July 24, 2020 Interview – Dan Sugarman of Ice Nine Kills
The things we do for love. After parting ways with As Blood Runs Black in 2016, exceptional Guitarist, Producer, Songwriter, and Educator Dan Sugarman went home to care for his mother, who was terminally ill with an inoperable brain tumor. Channeling his emotions and finding solace in his music, he issued his debut LP, Centersun, in 2016.
With the muses flowing and a need for personal catharsis, he delved into the “living album” [ Inside/Out | Part I ], which saw the songwriter revealing one new song per month. In exchange for their support of his Patreon page, Sugarman offered bonus content and ultimately donated all proceeds to predetermined charities. Balancing his love for his family and the need to create, he found something special with [ Inside/Out | Part I ]—but then tragedy struck and everything was, understandably, shelved.
Three years later, life has changed dramatically for Sugarman. Now an integral part of everyone’s favorite Horror-loving, musical savages, Ice Nine Kills (INK), the talented guitarist finally released [ Inside/Out | Part I ] in mid-May. Candid and congenial, Sugarman recently sat down to discuss everything from finding catharsis in his music to his favorite INK song to perform (and least favorite!), as well as the Wim Hof Method and Eckhart Tolle.
Cryptic Rock – You have been involved in music for well over a decade now. What has all of this time taught you about yourself?
Dan Sugarman – Damn, I’m getting old! “For well over a decade” is a sentence reserved for seniors, and I think I’m finally getting there. (Laughs) But on a more serious note, being involved in this industry for any amount of time leaves you with lessons and takeaways. One of the personal things that I’ve learned about myself is that I almost always know what I want—what I want in life, what I want in my career, what I want today/tomorrow/next year—but what tends to happen to me when I’m bogged down in the trenches is that I lose sight of my goals.
In my previous band As Blood Runs Black, it was a goal of mine to be in an internationally touring band, and when I got the gig I lived that dream for 8+ years without reassessing and asking myself what was next. Contentment got the best of me, and I spent years paralyzed and at a stand still. I wasn’t going anywhere; I was just reliving the dream day after day. After you reach a goal and are “living the dream,” so to speak, it can get tiresome and monotonous. To dream you need to be asleep, and that’s what it felt like to me. It took the death of my mom to shake my life up enough for me to wake up from the dream and realize that I was no different than the person going to a 9-5 job without direction.
Those years I spent on the hamster wheel instead of incubating my future were something I don’t regret at all, as it’s all lessons learned. I have since redesigned the way I look at this industry, and my focus has shifted to creating multiple outlets and platforms for me to do what I do best. If things aren’t right we have to stand up for ourselves, speak up, and do everything in our power to present universal solutions to the problems we face. This is where I’m at these days: looking at things in the industry that we all take as normal and “the way it has always been,” and trying to change my perspective on them and see if there isn’t a void somewhere that can be fixed in order to correct the greater whole. Illusive as hell, but I am working on some very exciting things that I can’t wait to share with everyone. (Laughs)
The lessons I’ve learned have taught me that I need to create something new in order for others to not have to struggle and lose the same amount of time that I did. That’s my focus.
Cryptic Rock – That is a great focus, even if your current end goal is cloaked in mystery. (Laughs) So obviously we are here to discuss your solo album [ Inside/Out | Part I ], which was released in mid-May. Now that listeners have had some time to ruminate on the material, what kind of feedback are you receiving?
Dan Sugarman – The feedback I’ve gotten so far have been the type of responses that I could only dream of. I set out to positively influence one person with this album. If I could have one person recognize that they too could turn tragedy and darkness into something inspiring and meaningful, then my work here is done. That goal has been far surpassed, and I am still to this day being contacted by people who were pulled to my music energetically before even knowing the backstory. I have people who have lost mothers, brothers, fathers, aunts and uncles, all contacting me saying that this album speaks to them in a way they haven’t heard before.
I think that has a lot to do with my writing and creative process for this type of album, and the end result is the proof that I needed to know that it works. I effectively use songwriting as a journaling process, and I try to capture the most raw, organic, and purely human takes that I can possibly get. In the age of overly-processed and edited music that has been drained of its life, I am doing the exact opposite and embracing my flaws and errors. To me that’s human, and I think that’s what people are responding to.
Cryptic Rock – There is such an emotionality to the music, along with a dynamic range throughout the collection that shows your exceptional talents as a musician and songwriter. Which leads us to ask: Who/what are some of your influences, both musical and otherwise?
