"Journal guitarist lists 'Punch Out,' 'Zelda' and 'Final Fantasy' as musical influences." - Interview

I came across this band Journal not too long ago and thought I would share them with you. When I put their album “Unlorja” on my head started to ache…not because it was bad or too heavy, but because it was beyond my level of musical intelligence. It was heavy, intense, and very musical. I got a chance to chat with guitarist Joe Van Houten and he gave me a little insight into his musical world which seems to be largely influenced by video games.

Q - My head hurts right now, because I'm listening to "Unlorja" trying to come up with questions and I can't not wrap my head around this. It's not the heaviness that's making my mind spin, it's the musicianship. Did you guys go to Berkley or something...where did the musicianship come from?

A - Do you remember the NES days, before the birth of those turbo Advantage controllers? Times were tough then. Our guitar tapping/blast beat fingers got wicked fast from rapidly and frequently pushing the “A” button to encourage Little Mac to get back up, after having taken a haymaker punch to the face from Mike Tyson. That’s where we got our speed from. Everything else was learned by playing Guitar Hero and Rock Band. (laughs) No. We did play some “Punch Out” back in the day though.

The truth is that we just used to practice A LOT, when we were younger, and we write things that constantly challenge our abilities. Most of us have very little to none musical training or schooling. If we get an idea and it sounds good, we force ourselves to be able to play it, paying very close attention to clarity.

Q - Expanding on the first question a little bit, who or what are your musical influences?

A - There are a lot of influences. In general, much of our musical influence comes from compositions from RPG type video games, such as “Zelda” and “Final Fantasy.” The stories and characters are so memorable from those games. A lot of our music is written to paint some type of complex imagery that is just filled with emotion and intensity. It’s not so much about writing a guitar riff. The entire composition is written to convey a theme, in which we have determined to be very meaningful. No music successfully accomplishes these ideas as thoroughly and effectively as in those RPG games – so major props to Nobuo Uematsu and Koji Kondo. Other honorable mentions for band influences would be Dillinger, Training For Utopia, Dream Theatre, Candiria, Sir Millard Mulch, Will Haven, Dredg, anything 8-bit Nintendo, etc.; the list goes on and on.

Q - "Unlorja" is around 80 minutes long. I've described a lot of things as intense, but I find myself wondering if there is a more intense word than intense. There is nothing typical about this album. The songs almost seem to constantly be moving and changing. For instance rarely do you hear a riff repeated. How long did it take you guys to put this album together?

A - The instrumentation for “Unlorja” was written under many, many constraints. Justin Tvetan (drums) and I (Joe Van Houten (guitar)) wrote 99% of the album on our own, due to having lost three band members in a very short time. During that time, both of us had marriages, one of us had a baby on the way, both of us were working full time, and one of us was a graduate student. Time was definitely limited, but we were able to pull it off in about 1 year. This was after countless revisions. A lot of the compositions didn’t even make it to the CD. We had closer to 160 minutes of material before, but we only used the best 80. Without meaning to downsize this massive effort that I just described, Justin and I already had much experience with this type of song writing. It is a style that we’ve created, over years, and continue to develop. The point is that we’ve had plenty of practice concocting this style of musical nonsense. (Laughs)

Q - How do you go about writing an album like this? Do you just jam in a room and work it out?

A - It would be very difficult to compose this type of music by casually jamming in a room. Sure, on occasion we might come up with an EXTREMELY bare bones melody/counter harmony or rhythmic pattern, while at the practice spot, but each movement is kind of its own complete and independent idea. For the guitar, I try to play off of my current state of mind at the present - Nothing forced. If I feel happy, or sad, or angry, I try to embrace it and articulate that with my guitar. Perhaps a heartfelt melody emerges. This is my starting point. From there, my goal is to intensify that emotion, searching for that melody and pattern that most effectively conveys the idea. I might start to hear other melodies that add depth to the composition. Those often translate to the bass or the second guitar. We step back and try to imagine what this more complete idea reminds us of. Is it a man, hugging his wife before he goes off to war? Is it the happiest time of someone’s life? Is it the mindset of a schizophrenic mental ward escapee? If a theme can be determined, other movements are likely to be leveraged off of these thoughts. It is a rather grueling process, but we are usually very satisfied with the results.

Q - How do these songs translate live?

A - Surprisingly, they mostly translate very well. We have 2 guitar players, a bass player, and a drummer currently. Most of the compositions on “Unlorja” utilize 2 guitars, bass, and drums. On rare occasion, we might have a 3rd guitar “beef up” a part, so in a live setting, our bass player would take on that role and use a distortion or overdrive pedal to mimic the 3rd guitar. “Unlorja” does have some ambient sounding passages as well. A GR20 Roland pedal was used to record the synth instruments, using a guitar. The last track (30 minutes) is almost entirely synth and cannot be played live without an entire symphony because of all of the layers. The other 11 tracks can be though. A couple of the tracks use the synth pedal as well, but for only 1 layer, which can be mimicked with guitar or bass. Although it does have a different sound to it, we are able to play these passages live, just using clean guitars and bass with an occasional echo or delay effect. Most of “Unlorja” is just raw guitars, bass, and drums. It will sound very similar to the CD.

Q - Speaking of live shows, what was the first live show you ever attended and how did it affect you?

A - My first show was Filter, White Zombie, and Pantera. I was 14. Although I’m not big into those bands anymore, that show was one of the best and memorable times of my entire life. Pantera and White Zombie helped transition me out of that Nirvana phase that I was stuck in, since a beginner guitar player is almost indefinitely going to be drawn to a simple guitar band, such as Nirvana. Back then, Pantera was considered H-E-A-V-Y. It changed my entire outlook on music when I first discovered them. So obviously that, combined with the childish idolization of “rock stars,” made that show an amazing experience. I can’t imagine that anyone glamorizes Journal, in that way, but it’s a cute thought…

Q - While checking out your MySpace page I noticed you all had character names. Is that something you're still using and where did it come from?

A - Are you referring to our Aliases? If so, those are frequently changing and are usually based off of some crude and convoluted inside joke. I’ll explain the current ones. One of our friends had an iPhone Adult Swim game called “Robot Unicorn Attack” or something like that. She knows we love videogames and insisted that we all play. We did, only Justin took an obsessive liking to it. He played it for at least an hour. I was wondering when he was going to give back the phone. So Justin’s Alias is Robot Unicorn. Our guitar player, Tony, is Greek, and he can rock some serious facial hair if he wants to. One time he grew it out crazy thick, and we all thought he looked like Zeus. So Tony’s current alias is Zeus Beard. Our bass player, Danny, is obsessed with Metroid and Zelda. One day, he was getting crazy into explaining this new Metroid game that was coming out soon – Like a kid in a candy store. The main character of Metroid is a woman named Samus. Danny’s alias became “Son of Samus.” Joe (Guitar) is very much into power lifting, so his nickname is the biblical character “Sampson.” Cloud is in our band in spirit. He plays swords, which is a very important instrument in Journal. His alias is God Slayer for obvious reasons. Our aliases probably change 3-4 times per year.

Q - What are you listening to right now?

A - Lots of videogame and movie soundtracks (many imported from Japan).

Q - Thanks for taking the time, that is all I have, is there anything you'd like to add?

A - Stay tuned for big things to come for Journal in 2011.


Bob Zerull is the Managing Editor of Zoiks! Online. He writes pop culture commentary, does interviews with bands, and reviews music and stand-up concerts. He also administers Zoiks! Online's Facebook page. Follow Bob on twitter at bzerull. Email Bob at bob@zoiksonline.com.
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