DATE OF INTERVIEW:
6th September 2017
CHRIS "OJ" OJEDA
Seventeen years in existence and now signed to Metal Blade for their recently released sixth album, West Virginia's Byzantine are ready to emerge from the underground, just like the horde of cicadas frontman Chris "OJ" Ojeda discovered under a tree in his front yard, emerging from their own seventeen year cycle. In an interview with Metal Discovery, OJ, the sole surviving member from the band's original formation, explains why he felt the cicada cycle was a fitting analogy for Byzantine, as well as discussing lineup changes; curious cover versions; entomology; vodka snorting; grooves... and a whole lot more.
METAL DISCOVERY: You’ve just released what is an incredible new album with ‘The Cicada Tree’. That’s now six strong albums that make up Byzantine’s discography. Is it always a proud and satisfying moment when you put out yet another quality record?
OJ: Putting out new Byzantine material is probably one of my favorite feelings attached to being a musician. I love playing live, too, but releasing studio albums is the best. I have felt confident in all our albums but the confidence has tended to grow with each release. Our last 3 albums have been copious amount of joy interspersed with moments of sheer panic in between.
(Chris Ojeda on Byzantine being picked up by Metal Blade Records)
"It’s extremely rare that a band lands a deal with a label like Metal Blade after so many years of being underground but Metal Blade believes in us as much as we do them."
Byzantine - promo shot
Interview by Mark Holmes
Photograph copyright © [unspecified year] - uncredited
Byzantine Official Website:
Thanks to Andy Turner for arranging the interview
Byzantine Official Facebook:
Byzantine Official Twitter:
MD: I gather you’ve had first-hand experience with cicadas in your front yard… insects that reside, dormant, underground for sixteen years, before emerging in their seventeenth year. You’ve said that the album’s title “is a metaphor for the lifespan of Byzantine", so do you believe that 2017, your seventeenth year in existence, is now your time to thrive as a band; to rise beyond underground status?
OJ: I absolutely do. I feel our cogs are finally falling into place. Most bands would never give themselves this long to play to half empty venues but I think the almost 2 decades of being a relatively unknown artist has steeled our resolve. All the ups and downs have set us up for this year. It’s extremely rare that a band lands a deal with a label like Metal Blade after so many years of being underground but Metal Blade believes in us as much as we do them.
MD: I also understand that you turned into a bit of an entomologist with your resident cicadas?
OJ: Oh yeah! I took the opportunity to teach my now 9 year old daughter about the insect. I thought since we were going to be inundated with them for a season, we might as well enjoy them. It was during those catch and release periods that I found a kinship with the 17 yr cicada living underneath my tree.
MD: In one sense, it could be said that Byzantine have always been too well known to be considered underground and too underground to be as widely known as you probably should be. Is that a fair comment?
OJ: I have a hard time commenting on this as I am too close to that forest to see the trees. Underground, to me, means an artist that is not widely enough known or widely enough seen to be considered recognized by the majority. We have toured so little in our 17 year existence that I feel there is no possible way for the majority of heavy metal fans to know us on a deep level. And just by looking at our SoundScan reports, I can SAFELY say that we haven’t been heard enough to be considered a popular artist! HA!
MD: There’s a lot of subtle and not so subtle variety within and between tracks on the album… the most diverse Byzantine record to date, I would say. Did you set out to diversify your sound a lot more with this new one?
OJ: No. We just sat out to write a consistently good heavy metal record, free of restraint. This has always been our main goal. During the writing of this album, I felt extremely comfortable during the writing process, even though I knew it was going to be more scrutinized than any of our previous albums. That comfortability allowed me to expand on certain aspects of my vocals and songwriting, and the other members of Byzantine brought certain pieces of music to the album that helped expand our style, as well. A lot of bands don’t have that freedom and, to me, that would be terrible.
MD: In press blurb, you’re quoted as saying: “At this point, our fans expect us to experiment and push our boundaries, which is an extremely liberating feeling.” Do you regard Byzantine as a progressive band in that sense, and have you always considered your music as having a genuinely progressive edge?
OJ: I would say we have some progressive tendencies in our songwriting and always had. Even back to our debut album (‘The Fundamental Component’), our musical palette at that time was way more streamlined, but we still tried to bring in bits and pieces from King Crimson, Opeth and even Godflesh, at that time. We were actually billed as a “Metal-core Band” by our previous label, which we didn’t agree with at all. I think that labelling hurt us during our formative years. But now, music listeners can fully tell we don’t fit any one certain genre or classification, which allows us the freedom to experiment.
MD: Because that boundary pushing expectation is there, are you always conscious not to experiment with your sound for experiment’s sake? Do you abandon ideas if the experimentation sounds stilted or forced?
OJ: Oh, absolutely! If something sounds forced, either my bandmates or our engineer Jay Hannon will know it immediately and the idea will be shelved, but they give me carte blanche to write whatever I feel. Sometimes, the weirder the parts might be, the cooler it sounds. I tend to throw away the more “stock” ideas than I do throw away the off-the wall stuff. It’s becoming increasingly harder by the album to find new and inventive ways to play triplets or chug riffs.
