About half an hour after our interview yesterday, Kylesa guitarist/vocalist Laura Pleasants called me back and left a message on my answering machine (old school), asking me which riff in “Running Red,” the centerpiece track of her band’s new album, Static Tensions (Prosthetic), I was referring to in my review when I said the song was, “drawing a pagan circle around a riff that, if it was on a Hatebreed record, I?d probably call retarded.”
Slightly unnerved, because in earnest that’s my favorite song on the album and that riff — which first kicks in at 1:21 and makes a triumphant return at 3:52 — is a big part of the reason why, I rang her up and within a minute or so we were laughing, her acknowledging that she knew the riff in question was simple when she wrote it and I relieved that I hadn’t offended in my review. Her band of artsy sludge slingers recently back from a run in Japan with Birushanah and on the precipice of playing the unfortunately corporate Scion Rock Fest before heading out on yet another tour, this time of the Southern US, the last thing she needed was crap from the likes of me, sitting in my pajamas all day reviewing records.
Static Tensions is Kylesa‘s third album since 2005, fourth overall, and it boasts a fuller sound than anything the band has released before. Pleasants‘ vocal approach has diversified and matured notably since 2006′s the band’s last effort, Time Will Fuse its Worth. In the interview that follows the jump, the singer/guitarist offers her opinions as to how that became possible, what it was like working with guitarist/vocalist Phillip Cope as a producer for the second time, and why, after having two guitarists, two vocalists and two drummers — Carl McGinley and Eric Hernandez — finding another bassist to partner up with Javier Villegas just seemed like too much.
You’ve added more melodic singing and different kinds of screams and growls to your vocal style. Did you purposefully change anything in your approach going into this album? Was there something in particular you wanted to do vocally?
Yeah man, I really thought about, rather than just screaming all over the songs, I wanted to think more about if I were to scream, how I wanted to scream and come up with specific patterns and see what the music actually called for, rather than just screaming all over the place. It was easier this time too, because Phillip and I do all the vocals, but we also didn’t have to worry about writing the gruff, the low gruff vocal parts for Corey [Barhorst, former bassist/vocalist] that we used to do, and I used to write a lot of those parts for him, so I didn’t have to worry about that. And we kind of thought the music didn’t need to have vocals all over the place, that a lot of the times, the guitars could really do the work, or the drums could do the work and let the music breathe more. Specifically, I wanted to try to become a better vocalist, for sure. I thought I had some good moments on our last record, but ultimately I wasn’t happy with all of the vocals, so I wanted to figure out how to approach it this time around. With each song, it was kind of like, “Does this song need screaming? Does it need something brutal? Does it need something more trance-like or weird, or does it need something more mellow?” When we covered Pink Floyd‘s “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun,” that’s when I decided I wanted to push myself and include more melodic singing. It worked well on the cover and my bandmates encouraged me to try out more singing on the album, so I just tried it out.
Working with Phillip as a producer, what’s that relationship like as opposed to just being in a band together, and did that have anything to do with your vocals?
Well, he produced the last record as well, and I think his skills have vastly improved as a producer and in getting sounds. Everyone worked really hard on this record, including the engineers. Some nicer equipment was used as well. Phillip is really good in that he’s really open to everyone’s ideas and willing to try ideas out. He doesn’t have any sort of ego about that at all. It was good working with him. I know it was really stressful for him, because he’s producer on top of the guitar player and one of the vocalists. He was running on no sleep and he was completely stressed out the whole time, but that said, it was probably one of the easiest recording experiences we’ve ever had as far as it being chill. No one freaked out or anything. Everyone got along and it was chill. We had more time to work and Jay – the main engineer and owner of The Jam Room – and I set up another studio where I could do my guitar work while also working with the other band members on some stuff. We were able to utilize our time really well, and working with him was great. It’s good to have someone in the band or someone you’ve worked with a lot, because everyone knew the goal that we were trying to reach. Steve and Jay from The Jam Room, they’ve been working with us for a while. They knew what we were going for. Of course, Phillip and I were on the same page, so we all just worked really hard together to get the album where we wanted it to be.
