Vestigial: An Interview with Sam Dillon

Sam Dillon

There is more than meets the eye with those around you; and once you delve into seemingly ominous territory of finding out more about a person, it is astounding what you discover. Sam Dillon is one such individual; one who, a few years ago, I knew only as the vocalist of a local band but soon came to learn, has his heart in realms beyond the music scene. Known for his commanding almost hypnotic demeanour on stage as the vocalist of Sydney sludge metal lords Lo! and death metallers Hadal Maw from Melbourne, he is indeed a force to be reckoned with. Sam is also a well-known local artist and wildlife enthusiast who I had the honour of speaking with recently about his journey through it all. 

For the world of music and the arts, it has indeed been a year of numerous learning curves, of realignment and of growth and as we enter a new time of life, Sam reflects on what has been in the last year and how he has maintained peace and focus, staying true to his art forms even in the bleakest of times.  

“Survival. It’s survival. If you have something that is so interwoven with your identity and how you see yourself, it’s important; it gives you what you need to get to where you need to get to and to work with dynamic people. You take that away; then you have a very large crisis in purpose so I didn’t want that to snow me under because I saw it affect a lot of people around me so I instantly took a very military approach: waking up everyday, having a very clear idea of what is the thing that is going to help me keep the cogs turning but also be genuine and realistic and stimulate me in ways that I can at least escape the prison of my house or the monotony of having to walk only around the block as a part of your freedom. I managed it by making sure I utilised at least that hour of exercise that we had and try to discover new music, new films, read books and do paintings.”

My love for music, art and the obscure has given me many gifts; but one of the greatest of them all is conversations such as this one with Sam and the wealth of knowledge I gain from such an exchange. None of us really know what the future holds and being able to speak to those that have the wisdom to move forward regardless of circumstances is important; Sam wisely used the time to devote his time to his freelance career as an illustrator and artist. 

“I guess it’s that thing  of where your passion and skill level lies; how can you incorporate that into something that will sustain you more than just at a hobby level. It’s turning that little window of escapism into your career; you  just need to have that passion and drive. Whatever it is;  art, music, whatever you want to do, have that eye of being consistent and being disciplined. Starting an illustration career is something I had always put on the backburner; surely I wouldn’t be able to pay or make ends meet by a creative pursuit but then I just used the same sort of mentality that you would have with a nine to five job; you just hustle and then you can definitely do it. I would encourage anyone that is wanting to take the leap, just do it; you will never regret it. If you’re that passionate about it, just do it because it’s soul-crushing to have to do something that your hearts are not in.”

Sam Dillon

With a rich background in Natural History and Science, the natural world seems to be his biggest source of inspiration for his art.

"I do churn them out! I often get asked to paint a lot of birds and birds are something that I’ve always enjoyed painting, it’s not a chore for me to do it and once you’ve painted enough Black Cockatoos and Wedge-Tailed Eagles, you can quickly push them out and do it in a way that you know it’s going to  have a good consistency and professionalism to it. It also helps that I have a very strong  natural history background; you understand the shape of an animal and that translates into more realistic artwork.” 

Sam also emphasised on the importance of accepting criticism, constantly evolving as an artist of any kind and how the challenges are necessary for constant growth.

“You’re always changing and growing; it’s the same as when you’re doing music as well. You’d be silly to close yourself off to being influenced or taking criticism so there lies the beauty of instagram. However it is also the curse of constantly being inspired but then you’re also constantly comparing and comparison is the death of all dreams as that quote goes. So you need to be able to take stock of your strengths and know your identity. You can kind of manipulate your own skills by pushing forward the stuff that you’re very good at.  So it’s not too hard for me to do but it is a challenge sometimes when someone throws you a curveball of what they want and for me to be able to negotiate with how I’m going to be able to do that for something they’re going to enjoy. But I will do it.”

One such example of a challenge the Melbourne-based artist took up was the very cool isolation project of doing an A-Z poster featuring native animals of Australia, an idea that was inspired by his mother, a childhood memory and his love for native wildlife. 

“It was a really cool isolation project. I looked around and because I’m the eldest in my family, have a lot of siblings and my mother is a primary school teacher particularly an art teacher so I had always had a lot of kids books, that sort of educational toys around the house. She’s been in the same school for like 30 years! I was always interested in positive education particularly stuff to do with nature and I thought every house needs to have an A-Z. So creating it with endangered or threatened Australian species as the focus was a good way of being able to put my own spin on it but also have a few facts thrown in there and a way for people to become more familiar with their own backyard.”

For those of you that aren’t aware, apart from unleashing his reptilian alter-ego on stage, Sam has an extensive background in Natural History, looks after Woma Pythons and is an aspiring zookeeper and conservationist, looking for every opportunity he can to share his love for animals with those around him. 

