By Mike Bax
Savannah riff-masters Kylesa are days away from releasing their most ambitious album of original material to date. All of the ten songs on Exhausting Fire crackle with that signature energy that is present on all of your favourite Kylesa songs from their past albums.
I consider Static Tensions and Spiral Shadow the best from the band to date, but early listening to Exhausting Fire has me believing this could be the album that goes down in history as Kylesa’s swan song moment.
Guitarist Laura Pleasants was able to take 20 minutes last week to talk with Lithium. Some of the topics we touched upon were details about creating the new album, the rigours of touring, and her appreciation of Mastodon’s Crack The Skye album.
Mike: Congratulations on your new album. It’s amazing. I really dig it.
Laura: Well, thank you so much. I’m glad you like it.
Mike: I’ve listened to a number of your albums over the years and I may be overstepping my boundaries here as a non-musician, but I feel you have changed your musical style on a number of your releases, correct?
Laura: Sure, yeah. I don’t think we would be able to go as long as we have putting out the same thing over and over again.
Mike: For me personally, I found Ultraviolet a bit of a stretch. I liked it. I listen to a lot of shoegazer material, and I found it went into that territory a few times. But I had to work at loving that album. I’m really digging Exhausting Fire, and I’ve only really had a few days with the album. It feels like Kylesa firing on all cylinders to me.
Laura: There’s elements of Ultraviolet that I really like. But as a whole album it’s not my favourite record. I feel like Exhausting Fire is maybe what Ultraviolet should have been, if that makes sense?
Mike: How much of your personal lives, where you are all at during the recording times emotionally, how much of that goes into each album? Do you feel that plays into what’s been going on thematically with your past few releases?
Laura: Oh, that has a lot to do with it, both musically and lyrically. Ultraviolet was a hard record to write. I was in a weird headspace. The band was a little disjointed. I think over the recording period for Exhausting Fire we were more focused. But to answer your question, what’s going on in our personal lives as a band, and also as individuals is quite important to what winds up happening on the record. In some ways it’s both an extension and also a catharsis of what’s happening at the time.
Mike: How long did it take to put Exhausting Fire together as far as writing and recording it all?
Laura: Not that long in the grand scheme of making records. Phil (Cope) and I both had some riffs and demos. I think we started going really deep into practicing and demos around mid-September of last year and we recorded in late February of this year. So we got all of the songs together and recorded them all in roughly about a month.
Mike: That is quick. Did you work with a similar producer? I don’t have any of that liner information, just an advance stream of the music.
Laura: Phil has really been producing our records since 2006, so just him.
Mike: You didn’t bring anyone else in then? That’s awesome.
Laura: No, not to produce. We brought our friend Jay (Matheson) in. He’s worked with the band for years and years. We brought him in to play some bass and that’s about it. Everything else we just did ourselves.
Mike: Do you record studio material with two drummers, or do you just save that for playing live?
Laura: In the past we have used two drummers. But with this particular record Carl (McGinley) did all of the drumming, overdubs and percussion work himself.
Mike: Was the album recorded close to home, or did you relocate somewhere for Exhausting Fire?
Laura: Fairly close. We have been recording out of Columbia, South Carolina for many years, out of a studio there. It’s pretty close, it’s like two and half hours away.
Mike: How long have you been releasing albums with Season Of Mist Records?
Laura: Since 2010.
Mike: So the last three, right, including Exhausting Fire?
Laura: Yeah. Spiral Shadow, a b-sides compilation record and then Ultraviolet.
Mike: Do you feel like they are a good fit for Kylesa? That could be a bit of a loaded question. Sorry about that.
Laura: (laughs) Yes, I mean, they’ve been pretty cool. They do all kinds of music. They do a lot more of the metal stuff. I think we are the most ROCK band that they do. But I like working with Michael (Berberian) and Sabiene (Goudriaan) and their crew. They’re smart people, and even if all of the bands on the label sound a bit different, ultimately it’s the relationship of the main people involved that’s most important.
