Making the Best of This World: An Interview with Thomas Giles

Thomas Giles’ new solo record, Modern Noise, is interesting. For those who have followed the career of Between the Buried and Me, it won’t come as a surprise that the vocalist’s latest solo outing is an incredibly rich album. At times dense, at times melodic and free, at times open and rocking, it’s the kind of record that you don’t see too often these days. From song to song, there is a playful variation in the instrumentation and sonic aesthetic.

Yet whether it’s dirty southern blues, Eagles-style soft rock, 90s alternative music, or synth-pop, the stamp of Tommy’s authorship is there. The album touches on personal topics, but it also feels personal. In an age where honest expression in rock and metal music is a rarity, this album feels crucial- which is pretty exciting, given how raw these songs are. As Tommy says, they’re all basically simple rock songs.

I spoke to Tommy about this, the recording process for Modern Noise, becoming a father, and how his relationship to his music has changed over the years.

Gear Gods: Although we can certainly talk gear today, what I’m really interested in hearing about from you is your thoughts on musicianship.

Thomas Giles: I’m kind of the opposite of a gear guy, I guess. I’m one of those people that’s just looking for something that sounds good, and anything I get my hands on, I try to make it sound cool somehow. When I record, especially with a record like this that’s basically just me in the studio, I put a lot of weight on top of Jamie King [longtime engineer for Between the Buried and Me and Giles] for tones. He’s got such a great ear for gear, and you know, I’m one of those guys who hears something for the first time and goes, “oh, that sounds good, let’s do it!” while he will go “let’s tweak it a bit more.” So it’s good to have someone like him in there with me, so he can polish what I think sounds good.

You played all of the instruments on this album other than drums, is that right?

Yeah. And Paul [Waggoner] from Between the Buried and Me actually did a solo as well. He did a great job, in a section that’s kind of like an Eagles-style blues section that I knew I wanted a solo, but it would sound forced if I tried to play something, just because I’m not that great at that kind of playing. But he was perfect for it, so he came in and played above and beyond my expectations for that part.

There’s a lot to talk about with this album, but let’s take a step back for a sec, and talk about your early musical development – what instruments did you start with, and did you have any formal education?

Well, I was always, really, really early on, interested in music. When I was 7, 8 years old, I was really drawn to the 80’s metal thing – Motley Crue, Skid Row, and all of that – and so even then, I knew I wanted to play. I wanted to be a guitarist, and that was my first instrument. I probably started actually playing when I was in my early teens. My mom got me an old Carvin. I never really had lessons though – there was a guy I would go to who was in a band, and he would just kind of show me riffs and licks that I wanted to learn, but there was no formal training. Now that I’m older, I kind of wish I woulda done that. Who knows, maybe I’ll go down that route sometime in the future.

But back then it was basically just guitar. I knew really early on I liked to write, even though they were really bad songs, and in my so-called “bands” when I was a teenager, I always wanted to write rather than cover. So we’d write these little cheesy metal songs, and it kind of went from there. And since then the whole process has just been me learning how I write and how to become better at what I do. I never really thought about singing until I was writing music for a hardcore band I was in with a bunch of high school friends. I decided I wanted to sing in the band, so I kind of just started screaming in the band, developed a voice. I played guitar in Paul’s old band Prayer for Cleansing, and that was kind of me picking up guitar again.

When we started Between the Buried and Me, the original plan was for me to play guitar. When we started writing some of those really early songs, we couldn’t really find anybody who we wanted to sing. So Paul suggested that I sing on those, and from here on out. I was all for it, so that was kind of that. Who knows what woulda happened if I had played guitar instead of sung for the band.

But yeah, so it’s been just a big developmental process for me, just because there wasn’t much training, and it was mostly just me figuring it out. When I started doing things outside of the metal spectrum, it was just something so new for me, but really fun. It was the most honest thing I could write, especially with this record. These songs sound like me. Not saying that I don’t love metal, but it’s just, I really love melody-driven simple rock music. And that’s kind of what I’m trying to do with this record. I feel like with the first solo record, it was kind of me trying to figure out what I wanted to do, and it wasn’t 100% focused. With this record, I knew what I wanted to do, I knew what direction felt comfortable. So I guess that’s the whole story!

