North East trio Bong are back with Thought and Existence, their latest trip across time and space. HRH Mag’s Rich Holmes climbed on board with guitarist Mike Vest to talk Bobby Womack, Argentinian sci-fi and why his band are a nightmare to mix…
“We’re a strange band.” Bong guitarist Mike Vest is right in one sense. It’s never been easy to tie the Newcastle-based act to a particular scene. Not familiar with Bong? Think drone and doom, played at the speed of shifting tectonic plates, and you’re in the right ballpark. There is a potent psychedelic haze drifting lazily across their soundscapes too.
Yet Bong sound a galaxy away from trad doom, or the kind of monolithic, three chord misery purveyed by many underground acts in 2018.
And to those who’ve followed Bong since their birth on Tyneside in 2005, via performances at the likes of Roadburn and Desertfest, that ‘strangeness’ all makes sense. Their music begs to be inhaled and absorbed, not just consumed as a commodity (hence the number of live recordings released by the band). And to many fans, they have an elemental spirit, something otherworldly, which flows through new album, Thought and Existence, in the same way it has seeped into records like Beyond Ancient Space, Mana-Yood-Sushai and 2015’s We Are, We Were and We Will Have Been – the last time we heard original material from the band.
Released on Ritual Productions, Thought and Existence, which comprises two tracks – The Golden Fields and Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius – sees Bong float across the cosmos once again, guided no doubt by the ancient star map which adorns its cover.
The album is, Vest argues, a highpoint in the band’s career. “I think it’s the best one we have done,” says the guitarist, who also plays in Blown Out, 11 Paranoias, Melting Hand and a myriad of other projects.
Why does he feel that way? “We have grown a lot I guess as people. Since the last Bong record came out I have probably done around nine records outside of Bong. All of us are getting used to being in studios more, we know more about production. Also there is the musicianship – we have been a band for more than a decade.”
One of the biggest changes, he suggests, has been in the recording process. Bong’s early recordings were “very low-fi”. “That is how we did it, we didn’t know any better really,” he says. Yet over the last few albums, a certain ‘clarity’ has found its way into Bong’s work. For Thought and Existence, the three-piece returned to The Soundroom in Gateshead – a studio and charitable community project which works with people with learning difficulties. It was here that We Are, We Were and We Will Have Been was recorded and Soundroom stalwart Mark Wood oversaw recording and engineering for both efforts. “The Soundroom gives us that freedom, the way it’s built – it is perfect for what we want to do,” says Bong’s co-founder.
This time, the band had greater leeway in the recording process too.
Vest explains: “Ritual have always been good to us, they have never really told us what to do, they have just said, ‘you have two days, go and make an album’. With this one they gave us twice as much time. We were in the studio for four days doing this album. Once you get all the tracks down on the first day there is a lot of room for experimentation. I spent eight hours every day on guitars. There has a been a lot more time spent on it and you can hear it. It is more focused.”
That wasn’t the only difference. You wouldn’t normally associate Bobby Womack with Bong. But the late soul legend and the North East’s drone overlords have both benefitted from the skills of John Foyle, who mixed and mastered Thought and Existence at London’s XL Studios. Joined for the sessions by Adam Richardson – Mike’s bandmate in 11 Paranoias – Foyle has, according to Vest, made the album “sound huge”.
“He was really into it,” the guitarist says, recalling Foyle’s contribution. “He was just fascinated. He is a sound engineer and (Bong) is extreme sounds. It makes things so much better when someone wants to be there. I have done records with people who don’t want to be there and everything suffers. He wanted to be there to do it. All the work that went into it was because of wanting to push everything further. He got it straight away.”
He also praises Richardson’s contribution: “He has done some great records in the past with Ramesses. He is the same, pushing things – having it real, experimenting.”
And he admits that the pair had their work cut out when delivering the final product. “Bong is hard to mix, man!” laughs Vest. “Everything is to the max, one slight deviation and you have totally changed the whole vibe of it. You would think it’s easy but it’s not, it’s crazy man. It’s something that should be so simple on paper, but it’s utterly baffling and confusing most of the time.”
