I’ve always wanted to use the term ‘monkey-genius’ in an interview and now I can.
Paul Ortiz, the monkey-genius (see!) behind Chimp Spanner laughs when I ask about his musical pedigree; “Basically this is my first band, prior to about a year ago I hadn’t really played in any live bands before, so the current line up; we’ve only being playing together since April  and this has been my first band.”
So as sole composer, you must be a multi-instrumentalist (“Yeah, that’s right.”) but do you have a preferred instrument? “At the moment it’s mainly guitar but I’m kind of a closet drummer as well. If I had the time and money I’d probably be as much a drummer as a guitarist but it’s a space and money thing so at the moment it’s guitar.” Paul is basically an Ibanez fan and rattles off a half dozen models that he uses in Chimp Spanner adding “I’m pretty much exclusively a seven string player – I don’t even own a six string!” although he also owns an eight string but doesn’t use it very much. He’s just recently got into some kind of sponsorship deal with Ibanez so one imagines he’ll pretty much be using them exclusively from now on; maybe you’ll even score some free stuff? He laughs again “Even if it’s a few quid off here and there, that’ll be nice. But then again, even if not, I’ve been paying full price for everything so far so it won’t kill me to keep doing it.”
Getting into what started you off; was there a particular song or album that got you thinking ‘Yeah, I want to be a musician’? “Both of my parents are musicians; they met through music so I grew up just watching them record, write and sing and play so that was my biggest influence when I was growing up. I wanted to do what my mum and dad were doing, and further to that there were some more specific influences as to what got me in to metal and things but my biggest influence for just music in general are my parents.” Paul also quotes Meshuggah, Sikth and Devin Townsend (“...pretty much anything he’s been involved with has been a big influence production-wise”) but again acknowledges his parents influence, who played him a lot of fusion, latin, and classical in his formative years. He sums up these influences as “...a pretty crazy mix.”
So as the sole composer, you obviously can’t play all the instruments simultaneously so do you have trouble letting go and allocating different sections or instruments to other musicians? “I did at first, when we first got together, it was kind of weird to hear someone else play my parts - silly things like my guitarist – he uses very different picks and it sounds different , and he picks the notes different, and it’s very tempting to say ‘can you do it more like this?’ I don’t want to turn into a control freak! So I do let the guys do a little bit of their own thing within the confines of what has to be in the song but I’m not overly precious about ‘you have to do it exactly like this’. Our drummer, Boris (Le Gal) will often change things to make them sound a bit cooler live or make them a bit more playable; but yeah, it was a little bit weird to relinquish control but it’s cool now.”
I ask if, given the complexity of songs, there are any problems reproducing them in a live environment and Paul explains “...it would never be entire songs that were hard to play but 30 seconds packages that were physically nerve-racking but to be honest, it came together pretty quickly and we played our first tour with about three group rehearsals before us – we’d only played together three times in a rehearsal room before that and basically the rest of it has been individual practice and it all came off fine, really. There were bits that I struggled with at first, like my lead work but I think some of that was more to do with just confidence, playing in front of people. I think it was in late 2010, Basick Records did a fifth birthday party and they had four or five bands play at this event and that wasn’t just my first Chimp Spanner show - that was my first show ever. Before that I’d played in front of my mum and dad and I’d played in front of friends and it was always kind of horrible and I didn’t like doing it and my label were just like ‘how would you feel about playing a show, it will probably be in front of about 350 people’ and for some reason I said ‘yeah’.”
Fortunately the experience didn’t put him off and Chimp Spanner recently finished a tour of Europe: “That was absolutely amazing. The year before that I’d done a tour of Europe with another band; Monuments, and that was kind of like a van tour, and we’d done a couple of van tours of the UK too; they were fun.” Fun but obviously a bit rough. Paul continues “This time we were on the night liner with Cynic so we had nice beds and free beer, and they were an amazing band to tour with and they were a really good match for us musically. I enjoyed watching those guys every night and there were really good crowds. The only thing that kind of sucked was not getting to see everywhere we went. People were saying ‘how was it seeing a different country every day?’ and to be honest, the coach looks the same no matter which country you’re in. I think it was a week and half into the tour and we were in Berlin and that was that was the first night we actually got a night out in the city with Cynic, it was literally ten days and we hadn’t managed to do this before then so it was crazy.”
Chimp Spanner will be playing at their All Roads Lead Here EP release party (sorry Australia, it’s in Camden, London) on the sixth of February, playing with fellow Basick Records signees Uneven Structure and The Algorithm, and I read on Paul’s Facebook page that he’d been signing posters and CDs for the upcoming event “Yesterday we were rushing around London, sorting out visas for Russia because we fly to Moscow tomorrow and that was my wind-down for the day; grab a beer and sign a bunch of discs...”
