Earlier last week, I got to speak with the Toronto, Ontario-based instrumental prog-metal Earth’s Yellow Sun when they played the Danforth Music Hall with Intronaut, Enslaved, and Between the Buried and Me. We talked about everything from nerding out about gear to nerding out about Star Wars and Batman versus Superman. What started out as a quick chat turned into a pretty long discussion, but you can read the entire interview below!
It Djents: I’m here with Earth’s Yellow Sun, would you guys like to introduce yourselves?
Josh Hanff: I’m Josh, I play guitar.
Murray Heaton: Murray, [alto] saxophone.
Julien Bigras: Julien, drums.
Duncan Stan: Duncan, bass.
ID: Alright! So who is Earth’s Yellow Sun? How did the band come about – what’s your history?
JH: We all met when we were attending Humber College’s music program, and we started actually with the idea of having an ensemble at the school that was progressive rock/metal. It started with us playing covers of Animals as Leaders, TesseracT, and Scale the Summit, stuff like that. And INTERVALS, of course. When you’re at Humber and in your fourth year you get to do a small recording project, a fifteen minute EP. So, when Julien was in his fourth year we recorded Prologue, which is our first record, with is just Julien, myself, and Duncan, and one of our other sax players did one solo on it. There’s also some mellotronic stuff. That was like our first foray into recording this music. The next year I was in fourth, and that’s when we did The Infernal Machine, which is what you heard tonight. Which has all the horns, and all the other crazy fuckin’shit.
ID: All of that good stuff! What’s the meaning behind the name? Is there a story there?
MH: I don’t even know the answer to that! *laughs*
JH: It’s a Superman reference! Superman gets his power from Earth’s yellow sun, that’s what they always say.
JB: Apparently we’re giant nerds.
ID: Hey, its progressive metal, I think you have to be a giant nerd just in order to be able to play!
JH: Well, the record you heard tonight, The Infernal Machine, is a concept record and it’s all about a futuristic society that builds this giant robot and blows everything up.
ID: Actually, I was going to ask, there seemed to be some common themes in the music itself. You guys are more of an instrumental band; How were you guys able to convey the themes of the concept through just the music? And what’s the story behind The Infernal Machine?
JH: It started with brainstorming the idea of what we wanted the concept to be. And when we came up with the idea of The Infernal Machine, then it was like “OK, let’s just start writing,” throwing riffs together and melodies…Instead of keep writing more and more parts, rewrite the same melodies different ways and fit it over different things, different contexts.
MH: It’s cool because if you listen to the record, there’s probably three or four melodic themes and they come up throughout the entire piece. Either as the rhythm behind the melody or as the melody that’s happening in that moment. And there’s probably like, what, four or five main themes? So that’s pretty cool.
JH: The honest answer is I’m just fucking lazy and we don’t want to write a bunch of new melodies…
ID: That’s the thing, you guys get away with it, it’s really good! So what is your creative process like? How do you go about writing your music – how do your songs come to be?
JH: That’s a complicated question, it’s been evolving…
JB: Yeah, because when this album was written it was mostly Josh and I that did it, and then Duncan was involved a lot more with this one, along with a friend of ours named Chris Bruder who helped do a lot of the horn arranging and helped co-produce. So at that time when we were writing this we were on deadlines trying to get it done on Humber’s time. And the line-up wasn’t finalized…
DS: And not everyone was as involved as we would’ve liked…
ID: Group projects, am I right? Group projects…
JH: Basically! We threw in a bunch of extra time and money at this, but at the end of the day, it was a school project.
JB: And now that we have a full line-up that is set, with Murray, Brian [Dhari], and Savic [Panylyk] as our horn section, and we have our full rhythm section now, the next thing we do will have a lot more input from everyone. It will be a real team effort. And it’ll sound…different. It will evolve.
JH: For both of these records we kind of wrote and recorded really quickly and then started learning how to play the songs after the fact. So our next record is going to be a lot more like writing songs, play them live, see how they work…before we start putting things in the computer.
MH: Take a look at the liner notes of The Infernal Machine, it’s ridiculous.
JH: There’s something like over thirty musicians on that record! It’s a seven-piece choir, eight different horn players, at least…We got a tabla player…
MH: And guest artists like Kelly Jefferson,
JH: Yeah, Kelly Jefferson is a big sax player out of Toronto. A dude named Ethan Meyers did all of the electronics, glitchy programming and stuff. He’s an amazing producer that went to school with us.
DS: His project is called I AM FREE, right?
JH: Yeah, I AM FREE is his main project, but he does cinematic and video game stuff. That’s what he does for a job now. *laughs* Yeah, it was a super collaborative process, we had a lot of people brought in .
