“You gotta get it out or it will destroy you”: An Interview with Burnt Books

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Burnt Books’ self-titled, debut LP, which came out two years ago, threw down a challenge and created expectations.

The challenge was for Burnt Books – vocalist Zoë Lollis, bassist and backing vocalist Joey Parker, guitarist Matt Thompson, guitarist Chuck Sligh, and drummer Troy Thames – to put together a follow-up record that improved on one of the most innovative and artistically compelling debuts in recent memory.

The expectations were for Burnt Books to continue to innovate and grow, taking their core audience and new fans alike on previously unforeseen emotional and musical journeys.

Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire (Retro Futurist Records) succeeds on all these fronts. Burnt Books’ second album is an amalgamation of highly personal lyrics and vocals (imagine Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell, or Mark Kozelek fronting an avant-punk band) and some of the most complex and satisfying musical arrangements that you’ll probably ever hear.

Also, reminiscent of records like The Who’s Tommy and Fucked Up’s David Comes to Life, Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire functions as a thematic whole, only it’s performed with a raw intensity that’s unique to Burnt Books.

SEM thanks Thompson for giving us crucial insight into what’s sure to be one of the best records of 2015.

SEM: Thanks for talking to us today, Matt. Let’s start by going back to the beginning. Burnt Books formed in October 2011. The band members had previously all been in other bands. Why did you start playing together?

MT: Thank God and Tunguska had both just recently disbanded, and i guess we were all just sittin’ around with our thumbs up our butts like, “Shit, yer not doin’ anything either? Let’s jam.”

SEM: When did you first realize that Burnt Books had a chemistry that would work?

MT: We had all been good friends for a while at that point, so we already kinda knew what to expect as far as chemistry. Needing a singer, we got in touch with Zoë after hearing her wonderful solo stuff. We were definitely looking for some one with some range beyond just screaming and were very lucky to find Zoë. After hearing the demo with vocals for the first time, we knew it was going to work.

SEM: How did you come to the attention of Phillip Cope?

MT: Troy and I have been in a few bands in the past that have always worked with Phil and his current/previous bands to some extent, and I think we just kinda keep up with what one another is doing. Or, more simply, Phil just knows what the fuck’s up.

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SEM: Why did you decide to ask him to produce your self-titled, debut LP?

MT: More than anyone else we could’ve worked with, we felt as though Phil really got what we were going for.

SEM: You’re from Columbia, SC – which has a very exciting music scene. What are some of the best venues to play there?

MT: New Brookland Tavern and Foxfield are the two best bars for punk shows. Queen Punx Palace and Shredquarters are two awesome houses that do rad shows on a regular basis.

SEM: What Columbia-area bands do you like?

MT: Sein Zum Tode, The Fishing Journal, Vorov, Carolyn, Glittoris, Can’t Kids, Happiness Bomb, Debbie and The Skanks, The Unawares, Those Lavendar Whales… to list a few of the many badass bands from Columbia.

SEM: You recorded your latest and second full-length – Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire – in The Jam Room in Columbia. Was this your first experience recording there?

MT: Oh, no. I think it might’ve been more like my 10th. I’ve literally lost count.

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SEM: What makes The Jam Room such a special place to record?

MT: I suppose it would have to be the memories of all the times we’ve recorded there before. Every time’s been a blast. A vacation.

SEM: Why did you ask Phil to return as producer?

MT: It was a no brainer. We were really happy with the way the first one turned out, and he was down to do it. Also, we really kinda needed his no bullshit approach to just getting it done. He does a great job of keeping us on task and on schedule.

SEM: Tell us how Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire came to be released on Retro Futurist.

MT: I guess they must’ve liked it!

SEM: Let’s talk about some specific songs on the new album, starting with “Stupid Game.” The song is structurally very compelling, with sections in which Zoë and Joey sing to each other and extended sections in which Zoë sings on her own. How do the lyrics coincide with the vocal and musical arrangement?