‘Baffling’ and ‘confusing’ could also be words which apply to Bong’s effect on certain audiences. The band is hard to pigeonhole, hard to market. Not exactly a promoter’s wet dream. Vest muses that the inverted cross on their logo led them to being lumped in with metal bands. However, the trio very much stand in their own space. “You don’t know who is going to go (to see Bong) – you are going to get weirdos, you are going to get metallers, there is no way to plan how to get us on and how to bill us!” says the Tynesider. “We used to headline just because of the style of music we played. We played last at gigs all of the time, because they were like, ‘look man, you are just slow as fuck, everything you do is slow as fuck and it’s just that for an hour – we can’t really have you on before because everyone will leave’.
“We used to play with punk and hardcore bands, especially in Newcastle back in the day, and we would play with a lot of noise bands and avant-garde bands. Even some of the first shows we played, we would get put on last, even at 1am!”
Yet Bong’s music resonates with open-minded listeners across the globe. Why does Vest think that is?
“There are a few ideas about that,” he replies. “One is the fact that the music is really minimal, it has subtle dynamics in the songs. So I think in that music, even though it essentially one note which is played in various different ways and octaves, you can hear a lot of music in there. You can hear doom, you can hear Spacemen 3, you can hear Sleep, you can hear the minimalists, you can hear Vibracathedral Orchestra.
“You have the heavy riffs in there which are buried and you have the psychedelia which flows over the top. And you have the improv side, the free form, and it’s essentially one note with varying deviations. It is hard to explain how it works but it has always been there.”
Does the nature of Bong’s music mean that people take what they want from it? “Yes, as there is a lot of space in it and it is drone music which is supposed to make you creep outside yourself or within yourself… or see beyond.”
‘Seeing beyond’… that’s not just confined to the effects of Bong’s enveloping sonics. The band have long embraced themes of astral exploration and fantasy. Mana–Yood-Sushai, for instance, was named after a fictional deity found in the works of Anglo-Irish writer Lord Dunsany.
This time around, Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges famed for his deep expeditions into philosophy, fantasy and sci-fi, is a direct inspiration for Vest and his bandmates, bassist/vocalist David Terry and drummer Mike Smith. “The track Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius is a Borges story, about hyper non-reality,” the Newcastle native explains while discussing the album’s themes. “It is a great short story, but it is utterly baffling. Up to this point all of the themes, apart from Beyond Ancient Space are expansive, golden tales, Lord Dunsany, all of that. Grand landscapes and forgotten histories. Whereas this one is a bit more inward and perplexing which is exactly what space is. It talks about unreality, a race of people who don’t seek out the truth, they just seek out the outstanding.
“The idea behind the story is that the past is the present, all time has expired. But there is all this cool stuff in the book where it talks about towers of blood and mad zoology. It’s similar to the Lovecraftian thing. A documentation over a time of complete sonic madness. It’s mesmerizing, it all matches in with the ancient star maps, thought and existence, it all ties together.”
So what’s next for Bong? Are there new realms to discover, new voyages to embark upon?
Vest reveals that he’s been inspired by the band’s recent performance with Leeds-based multi-instrumentalist Bridget Hayden. The former Vibracathedral Orchestra member took to the stage with Bong at 2017’s Supernormal Festival and he hopes that a further meeting of minds may occur in the studio. “She has done some really cool stuff over the years, really smoked out blues stuff, noisy guitars,” he says. “She is an amazing guitarist. It would be ideal if the next record was a collaboration, with Bridget doing her thing.”
There’s nothing to confirm yet, admits Vest, but working with Hayden is high on his wish list. As is a return to Roadburn and a foray into more festivals on the continent. “We like to play festivals more than anything else, where things are all over the shop,” says the six stringer. “We always seem to go down pretty well as people are more into the vibe.
“They are there for three days, they go and watch Bong… happy days!”
Thought and Existence is out now on Ritual Productions.