Header photo: Diana Lungu
I don’t think Mike Scheidt is going to like that I’m calling his interview “Ninja Powers”, because he’s pretty much the most humble person I’ve ever met in my life. He’ll never utter a bad word about any person, band, or piece of gear, bristles when anyone says Yob is better than any other band, and even assured me at one point that he knows “exactly jack and shit.” But you know what, Mike? Too bad! Because Yob is an amazing band, and most people are convinced you do indeed have ninja powers.
Doom metal kings Yob seem to hold a special place in the hearts of even the most hardened metalheads. To the initiated, their name is spoken with awe. Reports of seeing them live are not dissimilar to descriptions of religious experiences. When they played a sold out three-night run at Brooklyn’s Saint Vitus bar this past June, people up front were crying during “Marrow”, probably Yob’s best-known song. I get the impression they’re not alone.
June’s shows in New York, followed by an Austin date, held particular significance, as they were the first shows since Mike’s two operations and long hospitalization earlier this year following an almost deadly bout of acute diverticulitis, a debilitating intestinal disease.
Aside from having shed some weight and swapping out stage beers for a carton of coconut water, Mike showed up to Saint Vitus bearing no signs of having battled for his life just months earlier. Before totally annihilating the crowd, as anticipated, we got to chat about gear, songwriting, his solo work, the Irish bouzouki (keep reading) and what it’s like to get the attention of The New York Times and The New Yorker – two publications that generally aren’t known for their love of doom metal.
Anna Blumenthal: Yob is probably the only doom band that’s getting covered in The Times and the New Yorker. What do you think it might be about Yob that’s capturing the attention of all these publications that never covered doom?
Mike Scheidt: I have no idea. There’s lots of bands out there that are working really hard and doing all the stuff that we’re doing. I think maybe we have a different focus, as far as lyrical content and our approach to how we want to be in the world. We’re a positive band and we want to be that way. I hate when I say this - I hate comparing. It’s hard in music to not have comparative statements, but at the same time, I hate ‘em in the sense that I don’t like to juxtapose what we do as somehow against anything else.
To me, nothing we do is at the expense of any other valid expression. And we enjoy those expressions too. We have all the same records in our collection, whether it be Corrupted or Burning Witch or Meth Drinker. It’s just that our focus is a different one and maybe that’s where somebody might resonate more with where we’re coming from, because it’s maybe different, though I know lots of bands that I think operate in a similar way. I’ve been asked this question before and I end up going around in circles and coming back to, “I really don’t know.” We keep our head down and be ourselves as much as possible, and I think any band or artist that does that, they become their own trip, and I think that has something to do with it.
AB: What you’re doing is amazing, so I’m sure that’s a big part of it, but it is so unusual to get covered in The New York Times and The New Yorker. I think it’s really impressive that the mainstream press is taking notice.
MS: You know, I don’t swim in those waters. I read those publications but I’m usually more focused on the political side of what they’re covering, and it’s not even in my mind that our music could be on the radar of something like that, so when it happens, we’re underwhelmed, because we don’t understand. Everyone’s like, “This is a really big deal!” We’re like, “Is it?” And not like, “Is it really?” More like, “Is it?” The tonality of the “Is it?” is different. Does it mean something? I don’t know.
AB: I think it’s awesome.
MS: Thank you. It’s an honor for sure. We’re honored. And it is cool. Just surreal and weird.
AB: Most of your songs are upwards of ten or even twenty minutes. Can you talk a little about your approach to composing? Do you set out to write long songs or does it sort of take a long time to get everything across you want to do in a song?
MS: The songs dictate themselves, really. I’ve never tried or attempted or meant to write big huge things. If you take your favorite record at 45 and then play it at 33, it’s gonna take longer to get there, so there’s a certain amount that’s just math and physics - playing slower makes things longer.
But I do think of music in terms of movements and having those movements have dynamic shifts, and developing an idea that then leads to the next dynamic that then gets into the next dynamic, and I love what I consider to be classic songwriting, of which I don’t pretend to be good at, but I love it. Big jam passages or drone passages or things where we’re wanting the tone of our amps to carry it, that’s not how I focus it. I want to have good tone but I want the tone to serve the song, I don’t want the tone to be the song.
We have seven new songs we’re working on. At this moment it could probably evolve, but the longest song is fourteen minutes and the shortest one is six and a half, and it totally feels complete. And if anything, I’ve tried to write shorter songs and have failed. They end up being intros or sounding incomplete. This came out as this little piece of music that has probably more changes in it than any song we’ve ever written.
AB: When did you start getting into effects?
