An Interview with Al Lester and Cam Mesmer of SPELL
In the modern age, the heavy metal scene is bustling in ways not seen since its ’80s heyday. And if you’re a non-believer or one to lean into the old guard rather than giving new outfits a chance – think again.
Indeed, metal music is in fine hands and is growing by leaps and bounds across the board. Case in point: SPELL. Comprised of setting duo Al Lester and Cam Mesmer, a duo dead set on keeping things old school while pushing the boundaries of their inter mechanization.
Now four records in – with their latest coming in the form of Tragic Magic (2022) – SPELL is set to continue its upward trajectory, piling on heavy riffs, crushing drums, and ear-rupturing bass rhythms to the delights of the heavy metal masses. Simply put, if Tragic Magic has eluded you this far, take this as your call to arms.
Already heard at work on their next record, Al Lester and Cam Mesmer relented for a moment, dialing in with ClassicRockHistory.com to run through their history, creative process, instrument choices, and a whole lot more.
What first inspired you to pick up the guitar?
Al: I have no idea why I first wanted an acoustic guitar because, at the time I got one, I basically didn’t know any music and only really learned how to play “When the Saints Go Marching In” in an open tuning where you just strum all the strings at once. Later, when I picked up an electric, I was about 12 and inspired by Jimi Hendrix, Van Halen, Kurt Cobain, and awful nu-metal. I was just starting to learn about real heavy metal at the time, and as soon as I did, I was struggling to poorly play solos (and parts of solos) by Randy Rhoads, Marty Friedman, Tony Iommi, Metallica, etc.
Can you recall your first guitar, how you obtained it, and if you still have it?
Al: An old friend of my dad named Ace heard I was interested in learning, so he gave me an old red Fender Strat he had sitting around in his basement. I stupidly thought it was old junk because I didn’t know any better, so I traded it into a music store for a really bad “Slammer by Hamer” guitar shaped like a double cutaway Les Paul. It sucked and didn’t even look very cool, so I saved up for a cooler-looking Jackson. I sold the Slammer to Cam for $100, though [Laughs]. And now it lives in a closet at our parent’s house.
What was the first riff and solo you learned?
Al: Okay, I’ll be truthful and give you one embarrassing answer and one cool answer. The first riff I remember figuring out was The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army,” and I felt pretty clever about it, too. The first solo I ever meandered my way through fully was Black Sabbath’s “N.I.B.,” and no, not the bass solo at the start, the guitar solo in the song! For that, I used tablature, and it was a long painstaking process because I couldn’t just look it up on YouTube or slow down the song or anything.
Cam: I learned that bass solo at the beginning of “N.I.B.,” and I think when we first both played it together along with the CD, it might have been the first time Al and I actually played heavy metal together.
What are five albums that have shaped you thus far and why? How is their influence best reflected in your playing?
- Iron Maiden – Piece of Mind. This was the first album that got me obsessed with heavy metal after Al and I found it in a used CD store and bought it without knowing what it was. I’m not sure why we picked it up, but our lives were changed forever because of that day. Iron Maiden caused me to pick up the bass and taught me songwriting and bass playing – how to write harmonies and use the bass to make guitar riffs three-dimensional.
- Cauldron – Chained to the Nite. I was a university freshman working at the college radio station when this came out. I was already a big Goat Horn fan, and our hometown hero Ian Chains had recently moved from Vancouver to Toronto to form Cauldron, so I was ultra-excited for the release. I got the advanced promo copy for the radio when it came out and listened to it countless times. This album taught me how to write mean, nasty riffs, and it made heavy metal feel relevant in the 2000s – not just an ’80s throwback!
- The Devil’s Blood – Come, Reap. When this band came out, it changed everything. Suddenly it felt like heavy metal was allowed to swing, to be soulful – and, it could be meaningful and important, not just jokes songs about beer. This new perspective changed our lives once again, and Al and I flew to Germany to see The Devil’s Blood perform in 2009.
- King Crimson – Red. This wasn’t the first King Crimson I got into, but everything really made sense when I heard it. This album taught me that you don’t need to follow any rules; it can still be beautiful, heavy, and powerful. Whenever I get stuck on a song, I listen to King Crimson and think, “What would they do?”
- Accept – Metal Heart. This album taught me that a band needs to be like a machine, with everyone in perfect lockstep. Four people must become one – that’s how you create raw power. Accept also taught me not to get stuck with my head up my ass: it has to be exciting at all times!
How did SPELL form? Can you recall the first gig?
Cam: Sure can! SPELL was formed by Al and me in 2007. We were teenagers, and we’d both just quit our previous bands because we were frustrated that none of those other kids understood heavy metal like we wanted to play it. Up till that point, I guess it hadn’t felt very cool to be in a band with your brother, but we quickly realized that we both knew exactly what kind of music we wanted to make, and nobody else got it, so we decided to form a band together.
