With Erra’s fifth studio album, out now via UNFD, we were lucky enough to catch up with guitarist, key writer and founding member Jesse Cash about his feelings towards the forthcoming self-titled release, the recording process and relationships within the band, as well as some deeper, specific influences for particular tracks and the album as a whole. You can also check out our thoughts on the progressive metalcore outfit’s magnum opus in our review here.
Opening with the easy question, we spoke about how excited Cash is feeling about the release: “Yeah, I really am. I’m one of those people that struggles to be excited but I truly am, I really feel good about it.”
And as for the decision to self-title at this stage of their career, there was no challenge whatsoever. “It was pretty natural. Initially I sent the band a big list, I have a list in my phone that I accumulate song title and album title ideas in that list and it’s been growing over the last few years. I picked out at least ten options and sent it to the band, but then I had this feeling of self-titling it, that it might be a good time to do that, so I added that as a second text to ask ‘also, if you want to self-title it, that’s an option.’ And everybody, unanimously, said that was what they wanted to do, including our manager and label and everyone, which I think was a testament to how good everyone was feeling about the songs. I don’t think there’s another record in our discography that I could have made that suggestion and it been so unanimous within our team; we’re all just really feeling good about the music.”
Throughout their career, Erra have evolved their niche in the genre rather than ripping up the rulebook each time, and part of that has been through the consistency of the relationship and working approach between the two in the band who’ve been there since the start, Cash and Alex Ballew, on drums. “I feel Alex deserves a special mention just because he and I have been in bands, writing together, since 2007. He’s the only drummer in 14 years that I’ve worked with, so the intuition between the two of us when we’re writing is so locked in. Sometimes I take for granted how rare and awesome that is.
The way we write is pretty unusual, and my method of recording my music is very archaic; a lot of the time I’m just putting riffs on my iPhone. I’m getting it together now, but for years it’s been very dated in the way that I do things. It’s always starting with just guitar, sometimes just rhythm guitar, and Alex can just write songs to that. Alex can hear just one rhythm track guitar that I’ve made as the foundation of the song; he can take that and write an entire song on drums because he knows how my brain works with writing so well, he just knows what I’m thinking. He knows ‘so you’re thinking 3/4 here and 7/4 there;’ we’re just so acclimated to each other’s idiosyncrasies and so locked in with one another. As for the rest of the band, we’re all definitely locked in at this point which I think is part of why the record turned out as cool as it did.”
When listening to an album, it’s often easy to pick out whether a band is enjoying the recording process or going through the motions, and Cash shared with me some of the groundwork that was laid ahead of getting into the studio to make sure that Erra turned out as the former.
“So this is J.T.’s (Cavey, vocals) third record with us, out of five, and it definitely took a little bit of time for he and I. We experienced some growing pains figuring out our differences creatively in terms of the way we work rather than ideas. I think as far as ideas go everyone in the band is pretty much on the same page, you know everything I think is cool everyone else in the band thinks is cool and vice versa which is, honestly, really fortunate because I don’t think it’s always like that in bands. You can have guys really butting heads over which sections work and which sections don’t but in our band we all come to an agreement.
There’s just a different temperament and a different way of working that J.T. and I took a couple of records to get locked in together with, and part of how we did that with this record is we just had a conversation before we started. We both analyzed our own shortcomings and personality issues that get in the way in the studio and took responsibility. I told him ‘I know I can be controlling sometimes, I know I can be in the room when you’re recording vocals and have a tendency to micromanage everything,’ but that’s coming from a place of wanting it to be good rather than a prideful thing. Our motto in the studio is ‘progress over pride,’ which I picked up from an engineer Brian Hood who we recorded our first two records with, and that always stuck with me. I just told J.T. that even though I want to the best for the record, I should trust you, and I do trust you, and I trust Grant McFarlane who was the engineer recording J.T. so I’ll step out of the room and let you do your think and be out of the way.
J.T. agreed that he would try to share his feelings more, that if he felt uncool with a part or a way I was handling a part or got micromanage-y that he’d speak up. That’s the polarizing difference between the two of us, I’m extremely direct with my feelings, and he’s just a really nice guy and looks to avoid the confrontation and buries things until they can accumulate and explode. Essentially having our group therapy with one another as a band has made our lives so much easier and it made the process of recording the record fun. It’s not always that fun and sometimes can feel like work or a task, but this time every single day was a breeze. Even when we were in time crunches and there were deadlines there was stimulation in that, it was like a drug to know that we have eight hours before tomorrow to write this part that we’re tracking tomorrow.”
