Interview: The Body

It would be incredibly dull – futile, even – for collaborative records to simply harvest the obvious common ground between the participants. On the second collaboration between The Body and Full Of Hell, titled Ascending A Mountain Of Heavy Light, I hear them feeling around the edges for some of the more bizarre, momentary crossovers in creative inclination. As it turns out, both bands share an interest in rickety reggaeton, speaker-blown hip hop and the act of sonic autocannibalism. Guitar goes in; an indescribable slurry of noise goes out. And vice versa. After all – why expend energy and studio time for the sake of a 50-minute venn diagram, strapped tightly to the rails of listener expectation the whole time?

On that point – over the past few years, The Body have had a particularly turbulent relationship with listener understanding. Much of the below conversation with drummer Lee Buford centres on the disparity between intended message and audience comprehension: how the duo are both fuelled and drained by their perceived relationship with metal music, how the emotional complexity of records like No One Deserves Happiness is parsed exclusively through the filter of “evil”, and how the very same musical idea can be seen as both a radio pop trope and a figment of the absurd. Below, we discuss drum battles with Lightning Bolt’s Brian Chippendale, breaking the boredom of live performances, and how their upcoming full length brings them closer to ditching drums and guitar altogether. 

Often these collaborative records are one-time affairs – two bands get together, create a record and then the collaboration dissipates. What was it that brought you both back into the studio?

We’re really good friends with those guys – we talk all the time. Chip just went to Japan with them and we tour a lot together. It just made sense.

I’ve seen you talk about the fact that collaborating with other bands helps you push beyond your own technical capabilities. What does that look like with Full Of Hell? What do they enable you to do?

Dave [Bland], the drummer – he’s insane, so that’s the main thing. And it’s also good because they like to experiment a lot. It’s fun when there’s a bunch of us trying to do crazy stuff, as opposed to just me, Chip and our friend Seth [Manchester], who records everything. It’s fun to get other people’s crazy ideas.

And how easy is it to articulate those crazy ideas? You and Chip have been playing together for so long. I don’t know if this is true for you both, but I’ve found that the language used to talk about creative ideas becomes aligned if you’ve been playing with someone for a while. What’s it like trying to express those ideas to other people?

With me and Chip it’s often pretty easy. Although it’s sometimes tough with Chip, as he’s essentially the opposite of me – he likes to create “non-music” stuff a lot of the time, and I try to make really accessible stuff. But I understand where he’s coming from, and I agree with him in a lot of ways. We have to find that middle ground where both of us feel the same way about stuff.

With Full Of Hell, no one goes in there with any ego. So if anyone has an idea, we’re like, “alright – let’s try figure that out.” We give everything a fair shake in the studio. I’d say it works surprisingly well.

Better than with the last album?

It was different. With the first one, we had a lot more ideas leading up to it. This time we were on tour for a while beforehand. Planning for tour, and then actually touring, took up all of our mental energy, so when we actually got there we were like, “oh okay – we’ve got to record again.” So I don’t think we came as prepared, but actually I think it worked out better for us. I think it freed things up.

It doesn’t sound like a lethargic record.

Yeah [laughs]. At first I didn’t really know how I felt about it, as it’s so different to the last one. But yeah – it’s a good record I think.

Does it usually take a while to figure out how the record sits with you? Given that you must be so immersed in it at the time….

Definitely with the collaborative stuff, because there’s someone else’s opinion in there. So you think, “am I gonna like this over time?” You’re not as emotionally invested in it. Even with our solo stuff, it can take a while – I’ll be like, “this is going to be great; everyone will love this song”, and then no one likes that song. I’ve given up on trying to figure out what other people will like, because I’m always wrong about it.

I’ve seen you talk about your approach to collaborative works. It sounds like you’re game for whatever might happen in the studio. There’s something quite liberated about the way you seem to be approaching that. Do you think that’s important when you don’t have a foundation of understanding with the people you’re collaborating with?

Yeah, definitely. I feel like Chip and I always try to do something different with our solo stuff, but it pretty much keeps to the same aesthetic. With the collaborative stuff it’s like a new band every time, so the options are more freeing for sure. I feel like Chip and I don’t hold anything back, but having played together for so long, there’s definitely a narrative already established there. You literally don’t know which way the collaborative stuff is going to go when it starts.

