On Manifesto, Arizona metal band Opiate For the Masses
' fifth album, guitarist Jim Kaufman
emerges as a true visionary. He brings industrial elements, synths, and more organic compounds to the music to create something pretty new. In fact, he describes the band as simply a hard rock band that utilizes these other elements and not an industrial or savage metal group that is branching out to embrace new textures. Coming from the platform as simply a rock band, he extends boundaries and normal limits.
UG: I just got done listening to Manifesto, Jim, and I was really impressed.
Awesome, thank you very much.
Yeah, it was really interesting. It's funny, soon as I sort of hear a description of, you know, Industrial, it's almost like an excuse to kinda toss everything but the kitchen sink into a track. I dunno, some of that stuff leaves me a little cold, but what you do is so musical. I mean, the keyboards parts work so great and your guitar parts.
I appreciate that, thank you.
Absolutely. How did all that come together? What you do is a pretty kind of complex thing. I mean, I know you talk about Nine Inch Nails and band like that, but it's really so much different than that.
Well, you know, Ron the lead singer and myself, we're both classically trained. We actually met in Art School studying music together. So it kind of came naturally when we created the band that we wanted to kinda use a hybrid of electronic and organic sounds. We kinda came up with this unique thing that we do and we do well. You know, we've been a band for ten years and this is our fifth album, so we really spent time focusing in on how to make it work. I don't really consider Opiate an Industrial band, it's more a hard rock band that uses electronic elements. I mean, I grew up listening to Skinny Puppy and Nine Inch Nails, so I definitely am a fan of Industrial, I just wouldn't wanna pigeon hole Opiate into being considered an Industrial band.
You're absolutely right, man, it is more of a heavy rock band that happens to use these other elements. You talk about you've been together for 10 years and five records. Has the conceptualization of bringing in these different pieces, are you a better conceptualizer on Manifesto than you were for New Machines?
I think so. I think we've just been able to refine the art and get to a place that we're happier with. Also, just being able to study using the synthesizer it's been a huge influence on the band. I've spent a lot of time working with the Moog and with The Virus, a great synthesizer that's basically all over the record. The Virus is made by company called Access. But we do a lot of stuff with the guitars, too, like we run the guitars through the Moog. You know, I'll play guitar and run it through the Moog and Ron will play a keyboard line on top of that and we'll send the output of that into the VHT and mike the cabinet from there. So it's not just the synthesizer and the guitar, but it's a combination of both. We try to utilize that type of recording technique on a lot of tracks on Manisfesto.
Interesting. Let's talk about some of the tracks, Jim. Burn You Down is the first single. There's some percussion, I guess loops going on and these strange little keyboard sounds
It was just kind of a breakbeat I was making that actually worked out pretty well. There's some weird samples going on, like on the left side there's a monkey in a cage and on the right side there's a raccoon that I just sampled off movies, you know. And so you have all these strange noises that are looping and a percussion hand beat that I stole off an old record, and some cool stuff with the Moog. Again, the first melody that comes in is actually the guitar through the Moog, that's the process I was saying.
Is that what that is?
Wow, that's not even the keyboard? That is so great.
"I think we've just been able to get to a place that we're happier with."
Yeah, we really just kinda push the limits, and working with John Travis you know, he really allowed me, since I do most of the programming for the band, they really allowed me to think outside the box and really utilize the time we had. I mean, we spent a couple of years making this record and I got to really step outside of myself and do things differently than I had on the previous record. You know, The Spore was more of a rock record, there wasn't really as much keyboards or programming on it, and then if you go back a couple of records, Goodbye had more programming than Manifesto. That's the whole point of the band, when Ron and I started the band 10 years ago, saying, We don't want to do one specific thing, we want to be able to do whatever comes out of us is Opiate. You know, we're not a metal band that has to write heavy, heavy songs every time, but we also don't want to write keyboard ballads every day, you know? So it's really the ideal artistic situation for us.
Dead Underground, kind of these very sublime guitars, then it goes into these big layers, sounds like there's a little bit of a wah-wah thing going on in the solo section.
