The Serpentine Offering
23 August 2007
Words by Simon Milburn
Still Remains were merely kids when they were signed to Roadrunner Records a couple of years ago. Ok, technically, not kids kids, but they were barely out of their teens. Getting signed to a high profile metal label such as Roadrunner Records is something that many bands will never experience let alone to do so at such a young age and for their first release ever. That's right - Still Remains at that point had nothing other than a few completed songs.
Soon enough, the deal was done and Still Remains bunkered down to produce the fairly well received debut effort title Of Love And Lunacy. The album launched the band into the back of a bus for the better part of the next 18 odd months to support it, sharing the stage with the likes of Trivium, Bullet For My Valentine, Shadows Fall and even Hawthorne Heights. But of course, all good things must come to an end and the time was nigh for the group, vocalist T.J. Miller, guitarists Jordan Whelan and Mike Church, bassist Stephen Hetland, keyboardist Ben Schauland and drummer Adrian 'Bone' Green to produce their important sophomore effort.
After several months, the final product, dubbed The Serpent, was completed, and now, only a few weeks out from the release of their new slab of metal, Still Remains find themselves back on the road. This time, it's a promotional trip to Europe however. “It must mean something good, huh?” begins Still Remains vocalist T.J. Miller. I caught up with Miller in the London offices of Roadrunner Records to discuss the band's view to tour down under, the concept and meaning behind The Serpent, the band's self confessed maturing since the release of Of Love And Lunacy, working with Steve Evetts and Logan Madder, the pressure of writing their second album, and how things were for the band back when they first signed with Roadrunner Records.
“(It was) kinda weird. When we got signed to Roadrunner, we're written about 12 songs total as a band. We didn't know who we were, what we wanted to do... we weren't mature at all as far as being musicians. But there was something that Roadrunner saw in Still Remains that took their liking and we're just really thankful. We don't know what that was. It seemed to work for them and it's working great for us. We were just a bunch of kids just really excited that a big label was interested in us, y'know? That was something that we could never dream about having and it worked out.”
It certainly did work out. Of Love And Lunacy put Still Remains on the modern day metal map receiving a reasonable response around the traps.
“(The response was) pretty good, I'd say. We did a lot of great tours and we met a lot of really amazing people. We got to the Download Festival and Rock Am Ring and Rock Am Park in Germany in 2005. We did the Kerrang tour over here and the Stress tour in the States and things are going really well, and the last record was a good starting point for Still Remains for sure.”
It was the beginning of a very busy couple of years for the group with much of that time being spent on the road before finally bunkering down to begin writing it's follow up.
“Yeah, it's been very busy, but I guess since we really got together and started working on writing The Serpent, we've been home. So, we haven't been touring for ages now and we're just so excited to get out on the road.”
But even now with album number two under their belt, Miller's view of the band's fledgling release is one that sufficiently provided the mechanism to open the doors that lead to the group spending almost two years on the road.
“Um, you know what? Like I said, it was a good gateway album for the band to start out. It's hard being in the situation we were in like I said having 12 songs written when we got signed and then we were asked to write a complete album in the course of three months, y'know? I think for the circumstances, we did a really good job of that. I'm proud of it. I mean, are there things that I could look back on and say 'I would change this and that,'? Of course, but that's how musicians are. We're all nit picky about things and we always wish we could've done things differently. But I'm thankful for that album and I'm glad we put it out. It's a good starting point.”
But the time was always looming for the group to lock down into writing mode, something that the band made a conscientious decision to get a head start on when they could.
“We actually started writing on the road last years. Jordan and Mike had both bought these digital recording devices to where they could write guitar riffs and harmonies and tempo map all the stuff out. So they had written quite a few riffs and partial songs on the road last year. I think that we stopped touring in May and that's when we started practicing. We got together over at Jordan's house for a couple of months and started hashing new ideas out and the riff and tape recorder, kind of putting drum beats to them and writing the vocals et cetera. Then we did the Stress tour which took us away from writing for about a month, but then we got right back in the swing of things when we got back home. We've been working ever since up until around December, we were writing until around December. Even when we went into the studio in January, there were still a lot of finishing touches that we were doing and a lot of things that our producer, Steve Evetts, was helping us out with, structure things, solidifying drum parts and guitar harmonies et cetera.”
For their latest effort, The Serpent, the writing process was unlike that of their debut in many ways.
“It was definitely different. The last record, Mike wasn't in the band yet. He was jamming with us. We needed another guitar player and he was jamming with us. He wasn't in the band when we were writing that album. Our old keyboard player, Zach, was more of a writing force. I would say on the last record, Jordan and I were the primary writers and he wrote all the guitar work and Zach helped a little bit with guitar stuff. He wrote all the keyboard stuff and a lot of the songs were based around his keyboard parts. Now that Zach's gone and Mike's is in the band, Mike has picked up a lot of slack as far as writing goes...the slack that Zach would have had, and he's been great writing with me. We would sit together at his house once a week and we would go over both of our vocal melody ideas. I call Mike 'The Chef', because every time I write a melody, he likes to throw his little spices on it, y'know what I mean? We do it vice versa too. It works out great. I'm really lucky to have such a good writing partner with the melodies and stuff for the album.”