I’ve heard this new record referred to as more “straight ahead” than the other one. It feels like the more bizarre of the two for me.

After we recorded it, we were in Chicago and I was talking with Bettina [Richards] from Thrill Jockey, and I was like, “I can’t tell if I like it because it’s too normal, or if I don’t like it because it’s too normal…I can’t tell if it’s too normal or too weird.” I couldn’t figure it out, and I still don’t know if it’s a weirder record or not. I guess that’s an accomplishment in some way.

A consistent characteristic of the records that sit with me is that they feel like square pegs for quite some time. I’m not quite sure what to do with them. I saw on your Facebook that one of you has been listening to the new Björk record for example, and that’s definitely another one of those…

Yeah. The context of the last record was so heavy that it’s kind of tough to listen to. They’re both great records, but the context of her stuff is so intense that it really puts a certain spin on it.

THE BODY + FULL OF HELL – PHOTO BY REID HAITHCOCK

Speaking of context – I see that this collaboration with Full Of Hell recorded in the same studio as the last one (Machines With Magnets). Given that it’s the same personnel in the same environment, it’s so interesting that the collaboration resulted in a record so drastically different from the last.

On the first one, I think we focused more on the “noise” aspect of everything. On this one, I had some beats already programmed. I think that’s where we started from as I already had those done, so we built stuff around that. That might have set the tone a little bit.

Did you have any expectations around what you would be doing with those beats?

Not really. There’s that one weird reggaeton song. They liked that beat, which really surprised me, ‘cos I was like, “there’s no way they’re gonna like this one.” And then Seth and I wanted to get Dave to play the beat over it, as we thought it would be kinda funny. It turned out really well. I was surprised about that.

I see you brought Brian Chippendale from Lightning Bolt in for this album too. I knew that before I even read about it, as I recognised his snare drum when I was listening yesterday. How did he become involved?

At some point on tour, we were like, “it’d be funny to see Dave and Brian drum battle”. Brian was down for it. It’s funny – Brian did his part first and then heard Dave’s part, and he was like, “I didn’t know he was going to be that good. I would have gone crazier!” [laughs] It was really funny watching both of them in the studio.

Me and Chip grew up in Providence [the same as Lightning Bolt], and that whole scene is pretty close-knit. So it was a real treat to have Brian on the record. Full Of Hell are a lot younger too, so I think they were pretty excited about it.

You’ve mentioned a couple of times that it’d be funny to get Dave to do this or that – play over a reggaeton beat, have a face-off with Brian…I sense that there’s a streak of humour to the way you’re approaching all of this, which is also evident in terming your No One Deserves Happiness album as a “gross pop record”. Where does that interest come from?

A lot of music is boring to us. Often we’re just seeing how far we can push it in pretty much every way. A lot of this music is pretty depressing, but me and Chip are pretty fun guys, so that’s not our whole identity. A lot of it is about, “it’d be funny to try this thing out.” It definitely makes it fun, and I think it adds a lot to it. It’s not as predictable I guess.

A lot of it is taking things we like from other songs. At first, we were like “let’s just have drum machines”, as we thought it’d be funny to just have hip hop drums on everything. It’s funny in one regard, but that is the stuff we listen to, so it comes more naturally to us.

When I saw Chip on tour in Bristol earlier this year, there were no drums or guitar whatsoever. Is that representative of where you’re heading at the minute?

It’s tough for us, because our stuff is half-and-half. Some of the records are real drums and real guitar, but we can’t really play the new stuff live as so much of it is electronic. And so we tried to go that route, and play this different batch of songs that can’t be played with just guitar and drums. It just depends on where we’re at. The last tour we played actual guitar and drums again. I think it’s just about doing whatever we want to do at the time.

At the electronic show I attended, there seemed to be a lot of self-mangling going on; guitars fed back into processing, FX etc. I hear a lot of that on this collaborative record too. That seems to be something you enjoy.

Oh yeah, definitely. We just finished another new LP, and on that one, all of the drum sounds are just taken from other songs we’ve done. We’ve just started sampling ourselves. I don’t think I actually play drums at all on the new record; it’s just hits from other stuff that we’ve sampled and made into different beats.