Dan Sugarman – Thank you so much. It’s weird—to me, music is just another way of speaking. And if you consider that every time you have ever responded to someone that you are improvising words/rhythms/melodies on the fly, your face is an instrument. It’s hilarious to think of, but at any given point you can say a sentence and then remove the words from the same sentence—keeping the rhythm, inflections, and nuances intact. What you have left is a musical phrase. So at any given point in time, you can use the moment as your biggest creative conduit. Right now, I’m inspired. Every single moment is another now that you can pull on and use to create.
I’m a huge believer that nothing I do musically is “mine.” I just happened to be the right person in the right place at the right time to translate that song from mental to physical. I think that there’s a huge correlation to when you really, truly and deeply feel music as a listener that can be rooted back to the songwriter being selfless in the very moment it was created. There’s no imposition of self on the song, and the writer was a servant to the moment rather than turning the moment into a platform for the ego.
As far as this particular record, it was written and recorded three years ago. I am so far removed from it that it’s almost weird to put myself in the headspace again. In fact, that’s why the album was shelved for those three years: I simply couldn’t sit down to finalize the mix and do the work required to get the record promoted and released. Without going too deep, I was influenced and inspired by all of the things around me at the time: the loss of trust I had in life as it slowly took my mother away from me; the love I felt pouring out of my family; the pain I knew that my mom was in every single moment. I was inspired by the sunlight and the birds outside of my window—I was influenced by it all.
I wrote this record the exact same place that my mother’s bed used to be for 26+ years. We had traded rooms because she was now paralyzed and unable to go up the stairs to her old bedroom due to the growing, inoperable brain tumor. So she now slept and eventually passed away in the exact place I wrote my previous album, Centersun, as I channeled this new album in the very place she spent half of her time in a day asleep for my entire life. The connection there is too real to not talk about. I know how weird I sound talking about this stuff, but there was certainly something there. All of those things influenced and inspired me to make [ Inside/Out | Part I ], and I am thankful for everything.
Cryptic Rock – That is a very heavy situation to be in, psychologically and spiritually, but it’s clear that you poured every fiber of your heart, soul, and passion into this album. But we have to ask: Do you think it is harder to convey such a deeply personal message without lyrics or is it actually easier?
Dan Sugarman — I find the process to be almost identical. The only difference is that with instrumentals, you can take liberties that you couldn’t with vocals. In lyrics, it’s all about rhyming and the word choice. With guitar, it’s all about phrasing, nuances, and note choice. That leaves a lot of room to explore and express things that I don’t think exist in the dictionary. I actually feel like that’s exactly what instrumental music is for me: a way to express the things I don’t have words for. It’s weird, but it certainly feels as though I’m telling a story or getting something off of my chest when I write my own music.
I get to choose the background and scenery with my riffs and drums, and then I get to take the character and focal point anywhere I want with the leads and solos on top. Perhaps the scenery changes, and due to the fact that we’re literally somewhere else, the main character would respond differently to the environment. Or maybe you introduce a different dialogue or tangent within the same scene (riff) which becomes the launching point for the next section of the song.
To me, instrumental music writes itself. In writing new Ice Nine Kills as we speak, I can assure you that the process is very different. We take a concept first, then work on melodies and chord progressions, and build the song around the chorus typically. It’s a painfully time consuming process that is more akin to solving a puzzle and cracking a code. I think there’s something so rewarding and fun about that type of songwriting, as well. I feel very lucky to be able to shift headspace as a writer with all of these different projects I’m involved in. I love learning different things from each session, and then cross-pollinating ideas just to see what happens. 1+1=3, right?
Cryptic Rock – In creative headspace, anything is possible. Now, quite a few of the songs on your album seem to present a running theme of darkness and light, despair and hope. Is that something that you still struggle with today or was the recording of these songs able to provide the catharsis that you needed?
Dan Sugarman – This is a really solid question that forces me to look hard at myself today. When I was making this record my day was filled with extreme highs and lows. I had just left my band As Blood Runs Black, and felt like I could finally move forward. On the surface it seemed like a step back, but I knew I needed to make space in order for me to figure out what was next. The ups and downs in a day were extreme. I could be home, upstairs working on ideas and formulating concepts for future businesses. I could be in the middle of writing one of these very songs, when I would have to go downstairs to help get my mom in or out of her wheelchair—maybe for her daily head shave that I did in order to place electronic sticky probes all around her head to try a new experimental treatment from Israel. Or maybe I’d have to stop reading my book on self-development and entrepreneurship so that I could make some soup to feed to my mom.
My days at this point were bipolar to the 100th degree, and I had to find ways to kickstart myself back into gear after breaking down privately every single time; shaking it off as best as I could, and diving back into developing something real for myself. The question becomes do remnants of those things still exist in me? I’m sure they do. It’s been almost four years since my mother passed away now, and I feel her and I miss her every day. But when I look back, I don’t remember all of the sadness: I remember the laughter, the smiles, the love, and all of the good memories of our life together. I think that making this album, as well as Centersun—which is also about my mother—has had a lot to do with the healing process for me.
