Within the realm of progressive metal, North Carolina’s Between the Buried and Me have been one of the biggest and most widely-influential names in the game for the past decade. Their propensities for gigantic and thematic albums paired with unpredictable genre-hopping has undoubtedly left a huge mark on younger bands who are now heavily populating the prog, metalcore, and even djent scenes. Now on the cusp of releasing their seventh LP, Coma Ecliptic, the band is finding their footing as a staple in the genre and is planning on delivering yet another concept album worthy of the classic 70s groups that gave birth to the style. I had a chance to speak with guitarist and founding member Paul Waggoner about the new record, how difficult it is planning sets, musical inspirations, and much more!
So you’re on the road right now doing some shows with The Atlas Moth and you just headlined New England Metal Fest the other day. You’ve never headlined before, right?
No, we never have. We’ve played there quite a few times in the band’s career but never actually played last. We’ve played second to last a couple of times, but never last, so that was a momentous occasion for us to headline one of the days. It was definitely an honor for us because Metal Fest is sort of an institution. It’s definitely pretty cool!
I know that you guys have been playing the new song ‘Memory Palace’ for these shows. I know the album isn’t out yet, but how has that been going over with the crowd?
It’s going well. I mean, new songs are weird because people don’t really know them yet. I mean, it’s out and people can listen to it online, but they don’t necessarily know the lyrics and they don’t necessarily know the song like the back of their hand. In that sense it’s probably not a very interactive song, but people are digging it. They appreciate the fact that we’re playing a new song and have some new material out. I think it’s going over really well, and I know this is the last day of the tour, but we’re finally now clicking to where we’re playing it really well and are locked in as a band and getting used to playing it live. We’re happy with the response! It’s kind of a different song for us, I guess. It’s sort of the new evolution. Obviously not every song on the record is like that one, but we felt like it’s a good representation of the direction we’re going in. So that’s why we decided to release that one first and play it live. Overall, I think the response has been overwhelmingly good! Probably better than we expected.
I know that the next record is going to be another concept record, so where does that song fit in with the whole story?
Well technically, that’s towards the end of the record. The story is pretty, I would say, is pretty David Lynch-y and not like your typical chronological story. The story centers on a guy who is voluntarily put into a coma because he’s not happy with his current life and through the coma he revisits his past lives and has an opportunity to determine whether or not he gets to say in those lives or be pulled out of the coma…yada yada yada. ‘Memory Palace‘ is towards the end of the record, and I can’t remember where it falls in line with the plot. That’d be something Tommy could probably answer. I think it’s the second to last song?
Did Tommy come up with the whole story, or was it more of a group thing? Did the music come first?
I think Tommy basically came up with the whole concept as we were writing the music. So it was sort of done in tandem. This concept and storyline was entirely his idea and he shared it with us and we dug it. We thought it was pretty cool! I think you have to have a storyline or concept that fits the music, if that makes any sense. With the music we were writing and with the dynamics that the songs had, we thought it would work. And it did! Sometimes when I listen to the record, Tommy is really good at making the lyrical content fit the dynamics of the music. If it’s a part that’s very minimalist, quiet, and more sparsely-instrumented part, his lyrics tend to simplify and fit the mood of the music. If it’s a more aggressive part, the lyrics reflect that shift in dynamic. He wrote the lyrics as we were writing the music, so I think it turned out pretty good.
Would you say that the album is going to lean towards, like you said, minimalist stuff with more clean singing? Or are there still lots of aggressive parts? What should people expect?
Obviously, musically it’s definitely evolved. We’re getting older and stuff so we’re growing as a band, which was our goal from day one. There’s always that inherent DNA, if you will, of Between the Buried and Me that’s always going to be there. There’s aggressive parts, there’s screaming, all that stuff. But there’s just a lot more growth musically, a bigger emphasis on melody and structure, and for lack of a better word it’s probably a more mature sound. I’m not afraid to say that because as people we’re maturing so we’re a little more analytical of what we’re doing and we want it to make more sense to us. That’s not to say that there’s not more “authentic” Between the Buried and Me parts; they’re definitely in there. We’re just more careful in how we place them in the structure of the song. To me it doesn’t sound like a different band. It sounds like Between the Buried and Me, but we’re just pushing new ground, you know? Some of the more complex and orchestrated parts are even more over-the-top and some of the stripped-down, simplified parts are even more simple and tame. We’re really embracing every aspect of what we can do as a band try to do it as well as we possibly can.