Are you serious?

Yeah.

How does that feel for you? Is that strange to effectively not be “playing” the drums on the new record?

Not really. I mean, it used to be that I was like, “Seth – I want a beat that’s like this,” and I’d play it out for him. He’s a ProTool whizz so he’d make it super-fast. So it’s the same kind of thing, but instead of using 808s, we’re just using samples of other songs. [laughs] So the process it pretty much the same.

Is there a reason why that currently appeals to you as a way of working?

I don’t know. I think that a lot of it is because I grew up listening to so much hip hop. For me, samples are an equally important part of the music. I don’t see it as not playing on this album. That’s the good thing about me and Chip – if I was like, “Chip, I don’t want you to play on this song,” he’s be okay with it. And if he had an idea that didn’t have drums on it, I’d be alright. At this point, we trust eachother to do whatever. I think that’s helpful. It’s not like, “I have to play on this song.”

PHOTO BY ANGELA OWENS

Has it taken a while to get to that point? Or has that always been the case?

I think we reached that point when we realised we could have other people come and play on the record. At first, we didn’t think about the fact that we could get a million other people to play on the record and that’s still cool. Once we realised that, it was like, “let’s have Chrissy [Wolpert] sing on this part”, or this person do that thing.

It’s interesting reading other interviews with you, and seeing how frequently the conversation turns toward metal music – either because there’s a desire to place you somewhere in that category, or because you’re perceived to be pushing against the hallmarks of metal music. I’m sure it’s even implicitly present in my question about why you’ve decided to not play live instruments, as in my mind I’ve attributed you to the whole “metal” framework…

I think there’s definitely an element of pushing against everything. Chip feels it especially as he plays so many shows. I think the state of music is depressing in a lot of ways. Chip’s idea is to make “non-music” to push against it, and to kind of make it unlistenable. He’s like, “I don’t want my guitar to sound like guitar at all. I just want it to sound like noise.” I definitely understand that sentiment. I think a lot of it is because we get lumped into that metal category so much, and we don’t really fit. Over time, it’s taken its toll on us.

In what way?

Because we don’t really relate to any of it. We don’t relate to it musically at all, and aesthetically it’s not really been our thing. So much of it is supposed to be “evil”, and that’s not close to anything we’ve ever been about. I think a lot of it feels very surface as well. It doesn’t want to get too deep into anything. That’s the opposite of where we’re coming from. It can be very “extreme this” or “extreme that”, but it’s always in the most benign way. I don’t care if you can play a million solos. That doesn’t appeal to me at all.

[laughs] Often I’m waiting for a smile to crack, or some sign of self-awareness and parodical intent…

Yeah. My friends opened up for Cannibal Corpse and I went to go see the show, and I was like, “everyone in this crowd is the same!” I think that’s a part of it that irks us. I don’t want to play music to the same demographic over and over. That seems stifling to me.

Does it give you something to push back against?

Definitely. For years, people would come to see us and say, “they’re so loud – they have all these amps,” and I think there was a part of us that was like, “alright, then we’ll not play any live drums and guitar. We’ll play through samplers and stuff.” With all of the amplifier worship stuff, Chip was just like, “okay, so I’ll just get worse and worse gear. If amp worship is popular then I’ll just get the dumbest gear I can get.”

To bring it back to the new record – I’m struck by the amount of material crammed into the stereo edges. On the first track you’ve got that hi-hat ticking away obliviously on the right-hand side as that guitar comes steamrolling in…

That’s mainly Seth in the studio. At this point, he’s definitely like a member of the band. He’s gone out and played drums with Chip when I can’t do it. That’s why we always go back to recording with him in Providence. Me and him are basically the same in terms of what we listen to and the kind of music we’d make if we could, so it’s really easy to work with him. Especially now he knows me and Chip so well – he’ll do things and we’ll be like, “oh, that was exactly what I was going to say.” He’s definitely the same mind as us.

It must be great to have someone so aligned to what you’re doing, and to know that they’re not going to bend and buckle your material on its way to the tape.

