Interview: Saving the Day with Erik Olson of Lord Dying

In their latest video – a hilarious tongue-in-cheek battle of a heroic band of metalheads versus an evil “yuppie infestation” – Portland riffmasters Lord Dying play the long-haired defenders of innocents like a band of comic book superheroes (complete with enigmatic superhero name), combatting the malevolent, corporate-sponsored forces of gentrification in their embattled city. The superhero motif is also a fitting description for the plight of modern creatives, who too often must lead a double life: on the one hand, they live as artists who doggedly pursue their visions despite criticism, indifference, and obscurity; meanwhile, their mild-mannered alter-egos struggle with the banal demands and mundane routines of the everyday.

Standing behind the Rickshaw Theatre as a vagrant walks past, scanning the alley dumpsters for salvage, Lord Dying guitarist and vocalist Erik Olson discusses the anti-gentrification theme of the “Poisoned Altars” video, particularly as it relates to his home city. “It’s terrible,” Olson says. “Everything’s changing – all our favorite bars and favorite venues are getting shut down, jobs are disappearing, condos are going up and the rents are being raised.” As a result, he says, people must seek affordable but tedious alternatives by relocating to satellite suburbs like Vancouver, Washington. “It’s cheaper there but the commute, yeah it sucks: it’s only two lanes each way to connect the two states, so it’s like an hour each way. It’s only a couple of miles – it’s a short distance, but it takes forever.”

Some creatives draw inspiration from sociopolitical issues such as gentrification, but Olson says that Lord Dying songs are generally more personal. “ It’s my therapeutic way of dealing with things.” He admits that the demands of a full touring schedule start to wear on one, particularly now that he has quit drugs and drink, so channeling daily stressors back into the work is a productive process: “For me, I guess it’s all about getting everything done, getting it out of the way and moving forward – it’s all about the performance. The ability to keep writing the music, that’s what keeps me doing it.” And, he adds, playing live also informs his personal experience: “It’s weird, you get to know the songs in a new way after performing them so many times.”

Currently working on material for their third album, the band’s writing and recording process continues to evolve. Previously, says Olson, songs were written expeditiously and locked down prior to entering the recording studio (a wise move for any band on a budget); but they have since begun to explore and develop their songwriting. “I’ve definitely tried to spend a lot more time recently writing more, like playing more and seeing what can come naturally that way, allowing more time to happen for it.”

Lord Dying - Poisoned Altars (album cover)

Lord Dying – Poisoned Altars (album cover)

The album Poisoned Altars, for which the band is presently touring, demonstrates much more complexity than their Relapse Records debut, Summon the Faithless. And, of the unrecorded material for the next album Olson says, “We’re expanding a lot more on that – even more dynamic, more instrumentation too – we’re trying to explore things we’ve never done. We’re definitely trying to push the boundaries of what we can do and introduce new elements too.” Olson says he and the band’s other guitarist Chris Evans plan to set up their own studio to maximize their use of recording time, which would allow for greater spontaneity in songwriting and more flexibility in the mixing of parts. “Recently we’ve had a lot of drummers come in and out of the band, [so] Chris and I want to write the drums ourselves.”

Long hours spent driving while on tour leaves little free time. Olson says, “I wish there was more time for extracurricular activities that I could use for creative outlets,” but he makes a point to read as much as possible. When the Summer of Doom tour (with Crowbar and Battlecross) ends next month, the band will return home to Portland, which, says Olson, is where they do the majority of their songwriting. “We don’t really write a lot of riffs on the road, like for this [next] album a lot of the concepts have been written on the road – the ideas and song titles and lyrics, before the music’s even written – but the music doesn’t really get written until we sit down and work on it at home.”

Lord Dying (click to enlarge)

Erik Olson: guitars/vocals, Lord Dying

Despite the creeping effects of gentrification, he says Portland still has a strong music scene: “It’s stronger than ever I think now, there’s lots of great bands that are touring, pretty much everybody knows each other – it’s not that big of a city – and it’s insane how many bands there are for how small the city is. Especially now, with [Portland metal bands] putting out records on national labels and touring, just working really hard and helping each other out, too.” He says labelmates and fellow Portland residents Red Fang are a prime example, supporting other local acts (Red Fang, along with their tour manager, make a cameo appearance in the “Poisoned Altars” video, and ‘Fang vocalist Aaron Beam provided guest vocals on Lord Dying track “An Open Sore”).

Given the city’s reputation as an eclectic creative hub (its quirky charm undoubtedly augmented by the popular appeal of IFC’s Portlandia TV series), one wonders if it will see a similar cultural boom-bust phenomenon as Seattle experienced in the 90s, but Olson thinks this degree of oversaturation is unlikely: “I don’t really see it crashing, it’s not like – the record industry’s already crashed, so it can’t happen like Seattle. It’s like the highest point you can get is where, maybe, if you’re lucky, you can sustain yourself a little bit – and that’s if you’re incredibly lucky. It’s a labour of passion, and if it stays that way it can’t outgrow itself.”

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