Tera Melos, one of my all-time favorite bands, will soon be releasing their 3rd-ish full-length album, X’ed Out on April 16. Guitarist and vocalist Nick Reinhart took the time to answer some occasionally music-related questions.
AG: Say something new and interesting about Disco Stu.
NR: i can’t honestly think of one interesting thing to say about Disco Stu, and i think the whole band feels that way. actually, i guess the truly interesting thing about him is how anyone thinks he’s funny, or how the writers/creators of the show could possibly think he’s remotely as great as every other character on the show. i went and referenced a couple disco stu vids on youtube just now to make absolutely sure that this is how i felt. confirmed. he just randomly walks into a scene, does a butt wiggle, then says “disco stu.” he’s a dud, not a stud.
AG: What is the composition process like for the band? Is it largely one or two people writing material themselves and then bringing it to the rest of the group, or is it a collaborative jamming process from the start, or what? Has it changed over the years, in relation to styles/formats of the band/all that? I’m assuming material for the demo, for example, was written fairly differently than how Patagonian Rats was written, which is different from how X’ed Out was written.
NR: the genesis of a song generally starts in my bedroom, just playing guitar. i’ll start to hear some interesting things, figure out ways to transition a couple of ideas, come up with a few variations, roughly paste it all together and then record it. when we first started we would “jam” in the practice spot. maybe someone would come up with an idea on the spot, or bring a few solid guitar or drum parts in, then we would spend up to months refining things (well, as refined as we could physically get them, which sometimes wasn’t very much so, haha). we don’t really do that anymore.
i’ve found that i write/discover my favorite material after playing by myself for long periods of time. by the time nate or john even hear one second of guitar demos, i’ve already put hours and hours into making it not sound like garbage. whereas when you’re all together in a room playing you’re basically throwing piles and piles of shit against a wall and hoping that something will stick. it gets frustrating when you drive 40 miles to the practice spot for 4 days a week and don’t see tangible results. then multiply that by months and months. so i come up with ideas, bedroom style, then send out these rough outlines and everyone can play to them on their own time and throw as much shit at the wall as they see fit,.then we can get together and modify everything we’ve worked on, individually, and get it sounding like a tera melos song.
i think those guys have a really good level of trust in me and the musical stuff i bring to table. i can’t think of too many times where either john or nate have said, “yea, uhhh that’s really not that good.” it’s likely because i’m my own biggest critic and had already told myself, “jesus, that sounds awful, back to the drawing board” many times before i’ve emailed any songs.
AG: I’m gonna quote back to you something that has been quoted back to you before, hopefully in a new context: “this is the first fully realized, focused record we have made. everything sounds intentional and the way we wanted it to sound. there are no cringe moments for us. in a lot of ways we look at it like it’s our first album. it is 100% honest and not catered towards anyone. it’s tricky making a record that way, it’s even trickier structuring a band that way.” That was about Patagonian Rats, your last record. How does X’ed Out feel to the band? Now that you’ve already made the album you’ve been wanting to make for a long time, what new feelings have been motivating the creation of this new album?
NR: well in addition to patagonian rats being the record that we’d wanted to make for a long time, it was also the way we wanted to make a record for a long time. so we applied the same process to this album. it’s probably just a matter of knowing what we want and choosing the right paths to accomplish that. it took us a long time to get to this point where we’re happy with how we sound and perform. everyone that’s been in the band made it their top priority and focus. it took years of hammering out ideas and playing nearly 1,000 shows to get this to where we can fall asleep at night without obsessing over how to make everything fit. i think we’re all really happy with our current state.
AG: You’re big pop music fans. Do you consider your music essentially similar in nature to the more straight-ahead pop stuff out there? Do you consider the more “straight ahead” music you listen to “exceptional,” in any stylistic way? What, if anything, unites Tera Melos and Madonna?