I’m curious about the transition to singing – did you find that difficult? That’s a big transition to go through, from being a guitar player to singing and fronting bands.

Well, it really wasn’t much of a transition for me, especially back then since it was mostly screaming, since I didn’t have a clue how to sing actual melodies. I was always very in tune with drumming – I was never a very good drummer but I knew how to play – music was always very rhythmic to me, and I always was drawn to drummers. I still am. So singing to me, especially screaming, is very rhythmic and very percussive. And that’s how I’ve always approached writing screaming vocals. Treating it as a drum, whatever rhythms go behind the beat. So because of that, it wasn’t very weird for me.

You mention Motley Crue and Skid Row – in addition to the 80s metal and hardcore, was there other music in your life at that point?

Definitely. Most of my early years it was strictly metal – I was one of those kids who frowned at anything melodic. Looking back at it, I’m like “OK, I was wrong.” But it went from the whole 80s metal/glam thing to the more intense Slayer, Metallica, Megadeth, and then it gradually got more heavy, to Pantera. Then I found Cannibal Corpse, and then I found death metal and black metal, and then I got really into metal. In my high school years, I started to get into metallic hardcore, like Earth Crisis. That whole world really grabbed me. That’s when I was first really starting to write music. So that’s, I guess, the first “scene” I was a part of, the hardcore scene, even though my background was mostly metal. And obviously as I got older, with Between the Buried and Me, extreme metal was a big part in the writing.

Listening to this record, I hear not only a wide span of sonic textures, ideas, and emotions, but also a variety of song structures, feelings, and themes. A lot of albums these days are very concentrated and direct – they don’t have a ton of variation in terms of instrumentation, structures, and sounds. This album feels a bit more 70s to me, a bit more open.

I think that just naturally happens with me. I wrote most of this record on tour with Between the Buried and Me, on the bus between shows. It was kind of my ritual, to pick up my laptop and a guitar, and just write whatever came to me. Depending on how I felt that day, depending on my surroundings, I think different sounds just came out, and that’s why the record is so diverse.

I had also just gotten done writing a score for a movie, where I had been focusing so much on keyboards for creating soundscapes. When I started writing for Modern Noise, I just wanted to pick up a guitar again. I wanted to write rock songs. So I took a super raw approach: just write a riff, write a song around it. So I want to say that to me, it has a 90s vibe to it. It feels similar to the Smashing Pumpkins. We picked a lot of tones that sort of aimed towards that era. When we were recording, we really focused on that, with the gear we were using and the sounds we were going for. With guitar-based rock music, that’s some of my favorite stuff. I really like that dirty, not-too-over-the-top guitar tone from that era. So that was kind of where that came from.

Were there any go-to instruments that you used to achieve that, or did you sort of pick them as you went?

Very much the latter. We went song-by-song – what guitar tone works for this song, what guitar is good for this song, and from there we went section by section. The whole record we pretty much tracked on a Mesa Mark V that Jamie had, and it came out perfect. It was the exact tone I was looking for. I used only two guitars on the record – I have two PRSes, one Starla and one custom 24. The Starla was great for the more classic rock, less-gain sections and songs, while the custom 24 was better for the more in-your-face sound. Those two together were great.

IMG_1429

With realizing a song as a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, without having those sounds immediately in front of you (say when you’re on the tour bus), are you keeping a backlog in your head of what you want, or a rough sketch of what you’re looking for?

It depends on the part, but I do normally have an idea about what I want something to sound like before I get in the studio. When I demo it on my laptop, it sounds pretty much like shit. But I do try to get tones so that I can go to Jamie and say, “this is what I want it to sound like.” It really just depends on the song or the part.

There’s not really a whole lot of thought that goes into it. That’s what was so rewarding with this record: we just went in there and recorded it, with what sounded good to us in that moment. If something needed to be changed, we would change it. But everything felt really organic for us.

I think that comes across.

