Given the occasion, I’m going off of schedule a bit here with a special Friday music post.
I’ve been a big fan of the band Gates for a long time. Their thunderous brand of post-rock is emotionally and intellectually engaging and basically embodies everything that I love about music. It also doesn’t hurt that their vocalist/lyricist/guitarist Kevin Dye is my best friend. So with Gates gearing up for next week’s release of their first full-length record, Bloom & Breathe, Kevin was kind enough to swing by and answer some questions about the new album, what books he’s reading, what lyrics mean to him, and other important stuff like the next Star Wars movie, his favorite roller coaster, and Michigan State football. And if you haven’t already, you can order Bloom & Breathe here.
Brennan: First off, thanks for joining me. I, along with seemingly everyone that we know, cannot wait for the release of Bloom & Breathe. It’s a phenomenal record and, after two EPs, is Gates’ first full-length. What was it like working on a longer record this time around?
Kevin: That’s high praise. Thanks for the compliment, I’m glad you’re enjoying the album! Working on a full-length is definitely a different experience than working on an EP. I’d say the biggest difference writing-wise was that we knew we had a lot more room to experiment. The Sun Will Rise [Gates’ first EP, The Sun Will Rise and Lead Me Home] was a collection of the only six songs we had, and for Fear [Gates’ second EP, You Are All You Have Left to Fear] we kind of had this “ripper” mentality where we were trying to shred as hard as possible. An LP gives you room to breathe (see what I did there?), so try for example a song like ‘Marrow’ which is just my voice and an acoustic guitar, or ‘At Last the Loneliest of Them’ which is a pretty weird turn for us.
We also over-wrote for the record, leaving at least two pretty full ideas off of the record, and abandoning another pre-mixing which will most likely be released in the future. We really love the song we left off, it was just another very long song and didn’t fit with the pacing of the album. I was talking to Mike Hansen from [New York band] Pentimento about this the other day; it’s one of those scenarios you always wonder about. “How could they have left that song off the record, it’s so good!” Now I know!
Brennan: After you personally had a lot of control over the first two records, basically doing them entirely DIY as a producer/engineer, was it hard to cede some of that control this time around?
Kevin: It was a beautiful thing. I got a taste of it when we had Mike Watts remix Fear last year. To quote him, “How many bands do you know that produce their own records, and are really, really good? Death Cab For Cutie.” That’s about it. And the reason that scenario works so well for them is because Ben writes the songs, and Chris produces them. He can look at them objectively and make criticisms, at least that’s how I imagine it. I cannot objectively criticize songs that I’m heavily invested in.
I can act in the producer’s role for things like adding the giant mallet-kick on the ones in the bridge of ‘Again at the Beginning’ or adding noise ideas for the false ending of ‘Not My Blood.’ That stuff is all additive. Watts knew when to subtract. He knew when to pull back. He has an impeccable sense of melody. He’s an insane mixing engineer. He is also not invested in any of our material from a writer’s sense, he’s hearing it with an open mind. This is the point I drive home every time I want to work with a band, and how important a producer is. How arrogant of me would it be to not take my own advice?
Brennan: Good point. And I’m sure it didn’t hurt that you (and I) have a long-standing love of Mike Watts and his work. How was it working with one of your professional heroes?
Kevin: It’s funny, and I even told him this. This goes for the entire experience I’ve had with Gates so far, and I’m sure it’ll continue throughout my life. I’m really bad at living in the moment. I think that in part makes me better at what I do, but it also means that when I’m doing something, I’m just really concerned with whether or not I’m succeeding at my vision, or all of our vision.
I started recording mainly because of Mike. I mean I was always a fan of Rick Rubin, Rich Costey, Chris Lord-Alge, but Mike was achieving very similar (or better) results for bands like As Tall As Lions, not Muse. I was offended that every band was not recording with him, or Matt Goldman, it just didn’t make sense. Fast forward to today, and I’ve co-produced a record with him. I’ve worked side by side with one of the people that influenced me to even start doing this. That being said, I never stepped back from the situation for more than a moment to realize that [this is a dream come true], at least not from a fan’s perspective. I think this is mainly because of the way he’s treated me, the respect he’s shown me, and the belief he’s had in our band to be able to create something on par with the records I hold so dear to my heart.
I can honestly say that no one outside of the five of us has ever cared more about our music than Mike, and our music is the single reason we’re even here. Life can be full of opportunists, and conversely Mike gave us opportunity. I hope we can repay him if only by influencing others to work with him and have the same experiences that we had when making this record.