MS: Aside from just distortion pedals, I remember things like flangers and chorus pedals always kinda flying around with my friends. I started getting a lot more involved in effects pedals when I started working on Yob. I knew I wanted to have a distortion effect and a syrupy effect and then a wah pedal, because at that time I was super into the early second wave of heavy doom music, and so I was using chorus pedals and delay pedals for vocals. Guitar ones. And I’d yet to find vocal-specific ones, and so I’d have to get 1/4 inch to XLR impedance switchers that I could use as pedals, but they’re very noisy.
The more that we played with other bands that were starting to get really far out, spaced out trippy songs and effects, like Sons Of Otis, I started getting more into effects. It’s been a very slow process. I spent a lot of years using pretty minimal effects, but I also found that older effects, as great as they sounded, also had artifacts that were difficult to deal with - they were noisy and had grounding issues and things like that - and so now, here we are in 2017, where so much of that has been dialed in and figured out. This might be truly the golden age of effects pedals. It probably is. And there’s so many cool ideas out there, I find myself wanting to experiment more and more.
AB: Can you talk about the process of creating your Quantum Mystic Overdrive with Black Arts Toneworks?
MS: I connected to Mark through my friend Chad Remains from the band Uzala. Mark said, “What would you like in a distortion pedal? What’s your favorite tone that you’ve ever had?” And I said that my favorite tone was an old brown, late 70s or early 80s Ross distortion, and it was coupled with an MXR Dyna Comp. Especially in the lower tuning, the compressor really adds a nice note separation and sustain, and the distortion pedal with my particular amp at that time really worked. But that pedal is just gain and volume - there’s no EQ to it - and also on certain amplifiers it wouldn’t jump out and bloom like I wanted it to.
So I told Mark, “I would love that Ross to have the tiniest bit more gain on tap and have some kind of EQ that’s really usable, and a good boost when you step on it.” We started going back and forth on prototypes. He let me blaze through a handful of prototypes, to the point where I started feeling like a jerk, and I was like, “You know, this is really close, this is probably actually fantastic…”
Mark was like, “Unacceptable! We have to make sure that this is everything that you want.” And I also wanted to make sure that the gain was musical, so that if a person wanted to really dial it back and have a significantly cleaner gain, that they could, and if they wanted to turn every knob south, that would do a crazy thing too. There’s so many kinds of classic distortion pedals whose signature sound is with every single thing dimed, and I didn’t want that for this. I wanted it to be something that was more sculptable, but also not immensely complex either - something you could look down at and make decisions. And so that’s how it started.
AB: Do you feel like you have to be pretty techy to work on designing your own pedal, or did he handle that part?
MS: No. He handled that part. I spent a lot of years working in guitar shops, so I know a lot of gear very well from a user’s perspective. I can articulate what I like about a pedal but I have yet to build a pedal.
AB: Being able to articulate what you like about a pedal is still pretty good. I think a lot of people just say, “It sounds good.”
MS: But that’s alright, that’s valid. It’s like a music fan that is luckily unencumbered by being a songwriter. They just know what they like. It’s like, “what’s that like? It sounds wonderful.” (laughs)
AB: Do effects inspire you to compose or are they something you add after the song is done?
MS: Both. Though for me, the song needs to be able to function without the effect. Maybe it won’t function as well for a big loud heavy band if the distortion pedal is gone, but as far as writing, if I’m showing my bandmates what I’m working on quietly, it should still feel like the song. It should still musically be coherent and interesting without that stuff. The effects certainly can inspire all sorts of new sections and possibilities or make a section even better than I envisioned it to be, but if it’s a good song, I should be able to get on my acoustic guitar and play it and sing it and still have it feel like the song. Songcraft’s really important. I love great gear, I do, but all you need for that is money. A killer backline is great, but it’s not what makes a band great.
AB: Since you brought up the idea of playing acoustic, are you still working on solo material where you’re playing acoustic guitar and playing and singing in a totally different style than Yob?
MS: Absolutely, yeah. I’ve changed my approach. I’ve been working a lot on learning Irish bouzouki, which is basically like a mandolin, but it’s full guitar scale length, so it’s 25 ½” scale, and lower tuned. It’s originally from Greece. Irish players went over there, lost their minds on these instruments, brought them back with them, and then had their luthiers try to approximate, but the luthiers looked at it and said, “We don’t know how to do this bowl back business, which is incredible, so we’ll do our version of it.” That’s what I have, and I have it set up in G D A D which is a traditional Irish tuning.
What I’m trying to do is learn as many keys as I can that use the open strings, so that I can change from a G natural minor, D harmonic minor, a Hungarian minor, a Hindu scale, be able to play in a G major scale, and be able to really change the flavor of the tuning by changing the intervals and then learning the scales and bringing the way that I move chords anyway, which is largely based on spending a lot of time around country pickers, like guys who were super into Merle Travis and Doc Watson and were very accomplished right hand finger pickers. You had to grab a chord and grab everything that was in the area to create melody.
