Misery Signals Follow the Guiding Light
Published Jul 31, 2013Wisconsin metalcore troupe Misery Signals have lain in relative dormancy for the past several years, finally emerging to bestow their fourth full-length upon a fan base that seemingly cares not for how long they are forced to wait for new material. After mounting a controversial crowd-funding campaign, which raised double their initial goal, and essentially releasing and promoting the album themselves, the band has hit the road for a headlining record release tour, and only these shows will tell just how swimmingly their latest effort translates to a live setting. Founding guitarist Ryan Morgan sat down to talk about Absent Light, their fundraising and recording process, detailing the return of one of the most acclaimed units of our time.
I know you guys have shared lyrics writing duties in the past. Who wrote them this time around and how did that aspect of the album come together?
I wrote most of them. Karl [Schubach, vocals] wrote some, Greg [Thomas, guitars] wrote some, and we collaborated on the final decisions on all of them, but I wrote the majority of the raw material.
Each album to me has had unifying thematic content or running themes. Was there any specific focus for this one?
Yeah, I think that's absolutely true for this one. It might be one of the more sad and vacant records. The theme that's in it the most is about having lost your guiding light, or whatever the thing may be that you've attached yourself and your life to, and the feeling that comes when that's no longer there — or when that changes, unannounced.
That's sort of a contrast with Controller. I felt that one was very much about direction, and focus, and being in control of your own destiny.
Yeah, there's definitely a tinge of hope in this record as well, but it's also very indicative of where I was at between that record and this record, so I think that makes sense having heard you say that about Controller.
Was there a focus on a certain direction musically? I'm hearing elements from all the records — it's a little more chaotic, leaning more towards the Shai Hulud-ish sound at points. Controller had a very fluid sound, where as this one seems more dynamic with a lot of big ups and downs.
We definitely wanted it to be high energy. It also makes sense that you mentioned Hulud, cause Greg played for them — he was their guitarist for a few years and helped them write one of their records. The energy level and intensity of it was intentionally cranked up, but we still wanted it to be a thing that stood on its own and not have it be Controller part two. Have it be something that if you heard Misery Signals for the first time, something that would as meaningful to them as the early records would be to someone who heard that in their prime.
How was the recording process partitioned? What was recorded where?
There are no home studios on it. Greg and I produced it, but we went to a bunch of different studios and engineers. That was one of the coolest things about this record — being able to make all of those decisions ourselves, and not have a label influence what they thought it should sound like from a production standpoint.
[Ex-guitarist] Stu Ross told me that for [2005's] Mirrors that there was someone you wanted to go to, and Ferret said to go to [someone else].
We had someone we wanted to go to and we were discussing, but his schedule had a sudden change, and then [former label] Ferret freaked out and made a rash decision that led to a not-so-great sounding record, in retrospect.
Stu also mentioned that he wanted to remix and remaster Mirrors. Is that something you think will even happen?
It depends, man. That record is now owned by Warner Brothers, so that's a bit of a bummer.
How'd you get the vinyl reissue out then?
We bought the rights from [former label owner] Carl Ferret before Ferret was absorbed completely by Warner Brothers.
I guess they took some of the [more lucrative] bands with them, then. I wasn't sure on how that all happened — it seemed like [Ferret's] website wasn't being updated, then Carl had a new label [Good Fight].
The interesting thing to note there is that we've been talking to Carl. We did a one-off deal with him for that special where it's Mirrors and Controller together in one package, but I think he has been able to buy the rights for that vinyl again. He may be making those available again from Good Fight.
I do miss "One Day I'll Stay Home" and "Reverence Lost"…
Both of which were not on the reissue, cause it was too long, exactly, so I'm not sure what decisions he'll make with that as far as fitting it. We just barely fit this new record onto vinyl — we didn't have to cut anything.
How did you guys make the decision to crowd fund, and what motivated you to take that step?