NR: hm, i mean we just like all types of music. i don’t think straight forward music is in any way more exceptional. not at all. it’s all just personal preference. i think when we were younger and discovered non “straight ahead” music it was really fascinating and new and fresh. now i don’t get the same exclusive rush listening to it that i did when i was 22. now i can get that rush from lots of different types of sounds. it’s funny you mention madonna, because i can get goose bumps listening to old madonna songs. the production, the melodies, the vocals etc. in fact, just yesterday i was playing drums along to a madonna playlist on my ipod.
i think it’s just a musical growth thing. like when you’re young and discover punk music- it’s this big revelation and takes over your mind. then we came across more technical, outside the box music and it was the same feeling. now that we’re adults and have further developed our brains we can appreciate all types of music and not feel limited.
AG: Where is that tour documentary, people? Those are such great trailers that have been kicking around for a while now.
the truth is that the documentary was finished, we saw it and weren’t happy with it. it was no one’s fault, it just didn’t have the right content for what we were hoping for. we don’t feel comfortable releasing something that we don’t stand by 100%. so we brought another friend along for a few more tours to gather more footage to eventually put something together that we were all stoked on. it will definitely get finished. as a side note, i literally- LITERALLY -as i was writing that last sentence just got a text message from our friend spencer at Sargent House saying they just got the hard drive with all the tour footage and want to get together to start re-editing. so that’s good news.
we’re really glad that people are that interested in our band to want to see the doc finished. even though we try to be really interactive with people and work towards dismantling the “wall” between fan and artist, i think a lot of people want to get further inside to see how it all comes together. i have no idea what the vibe will be- could be a fugazi “instrument” type thing or a pantera “home videos” kind of movie. we’ll see.
AG: I think I noticed people stopped describing you guys as “jazz,” once Vince left the band and once John joined. It’s always been a misnomer anyway, but can you relate to that descriptive shift? How do you feel about how you’ve been described, in general?
NR: well vince definitely came from a jazz background. our old guitar player actually met him in a jazz band class at a junior college. he had a very open, fluid approach to how he played drums in the band. when john had joined we were already heading in a bit of a different direction musically, one that jazzier drums might not be completely appropriate for. lucky for us john came from a punk background and brought a very different sound to the band. i think we initially got tagged with the jazz label because there were elements present for sure- weird timing, syncopation, ride cymbal twiddles and lots of 7th chords. i never really agreed with it, but it sounded cool. seems like people generally have a difficult time describing our music, which i think is a really good thing.
AG: What about improvisation live? On some old blog posts I remember you saying how much you liked it when bands change up their live sound, when they make mistakes, when surprising moments happen (yes, I remember those blog posts). It seems you consciously cater your live sound to that type of surprising experience. Is that about right? What motivates a very technical band like yours to take the risks involved in improvising every night?
NR: the improvisation is a result of a few things- wanting to have fun with songs and make them feel fresh to us, making mistakes and rolling with the punches and probably just a sever case of musical a.d.d. so for instance, if i had a photo of a dog and wanted to do 100 separate paintings of it, each one would be a little different. i’m sure after about ten very similar pup paintings i’d probably want to switch it up and make the dog’s eyes melting or something. naturally i’m sure there would be subtle differences in each one. then, because i’m not a super accurate, professionally skilled painter, i’d probably accidentally drip a fat blob of yellow paint onto the dog’s face. so i’d have to figure out some way to work around that. in the end, there would be 100 similar, yet fairly different paintings of a dog. that just seems natural to me. i don’t see why you’d do it any other way.
AG: Also, listening back on some of the bootleg recordings you posted on that old blog, it seems like you’ve been sitting on some material for a while – Kelly, specifically, which is titled “kelly, phone ya” Live From Atlas Clothing. Is it often that you’ll sit on material for a while, and wait for the right spot in an album to open up for it? Are we going to see some more “old” material popping up on X’ed Out?
NR: a lot of times there are just songs from the past that never got recorded, or didn’t come out the way we wanted, or that we just simply really liked and wanted to rerecord for fun. there’s a couple older pieces of material that pop up on this record. “melody nine” is a redone version of a song from our split with by the end of tonight. the original version was electronic based. we’ve been playing a live version of it for a couple years now. then the main riff for “sunburn” is one that i’ve used in a few songs that never really got a fair shot at being developed into a real part. i think i’d used that riff in 3 or 4 songs previously. that’s actually kind of neat. i not ashamed to admit that i’ve pirated my own guitar part, haha.