You’re off to Russia? Despite getting fucked around with visas, he’s still able to laugh about the situation. “The day before yesterday we got declined at the visa office and we were just at the point of saying ‘we’re gonna have to pull this show’ because if they’re not letting us in the country then there’s nothing we can do, and at the last minute we went to this tourism and visa management office that put the applications through for you, and we did it with about 20 minutes to spare...so yesterday was pretty stressful.” So what’s the visit to Russia all about? “Literally it’s just one show with us and Uneven Structure...it should be pretty cool and as long as all the people come out it should be good - at the worst it will just be a free weekend in Moscow.”
While All Roads Lead Here is wholly instrumental, do you have any plans to incorporate vocals in the future? “I don’t know. I don’t think so in this project. It might be cool to do something else, even if it’s with the same guys or even with different guys, a different project? But I don’t know. Vocals; I’d have a hard time imagining them fitting in at the moment. But the weird thing is that I have started thinking a little bit about the ‘what if I could sing’ – there’s the control freak coming out again! But it’s also the next scariest leap, it’s one thing to give control of the instruments to other people but obviously once you get lyricists involved you’re talking pretty hefty splits of ownership in the music so I would have to trust someone a hell of a lot to give them that much of a stake in the project, given that I’ve taken it this far on my own. To have someone come in and add lyrics onto different pieces and songs, suddenly it’s like ‘yep, this is half mine now’ – sometimes more, I’ve heard sometimes it can be a 60/40 split in the lyricists favour so I’d have to be dead sure about it. Or like I said, I’d have to do it myself.” He cracks up laughing again at this point.
I raise the point that Chimp Spanner’s sound is a heady mix of 70 and 80s prog rock keyboards with a big fat slice of Djent on top; is this something you aimed for, given the diverse influences on you? “Some of my influences as a kid, there was a lot of Vangelis stuff and Brian Eno in there, and I’m always trying to get that sort of vibe going on with the ambience. It’s deliberately retro I guess, and I was saying to someone the other day, it’s not even so much like consciously acknowledging specific influences but because I kind of associate that kind of music with being small, they’re just memories that are engrained in my head. I’ll be doing something and going for a certain sound and then suddenly remember ‘yeah, this is like from a film I watched when I was six’ and I’ll remember it made me feel a certain way and that’s how it ends up in a song.”
How do you think younger audiences will react to the big synthy sounds and djent together? “Yeah, I don’t really know if there’s a cut off point in terms of the foundation of the age group, I haven’t really had any complaints from younger listeners. I guess they’ll just be listening to it in a different way, someone my parents age will listen to it and think ‘yeah, he’s definitely listened to this band’ and they’ll be able to put that in context, a younger listener will probably just say ‘Cheesy! But it’s cool...’ But the thing is, when I first started writing guitar and music, when I was 16 or 17, and I was going through this kind of nu metal phase that I guess a lot of people were going through at my age, and my parents were always saying ‘Obviously do what you want to do but just think about some of the other stuff that we’ve raised you on as well – we’re not saying we don’t like the music that you’re listening to but...we don’t like the music that you’re listening to!” So a lot of the drive for adding this other level of credibility to the music was that if I could play to my mum and dad and get them to enjoy something that was completely outside their comfort zone musically, then I’m on the right path. That was always the goal; it’s metal in timbre and feel but it’s also just music as well; it’s got other things that people can just appreciate if they’re coming from a different background and they’re not into heavy, aggressive music.”
Do you take umbrage with the number of metal genres being bandied about now? “I don’t really mind. I know there was a lot of debate about the whole djent label; is it actually a genre? But ultimately it’s a pretty handy tag; if someone says to you ‘I like djent’ then it does sum up something that there wouldn’t really be any other way of describing on its own. If they just said “I like metal with weird timing and fusion influences and lots of ambience’...” Yeah, but even the Chimp Spanner website describes your music as ‘progressive retro fusion’...“That’s another nice way of describing it! But I think lately I’ve just taken to calling it ‘prog’; it’s prog-djent/prog-metal...whatever...”