That was the whole goal. Especially like, with writing for Between the Buried and Me, it’s very… we spend so much time getting the songs to where they are. And I kind of wanted to do the opposite with this. Some of these riffs, I would think of a riff in my head while walking my dog, and put it on a Voice Note, and that would become a song. I’ve never really been able to do that, just take a super simple idea and build just, a pretty cool simple rock song off of it. I think that’s why its so natural, because there wasn’t an over-analysis of each section and each song. I just recorded what I thought felt right. If it worked, I kept it, and if it didn’t, I would re-work a little bit. But there wasn’t a whole lot of tweaking.

Do you feel like going through that process, which ends with having something that you’ve created exist outside of you, that your relationship to those ideas changes? Especially given it’s a record where you played everything yourself.

I feel like it’s… when I demo the songs, I don’t have a whole lot of expectations, since I normally don’t record vocals until I’m in the studio. So there’s never that whole grasp of what it’s gonna sound like. I kind of have an idea in my head, and I have voice memos and little recordings of melodies here and there, but I think the end product is definitely… I get the goose bumps for sure. I think with a record like this, where I have super personal songs – you know, there’s a song for my son – things like that, when you hear that first playback when its finished, it does feel like an extension of yourself. This record does feel closer than most music I’ve written. That’s what makes it really important to me.

How does that change your outlook with Between the Buried and Me?

It’s such a different beast. I wouldn’t change either; I really like the process when I write for my solo stuff just because it’s a nice change of pace, it’s so natural. But with Between the Buried and Me, I love the process of building off someone else. And I think that because they’re such good musicians, I feel like every time we work on music it helps me grow, it helps me become better at what I do. We’re in the middle of writing right now, and with every record, there’s moments in songs that just, I sit back and I’m like, “How the hell am I going to write along to this?” And it always pushes me. So I wouldn’t change anything – it definitely just makes me appreciate both ends.

Let’s talk about some specific songs. The second “Blueberry Queen” came on, I felt like I was in a Jim Jarmusch movie, like a real dark southern, creepy and melodic feel.

That song was a really quick one. It’s basically just a love song. I wanted to kind of create that old vibe, that sad guy missing his girl, because that’s what I was, you know I was on the road. I wrote the song just sitting on the bus like, “damn, I wish I was home with my girlfriend.” That’s basically where the idea came – it started with that first riff, and I instantly knew what sound I wanted. When we recorded it, we really wanted to tap into that sound, you know, with the super muffled drums and bass, the whole thing having a very different texture. And I knew the more rough-around-the-edges vocals would aid the song. The whole “Blueberry Queen” thing, it just came from improv, when I was playing it back and singing along. It just worked. It’s not necessarily a thing like “my girlfriend loves blueberries,” it really just fit with the whole southern thing.

That was just one of those moments, where it was like a 15 minute writing process. It came off I think pretty cool. I think within the record it has a cool vibe, and kind of gives you some breathing room between the more in-your-face rock songs.

With the “rock songs,” like “I Appear Disappear” is that coming from a similar place as maybe, you talk about your teenage years listening to Slave to the Grind and all that?

It’s so hard to reflect on. Especially songs like that, where it was like, start from A and go to B, just build it to what it was. Sometimes there is some inspiration, but other times I wake up and that’s just what happens. With that song, it definitely was that. Most of the time with the rock song, I would mess around with a guitar and I would write a riff that I really liked. Or, when I’m messing around at home, I’ll write a riff and video tape it, and I’ll come back to it. With a lot of these songs, I’d go through those tapes and go “oh, I could build this into a really cool song.” After I hear the riff, I get a sense of where I can go to after that, the other places it can be taken in a song.

Did that feel freeing? Especially coming out of writing for BTBAM.

Definitely. It’s definitely easier, but like I said earlier, its just such a different beast. It feels a bit more natural for a song I would write.

The other song I wanted to ask about [lkcvjvhljbvjΓëÑ╦£Γêå╦Ünnnjmkjijm]… I don’t know how to pronounce it, unless my copy of the album is corrupted…

The one where its just a bunch of random letters and symbols?

Yeah!

I call that one “Maddox’s song,” because that’s my sons name. That song, the title is not actually random – that was the first thing he ever typed in my phone. He grabbed my phone and he wrote that, and I saved it, and that became the name of the song.

Was he trying to type “Between the Buried and Me” and it autocorrected to that?

