Jon Davis is the mastermind behind UK doom titans Conan. But there is more than one string to his stone age bow and with Ungraven, he’s making a 90s-inspired racket with one of his musical heroes. Ahead of the release a new split EP with Slomatics this month, the frontman talked metal, minimalism and Max with Rushonrock’s Rich Holmes.
The early 90s.
Plaid was trumping spandex. Seattle was eclipsing the sunset strip. Metallica had ditched speed for groove. Thrash was past its peak. And traditional, sword and sorcery heavy metal was seriously unfashionable.
But for those of us who paid little attention to the mainstream rock scene, it was something of a golden era.
Around the fringes, a slew of exciting acts, championed by labels such as Roadrunner and Earache, were redefining what it meant to be ‘heavy’.
Sepultura’s colossal Chaos AD, Helmet’s staccato driven Meantime and Fear Factory’s groundbreaking Demanufacture all changed metal’s game.
And in the UK, acts like Godflesh, Pitch Shifter and Fudge Tunnel were making some of the heaviest, most punishing music outside the burgeoning death metal scene.
Hardcore, industrial and metal were being melded in ways we hadn’t seen before.
Into this maelstrom of invention and innovation walked a Scouse teenager called Jon Davis. A guy now known as the driving force behind ‘caveman battle doom’ outfit Conan.
“In the early 90s I was in my mid to late teens and was in a phase of my life where I was just branching out from regular and normal metal,” recalls Davis (pictured above). “I’d been into Bon Jovi, Iron Maiden, stuff like that and then got into some more extreme metal like Sepultura and Megadeth, and then started to branch out into bands that were on the periphery of metal such as Fudge Tunnel and Nailbomb (a two-album collaboration between Sepultura’s Max Cavalera and Fudge Tunnel’s Alex Newport).
“For me it was a kind of metal that I had a chance of playing on the guitar.
“I was learning guitar at that time and the first guitar I ever had was a Spanish classical acoustic guitar. I got that for Christmas when I was 16 and at the same time my parents bought me the sheet music for Fistful of Metal by Anthrax, and I think they somehow thought I was going to learn that on a Spanish classical acoustic!
“I started to listen to music that was less technical and more repetitive in terms of the riffs. And they were the bands I came across and they were cooler in my mind than Metallica or Megadeth. They had a bit more edge and were less ‘commercial’ sounding.
“I have gravitated towards that kind of music throughout my life. It set me on a course.”
That course led to Davis taking Conan’s devastating, low end rumble from Liverpool to the globe, founding UK indie label Black Bow Records, building Skyhammer Studio in Cheshire and running band management company Black Skull Services.
Conan’s four studio albums have re-sculpted doom metal for the 21st century.
But in 2017, Davis felt the pull of those early 90s days and the result was Ungraven, a new project featuring Fudge Tunnel bassist David Ryley and Tuskar drummer Tyler Hodges.
After a slew of demos, Ungraven released Live At S.O.A.N last year, a seven-track effort recorded live at Stuck On A Name studio in Nottingham. And the band have followed it up with a split EP featuring Belfast sludgers Slomatics, out on March 5.
Ungraven has given guitarist/vocalist Davis a chance to stretch his creative sinews, although songs like Defeat The Object and Onwards She Rides To Certain Death still bear the frontman’s unmistakeable sonic hallmarks.
“I wanted Ungraven to reference those bands (Fudge Tunnel, Nailbomb etc) more than Conan does,” Davis explains. “Obviously the way I write songs is the way I write songs. I can’t pretend to be someone else.
“But I am definitely not really wearing a doom metal hat when I am writing for Ungraven.”
And as with Conan, Davis’ guitarwork for the band draws from early influences such as Alex Newport and Godflesh mastermind Justin Broadrick.
It’s brutal and minimal, born of the rust of urban decay and post-industrial Britain and a world away from flashy 80s histrionics and virtuoso fretwork.
