Scale The Summit Guitarist Chris Letchford Discusses The Band's Current Headlining Tour And New Material
Scale The Summit is one of the well-known contemporary instrumental bands, dishing out music that has found a loyal following of technical-minded listeners. Their music is impressive from a playing standpoint, but it’s also full of great songwriting nuances that makes these songs more than just fodder for needless shredding. The band’s third album, “The Collective,” is seeped in dark and hostile undertones that is a 180 from the light antics of “Carving Desert Canyons.” I had the chance to speak to guitarist Chris Letchford in early June about the band’s current headlining tour, working with new bassist Mark Michell, and how he feels about people using cell phones at live shows.
The band is currently on a headlining tour. How is it going so far?
Really good. We’re about a week in so far and it’s been really good. We’re playing an 80-minute set, so our fans really appreciate the extended set during our normal 30/35 minute set on support tours.
Having all that extra time, does it allow the band not only room to add extra songs, but to expand the songs with jams?
We do on a few of the songs, yeah. For the most part, we’re playing 17 of our recorded songs exactly as they are on the record. It’s pretty challenging.
When you try to figure out what songs to put on the set, what do you guys look for before you go out on tour?
I guess we all just put in the songs we want to play, but we also keep in mind what songs the fans want to hear. Obviously, the fan favorites are the ones that we play the most, which we may not want to play, but at the end of the day, we’re playing for them, not for us. We’ll do it that way, and we’ll make sure, because it’s a headliner, to play songs off of all three of our full-lengths. We made it pretty diverse as far as that. Then, I go through and put them in order of what I feel is the best, as far as up and down with the dynamics, as well as the tempo changes between songs, so you don’t have a lot of the same tempos back-to-back.
When you put the set together, are you looking to come out strong and keep the momentum going throughout the whole set? Is there any downtime that you want to have within the set?
With this one, we started off with more of a banger instead of building up dynamically. We just go right in and it hits you in the face really hard and powerful and fast. Before, on our first headliner, we had more of an atmospheric part before we started the songs, but for this one, we’re trying to mix it up and play different songs from our first headliner this year.
How important is it for the band to be able to go on another headlining tour?
Really important. Not only is it for generating positive feedback from our fans and judge where we’re at, but also it’s a better insight for where we’re at as far as the band's standpoint. It’ll help us for bigger support tours, based on where our numbers are at. For us, headlining is a little bit more stressful, but it’s a lot more fun. You’re in control of the show. It’s your show, so it’s easier for things to run smoothly for you, so you don’t have to be frustrated or stressed out while on tour. Being a support band, you always have to rush, so we’re able to take our time and make sure everything’s right and that we’re having fun.
What kind of stresses are involved with playing in a headlining tour, compared to being a support act?
Being that the show is yours and we’ve taken out one band as our support, you want to make sure the draw is good. We do our best to fill up the shows the best we can, but sadly, a lot of it has to be relying on the promoters. The stress comes from making sure everyone knows you’re coming. Some of the shows aren’t heavily promoted and no one knows you’re there. You want to make sure everyone is having a good time. Making sure the show is in control, organizing the schedule everyday, and having to get to the venues extra early. We got long drives, where we get less sleep, compared to a support tour, because we have to get there early enough to do soundcheck.
When tours come together, the packages tend to be four, five, or six bands all going out at once. Why did the band decide to only have one other band come out with them, and not have a huge packaged tour?
The first part of that is that it was really hard for us to find bands that were small enough to be able to support us. Not just that, but since we’re playing an 80-minute set, it only really leaves room for one or two other bands. We just wanted to bring one support band, and have local bands, which really help promote the show. Having local bands to the area that are going to go out and push the shows is really helpful. I would have liked to have done a four or five band package, but since we’re playing an 80-minute set, it’s kind of unnecessary to have that many bands. Most headliners won’t even play more than an hour, especially on a five band package. We just wanted to keep it smooth and not punish our fans by having to watch four or five bands before we go on and play an 80-minute set. It can be rough.
Do you think that’s a problem with a lot of tour packages, that fans have to get there four or five hours early just to see all the bands and the headliner?
