INTERVIEW: Jake Bowen of Periphery

With five full-length records under its belt and firmly established as one of the leading American progressive metal bands, Periphery struck out its own for album number six, releasing “Periphery IV: HAIL STAN” (review) on its own label, 3DOT Recordings. And it’s clear the quintet that originally formed in the Washington, D.C., suburbs of Maryland is creating music now completely on its own terms. The band spent a year working on “HAIL STAN,” ensuring it was exactly the album it wanted. Somewhat curiously, Periphery started its new touring cycle as a support act for rock band Dance Gavin Dance, along with the poppy Don Broco, post-hardcore act Hail the Sun and instrumental trio Covet. When the tour rolled through Periphery’s former home base of Silver Spring, Maryland, Live Metal’s Greg Maki sat down with guitarist Jake Bowen to discuss the tour “HAIL STAN,” 3DOT Recordings and more.

LIVE METAL: I’m going to start with what might be a dumb question, but I haven’t really seen an explanation for it. It’s about the titles of the albums, specifically the numbering, because it’s either the fifth or sixth album depending on how you look at “Juggernaut.” (NOTE: Periphery released “Juggernaut: Alpha” and “Juggernaut: Omega” simultaneously in 2015.) So what’s going on there?

Jake Bowen of Periphery

JAKE BOWEN: So yeah, you’re absolutely right. We do have more than four albums out at this point. The numbered system is a way for us to put a snarky, stupid subtitle after that number. But it’s also kind of to denote that it’s not a concept album. It’s kind of like, this is going to be a collection of Periphery songs. It’s not anything that we intended to do. It just happens to work that way, and like you said, with “Juggernaut,” it offset that number. But yeah, it’s just us being goofy.

And that goes right along with the title of this one, “HAIL STAN.” The album goes to some darker places, so was this a way for you guys to say you’re not taking yourselves that seriously?

Yeah, it’s exactly that. It took me a while to figure out why I liked it when it was suggested. A little backstory: That was probably the hardest part of the record. The music, when we work together, comes really easily, and the logistics come together really easily, because we’ve been doing this for so long. But when it comes to giving it a title that we’re all gonna be stoked on, we were just throwing out countless suggestions. So that was, obviously, the last suggestion. It’s just such a bizarre title to put on something that we worked so hard on for such a long time. I think that’s really what it came down to. You get really serious about an album, you work on it for a year, you have enough time to write the songs you want to write, and everybody’s happy, so why not stick a stupid title on it? Just to kind of bring us back down to earth and not be too pretentious about it.

I love that it’s in all caps. It’s right in your face.

Yeah, yeah. And you’d be surprised how many people glance at it and never actually read it, and they think it’s “HAIL SATAN.” So there is that added side effect.

Were you expecting that?

With some people, yeah, for sure. I’m like that. I look at something, and I glance at it, and I don’t actually take in what it says sometimes. So I just think it’s human nature.

You’ve gone out on your own for this album, your own label. What factored into that decision?

We’ve always wanted to do our own label. It’s always been kind of like a joke thing. Every time we’d work on an album, it’s like, “Why don’t we just put this out on our own label?”—like that kind of thing. Finally, we partnered up with this management company, and our manager, Wayne, was like, “You can do that if that’s what you wanted to do,” and pretty much let us do the steps of starting our own label and putting out records on it.

There are some side projects between the three guitar players that we put out on 3DOT first. 3DOT Recordings is the label. We knew we needed to use those side projects as guinea pigs, so that way when it came time to do the next Periphery album, which a lot goes into it, especially when we were on Sumerian and some other labels—now we were responsible for that, so we had to make sure that it went off without a hitch.

It’s just kind of like a dream that we’ve all finally realized and never thought would happen but did happen, and we couldn’t be happier. It’s great.

What are the biggest challenges that come along with doing it this way?

I think it’s just the day-to-day stuff. We’re all equal partners in this group, so everything has to be ran by us, or if somebody is in charge of something, whether it’s bringing a third-party band or whatever, then everybody has to be brought in, and there has to be a presentation, and we do conference calls. So it’s just like running any other business, except we have to figure out what the steps are of releasing music on our own label. Luckily, our manager, Wayne, has experience with that, so he’s kind of mentoring us as we go through it.

I guess that’s got to be the big thing—how to get people not just to listen but pay for the music.

