Interview: Misery Signals Talk New Album, Absent Light
It's been a long five years since the last Misery Signals album. While the band had made many touring commitments, they were sidelined by record label issues and self-imposed pressure to make album No. 4 the best yet. The result is Absent Light, the Wisconsin metalcore's newest, crowd-funded effort. Revolver caught up with guitarist Ryan Morgan to talk about the music industry, using crowd-funding, and how relationships change over the years.
REVOLVER It's been years since the last album. What took you guys so long?
RYAN MORGAN After we put out Controller, we toured relentlessly for a couple of years. At the beginning of 2010, the touring had to be scaled back since my son was being born, and I moved out west to make my new family situation more manageable. We had a couple members of the band step down around the same time. So we were left spread far apart from each other--my brother living back in Milwaukee still, Karl having always lived in Saskatchewan, without a full lineup, and with an uncertain future. To make matters worse, our label [Ferret Music] was absorbed by the major label that it was partnered with. That situation came with it's own set of challenges and bullshit. And then the writing. Writing an album as complex and detailed as we wanted Absent Light to be was a big undertaking.
You chose to crowd-fund the new album. What made you decide to do that versus the traditional label route?
We always wanted more freedom and hands-on control of the process behind the band. What we had going after the change at our label was the exact opposite of that. They were a headache to try and communicate with, and they basically didn't know who we were or what to do with us. They offered us no support or options, but we were under contract, so they still stifled our ability to branch out and do side projects. We knew the value of Misery Signals, but Warner wasn't invested. To them, we were some small figure on a spreadsheet--leftovers from a business acquisition. So we hired a lawyer to get out of that situation and leave the label. Since then we've been able to make every critical decision for the band, and make an album exactly how we wanted to: work with the people we wanted, in the timeframe we needed, on a comfortable budget, and answer to no one. At the same time, we retain all the rights and royalties--it's a fucking no-brainer.
Crowd funding is amazing. Anyone that criticizes it as an easy cash grab is ignorant to the process. I'm happy to see more artists dealing with their fan base more intimately. It makes so much sense business-wise and it allows artists to be intrepid when they aren't answering to an investor.
Your first single was "Luminary." What's the song about?
That song is about losing a guiding force in your life. A lot of the album is about feeling lost, and finding that the things we attach ourselves to suddenly change or disappear. "Luminary" is about a guiding light going dark.
Given the length of time between releases, was it weird getting back together and making music as a band again?
Our old bassist [Kyle Johnson] came back, so we only have one new member [guitarist Greg Thomas] on this record. Karl [Schubach, vocals] has now been on the team for seven years, and the rest of us from the very beginning. That being said, it still took a while to find our stride. But that was more because of self-imposed pressure. After a break of a couple years, people are quick to write you off. We didn't dare resurface with any half measures. Aside from that reluctance in the back of our head, I think the time away worked in our favor. It's made me appreciate and enjoy what we have as a band. If we had continued to average 250 shows per year, the band would have probably imploded and the listeners would have probably tired out. That time away let people develop an appetite for Misery Signals again. Myself included.
Was your songwriting process different for Absent Light?
It really was. Writing was spread across a few different phases in the years between records. At first I was recording riffs alone in my bedroom, not even knowing if there was going to be a new Misery Signals record. But I knew my brother [drummer Branden Morgan] and I had to keep writing, even if it ended up just being for ourselves or for some different project in the future. So I started accumulating a cache of weird demos and making occasional trips back to Milwaukee to write with Branden.
When Greg Thomas [ex-Enabler, Shai Hulud, The Risk Taken] joined the band, I knew he was going to be essential to making this album special. He has this broad scope and symphonic sensibility to how he writes. But Greg lives on the east coast, so we had to be even more resourceful and send demos and ideas back and forth endlessly. I had never written in that isolated way before, Misery Signals had always had an old school guys-together-in-a-jamspace approach. After a time, we had writing sessions where we were all together and it was great because we had songs at all different stages of completion, so it made for good contrast within the record. Some songs happened organically where we vibed them out just by jamming, and others, like "Departure," were fully realized intricate songs finished in Pro-tools before we knew how to play them as a band.
How do you think the band's sound has evolved since Controller?
This album is darker and more destructive than Controller. Absent Light has an unchained reckless feel. People keep telling me they think it's more mature, but I'm not totally convinced. That's another thing I should mention about the writing--once the album was in motion, we had a very calculated goal in mind as to what it needed to sound like. High energy was a point of focus and capturing the strengths from the past few records. And of course, ape-shit next-level drumming. Branden has really progressed a lot in his drum playing in the past few years.
When I think of the band's sound, I don't think of it as a single linear direction. The feel shifts from album to album, it grows, but it also circles back to expand upon successes from earlier songs, and also dabbles in moments of experiment that might never be returned to. This is the album we had to make at the time. It fits in with the others, but in ways it stands on its own as well.
There are a lot of guest vocals on the new record. How did you choose who to work with and why?
Matt Mixon appears on "Carrier" and I've been in bands with the dude forever, most notably 7 Angels 7 Plagues. Not only is he my best friend in the world, but he works closely with the band as a videographer. He's been chronicling the making of this album in a series of web episodes called "Misery Signals - Transmissions" and he worked almost as intimately on the creation of the album as any member of the band. He's actually out filming with us on part of this tour we're doing now. He was with us filming in the studio when we were doing vocals and it felt right to have him guest. Little bit of trivia for you--he makes a couple smaller appearances on Of Malice and the Magnum Heart also.
Todd Mackey from With Honor is also an old friend. Todd being a great human being and a Christian. We wanted him to lend his voice to "Lost Relics" particularly because of the religious vilification happening in the song, which is directed not at Christians, but those who hide ugliness behind distorted Christian pretenses.
Dua [Fredua Boakye] from Bad Rabbits is a newer friend. We kept seeing tweets from them about being fans of Misery Signals, and we exchanged a few messages about digging each other's music. People saw some of the messages back and forth on Twitter and there were a load of tweets suggesting we collaborate. They might have been joking, cause the idea of an R&B/metal collaboration is maybe far fetched, but we were just like, "Fuck yeah." Dua's voice is amazing, and we thought his style could make our album closer stand out in an interesting way. He really brought the track he sings on to life.
What do you think of the current state of metal?
I don't think of it much. Not that I'm saying I'm too cool for it or anything, I just don't have the time to really seek out the good stuff. There are always going to be 1,000 lame bands for every one valid artist. I think it's probably always been that way. With the Internet giving everyone such easy access to such a vast amount of music now, it may be more to sift through, but the ratio is probably the same. You have to put in work, as a listener, to find music that you are going to love. I've been focusing so hard on getting this record out that I've haven't been listening much music. I expect to have a phase soon where I find and digest a lot of new music, with any luck, there will be some good metal in there.
What's next for Misery Signals?
We are out on the road right now touring. But we have a lot of crazy ideas about what's to do next. Part of this album was proving to ourselves we could make an album as good as we've ever been. And proving we've still got something urgent and relevant happening, and listeners still giving a shit. So we've put check marks next to all that, and moving forward we can let go of some of that pressure, and open up even further. In the near future we're discussing some collaborations, and possibly writing some music that is largely instrumental. Since we are our own label now, the sky is the limit; and we want to try some experiments that push past the limitations of the dying old industry model.