A R T I C L E
Outside my Usual Wheelhouse: A Q&A with Caspar Kneale of Thagomizer
with Ian Duggan
HUP wrote a review of ‘Synth from the Dawn of Time’ by Wellington dino synth project ‘Thagomizer’ a few weeks ago, and described it as "Mesozoic mood music". Then, in November – in a move that got us straight in the feels – they released a new EP titled... "Mesozoic Mood Music"! We tracked down Thagomizer’s Caspar Kneale to discuss the Wikipedia rabbit holes the songs can take you down, the micro-genres of dino synth and dungeon synth, the most appropriate situations someone should listen to Thagomizer in, and more!
HUP: Let’s start with a quick look at your earliest music releases. With your father and a sibling, you released a number of experimental/avant-garde songs between 2003 and 2006 under the name ‘Kneale.Kneale.Kneale’, and you had an earlier 7” single under your own name, lathe cut at King Records. Among the earliest compositions here, you are noted as having been only 4 or 7 year’s old, depending on where you read. And from what I can tell, your earliest personal compositions on the 7” (re-released on the 2003/2004’ Kneale.Kneale.Kneale ‘The Silver Chair’ EP) were called ‘Feather Duster’ and ‘Dinosaur Wars’. The point I’m trying to get at here is, it looks like you have been into dinosaurs – both avian and non-avian – for a very long time, and you clearly know a lot about them. Can you tell us a bit about your interest in dinosaurs?
Caspar: Wow, that's some really good digging. I honestly hadn't even made the connection about the fact I already had a song named about dinosaurs, haha. I think the Feather Duster one is unrelated - I was just a kid who thought feather dusters where cool. Clearly I've been making dino synth since waaaaay back. But you're absolutely right that I've always loved dinosaurs. What kid doesn't right? From as far back as I can remember they were always the most amazing creatures to me. I don’t even think my memories go back to a time where dinosaurs weren't something I was interested in. One of my favourite stories of my childhood is being taken to the library and being found in the prehistoric life section, with literally every book about dinosaurs down on the ground beside me. Disney's Dinosaurs is one of the very, very few movies I've seen in cinemas multiple times and I definitely remember hiding behind the couch when I watched Jurassic Park at too young of an age. As a kid I was dead set on studying to become a palaeontologist, which hasn't quite happened (unfortunately it's just not really something you can study in New Zealand), but I guess making dino synth music is the next best thing, right? I wish I had a better explanation for a childhood obsession that's continued through my whole life... but let's be honest; at the end of the day dinosaurs are just really, really cool.
HUP: I love it when I listen to a song and I end up on Wikipedia learning new things because of it. In particular, on the first Thagomizer EP, I really enjoyed ‘The Bone Wars’, because I got to learn about palaeontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, and their intense rivalry for fossil hunting and discovery in the late 19th Century. What can you tell me about the inspiration behind the songs on the new EP?
Caspar: For the most part I don’t write the songs with names in mind. They come later. Generally, once the songs are written I go on a hunt through the internet for terms or topics that I find both interesting and match the vibe of each track. I definitely do aim for that Wikipedia rabbit hole effect with some of the song titles. I try to find a balance when naming the songs between evocative, informative and matching the feeling of each song. Even better if in the process of deciding on song names I get to learn something myself. For example, ‘Upon Tethyan Shores’ was a great chance for me to learn about the prehistoric geography of our world. Like, we all know the basics of Pangaea and Gondwanaland, but I've never looked into the smaller land features. I was tossing up between The Eromanga Sea (an inland sea in what is now central Australia) and Tethys Sea (located between Gondwana and Laurasia before the opening of the Indian and Atlantic oceans). Being not only a dino nerd but also a geography nerd, it was a perfect rabbit hole to fall down.
HUP: Click on #dinosynth on Bandcamp, and I find you are not alone. For example, there are artists like Diplodocus from the USA, Pteranodon from Lithuania, Synthosaurus from Germany and Archosaur from Finland. How did you get interested in Dino Synth, and do you have particular favourite artists or songs we should check out?
