Through his work in bands like Unearth, Kingdom of Sorrow, Shadows Fall and Seemless, drummer Derek Kerswill has gotten a reputation as one of the hardest working go-to drummers in the metal industry. However, that’s far from the only music he likes, and with the release of T A NG E N T S, a project of his with Dave Witham, this is one of the first times his lighter side has been on display. One Little Light Year, coming out on October 26 on Angle Side Side Records, is not a metal record. It is however, a melodic, lush, thoughtful project that brings to mind Jeff Buckley and the more ambient side of Deftones. We caught up with Kerswill to talk about the genesis of Tangents, the status of his other bands, and future plans for his new project.
So how did Tangents come about?
Well, it’s kind of a long story, but the abridged version is Dave, my “other half” in the project used to be in a band called Of The Hour out of Providence. I totally fell in love with the band and at the time I was managing a couple of bands and I took them under my wing, but they ended up going their separate ways. I always kept in touch and had always loved his voice and the work that they had done and I always thought that him and I could collaborate and it would be pretty cool. Well, fast forward like three years and I get an email from him and saying “Hey man! I got a couple of like, skeleton ideas for songs and [I’m] just kind of curious what you think.” So he sent them over and I was like ‘Dude, you got any more? Like, send a few more!’ So he sent a couple more and all of a sudden I’m like, ‘You know, I’ll play drums on this stuff,’ and he’s like “Yes, I got ya!” And then all of a sudden, it was just like, ‘Hey man I’ve have some awesome production and arraignment ideas for this, I have some songs that I’d like to give you or parts, can we collaborate?’ And then before I knew it, we wrote up 15-16 songs and we’ve spent the last couple of years putting them all together to make the best record that we could.
And this is all done via, kind of Postal Service-y, like sending tracks back and forth to each other?
Yeah. In the pre-production phase, I would go down to Rhode Island and spend a couple of days at his place. I would get there in the middle of the afternoon and we’d both spend time on the songs and write some new stuff and try some ideas. Then I’d stay the next day, go home and we’d just throw tracks back and forth. When it came down to actually recording the record, we’d worked so much on the pre-production end of stuff that we knew exactly what we were going to do. So, I went in, tracked drums in a day. We had two days booked, but I tracked the whole record in a day, and then we took the drums back to his place and then he started working on the rest of the stuff, and I’d just go down there every so often, but I was on and off the road, so we were throwing tracks back and forth to each other.
And it came out well?
I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done, personally. But as long as I’m in a forward-moving motion in terms of my artistic self, I always seem to think that. For many years, I didn’t think I was playing my best at all—I’d listen back to stuff and be mortified, you know? But this is definitely something that’s very close to my soul in terms of like, what I’ve always wanted to do. It’s like, the ideal project for me. It’s everything in music that I love and want, with the exception of anything really aggressive. It’s not too aggressive but, you know, I have other outlets for that.
You’ve always liked melodic stuff though.
Yeah, I’d say that metal is kind of least of what I listen to, but I’ve always worked in the metal and aggressive music realm and I’m happy with that. I enjoy playing it, you know? I just, I enjoy playing a lot of different stuff, and, you know, drummers can get away with that. But my palette is diverse. I’m a huge Brit-pop and atmospheric like, psychedelic, you know, rock kind of guy though too, you know? I mean, Led Zeppelin is the whole reason why I play music, so I love blues and, you know, the root of metal is blues, and almost everything goes back to blues in some way, shape, or form, you know? Blues is the root of all of what is great and honest and it went from there.
OK, so obviously, you put out a record you’re very proud of. What next?
I just want things to stay special with it. I have a priority in Unearth, but those dudes really dig the record and they’re being totally cool about everything, so that’s awesome. I’d love to take tours that really work for the band and would make a difference and people that hear and enjoy the record and want to feel a live experience. We’re working on a live band right now so that’s gonna be pretty exciting.
How many people are going to be in the band?
Just four. We’re probably gonna stem out some stuff and have some of the more atmospheric loop-esque stuff programmed and play along to it. I’m not into like, you know, rhythm guitars and vocals and things that can be pulled off live put into the tracks, but when it comes down to like, say, you know, going to see MuteMath and there’s all this atmospheric stuff that just can’t really be reproduced without programming it and playing along to a click. I’m fine with that, that adds to the experience, it’s not like you’re trying to hide something that you cannot do. It’s more of an artistic approach to the live show. You and I know well enough there’s some bands that are putting stuff into tracks that shouldn’t be there because they should be able to pull it off live, you know? Haha. I’ve seen hair in front of mics that might be hiding something.
Are you a full time member of Unearth now?
I have been for a couple [of] years. I didn’t want it to be like this press release-like big thing. I felt like once I started working on The March with them that it was almost assumed, you know?
What happened with Kingdom[of Sorrow]?
