A few months ago, Canadian west coast sludge metal veterans Bison unleashed a devastating return to splendour with their brand new album entitled You Are Not The Ocean You Are The Patient. After 2012’s Lovelessness, the four-piece band’s last album for Metal Blade Records, the band was joined by Shane Clark on bass after Masa Anzai stepped aside. Clark, the former lead guitarist of 3 Inches of Blood brings an extra level of guitaring prowess to the Bison fold, tightening up the rhythm section with his own unique explorations into all of these new songs. The 1000 Needles EP that came out three years ago hinted at what to expect from the band’s 5th full-length album.
Even then, the expansion of the Bison sound on You Are Not The Ocean is truly something that has to be individually experienced. This interview with Bison lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter James Farwell reveals a different songwriter than Bison fans have grown to love over the band’s decade with Metal Blade. Farwell is a father now and has removed himself from the big city hustle and bustle of Vancouver city. He’s writing his material sober, in his rural Squamish office space intent on expanding on his lyrical and musical stylings. If you liked Bison before, you’re going to LOVE Bison now. You Are Not The Ocean You Are The Patient manages to take everything I loved about the band before and effectively doubles down on the payoff, delivering one of the heftiest metal releases of 2017.
What follows here is just over twenty minutes of transcribed dialog with Farwell. You can listen to the actual interview (warts and all) via the SoundCloud file embedded above, complete with a few moments of Farwell interacting with his son, and yelling at his dog.
Congratulations on the new album. I know it’s been out for a few months now. I’ve been digging it since I first heard it.
James Farwell: Great. Thank you very much.
It’s interesting that the front cover of the album looks so different. It’s quite stark. Black and white artwork. You’ve changed the logo too. I’ve never really focused on your lyrics before, but in reading some of what you’ve written for You Are Not The Ocean You Are The Patient, they are quite stark as well.
Farwell: Hey yeah. So that’s the thing. I’ve always been a real fan of writing lyrics. And I really wanted the new record to be a little bit more lyric heavy. And I didn’t know quite what to do to draw people in, but whatever I did, people notice the lyrics now. Quite honestly, you know what it is? It’s changing the aesthetic slightly that draws people to perhaps become more interested in what the band is saying. I find that a lot of the time when you are just lumped into a genre or a generalized category of tough, dumb music (and don’t get me wrong, I love tough, dumb music. Fuck, I love it). But those people are not necessarily reading your lyrics. Or maybe they know the shout-along parts of choruses, but they aren’t really checking it out in depth. So it’s interesting to me how you can kind of change your aesthetic slightly and other things become apparent.
So while we are on that topic of shifting, why don’t we talk a little bit about Bison in 2017. Where you guys are at and the things you wanted to write about and include in this new album? I imagine you had some dialog about that before you started creating?
Farwell: Well, you know what? No, we didn’t. It’s not like we sat down and said “Well, we need to re-brand our band. Maybe change our image.” The band has always reflected our lives and what’s happening within them. Being the primary songwriter and lyric writer, particularly with what’s been happening with my life, there has been a lot of shift. I moved out of Vancouver. I have a family now. I have two sons. I’m on a path of trying to become a better person. Without sounding corny here, I’m trying to heal myself. It’s nothing you can really put your finger on. It’s very systematic of living in the world. Trying to be a good person. Of being a part of various communities and not quite finding it. Getting lost. Getting found. Getting lost again. Getting found. Over and over and over again. Being one who can’t turn to religion or some sort of real recognized spirituality.
Although I do consider myself quite spiritual. I love the earth, and I love nature. It’s one of the reasons we got out of Vancouver and moved to a smaller town. Let my kids grown up in the dirt. Things like this. This is really just indicative of me changing. So me wanting to change is me wanting to distance myself from what I will call for our readers sake the Metal Blade years. The Metal Blade years are dear to my heart. I love the music and I love what we did there. But there was a lot of kind of poisonous things that went on that I’m distancing myself from. I’m not bitter or begrudging or anything like that. It’s done. I’m proud. No regrets at all. But you know, different things become more important. So it’s all reality based. Completely reality based. Whether you are writing about the end of the world (laughs) as a kind of a broad topic or you are writing about some kind of personal crisis, it’s always more interesting than writing about how happy you are.
