Surprise! Sydney metallers Northlane today release the follow-up to 2015’s #1 album Node. It’s titled Mesmer, and we asked rhythm guitarist Josh Smith about the five-piece’s new writing style, why it’s important to question the status quo, and why the theory of animal magnetism (espoused by scientist Franz Mesmer, for whom the album is named) interests the group.
You’ve written about intensely personal issues and very macro issues in this album – something [guitarist] Jon [Deiley] encouraged. Did it take a bit of time to overcome the idea that you should be doing only one or the other?
In the past it would have been one or the other, but we weren’t afraid to do both this time around. We removed that filter we had set in our minds of what band we needed to be or should be, and wrote about things that moved us.
We know that on previous albums, lyrics and music were composed independently and then brought together in the studio; this time lyrics and music often blossomed spontaneously together. How do you think that affected the way the songs finished up?
It actually made the songs come together in final form much slower, but the vocal and music definitely worked more seamlessly together than ever before. They were purpose-written to dynamically match and emotionally interconnect. To me, that has a huge overall [effect] on how the songs feel.
Apparently many of these ideas (or the evolution of initial ideas) were born out of soundcheck jams; how do you remember or focus on ideas you’ve come up with during those minutes with when your mind is also on a show you’re about to play?
This is true; so we’d just sit a phone on record at front of house, and muck around with riffs. Then afterwards, Jon would take these jams and see if there was any magic in there he could work into something more. Working on the road is nothing new to us; we are always writing on the road when we are inspired, and keeping our days full.
In opener Citizen the lyrics refer to “Big Brother’s eyes” and Intuition encourages listeners to “question everything you know”, and “follow your intuition” instead of accepting things. What do you guys do to try to actively subscribe to that idea?
Wear tinfoil hats and tape over our webcams. Seriously though, I think what matters is your mindset: realise there could be an agenda behind anything you read or believe and take everything with a grain of salt. Don’t be afraid to contest an idea, ever.
Franz Mesmer (for which ‘mesmerism’ was named) had a fascinating life – I read that he was driven into exile after King Louis XVI (the last French king before the revolution) had Mesmer’s animal magnetism theories investigated and debunked. There was only one royally-appointed scientist, a botanist, who publicly stood up for Mesmer. (Pretty admirable when you consider Louis probably threw him in prison for it.) Do you think it means anything that it was a plant scientist (not the royal court’s chemist, astronomer or physician) that believed in animal magnetism?
I think the ideas Franz Mesmer had were really unique and interesting. There’s a lot about the natural world that we don’t understand. I think that it does mean the ideas were less fundamentally founded if you regard which type of scientists were for and against these ideas, but with internal politics at play too, it’s not simply black and white either.
One of my favourites is Solar; the guitar details are beautiful, as is the way you play around with the verse, bridge and chorus time signatures. Did the elements in this song in particular begin very separately, or did it flow out as naturally as it plays?
Solar actually came together really naturally; both musically and vocally it was very immediate, and flowed from the get-go. It’s the best example we’ve ever had of a song just forming naturally from ideas that feel right to us.
Zero-One also goes pretty uniquely nuts in the rhythm department – do you make deliberate decisions to be experimental with changing tempo and signatures and chopping away bars here and there?
I think for us it’s just a way of making our music more interesting. If we can still have songs that flow seamlessly through all these changes, we’ve created something with replay value that we can be proud of.
Which of these tracks do you most look forward to playing live, and for what reason?
I can’t wait to play Savage because of how dynamic it is. I think it’s going to translate really well.
The rippling electronic blips that appear over parts of these tracks – like towards the end of Render, and within Heartmachine – are they the work of producer David Bendeth?
They aren’t. David’s signature on the album is the emotion conveyed through the vocal delivery, especially in the most climactic parts. He also helped us structure a few songs more concisely. The electronic element and soundscapes are Jon’s doing.
The tracks all meld together, right up to that whispering slide at the end of Veridian which morphs into closer Paragon. Is this a reflection of the interconnectedness theme?
Absolutely it is. We wanted this record to be seamlessly integrated, just like the natural world.
Mesmer is out now via UNFD.