I worked at the shop for eight years with these next level players, so I’m trying to do that with the bouzouki too, trying to see what I can grab in the moment. We’ll see how it goes. I guess it’s cause it’s new to me, but it really blew my mind. I’m super into [former Lungfish frontman] Daniel Higgs’ solo music and David Eugene Edwards, he’s the main frontman for Wovenhand. He plays an old 1800’s banjo, and Higgs plays banjo too, and I just love the sense of openness and focus but also freedom. Especially Daniel Higgs - just so unafraid to just reach for things. I wanted to explore that myself.
AB: Do you feel like there’s overlap between Yob and your solo material?
MS: Absolutely. If I hadn’t toured and played solo so much, “Marrow” would have never happened.
I played acoustic guitar for years and years and years and years, and worked on country picking in the 90s, but it never occurred to me that those two things could cross over. Particularly seeing Scott Kelly open for Sleep, playing solo, I thought, the bravery - and it blew my mind. I was like, “I could never do that”, but then as time went on, I started thinking, you know, maybe I do want to try to do that. I love what it requires - it requires something special to do it well. I love Townes Van Zandt, Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams - classic, great songwriters, where the songs have to really carry themselves - and it further refined my entire approach with Yob too. And it made me a better singer because I don’t have this kickass drummer and bass player and distortion behind me.
AB: When you play solo are you by yourself or do you have a band?
MS: I have yet to tour with a band. Part of my excitement with bouzouki is that I’m trying to do my weird interpretation but I’m also trying to learn all the basic chords and keys, so that if I’m on tour with a friend, I can step in with them and play a song or vice versa, and we can do something interesting together that might be a surprise.
AB: Are you working on another solo album?
MS: Yes. I probably have two or three [album’s] worth [of songs]. And some of the stuff that’s becoming the new Yob, I was in the middle of whether it was going to be solo acoustic or Yob.
“Marrow” was like that too. Neither one of the songs we’ve written in the big and beautiful category really are like “Marrow”, but they’re still informed by the progression.
AB: So Yob’s working on a new album now as well?
MS: Oh yeah. I’m very excited. We’re recording in November. And it covers every spectrum of everything we’ve ever done. There’s heavy heavy and there’s some stuff that’s super triumphant and upbeat like "Quantum Mystic", not sounding like that but kind of high energy, and some of it’s really slow and slinky and backwards and weird, and some of it is shimmering and utterly beautiful.
AB: Are you doing any of the new songs live before you record them?
MS: Not yet. We’ve tossed it around and there’s a lot of philosophies around that that I think are all valid. For us, working out things in front of people sounds good, but in the social media culture where everything is caught on a camera phone or goes right to YouTube…it’s like, we’re just trying to work it out live and it’s not there yet. I tend to feel like when it’s ready to be heard is when it’s been realized for us, and we’re approaching it a little differently this time. We’re doing a lot more demoing. We always wanna do a journey, where the album has all these twists and turns and it takes the listener with it. No one song can be grabbed and say, this is what the new record is like. But we want every individual song to also have its own identity and stand on its own, so it’s not just an album. We are an album band but we’re also really a song band, in our intention.
AB: And also, with such long songs, you’re not going to have a song that’s filler.
MS: We try not to! It depends on who you ask.
AB: I haven’t heard any throwaway songs yet. Do you want to tell me about what kind of guitar and amp you play?
MS: My guitar is a Monson Nomad. Brent Monson said he had a new guitar model and I started talking to him about getting a guitar made and he showed me the mockups of it, and the specs, so we tweaked it a little bit to my taste and pickups. I wanted a big baseball [bat neck], like late 40s Gibson-style neck, and so he built me this big ass Louisville slugger-cut-in-half-slab-with-frets-on-it neck. They’re pretty heavy and tend to be denser tonewoods that take A standard and make it decipherable, and I’ve been using compressors for a long time to help do that.
Though I’ve gotta say that EarthQuaker Warden has been really a neat compressor to use. I almost don’t use it in a way, because four out of six of the knobs are on zero. I have the tone at 11 o’clock and the level and the sustain up at about 50%, and everything else is at zero, so it’s really transparent. When I turn it off and on, tonally, it does all the things that I want it to do in cleaning up my signal, but it doesn’t have any negative impact or artifacts of crushing it, though I know that’s in there and I can go nuts with it - total Nashville picker - if I wanted to, and I like that fact. But I really like it, and the reason I say that is because I really like the tone of my amps.
