Interview: Kylesa

J. Edward Keyes

By J. Edward Keyes

on 05.28.13 in Interviews

If you’re looking for a mythical metaphor to sum up the sound of Georgia hard rock band Kylesa, you could do worse than Scylla and Charybdis. Wait, hear me out: Scylla is a six-headed sea monster, snapping sea travelers with its mighty teeth. That one’s Philip Cope, the group’s guitarist and vocalist whose frenzied bark and snarl provide the clearest links back to the group’s metal roots. Charybdis is a whirlpool, spiraling slowly and hypnotically, its placid surface deceptively masking its devastating force. That’s Laura Pleasants, the group’s other guitarist and vocalist, whose ghostly wail — of which there is a whole lot more on Ultraviolet, the group’s sixth and best album — circles the songs’ stormy centers, calmly pulling all ships to destructive ends.

That push-and-pull extends to the group’s entire aesthetic, which navigates nimbly between metal’s rough edges and the aqueous surge of psychedelia. 2010′s Spiral Shadow earned critical plaudits for expanding the group’s sonic palette (at the cost of alienating their older fans), but Ultraviolet is braver still. Even its most brutal moments are gifted with rich detail: The pinwheeling guitars in “Unspoken” glisten eerily; “Low Tide” ¬is built around dead-eyed zombie-monk chanting and on “Vulture’s Landing” Pleasants pitches her voice up to a chilling high register — a pre-school witch singing black magic on the playground. It’s a nervy, multilayered record, one that incorporates its disparate influences rather than being defined by them.

eMusic Editor-in-Chief J. Edward Keyes talked with Pleasants and Cope about spirituality, psychedelia and the passing of Pleasants’s mother.

I loved Spiral Shadow, but listening to it now, it almost feels like a transitional record taking you from Static Tensions into Ultraviolet. What were some things you learned while making that record that you wanted to carry into this one?

Philip Cope: One of the things we tried with Spiral Shadow that was new for us was not just setting [guitar] tones for a particular song and then leaving them for the whole song. We would switch up tones with each riff in the song. And that was the first time we’d ever done anything like that. Looking back on it, I see some places that were successful and some places where I’m like, “We didn’t totally understand what we were doing yet.” With Ultraviolet, we had that practice. I think it’s interesting to be able to put several [different] vibes within the same song. It just makes it more interesting to listen to.

Laura Pleasants: On the production end of things, I think Philip has learned a lot in the past couple of years. So in that respect, this record is leaps and bounds better than the last. The way we did Spiral Shadow, just the recording process, was not my favorite. It was kind of crazy and disorganized, whereas this was more focused and efficient and was just a better overall experience. As far as the material, I think we got our feet wet with some ideas on Static Tensions and we explored those a little more on Spiral Shadow, and I think they were fully realized on Ultraviolet.

Which ideas are those?

Pleasants: The cleaner singing, some of the trippy elements, that sort of thing. As far as us writing heavy stuff, we know how to do that at this point. We can bring that back whenever. But the other aspects of our songwriting we wanted to expand and explore a bit more. And I think with our next album, it will be even more fully realized. I think with the next one, it’ll be like, “OK, after all these years of experimenting, we have our formula.”

Cope: I think on this record, at least for myself, fear just wasn’t there. We just went for it. At this point, we’ve had such a rough few years, we were like, “What have we got to lose now? Let’s just do what we want how we want to do it.” And so I, personally, didn’t have many fears. If I had, I wouldn’t have put out a song like “Low Tide.”

That song feels like the centerpiece of the record to me.

Cope: It was just us wanting to do something different. I’ve been screaming [in songs] for years, but I have a decent singing voice. That song was a real personal song to me, and I didn’t feel like screaming it, so I just decided to sing it.

It seems to get at the idea of impermanence — the lyrics are “It’s on again/it’s off again.”

Cope: It’s just based on how my life has been. It’s been real up and down. I’ve had on-again/off-again relationships with people that are close to me. My health has been up and down. And I’ve always kind of enjoyed listening to depressing music — I have no problem wallowing in depression sometimes. It suits me just fine.

Laura, you said in an interview that your aim with Spiral Shadow was to write a “pulsating, breathing” record. What was the goal with Ultraviolet?

Pleasants: I’m kind of fixated on feeling trancelike when listening to a lot of music — especially with the more mellow electronic stuff that I listen to. And so with this record, I wanted to be able to see it — not just to feel it, but to see it. I wanted to evoke a vibe and an energy that the listener could grab a hold of. I tend think about music in visual terms, especially the more ethereal kinds of things.

So are there particular colors you associate with the records?

Pleasants: Yeah. I think Spiral Shadow was a lot warmer. I think this one is a lot cooler.

You know, that kind of leads into my next question. The lyrics on this record are pretty dark, yet the record itself is called Ultraviolet — which I associate with brightness. How do you reconcile the two ideas?

Pleasants: well, the idea of ultraviolet light — you can’t even see it, really, but you know it’s there. It’s among us, it’s an energy field, but it’s beyond what we can see. So it’s getting at this idea of something that is in our lives, and something we know is there, but we can’t reach it. We can’t tangibly hold it or cradle it.

Do you mean that in a spiritual way?

Pleasants: Somewhat. In an abstract spiritual way, maybe.

Cope: I mean, I wouldn’t be doing what I do now if I wasn’t reaching for something more — even if I don’t know exactly what that is. Every time we work on an album, I’m not 100 percent sure what we’re trying to do, I’m just going out there doing it. It’s hard to explain. Because I don’t believe in any particular religion — and I think for other people, religion gives them the reasons to go through the things they have to go through, and the strength to get through it. So if you don’t have that, you need something, or life gets pretty depressing. So I want to believe that there’s some reason for it all, I just don’t know what it is.

