If someone says the words “heavy metal” to you, what springs to mind? Hair, leather, sweat, misanthropy, Satan, more sweat and a big wall of noise? Music to scare children by? Liverpool has a reputation for leaving our practitioners of this dark art alone to ‘do their own thing’.
Allegedly, they don’t bother us and we don’t bother them. Metal has remained confined to the chasms, cloaked in a shadowy veil and apparently reluctant to step into the light of the mainstream music press. But at Bido Lito! we don’t believe that is, nor should be perceived to be, the case. Liverpool’s demonic underbelly is an asset to our city’s scene, one that should be celebrated with as much fervour as the achievements of the latest melody-clad, indie export. Still, on our way to meet dark lords of sludge CONAN at their rehearsal space on Vulcan Street, it’s fair to say that we’re tickled with a touch of satanic, nervous delirium…
So it comes as something of a relief to find Jon Davis (guitar), Phil Coumbe (bass) and Paul O’Neil (drums) in jovial, self-deprecating mood, and casually lampooning bands that go out of their way to try and live up to fake personas foisted upon them by MTV et al. “We played this black metal night in Edinburgh,” says Jon “and found the guitarist of one of the other bands in the toilet with his guitar slung over his shoulder, doing his make-up and putting on a belt made of chicken ribs. Then he went to soundcheck his vocals and just went ‘DOOOOOOOOO!!!’ into the mic, then (affects squeaky West Yorkshire accent) ‘that all right, mate?’”
His bandmates double up laughing. There’s a tangible camaraderie in the room and an unspoken agreement that Conan have got it pretty good at the moment. Understandably, they’re still riding high on being invited to play with sludge metal legends Sleep in Oslo on 15th May. Big news, we feel, but if you’re not particularly au fait with the genre, we should probably mention that this is the sludge equivalent of being asked to support Rihanna. “The promoter said he could either give us our own show or we could support Sleep,” says Jon, “so we went away and talked about it.” “Yeah,” finishes Paul with a grin, “it wasn’t a very long conversation.”
Conan count Sleep and associated act High On Fire as major influences in their music. Their new album, Monnos, which is currently streaming on Metalhammer’s website, is a brutally heavy assault of distorted, down-tempo, fuzzed-up doom metal; operatic in arrangement, biblical in volume. Jon’s vocals are not sung; they are bellowed with distant, haunting sustain.
By placing conceptual subject matter such as minotaurs, unicorns and mythological realms at the heart of what they do, Conan avoid uncomfortable introspection in their song-writing and, by extension, exude a humility rarely seen in metal bands. Jon, who appears to be the main creative force in the band, sees this as a positive thing; liberating even: “It’s easy to write about stuff that you can’t attach yourself to personally,” he says, “because you can’t be self-conscious about it. I mean, some of our lyrics are just fucking stupid, but when we’re all on stage just bellowing this ridiculous fantasy stuff, it feels great.” “I just like hitting things dead hard and not getting arrested for it,” says Paul.
Naturally, such heavy music requires heavy equipment that is built to withstand a huge amount of punishment. “All this gear,” says Jon, gesturing mainly to Phil’s enormous bass cab, “it’s not necessarily expensive; it’s just well-made. I mean, that head was probably made in the late 80s. When we play live, we have twice as much equipment. I’ll have two amps, a Mack amp on top and then two two-by-fifteens to create that wall of sound.”
Conan are setting off for Europe the day after our meeting to play a number of European dates including an appearance alongside Killing Joke at the Roadburn Festival in Holland. They say that there is no reason for having neglected home soil other than that there simply aren’t any established sludge/doom promoters in the city. Perhaps conscious of this anomaly, they have just agreed to play a metal festival at the Lomax on 30th June. “We’re looking forward to it because it’s an opportunity to play our own city,” says Jon. “Wherever we play, even if it’s London or Bristol, we like to drive home afterwards; otherwise it’s just more time spent away from home.”
For the first time during the interview, Conan turn serious and nod with earnest agreement; suddenly we begin to understand what makes the band tick. There is nothing in their personalities to suggest that their visceral, pounding metal sound is influenced by their own experiences or worldview. They never set out to prove a point, follow a trend or offer a musical tonic to plastic metal fans who “go to gigs, stare at the floor and hurt themselves”. No doom, no gloom, just bone-rattling volume.