Los Angeles based neo-classical shredders Exmortus, founded by guitarist and vocalist Jadran “Conan” Gonzalez, have racked up achievement after achievement. From appearing in a national TV commercial for Virgin Mobile to being played constantly on Sirius XM’s Liquid Metal, from appearing on the first Ozzfest meets Knotfest in San Bernadino to touring with heroes Children of Bodom and Marty Friedman. However it’s probably the band’s 5th album, The Sound of Steel, that Conan will be most proud of. It’s his most personal album, an album forged together after a bit of a setback but also one that given his upbringing could never have not seen the light of day.
How did you first get into music?
“Thats a good question. I always loved music.I mean everyone does I guess but for me, this is going to be fucking nerdy. I remember one of my first memories watching TV as a fucking kid was I watched Fantasia. My mom put it on. I was like one or two and I just remember being so enthralled. All the moving pictures, everything went to the music. I was really into classical music as a kid and I was so enthralled by how powerful music can be with visuals and just overall sound. My dad also played guitar here and there. I mean he played a lot but he didn’t try to go for a career in guitar or anything, but he would show me stuff. Eventually I was about ten and he taught me how to play guitar and I was able to play stuff I had always wanted to play like rock n roll and heavy metal stuff at that time. So I just got into it I guess with family and watching certain movies. Cartoons, Looney Tunes, you know. All that stuff. I think it was kind of a family thing too. My uncle was in a death metal band and I actually saw them when I was five years old. So I think I’ve always had that in my mind and in my lifestyle. Music and performing and everything, I guess it’s in my blood. So yeah, I think it was reinforced by whatever my family had.”
You mentioned the power of combining music with visuals such as in Fantasia. Your upcoming, and really all your albums have a lot of really awesome artwork. Do you continue to go back to the same artist for that?
“Yeah. For the past three albums, ‘The Sound of Steel,” the previous one “Ride Forth,” and “Slaves to the Sword” are all the same artist, Philip Lawvere. I love his style. It’s very, at least for our albums, Frank Frazetta like and I love Frank Frazetta. I love that art. That high fantasy stuff. Because our music expresses a lot of that in words and in music. I love what he does with everything so we had to go back to him.”
What were some of the inspirations you used in writing your upcoming album?
“Well I think, and it was kind of expressed in the previous album too… I’ll just tell you the whole thing. So the last three albums. “Slave to the Sword,” we wrote that album to kind of express that we are just slaves to the sword. The “sword” being heavy metal. It’s made of metal of course but its a symbol of being slaves to what we want to achieve. Such as making metal a career, performing, touring all the time. The next album, “Ride Forth,” we had a sense of riding free so we kept going. We gotta keep going. I have nothing else to do. So that was the inspiration for that title and even the lyrical themes. And in this album, you see the guys in the artwork from “Slave to the Sword” and “Ride Forth” are fighting each other. In this album, it’s kind of like the conflict of interest, music, musical ideas, and themes. You have the slave. The slave fighting for it’s freedom and the guy from “Ride Forth,” he’s the oppressor. So you have these two battling idles and that’s kind of expressed within the music. And also, I also wanted this album to be not the last one, but I guess the last one focusing on this heroic idol theme stuff going on. I mean I love fantacy but the next album, I’m planning it for something fresh, something different. So I think it was great that Phil Lawvere proposed to have the two guys fighting each other. That was his idea. And I loved it because I was already planning on having battling themes. So I think it was expressed beautifly. Good timing for all that.”
Is there something about this album you feel is different from your prior works?
“Yeah. First of all the drummer was always my cousin, Mario. And long time guitarist, David, just recently left at the end of last year. We’re all cool still, there’s no bad blood. So I was always used to jamming with them. So for the new record, I had Chase from Warbringer and Carlos fill in on guitar and drums. So the overall feel is a little different. I mean, we all like the same kind of music anyway. And I’ve known them for such a long time that everything was very natural. Regardless of different style, different guitar licks, different guitar solos, and even drum fills and all that kind of stuff. Everything was a good fresh start but it wasn’t awkward, it wasn’t forced. And that’s what I’m really happy about. That’s always something you should worry about writing music, you don’t want it to be forced. You don’t want it to be weird when you’re jamming with someone new. So I’m glad that everything was smooth and natural. And musically, I write mostly everything anyway, but there’s a slight difference on this album because I had to write a little differently. Every guitarist is different and I like to see where the strength and weaknesses are for each player. So there’s a difference in writing too. Not saying this album is even more technical or less technical, its just that there’s different kinds of licks this time around. I mean I don’t know if it’s noticeable in “Slave to the Sword” and “Ride Forth,” the technicality isn’t better or less, it’s just different, and that goes for this album. But I would say that there’s a lot more groove on this album. We specifically wanted to write more groovy and rockin tunes just for the sake of having that type of variety on this album. I think ride forth was a little too single focus on ‘you’re being fast the whole time’ without having a break. So this album definitely has a good balance. It’s like riding a wave, there’s ups and downs. So this album I’m very proud of because of that. I’m very proud that I was able to write that way and be happy about it. So I think this album is the best one so far.”
You’re releasing this album on a plethora of different color options for the record collector. Are you a fan of buying physical music over digital?
