Tera Melos is one of the few bands who could evolve from producing chaotic instrumentals to crafting pop songs with clever vocal hooks, and they have done so without sacrificing their unique approach. Epitonic talked with guitarist and vocalist Nick Reinhart to discuss their new album, X'ed Out (out now on Sargent House), their recent tours, and some more personal aspects of the band. Tera Melos are on tour now, and are playing Subterranean in Chicago tonight (4/26) with TTNG and My Dad.
It sounds like you've really tightened up your songwriting to be more pop-oriented on X'ed Out. Was there something that led to a change in how you compose your music?
I feel like the songs kind of existed already, maybe - this is kind of cheesy - but I feel like they kind of existed in the atmosphere almost, and instead of imposing ourselves into these songs, we were just kind of figuring out how they were supposed to sound. I see a bit of a difference between these two - what's going to make these songs sound the best, versus maybe in the past we were more interested in self-indulgent ideas, like, "Oh yeah it would be really cool to make these fucked up sounding effects all over this part" or whatever. We were interested in making these songs sound really cool, versus what can we each bring individually this song to make it weird, make it a "Tera Melos song." Some of these are kind of Tera Melos songs that already existed that we wanted to make sound the way they're supposed to sound.
How much of the album is drawn from ideas you had in the past?
There's just a few. I mean, there's conscious sections and subconscious sections. The song "Melody 9" is a redone version of a song that we had on a split EP years ago that we had an electronic version of and a full band version that we've been playing for a while. The main guitar in the song "Sunburn" is kind of a popped up version of one of the very first riffs I remember writing in the band before we even had a drummer, when I was sitting down with our original guitar player. I always really liked it and it never got a chance before. One of the guitar riffs in the song "Weird Circles" that has pull-offs - a syncopated thing - is from a song from eight or nine years ago. It was really interesting to revisit these ideas that we had before and give them a new context that I was more happy with.
You kind of did that within Patagonian Rats - there were a few riffs that were referenced multiple times within the album.
Yeah, definitely. Sort of a Beatles Abbey Road type thing.
What was your experience touring with fIREHOSE like?
That was INSANE. I don't even know how to articulate that. Mike Watt and those dudes are legendary. We're close with Mike Watt and a couple years ago he had mentioned the possibility of fIREHOSE playing and I remember we were like, "Woah, crazy." Some time had passed and then an announcement was made and we were like, "Oh, fuck, man. fIREHOSE! That's so crazy. That's so cool that they're actually doing that." It had actually never crossed our mind to ask about playing with fIREHOSE. We had toured with one of his other projects - Mike Watt & the Missing Men - in Japan and Europe. At some point another band on our label had gotten to play a few Stooge shows, which Mike also plays in. They got these shows from literally asking. I think the bass player said, "Hey if you're ever playing any Stooges shows, we'd love to play that," and I think Mike put in a word to Iggy and it happened. So at some point we said, "Fuck! We should ask if we can play those fIREHOSE shows." I guess we did at some point and he was way enthusiastic about it and said, "Absolutely, let's make it happen." It was sort of a really crazy thing to see those dudes playing and just being around these old school guys who are so legendary and from an era that is so important to us. It is definitely one of the coolest touring experiences we had.
I was listening to a podcast interview the other day with Mike Watt and he mentioned you as one of his favorite indie bands.
Yeah, someone sent us that link. It's so insane to me. That made me recall that when we put out Patagonian Rats a few years ago, somehow Henry Rollins had gotten a hold of it. I think our label had shipped off a box of record to Rollins. Out of the entire box of CDs, he gravitated to ours and he put it on his show and he and some really nice things to say about it. It's a trip to me to think, "Woah, Henry Rollins and Mike Watt - they're down for our band. They get it!" I feel like a lot of times people almost understand what we're doing. People might a little bit clueless to the idea of the band or where it comes from.
Do you feel like you get lumped into genres you don't feel like you belong in?
The short answer to that is yes, but really I don't care. We get lumped into the whole math rock thing a lot. My whole thing with that is when someone says, "You guys would go really go with this band," if I go check out that band, it just happens to be the kind of thing where I don't see the correlation between the two. If we're talking math rock bands, it might be a band who is really really clean, not a lot of dynamics, this stop-and-start thing going on. Maybe that would be a nice complimentary thing to go with us but I was doing an interview with some other thing the other day and the guy said, to him, two really complimentary bands would be Melt Banana and Portugal. The Man. It's funny because I'm sure the average person would not think it could work. In my head that works so much better than a math rock band or something, but maybe not. I don't know.
