When you’ve been a band for nearing twenty years, it can be easy to fall into the familiar cycle of record, announce, release, tour, rinse, repeat.
In late 2019, The Acacia Strain threw a wrench into the works of the traditional album cycle in the form of It Comes In Waves, a half hour experimental album that was released with a day or two’s notice. The album took the band’s bludgeoning form of metalcore and expanded it with heavy doses of doom and post metal, adding varying amounts of spacey atmosphere and blistering death metal.
Not to stop there, in 2020 they released five singles (A, C, E, D and Y) that transpired to form (and spell) their tenth full length, Slow Decay.
Of course TAS have also made a career of pushing the envelope sonically. The band uses extended range guitars, typically seven and eight strings, a host of amps both tube and digital, a wide array of pedals, and all kinds of sonic goodies to come out with a down tuned, hefty but articulate sound that’s seen them through ten albums in just about 20 years.
We caught up with guitarist Tom Smith to discuss the two latest records, lockdown podcasting, and the incredible amount of gear that goes into The Acacia Strain’s sound.
How has the band been spending the ‘rona downtime – have you been working individually/together on new material at all?
We’ve all been just doing our own thing and honestly I think in some ways we’re enjoying the down time. Don’t get me wrong, we are all miserable that we can’t play shows and tour, but for the first time in a really long time, we have some extended time home to take care of all the things we can’t generally get to while traveling consistently and constantly.
We’ve all been writing a lot of music but honestly nothing that will be going toward TAS. We spent ALL of 2019 writing two records worth of material and I think we all have just been working on other musical projects. I’ve been writing a lot of pop music and some various commissioned song writing for people.
Tell me about some of the gear that was used on Slow Decay?
We used A LOT of cool gear for Slow Decay.
We recorded the record at Griffin’s studio in Des Moines, Iowa but we all brought a lot of our favorite stuff and borrowed some gear that we knew we might have wanted to use. I’m a big pedal guy so I brought a lot of fun pedals that made the record and Randy brought his OP-1 which resulted in some really cool experimental noise stuff.
All of the guitars were recorded with my custom TWS guitars from the company that my father and I run together. Everything we do is hand built by my father and I truly think he’s making some of the best instruments in the game today. We used Devin’s old Ibanez LACS and my Custom Shop Les Paul Standard for some leads but almost everything was recorded on my main purple 7 and my live backup 8 string. Griffin used both of his Ibanez Prestige 5 strings for bass.
We recorded everything DI with my Kemper as a reference tone and on the last day of the record we had a big re-amp session and shot out a ton of amps.
I think the main rhythm guitar tone for the record ended up being Griffin’s early 90s Dual Rec and a block letter 5150 pushed with my MXR Wylde Overdrive & an Abominable Electronics Oppressive Cult Destroyer (OCD clone). Those went into a Marshall 4x12 and an Emperor 6x12 with a few different mics blended together.
We had a few more layers on the record that were treated part by part. Some moments were actually done with pedals through my Kemper, others sounds were done with a plug in, etc. I’ve got a very extensive production background that I’ll get into in a later question but I’m very much in the school of “do what sounds good” and am not a purist on one approach.
The bass tone I believe was Griffin’s live rig both past and present. Darkglass B7K ultra into an Orange AD200 into a Mesa 8x10 cab with some various fuzz pedals based on the part for added grit.
You guys have recorded pretty much everything since 2013 with Will Putney – why the change to Randy LeBoeuf for Slow Decay? How was recording with Randy different to recording with Will?
To put it pretty simply, it was just time for a change. We love Will and he’s still a great friend, but we wanted to switch it up and we knew Randy was the guy we wanted for the vision of this record. I actually worked side by side with Will and Randy as an engineer/producer out of Graphic Nature Audio for 4-5 years and that’s how I got the gig with TAS. If you check out the album credits for Above/Below, Coma Witch, and The Depression Sessions I’m on there as an engineer haha.
Recording with Randy as opposed to Will was very different for me specifically because of that history. I think there’s a small part of me that will always see Will as “my boss” despite how close of friends we are. I kind of think of Randy as my musical soul mate and I have never had someone see music as exact the way I do as Randy. So when it came to pick a producer I really fought for Randy, but it didn’t take much convincing since everyone else in the band are friends with him as well haha.
Recording with Randy on this album was so laid back and relaxed. We literally ate Chinese food for breakfast every day and would end the night by watching Curb Your Enthusiasm, messing with the OP-1, and laughing nonstop. I have made a lot of records alongside Randy but never as the artist being recorded, and I can hands down say this was my favorite studio experience ever. I engineered all of the extra guitar layers myself and tracked Griffin for all of the bass so it was also fun to get to engineer alongside Randy again.
