Spiritual Poison’s Harmony and Dissonance

Spiritual Poison interview

“This is my Pieces of a Man!” Ethan McCarthy exclaims. The multi-instrumentalist is most known for his roles in extreme heavy metal bands, Primitive Man and Vermin Womb, as well as the harsh noise project, Many Blessings. Yet, like his reference to Gil Scott-Heron’s 1971 debut studio album, McCarthy aims to show a new side of himself through a debut of his own. Spiritual Poison is his new cinematic drone project. His debut, Incorporeal, serves as a proper introduction to McCarthy’s new ideas and provides a window to his true demeanor and heart.

Incorporeal is loaded with expansive sounds—notes and layers peeled and stretched to their limits. McCarthy strived to make something sonically different as to avoid becoming stagnant within own his creations. With as much as he has been a part of over the decades, it is no small task. He is a renowned artist with fans in every corner of his creative range. Spiritual Poison is designed to exist beyond this range. It is otherworldly. It steps beyond the threshold of his concrete creations and sheds the bindings of metal and harsh noise McCarthy is constrained by.

He is free to make compositions he has never made before—as well as share a personality most people have never seen before.

“I got a lot of fucking heart,” McCarthy says. His public perception is deeply linked to being the vocalist and guitarist in unhinged and nihilistic metal bands. Yet, what people see on stage or on records is far from who McCarthy is.

“I think that people are afraid to talk to me because that’s the general perception of who I am,” McCarthy explains. “I know I’m not the most jovial motherfucker, but I can be nice, and I know how to be a person.”

For 15 years of his life, McCarthy was an educator and cared for children when he wasn’t writing music. He is also a pivotal part of Denver’s music community and the larger global heavy metal scene as a booking agent and visual artist who creates artwork for many bands.

Spiritual Poison might be a bit of a surprise to those who only know McCarthy as a member of Primitive Man or Vermin Womb. Yet, the fact that he is also a spiritual person who is searching a deeper meaning in life might come as a surprise too.

We sat down with McCarthy over Zoom to dive into Incorporeal and to learn more about how his spirituality and life experiences have shaped his newest project. Additionally, McCarthy sheds light on how he hopes the rest of his life unfolds and what that means for his artistry and creativity.

Read our interview and watch the video for the single, “Summon” as well. Incorporeal arrives tomorrow through Closed Casket Activities.

What unique opportunities does Spiritual Poison afford you both artistically and

Ethan McCarthy: I get to focus on floating in and out of harmony and dissonance. Whereas the other stuff I do primarily focuses on staying dissonant at all times. These compositions are long forms, so there might be an entire sequence of music that takes two minutes to get to the other side of—it’s really expansive. The idea is to just slow down time and space it out. It’s less immediate for a payoff. It’s really designed to be listened to loud and with patience to get to those dissonant and explosive parts.

The way you describe it, is that a realization of why you needed to make this project? Was there a moment in you composing music where you think, “This doesn’t fit with Many Blessings. Should I go somewhere else?”

EM: I started to feel with Many Blessings material I was making this pivot to making it more of a cinematic feel and less harsh noise. Then, I would really miss playing unhinged harsh noise. So, over the last couple of years, I’ve really tried to make that clear separation. The Many Blessings recordings have become 100 times more aggressive since the last LP—a million times more aggressive. Then I’ve leaned into the other side with Spiritual Poison.

The last time I saw you live, and from other videos I’ve seen of Many Blessings performances, it is physical, visceral. You’re using chains and rocks and other stuff. I was curious to know, was this an effort to delineate between the two projects?

EM: Yeah, definitely. Also, the stuff that I use in Spiritual Poison is modular gear and it’s expensive. So, I cannot do the kinds of things with it that I can do with Many Blessings. With Many Blessings. I’m playing with steel and cheap pedals and noise maracas, and things that I throw off the table because it’s a performance—a very physical thing. You know, this Spiritual Poison thing really is designed to be in a dark room, very loud, in a calmer place, and it’s good with psychedelics. Many Blessings is not good with psychedelics. [Laughs]

One comes with a disclaimer, and one does not.