Brennan: You’re on record as saying that there are several references to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 on Bloom & Breathe and I also couldn’t help but notice that the first and last songs take their name from Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan. How do the books that you read impact your writing? And were there any books that had a particularly strong impact on Bloom & Breathe?
Kevin: Admittedly, I’m not a huge reader. I go through phases where I won’t read anything for long periods of time. I’ve always consumed art the same way; instead of reading a whole bunch of books, or watching a whole bunch of TV or movies, or listening to 120 GB of music, I get really obsessed with a handful of works. I’ll re-watch the same ten movies, or listen to the same album on full repeat.
I was obsessed with Fahrenheit 451 during the final stages of writing Bloom & Breathe, hence the two song-title references (‘Again at the Beginning’ and ‘Light the First Page’) and the reference in ‘Low’ (“I’ve found a home in rain and loam/an escape from the flowers we’ve grown on”). I got pretty into Sirens of Titan as well, writing a whole bunch of quotes from that in a notebook that I kept going back to.
There’s this short story by John W. Campbell called ‘Twilight’ that I absolutely love. ‘At Last the Loneliest of Them’ references the themes in that story heavily. There’s a line in that story, “the thing that would save him,” which I referenced again, obviously, in ‘The Thing That Would Save You.’ And there’s a whole underlying allusion to a song that is being played and heard in that story, that is basically the “essence of humanity’s last defeat.” Most of ‘Loneliest’ references that story.
Movies like War of the Worlds and American Psycho were on in full rotation during the writing process as well. I could go on and on about influences and references.
Brennan: What are you reading right now?
Kevin: Nothing! The last book I read was [Cormac McCarthy’s] The Road when we were on the road (rimshot) and I wasn’t a huge fan. Once we start touring again I’m going to read Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. If you have any other suggestions, I’m going to fire up the Kindle and get cracking.
Brennan: I’m surprised you didn’t like The Road, which I thought was great, but you should definitely dive into Cat’s Cradle; it might be my favorite Vonnegut book. Sticking with the written word, the lyrics on the new record seem to be more explicitly personal than on previous releases. Why is that and what were you hoping to accomplish through that personal exposure? How does that lyrical choice affect the music itself (or maybe it’s the other way around)?
Kevin: I don’t think I was trying to accomplish anything specific. It’s more or less just a product of my headspace. It’s kind of hard to explain, but I went on for months and months with the vocal melodies and the rough lyrics for most of these songs, and was just unable to finish them. I knew what they were going to be about in certain cases, but I was deeply dissatisfied with the product of my typical songwriting methods. I would sing them back over an acoustic and it just didn’t feel right. I think I just needed to say certain things that I didn’t want to bury in metaphor.
I was, and still am, worried about the final product because it is very different from what I’m used to. I kept hanging on the idea that these lyrics weren’t as “good” because I didn’t use five words a song that no one had ever heard before or come up with some crazy rhyme scheme or wordplay. But for me, at that particular time, these lyrics are straight from the heart and they are a piece of me. The album chronicles a moment in my life and for that, I’m proud of myself. And there are still songs like ‘Light the First Page’ and ‘At Last the Loneliest of Them’ that I feel cover the bases for fans of more metaphorical or complex lyrics.
For part two of your question, the vocals had never driven the song in Gates prior to Bloom & Breathe. I would have to spend another large chunk of my efforts bending the lyrics and the story to follow the moods of the songs, as they were almost always written with no consideration for the lyrical content or melody. That all changed when we started writing this record. Vocal melody drove a lot of the choruses for the album (like ‘Low,’ ‘Not My Blood,’ ‘The Thing That Would Save You’), although most of the lyrics really played off the music. I know we plan on changing that moving forward as we continue to experiment with different songwriting techniques.
Brennan: Speaking of experimenting with songwriting structure, both you and I are huge fans of Gatsbys American Dream and The Receiving End of Sirens; those bands loved to use call-backs and references to their own songs and I see some of that on Bloom & Breathe as well. And though I wouldn’t label Bloom & Breathe a concept album, its songs certainly seem bound thematically. Is what you were going for?
