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Interview: Dylan Gowan of Iomair

Usually the pre-concert activities have a routine to them: dinner, going through security, and finding your seat. However, it was not a typical day when I recognized Dylan Gowan in the venue minutes before his father, Styx keyboardist Lawrence Gowan, took the stage for a Gowan concert in Ontario, Canada. The Canadian drummer stood out among the throng with his tall, slim build, confident gait, and that bit of a twinkle in his eyes. He only needed a pair of drumsticks in his hands to round out the look of an experienced drummer ready for the next gig.

Only a few hours before I introduced myself, the talented younger Gowan signed with record label Infamous Butcher Records. Dylan has played live with bands such as Vesperia, Hallows Die, Moonlight Desires, and more recently, as a successful session drummer with alt-folk band Birds of Bellwoods. We connected again this week for a look at his musical interests and how he tackled songwriting and performing in his new metal band Iomair. The band’s debut self-titled album will be released this Friday, September 21.

How did you decide you wanted to be a professional drummer?

I grew up in a very musical family. My dad plays, my uncles play, and my aunt plays. My cousins play. Everyone in my family is a musician. It was almost inevitable that I would take an interest in playing music live or learning an instrument. My sister suggested that I be a drummer, based on the fact that there were no drummers in the family. Eventually you find drummers you really like and want to emulate. You start forming bands and you get calls and auditions. I found myself being a touring musician and a session guy ever since I was 16. It’s been a lot of fun, that’s for sure!

Can you play other instruments?

I play a little bit of keyboard and guitar. I’ll admit I’m not the best at it. (laughs) I’ll come with these ideas and different structures for these songs, realizing I can’t play any of this stuff. I can tab it and show somebody [who] can play it and I go, “That’s exactly what I’m going for.”

Photo of Dylan GowanI’m a former viola player. I heard you considered violin as an option. Is that true?

It’s funny you said that. I had a real interest in learning violin at one point. That’s a reason why I wanted to incorporate violin into Iomair. You have this crazy metal band that all of a sudden has this very beautiful instrument that adds a nice layer that’s normally not found within a lot of rock and metal music. I think if I wasn’t a drummer, I’d be a violin player. If I had the time to learn it, I would, but I’ve been so involved with drumming. One day, I will for sure.

It’s a lot easier to carry than a drum kit.

Oh, absolutely!

You also teach drums. What makes for a successful drum clinic?

That’s a really good question. It’s the shared ideas, when you’re teaching somebody from what you normally play. Primarily, I’m a metal drummer, but I also play rock, funk, and a little of reggae. All those influences come back whatever style that I’m doing. If I do a clinic, sometimes I ask for ideas about how can you jump different genres for a metal guy? The simple thing is just to have the confidence to go and say, “Yeah, I can play all these different styles.”

The willingness to learn and the exchange of ideas always makes for a very successful clinic. If you learn from the people that want to learn from you, that makes a better experience with everyone walking away as a better player. [It] improves your playing and your teaching method.

How did Iomair come about for you?

Iomair started in January 2017 as my own little project that I didn’t really share with anybody. It was like my little escape, if you will. I wanted to have something where I could put all my emotions out. … I wasn’t going through the best of times in 2017, I’ll admit that. It was a rough year, but Iomair was a way to find the positive side of it. I tried to use that as something constructive rather than destructive.

How did you come up with the album cover art? As an art major, I see a bit of surrealism. 

The album artwork is a reflection of those events in 2017. The polar bear on the cover represents my mental state that year. I wanted something that always constantly endangered and always on the brink of getting extinct. It comes back and forth with the changing of the climates. The towers were things that I thought would last forever in my life. They started to crumble and fall, so that’s why you see some are falling over, crumbling, or standing. There’s night and snow because snow is supposed to be [where] you feel like you’re stuck in time, frozen and isolated. You’re unsure what’s going to happen next because you’re on unstable ground. That’s what the album represents in the process of making the record. Marie Cher did a phenomenal job on it. I was grateful that she took those ideas and ran with it. She created an album artwork that really reflects the band at this current time.

I could hear the jazzy and Latin elements in a few tracks. Who or what in particular are you drawing from for those sounds?

A lot of the Latin-y stuff – well, I’m a massive fan of Tito Puente. It’s one of those artists who I was really drawn to because he puts so much energy into his music and his live performances. He’s always smiling and happy, showing that if the band is having a good time onstage, then the audience is going to have a really good time. That exchange of energy between the performer and the audience is powerful. You can’t help but smile when you’re listening to Tito Puente. … Also I’m a fan of Carlos Santana. Seeing that in the mix and Latin-y drummers like Horacio Hernandez, a piano player I like called Michel Camilo who is unbelievable.