In all of the five singles put out prior to the release of the album there’s a new element to Erra’s sound that fans have been quick to pick up on, and quick to sound their appreciation of (check the top comments on virtually any of the videos on YouTube), that’s been the addition of more clean vocals from Cavey, a duty traditionally handled solely by Cash.
“The decision (to incorporate J.T.’s cleans) was early on because he’d expressed interest way before the studio, he expressed interest in trying out his singing more and doing more of us sharing that workload. I think when he first mentioned it, which was a few years ago, I was a bit hesitant because I wanted to make sure that if he was going to do it he’d practice it to the degree that he wasn’t going to do anything in the studio that he couldn’t perform live. I do think he’s for sure going to have to take care of his voice before shows because it’s a different thing, screaming versus singing, and there’s certain disciplines that each one requires that differ from one another. There’s a few more things to be mindful of with singing live.”
Cash continued, “I think I was the most hesitant about it but over time we gradually got more and more closer and energized as a band as our relationships improved, and I felt this was something that he really wanted to do, and that this was something he really could do. I think he has an amazing singing voice, so once we got in to do this record I said that any opportunity I could find where it made sense let’s make it work. My favourite part about that new addition to the band has been the fans’ reaction; fans are so stoked about that, and they love to see him singing… It’s been really sick.
I also have to credit Conor (Hesse), our bass player, because he was really pushing for J.T. to sing. He’s the more business minded person in the band for sure, and he saw it from the angle where he sensed that was how people would feel about it, that it would create more of an aesthetic of camaraderie within the performance if we’re all sharing these duties on stage. And I feel he was 100 percent correct when I watch the videos, it seems like everyone on stage is more connected now with everything we’re doing, rather than perhaps one or two of us taking precedent it feels like every one of us is doing a lot.”
Looking more into the writing of the music, there’s always been an element to Erra’s sound of the blend of art and mathematics, striking just the right balance between melody and rhythm to produce the peak of progressive metalcore for which they’re famous. Of the singles which have been released thus far, ‘House of Glass’ stands out as particularly progressive with unusual time signatures and different yet complementary grooves playing concurrently. Cash is quick to downplay the mathematical in the conscious side of his writing however; “Not math specifically, it makes sense as a question, but it’s funny to me because I’m definitely not a math guy! All that influence comes from the stuff we listen to and like, especially the bands that got us into writing that we listened to in high school. Alex the drummer and I, our brains are so stimulated by crazy time signatures that in a track like ‘House of Glass,’ we’re influenced by Tool, obviously, but also bands like Gojira and Meshuggah. Those are guys that are really techy, but most of the technicality lies in rhythm. Traditionally we’re a band that’s technical more on the lead side; we utilize the entire guitar, the whole fretboard and all the strings.”
“Over the years we’ve gotten more interested in incorporating those bands who are more rhythmically technical; that started to sound like more of a challenge to me. It’s cool to have a song like ‘House of Glass,’ that one is fucking crazy. That song took me the most work out of all of them on the record, it took the most finessing and editing and rewrites. Typically, there’s one or two songs on every record that have six versions of one song until I figure out where I want things to go. ‘House of Glass’ for instance, at one point the bridge was the verse, and the verse was the bridge, and with so many riffs to play with you’re figuring out does this one sound better going into this one, or this one going into that one? For about six weeks I literally didn’t think about any other song than ‘House of Glass’ or ‘Shadow Autonomous’ – that was my life for six weeks, figuring out what to do with those songs.
I think the reason why those were so challenging was because they were incorporating more of that newer influence into the band. It was a challenge, but I think it paid off because those two songs and the song ‘Vanish Canvas,’ which are the three which took the most amount of effort, are my three favourites on the record.”
“No math, but if you break down the song there’s some wild stuff going on. So there’s a riff that’s in 5/4, and you think you know it, then it comes back later on and somehow it’s in 7/4 but with drums in 4/4 over it. I really hope when people hear this record people hear and understand how insanely underrated and creative of a drummer Alex is, and also the way he writes, the way he can write to just a single rhythm guitar track that I make is just insane. He’s always keeping me in check too, so if I write a part that’s so crazy that it’s hard for people to bop to, he makes it so people can bop to it. He’ll put just the right time signature on top of what I’m doing to make it groove while still being creative. I’m really proud of that song.”
Returning to the theme of replicating the studio performance live, I asked whether there were any concerns with doing just that with a track as technical as “House of Glass.” “That’s the one I’m sweating most about. I think the things that people expect to be the harder things for us to do live maybe aren’t the hardest things. The crazy lead stuff, the solo stuff and the tapping and whatnot comes pretty easily for Sean (Price) and I. The harder stuff are the parts that abuse your right hand – for as crazy as our music is, I could never get on stage and play ‘Bleed’ by Meshuggah live all the way through, it would sound like absolute dogshit because my right hand’s just not up to that!
