“We want it to be a continuation, to be all connected, even if it is different each time.”
As far as current metal bands go, you can’t do much better than Kylesa. They’re approaching veteran status without ever seeming old, and there’s no better indication of this than how good their new, and 7th, studio album, Exhausting Fire, is. Maybe I’ll end up reviewing it, or maybe I’ll just let you know right now that it’s very, very good, and quite possibly my favorite album of theirs since 2009’s Static Tensions. They’re an endlessly inventive band, founded on all things heavy but constantly expanding their vision to include a vast emotional depth, perpetually resourceful studio experimentation, and an absolutely stunning live show. Moreover, they’ve recently expanded their operations to include their very own, independently run record label, Retro Futurist Records, which in little over a year has already put out an impressive string of records from young, hitherto undiscovered bands with huge potential. This is a band whose output and work ethic I have the utmost reverence for, and so it was nothing short of an honor to spend some time talking to founding member Phillip Cope about the new record, what’s in store for the label, and the philosophical underpinnings of the Kylesa/Retro Futurist dynasty.
I’ve read elsewhere that Ultravoilet was an album that dealt heavily with the idea of loss, and that, thematically, this new album is centered more on the idea of rebuilding. What is it about this kind of album-by-album, thematic approach that appeals to you guys as a band, or as songwriters?
It helps us when we’re writing, to have something to focus on. We don’t always write together, you know, sometimes Laura’s off writing things on her own, or I’m writing things on my own, so when we’re bringing the material together it helps us to have a theme to follow, especially lyrically.
So you kind of make sure you’re on the same page from the get-to, and just let things fall into place. Has that been the approach since the beginning, or was that something that developed?
We started that during Static Tensions, but we noticed it even before we were consciously doing it, it was coming out that way anyways. I would say that To Walk [a Middle Course] and Time [Will Fuse its Worth] have their own themes as well. Laura and I have been pretty good about being on the same page, lyrically; it’s almost kind of strange how well it’s worked out. We’ll both write about things and not even know the other was writing about it. But we really found that the theme worked overall with giving each album its own vibe, which we think is important. We don’t want to keep making the same album over and over.
It’s kind of weird, because there are certain things that we’ll do on each album, sonically, that will be a new idea, and sometimes we’ll take that sound on the next album and develop it further. With this album it seemed that the more…I don’t want to say “mellow”…
Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. There were more of those songs this time around. I feel it fits, because in a way we were transitioning from a really heavy period, and we weren’t quite out of it yet, but we were trying to look forward as well, and one of the things that we did with this album, if you noticed, it starts more with the dreamy kind of stuff, and by the end it starts picking up. It’s kind of like finding your way through it all and trying to come out at the other end.
Yeah, that’s something I definitely wanted to ask about. What strikes me about this album – what I really like about this album – is I think it does a really good job of being on the one hand a step forward, but also a kind of culmination of your earlier catalogue. It does bring to mind moments on Time Will Fuse its Worth, for example, even though it does sound very much like it’s moving forward. Is it difficult to strike such a good balance between making progress and still being able to look back a bit?
It’s not really difficult for us. The thing is, no matter what we do, there are always going to be older fans that aren’t happy with where we’re going, but we really do appreciate the people who supported us, and who liked our music in the past, and we don’t want to just abandon that. We want it to be a continuation, to be all connected, even if it is different each time. A lot of that is conscious, and it’s not that hard, because it’s all a continuation for us as songwriters. I might really like something that we did back then, and want to do a different version of it, just change it up and try it a different way.
But it sounds like it’s very much organic for you guys.
Right. For example, “Moving Day” is actually the third song in a trilogy that started on Spiral Shadow. The first was “Dust”, and then “Low Tide” from Ultraviolet, and this is the third and final song. So we’ve started doing things like that as well, bringing certain ideas that started on another album and continuing them as we go. Being that “Moving Day” is the third in that trilogy, I probably won’t write a song like that again. It’s over, those kind of weird gothy songs [laughs]. That had a definite end. And also lyrically with “Moving Day”, there are a few nods to “Don’t Look Back”. So if somebody’s been listening for a long time, and listening to all the albums, and paying enough attention, you’ll definitely notice little things like that
So we’ve mentioned that there’s been an overall lessening of how heavy, or at least how abrasive, the albums have been. I feel like that’s happened to a lot of bands, it’s a natural progression in a lot of cases. But I also feel like a lot of those bands will still use live performances as a chance to stay heavy and rock out. I did get that from seeing you guys at Vitus last year, and I was really impressed with how powerful and forceful everything sounded. Has the way you perform live had to adapt at all as your sound has developed?
Sure. We’ve had to figure out how to take some of these new ideas and make them work live. The main thing is vibe. It’s like putting together a mixtape, when you’re going through all these songs. That’s something we feel is really important. Just like not dropping the back catalogue too much. I understand how it is, as a fan of other bands. Not every record is going to hit. There’s going to be that record that hits you at the right place at the right time, and if you’re a fan of that, when you go see a band you want to hear the songs that you like. So that’s the one thing we try to do; no matter where we go, if you come see us live, we’re still going to bring something back from our past.
