interview by Michael McCarthy
Back in July of 2013, I gave a very positive review to the debut album by Starkill, Fires of Life, which was a perfect blend of the death and symphonic metal subgenres. Nightwish as performed by Dimmu Borgir, if you will. Well, those artists continue to be among the band’s influences on their just-released sophomore album, Virus of the Mind. The difference is that Virus of the Mind pushes the extremes of these subgenres. On one hand, the album is more melodic with larger than life strings. There are even clean vocals, something new for the band. In addition to performing these clean vocals, singer/songwriter/programmer/keyboardist Parker Jameson delves deeper into the realm of raw death metal/black metal vocals. That’s another difference; the songs on Fires of Life were pretty straightforward death metal. But on Virus of the Mind there are a few songs that fall in the black metal vein. In the following interview, Parker and I discuss all of this and more.
I really like your band’s name – who came up with it? Were there other names you were considering? If so, what were the other names?
We had gone through a bunch of names in the past, but ultimately settled on Starkill because of how all-encompassing it is. It has a power/death/symphonic/shred quality to it, and that’s our sound.
With most death metal bands it can be difficult or impossible to decipher the lyrics. But your vocals are easy to understand. Is that something you deliberately strive for or is it just how they happen to come out?
Some of my favorite vocalists are people like Jari Maenpaa, Shagrath, and Brendon Small, who are all fairly understandable. Coincidentally, when I first started figuring out how to scream, I had a similar understandability. It wasn’t a deliberate move, it’s just how I sound. And luckily for me, it’s the sound I wanted on our records!
You have quite a bit of clean vocals on Virus of the Mind, such as on “Winter Desolation” and “Skyward.” How important was the addition of clean vocals to you?
Honestly, very. It’s something I had always wanted in the back of my mind, but until this record, never felt comfortable trying out. Lyrics aside, I tend to think of vocals as just instruments. Death metal vocals are just rhythmic, percussion instruments, and cleans are obviously a tonal instrument, and without the addition of those sounds, I think this album would not have been as strong as it is.
Do you think you’ll ever do an entire song with clean vocals?
Probably, yeah. It’d have to be the right song, and it’d probably only be one track out of ten on a new record, but it’s something I can see potentially happening.
On one hand the new album has the clean vocals, but on the other hand I feel like it’s a considerably heavier album overall. Were you trying to take things in different extremes this time around?
I think the heaviness lends itself to the fact that we weren’t trying to take the album in a direction. It was really taking itself where it wanted to go. 12 months ago, we had a tentative plan for album two, and it was very different from what actually made it to the record. After experiencing lineup changes and doing two huge European tours, we came back to our preproduction computer and wound up ditching five or six songs, writing new ones in their place, and heavily editing what we didn’t trash entirely. New emotions and ideas that I was having had to be put on the record. There’s a bit deeper of a connection we have with this record for sure.
How did the songwriting process for Virus of the Mind differ from the songwriting process for Fires of Life?
Well, with VOTM we had four more years of songwriting and playing experience, for starters. Most of Fires was written years before it was recorded, and it was also more of a fictional piece. The songs are either madeup stories, or draw influence from mythology. Virus is a little more narrative, more introspective. We also made heavy tweaks to the album after every tour. After we toured with Wintersun, Fleshgod, and Arsis, we had ideas we liked from seeing them that we put on record. And also you have time to evaluate your own live performance, and that impacts writing as well.
The Amorphis tour also brought a lot of influence and new dimension to our sound as well. I think that’s obvious.
How do you generally approach songwriting? Do you start with a guitar part or an orchestral idea or lyrics, etc? If it varies, could you give us a couple of examples insofar as how you wrote a few of the songs on the new album?
I always open up a blank session in a DAW, pick a random metronome time, and hit record. It’s usually a 50/50 split between whether I start on piano or guitar. If I have an idea after 30 or so minutes, I save it and expand on it later. If I don’t, I delete whatever non-memorable stuff I may have recorded.