MD: There are discernible groove metal underpinnings to many of the songs, so do you think the grooves will always be a fundamental element of your sound, despite any progression? Are those grooves inherent within you as a musician and songwriter?
OJ: Yes, the groove is the most important part of Byzantine and always will be. Even if we meander off the beaten path during a song with a polyrhythmic section, we try to keep a certain groove or bounce to the riff. This allows us to play complicated patterns but still appeal to music lovers who don’t pick up on the complication. The great Kyle Thomas of Exhorder exclaimed in the song ‘Soul Search Me’, “Can you feel the groove!?!”. When I heard that as a young musician, I knew the groove was the cornerstone of what Byzantine would be laid upon.
MD: You’re also quoted in the blurb as saying: “The first few albums, you're trying to find your sound, and sometimes you tend to not see the forest for the trees. Now, on album number six, it seems a calmness took hold during the songwriting process…” Do you think the more relaxed songwriting experience was born from a sense that you have less to prove these days? Or do you still feel you have much to prove?
OJ: I still feel we have a shit load to prove, but not to ourselves. To our old school fans, we need to prove to them that they have not been blindly following us into obscurity. To Metal Blade, we need to prove that we were worth taking a chance on. To new listeners who might not be interested in checking out a band with a 6 album back catalog, we need to prove that we have more left in the gas tank. To ourselves, though, we have nothing to prove. It’s all gravy from here on out!
MD: Once again, you co-wrote lyrics with your childhood buddy, Jamie P. Rakes. What does he bring to the table that’s different from your own lyric writing?
OJ: Although he and I are super lifelong pals, we have varying degrees of difference in our world views, politically and religiously. That small difference allows us to co-write lyrics from varying perspectives. I am a fan of his lyric writing and he mine, so we are respectful of what we both are trying to say and, ultimately, we end up with better lyrics than I could probably write on my own. Since I have taken on more of the music writing role, his contributions on the lyrics are extremely beneficial.
MD: There are a couple of fantastic covers on the album – The Cars’ ‘Moving in Stereo’ and Fishbone’s ‘Servitude’. What, in particular, drew you towards tackling these two songs, that made you think they’d benefit from a Byzantine spin? And were there any other covers you considered first?
OJ: We wanted to tackle some songs that would push our abilities. Brian Henderson loves The Cars and ‘Moving In Stereo’ is one of his favorite songs from them. We thought we could respectfully bring a new touch to that song without changing the original feel of it, and it worked perfectly. In regards to the Fishbone song, I have LOVED ‘Servitude’ since I heard it in high school in 1993. It’s heavy yet soulful. I told myself back then that, if I ever had a band talented enough, I wanted to cover ‘Servitude’. Trying to capture the soul and essence of the song was difficult but I think we nailed it. We kicked around a few other songs but nothing I can mention, mainly because they might be what we record next album!
MD: When you were tracking vocals and guitar solos, you live-streamed the sessions so that fans could watch in on parts of your recording process. How was that experience? Did you feel any pressure, knowing that your performances were being observed and scrutinized?
OJ: The first night we attempted it was pretty strange for myself and our engineer. We were watching what we said and trying to not have too many mess-ups. The 2nd night, and every night after that, we honestly forgot the camera was even on. It was a very cool experiment. By the 3rd night, we had fans suggesting different notes to play or lyrics to sing and, if we caught their suggestion going by on the screen, we would try them for fun! Specifically, I was tracking vocals for ‘Map of the Creator’ and one line I sang was “Cradling Humanity”. A fan thought I said “Cradling Huge Manatees”. HA! So I laid down the manatees line just for fun. We will definitely be doing that again.
MD: ‘The Cicada Tree’ marks the recording debut of drummer Matt Bowles, so what would you say he’s brought to Byzantine’s sound and dynamic, as both a musician and person?
OJ: Bowles has a different skillset than Wolfe did. Wolfe was a guitarist who just so happened to become our drummer so he played with the guitar in mind. Bowles thinks more like a drummer. The great thing about Bowles is that he’s open to all suggestions and he’s young so the stamina is def there. I’ve been lucky to find two drummers named Matt who are more groove oriented drummers than flash, which works best with our sound.
MD: How’s Matt been with the older material at live shows? Have you let him loose with his own chops on the songs, to put his own drumming twist on the songs, or is it more about carbon copy?
OJ: Matt has decided to try to stick to Wolfe’s original drum lines as much as possible. There’s nothing more irritating than a new member coming into a band who’s been around for a few albums and tries to change or alter the backbone of songs fans are already in love with. Luckily, Matt’s previous band has opened up for us a few times so he is very familiar with Wolfe’s playing style and really wanted to honor it by sticking to the plan.
MD: Apart from Matt Wolfe’s departure, the band’s weathered some other key lineup changes in recent years. However, the central Byzantine aesthetic and forward thinking mentality has remained intact. Did it take a lot of searching and auditions to find the right guys to bring into the band to help preserve the essence of Byzantine?