You mentioned it being more pleasant and having more time. Aside from the better sounds, the general pleasantness, is that not something that really happened before?
They’re not always easy. Sometimes they are, but generally they’re not, because you’re running on a tight schedule. The time before was kind of stressful. I don’t really remember. It wasn’t a horrible experience or anything, but it wasn’t the best, either. There wasn’t a lot of time for me to do the guitar stuff I wanted to do, so I ended up not doing it, and the drums gave us a lot more trouble last time, because we weren’t recording them in an ideal situation and they didn’t really know how to record the drums. This time, they definitely planned ahead and there was more of a blueprint of how to go about it. There was some trial and error, but they pretty much got it right away. It just seemed more relaxed, I don’t know. I think all of us kind of knew what we were doing more and we had the songs down, everyone was confident about what they were playing. We were tighter. I got to mess around more, which made me happy (laughs). We busted our asses, no doubt, and worked long hours, but it was just a better experience over all.
You’re a more experienced band.
That had a lot to do with it, just all of us being more experienced in what we were doing.
How does that also play in on stage? How has your relationship with touring changed over the years?
It’s better now. It’s been a rollercoaster ride, for sure. There’s been lineup changes over the years; Phillip and I are the only original members. Sometimes touring’s really tough, sometimes it’s been great. Sometimes there’s been internal conflict and sometimes there’s been peace, but right now we’re at a spot where we’ve gotten a lot of the shit – all the partying and that kind of stuff – is out of our system and we get along and we tour only if it’s going to make sense for us to do, rather than just going on tour to tour. Our tours are better and we’re a tighter band now. Things are just better now than they were a few years ago. Maybe it’s where we are personally in our lives as well.
Do you feel like you’re closer now to what the band wants to achieve musically?
Musically, absolutely. It’s weird that it took four albums to get to where I thought we needed to be, but sometimes that happens. I’m very happy with what we’re doing musically right now, and I’m not out of ideas and neither is Phillip. We’re constantly thinking about stuff we want to try or do, and music excites us – still. I don’t feel bored or jaded with music. I’m still very much a music nerd and into it. The creative spark is still very much here. A lot of bands lose that over time.
Bands fall into a formula.
From the get-go, we did not want to fall into a formula or make a formula. Our main goal was to push the boundaries of heavy music in any way we could while moving others as well. Of course, we would have to enjoy playing the music, and it’s also a cathartic outlet, but we always wanted to push boundaries, and I think we’ve experimented and pushed a lot and now I kind of feel like we’ve refined a lot of our ideas and thoughts and stripped down a lot of things that might not have worked so well in the past. We’ve found – it’s definitely not a formula, because all the songs sound different – but we’ve found a way to write songs where we can make it work as individual songs and as a record.
Do you find there are different parts of songs and different ideas musically that you’ve become more attached to over the course of the last couple records? There are definitely elements in the Kylesa sound that are unique to that.
Yeah, which is cool. There are definitely elements of Kylesa that sound like, “Oh, that’s definitely Kylesa,” and I think that marks an original band when that happens. I think that’s great. It’s something you don’t want to write over and over and over again, but we’re really happy writing heavy, doomy riffs. And why not? Because they’re fun, and brutal. And we’re also happy with more of the trippy, psychedelic stuff. That’s stuff we enjoy writing and I think can be used in heavy music. A lot of old psychedelic music has this certain quality of unconscious awareness that can be really heavy and have an intangible feeling, and that’s something I’ve always wanted to try to touch upon and convey with Kylesa.
I know I can’t be the first person to ask you this, so I’m sorry in advance, but I’m going to ask anyway. You have two vocals, two guitars and two drums. Now, when you’re all sitting around and having the band meeting, at what point did two bassists seem too excessive?
