Have you watched the news lately? It’s a blast for the working class, right? Rising prices for no real reason other than corporate greed, rising wealth for the upper class for no real reason other than, uh, also corporate greed, the degradation of our planet for no real…ok, you get the point. It would be nice for the backbone of this country to get a win for once, wouldn’t it? I don’t know when, if ever, you’re going to see that happen on the news but in the self-titled debut from independent metal band Pillaging Villagers, rest assured that debts are paid and those who seek to crush the spirit of the average man and woman more than get what’s coming to them.
Pillaging Villagers is the brainchild of David Frazer, the Milwaukee based musician, and it’s a wild concept album mixing the sound of thrash, death, and folk metal with punk elements as well. That it pulls it all off in a hell of a ride is a monumental achievement. If you’re a fan of any genre that I listed, or just looking for an immersive, fun ride where the people who don’t get a ton of wins in the real world come out on top in the end, you could do far worse than Pillaging Villagers. We recently talked with Frazer about the very DIY album, the birth of what he calls “peasant metal,” and what’s next following one of the most exciting debuts of the year.
Pillaging Villagers is your first album for this particular project. What’s your background and how did this project come about?
Pillaging Villagers is a concept I came up with as a teenager – creating this album has been something that I have been dreaming about for 20 years. When the pandemic hit in 2020, I became really motivated to finally take the step to start writing the music that had been kicking around in my mind for decades but never had the time to make a reality. When I started doing so, I never thought I would actually finish it, let alone record it or promote it, as I had not picked up a guitar or performed metal in more than 10 years (I was formerly the vocalist and principal songwriter for a band called Erebus). The project is really the fulfillment of a childhood dream and a very personal piece of creative expression that takes inspiration from so many of my passions, music being only one of many.
The album is a wild mix of all kinds of elements. I hear inspirations from death, thrash, folk, and punk. Who are your musical inspirations for this project and in general? How would you describe the Pillaging Villagers sound?
Back when I was a kid fumbling my way through power chords on my Bronze Series BC Rich Warlock, Pillaging Villagers started out as an idea to combine the Dropkick Murphys-style Celtic punk I was really into at the time with some of the gateway metal like Manowar and Hatebreed that was just starting to spark a lifelong passion for heavy music. As my musical tastes expanded throughout my life, the Pillaging Villagers idea began to take on new dimensions, such as integration of folk/viking metal like Amon Amarth and Ensiferum as well as influences from expansive concept albums like those from Devin Townsend and King Diamond. I have used the terms ‘punk Ensiferum’, ‘thrash Dropkick Murphys’ and ‘crossover thrash/folk metal’ in interviews and other promotional materials, but I really like the term ‘peasant metal.’ Pillaging Villagers has a raw, aggressive feel that is missing from a lot of folk metal of late, and it is too melodic and death-oriented to be classified as purely thrash or even crossover thrash. I also like how the term ‘peasant metal’ captures the rebellious, punk-orientation of the project.
What’s your process like for writing the music aspect of the songs? Like I said, there’s a really impressive variety between songs and even within songs. How important was it to you to keep listeners on their toes with this album? For me, it was a real blast having no idea what to expect next that first time I listened to the album.
There is a lot of diversity in the album, but the philosophy for all the songs was the same – start with a strong, melodic chorus that captures that mood and feeling of a particular part in the story, then use riffs to build to it. I would write the melodies for the choruses in a program called Guitar Pro, which enabled me to loop them and find the right chords to underlay them with. Then I would immerse myself in that melody and write dozens of related riffs over days and even weeks, writing them all in Guitar Pro so I could easily manipulate, cut, move and paste them around the composition – this process enabled me to really focus everything around the guiding star of the chorus as well as find the strongest riffs that best served to build to that chorus. As for the variety between songs, that was crucial as I really tried to use the music itself to help tell the story of the concept album. The first two tracks are Act 1 – they establish the protagonists and describe their world, and the music is very anthemic and rousing, meant to build an emotional connection with the story’s heroes. In Act 2 (track 3-6), I establish the antagonists and describe the central crisis of the narrative – the music in this section is darker, gone is the folk instrumentation and gang-shouted choruses and the voices of the three villains of the story are introduced. The Crisis (track 6) is really the crux of the album – it breaks from all conventions established on the rest of the album – it has no chorus, no thrash beats/d-beats, it is arranged linearly rather than in a traditional verse/bridge/chorus format, it ends in a fade, just to name a few differences – in order to help it stand out in the narrative. Then, tracks 7-12 comprise the final act where the crisis of the narrative is resolved – the return of the bagpipes, anthemic sing-along choruses and thrash percussion in ‘Voices to the Sky’ herald this shift, culminating in ‘Freedom is Ours’, a cathartic release which features a reprise of the melody from the first track, closing the loop on the story.
