Part heavy metal, part psychedelic—Kylesa has always been a pleasing enigma during its 14 years together. While their sound is always changing, their new album, Exhausting Fire, sounds a little like a mix between Breaking Benjamin and Pink Floyd. And while fans will have to wait until October to hear the new album, they can still catch them on their tour, which starts in September.
Below, vocalist and guitarist Phillip Cope discusses the band’s newest work, their own record label, and the special influence of their hometown, Savannah.
Are you guys excited about the tour kicking off at the Gramercy Theatre?
Oh yeah, we’re definitely excited. We actually haven’t toured in over a year, so we’re itching to get back out.
And you also have Exhausting Fire approaching soon. What can we expect from you guys as that comes? What are you hoping listeners get out of it?
Well, we hope the people dig it! I mean, we put a lot of work into it, a lot of time into it. The best success for us is if people are into our band enjoy it, you know, that’s our goal.
You’ve had a theme on all your other albums—what’s Exhausting Fire’s?
The theme for this one is rebuilding. For Ultraviolet, it was loss. So this is the next step. After loss, it’s rebuilding.
How are you going about executing that theme?
There’s a lot of variants in it. And with each theme on each album, we do have different variants on that theme. One is, you have to, before you can rebuild, you have to deal with the loss. You’ve been broken down and you just find a way to move forward. And the new album, Exhausting Fire, it’s that. It’s dealing with a lot of that and trying to figure out how to move forward. By the end of the album, it is kind of letting things go, and accepting what you have to do and move on.
What do you think are the biggest changes happening on this album musically?
I wouldn’t say there’s any major changes—I think all the elements that have been there on all our other albums are still there. I think there’s some additional things. We’re learning to be better vocalists—Laura [Pleasants] and I are both putting a lot of work into vocals for this album, and I’m pretty proud of it. I think we did probably the best job we’ve done on an album yet. At least we feel that way, we tried. And we’re getting more and more into the electronic aspect of things as well, so we kind of started getting more of that on Ultraviolet and on this album there’s even more. At the same time, there’s still plenty of heaviness. So I think it’s just—hopefully it’s seen as an improvement of things we’ve already done.
You’re more mature.
[…] We are getting older and more experienced, so I think it’s more than just being mature. It’s having the time to figure things out and reflect on some of the older things we’ve done. I guess that’s the main point I’m making. We’re trying to refine. Experimentation has always been a big part of the band, but at the same time, we’re also trying to refine a lot of the ideas as we go along. I feel like maybe this time was a little more refined than, say, Ultraviolet.
To shift a little bit from the album, I wanted to ask about [Kylesa’s independent label] Retro Futurist. Could you talk about how that started, and bring us up to date on what you’re planning for it for the next few months?
We started the label about a couple years ago. I’ve produced with some other bands, and most of the time the bands just kinda send demos out to other labels. And I’ve been working with some bands that I thought were really good, and we’ve always wanted to start a label. I mean, we’ve talked about it for years; money’s obviously an issue there. But we just figured we could probably start it and uh, it moves pretty fast. We’ve got some great bands, so we’re really excited about that.
And here we are, almost years later, and we’ve got, I think, four records coming out. For a new label, that’s pretty crazy to be getting to that point. It’s a lot of work, when you’re trying to get your own album out and four other bands’ albums out, it’s pretty crazy. But it’s rewarding and it’s hard work, but it’s cool to see the excitement from other bands. Plus the bands we’re working with are newer bands who are just getting started, for the most part, so it’s exciting—it’s exciting for them, it’s exciting for us. I think we’ve been able to feed off of some of that energy. So it’s definitely been worthwhile.
And how did you guys select which artists to represent?Do you have a vision for the label?
Yes and no. I would say the main vision is like, we’re not trying to focus on a certain style or theme, but the thing we definitely look at for the bands we’re working with is, “What are they doing that’s unique to themselves?” And they don’t necessarily need to be breaking new ground on anything, but we look for bands that kinda have a unique vision and are very talented for where they’re at. Talent and vision’s real important for us. We were one of those bands that were doing things out of the box early on. And we knew how hard it was, when you don’t really have a scene, it’s hard. And so we’re kinda helping other bands out that kinda come from the same way we did, they’re not particularly part of one scene or anything like that. So I would say that’s the closest thing we have to vision.
But, you know, we’re big record fans, and we’re just fans of art, music, and everything involved around it. For us, it’s just really fun to be part of that and have an extra outlet for some of our vision. […] It’s giving us a chance to do things outside of our own box in Kylesa.
