“It’s been kind of strange for us”.
Sitting outside of the venue on a balmy North Carolina evening, Pianos Become The Teeth guitarist Mike York’s first sentence fits as a summary of the band’s last 10 months. That sentiment fits for most aspects of the band across the board, as they continue to navigate a transition that has taken them from a beloved hardcore-tinged group to a heralded indie force. As the final moments ticked away before the band took the stage at Local 506 in Chapel Hill, the statement is used in a discussion of their live show.
“Coming from where we started as a band, like screamo or hardcore or whatever you want to call it, we were always used to touring and playing shows that were pretty intense,” said York. “But the older we got, and with the record [Keep You, the band’s most recent album] coming out, everything’s been a bit more subdued. I think that’s been something for us to get used to.”
York mentioned that the difference is slightly lessened due to the fact that they were never really a band that people “lost their shit to”, though I would have to disagree since, having seen Pianos live several times, I can confirm that people do, in fact, lose their shit to them. But regardless, the newfound subdued nature of their show shouldn’t be confused with any sort of falling off in terms of energy or emotion.
“I feel like live it has the same amount of intensity,” said York. “We play just as hard. The stuff that is recorded comes across as just as heavy as we usually are live. It just comes across softer on record.”
That will ring true to anyone who is lucky enough to catch the band on their current co-headlining tour with The World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die, which kicked off last week in Chapel Hill. The songs off of Keep You take on a new form live, coming off with a brilliant edge that isn’t necessarily represented on the record, though they never lose the luster that caught the ears of not only the scene that has championed them for years, but a growing contingent of fans and publications that seemingly hadn’t batted a eye at them prior.
“We had never had Pitchfork talk to us,” said York. “So many places were talking about the record where we were like ‘Oh, wow. This is amazing’. It was really overwhelming. I still can’t really believe it.”
For those unfamiliar, Pianos’ journey to this point has been one of transformation. The Baltimore-based five-piece’s first two records, Old Pride and The Lack Long After, feature a distinct style highlighted by aggressive walls of instrumentation and draining screamed vocals. Their efforts gained them quite the following in this corner of the music world, with their music often lauded for its gut-wrenching emotional power.
For LP 3, however, the band took everyone by surprise by releasing a subtle, reserved indie record. That stylistic jump, while at first jarring for most fans, wasn’t a manufactured attempt at branching out, but was simply the next step for the band.
“It was super organic,” said York. “None of us sat down and said ‘We need to be a soft band now’. For us it was just writing music that we enjoyed.”
That transition shouldn’t have seemed to be too much of a leap, as the band had already foreshadowed that shift the year before. Pianos’ contribution to a split 7” with Touche Amore, released in 2013, was a track called “Hiding”, which has since become a fan favorite and a staple live. “Hiding” showcased the singing side of vocalist Kyle Durfey, and was described as “the bridge between the end of The Lack Long After and the start of [Keep You]” by York. That sound would carry into the writing process for what would become Keep You, with “Lesions”, the most older material-leaning song on the record, being the first song written. Things took off from there and LP 3 was eventually finished, with the revelation of where they had gone musically not sinking in until late in the process.
“It wasn’t until the last couple months that we really thought it was a different record,” said York. “It just felt like another record. It was maybe less aggressive, but I felt like that aggression was still there, it was just presented in a different way. Aggression, anger, sadness, despair, those things all exist on this record. It’s just presented in a way that we can relate to now as adults.”
This particular music scene has shown multiple faces in terms of reacting to musical shifts. Fans can be very receptive to changes and growth, showing an understanding of bands’ needs to expand their sound, but have also proven to be quite fickle when their beloved bands take a left turn that doesn’t come across in a way that is particularly pleasing to them, especially with the route chosen by Pianos, one that led to a more welcoming, indie-rock tone, which has a precedent of collective disappointment and misguided calls of “selling out” (which is an infuriatingly out-of-touch phrase and sentiment in its own right). All of those possibilities were certainly swirling around the band’s collective heads as they prepared for Keep You’s release.
“We expected a backlash,” said York.
But that thinking was relinquished by a simple fact: the record was good.
“The night before the record premiered, Kyle [Durfey, vocalist] texted me and was like ‘This is the last night that the record is ours’”, said York. “I thought that was the best way to really absorb what it is. No one had heard it. That was the last night that this thing that we created is our thing. It’s nobody else’s yet. Nobody’s heard it, nobody can even absorb what is going to be released. And I remember, he texted me that, and I sat down and listened to the record and I thought, this is everything we could have done. If people don’t like it, it wasn’t for the lack of trying. This is the best we are as a band”.
Now, nearly a year after Keep You’s release, Pianos have shaken that uneasiness associated with the unknown and have firmly found their footing in this identity as they enter the writing stage of LP 4.
“We’ve already started writing for another record and it’s put us in a position where that new record that we’re diving into right now, it makes it less scary because we already took that left turn,” said York. “The next record is going to be that nice refinement in doing all the things that we really enjoy doing. The hardest record was that last record [Keep You] and seeing what people thought, and now we’re shifting into ‘Here’s what we are as a band. I hope you enjoy it. If you don’t, I get it, but this is where we are’”.
The band will go from this tour directly into the demoing stage of that next record.
As we move into this new era of Pianos, there will still be those who cling stubbornly to the past and rebuke this musical shift. They will disdainfully dismiss this newer music and clamor for the past. But that isn’t in the cards. York steadfastly states that there is no disconnect between the band and their older material, simply noting that they aren’t the same people they were when the band formed 10 years ago. To move on and grow is human nature, and that is exactly what Pianos are doing, whether you’re on board or not.
“To challenge yourself and push yourself out of your boundaries, that makes me excited to record a new record,” said York. “I feel like if you’re a musician or an artist or whatever and you’re not pissing people off, you’re doing something wrong. You need to do something that is true to you and in that respect you’re not going to make everybody happy.”