Cryptic Rock – That is important, because anyone who has cared for an ailing loved one knows that it changes everything, and that minute-to-minute bipolarity can make it very hard to feel grounded in your own life. But to get back to the music, the album features several guest musicians, including Angel Vivaldi, Upon A Burning Body’s Ruben Alvarez, Sims Cashion, and Alex Campbell. How did they each get involved with the material?
Dan Sugarman – Each of these collaborators and I either have a musical history together, or a life circumstance that brought us together. Each of the songs written all have a very unique purpose and meaning that was created by the unique collaboration of putting two musicians in a room and seeing what happens. Each of the songs’ outcomes was something that was unexpected, and as rewarding to complete as they were to create.
The only reason any of this happened is because while I was home with my mom, I decided I needed to create a musical outlet. So I started [a Patreon] and began releasing one song per month featuring a different artist. Every track came with the .wav and .mp3, playthrough video, tabs, stems, podcast-esque interview, single art, and other random perks thrown in. I used the proceeds made from each track to donate to different charities that my collaborators, Patreon community, and myself would decide on for each month’s release. It was an awesome experience, and it taught me a lot about the artist-to-fan relationship.
But as far as the background of each guest, I’ve worked with Angel on 3+ songs now, one of them being a music video and cover/Metal rendition of Joe Satriani’s “Crystal Planet” which has over one million views right now—absolutely nuts. Working with Angel is always such a pleasure: the dude is so fun and positive to be around that it just emanates through the music we make.
“Another Good Day on Earth, I Collect Them” is by far and away the most uplifting song on the record. It happened when Angel’s plane back home to New Jersey was delayed, so he crashed at my house in L.A. for a few days. This song is the result of that delayed flight and our past friendship. Another song we did is called “Cosmosis,” off of my album Centersun. Believe it or not, I wrote the music for that with late friend Diego Farias, who used to play in Volumes. Having Angel come on the track and do leads with me was the cherry on top. That song has such a good vibe to it.
Ruben and I go back well over a decade. My first band Fallen Figure took Upon A Burning Body out on their first ever tour to California, and, in turn, they brought us out to Texas. Ruben and I still have memories we talk about from that tour to this day. I absolutely love each and every one of those guys, and was so glad that “Nova” happened by the hand of fate. Upon A Burning Body just happened to be shooting their new music video for “B.M.F” about 30 minutes away from my house, and their Airbnb was even closer. Ruben hit me up to see if I wanted to hang, and I unveiled the project I was in the middle of. He was so stoked that we finally had the time and reason to write music together. We’d been talking about it for years, and the fact that it finally happened here in the way that it did is even more meaningful.
Sims is someone that I was watching on Instagram and Facebook for quite some time. He was a 16-year-old prodigy, and I knew there was something special there. I reached out to him and we made it happen. That song is so over the top, and the guest solo he did on the second half of the song is just unreal.
Cryptic Rock – Each one of them brings something special, they really do. That said, when a listener sits down with the EP and takes that journey with you, what do you hope they walk away with?
Dan Sugarman – If one person walks away feeling like they turn their life around in any way, shape, or form, then I will be a happy guy. I also hope they walk away with some merch, because I have a ton of new hoodies and shirts with my name on them that I can’t wear, available at sugarmanshop.com.
Cryptic Rock – Well, if they don’t sell out we know what your family and friends are getting for Christmas! (Laughs) Speaking of which, have you been working on any new music throughout quarantine?
Dan Sugarman – I’ve been working on an unbelievable amount of music lately. Other than working on [ Inside/Out | Part II ], which I’m planning on releasing on Patreon in the same way I did previously, before releasing it publicly.
I am also working on new Ice Nine Kills harder than we’d like the world to know. Our bassist Joe [Occhiuti] and I are now roommates, and we live ten minutes away from Spencer [Charnas]. We have two well-equipped studios in our new house, so Spencer has been coming over 3+ days a week. We have a lot of new music already, and I can confirm that it fucking rules so far. I’m also writing a bunch of Chillhop music with Joe here at the house for fun, and have an Alternate Rock project with my girlfriend, Sarah Bartholomew, who is the female vocalist on “Your Number’s Up” by Ice Nine Kills. And being the songwriting nerd that I am, I’m also building out a huge library of songs in different styles as I’m looking to get into more commercial and movie scoring.
