It’s been almost two years since the release of The Contortionist’s third album, Language, but the group are keeping things interesting with plenty of touring and a recent release of ‘Rediscovered’ tracks off the record. Currently, the band is on a headlining North American run with three other acts. We spoke to vocalist Michael Lessard at one of the recent shows about touring, kickboxing, Alan Watts, Last Chance to Reason, Justin Bieber, Language, and the ‘Rediscovered’ tracks.
This tour’s lineup is quite diverse. There’s the instrumental version of Monuments, you got some death metal from Entheos, and post-rock from sleepmakeswaves. Can you talk about how it has been so far and the other bands you’re with?
It’s been great. Anytime we go out on a headliner tour, we usually try to make the tour package an interesting one. Usually the bands are ones people wouldn’t expect us to go on tour with. This tour, I think every band holds a certain characteristic that is in our music and they do it to a more extreme. It’s a cool lineup for people to get a taste of everything throughout the night.
Your setlists will normally feature tracks from past albums Exoplanet or Intrinsic, which you did not originally write or record. Do you feel less connected when performing these songs or is it something you’ve transitioned into?
When I first started playing for this band, I was filling in on a week’s notice, so I never really had time to think about what it was like playing somebody else’s songs because it was such a frantic experience. And now we’ve played almost every song off every album in the last three years of me being in the band, so I’m kinda used to it and I add my own flare and change some stuff up. But it was good for me to have to learn someone else’s music and adjust to their tendencies and do some things that maybe naturally rhythmically or melodically I wouldn’t tend to lean to. It took me out of my comfort zone and it was a learning experience.
You have these very precise movements in your live shows. Do you have training in any form of dancing or is this something you just began doing on your own?
No training in dancing, but I do kickboxing and jiu jitsu. Kickboxing is basically a violent form of dancing, if you will, with a lot of footwork. Coming from a musical background and then going into kickboxing, you get to throw in interesting rhythms. You can do polyrhythms with your hands and feet and it throws a lot of people off because they’re used to a 4/4 rhythm. Some of that kind of plays out in my hip shifts and directional changes on stage. But the overall performance is more or less how I would envision the material would be performed if I were not in the band.
Let’s talk about the Language album. I understand there’s a concept or theme running through the LP, but was there possibly a specific message you were hoping to convey to the listener?
There wasn’t anything I wanted to slap in anyone’s face. The album is very much about pulling whatever meaning you want from it, which is why the lyric on the last song is “You are the perceiver, that perceived the parable.” Basically meaning that they’re dictating what the story is, which is why we didn’t release the album with lyrics and I actually fought over that with management and the label for awhile. It was counterproductive to what my message was, even if it was a subliminal message. It’s obviously a very positive album in a lot of ways. At that point in my life, it just felt like something I needed and that’s something I think this scene doesn’t have too much of. It’s usually a lot of dark, negative topics. I was hoping it would be something for someone to listen to and escape. It’s really cool to see the response from it and the connection some people have. Going through the meat grinder of the album cycle, it’s really easy to forget that some people perceive the record way different from the way you do. It’s shocking to me, but it’s also a very cool thing when people come up to me and say the record helped them through some tough stuff.
Briefly, could you summarize what your perspective of what the theme of Language is?
It’s basically like any good story. There’s the black and white, the good and evil, the male and female. There’s a duality at play. The album is more about the intuitive and calculative process of something being created. And more specifically, a life form being created. A mother and son relationship in the form of a metaphorical story.
And the album ends really nicely with the Alan Watts quote. Who in the band is the Watts fan?
The way the Alan Watts quote came about is actually kind of interesting. I grew up around Alan Watts books. My dad is big into Eastern philosophy and things of that nature. On drives, I’ll listen to a lot of lectures and podcasts. Usually talking keeps me up a lot easier than music. I was listening to Alan Watts one day and Cameron [Maynard] heard and got hooked on him. And then Cameron was listening to Alan Watts and then Robby [Baca] got into him. When the album was finished, Robby sent me a clip of the quote and thought it summed it up nicely. So it was this weird full circle kind of thing. We got clearance from Alan’s son to use the clip and he gave us permission. I think it does sum it up and it is a nice finishing touch.
The incarnation of the ‘Rediscovered’ tracks, whose idea was it for this approach and can you talk about the process of writing and recording the changes you made for these tracks?