True enough. We have pop-fourty for that.
Farwell: Well yeah. Finding out why there is shit in the world is more helpful than finding out why there is happiness. Why is there shit? How do you get through the shit? if you are happy, you just don’t question it. If you are content, you just don’t question it. I’ve changed my life so much. I’m still not quite there though, and I want to know why. I’m 45 this September. So I’m not doing it for drugs and pussy anymore. So why am I still doing it? Now it’s perhaps maybe my children. And again, not to be that guy who has had kids and now that’s everything in my life… but you know what? It kind of is.
Yes. It kind of is. Since the last time I’ve talked with you I’ve also become a father. And everything is indeed different.
Thank you. Likewise.
Farwell: Welcome to becoming a really rightious, selfless person. (laughs)
Pretty much. Yes. That’s accurate.
Farwell: It’s a pretty amazing feeling, right? Especially if you’ve been a fucking rock and roller, Peter Pan-ing his way through life. All of a sudden you realize that you’re not the centre of the fucking universe. And I think it’s a really important lesson for a lot of people to go through.
I agree. My outlook on everything is different now. I look at the world differently now. And I recognize every time that my parents said they worried about something now as something poignant.
Farwell: I’ve become a little bit more forgiving now. (laughs)
Can you talk a little bit about how Shane Clark became a full-time Bison member?
Farwell: Yeah, absolutely. Shane has always been close friends with the band. Bison and Three Inches of Blood have had a very strong relationship. Touring, playing, hanging out. The Vancouver metal scene is pretty small. Especially back with bison and Three Inches started out. There wasn’t a lot happening there. So we were really tight. We have known Shane for ages. Even before he joined Three Inches, he was in a band called Ten Miles Wide. We’ve been buddies for quite a while. Shane is a phenomenal musician. He knows his guitar playing, he’s a fucking shredder. He’s like a Hetfieldian rhythm guitar player. It’s just incredible how tight his rhythm guitar work is. He’s a musician. He understands music. He loves Rock & Roll. He loves experimenting. And he loves getting away from the norm. Three Inches was fairly tried and true blistering solos but he has always been interested in kind of straying from the path. You know, we’d always wanted to play together, but because we are both guitar players, it’s hard unless you are going to start a new band or something. We had actually started a punk band where he was playing guitar and I was playing bass. We had our friend Penny playing drums for a while. It was just fun. And we realized we actually played well together in that capacity. So when Masa, unfortunately, decided to leave Bison, I didn’t even hesitate. The first thought was Shane. Three Inches had broken up. It was sort of obvious, really. Three Inches broke up in my view (I’m not speaking for them by any means) because you do it, you bust your ass and eventually you realize that you have to try something else. you know? How many Monster Energy Drink fucking tours can one do? (laughs) How can you keep doing that over and over, right? Anyway. You either do that, or you don’t do that. Or maybe you get kicked off of a big metal label. I don’t know. (laughs) So we asked him and he just said: “Obviously, yes.” We are all family men now. Matt has a daughter. Dan has a son and a daughter. We are not interested in living in a van and eating shit. We can’t. We have to take care of our families. Now we are in charge. We put out the albums that we want. We do the tours we want. You know, we don’t have to do anything for anybody. And he was in the same headspace. He was tired of breaking his dick for people who were taking advantage of him. The music business will do that. You are so hungry for it, and you are out there working, they will fucking suck you dry, right? He didn’t want to do that, and we didn’t either. So it was just perfect. So we started jamming, and he just knew what to do. He understands music and he understands simply being a guitar player. A lead guitar player who understands what he wants in a rhythm section. He just knows music – he’s fantastic.
Is that flutes that I’m hearing in “Tantrum”?
Farwell: Yes. There’s flute and violin in the middle sort of psychedelic, spooky part.
I’m digging that, man. I like how you’ve branched out on this album and brought in some new instrumentation. You’ve all tried a few new things on this album.
Farwell: I really wanted that accurate representation of that sort of eerie calm before you explode, right? I get to watch my son a lot. I get to examine how this child expresses himself in this really sort of rageful way. (laughs) And I try to imagine what is going on in his head – maybe he’s feeling like it’s cool, but it’s probably not really that cool, you know? And this builds and then it gets a little bit weird and then it’s just an uncontrolled explosion (laughs).