Yeah. I think it’s always in flux. We, obviously, put this much effort into it because we hope that there’s some sort of monetary compensation. But we also are realistic in the sense that it’s like well, we’ll probably never be bazillionaires doing this. We manage our expectations with it, and it’s just kind of like if everybody is capable of working on a project like this, then why shouldn’t we do it?

How do you consume music these days? Do you use streaming, buy physical copies?

Primarily through Spotify, which is, I know, kind of a taboo answer for an artist at this point in time. I don’t know exactly what their business model is, to be honest, which is really disappointing, because ever since I really started taking Spotify seriously, like in 2015, my horizons with music have been completely blown, because now I have music kind of given to me every Monday. I wake up and there’s a new playlist of a bunch of songs I’ve never heard, and I’ve saved all of them. I’ve created these massive playlists. It really helped me explore my love for music, electronic music in particular.

And then, obviously, I’m an artist on Spotify and I have to look at the residuals from that, and it’s disappointing. It’s fractions of a penny per stream. I’m not gonna be unreasonable, but that’s unreasonable. They need to kick it up a little bit, but the problem is I don’t know exactly what their business model is, because it’s a bit of an impossible thing what they’re doing.

No one seems to know.

The problem is we have a licensing system, and people have their rights to things, and for Spotify to pay for the right to license for every artist on the planet, that’s gotta cost some money. So I do see their dilemma, but you have to pay into your content. We’re the content creators, and they’re licensing our content, making money off of it through subscription, but the balance of power is a little off. I think it needs to be worked on by them.

But then there’s YouTube. So when I can’t find something on Spotify or I want to listen to something that wouldn’t be on Spotify, like a video game soundtrack or something like that, YouTube’s also a great thing. I actually like paying for YouTube, the premium YouTube service, because it takes all the ads out.

Back to the new album, you took a whole year off from touring, which I guess you hadn’t really done before. What effect did that have, being able to focus on it for that long?

I think it made a better album. We’ve never been able to take as much time as we want with anything, and it made a better album. Just hanging out with these guys—and I know they all feel the same way—we’re best friends. Just getting to hang out with each other is kind of the point, and then if we write music, great; if we don’t and just sit on our asses and play video games all the time, awesome too.

We wanted to make sure that this was as organic and as natural, because the one thing—and this is gonna sound really, really lame—but the one thing I love most about this is it doesn’t feel like work. I never want it to feel like work, and the moment it starts feeling like work, then I’m not into it anymore. I just feel like the whole act of this—touring and being in a band and trying to be a persona, forcing yourself to keep your ego in check and all this stuff that comes along with doing this—it’s a lot. It’s very taxing mentally. I hate to pretend like I’m giving us a bunch of credit—I’m really not—but it’s kind of like that job that I just want to stay fun, and the moment it doesn’t, I’m gonna reconsider. And everybody feels that way, and we all talk about it all the time.

So that’s why it’s like if we’re gonna write an album, we’re not gonna cram it into two, three months. By the end, we’re like, “Oh my god, did we do everything right?” We’re gonna take as much time until it’s done and we just want it out. And that’s what we did.

I guess that’s one of the benefits of putting it out on your own label. You can decide that.

Yeah, that’s it. A lot of people ask, “Now that you’re off whatever label, you must have a lot of freedom now.” Not really. We have ourselves to answer to now, so obviously we have to keep the quality up as best as we can. The biggest difference is now, if we want to take a year to do something, our label isn’t waiting for us to get our shit together. They’re very like, “You need to be in a cycle. You need to put out the album. You need to tour here, here, here, and then you need to repeat all of that.” Now, we dictate when that happens, and that’s the biggest difference.

You all don’t live in the same place anymore.

Yeah, not anymore. We actually used to live here.

So how did that affect things? I would imagine you’d have to plan the writing sessions a little more.

Everything is definitely more deliberate. It’s not like, “Hey, want to come over tonight and write some music?” It used to be like that in the very early days, but quickly we started getting a little older, more committed to family stuff at home, and we realized that now the machine, the Periphery machine, is big enough to where we can operate it remotely. And when we do need to be in the same room together, we can all book plane tickets and commute in—or whatever it is. I like that, because what ends up happening is we don’t see each other for months at a time—we talk, we text and do conference calls, and we talk as friends—but when we actually get to hang out and be in the same room, then that’s kind of like our time to hang out with our buddies. It makes it worth it to put that distance.