AG: Can you give us an interesting road anecdote? Something that characterizes Tera Melos’ interaction with audiences around the world?
NR: there’s this guy we know, he goes by “panda.” don’t know his real name. he lurks around the atlanta area. he’s this really far out, bizarre, awesome, critter dude that brings us bags and bags of random stuff everytime we come through town- broken guitar pedals, hats, tea, bags of pubic hair, cassette tapes, action figures, sidewalk chalk, video, furbies etc etc. you name it and he’s probably brought it to us. very odd. i think we have given him this music that’s very important to him and helps him out through life, so he just wants to give something back to us and contribute to our world. i know for a long time he didn’t know how to pronounce our name properly either. so that was funny. we’re misunderstood by even those that understand us the most. haha, deep.
AG: At a few points you had some somewhat eloquent things to say about pirating music. What are your current thoughts on this trend? Does a wide audience satisfy you more than money with which to scrape by? Or is music being widely distributed an investment on people showing up to shows later, or some other rationalizing logic? Is bandcamp solving the problem posed by music piracy?
NR: shoot i don’t really know. look, we want as many people to hear and enjoy our music as the universe will allow. but we’re also all pretty much 30 and would like this to be a sustainable source of income. so the question is where do we draw the line on how people hear/enjoy our music. if we’re playing a show that costs $10 and there are 5 people outside that don’t have $10, then without question we would want for them to be able to come in and watch us play. but then at what number of people without $10 do we say, “i don’t think so.” i mean, honestly, if there were 100 people that couldn’t afford the show, i’d want them all to come in for free or whatever they can afford. i think a lot of our fans know our vibe and that we’re not making fistfuls of cash playing in this band. if someone pirates a record then chances are they’re gonna buy a shirt. which i’m fine with. but actually, why not just buy the album and the shirt?? i don’t know, i get trapped thinking about this stuff. a solution to that particular situation would be- dude downloads record for free from a torrent, comes to the show, buys a shirt AND a vinyl, which comes with a download card anyways- then all is right in the world.
we also do the barter system- if someone can’t afford to pay for a show then they can bring us something cool and we’ll put them on our guest list. we’ve gotten cool music gear, razor scooters, video games, simpsons stuff and lots of other cool goodies that were probably just sitting around collecting dust in someone’s closet.
we just want lots of people to like what we’re doing and come to shows and help us afford to keep doing this. i don’t know how to make all of that fit. bandcamp definitely helps for sure. it puts the artist in control and let’s fans have a lot of access to music. buy music if you can, if you can’t- then take it, but you owe us one!
AG: How do you see yourself in the music world? Do you consider yourselves an active part of a very specific music scene (*cough* math rock *cough*), as much of the coverage of your band would like to portray? Or are you just a handful of dudes playing some weird music that happens to be similar to other handfuls of dudes playing some roughly similarly weird music?
NR: i’ve definitely given a lot of thought to our position in the music world, but i don’t think i ever come up with anything that satisfies me. i think it’s best for us to not think about that sort of stuff. we just create music that we enjoy and hopefully the rest of it all works out.
i know we’ve been pretty outspoken about the math rock thing and how we don’t prefer it. i think it’s mostly because we generally don’t really care for stuff that falls under that particular genre and most of it feels unrelatable to what we’re trying to accomplish. in 2001 we were all still in punk bands. fugazi had already started to shift some of our musical perceptions, but it was all still very much a “punk” context for us. then we discover bands like hella, dillinger escape plan and king crimson. those were all very big deals to us. once that switch is flipped there’s no really going back. then we start this new band. drummer shows us how to play in odd time signatures. everyone has fun. and that’s that. i do remember hearing the term math rock thrown around once or twice, but it was likely just in passing.