I like “Water Becomes Fire” a lot too. it’s got some moments of post-rock happening in it before you really kick-in half way through the song. I dig that stuff.
Farwell: Well, the idea there is that I wanted a little bit more dynamics to Bison. Without suffering through a whole record of quiet-loud-quiet-loud-quiet-loud, you know, I still want to fucking rock. And especially for that song particularly, The dynamics of it are very important because that song to me is sort of a traveling song. It starts off with a lovely little travel through the mountains and by the ocean and then you get into the fight. And it explodes.
When you reflect upon yourself as a songwriter, how would you best describe your evolution over the past ten years?
Farwell: Um, I think that more so in the past few years, it would be more like taking my time. You know what? I can answer that question partially. Because, honestly, the first few records I don’t remember the songwriting for them. There was lots of drugs and alcohol. There was lots of really rageful, angry, immediate kind of writing. The last few things we’ve put out, the 1000 Needles EP, was the first time I had a real focused writing process. I was still living in Vancouver, but I was with my partner, the woman who would bear my children for me, and life was coming together a bit more. Especially with the new record, I wrote it in Squamish. I have my space here. I have an office. That’s where I work on demos, and I write music. So I had this space, and I felt very comfortable. That’s really un-rock and roll to say, I know. But it was really safe. But to me, that means I can really explore some fucking shit, without worrying about really getting lost in it. That’s what I used to do. I think I used to get lost in it. I drank. A lot. I think I just got lost in it. I’d get drunk, and I’d get mean, and it was just like a bad kind of a thing. It made the music different. Like I say, I have no regrets about it, but with this new one, I was just a little bit more in charge of it. Which I think is a good thing. I’m happy with the songs I wrote. Me being more in control and in charge, it’s a good thing. It’s more mature, I guess. It’s mature, but I can still write a song like “Anti-War”, right? It’s not square. I’m not like some old square now. I’m just more aware of what’s going on.
One of my favourite musicians is Trent Reznor. And I think that guy has been putting music over the past ten years now that he has found a wife and a family and some kind of inner peace. I think he’s better for it, you know?
Farwell: I think he’s not disappointing his fans. He still speaks to them, and he still understands what that part of life is that people want to relate to it. That part that people want to relate to, there’s lots of politics. God knows, there’s lots of politics in there. You know, fantasy? We can all get lost in fantasy. You can write about need and getting fucked up. There’s all kinds of stuff there. But really, honestly talking about how to live in the world and relating on that level I think is a little bit missing. Especially in the type of music that we are playing.
You mentioned briefly “Anti-War” there. The press release for the video you put together just came out yesterday. It seems like we should maybe chat about that for a little bit.
That is footage that you culled together and assembled yourself, is it not?
Farwell: (laughs) Yeah. We aren’t really a video band. We don’t usually make videos, right? Who the fuck watches videos, right? Well, you know, Red Fang wouldn’t be who they are without videos. Not that we are ever going to be Red Fang or anything. People obviously do like videos. So I dunno. I was just like “Hmmm. Let’s make a video.” (laughs). I dunno. We have no money. I don’t like getting people to do shit for me for free. I don’t like that. So I thought I’d put together a video. I’ve used iMovie before. (laughs) And I know it’s fucking cheap looking and whatever, but that’s my life. That’s the song. It’s probably interesting to somebody out there. It’s honest, that’s what it is. That is the whole thing about this record, it’s an honest record.
I thought it looked quite competent.
Farwell: Thank you. (laughs)
You have spent time on those included clips. You’ve distressed lots of those clips and images. You took the time to process a lot of stuff to assemble that clip.
Farwell: Right. Yeah. I come from an age where I grew up watching Friday night videos in the eighties. I’ve been watching videos for a long time. So I grew up with videos that weren’t necessarily super-slick. Some had a funny storyline with lots of tongue and cheek jokes. That’s not my kind of video, you know what I mean? I don’t know. It was really fun to do. And when you are trying to put together a little snippit of your life, without it being; “Alright! You have a family… fuck! Ok, Yeah. You have a kid.” George is only in it for like a little minute at the end, but it’s a nice contrast to garbage, you know? He’s there behind all of the static and crazy chaos that comes through. He’s still there and he’s still the thing that keeps me going, no matter what’s happening.
