Article by Oakland L. Childers
The term “supergroup” gets thrown around a lot, but few bands are as deserving of the title as Old Man Gloom. With members whose day jobs have included Cave In, Converge, ISIS, Sumac, Doomriders, Mutoid Man and myriad other projects, the band has become one of the most enduring enigmas in the world of heavy music, simultaneously stunning fans and critics with jarring and creatively extraordinary releases while confusing nearly everyone with bizarre social media posts and even taunting the music press. After all, this is the band that slipped review copies of its album Ape of God to music journalists only to reveal months later on release day that what they’d distributed wasn’t the actual record.
“There’s been so many things that if any other band had done the things that I do they would be slaughtered for it, and they would lose fans and people would be outraged,” says Santos Montano, Old Man Gloom’s drummer and the band’s primary online presence. “But because we do it so consistently people don’t even think about it for more than a day. When we did the Ape of God thing,” any other band that did that, publications would be like ‘fuck these guys.’ The labels would be like ‘fuck these guys.’ There’s so many people that would be like ‘Great, you want to play jokes? Go fuck yourself and fuck your stupid band.’ With us, we’re so consistent in our bad behavior that it didn’t affect us in any way.”
Old Man Gloom began in 1999 in Santa Fe, New Mexico as a project between a group of friends who all happened to be professional musicians. Aaron Turner (guitar, vocals) was the frontman of the band ISIS at the time and now fronts the art-metal group SUMAC. Nate Newton (guitar, vocals) plays bass in the frenetic metalcore band Converge. Caleb Scofield (bass) was a member of Cave In and the Old Man Gloom side project Zozobra.
After releasing a handful of sporadic recordings in the early 2000s, the band went completely dark for nearly a decade, only to reemerge seemingly out of nowhere to release a new record, NO in 2012. The record was barely advertised but still got a lot of attention from fans and the press and was followed in 2014 by the now-infamous Ape of God.
By any measure, Old Man Gloom has done a terrible job promoting itself. The band doesn’t tour and largely eschews the typical PR relationship for Montano’s bare-bones self-promotion techniques. That’s by design according to Montano. Because Old Man Gloom is a side project for all its member (Montano is a set dresser for television and films), there’s little pressure to tour, release albums or even behave professionally.
“We don’t need people to listen to us or come see us play live or do anything,” he says. “We don’t need any of it. We just do it on an as-needed-by-us basis. It just so happens that it works for everyone else. If it all stopped tomorrow, we’d all be like ‘Well that was pretty good. Too bad it’s not all still happening.’ There’s just no consequences for us and it’s pretty great.”
That same attitude follows the band into all aspects of its existence, he says, including the studio. Montano says sometimes he’s as surprised as everyone else when he hears the band’s completed records.
“Have you heard our albums?” says Montano. “It’s like 70 percent gobbledygook. There’s literally moments in the studio where we look at each other, and Aaron’s in there doing something really fucking weird, and we’ll look at each other like ‘Is this real? Is he serious right now or is he fucking with us?’ Sometimes it sounds really terrible and we’re not sure it’s going to work, then Aaron takes it away for six months and comes back and it just so happens it’s really good stuff. We never know what it’s going to be or if it’s any good while we’re doing it. And we don’t really care. Whatever it ends up being is just fine by us.”
That’s not to say the band has had an easy go of things. In March of 2018 the band and the heavy music community at large was dealt a terrible blow when, on a highway near his home in New Hampshire, Scofield hit a concrete barrier with his truck and died from his injuries. It’s hard to put into words how devastating the loss was to Scofield’s family and friends. Aside from his musical family, he left behind a wife and two young children. He was 39.
Montano, like the others, still struggles to talk about Scofield’s death.
“It’s just so hard to imagine that it’s real” he says. “I guess it’s a little over a year now and it still feels pretty surreal. It still feels like it’s not really possible that what’s happened has really happened. But then obviously it has.”
Montano says his feeling go up and down, from extreme grief to fondly remembering funny things Scofield said or did. It’s a rollercoaster that more often than not ends with an empty feeling that’s hard to escape. Keeping the band going, he says, helps.
“On a day to day, I could not think about it for however long and then something happens and something will hit me and all the synapses will start connecting and I’ll sort of remember the reality and get really fucking bummed out,” he says. “But then we’ll get together and we’re all in the same place and we’re all going through it together. It’s really healing to get together and talk and laugh and tell Caleb stories. It’s what we all need. Saying all that, none of that speaks at all to what his family is going through. What we’re feeling is just a drop in the bucket, which leads us to keep doing things to support his wife and kids however we can. It’s what we’re all kind of focused on right now.”
