The lifespan of bands have their mythologies; the “tricky” album, the record label feud, the member fallout, the “controversial” shift in sound. There’s always something with every band, something that uproots them or slaps them in the face, and inspires a new driving force, a new momentum. This push towards a new goal doesn’t always end well. Maybe the band sound tired now, the sheen that their music had is now significantly duller and you don’t know why. Something has changed and it pushes you away.
Not long after TesseracT’s debut album One was released in 2011, vocalist Dan Tompkins left, to be replaced by Elliot Coleman. After a brief stint and the recording of Perspective, Coleman left and was replaced by Ashe O’Hara. In 2013 it was announced that Altered State would be the follow-up to One, and not only would it be essentially a 51-minute song—news now amusingly immortalised by Century Media on Facebook—but it would feature no screamed vocals, which would surely come as a shock to fans of One’s more acerbic and traditionally “metal” moments. It wasn’t looking good.
If TesseracT had released another One after going through the upheaval and disorientation that they had just gone through it would have been admirable, but instead they stepped up another echelon entirely, turning over a new page for their career and resolutely showing that djenty chords, spotless production and odd-time tomfoolery could become more than the sum of its parts. The band hit this balance with Altered State that you could keep returning to time and time again with its winding yet approachable flow from peak to peak. Emotionally agonising in an almost post-rock fashion, but also stoically pensive to the point of leaving you with a glint in your eye, it has provided me with such comfort over the years as I’m sure it has to many others. From that description it might seem like it’s asking too much of the listener, but it manages to pull you in effortlessly. That is precisely why Altered State holds up remarkably well in 2020.
In early November I hopped on a Zoom call with Jay Postones (drums) and Amos Williams (bass) to discuss the record’s strained inception and unorthodox recording as the band have recently reissued it in a deluxe 4LP/2CD format contained in a pristine gatefold sleeve. As well as the album, we also talk the chaos that Covid-19 has unleashed upon the live sector and the popularity of Twitch livestreaming.
It’s been 7 years since the release of Altered State, which actually feels recent despite the fact that that’s now in the last decade.
Amos: An amazing amount of things have happened since then. Our career is unrecognisable for one thing, but I think as individuals as well we’ve been through so much, we’re all either married or have children now, which is crazy. A few of us moved around the world after that album, I left England for four years, then when I came back Jay left too, and then I left again.
You’re like a transcontinental band, have you ever all been in one place at the same time?
Jay: Only on tour [laughs]. We’re basically in the same place for two or three days leading into a tour and a few days of limbo after a tour. Even in the UK we’re not from the same towns. A lot of bands find their members within a certain geographical radius that isn’t that wide and in the UK it’s never that wide. Everyone that I wanted to be in a band with when I was younger was in my town, and maybe that’s not what people do now but that’s certainly what I used to do. Whereas from the get-go, we always looked a little wider, we didn’t let geography limit who we would work with because as soon as you start touring, the world does this [motions hands in a shrinking movement] and you realise it doesn’t really matter where you all are in the world. It’s not quite the same as being in the room with a person, especially if you’re trying to jam, that’s more of a challenge, but you can certainly be creative within the boundaries of the internet.
You mention touring, the world probably feels like it’s become bigger again with the events of the past year. Has it been a while since you’ve all seen each other?
Jay: One year today or yesterday. I can’t remember exactly but the last tour was either India or Ukraine.
Amos: One year ago we were stuck behind an elephant in a traffic jam in Assam, crazy!
I feel like every interview with a band at the moment revolves around this question, but are there any talks going on in the TesseracT camp about possible tours in the future?
Amos: We’ve got a tour being worked on for December 2021, but I think that’s our earliest safe touring opportunity. We have had some things that have been booked, and postponed and postponed and postponed… we just don’t know when these things can happen. It’s looking like December is probably quite sensible next year.
In the past Dan (vocalist) has been very honest about the financial realities of being in a band the size of TesseracT, what is the financial situation like with you guys at the moment?
Jay: Without going into crazy specifics, yes there is money to be made in this industry if you’re a band at our level. You have to be incredibly smart about how you spend it and reinvest it and have a team behind you who are incredibly smart to help you make those decisions and present opportunities that sometimes you might not think are going to work, and you have to have faith in the ideas that they present. To be a full-time musician the answer is in the title, it is a full-time thing, it’s not “hey I’m off tour, I’m gonna sit and twiddle my thumbs” and money will happen, it just doesn’t work like that. Being a full-time musician for me means doing drum lessons and streaming pretty much every day on Twitch. That’s become a means of income for me. Yes, TesseracT makes us some money but there are other things that I personally do to supplement that income. I think that’s true for most people in the band.
Instrument classes and livestreams are very popular at the moment I’ve noticed.