Mike: True. Who did the cover artwork for Exhausting Fire?
Laura: Our friend Shaun. His last name is Beaudry, he’s an illustrator. We’ve been working with him for a few years now. He did the cover for Ultraviolet.
Mike: Wow, that’s a different look then.
Laura: He did the re-issue cover of Time Will Fuse It’s Worth. He did the From The Vaults cover. Along with some shirts and stuff. We’ve worked with him before.
Mike: You’ve also done work with John Baizley. How did you originally hook up with him?
Laura: We haven’t done that much with John, we’ve just known him for a long time. He was at all of the really early Kylesa shows. Then he formed Baroness a few years after we had started and we were just all hanging out a lot and decided that we would get him to do an album cover for us. Early on he did a few t-shirt designs for us. Then we decided to use him for our 2009 release Static Tensions record. He’s really just a friend to us. He was living in Savannah, Georgia at the time and Savanna is pretty small. It’s easy for local musicians and artists to connect.
Mike: Can you also talk a bit about your long-standing relationship with Mastodon? If I’m reading correctly on Wikipedia, which I HATE going to for information by the way, Kylesa played their first show at a Mastodon gig. Is that accurate?
Laura: Yeah, that’s accurate. We booked that show and played with them along with another band from Atlanta and a band from Florida. I think it was Mastodon’s first or second tour. It was pretty early on in their career and it was our very first show. And Philip’s old band Damad along with Brent and Troy’s old band Four Hour Fogger used to do a lot of shows together. Those guys are the same age. That’s how I met Brent, going to Atlanta shows. So we’ve just been friends for a long time. They would come through Savannah and stay at my house or stay at some other mutually friendly house and we’ve just been tight for a long time.
Mike: Did you go to school for music, or did you go for art and design?
Laura: I went to school for art and design. I was enrolled in photography.
Mike: Cool. Do you still keep up with photography then?
Laura: Oh yeah. I do. Unfortunately, professional photography equipment and music equipment are very expensive (laughs).
Mike: Yes. Yes they are.
Laura: So my music equipment right now is kicking ass, but my photography equipment is not up to par.
Mike: Are you a Canon or a Nikon shooter?
Laura: Nikon film, but I tend to shoot Canon digital.
Mike: You talked a bit about John’s (Bailey) work a bit earlier. Your band has always had kick-ass merchandise. If I see photographs of other musicians sporting your stuff from the past decade and a half, your merchandise looks badass. How involved are you and Phil in staying on top of your merch, and how you are represented visually?
Laura: Pretty damn involved. The visual component of our band is important. We have known a lot of talented illustrators over the years. Maybe because of being in Savannah with SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) and probably from just growing a knack for sniffing out good artists. To take it back a step Mike, I remember when I was younger I’d buy these seven inch records and so many times people just didn’t give a shit about what the record looked like. There would be some pixilated terribly laid out record cover that made me wonder why someone would put out a release that looks like shit. That really bugs me. It’s always been important to have our end product look good especially now when music is so disposable. To have someone willing to buy your physical product, it’s gotta look good. The visual representation of music is important. We put so much time into the creative process of writing these songs they have to be represented in a visual manner that is appropriate. That’s very important to Kylesa.
Mike: Not everybody would have your aesthetic though, right? You have some art background, and art is very subjective. Not everybody would be able to discern what is good or bad with the same eye. They wouldn’t get the typography, composition and visual balance the same way you might.
Laura: Well, thank you.
Mike: Kylesa tour relentlessly, and you tour all over the world. What are some of the life lessons that you have gleaned personally over the years of touring?
