Savannah, Georgia's sludge metal stalwarts Kylesa have, in some ways, ventured down even murkier paths of experimentation for their sixth full-length record, Ultraviolet. The record is still firmly rooted in their aesthetic, filled with thick, smoky riffs, song structures that either spiral into vast post-metal whirlpools or fracture out in psychedelic exploration, and aggressive, muscular, organic drumming. With Ultraviolet, however, Kylesa have broadened their musical palette, incorporating diverse electronic elements that range from subtle keys to eerie theremin swoops, imparting a more chilly, distant feel to the music. But even as the instrumentation has become more dense and even alienating, Ultraviolet also sees the band becoming intensely vulnerable and emotionally raw. "What Does It Take" expresses a deep frustration and fear with the human limitations of the physical body, while "Long Gone" captures loneliness and emotional loss. This emotional exposure is underscored by the vocals, as on Ultraviolet, Laura Pleasants takes on the vast majority of the vocal duties, and her clean singing (as opposed to the rasping scream of Phillip Cope that defined most of their previous output) creates a more intimate, accessible atmosphere.
Challenging, complex and wholly emotional authentic, Ultraviolet is without question Kylesa's most difficult album, and winds up becoming their best in the process. We caught up with both founding members, Laura Pleasants and Phillip Cope, both of whom handle guitar and vocal duties.
You recently did an AMA "interview" on Reddit, where fans could ask you any question they wanted and you would answer in real time. How did you enjoy poking around what is often portrayed as one of the darker parts of the internet?
Phillip Cope: It turned out to be a lot of fun. We'd never done it before so it took us a few seconds to get the groove of it. We were surprised to get so many questions so fast. Like, "Whoa, we better answer these faster." Once we got used to it, it was great. We're really glad we did, and we hope we can do it again sometime. It felt good to talk to people like that.
Laura Pleasants: We had done Q&A's before, and I guess when you do such a thing it can lend itself to being a terrible experience if people wanted to be ugly, but it wasn't at all. Out fans just got in touch with us and asked the questions that they wanted to ask. A lot of the questions were things we have heard before, but some were more specific. It was fun, and other than my non-wonderful typing skills, it was totally easy. I wasn't really worried about it, and I can pretty much handle any which way it could have gone, but it was cool. There was nothing weird or awkward or hostile, it was all positive.
Were you surprised at all by the depth of knowledge and level of engagement your fans displayed, which was quite high?
Phillip: We didn't really do any preparation for this, we really just jumped in there and we didn't know what we were going to get in to. I thought that we got really good questions and it was a lot more civil than we expected. I had some people the day before texting me, warning be that it could get crazy, but it was fine. I thought that people asked really good questions.
Let's talk a bit about Ultraviolet. In some ways this is a darker record, and certainly more atmospheric than your previous releases. However, it seems to be that the title belies some of that darkness, as ultraviolet light is still light, just something out of our range of vision. Light we can't see. Was the title of the record an attempt to be dark, but hopeful?
Phillip: Laura came up with the title, and I am not sure that was really her intention. I know she was using it as an analogy in a way, something that we know exists but we can't see it. I think that we're always trying to reach for things that we know exist in a way that aren't right in front of us.
Laura: Exactly. Even though ― okay, I've never said this to anyone, actually. I am not a Christian, I am not affiliated with religion, but as my mom was dying, she was searching for something. She became more spiritual, she started facing all of these end-of-life kind of questions, and she was dealing with this wonderful minister, this really wonderful woman. They would have... I'm not really sure what they would do, this meditation stuff together, and this minister told me later, and my mom told me later, and she was scared to tell me because I'm not a Christian, but I told her it was totally okay, and to tell me, and she said that they saw this warm, purple aura and glow, that they had this experience together. It's really the colour of the spirit. I thought it was really intense and interesting. I was thinking about what they had told me, and I was thinking about how it was such an intangible presence. You can't really touch that or hold it or grasp it intellectually. Then I was thinking about ultraviolet light and the similarities between that light and all these unanswered question that we have about life. Especially if you don't have, like I don't have faith or a god, so I have all these questions that I am not sure about, but I sure am interested in. The fact that ultraviolet light is there and it is a part of our energy field and it is with us but we can't see it.
