Native Construct – Interview – “if this music was not considered odd, I have no idea if I’d be interested in making it”
It is rare these days that I find myself so daunted by an album or by a band. However, that’s probably the best adjective I can use to describe how I felt upon listening to Native Construct and their progressive metal debut, ‘Quiet World’ for the first time. It’s not an album that can be referred to as easy listening as there are a million-and-one things going on, seemingly all at once. It not really surprising though, given that the trio that make up Native Construct are all students of the world-renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston, USA. You have to be a seriously good musician to get into this establishment initially and, bearing in mind the likes of Dream Theater who originated from the same College, it’s likely that you come out of the other end even better and more highly skilled.
Nevertheless, having given ‘Quiet World’ plenty of time and attention, it all began to click and I eventually took the album to my heart. If you’re interested in my full and detailed review, you can check it out here.
From the moment that the music clicked, I felt compelled to find out more about this incredibly talented band and so, via the miracle of Skype, I found myself engaging in a transatlantic conversation with guitarist Myles Yang with a clarity that made it feel like we were in the same room. I begin the interview by asking Myles why he and his two partners in crime, vocalist Robert Edens and bassist Max Harchik chose progressive metal to be their musical vehicle of choice as opposed to anything else.
“To be honest”, begins a quietly spoken and incredibly articulate Myles with a very distinct, almost musical accent, “the reasons why we are partial to metal and progressive music are not consciously driven; we’re victims of circumstance just like everyone in the world is. I’m into metal because my older brother growing up was into metal and I was influenced greatly by him. I followed in his footsteps and found myself stumbling into the metal world without ever consciously deciding to enter into it. The vocalist Robert was my best friend growing up so naturally he got into it because I was into it. And then Max I think had similar experiences in driving him towards this kind of music. We’ve all been into the metal and progressive music world since we were much younger so it was the natural kind of thing for us to do for this project once we started to get more serious with things. But of course we’ve been able to add in a lot of other influences as well and moved in a slightly different direction as a result, as opposed to sticking with more traditional metal music.”
“But early on there were a lot of straight up metal influences. I got into the metal world through hardcore and emo music actually. So I started with things like My Chemical Romance and then it got progressively heavier to bands like As I Lay Dying and Killswitch Engage. The big turning point was when I discovered Between The Buried and Me because they bridged the gap between traditional metal and progressive music. I heard them and was blown away; I didn’t even realise that you were allowed to do things they were doing. Specifically the record ‘Colours’ –that was the first one that I heard and that opened my eyes to the progressive world. From there I got into more prog rock and progressive metal bands. Eventually, I wound up as a prog enthusiast. I believe that it was similar for the rest of the band too.”
“Later on, I got into classic prog bands like The Beatles, Queen, Pink Floyd, that kind of stuff. And then of course there’s another side of me which belongs to the classical music world, so I draw a lot of influences from composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok, Maurice Ravel, that sort of stuff.”
In the press release that accompanied ‘Quiet World’, the descriptive prose proudly declares that Native Construct set out to breathe new life into the metal world. Whilst I’d agree with this to a certain extent, Myles is not so sure, as he explains with good humour.
“To be honest”, he laughs, “the idea that we specifically set out to breathe new life into metal is a bit of a romanticisation. It sounds great in press releases but the honest truth is that we came to Berklee, we were all excited students so we played around and jammed with friends; this is the music that naturally resulted from that. It started as a “for fun” passion project on the side but escalated from there. All we ever set out to do was make music that we were having fun with. If somehow that ends up being something that people perceive as breathing new life into anything then so be it but that wasn’t really our goal to begin with.”
Given the Berklee connection, I have to ask Myles about Dream Theater and whether being compared to them or referred to as ‘the next Dream Theater’ is more of a help or a hindrance.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a hindrance”, Myles considers, “but I also wouldn’t say that we’re comparable to Dream Theater at all yet. But I understand the comparison and to be honest, I think it does nothing but help us. The name Dream Theater has a lot of weight behind it and when people hear things like ‘the next Dream Theater’, it gets people’s attention and makes them want to check us out. So I’m fine with it.”