I don't have a very good objective perspective on our band and our music. Nate and I have been in the band since the beginning so it's too close to us to be able to even know what other people really think of us. To me, in my head, I'm like, "Fuck, Melt Banana and fIREHOSE. Yeah THOSE are the bands that are important to me that I like." We've toured with Melt Banana a couple times too, and those are probably in my top tours we've done also. The genre thing is just weird to me. When you can so easily make a tweet that says we are a math rock band or whatever. I feel like that's kind of missing the point too. How can we so easily classify a band?
The label you're signed to, Sargent House, has a pretty interesting aesthetic to their roster. None of the bands sound too much like the others, but the label as a whole has been able to garner a following. Do you have any insights into how they might be different from other labels?
I definitely think Sargent House is a really unique thing. It is for lack of a better term a management company. It's a management thing. The person who runs it, Cathy Pellow, was managing a couple bands that had kind of fucked up record label situations. She wasn't happy with dealing with all these other record labels so she just started releasing records herself. I know that's not a brand new, completely original idea, but it is sort of unique right now, in that there aren't a whole lot of people doing that. She does have a different perspective on things. She's coming at it from not only a record label's point of view, but basically like an additional band member - managing the band and asking, "How can we make this the best?" She's really interactive with her record label fans, so I think people are really stoked on that.
I think we're kind of an anomaly on the record label. We got into a big conversation recently at the label about doing acoustic sessions and in-stores. We're not really the kind of band to grab acoustic guitars and brushes in a small record store*. Our perspective on being on a record label is different too. We're sort of a weird band to deal with. I think we're probably really obnoxious because we're really hands on with stuff, like, "I hate that font color. I fuckin' hate that color - we need to change that." Something as stupid as that. But, I think we're in a really unique position to be on a cool record label. It's constantly growing and evolving and erasing old ideas and making room for new ones.
What was your experience in Russia like?
Last year we did 59 shows in 60 days in Europe, which was crazy. It was really more than we should have done but it was such a cool milestone for our band. We'll be able to talk about this forever - we'll always remember it. Even when we're six weeks in and we're all grumpy and like, "Fuck, what the fuck are we doing?" we could recall that and realize this is going to be a really cool thing I can do an interview about a year later.
Russia was my favorite part of it. It was so culture shock and different, especially from what we were used to the prior six weeks. One of the craziest things was that in Russia we had really long drives. I think at one point we were in the van for 24 hours. I think the drivers might have switched at lunch or something. We were driving from our last show back to Moscow. A lot of the roads in Russia are completely fucked. When you're driving from one city to another there's unfinished roads with thousands and thousands of potholes. Also, we were in a van that had basically zero suspension. Being in the van for ten hours going from one city to the next was basically like one of the must fucked up things ever. When you hit a pothole in a car with no suspension you fly. Your head hits the roof of the car. Then you multiply that for every 30 seconds for two hours of a time that you're on a back road. All of this weirdness and being somewhere that we weren't familiar with, playing these kind of bizarre shows led to it being this amazing, unreal experience.
There was one show we played that was a rented out hall that was having a senior prom, basically as we were setting up. We sound checked our band to a Russian prom. Not to mention, some of the shows were so so amazing, as far as a neat crowd interaction and response. We can't wait to go back.
What made some of the shows so weird?
I don't remember where this is at…I'm so bad with geography. It's sort of a running joke that I can't remember the names of the places. Probably the second or third show we played in Russia was in a tiny, little town with an old downtown feel. We got to this venue and pulled in and had a look around, and it was actually an outdoor show in this little courtyard of a business complex. The promoter or whoever it was pointed to the stage and it was just a big pile of wood. Probably a six foot pile of wood that was stacked up. It looked like it was ready for a bonfire or something. We said, "What do you mean that's where we're playing? One there's no electricity there and two it's a big pile of wood. What does it mean that we're playing on that?"
We couldn't figure that out and we walked around this little town for a little bit and came back and - this is so weird - all the wood had been cleared off and it turned out to be this little stage with maybe a three inch lift off of the ground. We set up on this plank-type-thing. It was just this spot that someone had rented to do a show. They had this sound guy come out who had some of the worst, most jangly sound gear loaded into a pick-up truck. It was the kind of thing where mic cables aren't long enough. The kind of show you would play in the middle of nowhere on your very first tour. It wasn't a very awesome show. A rap metal band had played - it was leaning more towards death metal. You know the death metal pig squeal thing? There was a guy doing that pig squealing in between this kind of rapping thing he was doing. It was so bizarre. A fight happened, and I was watching these dudes fight and this one dude was staring me down and it was translated to me that he had thought that I had called the cops on this fight that was happening. So he lunged towards me.
