It’s been almost two full years since I last interviewed guitarist/vocalist Laura Pleasants of Kylesa, and in that time the growth her band has undertaken is remarkable. Their latest album, Spiral Shadow (first for Season of Mist and fifth overall), is a progressive leap from anything the band has done before, Pleasants and fellow guitarist/vocalist Phillip Cope — who also produced — in particular focusing on writing memorable songs with an increased emphasis on melody.
The result of their efforts can be heard in tracks like “Tired Climb” or the unrepentantly hooky “Don’t Look Back,” which not only show a newfound maturity from Cope and Pleasants, but an increase in the chemistry between them as a team and the double-drum rhythm section of Carl McGinley, Tyler Newberry and bassist Corey Barhorst. Like its 2009 predecessor, Static Tensions, Spiral Shadow was a highlight of its release year. Hands down one of the least regrettable new-album purchases I made in 2010.
Whatever growth or breadth of influence they show, however, what remains consistent about Kylesa is a fierce will for exploration. They don’t follow the trend in modern metal, they help set it; their post-sludge breathing new life into a genre which often wills itself against sonic diversity. Coupled with the kind of songwriting prowess they show on “Spiral Shadow” and “Distance Closing In,” Spiral Shadow could easily be the marking point of a new stage in an already impressive career.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Just two days after the New Year, Pleasants checked in for a phoner to discuss the metamorphosis of Kylesa, the band’s recent tours with Clutch and Torche/High on Fire, and the working relationship of the band in the studio with Cope at the helm. Like last time, it was more of a conversation than a Q&A, but that’s nonetheless how it’s presented here.
Unabridged interview is after the jump. Please enjoy.
Did you guys get to take any kind of break for the holidays? Did you get go home?
Yeah. I went back to North Carolina for a week, a little over a week, for Christmas, and then it was the day after Christmas, I drove to Savannah, and we met up with Clutch for a week, for a few shows. We were with them in Richmond, then we went to upstate New York, then two shows in Ohio, then to North Carolina. It was fun. They were fun shows.
How was the High on Fire/Torche tour for you guys?
It was cool. I mean, if you’re a fan of heavy music, I don’t see how you could not be into that tour. It was a good solid lineup. I’m a fan of both bands, and we’ve toured with Torche a million times over the years. I think we’ve toured with them more than any other band, and we’ve toured with High on Fire before as well. So it was a lot of fun. It was like touring with friends, and it was also a solid bill. That was a good tour. The shows were good. We played some weird small towns that no one ever goes to, so those shows were smaller, but they were still cool.
How does that kind of thing compare to the tour you’re about to do, where you’re headlining and it’s your shows?
With headlining tours, you get to play longer and you get to have more time to setup and soundcheck and get everything right on stage before you play, and have the room sounding good. There’s more time to prepare for a show. We’ll get to play a headlining set, which is nice to play, be able to play long, and it’s nice for the fans who want to hear you for more than 40 minutes or whatever. It’s also different because people are gonna be coming to see us specifically, rather than maybe another [headlining] band. I like playing to all sorts of people, but I really like to play to our fans in particular. Obviously. I’d rather play to our fans than someone else’s.
Have you noticed a reaction to the newer material from the crowds at shows?
The reactions so far have been really positive from the people who are familiar with the record. When we were touring with High on Fire, it wasn’t out really until the end of that tour, and then I think it took a little bit of time to digest, but now that it’s been digested, it’ll be cool to see what the reactions will be when we play some of those songs. In the last set, we did three new songs, and I think in the new set we’ll play maybe five new songs. Five or six.
You guys have a bit of a catalogue going at this point. Do you still play older stuff?
We’ve been talking about pulling out some really old material for this tour. Maybe something off – I don’t know if we’ll go back to the first record or not, but certainly off the second record and maybe one of the really early EPs and some of the earlier records. Because we’ve got such a catalogue, we can pull from all our records our favorite songs to play or the crowd’s favorite songs, and really have a nice collection to pick from.
That seems like it would be a cool opportunity too to revisit and maybe even rework some of those songs.
Yeah. And we generally do that. We’ll rework some of the songs. We used to tune a lot differently and just for ease of going through the set and setlists, we’ll have to alter some of the songs to a different tuning, but when I see one of my favorite bands play, I want to see – even if I really like the new album – I want to hear a collection of tunes from all of their records. We’re gonna try to do that for our fans.
How do you feel about the way the band has grown? Even Static Tensions to Spiral Shadow is a huge leap in sound.
Yeah, I know (laughs). It’s hard to explain. I don’t think a lot of it is super-conscious. I mean, it’s obvious if you listen to our band that we’re fans of different kinds of music and lots of different kinds of music. Different things filter in and out over the years. What I’m into now is a little bit different than what I was into 10 years ago. Even though I still keep those influences under my belt. But yeah, there was about a two-year period between the writing of Static Tensions and the writing of Spiral Shadow. Even if the release dates are pretty close together, the actual writing period is a decent amount of time. Two years is enough time to grow and change and want to try new things.
(Laughs) But that doesn’t mean that our next… The thing with our band is that when we started, we made this pact, Phillip, Brian [Duke] and I did, about wanting to play heavy music, play in a heavy band, but not within the confines of any specific genre. Even if we kind of started out in the sludge and the punk scene, we knew that our influences were within that scene, but also outside of that scene, and we wanted to incorporate as many ideas and experiments as we wanted to. For me, a big part of joining up with those guys and playing with those guys, is that, “Okay, cool, we can start a band together, play heavy music, but if I want to throw in a surf lead or something totally out of the blue, it’s okay to try and we can try it out and we can include it.” That reflects in our records. They tend to be all over the place sometimes as far as if you’re trying to pinpoint a specific genre or influence.
