MEB staffer Jason Gardner caught up with Xerxes vocalist Calvin Philley to talk about the band’s upcoming release, self-recording and the journey the band has taken in since the release of their LP Our Home Is a Deathbed.
MEB: To get started, you just released a new song “Tramadol,” which comes from your upcoming 7” Would You Understand? First off, tell us a little bit how these two songs first came to be.
Calvin: “Tramadol” was one of [those] things where me, Will [Allard] and Evan [Peak] were just sitting in Will’s basement and we got to a point of saying, ‘We have to write something.’ [laughs] There was a total creative block there for awhile for all of us after touring so much last year and it really was not going that well. Will just started playing that bass line from the beginning of the song on guitar, and Evan just started drumming along and it was just like that. They did that for like, an hour. Going over and over again. Then Will played the chorus of that, and it was just so simple and easy but we agreed it sounded really good. And truthfully, like most of the meat of that song and the bridge were kind of put together and written in the studio. Most of my lyrics for that song were written in the studio too. That song just kind of came out of frustration and this idea of just, let’s do this and jam it out until there is a song there. The first song on that 7”, “Grinstead,” Will one day was just like, ‘Calvin, I have this thing that I kind of wrote.’ There’s a lick at the beginning of it that just came out of Will’s grinding on his guitar. That made the song, and we just wanted to do a fast one that was frantic. All the lyrics from that came from me being stuck in my room, having crashed my car. All this crazy stuff happened after we got home from tour.
There’s something slightly different but not completely jarring about your approach on “Tramadol.” Like, it’s not totally that far away from Our Home Is a Deathbed in some sense, but the spoken word parts, the slower vibe, they give this a bit of a different feel. How organic would you say this track in particular was in writing?
In writing it was very organic, just because it all kind of happened. But as far as the changes that we’ve experienced as a band, we came home from that tour and we read a lot of reviews online. People say that’s not a constructive thing to do, to read your reviews of your music. I don’t think that’s true. I read a lot of reviews of Our Home Is a Deathbed, and I took a lot of stuff to heart. Criticism can be constructive, and some of the things people said about it was that the vocals were missing dynamics and it sounds like Touche Amore but not as good. For a point, I was very bitter about that. It sucks when someone says you sound like a band but not as good. I don’t really like Touche Amore that much, I mean those guys are all really awesome and the music they make is cool, but they’re not my favorite band on Earth. You know? When people said that, I was like, okay let’s do something different. And the way we wrote Our Home Is a Deathbed, it was kind of forced. It was our first full LP on No Sleep [Records] and we were very excited and nervous and trying to put something out there that didn’t really have a good representation of the band that we were and the way we wanted to make music. Since then, we’ve all branched out in our own listening. Like, Will listens to The Cure all the time, I listen to The Smiths all the time. I try to ingest as much new music as possible all the time. Even just our taste has changed. That post-punk vibe, that late ‘80s, early ‘90s kind of vibe is on there. That’s what we’re all into right now, so that’s what that is kind of all about.
It seemed like you guys had – maybe not taken a break, but were kind of in the background a little bit. What does it mean to you as a musician to get these particular songs out for people to hear?
We had a really frustrating time in 2012. The last tour we had was the European tour with Tidal Sleep. That was maybe the most positive experience we could have had that year, it was a great time and a great note to end touring on. But before that, we did a tour with This Is Hell, Waster and The Greenery. Those bands are all amazing people, but it made no sense for us to be on tour with them. We don’t sound anything like them, we don’t fit in with them musically. So it just didn’t really go well. I really enjoyed hanging out with them, but we were on a 45-day US tour with a bunch of bands it didn’t make sense to be on tour with and we realized, let’s sort of slow down here and kind of rework how we want ourselves to be seen – aesthetically and the music we group ourselves with and don’t group ourselves with – and work on how we want our band to be.
The frustration of all that manifested itself in us just taking a break from each other and the music. We just needed to stop and rewire ourselves for a second. To stop and do that and come back together was something completely different. Will will tell people that for the months following our last show of 2012, which was at Fest in Gainesville, after that, Will will tell everybody that we weren’t even a band. Truthfully speaking. We came back from that a completely different band. We could have changed our name and it could have made sense, but that’s another question at this point. But to come back, create this music, put it out, have a very positive reception so far… it’s been amazing. When we put out that song, it was the best I’ve felt in a really long time.
If my information is correct, you guys self-recorded this, right? How was that process for the three of you after working on Our Home Is a Deathbed with Kevin Ratterman?
