There are a lot of puzzle pieces to East of the Wall. Imagine the metallic flourishes of the math-rock band Don Caballero lasting much longer, the bombastic gruff of Botch injected with melody, and some super-tight, jazz-inspired guitar work. Given those sounds, yes, East of the Wall makes heady music, but the band's hardcore roots level out the noodling with heart, which you can hear in this premiere of "False Build."
On the New Jersey quintet's third album, The Apologist, the heavier parts are heavier and the melodic parts are more melodious, yet they find a common ground throughout. It's a refinement of what East of the Wall started on last year's promising but sometimes unfocused Ressentiment. In a recent email interview, guitarists and vocalists Kevin Conaway and Matt Lupo explain why songs are like Star Wars and address the challenge of keeping a three-guitar band dynamic.
NPR: "False Build" actually spends a minute and a half building into what you'd think would be a Sonic Youth song gone Spaghetti Western. Then it breaks into nearly Living Colour tech-funk and then... well, you get the idea. How important is the "build" to a song? When does the build become tedious, and does it always have to lead somewhere?
KC: The "build" is extremely important. The irony of it is that "False Build" is titled as such because an earlier iteration of the song had two "fake crescendos" in it, where it seemed like the song was about to peak, but the dynamic dropped back down instead. We focus a lot on our dynamics, and one of the main goals is to make the dynamics interesting and surprising, but to make them still feel natural. That's one of the more challenging aspects of our songwriting process.
I think the "build" can easily become tedious if the songwriter loses sight of the payoff. There are way too many bands out there that spend eight minutes building up to a riff, but the riff isn't that good. There's certainly no defined time after which a buildup automatically becomes tedious, but you have to be able to justify it at its conclusion.
ML: I like to think of our songs as being similar to narratives, so the build is very important — possibly even more important than the actual payoffs. If Luke [Skywalker] found out [Darth] Vader was his father at the beginning of Star Wars... who really cares? In "False Build," I think we toy with the idea of knowing where something is heading. And that sort of fits in with the theme of the album: Do you really know what you're getting yourself into? Are you so sure of the position you're taking on a particular issue? What are you willing to stake on that certainty, and how do you react and adapt when you find out you were wrong?
Sorry for the Star Wars spoiler.
NPR: There aren't vocals on every track, but since adding a vocalist on Ressentiment, has that melodic aspect helped hone the direction of the band?
KC: Everything that we write tends to be a reaction to our previous record. To me, the defining elements of Ressentiment were how discordant a lot of it was and the dominating presence of the vocals. Our natural inclination on this record was to fold the vocals into the song structures more, and to make it heavy without being as dissonant. As a result, I think the song structures are a little more streamlined, giving us the freedom to have large-scale dynamic shifts in the song without sounding contrived. This is also the first record that we've written with three guitars all the way throughout. With three guitarists, we can't all be pounding out these big-ass chords. For each of us to have our own space in the song, someone would need to step up to the plate with some type of melodic idea, more so than a "riff." That was a pretty major driving force in how this set of songs turned out.
ML: Actually, melody has always been important to this band, especially before we had singing. People are very accustomed to being "hooked" by the words and voices that accompany instruments. If you don't have that, all of a sudden the instruments are naked and exposed to the listener. The crutch is gone, and the instruments are responsible for keeping the listener involved and giving them something to think about. That's a challenge that we all still enjoy tackling, which is one reason you'll still find some purely instrumental songs on The Apologist.
NPR: An apologist is someone who defends a position or an idea through reason. It's often associated with religious writers. What does the title of your album, The Apologist, have to do with this discipline? Does it tie a theme throughout the record?
KC: There's a loose lyrical theme throughout the record that looks at the way people interact with each other, hence the title. The term apologist does tend to have an association with religious writings, but there's no specific religious underpinning to what we're talking about on this album. The title track is about how, as a society, we've become obsessed with the debate rather than the result. You can view that most easily through the prism of politics, but it's something I've noticed in personal interactions, as well. Everything is football. The goal is to control the narrative, not to accomplish anything. I find that sad, and that's where the lyrics on that song came from. The rest of the songs on the record view our interactions from different angles, so it's hard to wrap it all up into one concise answer.