Kevin: Bloom & Breathe is not meant to be a concept record in a strict sense. But there are a lot of things we did on purpose to tie the entire album together, lyrical motifs included. The first line of ‘Bloom’ is “I’ve destroyed a perfect path” and the first line of ‘Again at the Beginning’ is “I was born a well laid path.” In fact, those two songs were meant to be bookends of the record. I had finished ‘Again at the Beginning’ lyrically very early in the songwriting process and really focused on making that the finale. Once we knew ‘Bloom’ was going to start the album, I purposefully explored the exact opposite side of the same scenario. ‘Bloom’ is to let failure be your demise, and ‘Again’ is to learn and grow from it.
I very obviously used life and death as a repeating motif throughout the album as well. I always liked looking for those things [themes and motifs] on albums and felt it gave them another dimension as a listener, and a reason to revisit them and pick them apart. I think I was hoping to recreate that experience for someone listening to our record, and to create a cohesive piece of music on the whole.
Brennan: Your lyrics on this record are very much about doubting yourself, your actions, and the world you inhabit. And yet most of the songs seem to have a glimmer of hope, ending with the particularly hopeful lyrics of ‘Again At the Beginning.’ I think it’s rare for hope to be a primary theme in ‘serious’ music or art with suffering and loss usually being more prevalent. I’ll reference Ursula LeGuin who once said: “The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist.” How do you feel about the optimism in your lyrics? What about the pessimism elsewhere?
Kevin: I’ve never really thought about negativity as having any inherent artistic merit before. I’d argue that I’ve found the opposite to be true; some of the most highly regarded songwriters often have nonsensical or generally loony lyrics. That being said, I do feel like a sense of hope or a larger understanding to big questions is often disregarded in music and lyrics.
I often find that coming around to a resolution makes the message more clear and gives the questions I’m ultimately asking myself and the listener more purpose. You’ll find that each half of the record resolves on a more positive note, which I think gives those songs, and the songs surrounding them, a more defined direction when listened to as a whole.
That being said, I’d never write anything based on whether or not it would be interpreted as “art.” I saw an article about a woman selling invisible art for millions of dollars the other day [which actually turned out to be a satirical hoax]. I truly think if you’re trying to confine art into boundaries at this point, you’re grasping at straws.
I’d also like to say that no matter what you write about, it’s rarely going to connect with everyone. Maybe a lot of “critics” consider happiness to be stupid, but I can tell you first hand that most people don’t want to listen to music that relates to the bad things they’ve experienced, at least not all the time. There’s merit in all music, even some of the “worst” music. I openly hate the Black Eyed Peas, but they sell millions of albums, so my opinion doesn’t matter, does it? I just write about what inspires me.
Music is a way for me to express those feelings and exorcise those demons so I can go about my life and not be miserable the whole time. If I can provide that sense of relief for someone else, like so many of my favorite artists have, then that’s great too.
Brennan: Are there any bands out there right now writing great lyrics that you’d want to recommend?
Kevin: This band is not new, in fact they don’t even play music anymore, but A Hope For Home has really blown me away. Tiny Moving Parts brought their friend Tyler out on the U.S. tour we did with them earlier in the year and he was adamant that I check them out, and I’ve been obsessed ever since. In Abstraction is a brilliant record that I highly recommend. It’s too slow for hardcore fans, too heavy for indie fans, and way too full of hope to be critically successful. So, naturally, it never caught on with any large group of people. Rectify this mistake immediately.
Brennan: You’ve heard the man, people. Go listen to In Abstraction. It sounds like a record that’s got a lot to offer, which brings me back to your new record. Bloom & Breathe is an extraordinarily diverse album. I’d argue that it has Gates heaviest, softest, and poppiest songs. How did you guys put together such a diverse set of songs that somehow still fit so well together? Was this diversity and exploration of sound intentional?
Kevin: This was absolutely intentional. As I mentioned before, writing a full length album gave us the opportunity to explore different facets we maybe haven’t covered previously, without [any one idea] defining the project as a whole like it would on an EP. We worked very, very (maybe too) hard on creating a body of work that was cohesive as a whole, and yet each song was easily identifiable and could stand on it’s own. As to how we did it, we just thought about it long and hard and we tried to pull it off to the best of our ability. I’m glad to hear that, to one person at the very least, we succeeded in that goal.
Brennan: What are you listening to right now? What’s the band or album that you just can’t take out of your stereo, maybe a record that’s influenced your own writing?
