Michael Lessard encountered his "first real lesson in perspective" years ago during a revelatory acid trip. "It was a simple situation," he recalls. "I was looking at something, and I went to go tell my friend, 'Look in front of you at this thing.' But he was turned sideways, so I had to think, 'Which direction does he have to look to see it?' I'm looking forward, so it's forward to me but left to him. The epiphany was 'What's left and up and down?' For a moment, it felt like I floated off the bed."
The Contortionist frontman tends to speak like he sings: on a ruminative, grandiose scale. Clairvoyant, the vocalist's new album with the prog-metal band, is his second with the sextet — and a spiritual sequel to their critical breakthrough, 2014's concept LP Language, which chronicled a friend of Lessard's battle with (and ultimate demise from) substance abuse. Clairvoyant is the closing of that thematic circle, but rooted more in raw emotion than metaphor.
"Language is to life and growth what this album is to death," he says. "It's me doing my final farewell to the writing based around that whole scenario."
Clairvoyant also marks a new sonic chapter for the Contortionist. The band — Lessard, guitarist Robby Baca and Cameron Maynard, drummer Joey Baca, bassist Jordan Eberhardt, keyboardist Eric Guenther — lean heavily toward sculpted post-rock and shadowy, synth-heavy prog, ditching boisterous technicality for technicality's sake. And Lessard, who'd already scaled back the band's screams on Language, sings almost exclusively in alluring clean tones. This subtle shift toward accessibility might fuel metalhead trolls, but he isn't concerned.
"If my career works out, I want it to be because I took the risks I wanted to take," Lessard says. "Screaming just didn't seem right. If somebody can point to a spot where they feel screaming is more appropriate, they should record it and put it up on YouTube."
The singer spoke to Revolver about Clairvoyant's creative developments — and a variety of other topics, including his childhood passion for sports, Eastern philosophy, good filmmaking, and how to avoid a bad acid trip.
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR LIFE GROWING UP IN WALDOBORO, MAINE, WHICH IS A SMALL TOWN WITH PRETTY MUCH NO MUSIC SCENE. HOW DID YOU OCCUPY YOUR TIME?
MICHAEL LESSARD Augusta is the capital, but it's like 45 minutes from where I live. Throughout my career, I've always said that's where my bands are based out of because it's easier for people to remember that. Usually, the closest show would be Augusta — and even Augusta wasn't the place where shows would happen. It was usually Portland or Bangor, and it was usually hardcore shows. That was kind of the scene when I was growing up in the Northeast in the early 2000s, late Nineties.
Growing up, there wasn't much around, so I spent most of my time practicing and playing sports — up until I really fell in love with music. I played baseball, basketball and soccer up until about sixth or seventh grade, and I did cross-country as a way to condition myself for other sports. Even when I was like in seventh grade, I was in the mindset of using certain sports to prepare me for the sports I actually cared about, which were baseball and basketball. When I was a freshman in high school, I stopped playing sports pretty much entirely, and I started playing music. I just fell in love with it instantly, and since there wasn't a lot to do, I had a lot of time to focus on it.
YOU DON'T OFTEN HEAR OF MANY MUSICIANS WHO STARTED OUT PLAYING SPORTS.
You're generally right — and usually if they get into fitness, it's later on. You have to try to find a balance between your mind and your body, so you'll see musicians who pick up a physical activity later on. For a while I stopped doing anything physical, but I was always a really physical kid. I even started power lifting in high school. Later on in life, I came back around, and in the last six or seven years I've been doing mixed martial arts and any physical activity I think can help me get better at that.
WHAT WERE YOU LIKE IN SCHOOL? IN THE CAFETERIA, DID YOU SIT WITH THE COOL KIDS OR THE OUTCASTS?
It's funny because I was a person who hung out with the athletes and the nerds. I was a little chameleon in that way. It's kind of how I've been with everything. I feel like there's something to be gained from any activity — there's a place and time for everything, and that's why I was into so many different sports. It's also probably why I ended up in a progressive rock/metal band that's always doing so many different things. It gets boring doing the same thing or talking to the exact same people all the time.