MT: Typically, all of the musical arrangement is done first, and then Joey and Zoë write the lyrics and vocal melodies. In writing “Stupid Game,” we tried to leave plenty of room for Zoë’s more melodic parts in order to counter the otherwise relentlessly straightforward pace of the song. And we basically tried to maintain that same dynamic throughout the album.

 

SEM: You open the album with “Escape,” which seems to kick off a theme of mental illness that continues throughout the album. Were the songs, musically and lyrically, meant to convey mental illness in its various manifestations? The tracks do run together…

MT: I can’t really speak for the lyrics because they are more personal to Zoë and Joey, but I feel as though the instrumental side of the songs definitely reflects some rage associated with feelings of monotony and futility and despair, on my part. The kinda shit that drives you totally batshit crazy and you gotta get it out or it will destroy you. Well, it’s out now and Zoë and Joey added some equally heavy shit on top of it. I don’t think that there was an intended theme of mental illness, but maybe it’s just a healthy way of dealing with our own (laughs).

SEM: What effect did you intend by contrasting the screamed vocals and heavy music on “Shadow I Cast” with the quieter, more melodic sections?

MT: After the first record, we all decided that the next batch of songs needed a little more dynamics to them. Don’t get me wrong: I like a good punch to the face. But we felt as though the self-titled was a little one-dimensional. So, really, we just intended for there to actually be some contrast.

 

SEM: “Useless Emotions” has the same Zoë-Joey vocal dynamic as “Stupid Game.” Not only do the songs on the album seem to explore mental illness but also its ramifications on romantic relationships.

MT: With their call-and-response vocals, you can’t deny the sense of some sort of a deranged romantic argument.

SEM: Zoë is an incredible singer, who performs lyrics that seem to come out of psychic misery. What gives her the courage to perform the way she does? It’s as if every song could be the last song she’ll ever sing… Please talk about this in terms of “The Harm We’ve Done.”

MT: i can’t rightly tell you what it is that gives Zoë the courage to perform the way she does. Booze? Helps me sometimes. I do feel, however, that playing these songs has been pretty damn good therapy – for me, at least. It feels great to get it out. I know that “The Harm We’ve Done” holds a great depth of emotion for Zoë because it pertains to a close friend taking their own life. Imagine how little fear you’d get from the thought of singing on a stage when those you care about might be gone so arbitrarily.

 

SEM: The music seems to support the vocals and the lyrical themes. In my experience, this approach is atypical for heavy music and has the effect of making your sound very original. How did you go about composing a song like “Bridges”?

MT: “Bridges,” like a lot of our songs, was essentially composed on a front porch with the aid of a shitty acoustic guitar. From there, we flesh it out and put lyrics to it. I feel as though the way in which the music supports the lyrical themes lies in the similarities of our individual emotions. The music is written as an outlet for negative emotion as well as, I assume, the lyrics. It’s only natural that they should complement one another.

SEM: “La Rosa” is a two-part song, in which the narrator takes back her power. What amazes is the vulnerability of the music and vocal in the first part, which transforms into a heavier part two, in which the narrator finds strength in numbers and speaking for the voiceless. What’s the ultimate philosophy of an album that starts off so bleakly and ends on such a positive note?

MT: My take? We are all brothers and sisters in grief. Take comfort that you are not alone. And fight back. Let’s take back the world in the name of sanity and cooperation. And look back at how far we’ve come from our bleak beginning and rejoice! Essentially, everything blows, but there’s always a way out.

 

 

SEM: In your opinion, how does Laura Pleasants’ artwork reflect the meaning of the album?

MT: A beautiful layout – I can’t wait to see the vinyl! The artwork came a little after the recording process, so any reflection of meaning would’ve probably stemmed from her interpretations of the songs. Anyway, I feel like it’s a great fit.

SEM: What’s next for Burnt Books? Any tour plans?

MT: Heck, yeah. We’ve got a sweet little 11-day run with our rockin’ buddies and label-mates, Crazy Bag Lady, starting in Charlotte, NC on April 2, and then in July, we’ll be haulin’ our asses out to the west coast and back from July 1 through July 17. We’re totally stoked!

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Feature image by Sean Rayford.