An Introspective Act: A Conversation with Nico Mirolla of Kardashev

Death gaze progenitors take cues from Coco Chanel.

Words by Rohan (@heaviestofart):


With today's release of Kardashev’s new album Liminal Rite via Metal Blade Records, we sat down with the band’s guitarist, one of the founding members, and key song-writers Nico Mirolla to learn more about the group’s background, what informed the new album, and to explore the unlocked potential of deathgaze collabs in high fashion:

 

To begin, let’s start with you giving a little bit of background on how you guys have come to be as a band. With the latest additions of Alex and Sean joining as full time members in 2019, how's the last couple of years have been with them in the fold as well?


Nico: Yeah, that's a great way to start it off. Kardashev has been around since 2012, and we started out in Arizona with four members. There was this idea that we wanted to enter the fold of writing progressive / deathcore with sci-fi elements and atmospheric breakdowns. We were really inspired by bands like Fallujah, Aegaeon, and The Contortionist. These three bands helped mold the direction of musicality that we were hoping to achieve. Then in 2019, we found ourselves without a drummer and without a bass player. So after I was programming drums for a couple of records there, we wound up running into Sean Lang online in 2019. I asked him if he'd be interested in filming a music video for us where he just kind of played one of the songs that we were kind of pushing at that time.


It turns out that he just did so well with that cover, and he was so easy to work with, and he had the skill set and also technology to just do it all himself that we wound up offering the full time gig. Around the same time he signed up, say six months later, as our bass player, Alex came on board. We've known him for about ten years and is a close friend. The convenience of the two of them and their professionalism and their skills really helped to inform the decision making and bringing them on board.


So did both Alex and Sean contribute to the writing of both the EP and the new record that's about to see the light of day, 'Liminal Rite'?


Nico: Oh, absolutely. One thing that's really interesting is that with 'The Baring of Shadows' (2020), they kind of came in at the latter part of the process where I had the music already written, at least on the guitars and the compositions that was already done. So Sean and Alex were sort of filling the void of just fulfilling the music. With 'Liminal Rite' and with the opportunity to work with Metal Blade and the cohesiveness that came from the opportunities that presented themselves, everybody took a much more active role. This is something that I think speaks volumes for our creativity, because on 'Liminal Rite', our bass player, Alex, is not just the bass player. He also plays piano. He wrote the monologues that the main character narrates. He wrote guitar riffs, so he went outside of his wheelhouse, and the same is true with our drummer Sean. He lends his voice for narration. That's him speaking among other capacities. So everybody really went heavy into their discomfort zone. Does that make sense?

Photograph by Julian Morgan

Absolutely, yeah. How long did this new material take to come together on the new album? Were you pulling from some riffs that you had demoed from years gone by, or is everything fairly fresh and new as the four of you as this new entity?


Nico: I love this question because I think every musician I've ever spoken to has a plethora of what I call “graveyard riffs” - It's just the stuff you somehow weren't able to fit into whatever you're currently working on. Beyond pulling from one or two musical ideas that didn't fit onto previous records, these guys were bringing in musical ideas that they were inspired to make after becoming full time members of the band and coming on board. So not only were we able to pull from both groups of old rifts that never made it, but they were also bringing in music that they genuinely felt would fit the music that they had never written before, so it's a little bit of both. But Alex, being primarily a bass player these days, doesn't really work on his compositional skill set on a guitar. He just brings whatever inspires him on guitar, and that kind of makes it fresh for us.


Are you yourself professionally musically trained?


Nico: No way! I took some composition courses in college about ten years ago, but that's it.


So talk to me about that, because for me what I hear in your music is an incredible amount of depth & complexity to it. It blows me away a bit how you can put all those pieces together without a baseline in formal music theory or composition education. So how do you build the blocks and how do you map it out? What's that first anchor or hook that everything gets formed around?


Nico: I like this question. It's very introspective and kind of philosophical in a way. One way that I sort of approach answering this is I record myself and my process when I livestream. This whole record was recorded live on Twitch when I was livestreaming a couple of years back, and I did that for a couple of reasons. The first is that like a football team, I want to go back and review the footage. I want to see what was the impetus that helped me arrive at even bridging a concept? Oftentimes, I don't know what gets me to that "A-HA" moment? I would honestly say that compounding failure over and over again, and being okay with knowing that this might not be the end result in that moment helps allow me to make mistakes that I can then ultimately either modify or live with because oftentimes we can be too hard on ourselves. Comparatively speaking, when we look at what other bands are doing, we say, "Oh, I'm never going to be as technical as this band. I'm never going to be as melodic as this band, or all of my music sounds like a homogeneous single song because I don't know how to write outside of more than two or three keys, objectively speaking." So I think once those confines fall away and you just allow yourself to continually fail, you wind up looking at what you can produce in a more sincere fashion, and you give yourself a break. That's the only way that I can really describe how I arrived at being okay with what you find on here.