Kevin: Alt-J just put out This Is All Yours, their follow-up to their fantastic debut, An Awesome Wave. I would recommend both records as high as I can recommend anything. They’re just one of those bands that makes you feel like everything you’re doing is so unoriginal. They do things I’ve never heard anyone else do, and yet they’re still for the most part a traditional rock band set up, with drums, bass, guitar and keyboard. Joe’s voice is so unique that it transcends genres. They have that undeniable “it” factor you can’t really define but you wish you had so badly.
I’ve also been jamming Awake by Tycho, which is an instrumental ambient record. The entire band saw him perform a few weeks back and we were all blown away by the performance, particularly the visual aspect. He’s an artist we really feel follows a similar path as to what we’re looking to accomplish and it was super inspiring to see such non conventional music played to such a large crowd.
Brennan: I’ll definitely have to look into those. I wouldn’t be too worried about feeling unoriginal in the wake of This Is All Yours; Bloom & Breathe is a complicated record with a lot going on. And yet the whole package feels more polished and maybe even more streamlined than previous Gates outings. Would you agree? Why would you say that is?
Kevin: I think we tried to actively play off of each other’s strengths better this time around, and it hopefully shows. Instead of all three of us playing an independent lead, we tried to write more cohesive parts that showcase the dominant melody. It’s something I think we have to continually work on, but there’s definitely moments where we showed restraint that I think paid off, one of them being ‘Marrow’ which is a single acoustic guitar and my voice.
As far as being polished, you can thank Mike Watts for that. Even after months of cutting back, there were a lot of times where my guitar part in particular would change to provide more of a rhythm or take up a different frequency in the mix, which is something we thought about but maybe didn’t achieve in the writing process. He really knew when to address those issues and the record sounds way better because of it.
Brennan: What was the best show Gates ever played? What was the worst?
Kevin: Such a hard call. The last show we played at The Studio at Webster Hall with Pentimento, Have Mercy and Vasudeva was just magical. It wasn’t really set up to be anything special but I feel like we just locked in, and it was great to see all of our friends there. That tour just had such positive vibes all around which definitely contributed to that.
Worst performance was in a basement in Montclair, NJ with Prawn. We all got super drunk on Franzia. Like, all of us, completely hammered. We also got super drunk, again with Prawn and again in Montclair (you see a trend here?) and we decided to play ‘They See Only Shadows’ as an encore. The catch was that we hadn’t even really written it yet. I’m pretty sure I just sang nonsense. Those were both about a year into being a band. We’ve since learned how to control ourselves around Prawn, and only do keg stands with them at house parties that don’t involve shows.
Brennan: Best show you ever saw?
Kevin: These type of absolute questions are always so hard to answer! So many shows have left me speechless over the years, that it’s hard to pick just one. Explosions in the Sky at Radio City Music Hall was definitely up there. The Receiving End of Sirens/As Tall As Lions at Alvin’s in Detroit was a show I’ll never forget. Thursday at the MSU Auditorium. That Tycho show I mentioned earlier. I could go on and on.
Brennan: Coolest vinyl you own?
Kevin: The Death Cab For Cutie Barsuk years box set. It’s a thing of beauty.
Brennan: Let’s change gears. You’re a huge Star Wars fan and we’re barely more than a year away from Star Wars: Episode VII. Your thoughts?
Kevin: I keep trying to find the slightest bit of information on it, but I can’t seem to. I’ll be waiting to see a trailer before I criticize, but I am excited for the possibility. I will be seeing it regardless of whether it’s good or not. Also super excited for Jurassic World. They won’t be able to top that scene on the plane in Jurassic Park III though.
Brennan: That really is one of the best/worst scenes in cinematic history. Let’s keep this random train rolling. You’re a roller coaster expert. Best ride you’ve ever been on?
Kevin: Millennium Force at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio. Just a solid two minutes of sheer excitement. I’m wearing the t-shirt I bought last time we were there right now! We need to go again to ride the Gatekeeper.
Brennan: Yes. Yes, we do. Okay, we’ll get you out of here on this one: do you think your alma mater, eighth-ranked Michigan State, has a shot at the national title this year?
Kevin: You know, I think there’s a chance, believe it or not. We really held it together the last few games and moving forward, if we really learn to utilize our stronger defensive players when it counts, and reduce turnovers and…I’m literally making all of this up. I have no idea what I’m talking about. Go Green.
Thanks again to Kevin Dye for agreeing to this crazy interview, and – for everyone else – come back on Monday for a proper review of Gates’ Bloom & Breathe, which you can pre-order now or pick up on Tuesday, October 21st.
All photos in this post are courtesy of Gates unless otherwise noted or linked.