OJ: The drummer slot was the only position we had open auditions for. When Tony Rohrbough and Skip Cromer left (lead guitar & bassist), Wolfe and I knew who we wanted as 1st choices and we got both of them. There is not a bevy of amazing heavy metal musicians in our area of WV, just because it’s a very rural area and sparsely populated. Luckily, Hendo and Sean Sydnor turned out to be the exact pieces of the puzzle we needed. It has taken a few years for both of them to find their niche in the band, but we were able to work those bugs out over the last few years in virtual anonymity.
MD: Since the band was reactivated, you’ve had a couple of independently released albums before this new one on Metal Blade. Did you want to re-establish the Byzantine name before shopping around for a label? Or did Metal Blade approach you with a deal?
OJ: When we reformed in 2012 and released our 4th album in 2013 we had no interest in us from any label. We just decided that we had messed up our chance at being a signed band and was resigned to our indie fate. Even with 2015’s ‘To Release is To Resolve’, we had no one contact us about signing Byzantine. It wasn’t until Brian Slagel showed up unannounced at a show we played in NYC that anyone even spoke to us about joining a roster again. Brian has been known to be a soothsayer from time to time and I think he had a feeling about us. Apparently, he was the only label head who had that feeling.
MD: How do you reflect back on the Prosthetic Records era of Byzantine? Those are three solid albums you put out on that label, so it seemed like a creatively thriving time for the band. Was it all happy and joyful times?
OJ: The 1st and 2nd album cycles were pretty awesome. The 1st album cycle, we were doing a lot of East Coast shows with our buddies in Lamb of God and getting thrown right into the fire on big shows. Our 2nd album is firmly held as the best release we had on Prosthetic Records. I think our 2nd album was a high water mark for the band at that time. That was the record that we decided to push our songwriting boundaries on and it still holds up to this day, 12 years later.
Unfortunately, financial woes, as well as not having a proper manager or booking agent, ultimately sunk Byzantine. We were not seeing eye to eye with our label head and with scrutiny to stay home with our wives and fiancees, we ended up just imploding under the pressure. Our 3rd album was fraught with issues and we broke up the day after the album was released. I think some of our best material is on that album, but I also believe the album was too long winded and was in need of some producing, which didn’t happen. It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.
MD: You’ve received a lot of support through crowdfunding means, since the 2013 “comeback” album… have you been surprised by the level of backing from all the fans out there?
OJ: Not so much surprised by their level of support as I’ve always known we have had a small but very fervent fanbase. I think I have been most surprised by the support from the industry that we turned our back on. We don’t really have a huge fanbase but the fanbase we DO have is comprised of musicians in much bigger bands, of industry folk, press and webzine folk. It’s odd to see so many people within the industry championing us now after so many years of feeling like we were the odd man out.
MD: I recall seeing Byzantine live back in 2004, when you were on a tour over here in the UK with Gutworm, in support of ‘The Fundamental Component’, and you came onstage during their set to get Neil Hudson to snort a shot of vodka, which seemed to seriously affect the guy. You then snorted a shot yourself, which didn’t seem to have any affect whatsoever! Are you still a hardened vodka snorter? Still getting other unsuspecting bands to snort the occasional shot?!
OJ: That was called ‘The Septoblaster’! It was a stupid ass game we came up with on that tour. Our guitarist, Tony Rohrbough, snorted bourbon instead of clear vodka one night and got a nasty sinus infection during the tour. He was in absolute agony the last week of the tour. Little did we know that we could have taken him to the hospital in the UK and they would have treated him. He just laid on Gutworm’s floor and tried not to die! To this day, that first UK tour with Gutworm (now Krysthla), was one of the funniest musical experiences of my life. They are forever my brothers!
MD: You have a Sept/Oct US tour coming up with Sacred Reich, but is it likely we’ll see a return to UK shores for Byzantine at some point soon?
OJ: I would say our return to the UK is pretty certain. Metal Blade has an office in Germany and we’ve been doing tons of press through that office so it seems that Europe is ready for the rejuvenation of Byzantine. Hopefully we will cross the pond in Spring of 2018.
MD: Finally, do you look much to the future of the band, or is it more about the here and now, for you? Do you predict there’ll be another 17 year cicada cycle?!
OJ: I try to break it down in short term, intermediate and long term goals. If I look too far ahead, I will miss the great little moments happening now. So my vision is a few long term goals surrounded by a bunch of short and intermediate goals! For instance, our goal right NOW is to complete this US tour with Sacred Reich, healthy, happy and not in the fiscal red! Once that is complete, we move forward to the next short term goal. As far as the music is concerned, as long as we write what we like and try to keep it top shelf, everything will fall into place.
MD: Thanks for the interview and, now the new album’s out there, I hope Byzantine live on for longer than three months above ground, now you’re coming to the end of your current cicada cycle!
OJ: Thank you for the exposure and here’s to sharing a few pints together next year in Europe!