“Predictability doesn’t do anyone any favors…”: An Interview with Lazer/Wulf

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One of the most exciting and vital new bands to come out of the Southeast this year – and one of the most exciting and vital bands that you’ll discover this year period – is Atlanta’s Lazer/Wulf, an invigorating trio featuring Bryan Aiken on guitar, Sean Peiffer on bass, and Brad Rice on drums.

Lazer/Wulf’s first full-length – The Beast of Left and Right, which comes out tomorrow on Kylesa’s nascent Retro Futurist label – not only adds to what’s already one of the most compelling catalogues you’ll find on any new label (other releases include Sierra’s PSlip, Jagged Vision’s Harvest Earth, and Darkentries’ The Make Believe), but it also offers something new.

And I mean completely new. Phillip Cope, Laura Pleasants, and their Kylesa cohort have discovered a band in Lazer/Wulf that turns music on its head. Aiken, Peiffer, and Rice play with the technical expertise and sheer brilliance of great jazz players, prog rockers, and master metal musicians. But they do so with a vitality and enthusiasm that make you want to hear their music again.

This is all a way of saying that The Beast of Left and Right is the kind of record you need in your collection, preferably RIGHT NOW. It’s definitely one of the best and most original debut records you’ll hear all year.

If my introduction sounds enthusiastic, just read this interview with Bryan (which features cameo appearances by Sean and Brad). His passion for music and love for talking about it are infectious. Have fun getting to know the guitarist from one the most creative bands on the planet.

SE: Where are you guys from and how did you form?

BA: That could be your only question, and you’d find all the answers there. Where we’re from and how we came together is integral to this album, and to our sound as a whole. Sean and I found each other in Athens, GA, which is a small town packed to its border with musicians or music lovers. Every possible genre thrives there, and in a town that small, the players don’t simply co-exist; we all know each other, share bills, pass notes, collaborate. Everyone becomes an experimental artist to varying degrees, because of the intellectual cross-pollination of so many creative people.

So when we started Lazer/Wulf, it was clear that it wasn’t enough that we be just a “metal band” in that community. It was required that we be, or push ourselves to become, something bigger than that. Anything we were willing to try, they were willing to hear and respond to, and that’s an incredible place to nurture an experimental project. We would go fully weird, and they’d chant, “weirder!” And so here we are, a product of our environment. But there are worst kinds of peer pressure than from an audience of geniuses.

Sean and I continued with this project through college, and Lazer/Wulf was a five-piece with vocals back then. But once we’d completed our degrees and started losing members to more practical avenues, it seemed like we needed to make a choice. Keep playing music, or make good on our fairly expensive education. We did the latter, and Lazer/Wulf was dead for a few years. I even went back to school for a second degree; it seemed like our choice had been made.

The longer we were away from this band, the darker it got, at least for me. I had an epiphany: it wasn’t that I had made a choice not to pursue music, but that I was continuing to choose, again and again, not to pursue music every day. Every day, I was renewing my own responsibility for not going back and picking up where we left off musically. To be fair, the longer we waited, the more of a sacrifice it became, to undo our progress in our respective fields… but something had to give. We weren’t fulfilled, and it should have always been that simple.

So, in 2010, we decided that we didn’t want to swallow our regrets anymore. Sean and I sought a drummer to complete what would be a new trio, and found Brad. We kept the name from our college band, and now we’re giving it everything we have, as it probably should have always been. But we’re smarter and hungrier now, and the band is stronger for it, now that we know it’s what we really want.

SE: Why did you decide to pursue mainly instrumental music?

BA: It was never an outright choice. As I said, we used to have a stand-alone vocalist. But after he left the band, it was our instinct to use that as a challenge, to think outside the box. As musicians, it pushes us to make the music more engaging, trying to communicate without words.

That said, though we’re often pegged “instrumental,” sometimes I have an extra harmony or rhythm that I want to add to a song. And given our limited instrumentation, my only option is to sing it. I don’t think that’s a betrayal, though. It would be less honest for us to stick to our tidy genre classification without flexibility, rather doing what’s right for the moment. Predictability doesn’t do anyone any favors, but instinct is very important. I’d rather follow my own instincts than someone else’s rules.

SE: I was just writing about Boris, another band that does a lot of genre hopping in its music. You guys genre hop as well. What genres show up in The Beast of Left and Right and how did you become interested in them?

BA: There’s a lot of Athens in that, too! We learned that nothing is truly off limits, as long as it’s for the good of the song. Experimentation meant to confuse or impress people will always backfire. People can tell, and it’s disingenuous songwriting. Sean and I have very different musical palettes and interests, but we’re only ever interested in doing what’s right for the moment. We think about how things will play out live, or in the context of an album, and write our songs around that. Moment to moment. If we make people uncomfortable with one part, is it worth balancing it with something fun? Or going darker, and really bumming them out? The only rule is to keep things interesting; to others, sure, but most importantly interesting to ourselves, as we tour and play these songs hundreds of times. They have to stay vital and worth revisiting.

