Wolves in the Throne Room: "We try to skirt the line sonically between brutal and beautiful"

Wolves in the Throne Room
(Image credit: Dreaming God)

One of the most majestic metal visions of 2021 has to be the sight of Wolves in the Throne Room guitarist Kody Keyworth crushing an evocative, bend-heavy solo in front of a towering Pacific Northwest waterfall in the video for the band’s Mountain Magick

It’s fair to say that there’s been this kind of naturalistic synergy surging through the whole of Wolves in the Throne Room’s catalogue – since brothers Nathan (guitar/vocals) and Aaron (drums) began the project in 2003 – and perhaps none more so than their new Primordial Arcana LP.

For one, the group’s seventh full-length is the first to be completely recorded at Owl Lodge Studios, the facility they built out in the woods just outside of Olympia, Washington. 

Fittingly, the collection has Keyworth and Nathan Weaver conjuring a mixture of earthy stomps and blissful storms of black metal-style trem picking; the album’s Eostre, a synth-forward ambient piece, is dedicated to a goddess of waterfalls.

“Waterfalls have always been an inspiration for the music,” Nathan Weaver explains.  “We are often shooting for a majestic, waterfall-type sound when crafting lead tones, or when we are auditioning reverb sounds. 

“Yes, the waterfall goddess’s presence is strong on this album, but I do feel that she is there on all of our past albums as well. Specific Wolves in the Throne Room riffs and [even] entire songs are meant to evoke different aspects of the natural world, such as rain storms, ice melting in the mountains, and calm sea water at night.”

Ahead of the release of Primordial Arcana (due August 20 via Relapse Records), Weaver and Keyworth dug into the “primitive” racks and recently acquired EverTune axes heard throughout their latest collection, and how the record has them riding a  “wave of melancholy, ascent, and triumph”.

Primordial Arcana is the first Wolves in the Throne Room album to be fully recorded at your own Owl Lodge Studios, though you’ve been operating and recording out of the space in part since the making of 2011’s Celestial Lineage. This is likewise the first album to be fully produced by the band. How did bringing everything in-house impact the creation of Primordial Arcana?

Nathan Weaver: “Doing everything in-house this time was fucking awesome. I might change my mind later, but I can’t imagine going back to paying for studio time at one of the big Seattle studios like we’ve done in the past.

“We’ve been building up our gear at the Owl Lodge since we recorded Celestial Lineage back in 2011, so we now have quite an arsenal. At this point we can create any sound or tone we’d want for Wolves in the Throne Room. 

“I watched an interview with Stanley Kubrick recently where he talked about time being the most important factor when creating his films, and I can relate with this sentiment. Time is very important for our band and our music, and until now we never had enough of it. 

“When you are paying for studio time, you’re always on the clock. This type of time crunch can either add or take away from the creative process. And for our band, I think it harms it more than it helps. 

Tracking and mixing with all plug-ins might sound correct, but for us, we need dark old electronics in the mix to craft our tones

Nathan Weaver

“Having endless amounts of time causes its own issues as well of course, but we have been doing this long enough now where we know when we have a good take, or if a guitar or drum tone sounds awesome. We know when to stop doing shootouts.”

Kody Keyworth: “Recording in our own studio gives us so much more time to test out different recording methods, which was not always an option in other studios. We could try out all the subtleties of seemingly similar pedals over different riffs and decide which tones would serve the song or the record the best. 

“Of course, you can get lost in the eternal search for the perfect tone. Moving a mic 1mm might change the tunnel qualities enough to want to try a different pedal. We were pretty systematic in our approach, but when something sounds good it just sounds good. Run it, ya know?”

As you’d been building up the studio over the past decade, how big of a gear haul do you have holed up at Owl Lodge?

Weaver: “We now feel that we have what we need to create the sounds in our head without wishing we had another black box. We told ourselves that we wouldn’t track a whole record on our own until we had the experience/skill/gear to create sounds that could rival or surpass our past records. At this phase we feel that we’ve accomplished this. 

“When we decided to mix the album ourselves, we did invest in quite a few old rack units from the early ‘90s from Lexicon and Eventide. These units all have that primitive pale blue or green LCD screen that really sums up the magical sonic quality that they can produce. 

“Aaron tried running some early mixes using more plug-ins and less hardware, but it just didn’t sound right to our ears. Sometimes I wish we were a band who started in 2021, because tracking and mixing with all plug-ins might sound correct. But for us, we need dark old electronics in the mix to craft our tones.”

Aaron recently spoke on mixing the album, and how he was trying to hit a “deep, dark, orange” frequency akin to decomposing cedar stumps he might come across in the woods near your place – when he’d reach that color, he knew the mix was done. On another level, Nathan, you’ve been known to play through an Orange Rocker head and cab. If that’s still the case on Primordial Arcana, what attracts you to Oranges?

Weaver: “Yes, our sonics being described as orange, or as a decomposing cedar stump has been referenced for a while now in the studio [laughs]. Aaron is very into assigning colors to various mix approaches. 

“All the lead tones on this album were recorded with an Orange Rockerverb combined with a RAT pedal, or with a Suhr Riot pedal; sometimes with a Tube Screamer or Klon as boost, plus various verbs and a Roland tape echo. 

“The Rockerverb was also one of six rhythm guitar layers. I think the ‘Orange’ in the brand name might be a coincidence here, but the sound of that amp does remind me of rotting leaves in the forest, and moist black earth.  It has a very natural, vibe-y and heavy sound.”

Nathan, what guitars were you turning to this time around?

Weaver: “I started tracking with an old Les Paul Classic and Aaron’s Ibanez artist from the ‘70s, which has those Super '70s pickups. That Ibanez Artist is great, and I wish I had bought one before people found out about them – they used to be so cheap, but not anymore. 