For the first year or so, it was just me and Al, writing songs together, making demos, and playing all the instruments. Then we got a friend of ours to join on guitar so we could finally play live. This was in 2008, when I’d finally moved out of my university dormitory and rented an old house with some roommates. Our first show was a house show in the living room the first week I moved in!
We played with Vancouver doom band Funeral Circle, and the police and fire department got called before we could finish our set. Two fire trucks showed up and a bunch of cops. I do remember that we covered “Heavy Metal Drinkers” by Armour, and everyone drank all of my beer.
Tell me about any original music you’re working on. Your songwriting approach and now that continues to evolve.
Cam: We’re always working on new music. The only time I’m not working on new music is when we’re recording an album. I listen to new music all the time and play guitar every day. When I get new ideas, I take them down to the jam space to try them out with Al. He might have a guitar idea to build on or a drum groove that makes me see it from a new perspective.
Our focus is always on making the best possible song, never to show off fancy playing or make things complicated. Once we get the basic structure of a song down, we work hard to edit it into its simplest, most powerful form. A three-minute song is so much harder to write than a five-minute song. If a riff isn’t central to the song’s fundamental structure, I get rid of it.
Once this part is done, we always record demos of the songs before we take them into the recording studio. You’ll never really know how a song is going to work out until you demo it completely, with all the layers and harmonies. Things often still change at this point, and we like to leave room for last-minute, spur-of-the-moment decisions in the studio. Sometimes you get a great new idea based on an accidental note or a new perspective when you’re working with new people and totally enmeshed in the song!
What songs and recordings that you’ve done so far mean the most to you, and why? What lessons have you taken from them that you’ll carry forever?
Cam: I’m proud of all of our recordings, but I’m prouder of each one in succession. We’ve worked harder on every album we’ve released and learned a lot from the process. We’ve also learned a lot from our friend and producer, Felix Fung. We believe in playing everything live, so we don’t do any fancy editing – we just play the songs repeatedly until we get them right. I think it kills the magic when you grind out and replace the drums or perfectly tune the vocals.
I’d rather hear the slight imperfections of a human trying their best and getting close to perfect, but never perfect. Also, I’ve noticed that my playing always improves after recording an album. Most days, when I play, I don’t really care if I’m a bit sloppy or out of tune because I’m only focused on generating new ideas. But in the studio, when I’m hyper-focused on playing as well as possible, that’s when I really get better at the instrument.
Another lesson I’ve learned in the studio is to always take advantage of chance and circumstance. If another musician walks in the door, see what they can contribute. If you make a mistake, but it sounds cool – see where it takes you. Don’t be afraid to make major changes at the last second. That’s art.
How do you balance the want to craft quality songs with the desire to shred?
Cam: Well, we’ve got a pretty good balance there [Laugh]. I write most of the songs, and Al does most of the shredding. I can’t play lead guitar like he can. Wish I could! The priority is always trying to write the perfect song – lead guitar shredding comes after. The songs have to rip, though; they have to be exciting!
What guitars, gear, pedals, amps, and effects are you using, and why?
Cam: We don’t care too much about gear brands. You can write cool music with any instrument! But I’ve found that my Fender P-bass pretty much always sounds the best in the studio, with a bit of compression. Al likes to play nice big drums. We don’t care about having super expensive boutique guitar amps or anything like that, but I think it sounds cool when you crank the preamp gain/master volume on an old tube amp and then dial in the volume using the gain knob.
It’s a rawer, out-of-control sound. I don’t really like the ‘super tidy, hyper-saturated distortion sounds a lot of modern metal bands use… it’s too perfect. Marshalls sound great for distortion sounds, and Roland Jazz Chorus is my favorite for cleans. We use Strat and Les Paul-style guitars. Strat’s are usually better for leads and cleans; they have that icepick cold shiver attack.
We also believe in doing things in the moment rather than infinitely tweaking our tones after we’ve recorded them, so we got all our tones using real gear, live in the studio, rather than adding them digitally after. We used a lot of different amp/guitar/pedal combinations, probably seven different amps and twenty different pedals on Tragic Magic. I like chorus, delay, reverb, and tube-screamer-style distortion.
What are your most immediate goals, and how do you plan to make them a reality?
Cam: We’ve finally got a live band again, and it couldn’t be more exciting! We haven’t played a live show since well before the release of Opulent Decay, so we’ve now got two new albums to debut live. We want to take this show out to as many festivals around the world as we can and show off our new songs and new band. Then, we want to come back home and make an even better new album.
What’s next for you in all lanes?
Cam: There’s one thing we always do right away after we release an album: immediately start working on the next one! I’ve got a bunch of song ideas coming together that I’m feeling quite excited about! Meanwhile, we’ve got a fantastic new lineup together, and we’ve been rehearsing for some festivals around the world, so you’ll see us at Hell’s Heroes, Muskelrock, and others! Some touring might be on the horizon as well. Keep your eyes open!
Al Lester and Cam Mesmer of SPELL: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023
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