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SE: If you could invent a name to describe Lazer/Wulf music, what would it be?

BA: I’m not sure! We took the name Lazer/Wulf because we thought it was rad and unforgettable, and it implies speed and agility, which is everything we wanted to sound like. That was a long time ago, though. We’re still figuring ourselves out, and hopefully always will be.

SE: How did you guys meet Phil, Laura, and the rest of Kylesa and get signed to Retro Futurist?

BA: Phil came to see us play for a handful of people. I’m not even sure he knew who we were; no one had heard of us, we were just finding our footing again as a band. He approached us after the show, and basically said, “You guys are rad. You want me to record your debut?” He was already a hero of ours through his work with other Georgia bands, so naturally we flipped out. Then, as we were recording the record, we flipped out again: “This record’s rad. You want to tour with Kylesa?” He had no reason to back us so hard, but Kylesa has a reputation for helping younger bands and pushing for upstarts that they believe in. It’s such a rare, beautiful thing, especially in such a long-running band, and it has changed our lives. I can’t put to words how thankful we are.

After finishing the record, which has become The Beast of Left and Right, and completing our first North American tour last year, apparently we confirmed for Phil and Kylesa that we were worthy of representing their new label, Retro Futurist. It’s an honor to be a part of it; we’ve been honored by our entire friendship with those guys.

SE: What’s the best thing about having The Beast of Left and Right come out on Retro Futurist?

BA: Their complete and honest support. It’s so humbling. They encourage us to be ourselves, to do or say whatever we need to be fulfilled. I was even able to do all the art for the album myself, which says a lot of their trust in our abilities and instincts. None of them have a fake bone in their body; they don’t lie or hide their feelings. If something sucks, these are the guys that’ll let you know, and why. Which is another great environment to nurture an experimental project. If they’re willing to stamp their name on our output, then that means they truly believe in it. It gives us the confidence to show it to people, knowing that they have our backs.

SE: The Beast of Left and Right is structured like a palindrome. Why did you use this approach and how did you execute it?

BA: Once we came back to this band, and started working on our first full-length, I knew it was going to be about choice. The idea that you can always go back and re-make any choice that you regret. That it’s never too late.

So I separated the album out into two halves: the right and left paths, which would converge into a center song that represents the choice between them. As the album progresses, the listener would be traveling backward down the right path, hit that fork in the road, and continue forward down the alternate path on the left. I wanted to two sides to be related, but opposite. They should feel like they hate each other, but be mirror images. So I drew out the structure, like a storyboard, of what I wanted to happen when. Then I started writing.

But that was just my inspiration; I can’t create anything without inspiration. Really, the album is supposed to stand on its own, without tricks or weirdo concepts. The only thing we’re ever concerned about is making satisfying, cathartic moments and playing rowdy punk shows. But the only way I get to do that is to write songs. And the only way I can write songs is with a narrative. It keeps me focused. I’m a huge nerd for palindromes and sci-fi stories and it’s fun to talk about, but really I just want to make something dark and heavy, but fun and hopeful. Again, opposites.

SE: Track one, “Choose Again,” sounds like a blend of jazz, metal, and prog. What’s your background in jazz and how does improvisation figure into your writing process?

BA: Sean and I aren’t formally trained on our instruments, but Brad is definitely a jazz drummer, so that informs our sound. But I know what I find interesting, and showing off isn’t it. We’re in it for the songs, and if they aren’t interesting to us, then we’ve failed. That’s the core of our jazz influence, beyond chord choices and structure; we want to do something unpredictable and that we’re passionate about. It’s never a conscious effort to blend styles or try to confuse people. I hope they aren’t ever confused, actually. Our songs are written pretty deliberately, to take the listener from point A to Z without cheating or missing a step.

It’s funny you mentioned this song in particular, because the right version of “Choose Again” was written so exactly and without room for error, that Phil wanted us to approach the song across from it, “Mutual End,” without even finishing some of the parts. For the solo section at the beginning, he had me take a nap, then woke me up by putting a guitar in my hands, pushing record, and said, “Here, play a solo.” I was so groggy, I had no idea what I was doing. I barely remember it. And it became my favorite part of the record.

SE: When you play “Choose Again” live, does it always turn out the same way? I’d have a hard time remembering all the parts and changes!

BA: Always and never. The songs themselves are always the same, but we play like a punk band. Technical music bores me when it’s just a talent show. We do put a lot of work into writing pieces specifically the way they should be written, but sometimes I just feel like breaking things. The audience tends to design our shows for us.