You’ve said that the last record dealt with the idea of “distance,” and this one deals with the idea of “loss.” What do you think you like about thinking about records thematically?

Cope: It helps with writing lyrics — especially because Laura and I write our own lyrics. It helps us to stay on a path and have something that makes sense. I think it helps having one idea that you want to vibe for the whole album. Instead of putting just a bunch of songs on an album, it gives the album a particular mood.

Pleasants: I’m best when I hyper-focus on something. And it was a heavy couple of years for me personally and for Philip personally, and I just knew that this record was going to revolve around certain things for me, lyrically. Musically, it can run the gamut a little more. All of our records haven’t been themed around central motifs, but the last few have. We may do it this way the next time or we may not. It has to do with where we’re at during that time in our lives when we’re writing.

Which aspects of loss were you most focused on?

Pleasants: I had lost some close family members in a short period of time. When that happens, there’s kind of a domino effect of other things happening. So I was concentrating a lot and thinking a lot and feeling a lot, and so I was ready to explore those feelings. It was a catharsis for me.

As you start to explore those ideas, do you struggle with being too open or too revealing?

Pleasants: Yeah, definitely. I think a lot about it. In the past I didn’t want to open myself up to that vulnerability, so I’ve been very abstract. I’ve opened up in recent years, but it’s still not so literal that you can’t take something else out of it. For this particular record and the last record, I have been more literal and linear in my lyrics than ever.

I feel like you can really see that in “Unspoken” — “My own heart has failed me/ you looked the other way.”

Pleasants: Yeah, that was about a very specific event.

Has the person it’s about heard it yet?

Pleasants: The person has heard it. I don’t know if he knows it’s about him. It’s actually about my twin brother. It was tough — I was really, really sad about this difficulty that he and I went through. It’s been resolved, but it was a hard time in both of our lives. We have not spoken about this song, but I think that we probably will. He hasn’t directed any commentary to me about it.

Do you find it easier to deal with confrontation in song?

Pleasants: Yeah! I’m horrible at confrontation — especially verbal confrontation. I’m really bad at it. So it’s much easier to deal with it in this way. But I’m learning. As a grown-ass woman, I’m learning.

The first line of the record is, “Watching your back, detractors everywhere.” It almost feels like a little summary of the last few years in the life of the band.

Cope: That line could describe the whole history of the band. There’s always going to be people out there that try to push you down or make you feel like what you’re doing isn’t worthwhile, or what you’re doing is not as good as it should be. There’s always going to be someone out there that’s not with you.

How conscious are you of trying to satisfy those expectations?

Cope: We’re a little conscious of it. We don’t want to put out records that will alienate the people who got us to where we are now. We’ve been very lucky to even be able to make six records, and we’ve had people supporting us every step of the way. We don’t want to say, “Well, screw all those people, we’re going to do what we want and they can like it or not.” We know where we came from and how we’ve gotten to where we are, and there’s a certain amount of respect that we have for that. Even though sometimes we may go, “OK, this is getting kind of weird,” in the back of our head we won’t push it so far that people who like what we’ve done so far can’t relate to it at all.

Laura, your vocal presence is a lot more pronounced on this record than on previous records. Are there any moments you were particularly proud of?

Pleasants: There are moments on the record that are special to me for personal reasons. But I do think my vocals overall sound a lot better than they ever have, and I think that has to do with me singing a lot more over the last couple years — whether it’s singing around the house or on tour. I’m more comfortable with my own range and my own voice than I ever have been in the past. You have to understand: I never set out to be a singer. It never really interested me that much. It wasn’t really until recent years that I was like, “OK, I need to step it up a little bit.”

I feel like you can really hear that in “Vulture’s Landing,” the contrast between the sweetness of your voice and the kind of bleak, turbulent music.

Cope: [Drummer]Eric [Hernandez] wrote the riff for that, and the thing we found strange about it was that it sounded like older Kylesa. So we let him play his parts on it and get it where he wanted it, and Laura came in with her part. People are either gonna love me or hate me for this, but I kinda talked her into going a little higher register than she normally does with her vocals. I just thought it fit, and it gave the song a different vibe than what we normally do. If we had just screamed over it, it would have just sounded like an older song. This way, it’s like taking something from our past and adding something new to it.

Pleasants: It was a cool idea to contrast that with the heaviness of the music — especially that song, since it has its dirgey, noise-rocky moments but then it has this higher-pitched female voice.

Another moment to me that feels really brave and really different for you guys is “Drifting.” It’s such a gorgeous, textured song.

Pleasants: That song is really simple. It’s literally just three chords. But that came about because… [pauses] I haven’t told many people this, but my mom was really sick. She had cancer, and me and my brothers moved back home. They took leave from work, my brother moved from California and quit his job, I took leave from the band. And we went home. And we were just hanging out with her, helping her, spending time with her. And she was in bed one day, and I just kind of strolled in and I was strumming on this guitar and humming to her. She was high on morphine, but she was like, “It’s so pretty, I love it. Keep playing.” So I did. And those chords ended up being the last bit of music I ever played for her. And so I knew that I needed to write a song from those chords for her. And that’s how that song came about. And it’s absolutely for her, and about her.

You know, hearing the story, it all makes sense. The note I had written down about this song was, “Most of the record is fighting loss. This song accepts it.”

Pleasants: Yeah, I was trying really hard to make peace with it. And I doubt we’ll ever play that song live, but it was really important for me as a person to get that song on the record. Her getting ill and her health turning pretty quickly… [pauses] I thought I knew a lot about life, but I didn’t know shit. And it’s not that I’m a better person now, it’s just different. I have a much keener insight into my own longevity.