William DuVall wouldn’t be fronting a prog-metal supergroup were it not for the quality selection at a midtown Atlanta Whole Foods.
Four years after they first spoke about working together, the Alice in Chains singer bumped into Mastodon guitarist Brent Hinds while “perusing the prepared food section” – and the two rekindled the idea of teaming up in Giraffe Tongue Orchestra, Hinds’ mysterious project with Dillinger Escape Plan guitarist Ben Weinman. “He was like, ‘We should really do this,'” DuVall tells Rolling Stone. “We came to an agreement really quickly about what we wanted this thing to be versus what we didn’t want it to be.”
Giraffe Tongue Orchestra technically formed in 2011, when Hinds and Weinman, two of metal’s most versatile guitarists, began casual work on the project, causing a considerable stir online. The duo had been trading guitar parts for years – “[Brent] is a riff machine, always playing,” Weinman says – but they craved a dynamic singer to flesh out their complex tracks.
Their first choice was DuVall, whom Hinds and Weinman approached backstage after a show.
“We decided to play him some of our early demos,” the Dillinger guitarist says. “He was into what we were doing, and I thought it would be really interesting for people who only know him for his work with Alice in Chains to hear how diverse he can be.”
But life got in the way, as the album-tour cycles of the members’ respective bands kept GTO on the back burner. Then, after four years of radio silence, Hinds re-recruited the vocalist during their serendipitous grocery encounter.
Though he joined the band in the breeziest way imaginable, DuVall faced a formidable challenge integrating himself into the dense, shapeshifting arrangements heard on GTO’s new debut, Broken Lines. Working with former Mars Volta drummer Thomas Pridgen and Dethklok bassist Pete Griffin (with drummer Jon Theodore, a fellow Volta alum, guesting on two tracks), Hinds and Weinman had already recorded a slab of instrumentals – from the blistering prog of “Crucifixion” to starry power ballad “All We Have Is Now,” the latter of which the guitarists wrote and recorded on the back of a bus during a joint Mastodon/Dillinger tour.
(“I tracked Brent with a portable rig and manually manipulated his guitar with all kinds of effects in real time,” Weinman says of the song. “That first take ended up being the basis for an entire song on the album.”)
Hinds and Weinman constructed the material in unorthodox shapes, with little regard for traditional verse-chorus patterns or predictable meters. DuVall was forced to retool his writing style: squeezing in melodies between turbulent riffs and grooves. “For me,” he says, “it became more about diving into that sonic landscape to see where I could build my house.”
Initially, DuVall struggled to maneuver within the tracks. His revelation: approaching the material like a screenwriter or playwright.
“Giraffe Tongue Orchestra forced me to throw out the standard-issue Rock 101 songwriting handbook.” –William DuVall
“What I loved about that is it forced me to throw out the standard-issue Rock 101 songwriting handbook,” he says, referencing tunes like the behemoth title track. “It forced me to write almost as if I were working on a theatrical production. ‘Here’s a mood swing here, there’s a mood swing there.’ It’s really rapid-fire. That was part of my mandate. [I hoped to] provide a lifeline to the listener – to take them through the storm, as it were, and navigate them through the waters when it gets choppy. And it does get choppy.”
“I put off ‘Broken Lines’ as long as I could,” he says. “It was like, ‘What am I going to do? How am I going to get a word in edgewise? How could I possibly fly over this or get down in it?’ Eventually I came up with that chant idea for the opening, and I just got very reductive and treated it almost like an SOS or a Telex message from sea-to-shore. I tried to get very plainspoken and simple – the amount of syllables have to be as few as possible. That helped me. All these songs were about finding doorways in, and once you find the doorway, you’re good. But finding that doorway can be a challenge.”
But Broken Lines also offers more aggro funkiness (“Blood Moon”) and massive rock choruses (“Everyone Gets Everything They Really Want”) than Mastodon or Dillinger fans may expect.
“We certainly didn’t want GTO to sound like one of our other bands,” Weinman says. “No point in that. However, we did want all the members’ individual styles to be represented. Some of those funkier songs were written before all the members were solidified, and they ended up just speaking to the guys in a way that felt natural. There were no rules with this band. It was just about chemistry. If something felt good, we went with it.”
Despite taking a more cinematic approach to lyric writing, DuVall didn’t craft Broken Lines as a concept album. However, numerous tracks (“Back to the Light,” “No One Is Innocent”) explore similar themes of “power struggle” and “the feeling like you are being somehow dictated to or manipulated.”
The frenetic, synth-slathered “Thieves and Whores,” with its disturbing imagery of screaming children and obliterated bodies, alludes to the “raw, ugly truth” of terrorism.
“There’s been a lot of bullets flying around where people are just trying to conduct their everyday lives,” he says. “The rhythms, the amount of information coming at you, it felt chaotic to me in the same way that these sort of incidents must feel to the people involved where you’re riding on a train and, all of the sudden, all hell breaks loose.”
Giraffe Tongue Orchestra made their live debut at August’s Reading and Leeds Festivals, and they kick off a brief American tour November 29th. But it’s tough for the quintet to gauge their future with so many other bands to juggle. (Hinds confirms that Mastodon have “just begun” work on their upcoming seventh LP.)
“We stopped trying to make long-term plans with this band a long time ago,” Weinman says. “We plan on letting the wind take GTO where it is supposed to go.”