“I always really excelled in high school at Biology but I realised the maths quota made it hard for me to be able to become a zoologist. But then as time went on, I also realised that a lot of zoologists spend the entire day with their head glued to a microscope; it’s a lot of fact-checking, referencing and basically looking at smears of poo and blood rather than actually going out there and hugging an orangutan. That’s not the reality of the industry but zookeeping and private keeping of licensed native animals is something that I’ve always been very interested in. I have my own snakes at home but of course, being me, I needed to make sure that the ones I had were rarer, overlooked animals. So they're not the big charismatic mutants that people want to have, I’ve got the subtle, nice, big giant ones that need my help and I want to make sure that they’re always there so that I can educate the public.”

The time seemed perfect to ask Sam a question I had been wanting to ask for a long time, being a nature child myself; what is it about Mother Nature that inspires him? His answer truly comes from a place of genuine love for what he does and wanting to share that with those around him.

“Nature is the most brutal yet most interesting thing. You’ll never get tired of learning some horrific or funny facts about animals. People love that stuff and I hope that kind of passion always bleeds out of what I do and you can educate people so easily if you make it entertaining and snappy. It doesn't have to be confined to scientific jargon. You can totally make it run of the mill kitchen table sort of gossip  but to do with biodiversity. This will never be ‘just a phase’ for me with the natural world. With everything to do with biology and the study of animals, I’m never bored, I am always seeking new information and it fills me with such soul-food, I’m never left wanting less of what I want to do and that passion I think is so pure, it keeps me alive, and it keeps my brain ticking and I hope that I’m able to get where I need to get in that career because I want that need to tell stories and entertain is a very powerful tool in being able  to inspire care in others.”

It is with this drive and goal in mind that led him into entering the world of conservation and zoo keeping as he embarks on a journey of becoming a professional keeper. While it may seem like a dream job, which it certainly is, given how much you can learn about various species and contribute towards their protection, the reality is, far from that to say the least. 

“If you thought you’d be hugging a Red Panda, that’s simply not the case. There’s very few examples where there would be keeper-animal contact because they’re not there for your entertainment. The whole role of zoos is to create empathy in the public that is now very urbanised. There’s a lot of people out there that may never see a tiger or have the chance and luxury of going to the jungles of Asia. having that experience. But if someone is estranged from the wild, they lose the ability to care for it or want to give to conservation or change their daily habits that affect our environment.”

Sam Dillon

He also threw light on the importance of zoos and the role they play in wildlife conservation, providing a safe haven for the animals but also educating people in conservation efforts. 

“If you have a zoo, you have the opportunity of having animal ambassadors to represent their wild counterparts. In some cases, they are the arc that is the last line of defence in species where their populations have crashed or may have diseases in the wild that you need to be able to do the research on. Having that access to captive animals in a public eye does wonders for the wild world. So I understand that there’s a lot of people out there who may not like the idea of zoos but unfortunately they are a necessity, not just for animals as living beings but also for research to take place for inspiration to happen as a living museum. There’s a lot of things in place in Australian zoos that are of the highest standard of animals in captivity. They are constantly looking at ways of improving and offering enrichment and making a more natural environment, and keeping the interaction always with the education of the public in mind.

We reached the inevitable question at this point of our in-depth conversation which was discussing his favourite animals, a topic that may require its own interview in the future. 

“See this is so dangerous because your phone will just run out of battery before I stop talking. I’m super super passionate about Crocodiles, so the Crocodile and Alligator family, particularly the chubby little Chinese alligators which are one of the rarer ones in the wild. They max out at about 1.5 meters, they're very grumpy and they definitely have that draconian look about them, dinosaur like, very primitive. I also love the venomous lizards like the Komodo Dragon, the Gila monster and the Bearded Lizard. They’re all very ugly and very slobbery looking but I love that ancient look and the fact that they are master predators in their own ecosystems.”

Working in such a field, he has also been fortunate enough to have experienced some very special encounters with animals and recalled some of his favourite ones. 

“Reptiles are, first and foremost, one of my favourites but I do love birds of prey and I do love a lot of Australian species.. I was very lucky to have a one-on-one experience at a private facility that works in Raptor conservation, down in Ballarat. It's a fantastic property with a lot of rehabilitated Eagles and Falcons. The way that the animals are looked after and their ability to touch people, that emotional exchange that happens of people being that close as opposed to seeing them as just a dot in the sky, it’s incredible. It was a class for photographers as well so I was able to see just how beautiful these creatures are when they are quite literally, just inches away from your face. I had a Wedge-Tailed Eagle on my nose so that was fantastic!”