It’s funny you say that, because Static Tensions is my personal favorite album, and I definitely left that concert saying, “Man, I’m so happy they played a good handful of songs off of Static Tensions”. I felt like it was catered to me. But as far as I know, every fan who liked Spiral Shadow might have left saying the same exact thing.
Right, and it’s definitely a conscious effort to do that. We don’t do too much off of the very early stuff, like the first album, which has been out of print for a long time, so a lot of people don’t know that material, and we usually only have about an hour. We have seven albums, and all the other songs, so we can’t get to them all, but we try to hit pretty heavy at least on the back three to four albums. So getting back to your question, it can be difficult sometimes. Like “Don’t Look Back”; that was a favorite for a lot of people, but it’s so much different from our other songs, so when you try to put some of these songs that people ended up liking next to other ones that other people like, it can be tricky. So a lot of times when we’re putting together a set, we’ll have to change things here and there. But live it’s heavy. We’re a heavy band. Even when we make records that aren’t as heavy as others, the overall vibe of what we do is definitely rooted in heavy music. So live, that’s just what it’s going to be, it’s going to be heavy. You can’t really capture that huge, massive wall of sound, and that volume, on a record. They’re just two different entities.
Well I hoped we could talk about Retro Futurist a bit, which is obviously the record label that you run along with the other core members of Kylesa. Was that something you had always aspired to do, or did it just make sense at that point in your career?
It was something that we’d been wanting to do very early on, but it just wasn’t feasible. But we were finally getting to the point where we said, “ok, maybe we can pull this off.” Of course it happened to be about the worst time ever to start a label, but we just said we’d keep it small, not try to get too big or anything, and so far we’ve managed to make it work.
Do you eventually want to use the label to put out your own records?
Maybe. Honestly, running a label has made me appreciate so much more all the work it takes to put out a record. We’re dealing with small, younger bands. At this point, to put out a Kylesa album would be so much work. I mean, Season of Mist has a whole staff, and they all do a really good job at what they do, and there’s just way more of them than there are of us, and they can do a better job of it than we can do. Retro Futurist is, right now, really just us, the band. So it makes more sense to have a bigger team behind us, but I wouldn’t say we won’t ever do it.
One of the albums you guys put out was the Lazer/Wulf album, which I reviewed, and I was so impressed with that album. Then, when those guys were in town I had the chance to talk to them. Some of the nicest guys I’ve ever met, and they had great things to say about what you had done to support them. I got the whole story about how you basically found them playing some small party in a basement, and just said, “Hey, I love your music, let’s make something happen.” I feel like bands usually have this impression that if they want to get signed, a label needs to see that they already have a big following, can already self-promote, etc. But in this case it seemed like you saw this as a band with artistic potential, regardless of their status or fanbase at the time. Is that indicative of a kind of larger philosophy behind this label and how it operates?
So far, yeah. And in Lazer/Wulf’s case, it worked out. When I first saw them, I just said to myself that this is a shame, they should be playing to so many more people, and people would be into this. And at first, it was just really that I wanted to help them out in the studio, and so I produced their album, and then when it came time to look for a label, we said, why don’t we just put it out. And it worked out, because I happened to be right on that one, and now people are excited about that band just like I was. So we do kind of have that approach; if we see a band and they’re blowing us away, we say there’s got to be other people who will like it too.
And maybe with a smaller label you’re able to take risks like that. You might have a bit more freedom to know that it’s not always going to work out, but if you take a chance on a band that you believe in, they very well could be that next band that people are more and more excited to see.
Right, but it definitely doesn’t always work out in our favor. We had a band that broke up literally a few weeks after their album came out. So, nobody had heard of them yet, and we put out an album by a band that nobody will [laughs]. So it’s definitely a risk, and I totally understand why other labels would prefer to work with bands that have already started making a name for themselves. From a business point of view it just makes a lot more sense. But we wanted to try to do something different. With my producing, one thing I’ve noticed with a lot of bands – and a lot of the bands I’ve worked with, I’ve worked with multiple times – you get a certain energy from a band when they’re fresh, when they’re just starting out. But I’ve noticed that a lot of bands have to really bust their ass for years before anyone wants to put out their record. And that’s changing a bit now, you notice a lot more bands just doing their own labels, or you see more smaller labels popping up. But yeah, at the time that’s how it felt, just that I wanted to grab some of these bands and get their first, energetic record.
With metal, or heavy music, or whatever you want to call it, it can definitely feel kind of like an isolated world, but it seems like with the label you guys are branching out a bit with the kind of bands you sign and their respective genres. I mean they’re all gonna be more or less heavy, but they don’t all feel like metal bands. Has there been a conscious effort to blur some of those boundaries?
I’m not trying to blur boundaries. I just think it makes sense that the label is a lot like how we are as a band. We’re into all kinds of music, and we’ve always been influenced by different genres, so it just makes sense that we’re also putting out different kinds of music. We don’t want to just be this niche label where it’s only going to be stoner metal or something. We like stoner metal, but we like other stuff too. So we’re really just looking for bands who seem like they have a good work ethic, good energy, and talent. That’s the one thing that I think has connected all of our bands. For a brand new label, starting right out of the gate, I think all of our bands are very talented. They’re really good musicians. Pretty much everybody we’ve signed, I’d say that as individuals they’re great musicians, and over time they’re going to do really well.