A lot of it was the negative situation that we were in with the whole Warner Brothers thing. That was a real impetus for us wanting to get the fuck off that label. Not only were we too small of a band for them to deal with — they didn't really give us the time of day, or know who we were when we called them on the phone — but they also jammed us up when we tried to do side projects. We were all under contract with them individually at the time. Ferret was great and I don't want to say anything bad about them, but the line blurs when they merged the companies, they were totally eclipsed and everyone we knew got fired. We were on a label with strangers. That was one of the things that sucked, especially not being able to do side projects on our own terms. They wanted to own them, put them out their way, and make a lot of calls on them, which defeats the purpose.
We knew we had to get off the label and do things a different way, which we were eventually able to do through some headaches and lawyers and money spent. At that time, I was starting to see more bands have success with crowd funding, and I was really interested in it from the perspective of being a dude that comes from a DIY hardcore background. It made a lot of sense to me as a business move. I think there's definitely bands that do crowd funding in a cheesy way, trying to cash in on their celebrity and sell their image by saying "you can pay $500 to hang out with me." It seems exploitative, especially when you see bands bringing in these huge numbers like Protest the Hero, who raised $350,000.
That cast a light on the whole situation. When that happened, it felt like there was suddenly far more scrutiny surrounding crowd funding. It became a contentious issue, and everyone had their opinion.
We had a bit of that among ourselves — not where we thought it was a "cash in" move, but where we wanted to avoid that aspect of it. The idea of being more direct with the audience really appeals to me. Radiohead put out a record and just said "pay what you want for it," had no label and put it on their website — I thought that was amazing. Nine Inch Nails did something similar. The comedian Louis CK did some really cool stuff that was really inspiring to me as far as owning all his stuff, making all the calls, doing something he wanted to do his way and putting it out directly himself. As long as you don't fuck around and offer ridiculous things through crowd funding, it's still an infrastructure for the same idea, and I think that's awesome.
You guys have consistent issues with record labels, things falling out of print, and not getting paid. Even with [Ryan and bassist Kyle Johnson's former band] 7 Angels 7 Plagues, you've encouraged people not to buy the album. You've gone a long time without really recouping besides through touring. There are other artists such as Threat Signal saying "we need money for tour!" or… I don't want to name anyone else beyond that, but sometimes it seems…
… it seems sleazy. The idea of it is great, but it's the same with anything in music. There's people that have integrity within it, and there's people who are into it for the image. There's bullshit aspects to any part of it, and you have to have artists with integrity using them with integrity.
Production and recording-wise, where do you feel the money was best spent? Where did it really pay off?
We were able to do a bunch of real strings stuff, with real orchestral musicians recorded in a big, awesome room. All the symphonic elements you hear on the record are real, and kind of larger than life. We have occurrences where there are 40 string players playing. That definitely would have been on a much different scale if we had to quibble over the budget, or follow another band's lead who use synths or whatever else. That was one of the main points where I was super glad we were able to call the shots.
Do you feel like there are bands that shouldn't be using crowd funding, or that there's a cut-off point where it's reasonable? Is it a solid ethical stance, or more so case by case?
I dunno, it's tricky. I think more so that your position shouldn't dictate it, and more how you use it. I know there was that whole Zach Braff thing with Kickstarter — he's a movie star guy who directed that movie Garden State. He got a lot of backlash because he's a millionaire, and he raised two million dollars.
Or [Tim Lambesis] from Austrian Death Machine. That was surreal — you've got a joke side project, and you've got a home studio, and you're relatively rich for someone who plays that kind of music...
Totally. The point I'm making is not that there's a limit to how it should be done or what you're asking for from the people that fund it, but like the Zach Braff example — one of my good friends is a millionaire, Andy Hurley from Fall Out Boy, the drummer. If he wanted to make a movie, he couldn't just front the money. He's certainly well on his feet financially, and I can't hang out with him without him buying me lunch, but if he wanted to make a movie on a Hollywood level he couldn't just pay that out of pocket. I don't fault Zach Braff for wanting to own his movie and make all the decisions himself. It's kind of like a bigger scale thing of what we're talking about — we wanted to be in control of the process and not having anyone who's fronting the money get final say on anything, and then have them collect the cheques when we've done all the work. Not to say the label doesn't do any work, cause labels certainly have a place in some situations, and they definitely work hard, but at the same time they don't necessarily deserve more than the artist. You're not buying a record to support a label in those situations, you're buying it to support the artist, and that's just not the reality of how the label structure works.
