‘A Dream In Static’, the debut album from US progressive metal band Earthside ended up as my favourite album of 2015. I wasn’t expecting this to be the case at the start of the year but if you’ve heard it, you’ll not be surprised as to why it attained such a lofty place in my affections. Want to know more, here’s my review.
So when the opportunity presented itself to witness some of this music live on stage at the band’s debut UK gig, I couldn’t turn it down. Neither could I refuse the chance to sit down with the band and fire a few questions their way. I explored the background to Earthside and ‘A Dream In Static’ in some detail with drummer Ben Shanbrom prior to its release last year. If you’re after the Earthside back story, read part 1 and part 2 here.
I therefore thought it would be a good idea to probe the band regarding the feedback they’ve received since the album was released at the tail end of 2015 and find out how on Earth they have managed to replicate their fiendishly complicated and multi-layered music on stage.
“Let me start by saying that if I need a confidence boost, I’ll just google ‘Matt Spall’”, jokes guitarist Jamie van Dyck to much warm laughter. He is sitting across the room to me on a battered leather sofa in a ramshackle room that is somewhat misleadingly referred to as a dressing room, high up in the Camden Barfly building and he has a big smile on his face.
“But I think it has gone over really well’, he continues more seriously. “We’ve been surprised how many people in Europe know who we are, it’s stunning. It has been really cool to meet people who are really passionate about the record and are having the chance to experience it live and give us their feedback. Generally these people have been very happy about how we present it live. Also it is a fun challenge to win over people who have never heard of us and don’t know what to expect from us.’
It’s a big question and a very subjective one but, given how much effort, not to mention blood, sweat and tears went into this record, I’m eager to find out whether the response to ‘A Dream In Static’ has met their hopes and expectations. It is keyboardist Frank Sacramone who, perched on a table beside me, replies first.
“It differs for each person and you’re going to get a different answer from each of us. For me personally, I wish this album had reached more people, for the amount of work to reward, as far as popularity is concerned. The people who have heard it and love it, their love is very deep and that’s amazing. But in terms of how far I thought this record would go, I thought it would reach more people. I get a little down on myself, thinking ‘why don’t people know about us? What have we done wrong?”
“I don’t negate what Frank said”, Jamie weighs in. “Anyone who has lent a hand, in whatever way, they have all done a really good job and we’re grateful. When you put so much ‘blood, sweat and tears’ to use your words, I don’t think there’s any amount of success that would live up to our wildest hopes and dreams.”
“I think there is a number, I disagree”, interjects Frank to more laughter around the room.
“But I also think that once you get that new number, it becomes a moving target’, Jamie counters. “You have a new baseline and the dopamine addict in you feels like it isn’t enough; you always want more. You can view it as ‘why don’t more people know about us’ or, if you wake in a positive state of mind, it could be viewed as ‘wow, look at all those people who had no idea who we were five months ago and how passionate they are.’ As humans, we are so vulnerable to our own internal emotional states. The actual factors outside might be very different but that won’t matter. At the end of the day, we’re volatile, we’re artists.”
At this point, bassist Ryan Griffin chips in for the first time. Until now, he has been sitting on a really uncomfortable-looking seat beneath a grimy window apparently deep in thought, almost as if deliberately psyching himself up for the show ahead. In keeping with the rest of the band, Ryan is highly articulate and extremely focused.
“I would agree with these two guys but I would also add that these days in the music industry, there is more of an emphasis on churning out content rather than producing something that stands the test of time or has real weight behind it. All four of us, we’re not the kind of people who just want to get the music out there. We’re hyper-obsessives. Whoever we talk to, there’s always that question ‘What’s next?’ or ‘is there another album somewhere in there somewhere?’ We are definitely working on some new material but we’re in no way ready to close the book on the first album yet. There are so many more people that we feel need to hear this. Plus, as you said, given the blood, sweat and tears that went into this, we owe it to ourselves and to those that have supported us to continue with this album for the time being.”
If you’ve heard ‘A Dream In Static’, you’ll be aware just how complex this record is. Not just in terms of the arrangements and the intricacies of the music, but also by virtue of the guest musicians involved. Not only do Earthside employ a plethora of vocalists including Bjorn ‘Speed’ Strid (Soilwork) and Lajon Witherspoon (Sevendust), but there’s also the small matter of a full Russian orchestra being involved at times. I ask the guys how difficult it was to pull it all together and replicate the music in a live setting. Initially, the response is very jovial and light-hearted.
“On a scale from one to ten’, Frank pauses dramatically for effect, before breaking out into a grin, “thirteen or fourteen.”