At the same time, going into Spiral Shadow, was there an intent to bring out the melody more and maybe a more progressive side of things?
Yeah. It’s something that Phil and I had talked about for a while. We love aggressive music, and I love Static Tensions – it’s definitely one of my favorite records that we’ve done – but it was still fairly aggressive overall. Also, with the recording, and I know that personally, I wanted to delve into more mellow or psychedelic territory and more melodic guitar parts and vocal parts. And Phillip was on the same page.
It seems like a lot when into the vocal arrangements between you and Phillip. How did that process get sorted out? You’ve played off each other before too, but it seems like it really became a central focus on this album.
Most of that happened – well, all of it, really – happened in the studio. The songs were done first, and then we each had vocal parts that we had written out, and we would lay some of the tracks down and it would be apparent that, “Okay, I think you should sing here, you should sing here, let’s try this,” and we just approached it that way and did some experimenting. “Okay, it would be cool if you did some backing vocals here,” and that sort of thing. Once the songs came together in the studio, it was easier to envision what the vocals should do and where they should be and how they should sound. Although, the majority of the vocal melodies were written before the studio.
To be able to say, “I think you should do this,” or “We should have this here,” and that kind of thing – that seems like dangerous ground to walk on. I imagine a situation where anyone has any sort of ego whatsoever and that turns into “fuck you” really quickly.
(Laughs) It’s not always a perfect scenario in the studio, that’s for sure, but it works out overall. I guess most of it was worked out before the studio, but some last-minute additions were done in the studio. I know for the song “Don’t Look Back,” I was walking through and Phillip said, “Can you do some backups here?” and I just went to the mic and did it, and we moved them around and then I was like, “Well, let me also try this part here, let me try something real quick,” because I had an idea in mind on the fly and we tried it and it sounded good. It’s stuff like that too that happens in the studio that isn’t necessarily always planned that can be magic. And it happens on guitar and the other instruments as well, those unexpected accidents and surprises which are fun.
I’m glad you mentioned “Don’t Look Back.” That’s one of my favorite songs on the record. That and the title track really surprised me. The whole change in sound was cool to hear, but especially those tracks, it seems like on a songwriting level, you guys are really stepping it up.
Thank you very much. Our aim is to write good songs, no matter what kind of songs they are, but we want them to still sound like Kylesa as well. The goal with this record was to write a more pulsating, breathing record, with lots of peaks and valleys, and one that has good songs. At the end of the day, the song has to be good, and we want it to be memorable. We were talking about all of our favorite songs from the past and our favorite bands and stuff we were listening to, and what’s important is the song and the hook, whether it’s a vocal hook or a guitar hook.
Certainly “Don’t Look Back” has that going for it.
Yeah (laughs). I wouldn’t want to write an entire album with just songs like that, but it was fun to do a song like that as well. It’s just fun to be self-indulgent and trip out to.
Tell me about signing to Season of Mist.
We were ready for a change, and they were one of the labels we had been talking to. It was fairly simple. We liked that they had a diverse roster, that it was metal and rock, it wasn’t just a certain kind of metal. We liked that they’ve got good European distribution, being that they’re over there. We tour a lot in Europe. And we liked the guy that handles all their stuff in the US [Chris “Pellet” Pelletier]. We’ve known for a while, and so we felt comfortable with him and with them and what they had to offer, so that’s where we went.
And you’re back in Europe next month, in February.
Yeah, right in time to freeze.
Touring the northeast US in January and Europe and February…
Yeah, I know. I’m like, “God, I don’t want to go to Germany in February.” Nothing against Germany, it’s just fucking cold. Then from Europe – this is gonna be a shock to the system – we’re flying to New Zealand and Australia, which is the opposite climate entirely.
Wow. You are going to get a wicked cold.
I know. I’m going to have to pack accordingly and prepare to get sick immediately. I’m gonna load up on vitamins and ecinachia and water, vitamin C.
What else is planned for this year?
When we get back from Australia, it’ll be springtime over here, and we’ll do a West Coast US tour and hit the rest of the country. Then I know we’re doing stuff through the summer. I think we’re gonna go back to Europe at the beginning of the summer and just play festivals. And we’ll play some festivals here too. I know we’re doing Bonnaroo, which should be killer.
You’re gonna blow some hippie minds.
We were at the Moog factory in Asheville the day after we played there. They have this sound lab, and we basically set up in their sound lab and hooked up all of their gear and recorded one of our new songs, and just really tripped it out. Now that’s gonna blow some hippie minds. It’s super-trippy. Hopefully we’ll get the recording for that pretty soon, but that was super-fun to do. It’s just a slowed-down version of “Distance Closing In,” and we used a Moog Voyager on it. I had a bunch of their pedals. Phillip was using one of their guitars and he had some effects going. We used a theremin. Had a ring modulator and a delay going through our vocals. It’s just really trippy. It sounds cool. Super-fun (laughs). If the recording comes out good, we’ll release it on a 7” or something.
Is there any time set aside for writing new stuff this year, or is it all touring?
It’s all about touring this year, and next year we’re gonna take some time off to write and not put a time limit on it. I feel like we’re always short on time because we have to set these deadlines, and we’re just not gonna set one for the next record and really put in the proper amount of time, whatever it takes to write the perfect Kylesa record. This year we’re busy just touring, and we’ve decided the following year we’ll take some time off. Plus, we’ve got a lot of projects we want to do that are so hard to do when you’re touring all the time. We’ve pretty much been a band for 10 years at this point, in 2011, so we want to get together a special 10-year anniversary box set of sorts. We’re toying with different ideas of what to do with that. We want to get a DVD together, we want to record a live record. There’s all kinds of stuff we want to do. Stuff that we need time off of the road to accomplish.
Tags: Georgia, Kylesa, Savannah, Season of Mist