As a kid growing up in Dayton, Ohio, vocalist and keyboardist Jason Watkins loved heavy bands like Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, but he was also enthralled by more textural groups like Pink Floyd and King Crimson.
“I’ve always loved albums that [summon] these milky sort of visuals, like the way an oil stain on the ground mixed with water looks really cool,” Watkins says from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio. “It creates something that is imagination-based and takes you on a journey. As a listener, you can create your own little movie in your head while you listen to them.”
Since forming Mouth of the Architect in 2003 with drummer Dave Mann, Watkins has worked with various musicians to craft brooding, sometimes sprawling compositions that combine unconventional tempos and abrupt rhythm shifts to create otherworldly vistas of that “milky sound.” The band has gradually evolved from their sludge-based beginnings into a more variegated outfit, one that mesmerizes listeners by juxtaposing the gloomy with the serene, and uses layers of effect pedals to conjure galactic sounds from their instruments.
“Within the band, we’ve always talked about not having rules, and not playing to a [specific] music scene, and that has been really important to us,” Watkins says. “We wanted to be able to write a 10-minute long acoustic song if we felt like it. It has been great to have that sort of freedom. But it got to the point where we needed to take a new approach to what we were doing.”
The result is Path of Eight, the band’s most intricate, musically developed release. It takes them beyond the traditional confines of post-metal, into some nebulous territory somewhere between prog-rock (but without the chest-inflated self-indulgence) and Krautrock (minus the enervating repetition and sometimes-formless improvisation). Like some of Watkins’ favorite albums—including Pink Floyd’s The Wall and King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King—the songs are tied together by a loose narrative. Path of Eight is about a spirit leaving a dead person’s body and transitioning through time and space before being engulfed in the void. We sat down with Watkins to discuss the musical evolution of Path of Eight, the spiritual elements that influenced the album, the sleep paralysis that plagued his youth, and how he has achieved salvation by worshiping at the church of music.
You have always had progressive elements to your sound, but with Path of Eight, you have released a full-fledged concept album composed of eight “movements.”
We felt like we were getting in a rut and we weren’t progressing, so we said, ‘Okay, let’s focus less on the single-song doom and gloom formula, write a freaking full-on concept record and see what happens.’
Did that affect the way you wrote the songs?
Definitely. In the past, we’ve always gone into the practice space and just jammed. When we had a good idea for a song, we’d put it together, and then work on another one. This time, we went in with a central idea for the whole process. Basically, we wanted to write a 44-minute song with different parts that complemented the story and the lyrics. We knew we wanted some of it to be really fast and some of it to be more psychedelic, so we jammed out all this stuff and then we went back and fit the different parts together, so they matched the story I wanted to tell.
Are there new musical influences at play?
For me, it’s always been Neurosis and one of my favorite bands, The Black Heart Procession. Of course, I love Pink Floyd and King Crimson. Beyond that, I wanted to incorporate some noisier elements from bands like Jesus Lizard and Sonic Youth. It was less about making big, heavy doom riffs and more about having these chaotic walls of single notes that just build up and up.
What’s the concept behind Path of Eight?
I’ve always been way into the weird psychedelic movie experience. I like stories where it could mean different things to anybody that watches it. You could watch it five times, and each time you get a different thing out of it. I wanted an album that would have that same sort of vibe. But the basic story is about a soul leaving a body and traveling through the universe, passing through judgement then going back to nothingness and being torn apart.
What were some of the images in the story inspired by? You mentioned psychedelic movies.
I like the movie Altered States and The Celtic Book of the Dead. And the Egyptian ideology and a lot of psychogeometry. I wanted to approach s path to spirituality using all these sources.
What’s the significance of the album title?
Eight is a really important number. There’s eightfold symmetry in physics, which was a really game-changing mathematical discovery. And in Buddhism, the eightfold path is the first steps to enlightenment and outer body experiences. And if you turn an eight on its side it looks like an infinity symbol. In the story, there’s the idea of becoming nothingness and travelling through infinity and space, so it plays off that as well.
Have you had any paranormal or out of body experiences?
I had sleep paralysis on and off until 10 years ago. I’d see a shadow figure on my bed, and I couldn’t move, but I could hear everything. I was awake, but I was dreaming at the same time. I used to think I was going crazy. There were creatures above my bed and I could hear people in the next room but I couldn’t scream. The next day I’d wake up and go, ‘Did I dream that?’ But my body felt like I had run 100 miles because all my muscles were trying in vain to get be out of bed. And then I met some other people who went, ‘Oh, yeah. Sleep paralysis. That’s the thing with the shadow figure, right?’ I researched it and found out it’s an actual phenomenon that other people experience.
Are you a spiritual individual, or is your fascination with other realms strictly based on fantasy?
It’s a little bit of both. I’m a spiritual person as it relates to music, art and the imagination. Music is my church. A lot of my ideas came from listening to awesome records like The Wall, Neurosis, or Tom Waits. They paint these landscapes, and if you have an overactive imagination, you get inspired to ask questions and research different religions and texts, and then you start seeing the connections between them all. But it all starts with the spirituality of the music. You find those albums that mean the world to you and you put them on and have that revelation and it’s like, ‘Yup, it feels great.’
Art that addresses out of body excursions sometimes come across as new agey. But there’s a darkness to this album that you juxtapose with the ethereal parts.
If you’re an artist and there’s a darkness to your experiences, it’s going to reflect in what you’re doing. You can’t get rid of it. So that dark part is injected into the music along with the light.
What kinds of negative life experiences color these songs?
Throughout the years, I’ve lost a lot of family and friends to everything from accidents to overdoses. I don’t want to get specific. Just being human and existing can bring up all kinds of darkness. If you have any empathy, you can’t help but be affected by everything that’s going on in the world, whether it’s mass shootings, climate change, police brutality, terrorism or whatever.
You and the band’s guitarists Steve Brooks and John Lakes all sing on the album. It’s as if you’re playing different characters in the story.
We didn’t set out for it to be like that at all, but when I went back and listened back to it, I kind of thought Steve’s vocals were the narrative and John’s vocals are more like what the soul would be saying, and my vocals were more like some weird, judging god yelling at you. When we put out our last album Dawning [in 2013], we talked about making the vocals more diverse. We had always been such a three vocal attack-type band with these three different vocals on top of each other at the same time all the time. On Dawning, we messed around with spreading out the vocals a little. And on this one we definitely all wanted to sing along with the music that worked best with our voices.
Clearly, you put a lot of thought into Path of Eight. Having dealt so directly with the idea of dying and transitioning into another phase of existence have you become more comfortable with your own mortality?
I’ve just come to accept that everything dies and decays. I have no fear of passing on. It’s the natural process of life. When it comes to all these ideas about death, I’m a melting pot of a lot of different things. Some days I’m like, ‘Man, I’m an atheist.’ Other days I’m like, ‘I’m not an atheist, I’m an agnostic.” I don’t know. I’m just alive. I try to process my experiences as honestly as I can and learn as much as I can. And then I make music.