Traversing Bleak Horizons: An Interview with HUNTSMEN

The quintet blur genre lines throughout their richly layered 'Mandala of Fear.'

Photograph by Aaron Ehinger

Compositions that harness from every end of the musical spectrum to great measure are few and far in between. These are the records that keep listeners on their toes by popping in new sound elements with every passing minute, seamlessly traversing through predetermined musical expectations. Chicago's HUNTSMEN achieve said feat with their forthcoming sophomore release, Mandala of Fear, set to arrive on March 13th via the eclectic Prosthetic Records.


The 13-track story that is Mandala of Fear has brought together doom, sludge, folk, country, and more for one dissonant Americana-infused experience. With each passing track, HUNTSMEN deliver atmospheres that transport you to their dystopian tale of pain, paired perfectly with glaring melodies. Each contributing member of the band has brought forth an honest and trailblazing performance that makes for one of the most special records released this far into 2020. Efforts this grand must be explored and you'd be doing yourself a disservice to not grant Mandala of Fear your full engagement.

We talk to guitarist/vocalist Chris Kang ahead of this week's arrival of Mandala of Fear to dive deeper beneath the world created here:

Having laid a strong foundation with ‘American Scrap’, ‘Mandala of Fear’ finds the band upping the ante on the musical front. Upon entering the creative process for the sophomore record, what did the band set out to achieve on the musical end?


Kang: We wanted to pull out the stops and write as openly as possible. By that, I mean making a point to not second guess ourselves on writing instincts- especially on how a decision we'd make would be received, or whether it would be too different or off course of what listeners might have come to expect after American Scrap.


Mandala started out very abstract, with us matching up pieces of a puzzle from scraps of recordings or riffs we'd jam on, and then implementing structure and order on top of that as the story/central thread emerged. The theme of the record is very personal and very heavy, and somehow it felt right to not just saturate the record with darkness, but have a feeling of constantly battling darkness from the survivor's point of view, and the way we wanted to do that was with a very open, unguarded writing approach, bold riffs, and as much vulnerability in lyrics and instrumentation as we could muster.


The cohesiveness of ‘Mandala of Fear’ is something to praise for its ability to bring together several musical extremes to one uniform sound, hence the coining of the term ‘Americana metal’. Was this intentional or was it something that came about throughout the writing and recording process of your musical endeavors?


Kang: I think it came about naturally. We all have a wide range of musical influences, and one of Huntsmen's core values is to not constrain one another. It's a hub of free expression for us, which is what I love most about it- it really can feel like gathering around a fire sharing stories, and I love hearing the different voices. Different musical styles lend different strengths, perspectives, and emphases to different moods, emotions, and the imagery they evoke, but the magical thing is that however different they seem, they're all just talking about the same thing, which is the vast experience of being alive. So you can find ways to bring them together if you think about them as more similar than different.


Sludge, blues, Americana, death metal, and doom are all seamlessly well balanced throughout the record. Were there any particular records or artists that influenced this direction of ‘Mandala of Fear’?


Kang: I was listening to a lot of Springsteen (Nebraska mainly), Gojira (Magma), and YOB (Our Raw Heart). Marc cites John Wetton (King Crimson, Roxy Music), Sean Yseult (White Zombie, Star & Dagger), Jeff Matz (High on Fire), Brian Cook (Russian Circles), Jean-Jacques Burnel (the Stranglers), and Chris Squire (Yes) as his bass influences for the record. Aimee was listening to Norah Jones, Crosby, Stills, & Nash, and specifically mentions Dangling Conversation (Simon & Garfunkel). Kirill was listening to Russian Circles' loud atmospheric stuff, as well as hardcore (Botch, Converge). For Ray, it was Deftones, Elder, Thrice, and Dillinger Escape Plan. Most of us were listening to a lot of 60s and 70s stuff in general like Simon & Garfunkel, CSN/Y, Jefferson Airplane, The Byrds.

In the modern age of metal subgenre influx and criticisms, do you see this particular ‘Americana metal’ identity impacting you in any way? Perhaps setting predetermined expectations?


Kang: Good call. I think folks latched onto the dusty, grimy feeling of American Scrap, which we didn't expect but were so grateful for. The new record is a lot more polished, chilly in production, and generally loud, which might put a bad taste in people's mouths who were hoping for more of Scrap's feel. But we trust our listeners to keep an open mind to where we're going with this one.


It's about a bleak future, directionless war with no good outcome, pandemonium, and survival, so we wanted it to feel like constantly looming danger, like a little too in your face. The absence of warmth and comfort is intentional. Still, maybe you can call the new record Americana. It's a melting pot of styles, and it's now an American tradition to send soldiers to live out some horror in the desert far away from the rest of us, while glossing over the psychological repercussions. Above all, I hope it conveys a grit and boldness in the face of darkness that is the spirit of this country at its best.


The 2LP length and physical package of the record is grandiose in scope, showing no signs of restrictions whatsoever. How important is it for you to have this level of creative freedom whereas other labels/bands might be forced to contain their material within particular bounds?