There’s an awesome Youtube channel called Audiotree. They’ve approached us multiple times on doing an Audiotree session. My outlook on that is if we’re gonna do it, I want to do it differently than we’ve done it live. I didn’t want to do a live performance and have people know what we sound like live and not come out to see us because of that. I’ve always wanted to do recompositions. One of my favorite bands of all time is Counting Crows. Every time you see them on tour, all the songs are different and they change the keys and rhythmic variations. From that point on, I thought we could do something like that. I ended up producing it all. We got an audio and video team together and then rehearsed for two weeks after the Between the Buried and Me tour. We shot for four to five days and the finished product is Rediscovered. I’m glad we did it and if end up doing something similar in the future, we can build upon what is already there.
I think there’s definitely a fan interest in a ‘Rediscovered’ set or tour. Do you ever imagine something like that in the future?
I don’t know if it would be a full set, but definitely incorporating into the setlist. Usually when we tour, we change stuff around in songs anyways. We’ll change interludes, melodies, and leads. We’re always kind of doing that in a small degree, but yeah, I’d love to do a tour that has more of that.
You shifted your focus from Last Chance to Reason to The Contortionist in 2013. Was there one vital lesson that you learned from your time in Last Chance to Reason that you have applied to The Contortionist?
Absolutely, yes. Last Chance to Reason changed the way I viewed music. I was a very basic musician before them. I wasn’t into the progressive side of things. I was going to do guest vocals with them because I had toured with them in a previous project and I had been friends with them for years and did pre-production on the Lvl. 1 album. I was doing guest vocals more and more and then it turned into me joining the band. They were heavy jazz cats and most of them went to school for music. I’d visit them there after my work for hours and I began to get submerged into the jazz scene. I learned that jazz was more about a vibe and doing whatever floats your boat. Last Chance to Reason brought me into that realm of music. I still learn a lot because I still hang with and jam with those guys.
Obviously your current focus is with The Contortionist, but are there any current thoughts or plans for Last Chance to Reason at the moment?
Yes, no idea when though. Chris [Corey], our bass player, has three kids and Evan [Sammons], our drummer, is a full-time audio engineer, so he’s always pumping out work. He actually comes out on tour with us. He tour managed our last tour with Tesseract in North America. I’m pretty sure he’ll be working on the pre-production for the next Contortionist album. I’m still really close to all those guys.
Progressive music has a thin line between creativity and music theory. Which do you value more in your songwriting?
For me, I value vibe. My main thing is atmosphere. If you feel something whether it be happy or sad, that is priceless. You can play as fast as you want, but if you can’t make someone feel, then it’s pointless. Some people are the polar opposite, they like the chops end of things. I never write off options in the way I write though. In this industry, options are your best friend. For whatever reason, if my writing isn’t working, I’ll go to theory. If I can’t come up with a vocal melody, I’ll switch to guitar or piano.
You recently spoke about progressive music on the Freqs TV Into the Machine series and referred to progressive R&B and progressive pop. Can you delve more into the bands from these genres that inspire you?
There’s a group called The Hicks that are an underground electronic R&B group. King is a three piece female group who are phenomenal. Sza have some really cool stuff. There’s a guy by the name of Gavin Castleton. He’s progressive in every sense of the word and he’s one of my favorite composers actually. Even the new Justin Bieber album, I think he won a lot of new people over with. There’s a lot of people that still have a lot of hate for him and whatever, that’s their choice. He’s a super talented kid, he’s definitely hands on with the writing process. And he’s very smart about who he brings into work with. He did an acoustic track on the album with Ed Sheeran, who’s the biggest acoustic pop star out now. There’s a lot of really cool parts on that album that are very intricate and interesting, but people aren’t paying attention to because it has Justin Bieber’s face on it. There’s stuff like that that is still mainstream, but I think still has progressive elements in there.
Language has a lot ambient and melodic elements in it. Can we expect to see more of this style in future The Contortionist material?
Potentially yes, but we never know what the album is going to sound like until we sit down and start writing. I think albums are timestamps of who I am and the other guys are as musicians for that given time. When we did Language, we weren’t trying to be the heaviest band possible and I think it reflects that. For the next album, maybe we’re feeling aggressive, maybe not. The one thing you can count on for this band, it’s everybody wanted to do what’s not expected for us.
What’s plans for the band after this tour?
We’re basically looking at taking the rest of the year off and roughly looking at going into the studio at the start of next year. So we’re going to sit down and spend a lot of months writing and focus on nothing but writing. This will be the first record that we’ll be able to do that. It’s a big record for us and hopefully it does well. It will be nice to do an album that’s not rushed.
Are you looking at a 2017 release for that album?
Yeah, more than likely. If I had to guess, I would say yes.