Kylesa: The Hellbound Interview

By Kyle Harcott

On Thursday, December 2nd, Kylesa recently spent a chilly, drizzly night here in Vancouver, playing the Media Club on one night of a two-date Pacific Northwest jaunt, in support of this year’s massive Spiral Shadow album. Before the show, I had the good fortune to sit down with Phillip Cope and Laura Pleasants to discuss the album, ‘The Hit’, and the road.

HELLBOUND: The prevailing theme behind the songs on Spiral Shadow is that of ‘distance’. Was this a theme you had conceived prior to writing the songs for the album?

PHILLIP COPE: Not [when we were writing] the music. We were about halfway through writing [the music] -maybe a little more- and we were getting to the point where we needed to start writing lyrics and [the theme] just kind of… [Interruption by venue bouncer passing out wristbands] This isn’t going to be easy, is it? [laughs]

No worries, it’s all good. You were saying the theme was formed after you started writing the music?

PC: When we started to get into the lyric-writing, that’s when I was thinking back and got the whole overview of [the ‘distance’ concept]; I talked to Laura about it and she agreed that theme seemed to fit with what she was thinking. From there we started basing the lyrics [on the theme], for the most part.

LAURA PLEASANTS: Well [the concept] kind of ties into the music, in that we were talking about how we’ve been a band for almost ten years, and we were putting out the music we wanted to write. And the theme of distance can go [along] with the miles we’ve traveled as a band -that is, the distance we’ve physically traveled- and then the [emotional] distance we’ve traveled as musicians, and as people – where we’ve gone; what we’ve been through; what we’ve done, and where we’re going.

PC: For some of my lyrics I was strictly basing them on [themes within] the band…

LP: It can also tie into where we are and what we were doing at that time. I didn’t write about [the fact] that we’ve been a band for ten years literally, but it all ties in together.

HB: Did you guys have any lyrics written before you decided on the concept of distance as a skeleton for the album?

PC: Yeah, that’s kind of what helped me think of the theme. The first song I wrote lyrics for, I was just thinking back on, just basically battling with depression, years of battling with it, and finally feeling like I was getting to a place where I getting a grip on it. And that kind of spiraled into thinking more like, ‘Okay, it’d be cool to base each song [on the album] on a different meaning of distance’.

Was Spiral Shadow the first album you set out to write with a particular theme in mind?

PC: Definitely – but Laura noticed during [the recording of] Static Tensions that there was definitely a common theme of tension on a lot of those songs. So that [theme came about] more indirectly.

LP: [On Static Tensions] It WAS more indirect; a lot of it had to do more with our surroundings, and what was happening in our lives [at the time]. But the more Philip & I talked about the lyrics, the more they circled around some central motifs. But yes, with Spiral Shadow, [our lyrics were] more directed toward a certain theme.

There’s a marked, early-‘90s, indie-rock influence on “Don’t Look Back”. While everybody’s been talking about influences like Pixies and Built To Spill, I’d actually like to know about some of your lesser-known favorite albums from this era/genre…

LP: It’s easy, when people are reading interviews or asking us stuff, to mention bands [who influenced us]. But with us, it’s not really one particular band, or two – it’s a whole conglomerate of different bands and sounds. So yeah, I WAS listening to the new Built to Spill record [at the time], ‘cos I liked it -I was jamming it a lot- but I don’t think it directly influenced me [as far as] writing a particular song. That said, though – Phillip & I have been listening to the Pixies for years.

PC: We had, both of us, separately, on our own, [recently] watched the Pixies documentary [LoudQUIETloud], and…

LP: …And were both quite moved by it.

PC: But the thing is, we didn’t, like, have a discussion about ‘Oh, let’s write a song that sounds like the Pixies’. You know, it was more like ‘I’m gonna put this melody line over the song here’. I remember when it really first got noticed, that “Don’t Look Back” sounded like the Pixies…

LP: …I thought of that immediately, right away, I was like ‘This sounds like the Pixies to me.’