I didn't like school — I was terrible at schoolwork. I was good when I was there, but I never understood the idea of doing stuff at home. I felt like I'd already committed X amount of hours there, and I didn't understand why I had to do more. But I was definitely a social butterfly: I loved sports, loved hanging out with different groups of people. Later on, I balanced out in that I loved time to myself. I became more introspective. But as a kid, I never thought about much. I just did.
YOU WERE FRIENDS WITH THE OTHER CONTORTIONIST GUYS, AND TOURED WITH THEM IN YOUR RESPECTIVE BANDS, BEFORE YOU TOOK OVER ON VOCALS. DO YOU RECALL YOUR FIRST EXPERIENCES GETTING TO KNOW THEM?
We met on tour. We actually had the same manager. We still have that manager to this day. Right off the bat, we knew we were going to get along. When you start out on the scene, you tend to do a lot of tours with bands that maybe you don't listen to and your genres don't match up. You just get out there. When my old band [Last Chance to Reason] toured with the Contortionist, [guitarist Robby Baca] was already a fan of my band. I'd heard some of their older stuff and thought, Not really my thing at this point in time. But then I saw them live and thought, Wow, this is not what I was expecting at all. They were so good live, and there was a mutual respect right off the bat.
We carried that friendship on tour — when we toured through Indiana, we'd stay with them. We'd go out to shows. We were friends for years, and it felt like a little bit of a family relationship. Then I got a call from their singer, oddly enough, asking if I'd be able to fill in for like two or three months of touring, and there was a week-and-a-half to prepare. Then I got a call from our manager, whom we shared, asking if I could do the same thing. And then I got a call from Robby. And the funny thing is that none of those people had talked to each other. If there was such thing as synchronicity, it was there.
SOUNDSCAPES ARE A KEY ELEMENT IN THE CONTORTIONIST'S STYLE. ON THE NEW ALBUM, THE CODA ON "THE CENTER" IS PRACTICALLY BRIAN ENO–ISH. DO YOU LISTEN TO THAT MUSIC ON YOUR OWN?
Absolutely. I just listened to Brian Eno's Music for Airports two nights ago, just relaxing. I think ambient soundscapes are one of the main reasons I was so intrigued with the band, just as a fan, when we started touring together. It just hits you in the chest. I hadn't been too into that before, but when I joined this band, it made me start writing a lot like that. That will always be a staple of the band: that vibe where something can just drop out and float through the air for a while. I think the reason it's continued to stay in the band is it's something we all agree upon. Everything else seems to change because all our opinions on music change, but that's a common theme that's a staple of the band. Even when we're being aggressive, if you listen closely enough, there's a soundscape underneath.
BRITISH PHILOSOPHER ALAN WATTS, AND EASTERN PHILOSOPHY AS A WHOLE, WAS A HUGE INFLUENCE ON THE LAST ALBUM, LANGUAGE. IS IT TRUE THAT YOU WERE INTRODUCED TO SOME OF THOSE CONCEPTS FROM YOUR DAD?
It's interesting because [my dad] never actually showed me. My parents never forced me into anything. They just kind of let me … do. That's why I said I spent most of childhood not thinking, just doing stuff that made me happy. With the philosophy stuff, I think it was more on a subconscious level. He always had Alan Watts books around the house. I never really paid much attention to it until my early to mid-Twenties, when I stopped just doing and started thinking about what I was doing — and how it might affect someone else. That's when I started appreciating other people's viewpoints more than my own. Just growing up — maybe that's the best way to put it. Once I dove into philosophy, I realized it was there the whole time. My dad always had it around. I guess, subconsciously, I was just waiting for the right time for it to speak to me.
I KNOW YOU'VE READ A LOT OF AUTHOR/PSYCHEDELIC PLANT ADVOCATE TERENCE MCKENNA'S WORK. DO YOU USE PSYCHEDELICS, AND IF SO, HAVE YOU HAD PROFOUND EXPERIENCES WHILE ON THEM?