On top of the difference in contributors this time around, the band were also wary of a couple of key compositional elements as well.
“I think on the last record, we weren't really tempo conscious or structure conscious. We were just kind of experimenting with things and still learning a lot about music and being musicians. On this record, we learned to write in many different tempos to put a different feel, a different emotional feel, to each song, and I think that this time, we were also very conscious of the different structures that we used for this album...things that are more solid that a lot of listeners could grasp onto.”
Also new this time around is the band's move to work with acclaimed producer Steve Evetts.
“Steve was somebody who kind of stuck out to us after we had heard the last Story Of The Year album. We had heard that he is definitely a vocal producer and that's one thing that I really wanted to work with. I really wanted to work with somebody that could really push me as a singer and to bring out my personality. He's worked with some remarkable bands that we are big fans of. He's worked with the Dillinger Escape Plan. He's work with The Cure. He's worked with Hatebreed, Sepultura...all these bands that we love the records. He's got a good sound. He's got a good mind. We actually finished our record and we decided, 'Man, we'd probably never go with another producer again,' and we want him to do our next record and the one after that, and the one after that... He's just a great producer. That's what we needed for the first album.”
They also decided to work with a different mixer this time around in ex-Machine Head guitarist Logan Madder.
“We didn't have too many options for mixers. We kept going back and forth and back and forth. Logan's name came about and we were like, 'Yeah, let's see what he can do. Let's see what he's got.' So, he sent over a test mix of one of the songs and we liked it. We actually had somebody mix the record before Logan. I won't say who. Somebody did mix the record. We weren't happy with how it sounded and I don't want to rub that in his face and I don't want mention his name. I just don't really think that that guy got really what we were trying to do. Then Logan tried a test mix and we were like, 'Oh my gosh! This is a million times better than what we were hearing before,' and we decided to go with him. He was really easy to work with. He was talking to Jordan a lot through the mixes and Jordan was kinda playing the middle man between us and him. He would look over all our notes and he really respected what the band had to say about the mixes and about how we wanted it to sound. It was just good working with that guy.”
There are certainly signs that Still Remains have matured since their 2005 debut, and Miller's recent statement, “I've grown up a lot. I feel like I've come into my own as a song writer. I haven't been afraid to write about things that I might have only alluded to on the last record. My lyrics have always been personal, but the new stuff is deeper, subjects I needed to and wanted to get out”, reinforces that.
“Like it says, I've just grown up a lot. I realise that if there's something in my head, I shouldn't be afraid to say it. I shouldn't be afraid to express how I feel. That's what art is - it's an expression. For this album, I guess my personality as a whole, there's some things that I experienced in my childhood that I never really wanted to talk about. Some memories are pretty painful and some things that I experienced with my family when I was being raised were pretty out of this world. I just thought to myself, 'There's probably a lot of young people in the world that are going through the same things that I saw, and maybe if I write about this and somebody reads it, they won't feel like they're alone. They'll be like 'Wow, I can relate to this guy.'' That's what I want to do with out music. Besides just write awesome songs, I want to make a difference in this world. I want to impact people, and give them something to help them with whatever they are dealing with.”
At the same time, it's also a cathartic experience for the vocalist.
“I guess. It helps me get things out there. It helps... I dunno... it helps me keep my head on I guess, instead of just keeping it in my head and letting it bother me. I can sing about it every night. It's a release, that's for sure.”
Continuing that healing process is the direct link between the album's title and the lyrical content contained within.
“The album is somewhat of a concept record. I guess there's almost two concepts with it. I wrote the lyrics to this album in a way to where they were very, very, extremely personal - things that were blatantly obvious to me but I can also make it to where they were very easy to grasp for listeners. They could take the things that I was bothered by or the experience that I'd had and they could directly apply them into their lives without it feeling like this song belongs to T.J. They can make it belong to them as well. The concept is I think that there's a lot of circumstances on the album that, I guess when they were written or whatever, thinking about what I was writing about, these situations were heavily influenced by the Devil. In the Bible, it says, in the beginning, the Devil was represented as a Serpent in the garden, and I just thought that was really cool how the imagery came together on the cover - the snake and the egg - the egg representing an innocence, like people and love and life and innocence, and how so easily we can just get that all just taken away from us by certain people or certain circumstances.”
Ultimately though, Miller is more than satisfied with the final product, as it feels it delivers everything that he wants from his music.
“Ahhh, aggressive, heavy emotional music, y'know? Stuff that can get you really pumped up, can piss you off, can get you sad... those are things that I love about music and I'm glad that the band are able to accomplish that.”
Whilst they may have extensively toured the United States and Europe on Of Love And Lunacy, this time around, Miller is eager to get down to Australia with The Serpent.
“I hope really, really soon. I really hope so. No plans yet. We've always wanted to go there. We always talk about it, like, 'God, it'd be so great to go to Australia.' We've heard people at the label tell us, 'Yeah, you guys will probably go to Australia on this record,' so... we have not done Japan yet! I'd like to hit 'em in one sweep, both countries Japan and Australia. I think both of those places are the next step up as far as touring goes for us. Definitely!”
Still Remains' latest album, The Serpent, is out now on Roadrunner Records through Warner Music Australia. For more information on Still Remains, check out www.stillremains.com.