I remember Before Hope Fades actually started out two years [ago] as an idea I had for a personal side project I never expected anybody to ever hear. I wrote something in a more Nightwish style that I knew would need clean vocals. At the time, I never imagined I’d be singing cleans in Starkill, but then I reopened the song 6 months ago, expanded and completed the song, and then recorded clean vocals on top. And it worked. It was exactly the song I had always wanted to write.
Skyward was a fun song to write because half of the song was written in probably 20 minutes. Then I saved and closed the project, forgot about it for a year or two, and rediscovered it when we were choosing which songs to put on the record. I added this new kind of Hatebreeder-Bodom esque feel to it, and it was complete.
That’s the joy in recording constantly. You write stuff, forget about it, and then a year later rediscover something that’s seemingly fresh and totally cool.
The strings on the new album, which are fantastic, sound like live strings to me. Did you use live musicians for them this time around or were they programmed?
Ha, I wish they were real musicians. No, that was a lot of searching for the right samples, and Chuck Macak mixing like a champion.
What are some of the different instruments you used (or programmed) during the classical parts on the new album?
I don’t remember if we used any harpsichord on Fires, but there is a good amount on Virus of the Mind. There’s also an erhu reinforcing the last part of the guitar solo in Convergence which is really awesome sounding.
Another random fact is that the “clean” guitar in God of This World, beneath the guitar solo, was recorded when I was 19 and in college. We dialed in this creepy chorusy sound, had my 1×12 cabinet in my bathroom cabinet which was stuffed with blankets and pillows, and we threw a 57 in there. Literally just threw it in there. I have no idea where it was facing. Somehow I rediscovered that .WAV file, loved the way it sounded, and rather than rerecording it, we just dragged it into the new session.
According to your Wiki page, you’ve been called symphonic black metal. Do you consider yourselves a black metal band?
I would say some our songs are “blackened”. God of This World, Wash Away the Blood with Rain, and Whispers of Heresy for sure. But that’s not our main musical goal or focus. We never write music to fit into a genre. We just write music, which coincidentally just happens to be primarily melodeath.
I couldn’t tell if “God of this World” is in favor of god or opposed to god. How is it intended to be interpreted?
2 Corinthians 4:4. Satan is actually referred to, negatively, as the God of This World, where the Bible says that he corrupts the minds of men, blah blah blah. I think Satan is one of the cooler fictional villains out there, definitely more of an antihero in my book. In keeping with the themes we touched on in the title track, I wanted to use Satan as the manifestation of all things independence, all things progressive, so the calling for Satan to “rise!” is more or less an extension of the lyrical themes on Virus. There’s also a cool little bit where I borrowed from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Adams, talking about how hopefully one day, the myth of Christianity will be lumped up with other ancient gods like Jupiter and Roman mythology the like, and that reason will do away with the “artificial scaffolding” or Christianity. I thought it was neat.
Are any of you religious at all?
One of the new songs is called “Into Destiny.” Are you big believers in fate?
Into Destiny was lyrically inspired by the Epic of Gilgamesh and his perseverance. I don’t want to say I am a believer in fate, but definitely a believer in “I can do almost anything if I get off my ass and work at it.”
Are any of your lyrics intended to be interpreted as political statements?
If the lyrics make people think, that’s enough for me, but we’re not a lyrically or politically driven band. Music comes first, always.
What are your plans for touring behind the new album? Are you headlining your own shows at this point?
We have the big Arch Enemy/Kreator/Huntress tour, but due to some venue and curfew issues we are branching off for a week of the tour package, missing most central and western Canada but doing our own headliners, then meeting up with tour package again in San Diego. We’re also working on booking some further tours. Hopefully we can get back to Europe again soon, too.
You’ve had some line up changes since your first album. Why did Charlie and Mike part ways with the band?
In both instances it was a matter of personal things. Tour life isn’t really the thing for everybody, and you never really know that until you go out and experience it. Both went back to school, and we wish them both the best. No hard feelings at all on anyone’s part.