Caspar: My introduction to the micro-genre was stumbling across Diplodocus – ‘Slow and Heavy B Sides’ on YouTube – and I'm sure my initial reaction was the same as yours; "Oh what? There’s such a thing as dino synth? Where has this been all my life?" Then I preceded to do nothing with that information until very recently. Diplodocus are still my biggest influence by far. I really appreciate the atmosphere that they bring to the genre and I really hope that I manage to summon a similar feeling with my releases. I really enjoy Synthosaurus' ‘Metalosauric Crush’ too; it takes a very different approach, almost feeling inspired by power metal as opposed to black metal. It's very grandiose and epic sounding. In the wider dungeon synth genre, one of my favourites is the self-titled release by Iskall. It sounds really cold and artificial in all the best ways. If I knew more about how synths work I might have tried to make something more akin to that in sound.
HUP: I find your EPs really relaxing, and I used the term ‘Mesozoic mood music’ to describe it in my review of the first EP. Under what set of circumstances do you think it best to experience your music? During a barbeque? At work? In the privacy of your own room?
Caspar: I'm not gonna lie, I'm genuinely not sure when people listen to dino synth. It's a pretty weird thing to put on at any time. I really like listening to it when I'm out on my long run for the week. There’s something to the steady tempo of my footfalls and the dino steps in the music that works really well for me. So maybe the best time to listen is when you’re out for a nice walk. I'm sure it'll set a great mood that will help make it feel like an adventure. Failing that maybe make it the soundtrack to your table-top RPG set in caveman times.
HUP: Dino Synth is said to be an offshoot of ‘Dungeon Synth’. Is this something you are into more broadly, and can you explain what it is?
Caspar: Dungeon Synth is a genre I've been aware of for a few years without being super immersed in. I think my dad showed me Burzum's album ‘Filosofem’, and the amazing synth on it led to him showing me Mortiis and the amazingly niche genre of dungeon synth. If I was to describe the genre to someone I'd probably say it sounds like instrumental black metal... with no guitars. Some of it is super medieval folk influenced, others could almost be mistaken for a video game soundtrack. All-in-all, its just the perfect genres to soundtrack your DnD game.
HUP: What music are you into, and involved in now, outside of Thagomizer?
Caspar: Outside of dino synth I'm into the heavier side of music. I play guitar in a beatdown hardcore band called ColdxWar, and in a drum machine grindcore band called Marrowspawn. It's honestly only down to needing surgery to repair a ligament in my hand that I ever got round to making Thagomizer a reality. Until two months ago I'd never made any music not involving a guitar. It's been a really fun journey learning how to make music that is so outside my usual wheelhouse. Starting from zero all over again has been super refreshing and a definite positive coming out of a pretty lame situation.
HUP: What gear do you use to record as Thagomizer?
Caspar: Thagomizer is recorded exclusively using digital instruments on Logic Pro. It all had to be able to be made using one hand because of the surgery. Generally on the songs I use a collection of brass instruments (Tuba, French horn, trombone and trumpets) to create the bulk of the track along with timpanies and 808s for the stomping of huge feet. Add in a few sound effects and ‘bam’, dino synth. I'm really interested to see what other instruments lend themselves to the themes of dinosaurs. I'm sure it can't just be brass instruments the conjurer such imagines.
HUP: When I look on Facebook, there was a band called Thagomizer that was active in Wellington between 2013 and 2014. Were you related to this band in any way? I do note they had the same Bandcamp address as you are using now!
Caspar: Honestly, the matching names is just a coincidence. Thagomizer has been my absolute favourite dino related word since I found out about it. I'd joked about making a dinosaur themed doom band called Thagomizer in the past, so it was the natural name for the project. I did a little search for the name and since the Wellington band hadn't done anything in a while, I figured it was fair game. I guess they must have closed their Bandcamp page or something ‘cos by the time I got round to making one I didn’t have any issues. Maybe I should have coined a term for an Iguanadon's thumb spike and named myself that...