At the point of which you've got the bones of the song mapped out, you've got your key riffs in place, when do you and Mark sit down and have him start to think about his vocal lines, his vocal melodies? Are you conscious of that as you're writing the music? Is it a holistic musical vision that you have, or is it really a combination of the two parts coming together?


Nico: You know, in my experience with Mark, I find that he's really good at lending musical or melodic ideas. He'll kind of like, lay on the couch and play on his phone in the same studio that I'm currently trying to write in and he kind of passively allows his brain to analyze what I'm doing. At some point, he'll say aloud, “Nikc, that's the one - that's it! Whatever you just did there 5 seconds ago, figure out more about that!” I think that that's a sort of litmus test that helps us decide what is worth pursuing and what is not from a collaborative perspective. When it comes to lyrics and storytelling, in the past, we really haven't had a direction that helps to inform the music. Starting with 'The Baring of Shadows' and now on 'Liminal Rite', we kind of began discussing greater concepts that we could develop the music around early on in the music creating process. As an example, with 'Liminal Rite', we only had one or two songs sketched out before Mark said, "Hey, what if we use this character with dementia who misinterprets their own memories while revisiting their family home later in life?"



And I thought it was such a fun, unique take on how the music can now be informed and move forward, that it helps you sort of write in the more melancholy sort of capacity while keeping the music metal and heavy. So in that way, it kind of helps the emotion.


Right. So how was the recording process for this? We'll get into talking a little bit more about what's changed since getting Metal Blade's attention and making the move over there. But I wonder, just from the recording standpoint, were you given a little bit of extra breathing room? Was there more studio time? Was there other influence that helped in the process in bringing this record together?


Nico: We're really fortunate that we all have the capacity to write and record ourselves from our homes. That's one of the benefits of living in this age, I think is we don't have to spend copious amounts of money all meeting up in one place for a month and trying to knock out an hour long record. So in some ways, we're allowed this sort of freedom. To compound that, as you know, COVID just compounded the effectiveness of people understanding how to be isolated and still productive and creative and whatever other capacities are needed. When it comes to the process between previous records and this one now having Metal Blade on board, the biggest thing was that they had some goals that they wanted us to hit. They said: “It's got to be at least 40 minutes long, we need a minimum of eight tracks, and if you can get it done within 18 months, that would be really cool."


One of the biggest things that was a help is that we had a budget to actually get everybody in the same room. So for 'Liminal Rite', I was able to fly everybody out to the mixing and mastering studio in Knoxville, Tennessee, and have them all in that room with us on the decision making process, which I think helped voice the needs of the record and the needs of the individuals as far as their perception of how it should come across as a final product.


In that final stage of mixing and once you arrive at a point of near-completion, how have you found yourselves at the process of self-editing? You guys have a lot of layers in what you do, both musically and vocally. At some point, the addition helps build tremendous presence, while at others it works better just to be more stripped back and having a bit of breathing space. How have you found the process of being able to effectively self-edit on this record?


Nico: Yeah, that's another philosophical deep question, haha! So the editing process is kind of fun because it comes back to these concepts that help inform the bands we sort of have. It's not like a mission statement, but it's these axioms that we depend on to help us determine if we're on the right track of making music. The first one is really basic: we ask ourselves - if it sounds good, it is good, and that helps us kind of decide to get over any sort of creative lulls or lack of views. We just start there, and if it does, yes. Then let's move on. The second one typically falls into the category of: you could always put it back. We live in a digital world now where the recording process is not dependent on tape and because we're doing it individually on our time, we're not paying a producer or an engineer. So in that capacity, take your time. Don't be afraid to just fail. The third one is kind of backed up with that, which is don't be afraid to write a crappy song!



Sometimes that blockade staying in your head prevents you from seeing new ideas, so you have to get it out of your system. Kind of like journaling, right? Just get it out of your system. And then finally, this one is kind of informed by Coco Chanel. I know you weren't expecting this today!! Ha! Coco Chanel has this really beautiful way of explaining to people how to prepare themselves to be presentable. And she said, “Before you get yourself ready to go out….


I know this: “Take one thing off."


Nico: There it is: “Take one thing off!” This is it, man! I'm telling you, you arrived at that conclusion just now, and we're being informed by it regularly because I know how overly complex music can become. It can become so much that you wind up in the avantgarde category and nobody gives you the time of day, so I look at what I can remove. Every time we approach with an instrument or we want to go into a bridge or we want to go into a chorus, I say, "What is too much at this point?" So all of those things combined really help us arrive at what our sound becomes. I can tell you right now that there's a number of tracks that I have that are just way too complex, even for me! When we get into the mixing and mastering stage, the engineer looks at me and he's like, "Alright, you got a choir here. You've got 14 guitars going simultaneously, each like cascading and with different regenerating time signatures." She's like, "We got to take a break here. What do you need to be important in this moment?"