“In the very beginning”, Myles begins when I enquire as to how this extremely complex and challenging music came into being, “it was a few kids new to Berklee just jamming. We started to come up with some weird stuff that we decided was fun and wanted to continue pursuing. Shortly after that, once we decided we wanted to focus on it more seriously, we quickly did away with the casual jam process and began a more focussed process where we sat down and started thoroughly composing. The initial direction was very natural but the bulk of the music was created in a very specific, meticulous manner with usually one or two people sitting down, working out all the parts and then having us all learn the parts afterwards. The kind of music we’re making doesn’t really lend itself to the jam setting because the parts are very specific. There’s a lot going on, it’s very dense and it needed to be fit together very carefully like a puzzle.”
Based on the preceding answer, I make the mistake of assuming that Native Construct is just a studio band, something that Myles corrects with a certain amount of excitement.
“Oh no, we’re definitely going to be playing on stage very soon; we’re actually in the middle of rehearsals right now so we’re going on the road as soon as possible.”
This then begs an obvious question. If Native Construct are just a trio, formed of a vocalist, bassist and guitarist, how will the music be replicated on stage?
“We take care of all that stuff ourselves on this album”, Myles states almost dismissively as if he’s referring to the act of breathing. “For live performances though, we’re working with a drummer and an additional guitarist who are not actually in the band.”
In that case, who exactly handles the other instruments on the album, particularly the drums?
“The drums are programmed, which I did.”
The incredulity in my voice makes Myles chuckle, as I struggle to believe that the drums are not organically produced. Fake drums have always been a big bugbear of mine and so to realise that I have been duped leaves me feeling rather red-faced.
“Thank you”, Myles responds warmly with another chuckle, “I worked very hard to make them sound as real as possible. There are a number of ways that programmed drums can go but if you work carefully and pay attention to dynamics and the nuances of human drumming as far as timing goes, you can make them sound pretty real these days.”
“I can’t remember ever specifically thinking that”, Myles answers honestly when I enquire as to whether there was any time when the whole thing felt like too much and the trio felt like giving up. “Although I wouldn’t consider it out of the question; it might have happened. We started working on this stuff since 2011 and we finally finished in 2013 I think. It was definitely tough, as you say, to balance school with it. So there might be times when I regretted getting into this but it turned out well in the end.”
Based on the feedback to this record on various forums, it’s probably fair to say that the reception towards ‘Quiet World’ is mixed. There are those who think it’s the best thing they’ve ever heard, whilst others simply cannot get on with it, citing it as too complex or too weird. The accusation has also been thrown about that maybe this is an album that has been created because it could, instead of because it should. I tentatively put this to Myles and to my surprise, he completely understands.
“I’m surprised that more people don’t say that to be honest. I was definitely aware of that as something that people might potentially think before we released the album. I’ve been surprised at how positive the reception has been. That’s not something we care too much about though. We made this music because we wanted to and if people think we shouldn’t have, then whatever. It’s pretty cool though that the vast majority of people so far have enjoyed it.”
“Maybe subconsciously”, Myles replies when I cheekily ask whether some of the elements on the album are there simply to show off their collective talents. “But that was never our intention; we’re just making music that we want to hear and that’s about it.”
As is the relative norm with progressive music, ‘Quiet World’ is a concept disc with a strong story running through it from start to finish. I’m keen to discover whether it was the music or the concept that emerged from the trio first.
“At the onset”, Myles states quite vehemently, “it was just music first. But very quickly the concept came into focus and so most of the music was written with the concept in mind. The music really follows the concept and the story.”
And are there any parts of the story that have been influenced by any of the band’s personal experiences?
“It was never directly intended to be representative of our lives although the process of creating music is very intimate and so it’s impossible to keep ourselves out of it. I’m sure therefore that some of our experiences seeped in, in a number of ways. But the idea itself is intended to be a work of fiction and not really directly related to us.”
There is, in my opinion, much for the chaps in Native Construct to be proud of on their debut recording. However, I enquire as to whether there are any specific aspects of the album about which Myles is especially proud.