PC: …More and more people were saying it to me [in the studio], and it got to the point where I was like, ‘Well, do I not do it? Or do I just go for it?’ We were thinking about it at the studio, and had a discussion with a few people and it was like, well – the idea’s in place. We can either half-ass the idea or just go for it – and that was when Laura came in with her vocals [for the song], and we started really thinking about what would sound good here and there. So, yeah, it came out kinda Pixies sounding, but it really wasn’t…

LP: …It wasn’t like, super-planned or anything, you know?

It was completely organic.

PC: Yeah. It was kind of one of those things that just happened.

LP: I DID go back to a lot of stuff that I used to listen to in the early ‘90s, and maybe hadn’t listened to as much in recent years. I went back to stuff like Soundgarden, they were definitely a big one for me. And Alice in Chains, especially since they recently put out a new record. It kinda sparked interest in me to check out their new record, and then return to their old records. I remembered how much I enjoyed them as a youth.

PC: A lot of it for me was music that wasn’t really in MY mind that much, but more and more people around me were listening to stuff from that time, and I hadn’t really revisited it in a while. Somebody would be playing something in a club, and I’d be like ‘God, I forgot about that Pavement record, that record ruled!’ and [then I’d] go back and listen to it. It just seemed like a lot of people around [me] were revisiting that music too, so it made me think about going back to a lot of it; I fell in love with all that stuff [again].

LP: But just as much as I was listening to [indie-rock] at the time [in the early’90s], I was also listening to Judas Priest and, like, weird folk bands from the ‘60s – [my tastes were] just all over the place. I was obsessed with this artist called Rodriguez and his record, Cold Fact – but at the same time, I was also pretty obsessed with early Judas Priest.

PC: [to Laura] Yeah, I remember you turning me on to that Rodriguez album… [Our tastes] really still are all the over the map… [Spiral Shadow] wasn’t our “indie, ‘90s rock” album. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not directing that towards you, [it’s just] some other people have said that [about the album]. A lot of people have picked on that one influence. It seems like everybody’s picking “Don’t Look Back” and saying, ‘Oh, they’re doing this [type of music] now’. It’s one song! I mean, if you listen to some of these other songs [on the album], there’s some way different stuff [going on], it’s not all… indie-rock.

But isn’t a lot of that knee-jerk reaction just people being shocked by the direction that “Don’t Look Back” takes? It’s way different than anything you guys have done before.

LP: Sure, I think so. I think people were like ‘Whoa, that’s outta left field’.

PC: Right – but it’s ONE song, you know? It’s not like the band went completely in a whole new direction!

Phillip, you were saying that as you were writing the song in the studio, you had a moment where you were unsure, deciding whether or not to go for it or to pull it back. What kind of response were you expecting to the song?

PC: Exactly what the response was. I just didn’t think people would decide ‘Oh, now Kylesa’s going in [an indie-rock] direction!’ Because it wasn’t done as a direction; it was just, ‘Let’s put a different idea in a song.’

One piece in the puzzle.

Both: Right.

The album’s all over the map.

PC: Sure, there’ still a lot of very heavy, very brutal stuff on there; whereas some [bands], when they find a new direction, they go all the way in that direction, and don’t find a way to fit their past into it. I think we were very conscious of making sure our past fit into whatever new direction we moved in.

I’m surprised to hear that responses to the record have been divided.

PC: Yeah. Some people… Well, it’s been a little much for them. But overall, the response has been great.

LP: Especially because… I just remember being at the practice space, early on and writing some songs, and realizing how different they were sounding. And being a little unsure as to how it was going, and where it was gonna end up. Especially since Static Tensions had just come out, people were still checking that record out. So it was like ‘Well, this is definitely NOT Static Tensions Part II’, but [these new ideas] could go one of two ways…

PC: We were conscious of the risks [we were taking] – we realized that there was a risk to it. But Static Tensions came about naturally, and this album came about naturally. We didn’t foresee the attention this was gonna get – I mean, we really didn’t expect it. We’re proud of it, and we’re stoked on it, but we didn’t know it was gonna take off the way that it did. So you just don’t know – you just have to write it, put it out, and see what happens.

I got the advance early, a couple of months before the album came out, and I’ve got to admit – when I first heard the “Don’t Look Back”, I thought it sounded like some obscure track out of a John Hughes movie.

[both laugh]

LP: Wow. That’s cool.