That is a beautiful image and a beautiful story. You don't have to be spiritual at all to appreciate that there can be moments of magic.
Laura: Thank you.
And thank you for sharing that, I know that it was hard, but I think it is very important for the story of the record. Over all, would you define Ultraviolet as a dark record or an optimistic record?
Phillip: Even though some of the subject matter is darker, we don't try to be depressingly dark. We try to see some of the light at the end of the tunnel. In the experiences that we're talking about on that album are aspects of the human experience. All humans have to go through these things in their lives, and we want to write it and present it in a way that people can relate to in their own lives, and not in just a totally dismal way.
Would you say that while the record is difficult, you were going for something more healing or cathartic, for you as well as the listener? Because it is certainly more vulnerable than, say, Spiral Shadow, which is more confident and muscular, whereas Ultraviolet finds its strength in this opportunity for exposure and release.
Phillip: You are completely right, I couldn't agree with you more. It is definitely a more vulnerable album.
You have both talked about the time between Spiral Shadow and Ultraviolet being very difficult, and about this being a very cathartic album because of that. Did that catharsis manifest as well in the way you used your voice differently?
Laura: It was for sure a cathartic experience, it was a really hard record to write because it was very emotional, it was a very emotional time for me. But then the recording process was really cathartic, and I was really happy to get all of this off my chest and get through it. I felt that when it was completed, I was very happy I could write this record, and now I feel like I can move on.
Do you think that writing music about trauma allows you work through it differently than say just speaking about it would?
Laura: Yeah, absolutely. It's hard for me to speak about such heavy, complex feelings. I went through a lot of really heavy life-changing stuff, and it's hard to just put that to paper, or to verbalize it. It's much easier for me to just speak those feelings through art or through music. I think what I contributed to this record speaks to what I was experiencing and going through.
While working through those difficult emotions, it seems you really made an effort to make the catharsis universal, and to write songs that other people would be able to connect with and experience a similar kind of release. I personally connected to some of these songs very deeply.
Phillip: The fact that people can relate to it, that's what I wanted. I was hoping to speak to other people in bands, other musicians, it's for all of us that are in the underground. Which is really all musicians these days, everybody is just kind of equalized lately. It is a struggle to be an artist of any kind these days, maybe more so than ever, at least in my lifetime. I wasn't just talking about myself, but I think the things that I had to go through about my physical healthy, giving up relationships with people, all the things you have to do to make it work, I think that almost everybody has to do that, and I was trying to write it in a way that was for other artists as well.
Laura: I think it's something that everyone ― you have something in your life that's happening, and so you can relate to something that I have been through that is not the same experience as yours but may have some similarities. Being a musician and struggling and getting older and having health problems ― and there's not really health care in this country unless you have a job that pays for it ― it's just struggling. Philip had some problems, and he didn't have the money to go to the doctor, and no one is going to take care of you unless you show them your insurance. It's awful. Why do we have to deal with this in the United States?
See, I am in Canada, and I cannot imagine that horror.
Yeah. Mentally and physically. I went through watching someone over many years, they've lost themselves to outside influences, and it just destroyed them and in many ways really hurt my family. And then, I watched my mother's body just give way to a disease, even though she fought and fought and fought. She had a very strong will, but at the end of the day, you can't do anything about it. I just can't imagine having to be in her shoes and having gone through that, or anyone.
That line between successful artists and underground artist is increasingly blurred, especially when you are talking about aggressive music.
Phillip: Oh yeah, definitely, it doesn't matter how long you've been going. I work with a lot of bands that are just starting up, and I see the struggles that they have, and I say to myself sometimes, "Wow." I can't imagine how hard it is for newer bands to start up right now, because it was hard when I was young, but it is really hard for new bands now.
