ThisIsNotAScene‘s Christine Hager recently got the chance to interview Mike Bjella of GOG. They talked about GOG, the “Ironworks” album, the recording process, influences, playing live, a blacksmith’s forge and much, much more…
Since Gog has been a sort of cathartic side project for you, how important has it been for you to have a project all your own or would have been more ideal to have had more creative input with the bands you were already a part of before?
“It was really important. It’s easier to do it that way, especially if you have different ideas and you’re trying to explain them to a band or friends. Like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about when you say, play it more yellow.’ It’s hard to communicate that. It was kind of a no brainer for me. Plus, I needed to be able to do it on my own time. I have kids and family so it’s really hard to find time to do it.”
How have you learned to divide time between your creative projects, work, family and life’s daily tasks?
“Late at night.” [laughs]
Not Much sleep?
“Yeah exactly. Things like that. The time gets harder to find but I don’t know how I do it. I just find time. You know, studio time and it’s crazy and I feel tired but it happens.”
Do you have a home studio or a studio preference?
“I do a lot of stuff where I’m sitting right now at home and then I also have a friend of mine that I played in a couple of bands with who has a studio so I go record with him at Arcane Digital, it’s called. I’ve done 3 albums with him so that’s a lot of fun, plus, you know, having that friendship working with him.”
He probably understands you a bit better after working together for so long.
“Yeah, we went to high school together. He’s in that band Landmine Marathon. Have you ever heard of them?”
Yeah, of course! I’ve seen them a few times.
“He’s the guitarist in that band and we were in a band together called Unruh a long time ago. We did some touring with a guy from Canada; your neck of the woods, in a band called The Blackhand. Have you ever heard of that band?”
No, I haven’t. I’ll check them out.
“Well, it’s old. Like 1995 or something. [laughs] Old man talk.”
As much as peoples origins tend to have some influence on their sound, where else have you traveled and how have those experience effected your music?
“I think I take in the whole world in a way. I just try to do the general human experience but then I tap into the sadder aspects of that, so I don’t really ever think about a specific place when I’m making or composing. I guess I’m thinking of more general experiences or feelings that everyone has and can relate to but I do think that sometimes, the desert, those kinds of themes find their way into my music. Like the bleakness. The harshness of the desert. It’s a cool influence of mine and I’d say I’m inspired by that as well.”
Is there other bands that you’d say, influences your sound?
“Yeah, I have a lot of stuff that I listen to. I get really influenced by lyrics or poetry maybe, my sound is so random. It is what it is and I work with that. I start somewhere and then it just goes on its own. I don’t know if there’s anyone specific, which is kind of cool because I’m trying to do my own thing as opposed to taking someone else’s style.”
Yeah, I honestly don’t think I’ve heard anyone else that sounds like you before.
What does your gear setup look like? Do you have a favorite synth, pedal or program that was crucial to your sound on the last record, Ironworks?
“Yeah, I have a pedal board and I use a looper 1288. It’s by Electro Harmonics and it’s really cool. It has 4 recordings that you can make for mixes for different tracks, so you can overlay live and you can reverse things. You can slow down things and you can overlay everything while you’re playing, so that’s the biggest part of my rig as far as making the sounds that I make. That and just distortion pedals, reverb but the biggest part is the looping. With Ironworks, those are samples of that shop looped and then you can change those samples. You can pitch them down. You can do all kinds of stuff and then you can start playing over them.”
So is there a reason that you don’t play live very often? Is that just more a personal preference or is the way that your music’s constructed, hard to pull off live?
“Well I got over trying to re-create. What happens exactly on the records is a whole different aspect. Live, I can never make it exactly like it is on the records, so if I were doing Ironworks live, I would use the samples and different guitar lines and stuff like that but it’s always so different which I think is kind of more exciting.”
Yeah, because everyone gets a new experience.
“Yeah and every time it’s new and new for me and just really going with this energy that’s completely live and happening now. So that’s what I do live and I only play so sparsely because it’s hard to make happen.”
Well yeah, now seeing you have a family and stuff too, obviously, that kind of affects it.
“Yeah, just for the time and then, I like to make it worth it when I really play live. But I have a show monday (March 24th, 2014.) I get a chance to open up for Carcass so I’m stoked on that.”