Yeah, Dead Underground is more of a straight ahead rock tune, very guitar driven. It was actually written by Ron. Ron's a great guitar player and all-around musician, so I'm really lucky to have him as a friend and a music writing partner cause he's helped me. He taught me how to play lead guitar. I was the rhythm guitar player for years for this band. When we got down to being a four-piece, you know, somebody had to play the leads and so Ron stepped it up and taught me. So that is really the hybrid of me now knowing how to play lead guitar and writing with another lead guitar player. It's almost like there's two lead guitar players in the band, you know, having both Ron and I, and so that's where that piece came from.
I had read that you sort of came from a rhythm guitar player's background, so that really informs a big part of your style. Your rhythms are really these kind of tight pieces and rhythmically your solos have this great phrasing and stuff. Would you say that comes from starting as a rhythm player and then moving on to the lead thing later?
Yeah, I mean I'm definitely right hand oriented, and that comes through when you listen to the records for sure. And then, but my keyboard background, I was raised as a pianist, so I think I approach writing leads and approach writing melodies on the guitar differently than somebody that was raised a guitar player. I'm definitely keyboard oriented, so that's where the kinda unique rhythm sound comes from, is that my left hand is always playing the bass on the piano. It's just a different approach than most people have.
Absolutely. The Habit.
I think The Habit is probably my favorite song on the record.
Is it really? That acoustic stuff, and then there's that crazy kind of, I describe it as like a low-fi, fuzz, simple little solo thing. It's just so freakin' great, man.
Awesome, thank you. Yeah, that song really to me is, like, a Condustrial song; I mean, Country and Industrial, you know? Being from the desert, I'm from Phoenix, Arizona, you know, and I think that just shines through. You can hear, it's almost like an acoustic cowboy song, but then we put these gnarly kinda cool drones and these beats and yeah that kinda fuzz electric guitar which is also the guitar going through the Moog and I'm filtering through the Moog and then we go to the VHT after that.
Very cool, man. Black Book has kind of that great bass guitar and cool ambient thing.
Totally, yeah. That's another Ron Underwood song, man. It's a real personal song for him about his brother who served three tours of duty in Iraq. A really emotional, great straight ahead rock tune. Again, Ron brings these awesome ideas to the record. He really writes these rockers for us, which is awesome. Then I come to the table with things like The Habit and 21st Century Time Bomb. It's great to be able to work together and be able to have that be the band where we can bring all those things to the table.
Absolutely. Just hang in on Black Book for a second here, Jim, I call it like a B-section or B-verse, where all the music drops out. See the world best I can, that lyric there, you know, it's like it comes in and it's like, Well, shit, this section doesn't sound like it belongs in this song? You know, and then the drums drop out. Obviously we've talked about it, you're a composer, you're classically trained and you understand orchestration and stuff. I mean, is it kind of a hit and miss thing? In other words it's like, Well, listen man, we've got a little bass groove going here for the verse and we're gonna try this B-section and we're gonna drop out the drums and just have this keyboard pattern or whatever it is in the background and see if it works or it doesn't work? Or have you heard it in your head, you know what I mean?
Yeah, with that section actually we had the full band playing. Then when we went to mix the record John Travis said, Hey, why don't we just mute everything except the synthesizers and the vocals? And we were like, What? And then we did it and it worked. That's something that's great about working with someone the caliber of John Travis that can give these great ideas.
Washed Away I really loved. The song builds so perfectly. There's like the verse and then it goes into that second section, that pre-chorus, then into the chorus. There's like four or five parts going on and they fit perfectly. It's really a sophisticated bit of songwriting. Did you visualize that again from the top and you just heard all those parts coming together like that?
"We're not a metal band that has to write heavy songs every time, but we also don't want to write keyboard ballads every day."
That was one of the last songs we wrote for the record. We wrote that in the recording studio while we were tracking it. John Travis was actually there and we were just throwing things together and that one came out really well for not really being planned you know?
The title track, that keyboard lick and that cool little guitar lick.
Yeah, Manifesto, the title track. And then that B-section, is that Strongest always have surviving sons, is that the lyric?
That's great. I love that line.
Yeah, that's one of my favorite lyrics on the album, cause it's just truth, you know? It's really what life's about. It's not one of my personal favorite songs on the record but it's definitely a good lyric.
I'm curious, cause we've talked about all the things you do well and it's still a great song but you say it's not one of your favorites. Why is that, Jim?
I dunno, it's just not oneit's probably my least favorite song on the record and I dunno why?
