On Friday night at the Paradise, ISIS blew away their sold-out crowd with their powerful and melodic amalgamation of genre-defying metal. Supported by the similarly unclassifiable Pelican, and NYC post-hardcore trio Tombs, ISIS returned to their former stomping-ground with force, delivering a performance as blistering as it was beautiful. Prior to the show, we got the chance to sit down and talk with ISIS frontman and guitarist Aaron Turner and bass player Jeff Caxide. In our conversation we talked about LA vs Boston, their new (amazing) album Wavering Radiant, and their history of collaboration with other artists (and why you shouldn’t be too fixated on their latest teamwork with Tool). Here’s what they had to say:
After leaving Boston in 2003 for LA, you’ve mentioned in past interviews that Boston, at least in terms of music, was a “sceney” place, and that got tiring, whereas in LA there’s so much more going on, you’re not really caught up in a scene. Does coming back to Boston feel like coming home? Does it remind you of all the reasons you left?
Aaron: I don’t know if we were sick of a scene here necessarily, I think just most of the time we were here we didn’t feel like we fit in particularly. There were definitely some very active metal and hardcore bands at the time but it wasn’t actually until we left Boston that it seemed like people paid more attention to what we were doing. In a lot of ways I think we are very glad to have come from here and we feel like our roots are here in a lot of ways. And we definitely don’t feel like an LA band, that’s for sure.
How would you compare yourself to other LA bands then?
Aaron: Oh I don’t know, there’s so many bands there.
Jeff: if there’s a scene in LA I’m not really aware of it, its like there’s bar bands, people trying to get record deals, get good seats in clubs and that’s not something we’ve ever tried to do. I think there’s a misconception that we moved out to LA to ‘make it’ or something, and that’s completely false
What were your favorite venues to play and hang out at when you were living in Boston?
Aaron: Middle East was definitely our normal territory, I don’t know how many shows we played there, but we played a lot both Upstairs and Downstairs. There’s a few other shows we played in and around Boston… we did play a couple Lansdowne shows, and played at Bills Bar once, and none of the other bands showed up (laughs). Other than that I don’t know if we ever played anywhere else.
Jeff: Personally I spent a lot of time at the Middle East even when I wasn’t playing there. I was there at least once a week if not more.
Aaron: Other than that I didn’t really hang out anywhere other than my house and where I went to eat. There’s a lot of great restaurants here, which is something we miss since going to LA
Jeff: I spent a lot of time at this bar TC’s across the street from Berklee. It was right around the corner from where I lived. I spent an unhealthy amount of time there (laughs).
On to the new album…
Wavering Radiant’s artful production and orchestration gives it the most dynamic sound yet in ISIS’ catalogue. Did this evolution come naturally as you all progressed as individual musicians, or was it a conscious choice by the band to move further in a new direction.
Aaron: I don’t think we’ve ever made a really specific decision, at least verbally to try to go in a specific direction with any record, the new one included. I think we always felt from the beginning that we needed to evolve from album to album, but we never set out to say like specifically ‘this album needs to do this differently from the last album.’ I think we approached this one much the same way where it was like ‘yeah we need to step forward from where we were, we need to make sure we’re not treading the same territory,’ but it wasn’t like ‘here we need to do this differently’ and have all these very specific ideas about how it would change necessarily. The production though is something obviously we had a discussion about, to try to work with someone different and to come out with something that sounded different than something that we had done with our past couple of records.
Jeff: After four records with Matt [Bayles] it just was time to try something new
On that note, what was it like to work with Joe Baressi, as opposed to long-time producer Matt Bayles, on the new record? How big of a role have producers played on your albums in the past, and on this current one?
Jeff: In terms of Joe Baressi producing the record [as opposed to Bayles] it was a different set of ears, different set of ideas, you cant really compare the two. Matt was much more of a technician, very technical. It was all about the precise performances, making everything completely perfect, whereas Joe was more about feel, getting everything to feel right. With Matt you would take a song section by section, go over every note almost. With Joe you record chunks at a time, and it would be like ‘ok this feels good, this sounds good.’ It was a very different experience.
Aaron: I think Matt is clinical in his approach and I think early on that was probably really good for us because we were less disciplined as musicians, so it was good for us to have someone that was sort of cracking the whip and getting us to do these things in this very regimented way. But after being in a band for 7 or 8 years and playing together really regularly we didn’t need that so much anymore. So as Jeff said, just having someone who had a different approach to doing things was really important. Whether it had been Joe or anyone else, I think it was just time to explore different possibilities. I think one thing specifically that we had talked about was trying to have a more tangible energy to the recording itself. It seems like we captured the songs really well with the last few records but it lacked a little bit of the power that we felt we had in a live context or even in the rehearsal space. And that was something that Joe really wanted to address as well.
Do you feel that Joe’s approach was successful in capturing that?
Aaron: Yeah, I do. I think it’s a more energetic record. In a way it’s more polished than some of our other stuff. But I think that might have as much to do with us being more seasoned at this point as it does with the production itself. But overall, yeah I feel like its got more live energy to it. To me it sounds like a more accurate representation of what Isis is.
In a recent interview you mentioned that one of the reasons you’re so happy with Wavering Radiant is that you guys really took your time working on this album, and didn’t rush to meet deadlines. Have you reached a point in your success that you have more control over the release of your music, or were your deadlines in the past self-imposed?
Jeff: Totally self-imposed.
Aaron: We thought that it would make it easier if we set a deadline, that we would work harder. And sometimes it was more of a disadvantage than just saying we’re gonna leave it open and really work on this stuff until its absolutely where we want it to be.