Did you enjoy the video-making process enough that you’d do it again?
Farwell: Yeah, I did. It was fun. That’s another one of those things, you know? No one asked me to do a video. no one was like we’ve got to get a video, you guys have got to do this. I just thought I’d make a video because people like videos. And I sat in my spare time in my office and went through my phone. You know, I’m a family man. I’ve always got my fucking camera out taking photos of everything. Most of that video is background images I had from taking footage at the Heritage Train Museum in Squamish. (laughs) So, you know.
Check out the band’s video for the song “Anti-War”
I’d like to finish off asking how you and Dan And originally met? What brought you together as kindred spirits in songwriting and sludge-metal.
Farwell: Dan and I met as I meet most people through my life: through music. I was in a band called S.T.R.E.E.T.S. (Skating Totally Rules, Everything Else Totally Sucks), a skate thrash band and we’d go to Victoria, British Columbia quite often to play. Dan was at first just a fan of the band. He was supportive, and became a friend very quickly as it happens, which is one of the greatest reasons to be in a band – you get to meet like-minded people. He was just a staple in my life, you know? When S.T.R.E.E.T.S. broke up, Dan called me and told me that he was going to move to Vancouver. Or maybe it was him just thinking about moving to Vancouver. Dan will tell it differently. Dan will likely say that I said: “You have to move to Vancouver!” I don’t really remember it that way because that doesn’t sound like me. I wouldn’t put myself out there like that. (laughs) It’s like an old married couple. I dunno. He’ll have one version and I’ll have another. So he ended up moving to Vancouver and we started jamming. He dug what I was going for. He’s my other favourite rhythm guitar player. He’s amazing. He’s easy to work with. You can throw anything at him and he will work them into magic. Even in the beginning when I was working on some riffs that were maybe a little more complicated than he was used to, he just worked his ass off to do it and became a really great guitar player. That’s about it. We were all meant to play together. Me and Dan and Shane, we all live in Squamish now. Matt has moved to Sechelt. So I’d like to make it clear that we are no longer a Vancouver band.
You’re a surrounding area band now.
Farwell: We are mostly a Squamish band. It’s totally important to let readers know that. Vancouver kicked me out. I’m going to take my fame and fortune with me and not give them any credit for it. (laughs)
How do you approach your tour schedules now? It sounds like almost everybody is with family. Does that affect how long you all will go out on the road?
Farwell: Yup. Absolutely. The States is a write-off. We are never going back there. It’s too expensive. And quite frankly it’s just not for us. We have a lot of great fans there. We’ve had a lot of good times in the US touring there. The whole process is demeaning and insulting. And I just don’t want to do it. I’m too old to be treated like a fucking drug dealer at the border by some fucking loser border guard. I can’t do that anymore. Like, give me a fucking break, right? And I’m PAYING for that treatment. I’m PAYING!! You can fucking shoot me in the face before I am responsible for even a penny that’s going into Donald Trump’s fucking pocket. I’m not going to talk to you about politics, but I will shoot myself in the head before Donald Trump gets one fucking cent of my money. Personally. Anyway…
I’m 100% with you there.
Farwell: Cool. That’s off the table. Not going there. We just did a little Western Canada run. We are right now gearing up for a European tour next year, which will be our big tour. Labels from Germany, they give us a lot of help. Europe has been very good to us. So we’ll be doing that. So we’ll do that. And I’d like to come back and do a proper Canadian tour again, and get out east obviously. We love playing out there too. It will happen. People have to be a little bit more patient with us. It’s not going to be like “Alright, let’s get in the van and leave home for three months.” Try coming home to the wife and kids and saying “Oh, yeah, great, No, I don’t have mortgage money. Yeah, the van broke down. So I can’t pay the mortgage or line of credit.” I just can’t do that anymore. So be patient. And you will see it live. It will be worth it.
It’s all good. I think you are putting out better and better music, and you are doing it on your terms. And that is just a great thing to hear.
Farwell: Great. Thanks for that. I appreciate that.