I loved his view and vocabulary. It's fun to listen to him talk even if it's a bit out there and I don't necessarily agree with everything. I got into him through Evan Sammons, the drummer from Last Chance to Reason. I want to mention that, in the writing process for this album, we had Evan help us with pre-production and structure some stuff, which was a tremendous help.
I've dabbled with a lot of psychedelics, which is something that's helped me with introspection, as well. Other people see things in different ways, like a "walk a day in my shoes" type of thing. My "Oh wow …" moment just happened to be while I was on psychedelics. It fast-forwarded me to adulthood. I've done [psychedelics] a lot but not so much now since I'm older. I like to use it more as a tool, like a reset, maybe once or twice a year. I did it a month-and-a-half ago. I dropped a bit of acid, but that was the first time in about a year. It was a great experience. I laid in bed and listened to some Brian Eno, Pink Floyd, just relaxing and thinking. I try to make it introspective and just flow with it.
HAVE YOU EVER HAD A BAD TRIP?
Oh, I've had terrible ones too. [Laughs] I've probably had over 30 – 40 psychedelic experiences between mushrooms and acid, and a third of them were bad. That's from me being younger. I think it's more about headspace and the purpose of doing it. If you go into it like, "This is gonna be crazy. I'm gonna get messed up," you have about a 50/50 chance of having a good time.
I think it's good for somebody in the public eye because it's all about perspective. Sometimes you can get caught up in what people expect of you. At the end of the day, if they're not gonna be there for you when you're having a hard time or hit a down point, those aren't people you need anyway. Especially someone leaving a YouTube comment.
YOU SEEM LIKE A PERSON WHO THINKS DEEPLY ABOUT THINGS ON A PRIMAL LEVEL. DO YOU MEDITATE?
I don't. My dad meditates. I don't know if you can technically call it meditation, but I do most of my inward thinking when I'm creating art now, and when I go for a run. We leave for tour in three weeks, and I'm running every day, just to get my body in shape so I don't get winded onstage. When I run, I listen to the setlist and think about the performance. I move my body to the sound of the rhythm and force myself to think about what's going on, what's gonna happen.
When I make art, I try to think about the different layers. I've been into video in the last year or two, and I think of how it corresponds to the music. There's another layer — not just what you're seeing or hearing, but maybe how the cuts happen. Over the years, I've tried to see what's underneath anything. How far do the layers go? And watching good filmmakers really opened up that door for me. When you watch a movie by a really skilled director — and everybody else involved, if it's a really big production — there are so many layers to the storytelling: the dialogue, what you see onscreen, the music underneath. Everything is there to reinforce what you're supposed to be feeling at that time.
I'VE READ YOU'RE A BIG FAN OF STANLEY KUBRICK. ARE YOU DRAWN TO ANY OTHER FILMMAKERS IN PARTICULAR?
There's none where I think, Everything this person has done is brilliant. [2016 dramedy] Swiss Army Man is a movie I watched within the last year [that I love]. I love movies for different reasons. I love movies that are campy and you can watch with the whole family and have a very warm vibe. I love movies that are very cold and there are a bunch of layered nuances throughout that hint toward what the end is gonna be. I love it all because I feel like there's a time and place for those sets of skills. Obviously those guys like Martin Scorsese go above and beyond. But there's so many people involved. You can't be like, "This one person is who makes the film so great." You have the editors, the cinematographers, the DPs. It's a whole array of people. It's more based on the movie. Swiss Army Man is a movie I loved because it was done independently on a low budget; the soundtrack is brilliant; and it's a very emotional movie based off a very silly premise. Throughout the whole movie, there are breathtaking moments that make you feel something, and then it's like, "By the way, here's a fart, just so you know this movie's silly, too."
CLAIRVOYANT IS YOUR SECOND ALBUM WITH THE CONTORTIONIST. DID YOU FEEL MORE CONFIDENT GOING INTO THIS ONE, LIKE YOU KNEW YOUR ROLE IN THE BAND BETTER?