For jazz, there’s Jaga Jazzist, John Coltrane, and Herbie Hancock. There’s also jazz drummers like Max Roach. Jazz influences for me are more on the older side. In terms of newer jazz, I love Theo Crocker who is amazing. Also, Hiromi who did an album together with Simon Phillips and Anthony Jackson. Hiromi is such a great jazz pianist. I felt like incorporating those styles from outside of metal with the metal stuff created an interesting blend. I hope people find it interesting as well.

How do you strike the right balance in an eclectic approach with music?

It’s never an idea of where it has to sound like this or a Latin-y thing with a metal thing. It’s a matter of coming up with a melody or a groove that seems interesting to me, then writing around it. Eventually you’ll have one idea, like with “Dance of Eternal Insanity,” I started off as a more Latin-y thing and then it didn’t become that. I had a rock riff that I really liked and then a folky country western violin that I decided to combine together for some reason. I kept it at that arrangement because it blended really well. When it comes to writing most of my stuff, it’s mainly about coming up with little ideas and seeing whether they can sit with other ideas. If it works, then it’s saved. (laughs)

Do you have a favorite track?

That’s a tough one. I think it would have to be the last one called “Forever Traveling Within.” It sums up the entire year was of 2017. There’s two meanings to it. One is a self-reflection, saying like “Hey, you’ve been through quite a bit. You have to forgive yourself because some things are just out of your hands. You can’t beat yourself up about it.” It was a sort of talking to myself. If you learn from these experiences, you’ll walk away from it much stronger … It’s like that Lion King quote where the past can hurt, but you can either run from it or learn from it. (laughs)

[This] first part of it was there was a new relationship forming and it was exciting. I enjoyed this person’s company. She left on a trip for about a month and came back. She broke it off, which was not the response I wanted because it’s very true that I like this person a lot. The song at first was about that experience where you’re starting a new relationship and then all of a sudden, it ends there. The other part is that the events are out of your control. You have to learn and grow as a person so you’ll emerge from it stronger. That song sticks out in my mind, that’s for sure, and that’s why it’s the last track of the record.

Did any track present more of a challenge?

“By Design” was the hardest to write because it’s an amalgamation of little ideas. It was the best riffs from four different songs. I was trying to tie these little sections together. There was one part where it went to a funk break that worked after the intro repeat. I had an intense metal thing at the end of the song and I couldn’t figure out a way to end it. For some bizarre reason, I took the funk section and put it at the very end. This would either sound really cool or really stupid. For some reason, I started laughing my head off after the metal thing. It’s gotta be the dumbest thing ever, but it’s so dumb, I have keep it in. It was like now I have it all sorted.

Photo of Dylan Gowan and dog Tango
Iomair band founder and drummer Dylan Gowan listens to the mixes of the new album. Tango the dog lends an ear and a paw. (Courtesy of Iomair)

How was your recent concert?

I couldn’t have asked for a better debut show with Cellar Darling. When people come to a show with fresh ears, it’s always a little intimidating because they don’t know what the songs are about. You’re coming at them with a brand new thing. There’s always a little bit of nervousness around that. As soon as Laura started playing her violin, that nervousness went away. You see a massive crowd headbanging. When we played “Dance of Eternal Insanity,” there’s a big mosh pit that happened. We gained a lot of new followers. People kept asking us when’s the next show. There was a lot of support for Iomair. We got a great review from A&P-Reacts, one of the main music journalists when it comes to critiquing local metal shows. He thought we had a very strong debut. We can’t thank Noel enough for putting us on the bill. It was a lot of fun.

You never look nervous in videos. You look like the happiest drummer.

When I played Wacken Open Air, I had no nerves whatsoever. When I played Osheaga, no problem whatsoever. Even opening for some of my favorite metal bands and big Canadian acts, there was no nerves whatsoever. I think I was more nervous for this show than any other I’ve done because there’s a personal project. I’m passionate about all the projects I played and still play with, but I was more of the supportive role rather than the main writer here. It’s like my head is on the chopping block, as either they like my songs or they don’t. I felt naked on the stage, so to speak!

How’s your experience been playing with different bands in the Toronto music scene? 

There’s always different prep work involved when you’re playing a variety of projects in all different styles. There’s a certain approach you have to take. I’ve been very lucky that I get to play in many different projects. I’m always grateful when bands come up to me and they ask, Hey, can you play this gig, this album, or these shows with us? It’s been nothing been a blast. As long as people keep asking me to play with them, I’ll still keep going.

Thank you and good luck.

Thanks for the interview! Our new album comes out on September 21.

About Pat Cuadros

Pat Cuadros earned a B.A. in Art History on a full scholarship at the University of Virginia. Pat is a frequent reviewer of all things Washington, D.C., but she's also covered events in Canada and London. Highlights in her work include articles on Ian McKellen and Mark Rylance, as well as memorable interviews with Lawrence Gowan of Styx, Tony Bennett, and Kiefer Sutherland. At Awesome Con 2017, Pat moderated a Q&A for voice actors Sean Schemmel and Christopher Sabat.

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