Ciaran is the lead guitarist for the melodic death metal band, Vex. Born in Dublin, Ireland but raised in Texas, he now resides in the ever growing city of Austin, TX. With a Masters degree in English and loads of literature courses under his belt, it’s easy to see how that trasnlates into his poetically crafted lyrics.
“The dream of release of a sullen threat
An astral projection over sun-roasted fields
An incessant longing over dry river days
An impossible shelter from the shattering gaze.”
-Vex, “Solar Sacrament”, Sky Exile
I was fortunate enough to preview their latest album, Sky Exile, and the passion and devotion Ciaran spoke with during our interview was palpable. His dedication became even more apparent after understanding the person behind the music. I can’t recommend this album highly enough!
Vex’s album, Sky Exile, came out today; check out their single, “Dark Skies Painted” on Vimeo and find more info in the links below:
How long have you been playing guitar?
Ha, hold on, let me calculate, 23 years.
What’s your lyrical inspiration?
Well, I studied English and literature in college, so I’m inspired by many great writers like Yeats and Joyce. I mean, I wouldn’t say I’m anywhere near Yeats, but I love his work. I also get a lot of material from my own experiences, nature, and landscapes.
What’s your approach to new material?
Very sporadic and random; whenever it hits. I guess for this album I was commuting a lot. I was dating a girl who lived in Wimberley and I was working in Austin and gigging here on occasion, so it was a lot of San Marcos to Wimberley, San Marcos to Austin. Many times, if I had an arrangement in my head, I would turn off music and just let it process itself. So, most of the arrangements happen in my head and I just have a lot of fragments. I mean, it’s kind of cliché but the fragments are kind of like seeds; I plant them and over time the arrangements grow and dictate themselves to me. It’s not very convenient though because it can be very time-consuming and frustrating. It’s the same thing with lyrics because I might be out and about and something comes to me, so I’ll just write it down on a napkin or on my notes thing on my phone. I have lots of fragments on my phone. Then when it comes time to combine everything I just try to make it work.
I’m trying to be way more disciplined about it now, though. I have a recording program on my laptop and so I’m trying to say, “This is my writing hour” and be more productive about it. It’s helped with my band mates. We finalize the arrangements together as a band, so we’ll record something and send it around to everyone and ask for feedback. Then we meet in the rehearsal space and it’s finalized. In the end, it’s usually very different from what we started out with. When I was younger I had more pride and I would say, “No, you don’t understand, you haven’t lived with this thing in your head for 3 years! Now I understand that the exchange of ideas is important. I think Sky Exile is way more of a collaborative album than anything I’ve ever done before. It has kind of a soundtrack feel to it because it tells a story.
The third song, “Nowhere Near”, the way that one started was during this time when I was living and working in San Marcos, my car broke down and my girlfriend was in grad school at the time. She was neck-deep in this assignment in Wimberley so she wasn’t able to pick me up in San Marcos, and it was just that mindset of being alone, solitary, and not knowing where you’re going but knowing you just have to walk to get there. That feeling of walking and just visualizing the whole thing; my car’s broken down, I couldn’t get to work and I’m going to be fired, so it was just the mindset of being very irrational and panicked and having to walk.
It took me a long time to get my version of that track recorded because when we did, we all wrote it in the rehearsal space and then we recorded it. After we recorded it we all felt that there was something missing, so we had the recorded version going back and forth between all of us through email, thinking, “what else does this need?” Mike, the other guitar player, engineered this album. He has a friend who has a lot of experience with sound manipulation and he’s the one that came up with the ending sequence of, what sounds like, a radio fading out. That lead to the final version of it, but, of course, there were more edits after that. So, that song probably took about 3 years to finish. For that one we just really went out on a limb.
How would you define your genre?
Melodic Death Metal and atmospheric with a foundation of a lot of Scandinavian bands from the ’90s, like, Dark Tranquility, Edge of Sanity, and Dissection. I feel like our sound is rooted in that.
What’s your favorite song that you’ve made?