I understand from a financial point for promoters and clubs, but it really does a disservice to fans coming out. For me, if I go to a show, I’ll get there right before the band I want to see plays. I just can’t go and stand for five hours. Plus, a lot of venues won’t run their AC, so it’ll be super hot and they’ll charge $3 for a bottle of water. It’s kind of hard to convince fans to come out early enough to see the whole package, let alone come early enough to hang out and wait around for you to play. There aren’t too many bands like us to take out on tour. It’s not that we don’t like a lot of bands. We didn’t want to bring out bands that had any screaming vocals, which cuts off a lot of people, and there’s not really too many other instrumental (bands). We didn’t want to go into a softer world, like indie rock, and throw everybody off in that way.
The band has done a ton of support tours in their career. Is the band ever surprised at the reaction they get, considering that you guys are on tours with so many various styles of metal?
Yeah. It’s funny. When our band first started, we had a lot of people telling us that said we wouldn’t be marketable because we’re instrumental. The cool thing about it is that we’re able to play all the markets and win over the crowd. We just played Bled Fest in Michigan, which was nothing but metalcore bands, for the most part. We were really the oddball, but everybody paid attention and seemed to really enjoy it. The crowd response was amazing, as far as the other bands we’re playing with. I think it helps that we do the tours where we’re the oddball, because it really helps us to stand out from what everybody else is doing. They’ll be one band after another that has a similar sound and their image and genre, and then we go on, and it’s something totally different.
Do you prefer headlining sets over support ones?
I think it depends on the bands we’re out with. If we’re doing support on some of the larger tours, like The Summer Slaughter Tour, when there’s like 60 other bands, it’s almost overwhelming how rushed everything is that you don’t have fun playing. With a headlining tour, we have more control because it’s our show, and we’re able to play 80 minutes to give our fans a great taste of our live set. When you’re doing support tours, it’s a little stressful, but it depends. We supported Dream Theater in 2009. I would do that every year if we could.
Was that your favorite tour to date, or was there another that you’re more a fan of?
That was a life-changing experience for us, and it really opened our eyes, as far as this is definitely what we want to be doing. This is something we can look forward to, something that we can work harder for, to get to that level. Four months after that, we did Between The Buried And Me’s headlining tour with Cynic and Devin Townsend. We shared a bus with Between The Buried And Me on that tour, so that was definitely a lot of fun. We toured with Periphery last March with Fair To Midland, and those guys are awesome. So that was a lot of fun. In terms of overall package of fun, stressed-free, financial reasons, Dream Theater was definitely our most successful and best tour we’ve ever done.
It’s been about a year since the band’s last album, “The Collective,” came out. Looking back at it today, is it exactly how you envisioned it to be? Do you go back and listen to those songs and say, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly what I was going for?'
Yeah, I do. The only thing is that I think...the production has definitely stepped up - obviously, it was more budget - but I think overall the songwriting aspect I’m 100% happy with. As a year goes by, we’ve all gotten better at our instruments. Songwriting has gotten a little bit more solidified, so it’s hard to judge it that way, since you’re naturally going to progress most of the time for the better, making your older material not stand up as well as what you’re writing now.
With this progression you guys have made as musicians, does that play out when you guys go on stage and play the older songs? Do they come across as tighter because you guys have stepped it up as musicians?
Yeah, absolutely. Not only that, but writing songs and recording them is totally different from playing songs on stage in front of crowds. There’s a lot more pressure for you to play tighter. You have to concentrate, but at the same time, you have a lot more distractions than just sitting in our rehearsal space practicing. It’s definitely touring overall, and writing each album from one to the next definitely helped us get better and make the older songs tighter and performed a lot more perfect.
You mentioned distractions before. When you’re on stage, has there ever been anything that’s thrown you off? How are you able to handle distractions that come at you from all sides when on stage?
There’s distractions, like when there’s bad light guys who don’t know our music, when you don’t bring your own light guy. There’s times when security will run across stage to grab someone and not give you the respect of not hitting you or bumping you. Someone will spill a drink on the stage and it will run into my cables, which makes me kind of nervous that there’s current going through most of them. People throwing things - not at us - but just throwing things just to throw things is distracting.
I think the most distracting thing is when there’s people in the front row texting the entire show. It’s the most distracting because you come to a show, but you’re sitting there on your phone texting. I think it bugs a lot of people. A lot of bands we toured with will call those people out in front of the entire crowd. It’s funny, but you come to a show, you pay money for a show, but then you’re just sitting on your phone the entire time. It’s kind of silly, but it’s distracting because it’s almost disrespectful to the band playing.
