TWIABP’s Chris Teti on their most determined album yet – “It kind of felt like ‘do or die'”
TWIABP's fourth album 'Illusory Walls' (clear vinyl pre-order) comes out this week. Listen to the just-released third single and read our interview with Chris Teti on the LP.
The new wave of indie rock-friendly emo bands that cropped up during the 2010s isn't the new wave anymore. A new generation of bands has been rising, while many of the key '10s bands are breaking up, doing 10th anniversary tours, or pivoting to other genres of music. If you're still in the game at this point, sticking to what you know best might appeal to longtime fans, but it's not enough to stand out amongst the rapidly-changing indie rock landscape. The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die know this, and that's why their fourth album Illusory Walls feels like their most determined yet. "I felt something needed to change at this point," guitarist Chris Teti told us over the phone from his home studio in Connecticut, where he records his own band and several others. "It kind of felt like 'do or die.'"
He admits that the band started to fall into a too-familiar routine in 2017's Always Foreign, but for this record, they pushed themselves to do something they'd never done before, and the result is their darkest, most complex album yet. TWIABP have experimented with heavier, darker songs in the past ("Katamari Duquette," "We Need More Skulls," "Marine Tigers"), but Illusory Walls is the first time they've embraced this side of their music for the length of an entire album. With Chris Teti as the album's sole guitarist -- previous albums have had between three and five -- he had more space to do something different, and he ended up adopting a technical, proggy lead guitar style that exists somewhere between Jupiter-era Cave In and early Circa Survive. Halfway through "Trouble," he busts out a thick, heavy riff that sounds like Jimmy Eat World's Futures. Matching Chris' ambitious fretwork are some of the most haunting vocal performances that David Bello and Katie Dvorak have ever laid to tape. Illusory Walls still sounds distinctly like TWIABP, but it's not like anything else they've ever done, and it's certainly not like anything else in today's emo scene. It's not really an emo album at all, though it's not not emo. It exists in its own world, one where post-hardcore, progressive rock, post-rock, post-punk, art rock and more collide. It's the product of a vast array of musical influences -- far too many to name -- and despite having multiple influences, multiple songwriters, and a revolving-door band lineup, it's a focused, cohesive work.
Illusory Walls is a tight, filler-less album full of songs that rival TWIABP's fan favorites, but as on all of their albums, the most jaw-dropping moments come at the end. TWIABP have always put long songs at or near the ends of their albums -- usually ones that clock in around seven or eight minutes -- but here they've more than doubled that. Penultimate track "Infinite Josh" is over 15 minutes, and closer "Fewer Afraid" is nearly 20. On the latter, they embrace a soaring string section that sounds like "Tonight, Tonight" before repurposing the "The world is a beautiful place but we have to make it that way..." coda from "Getting Sodas," which closed out their 2013 debut LP Whenever, If Ever and which has become the band's unofficial theme song. TWIABP have been putting self-referential parts in their songs for years, and Illusory Walls is full of them, but this one feels like a grander statement, not just an Easter egg. It's like The Beatles bringing back "She Loves You" at the end of "All You Need Is Love," reminding you of how drastically their career had progressed in the process. Not to be overly hyperbolic by comparing TWIABP to The Beatles, but they really have come such a long way since their early days as a loose, scrappy, often brilliant collective, reviving '90s Midwest emo for a new generation. Now they're a tight, direct force to be reckoned with, and they've written a record that defies any scene, genre, or era.
Illusory Walls comes out Friday (10/8) via Epitaph. Get in on clear vinyl in the BV store and stay tuned for the full album stream once it's released. Read on for our chat with Chris about the making of this spectacular LP...
At this point, TWIABP has been a band for over a decade, and this is your first album in four years, so it wouldn't be unusual at this point for a band to kind of settle into a familiar groove. But you sound extra determined on this album, like you're really trying to push the band towards something new. Would you say there's truth to that?
Yeah, absolutely. I felt something needed to change at this point -- it kind of felt like 'do or die.' Like, if we didn't actually go for it on this, and just did the same 'every couple years you just kinda do the album cycle and go through the motions of it' -- looking back now, it kind of felt like that a little bit on Always Foreign. I feel like we're still growing as a band musically, and I work on records [as a producer/engineer/mixer] like every day of my life, and just seeing younger bands... take a band like Anxious, everything's like new to them. It's easier for me to get like "oh I've been doing this for like 10 years, let's just do another record," but seeing younger bands like that who are excited about everything coming up, it kind of gets you reinvigorated.
