You could look at Ken Olden’s personal discography as an exercise in working in extremes. On the one hand, he’s helped handcraft high velocity positivity as part of Youth Crew-styled hardcore bands Battery and Better Than A Thousand. On the other side of the spectrum, there’s the devastatingly detuned gloom he’s chunked out for over a quarter century as the lead guitarist of Damnation A.D.
While initially formed as a studio project between multi-instrumentalist Olden and vocalist Mike McTernan, by the time they tracked the towering doom of 1995’s No More Dreams of Happy Endings, the group had swelled to include guitarist Hillel Halloway, bassist Alex Merchlinsky, and drummer Dave Ward. The debut album went big with psyche-fracking moshes (“No More Dreams”) and panicked post-hardcore attacks (“No Way Out”), with McTernan’s fraught howls homing in on abject feelings of hopelessness. Unlike most mosh-centered hardcore bands of the era, Olden and co. also threw listeners for a loop with an eerily calm and elegiac take on 19th century composer Frédéric Chopin’s iconic “Funeral March” (from the third movement of his Piano Sonata No. 2). Again, working in extremes.
Shortly after thinking about the heavier side of Jade Tree Records for a recent newsletter, I reached out to Ken to get more details on the creation of Damnation’s first full-length, and his overall approach to tone. It’s a whopper of a gear talk, with Ken getting into the album’s drum-forward arrangements, the title track’s surprisingly grungy roots, and more.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Damnation had initially been a studio project between yourself and Mike, but had expanded into the five-piece line-up by the time you recorded No More Dreams of Happy Endings. In general, what can you remember about that transition, and the lead-up towards writing and recording the fleshed-out group’s first full-length?
Ken Olden: When Damnation started, I was playing all the instruments. Mike and I wanted to play live shows with the material on the 7-inches, but we didn’t know any suitable drummers, so there was a weird stage where I was the drummer, with Hillel on guitar and Alex on bass. For context, Hillel and I had a previous band called Worlds Collide, and Mike and Alex were on tour with Worlds Collide, or traveling with the band on weekend trips. Basically, Damnation started with the crew of guys who were together all the time anyway.
It took a while for me to get off drums—nearly a year— and when I finally did, things clicked. Mostly because I’m a much better guitar player than a drummer, but also because I have (or at least I’ve been told) an unusual guitar style, so the songs didn’t quite sound the same with Hillel as the only guitar player. But together it felt and sounded really strong.
During the first few years of the band I would primarily go into the studio by myself and play all the instruments, and Mike would do some scratch vocals. Then the band would digest the stuff all together and we would make some changes.
One thing that never changed is that Damnation songs were, for the most part, written on the drums first. “No More Dreams” is a great example of this. The first bit I wrote was the drum beat in the intro and verse.
What had you and Hillel been running during these sessions, gear-wise? And do any of those amps, effects, or guitars factor into your current rig?
Hillel was way more experimental and had a lot of unique set-ups. It seemed like he was always trying new amps and guitars. For me, I would play with something until I found a sweet spot, and then I would never really mess with that thing again. I’m the guy who will order the same exact meal from a particular restaurant, forever. This was true for guitars, pedals, pick-ups, amps, etc.
Just to underline that point: I basically have the exact same sound, gear-wise, as I did from my very first Marshall guitar amp. The first real amp I ever bought was a 50W Marshall JCM800. There was no modification on it, so I got the extra gain from an original Turbo RAT pedal. The Turbo RAT tones have changed over the years, so I had to seek out the vintage pedals. The other thing I did was tweak the bias on my tubes to push more wattage than the stock set up, which definitely created a fuller sound.
I used Gibson Les Paul Standards or Customs, and I would switch out the stock PAF pick-ups to DiMarzio PAF-Pro pick-ups, which are passive Gibson style pick-ups, but with way more clarity—I could turn the gain way up without getting feedback. The goal was always to be as loud and clear as possible, and not have to count on a club’s monitor system.
I would use two Marshall JCM 800 full stacks, each with a Turbo Rat and some sampler pedals that would trigger the samples from the album during the live performance. I still use essentially the same set-up, except I stopped using the Gibsons live and went to ESP EverTunes, which I freakin’ love so much because I never go out of tune. I would play with 10 gauge strings, sometimes even 9s. The strings in Damnation tunings are like loose rubber bands, so the ESP EverTunes are game changers, especially live. I don’t have to tune at all during a full set, and I can play way, way harder.
The only other thing I might've done was one full Marshall stack combined with one full Mesa Triple Rec stack (which is not that simple to combine due to some manufacturer-created hurdles that produce insane ground hum). I tried a ton of stuff and eventually found the right equipment that would let me connect these two epic sounding rigs. I stopped taking the JCM800 on the road, and switched to using the Marshall JCM2000 TSL, which is a head that generally does not get the level of respect that the 800s do.
A little known secret is that one of the TSL channels is the circuitry of the JCM Slash head—which was kinda funny, with the little Slash top hat on it— and the Slash head is a modified JCM800 with a modern high gain circuit built in. The TSL has that same Slash circuit in it, which makes it one of the best stock Marshalls ever. I can get a nearly identical tone out of my TSLs as my JCM800s. For some reason these settings are not widely known, but if you know the settings this head is incredible. Whenever I need to rent for a backline I go with the TSL, since rented JCM800s are very hit or miss.
“No More Dreams” is bookended by this devastatingly heavy, yet hooky riff, which eventually fades out ad infinitum. Can you recall how much longer that section goes on in the actual session? And did that riff likewise ever get supremely extended in a live setting?