Sam Dillon

There is a beautiful connection that exists between Sam’s ardent passion for the natural world, his art and his in the music he performs. I say this because you can hear it in that gritty, primal rawness that comes through in his voice or see it come to life in his art. I also say this because many years ago, when I first listened to ‘Orca’ off The Tongueless EP, I could feel it; not just the sheer power of Lo! as a band but the value and strength of the message that their music, their lyrics and their message carried. And it is a beautiful message for those of you who love animals and those who are willing to learn more about them. 

“A few years ago, when I was just a new member  of  Lo! when we were striving to release an LP that was going to showcase the direction in which we were heading, not just my vocals but that more visceral and raw live sound that we were going for, I decided to name the release The Tongueless which is my kind of nod to the fact that we are the ones with voices, we can communicate and animals are unable to do that. There’s a lot of things in the natural world that need to be talked about, especially our cruelty and our exploitation of it and ‘Orca’, besides the fact that there is that infamous goo film clip, the lyrics are all based on the Cetaceans.”

“It’s about the whales and dolphins kept in theme parks and zoos around the world in appalling conditions, the ways they are made to be compliant so basically they are water circuses. There’s very little conservation being done at a lot of these facilities. They use that shock and awe factor of taming the untamable.  I fear there is a great shame when you look at a captive orca and you see that floppy dorsal fin, you see the reason they have to drill into the teeth to flush them out is because they’re all losing their dentition. Everything that they do, it’s all built around prologing cruelty. All for a quick buck; there’s so many lyrics in that song that are an artistic way of talking about that awful practice.”

I then wondered out aloud to Sam as to where that respect for the Earth and her creatures has gone to which, unsurprisingly he imparted wisdom that I feel everyone must listen and take from it what they will. 

“It is a dangerous game of miseducation and entitlement I feel. When an animal is the main attraction to the event or to the experience, you really question what benefit is it actually having for the animal itself? Is it just so you can stroke your ego and feel closer to nature because people want to be able to intrinsically put a value on something and touch something? Because touching is probably the least respectful way of showing care for the animal or the environment. Animals are cool enough, they don’t need to be packaged like a McHappy meal and sold to the masses. Look at the history of circuses! But imagine seeing like an orangutan uninhibited swinging from vine to vine, imagine seeing elephants at a waterhole in Africa getting mud all over themselves to protect themselves from flies. These are life-changing things and they aren’t accessible to everyone for a reason.”

“However, if you must, if you have that need inside of you to experience nature in some way and it involves animals and you want that fourth wall removed, at least do your research and see what are the ethical practices involved. A lot of times compliance of an animal to do absurd behaviour is not just it not being a nice thing, it is systematic abuse. Respecting the animals and who they are, seeing them not as animals but as beings just like you and me; that’s where it’s at.” 

Lo! Last release Vestigial was one that sent waves, the good sonic, sludgey and appreciation kind, through the heavy music scene both in Australia and internationally.  There was much discussion about the music being cinematic, which is understandable given certain elements that are present. For me, however, it’s raw, primal and real and that’s what truly drew me towards them when I first heard ‘Orca’. It undoubtedly comes from a place of depth. We discussed the mindset Sam was in during the creation of  their last album and the writing process.

“I wanted
Vestigial  to be bigger, bolder and more concise than The Tongueless because that was just a short offering. I didn’t feel like I got to paint with all the colours on the palette in that. But Vestigial was a dream for me to record because I record my vocals with Carl Whitbread overseeing it, he’s very good at the production side of things and I've always been given a lot of faith by the band, the freedom to  talk through the way that I want to do it and my performances. I want to make sure that they never lack that visceral rage and venom that I have for subjects I’m passionate about.’ 

“When writing the album, I really had to utilise a very DIY approach with the time I had to write it. There was pretty much nothing else I was doing except working, coming home and fleshing out those songs. I keep diaries, I keep bibles worth of material, I’m constantly reading scientific papers, I’m listening to the news, going to see new films, I’m seeing other bands, I’m not wearing blinkers you know?

I was very lucky that Carl had already given me, basically a finished instrumental album and had the faith in me to apply myself to it. There weren’t too many takes that needed to be done, it was all demoed out before I got to sydney. The excitement I had when hearing some of the playbacks, I knew this was going to hit; it was going to come across with that genuine rage we wanted.” 

Delving deeper into the lyrical content, he also  explained how he writes about, not just the natural world, it’s fascinating yet brutal demeanour and reality surrounding it but also throwing light on the flaws of society and the human race. 

