With ‘Automata I’, Between the Buried and Me have crafted a sublime conceptual piece in the same vein as its immediate predecessor, 2016’s excellent Coma Ecliptic. While it does not break a lot of new ground stylistically, there is an extra emotional heft in the singing and melodies, and an atmospheric touch, which is reflective of the lyrical concept. These new elements elevate the overall song-craft and record cohesiveness, and serve to effectively anchor the set in spite of its complex and often disparate motifs and arrangements.
Metal Wani’s Andrew Small had a quick chat with BTBAM frontman Tommy Giles. Here’s the detailed chat:
- Musically, Automata feels like a complete statement. How does Automata II fit in? I get the impression that you guys make the rules, so I doubt that splitting it up over 2 releases was not a record company thing. Provided that’s true, what factored into the decision? Was it the story arc? Is there a drastic shift in sound or style?
Tommy: We actually wrote it as one album and after the fact the more we listened to it there was this moment literally halfway though the album that was an intermission so to speak. We thought it would be a cool way to release it, the label was on board they thought it would be a cool way to release it that way as did we because it was unique to how we normally do it. After all these years it’s nice to mix it up and bit. I personally like the fact that in 2018 people aren’t getting exactly what they want when they want it. I think it’s rare in these days. It kind of builds up an excitement for part two and shines a light on the second half of the album that it might not have had if we released it traditionally. I think Automata part II feels very cohesive with part one. It’s perhaps a little more experimental, a little more off the wall but it’s cool and I’m really stoked for people to hear it. As far as the story arc it really worked out well. It was just one of those things that happened organically and we instantly felt like it was the right thing to do.
- Automata is the second album in a row, and one of three that overtly deal with the topics of sleep, loss of consciousness, dreams etc. What draws you to the subject matter? Do you tap into books, stories movies, etc.? Personal experience? I feel like Automata in particular shares a common theme with the Netlix show Black Mirror. Have you seen the show? If so, was it a direct influence?
Tommy: I get the Black Mirror reference a lot and I have not see the show. I hear a lot of good things about it. I’m aware that its kind of a modern day Twilight Zone and I’m a huge fan of that show and that’s a big influence. For me it’s all about coming up with stories that work well with our music. Our music has a feeling that works well with these themes that I bring to the table and there is a certain level of darkness that is called for with the stores. As far as influence I just sit down and write. I read a little but I don’t read anything that is similar to what I write at all. Inspiration is a tough word because I think a lot of people who write its not like you are listing to or reading something think I want to replicate that which is a weird way to work. For me it’s all about the right moment and if things are pouring out of you naturally like that. That’s how I write music and lyrics.
- The buzz on the inter-webs is that fans are hailing the album as a return to a heavier sound coming off of Coma Ecliptic. Condemned to the Gallows certainly turns up the heavy, and is in my opinion the quintessential BTBAM song. Was a return to heaviness intentional? Did you intentionally release one of the records heaviest songs as the first single? Does part II follow suit?
Tommy: As far as picking Condemned we felt that it was a good starting point for the album, especially being the first track. I like when a song is released and it Is the beginning. We’ve always done that. As far as the heavier sound it wasn’t anything that we really talked about. We try to be very genuine in what we are writing. When we start writing some of us were writing some heavier stuff. It was just happening naturally. It’s obviously part of us and a part of our DNA so naturally it felt right for us. Coma wasn’t as ‘heavy’ but just because what we were writing in that moment wasn’t in that vain. We’re not the kind if band that sits down and determines what the next record is going to be. As far as part two I don’t listen to music in the terms of heavy or not its just more songs.
- My favorite song on the LP is House Organ. Lyrically, and atmospherically, it captures the spirit of the album concept perfectly, and it’s the song on the album that gets stuck in my head—particularly the chorus/outro – “Hold your tongue and let me speak. There’s more to this than it might seem.” Tell me a little bit about that song and its lyrics.
Tommy: At that point the character is out looking for his family and he gets to a point that he wants to give up and wants to kill himself. He’s in the process of doing so in the cabin that he woke up in and he sees his son and it all turns around for him. The “hold your tongue and let me speak” is basically saying there is more to the story that it seems and there is a lot we don’t know about. For instance his son is not really there and this is all a dream that is being broadcast across the world.
- How did the songs on Automata come together? Did you piece it together from various riffs? Did you start with the choruses and work backwards? Are shifts in tempos and time signatures the results of piecing together riffs, or are they an exercise in building tension or keeping things interesting? Do you write separately for BTBAM and your solo albums?
