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Interview with Tommy Rogers, Between The Buried And Me – July 1st, 2015



By Mike Bax

Coma Ecliptic, the seventh full length album from Raleigh, North Carolina five-piece noise-meisters Between the Buried and Me, will see its release on the brand spanking new Global Record Release Day – this Friday, July 10th on Metal Blade Records.

This album spans numerous musical landscapes over almost 70 minutes, touching on elements of King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa, Opeth, Mastodon and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Both the music and the lyrics are at times utterly lovely but can turn on a dime into something dark and menacing. Coma Ecliptic is easily the best metal album I’ve heard so far this year, and is sure to make its way onto numerous Best of 2015 compilation lists.

I must admit to scoffing when I read the advance sheet for Coma Ecliptic. There are so many instances of over-selling within the music industry, it’s almost become a cookie-cutter process finding bands to name drop against, to entice the populace into playing a piece of music. When I saw mentions of bands like Pink Floyd, Queensrÿche and Andrew Lloyd Webber, I could feel myself starting to dismiss the album before I’d even played it. It’s ALL there and more. Coma Ecliptic blew me away on many levels. If this is an anomaly for the band, it’s a damn good one. I haven’t played a BTBAM album since Colors. If The Great Misdirect and The Parallax II: Future Sequence are anything like this, I can tell I will be among many people re-connecting with this band in the coming months.

Between The Buried And Me will be coming through Canada for two dates in August; London Music Hall, Ontario on August 4th and Club Soda, Montreal on August 5th. Tickets are still available for both of these shows.

Mike: First off, I doubt I’ll effectively articulate how impressed I am with Coma Ecliptic, Tommy. It’s so bloody good. Kudos.

Tommy: Oh! Thank you, man.

Mike: I think it could be said that Between The Buried And Me is a band willing to take some chances with their material. I feel like you’re all really stepping out with Coma Ecliptic.

Tommy: Well, yeah. That’s good to hear that it sounds that way. I think that as we’ve gotten older we need to do what we want to do. We’ve always had that approach, but I feel like with this record we wanted to step nearer the cliff. I don’t think that it’s THAT different for us, but I definitely wanted to step it up on the creative level and see where we might go. The result was the new record.

Mike: It feels more musical somehow; more structured than some of your past albums, for lack of better terminology.

Tommy: Yeah. As far as song structure goes, this project did see us focusing a little more on that element but still bringing in our chaos, too. The stuff on Coma is still structured like traditional songs, but in comparison it’s more structured than most of our previous material.

Mike: I feel like Coma Ecliptic is what Opeth and Dream Theater fans have been hoping for from these bands for the past decade. No disrespect to either of those bands, as I’ve enjoyed where they’ve gone with their material. But I read their social networking feeds, and see the comments there. If these fans take the time to tune into Coma Ecliptic, they’re going to be pretty happy.

Tommy: My personal goal on this record was – even if people gave up on us at some point, that this album would make them listen again and re-evaluate us. That’s what is exciting about bands that are constantly evolving – that you can find something down the road that you maybe didn’t feel was there before. There’s bands, for instance, that I listen to that I didn’t give a shot for years because I heard a record that wasn’t really my thing. But six years later I’ll keep hearing from my friends that the band has gotten so good, and I’ll check it out and discover that it’s true. I’m not saying that I think we sucked at any point, but I feel like our music has changed quite a bit at certain points in our career and it certainly doesn’t have to be a bad thing. I’m hoping we’ll gain some new fans, and maybe even get some people back that wrote us off on a previous release.

Mike: I think I’m one of those guys. I tuned out, and I don’t really have any context for your past five or six years. And this is going to sound trite, but I didn’t really expect what I heard when I put Coma Ecliptic on.

Tommy: Well good. That’s the goal.

Mike: I was impressed to see that a lot of your pre-sale packages for the new album are selling out on your web page. The buzz is out there. Your fans are buying up your stuff. That’s got to feel good for you guys, that the physical aspect of Coma Ecliptic is garnering excitement.

Tommy: Especially in this day and age, we’re very lucky that our fan base really likes being hands-on with our stuff – the fact that we’ve been doing conceptual records now for years, and they have really grasped that and really gotten involved in the record. They seem to want any format they can get their hands on, which is great. The response has been great so far. Hopefully that will continue once it’s released and, who knows what the next step will be.

Mike: You are close to release date on this album, are you not? Its next week – July 10th. Wow! Have you talked with the rest of the band about how you are going to tour Coma Ecliptic? I want to hear the entire album live – just putting that out there.

(Mutual Laughter)

Tommy: We’re are talking about doing that maybe next year. Right now we’re doing a mixture of songs. But it’s definitely a record that could translate live from start to finish. And we have done that the last few records. So I can’t see why we wouldn’t do that for this one.

