Interview with Nathan Hughes (Monolith)
Good afternoon, how are you today?
It’s going good thank you! It’s scary times we’re living in at the moment so just really thankful to be happy and healthy more than anything else!
You all in Monolith just released your album, Sentience, recently, tell us a bit about the album. I’m led to believe that it takes heavy influence from the likes of Ghost in a Shell and Bladerunner.
Yeah that’s the one. I’ve always been a fan of concept albums or bands that can have a concept spanning over several albums like Dream Theater and the stuff they did over the course of several albums leading up to when they released Octavarium when the whole thing comes full circle. I feel like it can take an album to another level that goes beyond just the music and makes you think about it, even if it’s stuff like looking for messages or themes hidden in the album artwork, things hidden just under the surface a little bit.
Kind of like how we can watch a film or look at a piece of art and think about the kind of emotion it invokes or how it can capture our imagination and have us think about hidden meanings or messages. I’m a big fan of cyberpunk style media, from anime like Ghost in the Shell, films like Blade Runner and Ready Player One, and I’d just finished binge watching Altered Carbon on netflix for like the 100th time when it dawned on me that it could be a cool idea to explore.
It’s hard to picture an instrumental album as being a concept album, how does the story work without narration?
The way I was thinking about it was that when we watch a film or play a video game or anything like that, you’d be surprised how often the music going on in the background can make all the difference and invoke the emotion in a particular scene regardless of what’s going on in front of your eyes on screen. I wanted to kind of paint an audio landscape for each scene of this story I’d written out for the album, so each track is an attempt to invoke an imaginative or emotive response for each stage of the story.
I’d written the whole thing up, and made it available to read on the Bandcamp page, and then let the listener kind interpret it their own way when they actually listen to the music. The fact there’s no vocals on the album also made it a good challenge to write!
Monolith is a djent/progressive death metal band, who would you say influenced your sound?
In terms of the metal side of things, the typical modern metal bands like The Contortionist, Tesseract, Meshuggah. Stuff with lots of layers that catch people off guard. On the other side of it, I’d been listening to all the soundtracks for the films inspiring this stuff like Vangelis’ Bladerunner score, and there’s even a nod to the Korben Dallas theme from The Fifth Element with that main hook for the track Lucid, it’s got a dirty, early 90’s almost Nine Inch Nails meets Peter Gabriel vibe. Beyond that I’m a huge fan of film and game composers, Hans Zimmer, Jesper Kyd and those types of writers who can get that emotive response without the use of lyrics.
The idea to remain an instrumental band, but write a story is a bit of a controversial one. When it comes to writing a story, what is the process behind it?
Haha the whole instrumental thing was never really my intention, it’s just how it fell into place and I just decided to run with it! I’m just a fan of writing music, I suppose because I always connect to the instruments first, any idea of having vocals just becomes an afterthought, what doesn’t help is that I’m no lyricist and I can’t stand the sound of my recorded voice hahaha!.
As much as I like the idea of having vocals, it’s still cool without them though because I don’t really like setting any rules about how I write stuff so in a way not having vocals kind of gives me more room to experiment and play around with ideas!
In terms of the concept for the story, there’s often this idea in these films of existential thinking, questioning the legitimacy of an experience if it’s subjectively done, like the replicants in Blade Runner; they’re kind of dismissed as being less than human but they’ve still experienced things in the same way humans do, which is what inspired the album title. Ready Player One did this as well, that whole idea of escaping into a video game world and spending as much time there as possible as away to escape your own grim reality, there’s some scenes in other films that touched on it too like Inception. While more often than not those films have a happy ending, I wanted the ending to be a just a little bittersweet, with the main character kind of weighing up whether he’s going to fully commit to escaping into a virtual world to maintain a relationship with this AI he’s fallen in love with, and having that choice taken away from him.
With him having been left on death’s door late in the story and the only way to save himself is by transferring is consciousness into the VR world(which ultimately kills his physical body), he gets his happy ending but at the cost never being able to return to the physical world and experience anything “real” ever again. It’s also why the album finishes in reverse to the way it starts, that idea of reality and VR being referred to as Awake/Dreaming but with that Christopher Nolan type twist, did it end the way we think it did? Another nod to that whole “What do it mean to be human” idea is the use of a holographic Vitruvian Man for the artwork, the very original was Leo Da Vinci’s literal blueprint of a human so I thought it was another cool way to twist that idea.
With “Sentience”, you’ve named the main character Zer0, is there any influence from the Borderlands series?
Haha if only!! It kind of came from the idea that he’s nameless and considered less than human in the real world, just a number or statistic so it made sense and felt ironic to give him a name in the virtual that plays on that.
Obviously you all find a lot of influence from a variety of places, when it comes to planning your next bit of work, what series are currently influencing you?
At the moment I’ve been toying with another concept album for further down the line inspired by Dante’s Inferno/The Divine Comedy, the whole journey through the 9 circles of hell would make for some evil sounding stuff!
What was the recording process for “Sentience” like? How much of the album was built while recording, or was everything prepared and ready when you went to record?
Pretty much it was a case of having the initial basis for the story concept, and a handful of riff or motifs that weren’t even a minute long and then I just sat on them for the better part of a year and let them settle and develop on their own without acting on it. Then from February/March 2020, not being able to go anywhere or do anything seemed like the perfect time to knuckle down and get creative, but once I started it all came together pretty quickly as I’d thought about it enough to know what needed doing, but not so much that it gave me room to experiment. What was tough about it was that I handled this completely independently. I wrote, recorded, and mixed every single bit of it, all of it done with me locked away in my bedroom! No big studios or outside people to work with, just my laptop, my guitar and a set of monitors. The results you can get now on even the most simple set up is insane.
With the world on lockdown, have you already started to put pen to paper for the next release?
I won’t lie, I had to take a breather for a couple months after I released the album as I had to finish my degree up haha! But I’m back at it now, currently messing with a lot of orchestral stuff and non metal ideas, just to see what works and what doesn’t, but I’m sure I’ll release something soon enough!
Thank you for your time, looking forward to seeing what you come up with next. Stay safe!
No problem! Thank you, and look after yourself!
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