I’m a New Yorker, so I went back to New York. (Guitarists) Misha Mansoor and Mark (Holcomb) found places they liked in Texas. (Drummer) Matt (Halpern) still lives in Baltimore, and (vocalist) Spencer (Sotelo) moved to Las Vegas. So we’re all spread out. But when we rehearse, we all meet up in Maryland. We all meet up in Bethesda at our sound guy’s house, who still lives here. But yeah, it does present challenges, but because we’re all willing to travel, it’s not as hard as you might think.

Aside from wanting to take the time to make the best album you could, did you have any goals for this album going into it or a direction you want to go in?

We let the songs dictate that. So when we would finish a song—which the first song we finished was “Reptile”—we were like, “Oh, wow, that set the bar pretty high. What do you want to work on next?” We all said, “Let’s work on something brutal, like real ugly.” And then “Blood Eagle” happened. Then we knew “Blood Eagle” is really heavy; what do you want to do now? “Let’s do something spacy and kind of mid-tempo.” Then we did “Garden in the Bones.” That is actually an idea that was written during “Juggernaut.” Me and Misha started that idea, and it kept getting passed over because it really wasn’t fleshed out in the way that it ended up on “HAIL STAN.” But me and Misha always knew it had potential, so we kept pushing it like, “Hey, do you want to circle back on this idea?”

That’s how the album kind of gets written. “OK, what song did we do last? Oh, a heavy one? Let’s do a soft one now.” You kind of work your way through the flavors.

How did “Reptile” come about? Did you set out to write a 16-minute song?

No. I think the idea of setting out to write a really long song is a huge turn-off, because you’ve already set the expectations.

There’s an interesting little phenomenon that happens in Periphery when it comes to—this is the second time that it’s happened—that if somebody brings a different tuning to the group, it kind of gets all the gears turning—like oh, what can you do with this? So we end up having this huge amount of riffs that are just pouring out, and it kind of ends up writing itself, because of the inspiration that experimenting with a new tuning would do.

The first time that happened was with “Racecar.” Our friend, Tosin Abasi from Animals as Leaders, used to live in this area, as well. Me and Misha were hanging out at Misha’s apartment, and Tosin was showing us this tuning, and it inspired me and it inspired Misha, and we ended up writing “Racecar,” which is another really long song.

So I want to do it again. I want to try to bring another new tuning and see if it inspires another long epic, and then we know how to get long epics—just do it in a completely wacky tuning. I don’t know if anyone cares, but the tuning for “Reptile” is G, G, C, F, A, D. So it’s two notes right next to each other. It’s really weird.

Is the song “Crush” a little bit of a reflection of some of the electronic stuff you’ve been into?

Not really. I definitely have established myself as the electronic music connoisseur and the guy who contributes the program stuff, but with “Crush,” that was an idea that Misha wrote completely on his own. He definitely did that on his laptop or something. He was kind of experimenting, and then he sent it out, and we were like, “Yeah, that’s really cool.” I didn’t really know where it would go until Spencer got inspired one day to write vocals to it. This was years ago, so it’s been an idea for a long time. And then we had to figure out how to turn it into a song for “HAIL STAN.” So I didn’t really have my hand in that song. I basically helped with the arrangement a little bit, but most of the time working on the song I laid on the floor. (laughs) So I’ve gotta give all the credit to Misha and Spencer.

Oh and one other thing. We were struggling with the demo version, and Matt went to a nearby studio and tracked real drums for it, just to see how it would change the vibe of the song, and it kind of brought it to life in a way I didn’t expect. We have really good sounding demo drums all day long, but something about the way he recorded and the parts that he played in the studio—this is completely separate from any of the other drum tracking; this is still in demo writing mode—it just kind of helped the song along.

So that was another interesting tidbit of how sometimes doing something you wouldn’t think would work works.

With everything you have going on in the band—three guitars, programming, all these things—is it a challenge sometimes to sort of find space for everything in the songs?

Yeah, yeah. That’s the hard part of doing music, period, because the tendency to not feel like what you’re trying to convey musically, like let’s load it up with everything, is real high. It’s kind of like you have a natural inclination to do that, and it’s important to realize that everybody has their space in the mix, and you have to respect it; otherwise, it doesn’t turn out well.

It’s taken a really long time for the three guitar players—me, MIsha and Mark—to understand, don’t load up on layers, let the vocals have the space to do that heavy lifting sonically. I don’t know if we’re nailing it yet. I still think we could do a better job of making space for Spencer, but Spencer’s always with us and giving us feedback and helping us with arrangements and suggesting things that we can do, so it makes our job a little easier to know that he’s feeling good that his space is being respected.

Would you ever consider bringing on a new full-time bass player, or is the arrangement you have now working out and you want to keep it? (NOTE: Bassist Adam “Nolly” Getgood officially left Periphery in 2017 but recorded the bass tracks for “HAIL STAN.”)

Adam “Nolly” Getgood

At first, I was very resistant. I loved having Nolly on stage. We still love Nolly. We still stay in touch with him. At first, me and a couple other people were like, “Let’s just get somebody. Let’s fill that spot. We can’t be playing with backing tracks.” That kind of decision, it has to be unanimous in our group, and since we didn’t all agree, the default thing to do is just run tracks until we do figure something out. And then I got used to it, and now I actually kind of like it, because it’s one less element and one less unknown to come into the dynamic. We don’t want to turn that on its head. Right now, it’s so perfect.

In the early days, it was difficult to get along. I think with any band, you have growing pains. There were times when personnel issues really affected whether or not this band was gonna make it. So to get it to a point where not only do we have really good communication with one another, but our relationship just keeps getting healthier and healthier, as opposed to when you’re in a relationship with your family or a significant other—a lot of times once it goes toxic, it’s real hard to go backwards.

And Periphery, it’s been toxic before, but we figured it out, and I think it’s because we love the band, and we do love each other, but I think it’s really this respect for where this band and everything we’ve done with it has taken us. So it’s like we have to make this work because I know it means a lot to everyone, and we also love the music. It keeps us grounded with each other so we don’t kill each other, and now we’re best friends.

How is this tour going? It doesn’t seem like a typical bill you would find Periphery on.

I can’t say enough good things about it. Obviously, you’re not the only one who felt that way. Everybody in the band was like, “Are we gonna get booed off stage? Do these people like this kind of music?” It’s not very metal. It has progressive elements, for sure, but we have a bit of a more metal edge. But every night has been fantastic. All the bands are super pro. They’re all lovely people. Everybody hangs out. It’s just a lot of fun.

It’s short, though. I wish we could’ve done the whole thing, but it’s not in our nature to tour for more than three or four weeks anymore. All of us have a lot of stuff going on at home. We have significant others and pets. We appreciate our time at home, and we understand, doing this so long, that you don’t want to burn yourself out on it, especially the touring part, because that is the hardest part.

As we talked about earlier, you all don’t live here anymore, but it’s basically like a hometown show for Periphery.

Oh, sure it is.

So what is that like? Is there more pressure on you or anything like that?

Not tonight because it’s not our show. We’re just kind of filling dead air. (laughs) But I know some of the guys have friends and family coming out. I have a couple friends coming out. It’s gonna be more about what happens after we’re done playing and catching up with people we don’t get to talk to that much—old friends and people who have supported the band over the years. There’s so many people that never get the credit that they deserve. One of them is my friend Justin, who’s coming tonight. Without his help, in the beginning especially, we wouldn’t be where we are now. All the same things can be said for family and the other friends coming tonight. That’s the nice part of playing a hometown show, being able to, at least a little bit, show that appreciation for how all these people put up with our shit for so long.

So this tour is almost over. What’s coming up next?

We have some things. We have one show in Mexico City, and then we have a South American run after Mexico City. Really looking forward to that because last year, last September, I did a five- or six-date guitar clinic run in South America, and I was kind of floored when I went over there. Usually, my clinics are 30, 40 people, tops. But way more came to all of them, and then in Chile, it was like I was playing in front of crowds that Periphery would play in front of. It was a crazy amount of people. I’m like, how am I supposed to teach guitar to this many people? So I knew right then and there we’ve gotta get Periphery down here. If one of us can go down there and get that kind of reaction, imagine if we bring the show.

I’m really looking forward to that, and then there’s some other things later this year, which if you know what happens after a band puts out an album, they’re the obvious places we go. I just can’t say anything ‘cause they’re not announced yet. But yeah, everyone’s gonna get some, and it’s gonna be great.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Thank you for always supporting us if you listen to us, and if you’re a new listener, thank you for giving it a shot. I know we are not that good, but we’ll keep trying.

LINKS:
www.periphery.net
www.facebook.com/peripheryband
www.twitter.com/peripheryband
www.instagram.com/periphery
www.youtube.com/periphery

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