PC: That don’t bother me, actually…

LP: That doesn’t bother me either…

Please don’t get me wrong, that’s meant as a compliment – the song’s so inspirational, and those hooks are massive. It sounded to me like it could have come off the Some Kind of Wonderful soundtrack, or The Breakfast Club.

PC: Right on.

LP: That’s pretty cool. Since you’re bringing that up, I think Spiral Shadow is a very visual record. While we were practicing in the studio, that record -more than any of our other records- just sparked lots of visuals for me when I was listening to it. Like, specific images. And if music can do that, I think it’s a good thing.

PC: I know personally, the early creative part of that album, was the most rewarding [time] for me – of any of the albums…

LP: Me too, by far.

PC: I didn’t feel any pressure. I didn’t feel anything other than the creative spark. And I know we all felt that way I felt.

LP: I felt really happy writing the songs.

PC: There’s a certain amount of freedom we gave ourselves on this record. I’m glad a lot of people like it.

Did the recording process go a lot more smoothly this time, compared to past albums?

PC: No – it never does [both laugh]. It started out smooth… it started out really exciting! [But] a lot of our ideas were still ‘in theory’ [at the time] and we couldn’t really put them into motion until we got into the studio. So it was really cool getting to hear some of these things [take shape]. But because of the very creative nature [of building this album], it also meant time moved way faster than we would have liked. I think we spent a little too much time being creative in the beginning – and then when it came time to put it all together, it was a monster of a record, and I was like ‘Oh shit, I need about three to four months to do this. And I have two weeks!’

I was just going to ask you what your timeline was in the studio.

PC: It was actually ten days. And I really didn’t have a choice, because we had a long tour to do, and I had to meet the deadline for Season Of Mist – which we didn’t meet [anyway]. But they were thankfully cool enough to give us the extra time we needed to get the album at least to where we could live with it. I would love to go back, if the money was ever there, I would love to have four months to go back, pull all those tracks up again, and mix it again [laughs] – because it would be an even crazier record than it is, if we had time to really mess with it.

You guys have been pretty much on the road nonstop since Static Tensions came out?

PC: A lot.

LP : [Sighs] It… gets blurry. Once Static Tensions dropped, we sat on that record for a while until… [to Phillip] There was a good period of… I was home a lot, because I was with my mom. I was there for, like, three months.

PC: I know that right before Static Tensions came out, we did the Amebix tour…

LP: Yeah, once 2009 hit, we really started touring. But we recorded Static Tensions [during the] summer of ’08. So, once 2009 hit, we hit the road. And then we didn’t really stop until… Christmas time?

PC: We haven’t really stopped at all. We’ve been going pretty heavy since…

LP: And then we took the time off to write and record Spiral Shadow. I mean- we were busy but we weren’t playing shows [at that time].

PC: Yeah- we’ve had [mostly] no time off for years, we’ve just been going [nonstop].

How much time did you guys take off to write Spiral Shadow?

Both: Three months.

Three months to write and then right into the studio for ten days?

PC: Yeah, but it wasn’t all back-to-back…

LP: We did a tour…

PC: …in between the three months.

LP: …Which, in hindsight, was not the best idea. We started writing in December/January, and then we committed ourselves to this tour in April, but we weren’t finished writing. We were very close but we weren’t finished. And so we came back in may, had a few weeks to finish up [writing], and then we went in the studio May 31, and..

PC: [laughing] …then we went straight back out on tour!

LP: Yeah, then July 5th rolled around and we went [back] on tour. [to Philip] You pretty much got back from the jam room and then…

PC: …got on a plane.

LP: We went to Europe. And then we were sending mp3s back and forth, listening to [tracks] on the headphones. We had some time off in August but not much, like 2 or 3 weeks,

And when do you guys go to Australia?

LP: [to Philip] End of February, right?

PC: Right, but we have more shows coming up between now and then. We stay busy. This year’s gonna be insane.

Being on the road for the last two straight years, what are some of the highlights of such a grueling tour schedule?

PC: Too many to name.

LP; I think some of my highlights were… We’ve been really lucky to tour with some of the bands we really like, and been the part of some good tours. And we hit Europe really hard for the first time [this year]… I mean like, really hard. And that was a really great experience.