Mike: I hope that happens. It’s possibly a tougher sell for fans that want to hear more nuggets from the past five or six albums. You are asking a bit more from your audience, I guess. But I’m a fan of seeing albums performed in their entirety. I think it’s a special thing to see a body of work that is this diverse performed in entirety.

Tommy: Yeah, I agree. That is our approach as well. We treat different tours different ways. We have this current tour that is hyping the record. There are markets we haven’t played in a while on this run of dates, and we need to respect that. Later this year we’re doing A Markets. Once people have sunk their teeth into this album, hopefully there will be a lot of hype with that tour. Like you said, you need to have that discussion as a band. We’ll want to play the new music. And you do run the risk of alienating a few people if you go at it as a complete portion of the setlist. That will be for the die-hard fans, who maybe want to see something special.

Mike: I mentioned Opeth before, and lately I’ve been reading a lot of articles on Mastodon, and how their fans are becoming a bit disenfranchised with the way these bands are musically maturing. Their material is getting so far away from their first few albums that fans are getting confused, like they are trying to decide if they should still be listening or not. I think you may get a bit of that on Coma Ecliptic. I wonder if you are ready for that.

Tommy: Yeah. I feel like the way we’ve done it, we’ve never done anything drastically. Record by record, we’ve migrated. By now our fans know, at least they should, we’re not going to write the same record over and over. We’re always going to try new things. We’re getting older. As time moves on you want to experiment and try new things. With this record, it’s different, but I don’t think it’s super drastic. Coma Ecliptic still sounds like our band. When you listen to The Parallax, our last record, and then this one, it should feel like a natural step. It feels right to me. But like you said, that’s always going to happen to some extent. Even if we didn’t do anything different and just wrote another version of The Parallax, we would have gotten slammed for doing that. No matter what you do, there is going to be some kind of a backlash. I think as far as Opeth and Mastodon, by the way I am a huge fan of both bands, I really enjoy the directions they are both going in. I feel like when a band has been around for as long as they have and we have, you can’t expect the band to stay grounded to the same sound over and over again. When you look at a band like the Rolling Stones for instance, they’ve changed 100 times. It worked out for them. I feel like Opeth and Mastodon, they changed a lot. They cut out a lot of their early core elements, and I think that is what people are bothered by. With us, I feel like the core elements are still there. There’s an element of still not knowing what’s going to happen around the next corner. It’s still Between The Buried and Me in every sense.

Mike: Did you all sit down and have a discussion about where you wanted to take this album? Can you maybe share a bit about what those early days into Coma Ecliptic were like?

Tommy: We didn’t, actually. We never really do that. The only thing we really talked about was that we didn’t want to repeat ourselves. We spent a lot of time with The Parallax, an EP and a full length, you know. I think every record we do is us building more and growing up as players. With this one we did focus more on songwriting and structure, trying to focus in a little more on our writing. That was really the only plan. We never set out to do anything in a certain way. When we write, we just write. And what happens is what happens. That’s what works for us. Even though our music can be very technical and there is a lot going on, it’s very organic. We’re actually writing for that moment. I think when something becomes really forced, it’s just not right. I don’t want to change that.

Mike: Is it possible for you to describe how it is to write now as compared to when you were starting out? Do you feel like there is a shorthand that has developed, especially between you and Paul (Waggoner)?

Tommy: It’s changed a lot, especially from the very first record. That first record we recorded live in five days. It was definitely a different beast. As far as technology, we didn’t do any pre-production back then. Those first couple of records were literally just Paul and I playing guitar in our apartment. Just remembering the songs – not writing anything down or recording anything. But once Alaska happened, we got to the line-up that we have now, and we recorded with a boom-box so we could hear what was happening after the fact. And we slowly improved on that formula. Colors was when we started recording for real, as far as pre-production goes. Now it’s just a really well-oiled machine. When we do write, we record as well. We don’t get a song as prepared, but we will get it written in three or four days and spend a week or so analyzing and changing things – tweaking the song’s skeleton. And then from there we add on what needs to be added and do the vocals and lyrics and all that. It’s a big process now where back in the day it was just playing some riffs and putting them together. You wouldn’t really hear what it sounded like until you recorded it. That isn’t the case anymore. Now we overly prepare. Before we get in the studio we know exactly what it’s going to sound like. We get all of the bullshit out of the way before we get into the studio. It’s really nice. There’s never any stresses to deal with. It’s just fun getting things done.

Mike: I’m listening to this album a fair bit right now, and I’m really liking it as a complete unit of music. When it goes on I play it for the full 68 minutes it runs for. I’m curious if there is any material that didn’t make it onto the record? And I’m wondering what they might possibly be as Coma feels so complete.