It goes on for maybe another minute or so in the session. We knew we would fade it, so we just played until we had more than what we needed. One thing about our set is that it was, for the most part, very sequenced. Our last drummers actually played to a click track I generated from a Pro Tools session behind my rig, so there was zero chance to improvise. All the samples and various elements just ran straight through from start to finish. Our set time basically never changed.
What tunings were you working with on the album? It often sounds close to a C or Drop C, like on “The Hangedman” or “In Memorium”— “No More Dreams” sounds like it might be even lower.
Our standard tuning was C. The first song on No More Dreams is called “Two Steps Down,” which is literally referring to tuning down from E to C (and it sounds like guitars strings being detuned). Later on I added some songs where I’d drop the top string down to A#. An example of that drop to A# is the full band version of “Sleep”. The entire Pornography record is in A# as well, which is why it sounds extra mean.
One of the boldest moments on the album is its centrepiece, a chamber music adaptation of the “Funeral March” from Frederic Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2. It’s a wild pivot for a hardcore record. First off, what brought on the decision to cover Chopin?
I had first done a very short version during one of the 7-inch sessions, like a 45 second version. On the No More Dreams record I was trying to create a natural break for the listener, so they could refresh their ears. The reasoning behind this had to do with the natural reset people who listen to vinyl albums have to take just to listen to the other side of the record. That little time-out is helpful to giving the listener's ears a little break. This is why this funeral march was not on the original vinyl release, because I didn’t think it was needed.
When I went to do the cover of Chopin for the No More Dreams record, I decided not to bother doing an abridged version and just knocked out the entire original version, which I thought was more authentic anyway. I felt like anybody listening on CD could easily just skip to the next track, so it wasn't a big inconvenience for those who didn’t feel like taking a break.
In terms of recording logistics, what kind of a vibe was there in the studio [Olden's SNP Studio in Washington, D.C.]?
I felt like we had a pretty clear idea for the direction of this record. There’s definitely some unlikely influences. Bands like Drive Like Jehu—which you can hear on songs like “No Way Out”— Unwound and Girls Against Boys, plus, of course, The Cure. Unwound’s influence came in the form of catchy beats. I liked how important the drum beats were in their songs; the drum beats were almost like guitar riffs.
I always kept in a lot of octave work, especially if they were accenting minor progressions. I couldn’t get enough of those. You can hear that stuff all over our albums, like the bridge in “Jigsaw” all the way into the Pornography album.
The vibe was really relaxed in the studio for No More Dreams. We did it in my studio; we spent about one month on it, start to finish. Most of the band lived in the same house as my studio, so we turned the entire house into a big recording monster. We had microphone cables going all through the house. Alex’s room was in the attic, and we decided that room had the best live sound because it was all wood and had a nice natural resonance. So Alex had to sleep next to that big mic’d up drum set for like two weeks. It was a really immersive experience for all of us.
From an engineering perspective, what were the challenges to tracking that kind of a cleaner, classical sound on "Funeral March," compared to the detuned and distorted crush of the rest of the record?
Hmmmmm, good question. From an engineering standpoint, I feel like getting a really nice clean sound is a lot easier than capturing a super-distorted guitar tone. Getting cleaner sounds created emotional dynamics, which I think we used well on No More Dreams. Also, I love how great Marshall amps sound when they're clean. In some ways they’re naturally better as cleaner amplifiers than as high gain rigs. You can get a very warm, clean tone on a Marshall with a lot less work than it takes to get an amazing overdriven tone, especially on JCM800s or 900s.
Believe it or not, I used the exact same amp, guitars, and amp settings with Damnation as I did in Better Than A Thousand. The only difference was the tuning and the type of riffs that accentuated the darker tonal qualities of being tuned down so low. And from a production standpoint, I wanted Damnation to be noisier and more out of control. I think the guitar tone on [1998’s] Kingdom of Lost Souls best exemplifies this almost-out-of-control guitar tonal goal I wanted.
So the most recent Damnation A.D. release was your full album tribute to the Cure’s Pornography in 2017, though the band did repress No More Dreams in 2019. Have you worked out any new Damnation material behind the scenes since then?
Actually, we have some extra material—great Damnation A.D. songs, but we’ve never really finalized the vocals/lyrics. I’m sure Mike and I will jump on those one day and get a 7-inch going. Something fun like that.
Whether pulled from No More Dreams or the rest of the discography, what do you think is the sickest Damnation A.D. riff?
It’s really hard to say that as the guy playing the riff. Some riffs are just enjoyable to play, and I’m not sure the listener experiences the same feeling I would. The best way to answer this is actually to refer to some feedback I got from a guy who knows riffs. Just before we started the pre-production for Kingdom of Lost Souls, I was on tour in California with Better Than A Thousand and we stayed at Jay [Yuenger] from White Zombie’s house. He pulled me aside and told me one of the sickest riffs he had heard was the riff from “Time Does Not Rest” [off 1996 EP Misericordia], the riff right after the intro when it breaks down and goes to a hard-panned guitar track.
I really enjoy how the riff on “Wait For A Day” rolls once the drums kick in. As the guitar player, a couple of my fav Damnation A.D. riffs to play are the final riff in “Circles,” and the final chorus on “Let Me In.”
Of course, the main riff on “No More Dreams” is a winner to me. From the days of Worlds Collide, our drummer Zac and I would jam on all sorts of songs, and one was Alice In Chains’ “It Ain’t Like That,” which starts with a riff I loved where Jerry Cantrell bends this note as part of the verse riff. I think “No More Dreams” is my take on incorporating bends into the actual riff, which turns it into a very tricky little riff.