Monday, November 27, 2017

Interview with Brandon Kellum of AMERICAN STANDARDS by Dave Wolff

Interview with Brandon Kellum of AMERICAN STANDARDS

Start the interview with an account of how American Standards started as a band?
Cody Conrad (the founding guitarist) originally reached out to me through email and said he wanted me to check out a new project he was working on. We were all in other bands in the Arizona music scene at the time and I really wasn’t looking to get into another serious project. I stopped by the practice space not really knowing what to expect, and almost instantly everything just kind of clicked. Very low stress. Super organic writing. I think we didn’t assume anything more than just writing a few songs and maybe picking up a local show here and there. Never would have guessed that six years and over 300 shows later, we’d still be releasing albums and touring.

What does the name American Standards mean in terms of your collective vision?
We really just wanted a name that was a little left of center in our genre. Something that wouldn’t pigeonhole us to a certain sound and could be interpreted in multiple different ways. Some serious and others more tongue in cheek which I feel is a good representation of the band’s outlook.

Explain the band’s sound and contributing influences and new directions you’re taking it in.
At its core it’s really just metal played with a punk mentality. We all loved hardcore growing up but hated the tough guy personas. American Standards was our way of bridging that gap. With what we’re writing now we’re really focusing on the mood and atmosphere of the songs. Understanding the dynamics. Where to hit hard and where to show restraint.

Where does the punk/hardcore mentality come from, and how does the band balance it with their influences in metal, without the tough guy mentality you touched on?
The punk/hardcore scene is deeply rooted in the DIY mindset that we subscribe too. We’re not waiting around for a label or manager to do it for us. We don’t need a nice, big venue every night on the road. Just give us a place to plug in and we’ll play.

What bands were the members of American Standards involved in before Cody Conrad contacted you?
Cody Conrad (guitars), Geoff Gittleson (drums) and Brennen Westermeyer (guitars), had all played in a couple bands together, the most recent at the time being a punk band called Sailing On. I was the singer of a southern metal group called The Hostage Situation. Over time, members have changed a bit and our current line up consists of members from Moovalya and Ape Kill Ape.

How active were your previous bands in Arizona before the formation of American Standards? Are those bands still active?
My past band (The Hostage Situation) was pretty active for almost five years. We put out an album then toured with bands like The Irish Front and Arsonists Get All The Girls. We broke up around 2010 but we actually just did a one night only reunion show earlier in the year. The band that our drummer Mitch plays for (Moovalya) is still active but not out on the road as much as they use to be. He’s also filling in and doing studio stuff for bands like At My Mercy.

Does punk and southern metal in Arizona receive more coverage in zines and webzines or bigger underground publications? Do those scenes stay afloat by word of mouth or does social media come into play more often?
I don’t know that underground punk and metal in Arizona gets much coverage anywhere. There are plenty of niche blogs; I just think bands have to find and reach out to them.

What other genres do you hear a lot of in Arizona in addition to punk and southern metal?
Arizona is not dissimilar from other scenes. Genres grow until they burst only to be recycled again. Where five years ago there was a resurgence of pop punk and screamo, things have now shifted more toward melodic hardcore and down tempo stuff. It’s almost like music gets heavier and more extreme until it hits a threshold in which people get burnt out on all the noise.

How do bands from Arizona lyrically reflect their environment and the current state of world affairs?
No different than other bands for the most part. I mean, we did have Sheriff Joe here which was an easy target for the more politically influenced artists, but other than that I think Arizona bands share a lot of the same lyrical content.

When you entered the practice space that became the band’s practice space, what led you to change your mind about getting involved with new musicians?
I think it was just how low stress it all felt. Since we had all been in the scene for a while, we kind of knew what needed to be done and how to go about it. No one expected the band to be the next big thing or relied on it for any sort of stable income. Going in with low expectations allowed us to be continually surprised and excited about any accomplishment.

What did you mean by the term “organic writing” when you described your first impressions of Cody’s practice space?
A lot of musicians have a pretty transparent formula when writing songs, whether it’s at the forefront of their writing process or more subconscious. This can manifest as the verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge or in the less commercial genres as things like slowing down the breakdown with a halftime beat or bringing things up with a two-step. Although American Standards has a sound, I don’t think we’ve ever said that we have to write a part that sounds like something. What we write comes more naturally.

How often did you work in professional studios before you started practicing in the band’s home studio?
For the first two albums (Still Life and The Death Of Rhythm And Blues) we recorded at JM Studios in Gilbert, Arizona. The Hungry Hands EP was the first time that we recorded out of state at The Residency in Van Nuys, California then we went back to California to do Anti-Melody at Kingsize Soundlabs.

Which of those recording studios most helped the band achieve their desired sound? What was the extent of the band’s input at each studio?
Each album feels like another step in the right direction. None more so than the Hungry Hands EP and now Anti-Melody. I don’t think we’ll ever quite settle though, just constantly evolve.

How much of a difference do you hear between your band and bands who record in professional studios?
I think we’ve had a bit of both. We’ve done the DIY Home studios and also the more traditional studios like Kingsize Soundlabs. Each have their advantages and build into the sound that you’re going for. That’s not too say that you can’t get a fully polished, well produced album at home but we’ve always liked to be a little more rough around the edges.