ID: That’s great, it kind of sounds like a classic story too, a bunch of musicians go to school, meet up, make a great band…a classic story. A tale as old as time.
ID: So what are some of your biggest musical influences? Where do you draw your inspiration from? I can kind of tell that there are a lot of different influences when it comes to your music, including the saxophones. That’s not something you hear a lot in metal music, I think the first time I remember hearing that was that sax solo in “Calabi-Yau,” on [TesseracT’s] Altered State, and now it’s so cool to have that be more than just a minute and thirty five long little section, and have it be fully ingrained in the music.
JH: I remember reading an interview in Guitar One magazine with Randall Smith, the guy that runs Mesa Boogie, and we was saying his whole thing behind the Mark 1 amp was “I want to make a guitar sound like a saxophone,” and I’m thinking to myself, like if the guy that makes the best metal amps wants to make guitars sound like saxophones, why aren’t there saxophones in metal bands? So that’s that, and when we did the ensemble at Humber that was really the like, “Is this going to work? What can we do with these things?” And we’re still for sure learning about the compositional possibilities. But as far as influences go, I feel like me and Jules, and Duncan, are more the metal guys and the prog guys, and then everyone else brings in… TesseracT, David Maxim Micic…he’s huge for us!
JB: Destiny Potato…
ID: So good! Even my friends that aren’t into metal, they’ve heard that album and they just love it.
JB: It’s so accessible, yet so heavy.
ID: It’s so accessible, that’s the thing! And the vocalist for Destiny Potato [Aleksandra Djelmas], she’s so good. So what about non-metal influences, what else do you have going on?
JH: I would say Snarky Puppy is a big one, in terms of the arrangement and their format of through-composed music with lots of improvisation inside it, that’s kind of how we model what we’re doing.
MH: And like jazz influences, and as far as the saxophones, and Gio [Campanelli] the keys player, are concerned, there’s a lot of hip-hip and R&B and funk music, and even big band music when it comes to the way the saxophones are hitting shots and stuff.
JB: And even other more subtle influences. Like, we all went to school, we all had to study, you know, all these jazz players and whatnot, so some of that just comes out in our playing by now anyway, even if we’re not conscious of it.
MH: It’s just naturally by now.
DS: And even just the three of us, Josh, Julien, and myself are in two tribute bands. TOOL and Rage Against the Machine.
JB: Yeah, with Tool you can totally hear it in some of the songs, rhythmically and stuff.
JH: And so, when we were at Humber, Julien and me especially, we studied a lot of Indian music and Indian percussion, so like in the fourth movement of The Infernal Machine you can hear some tapas going on. Wed definitely drew on that influence.
ID: A lot of our readers are pretty big gear heads, what kind of gear do you guys use, to record and perform? I guess with recording that’s a pretty big question, considering you had thirty artists play on your last album. *Laughs* So maybe just your performing gear?
JH: Live, for guitars…I’m a pretty big proponent of using real amps. For the whole The Infernal Machine there’s no amp modelling, no samples, no virtual instruments. I’m very insistent on real people playing real instruments.
ID: That’s great, it really comes out in your music, you can really hear it.
JH: Thanks! My tone comes from pedals, but I run it through a Misha Bulb overdrive to get my main distorted tone, into a Marshall Silver Jubilee head from 1987, it’s as old as I am. 50 Watts, Mesa 2×12 cab. And my Strandberg Boden 7 is my guitar for The Infernal Machine, and I have a Carvin seven string I use for our first record, which is in a different tuning than The Infernal Machine. It’s a weird fucking tuning that we made up for the record.
ID: And how about the saxophones, what do you guys have going on for gear?
MH: I play a P. Mauriat saxophone…that’s really all it comes down to *laughs*. You mic that shit, and that’s really all there is to it.
ID: Maybe some of our readers are saxophone players, they might be interested!
MH: I play a Meyer 7 mouthpiece and… *laughs* And a strength three Van Doren reed. There you go!
ID: Cool, cool. And what about for drums and for bass?
JB: I’ve got a Sonar Force 3005 maple kit that I’ve had for probably eight or nine years. It’s done me well! Probably in the market for an upgrade sooner rather than later, but for now it does the trick. My cymbal setup, they’re all Sabian AAX right now, except I may have a broken HHX in a stack somewhere *laughs*. Iron Cobra double pedal…the hardware is a mixed bag, some of it is TAMA, some of it is Sonar, Gibraltar probably. I dunno, Vic Firth sticks. You know, that’s it.
DS: My bass is a Lakeland 5502, which I’m really into. Their stuff is really great. And I have a bunch of different pedals, I’ve got this…I call it the Magic Green Box, it’s Digitech Synth Wah, it makes some crazy noise and is pretty handy. Right now for a DI I’m using a SansAmp from Tech 21, and that goes straight to Front of House. I’m in the market for a new amp, so I’ll be looking around for that.
