Photo Credit: Andrew Kaplowitz
Some time ago Asklepius was made up of a pair of talented musicians, but when they met another – they knew his skills and insight could not be ignored. With that, Justin and Matt combined forces with Dave, and Asklepius took their sound to the next level. Today, they have a new record out and talked to us all about ‘Relative to a Mood,’ Greek mythology, and so much more in this back and forth.
Kendra: You got your start back in late 2016. Was a creative outlet your response to the election results around that time?
Justin: Though none of us were happy with the election of Trump, we didn’t form this group as a reaction to the political climate of the United States. Around that time, I had just gotten back from spending four months – pretty much off the grid – in New Mexico working at Ghost Ranch as a Youth Programming Coordinator. Shortly after, Matt moved back to Detroit from the Lansing area, and we started jamming again at my studio space at the Russell Industrial Center.
Matt and I have had several music projects since we met in middle school so Asklepius was just a natural progression of that relationship. Some of the songs on our first EP – ‘Rapture, Circulation, and Lullaby’ – are old songs we resurrected and reworked from our former project, Penny Arcade Peepshow. For me, this project is more of an extension of my spiritual life rather than of my political beliefs – not to say that those things can’t overlap, but that was not the initial intention when we began this project.
Kendra: Since then you’ve dropped two EPs. How do you feel you’ve each grown as musicians from ‘Four Shadows The Past’ to ‘Relative to a Mood”’ Or rather, what has been your musical “Metamorphosis?”
Justin: First and foremost, adding Dave on bass has been a huge “Metamorphosis” for our sound. As a duo comprised of piano and drums, adding a bassist just made sense. Dave helped to round out our sound, and his addition also freed me to experiment more with the keys. I utilize a loop pedal, so before Dave joined, I would have to double up on bass and melody, which often muddied our sound – and not in a good way – during live performances. Now, our sound is much clearer, driving, and rhythmic; the shapes we create have more definition.
You should be able to hear those distinct differences between the two EPs – ‘Relative to a Mood’ is much more upbeat, high-energy, and a little less ethereal. Also, we have a better grasp of our sound. As I stated previously, we used old material as the basis for ‘Four Shadows the Past,’ which was great soil to sprout from – but now with Dave and these new songs, I feel our sonic identity is being solidified, and we are blossoming as a group. But I do want us to continue to transform and adapt moving forward; it’s cool we are developing our signature aesthetic, but I don’t want that to hinder us from experimenting with new ideas moving forward. I commonly use the tag line “We are a Myth / a Song / a Lyric that is Ever-Evolving” and that to me is the essence of what Asklepius is and always will be.
Dave: Every time that I’ve joined a new band, I’ve always reinvented aspects of my identity as a bassist. Whether that means details in rhythm, or the use of effects pedals, or little licks – catchphrases if you will – I tear down and evolve a bit. Over a longer story arc, this has meant moving into a garage rock band and thumping it out after playing more blues and funk when I lived in Cincinnati – or upon moving to Chicago finding myself in a noise oriented free-playing project. Wildly different genres when one focuses on the details of making something that sounds tight and cohesive.
So moving into Asklepius, I was faced with the additional, and new, challenge of writing parts to songs that were already finished. Other times, there is simply a part that someone else already put together, stitching it into the fabric of a piece of music. In learning the songs off of ‘Four Shadows the Past,’ I had to respect what had already been said on that record while also adding to it. Reflecting on the process is interesting in the sense that I became a session musician. Most of the time when a band is forming, everyone finds their role and space within the sound of the group organically. That’s the only way I had previously done that. So now when we play the old songs live, they still sound the same but bigger.
And the timing was fantastic. The songs for the new EP were in development at the time so I got to do both the learning and the new writing simultaneously. With the new material, I could carve a little space out for myself and influence the direction a little bit. I still took a back seat role in a lot of ways of being new to the band; we were still figuring out the mesh after all. At certain points, that ran us directly into walls. For example, the end of ‘Ascension’ flips from a 4:4 to a 5:4 time signature. As an untrained musician, I never really counted time before. I just played groove. So in a basement on the eastside of Detroit, we had to slow it down and get me comfortable with that. I more or less synthesized the old groove player and the new counting player by keeping the time with some dancing!
Kendra: For Dave, what do you feel you added to the overall audible aesthetic of this record? For those not in the know – this is Dave’s first release with the band.
Dave: I love this question. ‘Foreshadows the Past’ to me has a very cinematic sound. As in, it could literally score a great black and white, indie drama. At least that’s what a lot of the material evokes as an image for me. There is a crispness in two percussion instruments in duet with each other. It’s delicate. The bass, given the nature of being in a low register and a stringed instrument, has a lot of mud to it. One does not typically get feedback with drums and keys, but you sure can with the bass. Ask any sound engineer: the bass is one of the harder instruments to contain in a live environment. The science of it is fascinating. So that is the underlying way that I have impacted the sound of the group. There is now a bottom that swings and swells, and in a good way provides a “bull in a china shop” kind of chaos; it is robust.
