Q. How has your guitar playing evolved?
A. Very early on I was influenced by the sounds and structures of late 70s jazz fusion. That's solely because I had either the fortune or misfortune (depending on your point of view) of learning from a teacher who was really into that world. The punk thing sort of shook that up a bit, but even then I was more into punk bands that were more exploratory than the typical three chord tune. And with metal, I really fell in love with the endless variety. Now, over the years I've played folk and bluegrass, I've played honky-tonk music, I've been on tour with free improvisational groups, and I've played in pit bands for musicals. So, my vocabulary is pretty broad. In terms of the evolution of my own technique, I think it's less a thing you can hear in my playing in the sense of hearing someone like Eddie Van Halen and immediately knowing it's Eddie Van Halen and more of a thing that from all of these experiences I've been able to put together a toolkit that lets me work on any type of song. And that means that I can concentrate on doing things in the service of the song.
Q. Do you have any particular warm-up routines?
A. I always warm up by playing be-bop tunes. And I try to pay attention to the feel of the neck and the feel of the pick hitting the strings. I know I'm ready to play when I stop noticing the picking action. So, I tend to use a lot of legato. But I also like tremolo picking — sort of a technique common to both bluegrass and black metal. And I like when that comes out in my playing without consciously thinking about making it happen. Intonation is also important. And part of my routine is really thinking about and paying attention to the intonation available on the instrument. My guitars are set up in ways that when I let other people play them they tend to sound out of tune. I put a lot of physical pressure on the strings and so I've ended up tuning and setting up my guitars in more of a microtonal way than purely a strict adherence to proper tuning of the strings. I'm always sort of bending or contorting lines and chords to come into proper tune depending on the guitar. Now, I almost exclusively play in standard tuning, but if you evaluated each individual string you'd find that they were off (some up and some down) — though in a microtonally consistent way. In terms of bending notes, one thing I've done over time is to stop relying on the bridge to do any of the work for me. So, on the Strat, I've got the bridge completely decked to the body. I like the feel of it on my palm and I think it provides a nice sustain, but I don't use it via a whammy bar or anything to bend notes or induce vibrato. That all has to come out of my fingers. And for me that makes the playing feel more like I'm doing manual work and I like that.
Q. How do you balance structured, pre-composed parts with improvisation in your solos and arrangements?
A. That's some question, music school nerd. But yeah, the solo on the instrumental song 'Protector of the Graves' is a good example. It's a single take improvised solo, but because I'd already tracked all of the bass and drums and synths, I already had a pretty good idea in my mind as to where it would go. Whether or not I could pull it off is another thing — that's always a tightrope act. On the cover song, 'Have We Been Here Before', I play a solo that's entirely based on the melody of the verse. In some ways that's more difficult because you want to strike a balance between the melody and keeping it fresh. Sometimes that's where your gear can help you. On that one I use the wah sort of subtly with a lot of gain off the amp to get some great sustain and feedback that lets the melody naturally sort of degrade and evolve in parts. Towards the end it completely wipes out, which is fine... nothing goes "wrong" when you are improvising, things only go sideways and lead you to a different set of decisions that you have to make than for which otherwise you might have been prepared.
Q. Could you explain more about the origin of your band's name?
A. The band's name is Grave Domain. We took it from a D&D spellbook. It's sort of a character build that's a magical grab bag of spells that includes the ability to comfort the dying and ward off undeath. It fits, as a lot of our songs are about death and the passage to the afterlife. You want more info? Talk to Xanathar.
Q. Your music. How do you describe it?
Hmm. Grave Domain. It’s loud. Lots of electric guitar. The recordings are a bit overdriven and lo-fi. Someone obviously absorbed the Neat Records catalog. But it’s got this gothic thing going on. Keyboards. Organ. Darkly composed, and evocatively simple guitar solos. That sounds compelling, right? Did I mention that it's loud and overdriven? Lo-fi. Not lo-fi like you chill out to it. Lo-fi like it was recorded in a junk yard and sounds like at any point it could fall apart and it could take your stereo down with it. On the plus side, it's got a lead voice that wavers on the edge of baritone harmonic orthodoxy without doing too much damage to your equilibrium. A bit of rasp and elongated vowels. It’s been somewhat accurately described as if the love child of Nick Cave and Jim Morrison were hit by a bus. Maybe has more of a drawl and an occasional slurring of words. But it works and it stays in tune most of the time. So we’re keeping it.
Q. Where does Grave Domain come from musically? And what, would you say, is the unique stamp you're placing on the genre with Grave Domain?