EM: It’s just a different side of my creativity I guess. A less aggressive place. I mean, it’s still dark, but there are a lot of moments of levity and joyful moments. I guess that I would never say about any other thing I’ve ever done.

Would you still say that Spiritual Poison is heavy?

EM: Sometimes. But if I were to stack it up against literally anything else I do, then the answer is no. [Laughs] You know, but there are some heavy moments on there for sure. I would say that it’s probably 85/15 not heavy.

Knowing Spiritual Poison is almost exclusively not heavy. How would you pitch
this to people who maybe only know you for Primitive Man, Vermin Womb, or
even just Many Blessings?

EM: I feel like even though it’s different sonically, it’s coming from the same perspective and there are some commonalities in there. If you like that stuff, then I’m trying to do it in a different way.

Who wants everything to sound the same? It would be pointless for me to do another project that didn’t sound different. I think I just like to express myself in different ways and try to diversify what I’m doing. It would just be dumb if everything was going to sound the same, I would just put everything out through Primitive Man! [Laughs]

Do you feel like Incorporeal is a mission statement or an introduction to the project? Is there any theme to define Spiritual Poison?

EM: It is very much about spirituality and your place in time and space—all of these deep things—or whether or not any of it exists at all. The main idea of the record when I was making it was “opening a doorway, walking into a different place, creating music within this different place, and what that might sound like.”

I’m stepping away from what is comfortable and the things that I normally make. This is the first record I’ve ever done that isn’t a little fucked up or like or kind of majorly fucked up or very heavy, crazy, unhinged, or angry. This isn’t an angry record at all. It’s just a different perspective and another side of my personality that I don’t normally showcase, which is a little bit more mellow.

You’re showcasing something people really haven’t seen of you or maybe haven’t thought of as being there. It sounds like an opportunity to show yourself in a different light to people who may only know you from your harsh stuff.

EM: You’re right. I want to be able to do different things, collaborate with people, and continue to play. All my favorite musicians who I look up to have a lot of shit. They’re spread out and trying different things. I think it’s also in the celebration of creativity and just being free. I wanted to be free to create something completely different. That’s also part of this. I didn’t want to be constrained by all these rules. All my other shit, there are strict rules.

The easiest example I can think of is when I’m writing songs with Vermin Womb. If it sounds the least bit fun—because it’s fast music, it’s easy to sound fun—I’m throwing it in the garbage and we don’t use it. I had rewritten that record that we put out last year (Retaliation) probably four times. It’s very focused on what it’s supposed to be doing.

This (Incorporeal) is focused, but it’s a freer and broader spectrum of what you can get away with.

You are untethered from the things that you might normally run into with creativity in other areas.

EM: Yeah. In the studio for this Spiritual Poison record, there were moments where it sounded pretty and I looked at Andy [Nelson] and Drew [Brown] and I was like, “This is alright… Right?” Then everyone was like, “Yeah, this is sick.” Then we just let it ride.

How was the recording process overall? It ultimately sounds like this is all kind of uncharted.

EM: It was incredible, man. I had such a good time. I went in there with some of the ideas and skeletons of these songs and the things I want to achieve. A couple of them are just like senses of what I wanted it to sound like.

I went in there, set up my stuff, and asked a few friends to come in. I kind of told them what I was trying to do, and it just came together nicely over eight days. There’s stuff that we didn’t use, but the tracks that ended up on the album I’m very proud of. I hope that people can see where I’m coming from.

I just wish that there was a way that I could emphasize that you must listen to it loud. There’s a lot buried within the music. It’s a rich palette full of little things and ear candy. It’s really designed to be listened with headphones or loud.

We put a bunch of fun hidden things in there. I wanted to make a record that is cool like a Brian Eno record or a Sunn O))) record.

I think of Tim Hecker.