[Laughter] exactly.

That song especially, is literally like, four chords. I’ve never really written a song like that, although I’ve always been drawn to that kind of writing. Like early Radiohead, Oasis, the Beatles they wrote these songs that are just phenomenal songs that only have four or five chords. That progression I wrote a few years ago actually – that’s an older riff I wrote – and it never got used for anything. I knew I wanted to write a song for my son, something he can listen back when he’s older, my words to him, how to deal with the world. The music felt right for that. So that was an easy one as well, it just felt really natural.

There’s a very positive outlook, a kind of rolling-with-the-punches vibe in the lyrics.

Definitely. I was trying to think, if there’s anything to teach someone, as a baby or a child, that’s all we can do. The world is fucked up, things are not ideal a lot of times, but you just do what you do and try to be happy. That’s kinda the most basic message, which I thought was perfect, for what I would want to say to my son. Like if he was older, how do I deal with this world I’m in.

He’s asleep in the back seat right now actually [laughter]

You weren’t a father when you did Pulse, right? Do you think this album, the whole spur-of-the-moment organic spirit and everything, are very much tied in with that experience?

Very much so. Anybody that has a child, the second that happens, you kind of have to instantly grow up more, and become a better person, learn to deal with more responsibility… I think the natural occurrence of becoming a father, it just died into the music in a direct way. I think it does sound more grown up. It sounds like a 33-year-old man rather than a younger, little lad.

I’ve gotta ask you about the title, Modern Noise. I was wondering if its at all partially meant as some kind of statement.

I was trying to find something that sounded good, and that worked with the record. When I came up with it I thought it was a perfect example of, always what music is. I’ve always touched on this, even with Between the Buried and Me. What we write and what we record is what we leave – it’s our legacy. “This is my current modern noise.” That was the idea behind it.

But like you’ve said, there’s always the current state of what things sound like. It was kind of an expression of that – how everything changes. Even though this is modern right now, forty years from now it won’t be modern noise. So its kind of… what I am right now.

Is it reactive at all? To the state of music? Or is it entirely a personal expression?

I haven’t put that much thought into it honestly [laughter]. Other than what I told you. I didn’t go that deep into it when I came up with it. It was like, ok, this feels perfect, and it works well with the music… this is what it means to me. That was that.

I was thinking a lot about certain production techniques, songwriting tropes, genre tropes, etc…

I think that naturally comes out of me. I do find, especially in metal, that a lot of things are lost nowadays. Technology has kind of taken away a lot of special things in music. I definitely think that has a natural role, but it wasn’t super intentional.

When we did record, I think that’s why we went with the tones and sounds we did. It worked with how I wanted to sound. I don’t want to be overly digital… I want everything to be actually me. I feel like a lot of records aren’t, the people, anymore, which is frightening.

Could you say then, that one of the crucial things about this album is that it wasn’t plotted out?

Definitely. And Jamie’s so in touch with that, and that’s why it’s always great to work with him. He knows how to get that emotion out – be it a part, or an entire song – he’s not one of those producers that goes “my records don’t sound like that.” He wants every record he does to sound like that person or that band. And I know that’s why Between the Buried and Me keeps coming back to him, as well as me. He adapts, and he wants to make the most personal record you can, and make it sound like you actually sound.

Do you see in front of you, a growth of this music and this attitude into more similar projects?

I do see more of this attitude, yeah. I really enjoyed writing this record. I know for a lot of people, writing music is a chore. And for me, it’s my favorite part of what I do. And this record especially, was such a natural thing. Such a part of me that I want to continue working on. I know there will be more records. I can’t speak to what direction I’ll go in or anything, but for me, right in this moment, it feels right. Who knows what other things I’ll do in the future – I really enjoyed scoring. I hope to do more of that. It’s a tough world to get into and it’s a whole other beast, but it is something I really enjoy. Other than the solo stuff and the band, that’s kind of where my head is.

Do you think it’ll make its way into Between the Buried and Me?

