Fourteen years after forming in Baghdad, the metal band Acrassicauda will release its first full-length album, Gilgamesh, on April 4. The delay is understandable. As depicted in the 2007 Vice documentary Heavy Metal Baghdad, the band members risked their lives making music popularized by Western infidels before finding asylum in the United States in 2009. There, they met their idols Metallica and, in 2010, released an EP, Only The Dead See The End of the War, which was co-produced by Nik Chinboukas and Testament’s Alex Skolnick.
But, despite the modicum of fame that the documentary brought Acrassicauda, metal immortality did not await. Broke, but determined to keep their heavy metal dream alive, the band’s members — drummer and songwriter Marwan M, guitarist and vocalist Faisal Talal, bassist Firas Al Lateef and guitarist Moe Al Hamawandie — turned to crowdfunding to raise enough to record an album. In July, 2014, the band discovered that it had a loyal following willing to pledge $37,383 — more than $4,000 above its initial monetary goal.
Marwan M, 30. who spoke to Billboard last summer, returned to the offices with Talal, 31, and Al Hamawandie, 23, to discuss the band’s making of Gilgamesh, the historical figure that inspired the album and his connection to current events in the Middle East, and the benefits of the band members’ recently acquired American citizenship.
When we spoke last summer band had exceeded its Kickstarter goal to raise funds to make an album. What happened next?
Marwan M: Yes, the initial goal was $33,000 and we made it to $37,500 on July 9. We received the money a couple of weeks later. And immediately after that, the guys and me went to the practice space in Brooklyn for two months. We just stayed there, eating, sleeping and playing every day.
When did you start recording?
Marwan M: We practiced for two months and then we persuaded Nik Chinboukas, who was the sound engineer and co-producer of our 2010 EP, Only The Dead See The End of the War, to produce Gilgamesh. We really like his work ethic, and the EP sounded good. Funny enough, Alex Skolnick, who co-produced the EP for us, was recording Planetary Coaltion with Nik at the time. So when they finished, we booked Spin Recording Studios. The album cost around $20,000 to make, with mastering included. We initially planned to take a month to record, but we started Sept. 3 and finished in late January. So, it took a while. [Skolnick was involved in the pre-production of the album, Jason “Red” Clarke served as executive producer, and Roger Lian mastered the album.]
Why did it take so long?
Marwan M: Everything was producer input. We had to rearrange a lot of the songs. When we walked into the studio we had nine, 10 songs, but we had to rewrite the lyrics; we had to add more [instrumentation]. When you’re recording in the studio, it’s a much more meticulous process than when you’re playing live. I quit my job and Moe stopped working to deal with preproduction — basically, doing guitar riffs and drums and lyrics arrangement. That took a month. And the recording process was insane. We first recorded with electronic drums, then moved to real drums, bass, guitar, then keyboards, percussion and Middle Eastern instruments. And then we had to do vocals and harmonies. Faisal came in and just gave the record that extra notch of energy with his death-metal vocals and Middle Eastern chanting.
Faisal Talal: There were things I did vocally on this album that I did not know I had the ability to do. Making Gilgamesh brought this band to the next level.
Marwan M: Like Faisal said, we went through so many things that we didn’t know that we could do. There were moments in the studio when we felt like sh**. We’re like, “We can’t do it. We’re not really good musicians.” And there were moments when we were like, “Oh wow, today I’m awesome.” There were a lot of true moments and a lot of confrontation, which made it much more interesting.
It sounds like you came out of the studio with a much different album than you expected.
Marwan M: I wouldn’t say it’s a 180-degree change from our original vision, but it was definitely surprising. We were expecting to make an in-your-face album, and it has much more depth and layers and frosting on the cake. It’s really rich.
Moe Al Hamawandie: Every song on the album has a different sound. It’s not strictly metal, metal, metal. We have an acoustic song. We have a ballad. A lot of people could relate to this record.
Gilgamesh is based on an epic poem –the earliest known work of literature, I’ve read –that tells the heroic story of an actual historical figure.
Talal: Yeah, his name was Gilgamesh. The stories go back to the Mesopotamian period. We wanted to stick to the facts, so Marwan had to dig through a lot of stuff on the Internet — essays and stuff — to determine the real history behind Gilgamesh. And then, you know, we had to take these ancient stories and find a way to get our audience to relate to them. You have to bring out little details and facts that heavy metal fans will appreciate.
What story does the album tell?
Marwan M: The story of Gilgamesh took place in what is now Iraq. It is the story of a king and a tyrant who has been scripted as a hero and is looking for immortality. There’s a lot of egotism involved, which is going on right now in the Middle East. And that’s very metal. So, we just took the story and interpreted it in terms of what’s happening now. History repeats itself whether the story is carved in stone or recorded on a CD or in a computer.
How long did it take to separate myth from reality?
Marwan M: That was about a year project. It’s interesting, everybody knows about Odysseus and Homer, but not a lot of people know about this. It’s fun stuff, really, to see all these tablets and how they describe Gilgamesh and his journey. The man thought himself a god basically, and he’s described as a hero by all these scholars. But I found it hard describing him as a hero. I don’t share that perspective. He was just a man with his ego and his flaws. The artwork for the album captures that as well. It portrays Gilgamesh in such a state of desolation and just f—ed. We don’t talk about politics and religion in interviews, but we talked about it in the music. It’s between the lines and sometimes in your face. There are a lot of statements on the record.
Are you putting this album out on your own?
Talal: 100 percent.
Marwan M: We even want to do the publishing on our own. Except for one or two genres, the music industry is not in favor of the artist these days. These are grim times for rock and metal music. We’re a lot more aware of what’s happening with the industry right now than we were a few years ago. It’s a circus. It’s a freak show every night. You go out and you put out 200 percent and at the end of the night, you pick up whatever money is left scattered on the ground and you go to the next town. Nobody is doing anything for us except for the fans and the friends who helped us along the way.
Are you going to tour behind Gilgamesh?
Marwan M: We want to give people a month or two to listen to the album. During that time, we’re going to ship all the packages and the gifts for the Kickstarter people who donated. And then after that, we’ll be booking shows. And now that everyone in the band is an American citizen, we can now travel to Europe with passports that actually work.
Marwan, the last time we spoke you and your bandmates were trying to bring your family members over to the states. Were you successful?
Hussein: We’re able to do that now. Half of my family is still there, but basically to have the tools [through citizenship] to bring your family is a big relief for me.
Your mood does seem a lot lighter than the last time we spoke.
Marwan M: We were scared — all of us — because we were, like, there’s a lot of work to be done, and what if we don’t make it? But now we have this album and of the hard work we put into has blossomed. It doesn’t matter if it succeeds or it doesn’t succeed.
Because it’s an honest expression of who you are?
Marwan M: Yes, and because we chose to do this. This is the one free thing that I got out of this life. Of all the things in my life that I’ve been forced to do or have been told to do, the music, this band, is the only thing that I actually chose to do. I mean, if we play for thousands of people, that would be awesome, but most importantly, we enjoyed the process. Like Faisal said: “If we’re not making money out of it let’s at least make it an unforgettable experience.”