Remember complaining about those MySpace/Facebook/etc. upstart bands full of untried whippersnappers who used new media to accumulate 30,000 listeners within two months of forming? Yeah, Exist are not one of those. These guys have been honing their musical acumen for years, together and individually, mostly under the radar but always impressing their localized audiences. Bassist Alex Weber seems to play a show every other night with whatever folk or jazz act has clued into his massive talent. Guitarist Max Phelps has lent his chops to Cynic, Death To All and Defeated Sanity, so he’s clearly got his shit in order. And guitarist Matthew Rossa has built a career teaching various stringed instruments, as well as composing music on his own and with other musicians far outside the realm of metal.
Did I mention that Rossa was also my Algebra student more than a decade ago? And that I’ve had the opportunity to watch Exist play circles around their local “peers” several times in the years before their self-released 2013 record Sunlight was finished? I’m pretty sure I haven’t taught anyone else on the Prosthetic Records roster how to graph linear functions, so my excitement for this year’s So True, So Bound might have been a foregone conclusion.
But I also have a very low tolerance for high-promise misfires, so I’d like to think I recognize bullshit when I hear it, and call it as such. So True, So Bound is most definitely not bullshit. You may have already heard the first three songs released from the record, but now you can stream it in full right here. Prosthetic will drop So True this Friday, June 9th, but don’t wait… Exist are already roaming the countryside with Gorguts (through the end of this month), and you should make sure you know what’s coming. We also asked Phelps to get into the dirty details, which you can read about below.
Can you talk about the general history of Exist?
The band started some time in 2007 under the name “Azrael” (ironically, Bobby Koelble from Death’s old band had the same name). It was more of a straight ahead death metal sort of thing…or at least straight-ahead in comparison to what we eventually started doing. Alex Rudinger [Good Tiger, also occasional drummer with Revocation, The Faceless and others] and I started the band and tried several members, eventually recruiting a bassist and vocalist (Alex Nowak and Aaron Ward) and playing as a four piece. He was younger and in high school at the time (like 14 or 15 years old) and I had just graduated. At the time we were listening to a lot of stuff like Nevermore, Emperor, Decapitated, Nile, Necrophagist, Death and that was reflected in the songs. I was also always a prog-head even in my early musical development and was already starting formal education in jazz at the time, but I think we were approaching things with more of a constricted mentality of “we are a death metal band and we’re trying to sound like these guys.” We thought it needed to fit a certain mold and aesthetic. We played a shit-ton of local shows for a few years, at some point in there I became the vocalist, the band name changed to Exist, and eventually we recorded a self-titled album of that material. In hindsight, it’s really cool that I was around to see teenage Rudy blasting away on drums.
It took us a really long time to get it together as far as pressing that album. In that time Alex Weber joined the band on bass. Rudy and I split shortly after and Matt Clise (who was another musician I was already playing with frequently at the time) joined on drums. Matt Rossa eventually joined as well and this ended up being the lineup that developed the Sunlight/In Mirrors material which is more representative of what we are today. We ended up not doing much with that first full-length album because by the time we would have been able to, the band was a completely different lineup and sounded very different. We were improvising a lot more and doing stuff that was more experimental. I have really fond memories of developing the In Mirrors/Sunlight material, it felt like the band had a really amazing chemistry and there was a liberated (and maybe naive) ideology behind it.
Did you approach So True, So Bound differently than you approached working on Sunlight, or were they similar?
Yes, much different. Sunlight was years of us developing the material while jamming together and playing live shows. Although the songs would be predominately arranged before I brought them to the guys, there were a lot of details that came out through playing the songs together a lot. At the time of recording we had already performed all but two of the songs live for years, so we knew them inside out. There also was a lot more experimentation and variety in the soundscaping and effects, which can be largely credited to drummer Matt Clise’s involvement and his curiosity to try different recording techniques.
With So True, So Bound we were transcribing everything and then laying it directly down to pre-production demos one song at a time. No live rehearsals at all, we rarely were playing our instruments together during the process. We’re learning to play the songs live as a band now long after they were recorded, although for the record the performances on the album are very real with minimal punch-ins in between patch changes. The sounds are also more direct, everything is guitar as opposed to some of the weird stuff we did on Sunlight where we were breaking glass or pitch shifting elementary school recorders.