Oh yeah. The only problem we have is that if me and Seth are left to our own devices, we’ll go straight techno. Chip will have to be like, “no. You’re not doing this. You gotta rein that in.” [laughs] And I can see what he’s saying. It’s straight dance music.

So is one of you tempering the other, and making sure that you’re not heading too far in one direction or the other?

I guess so. Chip probably checks us more than I check him. He’s one of those people that won’t say anything for ages, and then he’ll be like, “this is my idea” and it’ll be perfect. I don’t think there’s ever been a time where he’s presented an idea and we haven’t been like, “yeah – that’s exactly what it needs.” I think he’s just batting at a higher average. [laughs]

You mentioned that you’d make different music if left to your own devices. Do you have an itching to pursue any of that?

A lot of times I think so. The good thing about me and Chip is that we’ve worked our way towards being able to do whatever we want. That’s very liberating. No one’s saying, “you’ve got to keep doing this thing and making these types of records.” I think a lot of people wish that we would keep making the same record we made in 2012 over and over again. But I think we’ve got a good group around us that let us do whatever we want. So that’s definitely very freeing.

I love so many types of music, so there are definitely times where I wish I could do this or be a band like this. But that’s the good thing about The Body – I can go, “I wish I could do a song that has strings and beautiful singing,” and then I can just get Chrissy to do that. I think that’s definitely helpful.

Based on my limited market research (i.e. talking to my friends that listen to you), it seems that you’ve pivoted so many times now that your fans are game for anything. They want the subversion of expectation rather than the fulfilment of it. It must be nice to have a fanbase that isn’t constantly craving more of the last record you did.

Yeah, definitely. The aesthetic is the same every time. It’s like, “we know what we’re trying to say – let’s try and say it in a different way.” That was the role that recording played for us originally. We played live for so long and didn’t release anything for the first five or six years. We wanted to match the volume of the live show, so we were like, “alright – we’ll just keep adding things until it sounds as full as a live show would.” So that was the catalyst for that direction. And then from there, we realised that we could pretty much do anything. It doesn’t matter.

PHOTO BY ANGELA OWENS

Speaking of playing live – didn’t you play with an expanded lineup just recently? With members of Uniform and Wrekmeister Harmonies?

We played in New York, and JR Robinson [Wrekmeister Harmonies] just moved out there. A lot of times when we play, it’s the same kind of thing – we bring in our friends to do something weird, just to see what will come out of it. We’ve done that a couple of times with JR where he’ll just jump in and play. We just asked Mike Berdan from Uniform to join us to see what it sounds like as well. I think we get bored of just doing shows as just me and Chip, so it’s fun to throw an unknown into it.

When did you start to become bored with doing shows just as a duo? Is that due to touring so much?

Yeah, I think so. It’s also tough for us because the amount of songs we can play live is so limited. With some of the songs, if Chrissy’s not singing it then it defeats the purpose of it. Or if it doesn’t have the strings it just sounds weak. I think that gets kinda rough for us sometimes.

The other problem is that we go into the studio, play something and then never play it again. So we just forget it. Playing these songs in the studio is often the only time we’ve played them. I’m sure we could maybe figure them out, but that’s the other thing – Chip and I are not very good musicians in the sense that we could figure things out.

I saw recently that you released a batch of songs featuring just the two of you (Home On Earth). It’s an interesting set of material, as it breaks from the trajectory that you’re on with your full lengths at the moment, which seem to be just getting bigger and bigger. What was the thinking behind doing that?

Well I broke my pinky a little while back. At that point I wasn’t playing drums anyway, but then once I broke it I was like, “man – I wish I could play drums now that I can’t.” I think a lot of it was wondering whether we could still do this stuff. So that was my first time playing drums in probably over a year. We thought it’d be fun to goof around like we used to and crank stuff out.

The new record we’ve done for Thrill Jockey is the total opposite of that. It’s really meticulous – we’ve been working on it for so long. It doesn’t have me playing drums, but it has drum sounds. I don’t even think Chip plays too much guitar on it either.

Wow.

Yeah. We went into it saying, “let’s not play drums and guitar at all.” That was really tough. That’s probably why it took us so long to record it. Thinking about it in that way is tough. It’s just so different in that way, so for Home On Earth we wanted to just goof around and play songs.