Kang: It's the most important. When we started out, we agreed that no amount of success, recognition, or money was worth compromising our vision for. It's a no-brainer because without that vision, there isn't really a Huntsmen. Luckily, two circumstances have helped us stick with this. For one, we all have rich lives outside of Huntsmen, which means the band doesn't bear the burden of being our one path to success or fulfillment, financial or otherwise, so we aren't enslaved to it and we can be hard lined about what we'll accept or not. This pays it the highest honor.


The second circumstance is that our label (Prosthetic) has been nothing but supportive and behind us from the get go. Though sometimes there are real considerations (like budget limitations, schedules, etc), that's a very different thing than being told what to say or how to say it. We wouldn't have anywhere close to the channels of production, distribution, network, and overall support, encouragement, and enthusiasm that we do without our Prosthetic family, so we've always been more than happy to collaborate with them on what works best for everyone, and it's always felt pretty frictionless- because I think they get that we need to just have room to do our thing.


From the Seth Whitehurst-directed ‘Ride Out’ video and Ray Knipe’s cover painting to the 32-page graphic novel that accompanies the 2LP set, visuals play a key component in ‘Mandala of Fear’. What was the goal approaching the record from the visual end?


Kang: Mandala's story is a pretty winding one, and we relied heavily on visualizing it when we were working on writing and arranging the music. So visuals became a rosetta stone that we liked having in the scope of the record. We could've just let listeners' imaginations pick up the slack- which is one of my favorite things to do- but in the end it just felt right to add some visual accompaniment. After spending time with it, I think it was appropriate because we wanted the scope of Mandala to be greater than just music. I think retelling a story in many voices can add to its gravity and tangibility.


With having Ray Knipe taking on the artistic duties for the record, there’s a stronger level of creative control compared to outsourcing for cover art. How does this impact the creative process, if at all?


Kang: Going back to the Americana thing, I think this record declares those roots more in its work ethic and principles than anything. Having the freedom to do your own hard work of your choosing is one of our most esteemed values. And when others did work for the record, such as Danny (graphic novel) and Seth (Ride Out video), we didn't want to co-opt or absorb it- we wanted to include them and list them as distinct professionals and artists contributing their hard-earned craft to the story and theme, which is what the storytelling tradition is all about. We didn't hand-record it ourselves, but we all paid out of pocket to get the thing down instead of taking an advance. All of these things add a clarity to who has creative control over which elements, which in turn lends a clarity of voice to those elements, which is a beautiful thing.


When Ray said he wanted to paint the cover, no one blinked an eye, other than that none of us knew he could paint, haha. It was like, "yeah, of course man, do it." This freedom of expression and voice is what makes Huntsmen feel so rewarding to us. You never know if it's going to be good, or good enough for somebody, but who fucking cares? Here's where you get to do it.


The Americana-infused doom sludge is vastly layered from track to track, painting a picture through vivid lyricism and diversified musical elements. With that said, did the music inspire the art or vice versa?


Kang: Probably most accurate to say both the music and the art were inspired from the story, and being totally blunt, the story emerged from piecing together a lot of journalings (in the form of recorded riffs, scraps of lyrics, vocal melodies, etc.) that ultimately decoded to a lot of unresolved trauma and some insights into how trauma shapes the way we see our future and move through life. I became very angry at this notion that circumstances in our past, out of our control, could entirely rewire us to see the world with fear, pessimism, and cynicism for the rest of our lives, cutting us off from opportunities or real connection with others. So restructuring those journalings turned into a survival story where no matter how much catastrophe is piled on this one person, she can find a way to survive it, and there is some seed of hope to plant. Then the music and art were in a way incidental, like directing and scoring a film.


You have a run of shows scheduled soon and performances at Desertfest London and New York set for later this year, all of which will showcase the brilliance of ‘Mandala of Fear’ via the live setting. What can one expect from these upcoming Huntsmen shows?


Kang: We're really looking forward to laying this record out there for everyone live, and feel like our live show is one of our greatest strengths. Rehearsing it leading up to studio time or shows always feels thrilling to us. So our objective is to deliver it in a way that seeing a show where we focus on Mandala conveys that same thrill. Unfortunately, because it's long as fuck, most normal shows will only allow us to play a few songs, but we're aiming to set up at least one show where we can play it through in its entirety, start to finish. If that goes well, maybe we'll do more.

Mandala of Fear arrives on March 13th via Prosthetic Records. Get yours HERE.

Cover art by Ray Knipe

HUNTSMEN Live Dates:

3/13 - Garfield Park Conservatory, Chicago, IL w/ OM

3/14 - Mag Bar, Louisville, KY *

3/20 - Mulligans Pub, Grand Rapids, MI

3/21 - Metal Monkey Brewery, Romeoville, IL

3/26 - Barley Pop, Madison, WI *

3/27 - Blu Room, Dubuque, IA @ Blu Room *

3/28 - Part Wolf Upstairs, Minneapolis MN *

9/11-9/14 - Deserfest New York

10/16-10/18 - Desertfest Belgium

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