Jay: You just need a camera and an internet connection really. Yeah, you can invest and spend a load of money on all that stuff, but generally speaking you can do it quite effectively from your phone, you can get a little interface that will plug into your phone and off you go. In March or April the number of people searching for music performance on Twitch shot up in the hundreds of percent, I can see that in the numbers of people that started following me and Dan, it’s like a vertical line that month it’s crazy.
In having to do more instrument classes and Twitch livestreams at the moment, is there a sense that people look down on that at all in the manner of “well, that’s not really work”?
Jay: I haven’t encountered that personally but I also haven’t asked that question of anyone. It’s not something I dwell on if I’m honest. I just play TesseracT songs and answer questions about drums and cover other random songs, and if you want to tune in go for it, if it’s not something you want to see then don’t! What other choice have artists got at the moment because there’s no real support from the government for the creative sector? It’s easier for artists to jump online and do something like that because at least they’ve got something creative that they can do quite well. As for the sound guys, merch guys, lighting engineers, managers; those guys have had their incomes severed, and if you’re self-employed the support is minimal, it’s really hard.
Amos: I spend more time involved with the production side of things, so I often have a more connected relationship to the team that works behind the scenes for us, so obviously I’m quite close with a lot of people we’ve worked with. They’ve had to make a choice, either they somehow find a way to stay within the industry and are able to scrape by, and that is often very much down to who they happen to know, for example I know a lot of lighting designers are going from arena-level tours and going straight into television production because a lot of the TV production at the moment is very different to what it used to be, the teams that they’re working with are smaller and as such the people who are normally within that industry are almost a little bit inexperienced at doing many jobs under one hat. So quite a lot of people that we work with have ended up jumping ship to things like that. For livestreaming as well, taking the production level up a bit, we’ve got s0me friends in Canada who are just expanding upon their skillsets.
But then you have the other side of things, the front of house team, people like merchandisers, venue staff, tour managers, who just cannot do the roles that they’ve been a part of so they’ve moved on from that entirely in many cases. I know somebody who’s a bar manager now and that sucks because her bar has just closed as well. The thing I will say is these people are very resourceful and they’ve spent—if they’ve managed to make this career full-time—ten, twenty years getting to the point where they can see the opportunities in amongst the dirt. So I think whilst it’s going to take a while to rebuild, they will hopefully come back unless of course they feel a bit burnt. The flipside of it is that a lot of musicians who are at our level spent a lot of time last year trying to stop a snowballing of debt happen because they might have already been on tour. I know at least two bands who had to stop touring midway through a tour who had the production costs of that tour still unpaid because they hadn’t got the guarantees from various shows, and they needed the whole tour to happen to be able to pay for the production, so they had to stop and put their company into bankruptcy. We were quite lucky that we were on some downtime so we didn’t have those costs. It’s just sheer luck that we weren’t touring when all this happened because we could have ended up with something like £120,000 worth of debt.
Moving back to Altered State again, I’m aware that One had been conceived and laid down for quite a long time compared to Altered State. The record was recorded in a relatively short span of time due to time and money constraints. Was that the case?
Jay: You’ve basically got your entire life to write your first album and then every album after that you’re counting down, you’ve got a deadline that you have to meet otherwise everything doesn’t work, there’s so many things that rely on meeting that deadline, like tours, and you don’t want to tour if you don’t have anything to promote. So you’re always working to a clock and it’s not always ideal, it’s very difficult to work when you have to file it under you. For some it works and for others it doesn’t. Altered State, while it was rushed compared to One, I don’t think anything suffered on that record as the result of it being rushed. I say rushed but it was only rushed in the sense that we didn’t have as much time, it came together fairly organically from my memory. The arrangement changed around quite a lot, the way that it’s presented now isn’t how it was and how it grew, the music got restructured quite a lot into the form that is now Altered State.
Amos: It’s funny though because you couldn’t imagine Altered State in any other order. It was like we didn’t have the key to unlock it, we just had all these random—to use another completely different analogy—pieces of a puzzle that just didn’t make sense until they were locked into one place. So it was really quite interesting that once we had messed around with the presentation, the smoke and mirrors as we’ll say, the way that you as an audience will first receive it, it told us the mythology behind the album if that makes sense. It’s almost like reading leaves at the bottom of a teacup, it made no sense until we’d finished the cup of tea. We were sat there looking at it going “ah, it looks like that” [holds up hand], “have this!” [thrusts hand towards camera]. It’s so funny because the relationship between the songs makes a big difference, it’s certainly one of our albums where to me as a listener—it’s really hard for any musician to actually have any form of perspective—but as a listener with an inside track on the album, it’s definitely the album that makes sense as a coherent start-to-finish piece; there’s a very definite beginning, a journey, and a very definite end, and it almost happened out of our control and just could not have been presented in any other fashion, and as a result that led us to get the artwork to fit, to get the theme to fit, to tell the story, in a way that followed the beats of the music, which is quite unusual because normally you would try to make the music follow the beats of the story, but there’s so much pretence in that that it’s often just bullshit, so it was really nice for this album to be thematically led from the music and almost have the presentation as a result of the reality of the music.