That focus has not only helped friends and bandmates honor Scofield’s legacy, it has made a very real impact for his family. A GoFundMe campaign in Scofield’s memory raised more than $100,000 and ongoing efforts including auctions of memorabilia and music-related items continue to bring in money for the family. Montano says the outpouring of help has been mind blowing.
“It’s been pretty crazy, the amount of support” says Montano, adding he was particularly shocked by what fans and even relative strangers were willing to offer just to help out.
“I had all this old Hydra Head (Turner’s record label) stuff and we marked it up really high and all of that money went to Caleb’s family,” he says. “I met a woman who bought this ISIS sawblade, like a CD attached to a sawblade. I think we made like ten copies, and she bought it for 300 bucks. And you know, she didn’t want to spend $300 for a CDR attached to a sawblade, but she was like ‘hey, it’s a cool thing to have, it’s yours and all that money goes to Caleb’s family.” And it’s like, you don’t know me, and you still want to funnel that 300 bucks to [the family]. We did these raffles and you know people didn’t give a shit about the stuff we were raffling. They thought it would be cool, but the bags were just overflowing. They bought all the raffle tickets and the raffle people started having to make [tickets] on napkins just to keep it going. And again, it wasn’t because they wanted a fucking signed drum head. It’s because they wanted to give that money and give support. It was unbelievable. People really came through.”
Losing Scofield, he says, made the idea of continuing Old Man Gloom both sad and exciting: no one ever wanted to do the band without their friend, but continuing was something they all knew he would want. In the end, Montano says, they decided as a group to push on.
“It’s really made this all feel important again in a way that it hasn’t,” Montano says, “and I think we all have sort of a renewed enthusiasm for Old Man Gloom. It’s like we’re here and we have the ability to spend this time together and we’re so grateful for the time that we got to spend with Caleb through Old Man Gloom.”
Newton says it’s been hard to write and record the new Old Man Gloom record, in large part because they are using ideas Scofield sketched out before he passed. Finishing Scofield’s songs has been fun, weird, sad and challenging, sometimes all at once.
“It’s crazy,” says Newton, obviously emotional about the situation. “It’s hard to put that one into words. It’s difficult on an emotional level, but it’s also hard because his stuff isn’t easy play. He definitely had his own voice.”
In the end the band decided to do things the only way they know how.
“We’re kind of approaching it the way we do every record,” he says. “Everybody brings a bunch of ideas to the table and we just see what works. Because they aren’t fully formed songs, we’re taking some of those ideas and figuring out how to make them work. Then trying to stay true to what he would have done.”
This, he says, is where things get emotionally tricky, but also brings them the closest they can get to paying homage to their friend.
“Every record, Caleb would write a bunch of songs and we’d take one and do it a totally different way,” says Newton with a chuckle. “We’d take a day when he wasn’t there and completely redo his song so when he showed up to record, it would be a totally different song. How do you do that in this situation? It’s new territory, trying to do things in a way that honors Caleb’s memory, but without Caleb.”
One of the overarching themes in Old Man Glooms music has always been how much the members enjoy playing music together. To keep that spirit alive, they enlisted Cave In frontman Steve Brodsky. He’s one of their oldest friends, Newton says, and the only person who could even begin to step into Scofield’s shoes. Newton, however reticently, assumed Scofield’s spot in Cave In for the same reason.
“It is still fun,” he says. “And with Steve involved, he’s part of the family. I don’t know if anybody else could have done it, just like nobody else could have stepped into Caleb’s shoes in Cave In. We needed someone else who knew Caleb like we did. Being able to relate on that level is important because once we relate on that level we can start making jokes about it.”
It would have been easy, Montano says, to focus solely on other things – family, work, other bands – and let Old Man Gloom fade away. But no matter what has happened, the members have always managed to get together, however irregularly, and make music.
“We’re all over 40 and we all have kids and Old Man Gloom was really the only time we saw each other,” says Montano. “Now, in retrospect, thank God we pestered [Caleb] into doing this with us. Otherwise we probably wouldn’t have seen him in the last five years. This was a great excuse to be together.”
And now, he says, the band is an even greater excuse for the remaining members to keep that passion alive and do what they love, as a family.
“We’ve never had the shitty times that other bands have had,” says Montano. “We’ve just never gone through that, like getting sick of each other, all that stuff. We’ve never had it because we’ve never been a full-time band. It’s special and we’re pretty grateful.”