Exist – Playing on Vanity

Tuesday, 4th July 2017

What is prog anymore? A label that at one point held a defined meaning now adorns itself on everything from power metal to death/black and even metalcore. A tag more willing to show that you are willing to go outside the box more than anything else. Upstarts (but not youngsters, with members that have been involved in Death to All, Cynic, Necrophagist, and Jeff Loomis’ solo act) Exist certainly fit the usual descriptions, playing masterful and technical death metal rhythms that are still inherently strong “songs.”

But the band doesn’t stop there, taking some metal concepts (in the lyrical sense) and flipping them on their heads. It’s a refreshing take in a genre that often takes itself way too seriously. With much to discuss, we grabbed guitarist/vocalist for some quick Q & A about their logo, changes since the debut, sarcasm, and more.

Dead Rhetoric: How would you describe the music and sound of Exist?

Max Phelps: Well, I’d rather the music speak for itself I suppose… haha. Ideally exciting and unpredictable while still being grounded enough to keep familiarity in terms of the development of parts. If people ask I just call us a prog metal band or even just a metal band with psychedelic elements. I’m not too into super specific genre names beyond using them for description or to look at how certain stylistic things have developed in music history.

It’s more fun when people are confused and I think that the way that a lot of people pigeon-hole these sub-genres so strictly by definition these days is sort of lame. There’s a lot of stuff in there that’s derived from us playing many different styles of music over the years. I like to think we’re creating somewhat of our own language but it’s really just reflective of a wide variety stuff that we’re into.

Dead Rhetoric: Exist’s logo is one of the more interesting of the younger crop of bands – legible yet elegant. What went into this design?

Phelps: Oh awesome, that’s great that you say that! We are very happy with it. We spent a lot of time with it because we didn’t want to have to change it down the road again and we wanted something that we would feel proud “owning” for all of the band imagery. We knew we wanted to change it from the original (Sunlight) logo to make it more legible while still keeping it a bit intact or relatable to said original. Both Alex (bass) and Matt (guitar) worked on passing drafts back and forth of their own sketches. We consolidated that down to something we were all really happy with and then had our artist (Sebastian Jerke) do professional drafts with it which we then narrowed down even further. We absolutely wanted something that was legible and memorable among the sea of stuff that’s out there. Bands like Opeth and Emperor have these amazing logos with memorable symbols in them. We took the diamond “sun-dot” from our debut album artwork and tried to do something similar with that.

Dead Rhetoric: How do you feel the band has changed since your debut, Sunlight?

Phelps: Well for one, different drummer. I guess the overall core of how the songs are created isn’t terribly different. This album had a goal of more accessible, concise songwriting and thematic development while Sunlight was intended deliberately to be this overwhelming surreal wall of things happening. There were a lot of differences in terms of recording technique, and the process during the songwriting too. We didn’t play these songs as a band before recording them, it was more of a studio effort whereas the Sunlight material we had been playing live for several years before recording. I like to think of the differences in sound as less of a “change in direction” and more of a “this is just what we did this time”. It’s possible we’ll do more that’s like Sunlight in the future, or albums that are completely different altogether. I’d like for us to keep surprising ourselves as well as the listeners.

Dead Rhetoric: Given the experience of the band members involved, does that make it easier to challenge yourselves in the writing process?

Phelps: I honestly don’t know. It probably just makes us more liberated because everything is on the table stylistically. We all play and listen to a lot of different styles when we’re at home. When I write I’m not really trying to “challenge” myself, or at least I don’t think of it like that. I just try to excite myself musically and create stuff that moves me with the hopeful intention that some other people will feel the same way when they listen.

Dead Rhetoric: What do you feel that Nolly Getgood was able to bring to the mix of the album?

Phelps: Well, simply stated the production sounds really awesome. He was able to bring the songs out in a way that is punchy, incredibly clear, and just generally pleasing to the ear. Probably not an easy task especially given that we aren’t the best of engineers and may not have delivered the best source material, plus there is just no real consistency in tones OR orchestration of the instruments. Every part for every section in each song has different amounts of guitars layers which fulfill different roles, and completely different patches in each of said sections. We approach recording as a production vs. a literal performance of a four or five piece band.