Being a concept album, what was the lyric writing process like for you? You do an incredible job of fleshing out memorable villains, honestly much more so than a lot of mainstream movies lately, and the last half of the record is like an action movie set to kickass tunes. How did you come up with your ideas for the world of the album? What are some of your inspirations within fiction for your creation process?
Unlike a lot of metal, which tends to treat lyrics as a throwaway, I put a ton of effort into the lyrics and the concept itself. I was really inspired by the narrative lyric poetry of the troubadours, another callback to the medieval age. The world itself comes from a wide range of my personal interests – I am a huge medieval history buff and I have always been fascinated by peasant rebellions, particularly the Jacquerie and English Peasants Revolt in the 14th century, the latter of which saw the decapitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury by a rampaging mob of serfs. These rebellions always had me cheering for the peasants to win, but they were always put down brutally and with little to no changes made to the social, economic and political structures they opposed. I wanted to imagine a world where the underclasses triumphed over their oppressors, for once. The world of Pillaging Villagers is also heavily influenced by sword and sorcery tales – Magic the Gathering, Conan the Barbarian, Heavy Metal Magazine & the art of folks like Frank Frazetta have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.
The story here of working class people rising up against a variety of evil oppressors feels more than a little relevant for our times. I’m assuming that’s anything but an accident. How inspired are you by the current state of the world in your writing and how do you decide what to tackle with your music? What do you hope people get out of the story of the album?
Ultimately, I wanted to create a tale that would result in a triumphant series of moments that audiences could connect with on a deeper level. The fantasy world of Pillaging Villagers explores themes of exploitation, oppression, greed and corruption that are with us still today, but that people feel hopeless to overcome. We see millions perish in a pandemic while billionaires finance personal trips to space, we see the slow erosion of the illusion of choice in our leaders, we see the degradation of our planet and the slide towards environmental catastrophe, we see a society based on violence, mass incarceration and economic servitude and we feel hopeless in the face of it all. Pillaging Villagers offers the opportunity to escape our world where the ruling classes always triumph into a fantasy world where they are gleefully extirpated, where that hopelessness gives way to hope. For the 40 minutes it takes to listen to the album, I want the listener to truly feel the catharsis of ‘Freedom is Ours,’ indulge in the murderous joy of ‘Crush the Enemy,’ bask in the permanent destruction of our oppressive economic system in ‘Smash the Factory’ – even if only in their imagination.
What was the writing/recording process like for this album? The production is impressive and the mixing was done really well too. Where did you record and how did you achieve that sound? This definitely doesn’t feel like a typical first album!
I recorded with Adam Tucker (who also plays bass on the record) at SignatureTone Studios in Minneapolis, MN. I knew Adam from way back in the early 2010s when I last played metal in Erebus – we recorded our last full length with Adam in 2010. When I finally finished writing Pillaging Villagers, I reached out to Adam (literally the only person I knew with music engineering experience) on Facebook, having not spoken to him in 12 years, hoping he could refer me to someone to help get the album produced, but it turned out that he had been steadily building his career in music production since we last met and had worked with a ton of fantastic artists like Sunless and Obsolete and produced some amazing albums. Adam is an absolute master – he was extremely bought in to the vision of Pillaging Villagers and worked really closely with me to achieve the sound I was looking for – I really felt like we had a strong partnership that helped the vision of the project come to life. It was a real honor to work with Adam.
You’ve got some really cool people playing on this album with you…Jason Hirt from Ghost Bath, Adam Tucker from A Scanner Darkly, and Brian Koenig from Lords of the Trident. Did you know them previously and what was it like to get to work with them on this record? How did those collaborations come about?
I knew Brian from way back – we both used to run in the same metal scene in Madison, WI when he used to play in a band called Luna Mortis and I was in Erebus. I was completely out of music – I hadn’t touched a guitar or made any music in over a decade – so when I finished the album, I dreamed of having Brian involved. He is a serious virtuoso master on guitar, with skills well beyond those needed for my little punk/thrash project, so when I reached out to him, I was really only thinking he might refer me to one of his many students. I was shocked when he expressed interest in the project. Adam I knew from my time in Erebus as well (see above), and he helped me bring Jason on board on drums. All three of them were awesome, incredible musicians far beyond my skills, and extremely professional – I sent them the fully written songs from Guitar Pro, which creates MIDI files that you can overlay guitar and drum patches onto as well as sheet music, and they learned and recorded their parts separately. I never actually got to meet Jason or speak to Brian in person in conjunction with this project – everything was done remotely. I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to work with Adam, Brian and Jason.