i guess it also seems like the current quality of math rock is definitely not what it was 10 years ago. it used to be a real musical subculture with deep roots, and now it’s just commonplace. feels like it’s been diluted, big time. when we saw bands like hella, the locust, botch or dillinger for the first time it was jaw dropping. like, shocking. it’s a bummer that the generation after us didn’t really get to witness such massive shifts in the music world like the ones we saw. i really don’t mean for that to sound pretentious. it just seems like the bar has been lowered for that kind of stuff. so maybe the internal problem i have with being labeled a math rock band has something to do with a fear of being a band playing under the “bar” that, for me, was set so high and blasted my mind open. we want to keep our band fresh and exciting. i still LOVE the idea of a community of bands that exist on the fringe and is working to move music forward. that’s what i want to be a part of.
AG: I’m now beginning to realize (being an oblivious east-coaster), that Tera Melos formed in a very interesting music scene. Can you wax poetic on your local scene of yesteryear? Are you considered the group that made it big from among them? What bands did you wish you were still playing shows with? How important was that scene to the band you are today?
NR: when we were younger nate and i were in punk bands that played around sacramento. there were some pretty crazy musical things happening (unbeknownst to us) up in grass valley/nevada city (about an hour north east of sacramento). bands like legs on earth (zach hill/spencer seim’s first band) were starting to play and freak people out. but it seemed pretty insulated and didn’t really trickle down into the sacramento punk scene. not that i remember at least. so in high school it was pretty much strictly punk and hardcore shows that we found ourselves hanging out at. at one point, in 2001, a friend of mine wanted to go see a band called chrime in choir. they were sort of this keyboard based, live electronic band. i think that’s how they were described to me. my friend told me they had this crazy drummer that could play drums like no one we’d seen before. i was really skeptical about that because there were a lot of great punk/hardcore drummers that we were really into. so we drove to a coffee shop in placerville (about 45 minutes outside sacramento) to see chrime in choir. turns out they had to cancel for some reason and instead a different band that shared the same drummer was going play. the band was hella (which would be zach and spencer’s second band after legs on earth). they played and just totally destroyed. from that point pretty much everyone in sacramento was shaken up. you’d even hear the crustiest of the punkers talking about these weird ripper guys from nevada city. there wasn’t really a local scene for that stuff yet. so hella played with punks bands, hip hop groups, hardcore bands etc. it was really trippy.
i don’t think we’d be the same band had we not come out of punk music. having that foundation was important in developing into an interesting band and how we allow it to breathe and exist. one of my all time favorite bands was this local band called diseptikons. they were a really fast hardcore punk/thrash band. they had this black flag/dri/early metallica vibe that was just paramount. incredible musicianship and great lyrics about the morals and ethics involved within the underground music scene. miss them for sure.
AG: Any parting words?
NR: “a noble spirit embiggens the smallest man” -jebediah springfield
Well spoken. Check out X’ed Out from Sargent House, out on April 16th. Preorder and listen to some tracks here: at Tera Melos’s bandcamp, and just generally scope them out on Facebook.
I first got turned on to Why I Must Be Careful through their Kickstarter project (video found below), and have been hooked on what little the internet has to say about them since. Both for my own personal geeking out, and to put a little more information out into the world about this band, Seth Brown and John Niekrasz graciously put together this interview with me. Check out their website – http://whyimustbecareful.com/ for information on and an excerpt from their upcoming album, Honeycomb (which is excellent!), how to order, upcoming shows, and a death lottery.
AG: Can you give me an origin story of the band? Brief personal histories, how you found one another, and what the adventures have been like so far?
WIMBC: We met in Montana in 1998. Inspired by the presence of a 300lbs church organ, we began playing at John’s house in early 2001. Early songs were based on Ravi Shankar riffs and modern dance magnates. We traded a VCR for a Hammond organ to use at our first shows. Since those early days, John got a master’s degree, moved to Portland and became a board member of the Creative Music Guild. Seth also moved to Portland and developed a fascination for player pianos. He has recently acquired an Oregon Arts Council Grant to compose player piano roll music. We also have studied music abroad in recent years. John in India, Seth in Indonesia. We are currently working on our audition for the Norwegian Academy of Music. Our “adventures” together include a 24-hour performance as part of the 2009 Riverwest-24 Bike Race in Milwaukee, WI, performances at Portland Jazz Fest, DIY venues, and guerilla shows around the country.
