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WIU composer teams with doom metal guitarist

James Romig and Mike Scheidt
courtesy photo
James Romig and Mike Scheidt

The inspiration for James Romig’s latest composition came after hearing the venerable doom metal band YOB about five years ago.

“They were doing really long pieces. 18 minutes, 25 minutes, 30 minutes. And they developed slowly, in a minimal sort of way that spoke to the way I’m interested in writing music,” said Romig, a professor of music at Western Illinois University.

Romig said he eventually struck up a friendship with YOB guitarist Mike Scheidt. And as they got to know each other, Romig suggested writing a piece for Scheidt. The result is “The Complexity of Distance.”

New World Records recently released the recording, which can also be found on Bandcamp and other music sites.

Romig said the composition’s chords and rhythms are laid out in a strict pattern in the score.

“But because there’s a lot of distance in between each of the strummed chords, there’s lots of time for the electronics, amplification, feedback, distortion -- all the things that make his guitar sound so special – to come into play in-between these chords that I’ve written,” Romig said.

He also said he wrote the piece for the guitar that Scheidt likes to use. It’s made by the company Monson.

“And then, of course, this sub-genre of heavy metal music – doom metal – is often concerned with gear. So he’s running it through old fashioned tube amplifiers and different speaker cabinets, and he goes through a lot of process to get his sound out there,” Romig said.

The complexity of creating the piece

Romig said he wanted to write something that Scheidt’s fans would recognize, and Scheidt wanted to make sure the finished piece would be identifiable to the people who are interested in what Romig does.

And the composer and musician literally faced a challenge with the complexity of distance when it came time to record.

Recording started in October of last year when COVID-19 was still limiting travel. So Romig remained at his home in western Illinois while Scheidt recorded at a studio in his home town of Eugene, Oregon.

There were a lot of phone calls and text messages back and forth, and the sessions were streamed into Romig’s home so he could hear how the piece was coming along.

“It was a nice thing to do during the pandemic for both Mike and me. Mike couldn’t tour with his band, so he was able to tackle a one-hour guitar piece,” Romig said.

“I’m sure he would have done it anyway but it actually worked out pretty well for both of us and gave us a little something to focus on during the crazy days.”

Romig said he and Scheidt come from two very different music worlds, but those worlds have quite a bit in common.

“One thing I’ve enjoyed is getting involved a little bit with the metal community, doing some interviews there, some podcasts, meeting people, and realizing just what a great sense of adventure there is in that world, just as there is in the new music world that I’m in,” he said.

“It feels like a very healthy genre for experimentation. And that’s a good thing.”

Romig said it’s entirely possible other guitarists will tackle The Complexity of Distance. He’s interested to hear those performances. He said there is space built into the score that would allow for considerable variations in the mood of the piece.

About the composer

Romig was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 2019 for his long piano composition “Still.” That piece was inspired by the abstract expressionist painter Clyfford Still.

“My wife Ashlee Mack and I were talking about doing some sort of a project together. And we said wouldn’t it be interesting to do a piano piece that lasts a little bit longer than the ordinary piano piece? So that’s where this idea of the long piano piece came into play,” he said.

“And the fact that it was well-received, that gave me a little bit of confidence when it was time to talk to Mike about this guitar solo and say, hey, let’s do a concert-length, 60-minute piece.”

Romig said he is not a guitarist but he’s learning his way around a fretboard and is learning what’s possible on the instrument.

He started out playing violin and piano when he was a kid. But he took up percussion when he started studying music seriously.

“Percussionists have always been good explorers in new sound. In fact, when I was in college in the ‘90s, there wasn’t nearly as much percussion literature as there is now so it made a lot of sense for percussionists to contribute to that literature by writing some of their own,” he said.

Romig is constantly working on compositions, but that does not mean he spends hours at a piano or desk every day.

“For me, there’s a great deal of daydreaming involved where I have to mull over potential compositional situations and problems. I find the only time I create music that I don’t like very much is when I go too fast,” Romig said.

His next composition will be a companion piece to “The Complexity of Distance.” It’s called “The Fragility of Time.”

“This is a little different in that the guitar is so-called ‘clean sounding.’ It’s electric guitar but it doesn’t have any distortion through the amplification,” Romig said, adding that it’s being written for Matt Sargent, a visiting assistant professor of music at Bard College in New York.

Romig has taught in the School of Music at Western Illinois University for 20 years.

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Rich is TSPR's News Director.