ID: So if anyone is selling one, get in touch *laughs*.
JH: And our keyboard player Gio uses a Nord Stage for all of the organ and piano sounds, and a Moog Little Fatty for all of the soloing.
ID: It’s got a great sound to it!
JH: Oh yeah, it really does.
ID: And for your sax section, you’ve got an alto, tenor, and barry [baritone] up there right?
JH: Yeah, Brian Dhari is our tenor player, we have no idea what make he plays.
MH: Savic (Panylyk) plays a Yamaha barry.
JH: Savic also plays tenor when we play stuff from our first EP, which we didn’t play tonight. That one had two tenor players instead of a barry.
ID: I gotta say, huge props to your barry player. I had a buddy in high school that played a barry sax, and it’s not easy to get up there and rock out with a huge-ass barry sax.
JH: He rocks harder than anybody!
ID: Just props to all of you guys, you all had so much energy for so many people on stage, and so many instruments. It was just incredible to see, so props to you guys for that.
JB: Oh, just one more piece of gear I’ll toss in here, a recent acquisition is the Roland SPDSX Sample pad. That’s what we run our tracks off of. The whole thing is just a beast, all of the EP is on there, one twenty-three minute file with the click track on one pad and the backing track on the other. Trigger them both, and that’s what I’m hearing as we play. I’m hearing like 90% click and a bit of the band *laughs*.
JH: And as far as the recording process goes, we recorded everything at Humber’s studio, which is geared to the tits. But I got to throw massive props to our mixing and recording engineer, I co-engineered the recording bit, but Matt Grady from EMAC Studios in London…he’s the man behind the console. If you like the way our record sounds, our records are done by him and we’re never going to work with anybody else. He’s now the world’s foremost expert on how to make saxophones sound good in metal! If you wanna get some sick sounds, talk to Matt in London, he’s the man. And he will make you laugh, that’s for sure.
ID: Speaking of laughing, do you guys have any kind of funny stories from the band? Show shenanigans, gear malfunctions, anything like that?
IH: Well, today I accidentally plugged my Marshall head into a Euro power outlet and blew the fuse, so I had to use my back-up amp. Thank God I brought it with me!
JB: We almost didn’t bring it *laughs*.
JH: So there’s a funny story that happened an hour ago.
JB: Our barry player broke his neck strap headbanging during our first Toronto show. Yeah he was headbanging too hard… we just saw him running in front of the stage, I guess he had a backup.
JH: No it was the stap off of the case, it wasn’t his neck strap!
MH: And something that happens actually at every single show with him [Savic], is that he wears glasses and he plays the saxophone so hard that his glasses fall down his face and are like resting on the neck of the saxophone. Every time!
JB: We’ve got photographic proof of it, it happens all of the time.
JH: The main issue that happens is that we’re a big band, playing little clubs and trying to all fit on stage, bumping into each other and shit.
JB: But tonight was pretty good, we had room to move.
ID: Yeah you had room to rock! So if Earth’s Yellow Sun were a flavour of ice cream, which would it be?
JB: Holy shit, that’s a trick one.
MH: I don’t know a lot of flavours of ice cream…
JH: I’d say something like a Baskin Robins…
JB: Something like rocky road, something with a lot of shit jammed into it.
JH: It’s gotta have Reece’s peanut butter cups in it!
DS: Probably Ben and Jerry’s, they have that…it’s based off of “If I Had a Million Dollars” by the Barenaked Ladies, “If I Had a Million Flavours?”
JH: Yes! That’s the answer!
ID: That’s a really great answer. So what are the members of Earth’s Yellow Sun up to when you’re not playing music? Jobs, hobbies, etc.
DS: Me and Julien both…well it’s not outside of music, it’s still music, but we both play in theatre. For tonight, we’re subbing out of Jesus Christ Superstar. So that’s a thing that takes up a lot of time.
JB: I work at Cosmo Music a couple days out of the week, so that’s a music store in Richmond Hill (Ontario). I sell drums, and I’m doing transcribing work with a company called Sheet Happens (found by Tim Millar and Luke Hoskin of Protest the Hero)…so I’ve been bugging them for a year asking them if they need drum transcriptions and they finally said sure. So I’ve done their album Scurrilous, I did the last two Lamb of God records, I did Polaris by TesseracT, and I’m currently working on Fortress.
ID: Wow that’s amazing! I’m a huge fan of Sheet Happens, but unfortunately I’m not much of a drum player, but I’m sure your work is fantastic.
JB: I hope so, I actually haven’t seen any of it in book form yet. I think they’re still working that out.
ID: So that’s something our drummer fans can keep an eye out for then? Some future drum tabs.
