Interview with ex-Confessor guitarist Brian Shoaf
Doom metal, like thrash, death, black also separated into various directions during the years. There are the traditional, epic, funeral doom outfits, but there was a band that belonged to nowhere, they did their own. It was Confessor from Raleigh Northern Carolina what were mentioned as technical, progressive doom metal. The band’s mighty debut Condemned was released 30 years ago and former guitarist Brian Shoaf told about this masterpiece and the band’s entire history.
Confessor was formed around 1986 in Raleigh, North Carolina by guitarists Graham Fry and Brian Shoaf, along with his sibling Jim Shoaf on drums and bassist Cary Rowells. How did you get together? Did all of you have the same musical interest and taste?
My brother played drums and knew Graham for a while, so he invited him over to jam and it went well. I was there and had a guitar so. That’s kind of how it all started.
Prior to this Graham was in another local group called No Comment. Does that mean that the others had Confessor as their first band?
Scott and Graham were the only ones who had been in previous bands.
You decided to get in contact with the old vocalist of No Comment, Scott Jeffreys, who basically ended up joining Confessor right after you met. Was it easy to convince Scott to join the band?
It was pretty easy to get Scott involved. Just gave him a call and he came on over. He was used to working with Graham so it was a natural progression.
What type of music did No Comment opt for, by the way? Did the band record any materials?
It was basically rock, and they had a few home made tapes running around High School.
How about the metal scene of North Carolina as a whole? Did metal have a strong background, a lot of followers or was the state mostly known for its punk scene?
At this time I would say our main claim to fame and local heroes were Corrosion of Conformity. They were super helpful hooked us up on our first out of town gigs.
A year later in 1987 Jim was replaced by Steve Shelton. How did he get in the picture exactly? What about Steve’s musical background?
I was not heavily involved with that, since I was Jim’s brother. I think Scott approached Steve after hearing him play while driving by. Eventually Graham and Steve hit it off and started jamming some songs out. I was kind of caught in the middle, but this worked out well for my brother ultimately as he went on to work for COC, then Soundgarden, who happened to have the same management as a new band at the time Alice In Chains. So he got to work AIC first tour and then started with the next new band Pearl Jam. He was with them for several albums. I can say he made out better money wise.
Did your choice immediately fall on him or were there other drummers auditioned as well?
No, there were no other drummers involved.
What do you recall of your early rehearsals? Did you start writing originals right away or did you focus mainly on playing covers?
We were all originals straight from the start. I do recall we worked on Judas Priest Victim of Changes for a bit, but never played it live.
Three demos were produced: The Secret (1987), Uncontrolled (1989) and Collapse (1990). Can you provide us with details regarding these materials? Did all of these demos really represent what you wanted to achieve the band with?
All were recorded with Dick Hodgin, a great producer. Yes, we were really on our game at that time, and things were rolling along just as planned!
Would you say that the demos gained the band quick recognition, you managed to make the band’s name known and to create any buzz around you?
We were actually really pleasently surprised at how quick we started drawing decent crowds. The local NC State (WKNC) station was playing us on their metal show and this helped a lot. Plus as I said COC put us on some shows, so we got a lot of exposure pretty quick.
Were all of these recordings shopped around to attract labels’ interests?
Yes, we shopped to all of the labels, I used to have our Metal Blade rejection letter somewhere around here. Although they put us on MM 10.
A change in the line up occurred around this point, when Graham Fry chose to depart as his musical preferences were shifting into a totally different direction and Ivan Colon (R.I.P.) was recruited. Did he serve as a perfect replacement?
Yes, Ivan was one of my best high school friends, he played guitar and would go out to shows and roadie for us. He was a pretty natural selection as everyone knew him and got along well.
Did he have any experiences as musician, before he got in the band?
He had played in a few local bands in high school.
Around this time, the group went to Paul „Hammy” Halmshaw (the founder of Peaceville Records) in hopes of working something out. How did you get in touch with him?
I don’t recall exactly how he heard us, but it was really cool that he wore our shirt! We were stoked! Ultimately there just wasn’t a budget at the time I think.
Although nothing major happened, he did at least feature the track Uncontrolled on his Vile Vibes compilation of 1990 and your distinctive sound was featured also on Metal Blade’s Metal Massacre X (The Secret). How the offer to have a spot on the latter happened? Did you perhaps know Brian Slagel personally? Did these appearances help you to expand your fanbase?
Yeah, I have the rejection letter from Metal Blade/Brian Slagel somewhere around here. Those 2 songs being out did help a lot though.
At which point did Earache take notice of Confessor, that eventually ended up signing you? Were you aware of the label was mostly known for their grindcore and death metal outfits around this time?
We were not that familiar with them, but quickly took a crash course! Any label that showed interest was a good label for us after all.
Were you prepared to record the debut album Condemned, when you entered the Reflection Sound Studios (Charlotte, NC)? How about the recording sessions? Did you go easily the work with?
Ivan had to do a lot of learning very quickly, as Graham had left literally just before we signed the contract with Earache. The studio was the best one we had ever been in.
With the exception of the songs, The Stain and Defining Happiness, all of the tunes got from the demos on the record. Did you re-record them? Did you change anything about them?
The Stain was the newest song and first one written without Graham. Defining Happiness just had not made the cut yet for a demo. The entire beginning of Condemed, Steve came up with when we got to the studio. No pressure guys, it’s only like money… 🙂
Do you think that you were doing the offbeat and odd time-signature thing way before Meshuggah?
I am not sure, we had not heard of them at the time. It looks like they were very succesful with it, so that’s really what matters.
It’s difficult to really put the record into a particular genre, the music of Confessor can be difficult to properly classify, correct?
