I’ve been fortunate in my time as a writer, both here at CincyMusic.com, and elsewhere over the years, to get to chat with and ask questions of bands and musicians that I respect, appreciate, and generally geek out over whenever possible. When the opportunity came up to do so with Pianos Become The Teeth - a post-hardcore quintet from Baltimore who happened to release one of my top 3 favorite albums last year - I naturally jumped at the chance. Here is a band that has made 2 incredible albums of brazenly impenetrable labyrinths of angular, amelodic and chaotic technical screamo and post-hardcore, only to seemingly change course completely with their most recent effort, last year’s Keep You. For fans, and even casual listeners, it was a bold step away from their signature sound. But in the end, it was a move that proved both impressive in its ease, and surprising in its effect.
Guitarist Chad McDonald took the time to answer a few questions about how that change came about, the writing process, touring, and what the last few months have been like for the band since Keep You’s release. My sincere thanks to him for his time and honesty. Check out our discussion below:
Jared Bowers: I’ve always been curious about the process behind touring for an album, choosing what to highlight and premiere, and what to fall back on. I had the pleasure of seeing you tour with Circa Survive, before Keep You came out, and was certainly intrigued by the new tracks you chose to play alongside the new ones. How much do you have to temper your own decisions concerning what you play and how you present it to an audience?
Chad McDonald: Thank you for the compliment. Choosing a set list, especially after you release a new record, requires a huge amount of restraint and patience. After spending two years writing, recording and releasing a record all you want to do is share those songs with people.
When I was younger I remember being disappointed when a band would release a new album and only play new songs live. Now that I’m older and in a band myself I actually have quite a bit of admiration for those bands because I understand the mindset - and as annoying it is to be a fan in that situation I appreciate the brashness of a band that says “they don’t want to hear these songs but lets play them anyway.”
However, I don’t think we are that band and I don’t want to disappoint people. You need to be aware that most of the people who are coming to see you didn’t exclusively listen to your new record and they will want to hear songs from other albums as well. We try to approach our setlist as a mixture of all our material - probably about half old and half new.
JB: The release tour came quickly on the heels of the tour with Circa Survive, but was fairly brief - and a lot of time has elapsed between these upcoming shows and that tours’ end (at least in the states). Was it simply a matter of circumstance that your tours fell the way they did, or was there a reason for the several months of off time in the states between tours?
CM: Well that was actually my fault. My wife and I took our honeymoon in Thailand for the majority of November because that is right before the high tourist season begins and traveling is dirt cheap. We did a few release shows in the North East right before I left and then I flew back to the states and immediately started the Circa tour.
JB: There was an easily recognizable shift happening in your songwriting, especially as it progressed from The Lack Long Afterthrough the split releases leading up to Keep You(and I’m sure it can easily be argued there was a shift between Old Pride andTLLA) At what point did you make the conscious decision to make such a clear separation between the ways you approached your older material and your newest? And, I guess, did you see it that way, or was it more of a natural progression than we might realize?
CM: There was a three year gap between TLLA and Keep You so I think time and evolving preferences were the main contributing factors to the shift.
We view it as a natural progression but I can understand how it doesn’t seem that way from an outsider’s perspective. When you’re so involved with something day to day like we are with this band, it can be hard to step outside the group and see how other people perceive the band or gauge how much you have changed.
JB: I want to talk a little bit about the new album, Keep You, without getting too personal - although I will say that as jarring as the change in sound was, the end result was one of the most intriguing, and ultimately satisfying albums I’d heard in a long, long time. I’m sure every band has their own particular writing style, how they put songs together, how they both plan for and allow for evolution to take place. How did things change for the band asKeep You was coming together
CM: Well, thank you for that compliment. That’s very nice of you.
Our writing process hasn’t changed much over the years. The usual approach for us is: guitar riff or chord progression > Float the ideas at practice and discuss > start constructing the song with drums and bass > put a framework together and start ripping it apart and rebuilding until it works > Kyle writes lyrics all throughout this process but usually waits until the song is finished to send us a demo.
I think we have become better at communicating with one another both when we play and when we float ideas so that makes experimentation easier to explore and work through together. We knew that Kyle wasn’t going to yell and at some level I think we all realized that the lyrical themes didn’t require heavy instrumentation. We never explicitly talk about that kind of stuff - I think we’ve just spent so much time together that we kind of intuitively realized that we should follow this path and see where it leads.
JB: We live in increasingly connected times, with increasingly connected lives. Especially within the circle of bands, fans, and critics that PBTT often finds itself connected to, how did the band handle Keep You’s release. It’s a, shall we say, divisive release that prompted a lot of discussion - how much did you allow yourselves to be involved in, if any?
CM: Aside from doing interviews, we all remove ourselves from contributing to the discussion as much as possible. I think it would be uncomfortable to be put in a position where I try to convince you to check out my record because in that situation it’s impossible for me to avoid coming across as self serving.
I do monitor the conversations though. I enjoy reading reviews and hearing other people’s thoughts especially when it’s from someone whose opinion I respect. It’s very gratifying to release a song and receive instant feedback.
JB: Your music has always been emotional, almost overwhelmingly so, but with a majority of Keep You being so dialed back, yet still so emotional and powerful in a completely different way, has the process of incorporating the new material into the set proven easy or difficult?
CM: Thank you for saying that. Incorporating the new material seemed like an obstacle at first, but now that we’ve played around with the set I think it flows pretty well. When we play we try to make the songs as dynamic as possible and I think we tend to accentuate the heaviness of our songs so the new material is more abrasive live than on the record. I think that the added abrasiveness, coupled with the fact that we always like to have some noise between songs, keeps the set moving smoothly.
JB: With the run of shows that will bring you to The Southgate House Revival, you’re striking out on your own before heading out on a headlining run with LOMA PRIETA and my good friends in gates. Are you treating these as warm-up shows more or less? Are you planning anything in particular for this run, or just waiting to see how things shake out day to day?
CM: No, we aren’t treating them as warm up shows. I view them as the beginning of a long tour. We have two weeks off between the SXSW tour and the beginning of the headlining run with LOMA and Gates so it will all feel like one big tour. We bought a heavy duty fog machine so we can play in a cloud like Sunn o))).
JB: It seems like after this month, things start to pick up significantly for the band. Is there anything else in the works, other than the announced shows mentioned above, that fans can look forward to?
CM: We have a 7” coming out for Record Store Day called Close that consists of two B-sides from Keep You. As for tours, we have a few things in the works but nothing solid at the moment.
JB: Is there anything else you would like to add or mention?
CM: Thank you for the interview and all the kinds words. See you soon!
Thanks again to Chad for taking the time to answer my questions. I cannot recommend enough heading out to The Southgate House Revival this Saturday, March 14th, to catch Pianos Become The Teeth live, as it is a truly unique and memorable experience. Their new album, Keep You, is out now on Epitaph Records, and like their live show, comes highly recommended.