Actually, I didn’t do [a second album with them] because I’ve been so busy with Unearth. Iit’s been kind of a bizarre situation to be honest with you. It’s like they hit me up when they were going to record the new record and I was on tour and they needed to start like a week after or something, and I was like ‘Dude, I’m on the road,’ and then it was just like, ‘you’ve got to get somebody else.’
So you’re not even in Kingdom anymore?
No, I wouldn’t say that’s it either, I don’t know what the deal is. Like, at the moment, it’s just like, he’s making do.When you’ve got a band that has like, three dudes in major projects, it’s almost impossible.
I don’t think I had any idea that you didn’t do anything with the new album.
Yeah, I think there are two songs on it from the last session. I’d hate to say it, but I haven’t even heard it yet. I’m a little out of the loop, and obviously like, if I didn’t play on it, I didn’t have much of an urge to rush out and listen to it. Unearth just got done six and a half weeks of world tour—Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Europe, so I kind of fell off the face of the earth.
What else, are you doing anything else in terms of your drumming career?
Right now I really want to concentrate on Tangents and writing the new Unearth record. I’ve been working on demos with John [Donais] and Matt [Bachand] from Shadows Fall and Jeff [Fultz] from Seemless, but I’m not a part of that officially. There was some confusion with that but that’s not an official thing for me, that’s something I’m doing when I have time and I’m having a lot of fun with it, but it’s nothing I’m officially a part of. So that’s been pretty cool though, it’s really good just like, radio rock. Blues-y but heavy, it’s got an 80’s influence and a modern influence, it’s pretty cool stuff. And between Tangents and heading out for five and a half weeks with As I Lay Dying and All That Remains with Unearth, the rest of my year is pretty booked solid.
When do you expect Tangents to start playing live?
Probably in November, I would think. The record comes out late October and we hope to have a string of dates in November, December for sure. After this tour, I’m pretty open, with the exception of writing and recording the new Unearth album, but we probably won’t be doing anything until like, late spring. I’m going to have the whole late fall, winter, and early spring to get the Tangents live thing going, which is pretty awesome.
Who would you like to tour with?
That’s a good question dude. Well, I’m definitely jealous that we’re not on that Dredg and Circa Survive tour with Codeseven, because it would probably be the greatest one in the world for us. That, or I would love to go out with Arcade Fire. I’m completely in love with that new Arcade Fire record. I think it would be ridiculous not to say that I’d love to be out with Radiohead, but that’s never going to happen. You never know, but I’m not going to set myself up for it. But Mutemath I think would be great for us, you know. Muse, I’d love to go out with Muse, that’s the area that we’re most influenced by, I mean, [but] also very classic influences that don’t exist anymore, but in terms of the modern world, that’s where we would love to put ourselves into. If Sunny Day Real Estate came back and did another tour, I’d love to go out with them. Also Bat for Lashes. Oh God, she’s one of my favorites.
Most people will probably listen to this with an open mind. What do you have to say to people who just expect just nonstop aggression from you?
Well, I can’t expect some kid from high school that’s just going through a four year metal phase that doesn’t understand and have an open mind to get what I’m doing, you know? It’s pretty intelligent and I guess heady kind of stuff that’s more on the mature side. One of the big things has been not to cross-promote with Unearth. I’m kind of starting this from ground zero, but it seems like it just keeps coming up and that’s just one of those things that happens, you know? I guess I’d want people to know that the majority of guys that I tour with and know and my peers, all of us are so open-minded about the music that we listen to, never mind that we want to play. So many of us want to cross over into other worlds of music because we’re just so open minded about everything, but that also comes with like, experience and time. It’s something that people need to figure out on their own, and if somebody doesn’t like it, I really don’t care.
My newest thing is not paying attention to what people say about it for the most part because what I’ve realized is that everyone has a negative opinion about everything, especially online. I was reading this Sleigh Bells interview recently, and Derek [E. Miller], who used to be in Poison The Well, that keeps coming up for him. And I know him from Poison The Well days and I love Sleigh Bells, I think they’re amazing. And I was reading about somebody who just wrote a book in Entertainment Weekly, and she was saying ‘I go on Amazon and look at these negative reviews about my book, and even though the book’s being doing well, I just go for a walk and find myself arguing with this person that left a negative comment about me.’ I think all of this negativity online is coming from people that are looking to feel powerful for a second and make themselves feel better by talking shit.’
Right, you don’t have to be strong to be a bully online.
Exactly. You’ve got to admit that a lot of what you read is just shit talking and I think it’s negative and kind of grim, especially in the metal community. Like, I read stuff sometimes, you know, about my friends, about myself, that it’s just like, why do you even like, and then I just say to myself that it’s gotta be some like, overweight kid that’s really sweaty and feels shitty about his day in high school and this is the way he feels better about himself, like he can go and post something and like, get a rise out of somebody.