The Slow Decay and It Comes In Waves are quite different in many ways, but one obvious way is that where ICIW was quite doomy and atmospheric, Slow Decay is more immediate and (for want of a better word) concise – was that a conscious decision?
Yes and no.
With ICIW, it was sort of anything goes and the entire goal of that album was to experiment and see where we could allow ourselves to go.
Slow Decay on the other hand was the “normal” record and I think because we got so much of that experimentation out with ICIW, it only made sense for that follow up to be as hard hitting as it could be while showing the other side of TAS.
ICIW and Slow Decay were the first records that I was a writer for and I did a lot of writing on both. So for me personally, my entire goal was to prove that I could create the most off the wall TAS and then immediately shut up every single person who would inevitably say “this is boring” or “band isn’t the same without DL” haha and I haven’t seen a single comment like that since we put out Slow Decay and I feel like my personal goal with the two records succeeded.
You guys have been doing crazy things with reinterpreting how music gets released, from dropping It Comes In Waves out of nowhere to releasing the bulk of Slow Decay as a series of seven inches first. What is the impetus behind that? Could you see the band going back to a traditional announcement/release date/single album format?
Well for ICIW it was simply because we didn’t want to build any expectations. I’m only 28 years old but the band is about to turn 20, so despite having so many different types of fans, most people generally have an idea in their head of what a new TAS album is going to sound like. And we knew ICIW wasn’t going to be ANYTHING like what people were expecting. We knew people would either understand what we were trying to do, or they’d absolutely hate it. No real in between.
So releasing ICIW as a surprise was to fully lay into that idea and not give anyone the chance to even think about their expectations or make assumptions. I think it worked out really well.
The release of Slow Decay was really the brain child of Vincent and Griffin. I honestly didn’t like the idea at first bc I’m a record over singles kind of person, and we were essentially releasing a bunch of singles haha but once we put out and saw how excited everyone was, to know that we still had 10 more songs that would eventually be unveiled was so exciting for me and the entire idea really clicked for me.
The idea worked out so well and the amount of positive response to releasing a record that way is incredible. Honestly, I don’t see a world where we go back to the standard “release 2-3 singles, promote the album, album drops” roll out. I think anything even similar to that would just feel incredibly lack luster after how much excitement came from the releases of ICIW and SD.
It also allows us to extend our creativity beyond just our music and prove that we are more than just a mosh band. I kind of hate how corny that sounds, but I think this band has reached a level of creativity that it never had before and we are going to continue embracing that in our music and how we release it.
Going back in time a little, but tell me about the process behind the Demon Lung pedals – how did the idea come about, how did the process work of getting the sound that you wanted, and is it something you guys would do again?
It really simply just came from us posting about how much we loved the Demon Lung and how important it was to both the guitar and bass tone of Gravebloom. Somehow Patrick, the owner of Abominable Electronics, and us connected and the idea began from there.
The Gravebloom version of the pedal is the same exact pedal as the standard production one, because it’s exactly what we liked and wanted. We had nothing to tweak on it because it already did exactly what we wanted it to do. I’d absolutely love to do it again.
On Slow Decay we sort of did the same thing with the Abominable Oppressive Cult Destroyer and I think it’s what makes the guitar tone so overdriven but also thick and clear. I’m in talks with Patrick about doing a SD version of the OCD but between the pandemic and the regular stresses of real life we just haven’t made it happen yet. I’m hoping to get that out there eventually! If not, go buy an Abominable OCD!
Guitarmory has been putting out killer signature pickups for a ton of extended range players lately (including Devin) – should we expect to see you on their roster in the near future?
Much to Devin’s frustration, no. You will not see me on the Guitarmory roster.
I say that because Devin texts me almost daily telling me to switch to them haha and my resistance is by no means because of their products. They make some great pickups and one of Devin’s prototypes actually blew me away the first time I heard it.
But I am very adamant on not being exclusively with one company for pickups. I chase a lot of different tones and it would only cheapen out my own experience and my own tone to commit 100% to only one company.
With TAS I’ve used Seymour Duncan Nazgul/Sentients, Bareknuckle Blackhawks, Dimarzio CrunchLabs, and that list is about 50x as long for what I have swapped in and out of my other guitars at home.
So sorry Devin, but ya boy doesn’t want to be tied down haha
Looking at the full TAS catalog, what is your favourite guitar tone? (Including and excluding Slow Decay)
My favorite guitar tone is definitely Slow Decay. I may be biased because I dialed all of the rhythm guitar tones in myself alongside Randy, but the album sounds exactly like what I wanted it to. It’s potentially my favorite mix I’ve ever heard on a metal record.
Other than something I dialed, I really love the Gravebloom tone and I love how sludgy the guitars came out for ICIW.