How did you find Tony and Shaun?
Tony and I went to high school, though we never really socialized. He was a year older than me and back then, we both mostly kept quiet and in our own social circles. I did know that he played bass and guitar, and knew he had some degree of musical and recording experience. I hit him up, we jammed, and shit just clicked right away. Tony then recommended Shaun, who he had known and been jamming with for years, and that led to our currently lineup. It’s definitely the best chemistry, on stage and off, that we’ve ever had.
Who are your influences and/or favorite bands?
Children of Bodom, Arch Enemy, Wintersun, Nightwish, Amorphis, Dethklok, Amon Amarth, Dimmu Borgir. Those are the main ones.
Are you influenced by any non-metal artists? For example, are there classical composers who’ve influenced those elements of your songs? If so, who?
I think the influence on Virus of the Mind came pretty much exclusively from metal bands, though I do listen to a ton of nonmetal stuff that passively influences me. I’m always listening to anything by James Horner, James Newton Howard, Hans Zimmer, Michael Giacchino…the more modern film score composers. Also the whole Purcell, Vivaldi, Bach, Telemann stuff. And then Streetlight Manifesto, which is one of my favorite bands of all time.
And Spencer is a huge fan of Dirty Loops and Tony Royster Jr, both of which have definitely influenced his playing.
Was there a band or album in particular that made you decide that you wanted to have the symphonic element to your sound?
Nightwish’s Once. I actually have it tattooed on my forearm. The first time I listened to that album is what made me realize I wanted to write and perform music professionally.
What influences your music aside from other artists? For example, politics, horror movies, the occult, etc?
Not that I believe any of that stuff, but some occult shit is cool. I’m also a big fan of mythology, particularly Sumerian stuff. Also, there’s definitely some passive influence from video games. Diablo and any of that.
I understand you’ve already recorded some material for your third album. Are you changing up your sound at all for that one? Any idea what the album will be called?
No idea what the title will be, but what we’ve currently got going on is dark and bombastic. Virus was dark, raw, and pretty focused. There’s a little more theatricality in some of the pieces I am working on now.
Do you prefer making albums or playing live?
Obviously you can’t tour without having been writing, but touring wins. There’s nothing better than just being all over playing music for people.
Are there plans to release Virus of the Mind on vinyl? I’m hoping it will be.
That’s a question for CM, and I honestly do not know the answer. But I’d certainly like a copy in my collection or framed on the wall.
How important is Spotify to the band? It seems like most metal fans I know are still into buying music, though many of switched from buying CDs to buying vinyl again. Are there a lot of fans who stream your music? Could the band survive on what you make if streaming was no longer part of your income?
The only importance it has to the band is exposure, but we certainly do not see any money from it. It’s like, what, $0.00001 for every stream of one song. Money comes from shows and merch.
Now, a few questions from our random questions bank…
Who’s your all-time favorite music producer?
Are you a hometown hero?
I got into metal late, when I was almost out of highschool. I’ve never really been part of a metal scene other than when I’m touring, so I think most people from the Chicago burbs I grew up with would be pretty shocked to know I’m fronting a metal band!
What do you think of to summon up the emotions you project on stage? How much is theatrics?
Playing is pretty damn exhilarating, especially considering we all love our music. We’re active on stage for sure, but none of it is forced. It’s all genuine.
Who do you think are the most revolutionary people in the music industry?
Hmmm, in recent times? Probably Shawn Fanning, Sean Parker, and Mark Zuckerberg. Which might sound like a weird answer, but think about it: they turned, or helped turn, music into a super easily sharable and essentially free commodity. The bad side obviously being that album sales have tanked, the good side being that a band can now reach innumerable fans from places that otherwise would have been impossible. Good or bad, whatever your take, they did certainly revolutionize music and music scenes.
Thank you for taking the time to do this! Wishing you the best of luck with the new record!