What I say when, I wrote lyrics in the studio, it means I wrote lyrics in Will’s basement. Kevin’s a mastermind and he knows exactly what he is doing. He recorded the last Jim James record. He records all of that stuff that the general public eats up, and he’s really good at what he does. He just opened up a new studio and I’ve seen it, it’s beautiful. The guy is great, but I said before that we forced writing that record, and I think we also forced recording it. We wanted a distinctive Louisville sound, and Kevin Ratterman is the guy to go to for that. But the truth is, as far as general industry things, we’re really bad at doing things the way other bands do things. We like doing things on our own. The first 7” we did on Mayfly [Records] was self-recorded. Will knows what he is doing and so does everyone else. We all got comfortable. I think with Kevin Ratterman, we weren’t comfortable and I think that shows. We weren’t comfortable telling him exactly what we wanted because we were really intimidated. We were only like 19 at the time. Being able to record ourselves got us exactly what we wanted through the whole thing. During vocal recording, it was just me and Will. Him giving me honest opinions and me giving him honest opinions, bouncing ideas back and forth off each other, and honestly I think that produced the best result. I think people can do that with a producer like Kevin Ratterman or J Robbins or whatever, but for us, I am super anxious. And I know Will is and Evan is as well. We have a hard time with that. I think the end result, recording with Will, it sounds as good as any other record you’ll hear.
A lot of people were really buzzing about Our Home Is a Deathbed, and with the amount of time you’ve had since its release, do you feel that the time away from that record gave you guys the chance to experiment a bit more musically?
Oh yeah. I think it’s actually been the focal point of what we’re doing right now, is kind of to experiment. My older brother Jake has been filling in on guitar for us, and we love Jake. He has all these weird pedals and so we’re playing songs from Our Home Is a Deathbed obviously, but they don’t sound the same at all. Guitar-wise, drum-wise, there’s so much being experimented on. That’s how good music is written, like experimental, cutting edge music. I’m gonna try this, and if it works, it works, and if it doesn’t work it doesn’t, and everyone will tell them that and we can move forward. I can tell you that it just sounds different, and I like that a lot, and I like how it sounds weird honestly, because we’re all freaks [laughs].
As far as assembling the artwork and whatnot, this was a very communal process. You took the pictures, which Max Moore then took a picture of, and then Ben Sears did the layout. Any particular thoughts on that process?
The recording process, it was all kept in our crew of people. Will recorded it all, it was only me, Evan and Will recording. While we were recording, I walked around and took pictures, and told Will, ‘I’m taking these pictures and they are actually turning out pretty well. I’d like to use them for the artwork.’ Will loved the idea because it was all in our group. Ben actually reached out to us and said, ‘Hey, I’d love to do the layout or whatever you guys need.’ We actually in the past have not worked with him because he was too close, but we’ve matured since then and it is a total professional relationship. He just did a t-shirt design for us as well. Those pictures are up on my wall, the pictures on the cover of the record. I just needed someone with a nice camera to come in and take pictures to put on the record. I don’t have an HD camera, I’m too broke. I called Max and said if you could come to my house and take a couple pictures, it would really mean the fucking world. He said of course. It was all based on this friendship we share, and music and art and everybody understanding each other that we want to get this done and how much it means to us. It was really cool. We always repeat the phrase ‘keep it in the family,’ and that’s what we’re doing, keeping it in the family. It’s awesome.
As far as touring, you’ll be heading out for a short leg of dates before heading to Bled Fest for the third time. Can we expect to hear you mix these songs into the set?
We’re actually going to play both those songs. We did a short string of dates in April that we played both those songs as well. Those are the songs we’re most excited about. It’s the thing closest to home still. The other songs are still there, but the songs I’ve written about girls, those girls are two or three girls removed now and it’s like beating a dead horse. It’s nice to have songs that still do resonate with me, and they always will. These songs are the most honest that I’ve ever been on any recording, and I feel like I’ll always have a place in my heart for these songs because they mean that much to me.
Likewise, what is your anticipation for getting back on the road?
It’s gonna be different because we’re really excited to go on tour with Daylight because that band is amazing. All the new stuff is really good. I’ve only seen that band at Bled Fest once last year. I’ve heard they’re cool to tour with too. Plus, touring with a package is more fun as well. Touring with yourself, you’re just hanging out by yourself. We all hang out with each other about every other day except for when we’re on tour. It’s good to get back on the road with a tour and we have more things lined up as well. I personally love touring. I’m really stupid about it because I’ll accept any offer usually. I love being on the road, I get all kooked up here. As much as I love Louisville, and it’s a terrible thing to say, sometimes you just gotta get out and do something out of the ordinary.
Finally, you hinted recently that maybe you guys would start working on more new music. How true is that statement?
We’re just kind of riffing. I would say there is a lot of material that hasn’t been touched upon lyrically that I am ready to release to the world. I think before July we’re gonna have a couple songs written and ready to record. I think the process of that is going to be interesting. We’ll be working with new creative processes that we haven’t before. We’re definitely in conversation right now. It’s in the we’re talking about it part. We’re not not going to write a new record. I’ll tell you that much.