AG: While Honeycomb is your first release, it sounds like you’ve been producing music for a good while longer than a newcomer might guess. Does Honeycomb represent a second or third “era” of the band, with the previous eras having gone undocumented? Do you have more material lying around that has yet to be recorded and released? Vague plans for further releases?
WIMBC: 11 years ago, we were writing complex, melodic, somewhat mathy songs. After a few years apart, we reassembled and spent lots of time improvising and performing very loose, free-form sets. Our current music draws from this history and catapults us forward like a magnet gun to new incarnations. We are working on a piece of musical theater composed with the hope of entering it in Edinborough’s Fringe festival. There are some earlier recordings out there if you can find them. We have very detailed plans for future releases and we look forward to touring abroad, especially Europe, Japan, & Korea.
AG: I get a strong sense of Zappa and Beefheart from your music. Am I assuming correctly? Are there some bands/musicians that have major influences on you that might be surprising, considering the type of music you’re making? Springsteen? Stravinsky? Jurassic 5?
WIMBC: John and I adore music and generate little ditties constantly whenever we’re together. But we don’t listen to very much music these days. We don’t care much for or know much Zappa or Beefheart. If anything we keep looking back to the music that originally inspired us to want to play.
Yeah, major influences are musicians from the 1990’s Chicago punk scene (including Assembly Line People Program, Cap’n Jazz, US Maple, Trenchmouth, etc.), John Cage, Conlon Nancarrow, Noam Chomsky, late Coltrane, John Zorn, Balinese Gamelan, classical Hindustani, and more recently Bik Bent Braam, Carson McWhirter, Hamid Drake, Paper Mice, & Sun Ra. We look to iconoclast and revolutionary thinkers for inspiration. Our people, other art forms, and nature are more influential to us than other musical acts. Although seeing a lousy touring band has always been an inspiration for us. We would often leave shows saying, well, we’d better play out more because we have something more rigorous to offer.
AG: This is quite the question, but what is your songwriting process like? Am I right in understanding that there’s a lot of influence taken from speech sounds and rhythms in crafting your songs?
WIMBC: In addition to more standard compositional approaches, we do rely upon an idiosyncratic notation system we call Syllabic Composition. Written or spoken text provides the complex rhythmic underpinning upon which melodic passages are built and transformed. We find patterns in the scansion of stressed and unstressed syllables and then leave the words behind as a kind of scaffolding or lost wax. We hope to construct powerful, intricately-wrought melodies and rhythms which have the familiarity of speech but the vast emotional valences of music. Sometimes, we do present the verbal scaffolding as sung compositions. We’re not tied-down to any one way of composing. Being playful and innovative about seeking new paths to music that feels legitimate to us and staying open-minded about the process has proven crucial to our creativity.
AG: (If this goes unanswered in the previous question): Can you talk about the Braille booklet you include with the release? Are the “lyrical structures and notations” inspiration for the complex rhythms throughout Honeycomb, or simply a description thereof?
WIMBC: The Braille booklet is the notated score for the Honeycomb album and is a continuation of a pointillist theme we began with shotgunned band t-shirts. We are not interested in just making band “merch” and instead see an opportunity to additionally engage ourselves and others. We shot t-shirts with Seth’s shotgun leaving a tattered shot pattern over the words, Why I Must Be Careful. In contrast, we also made a WIMBC kevlar “bulletproof” t-shirt. We hand-loaded and have available WIMBC shotgun shells with lead-free safety glass. We have handmade WIMBC bricks that are accompanied by a 50-page list of all banks receiving money from the TARP Bailout. We like to think of each WIMBC brick thrown through the window of a corporate bank as an individual dot in the pointillist canvas of impending corporate financial ruin. Which lead us to create Why I Must Be Careful Stock Certificates. The value of each share fluctuates according to real wealth as measured by certain specific criteria. Both of us raise animals and grow food and so are interested in the ideas and actualities of function and waste.