Yes, it was kind of a gift and curse at the same time. 🙂
It’s got the power metal influence and the doom elements, but there are also death metal riffs mixed in, and with much more complex song structures and rhythms. Do you agree with it?
We were all in to Black Sabbath, Trouble at the time. Steve added all the odd timing in and that’s kind of how it worked. A riff would come up and Steve would do his thing to it.
Is the musicianship on Condemned of a technical and intricate nature?
At the time we were really in to pushing our limits pretty much.
Do you mind that the drumming on this album is famously some of the best of the time, with complex rhythms easily flowing into each other and with extraneous fills thrown? Do the guitar parts also escape into tech-metal territory occasionally?
I do not mind it at all, it is what we were known for, that and Scott’s vocals. The guitars had to be a bit technical by nature just to follow what Steve was doing.
Would be the closest comparison a considerably slowed-down and less bass-heavy Watchtower?
I guess, Scott and Steve were listening a bit to those guys as we progressed. There is a tape out there somewhere of Scott auditioning for Watchtower when they were looking for a vocalist.
The pace isn’t snail tempo slow: it’s heavy music, but the tempo is mostly kept in slow to mid pace and the music is quite technical compared to other releases in the genre. What’s your opinion about it?
We were never really in to writing super fast paced thrash type songs, preferring to keep it on the slower, heavy side.
The tracks are not especially long, most of them are about 4 minutes and there’s not a dull moment throughout the album…
As for the length of the songs heck, I’m good with 3 minutes and done on to the next song.
How do you view that although not a very melodic album, it’s not an atonal one either and maintains the interest of the music listener?
Scott did a good job and always has with coming up vocals that seem to bring a song together.
Desolation and despair, suffering and sorrow, trial and torment seem to comprise most of the lyrical themes, right?
Yes, all of the lyrics except for The Stain were written by Scott. Steve wrote The Stain. It wasn’t his happiest memory I think.
Do you consider Condemned as the most unique sounding doom metal albums? Not only because the music on the album is unusually technical for the genre, but also because of the distinct high pitched vocal delivery by Scott Jeffreys.
It seems to be more popular now then it was back then … 🙂
The sound production lacks a bit of warmth, but it’s powerful, detailed, professional, and it generally suits the music well. Did Confessor sound significantly more anguished than many of your peers and you don’t really sound like any other bands?
The guitar production I would love to revisit. We learned lot about recording later on. This was the first metal band the producer had worked with. Due to money constraints we could not afford Hodgin and this studio at the same time so we went with the producer and engineer there. Great guys, but it was their first go around for heavy music.
Did you manage to offer a totally unique effort that was ahead of its time? Was it an album with a major impact at the time of its release?
As I said, I think it gained more respect as time went on.
You headed out on the legendary Gods of Grind tour in 1992 alongside Carcass, Cathedral and Entombed. What kind of memories do you have from that tour?
It was awesome. All of the bands were really nice to us and we all got along well. Most of the clubs were insanely nice!
A self titled EP came out with the tour. What was the purpose of it?
That was Earache’s call. We had gone back in to the same studio to record a Black Sabbath cover for them and while we were there ripped out a few Trouble songs. Those were basically the only covers we ever performed.
A few months after returning from the Gods of Grind tour the band went back to Europe with Nocturnus. How did this tour go compared to the previous one?
Well, that was like falling off a cliff. Out of about 4 months of shows I would say there were about 7 really good ones and mostly empty ones.
How did Confessor end in 1994? Have you continued your career in other bands?
We had reached a point where Scott was losing interest I think, and Earache was not offering any support. We never got the US tour we really needed. Things kind of fell apart from there. I continued on with Steve and Cary (and Chris Nolan) who is currently in Confessor to play in a band (Fly Machine). I eventually left them in 1996 or so.
You reunited in 2002 with Shawn McCoy being the second guitarist to play a tribute concert to deceased guitarist Ivan Colon. A CD (The Demos – Contains Collapse, The Secret and Uncontrolled demo tapes) was created and sold by the band in 2002 after Ivan’s death, money raised went to the Colon family. How long did the preparations take considering the reunion? Did you remain in touch with each other after the band’s split?
Actually Graham came back in for the tribute show. It was awesome, although very sad for me. We sold out the local theatre here, which was around 900 folks at the time. I couldn’t believe that so many people came out for it. I really hate we did not record that show. With the success of that show, I called up Steve, Graham and Cary to see if they would be interested in doing some more shows and maybe writing again. Graham had his own thing going on so was not interested. Shawn was playing with Steve and Cary in Fly Machine, he had just replaced Chris, who was traveling a lot for work at the time. Steve, Cary and Scott agreed, and Shawn worked diligently to learn the entire Confessor catalogue and jumped on board. I went out and got another amp, as I didn’t even own one at the time and a digital recorder to start writing riffs and we were off again.
The band decided to continue after that released three excellent materials (Blueprint Soul EP – 2004, Sour Times EP and Unraveled – 2005), Live in Norway DVD – 2006, respectively, but we haven’t heard anything about you since. What’s the current status of the band?
We broke up again for a while, then got back together to play the Maryland Death Fest in 2012. We decided to write some more after that but about a year in to it I was not feeling it and wanted more of a melodic Sour Times vibe of a record where as Steve was inclined to be more math oriented. One person not being in to a band and staying is really a drag, so I left. They just finished some songs in the studio and I expect those to be out pretty soon.
How do you want Ivan to be remembered?
He was a super nice guy. Scott once said, if you knew Ivan you would think, man, that’s my best friend. That’s just how he was. His death still bothers me greatly.
Brian, thanks a lot for the interviews! Any final words for the Hungarian readers?
Thanks for all the support! My new band Slow End will have something out soon. Cary and Chris are in this band as well. It is more of a heavy straight fun rock thing! If you are interested in some live recordings: