The Life And Times
Suburban Hymns (DeSoto)
An interview with guitarist/vocalist Allen Epley
By Tim Den
I cannot even begin to describe the transformation displayed on Suburban Hymns. Granted, it’s not the same as Codeseven going from metalcore to ambient pop or Motorpsycho going from thrash to psych prog, but its nature is no less awe-inspiring. Even more impressive, I dare say, because the transformation here isn’t genre or style-based, it’s in the focus. The concentration. The self-understanding. The Life And Times have finally become what The Life And Times should’ve always sounded like.
When guitarist/vocalist Allen Epley broke up the much-loved Shiner to form this baby a few years back, loyal fans reacted the way loyal fans would: They wanted their favorites back, or at least a replacement similar to what they were used to. The Life And Times’ debut release, The Flat End of the Earth, was neither a complete departure nor a rehash of Shiner’s mathematical quirky pop. Rather, it was a band looking for its own identity, producing some hefty tracks along the way. The reaction was mixed. I liked what I heard and hoped they’d keep trying to find themselves. But when all except Epley abandoned ship about a year and a half ago, that prospect seemed dim. If Epley and two close friends couldn’t make magic work, what hope did a new line-up have?
Apparently, new blood was exactly what Epley needed. He overhauled his gear, stripped his songwriting of the giant guitars that made Shiner (semi-)famous, put hella reverb on his unique vocals, and pointed the spotlight at the melodies. No more crazy time signatures for the hell of it, no more singing beautifully but inaudibly behind triple Marshall stacks: The Life And Times were now the perfect continuation of Epley’s creativity. Vocal hooks, always his strongest attribute, are no longer held back by busy musical accompaniment. They are the captain of Suburban Hymns, navigating the quickest route into your soul without cheapening the songs. The fact that most of these songs fall under four minutes – but never resort to repetitive choruses – is astounding. But what’s more astounding is the visceral impact of these tunes, all without wielding sonic overload. Picking at his guitar strings carefully, Epley’s echo-laddden playing, combined with ENORMOUS grooves, somehow creates a force field of emotions without ever being “heavy.” It’s like walking in the wilderness in the dead of night, the crisp, wide-open scent of fresh air belying the impenetratable darkness. Weight created by hollow elements, simplicity producing a Colossus.
Suburban Hymns is hypnotic, infectious, haunting, and unforgettable. It sways you like an infant, embracing you in amber waves as you throw your head back and close your eyes. You become a ripple in its current and allow yourself to be dragged into the depths, where luminescence awaits.
The last time I saw you, you opened with a song that’s not on the new album. It starts bass-less, but when the bass does come in, it follows the vocals. UNBELIEVABLE!
(laughs) Thanks, man! That song’s going to be on the upcoming Japanese EP. It’s called “I Know You Are,” as in “I know you are but what am I?” It’s an old song from the John (Meredith, ex-bassist/guitarist) and Mike (Myers, ex-drummer) days. Even back then, we abandoned it, but when this line-up (bassist/keyboardist Eric Abert and drummer Chris Metcalf) brought it back out, a new ending was added. The new guys had their hands all over it and it just worked.
The bio says that three songs from the John and Mike era were kept for the album: Which ones?
We kept “Shift Your Gaze,” “A Chorus of Crickets,” and snippets of songs. Like the chorus to “Charlotte St.” came from an old song called “My Red Eyes.” When we play it, people ask “isn’t that from ‘My Red Eyes?'” In actuality, a version of “Charlotte St.” existed before “My Red Eyes,” but the part was used in “My Red Eyes” before returning to “Charlotte St.”
Not to discredit the boys you’ve got now, but I really loved Mike’s playing.
Yeah, Mike’s an incredible drummer. His phrasing, the hooks he writes: He plays drums like a guitarist. He knows when to play and when to lay back. He doesn’t suffer from the problem that most hardcore drummers do: Playing too busily. I mean, if it’d worked out, it’d still be me, Eric, and Mike. But he got a great job offer selling computers at Mac World that he just couldn’t turn down. He’d been unemployed for two years because of this band, he couldn’t not take the job. His schedule conflicted with ours, and he wasn’t about to say “Uh, how ’bout we just play local shows?” He still plays in The String And Return, but all those guys have “regular” jobs.
Chris really admired the way Mike played, not to say that Chris isn’t a fantastic drummer himself (I think Chris might have more “chops” than Mike). I love his playing. I spent a long time looking for a drummer, man. I kept avoiding Metcalf because I thought “I want a band! I want my boys who I can hang with and be in a band with,” and Metcalf was already in The Stella Link. But since The Stella Link’s live schedule isn’t that intense, and now we are a band, and we do hang outside of playing together. But, of course, Chris also goes and hangs with his other boys.
Yeah, I was just gonna ask how he’s able to be in two bands.
They practice on Wednesday nights and we practice on Tuesday and Thursday days. I think The Stella Link are a fantastic band. They’ve really taken the classic Kansas City sound to where it naturally should progress. Mystic Jaguar… Attack! is an amazing album! But they just happen to be “weekend” guys, otherwise Chris wouldn’t’ve been looking to play more. I basically said to him “uh, if you want to play, we totally play.” The Stella Link just played their 100th show. I was like “wait, is that right? Shouldn’t it be more?” They’ve been around since like ’98 or ’99. They push the Kansas City sound without losing its basis… which is great, especially since I think fans of the style have definitely been disillusioned with my stuff…
You think so? I always thought your work with Shiner epitomized the Kansas City sound…
Some people are like “just get Shiner back together!” Which is understandable, cuz we did have a loyal cult following, but you know, we’ll be putting out a DVD or an addendum eventually. Maybe songs from each incarnation of the band, leading up to five or six songs from the final show. Just cuz it would be more interesting and maybe fill people in on the band’s history.
But you know what? There’s not a public outcry for the stuff. (laughs) Sure, there are about 300 people on the chat boards banging a very loud drum, but it’s not like there’s a huge demand for it.
Personally, I think Suburban Hymns takes everything you’ve ever done to the next level: WAY beyond Shiner. The Flat End of the Earth doesn’t prepare you at all for this full-length. Everything about it is new and improved. Shiner – and, at first, The Life And Times – were all about HUGE guitars. CRUSHING guitars. But all of a sudden, you play single notes instead of big chords, let the vocals take center stage instead of the volume, drench melodies in reverb: It’s literally what I wished The Life And Times would develop into!
That’s fucking rad, man. Yeah, I just looked in the mirror and thought to myself “how can I take things to a new level?” I changed my pedals, bought a new guitar (a hollow body, drastically changing the feel of the band), started writing riffs on the new guitar, and with Chris and Eric, writing is just so easy. We can pick up a song and play like we’re having a conversation.
In the past, the guitars were the only LOUD elements in the band. Now the entire BAND is loud!
Yeah! And I didn’t want this album to be “difficult.” I didn’t want the most complicated chord or the most insane drum beat, cuz I’d done all that. Shiner did those things while writing good songs. I didn’t want Suburban Hymns to be difficult or heavy or dark. I mean, I know it’s dark, but it also has optimism. I love Coldplay too much! (laughs) And also R.E.M., old U2, Swervedriver. I let all of that love come out, like a good dump! (laughs)
You know, I wouldn’t be doing this if my creative level was still where it was with the original line-up. I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think it was rad and bad ass. I have a pretty full plate – I just bought a house, not that that’s the biggest deal in the world – there’s a lot of other things I could be doing. I’m no spring chicken!
How old are you?
So you and J. are basically the same age?
Yeah, but he’s got a year on me, that old fucker! (laughs)
And you just had a child, right?
We had twins: A boy and a girl. Yeah, it’s crazy. But it’s been a year and-a-half, so most of the shock has worn off. I used to get bored when people start talking about their kids, but not anymore. I’ve never been able to fully use the word “joyous” until I became a father. You have to learn to sleep a little less, but it’s no big deal.
How will fatherhood fit into the band’s schedule?
Touring is torture, being away from the kids. But we’re lucky in that we have a good booking agent who can set up week-and-a-half and two-week tours. Cuz I’m not gonna not give up my life. Some people believe the myth that once you have kids, you have to drop everything else. It’s just not true.
By the way, why did you change the album’s name from Mea Culpa to Suburban Hymns?
We didn’t want to have an album named after a track. That’s boring. And the term “mea culpa” implies some sort of wrong-doing on our behalf, and we didn’t want to give critics any fuel for a bad review. “I’m sorry about this record too, Mr. Epley.” Plus, we thought “suburban hymns” really fit the lyrical imagery better than the other title. And it’s a play on Urban Hymns from The Verve.
You don’t think people are gonna take shots at the obvious Verve pun?
As easy as the reference is, it’s surprising that no one has called us out on it yet. I did a quick Google search before we decided to call it that and came up with very little. Someone used it as an article headline about five years ago for something, but other than that, it’s clean.
So, given its obvious-ness (?), it hasn’t been over-used, or I probably would’ve avoided it. Despite the apparent pun, it was worth it, given the lyrical imagery and the cover image. Seems like it’s one of those things that’s right in front of all of us, and because of that, it’s been overlooked. Or maybe I’ll get a call from The Verve’s lawyers on some ridiculous charges. Send ’em on!
People’ve been asking why you guys don’t play stuff off The Flat End of the Earth. I’m sure the band feels like a whole new machine now with the new dudes, but will you ever return to the earlier material?
When I first started playing with Chris and Eric, we were writing a lot, and it was all coming very quickly. It seemed a shame to go back and take a bunch of time to learn a bunch of old stuff that we weren’t even sure we liked at that point. I wanted to establish us as our own band, and going back to play the EP stuff didn’t seem like the right way to do so.
That said, we’re now playing “Houdini” and it’s pretty great. We get a lot of requests for “Servo” and “High Scores,” so maybe we’ll work those in at some point, too.