When people talk about Periphery, it's almost always with a focus on their extraordinary instrumental work. After all, the band is considered to be one of the pioneers of modern progressive metal, a.k.a. djent. While the group's instrumentalists — including producer, guitarist and mastermind Misha Mansoor — are insanely talented, singer Spencer Sotelo's vocal ability can get unfairly overlooked.
"You know what? I used to back in the day but I don't care anymore," says Sotelo when Revolver asks if he's ever felt like he was sitting in the backseat when it came to the band and the public eye. "I'm stoked I get to write music with some of my best friends and we're writing music for each other. So if people want to talk shit here and there, that's totally fine." He laughs. "It's not a big deal!"
He might not get the credit he deserves, but the fact is that Sotelo possesses one of the most dynamic ranges in heavy music, and with that in mind, we asked him to share an isolated vocal track, as we've previously done with Dillinger Escape Plan's Greg Puciato and Royal Thunder's Mlny Parsonz. He quickly picked "It's Only Smiles," a standout on the quintet's latest LP, Periphery IV: Hail Stan, which was recently released on the band's own label, 3DOT Recordings.
"That song is a pretty emotional, very meaningful song to me," he explains calmly. "It's about my older sister who passed away a couple years ago."
Listen to his astonishing isolated vocals above, and below, read Sotelo's deep dive into songwriting, tips for both singing and screaming, and insight into what it was like growing up in a Jehovah's Witness family where rock music was taboo.
WOULD YOU MIND DISCUSSING THE LYRICS TO "IT'S ONLY SMILES"?
SPENCER SOTELO Yeah, it's like, you can dwell on bad things that happen in your life, I can be sad about my sister being gone, but what she would want me to do is just to be happy and move on with my life. I know that's what she would want.
WHEN YOU WENT TO RECORD THAT SONG, DID YOU PUT YOURSELF BACK IN THAT TIMEFRAME?
Absolutely. That, and then when I was recording it, I was recording it myself this time around instead of having somebody track me on the record. So being in my room, tracking that song and the writing of it, it just took me back — my whole life, all the experiences I had with my sister, and how I feel now afterwards. It was like a flash of my entire life with her. It was pretty crazy.
SINCE PERIPHERY DOES THEIR OWN PRODUCTION, DID MISHA HAVE ANY FEEDBACK FOR YOU ONCE HE HEARD IT?
That song was kind of a tough one structurally, not just vocally. It took a little bit longer than most of the other tracks just because we didn't have a good structure down. There were always core pieces of the song that we knew that we wanted to be in the song. But once it was nailed down, it turned into one of everybody's favorite tracks. I just think melodically, it's the prettiest song we have on the record and I know everybody else feels that way, too.
THE SONG REALLY SHOWCASES YOUR VERSATILITY AS A VOCALIST — THE SINGING, WHISPERING, SCREAMING. THAT SAID, HOW DO YOU PLOT OUT YOUR VOCAL PARTS?
You know, I've kind of done things differently on and off throughout the whole Periphery discography. But on this record, I didn't go into any song like, "This is what's going to happen. And this needs to happen here." I let every part of every song tell me "What does this need?" instead of forcing things in there, and really just doing what the songs call for, or at least what I thought they called for.
DO YOU KNOW WHAT CAME FIRST — A LYRIC, MELODY, PATTERN?
The first thing that was written for that song was that opening riff, like, after the electronic stops. It's either a Mark [Holcomb] riff or Misha riff — I can't remember who wrote it.
AND SO WHAT HAPPENED, DID YOU HEAR THE RIFF AND WRITE THE LYRICS?
Yeah. I'll even take it a step further — I don't start writing lyrics until I have melodies and rhythms, pretty much everything aside from lyrics laid down for a vocal part. In my head, I'll match lyrics to the syllables and the way I think words should fit into the rhythm and melody of what I'm writing for the parts. So those always come last for me.
HOW MANY TIMES DID YOU LISTEN TO THE SONG BEFORE YOU RECORDED IT?
Well, the first demo that I got, I probably only listened to it two or three times before I went to the studio and started writing and tracking parts for it. Even some of the demo takes that I did ended up on the record. A lot of the stuff was re-recorded, but I know there are takes on there that I left from the demo-recording process of doing the vocals. I had the luxury of doing it since I was doing everything myself and didn't have to re-track anything with anyone else because I was doing it with all my own studio gear from the beginning on.
GOING BACK TO LYRICS, EVERY LYRICIST HAS A DIFFERENT APPROACH TO HOW THEY DO THEM. SOME KEEP A NOTEBOOK, RECORD ON THEIR PHONES OR DO IT ON THE SPOT. WHAT'S GENERALLY YOUR STYLE AND WHAT HAPPENED WITH "IT'S ONLY SMILES"?
That one was a bit different just because I had a clear picture of what I wanted to write lyrically. The melody of the song spoke to me and I have been wanting to write a song about my sister. I [used] the notepad app on the phone and would write out lines that felt, like, connected that theme to the song. So all that came first and then it was probably weeks of me writing lyrics here and there to match all that. Really, really thinking about it because it's such an important song — for me, at least, it is.
WITH THIS SONG BEING SO IMPORTANT, WHO WAS YOUR SISTER TO YOU?
We grew up in San Diego. That's where all of us — me and all my sisters were born and raised. She was seven years older than me. What's crazy is people always ask me, "How did you get into heavy music?" and really, at the end of the day, it's because of her. I remember having posters of Deftones and Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden in the room. She was the one that opened the gateway for me into heavy music.
DID YOU GO TO SHOWS TOGETHER?
Not really. We had a really weird upbringing with our family. We grew up as Jehovah's Witnesses and my parents were super, super into it. So we didn't get to do things like going to shows. Like, even the music we listened to, we kind of had to hide it from them. They were kind of crazy about that sort of thing.