It’s almost like it’s reverse engineered.
Amos: Kind of. We were certainly discovering it rather than inventing it.
There’s always talk about the “difficult” second album, I don’t really know where that idea came from, I don’t know if anyone does. It goes back to what Jay said about you having your whole life to record and release your debut and then once that’s over and done with it’s “deadlines deadlines deadlines”. The stress and strain you were under making this compared to One, do you think that was filtered into the music in any way, because it’s a very emotional listen from the start?
Amos: Yeah, there’s a vulnerability there that came from the process being a bit of a crucible. There were a lot of raw feelings going on at the time because we’d just split from Dan and it was very hard for us to be comfortable with everything and it was very hard for Ashe, the vocalist, to feel completely comfortable because he’s constantly wondering if what he’s doing is correct, not just because he’s in a new band, but because he’s also having to climb the mountain of overcoming any preconceptions that might come from older fans who, within our genre, are fairly rigid shall we say in their opinions for such an open minded genre, there can sometimes be a department of that fanbase that are exceedingly narrow minded. They expect progression but they also don’t wish it to progress beyond their opinion of what your music should be. At the same time that also gave us a bit of a “doesn’t matter” [holds hands up], because we can’t do anything to please anybody on this album so let’s just do it. So from that came a freedom that we didn’t have before and probably haven’t had since because you know straight away you’re never going to please people, so you just, almost, take that pressure off and let things get a bit more experimental, and it’s certainly our most experimental album which might have come from the fact that we were maybe a little unstable at the time I’ll say.
Were you fearful at the time that the change of vocalists was possibly going to ruin the appeal of the music, since a vocalist is often such a central part of a band?
Jay: It was definitely a concern, it was a huge decision to make. To choose someone was a process in itself. We set up a Gmail account and had hundreds of submissions and listened to them all and got down to a few guys, and Ashe was just honestly leagues ahead of everyone else, the things that he could do, his concept and understanding of harmony and melody was like “this could really work!”, and I think for Altered State it did. For a lot of people it’s still their favourite record, I still see comments and have messages from people saying “oh that album, there’s just something magical about it”. Going back to the composition of things, I think Acle seemed to hit a certain flow with that record as well where it’s almost the most effortless the music has felt since we began. With One there was a lot of changing around, especially “Concealing Fate”, there were about thirty different variations of that. Altered State, yes it did go through structural changes, but the music all felt very solid especially when it all came together, and when you layer Ashe’s vocals and include it into that, it just made something very special, I still love listening to it today.
It’s interesting hearing you and Amos talk about the constant restructuring of the album because it comes so clearly packaged and fully-formed, like that was the way it was meant to be.
Amos: It certainly taught us to listen to the music in order for it to tell us the journey that it wants to travel on, instead of shoehorning it into an idea, because presentation is almost as the content if that makes sense. We’ve not had an album—actually Sonder’s close—where it all just made sense from beginning to end in terms of the design and everything that went around the album, so we’re always chasing that I think, that’s our benchmark. Altered State will always have that, it gave us a roadmap to follow, so I think that was a very clear lesson that we learnt from that and it’s something that we try to take to the live shows now as well. We try to tell the story that the music is projecting, rather than project something on to the music.
“Of Matter”, I’m aware, represents change at its most simplistic and material i.e. the stuff in life that you think is a big deal at the time, but looking back ends up looking rather miniscule. Thinking about this while I was preparing for this interview I thought it was quite an apt analogy of how the album was made. How does it feel to you looking back?
Amos: Yeah, I think that is precisely the reason why when we were listening to the music we were thinking about the concept of everything always being in motion, and depending on what timescale you’re looking at and at what level, the microscopic and the macroscopic seem to reflect each other on quite deep levels, and there’s something about change in general, nothing is persistent, nothing is forever. It was quite a nice concept to get your head around when you realise that the music was helping you to see that things were going to be fine, it didn’t matter that we’d had this massive explosion at the beginning of writing that album because all it meant was the chance for doing something new. If you look at everything on the album, all the themes ended up being about transition from one phase to another, and—explicitly so in the presentation with “Of Matter”, “Of Mind”, “Of Reality”, “Of Energy”—it was just talking about the process of life that you go through, and the process of life that happens to everybody else at the same time in the universe. This is something that is persistent in our musing and in our thoughts. Polaris, the follow-up album is another example of that. We did a mini EP after that called Errai which is the literal star that will change into the current star of Polaris in… 40,000 years time? I’ve actually forgotten the exact number. Sonder as well, which is looking at the fact that everybody is in constant motion. So we do have this theme going on in all of our concepts and our ideas, but definitely Altered State is the most explicit example of that and it was a way to address lots of different things, but obviously the main one being that we’re still TesseracT even though we’re changing, even though we’re growing.