On the occasion of his first studio LP in eight years, Judge Thy Neighbor, Love Thyself, we caught up with mastermind Scotty Irving
North Carolina’s Scotty Irving dons a mask and a cross festooned with effects pedals and other sonic gadgets, leaning hard into a performance art spectacle that’s equal parts catharsis and catechism. While his catalogue is split between on-record representations of this synthesis and more exploratory noise fare, the stage is where Irving is at his most potent as an artist.
Released just after Halloween, Judge Thy Neighbor, Love Thyself (Cruel Symphonies) is the first new Clang Quartet studio LP in years. Unsparingly harsh and topically progressive, the record finds this project broadening its sonic palette and stretching into exciting new places – a Christian noise eruption leavened with moments of grace that is especially relevant to our times.
A few days before Halloween, Rock & Roll Globe got on the horn with Irving to talk about pandemic life, modern Christianity, and the new record. This interview took place almost seven years after our first interview for Wondering Sound.
Rock & Roll Globe: What has the pandemic been like for you, personally, creatively, emotionally?
Scotty Irving: From a creative standpoint, it actually made me rethink some things with some of the more conventional instruments that I don’t usually get to work with very much. I took the guitars and set them up, and took the effects pedals I use predominantly in Clang Quartet and did what I call a somewhat more “normal” version of what they’re used for [in this project]. I’d played guitar off and on for years and never enjoyed it, and for the first time ever, during the pandemic, I sat down and actually started playing it. I took all the rules that I’d ever applied to myself and threw ‘em out the door. Life’s been kinda weird, but it’s been nice to play at home, to be able to set up and not have to tear down.
When was the last time you played live?
The last time I played was at the International Noise Conference [annual Miami event] in February 2020.
Do you have anything live lined up now, or is it too early to say?
I’m still not quite sure if I’m ready to do what I do in an indoor environment. An outdoor environment? Perhaps. But considering the mask and everything else I wear for a performance, that’s one thing. If I’m trying to wear the mask that’s required to be inside of a building – that’s not gonna happen for me. Man, I’d pass out!
Remembering your set at Ende Tymes 2014, it seems like a strenuous thing – I’m sure it takes it out of you.
Well, if it doesn’t, that lets me know that I’m probably not doing what I should be doing, that’s the way I look at it. I try to do something I obviously believe in, because if I can’t do that, I shouldn’t be up there.
VIDEO: Clang Quartet Live at End Tymes 2014
It’s been a little while since your last album.
Yes! I haven’t been to a studio in years – I’m a lazy little cuss!
From seeing your show, the live realm seems to be your place, you know what I mean? I wonder both how long it took to make Judge Thy Neighbor, Love Thyself, and what brought you back into the studio.
There are a couple things on there that are taken from live shows, and I reworked them a little bit.
I had some ideas that I originally thought wouldn’t work with Clang Quartet, and I thought about releasing them under a different name. I’m almost ashamed to tell you how long I debated. It was ridiculous.
Some of the first things I released are vastly different from what I’ve released since. Am I suggesting that Clang Quartet can’t do new things? That’s pretty sad.
When did you have this epiphany?
The early part of this year. Right before summer is when I started recording.
Were there specific songs on the album that were live as opposed to recorded at home?
The ones that are more structured and song-like were recorded at home and finished in the studio. Some of the noise recordings were done here, too. “Jesus Save Me From My Fellow Christians” is completely a live recording; originally I was going to release that on a compilation, and wound up going with something else and never used that. [Producer] Benji [Johnson] actually helped me achieve the kind of swirling effect that it has. On a quad speaker system, that is a trip. Normally I don’t get that kind of rush listening to my own stuff.
Metal is obviously part of your musical heritage, but I’m really feeling it this time.
Yeah, no question about it! And if it makes it even better, I recorded [the guitar parts for this album] with an Angus Young signature Gibson SG. That was a present to myself after the documentary film Armor of God was finished. It took us so long to finish that silly thing, we were all exhausted. We actually finished it right after 9/11.
As heavy as this record is, right in the middle you have what might be the more accessible songs you’ve written: “Love Thy Neighbor.” It catches a listener off guard.
See, one of the riffs on that was one of the first things I wrote [for this album]. Then I wrote another one and thought these will be two separate things, then I thought “I’m gonna put ‘em together” because I couldn’t think of anything else to put ‘em with. Then I decided to add the vocal. Benji did a double-take when I did the vocal and added harmonies to it and everything. He said “wow!” My wife couldn’t believe I did that. I want people to hear this and know that I’m trying to do something that’s different from what I usually do. Some of this harkens back to stuff I did in the early days, when it was less of a noise thing and more experimental. Some of it’s just a big wallop upside the head of noise – and that was intentional. I think this is the best thing I’ve recorded by myself.
Live recordings are great, but you always have the sense – and this isn’t a bad thing! – that there’s an audience there. So you end up with whatever weird incidental background stuff happens and depending on how it’s edited, you have the applause from the crowd at the end of a song –
[Laughs] Which I left in at the end of “Jesus Save Me From My Fellow Christians”!
