Interview with Dan Watchorn of Priestess - July 17th, 2010

Conducted on Saturday July 17th 2010

By: Alex Young
Live shot by Baden Roth

Priestess is one of Canada’s premiere purveyors of purely bad-ass rock and roll.  They brand it with an old school attitude when it comes to carving out their albums and taking the stage as a band of brothers. Having switched labels from RCA to Tee Pee Records, their second album, “Prior to the Fire”, is locked, loaded, and ready to fire at record stores this year. “Prior to the Fire” is a raw and merciless album that ascends to another level of musicianship and songwriting beyond that of the band’s debut album, 2006’s “Hello Master”. 

After touring with masters of heavy metal, titans of thrash, and moguls of modern hardcore like Megadeth, Black Label Society, Mastodon, GWAR and Converge, the band is currently touring with the powerhouse three-piece High on Fire. Lithium got a chance to catch up with guitarist Dan Watchorn, to talk about life as a touring musician,  how films influence the band beyond anything else, and of course, the band’s struggle to release “Prior to the Fire”.

Alex: After a two year battle (between changing record labels from RCA to Tee-Pee Records) how does it feel to put out “Prior to the Fire” the way it was intended to be released?

Dan: It feels great. It feels kind of weird to be doing this interview now because we’re almost at the end of the cycle of touring. We’ve already tried out all this material live and it blends really well with the “Hello Master” stuff. It’s a good feeling. We never stopped touring, even during the recording of it (“Prior to the Fire”) so it’s good to have the new material out on tour.

Alex: Do you think that touring while you guys were recording helped you guys flesh out the tunes themselves? Not just in the studio but in the set too.

Dan: Yeah, definitely. We did a lot of pre-production for this record and the songs changed forms a lot before they actually made the record and saw a lot of live before a lot of these songs were even put to tape. They weren’t complete until they actually made the record.

Alex: Did that help you guys iron out a lot of the kinks and integrate it into your sound so it goes from being a song to an actual Priestess song?

Dan: Absolutely. We had a lot of time in between records so we had a lot of material and it’s a good way to cut down stuff also so we find out what the real good tracks are.

Alex: Just kind of trim the fat off it. How do you feel about touring with really professional bands that have been in the game for a really long time like Megadeth and Mastodon? On the flip side touring with bands that have such a unique sound and hardcore cult following like Converge or Dinosaur Jr.? Did it make you guys step back and realize what you bring to the table?

Dan: Obviously there’s something to learn from all these bands, you know? As far as I’m concerned these days, if you can be a band for more than three years, you’re on the right path and now we’re talking about bands that have been together for twenty, twenty-five years. It’s obviously an honor to share the stage with any of them but there’s little things that can be learned from each one of these band’s.

Alex: How do you feel touring with all these bands influenced the writing process you guys had coming into carving out “Prior to the Fire” in the studio?

Dan: It’s hard to say. I don’t think we go in wanting to write a heavier record. I don’t think we have a preconceived notion of what we want, the riffs and the melodies just kind of come. The fact that “Hello Master” was a bit more on the poppy side and “Prior to the Fire” has a bit more edge to it is just where we’re at right now with music. Our collective influences converged and made that.

Alex: Yeah. I noticed there was more of a thematic shift, not just in the lyrics and the artwork, but musically as well. Do you think you guys drew from a different well of influences than you did when you were creating “Hello Master”? I noticed there was a lot of imagery in the lyrics; do you think you guys draw more from books and films now rather than other bands?

Dan: I think we’ve always had a cinematic element to it. Even on the first record (“Hello Master”) there were a few songs that refer to certain films. Yeah, maybe a little bit more on this one. There’s no unifying theme to it but I know what you mean. Maybe they are a little bit more vivid in terms of their portrayal of stuff where as the first record was maybe a bit more human.

Alex: How do you feel making “Prior to the Fire” help you guys evolve as artists as a group and individually as musicians too?

Dan: We obviously wanted to push ourselves to a new level and since we’ve been playing together for a longer time now we’re getting to know each other that way. I think that’s where some of the more complex patterns and structures come from.

Alex: I know you’re not a progressive band but I noticed there were a lot of progressive structures within the song themselves. It’s not just verse, chorus, verse, chorus, solo, two choruses and then that’s it. Do you think that was the next step in evolving as a band?

Dan: I think it’s important to learn how to structure songs to be able to break them down and structure them in other ways. I think we wrote a pop record with verse, chorus, verse chorus, bridge, double chorus type thing, I think we’ve done that. I think we absolutely needed to change it up and create something a little bit different that diverged from that path.

Alex: Absolutely. Now that you’re coming to the end of the touring cycle, do you have any ideas about what might be in store for the next installment in the Priestess catalogue or next chapter in the band’s sonic evolution?

Dan: Everyone’s working on stuff individually right now so we haven’t gotten to the jam space and heard everyone’s ideas yet so it’s kind of hard at this point for me to say where it’s going. Probably a bit of both, we appreciate choruses and we appreciate catchy music. Hopefully there’ll be some big choruses but also a little bit of structure messing around.

Alex: “Prior” was a little more organic, it sounded a lot more like you guys just jamming rather than practicing the songs for twelve hours at a time. Do you think that helped contribute to the progressive structures of the songs?

Dan: Yeah, absolutely. A lot of the riffs on “Prior”, we played a lot. We broke them down and built them back and some of these songs, the structures changed eight to ten times. Some of them were just a core riff over and over again and they became something and we added choruses. I think initially we wanted to be more conceptual than it actually became, in a good way. It became a unified entity.

Alex: Which is kind of the irony of it all.

Dan: Yeah, it’s a little more coherent than it would have been if we hadn’t taken so much time to make it.

Alex: Oh, for sure. I’m sure that was a lot more effective than you guys spending six months in a studio trying to pump it out. What unifying entity within the band’s sound gives you guys the ability to tour with such a diverse amount of bands and still be able to stand out on your own?

Dan: I think it’s our will to tour that much because we’ve very rarely given up the opportunity to tour. If someone, any one of those bands you named is on tour, we want to be there or at least make a pitch to be there to go on tour with them. So far it’s worked out in our favor and the more we can do that the better it is. Like you said earlier, the more we learn from these people the better. I think it’s just our determination, our will to keep doing this, and some good fuckin’ songs.

(Dan and Alex laugh)

Alex: Yeah. Thanks a lot for taking the time to hang out.

Dan: No problem, man.