I think my confidence in terms of my role is the same. When I joined the band and started writing Language, I didn't feel like I was the new guy coming in. There was already a mutual respect established years prior, so I didn't feel like I had anything to prove in the band. There were certain things I had to prove to fans, but at the end of the day I knew I was going to do what I wanted to do. There were certain things I carried over in order to make the transition a little smoother. [Former vocalist John Carpenter] was a very subtle singer — he didn't use his chest voice much. He wasn't aggressive. In my previous band, that was the majority of what I did: I sang from the chest and was very aggressive. When I joined the Contortionist, I saw that as a way to try a new approach. That kind of became the vocal approach overall for both of the albums. It's not based in my chest, singing as loud as I can. It's more soft-spoken, introspective.
I think there was more stress on Language with what people were going to think; with this one, there was more stress on what we were going to think of the album. With this one, we wanted to take a step up in songwriting. The last few albums were rushed compared to this one. This time, with a year to write, it's hard to choose what songs are the best and [make the cut]. There was that issue to tackle. But for the most part, everybody's pretty comfortable with each other and nobody really holds their tongue — which might be an issue in itself. [Laughs]
METAL FANS MAKE A HUGE DEAL OUT OF SINGERS AND THEIR PROGRESSION FROM HARSH TO CLEAN VOCALS. YOU'VE GONE ALMOST ALL-CLEAN ON THIS ALBUM, WITH SOME OF YOUR MOST TENDER SINGING TO DATE. WHAT WERE YOU FEELING EMOTIONALLY OR CREATIVELY THAT LED YOU TO THAT PLACE?
I think it was a mixture of things. Screaming didn't really suit any of the songs. There is screaming on the album, but it's very textured, so it's not in your face and you have to really listen to pick out the spots. The one section that is fairly noticeable on Clairvoyant is not me at all — it's Erez Bader, the director/editor who worked as our director on both our music videos on "Reimagined" and "Return to Earth." He did screaming because he lives in the same town that we record in. He's in the studio all the time, and I said, "If there's gonna be screaming on this album, I don't even want it to be me who does the screams." It's kind of a fun thing: On the last album, we had our merch guy do the screams. And some of the other guys joined in, too. But the songs just didn't call for it, and I feel like there are a couple sections on Language where the heavy sections weren't needed and they just got put in there because of what other people might think. They got put in there just to shush people a bit. I didn't like that. And on this album, I made a point of doing what I wanted to do.
THE IDEA OF CLAIRVOYANCE IS A RECURRING THEME THROUGHOUT THIS ALBUM. YOU SEEM TO BE EXPLORING THIS CONCEPT ON A SYMBOLIC LEVEL, BUT DO YOU BELIEVE IN IT LITERALLY?
It's a little bit of both. Language was written about a close friend of mine who passed away. His mother passed away a year earlier, and he started a battle with addiction once she passed away. Then he lost that battle a year later, and it was around the time we started writing for Language. For me, I needed to write a positive album — that was my outlet. That's what I had to focus on. So I wrote an album based in metaphor about a mother-son relationship and the nurturing light that a mother gives to her son and the guidance. This album is a continuation of that but not so based in metaphor. There's still a lot of metaphor, but as the album progresses, it becomes even more grounded. It comes down from the metaphor. "Return to Earth" is like the most honest you're going to get lyrically. It's not based on story. It's me if I were able to have a conversation with him. The rest of the album is shifting perspectives, whether to him or someone else.
I took a very long time with the lyrics for this album. It's subtle. Even from "Return to Earth," where you have the line, "You were so sick; you were skin and bones/ So you fed yourself excuses just to keep it going" — the last line from the last song on the album is, "When all that's left is just all your bones." So there's no longer skin. They've deteriorated to the point of bone. There are nuances that come back and are just shifted a bit. If you don't pay attention, you don't notice it. And that's perfectly fine. It's for whatever depth that you want to go. Like I said, I love layers: It's appealing at face value, but for a heavy, active listener, it's there as well. That goes for the technicality, too: Even the songs that feel a little more radio friendly, there's a lot of technicality there as well.