“Yes, I am. But I mean I’m pretty broke so I can’t be buying all of that stuff. What I do buy is I have a classical collection, classical vinyl collection I still need to build on. I get them because they’re pretty cheap anyway. No one’s really buying classical vinyl. So it’s kind of awesome that I’m into it and can buy that stuff. But yeah. I do like buying an album and owning it. If I really love that music, I’ll definitely buy it, like physical copies. It’s cool as well to download everything. And I’ve done that, I’m not gonna deny that. But there’s something about putting a CD on or a record on and just sitting back and listening to the music. Because they actually made an effort to put the music on instead of just pressing a button. It’s almost like it’s very disconnected. And I guess the same goes with friends. You don’t want to talk to your friends over the phone or text the whole time, that’s kind of weird and so disconnected. It would be better if you could hang out with your friends in person. I don’t know if that’s a good analogy or not but that’s how I see it. I think it’s the same thing with music. So I definitely love having physical copies of my favorite music, because I feel more connected with it. I feel more of a personal relationship with music because of that. Especially with vinyl. The artwork is a lot bigger and you can see all the details. It’s just cool sitting back and listening to your favorite records while looking at the artwork, there’s no other way to explain that feeling. It’s just awesome.”
What album or band have you drawn the most inspiration from as a musician?
“I would say there’s a handful, not particularly anyone. I mean all together, all the members we’ve played with, even the new guys, Chase, Carlos, and Adrian, our new drummer, we all like the same shit. And I would say all together we like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Ozzy Osbourne. I think thats the common bands we really love. Dio, Rainbow, Deep Purple, we just love jamming all that. And a lot of the bands I’ve mentioned have classical licks here and there and obviously we do a lot more of that. We still draw from those 70s and 80s bands that we love. We feel that’s kind of missing here in metal music, you know, rock n roll stuff. I love rock and roll. The attitude seems to be gone in some scenes so we try to keep it alive.”
You just got off touring with Obituary. How was that touring with them?
“(Laughs) They were so cool. It was awesome. It was an awesome experience. We were really grateful we jumped on so last minute. They needed a band in two weeks before the tour started. At that point we were like ‘Damn, we have two weeks to go to Europe? Fuck.” And I didn’t even have a drummer at that time. So I called up Adrian and said ‘Hey dude, wanna tour Europe? We’re gonna go in two weeks.’ And he was barely learning the songs because he wanted to try out to be permanent. I told him ‘Here’s a whole setlist. Can you do it in two weeks?’ He said ‘Fuck I don’t know.’ Long story short, he did it. He did not fail. So we did it and we show up to Germany in the hotel. We all were staying in the same hotel with Obituary as well. We show up and Donald, the drummer, he comes running at us. ‘Hey you guys made it!’ He was so stoked. Not only him but the whole band. They were just so stoked that everything went well and we showed up on time because I guess they’ve had trouble with that. They were really awesome people. They were very genuine. They were just awesome to be around. Great musician, great people. The whole tour was just awesome. It was a good time. We had great times partying with them and overall it was just a great experience in a whole month. Considering how stressful everything was, everyone was still having a good time. Everyone was helping each other out. I’d say that was one of the best tours we’ve done just because everyone was so cool.”
What could the first time Exmortus concert goer expect?
“Expect your mind to be blown. To melt from all the shredding cause I don’t know. Someone whos not used to shred music or in general fast music, I guess we’re known for playing too many notes. Like I don’t know, have you seen the movie Amadeus before haha?”
‘“How does one say it… there are too many notes.’ That’s how I feel. Some new listeners may be like ‘what the fuck, too many notes.’ They might not like it or they might like it. So it may be a little difficult for some to grasp, watching us for the first time, watching our kind of music for the first time. But I would say expect a good time regardless. I can’t help but move on stage and the rest of the band, we get into it. We put on a show the best we can without any pyro actual lights performance. But we like to put on a show because to me, the music demands it. The music can be pretty fast and crazy and dramatic so we do the same with our show. We have a good time. And I may smile on stage because I’m not grim and evil, I’m just a human being who has a good time playing their music. So expect a good fucking time”
Do you have a favorite area of the country to play in?
“We’re from the west coast so I mean the west coast always seems to be really good in terms of reception because people are just familiar with us. We’ve been touring the west coast a lot because it’s a lot closer and more financially feasible to tour here and that’s how it started. The fan base is definitely bigger. So I would say overall good shows, good people. We have a lot of friends on the west coast. But I like doing the east coast because it’s very different. I like a change of pace. Exploring different world. So I like the east coast. The south is also pretty cool. I don’t think I have favorites. I don’t know if I could base it on music but I’ll base it on food. I love eating a lot of food. A lot of different kinds of food. So far, deep dish pizza, it’s pretty good man. I’d say the other half of the United States is pretty good on that. The south, I love eating BBQ so I don’t know man, I can’t decide.”
I definitely feel you on loving food.
“Yeah I mean the south, Texas, you’re going to expect good BBQ. Even in Tennessee, everywhere like that. Expect good authentic food from the region.”
Could we expect any more news from Exmortus within the next year or two? Music or touring?
“Yeah actually. We’re going to be promoting a new tour here soon. Late June I believe and it will be all over the states so expect us to come around this time. Cause it’s been awhile. We haven’t hit the east coast in awhile or the south. It’s been a good minute so we owe that to everyone, especially for the new albums.”
Author/Interviewer Hayden Johnson