I recorded my own hardcore/punk version of it and sent it to him, just thinking he’d get a laugh out of it. He ended up putting it on the hangover edition disc of Booze Up & Riot, which was pretty cool, although if I knew he was going to release it, I would have done a better job. A few years later, when he was recording …and You Will Know Me by the Trail of Vomit, he sent me the basic tracks for “Chewing Glass at the Zoo” and said, “make some droning noise stuff over this,” so I did. The hip-hop aspect, which I admittedly enjoy very much, was all Matt. I always thought that track had a Techno Animal vibe to it, which I think was Matt’s intention.
HH: Would you say your music is therapeutic?
AG: To me? Usually. I’ve been thinking about that lately. I’ve said in the past that my music is therapeutic and cathartic, but catharsis implies letting something go—it implies freeing yourself from some kind of emotional burden. In the moment, whether it be a live performance or working in the studio, I do experience feelings of relief, but everything always goes right back to how it was at the beginning. I’ve learned that I’ve let nothing go, that I’ve held on to these emotions, and I’m only ever free of them for a short period of time. It’s not healthy for me, but if nothing else, it gives me no shortage of things to write about.
HH: Do you feel that your work as the Vomit Arsonist is better expressed in your studio recordings or through live performance?
AG: It’s two different things, really. Each recording I’ve done is crafted in a very specific way; no sound is out-of-place, everything you hear is there for a reason. The listener hears exactly what I want them to hear when they’re listening to a studio recording. When I perform live, the music is largely the same—there are recognizable songs from albums which you could listen to and say, “hey, I know this one,” but I always leave room for improvisation. I will often create new pieces on the fly, which are almost never duplicated again (I try and record all my performances for this exact reason). I layer new sounds on top of preexisting tracks, try to create an atmosphere that isn’t necessarily present on a studio recording, and change—or, more often, forget—lyrics. Even if I do the same four songs six times in a row, they’ll be a little different each time. But as far as what’s a better representation of what the Vomit Arsonist is, I’d probably say that seeing it live is the way to go.
HH: Since you’ve mentioned that improvisation is an important part of your live performances, what is your most memorable moment performing live in terms of improv? Has anything particularly unique/emotionally powerful ever come out of it?
AG: The best example I can give is the song “Power,” which was the last song on the “Wretch” CD. Almost the entire song was a live improvisation, lyrics included. I recorded it to a cassette deck, not even four-track, so there was no fixing anything in post. I did add a few parts in studio, namely the outro that creates the cyclical nature of the album, but other than that, it was all live. I wasn’t even planning on recording something for the CD, it just happened in the moment. The image of me playing live that’s on the insert of “Wretch” is from that show, likely taken during the recording of that song.
HH: I’ve noticed that references to films appear to be a recurring theme in your music, so how is it exactly that films like Gaspar Noé‘s ‘Seul contre tous’ and Lars Von Trier‘s ‘Antichrist’ tie into your work?
AG: Seul contre tous resonated very heavily with me since the first time I watched it. I’ve sampled and referenced both Seul contre tous and its prequel, Carne, extensively, to the point where I probably shouldn’t do it anymore. Both films are relentlessly nihilistic, which I appreciate on a personal level. The themes of both films tie into my own work, my own ideas about life, and a lot of my personal philosophies, and I feel like I identify with the Butcher in a way. I appreciate and understand his character on a level I can’t quite explain, and I probably shouldn’t because he’s not exactly a good guy. I think I might feel sorry for him, but again, I feel like I understand him. It’s difficult to explain. Antichrist, on the other hand, was more about the visual aesthetic above all else. It’s a beautiful and ugly film; everything about it is perfect. But it’s that beautiful ugliness that I’ve always tried to replicate in my music.
HH: It’s clearly prominent in the genre by definition, but what is it about nihilism that you identify with? Beyond that, can you tell us what exactly you see in the Butcher that you also see in yourself?
AG: I had a discussion with someone recently about nihilism and how, to me, it doesn’t necessarily require a bleak, depressive world view. Granted I feel like that a lot, but just because you label yourself a nihilist (which I would be hesitant to call myself, actually) doesn’t mean you have to be angry, depressed, and miserable all the time. For me, it’s about recognizing that nothing in life really matters. Obviously there are people and things in my life that are important to me, things that I care about. I have responsibilities and obligations to both myself and others, and I make sure those things are taken care of because I have to deal with them on a day-to-day basis. But everything comes to an end eventually. Every life, every relationship, everything stops eventually. When you learn to accept that fact, life becomes a hell of a lot easier. To answer your question about the Butcher … like I said before, he’s not a good guy. I mean, he spends the second half of the film trying to figure out if he should fuck or kill his daughter. I don’t want anything to do with that. What I like about him, and what I identify with, is how fed up he is with his life. It could easily be said that he made his own choices, his situation is his own doing, and, no matter how he may rationalize it, he has no one to blame but himself. To him, everyone else is to blame. Whether it’s actually true or not doesn’t matter: everyone has wronged him, and everyone’s against him. Haven’t you had a day, a week, or a month where you just wanted to destroy everything and everyone you could, including yourself? That’s where his head is for the majority of the film, and that’s what I understand about him—the same way I understand Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver or William Foster from Falling Down. The only difference is that I turn those impulses inward, which is just as destructive, just not to other people.