The album was independently released and as far as I can tell, you haven’t signed with anyone yet. How was going it on your own to get this album done and put out into the world? What advice do you have for other artists going the DIY route to get their work out there?
It was a real adventure! Every step in the process of creating this album was unexpected – I never thought I would promote it when I finished recording it. When it was done, I thought I would basically just share it with friends and maybe try to get reviewed by some blogs, especially my favorite blog, Angry Metal Guy, which I have read every day for years and is a huge part of my life. I started sending it out to publications and blogs on my own, but I would never hear back from folks. After about a month of futile effort, I got some advice to reach out to Scott at Clawhammer PR, who did an incredible job promoting the album. HUGE props to Clawhammer for everything they have done for me – I couldn’t have promoted the album without them. My main advice for those going the DIY route is don’t try to do everything yourself – spend money with a real engineer to get a great sounding record and hire professionals like Clawhammer to promote it. And don’t expect to make any money back – if you have a dream, you can’t worry about what it costs to make it a reality.
This site is a passion project for my wife and I in our spare time, with one of the main goals being getting the word out about artists like yourself who don’t have any of the big boys behind them so I definitely understand that enjoyment of doing something you love but also the time crunch that it puts you under as well. How do you find the time to get an album completed and still have some form of personal life?
The pandemic really helped! I had so much time on my hands with my job slowing down and the lack of opportunities to go out or travel. I think it was also about being realistic about how long something like this takes – it took about 6 months to write the album, 8 months to recruit session musicians and record it and 4 months to promote it. I really had to learn to take small steps and not try to do everything at once or accomplish multiple steps before one was finished. I really took this process one step at a time, which helped me avoid being overwhelmed. I am glad you and your wife get to work on your passion project together – having a supportive partner was crucial for Pillaging Villagers as well. Thank you for all you do to promote underground bands!
I love the cover of the album. The artwork is amazing and it perfectly represents the songs and world you’re building here. How did you come up with the design for it and who did it?
As I mentioned earlier, I have been a big Magic the Gathering fan for most of my life – I always felt like the artwork on the cards did such a great job with story-telling and I dreamed of getting one of their incredible artists to do the cover. I reached out to Matt Stikker, who did some of my favorite art for a recent Viking-themed MTG set called Kaldheim (as well as album art for great bands like Blazon Rite and Power Trip), and to my immense surprise he was available and interested. He was so great to work with – he reviewed lyrics and went through several versions before creating the amazing piece that was used for the cover. I feel really strongly about the importance of album art in creating an immersive experience – the collage style (evocative of the classic Subhumans cover for The Day the Country Died) was designed to give visual representation and foreshadow key moments from the narrative. It was intended to be something that can serve a key purpose before listening to the album (to give the listener a sense of what to expect thematically), while listening to the album (exploring its detail in a ‘Where’s Waldo’ type way while getting to know the characters) and after listening (when you realize what different areas of the piece represent). It’s really a feast for the eyes and is essential in creating the strong sense of identity that I think is key to the success of the album in connecting with listeners.
Lastly, what’s next for Pillaging Villagers? What’re your goals for the future of the project and what are you working on next?
Just taking it one day at a time! I honestly don’t know what the future holds for the project – everything thus far has been completely unexpected. I have had folks from all over the world buy the album and tell me how much they’ve enjoyed it – that is incredibly rewarding. I feel like all of my goals for this project have already been met – we will have to see how this all pans out! Maybe vinyl? I would love to do vinyl or tapes, since the album was written purposely to have two sections; imagine finishing ‘The Crisis’ and then having to turn the record/tape over – that would really aid in emphasizing the crucial moment in the narrative that the gap between ‘The Crisis’ and ‘Voices to the Sky’ is. But I would probably need label partnership for that and I am not sure what labels would be interested. As for future projects, I would really like to explore different directions – one of my heroes is Devin Townsend and I have been really inspired by his creative journey and willingness to break out of creative boxes. I am currently working on a cinematic/atmospheric synthwave project that explores the history of the First Crusade, which is such a compelling time in history from a storytelling perspective – I would love to work with independent filmmakers and/or animators to create multimedia experience to accompany the music. But that’s all far in the future!
All photos courtesy of David Frazer.