Heavy Metal Meets Flamenco: Trevor William Church Reimagines HAUNT Songs For ‘Unplugged Volume 1’

Heavy Metal project HAUNT, created by Trevor William Church (Beastmaker), is back playing some shows, but during the extensive downtime, not only was the 2021 album Beautiful Distraction released, but songwriter Church took a pretty extensive journey into very different territory with some of the prolific project’s biggest hits so far. Church conceived of a way to render the otherwise very heavy music into acoustic form and the result was not just a stripped-down singer/songwriter version of those tunes, but virtually a note-for-note translation of the chosen songs into an elaborate Folk-style, one strongly influenced by flamenco guitar music.

The results of performing only on instruments without electricity are stunning and would enthrall both die-hard fans and newcomers alike. The songs are available now as Unplugged Volume 1 from Iron Grip and Church Recordings. I spoke with Trevor William Church about a whole plethora of subjects relating to HAUNT, including the ups and downs of live playing and keeping a handle on all the logistics of the band, but particularly about the pioneering work he did creating Unplugged Volume 1.

Hannah Means-Shannon: How are you feeling after releasing three albums in about a year and a half?

Trevor William Church: I’m always working on stuff. There’s no doubt that I have kept really busy during the pandemic considering you can’t play. It’s easier if you’re a renaissance-type person who plays multiple instruments. I have what’s starting to become a really nice recording studio. Over the years, with each album I do, I keep investing in it, since I want to keep creating. My favorite part of being a musician is the creative part.

When I finish a song or a project in the studio, I feel way more elated than coming home from a tour. On tours, I don’t party, but when I come home, I’m brain-dead and sick. That kind of lifestyle, with a lack of sleep, sweating bullets every night, not having your normal diet, will kill you. However, being in the studio is quite nice, since it’s right in the back of my house. I can have a cup of coffee and meals. It’s way chill. Now we have got to get back to playing shows again, and it’ll be a grind! Come April, we’ll do three weeks, and come summer we’re going to do a month-long trek across the United States. It looks like we’ll be in Mexico in March, too, but that’s flying, that’s easy!

HMS: You have a lot of new music to tour at this point. Is that part of the planning process?

TWC: It’s crazy. I have all these albums out I need to support. We didn’t even really get to tour my album, Mindfreeze, which came out in January 2020. We toured Europe and two days after we got home, it was lockdown. I also came home really ill. Did I have Covid? It’s undetermined. I did end up getting Covid after I was vaccinated, and I did feel really gnarly for a couple days. But the illness when I got home from Europe was way worse, with a horrendous cough.

HMS: I heard that you do a lot of HAUNT managing yourself. What does that entail?

TWC: I didn’t really like being signed to a label in the past, that’s why I do a lot of stuff myself. Basically, it’s almost 100% DIY. I oversee all manufacturing of HAUNT stuff. I order all the vinyls. I have a business partner who deals with the distribution side of it. He has a label called Iron Grip. I always really loved the DC Hardcore Punk era scene, like Fugazi with Dischord Records, who did a lot of it themselves. I always thought that was really respectable.  

One thing that people don’t realize about working with record labels is that it’s kind of like going into a bank and getting a loan. Then you’re attached to all these things that you have to do in order to ever make any money. And now, with streaming, there’s not that much money to make. I saw even more reason to get into DIY and I was one of the first to really start that push to Bandcamp. When HAUNT came out, Luminous Eyes was only released digitally there. It stuck to the wall, and this is now my longest band, at four years. But now that I have a project that is my own, I think it’s here to stay.

You can succeed in music with a lot of work and substantial investment, which I always looked at as investing in myself. I’m still kind of a grumpy asshole sometimes, but I was really unhappy when I had to work a day job, and then do music, because I was just thinking about music the whole time I was there.

HMS: How did the Unplugged project come about? That’s not something that comes out of Metal music very often.

TWC: I took that creative passion to the next level and completely changed direction of everything that I’d been doing up to that point. The idea was sparked because a friend’s fiancée asked if I would play at their wedding. It scared the shit out of me, because the groom is a personal friend of mine, so I didn’t want to say no. But it was way out of my wheelhouse. She wanted me to play “In Our Dreams”. I didn’t even know what that would sound like.

I have a cheap mini acoustic guitar and I started messing around on it. I use it to write songs but I play it like a Heavy Metal guitar. Now it was about strumming, and I don’t really strum. I’m known as a shredder guitar player. That made it way harder because it was really simple.

HMS: Are you the person who is playing the guitar on all of the tracks on the Unplugged album?

TWC: Yes, it’s all me.

HMS: Strumming is not what’s on there! Did you become a classical guitarist overnight in order to do this?

TWC: Hold on. [Laughs] There was a point where I really was trying to find some inspiration. The first thing that came up was Nirvana Unplugged, because that is a heavy band taking things down a notch. But he sings like he sings on the records. That was something I could use to try to make my project work. But a band like that doesn’t have guitar solos, it has bridges. HAUNT doesn’t have traditional bridges, I have solo sections. I wondered what the fuck to put there. But being from the central valley, I started thinking about the Flamenco players I had seen around. That was when I realized I had stumbled on something that was going to work.