It’s not exactly “music,” but I’m also launching a podcast this summer called MindFrame. In it, I’ll be deep diving into the minds of your favorite musicians in order to gain advice and insight about how they do what they do, so that you can apply it to your life today. I’ve signed a distribution deal with a fantastic new podcast network that I’m super excited about, so the moment behind this should be fun to ride. (Laughs) Check it out and get updates on Facebook and Instagram.
Cryptic Rock – Do you have time to sleep? Wow! Okay, so when you are not creating your own music or teaching your guitar students, clearly you are an integral part of Ice Nine Kills, as previously mentioned. Understanding that the world of touring appears to be indefinitely on hold, what’s next for the band?
Dan Sugarman – Besides the fact that we are deeply in the writing phase for the follow up to The Silver Scream, there are some murder trials that Spencer needs to make an appearance at over the next few months. I can neither confirm or deny his involvement in any of the allegations we’ve heard, as well as a ton of other awesome new things that I’m not allowed to talk about. (Laughs)
Cryptic Rock – Spencer was playing with sharp objects again, huh? (Laughs) So, just for kicks, what’s your favorite track off The Silver Scream, and what’s your favorite INK track to perform live?
Dan Sugarman – “Your Number’s Up” gets one of the biggest reactions every single night. That song has so much violent energy, people seem to eat that up. (Laughs) Ironically, my least favorite part of our set is also “Your Number’s Up”—I don’t like having to hear my girlfriend’s throat sliced open at the end of the song every single night. In fact, I hate it, and often take my in-ear monitors out and plug my ears in the dark. (Laughs)
Cryptic Rock – Yes, no one sane would want to hear that night after night. (Laughs) On a much more serious note, 2020 has seen the world literally dip into the fires of hell, and many people are struggling with their mental health. As someone who gave up a lot to care for a loved one, you clearly have a gigantic heart. Do you have any advice on how to maintain mental stability in troubled times?
Dan Sugarman – This year has been so intense. It feels like everything is about to end sometimes, and it’s hard to know what to do with that. I am thankful for music and for friends and family during this time. Even if I can’t be in a room with them all, keeping those connections has been massively helpful.
If you are struggling during this, just know that you’re not alone in feeling like you are alone. As someone who has also almost lost their life to depression/anxiety, I can confidently say that I know one thing has helped me more than any other. Besides being vegan and reading nutritional brain food that helps me grow and ask myself the hard questions, I practice a breathing technique called the Wim Hof Method and I think that it quite literally saved my life. I stumbled on it by chance on the very same day that I was looking up ways to end it all. I was in a very, very dark place two years ago, and I haven’t felt that darkness since the day I started doing this.
Look it up, dive into Wim Hof’s back story, and prepare to have your mind blown—only to realize that you can do the same shit he can do with practice and training. The health benefits of the breathing method are immediate, and beyond anything I expected. I rarely ever sound this preachy, but this is one thing that I ask all of my friends, family members, and students to check out. I know first hand that it saved me, and have been contacted by countless people on Instagram who have heard me talking about it saying that it too brought them out of depression, inflammation issues, and a whole slew of other amazing things. These are not my claims, these are my experiences. It’s insane! (Laughs)
There’s also a book called A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle that I read at least once a year to help ground me and bring me back to reality. I highly recommend it to anyone who is looking for that.
Cryptic Rock – All wonderful and sage advice. Time for our last question, which is not quite as serious. At Cryptic Rock, we cover music as well as films, particularly Horror and Sci- Fi. Presumably you must enjoy Horror on some level, so what are some of your favorite Horror films? Are you into Sci-Fi?
Dan Sugarman – I would say I’m more into the Sci-Fi end of things, but psychological and cult-esque Horror movies like Hereditary (2018), The Witch (2015), Mother! (2017), and The Ritual (2017) have really stuck with me lately. But the original Sci-Fi/Horror space movies like Alien (1979) are some of my all-time favorites.
Cryptic Rock – Good selections! Anything else you want to add?
Dan Sugarman — Hopefully you were entertained by this at least a little. (Laughs) If you’re a guitar player and are looking to up your game, you can hit me up for private lessons – or if you want to join my free online community of over 150 guitar students on the same path as you. Once you sign up, you’ll get access to endless free lesson content, inspiration, and direct access to me for help on anything you’re working on.
Lastly, stay safe and stay sane. Go outside and get some sun. Eat healthy. Wash your hands and wear a mask when you go out—it’s out of respect for others and to keep the secondhand spread from happening. If you’re healthy, good—but would you want to accidentally give that to someone’s at-risk grandmother if you didn’t know you were a carrier? I hate me for saying that, but it’s so real. I love you guys, and appreciate you very much!