So when you decided to not use guitar and drums for the upcoming album, what was the next step? What methods did you use to bring your sound into being?

I think we were just trying to go more electronic. It was definitely a push-back. Personally, I don’t like any band that plays guitar. At all.

Not one?

I mean, in the past I’ve loved guitar songs. But I can’t think of a rock band now that I really love. I have friends who play guitar music that’s real fun to watch, but if I was going to start a band now, it wouldn’t have a guitar in it. I think Chip feels the same way, even though he plays guitar. I think that’s where we were going with it. We don’t really get influenced by rock bands at all, so sometimes it feels weird to be a “rock band”.

Perhaps that’s why I enjoy your music so much. There’s something fraught there. I still associate you with drums and guitar, but there’s also a sense of trying to escape that dynamic as well.

It’s tough for us, because when we’re playing metal shows we don’t feel like we fit in. We don’t belong. But when we play more experimental festivals, it’s like the inverse of that – we don’t fit in there either. There’s never been a point in our career where we’re like, “alright! We’re right where we belong!” There’s always a sense that we’re frauds in whatever we’re doing.

Do you get a kick out of that?

In theory we like it, but in practice…when we’re backstage at a festival we’re like, “Jesus Christ, these are real musicians, I don’t know what we’re doing here…” Or we’ll be at some sort of metal festival and be like, “this is fucking terrible, what are we doing here?”

[laughs] Or “I wish people would buy more merchandise…”

Yeah, that’s the other thing too. We definitely shoot ourselves in the foot consistently. [laughs]

Well I’m excited to hear this new record. It sounds like you have a difficult time figuring out what people will think of your new music, but do you have any thoughts on what people will make of this one?

I don’t know. With the last record I was like, “people are gonna love this – the songs are just like hip hop songs, basically. Who doesn’t love this stuff?” And then it came out and people were saying how evil it was. That’s not what it is at all! I guess Chip’s vocals are maybe scary or something, but there are songs that he doesn’t even song on. And I’m like, “how is that what you took away from this record?”

So with this new one…our friend Kristin, who does a project called Lingua Ignota – she sings on it a lot. I think that adds a different aspect to it. I don’t know. Some people who have heard it say that it’s the saddest record we’ve done. I’m very curious to know what people think.

Do you think it’s a sad record?

Well I think every record we do is sad. But yeah, this one is pretty sad.

You mentioned that people refer to your material as being evil. It’s interesting that most bands that have a “loud and buzzy” sound are automatically seen to reside on the negative side of the emotional spectrum. That must be frustrating.

It’s my biggest frustration. The narrative of our music is often so obvious – you know, the last record was called No One Deserves Happiness – and then people say, “this is like the soundtrack to hell.” Again, Chip’s vocals are scary, but lyrically it’s not at all like that.

It feels like the video you put out for “The Fall And The Guilt” was an appeal to people to divorce the record from those evil connotations.

Yeah. I keep being like, “how is this still what you get out of this?” I honestly don’t know.

Is that the thinking behind the pink shirt and record cover?

Definitely. It was so far removed from the world of metal or anything like that. But it still gets thrown in there. I mean, it’s got to be frustrating for people who listen to metal. I see reviews where it’s like dudes in metal shirts and they’re like, “this is really weird and pretentious and I don’t get it.” And it’s like, “yeah – of course not! You don’t listen to this kind of music. Why would you review this?” [laughs]

Does it bother you at all?

It bothers me when people call it weird, and I’m like, “no – that’s a straight Beyonce drumbeat.” She sold a billion records – how is that weird? This is the most accessible thing you can listen to. So the new record is even more in that direction. Having grown up listening to hip hop, it’s cool when you heard something taken from this or that song. You understand what they’re trying to get at and what they listen to. It gives a deeper insight into the creative process. I guess that’s how I’ve always thought about it.

Are there any particular records that have fed into this upcoming album?

Not really. I mean, every record is an amalgamation of everything that we listen to. It all gets filtered into it. On this one there’s a song that’s pretty much like a dancehall song, which I was really excited about as I listen to a lot of that stuff. So it was cool to see that we could pull that off.