Paradoxes, Pandemic and the Robot-Bull-Devil: Inside Dance Gavin Dance's 'Afterburner' | Revolver

Paradoxes, Pandemic and the Robot-Bull-Devil: Inside Dance Gavin Dance's 'Afterburner'

"Self-indulgent," "ironic and satirical," the Cali shape-shifters refuse to be stopped
dance Gavin dance 2020 PRESS lindsey byrnes, Lindsey Byrnes
photograph by Lindsey Byrnes

Dance Gavin Dance rolled up to the Hollywood Palladium on March 12th beyond excited to kick-off a six-week spring tour in support of their then-unreleased new album, Afterburner. That excitement quickly shifted to panic as news reports of COVID-19 case numbers spiking across the country made it increasingly clear that a mass gathering of that size would be irresponsible — possibly even fatal. Like many acts, Dance Gavin Dance were forced to make the difficult decision to shut the whole trip down before the Palladium's doors even opened. Los Angeles-based vocalist Tilian Pearson stayed in town, while the rest of the group got back in the tour bus and drove home to Sacramento.

It'd take three months for the quintet — Pearson, co-vocalist Jon Mess, guitarist Will Swan, bassist Tim Feerick and drummer Matthew Mingus — to get back together in their Northern California practice space. Pearson, for his part, had been keeping his vocal cords in check while workshopping song ideas for a fourth solo album at his home studio. Mess spent his lockdown brushing up on his painting practice — creating new works while also refurbishing some older, water-damaged canvasses — playing a ton of video games and trying his hand at learning the piano. By the time the band did regroup, he found that dialing his feral screaming voice back up to 11 after a few months off proved difficult.

"I was out of practice," Mess admits to Revolver. "It was exhausting for me, but it was nice to see everyone. It's like going back to the gym when you haven't been there in a while." The vocalist has good reason to get back into fighting shape — Dance Gavin Dance's tour and the band's annual Swanfest event in Sacramento may have been pushed to 2021, pandemic-pending, but the band will be playing a special full-production, multi-camera livestream record release show, set for Friday, July 17th (tickets are available now). It'll be the first opportunity for fans to see the group perform new songs off Afterburner.

The album's release is well worth celebrating, especially in such an otherwise gutting year, when even just putting out a record comes with unforeseen challenges. COVID-related delays at the pressing plant pushed the physical street date by a few months, but the band made sure Afterburner hit digital platforms as planned this past April. "Having postponed the tours, to add more disappointment on top of that was something we didn't want to do," Pearson explains of getting their fans the music on time. It's a gambit that paid off, with the album charting at No. 14 on the Billboard Top 200 — Dance Gavin Dance's highest chart debut since forming in 2005 — and wracking nearly 50 million streams to date.

Afterburner finally arrives on CD and a plethora of vinyl variants today (July 10th). The array of colored wax options are fittingly kaleidoscopic for a band as hard to peg as Dance Gavin Dance. To scratch the surface, imagine a post-Aughts metalcore band attempting to bridge the gap between Maroon 5 and the Mars Volta. Polymath progcore, Latin rock bombast, cement-cracking trap beats, fiery metal shredding and Top 40-friendly pop melodies are just some of the tangents the quintet explore on their especially eclectic Afterburner. The Pollock-like splatter of musical styles is further abstracted by Pearson and Mess, whom respectively paint the canvas with elaborate multi-track falsettos or raw-to-the-nerve screams. Mess likes contrasting the brick wall-levelling fury of his voice with absurdist parody, describing himself as "a cartoon character that has evolved into a satirical role, screaming over major scales."

"We have a song [on Afterburner] called 'Three Wishes' where I go 'Multiple stab wounds — yeah!!!' on the chorus," the singer says. "That is a commentary on how our guitarist, Will, he writes these happy, bouncy sections, but at the same time he's binge-watching horror movies in his free time. That section encapsulates a certain personality trait of the band, this running theme of paradoxes. Sometimes we're self-indulgent with experimentation ... other times we're ironic and satirical. We oscillate between these modes."

While Pearson generally handles the clean vocals for Dance Gavin Dance, Afterburner's "Lyrics Lie" briefly has him trading vein-bursting shouts with Mess as they poke fun at the idea of self-mythologizing in song (Mess: "Remember when we almost died?" Pearson: "That never happened!"). Though the co-vocalist grew up idolizing Tool ("That was my sing-into-the-hairbrush band"), Pearson's ornate vocal layering seemingly draws more influence from the Kansas cassette he copped in his youth. On "One in a Million," he went whole-hog with a nine-part harmony, double-tracked, to get his melodic point across.

"Those are the best sections, where every single thing you come up with sounds cool," the singer reveals of ramping up his vocal presence on the piece. "I knew I wanted it to be this holy-sounding thing at the end, but I didn't know that I was going to get away with that many [vocal] stacks. Once the stacks started sounding bad, I stopped."

"I like how one [vocal track] sounds," Mess says of his own in-studio philosophy, "The more doubles you do, the bigger it sounds, but sometimes you lose intensity and character. For me, at least."

It turns out Dance Gavin Dance have character to spare. Take the band's new graphic novel, Robot's Tale. Written by comics scribe Eliot Rahal (Cult Classic, Ninjak vs. The Valiant Universe) and drawn by Ian McGinty (Adventure Time, Invader Zim), Robot's Tale builds off the artwork of the past several Dance Gavin Dance albums, which have steadily chronicled an epic battle between robots and animals. The latter group is led by an "evil dog-tyrant" named Count Bassy, his name a reference to a track of the same name on 2018's Artificial Selection.

"I guess it's the story of his oppressive regime versus the characters that are rising up against him," Mess explains of Robot's Tale's premise. The singer adds that the story also incorporates the biomechanical bull that sits in the centre of the flames-licked front cover of Afterburner — Swedish illustrator Mattias Adolfsson's cutesy riff on Euronymous Bosch's painted hellscapes. The Luciferian figure's inclusion makes sense, considering the band retroactively made the horned character their de facto mascot.

"We did name him Gavin," Mess confirms of the Baphomet-esque bovine, adding wickedly, "I guess that makes our name 'Dancing with the Devil: The Band.'"