There wasn’t much in the way of a general setup for this album, as we layered so many guitars on top of each other

Kody Keyworth

“When paired with the right high-gain amp, that guitar has a freakish and brutal sound, very different from modern guitars. Most of the guitars on Celestial Lineage [2011] and Thrice Woven [2017] were recorded with Aaron’s Artist. 

“I know a lot of metal bands these days use modern-sounding guitars with EMGs, but we have always used older guitars because they can create unique tones you just don’t hear on most extreme metal records. The Ibanez Artists sounds like an explosion, not tamed and sleek like a new Ibanez metal machine. 

“Despite my love for old gnarly guitars, I had to re-record a bunch of my rhythm tracks on the new album because my Les Paul was having some tuning issues, which ended up causing me to go out and buy a brand new ESP Eclipse with an EverTune bridge. This solved my problem immediately! 

“I think the issue is that Primordial Arcana has multiple riffs that use four or five-part harmonies, and sometimes there are rhythm sections that have four low, single-note parts happening simultaneously. So the tuning had to be perfect to pull this off, and my old Les Paul was just too finicky. 

“So the Eclipse stepped in and filled the gaps. And this guitar ended up sounding awesome as well, especially mixed with all the vintage guitar tracks. It is now my new favorite guitar for the studio.”

Kody, what was your general setup on this album?

Keyworth: “There wasn’t much in the way of a general setup for this album, as we layered so many guitars on top of each other. For the basic tracks, I used my trusted Marshall JCM800 model 2203, which has been my go-to amp live and in the studio for years. 

“On top of that, I used my USA Jackson KV-2 that has been by my side for almost 20 years. Me and this guitar are destined for each other. It was even stolen out of our van along with all of our gear back in 2008. 

“I had completely given up hope on ever retrieving it, but nine months later, I got a call from a pawnshop saying they picked it up for $20, and it’s been with me ever since. For effects, I used a Suhr Riot pedal and a Tube Screamer to create a solid foundation to work on.”

Wolves in the Throne Room

(Image credit: Dreaming God)

Though Kody had played on Thrice Woven, this is the first album where he’d been fully involved in the writing and recording process. Can you break down the general songwriting process this time around? Was Kody bringing riffs to the table?

Weaver: “Yes, Aaron, Kody and I all brought riffs to the table, and I think Kody brought some of the strongest material. We compile all of our riffs into what we call our ‘riff sack’. We then go through each riff sack and decide which riffs feel right for the album. 

“Out of those riffs, we create ‘the master riff sack,’ which we use as the melodic core for the album. This is an oversimplification though, as we will end up diving back into the non-master riff sack, and also jamming and writing riffs on the fly as needed.”

How would you say you complement each other’s playing style?

Keyworth: “For this album, I really wanted to write riffs somewhat in the style of Wolves, but coming from a slightly different direction – like what's lurking beneath the surface, or soaring in the air. It seems far more interesting to write riffs that didn’t sound quite like Wolves, and therefore create a different dynamic. 

“Nathan’s riffs and sense of epic melody are great to work with. I like to complement that with some nastier riffs or, conversely, write even more melodic stuff to bring everything together. Most of the songs came together with us just throwing riffs together and seeing what worked or what was surprising.”

Primal Chasm (Gift of Fire) showcases this dark, ascending lead riff up front, but it later ties up with a triumphant, possibly wah-soaked lead section, and then an almost weeping, melancholy blast section. How integral to Wolves in the Throne Room’s songcraft is that balance between the brutal and the beautiful?

Having layers and dimensionality to a song makes it far more interesting in a storytelling sense. You can ride the wave of melancholy, ascent, and triumph

Kody Keyworth

Keyworth: “You are correct, it is a wah! We cannot know darkness without light. For me, having layers and dimensionality to a song makes it far more interesting in a storytelling sense. You can ride the wave of melancholy, ascent, and triumph. 

Weaver: “I have never thought of it that way but, yes, we do try to skirt the line sonically between brutal and beautiful on certain songs and riffs. For example, on some past tracks we would record the guitar direct into the board/preamp using a cheap distortion pedal like a Metal Zone or a RAT, but we would combine this horrible razor blade-type sound with a lush analog synth, or a chiming clean guitar running through something like a Fender Princeton or Roland Jazz Chorus. 

“We have always been drawn to these conflicting sounds and energies. The Nine Inch Nails album The Downward Spiral is a perfect example of this kind of interplay, and has been a large influence on the band over the years.”

There’s a lot of multi-layered, trem-picked, black metal synergy up front on Masters of Rain and Storm, but is it fair to say there might be a Wherever I May Roam vibe to that stomped groove section shortly thereafter?

Keyworth: “Ha! Metallica is always there. This was not an intentional nod to the masters of old, but if that’s what you’re hearing it must be there. 

Masters… is the longest song on the album, and it has many twists and turns. Again, it’s a journey, and I hope people are changed through the process. I love getting lost in a song, and losing time while fully immersed in the sonic manipulations.”

Weaver: “The Black Album was one of the albums that hooked me into metal when I was 13 or so. What a fucking great album. And that Wherever I May Roam anvil hit will always be the quintessential anvil sound for me.”

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Gregory Adams

Gregory Adams is a Vancouver-based arts reporter. From metal legends to emerging pop icons to the best of the basement circuit, he’s interviewed musicians across countless genres for nearly two decades, most recently with Guitar World, Bass Player, Revolver, and more – as well as through his independent newsletter, Gut Feeling. This all still blows his mind. He’s a guitar player, generally bouncing hardcore riffs off his ’52 Tele reissue and a dinged-up SG.