There is a sense of that camaraderie too, on Ultraviolet, and whenever you are discussing pain and negativity, it is in a way that reaches out and tries to relate, as though saying, "I know you are going through this too." There is a generosity to it.
Phillip: Totally, that is definitely the intention.
One thing you did keep personal, though was the production. Phillip, you recorded Ultraviolet yourself, and took more of a multi-instrumentalist / producer approach and held the record much closer that you have done on past efforts. Was this a record that you felt you needed to exert more control over?
Phillip: Well, I did have help, I wasn't the only engineer on there, but I would definitely say that I was like the director. You might have five different people working on a record, everybody from the band coming in at different times, and somebody has to oversee it all and make sure that everyone is on the same page. I was there for every bit of the recording, there wasn't a moment I wasn't involved. I think there was a single hour in the entire two-month process that I wasn't there. But I don't necessary think that I needed to take more control, but I was given that opportunity to take as much as I wanted. I was given a bit of freedom, and I wanted to go and play with the songs and do new things musically, and I could trust that they would just let me do it. I think everybody in the band was more trusting this time, we weren't looking over each other's shoulders so much. We were all supportive to everybody's ideas, and I just made sure everybody's ideas were working together and not against each other.
So you saw your role as making sure all the energy was moving in the same direction?
There are also more electronic elements on Ultraviolet than Kylesa have used in the past, which makes it a bit more cool and distant, even slightly alienating. Were you setting up a contrast between the music and the very personal, intimate lyrics?
Phillip: A lot of the electronics came about through listening to a lot of darker music out there, and there often is a coldness to electronic music, whereas with sludge and stoner there's a little bit more warmth. So in adding all that stuff, I thought it would change the normal vibe of ours a little bit, make it colder and darker. It's wasn't necessarily meant to be a contrast at all; in a lot of ways it just made sense. Just like the way that clean vocals made sense, instead of just screaming. Especially when you get into the more personal pieces, it seemed wrong just to scream that stuff out. So, maybe accidentally it worked out that way, because I don't think you're wrong, but I don't think that contrast was fully intentional. The colder vibe of the music, though, definitely was. We definitely wanted the lyrics to be more personal, and we wanted people to understand the lyrics, to relate to the lyrics, so screaming out the whole album didn't make sense.
You wanted the lyrics to be something the listener could connect to, immediately and clearly?
Laura, do you think the vocals you performed ended up providing a more immediate and intimate connection?
Laura: Whereas the music is very dense, and there's a lot going on, and there's a lot of different styles thrown at the listener, it's a lot to take in. I think that just from a listening standpoint, with the soft, easier vocals, that might be a little more easy to digest immediately. Also, from the natural way one listens to music, you hear the beat and the vocal first, I think. So having that immediacy with the vocals helps lure the listener in to the rest of the music.
So you're trying to get the listener to follow your voice into the depths and complexities of Ultraviolet.
Laura: Yes, right.
Would you also say that, because the music is more dense and chilly, the vocals are more warm and welcoming in response?
Laura: Yeah, thanks, it came out that way. It wasn't entirely formulated to be that, but just with the nature of the songs I felt that I personally wanted to do more singing because that's what I felt it called for, and that's what I heard in my head.
Laura, while your role in Kylesa's sound and stage presence has always been very important, it is more keenly felt on Ultraviolet than usual due to your increased vocal role. How did it come about that your vocal presence became such a big part of this record?