So what’s next? “I’ve pretty much officially started on the next full length...but I’ve not so much been working on new songs but new sounds and new layering ideas and things like that so the next plan is definitely another full length.” When I ask about new directions versus familiar musical territories, Paul is adamant: “Definitely keen to try something else; with the EP I kind of wanted it to be a transitional thing; something for people who enjoyed the feel of At The Dream’s Edge (2009) and just wanted to hear a bit more of that, but I wouldn’t then want to go and do another full length that sounds like it could be off either of those two records [ATDE or Imperium Voragao, 2004]. So I’m trying out a lot of new sound ideas and stuff; I’m also thinking a little bit more about how we can take the reliance away from the backing track when we play live; making it happen almost entirely live on stage; and playing with Cynic was a big inspiration for that as well because they literally did everything on stage with the exception of a couple of intro samples leading into songs and it really made every performance really unique. Whereas at the moment there are some things that we’ve just given over to the backing track because there’s no other way to do it; the big synth keyboard parts and stuff. I do want to keep an element of that because it’s part of the sound, that cinematic soundscape thing but I’d like to bring it back a bit more to the musicians. That will be something we need to try.”
And how’s the touring schedule looking for 2012? “So far, I’ve asked the label to keep me free for the first few months of the year, mainly because I need to work and earn some money...” See! Another poor musician! We need to set up some kind of charity for them. Come on MaF readers! Dig deep and help out a starving muso. Paul continues: “But also because I’d like some time to write. Obviously when I’m touring I can’t do any writing; it’s just not possible. But beyond that, we’re thinking of doing something in the States – we actually had an offer to be touring now but it was just too soon to raise the money for that because it’s gonna be mega expensive no matter what we do. But so far we’ve had about two or three tentative offers, and they’re all kind of pitched towards summer into autumn so I think that’s definitely gonna happen.”
Paul would love to bring Chimp Spanner to Australia and ponders the fact that Melbournites Circles are also signed to Basick Records: “We’d definitely get the demand for it. It would be really cool if we could maybe come over there and hook up with those guys...an Aussie tour with Circles, that would be amazing...” For a few moments we get lost in the reverie of imagining such a scenario before he we return to the subject of dream tours: “Speaking of Australian bands, I’d love to do something with Karnivool because they’re incredible, I love those guys, obviously touring with Meshuggah would be incredible, they’re the big two I guess. I’d happily tour with Cynic again, that was a really cool match. If we went over to the States, chances are we’d tour with Periphery – that’d be really good for us. It’s kind of sucky that it hasn’t happened yet because obviously me and Misha (Mansoor) basically started out around the same time doing the same thing, and we were keeping in touch with each other as we were progressing...it would be really cool to get over there and experience some crazy shows with those guys because they’ve got such a huge following.”
Bugger! We’ve been chatting for almost half an hour, I should let you get back to your breakfast! But just a couple of final questions – what are you listening to right now? “Oh man! What a question! The weird thing is I’m actually going back and revisiting some stuff I missed the first time around because I went straight in with some of the more modern metal; it’s kind of weird but ... a lot of Pantera stuff - so I’m diving back into things that I kind of missed. I’m listening to a lot of Queen, which is kind of strange...I love it! My girlfriend is massively into them and when she was over we listened to all their albums in a massive Queen binge. Speaking of vocalists, if I ever have one, he has to be as good as Freddie Mercury.” Bloody hell! Good luck with that one!
Who do you recommend we seek out? “That’s a pretty tough one. For anyone that hasn’t heard of Sikth – they don’t exist anymore – but they were a UK tech-metal band, those guys are pretty mind blowing; very technical stuff but great at what they do.” It’s true, they were pretty awesome.
Some people say the metal scene is dead/dying; is this true? Again, he’s adamant. “No, not at all. It’s been going this long and there isn’t any sign of it slowing down. Obviously people are fixated on how much money is in the scene but ultimately most people aren’t doing this for the money. If they wanted money, they’d go and do something else. I think as long as there are people, there’s going to be a metal scene.” We get into a discussion about poor skint Joe Duplantier from Gojira and conclude he’s not the only one. Paul says he regularly gets questions about how it feels to be a millionaire rock star (he’s not) and makes the salient point “...but we’ve got to be in that mind set where you don’t really care because it could send you mad if you had any kind of expectations or any entitlement as to what you deserve for your music. You have to find enjoyment in it where you can and do it because you love it. In a way [being skint], it’s something that unifies a lot of the bands in the scene, no matter what level they’re at; yes, there are bigger bands with bigger followings and bigger profiles but ultimately you know that everyone’s slogging away at it for the same reasons – it’s not like there are many bands who have an easier time of it than everyone else.”
And finally, if you were being executed in the morning, what would be your last meal? “It would have to be a curry.”
And on that note, we say our good-byes.
Paul Ortiz. Truly a monkey-genius.