I felt like we had to push it [on Illusory Walls] anyway. It's the first record where I'm really the only guitarist, so I felt like I kind of had to prove something. It was really to myself -- I wasn't like "oh I'm gonna write this thing" because it's gonna cater to someone who might've liked us 10 years ago -- it was more of a personal thing, to prove to myself that I could do it.
On this album, you really have this sort of technical lead guitar style in the forefront of the music. Where did it come from to incorporate that kind of stuff?
When I was growing up and learning guitar, I always kind of gravitated towards more technical stuff. It never really fit with what we were doing before, so I never really did it too much, but every now and then someone in the band would be like, "oh we should do a more shreddy song with Chris doing all the guitars," or something like that. We used to have an idea of doing a split within the band; so it would be like, three or four members on one side of the 7" and the other three or four members on the other side, and the bit was always like, whatever song I did was gonna be way more shreddy -- not necessarily technical but definitely like faster and shreddier. [Doing it on this album] kind of just fell into place. I was trying to push myself, and all the stuff I learned as a teen when I was listening to way more technical, shreddier stuff just kind of came out. It's always kind of been there, but I've never really done it much on TWIABP records. I've done it on other bands' records, where I'd rewrite stuff for bands or add in guitar parts for bands. But doing it [on this record], it kind of just happened. And then looking back, you're like, "oh shit, I guess it is a lot more different."
This album is overall some of the darkest music TWIABP has ever written. What was pushing the band in that direction?
That's more the music that I've always gravitated towards anyway. Like if there's been darker elements in some of our music in the past, it was definitely because I wanted to push it towards that. It's naturally what I'm into myself, but it's definitely been a stressful time for the past couple years; Dave and Katie endured more stressful situations so it kind of came out in their stuff too. Katie had an injury for a few months and she couldn't sing, so it pushed the record back because we couldn't even track Katie's vocals. And having grown up in West Virginia, there's a lot of fucked up stuff from that area that Dave will sing about. But for me, it's just what comes naturally if I'm spearheading it.
Did you kind of spearhead this album a bit more than previous albums?
To a degree, but it's really just because it's mostly me playing all the guitar. Dave had a couple guitar parts that he had written during pre-production, and I played some of those parts on the record, but -- I mean it also helps that my co-producer Greg Thomas [of END, Misery Signals, etc] tracked the guitars for me and helped produce it with me, so it was the first time since Whenever, If Ever where I didn't also have to be recording myself and doing the whole record top to bottom, production, engineering, and mixing-wise. So I feel like Greg also tried to pull some other stuff out of me. He and I are on the same page with stuff musically all the time because we've worked together like every day for a decade now -- I mean Greg certainly comes from way heavier and darker bands than TWIABP, so that definitely had a bit of an influence on my stuff. But I just feel like the band in general kind of wanted to use darker elements in the music.
One of my favorite songs by us is a song called "Katamari Duquette" [from the 2016 Long Live Happy Birthday single], and that was one of the earliest tracks where I had gotten a baritone guitar. And that's kind of one of our darker songs, and it's one of my favorites. So thinking about songs like that was probably where my head was at in general. I knew the band could do darker stuff anyway, it was just us wondering how much of it we could put on a record, rather than just "oh we have one song like that on a split or one or two tracks on an LP."
[...] If you ask anyone in the band what they think a song sounds like or what influences did they have, I might say "oh I love Cave In" or "I thought there was this cool Glassjaw song or something that I wanted to pull from," but it could be like a pop thing. Everybody's pulling from different stuff, and I think that's why there's a lot of various stuff within each song, but I think everybody in the band can agree on certain stuff, like Russian Circles, Caspian, mewithoutYou. And I think those bands do have more of a darker vibe to them overall. So it's always kind of been there, it's just never become the forefront of an album.
According to the press release, you took about a full year to make the album because of the pandemic. What do you feel like you achieved with this album that you might not have if you had more of a time crunch?