Tommy: There’s no actual songs. Every record there’s lots and lots of riffs that don’t get used. Things just don’t always work. Some records maybe more than others. There’s always a handful of things that don’t make the record. But we have learned over the years that you have to do what is right for the song. You can’t take it personally if a section that you wrote gets cut. It might be awesome, but it maybe just didn’t work well with the record or the song specifically. But we all understand that.

Mike: Are you able to look at this album selectively and choose a song that is your favourite, even if it’s just because it’s fun to perform it live?

Tommy: Um, that’s tough. The live thing is always tough, because you never really know how much you will actually enjoy it until you are playing it. A song that I had a lot of fun writing to was ‘The Ectopic Stroll’, just because it’s so quirky and different. I had a really good time putting that one together. We haven’t played it live yet though, so who knows how that’s going to go on stage. (laughs) It’s always tough to pick out a song. Honestly, I haven’t listened to it in a while, besides what we are playing on this tour. Maybe on my flight over I’ll dive into it again. I haven’t heard it in a while to be honest.

Mike: That’s fair. Lots of artists don’t re-visit their craft. Once it’s out, it’s out. And then it’s up to the audience to decide.

Tommy: Yeah. It’s a bit weird for me. It’s still a bit fresh. I think down the road I’ll be able to look back and listen to it in a different way than now, where I’m listening to the production and what we did with the material in the studio, and not the songs themselves. And I’m really happy with that, by the way. Probably the happiest I’ve ever been. Sonically, I think Coma Ecliptic sounds phenomenal. So I’m happy with that.

Mike: I’m curious to see how you pull off ‘Memory Palace’ live. There’s just so many interesting things happening on that song. It’s such a long and dense song as well. I’d think that might be a challenging track to bring to the stage.

Tommy: That’s the one song we have been playing a little bit. At a few shows and some festivals we were at. At this point, I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. We just do it. Songs seem hard. But when it comes down to it, most of our songs are long and complicated. We just do it and don’t think too hard about it.

Mike: What have Between the Buried and Me got lined up for the rest of the year? North American secondary markets, as you mentioned earlier. Will you go to Europe?

Tommy: Yeah, we’re going to Europe in September / October I think. And then another US/Canada run later this year. We’ll tour most of this year and then next year we are slowly starting to figure out what’s going on there. It should be a busy run.

Mike: How would you describe your writing, Tommy? Would you say that the music is all figured out before the lyrics get poured on top? Or will you write music for lyrics that are already written?

Tommy: The music is always first. That’s how it’s always been with us.

Mike: And you handle the majority of the lyric writing, correct?

Tommy: Yeah, I did all of the lyrics on this record. Most records I do all of it. There might be a thing here or there, there’s a few songs in the past that went that way. But overall I do the lyric writing, yes.

Mike: So when you went at Coma Ecliptic with this underlying concept of the things that happen to this individual while in a coma, did you go to any source material that you found inspiring to help you flesh out some of these songs? Books, movies or music?

Tommy: When I started writing, the way I approached it was like I was writing a mini-series. If I was to do that, how would it be? That’s kind of how I wrote this record. The Twilight Zone was a big inspiration. I’ve always loved the vibe that that show gave. I felt like I wanted to create that vibe on a record. The music lends itself to this theme, I think it’s a very dark record and that’s basically it. I’m not a huge reader. I do read, but it’s not anything that would inspire my writing at all. I feel like lyrics and writing are just something I’ve sort of figured out over the years. I approach it like I do music. It’s very organic. I was never taught, and I want it to be very natural. Whatever pops into my head, I want that to go onto the paper in front of me. It was a fun story to write. I definitely wrote something that was very open ended. As far as him travelling to his past lives I was able to create a totally unique world within each song and I did that on purpose because our music does change so much that I didn’t want to be stuck in any corners. That has happened in the past writing for the band. I wanted to prepare myself to be able to create something that was a very dark world if I needed to be that, or a very solemn world if that was where I needed to go. Quirky or fun worlds if I needed them that way. That was all very intentional just for my sanity as I was putting these lyrics together, I guess.

Mike: I guess the last thing that I would ask you here, and this ties into whether you might tour this album as a unit or not, have you thought or talked with your bandmates about how to visually interpret these songs, and what that might look like if you do take this full album to the road and tour it.

Tommy: Yeah, definitely. We only do video stuff if we can pull it off effectively. It’s tough, given the budget we have with a band our size. It’s tough to go super over the top, you know? I’d love to have a ginormous stage show. Sometimes it’s just not feasible. I feel like the layout we have for Coma really represents the album well. This will help to tell the story, and with all the art we have and all of the talented people that we know, we’ll find a way to get the story across while we are playing it in a live setting.