Sometimes there are four guitars playing four entirely different things, and like nine vocal tracks at once. I’m not a mixer myself, in fact I’m a complete idiot when it comes to EQ, tone and frequencies… but I’d imagine that this density and variety makes things much trickier. He also was willing to do some things that weren’t as conventional to his usual sound, for example bringing out this mid-ier, super present bass sound which Alex goes for. It was really a privilege to be able to work with him, I can’t emphasize that enough.

Dead Rhetoric: How’d you hook up with Prosthetic Records?

Phelps: Steve Joh, their A&R, had a previous working relationship with our bass player (Alex Weber) when he was performing with Jeff Loomis. Steve previously worked at Century Media and recently moved to Prosthetic in the last two years. We had previously tried to pitch Sunlight to CM and it wasn’t the sort of thing they were looking for, but as a result Steve was familiar with us and was interested when we contacted him regarding new material. My friend Sacha from Intronaut also has a working relationship with Prosthetic’s owner EJ and had recommended us to him before we had contacted Steve. I owe Sacha a big thank-you for that!

Dead Rhetoric: Lyrically, there seems to be a bit of sarcasm involved. Is that a fair assessment?

Phelps: Absolutely not, everything in the lyrical content is completely serious and all metaphors should be taken at face value. Humor has no place in metal.

Dead Rhetoric: Going along with the wit/sarcasm bit – could you go into the process of the “Take My Picture” video, where you have the cultish figures with selfie-sticks?

Phelps: Yes! That was a concept that I originally wanted to do for that song back when we were first working on the material. We originally determined we wouldn’t have any sort of budget for a concept video and gave up on the idea. Then Prosthetic wanted us to do a music video very last minute. It turns out that our touring singer/keyboard player (Jordan Miller) does videography professionally. So I got with him and we developed a game plan very quickly and banged it out in two days. I’m really happy with how it turned out especially given the short notice.

Hopefully the video doesn’t need too much explanation, but we wanted a message about vanity pertaining to the song’s lyrics. The first half of the video is meant to seem like a generic metal theme in which we see the cult members in the woods without much idea of what they’re doing. Then shit hits the fan and the viewer realizes that this main character’s entire intention and ritual is just to portray himself as some sort of corny dark lord. He uses trains and uses these naive “minions” just to make sure that he can maintain his reputation and come across as a bad ass on his Instagram or whatever.

Dead Rhetoric: So True, So Bound has some colorful artwork. Were you shooting for any particular goal with the cover art?

Phelps: Yes, absolutely. Similar message to the video. The character is in the middle of this surreal colorful world with tons of amazing stimulation but he’s totally fixated on his phone. When you open up the CD or vinyl you see the image from his vantage point and he is in fact taking a selfie (he’s also fulfilling his stereotype of “being metal”). The image of him on the phone is black and white while the outside world is filled with color. There is also an image representative of the lyrical themes for the songs “So True” and “So Bound” in which everyone imitates an archetype except for one humorous character who is breaking the mold and doing his own pose.

The back cover is representative of the lyrical concepts in “Fault’s Peaks” in which a character looks up a wall in front of him. Whatever is at the top or behind it is seemingly unattainable. Mad props to Sebastian Jerke for working with us on these concepts and adding his own input… it was so cool developing the ideas with him and watching him work his magic. I couldn’t be happier with it.

Dead Rhetoric: What are your thoughts on what the term progressive means in today’s metal scene?

Phelps: It doesn’t really mean much anymore because so much metal music has evolved to sort of inherently be progressive, if that makes sense. Odd time signatures and complex riffing is sort of the standard. That’s not to rip on everything coming out now though, I like a lot of these bands. A lot of people really don’t like the djent movement, and while I do find the vast amount of copycats to be a drag I do think that the guys at the forefront like Animals, Periphery, Tesseract, The Contortionist etc. are really doing some great game-changing shit. Lots of great death metal bands coming out too!

Dead Rhetoric: You are currently out on the road with Gorguts. What’s next for Exist?

Phelps: Hopefully some more touring at the end of the year or in 2018. I have the majority of the next album written and I’d like to get started on that soon as well though.

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