'Liz can only remember the lyrics when she's onstage," says Castle guitarist Mat Davis with a laugh. "She blocks them out any other time."
Vocalist Elizabeth Blackwell, who serves double duty as Castle's bassist, can be forgiven for momentarily drawing a blank when asked the specific wording of a lyric from the new Welcome to the Graveyard album. She is, after all, at the wheel of the van, as the affable occult-rock outfit makes its way from Tampa to Jacksonville, Florida. It's a city-to-city ritual that will be reenacted some 75 times over the course of the band's current three-month American tour.
"'Welcome to the Graveyard,' for us, was like 'Welcome to Los Angeles,'" says Davis of the album's title track, written in the wake of their relocation from Northern to Southern California. "We were really overwhelmed by the city itself, and the quality of life was hard to accept on a basic human level, you know? It's like people are just cutting each other's throats every second they're there."
The husband-wife team, who met seven years ago while working San Francisco's Noise-Pop Festival, were also taken aback by their fellow emigrants, the type who grew up in small Midwestern towns and were always being told they had what it takes to make it big in Hollywood.
"The street we lived on, there was a casting agency, so it was an endless parade of actors and actresses and models. You always knew them because they had their headshots under their arms."
That said, the guitarist admits to liking a lot of things about L.A. and still having many friends there. But for now, the band will be getting by with no fixed address, at least until year's end.
"Our touring schedule is where we're gonna basically call home," says Davis, "and it goes much further than the dates we've released so far. We're going to be in Europe, and then do another tour in the states, and also a tour of Japan in December. And then we'll probably settle back in Northern California when that's all done."
Castle's work ethic — they'll typically go two or three weeks without taking a night off — isn't the only thing that separates them from less serious counterparts on the road. There's also the music.
The stereotypical and all-too-true image of female-fronted doom metal bands, especially those of the occult variety, is an orgy of mock-operatic wailing ... or guttural roaring ... or both.
But Castle's four albums to date are nothing like that. If anything, they sound more like a latter-day Black Sabbath who've kicked out Ozzy Osbourne, drunk a little too much coffee, and recruited Patti Smith or Ann Wilson to take his place.
Yes, that Ann Wilson. The Heart lead singer is on Blackwell's short list of favorite vocalists, as are punk goddess Smith, Judas Priest's Rob Halford and Deep Purple's Ronnie James Dio.
Blackwell's delivery, which her bandmate refers to as a "natural kind of wailing," doesn't feel affected or calculated, blending easily with the more hypnotic elements of stoner rock and classic metal.
Metal is in the guitarist's blood, as well. Davis grew up near Toronto, and was 12 years old when he went to his first concert with his older brother and cousins.
He vividly remembers watching Canadian heavy metal bands Helix and Kick Axe from the front row, and speaks of it with the kind of enthusiasm that suggests he walked out a different person than the one who walked in.
"Yes, I think I would probably say that," he confirms. "It left a pretty big imprint. My friends and I were all playing guitar or bass, and just jamming at that point.
"So this was hugely inspirational on a lot of different levels: the sounds, the lights, everything. Not just being in your parents' garage or basement."
Blackwell and Davis recorded Welcome to the Graveyard in Portland with producer Billy Anderson, whose clients have included Sleep, Neurosis, and Brother of the Sonic Club. While Blackwell's vocals sometimes got drowned in the mix on previous records, they're more front-and-center this time, less enveloped by thickly-layered guitars.
That's not to give the impression that the band has stripped down its arrangements enough to record on a four-track.
"Stripped-down, for Castle, is still pretty built up," Davis admits. "But It just seems to be more taut, and tighter in the rhythm section. I mean, it's not stripped down like AC/DC, but it's definitely leaning more toward hard rock in a lot of spots. Which is something we've always had in our sound, but I think we just highlighted it here."
Lyrically, Castle are still inclined toward occult concepts and imagery, but manage to pull it off without the more cartoonish trappings of some similarly inclined bands. The new song "Traitor's Ruin" was inspired by the writings of Aleister Crowley, while ceremonial magician Eliphas Levi was one of the influences behind "Flash of the Pentagram."
For the well-read Blackwell and Davis, it's a practice that dates to their first album, which included an adaptation of William Blake's "The Descent of Man into the Vale of Death." They also borrowed from the French poet Charles Baudelaire for their song "Total Betrayal."
"I wouldn't call them occult in any way," says Davis of the two poets. "But they did push the boundaries of perception in their own way, whether it was through writing, or the way they lived life and looked upon it."
As for Crowley and Levi's tendencies toward occult magic, Davis is more interested in self-realization than sacred ritual.
"I can't really speak for other people or any religious dogma attached to any of it," he says. "But for me, it's more like a practical way of seeing or thinking about the world. It's more of a personal journey, where you're putting it all together, and maybe seeing something else in the world that's not so easily seen."