I’ve already seen it. I think every project we’ve worked on, you know Dan does so much [read our interview with Dan Briggs about Trioscapes here and watch him rip here], and I think it improves his writing with Between the Buried and Me, and vice-versa. I think any project we all work on, it really helps us become more of who we are, and its hows more and more each record. Even writing this new material, I’ve noticed with writing vocals… I’ve wanted to be more “me” rather than super over-the-top already. And I think from doing my record, it’s helped that. I’ve realized that you don’t need to put like, four harmonies on everything. You can just sing, and it can be powerful. I’ve taken a lot of that from working on this record.

Do you think, broadly, that this attitude of growth and change has helped keep Between the Buried and Me a band for so long?

100%. It keeps us from getting bored, and hopefully our fans. I still think we’re a band where, not everybody knows what we’re gonna do next. This new material we’re doing now, I feel like… it’s different for us. It’s the most different stuff we’ve written in a while, but it really feels like us. That’s what we’ve always tried to achieve, and even when I listen back to the old stuff, it’s perfect for the time. It’s where we were as a band and where we were as people. Those songs were perfect – it was exactly who we were. I still feel that way now. As long as that continues to happen, we’ll stay satisfied and hopefully our fans will be there with us.

That sentiment – about being satisfied with something being representative of yourself. I heard in an interview that you said about one of your solo records that it almost didn’t sound like “you.”

Yeah. That’s 100% true. [laughter]

SONY DSC

I’m curious about that divide. Between looking at a record like Modern Noise and reflecting and saying, “oh, that’s me.” And then looking at something else you create and going, “oh, that doesn’t sound like me.”

It’s under the title Giles, its from 2004, maybe? It is something where, when I listen back, I don’t remember writing it – not because I was on drugs or anything – its just all a blur. It doesn’t sound like anything I would do. It’s super… I was just trying to write a tongue-in-cheek synth pop record, and you know, that’s what it is. It is what I was seeking to do. At moments, it’s a mockery of current music. I quickly realized that, that’s not me. As far as music goes, I’m a very serious person. I don’t want to go down that road. I don’t want to say that I regret it, because I hate that word when it comes to music – it’s obviously something I was passionate about at some point – but it is something where I look back and I can only say “that doesn’t sound like me.” Hopefully I’ve made up for it by now [laughter].

I think a lot of young musicians struggle with that – whether they realize it or not. Lots of bands like to do the whole “this is the record where we do X thing.” Whereas for guys like you, or some of your peers in bands like Mastodon and Dillinger Escape Plan, you’re all still around, still changing, still evolving.

I think musicians in general beat themselves up a lot. They overanalyze the past things they’ve written. I make a point not to do that, I really try not to, and that’s why I really stand behind everything we’ve done with Between the Buried and Me, just because, like I said, it felt right for who we were then.

Artists in general… it’s your expression. It’s what you leave behind. It’s scary if it doesn’t sit well with you anymore, but its something we all have to accept. It does bum me out to hear, like, I know guys like Thom Yorke are notorious for trashing old things he’s written. I can’t really relate to that. Obviously people love certain things even if I don’t, and even something that I think is bad might be the best thing in the world to someone. Songs are songs and you write them to your best at that moment, and you go from there.

Bands like Mastodon, Dillinger, that’s how we grew up. There wasn’t that whole “I want to make money” moment. When we started, there weren’t bands making money. Music was literally just, wanting to express something that’s in your head, and record it. I think that’s something that’s lost now, because people do see that you can make money. So they try to write something that will achieve that.

So you wouldn’t have any advice for yourself, like, if you were to go back and talk to 16-year-old Tommy, you wouldn’t tell him “dude, don’t listen to Cannibal Corpse, go listen to Tom Waits.”

I would definitely tell myself to be more open-minded. The only thing regret-wise would be business things. That’s a whole other beast. You get older, you better understand the beast we’re all in, which is the music business. You learn the pros and cons, and how you could have done things different. But as far as writing actual music, I don’t think I would have done it any other way. Maybe some training here and there. But at the same time, I feel like I’ve grown in the way I have because I haven’t had training. I’ve always kind of been the guy, where whatever I pick up, I try to make it sound cool. And I think I’ve created some interesting stuff because of that.

Modern Noise is out on Metal Blade November 25th.

Written by

Max is managing editor of Gear Gods.