“I’ll preface this answer”, Myles answers in his typically considered fashion, “by saying that I have been working on new material for subsequent albums recently and it’s going to be very different. But the one thing that I do really enjoy about this current album and the thing that I think will always stay with us no matter how the rest of the elements of the music end up, is our strict commitment to thematics. So, on this album, absolutely everything you hear is derived from just a handful of basic themes that make up the core of the album. There’s an infinite number of ways one can develop a single theme or motif and we really enjoy exploring that idea. And we especially enjoy exploring crazy, interesting and extreme paths of development. It’s a really enjoyable way to compose music for us and allows us to get away with some wild out-there stuff whilst still remaining coherent and focused. This is one of the most important elements of our sound and will stick with us.”
One thing that made me raise an eyebrow from the beginning was the choice of record label that the band made. Metal Blade have a reputation for signing the heavier, more uncompromising end of the metal spectrum and, with respect, I would have thought that labels like InsideOut or KScope would have been more natural homes for an out-and-out prog metal band like Native Construct. The reason, it turns out, is very simple however.
“Another oddball band on the Metal Blade roster is Between The Buried and Me. The vocalist of BTBAM, Tommy, heard our music whilst we were in the process of shopping the record out to labels. He liked the music enough that he offered to help us with that process. He actually was able to get us in contact with a few labels including Metal Blade and we started talking from there. So one oddball band helped out another oddball and now we’re both oddballs on the same label. Other labels might have been more obvious choices but Metal Blade gave us a deal we were happy with and I think it is beneficial to be an oddball band on a label like this because it helps us to stand out within the remainder of the roster.”
Myles has used the word ‘oddball’ a lot in his recent answers, so I ask him whether he wishes that the music he created was not considered to be niche or underground.
“To be honest, I have no idea what I would think if music like this was the norm; that’s an interesting question. I will say that given that progressive metal is not the norm, it is probably in our favour to be considered to be an oddball band. There’s so much noise out there these days that anything you can have to differentiate yourself and make people more interested is useful. But if this music was not odd, I have no idea if I’d be interested in making it or not.”
On a similar train of thought, I ask Myles if he worries about the fact that the music world in general appears to have a diminishing attention span and is not always open or willing to give complex music like prog a chance.
“Yes, I do worry”, Myles immediately affirms without hesitation. “It is definitely tough and this is something that we kept in mind a little bit while we were composing too. As hard as this may be to believe”, he pauses and chuckles wryly to himself, “we actually had to limit ourselves a little bit in terms of how long we could go on with certain things and how far out we could go. People are simply not swilling to listen to certain things these days; you have to keep things a little more concise. This being our first album, we were conscious of the first track on the first album being something that grabs your attention immediately because to be honest, people will listen to maybe 10-15 seconds of the first track of a new band and if they don’t like it, you’re done. There are no second chances; it’s a hard world out there.”
“That said”, Myles continues, “there’s a very strong niche market out there for this sort of stuff. It may be a very small market but these are amongst the most passionate of fans in my experience. And there’s a lot of interesting stuff out there. It’s a nice time and it’s cool to be living in this year, given that the forerunners of prog have already paved the way for us and opened up many doors. It gives us a lot more freedom as a result.”
As a closing question to what has been a thoroughly engaging and enjoyable chat, I ask Myles whether he sees Native Construct as a long-term band given that he has used the word ‘project’ throughout. The answer is exactly what I was hoping for.
“Native Construct is definitely a band for the long term. We have plans to do quite a few more albums. But right now we’re focussing on getting touring started. After we’ve supported this record on the road, we’ll be starting the cycle all over again. We would love to come to the UK and all over in the future too.”
Technical, ambitious, complex and just ever so slightly bonkers, ‘Quiet World’ is truly progressive in just about every term of the word. If this sounds like your kind of thing, be sure to check out Native Construct.
‘Quiet World’ is out now on Metal Blade Records.
If you’ve enjoyed this interview, please check out some others that I have conducted:
Wisdom Of Crowds – Bruce Soord & Jonas Renkse