And that becomes a really important part of the process.


Fascinating. So we could be on the verge here!! Everyone's all about collaborations these days, we could be on the verge of the very first Metal Blade x Chanel collab. I don't know, maybe a fragrance? Haha! You guys are pretty heavy on the merchandising front….I'm seeing a potential lane opening up here!!


Nico: Let's go, baby!! Ha!


Let's talk a little bit about just how your experience has been on coming into the Metal Blade family. I'll just leave it really open-ended, and I'll let you respond just to that first general question.


Nico: Yeah, I love this question because it still feels surreal. The 16 year old Nico that is in my mind is always jumping for joy at the thought of how I get to answer this right now, because I remember thinking when we did our original press release a year or two ago, I remember thinking to myself, "How does this make me feel? What do I actually feel like?" So here's kind of how I feel: I'm being given the opportunity to inspire myself of 16 years ago who was being inspired by almost the same roster. We're talking about, like the Cannibal Corpse, The Black Dahlia Murder. We're talking Job for a Cowboy. These are bands that I grew up with, and now I'm in, effectively the same pool. I've gone from the kiddy pool into the big pool, and as a result, it's surreal because part of us will always sort of be looking for the affirmation of, am I actually good enough?


But I know that everybody who's involved as far as the band and the people who I know personally and my family and their family, they all kind of have that giddy excitement that feels a little surreal saying that we're being given a creative opportunity that many people will never, ever experience. There's a sort of pressure to not squander it in that way.


That's amazing, Nico. We'll shift gears a bit and talk about the artwork for the record. Tell me about the way that it came together and Faith Veloro, who you worked with.


Nico: I love talking about this, and I'm really glad that this is an angle that you go after. The album artwork is kind of on brand for who we are. I'm actually staring at it while I talk to you. It's a painting that was painted by hand in the country of the Philippines by a woman named Faith Veloro. Faith was recommended to us by the person who did the artwork for our previous record. His name was Karl. Karl also lives in the Philippines, and he did all the artwork for 'The Baring of Shadows'. I explained to him the premise of this elderly man who's suffering from dementia and who's very expressive but also stoic in that they have this well aged life that can express itself through their face, but it's kind of remorseful in a way that shows that there's complacency in whatever is taking place in their mind.



He recommended his friend Faith Veloro. As soon as I went to her account, I click on it and I'm looking at it. As soon as I saw her work, I was like, "Oh my God." This is the person who can add to the sort of abstract qualities of what it looks like to have your mind leaving you right. But also, I don't know if anatomically accurate is correct, because I'm not a painter, but it seems very anatomically accurate how these spaces are painted. She just added the brush strokes to show the mind sort of surreal leaving what this person their head and their body. This concept came directly after Mark and I and the band had discussed what the overall narrative of the album would be.


It fits perfectly! You guys have famously got the tag of “deathgaze” to describe your sound, I don't know whether it was something that you gave to yourselves first or if it was someone else referred to the sound like that. Is that something that you anointed yourself or does that come from outside?


Nico: Yeah, we did it to ourselves. This was sort of an inadvertent mastermind play by me! Ha! And that's not trying to bolster my ego. That's just me saying it somehow worked out that it was a little bit accurate. The short history of it is that in 2017, when we were a DIY band, we were looking for ways to market our music, try to get our heads above a plethora of music that's released every day. Yeah, I started posting our music onto various forums, online community spaces, looking for that affirmation that I was talking about. In doing that, I got a substantial amount of feedback telling me that we did not fit with that. Whatever it was, in this case, it could have been deathcore or metalcore or djent or whatever the topic of the forum was. I was trying to figure out not only if people would be interested, but do we sit here? Is this a place that we can be accepted? And you'd be surprised to find out that there was a percentage of people, a good percentage, that we're saying, "Hey, this doesn't belong here. You guys do not fit in deathcore, you do not fit death metal."


Whatever it was, and what can be written off as a sense of elitism, was actually quite informative because it helped me to identify an opportunity in finding a niche. In my opinion, the reason that we have these multiple prefix, subgenres like "atmospheric, blackened, extreme death metal"; the reason that we get that specific is because, quite frankly, those qualities are being presented. So when the deathcore, death metal, etc. community said, "This isn't fitting in here", I started looking for what would be more accurate, and I didn't want it to turn into like 15 words just to specify what Kardashev sounds like. I just wanted it to be simple and I arrived at the idea that death metal and a genre like shoegaze, where it's very dreamy, it's very atmospheri. It's very sort of washy right? Those elements were being well represented. So I said – Fuck It! Deathgaze it is! And that was it.