Even though it was a year, it was still a ton of work. Our past couple records, we did within about three or four weeks -- it basically would work out where the whole band would be in my studio for three or four weeks, they'd track everything, I would have to track a decent amount of my guitar parts after they left, because I just wouldn't have time to do much. And then within that time, I'd have to have the mix done within the next three or four weeks. So it'd probably be a whole process of like two months top to bottom. But given the extra time for this album, everyone in the band was able to mess around with their own parts a little bit more. Like, the leads that I have in the middle/three-quarters area of "Queen Sophie for President," I was pretty stumped on that song in general for like months. We had tracked drums and bass for it, and I had started on guitar, but it just wasn't clicking. So for that, I kind of sat on it for a couple months and played around with some ideas in my free time. So I was able to be like, "alright, I'm not gonna listen to this song for a week," and then come back to it with some ideas, whereas normally it'd be like "you don't have a week, you have like an hour" [laughs]. Thankfully I live at the recording studio, so I can literally wake up in the middle of the night and track in an idea. So on my end I was able to play around with ideas and see what fit best, because for that whole first third of the song, we never intended to have like a drum machine and a drum loop and all this stuff -- that was just from days of playing around with it to try to get something that gelled better. And even with my guitar part, I remember buying a guitar pedal one day -- I was trying to clear my head one day and I watched a documentary on like Blur or like Bloc Party, and I was like "oh my god, alright, there's a guitar pedal I need to go get, it's gonna make a certain sound that I need." I remember coming back, and then writing this like dual lead part that happens about halfway through the song, and then it all tied together, and I figured out like "oh, this is what I wanna do with the guitar in the intro!" and all this stuff. It took a couple months to get there, but then when it happened it was literally within two hours that I rewrote all my guitars and was able to do it. But in a normal circumstance, I never would've had that chance. It'd be like, "what's my idea now? Well that's it! You're done!"
Even with vocals, I could go back and forth with Dave and Katie. We got them basic recording setups, so they could record their own vocals and Katie could record her synths at home, because they're in Philly. So I was like, "let's get them set up so they can do this stuff on their own time, and not get rushed, because I really want them to play around with their own ideas in the way that I can." I think it's awesome for any band or musician to have some sort of simple setup that makes it easy for them to track an idea and have that spontaneous thing come, instead of trying to picture in their head how it would all sound. I think you get a better finished product if someone can experiment on their own for a bit, and then present their idea to someone who's producing the record or something.
So I wanna talk about the last two songs. So TWIABP always ended their albums with one or two long songs, but these are the longest. You have one over 15 minutes, and one that's nearly 20. Do these long songs just kind of come naturally, or are you like "alright, we gotta write a new epic that tops the last one"?
When we were writing the record initially, I remember we had an idea that we jammed at our practice space, and it felt really cool, I think it's what became "Infinite Josh." We were just kind of playing around with ideas, and it kinda turned into this thing that was 10 or 12 minutes. And we listened back to it and were like, "Oh, this could be cool, we should develop this idea." And it wasn't even like "we want this track to end the record," it was more just like, we wanted to have a track on the album that was a little longer. When we're putting together the record, we usually think, "Okay we probably want a song or two that's shorter and faster to kind of break up the pace." For example, on this record it was "Queen Sophie," on Always Foreign it was "Dillion and Her Son," on Harmlessness it was "The Word Lisa." We try to think of the album as a whole. So, initially we were like, "Oh we'll have like a 10 or 12 minute song, that's pretty crazy right?! Longer than anything we've done before." So we had that idea, and while working it out, it turned into a longer thing. And then, I remember when I did the Fiddlehead record, I think I was talking to Pat about TWIABP and I think he asked me something like, "Oh don't you guys have a 20 minute song or something?" He knew we had a couple longer ones. And I remember thinking in my head "oh that's funny, we have like a 15 minute song, but it would be kind of funny if we did have a 20 minute song." So soon after that, we did live demos in February 2020, and I think I mentioned that to the band, but it wasn't like we were gonna write a 20 minute song. It just coincidentally happened, and I was like "you gotta be kidding me." Like we actually now do have a 20 minute song [laughs]. It was such a stupid idea, to have a 15 minute song and a 20 minute song.