It maybe becomes a little less useful when you're at the point you guys are at where the name is established, and it becomes more important to have that final cut.
Totally. I think the point you make is relevant — if we had a hundred grand to manufacture the CDs and do the recording… but the reality is, we don't. I can't really speak for Tim Lambesis or whether Austrian Death Machine needed the money to record the album, but if the option is there, I would encourage people to not be lazy and say "well, we can just crowd fund it." I think people see it as the lazy, easy thing.
One thing I'll say about it is that there have been times where if I had a ton of money, I would love to be able to give x amount to a band that I liked, and I would trust them to use the funds wisely. If people really want to give a band money…
Yeah, and it goes without saying that it's optional. It does happen every once in a while — people buy a record and give you extra money for it at the merch table just because they want to support the band. The fact that is in place for people to do in a more structured way is cool.
Kyle and Stu's departures… Kyle left and came back, Stu seems to be gone for good. Some speculated that Kyle's return may have had something to do with the successful crowd funding. How did everything pan out the way it did?
It didn't have anything to do with that when Kyle came back. It more had to do with our bassist at the time having an opportunity that he didn't want to miss, and having to make a choice between tour life and real life. Unfortunately, it wasn't a thing where he could decide when to make that choice — he just sort of had to pull the trigger on it, and we don't fault him for that. We actually approached Kyle about coming back. It wasn't like he saw the band was still doing well. If he knew the amount of touring we were gonna be doing in the last few years, which is almost nothing compared to what we used to, he probably never would have left the band.
When drummer Jared Logan quit 7 Angels 7 Plagues, you guys decided to pack it in. What makes Misery Signals endure despite having so many more line-up changes?
Twelve years of a band with three ex-members isn't too bad. (7 Angels) was a lot more of an in-the-moment band that without any one of those elements couldn't work. We were a lot younger and more idealistic about it, and we always said that if one of those three dudes — myself, the drummer and the other guitarist [Matt Matera] — left, we weren't going to do it anymore. We just stuck with that.
Looking back on the history of the band, you guys did a lot of stuff before it became popular in the scene — math-y breakdowns, bright melodies, etc. You hear a lot of bands doing that now, although the context is very different. Do you feel like you're a direct influence on the djent thing or whatever else?
I wouldn't have claimed responsibility for that, but a lot of bands give us credit for it and will cite us as an influence, and these are bands that are doing really great right now and are kind of more progressive or technical. It's flattering to get that kind of credit, but it's also cool to have gone away for a while and have that be a big thing. I think we slide right into that audience pretty easily, and especially if it is true that we influenced a lot of those dudes on any level, there should be things that resonate between our two sounds. I think we do have enough technical prowess and crazy things happening so that people into it on a nerdy level can appreciate our band. It's a good climate for us to return to. We're not really a band that's too concerned about the shred — it's more just about the intensity or the emotion of it, and sometimes the best way to do that is with something that's chaotic, technical or relentless. We've almost become technical by necessity.
Over the course of the band's existence, is there anything you would have done differently?
Well, yeah. That's the nature of being obsessed with something like I am with music. It's difficult to every be satisfied, especially with the recording process because it is such a permanent thing. With every record, there are things that really bug me, and I think that's sort of inevitable. I think that's maybe why it took so long for the [Absent Light] recording — we wanted to really try and limit those things, and be really happy with the record.
Is there a complete statement, or one song you would say encapsulates the band?
That's hard, man. We were talking about what songs to release from this album, and I didn't feel like any of them fully represented what was going on on the record. They're all pretty different, and there isn't a clear single. Maybe it's good that we don't think about that stuff when we're writing, maybe it's bad, but it kind of paints us into a corner when we're releasing a song. That's okay, because where we're at as a band… the single isn't really that huge of a deal, but picking one from the career would be harder. I hope that as time passes, Absent Light is as relevant, so that if someone is asked that question in five years, they would pick a song off of it to represent the legacy.