“I think the scale is arbitrary”, smiles Jamie wickedly, “but it must be above ten”. Cue more raucous laughter from all corners of the room, before Jamie, today’s primary spokesman offers a more in-depth analysis.
“I think the biggest thing is that we have this collaborative spirit and when we’re composing, we’re envisioning the greater picture of the record and the songs. We enjoy the idea of working with other people with very different gifts that complement our talents. We feel that if someone is coming to see us live, this needs to be part of that live experience, especially if they have never heard of us. If they see us live and we don’t show them that, they are missing such a huge part of the story. That’s the hardest part I think.”
“Also”, he continues, “we have so many sounds among Frank’s keyboards and my guitars that are very specific and particular. There are so many different sounds we use on the record in terms of amplifiers and guitars, plus I play in so many different tunings. So there are lots things that we need to think about live. But we don’t write something with the idea of making it easy to play live or for a live setting.”
So it’s fair to say that you’ve made it difficult for yourselves then?
“It’s a bit of an aside”, Jamie explains whilst knowing looks pass between the band members, “but there are two ways that we write songs, songs we write individually and songs we write together in rehearsals. The songs we write together, by virtue of the process of being together in a room jamming them, those songs tend to be easier to pull off live. They tend to be the instrumentals and because we played them together in rehearsal, we’re able to play them from beginning to end with the technology that we have available. With the other songs, we had to kinda develop the technology to be able to pull them off. I think we’ve gotten a lot better at it.”
Although the subject of new material would appear to be unwelcome at the current time, I’m still interested to find out whether going out on tour has changed Earthside’s perception and approach in terms of future song writing. Frank is first to reply and his answer is typically vehement and honest.
“For me personally, no. The music has to be true to yourself so if I write something personally for me, I’m going to write what’s good for me and I’m not going to look any further than that.”
“I am a very firm believer”, adds Ryan equally intensely, “that whatever music we write and whatever we decide to do, there is a solution that we will be able to find to make it work live. Arguably, the reason we have a live show that so many people seem to be enthralled by is because we wrote these songs that are unplayable live”, he laughs as do the others, “and we have found a way to play them live. Sometimes it does feel bad when you have to find a solution that feels completely unattainable but when we succeed, I believe it is for the better in the long run.”
These comments are met with universal nodding around the room before Jamie adds a little practical context.
“To take a slightly alternate position, whilst I don’t think it will affect our writing in a dramatic way, but we are now writing and rehearsing using the equipment that we use live. It’s not in an intentional or conscious way but my conjecture would be that by virtue of using the same technology in rehearsals and live, from a technological standpoint, the music might translate better on stage. But ultimately, I agree with these guys that we’re going to write what we love; that’s what’s going to matter.”
“I don’t actually get any full thoughts when I’m on stage”, admits Ryan in response to my query about how it feels to pull off a live show in light of all the hurdles that have had to be overcome. “To me, when we have a really good show, it just feels really amazing. But there are no words in my brain, because I don’t work that way.”
“It really depends on the show”, adds the previously quiet Ben, obviously happy to let the other guys chat with me after our marathon Skype chat last year. “But being very emotionally attuned people, we are very hard on ourselves. So if something goes wrong or if one of us individually doesn’t feel like we gave the best performance, we have a hard time filing that away and thinking instead that the show was 90% awesome.”
Rather fittingly, not only is the last word from Jamie, but it is a very measured and positive set of comments on which to end the interview.
“One thing that we have to keep in perspective is that we are about to play our 25th show as Earthside. I think I’ve counted that right. So, to have this kind of big stage production with that limited show experience is important to remember and we’re learning on the fly all the time. We’ve been on tour twice, so we’re learning what a tour is like, what gear is reliable, what the headline band requires from us. The only way to learn this is to live it. The more shows we play, the more knowledgeable and confident we will become. Being on tour means you can learn from other bands that have done this many times and have learned from their nightmare scenarios. They can give you a great insight. Einar and Tor of Leprous both offered their suggestions, as did Danny of Voyager. Some of which we will definitely take and it’s another valuable resource for us. We are learning and we will continue to get even better.”
The rumble that suddenly erupts from the floor below indicates that Brutai have hit the stage and so, with that, both the band and I hurtle out of the room for another dose of quality live music.
Naturally, later that night, Earthside back up their words with a superbly intense live show, full of energy, emotion and technically adept musicianship. Want to know more, check out my live review here.
And for those of you who are either unfamiliar with Earthside or have yet to witness them live on stage, I urge you to amend this heinous oversight as quickly as possible.