Need a light? Wizard Union Collective carries a heavy torch
It's fair, if lazy, to call Wizard Union a stoner-metal band. The Ann Arbor-based three-piece specializes in huge, slow sounds with roots running back to Black Sabbath, and its song titles and lyrics namedrop ancient bongs and wizard pipes. But there's a simple, no-gimmick efficiency and economy of scale to what they do that's also punk as punk.
On their latest record, Phantom Fury, released late last year, the band refined its chugging, earworm sludge, while also introducing classic rock shuffles and early grunge grooves (and an outro to one tune that could be a sequel to "KISS: Love Theme From KISS."). In the middle of it all, guitarist and vocalist Samir Asfahani's throaty bark sounds shredded and desperate not to get drowned out by the drones.
On Saturday, April 8, Wizard Union will play Crossroads Pub in Ypsilanti along with Toledo-based old school death metal band Mutilatred and hardcore punk acts No/Breaks and Hellghillies. Chances are good every human in attendance could compulsively lurch in rhythm when the band launches into old favorites, like "Into the Wizard's Sleeve."
We talked to Asfahani by email about the band's new efforts as a collective, demoing songs in his car during his lunchbreak at work, reviewing extreme music for his entertaining and informative personal blog, and distancing himself and the band from the sexism and misogyny that "plague" the metal scene.
Q: How and when did the band get started? Was there a sound in mind from the start, or is this just what happens when you three play together?
A: I was in the band Lord Centipede, and Larry (Johnson) was in Errr, and he asked if we wanted to play a show with them. Long story short: Errr broke up, and Larry was like, "Hey dude, sorry but if you wanna still be on this show, it's all you." So we did it, and it was probably one of the worst shows I've ever played in my life. However, I caught up with Larry at a bar later, and I was like, "I've got some songs that are kinda stoner, sludge, doom. Just slow and heavy, and if you have time to jam, we should jam on these tunes." So we did, and they all appeared on our first EP, Smoking Coffins. Once we established, "Hey, we're a band now," we recruited Aaron (Howard), who plays guitar in Counter Cosby, and he was down to play bass. Our songs are grounded in being slow, sludgy and heavy, but we're down for experimentation.
Q: You recently started calling Wizard Union a "Collective." What does that mean, and why the change?
A: It means we're a stable of musicians who could be working on different projects with different lineups, and whatever the result is gets released under the Wizard Union banner. This helps with us working on stuff we'd like to keep separate from Wizard Union but still use our pool of money to fund the recordings and merch and such instead of just starting from scratch. It's sort of like a distributor and promoter of our other works. We have one project that's me and the drummer from Mutilatred. That's going to be more of a death 'n' roll type thing. Wizard Union is going to record this summer, and during that time Larry and I would like to record stuff for our other band Bladder, which is more sludgy noise rock.
Q: Your songs always groove heavily, but one big difference I noticed between Smoking Coffins and your last record, Phantom Fury, is more variety in tempos, structures and feel from song to song. Was there a conscience effort to work in more influences and ideas this time around?
A: I think most of the songs from Smoking Coffins I had written before the band was formed. With Phantom Fury, they were written when we were formed as a band, so at that point you write to people's strengths. As far as the tempos and the structures go, we just wanted to keep it interesting. That's a common thing. We didn't wanna keep playing the same song over and over again.
Q: There are so many great riffs crammed into these songs. Are there stockpiles of unused parts laying around in your head or in your cell phone's voice memos somewhere?
A: Not just riffs, full songs. I personally have a tablature book-and-a-half filled with songs and a folder filled with songs written on notebook paper. We have some jams from practice on my phone and also some songs I wrote on lunch breaks at work, where I'd go out to my car and play with a guitar. When I get a riff, I just hash it out. If I wrote riffs only, it would be so unorganized and chaotic, I would drive myself crazy trying to find them.
Q: You list Melvins and Sleep as influences, and they're definitely there, but the mix of bluesy sludge riffs and hardcore-style vocals keeps bringing me back to Eyehategod. What are some bands you consider influences that don't necessarily sound anything like Wizard Union?
A: I'm the big metalhead of the group. I'm into about every subgenre. Just extreme music in general, including punk and jazz and all its subgenres. As far as nonmetal, I would say (Captain) Beefheart, (Frank) Zappa, Tom Waits, P-Funk, Devo and anything Mike Patton is involved with. Larry is big on grunge and '90s stuff, like Fugazi and Unwound and noise rock bands, like The Jesus Lizard and godheadSilo. You can really hear that in his playing. He's into punk as well. Aaron is into ELP and Yes. At our last rehearsal, he expressed interest covering "Heart of the Sunrise," which would be sweet.