Both methods have their pros and cons to me. The pre-production straight to recording method is a lot more efficient for time’s sake, which unfortunately is a factor now because we’re all self-sufficient adults with busy lives. It’s difficult for us to all get in the room together at once. If we had done things the way that we did Sunlight this time around, this album would definitely not be done now. There’s also an excitement that comes with laying things straight down, I feel like the recording process is a little more “in the moment” and the material is fresher because you haven’t spent hours perfecting it live and you’re hearing it more in it’s entirety with fresh ears for the first time as you’re doing it. I get a huge high off of that.
I wouldn’t mind doing albums more like Sunlight in the future though, or developing it more in the room as a band. I do think it helps to bring out the individual musicians characters more and there are some aspects of detail that develop in different ways. It’s not unlikely that we’ll do more experimental soundscaping stuff down the road too, more like Sunlight. This album just didn’t seem to call for it as much.
How would you characterize your experience touring with each of the other acts you’ve worked with? Do you feel like your experience touring with other bands has affected the music you write, or how you play?
I would characterize my experience as “fucking awesome.” I’ve been incredibly fortunate to tour with bands/musicians that essentially were my idols. Not many people can say that. At the time that I started playing live for Cynic they were literally one of my favorite bands.
As far as the touring experience affecting my writing or how I play, it’s tough to quantify but I’d imagine that to some extent it would have to, even if subconsciously. I generally don’t make a conscious effort to think about any other music or artists while I’m writing… Despite the Ihsahn and Cynic comparisons (while at the same time not denying their influence) there’s no deliberate reference point as far as ideas intentionally relating to other artists. I’m trying to create my own context. People might think it’s more analytical because the music is complex, but it’s a very intuitive process for me and most of the ideas that I become attached to tend to be things that come to me in my head when I’m not trying… often with no guitar in hand. Arranging those ideas is a little more hands on, but it’s almost more like I’m figuring out how to put a puzzle together in which the big picture is already pre-concieved, if that makes any sense at all. I have the theoretical knowledge to analyze the pieces and explain what I’m doing but I rarely ever would think much about it unless I was trying to teach the music to someone or communicate the motive for my decisions. With all of that said though, I think all life experience whether music or not probably impacts the way one thinks or writes.
Cynic and Death were both bands that, among many others, played a very a big part in my musical development well before I had any involvement with either of them. I’d guess that the bigger impact they had on my own music is more from when I was actively listening to and inspired by the albums as a fan as opposed to playing the songs live now that I’ve heard them a bajillion times, but I’m sure the latter has affected me in ways I don’t even realize. Maybe Lille [Gruber]’s writing for Defeated Sanity will affect how I think in the future as well.
There’s a lot of barbed metal scene humor in So True, So Bound… Was that true on Sunlight also, or is that a particular direction you took with this set of songs? Why so unserious?
It wasn’t really evident on Sunlight, but I would say that both albums have some similar themes and outlook. So True is just more direct in it’s approach. Some of it is even like a more transparent/personal version of some of the ideas presented on Sunlight. We wanted to get away from a certain esoteric nature that’s super prevelant in a lot of prog metal and tech-death. Big words, this sort of psuedo-intellectual thing, space, full diminished 7th chord arpeggios, lyrics that sound complex and cool but just seem meant to fit the mold. I still like a ton of that music but it just seems like it loses the meaning when it becomes a “thing.” It was really cool with the first and second generation of bands doing it but it’s less convincing to me at this point because it’s been done so much.
The goal was to use some metaphors that were easier to decipher and illustrated the ideas clearly to someone reading the lyrics, while maybe still not giving everything away. The humor/dark sarcasm, while I don’t think it’s necessarily overtly funny in a way that some might expect after reading the question, is just a little layer that’s more akin to how I view the world and would describe things. The album has more of a mocking, “fuck you” kind of vibe than Sunlight as well, so it came out very naturally.
What series of events/contacts led to getting Hannes Grossmann [ex-Obscura, ex-Necrophagist] to drum on the album?