I know for the past several records and kind of for the latter half of your career your albums have mostly been concept-based. Do you want to just keep doing that? Because it does seem like you’re getting better at it, but at any point do you think you’ll go back and write just ten songs for an album? Does that even interest you anymore?
I don’t know…it’s a hard question to answer because we never really know what we’re going to do next until the time comes to do it. If I had to answer it right now I’d say that the concept album as an entity seems to be where our identity is. We love writing music that has this big, grandiose beginning, middle and end. I think that’s just what we like to do. It’s fun to write an album as an album as opposed to just writing a song and just going on to the next one. We enjoy writing big pieces, but that’s not to say that our mentality might not change. I mean, it could. The next record we could be like “Okay, let’s write some three minute songs and see how that feels.” Right now it’s hard to imagine us doing that because we really enjoy doing what we do. Certainly we’ve never been a band that’s trying to get on the radio, so to us there’s no benefit to writing a three minute song unless we truly want to do that. And for us right now artistically, I think we’re best representing ourselves if we do the big concepts. It just so happens that sometimes those include really long songs. We’re not setting out to write a long song, but sometimes it just takes us ten minutes for us to do what we’re trying to get across. It’s hard for us to consolidate our thoughts and vision in the context of a three minute song.
Was it ever a goal back in the day of the band to purposefully write a really long song? Was it ever intentional, or does it just happen to come out that way?
It has never been an intention. I think a lot of the criticisms we’ll get is that our songs are too long, and maybe they are for the average listener, but for us we’re not trying to make a long song. We’re not looking at a clock and saying “okay, we’re at five minutes and now we need another five minutes!” It’s never like that. We just write what comes naturally to us and when it’s all said and done and we reach a nice endpoint we will demo song and discover it’s 11 minutes long! It just so happens that’s the way it ends up, because we all write and we’re all very creative. We work well with one another and are always inspired by one another’s ideas and so that’s how songs begin to grow a life of their own. It’s like a tree with a ton of branches. The root idea might just be something very basic, but by the time the whole thing fleshes out it’s this big tree with all kinds of branches and flowers. That’s just how it happens and I think that’s because we don’t have a primary songwriter. Everybody contributes and everybody has some say-so in the structure and the way the song takes shape, which is cool! I can honestly say each song we write is a reflection of all five of us. We’ve all had some input and it’s just not five guys playing one guy’s songs like a lot of bands are.
I know I’ve seen you play Parallax II and Colors all the way through. Do you plan on doing that with the new record? I know you’re coming back over the summer with Animals as Leaders, so do you plan on doing it then, or maybe not for a while?
We’re not going to do the whole thing then, because by then the record will have just come out. I think we’ve made the mistake in the past of playing the whole record live right when it comes out. Maybe a lot of people haven’t had the time to really digest the whole thing. Maybe a lot of people don’t even have the thing yet. I think we’re going to wait until probably later in the year to do the whole record. We certainly want to do it! Honestly, if it was up to us and we just didn’t care we’d probably like to do it on that Animals as Leaders and The Contortionist tour just because we want to play the new stuff. I think this time we’ll wait a while until people have it. And people always want to hear the older stuff anyways, so we’ll try to play a diverse mixture of stuff for that tour and do the record later in the year.
So for that tour if you’re doing older stuff, is there anything you haven’t played in a while that you’d like to play again? And conversely, is there something you’re done with and never want to play again?
*laughs* Yeah, there are a few songs that are kind of a chore to play right now just because we’ve played them so many times.
Is it ‘White Walls?’