HH: What would be some of the primary themes behind your latest album on Malignant Records, “Only Red”?
AG: I’ve been on various psychological medications since I was nine years old, and in 2013, I stopped taking them. It was an experiment that I felt I needed to conduct, and it failed horribly. I chose to stop taking them because I’d realized that I never really had any life experience that didn’t involve Prozac, Paxil, Effexor, or some other drug like that. The way I looked at it, every single thing I’d done in my life, every experience I had, every choice I made, was influenced, in some way, by these drugs. I don’t know if that’s exactly true or not—that’s not necessarily how these drugs work—but that’s how I rationalized it. I felt like I didn’t need them anymore, or maybe I never needed them in the first place. So, I talked to my doctor and she told me it was probably a bad idea, but we went ahead and did it anyway.
It was the worst year of my life. I ended up going back to them because I couldn’t handle it. I’m not sure if it was prolonged withdrawal symptoms or if I’m really just that fucked up, but I had a complete breakdown and ended up in a really bad spot. I learned a lot about myself in the process—not necessarily things I wanted to know. But that’s what the album is about. It’s chronological. The opening song, “Choice,” deals with my decision to stop these drugs. As the album goes on, things get worse and worse, culminating in “GW(RDX),” where I submit to the fact that I cannot live my life this way any longer, and I have to go back. In short, it’s an album about me falling apart, trying to ignore it or deal with it, if nothing else, then finally realizing that I have no choice in the matter. This is how my life is, and I need to accept that it isn’t going to change, despite my or anyone else’s efforts.
HH: Does that also define the theme behind the cover as well? Basically taking a path into the darkness without knowing what will await you?
AG: Yes, exactly. I suppose the image of a path is a bit obvious, but I really like the image and it fits the theme. But yes, that’s exactly what it represents: going down a path that you know will be difficult, without knowing what you’ll be forced to confront. As I said, I learned a lot about myself during that year-long period: repressed memories, repressed emotions, really just a lot of shit I wish had stayed buried. But I went down the path, and unfortunately, I had no choice but to turn around and go back to what I knew.
HH: Would you say that there’s a theme present which connects your albums together as a contiguous commentary, or is each album unique in its set themes and philosophies?
AG: Nearly all of my material is autobiographical in one sense or another, and while I haven’t purposely tried to connect all of my albums, I feel there’s a common thread in there somewhere. Philosophically, they’re all relatively similar; there’s a theme involved, but each album tells a different story. Think of them like chapters in a book.
HH: You’ve done a few covers within your projects; what are some of the most memorable for you, and what was it about those songs that inspired you to cover them?
AG: Virtually every song I’ve chosen to cover has been because of the lyrics, which is why there’s a Hank Williams Sr. song on Only Red. I love the song to begin with, but the lyrics were really important to me, and more importantly, they fit with the theme of the album. That’s usually how covers come about. The same thing happened when I did “Ten Suicides” by Bloodyminded—I used my version to close out the Reason cassette, because thematically, it made sense. A lot of times I find that someone else has already said what I want to say, and they’ve said it a hell of a lot better than I ever could.
HH: Over the years, how would you say you’ve most improved as an artist? What has becoming ‘the Vomit Arsonist’ taught you?
AG: I have zero confidence in myself, but even I can admit that my work has vastly improved over the years. When I first started, I was doing harsh noise with the occasional stream-of-consciousness vocal track over it, and I don’t think it was terrible, but it wasn’t great either. I think because my personal tastes—as well as the sound and direction of the project—have changed, I look at the older material in a different light. That wasn’t what I wanted to do, it never really was, but since I started the project as an outlet for aggression, that was the quickest and easiest way to get it done. Over the years, I got more of an idea of how I wanted things to sound, and it sort of naturally morphed into what it is now.
HH: In what ways are you still looking to improve? How do you feel you can push the Vomit Arsonist to evolve?
AG: I don’t want to keep doing the same thing over and over. It’s boring to listen to, and it’s boring to create. But honestly, I don’t know what I’m going to do next. I have this problem where I get a flood of ideas, and I become so overwhelmed by all of them that I don’t do anything at all. I want to do something that’s more dark ambient, another thing that’s more like a film score, maybe something with more of a metal influence … In all likelihood, I will begin another album this winter as that seems to be when I’m the most productive, but I’m not sure what direction it will take. It will definitely be recognizable as the Vomit Arsonist, but I’d like to try some new things. I don’t want to rule anything out. I’ve been making a lot of notes and writing down ideas. That’s usually how the process starts.