‘It’s close to a miracle’: how prog-doom MWWB magicians coped with tragedy and pulled it off

In December 2020, MWWB was ready to begin its next chapter. With their latest album, 2019’s Yn Ol I Annwn (translated from Welsh as “Return To The Underworld”), the band formerly known as Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard had closed out a trilogy of expansive and transcendent releases that explored existence and time, and solidified their unique approach and progression of fate.

Then on March 13, 2021, a few days before the release of their fourth album, Harvest, MWWB posted a shocking update on Instagram. Their guitarist and main riff writer Paul ‘Dave’ Davies was ‘fighting for his life’ in hospital after contracting Covid earlier that year.

“Just after Christmas [2020], we were supposed to try to get together to do promotional photos,” recalls singer and multi-instrumentalist Jess Ball. “So in December I was messaging Dave and he said, ‘I’m doing really bad, I have Covid. Then he said, “I think I have pneumonia. Then I got a call from his girlfriend saying he had collapsed at home.

To everyone’s dismay, Dave had had a stroke. He was taken to Clatterbridge Hospital in the Wirral, where he was placed on a ventilator before being put into a medically induced coma.

Following the announcement, the doom and metal community flooded MWWB’s social media with well wishes, while the band immediately postponed Harvestthe exit. “He played such a big part in it,” Jess says firmly. “The idea of ​​releasing him without him wasn’t even an option.”

Jess talks to Hammer on Zoom from his home in Cardiff. Bright and positive, she wants the strength of Dave and his family, and the details of his recovery, to be the key takeaway from everything that’s happened over the past year, but it’s clear that everyone involved went through a heartbreaking ordeal.

Unable to visit her in person due to Covid restrictions, Dave’s bandmates were kept updated via lengthy messages from her partner, Charlie (“She’s amazing. She’s so positive”). In April 2021, Dave’s prognosis looked good. His oxygen levels were improving, and while he was still in a coma, it finally looked like he was about to get out of the woods. Nurses even lambasted MWWB’s music for him, although with a wry smile Jess admits it didn’t really sit well with everyone on the ward. “They knew he was in a group and any kind of stimulation like that would have been good for him,” says Jess. “How amazing to have him…even though he’s in a band called Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard. It’s not like it’s good folk music!

Suddenly, after four months in hospital, Dave’s family and the group received devastating news: his condition had deteriorated and, according to doctors, he had only days to live. “Everyone was so shocked,” Jess recalled. “Completely shocked. It was like, ‘What?! We thought he was better.

Dave was moved to a private room in the hospital where doctors took him off the ventilator and removed his food and water. Family and friends were invited to bid farewell. The restrictions meant Jess was forced to say what she thought were her last words to her best friend and bandmate over FaceTime. “I didn’t want to say anything too morbid, so I was just saying hi and that I love him,” she said quietly. “It was very brief and, obviously, it was very emotional.”

After that, all the group could do was wait. “The next day came, and we were waiting for the call and it just…it just didn’t go!” Jess said with a big smile. “I think it was having his family around him and hearing their voices. It must have been, ‘Wait a minute, it’s not my time.’

MWWB

(Image credit: Press)

Describing Dave’s unexpected recovery as “as close to a miracle as you can get, if you believe in miracles”, Jess says she and the group are aware of how lucky their situation has been in a horrific setting where, to date, 156,000 people in the UK have lost their lives to Covid-19. “It’s absolutely heartbreaking to think that people… don’t have their families around them. [when they’re ill]”, she said sadly. “Because that’s what you would do in this situation.

Today, Dave is still in intensive care. Jess reports that he is recovering slowly, but steadily. “He’s not at the walking stage yet,” she says. “He’s started to learn how to lift his head and be able to sit up, which he does, and he moves his arm.”

She was delighted to see videos of him arm wrestling and laughing with her young son, and although she still hasn’t been allowed to visit him in person, they frequently share selfies and video messages . “He’s relearning speech so we’re not able to communicate that way,” she continues. “[But] he has his tablet, so he slowly understands how it works again and he knows how to find me in the chat. He called me on his own and it was really nice. It was obviously one-sided, but there was a big smile on his face, and I showed him my new guitar while chatting. He is definitely still Paul. He himself is normal, you can tell.

Considering everything that’s happened over the past year, it’s understandable that everything related to MWWB has been put on the back burner. As soon as Dave fell ill, the band immediately launched their planned campaign to Harvest out the window, deciding to postpone for a year until a time when they hoped Dave would be “awakened and able to share in the experience and joy of coming out”.

In order to cope with the upheaval, Jess immersed herself in other projects during the pandemic. As well as running her own clothing brand, Juniper Clothing, designing sustainable leggings from her flat in Cardiff, which ‘bloomed’ during lockdown, she also started the side project Eye with her partner. “In a nutshell, it was ultimately a period of reflection,” she says. “You always have a dream or a goal and sometimes things don’t work out that way, and how you handle those situations…you have to manage your expectations. When Dave got sick, nothing else really mattered.

We are happy that Harvest finally sees the light of day, because it’s a record worth hearing and pushes the band’s sound in a new, tighter, more immediate direction. Dave started writing the riffs in 2019, before the pandemic hit, passing on the foundations to the rest of the band to build on. It was recorded with producer Chris Fielding, who has worked with MWWB on their previous records, at Foel Studios in Welshpool. Due to fears around Covid, not all members of MWWB played on his recording, with drummer James Carrington and guitarist Wez Leon sitting outside the sessions, and ex-Black Moth stoners Dom McCready seated. temporarily standing behind the battery.

“Covid was so new back then,” says Jess. “It was scary. There are no bad feelings, no one is left out of the group. It depended on who felt comfortable enough to come out [and record], how much people wanted to isolate themselves and how much they wanted to risk. At the same time, we thought maybe we were a little crazy doing it. Personally, I had to weigh, “Which direction do I want this to go?”

Described by Jess as “a natural evolution”, on Harvest, the band’s meandering, dense riffs took on a new urgency. tracks such as logic bomb and Treason introduced an immediacy that’s heightened by Jess’ ethereal melodies, though still pushing the cosmic flourishes and John Carpenter’s indebted synths that make their monolithic sludge so distinctive in the foreground. “This one was… us kind of becoming ourselves,” she explains. “I think it could be a result of getting more familiar with our craft. Now it’s more refined, and as a unit [we understand] how each other works.

This could very well turn out to be their swan song, with Jess admitting that the band’s future is uncertain. There are no live shows scheduled – hiring a replacement guitarist for Dave, she says, was an absolute fail. “Without Dave it would be a different band, it wouldn’t be Mammoth Weed anymore.”

Instead, the campaign for Harvest took on new meaning – letting the world know what might just be Dave’s final artistic statement while cementing his seminal legacy on the genre. “Now the reality of the album coming out is bittersweet,” says Jess. “But ultimately, because we were so low, everything else is just an up now, that’s really how I feel about it. We could have been in a very different situation now, a much more dark. Sharing this album with him is an absolute gift.

Brian L. Hartfield