Q: Stoner/doom/sludge metal seems particularly susceptible to amplifier worship, a la Orange and Sunn heads with giant speaker cabinets, but the couple of times I've seen you play, you've had a pretty no-frills setup, and it sounded completely awesome and huge. Do you think there's too much focus on gear and not enough on writing? Or can a great old tube amp and fuzz pedal really save a lame riff?
A: I think it's because we're poor that we don't have those things. But seriously, I think we just wanna keep it simple. I'm looking to replace my amps and just added a new fuzz pedal to my collection, but I also have a spending limit in mind. I'm also not interested in buying stuff that can't be easily replaced. With some bands, it does seem they're overcompensating with gear and not spending enough time focusing on writing good riffs. I know an amazing band we've played with called Hung From the Rising Sun that has a wall of cabs live, and they are amazing. Beast in the Field (R.I.P.) were the same. It really makes for an intense live show. However, we're just going to continue doing what we're doing and keep it simple.
Q: You recently renamed one of your songs, now called "Burn Snitches, Not Witches," because, as you explained on Facebook, you didn't want to "endorse, condone, or be involved" with "the continuous use of sexism and misogyny in rock and metal music." What's the story behind the original song and also behind making the change? What kind of response did you get to this, and did it surprise you?
A: Originally the song was called "Burn Bitches, Not Witches." I saw a post on Facebook where someone had used the line, and I thought, "What a great title for a song!" However, I was being totally ignorant, and I realize that now. The song is about the Salem Witch Trials told from the perspective of real witches getting their revenge. The decision to change the name came after an interview I did where the song was given a lot of praise. After my wife read the article, she called me out on it.
At first I got defensive because I thought it was just a joke and I didn't mean for it to be sexist or misogynistic. However, I realized intent doesn't always equal outcome, and the outcome could have damaging repercussions. I was having a hard time coming up with a new name because the song was already out. My wife actually came up with the new title. I owe a lot to my wife for my current awakening. She's a strong feminist woman who I look up to very much.
I have definitely become more aware of the misogyny and sexism that plagues our scene, as well as our culture and country as a whole. I do not want to be a part of that or contribute to it in any way. I also have children, and I don't want them to look at my art and wonder why their father wished to express himself in a certain way, even though he preaches something entirely else. Overall, it doesn't reflect my current views or the band's current views. I brought it to the band's attention, and we all agreed to make the name change.
So far I haven't seen anything negative regarding this change. Although, since I originally wrote the post there have been two occasions where people decided to make art that involved our name, whether it was a flyer or just fan art, that contained explicit imagery. So that was weird. However, both issues were dealt with, and the artists respected our wishes to alter the art.
Q: This bill on April 8 at Crossroads is a pretty excellent cross-section of heavy sounds -- stoner metal, old school death metal, hardcore punk -- that we don't get around here too often. How did the show come together, and why isn't there more of this music happening in Washtenaw County in terms of local bands and also venues hosting these kinds of shows?
A: Mutilatred asked to set up a show with us in Ann Arbor/Ypsi. We've tried doing all-doom shows around here, and it's kind of hit or miss, but some of our best shows have been these mixed punk/metal cross-sections. So I ended up asking No/Breaks and Hellghillies.
There aren't a whole lot of bands playing this type of music in the county, so we often have to look or go elsewhere. The Ann Arbor/Ypsi music scene has a lot of pockets, and I think we're one of the many, and we're cool with that. We're all about promoting the Greater Michigan scene, which I would say has a lot of great underrated bands. Too many to list. So there's never a shortage of bands to play with, as far as that goes. As for venues, I wish there were more. Specifically, I wish Woodruff's was still around. I don't know exactly why more of these shows aren't happening, but we don't care. We didn't start this band worrying about whether or not we'd find other local bands to play with.
Q: I checked out your review blog and learned about two or three sweet bands I'd never heard of just in the recent posts. How long have you been doing that?
A: I'm glad you discovered some new bands from the blog! I started it in December. I was looking for something to do on my lunch breaks, and I was always looking for something new to discover from the underground but didn't have anyone to talk to about it. It's an extension of my love for music, and it keeps me busy. I kind of use it as a tool for expanding my own songwriting and recording, as well. I'm always learning from it.
Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to Concentrate Ann Arbor.