EM: Yeah! I love that dude. His shit is insane! That’s what I mean—or like Lawrence English. A Tim Hecker record, you must listen to that loud and you have to digest it. There’s so much in that. “Music for Tundra” and Haunt Me. That record is fucking so dense. It’s so full of stuff to hear. This is the creative place that I’m thinking about. I am heavily influenced by him. I wanted to make something like that, but in my own way. I would say that this record is more extreme than a Tim Hecker record. So compared to Tim Hecker, it’s heavy, but that’s because I don’t want to sound like Tim Hecker. So, I’m going to run this through my filter of how I do it. It’s just such a different approach to music than I’ve taken in the past.

What are some examples on Incorporeal that you’ve buried or hidden? Which ones are you excited about?

EM: There’s a voice message from my late father on there. It’s the last voice message he left me. His disembodied voice is on that record, and he had a very unique-sounding voice. My dog barking is on there. There are a few birds on this record, too. There’s some singing on there, but it’s really buried. There are drums run through all sorts of stuff—auxiliary percussion that you’re not going to pick up on if you’re not really listening to it.

I play the piano on it. There’s so much shit happening on this record. I play a ton of different instruments on it. There’s some smashing of things. It’s really got a lot. We went wild in there. I’m not a brilliant piano player. I just did it and I thought that it sounded good. People might think that this album is bullshit, but honestly, at the end of the day, I don’t care. I had a fun time. We made a very honest recording that we put a lot of time into.

Did starting Spiritual Poison give you a chance to explore your own spirituality?

Yeah, a little bit. I do think about that a lot. I was raised with religion and rejected religion. Now I’m open to spirituality, but not organized religion. I’m open to asking all sorts of questions—”What if?” questions and stuff. I’m thinking about those things when I’m making the record too.

I’m thinking about what we think of as God could just be the natural order of things, and we just fit into it in a way that we don’t know—like a mathematical equation. I also like to think that we are in a computer, which is a crazy fucking idea. I’m just thinking about all these things. It’s not any dogma or anything, but really considering spirituality and the possibility of things so much greater than the physical world, or the world that I know of.

Even beyond the places I’ve been or the things that I’ve experienced, there’s just so much more. I’m attempting to talk about shit that I will never be able to comprehend. It’s a broad idea, but I think everyone thinks about these things. Part of being a human being is thinking about these things.

Who knows how long we have left? So, I just want to do as much as I can—like the weirdest shit.

There are a lot of what-ifs out there and it would almost be ridiculous to completely deny all possibilities or things like that. Right? Where’s the fun?

EM: Yeah. Where’s the fun? I think the most fun part of this is that we don’t know. But there is a little something making this shit tick. It might be because I’m getting older too. You start to think about mortality. I lost my dad, and it makes me think about this. Plus, it was right out of the pandemic when this was recorded—at the beginning of 2022.

Also, I have seen some interesting shit on tour with Primitive Man. I’ve had paranormal experiences with Jon (Campos), with witnesses. People were there and they saw it with me, so I know I’m not insane!

I had this thing happen in Australia with Jon. We were sitting at a table rolling a joint up when this chair went flying out of nowhere from under this table. Then we found out three days later that someone hung themselves in that room. We didn’t know that at the time. That was a big thing for me and I’m never going to forget that. I really started to consider these things at that time—that was in 2019.

Before that, I was a militant atheist, but then I had something happen and it just made me start thinking about it. I needed some sort of proof, and then I got my proof. I will never forget that, and it helped bring me to this place of making this fun record.

Have you had any other close calls or encounters?

EM: Jon and I have seen the same person’s face at the same time inside a basement that went away quickly. I had the whole thing—the hair stand up on your body and all of that.

Joe (Linden) was asleep on a couch. He missed the whole thing. I woke him up and said, “You have no idea what you just missed. You just missed the craziest shit!”

That’s crazy! You have me thinking if I’ve had any experiences like that. I’ve seen the word “cinematic” get used a lot to describe Incorporeal. If you could redo the soundtrack to any movie with your own personal soundtrack. What movie are you picking and how would you do it differently?

