Interview: Anton Patzner of Judgement Day
Oakland’s Judgement Day play heavy metal using instruments you’d normally find in a symphony orchestra. Influenced by anything from Mahavishnu Orchestra’s prog-rock to Meshuggah’s experimental metal, brothers Anton and Lewis Patzner throw down heart-stopping riffs on violin and cello, rivaling Slayer in terms of intensity and technical prowess while maintaining a relieving sense of humor. In the seven years the brothers have been playing with drummer Jon Bush, they’ve taken their bracing “string metal” from the streets of Berkeley to clubs across the United States, where they’ve opened for acts as diverse as Bright Eyes and Slash, the top-hat wearing guitarist of Guns N’ Roses. On Friday, they’ll rock the house at Soda Bar. In this e-mail interview, Anton talks about bowing technique and an imaginary Playstation game called Violin Hero, among other things.
Why did you decide to play “string metal”?
We started out playing on the street without any written songs, just making stuff up, and we discovered that the faster and louder we played, the more tips we would get. So when we finally did start writing songs we made sure that they were all super fast shredders. We didn’t know if they were really metal but we called it “string metal” for lack of a better term.
Are you all classically trained? If so, where did you study? And why did you start playing metal?
Lewis and I are both classically trained. We grew up taking private lessons and practicing our instruments for an hour every day. I went to a conservatory in Berkeley called The Crowden School from grades 4-8 and Lewis went to The Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore for college. I started playing in bands in high school because I didn’t really care about classical music and I wanted to play the music that I liked, which at the time was stuff Nirvana, Green Day and Radiohead.
What came first—your violin training or your fondness for metal?
Definitely my violin training. I never really listened to much metal as a kid. My favorite music back then was movie soundtracks: Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Batman. That stuff got my juiced [sic].
What else do you listen to other than metal?
I try to explore music as much as possible. There’s great stuff in every genre. Lately I’ve been trying to learn more about Indian and African music. I think the more we know about different kinds of music, the more it expands the possibilities of what we can do with Judgement Day.
What are some of the challenges inherent in playing “string metal”?
One problem that we struggled with for a long time was feedback. Because our instruments are hollow they feed back like crazy when we put the distortion on them. It took us a long time to figure out how to do that right. We used to use amps, which was a total nightmare. Now we just plug directly into the house PA through our pedal boards, which works well.
How is playing metal on violin/cello different than playing on guitar? Is it more challenging? Or less?
There’s definitely the added challenge of having to worry about playing in tune, since we don’t have frets. Overall though I think the added benefits of playing strings outweigh the added challenges. A violin bow is a much more versatile tool than a guitar pick. You can slur with it, bounce with it, play with the wooden side, playing any number of technical strokes (spiccato, martele etc.) or put it down and just pluck with your finger. It gives the instrument a vast variety of tones the guitar just doesn’t have.
Is there anything in particular you do to capture that “metal” sound? Do you use certain pedals or anything like that to enhance your overall metal-ness?
Normally we don’t go too far out of the way to make our songs sound metal; we just kind of write them and let them sound like whatever they sound like. But there is a song on our newest record [Peacocks / Pink Monsters, which came out in April] called “Zombie Rodeo Clown” which uses a lot of galloping, a technique taken straight from metal. We actually use a classical technique to emulate that. It’s called “ricochet” and we do it by hitting the bow hard against the strings and letting it bounce. It’s pretty cool.
With pedals we’re much more interested in finding new tones that no one has ever used than trying to emulate guitar tones that have already been done. In a way we’re kind of forced to do it that way because our instruments are so different. We actually can’t use a lot of the “metal” distortion pedals, for example, because they feed back too much. We have to try every pedal before we buy it to see if it works for our instruments. It’s a whole different approach than most guitar players take I think; more of an exploration.
I love the Violin Hero video. How did you guys make that?
We found this badass DIY director named Zzalgern0n who not only knows how to do his own editing, green screen, and basic animation but has also beat Guitar Hero on Expert. We knew he was the man for the job. We also had a ton of other friends who donated time and resources to help out, including an animator for American Dad, a miniature set builder from Robot Chicken and a bunch of stand-up comedians doing cameos. The little kids are all our cousins (Lewis and I have a huge family).
Where did you get the idea of doing a Violin Hero?
I was shopping at Walgreens in [San Francisco] and all of a sudden [a] vision popped into my head of little kids trying to play plastic violins along to a super-difficult, super-shredding Judgement Day song. I always like videos that incorporate the band into the concept in an interesting way, rather than just cutting in between a story and a band playing in a field or something like that. Having us on a video game screen seemed like really cool way to tie it all together.
Is that really a game?
Haha, I don’t think so. At least not yet… According to the video it comes out in the winter of 2011 for Playstation 7.
Do you guys try to maintain a sense of humor–or at least a sense of playfulness–about your music?
For sure. That video is a great example of our humorous side. Let’s be honest: violins and cellos are not exactly the top cool-people instruments. Do you remember the violin player “Poindexter” from Revenge of the Nerds? He was a straight-up dork! But that was what was so awesome about him. He was so dorky that he was bad-ass. So we try to keep that in mind and make fun of what we’re doing a little bit. That’s one of my biggest problems with Apocalyptica actually; they take themselves way too seriously. Come on! Have a little fun!