How often from surfing social media sites do you see bands working in DIY studios as opposed to five or ten years ago?
It seems like the vast majority of bands in our scene are choosing to record at home studios. We’re living in a time where if you have the right guy behind the mixing board, you can make a high quality album at a fraction of the price. Money is no longer the divide, it’s experience and creativity.

So you’re saying home studios help bands without a lot of money record quality material? How much of a financial shift will this cause in American and foreign underground scenes?
I think it levels the playing field but also creates some over saturation. Just because anyone can record for cheap, it doesn’t mean that they should. It also doesn’t mean that cheap will equal good.

How many bands have you come across whose recording quality surpasses their lack of funds? How often do they demonstrate that a capable band doesn’t need a lot of money in the age of home studios?
I’m constantly surprised by how often I hear a band that sounds like they’ve poured a lot of money into recording only to find they did it at home.

How much has rawness been part of the band’s formula since they started? Why is rawness preferable to a polished sound?
It’s been pretty instrumental from the beginning. There’s something about an overproduced sound that takes the humanity out of the music. You can sample your drums, auto tune vocals and edit guitars until they’re perfect, but at that point you’ve lost all the emotion that the song was played with. Humanity is imperfect. Art should be a reflection of that.

What imperfections do you see in humanity that your songwriting and musicianship reflects?
For our newest album I think a big concept is tribe mentality. The desire to belong to a group and say that everyone that doesn’t subscribe to the ideas of the group are inherently wrong.

Name some bands you listen to with raw sound you’re referring to, in which feeling is as important as technicality.
The Chariot, The Dillinger Escape Plan, Botch And Converge are all great examples of bands that write with that passion and intensity.

Does the feeling The Chariot, The Dillinger Escape Plan and Botch And Converge bring into their material match their technical ability?
I would say so. Each bring a pretty high level of technicality while also carving their respective niches in the scene. Now they’re not for everyone but I think that’s the kind of stuff that has more longevity.

Is longevity important for a band in a time when trends come and go more consistently? Many underground bands have been around for twenty years or longer and still attract new fans. Is this a success story of another kind?
It’s easy to follow a trend but that will quickly come and go. Carving your own path takes time and work. If you’re willing to do it, it can pay off.

Describe the rawness that was part of your sound on your early releases, and how you developed it since then.
That just goes back to the idea of allowing for imperfections to make the final cut. There’s going to be drum hits that aren’t as loud as the others. A voice may crack or a guitar have some feedback. All that is what happens live and makes the experience special. Too often bands purge that and opt for a more mechanical sound.

I was recently listening to Ozzy Speaks on Sirius Radio; he and his co-host were discussing how Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters) returned to recording with analog equipment as opposed to digital. Their discussion seemed to suggest that the more perfection there is in a recording, the less feeling there is. Do you think more bands in the mainstream will follow suit?
I think a select few will but I really only see it going the other direction.

Did the band record demos before moving on to recording EPs and full lengths? If so, are any still available for new fans?
There actually are. We did five hundred self-pressed demos where we even made custom stencils and handwritten lyrics. We put these out in 2011 but I’m sure there are a few floating around.

What songs were recorded for your debut demo? How many copies were distributed at shows, to fanzines and webzines and sent to independent labels? Was your debut demo released on cassette, CD or streamed on social media sites?
The first demo was only three songs. I’m not sure we sent many out to Press. Just mainly distributed at shows. CD and digital. We do press on vinyl and cassette now but almost all forms of physical media have become a novelty.

What do you mean when you say most physical media is a novelty these days? Do you think passing around the demo at your shows helped you build a stronger core fanbase?
As much as I loved the idea of standing in line for a CD that I looked forward to and that feeling of first opening the package, I think the age of streaming has brought a cheaper more accessible way of discovering new music. Band like us got to witness that transition from when passing out physical demos at shows really mattered and now it’s more about finding out how to build engagement online.

How many full lengths were released by the band altogether? How much of an improvement was each album from the previous album as far as the band members learning one another’s musicianship?
Still Life and Anti-Melody may be the only two considered as full lengths in the traditional sense. The others are two more EPs (album: Still Life - 2012, EP The Death Of Rhythm And Blues – 2013, EP Hungry Hands - 2014, album Anti-Melody - 2017). With each we’re constantly learning and adapting.

Which of your song lyrics have your most profound reflections on today’s world, and why do you consider them so?
As far as new stuff goes, Churchburner from our new album Anti-Melody probably speaks the most to today’s society. 

Is the band planning to compose material for a new full length in the near future? If so how much more experimentation will you explore trying out new methods of songwriting?
We are. Since we had such a big gap between Hungry Hands and Anti-Melody, we were really excited to get this album out so we can start writing for what’s next. Hopefully we’ll push some boundaries with that. 

How would you want American Standards to be remembered for their impact on underground music in general and metal specifically?
I’d love for American Standards to be remembered as a band that helped bridge genres and crowds. A band that opened people’s minds to new things and created some memories along the way. We’d never expect to be regarded as the most talented or technical band, but being a band that went out there and gave it our all is what matters to us.

-Dave Wolff

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