Laura: There are some life lessons. I wish I’d been more organized as far as some of our business affairs from the early beginnings. I think when I first started I thought I’d do this for a couple of years and move on, maybe pursue my photo career. I’ve always cared more about the creative side of things and less about the business. But when you start to do it (music) full time, or even try to do it full time, then you have to think about those realities: protecting yourself and thinking ahead. As a younger person I certainly adhered to a ‘seize the moment / live in the moment’ outlook on life. And as you get older you have to start thinking about where I might going in five years, ten years. I just never thought that through much. I guess that is kind of common to not think about that when you are in your early twenties, but hindsight really is 20/20, right? Life lessons? One of the most fun things about being able to tour the world is experiencing all of the different cultures, meeting some amazing people, eating amazing food, seeing some amazing places. From the dirtiest squats to a really nice hotel offering nice views, to the wrong side of the railroad tracks. You see all classes of life. It’s really an enlightening experience. So many people, wherever they are from, never venture too far from the places that they live – their comfort zone. I really like that part of the Kylesa adventure. It’s been an adventure for us, and it’s been a great one.
Mike: Can you describe what it feels like after an album is recorded, Laura? Would you say that you are happy, sad, exhausted or invigorated?
Laura: You can wind up pretty exhausted. You are always kind of racing against the clock. I think it’s awesome. I really enjoy the recording process. All of the ideas get to come to fruition. You get to see it all unfold before your eyes and ears. And then when it’s done… I dunno. It’s cool. That’s when I listen to the record the most – when it’s finished. I listen to the album a lot and see if I’m happy with it, or not happy. I’m not always happy with the end result. I think this record I’m overall very happy with. I mean, being that it’s such a personal thing, and something that I was a part of its never going to perfect. I’m never going to be 100% happy, you know? But, I don’t feel sadness at all. It’s gratifying.
Mike: You know, maybe sad was the wrong word. I’ve got a creative component to my job artistically and sometimes when I’m done a piece, there’s that realization if it actually BEING done. And I think “jeez, what am I going to do next?”
Laura: I guess the big difference there is I’ll get to perform these songs and continue to appreciate them. It’s not like it’s totally gone. The material will still have a chance to evolve in a live setting.
Mike: Hmm. Have you talked about what that might look like – Touring Exhausting Fire? How many new songs you are going to bring into a setlist?
Laura: Yeah, ideally I want to do four. There’s always going to be the material you are playing from other albums, the older songs. Going back to what you just said earlier, there are a couple of songs on the record (and there always are) that are just album songs. That always happens – you write album songs knowing it’s going to only be an album song and that it’s probably not going to be played live for various reasons. In that sense, for those songs, it’s a bummer because I’ve played that song over and over in rehearsal to get it tight and learn all the parts, get it ready and it’s locked down, you know? Once it’s recorded, then it’s done. And we know that one we aren’t going to play live, so there is that realization that we will probably never play that song again. In that sense there is some sadness because I’ll like that song or riff a lot, and it’s ultimately done because it’s an album song.
Mike: If memory serves, Kylesa toured with Mastodon when they serviced Crack The Skye, and they played that album in entirety on that tour. I think that’s when I caught Kylesa for the first time, and I’m curious if you have ever done that and would maybe consider doing that again with Exhausting Fire, or one of your past albums?
Laura: Oh yeah, I totally would. That would be fun. Crack The Skye is my favourite Mastodon record.
Mike: Yeah. Me too.
Laura: I think that was the venus of their creativity. They are prog players, so seeing Crack The Skye performed every night over and over again was just awesome. We did that on the Static Tensions record – played it all right through. I think it was just one tour, and it was later into the tour cycle, but we did play the album from start to finish. It’s fun to do. And we’re thinking about doing that for some future shows, playing records in their entirety. I think it would be fun to do with that one and Spiral Shadow, and maybe this one (Exhausting Fire).
Mike: I’m up for an Exhausting Fire in full tour. I know its early days because it’s not really commercially released just yet, but I think it’s certainly worthy.
Laura: Thank you. I think it would have to be digested a bit first, but I do enjoy the songs on the record very much and I hope there is interest in seeing them all live.
Mike: Cool. One last question. Is the bonus track (‘Paranoid’) on the deluxe edition of Exhausting Fire the (previously released) Black Sabbath cover?
Mike: That track was recorded at a different time than the rest of the album though, right?
Laura: Yeah, it was recorded maybe a month before, just a few days after Christmas.