On ‘Relative to a Mood,’ the music has more force. I push Matt in different ways than Justin does. It’s the fundamental conversation of a rhythm section. Add to that my different influences and ideas that weren’t there before inform our playing in new ways. “Jubilation,” for example, had an entirely different feel to the opening section. It was softer and moved through a chord sequence. When I jumped in, I drove the song in pace and intensity with a single chord tonal center and a dancer’s swing. This is the sound of energy.
Additionally, I give Justin a counter melody. He already creates his loops and essentially has a melodic conversation with himself – a healthy and productive one I might add! But now, there is the opportunity to be free from the restrictions of only setting a loop to achieve the advancement of a musical idea. The end section of “Jubilation” best demonstrates this point. Justin and I take turns contouring the melody. I push up to walk the line down and then he scoops it from the bottom to take it back up to home. So the ways that this happens on the new EP are a lot richer and dynamic than on the previous one.
Kendra: Greek history fans probably already recognized Asklepius as the god of medicine. Not me, I got a D in that class as Disney’s ‘Hercules’ is not the best way to study for a final exam. Anyways, why that particular god?
Justin: This question is deep, but I will attempt to keep my answer somewhat short. I am a huge mythology nerd, and I wanted this project to have a name with epic resonance – one to reflect what our sound would be. At first, I was leaning toward Dionysus but strayed away from that deity for a few reasons: 1. Matt and I had gone through – and in many ways were still going through – a Dionysian phase in our young lives, which can be a lot of fun, but also quite destructive and unhealthy. I wanted this new project to be a shift away from that madness, excess, and ecstasy into something more uplifting and positive; 2. Art has always been a healing process for me. By the end of 2016, I was already a few years into a focused medicine path, and I was ushering in a complete transformation of my life. I wanted this project to embody that and reinforce the new direction my life was taking; 3. Asklepius is known as a necromancer, one who can raise people from the dead. First off, that’s just badass, but it also has a deeper meaning in regards to the band’s history, we literally resurrected old songs from a lost time to birth this new project. We also use my grandfather’s (Joe Groppuso) paintings as our cover art. He is my eternal muse and the ancestor who watches over my life and creative endeavors. With everything we create, his spirit is there!
Kendra: Usually, this is where I ask people what they have planned in the coming months but with the world in a strange place right now, plans aren’t as concrete as they typically are. You can go ahead and let us know what you have tentatively planned but can you also share a song that never fails to get you through when the world around you feels like a mess?
Justin: We have a couple more music videos in the works as well as two singles we finished while recording ‘Relative to a Mood.’ This should be enough material to last us through the remainder of the year, which is exciting! We are very fortunate to be sitting on this material given the uncertain situation we find ourselves in. The two singles are another leap in our sound; the two of them together have this Yin-Yang vibe. Other than that, we’re hoping that live shows will start back up again sometime soon(ish). We are getting to a new point with our live show that is exciting, and we would love to bring it to the world; touring is definitely the next step for us, but that is up in the air till the state of the world settles. We will probably spend the rest of the year writing a lot of new material and evolving our sound. We already have 3-4 pieces that we are currently fleshing out, and some little pieces that are slowly but surely taking form. You might even hear singing, chanting, and spoken word in our future songs! We are indeed mixing up a lot of powerful medicine for your soul.
Dave: Plans don’t exist right now. Things still change daily as Detroit has been hit hard by this pandemic. I live in one of the worst zip codes in terms of the outbreak, and my primary income comes from dine-in restaurant work – that future is looking bleak right now. The number of times that I’ve had to tell myself or a friend “one day at a time” is ridiculous. It’s a stressful environment, to say the least. So in the backdrop of all that, there is plenty of time to promote and release the new EP. When we were making it over the course of the last year, we noticed how many moments sounded like pure joy. Putting that feeling out there at this time I think honors our intent as a band.
As for a song, one I keep coming back to is Rage Against the Machine’s cover of “Maggie’s Farm.” Specifically the line “I’ve got a head full of ideas that are driving me insane.” There is just something so complete in the context of the lyrics and the sound on that track. And then that in and of itself is just as complete in the context of what’s going on all around me. It’s as close to perfection as I’m going to get in terms of aurally and narratively responding to the anger and sadness and helplessness that I’ve felt for myself and so many others frequently in my very isolated quarantine.
Matt: For tough times, I listen to “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate” by the Flaming Lips. I find the song calming and the lyrics make me realize that everything will be just peachy keen.