Obviously ‘Selkies’ and ‘White Walls,’ but again, those are crowd favorites. We might be in the rehearsal space playing and feel like “oh god! I’ve got to play this song again!” But then when you get out in front of a crowd and they’re super stoked on it and singing along, it gives it new life. When it comes down to it, those songs are still enjoyable to play because people really like them, so that’s cool! I mean, sure, some of those we’ll probably be playing the rest of our career. There are definitely some songs that we’d like to bust out. We’re pretty picky about what we’ll play, and that goes back to us having really long songs. We can’t play a three hour set so we have to be pretty choosy about what we play. If we play an hour set, that’s only six or seven songs! We have to really be careful and not pick a song that people won’t be interested in or detracts from the flow of the set. It’s kind of a tricky thing and it’s hard to pick a set list for us. Even on this tour we thought we had this killer list and then we played a few shows and felt like we should have done some songs over others. It really is a challenge to decide what you’re going to play live.
With the most recent set I saw, you guys played ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ which I think is great! I know that wasn’t on the cover album that you did, but do you have any other covers in the bag? Do you ever plan on doing that again?
I don’t know if we’d ever do another cover album, but we might record a song or two for a special occasion or promotion. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody‘ we literally just played at Metal Fest. We got that thing together just to play at that show. It was kind of a one-off thing. I guess it’s in the bag so-to-speak and we could bust it out whenever we want. But there are a lot of songs that mean a lot to us that have inspired us and would love to cover and put our own spin on it. You never know! I can’t see us doing a whole album of covers again, but maybe a one-off here and there. Record a classic song for some promotion, so we’ll see!
Is there anything within the past year or so by anyone lately that you’ve really been digging on lately?
We’re fans of so many different things. I guess in our genre, Devin Townsend is constantly putting out killer stuff and he’s kind of a hero to us in the sense that he’s been able to have this long career doing what he wants on his own terms and being successful at it. He’s somebody that we really admire, and just everything he puts out is so awesome. He’s one of my personal favorites. Keep of Kalessin, that black metal band, we’re into them, and there are a lot of other bands all across the board in every genre you can imagine. We just really like music and bands and artists that are doing something cool and unique and on their own terms. But I think my personal favorite right now is Devin because he’s just a frickin’ genius.
I saw him back in December and he was just unreal.
He’s just a great performer, an incredible singer, a great guitar player, songwriter, producer; I mean he’s the whole package. And then on top of that, he works his ass off! He’s got the talent and the showmanship and the work ethic, so I really admire that. That’s somebody that I really look up to. He’s just the blueprint for how you can be an independent artist in a small genre that caters to a very niche market and be successful and do it for the long haul. I think he’s done that, so kudos to him!
Between the Buried and Me’s new record Coma Ecliptic is due out July 10th via Metal Blade Records. Pre-orders are available at this location. Catch BTBAM on the road this summer with Animals as Leaders and The Contortionist. Dates below:
07/07 Athens, GA Georgia Theatre
07/08 Tallahassee, FL Sidebar Theater
07/09 Orlando, FL Venue 578
07/10 Ft. Lauderdale, FL Revolution
07/11 Jacksonville, FL Freebird Live
07/13 Houston, TX Warehouse Live
07/14 Little Rock, AR Juanita’s
07/15 Oklahoma City, OK Diamond Ballroom
07/17 Grand Junction, CO Mesa Theater and Club
07/18 Las Vegas, NV Brooklyn Bowl
07/19 Tucson, AZ Club X’s
07/21 Santa Ana, CA The Observatory
07/22 San Diego, CA Observatory North Park
07/23 Santa Cruz, CA The Catalyst
07/24 Sacramento, CA Ace of Spaces
07/25 Boise, ID Knitting Factory Concert House
07/27 Salt Lake City, UT The Complex
07/29 Des Moines, IA Wooly’s
07/30 Joliet, IL Mojoes
07/31 Columbus, OH Newport Music Hall
08/01 Grand Rapids, MI The Intersection
08/02 Bloomington, IL The Castle Theatre
08/04 London, ON London Music Hall
08/06 Buffalo, NY The Town Ballroom
08/07 Pittsburgh, PA Stage AE
08/08 Norfolk, VA The NorVa
08/09 Wilmington, NC Ziggys by the Sea
08/11 Clifton Park, NY Upstate Concert Hall
08/12 Providence, RI Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel
08/13 Sayreville, NJ Starland Ballroom
08/14 Winston-Salem, NC Ziggys
08/15 Nashville, TN Marathon Music Works