I think it’s probably “Dark Skies Painted” on Sky Exile because that one took about 12 years. It was in 2001, San Angelo, I lived right across from a graveyard, and being young and kind of stereotypical, I was like, “Ooo, spooky!” and that was inspirational to me. I just started playing some of those riffs and coming up with all these different versions. That arrangement was finished in early 2014 and it felt amazing to reach that stage and to listen to the final version. It was like, “Wow, how did that happen? How did I finish this?” It has a traditional verse/chorus structure which we don’t do very often. So, yeah, I think it’s just very satisfying in that sense because it took so long.
Do you write all your songs?
Yeah, well, there were 2 songs that Mike wrote, he’s the other guitar player. He wrote “Solar Sacrament” and “30 Miles From Here”. I’ve been writing everything mostly. Mike’s been in the band for about 7 years and I feel like he understands our language and the stuff he wrote was very challenging. He’s more technically advanced than I am as a player, so it was a bit more challenging to play, but it was also more challenging stylistically. It was kind of exciting to let someone else take the reins for a bit.
So, do you come up with the music first and then the lyrics follow?
Yeah, the lyrics follow. So, usually, once I finish an arrangement, there’s just an image or a few images that stick in my mind and I’ll just base everything off that. Maybe I’ll find fragments in my notes or I’ll find bar napkins with stuff written down. Lyrics take a long time, and the hardest thing is knowing when a song’s done beecause I’m always thinking that there’s a better word or a better phrase. That last set of lyrics I came up with was for “Nowhere Near” and I was doing laundry. I was just waiting for clothes to dry and I was like, “Whoa, there, there, there!”
What’s best been your best moment as a musician?
The best moment ( I don’t even have to think about that) was two summers ago we toured with this band called Agallach, from Portland, OR who are internationally successful. We started in Birmingham and then ended in Virginia. The guitar player is a literature professor at Washington St. and so he and I kind of bonded on that level. I heard that they were touring and I said, “Hey, want some company?” and he said, “Sure!” All of us were huge fans, so it was really thrilling. There were huge crowds and we were treated very well. It was the musical highlight of my life.
Do you do anything outside of music that you feel like contributes to your music?
I love walking and hiking and I love all of the trails around Austin; it’s one of the things that I love about this city. I mean, I love to exercise in general. I don’t know if that necessarily contributes. I mean, I know it has a psychological value which helps me focus and persevere when things get difficult because they very often do. That’s what we tried to capture in Sky Exile, that feeling of walking long distances without having a destination. The whole thing is based on a kind of narrative. There is a story there; it’s about someone who’s life collapses and the narrator just kind of walks. It’s kind of a Forrest Gump thing (I thought of that later). It’s really just about not having a sense of hope or a destination, so that’s kind of what the narrative’s based on. So, when I’m hiking, that’s what I’m thinking about.
Our singer J.J., he collaborated with me on the last two songs, lyrically. It was really cool because our last two albums I had done everything myself exclusively. J.J. offered to help and we’d have these brainstorming sessions with an image or emotion we’d want to express and then we would just bounce ideas off of each other and ask, ‘How can we state that metaphorically?” He really came up with some great stuff. He helped out with “30 Miles From Here” and “August 11th”. So, there will be more lyrical and musical collaboration down the line, which is liberating.
What’s funny is, “Nowhere Near” is just two small groups of lyrics, there’s not much there, and that came to me very quickly in one afternoon. I still don’t know exactly what it means, but I just knew it had to be that way. That one was so hard for us to learn. It seemed impossible because there’s so much happening timing wise. But, that’s also where I should credit my brother because his musical understanding is way more advanced than mine in terms of time signatures. He’s the drummer for a jazz band. He maps it out in a way that you can understand as a player. It took so long because our singer, J.J., was playing guitar as well, so we had 3 guitars on that song.
How many people are in Vex?
There are 5 including me:
There’s another guitar player, Mike, who definitely deserves credit as the engineer. He records everything in his studio.
There’s Joel, the bass player
J.J. the singer
Owen (my brother) the drummer
Here’s Ciaran’s playlist, enjoy!