But to us, all things songs make a lot of sense, and could only flow in the direction we wrote them, so it feels natural. I think I can honestly say we never forget parts, because that would mean the part felt unnatural to us. We never want that to happen.

 

SE: What bands and individual players inspire you? Would each of you please answer this question?

BA: Radiohead, Cinemechanica, and Converge.

SP: Death, Dysrhythmia, and Enslaved. And a lot of Portuguese Hip-Hop.

BR: Primus, Opeth, and Queens of the Stone Age.

SE: The shortest song on the album is the ominous and dark “A Conflict of Memory.” Why did you go with this title?

BA: A couple reasons. Brace yourself, we’re about to get real nerdy.

By this point in the album, I figured we’re getting closer to the center, which is going to have to be an awful place, given that it represents revisiting a moment you wish you could un-live. On the album, I’m taking that wish literally, that you’re actually trying to change history and replace your own memories. What would that feel like during the process? To momentarily remember the same moment happening two different ways? There would have to be some warnings along the way, that what you’re doing is wrong, that you should never go back to that place. That what’s done is done. I obviously don’t believe that’s true; that’s the point of the album. But it’s never easy to re-make an old choice, especially after you’re so far down your path.

I also wanted to use this title because of how many subtle reprises we’re using all over the album. In every song, there are elements of the songs across from it, but played in a different way or on a different instrument or in a different key. You’re regularly hearing things you may have heard before. Or maybe not. Maybe you’re going crazy. Maybe it’s just deja vu. What would that feel like during the process? To momentarily remember the same melody happening two different ways?

SE: I’ve never before heard guitar riffing like what’s on “The Triple Trap.” How did you come up with the riffs?

BA: Thank you so much! Again, as a trio, there’s only so much we can play at once, so this song was an experiment in tapping the fretboard with both hands. I wanted to be in two places at once on the guitar throughout the song, so no part of it is out of my reach. That technique has been a mainstay of math-rock for a long time, but the first time I saw it live was also in Athens, by a couple bands called Cinemechanica and We Versus the Shark. It’s so much fun to watch, and I wanted to do an aggressive version of that style. Something that sounds mechanical, like a clock. It was fun re-learning some of the parts of “Concentric Eyes” using that technique, without relying on a pick.

SE: Please explain the genesis of the incredible drum riffs that begin “Lagarto.” Now I know why you credit Brad as “lead drummer.” He’s amazing.

BA: Thank you so much! That’s an older song of mine and Sean’s that we wanted to revisit with a new drummer. On this version, actually, we used two drummers: Brad and our friend Derek Olivera from the Atlanta band Big Jesus. Those guys practiced like crazy, mapping out who was playing what, and which kit would sound better for which part. They were trading parts back and forth and re-writing everything for this version. It was so much fun to watch them work! We wouldn’t have recorded “Lagarto” again unless we felt like we needed to do the definitive version of the song. I love what it became.

 

SE: It seems like a lot of the songs have short intros that feature one instrument. Are these instruments indicative of how the songs get started?

BA: Not really, it’s just how we chose to pace the album, respecting each track as its own piece, even though each is part of a larger whole. We tried to signal each track with its own intro. We’re always concerned with pacing our music, so we tried to build in some moments to re-charge the listener along the way. Otherwise, it can feel like force-feeding.

SE: What, musically, makes “Beast Reality” the “center piece” of the palindrome? How did you structure this song?

BA: Well, I knew I wanted the album to have a dark center song, that didn’t align itself completely to the left or right half. I also wanted it to be silent in the middle of the song, to mark the center of the album, like a moment of silence for the death of the right path. Then I’d pull elements from the two songs on either side of it to complete it. So I wrote “The Triple Trap” and “Concentric Eyes” first, which each use largely the same drum parts between them. Once that was done, I picked small parts of those songs, certain fills or riffs, that I thought it’d be fun to elaborate on in a different light. Since “Beast Reality” is supposed to be about wrong choices and the sacrifice of switching from one path to another, I wanted it to be dark and stressful, unlike the songs flanking it.

SE: How did Sean develop the cool bass line with which the song begins?

BA: Coming out of the “Triple Trap,” even though the three Traps (tracks four-six) are really one piece of music, we wanted it to feel like a new song was beginning. Again, it was important to us that each track stand on its own, so pacing was very important.

SE: As I listen to the album, I’m continually struck by its energetic and almost frenetic vibe, which I normally don’t associate with instrumental music. I’m reminded of free jazz, power metal, funk… Care to comment?