Interesting, and yet it's also the title track, which is kinda odd, you know what I mean?
Yeah, but it's one of Ron's favorite songs on the record, you know?
Hanging on Manifesto for a second, Jim, it goes into that breakdown section. We will end the same, is that the lyric there? I think it's towards the end, there's like clean guitars?
Yeah, in the bridge.
Yeah, in the bridge.
Yeah, that's what he says.
And then it kinda goes into like what I call more of an instrumental, Hendrix two-guitar pull thing where you're hanging on one note?
Oh yeah, it's kinda like a 15-track bend you know, on the wah. That's a real fun part to play onstage [laughs].
Which brings us to performing these songs onstage. Are some of these songs supplied as tapes and backing tracks with you guys?
We play to a backing tape with every song.
Yeah. Well, I mean, there's only four of us and I've got guitar duties so I can't always play on the synthesizer and there's a lot of that on the record. We've always played to a tape; it's part of our sound.
And the fact that the songs tend to be on the short side, I love that. They're not like these six-minute things and I'm losing interest, you know?
Yeah, I think a good rock tune is three minutes and thirty seconds, you know what I mean? We don't try to write short songs, it's just the formula that works for us.
Jim, you talked about Skinny Puppy and Nine Inch Nails and stuff, but is there another more straight up pop/rock side of you? I mean, where you like a Zeppelin guy or a Pink Floyd guy?
I'm more of a Pink Floyd guy, myself. Pink Floyd, Alice in Chains, Depeche Mode, those are probably my Top 5 favorite bands, you know, Skinny Puppy and Nails included. That's what I grew up listening to.
Are you composing on guitars and keyboards, Jim?
"Ron the lead singer and myself, we're both classically trained."
Oh yeah, I mean, I write on everything.
So whatever's there?
Whatever the song calls for. You know, usually Ron and I write together in the studio with a Pro Tools rig depending on what I hear in my head, you know?
I would imagine the Pro Tools thing in the digital age, I mean, I'm guessing your first record was probably done on Digital?
No, our first record was done on analog.
Oh it was?
Has the digital thing allowed a band like yours to really kind of expand the boundaries and do, like, ten thousand tracks if you wanted?
Without the computer and what I figured out how to do with Pro Tools we wouldn't be the band we are.
The rhythm section is a pretty unique situation. You know, husband and wife, female bassist.
Yeah, I mean, it worked out great. Anna's a great new addition to the band. Seven's been working with us for about four or five years now, and when we were looking for a new bass player Anna was the obvious choice. I mean, she's already a member of the family, she's a fantastic bass player.
And Seven was playing with Vanilla Ice?
Yeah, I think he was doing some gigs with him for a year or so before we started working together?
You produce other bands, Jim?
Yeah, I actually own a record label called American Voodoo Records and I produce all my artists on my label, and I also do engineering work around Los Angeles. I've also been doing a lot of film composing, scored a couple of films last year.
One is called Dark Reel, with Edward Furlong, Lance Henriksen, Tony Todd, it's a horror flick and it's coming out March 1st. And then the other one I did last year is called Commit to the Line, which is a documentary I believe is also set for a March release. So yeah I'm getting more into that and it's very fun.
Obviously, you would seem like a natural at that. In fact, you could strip off the vocals on a lot of these tracks and they sound like big thematic cinematic pieces already.
Yeah, I mean, it's something I really enjoy. I love movies and I've always been into scores.
Jim, I know you guys have participated in the Taste of Chaos tours. In the past I've talked to bands who've done the Warped tours and SOTU tours. I think it's interesting cause those are, like, obviously a collection of arguably the best of a genre. I've talked to some of these guys on the Warped tour and they said a lot of it is kinds of mediocre and average, which of course you'd find in every style. But you, as someone who is really outside of all this stuff, do you have any sort of an overview or feeling about a lot of the other music out there?
I'm not really into the other bands; I think the Warped tour bands are terrible.
What about the Taste of Chaos, stuff?
Yeah, I mean, that's a little bit more up our alley but I'm still not a big fan of it.
What's on the burner for you?
Not really sure, guess we'll have to see what comes.
At the end of the day you look back at Manifesto, several years in the making, is it the culmination of everything you'd hoped it would be?
Yeah, it's a great album and I'm proud to have put it out.
Interview by Steven Rosen