How do you feel about people that come to your show and put up YouTube videos of the band’s songs? Are you okay with that?
Oh yeah. That doesn’t bother us at all. Most people that complain about it are comedians, which I can understand, because their jokes are given away. For bands, you can never get that live vibe through a video, no matter how well the production is done, if it’s in HD and has great audio; you still don’t get that energy. It’s cool. I don’t really mind it. It’s fun to have a surprise set list that people don’t know what songs are playing, but it’s not really something that bothers us at all. I don’t ever really think about it. We’re always looking for videos to see how well we performed, or how badly we performed.
Do you guys switch up the set, or will you once you get more stuff to plug into the set?
On some of the support tours, we actually had three different sets lined up. Every other day, we were playing a different set. It’s kind of intense, but for the headliner, since it’s 80 minutes and 17 songs, we still have more songs we could throw in there, but we recently had a departure of our first bass player of six years. So our new guy had to learn 80 minutes and 17 songs within a month-and-a-half. We don’t have the resources right now to switch out the songs.
How has Mark Michell, the new bassist, been doing so far, considering he only had a month-and-a-half to learn 80 minutes of material?
It’s like nothing has changed; just a different person on bass playing. He’s doing a great job. It was really a smooth transition.
Are you excited to sit down at some point in the near future and write with him?
Yeah. I’ve actually been already showing him a lot of the new songs, and going over what the ideas are for the next record. It’s going to go really smoothly. He’s a trained player for sure. He’s already played in progressive metal for a while. It’s going to be real easy, in terms of him understanding what to bring to the song and so forth.
What does the new material sound like? Could you give me a taste of what people can expect from it?
Just always pushing the boundaries of what we’re doing. I’m the composition guy, so I focus more on composition than just overall shred. A lot of instrumental and virtuoso players are more shred-based, which is fine. I just find it more challenging to me to write a good overall song. Since the last record was kind of dark, we’re trying to go in the direction of having a mix of all the albums into one. Also, push the boundaries of technical ability at the same time to keep moving up and challenging ourselves, which is my favorite part of writing; writing stuff I can’t play, and then learning it the best I can. It makes you a better player.
What kind of progression did you see between “Carving Desert Canyons” and “The Collective” that you would like to see taken on the next album?
It was purely composition. Taking things in a totally new direction. I wasn’t expecting to write such a dark album. It just kind of happened, which is cool. “Carving Desert Canyons” is more happy and positive, and the new one is more dark, sad, and lonely-sounding. At the same time, we pushed the technical boundaries as far as composition goes, which is really difficult to do just within a year/year-and-a-half in-between records.
What are the plans for the band once you finish up this headlining tour?
We’re actually going to do - hopefully it comes together - a Canada tour, which will be a headlining tour. I’ve been promising Canada (a headlining tour) the past three years, and we just haven’t had time and hasn’t come together as far as the schedule. We’ll be doing that, and then we’re going to Europe in October and November. The plan is to record in December if we have enough time to write after this headlining tour. Once we get home from this one, we’ll have July and August to spend some time writing. Depending on how much we get done (will determine) whether or not we enter the studio in December or the beginning of next year. We’re hoping for December.
Do you tend to write on the road, or do you wait to get home to have the time to write?
I definitely write while we’re on the road. It’s a little bit harder sometimes, because there’s not a lot of quiet time. You’re not distraction free when you’re on tour, but I do get some done. I’ve written a lot on some of our other support tours, when we have a little bit more time. Being a headliner, we have to load in, immediately soundcheck, then we get something to eat, come back, and there’s only an hour or two before we play. I’ll spend most of that warming up. Then we play an 80-minute set, mingle with the fans for a little while, and then we’ll load out and continue onto the next city. There’s not much time on a headlining tour to be able to write. I do get as much done as I can on days when we get to the venues early.
If you could tour with one band, past or present, who would it be and why?
I would probably say Dream Theater again. As far as our target audience, they have our exact audience, and they also draw the older crowd, which we really try to do. It’s hard to advertise to the older crowds, because they are not on the social media sites. I’d say Dream Theater again, but we would also really love to tour with Opeth. With “The Collective” being so dark, it’s so fitting to what they do that I think it would go over really well.
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