BA: We want it to be fun, sure. We’re a live band, first and foremost. As much as a like writing songs, I love playing them in front of energetic people, writing intricate prog tunes just to throw our instruments around the stage. I don’t think instrumental music has to be sad or melodramatic to work, as it often is. We’ve definitely written some sad or uncomfortable stuff, but that’s key to letting loose. You can’t turn your back on it, but plow through it. But by the end of the show, or the record, we want the listener to share the experience that we had writing it. That includes fear, excitement, and catharsis. And pure happiness.

SE: Vocals feature prominently on “Concentric Eyes.” Who sings them and why are they an important part of the track?

BA: I do all the vocals on the album. “Concentric Eyes” was meant to feature one basic riff and rhythm that builds throughout the song, so I added vocals to help with that dynamic. That was much different approach than I’m used to, because I’m a guitarist, not a vocalist. But there’s so much guitar work happening on the album, that I wanted it to take a step back, for the listener’s sake. And I have a lot to say, so it was easy to go to that place.

SE: How does track seven, “Choose Again,” mirror track three, “A Conflict of Memory” in the palindrome?

BA: We use the same rhythm and drum parts on both songs, and I even learned the main theme from track seven backward, recorded the backward version for “Conflict,” then reversed the recording so it sounds the same as “Choose Again.” It was so much fun! And that’s why I wanted to do this; I had to think really hard about what I was doing at every turn, so no part of this was impersonal or arbitrary. It was all a big puzzle that I got to put together, and I absolutely loved every moment of it.

SE: Do you want people to focus on the individual tracks or on how the palindrome works? I suppose that the intricate structure and great individual tracks lead to repeated listens…

BA: The songs are all that matter. The palindrome idea is how the music came about, sure, but that was just for my sake, to keep me focused and sane. Music doesn’t come from nowhere. At this point in my life, I’m thinking a lot about choice and responsibility, so that’ll be part of everything I create until I feel like I’ve properly expressed it. But the songs themselves are always the most important thing, and they have to work on their own.

Our previous EP, There Was A Hole Here., was saturated with regret and anger. Really negative stuff, that needed to be said. And it colored those songs so deeply that they don’t work without each other. I didn’t want to go there again. I hope the songs on The Beast of Left and Right are not so incomplete individually, even if I wanted the album itself to feel like a complete thought. That was the real experiment here: to make individually satisfying words that also make up a complete sentence.

 

SE: What does the use of acoustic guitar add to “Who Were the Mound Builders”?

BA: Being a trio, we realized that the listener could get bored with such limited instrumentation, so we tried to be creative with the sounds we were making with those three instruments. That was really important to Phil, and his incredible work ethic and superhuman patience is all over this album. That meant adding a second drumkit for a song, switching our pedals and amplifiers regularly during the recording, and for “Mound Builders,” using an acoustic guitar.

I think that’s the only time we used one on the entire album, which is surprising, because I write nearly everything on an acoustic guitar. I figure if I can make something sound ferocious on an acoustic, then by the time it’s amplified, it’ll be truly scary.

SE: The title of this song is intriguing. What was the inspiration for the song?

BA: Well, the opposite song, “Lagarto,” is about a being crushed to death in the ocean. Pretty much the scariest thing I can imagine. So I based this one on the opposite idea. The title is from a documentary I saw in college, titled “Who Were The Mound Builders?,” about the Native American creation myth that humans were created in the sky and planted in mounds to become mixed with the earth until we finally crawled out as humans. A union of space and earth. Such a cool idea.

Both this song and “Lagarto” are also sort of bonus tracks; we re-worked them from a previous EP for this line-up just for fun, to try out our new drummer. We wanted to include them on the digital version of the Beast, since we had more room in that medium than the vinyl.

SE: “Mutual End” has a sustained, drone-y feel and prominent vocals. How did you manage to make it sound so similar and different to track one, “Choose Again”?

BA: We used the same drum parts, but approached it from a different angle. This entire song comes from a little fill in “Choose Again” that I thought could stand on its own, as its own thought. It’s much more major and hopeful, and I wanted to explore that as an epilogue.

SE: Why did you choose to end the record in a minor key and a more contemplative feel that, to my ears at least, differs from the rest of the record?

BA: That’s funny, I think it’s much more positive than the rest of the album! We wanted it to feel like an outro, by expressing the thesis of the record: that either way we choose, we’re all going to die anyway, so all that matters is that we live honestly. It’s a dark thought, I suppose, but it changed my life for the better. I see it as a positive thing. I didn’t want to die with the regret of having not pursued music.

SE: Finally, thanks for the terrific album. What are your plans for live shows?

BA: Thank you!! Well, right now we’re on a bus in Spain, heading from Madrid to Barcelona, because we’re the luckiest dudes ever. We’ll be touring in Europe until the American release of the Beast on July 15th, then we’ll head home to celebrate! Then we cross our fingers that people like it enough to bring us on another tour this fall!