What’s a piece of gear you picked up that you had high hopes for that turned out to be a dud? Conversely, any gear that totally surprised you?
I don’t like to bash any gear, because I’m a firm believer of if it works for you in some way, it’s a success. I’ve played tons of $20 plastic pedals that are in theory supposed to be duds but they do something that I like, even if it’s not what I intended it to do, and it’s a success in my eyes.
One pedal that I will say I was super excited for that ended up not being right for me is the Horizon Devices Precision Drive. I saw an ad for it the day it was announced and without blinking I preordered it because I thought it was going to be the holy grail of overdrives with the added benefit of a noise gate built in.
I waited 8 months for mine to come in and I sold it within 2 days haha I never sell pedals off that quickly bc I usually wait to see if they’ll do something else I didn’t expect, but that pedals has a feature that essentially changes the clipping that occurs from your pick attack and that really didn’t sit well with me. I pride myself on having a really strong picking hand and am very conscious of my dynamics and that just totally changed how I sounded in a way that I wasn’t a fan of. On the flip side, I know a ton of people who love it, so different strokes.
I’ve played a lot of really cool gear that has surprised me, but the two that come to mind most are the Moog MF Ring and the TC Electronic Sub N Up. The MF Ring was a pedal I discovered when visiting Asheville NC with my now fiancé. She had a work meeting and I had a couple of hours by myself to kill and I looked up music stores and saw the Moog’s headquarters was in Asheville. So I visited the show room and just plugged a random guitar in and the MF Ring was in the chain of the rig I sat at. It’s a ring modulator that can do some insane stuff and I was so mesmerized that I bought one on the spot.
The other pleasant surprise was the TC Electronics Sub N Up. I got it to track a quad guitar layer on ICIW thinking it would be their version of the Pitchfork, but it ended up being very different in a way I didn’t expect. The pedal inadvertently overdrives the signal which is kind of cool because it can borderline be used as an OD if you take the octave mixes out which is cool. But it’s so perfect for layers because you can play full chords and have octaves up and down added with a mix control to turn your guitar into what sounds like an organ on fire haha.
Any tips or tricks for people getting into extended range guitars, or people who want to improve the sound of their 7/8/9/14 string?
The most important thing I think I can say is DO NOT play more than 8 strings haha more strings doesn’t mean more skill or more creativity and tunings are just getting ridiculous as it is.
If I didn’t step into a band that was 8 strings I’d have definitely stopped at 7 haha but no matter the case or your opinion of more strings, the best advice I can give for anyone looking to get more comfortable playing extended range guitars, is to relearn 6 string songs on it. When you pick up a 7 or an 8 your body isn’t used to it so most people tend to just ride the low string.
The only way I could break myself out of that was to relearn stuff like Pantera, Slayer, Metallica, Lamb Of God, etc on a 7 but ignoring the low string. It helps to just get your spatial understanding of the instrument and that was what helped me get better at playing 7s and 8s which then translated into more diverse writing.
To improve your sound on extended range, more gain and BUY A NOISE SUPPRESSOR. The lower you tune and the thicker your strings get, the more gain you’ll need to keep that bite and clarity. Which is then gunna result in lots of feedback. While I love feedback and I want more noise generally, if the part is supposed to be tight sounding, make sure it’s tight.
So if you’re going the amp/pedals route you may need to have a variety of gates/gain stages and if you’re going the digital route you may still need to keep these different stages in mind. It’s a lot harder to control an 8 in drop F than a 6 in standard which is what most pedals are made for unfortunately.
Any songwriting tips for people who want to write more downtuned stuff without just chuggin on F all the time?
My previous tip about relearning 6 string songs on a 7 or 8 will definitely help to get away from that. Outside of TAS I only play 6 string guitar, so another method I really like is to write riffs on a 6 and move them to a 7 or 8 and see how I can take that 6 string riff and transpose it down to the lower strings in a way that feels right of sounds right. It’s all about using your ear.
Say someone who has the gear to do so wants to learn a song from the Acacia Strain back catalog – where would you suggest they start, specifically for beginner guitarists and for more experienced guitarists?
Luckily for anyone wanting to do so, not many of our songs are very difficult haha there are definitely tricky moments, but we are much more of a riff band than a technical band.
For beginners, definitely Beast. It’s 3 riffs that are all super easy. But before you go looking up the tabs that are ALL wrong, the intro riff is all open and then bending on 2 haha.
For more experienced guitar players anything off of ICIW since it has a lot of obscure picking patterns and fret motion, or the song Seeing God off of Slow Decay for some more notey moments.
We are the type of band that nothing is overly hard to play, but it can be difficult to make it sound right and tight bc of our tunings. So it’s more about the sound and the approach to playing the songs/parts over the actual physicality.