Jeff: The last record, that’s the kind of record I listen to and think ‘that could be better, and that could be better, and that could be better,’ and I think we all kind of felt that way and we didn’t want to make the same mistake twice.
Aaron: I think we felt some sort of pressure to keep up with a certain pace in the past. It was like ‘well we don’t want it to be too long in between records.’ And this time it was like ‘well we are pretty well established at this point. If we take an extra 6 months or a year to do a record, its not like people are gonna forget us, we’re not going to lose whatever momentum we have. So it was really important to not just blow by the details of the record, and really concentrate as much as possible on making each song as complete as it could be, before we even thought about when we were going to record it.
On Panopticon you worked with Justin Chancellor, and toured with Tool in 2006. Now on Wavering Radiant you recorded a couple songs with Adam Jones. Is your relationship with Tool one that could lead to more collaboration in the future?
Aaron: You know, I understand this fixation with Tool, they have this massive profile, but we did as much collaboration and touring with other bands in the past, like 27 for instance, but because no one knows who they are it seems like its less consequential. But in reality, working with Tool, even though they did us a favor by taking us out on tour, it’s just like any other band we’ve ever toured with. We feel a musical kinship with them and that’s why we decided to tour with them when they extended the offer. And the same thing goes for Adam and Justin. They’re musicians who we appreciate and we feel understand our aesthetic. That’s not to say we wont ever do anything with Tool again, if they wanted to take us to Europe I’m sure we’d say yes, but we’re not hanging out waiting around for Tool to ask us to do more stuff. We are very much our own band, and we feel that it’s important to establish ourselves independent of any other association, whether its Neurosis, or Tool, or any of the other bands we [are associated with].
One noticeable element of Wavering Radiant is that the vocals come through much cleaner on this record than on others in the past. I read a recent interview in which you said that you’ve gained more confidence in your voice. Does that come through in the live show, especially in terms of going back to older material and changing the way you perform the older songs?
Aaron: Yeah I think so. I mean I just feel better singing overall. I’ve had a lot more time to experience it and develop it. I’ve been playing guitar a lot longer than I’ve been a singer, so by the time we started Isis I was already comfortable with that as an instrument, and singing was a very new thing for me. But I think probably all of us, after having been in a band consistently for so many years just feel like we’re a lot better musicians than we were when we started.
Now that you have been playing together for so many years and have so much material to draw from, how do you decide what to play live? Are there any songs you particularly love to play? Or songs you know you wont play again?
Jeff: A lot of songs go through a sort of retirement period, where its like we’ve had enough of this one and its going away for a while, and then sometimes it will come back four years later.
Aaron: There’s probably certain songs which we’ll never play again. Others we just have to give them a break for a while. I think none of the songs we’ve written, except for maybe some of the very early ones, are songs that we hate at this point. But there is definitely some that have more longevity to them, that we play quite a lot more than others. But it really depends, there’s certain songs we’ve left alone for years and then pick them back up again and they start to feel really good. But I will say the newer material feels like it has more bearing on who I am now as a person and as a musician, than songs we wrote when basically we were still teenagers.
How do you feel about touring with Pelican, a band that has clearly been influenced by your sound? How do you differentiate yourself from bands with such a similar sound and how does it feel when you hear elements of your own music in other band’s songs?
Aaron: I don’t know about that, they’re about the same age as us, and they’ve been a band almost the same amount of time, so I think we just draw from a lot of the same pool, and we are influenced by a lot of the same bands as they are. I don’t know that we are directly influencing them.
Jeff: First and foremost they’re our friends and we’re having a good time hanging out with those guys. It’s been a great tour so far.
Aaron: Also, as I was referencing earlier, it’s very important that we tour with bands who’s music we respect, and who we like on a personal level. And I think both Tombs and Pelican certainly fit that bill. We’ve toured with lots of different kinds of bands, and I think there’s some we would probably avoid touring with again simply because stylistically they’re too similar, but I don’t feel that problem with Pelican, I think we’re two distinct enough personalities that I don’t think its overkill.
You’ve talked about going to Europe to play some festivals after you finish this tour in the US. Is that set in stone now?
Aaron: Yeah. We finish up the US tour June 25th, and we leave July 1st to go to Europe. We’ll be there for about 3 weeks, doing a few festivals and doing some headlining shows in between.
Jeff: Its essentially a 9 week tour with 5 days off.
Aaron: (laughs) so don’t be surprised if one of us doesn’t make it back
Do you have anything lined up after that?
Aaron: Yeah we’re going back to Europe in October for a full headlining tour. And then probably 2010, early in the year we’re gonna go back to Japan, Australia and New Zealand. So, a lot of touring.
Do you have bands lined up for those tours?
Aaron: Destructo Swarmbots are doing the first European tour, the festival tour with us. But that’s pretty much it. We have a lot of other things we’re talking about but nothing that’s set yet.
Do you have any bands you would really like to take on tour with you?
Jeff: A bunch, but I don’t want to say any more than that.
Aaron: This tour has worked out great, but we’re also going to try to diversify a little more like we have in the past, where we have maybe a band on the bill who’s doing more electronic or experimental type stuff, and maybe another band that’s slightly more rock oriented in nature, something like that. It’s always nice when you have an evening where there’s a lot of different things that feel like they fit together, but have a lot of very different approaches.
Thanks for talking with us guys!
Thanks to Caroline Bridges for the photos! see more of her work here