Yeah, it's interesting. I love the sound. I can hear all of the references that you guys pull from. I'm a massive Devin Townsend fan right from the outset, I love that guy and I love the entire arc to his sound that’s evolved throughout his career. So definitely I recognize the density of his sound in what you guys do, but at the same time, I enjoy a decent amount of black metal, but I've been somewhat put off a lot by the Blackgaze tag. And so it was interesting that when I first became aware of your sound, I wasn't familiar with the moniker, but I love the combination, and it's a perfect description of the sound.


Nico: Well, I'm really grateful to hear that because there's been a lot of interesting feedback thus far. Again, with the commercialization, we're reaching a much broader audience. Funnily enough, we're also reaching into the historical Metal Blade audience, the guys who came up with Brian Slagel's demo records that he was putting out back in the ‘80s all the way up until today. We're getting, like, thrash fans that are arriving at our music video because we're on that YouTube account. They leave comments that are like, "Why is there so much reverb? Why are the drums so loud?" These things that they're entitled to, right. It's genuine feedback, but it just makes me realize that we're now entering this category of commercialization where we're opening ourselves up to much more criticism, especially to those who don't know what we're trying to achieve, just like you described. You can see the blend of all those elements, and although you're skeptical of Blackgaze as a moniker and how it all plays in, you are interested in it now. You kind of see it with the story that Deathgaze maybe is more accurate.


And that's beautiful. I love that there's progress for me there and hopefully others.


Because when you came up with that term, I guess when you're posting on those forums, I wouldn't say it was at the height, but the Deafheaven buzz and all the clones of that ilk that followed was pretty popping at that time. Were you conscious of being grouped within that crowd?


Nico: Yeah, absolutely. Having the 'Sunbather' (2013) album, whatever year that came out, that was a beautiful record. They challenged my worldview of what beautiful black metal would sound like. Atmospheric black metal is one thing with a band like Agalloch. When you hear Deafheaven, you're like, "This is a strangely West Coast surfer optimistic black metal. What the hell am I listening to?" It challenges you and it makes you decide whether or not you like it. When Deafheaven was sort of pushing this cusp of what the music could sound like. It kind of makes you reevaluate your worldview and what the capacity of that genre and that creativity is capable of. So we did use those as inspiration. We love those records a lot, so I'm sure it has some kind of subconscious influence while also being objectively true that I love that sound, and I would love to recreate it somehow in my way.


I want to end on just a really broad question and you can choose to take it in any direction you want: Is there anything that we haven't touched upon today, anything in the broader scope of what's going on in the world that you wanted to either discuss, talk about, or share an opinion on? You can address it in any way you choose.


Nico: Thanks for opening that up. I really appreciate it. There are two things that come to mind. The first one, I think, is more important than the second, so I'll start there. More people need to normalize discussing mental health. I know that creative people in general are a sort of tortured soul in some regard, and that their creativity could be a vessel by which they deal with internal emotions and parts of their life that help inform their worldview. It's becoming far too frequent that mental health is the underlying factor for some pretty detrimental decision making. I think if we can get ahead of it and instead of being reactionary, we can be proactive about mental health. The first step would be normalizing the discussion of it and not judging others who need to talk about it, so I would start there and I would hope that people take that seriously.


The second one is less serious, but it still reaches out to those creative types and that is that we live in a world with infinite possibilities. Everything you could possibly want is at the end of a Google search. Because of this, you are one or two Google searches away from or really finding a possible creative career. There are so many self-made out there thanks to the platforms that are being provided. When you have things like Patreon Etsy, Only Fans, whatever it is, there is likely a way to help you break whatever your everyday mold is that you just cannot get out of on your own. And if anything can illustrate that, it is Kardashev’s trajectory of how we've arrived at being self employed, releasing a major full album on Metal Blade Records and that is that we found those platforms. We found ways for people to help us either financially or creatively reach our goals. And it's just a few Google searches away to start that process. So that would be the second one that I would end on is that everybody has the same capacity. They just have to try to start.


Well, I appreciate both of those comments, especially the first one you touched off on. Obviously very timely, but very important. Thanks for your time today - I'm excited for the new record to come out. I'm excited for more people to hear it, and for those who are open minded and just enjoy heavy music, it's going to be a breath of fresh air. I really enjoyed our discussion today. Nico, thanks for taking the time.


Nico: Hey, no problem, Rohan. I appreciate the time and the questions and the discussion. I hope that we get to do this again sometime soon.

 

Liminal Rite is available now via Metal Blade Records (Order).

Cover Artwork by Faith Veloro