(Laughs) I don’t think you’re the first person to mention that. I think that came up in a joke somewhere along the line. Yeah, I think two bassists would be too much. There’s just not enough space for all the frequency (laughs). It was hard enough to record all the crazy frequencies that we were working with.
Plus, then you have to worry about half the band seceding and going off to form Mk. II or something.
Yeah, that would just be too much (laughs).
How much does everyone contribute to the writing of each other’s songs?
Phillip and I write with Carl. Carl doesn’t do any of the guitar writing or anything, but he helps us structure out ideas and structure out the songs. He’s very patient about it. He’s good to jam with because he’ll lay down a certain beat and that can maybe change the course of the riff a little bit. He’s great to jam with. On this record, Phillip wrote a couple songs and I wrote a couple songs, but we were all there together listening, and then it wouldn’t be until one of us was ready for the other’s opinion that the other person would jump in and give their opinion. Sometimes songs needed to be worked out a little more and other times the songs developed in their own way.
I’m assuming knowing when to jump in with an opinion is another one of those things that comes with experience.
Exactly! Absolutely, man. It’s all about timing with that kind of thing (laughs).
What’s the story behind “Running Red?”
I actually wrote that one, but Phil was there to interject a couple times and give his opinions on maybe some structuring. Basically that song came out of two things. I wanted to write a song in a similar vein to the Pink Floyd song we covered, “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.” I thought it had this really cool intro with vocals, and I wanted to try to do something like that on the record, but much heavier, because at the same time, I wanted to write something really doomy and heavy. The guitar parts didn’t have to be super complicated, there didn’t have to be too many complex things going on, I just wanted to write something really heavy with a psychedelic, trance-like feel to it. That was my plan, and then some of the other riffs just came together when I was jamming at home. At that point in our songwriting, there wasn’t a lot of songs where the drums could really, really do a lot of stuff over [the music], so that’s why I wanted to write some simple, heavy riffs, so the drums could come in and do some cool drum work over the riffs. That’s one that Carl and I jammed on for a long time. It was in many, many different forms before and I have this notebook where I would write down different structures and how many times we should do each part, and there were more parts, then I deleted parts, and this song took a while to come together, but I was so happy with its outcome.
How long does a song usually take to go from its very beginnings to realized?
Sometimes a long time, and then sometimes no time at all. It’s not very consistent. We wrote this record from about February of ’08 till about June.
Then you went in to record in July.
We went in immediately to record. I didn’t have some of my solos worked out, but all of the basic structures were there.
How much otherwise fleshing out is done in the studio?
We wanted to try to play more of these songs out live. We went on tour in May with The Ocean and Lair of the Minotaur, and that might have been some of June as well. We played some of the new songs out live to kind of get a feel for them or flesh some ideas out. Ideally we wanted to do it with all of the songs, but there just wasn’t enough time. We fleshed some ideas out live when we played with them, and even when we went on tour in September, we only had rough mixes and we played maybe three songs live and immediately I wanted to re-cut some of my vocals for one song, and redo my solo and a guitar part. We had the mixes with us, so we had time to think about them. As soon as we got back from that tour, I went in and because I knew exactly what I was playing, I did it really fast and I did my vocals really quick and I’m really happy I got to go back in there and redo that stuff. And it was solely because we were playing them live. That’s where my ideas came together.
The three albums you’ve done since 2005 – they’ve all been almost exactly 40 minutes long. Within a minute. Is that done specifically with the vinyl in mind? Weird coincidence?
(Laughs) I know, it’s weird. Definitely weird coincidence. We don’t plan on writing 40-minute records. That said, I don’t think we need to be writing 60-minute records. I think that’s too long to sit through a record, generally. But yeah, that definitely wasn’t planned, it’s just always worked out that way (laughs).
Tags: Georgia, Kylesa, Prosthetic