Tommy: Its tough to talk about writing because there is no magic formula. When its time to write we all sit down and write a lot on our own without sharing anything. We get our own ideas together first and then start working together on things and see where everyone’s head is at. From there we start to get an idea of where the album is going. Every song is completely different as far as writing. Some songs are only written by two people some by all five of us. It really depends. Some songs are based off one chord progression or a riff. It really just depends. We don’t think about it. We’ve been doing this such a long time that when its time to get our albums together and work we do it and it happens quickly and smoothly. It’s like anything. You become good at what you do and it’s hard to explain that. I think anyone that writes music knows that a lot of it is just magic and things happen for a reason. As far as writing for solo albums vs BTBAM I do write completely separate. When BTBAM writes we are solely writing BTBAM material. Solo stuff I normally write on the road with BTBAM. I keep them very separate.
- I think the synths are a big piece of the BTBAM sound. They add a lot of atmosphere, and certainly contribute to the overall melodic element. Are the synths part of the building blocks of the songs, or are they brought in afterwards? As a band operating in the progressive arena, are you ever tempted to go full-on Dream Theater? Will we ever see you wearing a cape onstage Rick Wakeman style?
Tommy: I doubt I’ll ever wear a cape. As far as synths we have a lot of songs. Some sections or even songs are written off of synth or piano. Sometimes the synth is afterwards; it really just depends on the song or part. Dan writes a lot with synth and keyboard, between him and I and Blake a bit it’s a big part of our sound. There are moments where it is the main layer of the part but it really depends on the songs and album.
- In my opinion, BTBAM is in the top tier of bands that really pull off the clean/dirty vocal approach. It seems to me that the arrangements and song flow contribute to the success, but the ability to interject earworm melodies are a big part of what really make them work. Also, I feel like your clean vocals get stronger and more distinctive with each album cycle. Do you have any specific melodic vocal influences, or do you just work with what you’ve got? I specifically hear bits of Freddie Mercury, Perry Farrell, and Jeremy Enigk in your phrasing, approach, etc. Am I way off base? Vocal influences on the death growl side? I hear Heartwork era Jeff Walker.
Tommy: There’s a lot of talk of influence, but I write what comes to mind. I hope my voice sounds like me. I love Freddie Mercury, Perry Farrell, and Jeremy Enigk and those are definitely people I listen to. I also love Hartwork by Carcass but I wouldn’t’ say I’m intentionally trying to sound like anyone. At the end of they day my job is to make the songs come together and be cohesive. I need to do what’s best for each part in each song to make everything flow well. When I’m writing I don’t really think in terms of singing or screaming or stuff that I’m listening to. I try to go with my gut and be as genuine as possible and make it sound cool.
- Coma Ecliptic was on my top 10 for 2016, so for me, Automata had a lot to live up to. In my opinion, you delivered. My own review for this site, focused less on the return to heaviness, and more on the emotional heft in the singing and melodies and the overall atmospherics of the record. Millions in particular, breaks new ground. You seem to be continually challenging yourselves and mixing things up. As such, will we ever see Deliverance/Damnation type release, where the opposite ends of your sound are isolated?
Tommy: We’ve honestly never talked about it. I think if it naturally happens at some point than yes. If we’re still doing this when I’m 60 I doubt I’m going to want to be doing death growls but who knows! We’re not really the kind of band that sits there and talks about what we’re going to do next. I do think we’re always trying to do new things. It keeps up entertained and is interesting for us to do new things. The more music we write in general, with or without the band, we learn new things. I think we constantly get better at our own instruments and I think we constantly help each other get better at what we do within the band. I think all those things are a big factor in the progression of our sound. Whatever feels right for us at the moment we are going to go for. We’re not the kind of band that is going to do one particular thing or cater to a certain audience or type of music fan.
- With Coma Ecliptic, and to a lesser extent on this record, the band appears to be trending towards simplification or streamlining of your compositions. If so, what is the reason? To reach a broader audience? Searching for a subtler form of complexity?
Tommy: I think we just enjoy that more now that we are older. The subtler form of complexity is very accurate. We’re not young kinds anymore trying to prove anything. We’re not trying to show of or show that we can play crazy stuff. We’ve kind of ‘been there done that’, and I think a lot of that doesn’t really appeal to us that much and at the end of the day we’re trying to write a good song. What we’re doing now is what we consider to be writing a good song. I guess simpler melodies and more focus on the melodic element is what interests us at this point. I really like the dramatic contrast that we have always done, jumping around from different genres and moods and making that all flow really well with each other. I want the listener to not know what’s around every corner.
- Touring-wise, it looks like you have an intensive month long jaunt through the states lined up. Any additional touring plans? Personally, I haven’t see you guys since the Progressive Nation tour in 2008. so I really hope to catch you on this tour cycle. Can you tell us what the set list will look like? Will it be Automata I heavy? Will you play anything off of Automata II?
Tommy: Right now we’re on tour with The Dear Hunter and Leprous, which has been a phenomenal tour so far. We’re doing a pretty well rounded set. We’re playing material from The Great Misdirect and newer. We’re playing three Automata I songs. We have not played anything off Automata II but we will probably in the summer. We have some other touring plans in the future for later this year but nothing is announced yet. We are doing Europe with Tesseract in the fall. Hopefully you’ll get to see us.