It was like, we have to commit to this to make these work, because it's so ridiculous -- we have these songs, we have to try to do it. It kind of became a personal challenge in the end. We wanted this record to be over the top in general, and coincidentally wrote these long songs. I thought it was gonna be easier, but I mean a 20 minute song... coordinating the strings alone was a whole ordeal, tracking my guitars took three days because of all the different layers I was adding and the way the tempo ramps are, it wasn't like you could really copy/paste stuff. Even mapping the vocals; it was a daunting thing when Dave sent me his vocal ideas for it. I didn't wanna half-ass it in any way, no one did, but it could have been an afterthought for us on the record, like, "Here's a long song, have fun!" I mean it took me a few days to even wrap my head around the vocal ideas. The Chris Z part that we have in it, we'd been trying to get Chris Z on a song for a while, and actually it seemed like it wasn't gonna happen, just because of scheduling stuff. And we basically talked to Chris Z a few days before I had to turn in the record, I think Chris Z came in on a Saturday and the record had to be turned in on Monday. So a lot of coincidental things lined up, like "okay we can get Chris Z on the last song that's 20 minutes," that's what we wanted, like "okay this is gonna help tie things together." And having nods to our older releases -- I've always thrown in little pieces of older albums of ours, or we've had guitar parts that reference older stuff; the self-referential thing's been going on for a while. There's like layers I'll take from other records of ours, and it'll be like, "oh this drone is actually a thing I made on Between Bodies, but it's gonna be under this verse in a song" or something, or like there's a layer after "Invading the World of the Guilty as a Spirit of Vengeance." When that song ends, even in the music video, at the end there's a little clip that we used in between the two last songs on Harmlessness. There are Easter eggs all around of older shit. Dave has his vocal at the end [of "Fewer Afraid"] which references the end of Whenever, If Ever -- stuff like that.
That line in particular [from "Getting Sodas"], what was sort of the discussion within the band about revisiting a line that's become so iconic for TWIABP?
I remember Dave sent me a vocal demo for the song, and as soon as I heard it, I was like, "That's what has to happen. That has to happen at the end." Because I knew it was the song we were trying to get Chris Z on, so to me, that was kind of a bookend thing, of like, "if we're gonna have that, we should pull something from Whenever, If Ever. That stuff's just like fun to me, it's like an Easter egg in a movie. It sounds cool, even if you never knew the band. And when Dave's singing that vocal line from Whenever, If Ever, I pulled a guitar part from our Deer Leap split. I figured out, "okay, I wanna pull another referential thing but from a different release and throw it in." And we had friends of ours sing during the end of the song as well -- whenever we play "Getting Sodas" live, people that we're on tour with will come on stage and sing the song with us, so that's kind of what I was picturing in my head, to replicate that feeling of us playing the end of that song and our friends coming on stage. It just naturally happened over the years, it's not something we ever asked bands to do. And in "Died in the Prison of the Holy Office," Dave references the vocals from "Katamari Duquette." I already knew that was on the record, so once I heard what he was pulling from Whenever, If Ever, I was like, "Yeah, that -- it's great to have another spot like that."
While we're talking about lyrics, what would you say are some of the major lyrical themes on this album?
I'll try to summarize it, Dave is way better with that stuff than me. I mean there's still stuff I find out with lyrics later on, like the other day I found out there's a lyric that he has [on "Invading the World of the Guilty as a Spirit of Vengeance"] that's like, numbers. And I didn't understand what it was, I thought it sounded cool and to me it was like, he probably has a meaning behind it but I just thought of At the Drive In, like "this just sounds cool regardless of the meaning, it doesn't need to have a meaning." Like At the Drive In lyrics are partially nonsense. But I only recently figured out that it was casket dimensions. So there's shit that Dave pulls that I don't realize until later. I know on "Queen Sophie" Katie pulled imagery and ideas from her injury that she had, and I know Dave will sing about a lot of dietal issues, or he'll have the songs where he talks about West Virginia or maybe his childhood and fucked up stuff that happened. I'll say this: when Dave sent me lyrics for this record, I remember messaging him and I was like, "Dave, I'm nostalgic for nothing in my childhood. I don't even wanna think about my childhood. But you make me nostalgic for your childhood." When he talks about being a kid and growing up, I feel it, it feels like it happened to me.
Illusory Walls comes out 10/8 via Epitaph. Get it on clear vinyl.