PC: The festivals over there are the highlights for me, as a fan.

LP: Oh yeah, being from here, [those festivals are] nothing like anything we’ve really experienced before.

PC: Just… being a fan of all different kinds of music. The festivals over there – a lot of them mix it up [the lineups] a lot. I mean, we got to see Gojira and Flaming Lips back-to-back – that was like the greatest thing ever! It was amazing to see both those bands, I’m a huge fan of both of them.

Spiral Shadow is another ‘headphone record in the same way Static Tensions was. The production on both was obviously set up with this in mind, with the drum panning and different guitar effects.

I wanted to know what some of your favorite ‘headphone records’ were to listen to for inspiration.

PC: The first album that really jumped out at me, were I was like ‘Damn! This is a good headphone record!’ was [Radiohead’s] OK Computer

LP: I was just gonna say that!

Both: That’s a killer headphone record.

PC: I’d love to have the time to make a record like that…[laughs] Some other good ones? Flaming Lips stuff is always great on headphones. I really, really like In A Priest-Driven Ambulance – but all their records are good headphone records. Definitely Pink Floyd stuff. A lot of Billy Anderson’s recordings back in the day – the Neurosis albums he did. He would do really cool headphone mixes.

Explain to me a little bit about the process of art direction for your records. You guys had a big hand in directing Santos’ work on this record, right?

PC: This time, yes. But [this time] we were working with an artist who really understands our band. That’s one of the reasons why we chose to work with Santos this time around. He’d been doing t-shirt art for us, for years.

LP: Since 2005, at least.

PC: And it was becoming apparent to us that he really understood our band. Like, he really got it – so he seemed like a perfect choice for this record. We’ve used a different artist for every album – we’ll see if we continue on this way, because I’m really happy working with Santos. I would hate to stop working him because he really nailed it for us.

Did you guys have a hand in directing John Baizley’s art on Static Tensions at all?

PC: A little bit, but not much.

LP: I remember we had a talk on the porch with [John], and then we gave him some of our lyrics. And he took a lot of [his ideas for the album artwork] from our lyrics.

PC: With Santos we had a little more input. I had a basic idea of what I wanted represented [on the album], and Corey [Bathorst, bassist] had the idea of wanting to include op-art somewhere in there. And we just kind of told Santos these things – and he would come back with ‘Well, what do you think about this idea, or about that idea?’ Then he’d start bringing us sketches. It was a longer, much more involved process with Santos. He took his time; it wasn’t like ‘Okay I got your lyrics; see ya in three months’. It was an ongoing process, but when it came out, I was like ‘That’s perfect! That’s exactly how it should be represented!’

Winding down, as we’re sitting here in freezing cold Vancouver backstage in a room we can see our breath in – what do you guys miss most about Savannah when you’re on the road?

LP: [laughs] I was just about to say, the sunny warm weather! And the oak trees.

PC: Yeah, the oak trees there rule.

LP: [The oak trees are] THE thing that represents Savannah to me; the beautiful, old, live oaks.

Lastly, as the year is coming to a close, I’m curious to know what your favorite albums of the year are…

PC: I love that new Ghost record, have you heard it?

LP: It IS good. I just got that recently; it’s real good.

Oh man, I’ve been playing that nonstop. I’m torn – it definitely fits in somewhere in my top three.

PC: It’s inching towards my number one. Every time I listen to it, the better it gets.

LP: The new High On Fire record is really good.

PC: The new Sleepy Sun record is awesome. I also like the new Intronaut record. I could keep going on and on – there was a buch of good stuff that came out this year.

LP: Oh, and the new Black Mountain record.

Black Mountain just did a huge homecoming show here the other night.

LP: That’s cool. Corey and I saw them the day we got back from tour. We took a road trip with a couple of buddies from Savannah and drove to Asheville, North Carolina basically just to see Black Mountain. And they were amazing!

Okay, that’s pretty much all I’ve got. Thanks for coming back to Vancouver!

LP: Thank you! It’s good to be here. We haven’t been here in a quite a while, so…

Have a great show!

Both: Thanks!

Sean Palmerston

Sean is the founder/publisher of Hellbound.ca; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.