When you said that some of the experimentation here harkens back to early Clang Quintet, what’s an example of that?
The drumbeat on “Broken Soul” – and I don’t know if you can tell this or not – it’s playing alongside a printer. I happened to be near one at work one day when that thing was doing its job, and made a recording of it on my phone. At one point I’m playing alongside it; at one point it’s playing by itself. But if you listen carefully, it’s a very close-miked recording of a bunch of different toys. Some of them are broken but almost everything in there between the drumbeat and the printer are toys – things I’ve acquired over the years. There’s a little bit of that in the background of “Unknown Tongues”. That one, musically, reminds me a little bit of a guitar piece from 2000’s Jihad that had a lot of reverberation, but didn’t have vocals. The whole thing with the language, I tried something weird.
What language is that? Is it Latin? Is it German? It sounds weird but it surprises me every time.
It’s not! It’s not a language. On the first Obituary album, I know for a fact that John Tardy didn’t use words on certain things. He just used enunciations – and I thought that was so great. He was trying to get across something so extreme that he didn’t even use words to do it! I love that. This is kind of the same thing, not really. I chopped up a couple words and put them together. There’s gonna be somebody who hears this and tries to find some occult connection, and makes it into some sinister thing.
VIDEO: Clang Quartet “Hadephobia”
I noticed that you included a sequel to “Hadephobia” from 2013’s The Separation of Church & Hate, with “Hadephobia 2: People In Hell”.
The first one was an almost techno-dance kind of thing, and lyrically speaking, I felt it was time to say something. There’s a lot of stuff going on in the world right now, and it’s difficult for me to say it in any other fashion, but when I’m doing something Clang Quartet-wise, it feels like I can. That main riff is something I’ve had for years.
I hear people constantly refer to people that they don’t understand – people who have lifestyles they don’t understand or don’t appreciate – more often than not, they don’t approve. There are a lot of people who don’t do things I understand, but I’m not gonna get on a platform and say “this person’s wrong, that person’s wrong.” I’ve always said that until my backyard is clean, I’m not going to point at somebody else’s and tell them what to do with theirs. From a Christian point of view, it’s disturbing that I talk to people who aren’t Christian who tell me what they know about being a Christian, and more often than not what they tell me is that they know more about what so-called Christians dislike about them than they do about the basic doctrine about being a Christian.
No one actually bothered to mention to them the idea of salvation, with Jesus being the son of God and being resurrected for their sins. That’s what, as Christians, is the ultimate thing we’re supposed to tell people. More often than not, we’re busy complaining about things we don’t like about them. And I have a problem with that. That’s what most of this came from.
I had this idea that maybe there’s people in Hell who know more about this kind of stuff than we like to admit, because we were too busy telling them what was wrong with them than telling them what we felt they would benefit from – as we benefit from – as Christians. We didn’t do anything to help them! We just complained.
That’s an interesting idea.
We want to act like these people are beyond help. What if someone had told us that we were beyond help? I know that there are some people in my past who probably said I was beyond help.
So many times, as Christians, I don’t think we’re doing what Jesus said. I think we’re doing what we want to do; we’re not doing what Jesus said. We’re not helping people the way Jesus wants us to.
What does “Hadephobia” mean?
Fear of Hell.
Tell me about “Starlight Hollow Revival”. That harmonica! That hint of Americana …
Starlight Road is actually the name of the road that my parents live on, and it’s also the road that at one time my grandparents lived on. The road has been a part of my family for years. At one point it was a dirt road with no technical name; the county took that area over, hard-surfaced the road, and had to give it a name.
There used to be a lot more woods out in that area than there are now, and I loved to walk through those woods. There was a community center where a lot of people would go to vote. One Saturday, they were having some kind of musical event there – it might have been gospel, it could have been bluegrass, it was acoustic-based – and I was far enough away from it that I couldn’t make out any of the songs, just bits and pieces of some of the instruments. It was way, way, way in the distance. Kinda neat.
The funny thing is, I was deep in the woods. There were some houses on the other side, where somebody was outside playing an electric guitar. Whoever it was wasn’t playing anything that I recognized but was playing some things that, at times, was in key with the musical event. It was so weird. I stood there for a while and took that all in. Mostly it was a clash of sound but sometimes it synced up. There was one particular time when it did that for 30 seconds, and I thought, wow. To an extent I tried to duplicate that. I got a harmonica, and I have the electric guitar but was playing with a slide to try to represent some of the acoustic stuff I was hearing. At times, I let them sync up – but at times I have them almost fighting with each other.
I could hear it! There was a dissonance to that that was very unearthly or ghostly, and I could definitely hear what you were going for; something spooky.
It didn’t really sound scary when I was listening to it in the woods that day, but it had that kind of feel to it. I wanted to do my own version of it between other pieces, long enough for people to say “this is kinda wild,” then all of a sudden, BAM!
VIDEO: Clang Quartet in Miami 2/6/20