JB: Yeah, I know they put out Volition, I didn’t do that one, their current drummer (Mike Ieradi) did that one. Yeah, I think that’s the only one they have out already, but the rest are coming.
MH: Outside of Earth’s Yellow Sun I do a few other musical projects, but my job is I work at the Apple Store. I’m a technician at the Genius Bar. And, I like scotch. And I like Star Wars!
ID: How excited are you for the Force Awakens?
JH: Oh man, I’ve got tickets for the 17th and 18th!
JB: But what about the new Batman versus Superman movie? Holy shiiiiiiiit!
ID: Yo, that trailer was so spoilery.
JH: Yeah I didn’t watch it yet, but I heard that.
ID: I kinda care, I kinda wish they didn’t show Doomsday in the trailer, that would have been a nice surprise in the movie.
JB: I’m sure there’ll be a lot more that they haven’t shown us.
JH: Yeah, when I’m not playing music, or doing other band stuff or the JCS musical theatre thing, I run my own guitar repair business out of my apartment. Hanff guitar repair, facebook.com/hanffguitarrepair! Shameless plug! So come see me if you need a setup! I also work in a recording studio in the East End, and…that’s about it, I guess.
MH: We teach!
JB: Yeah, we all teach as well.
ID: This might be super limiting, but if you had to describe your music in one word, which word would it be?
JH: One word? Not one phrase, but one word?
ID: You know what, I’ll give you a word for every member of the band, if that helps.
JB: I was going to say epic.
DS: With my old band in London (Ontario), we described our music as “melopic” – a mix of melodic and epic.
JB: Don’t use that word. I’m not saying the description doesn’t work, but it sounds like… a disease!
DS: Actually, the band was called Final Plague, so…there you go.
JH: I think I’m going to go with dramatic.
JB: Ooh, dramatic. Maybe clusterfunk? Is that hyphenated or one word?
JH: Actually our barry player’s last band in Edmonton (Alberta) was called Clusterfunk!
ID: Awesome, a couple different answers there. So what are your plans for the future? Touring, recording, etc., what’s on the horizon for Earth’s Yellow Sun?
JH: Well, this was actually only our fifth show ever, believe it or not. We’ve been a band for like, a couple years now getting the albums together and we just started playing live in October. So we’re just gonna keep hitting the live stages, like mostly in Toronto and southern Ontario. But obviously, we’re gonna have a bunch of new fans now, so trying to get out there and get people listening to the music, and start writing for our full-length because that’s going to be the next thing we do.
JB: We applied for some grant money from the Ontario Arts Council, so hopefully they’ll throw some money at us so we can get to work writing without putting ourselves so far in debt, which could definitely happen. Try and play some festivals…
JH: We’ve got a lot of applications out, like Heavy MTL…and I mean, like, fingers crossed! I don’t know. If you know anyone that needs a metal band to come play a show, we do weddings! Bar mitzvahs! Whatever you want! *Laughs*
ID: So I know these were some pretty unfortunate circumstances for you guys to play here tonight, with Native Construct being unable to fill the bill because of the robbery. Would you guys say this was your biggest show yet?
JH: Oh yeah, by far. This is the biggest show I’ve ever played in my life, with any band.
ID: I don’t know if you guys knew, but when you were playing Dan Briggs (bassist for Between the Buried and Me) and Danny Walker (the drummer for Intronaut) were just there, offside the stage, watching you guys perform.
JB: What, really?! I knew there were people there, but I didn’t want to look over and see who they were because I knew it would frighten me.
ID: Well they looked like they were digging it! I think they were digging it as much as the fans were.
JB: That’s awesome. We’ve already gotten some kind words from Sacha (Dunable) from Intronaut.
JH: All the Intronaut boys were pretty stoked on it.
JB: Yeah they’re fantastic guys, I’d love to play with them again soon.
ID: Also, props to you guys for starting the show saying that you were going to donate some money to help out Native Construct, that’s really huge.
JB: It’s super unfortunate what happened. And as a new band ourselves…like, if that happened to us, we’d be…
JH: We’d be fucked. It’d be game over!
JB: Or even worse, like we don’t have the money to replace $10,000 worth of gear.
ID: Musicians helping musicians, that’s what it’s all about. So that’s all of my questions for tonight, do you have anything else you’d like to throw in there before we wrap things up?
JH: Thank you! And oh yeah, January 16th at Lee’s Palace in Toronto, and Saturday March 5th, we’re going to be playing GainFest in Guelph (Ontario), and there’s a couple other things in the works but I don’t want to talk about them just yet! Thank you so much for reaching out!
ID: My pleasure, it was fantastic meeting you guys and hopefully we’ll see you again soon.
JH: Fuck yeah man!