AG: There are a lot of little things happening on the record that take an interesting stance on what form a recorded piece of music should take. I’m even talking strictly in terms of the audio, here, and not even the very cool packaging and Braille booklet that comes along with the album. Is there a uniting idea behind the presentation of your work? As the first generation of listeners who will have heard your music before seeing the band live is waiting in the wings, is this your way of maintaining control over the “performance?”
WIMBC: Even after 11 years of making music together, we’re still figuring out what the purpose of a recorded album is for a band like us. We love performing live and find it very difficult to capture the energy and spontaneity of the live show in the recording studio. Our approach to the music and art of this record was certainly very intentional. We feel a duty to be activists in certain respects. We’re not pop musicians and we’re seeking something other than fame. The best we can do is interact with others and try to fend off the nihilism.
AG: I’ve got this fascination with bands put together by a few stray instrumentalists (like WIMBC) and comparing them to academic avant-garde music (which I get pretty well exposed to, attending Lawrence University, with its very own Lawrence Conservatory). Honeycomb feels to me that, if this had been written down on a score and presented as a “Symphony for Piano and Percussion,” it would feel not at all out of place in that world of academia. But you’re a band, and as a result are presenting the music in the tradition of the rock album, essentially. I love that both worlds have (some sort of) an audience, and are essentially grappling with the same issues in music, and creating music that challenges listeners in a very similar way. Do thoughts like these consciously cross your mind? I see this music as uniting the kids in Black Flag shirts and the middle-aged Zappa-Dad English Professors. Have you gotten that sense from the response to your music? Is that a secondary goal of yours?
WIMBC: We have no real idea who would like this music. The music we love challenges its listeners and we don’t know any other way than to follow that lead. We don’t consider the demographic of our audience when we compose but the variety of people who respond to Why I Must Be Careful is surprisingly wide.
Rock is often trying to be popular, academia might be trying to be smart, whereas bebop was about rawness and expression and alienation. Seth saw a good wheatpaste about it in the Lloyd District.
AG: Speaking of academia, do either of you have degrees in music?
WIMBC: No. We feel like outsiders. Seth is self taught and John tries to act like he were. We have consistently been writing music much too difficult for us and progressing in technique only because of the needs of the music.
AG: How much is improvised on the record? I’m guessing not a whole lot of Side A. Those solos on Side B seem to be improvised, but what about the crazier, perhaps noisy stuff on Side B?
AG: Why the decision to make just two tracks on the album? I’m assuming the music wasn’t written – and seems not to be performed – in the two long-form tracks you present on the record.
WIMBC: In keeping with our live show, we don’t stop very often; we’re not playing discrete 4-minute songs; we tend push out a single, high-energy, long-form structured improvisation.
AG: Do you improvise live?
WIMBC: Yes. Purely improvised parts erupt all over the place. We often perform knowing we will touch upon a dozen or so compositions, but not knowing the order in which they will arise. The improvisational connective tissue between more set parts keeps things interesting for us.
AG: How much do you owe your sound to the simple fact that you are a two-piece band? It seems songs crafted with your level of precision can only be the result of a very small band, if not a one-person project. AU, Planets, Hella, Cheval de Frise, and, say, Colin Stetson, (an odd assortment, I’ll grant you) all achieve an impressive level of composed complexity that feels out of the reach of even a three-piece band – simply coordinating all three members would prove too much at the levels of complexity these groups work with. Do you agree? Was it a conscious choice to form the lean two-piece outfit that you are?
WIMBC: We suffer from Horror vacui. It’s both satisfying and detrimental in some ways. It’s a good battle. We remain a two piece for both aesthetic and practical reasons. But there are many examples of three piece or larger groups playing music with highly intricate levels of precision: Zs, Everybody, Realization Orchestra, Moisture Throne, etc. For us, the directness and immediacy of a good two-piece band is more satisfying than larger groups.
Thanks Addy Goldberg for your time and interest. It’s very flattering.
5eth & ]ohn