Hannes and I had done a few tours together with Death to All. At the time I met him I was already a big fan of his work on [Necrophagist’s] Epitaph (absolute game changer for anyone my age who’s into this music) and [Obscura’s] Cosmogenesis, so that was awesome. He would regularly sit in and play songs with us and we would jam at sound checks and there was something about his playing in that context that I thought was really cool (not just physical chops). I also just always felt that I connected with him on a personal level both in terms of nerdy music philosophy and humor and we had stayed in touch via email after the tours we did together. Our old drummer, Matt Clise’s interest in the band seemed to wane a lot in the years directly after releasing Sunlight. After it became apparent that things weren’t going to work with him I started working on some of the new material with Rudinger with the intention of him recording it. But he was very busy with his new band, Good Tiger, and ended up concluding it wasn’t realistic for him to take on in the timeframe we were pushing for. I contacted Hannes and he was pretty much immediately down. Even though it’s less preferable to communicate about the music long-distance over emails and stuff, I knew I could trust him to deliver, and he totally did.
In what ways does the new music use the strengths of Exist’s members?
Strictly from a technique standpoint, we usually distribute parts based on who will execute it the best. Matt tends to take the more technical stuff, as his picking technique is amazing and very consistent, whereas I might play certain nastier groove oriented riffs and dig a certain way. I think his finger tone is a lot more aesthetically pleasing and he sounds tighter with certain things, he’s just a very natural technician. I guess I’m fortunate in that sense because I’ll write some things that are very difficult and unnatural to play and he’s usually willing to practice and crush things that often I’d rather not even spend the time working on. He’s been working on his lead playing and soloing concepts as well and added some very cool solos to the album as well which don’t sound like what I would play (I had played all of the solos on Sunlight). Sometimes I help produce that stuff, but regardless it adds a completely new dimension and voice to the music. I’m really happy with what he did with the “Happily Ever After” solo. It’s probably my favorite solo on the album.
I think Alex’s bass playing stands out a lot too and is a very recognizable and defining part of our sound, although I think this has always been the case and it’s not something that’s new to this album. Specifically though he’s been working on this double thumbing technique that he wasn’t doing before which has a really cool and aggressive sound. He’s also been playing certain parts with a bitier tone, which along with the octave pedals we use on guitar, sometimes I think gives the illusion that we’re playing in a lower tuning or extended range instruments when we’re really just playing 6 strings in E standard. Alex also wrote “To Sever The Strings” which compositionally is quite different than the pieces I come up with.
We definitely took advantage of Hannes’s amazing talent as well. The album isn’t nearly as blastbeat centric as a lot of the releases he’s known for, which I think is cool in a way because he’s a diverse, proggy player and we knew this going in. Still, the death metal chops show on “To Sever The Strings” and “Fault’s Peaks.” That shit is pretty crazy. I’m really happy to have his performances on there.
What about So True are you most proud of?
Really, just the whole package. As far as things that were more in my control, the compositions and lyrics. But I’m also proud of the performances of the other musicians (shout out to Bobby Koelble as well), the fact that we got to work with such an amazing mixer (Adam Nolly Getgood from Periphery), and the most pleasant surprise is probably the artwork. We were really fortunate to find Sebastian Jerke. We had very specific concepts in mind that we wanted to execute in relation to the lyrical themes long before weeven had figured out who was doing it. It’s tough to find an artist who can mold things to your own nitpicky vision while adding their own flare. I think a lot of bands aren’t as hands on with this and it usually gives the artist more room to do something according to their own style. Sebastian was very willing to get nerdy with us and dive far into the concepts and I honestly couldn’t be any happier with how it turned out. Everyone involved with every part of the process for this album did an amazing job and worked very professionally. Perfect team from start to finish, it was incredibly smooth sailing.
While on tour with Gorguts this June, what would you like to do out on the road, other than playing to packed stadiums?
Nothing. I’ll be 30 next year so it’s prime time for me to check out, stop enjoying life and become a bitter, cynical asshole who’s dreams have been ripped away because I chose an idealistic path that’s not lucrative. Oh, but I do look forward to listening to Gorguts play. They’re one of my favorite death metal bands. I’m bummed that my brothers in Defeated Sanity couldn’t make it over but I’m sure we’ll have a good time regardless.
Exist and Gorguts have already obliterated two New York towns and Detroit… but are they headed your way? Check out the tour dates here.