The Moscow show was just packed. Here's a place thousands of miles away from where we are that we would never think our music would reach. We played this fucking crazy Moscow show with people stage diving and just going crazy. It was really really fun.
How do you think they are hearing your music? Are they buying records over there?
A lot of these people from when we went to Europe or Russia, a lot of them have actually been into the band for a very long time and heard about us years ago. Sometimes it's like their friend had a CD or they saw us on a message board. It's like a combination of social media and I think we're a really interactive band. If someone from Moscow is writing us to somehow get in touch with us on the internet, that has always been really important to us to embrace that interaction. Not just Moscow, but anyone.
How do you go about discovering music on your own?
Whenever I find new music that I'm interested in it's sort of by accident. It's not a conscious thing. Here's something interesting…this isn't a band I've really discovered yet, but I think I'm in the process of discovering them. A few weeks ago we were in LA shooting a music video and a song was on the radio and I think asked who it was and our drummer said it was Missing Persons - this rad band from the 80s who had all these crazy musicians. I thought I had heard the song before but it had never clicked with me that it was Missing Persons. Over the past couple weeks listening the radio, there's been a song that came on and I would Shazam it with my iPhone and I'd be like, "Holy shit, this is that Missing Persons band." The other day there was a song on the radio that had this sort of hooky 80s pop/rock style with female vocals and I go, "Wait a second, I'll bet this is Missing Persons." For me this is just this weird natural way that I discover music. I'm not going on the blogs or following new releases by record labels.
Obviously you guys are into the old hardcore bands and other bands that relate to that scene, like fIREHOSE. What other kinds of music have you been into, growing up or in general, that might relate to Tera Melos?
One of my biggest approaches to playing in our band - melodically, technically, effects wise - is based off of electronic music, which is probably what I find myself listening to the most. Not even electronic music generalized, but artists like Squarepusher, Aphex Twin, or Underworld. Those are probably three of my all time favorite artists. That stuff is so much more influential to me than what the obvious things would be. My approach to my pedal board is way more based off these crazy electronic pieces that can only be made with computers. Electronic music has had a big impact on me as far as technicality stuff goes, melodically, sample-based stuff. I think that's all very interesting and exciting.
Did you take guitar lessons growing up or did you just go for it?
I did take guitar lessons. At this point I'm hazy for how long I did it. I started playing guitar when I was 11. Altogether I took a couple years of guitar lessons. I started when I was 11, took it for nine months to a year or something and then I think I started taking some guitar lessons when I was 15 to 16. Everything after that was like I kind of know the fundamentals of guitar. I know a major and a minor scale or whatever. I could understand how to use that stuff, not that I actually use those things. I can understand conceptually how they work.
Do you guitar lessons now? I saw you post something about online lessons on the Tera Melos Facebook page.
I do. I also teach out of a little music studio. The online ones are more to fans of the band. The ones in the actual music studio are five years old to 17.
I recall another post about a Nickelback song transcription.
That was weird. It's this cool little kid; I think he's 12. He wears skate t-shirts and has bands. Actually, the very first song he ever wanted to learn from me was a Neil Young song - an obscure Neil Young song too. I thought, "Woah, that's crazy," and then a couple weeks later we were playing that Nickelback song, so that was sort of a funny mind blow for me.
Do you form any kind of connection with these kids or is it just a job?
There was one student I had at the music store. I think he was 11 or 12. It was insane because it was this really awkward nerdy kid who had never touched a guitar before. His mom had bought him the cheapest Walmart guitar you could get. It couldn't' stay in tune. He was growing his hair out. He got his first Ramones t-shirt or something like that. He was into punk and he was really into metal. Which is so funny because it's like, that's it, this kids going to be in a thrash band when he gets older. It was this kid that could barely hold the guitar, but within the course of six or nine months he actually got really good. He was probably one of my only students who went home and practiced and practiced and practiced. He would come in and he would be soloing. It was really bad soloing but he was actually doing it. He was trying. I think there were a few times he wanted to learn a Black Sabbath song or a Dick Dale song or whatever and I would transcribe it for him and he would pick up that I had messed up, like, "I think there's an extra note right here." I'd listen to it and go, "Holy shit, you're right." I think that was a connection that I was definitely building with this kid. He's going to be an insane guitar player if he keeps practicing as he gets older.
Stream and download "Tropic Lame" off Tera Melos' new album, X'ed Out, as well as "When Worms Learn To Fly," from their Drugs / Complex compilation.