Laura: It really didn't come about that planned. Phillip and I were working on the new material, he was living in another city so we couldn't do a lot of jamming together on this record. He would come to town when he could, and he would call, and we would send each other music. A lot of my demos I would do with [drummer] Carl [McGinley] at the practice space, rough stuff, and he did the same. Philip was also producing the record, so there's much more work involved when you're producing and you're in the band. It's like double the work. Philip was interested in playing the role of multi-instrumentalist, where he really wanted to play with the theremin and skateboard guitar, and mess around with some keys, so he was doing a lot of that. There was a lot of room in a lot of the songs for vocals, and he was like, "Hey, do you want to take a stab at all of this? Just go for it if you want." So I did. I had lots of lyrics and plenty of ideas, and so it came about really easily. It wasn't until later that I realized and said, "Oh wow, man, you're really not singing a lot on this record, are you play with that? Do you want to add something or change it around?" But he was like, "No, it works."
Kylesa have a very distinct sound and a very clear aesthetic, one that evolves and is modified but always clearly recognizable. Does this set you apart from other Southern sludge bands, or do you see yourselves a part of that scene?
Phillip: We definitely are because of our location, we have that going on, and we are friends with a lot of other bands. But we definitely try to have our own identity. We're not sitting around listening to everyone's record trying to figure out how to be part of a musical scene. What a lot of people don't realize is that we're one of the oldest bands out of that whole genre, and a lot of us that have roots that go even farther back. I don't think it's every been our intention to fit in or keep up, we just live in our own bubble these day and do our own thing. If we fit a scene it really is more accidental than anything. That being said, I think a lot of us in this genre have a lot of the same influences.
So it's more of a cross-pollination.
Is there anything in particular you hope a listener would take away from Ultraviolet?
Phillip: Yeah, we really would like this album to be somewhat like a journey. We really would like people who are fans of the band and don't mind spending the time ― I realize everything moves real fast these days and people don't have a lot of time to spend on albums, that's one reason we made it shorter, because people don't really have an hour to devote to listening to one album these days. You tend to put music on in the background and do other things. But, hopefully, people could find time to give it the half hour plus that it is, put on some headphones, and just listen, get sucked in by it, and go on a journey through it. It's definitely a headphone record, and there's a lot that if you're just listening to it on a computer, it's going to fly by you, you're not going to notice it. But it will open up a lot more on headphones. We understand though that people don't have enough time to just sit with a record and chill out these days, it's less common than it used to be.
So as much as you hope for an intense listening experience, you have still made the record enjoyable for those who don't or can't listen that way. But, there are riches there for those who look.
Phillip: Exactly, we tried to think of all the different kind of listeners, but you'll get the full experience if you can give it some time.
Laura, Can I get kind of weird and dream-interpret-y for a moment?
I remember reading about the line in the song "Quicksand" about your mouth filling up with blood being based on a dream that you kept having, that included your teeth falling out. Dreaming about your teeth falling out usually means that you are having trouble communicating, that there is something you need to say that you can't express.
Laura: Oh yeah, totally. I looked it up too.
Are you still having that dream, or has having that dream gotten out what you needed to say?
Laura: Yeah, it's over. I am much more at peace about it now. When I was having that dream, I was on tour, and I had committed to doing this one tour even though my mom was sick at home. I was talking to her every day, chatting every day online, but I really wanted to get home. I was having nightmares every night. This was like in June , and she had just taken a turn for the worse with her health, but I had already committed a month before. At the time we didn't really know what was going on, but I knew inside that I really needed to get home. I just kept thinking, "I don't want to be here, I need to go home." And I just kept having that dream and it disturbed me. I'd wake up and it would stay with me during the day. I jotted it down, and later I was going through a bunch of my journals, and it conjures up such a sharp visual that I wanted to sing about it.
It's such a visceral image too, there's a taste and a sensation, it's so vivid.
Laura: It's a very weird physical feeling, and I always have very vivid dreams. Most of them involve science fiction for some reason. I have crazy sci-fi dreams that are pretty awesome for the most part, but then I went through, just prior to my mother's death, I went through some really hard dreams, and then after her death I had some crazy hard dreams as well. But when everything is normal in my life, I just have insane science fiction dreams. I'm always like, "God, I should write these down."
You should! I have been dreaming a high fantasy epic on and off for years, so one day I am just going to have to write a novel about elves.
Laura: I know! It would be so cool!