That’s the acoustic music that I’d heard the most, so it automatically made sense. Yes, it’s technical, but even that was not that hard for me to do. I did one or two takes on each of the solos. The hardest part was me learning the second guitar. I had to write a solo, learn it, then go back and do the second guitar and make it sound good. But during the verses and choruses, it’s very simple, aside from a song like “Have No Fear” where I do the main riff in it.

HMS: There’s also a lot of strings that help to create texture and fill out the songs.

TWC: When I programmed the strings, I used a lot of my melodies that I create for the guitar as little in-between filler elements. My guitar style is like Jake E. Lee, when you add alternating picking techniques and scales to simple chord progressions to emphasize things. I used all that for strings here. I don’t play strings, so I couldn’t play them, but everything else I played myself.

HMS: Was that the most time-consuming thing for you since it was so different?

TWC: The hardest thing for me to get done was the tambourine! I had to sit there hitting it one time for like four minutes on every song. Then when you get to shaking it fast, my hand was cramping! This seemed so archaic, musically. Children can figure out what to do, but I’m a professional musician and this was hard! My brain would wander, and I’d have to start again. It was grueling to get from point A to point B. But the drums were way easier than a usual HAUNT record. I kept that easy. I wanted to rely on the melodies.

HMS: Do you consider these to be performances of the same songs, or totally different versions of the songs in a way?

TWC: These are reimagined songs. These are all songs that I’ve previously recorded on records and EPs, and it was really interesting to look at them with a different perspective. It was like rewriting them other than the fact that I’ve been singing these songs for a long time. It was much easier to sing them in the studio than I thought it would be, when I re-sang them for this record. I didn’t need any rehearsal.

HMS: Are you still writing stuff even though you’ve done three albums in the past year and a half?

TWC: I’m still writing. Last night, I hadn’t written in a while because of working on Unplugged, but I had my guitar, went outside to jam for a little bit, and it just came to me. There’s still a lot there for me, and I have so much material that I’ve written that I haven’t even released yet. I’m being a little bit more patient for the next one, because I am feeling the weight of not having toured Mindfreeze, since that one really put me on a lot of peoples’ radars when it put me on the cover of Decibel Magazine and a European tour. I’m starting to really feel like we need to catch up. We’ve only played a couple of shows but have some local shows coming up, including LA.

HMS: Even though you perform with a band, you play pretty intricate guitar parts and do lead vocals. Do you find that to be a difficult combination?

TWC: I wish I could grab the mic and sing along with fans sometimes, but am I going to stop mid-riff and go and grab the mic, then put it back on the stand? I’d basically miss the whole section. It’s kind of limiting being a guitar player who sings, but at the same time, when I don’t have a guitar, I don’t feel like myself. It’s a Catch 22, because it would be nice not to have to play. Singing and playing guitar makes me sweat so hard, because you’re doing two things at once. I follow very strict rules before gigs since it takes so much concentration. No weed before shows, no coffee before I play, nothing at all. I have to be mentally prepared for technical guitar playing, singing, and trying to rock out. People who do this know. If you ask other people who do this, they say it was the hardest thing to learn.

HMS: Do you think fans are going to ask you to play the Unplugged versions of songs at upcoming shows?

TWC: They’ve been well received. I always do a poll to see what fans want to hear live, since I don’t really care what we play as long as we play some fast ones. I was really surprised, right after the release of Unplugged, that they were already putting Unplugged songs on there! Oh fuck! I have now opened up Pandora’s box.

My Dad had one really good thing to say about that. He said, “Now you have a different kind of show. You go on, you play four bangers, shredding Heavy Metal songs, then you take a break. Then you come out and have your acoustic guitar for a couple songs. Then you come back, and you do your Heavy Metal shit.” He said, “You don’t want to overstay your welcome, but a couple of songs won’t kill anyone, and it makes your show different from everyone else’s.” Then again, I don’t know how I’ll feel about it because I haven’t done it yet. I’ll have to teach everyone how the songs go. We’ll have to program the strings.

HMS: Do you think other people in heavy music were surprised that you did an Unplugged album like this?

TWC: I’m hoping I kind of spark something and some other people do it. My friend’s band, Seven Sisters, came out with something a little while ago, called Campfire Tales, which is acoustic guitar. It’s really great, though it’s way different than what I did, since I made mine percussive and had drums. Mine could be a show in an acoustic setting. It would be amazing one day to have the full acoustic thing happen with violin, viola, cello. That, to me, would be way more satisfying then doing a couple of songs from Unplugged in a concert setting. I’d like to do them when I’m not sweating balls.

HMS: You’re going to have to start playing encores and bringing them out then! You have too much music not to.

TWC: We already are doing encores. We’re doing 16 song sets lately. It is hard to play for a long time and we’re conditioning ourselves to do that, but I can never get off the stage without playing “Luminous Eyes”. If we go off, they call us back to do “Luminous Eyes”. I never thought when I wrote that song, it would have any impact at all. It severely changed the course of my musical career. I had just gotten off a very successful tour, and had been playing with Zakk Sabbath, which was sold out very night, but then I wrote that song. That song was the tip of the iceberg of where I wanted to go musically, and I owe all of it to “Luminous Eyes”.

Haunt have some live shows coming up. Check out their social media for details!

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