Right now, I have two Mammoth 4x12 cabinets loaded with Eminence Manowars, so each cabinet is 480 watts. A standard tuning makes it clear. There’s still a little bit of sag in those speakers, it’s not like using 200-watt AVAs that are just crystal ice pick clear, but they’re still very clear. I have those and I have a Metropoulos amp kit of a late 60s Superbass. Metropoulos for a while offered kits that people could buy. The actual George Metropoulos Marshall amps run $3000, $3500, very high-end components, and my red one is exactly like that. I have Mercury Magnetics transformers, there’s a couple carbon comp resistors, and then there’s higher end stuff too because I don’t like it to fizzle or sag too much. They’re still so bright anyway, and in our tuning, it really adds this great tone. And then I have also a couple of Hi-Tone HT100s, they’re basically a Hiwatt DR103 to a T, just very true, surgically precise, clean amps. They’re a pedal platform and a clean platform. Mixed with the Marshall, it’s this endless headroom situation. The clean is really clean, and when I step on pedals things get big and wide but there’s articulation and clarity, and for a chord melody in A standard, not every situation works. I’ve had to tailor almost everything to it.
AB: Have you been using the Avalanche Run? How’s that working out?
MS: Absolutely. I really like the Avalanche Run. And I have yet to really dig in to everything that it has on tap. I have it set up pretty simply where I just have the tails set up and the one for one delay, and I have the reverb up just a bit, and I have the level and repeats about halfway up, and the tone is up a little bit, because I like it being a little brighter. I really love how well it tracks and how well that tap tempo tracks and being able to look down. That bright light tap tempo is just brilliant, because in any kind of lighting you can see what’s happening, and so not only am I using my ears to track it but I can look down at it too and make changes on the fly with it, and the changes happen so quick. I’ve had tap tempo pedals that aren’t that quick when changing, so I anticipate learning to love it more and more and more, and I already love it. I just used it once in practice and was like, yeah, that’s what I needed. We’re like the least professional band in some ways as far as that goes. “Oh, we have to start over, that’s out of tune”. We’re worried about aesthetics as far as how we present ourselves, but on the stage, we’re not super serious. We’re not jokey either, but we’re not about just trying to maintain this intense vibe. If something isn’t right we’re gonna stop and fix it, laugh about it.
AB: That’s probably more professional than bands that play through the whole song even if it’s not in tune or something’s off.
MS: I don’t know. We just know what works for us. And getting uptight – nobody really wants to see that, you know. I mean, if you work through a problem, and keep your cool, it seems like crowds love you for it. It’s the path of the hero, you know?
AB: Yeah, you show you’re human.
MS: “Yay! You did it!”
AB: Have you cleared the path to ascend?
MS: Working on it.
After ending the interview to give Mike a break to get ready for the show, we ended up talking a bit more, and he started talking about pedals again, hence the disjointedness of the snippet below.
MS: The EQ in the Quantum Mystic is really helpful, and because it’s an active EQ, zero to 12’o clock is pretty normal EQ. Going past 12 o’clock, it’s feeding the gain stage, so you’re taking that frequency and coloring your gain with it. It’s like the gain gets brighter and brighter, and then it gets gainier and gainier with that frequency, and that’s cool, though on different backline setups, sometimes I don’t want the high to get gainier in the high, I just want more treble in that particular situation or a brightness, so the Tone Job seems like it would be a really cool thing to have where you can add bottom end without adding gain.
AB: I think the Tone Job makes every pedal sound better. It’s an underrated pedal. It’s not a crazy one, it’s not an Avalanche Run, but it’s really important.
MS: You can look down and see what it’s doing. I like that. There are really good pedals out there that I know a lot of people like, that have so many things in them, and I struggle with that. It’s like 15 pounds in a 10-pound bag. It just ends up being five or six things you use anyway, and being able to look down at something and not accidentally hit it and having it be numbers that are flashing at you and going, “Oh no, what’s that number? How do I get back to that preset?” I’m such a dinosaur. So a pedal like the Tone Job where I can look at where it is and make a decision, that’s exciting.
AB: And also, you’re singing. I feel like it can be hard to sing and play and step on pedals.
MS: I’ve gotten better at it, I’ve been doing it for a while, I don’t think about it as much now. It’s helped me get good at making shit work, where it’s like, “Oh, I didn’t mean for that to happen, and well, here I am!” It’s just me on the guitar, I gotta figure it out, and then often, trying to grab it – sometimes I can do that, and sometimes I make it worse. So it’s helped give me some other ninja powers, I guess. Or something.
Anna Blumenthal handles Sales and Artist Relations for EarthQuaker Devices. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, plays guitar in Party Lights and bass in Sit N Spin, DJs 60s soul and R&B at various Brooklyn bars, and has seen Cheap Trick over 30 times.