HOW DID YOU SNEAK IT IN?
Friends from school. I remember I had a friend's mom buy me — I forget which Offspring record it was — but she took me and my friend to Walmart and had to get it for me because she felt bad I couldn't get it another way. [Laughs] I remember keeping the self-titled Slipknot record in my sock drawer underneath everything so my parents couldn't find it. God, if they found that record they would have killed me. [Laughs]
I HAD NO IDEA YOU GREW UP IN A JEHOVAH'S WITNESS FAMILY.
Oh yeah. My parents were super, super into it. It's weird, like, the older they got and the older all of us got, the more they went down that road into it. They're not bad people or anything, just super into it. That's their life, you know?
SURE, SOME PEOPLE ARE RELIGIOUS. THAT SAID, YOU NAMED YOUR RECORD HAIL STAN.
[Laughs] It's just a stupid joke, honestly. If you asked any of the band members, everybody would give you a different answer of what it means to them. Some answers would be dumber than others. I'm like, man, you can take a whole year off from touring, put so much fucking hard work into writing what I think is our best music to date for us — other people may not view it that way — but we put so much blood, sweat and tears into it. You can put all this hard work into this record and just slap a stupid title onto it and remind yourself, and everybody, we don't take ourselves too seriously, ever.
GOING BACK TO VOCALS, DO YOU DO ANYTHING TO PREPARE FOR SINGING? I KNOW SOME VOCALIST REQUIRE A ROUTINE, A SPECIAL HEADSPACE OR BURN INCENSE.
For this record I had this oil diffuser that I would always put on and I would put different kinds of oils in it for the main part of writing the record. Then for tracking I did some warmups for 20 or 30 minutes and then had a glass of wine or whiskey, just to loosen up. I feel like that always kinda gets more character out of me. Not like getting drunk or anything, but just taking the edge off and not having to worry about the takes and just have fun with it.
WHAT KIND OF TIPS WOULD YOU GIVE TO SOMEONE WHO IS TRYING TO FIND THEIR VOICE?
I mean, the voice is like a muscle. The more you use it, the bigger sounding it's going to get and the more in control you're going to be of it. It's going to be more powerful. It's going to be easier. So I would say practice as much as you can. Use your voice as much as you can and record yourself. That was probably the biggest thing for me as a singer learning new techniques, was recording myself. That way you can really analyze what you're doing and hear things you don't like about your voice so you can go back and work on it.
DO YOU HAVE ANY FORMAL TRAINING?
I don't. I have never taken a singing lesson in my life.
WHEN DID YOU START SINGING?
Probably when I was like 16 or 17. I did it out of necessity because I played guitar and I've been playing guitar since I was 11 years old. I played for this punk band back in San Diego. Our singer quit and we couldn't find anyone else to do it, so I just picked up singing so we could play shows. I wasn't good at all.
WHEN IT COMES TO SCREAMING, HOW DO YOU TAKE CARE OF YOUR VOICE SO YOU CAN EXTEND THE LONGEVITY OF BEING ABLE TO DO IT? THERE ARE A LOT OF ARTISTS THAT CAN'T SCREAM ANYMORE.
Sure. To me, the biggest factor in that is warming up properly. Like, there has been plenty of shows back in the day before I was as good at doing this as I am now, where I'd go right onstage after warming up for five or 10 minutes. I thought that's all you needed. I'd blow my voice out all the time. But once I started warming up long enough and doing enough things with my voice and easing it in to, being able to scream or sing with fire and grit in it, that was the biggest thing for me. I hardly ever blow my voice out now and it's probably solely because I warm up properly.
WHAT IS YOUR CURRENT WARM UP AND HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE YOU?
I'll do major and minor scales starting from, not my lowest register, but, like, in the middle where I'm comfortable talking-type register. I'll go up high, and every time I go back down I'll start a little bit lower and lower and lower and go higher and higher. Ease into it. The whole thing usually takes, like, 30 minutes depending on how strong my voice is that day.
DO YOU WALK AROUND THE DRESSING ROOM DOING THAT?
Yeah. Sometimes the guys get really, really annoyed, especially when we're in tight spaces backstage. But [laughs] gotta do it. The best is when there's a giant hallway in the green room area where everybody, like, all the other bands, can hear it. It's like, "Welp, still gotta do it."
THEY SHOULD DO BACKUPS FOR YOU. SPEAKING OF WHICH, THE TRACK HAS OTHER VOCALS ON IT. WHO ARE THEY?
We hired our friend [composer] Randy Slaugh, he has a studio in Salt Lake City. He got some singers, and some Periphery fans, as well, from the area to come in and do choir vocals. So what I did is, I composed some of the choir parts, like a makeshift mockup of my voice, kinda showing what I wanted to go for. We have stuff like that all over the record this time.
SO YOU HAVE NOT REALLY STRANGERS, BUT STILL PEOPLE YOU DON'T REALLY KNOW, FANS, SINGING SUCH AN IMPORTANT SONG TO YOU. HOW DOES THAT MAKE YOU FEEL?
It's pretty cool. When me and Misha were in the U.K. mixing the record with [former member Adam Getgood] Nolly, when we got to that song and dumped those choir vocals on … it was like, chills to me. This is one of the most important things to me lyrically that I've written in my whole career with Periphery and there's just this sick choir of fans and other great singers just singing it. I don't know. It was just like a moment of "Fuck yeah." Hearing those isolated dropped into the session, and how big it sounded, it was really cool.
SINCE THE SONG CARRIES A LOT OF WEIGHT, ARE YOU GOING TO PLAY IT LIVE?
I want to play it live and I want my little sister to come onstage and sing with me. [Laughs] That's my goal for this song.