A. We always go back to what was considered heavy music between say 1974 and 1984. Because we're dorks. But seriously, branching out from Zeppelin and The Who, hard rock was pretty aesthetically broad at the time, relatively speaking — like ranging from AC/DC to Queen to Thin Lizzy to Rush. That's just a Alexandrian library of song ideas and guitar tones. And early metal was really driving and smart then like on Priest's Sin After Sin, Sad Wings, and Stained Class and even Sabbath’s Sabotage and later with Dio on Heaven and Hell. Rainbow Rising in there, too... but also even the later Rainbow stuff. The more hooks, the better. Go for it. There was obviously a lot of innovation happening in the more noisy albums like Funhouse and even when you listen to what's more like weird pop (completely the antithesis of hard rock or metal) like live Modern Lovers and that VU lineage... and then Bowie (not in terms of heaviness, but in terms of pushing the boundaries of the aesthetics of rock music as well as production techniques) and especially Iggy’s solo records. It's all connected. Alice Cooper. Patti Smith big time. The Ramones. Motörhead. Maiden and all the NWOBHM stuff, but especially all of the underground bands on Neat Records like Aragorn and Jaguar and later that Blood Sports album by Avenger. Diamond Head. Demon's first two albums. Parts of Praying Mantis' first album. Mercyful Fate. Sort of all of the pre-Thrash heavy and on-the-edge music. You gotta know your history. Or you gotta know you're history. One or the other. Oh, and the early gothic stuff like Christian Death's first album and Bauhaus — especially In the Flat Field. Right up to The Cure's Faith. I mean, that's a whole thing. A lot of metal bands could learn from the approaches to lyrics and vocals on all those albums. Don't even get me started on The Birthday Party and Nick Cave. And weird stuff like The Fall. Like Mark E. Smith was busy creating a new language. And then the early hardcore stuff and whatnot like on Dischord. Bad Brains. Black Flag. Minutemen. And then all the fun stuff like Van Halen and Scorpions. Fun stuff is important. And all the rock stuff that wasn't heavy but was all part of the mix in the culture, like Blondie and The Cars and Talking Heads. I love death and black metal — honestly, Darkthrone is probably my favorite band of all time. But when working on new music, I need to go back earlier than all that to the source and listen through the ears of everyone else who's heard all those songs. There are a lot of bands today who are exploring heavy music, but I feel like much of it explores heaviness at the expense of melody and memorable hooks. And I really like hooks. I’m a total sucker for hooks. All of those earlier bands were heavy, but had hooks and melodicism. That's our starting point and I think we're just some sort of version of that same impulse 40 or 50 years later. We don't sound "like" any of those bands, but it wouldn't surprise me to see someone who's into that stuff getting into Grave Domain.
Q. Do you have a track that you're particularly excited for listeners to hear?
A. The first song on the debut album is called ‘Estes Method’. It's from the point of view of a ghost who is sick and tired of ghost hunters and decides to do something about it. It's got a heavy driving part like early Judas Priest. And a handful of allusions to The Shining — the book, not the movie. Come to think of it, most of our songs have their origins in books. I know that's probably some sort of red flag, but hey: Grave Domain is militantly bookworm.
Q. I'm curious about the role of lyrics and vocals in Grave Domain's music. What inspires your approach to crafting lyrics and delivering vocals?
A. A long time ago, I was having something of a writer's block when it came to lyrics. A lot of my earliest songs — going back to the late 80s — were very confessional in nature. And, at least for me, there was only so long I could continue to write like that. It was too stressful and I was letting my emotions get in the way of the music. So, sometime around 2001, I started working on what became an album called Drug Warriors. And I essentially treated it as a musical. It was a story of a protagonist that gets caught in a drug deal gone bad down in a Texas border town. Working like that let me concentrate on crafting the lyrics to help move the narrative along. And ever since then, I've leaned on that approach whenever I run into issues with writer's block. So I did one lo-fi album in the Aughts that was from different people's points of view about the Iraq War — and some of those characters were folks that I'd personally disagree with. But that process of creating character studies was really invigorating. And then a few years later I did The Violencestring which was nearly a proper rock opera (though in a free improvisation and jazz context... weird, I know). But all of those came out of me dealing with writer's block and using this narrative or literary approach to create characters that I could write and sing through. The lyrics across Grave Domain's music come mostly from the same approach. Although there is not a solid narrative structure to the debut album, there is consistency in that most of the songs are sung from the point of view of characters that I've created. If you think of the singer as the actor bringing life to those characters, the lyrics are just the words in the script. Creating that level of distance from the lyrics allows me to explore more and be a bit more adventurous than I might be if I were singing something more confessional.
Q. How would you describe the quality of the recording?
A. Seriously? This isn't Steely Dan, I'll tell you that. This is a noisy lo-fi production that's meant to be blasted from your car stereo as you race down the highway with the windows down. It ain't headphone music. It wants to belong out there in the world where it can get in trouble. Where it can get you in trouble. It was made on half-broken equipment and it sounds best played back through half-broken equipment. If it doesn't sound good, just turn it up.
Q. I know you! You were in that cover band Iblis that came through Tallahassee in the late nineties, right? I hope your drummer recovered.
A. We don't talk about that on account of the non-disclosure, but I can say that the Netflix documentary will be called Sticks of Doom: the Gary Handerling Story.