Interview: Pupil Slicer’s Katie Davies Discusses Debut Album, “Mirrors”

Photo: Gobinder Jhitta

If The Dillinger Escape Plan had a baby with Nails and raised that baby on post-rock albums, that baby’s first album might sound something like Mirrors, the debut album from London trio Pupil Slicer. Released earlier this year on Prosthetic, Mirrors combines chaotic mathcore, boneheaded hardcore and spacey post-metal in a way that treads both new and familiar territory.

Pupil Slicer will hit the road to promote Mirrors in 2022 but they’ve kept busy in the meantime. Earlier this month, they released the Collective Unconscious EP, which features the title track (and closing track from Mirrors) plus live versions of “Mirrors Are More Fun Than Television” and Converge’s “Concubine.” Decibel caught up with Pupil Slicer vocalist and guitarist Katie Davies to talk about Mirrors, the songwriting process, the band’s return to the stage and more.

Mirrors has been out for more than six months at this point. Now that you’ve had some space from the writing and recording process, how do you feel about it?
I’m really proud of it or what it is as a debut. The response has been amazing. We couldn’t have ever dreamed. We thought some of our friends would buy a copy and that we’d get some coverage on little niche websites and stuff, and it seems really well received. Basically people from all walks of metal fans, not just the mathcore crowd. It’s been really cool that the fans of the band that I love that influence us—fans of Dillinger Escape Plan, Converge seem to be the people that like it the most. I haven’t listened to it a huge amount since it came out since I’ve been mostly working on newer stuff but I’m still really happy with the album.

You announced recently that you’re going on tour with Rolo Tamassi in February. Those are your first shows since everything shut down. It’s still six months away but how do you feel about the idea of returning to the stage and finally playing songs from Mirrors?
Super exciting but also terrifying. To put it in perspective, our last show was like 50 people in the basement and our biggest audience has been like 100 people. And then our next show in London is at 1,200 capacity and it’s pretty terrifying but really exciting. We’ve been learning the entire album, there’s a chance that we might play the album in full at the London show, which would be pretty cool because it’s a year after it came out.

We’re getting a lighting guy—the Meshuggah lighting guy learned the songs and played along exactly, sot hat should be really cool. We want to do the album justice because we want fans to get that experience live that they’re looking for. We don’t want to disappoint at all. We got a new guitarist so we can get all the parts of our sound.

You have this large leap in the size of your band and the audience that will see it so that alters the performance a lot more than returning from covid.
I’d say that’s probably the bigger difference, the amount of people. And then the fact that we’re playing outside the UK for the first time. It’s pretty crazy—I’m super excited excited to get on the road. We used to pride ourselves on our live show because we didn’t have good recorded material. We’ve been playing the album songs for like 3 years and people were like “You’re so tight!” That’s what people say at 50-people club shows, are they going to be saying that at 1,000 people? We’ve got to make sure everything’s super tight. The songs are really hard to play. The first song on the album is the hardest one, especially for Josh. It’s got like 235 BPM blasts for like two minutes, but he wrote those drums. [laughs]

When you’re writing music, what does that process look like? Does someone come in with a full idea or is it more of a collaborative process?
It depends on the song, but for the most part it’s just me writing a lot of the stuff. I’d probably say about half of the first album, I wrote a song and wrote drums and bass for it and gave it to the others.

Some of the other songs were more collaborative, like I’d have a riff idea and just play it out on loop. Josh [Andrews] would jam some drums to it. The slower parts where it’s less intricate, it’s definitely a case of me playing riffs and Josh drumming along. We’ll have a jam, record the parts on my phone and I’ll come back and tab it all out, assemble a song out of the things we’ve jammed together.

With a lot of the newer stuff we’ve been writing, I put down a guideline as a reference for the kind of mood on the drums I want and then Josh will come back with a fully-formed idea, then we’ll tab that out.

What are your influences?
There’s a pretty wide range. My three favorite bands are Converge, Dillinger Escape Plan and Deafheaven, and I feel like they’ve all got a presence. I quite like post-rock and post-metal stuff, so I tried to get some of those more interesting chord progressions mixed in. There’s a tendency to just play caveman riffs that just sound like Nails and I love Nails but I’m now trying find a more unique voice that is more “us” so I’m using more out-there chords to try to create a different feeling to the sort of Nails, Carcass-y riffs we were doing before the album.

We also definitely want to go an experimental route with more stuff like Deafheaven. Recently Loathe and old Employed to Serve were big influences. Frontierer are an influence, I wouldn’t be doing most whammy pedal stuff without them.

You said outside the realm of mathcore. I listen to a lot of video game music. I try not to put a limit on where my influences are coming from. There’s a song we’re working on at the moment that’s sort of indie rock like The Strokes or newer Armed stuff. We’re just doing what we want that sounds cool, I guess.

Do you feel any obligation to keep it mathcore?
We know what the core sound of the band is. In the beginning, Josh really liked Rolo Tomassi and I really liked Dillinger Escape Plan and Converge so we were like “Here’s the core of our sound.”

The last song on the album we weren’t sure if we were going to include because it took a while to come together properly but then we were like, “Who cares? We’ll make the music we want to make. It’s sounding cool. We don’t have to sound like one thing; it’ll still sound like us if it’s produced the same, we’re playing it, we’ll still have flairs in there that are recognizable. Going forward there will always be a mathcore core to the music because I really like funky time signatures and doing heavy stuff.

The problem is I listen to too much stuff and go “that’s amazing, I want to sound like that.” That’s basically what Pupil Slicer, is me doing that but with 30 different bands. The end of “Husk” is just me riffing on “Scourge of Iron” by Cannibal Corpse, because I was like, “That sounds sick!” and put it in a song. My take on that kind of idea. It’s sort of like paying homage to artists we love as well, like we’re putting little musical nods to things other people do.

When you’re writing lyrics for these songs, do you have certain ideas you work in or is it just about your experiences as a person?
I usually start from rhythmic ideas about what would fit the song. I don’t usually come into a song with a concept for what it’s going to be about and then I just play around with words that would sound cool to fit in certain places. From there, I can trial through things and be like, “How can I relate this to another thing?”

Once I’ve got like one line down it’s really easy to finish the rest of the song. It’s just getting the starting point of “What’s this song going to be about?” A lot of it’s drawing on personal experience and struggle with mental health but making it all fantastical and hyperbolic because it’s entertainment and over the top.

Mirrors has been out for a few months and you have a tour planned for February. Are you working on new music in the meantime?
The second album is almost done. It’s all written, I just need to assemble it. We’ve jammed out all the songs and I’ve got the recordings of the parts but it’s just the effort of tabbing out all the drums and then assembling them, which is a slow process but it’s getting done. There’s like six or seven songs that I’m happy with and that are finished. There’s no lyrics for anything because I usually do that a lot closer to when there’s a finished demo of everything else.

There will be new Pupil Slicer. I took a single out of those songs and we’re just going to do a standalone single. That will be sometime next year, we’ve got a really cool guest spot as well.

It’s been so weird. I’ve been talking to people in bands I always looked up to. Kurt Ballou has heard our album, which is insane.

It’s a unique record. I’m looking forward to hearing what you do next.
Hopefully everyone likes it, doesn’t think we’ve lost our touch. Gone soft.