A song like ‘House of Glass’ would definitely be a challenge because it’s really fast, it’s a 130 tempo and I think I wrote it at 120 or 125, but then there’s riffs that work (at 130) and I try to avoid tempo changes within songs so we kept it at 130. It just shreds your right hand, particularly with parts in the bridge where you’re going from low string to high string, low string to high string and it doesn’t sound clean unless you’re muting all those high strings, so it’s really hard to get your right hand to go from muting to unmuting those strings so you don’t have parts ringing out and sounding really messy. So if there’s any song that’s making me sweat it’s for sure ‘House of Glass,’ it’s going to be the toughest one to play live, but I’m looking forward to playing it live and we will get it down, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t going to kick our ass.”
Looking at the lead parts on the album, there’s a particular solo in the yet to be released “Remnant” that stands out for the fact that it had almost tricked me into thinking there could be a guest spot from Polyphia on the album (which there isn’t). “I can explain that from a music theory perspective. That solo plays around in the pentatonic scale which is where Polyphia play a lot as well, it’s so smooth and poppy and easy to listen to. I typically gravitate solos that sound like that, I love that solo and I love Polyphia too, that band’s sick.”
The counterpoint on Erra comes early on in another yet to be released track where the back half of “Gungrave” brings one of the most savage breakdowns from the band’s career and a crazy natural harmonic driven lead line over the top – it’s this variety throughout their discography that’s been one of their hallmarks, and it’s never displayed better than throughout this latest release.
“I do always try to make songs feel different in tone, and I do think this record accomplishes this the best. Probably the biggest inspiration for us accomplishing that is Deftones; they’re probably my favourite band and have always been so good at that. Every single record of theirs can break into so many different personalities across the tracks and no one questions it. Then I also have bands like Saosin, they’re one of my favourite bands but you’ll have a record like their self-titled that’s very consistent, the songs have total continuity and all follow the same feel and formula. I like records like that too, but in terms of the records I like to make I prefer the Deftones approach where I have the balance between really aggressive heavy seven string songs (and others), and I feel the self-titled strikes that balance the best we have so far but it’s something we can continue to improve upon, that sense of variety.”
Reflecting finally upon the album’s forthcoming release, we discuss what success would look like to Cash and the band. “To be honest, and this is an answer I would have given in the past but can’t always say I’d mean it, but today I mean it: the fact that I like this record, that I’m proud of it, makes it a success for me. I truly don’t always feel that way, I’m really hard on myself and I’m thankful for that because it helps me improve. I think this record is a huge step forward from our last one because we’re hard on ourselves, we just wanted more from this one and it pushed us along.
The fact that we tracked it a year ago, and I can still listen to it, enjoy it and be proud of it, that to me is a success. I tend to move on pretty quick, once a record is written, tracked and mixed and I get over that initial high of hearing it all come together, within a few weeks I’ve moved on and I’m ready to write the next thing. I’m over it, it’s not that I don’t like it any more, it’s just that it’s done and I don’t have anything to contribute to it anymore. People can just listen to it and enjoy it and that’s it. I’m not babying it any more, it’s like your kid going off to college and becoming an adult – not that I have kids!”
“Also, I think another thing that would make it a success is if people like it, if they can feel the way I was feeling without me saying a word or telling them how to feel that’s a success to me. In terms of seeing what people are saying about your music, in reading comments or watching reaction videos, which I’d probably avoid if we were on tour because I could talk to people. To see someone recognize what you recognize in your music is pretty huge. When people listen to the song ‘Divisionary,’ if they just enjoy the song that’s sick, if they just enjoy the way it sounds and flows and makes them feel that’s plenty enough for me. But it’s extra special once someone hears it and they think ‘huh, this song’s telling me I’m making myself miserable being on social media too much.’ If someone get that’s out of it that rules, and we’re not telling you you should get that, we’re just songwriters, but at the same time that hits a little deeper because you’re probably my kind of person.
Intuitively we probably speak similar languages and move through life in similar ways so having that connection definitely feels like a success. When a person writing a song is putting more of themselves into it there’s definitely more of a chance of those messages and signals connecting with people.
So I do have high hopes for this record, but in terms of success for me that is the success now I want at this point in my life. Obviously I want the band to grow, numbers to grow, more people at shows, to make more money, I want all of those things 100 percent, but there is a real freedom I’m learning in my late 20s of just letting things be what they are, appreciating the moment and where we’re at, and knowing that at the end of the day I wrote a record tha9t I’m proud of.”