“(Their playing) made me focus more on what my right hand was doing than what my left hand was doing,” Davis explains. “Working on the rhythm of the song and how the riff floats in and out of sync with the drum pattern has always interested me more than how intricate the riff was on my left hand.
“That is something I have always liked about what Conan have done, the way the guitars and drums have intertwined.”
The origins of Ungraven
The initial spark for Ungraven came when Davis was on tour with Conan in Richmond, Virginia in 2017. His original concept was to perform as solo act with a drum machine and create a “big wall of noise” a la drone behemoths Sunn O))).
Davis ended up ‘supporting’ Conan for a few shows as a solo artist.
He recalls: “It didn’t really work just a solo thing which is a shame as I wanted it to sound amazing, but after a while it became obvious that I needed to make a band out of it.
“Over time it has become what it is now, there has been a gravitational pull towards making it a three piece.”
But that has given him the chance to work with Tyler Hodges (“he’s got quite a loose drumming style and he can be quite unpredictable when we play together, it keeps me on my toes”) and of course David Ryley – the man whose punishing bass graced Fudge Tunnel’s acclaimed 1991 debut, Hate Songs in E Minor, and its follow-ups, Creep Diets and The Joy Of Irony.
Davis’ friendship with Ryley goes back a while and on stage, the bassist has filled in for Conan’s Chris Fielding a number of times…
“He was a natural choice if I was going to bring in a bass player into Ungraven, particularly because of the sort of music that I am trying to write,” says Davis. “I thought what better than to get one half of the rhythm section of Fudge Tunnel in, if I was going to write music that leaned on that style!
“I invited him to record with us and he played a sat-down ‘Covid’ show with us in London, and it worked live.
“It is a lot of fun writing with Dave and a lot of fun rehearsing with him. He has a really good sense of humour.
“Fudge Tunnel is like a vein that runs through my life. I have been into them since I was a kid and here I am touring in my main band Conan with Dave sometimes, and I have brought him into my second band as the permanent bass player!”
And that connection has led to some magical moments for Davis – moments that would make metal fans of a certain vintage green with envy…
Let’s rewind to 2018 and The Earache Factory stage at Winchester’s Boomtown Fair, where both Conan and Max Cavalera’s Soulfly found themselves on the same bill.
“I got in touch with Gloria Cavalera and arranged for Max to come on stage with us and play Hate Song by Fudge Tunnel.
“So we had Dave on bass, me on guitar, Max Cavalera on vocals and Jonnny (King, Conan’s sticksman) on drums.
“Max said to me, ‘you need to come on our stage next’. They were headlining and the place was rammed.
“I got on stage with Soulfly and did Wasting Away by Nailbomb!”
A teenage dream fulfilled, then.
And Max Cavalera even gifted Jon a Nailbomb t-shirt…
Conan, Slomatics and Ungraven – kindred spirits
Back to the present, and Davis is busy writing the new Conan album, the successor to 2018’s Existential Void Guardian.
And he is delighted to be teaming up with longtime buddies Slomatics for the new split EP.
He speaks highly of an act who have developed alongside Conan, and with whom he’s shared many a stage.
In 2011 Conan shared an EP with the Northern Irish act and Black Bow Records have also released several Slomatics records.
He describes their destinies as “intertwined”.
And the connections run deep.
Take Slomatics out of the picture and Conan’s success, Ungraven and those Cavalera collaborations might never have even happened…
Davis explains: “In the very early Conan days, I was like, ‘do I keep this going or is this going to be a one-off thing’.
“Dave (Majury), Slomatics’ guitarist, was one of the main factors in saying ‘you should keep at this’.
“If it wasn’t for them, I might not be playing music at all.”
For Conan’s many fans – and for anyone who’s experienced the full force of Ungraven – that intervention must seem like a godsend.
The Ungraven/Slomatics split EP is out on March 5 on Black Bow Records.
Read the review here.
Check it out on Bandcamp here: https://ungraven.bandcamp.com/album/split-with-slomatics