EM: I’m thinking about my favorite movies, but what makes them my favorite movies is the music is perfect. My first two answers in my head were Full Metal Jacket and Taxi Driver. But the music for those is so good. Specifically, the music for Full Metal Jacket. It is so good–and a woman made it too. Taxi Driver I thought of, but I can’t make the weird jazz and symphony stuff is cool. Maybe The Last Temptation of Christ.

What would you what would you want to do with that?

EM: I would just make it accurate for what he’s really experiencing. Like that scene in the desert where he takes a bite of the bloody apple. It’s an incredible movie, but the music is shit if I’m remembering correctly. I just rewatched it a couple of weeks ago. I own it because I like it that much. I think that I would go with that one. I think maybe that, or I would really like to do 2001 (A Space Odyssey).

But if you did Taxi Driver with noise… You know what? I’m going to go with that too, I don’t care. It has the whole gauntlet of human emotion in there and he is a sick fuck among sicker fucks. You can make a crazy soundtrack to that. That’s not really Spiritual Poison though. That’s a Many Blessings job. I guess I’d have to go with The Last Temptation of Christ.

If it’s Spiritual Poison, it’s The Last Temptation of Christ. If it’s Many Blessings, you are soundtracking Taxi Driver.

EM: I’ve always wanted to do a soundtrack. I just wish that one of my friends who does movies would make a movie and let me do the soundtrack. Before I die, I would love to do a movie soundtrack, but like some real soundscape stuff. The way David Lynch does the sounds in his movies is awesome—that sound design. I love that kind of stuff. I think about those kinds of elements too when I’m making this stuff.

If you had to take Incorporeal as it is and put it over a movie, what movie would you put it over?

EM: It’s not that cool of a pick, but I think it’s a pretty cool pick. This is a more modern movie called A Dark Song. [It’s] about this woman whose son is murdered. She goes and finds an occult practitioner. They go through this series of serious ancient rituals to bring her son back. They’re in this big mansion in the country and all this stuff happens in this mansion. The stuff that happens in this movie is so good and so crazy. The sound design is incredible, the concept is cool—especially if you’re into what we’ve been discussing. I was thinking about that movie when I was making this record.

You just kind of reminded me through these questions because Dylan (Walker) from Full of Hell and I bonded over really liking this movie. I don’t know very many people who have seen it, but I’ve been seeing it pop up a little bit more. You should watch that because that will answer a ton of these questions on a visual level.

Your inspiration is not the other grind or doom bands all the time, right? So, you have to have some other source of inspiration.

EM: No, I feel bad that it isn’t. I wish I could say that it is, but it isn’t. I mean there was a lot of thought that went into this album, but it was also really freewheeling and it’s unlike any experience I’ve ever had. I was with some really good friends. Will Lindsay from Indian is on the record too. He plays lap steel. Andy and Drew are all over this thing too. They were helping me make it happen. Smoke was flowing, it was long days of making this different thing and branching out. Now that I’m releasing it into the world, it’s kind of weird.

Maybe because this has been recorded for a year now, it gives you an opportunity to look back on the whole process and reflect a little bit on the fun and exciting stuff you did with it.

Definitely. I hope that I can do more with this. In an ideal world, what will happen for me is that I’ll be playing in Primitive Man until I’m old and cool like Neurosis. Not that we are as cool as Neurosis, but I loved them. Old dudes playing this heavy shit sounds like a cool thing.

I love playing metal, but I have some ideas and I want to see them through. I think that might be the art part too. Who knows how long we have left? So, I just want to do as much as I can—like the weirdest shit. Any idea I’ve got, I want to do it.

I’ve been playing music for 32 years and I’m entering the second half of my life. I’m into the idea of the second half of my life being creative, fruitful, different, and full of variety. My previous years, I’ve only ever played death metal, hardcore, grindcore and doom.

So, fuck it. Something new.

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