Over the past six weeks or so, I've interviewed poets, fiction writers, musicians, photographers, small business owners, and other artists and entertainers of varied practices. They have all put releases on hold or sent their creations out into a world embroiled in COVID-fueled turmoil and uncertainty. Overwhelmingly, they have taken the long view, expressing more concern for society as a whole than for their unique creations. Even so, they could all take a lesson from Ian Younkin, guitarist/vocalist and principal songwriter for Autolith and bassist for Shards of Humanity, two Memphis musical acts that are decidedly on the heavier end of the spectrum. Younkin's two groups each released an album amid a verified global pandemic. The mild-mannered metal maestro takes it all in stride, though. We talked about small labels, his albums, and the triumphs and turmoil that come with creation.
Memphis Flyer: You had two releases come out within a month of each other, and in the middle of a pandemic. What's that like?
Autolith (left to right): Mark Brake, Ryan O’Neal, Ian Younkin, Brian Hillhouse
It was a very exciting thing myself and the rest of the band members were looking forward to. Then all of a sudden there was a bit of anxiety about it all. Fortunately, fans in the metal world are still into buying physical copies of music they want to support. The most frustrating thing about it is not being able to travel to support the albums. Getting out on the road is generally the tried-and-true way to sell your music.
MF: You must have put a lot of time into these. Can you talk a little about the time investment vs. the weird circumstances surrounding the releases?
Both releases took quite a while. Autolith has been playing some of the songs on Caustic Light
since we began back in 2017, but since we added Brian and Mark the songs changed for the better. We recorded the release during several sessions throughout mid-2019. Then we shopped it to several labels, landed on Hand of Death, and the rest is history.
Shards took a while to record because we wanted the record to sound a certain way. The time and attention to detail really shows with the final product.
MF: How are you getting the music to the fans?
IY: The internet is the main way both bands get music to listeners. You can find music from both bands on Bandcamp, Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube. Bandcamp also features an online store to buy physical versions of the releases.
MF: So pestilence and plague are pretty metal themes. In fact, the illustration of the yellow fever epidemic in the Pink Palace always made me think of a metal album cover. Is there any irony to releasing metal music right now?
IY: Pandemics like we are currently experiencing have certainly been the subject of many records from metal bands. If anything, lyrical themes are more relatable than ever. This could be the literal sickness the coronavirus is causing or even the political antics currently on display.
MF: Autolith was able to tour before states started going on lockdown. How was that experience?
IY: The weekend run we did was a lot of fun! We got to play with some label mates (Thieves) in Chicago, Closet Witch in Rock Island, and Mystic Will in St. Louis. We love getting out of town because it is one of the most fun and effective ways to get your band's name out there. We book most of our own shows, so it helps create relationships between bands in other cities. We got the show in Rock Island with Closet Witch because we hosted a show for them here at The Lamplighter. Overall, we managed to reach some new fans and make lots of new friends.
MF: Tell me a little about how you approach the two bands differently. How does being the vocalist affect that? How does playing guitar vs. bass?
Shards is a much more technical band, musically. I play bass in Shards, and the songs Todd [Cochran] writes really test my abilities as a player. It has definitely made me a better bass player and a more humble guitar player.
IY: Autolith's music is fairly simple when it comes to complexity in the riffs and songwriting. We put more emphasis on writing songs that stick with you and make you feel something. Playing guitar and screaming has its challenges, but with lots of practice I've gotten better at it. I was definitely pretty awkward at it when we first started. My stage "banter" used to be the definition of awkward.
MF: Can you tell me a little about recording the albums?
IY: Shards recorded guitars with Alan Burchum. He is a very easygoing guy to record with, but will definitely make sure you track your songs right. Drums were recorded by Mike Low. With his experience playing in Inferi, Oubliette, and Enfold Darkness, he really nailed the drum sound for us. Autolith tracked some instruments at home and then tracked the majority of things at Ecko Records with Justin Short.
MF: What's your writing process like?
IY: For Shards, Todd Cochran writes just about everything then hashes out the songs with me and the drummer Ryan McCallister. Ryan and I have a lot of freedom to be creative with our parts within Todd's songs. For Autolith, I usually bring a song skeleton to the rest of the band and then we go from there. Sometimes there are minimal changes made to the skeleton, other times it sounds completely different from how it started.
MF: Autolith's Caustic Light came out on Hand of Death Records, and the new Shards is out on Unspeakable Axe, right? Can you talk a little about working with each label?
IY: Correct! Working with each label has been a blessing. Both are one-man operations who are in it because they are passionate about music. Nathan behind Hand of Death Records also plays in some bands based in the Asheville area (Harsh Realm and Secret Shame). Both labels have been awesome about sending music to blogs and reviewers for promotional purposes. I would definitely recommend you check out the other bands on those labels!
MF: Is there any special meaning to the phrase “Caustic Light”?
IY: There are several ways you can interpret "Caustic Light." It is a metaphor for something seemingly "positive" but really is damaging or harmful. (That's dumbing it down a bunch.) For example, someone forcing certain religions on individuals or certain cultures has "good" intentions, but they are interfering with someone else's own life so they can fulfill a prophecy of some sort. This is not limited to religion. This is rampant in politics as well. The other lyrics on the record range from substance abuse, reflection on past actions, grief, failure to be inspired, and there is even a track about Memphis.
MF: What plans do you have for either band?
IY: Both bands are working even more material and are looking out for when we can play shows again.
MF: You're splitting time between multiple groups, and your drummer, Ryan, is in a Florida-based group as well. Is it hard to juggle schedules?
IY: Scheduling is always stressful. It is sometimes hard to balance, but it is important to be fair with your time to all bands you play in. Usually one band will be more active than another so it works out. Ryan also plays in the Jacksonville-based Yashira (Good Fight Records). Ryan was flying down to Florida at least once a month to practice and record with those guys. Autolith actually played our first show with Yashira. Funny how things work out. I also try to be as transparent with dates of shows between the two bands.
MF: Speaking of lineups, what has it been like having guitarist Mark Brake in Autolith? He's the first person I ever saw project a movie onto his amp.
IY: Having Mark in Autolith has been awesome! He has a keen ear for songwriting and balance of sound. He also owns more gear than the rest of my bandmates combined!
MF: Is there anything I left out? Anything you want to mention?
IY: The biggest thing I want to convey is that my bands have it easy in the grand scheme of things. Folks who make a living off of touring, playing shows, and releasing physical music are facing much more uncertainty and financial hardships.