“Behaviour breeds behaviour. Unfortunately the human condition and psyche is very wrought with absolute power and corruption. Songs like ‘Locust Christ’ and ‘As Fools Ripen’ are songs off Vestigial that I  saw that preacher at the pulpit really spruiking their own hypocrisy with a smile on one side of their face and spewing on the other. It’s just so gross and the sad fact is we elect these clowns. Some people do it for the sheer shock of ‘let's just see how it goes’. It's like they're almost willing the Apocalypse to happen preemptively. It's not a game, it's not a meme, it's life. Value yourself, value your name, value what you stand for and talk with your education. Take on criticism, don't keep shutting doors around you, be inspired, be offended, but talk about it.”

This is the kind of passion you can expect from Sam on stage with his bands. I’ve had the honour of seeing Lo! perform live a few times and I can say that without a doubt, it is an experience in itself. What Sam does comes from a real place and what you see is exactly what you get and who he is. Expressing this, he spoke more about the kind of mindset he is in before going on stage and performing with the incredible rage-fuelled power that he does. 

“It’s funny, whenever we tour Europe, whether it’s with Hadal Maw or Lo!, I only ever get two comparisons which I’m very flattered by. It's either ‘Ey man, you’re like a death metal Iggy Pop eh?’ or ‘Ey man, you is like a death metal Mick Jagger!’. Both of these are great because however you want to look at that, one they got the genre right and two these are individuals who are unforgettable. They are commanding and iconic; they believe 100% in their craft. We’ve just waffled on about all the ways  that I go about writing songs; I observe constantly. I’m definitely seeing the world around me and extracting from it what I need to create. So if I’m going to put the effort into writing, I’m going to get up there and perform the song with the exact level of care and passion that I had for writing it in the first place. The day that I don’t go up on stage and give it 110% is the day that I go, music is not for me.” 

I’m sure many of you are wondering what Lo! has in store and the answer is, of course, quite a lot. They will be performing at the Dark Mofo in a couple of days time as well as playing the infamous Blacken Open Air at the end of July. Musically, there is already doom brewing. 

“We’re definitely looking forward to playing live at both of these festivals, especially playing ‘Vestigial’ in its entirety. With our next release, we already have a large amount of songs in the bank. It's just fleshing out the lyrics really. We recently had a very long jam with everyone in the same room for once seeing as we’re all spread out. We just went through the new material and looked at the potential for what it's going to be like to record. It is very exciting; it’s going to be a big opus and definitely not lacking  in that rage and contempt for the nastier moments of humanity.” 

Sam Dillon

If you’ve ever seen Lo! before, you will know the extent to which their music and live performances leave their followers and supporters not just in awe but also in a weird hypnotic daze; not to mention immense neck pain. It is truly a sight to behold, for this is a band that are not just an incredible metal band on stage, they are a family off of it too. 

“It absolutely is a family unit. I’ve spent more time with these boys in close quarters and talked to them more than any member in my family. The highlight of the day sometimes, is when you’re in a job you don’t like, you get that message on the band group; you know it’s either going to be something about business or it’s going to be very silly. Either way, you’re communicating. We’ve been through a lot, we’ve done some very funny things, we’ve had some mediocre experiences. There’s a lot of work that goes into making a set and releasing an album as we know in metal, often for not much reward other than the thrill of playing.”

“But our main drive has always stayed the same and that is; we do music to fulfill ourselves and contribute to a sound that we love. We’ve been very lucky over the years to perform with a lot of heroes. So for me to be able to play with Obituary, Cult Leader, Anaal Nathrakh; these are all bands that I’ve had in my collection at home since their inception and testament I hope to show that we’re genuine about what we do and because we have a passion for it. So I’m very lucky that I’m in a group where we are always open to expanding our horizons and I have no doubt that there will be theatrical, heavy and raw moments in the next release.”

Sam had one last thing he wanted to share with those reading this article and his fellow artists. 

“I say this with a smirk; nothing’s coming from outside the borders boys and girls so if you’re in a good band in Australia, strike while the iron’s hot. This is finally the time for people to show their actual love for the scene so get out to a show and rekindle the flame. Those of you that do release something, release your best work you’ve ever done because this is our time to not be the support act to the overseas players. As we’ve always known it, we’re amongst the best, talented people in the game. Let's show the world that we have our own unique sound and identity and we can keep it rolling.”

Lo! will be performing ‘Vestigial’ in its entirety at The Odeon Theatre in Hobart as part of Dark Mofo this Thursday as well as at Blacken Open Air held on July 30th to August 2nd.

Hadal Maw will be performing in Melbourne on the 6th of August at the Bendigo Hotel and in Sydney on the 27th of August at Crowbar with Descent.

Check Lo! out on Bandcamp here, and Hadal Maw on Bandcamp here.