And do you think being involved in the business and production side of things has changed the way you guys create?
Not really, because we always had a good idea about how the business works. Well, not always, but we’ve been around a long time. I think if anything it’s making me a little more appreciative to all the labels and people that have helped us out over the years (laughs). Now I’m getting to see how hard it actually is on the other end of things. I definitely have much more appreciation for other people running labels and trying to do that kind of thing.
Kylesa obviously have strong ties to Savannah, Georgia, both living there and having the label there. What effect do you think living in such a distinct city has had on your music?
That’s a good question. We get asked that a lot, so do a lot of the other bands and people here. And there’s so many ways to answer it. One thing I love about Savannah is it does have a nice creative community within it. And it’s changing, it’s kind of a transient town, there’s lots of people coming in and out of the city, so I think that’s really cool, just having this constant influx of creative people. And the people that stay here obviously try to expand on it, and keep the city’s theme going.
I would say, it’s probably the most creative it’s ever been. There’s just so many bands and so many different people doing things, awesome things, trying to make the city an even better place. And there’s becoming more and more support for art and music here. So when you see a lot of the people around you being creative and the cool things they’re doing, it’s inspiring. It makes you want to do a lot more yourself and improve. It’s a beautiful city, too, and that can be inspiring as well, being close to the beach—there’s a lot of things that makes Savannah great.
And is there a particularly heavy psychedelic scene or heavy metal scene in Savannah or is that a Kylesa-exclusive thing?
I wouldn’t say it’s Kylesa-exclusive, because as soon as I say that, there could be a whole group of bands. It kind of comes and goes—I wouldn’t say it’s the main scene around here right now like it used to be. There’s other scenes: there’s a garage-punk scene, there’s a post-punk scene—Savannah’s got all of it right now. It’s a wide variety of music here right now, and I wouldn’t say one scene’s really dominating. […] I think that’s a positive thing. It doesn’t need to be a lots of Kylesas. And people here realize that, and I think that’s cool.
Definitely. I was just asking because people don’t necessarily associate your sound with coming out of the South. But you’re saying there’s a lot more to Southern music—
There’s a lot more to the Savannah scene than just heavy music. Now, there’s some great heavy bands, sure, that’s come out of here. It’s expanded to a lot more, but I think what connects it all is that a lot of the bands share the same work ethic. Everyone works really hard, and there’s a really do-it-yourself kind of aesthetic to a lot of the bands.
The interesting thing about Savannah is because of where we’re located, we don’t get a lot of the big tours. So most of the bands that come to our town are being brought by other local bands, smaller underground bands. So on any weekend you can go see easily five different shows. But because it’s not being constantly hit up with other tours, I think the local scene has a little more power. Being a good local band becomes important. And luckily we have a lot of good ones.
On the flipside, you guys also talked about how recent travels have had a big effect on Exhausting Fire. Could you talk a little bit about that?
When you’re traveling, you’re constantly getting new perspectives on things. Eventually some of those things are going to influence you, whether it’s just having too much time to think in a van, just spending hours and hours a day isolated in there, that can do things. Or just seeing new bands and learning about new styles of music or new things popping up, you’re like, “Whoa, that’s cool.” It could just be having the time you don’t have at home to read a book, you find an interesting book that changes your perspective on something.
The thing about touring is that you have a lot of downtime, too. I think having that downtime to think, and to read and to write, and to do all these things, it can also have an influence. And we toured pretty heavily for Ultraviolet, so we had plenty of time to open ourselves up and be influenced by other things.
And as a group, do you feel any pressure from fans or the industry or more genre-aligned artists to lean toward one style or the other?
I think the majority of pressure we feel is what we put on ourselves. We realize we have a good fan base, and we really appreciate the people who supported us and we don’t wanna let them down. We do feel a certain amount of pressure in just doing what we can. But that’s not coming from a fan, that’s not coming from the industry. Nobody’s writing us or telling us we have to be better, it’s just something we’ve instilled in ourselves over the years[…] if you want to take up somebody’s time as far as them listening to your music, you need to try to offer something exceptional. I’m not saying we are, but we try to do the best we can, so that it is worth somebody’s time and it is worth somebody’s money.
Do you guys have any plans for after the tour?
More touring (laughs).
Kylesa’s new album, Exhausting Fire, will be out Oct. 2. You can catch them performing at the Gramercy Theatre on Sept. 1. For more information, visit kylesa.com.