“Yeah, that’s going to be fun and I play with a drummer a lot of times live too, and we just get in the trance of it.”
Tell me a bit about the Forge your family owned in the 1900’s. Were there any family tales which influences the tone of the record (Ironworks)?
“It’s in North Dakota and it’s in this town called Epping. It’s a really small town; like 50 people in that town. Actually, it’s growing now because because there’s a huge oil boom going on up there and they’re drilling for oil everywhere. It was built in 1906 so it’s been around a long time and it’s the oldest belt driven black smith shop. So what that means is, there’s giant, thick belts that run around the ceilings and go everywhere. You light a fire in a corner over there and it’s steam powered so these belts start spinning and they run different machines. One of them is some sort of giant hammer and that’s the one that makes the rhythm. It’s this big metal piece that goes up and then swings down to flatten metal to nothing, if you want.
Just with all that stuff happening, I was like ‘I want to make something with all these sounds in here because they’re so unique.’ You know you’re never going to get that sound from anywhere else in the world and also where the shop is, in this town, North Dakota is all plains. You can see the curve of the earth because there’s nothing out there, you know? It’s just flat and there’s wind and you open the doors to the shop to look out and see, just nothing but a sea of grass and nothingness. It had this cool feel around how people are just leaving at that time too. Everywhere was abandoned so I just thought it would be really cool to make a record there.”
And this shop is still up and running?
“Yeah, my uncle runs it still and they make wagon wheels and parts, which people still need and want in exactly the same way they were made back then. So, he’ll do stuff like that and can make wagon wheels exactly how they did in the 1900’s. You dig a hole and you put hot iron around wood and you spin the wooden wheel in the water in the hole in the ground and it tightness the metal around the wood. It’s pretty cool. That makes a cool sound too. the steam goes ‘Shhhhhhhhh’ as it cooling the metal, so there’s all this cool stuff happening. I only started to think about the themes for Ironworks after hearing the sounds, because I knew I wanted to make something there but then the record started changing for me. It just sounds so harsh, so I started thinking about all that stuff, like what it would be like to work in one of those factories in the 1900’s.”
Are you an experienced Blacksmith yourself?
“I’ve never done it. I’ve watched it.”
“It seems like you kind of know your stuff though. I guess from being there and recording.”
“Yeah, I used to spend a lot of time there as a kid so I would be there in the summers and just hang out in the shop. Do all the yard work; things like that.”
Tell me a bit about the idea behind the video for “1870-1906” by Robert Skrynski.
“Working with Robert, I kind of gave him the song and said to put his ideas to it. I like to do it that way. We talked about how it has an organic feel but it’s becoming mechanized. If you see it, it almost looks like caterpillars in there; something crawling around and then there’s all these machine aspects. Like how our lives are becoming more mechanical, like we’re just robots or something here to produce or, you know, slaves or something. That was kind of the general thought and I thought it came out pretty good that way. I was really proud of what he did with the video but it was just really, a general idea at first.”
That’s really nice you gave the artist the leeway to make what they felt from the track.
“Yeah and I had seen stuff he’d done before and we traded so I did a remix of one of his songs and then he did the video for me and now we’re working on a collaborative record together. We’re about to break ground on it so that’s going to be fun.”
Is that what you have coming up or are you working on anything else on your own?
“I have a new album that I’ve been working on which should be out this summer. I’m excited about that. It’s going to be on King Of The Monsters and it’s all kind of here in Arizona. I’ve been working with this guy forever and we’re great friends. I’m excited to do another record on his label and this one is really angry sounding.”
Are you collaborating with anyone on this one?
“Nope, it’s just all my own stuff so I’m excited about it. I just sent him the cover today.”
Did you design the cover yourself?
“Yeah, designing is my day job so I really love making the record packaging and things like that.”
It seems as though you prefer to keep most detail about your musical process in the dark. Do you consider yourself a mysterious person on most levels or does it just come off that way when you’re talking about your music?
“Well I want to kind of keep it that way, maybe because, I like people to get lost in the magic of it, sort of. If you know what instrument it is and how they’re doing it, you kind of get lost in that. I just like it to be more of an experience, like you don’t really care where the sounds are coming from but it’s just something that’s happening.”
Well thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me.
“Yeah, I’d love to send you guys the new record.”