The Contortionist Guitarist Robby Baca Talks About The Next Record, Band Dynamics, and The BTBAM Tour
Expertly ducking in and out of the genres of jazz, djent, progressive, and death metal, The Contortionist continue to defy convention. Further, their live show is something akin to aggressive yoga in its measured smoothness. On the night of October 25th, they were to close out a 35-show tour with headliners Between The Buried and Me and fellow tour-mates The Faceless and The Safety Fire with one final show in Nashille, TN. (Read the full show report here.)
Shortly before the final show, Metal Underground was able to sit down with expert guitarist Robby Baca for an interview backstage at the venue. A very chill presence, Robby calmly explained some of his guitar and songwriting philosophies, as well as the dynamic that vocalist Michael Lessard has already started to bring to the band and the next record, which they will be working on in early 2014.
Frank Serafine (Progressivity_In_All): This is the very last date of this very large tour.
Robby Baca: Yeah, unfortunately.
Frank: So you wanted it to be a little longer?
Robby: Eh… No, but it’s been one of the most fun tours I’ve ever done, but I’m definitely ready to go home, though. It’s been a long time.
Frank: How has the tour been, overall?
Robby: Incredible. Between the Buried and Me has been, to me, one of the most influential bands. Being able to watch them every night has been just incredible. The Faceless? The same. They’re all really awesome dudes and it’s been a fucking blast hanging out with them everyday.
Frank: What was the best show on this tour? I know it gets pretty wild in Texas.
Robby: Yeah. I think that was the beginning of the tour. I remember Dallas being one of the best shows. Recently, we just played in Worcester, MA. That was probably the best show of the tour. That’s the spot where they do the New England Metalfest every year. That same venue.
Frank: There’s a video interview of you with some guy in a jersey and a sweatshirt at the last Metalfest. So, Worcester was the best?
Robby: Yeah. Probably. That’s always a great area for shows. There’s a promoter up there -- Scott Lee -- anytime he throws a show, it’s just sick. It’s a great area for us, at least.
Frank: What do you do in your down time on the tour?
Robby: There’s a lot of sitting around and waiting. I actually have ended up just, because I have a little practice amp, jamming on guitar. We’re supposed to be going into the studio early next year, so I’ve been trying to rack my brain for ideas when I can. I jam now and then when I get bored.
Frank: Do you jam with the other bands as well?
Robby: A little bit. Sometimes we share dressing rooms and they’re in there jamming as well. We’ll trade warmup techniques and stuff like that, which is always fun.
Frank: You don’t play each other’s songs?
Robby: Sometimes, I’ll ask them, “How do you play this part?” and they’ll show me. They’ll ask me the same thing. It’s fun! It’s like a circle jerk with a guitar.
Frank: With a guitar! Good times. What’s the best food you’ve had on this tour? I’ve gotten all sorts of responses to this one.
Robby: I’d have to say the House of Blues catering has been some of the best food.
Frank: Nobody says catering! That’s a first.
Robby: Because I’m a vegetarian. Anytime there’s catering, there’s always a vegetarian option, but House of Blues nails it on the vegetarian stuff. I was stoked about that.
Frank: Michael Lessard has been a permanent member of the band for a little while. How has he been adapting to the band and how have you adapted your selves to him?
Robby: We’ve been with him since March and we’ve known him since sometime in 2010 when we did a tour with Last Chance To Reason. Integrating him into the band has been a painless thing. He’s a lot like us. It’s been really easy. He’s already written a lot of music that will probably end up on the next album. He’s probably written more than any of us, which is crazy. He’s really creative. He’s always coming up with ideas.
For me, every once in awhile I get a sick idea. Mike is in there on his computer all the time. He’s got a microphone on his laptop, and he’s sitting there singing into it, recording vocal harmonies and stuff. I’m pretty stoked about having Mike’s creative input on the next record.
Frank: So what does his creative input entail? Is it just vocal duties or does he do keyboard parts and…
Robby: From the stuff that I’ve heard so far, he’s written drum parts, guitar parts, keyboard parts… All kinds of parts that will probably end up getting changed by the people playing the parts later, but he’s not just limited to the lyrics and the vocal melodies. He’ll probably have a big hand in the rest of the music as well, which is cool -- to have another new person in that whole aspect.
Frank: Very nice. Last time we interviewed you guys, you were tracking “Intrinsic.” Given some distance from that album, what do you consider to be the most interesting lyrical subject on that album?
Robby: Just the album as a whole. I didn’t hear any of the vocal parts until they were done being tracked. We knew what the album sounded like, musically, before it was done, but we had no idea what the lyrics, vocal melodies, or anything like that was going to be until Jon (Carpenter, former vocalist) was done in the studio. Honestly, the first time I listened to it I was kind of blown away. Now that I listen to it, I hear all kinds of stuff that I wish I would have been there for and had the opportunity to change, but I really feel like Jon did a good job overall with the lyrical content on the entire record.
Frank: From a writing perspective, then, would you say that the lyrics and vocals were secondary? I’m not saying unessential, because they’re obviously essential, but they’re secondary to the writing process?
Robby: No. The only reason that it turned out like that was because we had all the music written before Jon even really started to dig into what he was going to do on the record. It’s hard to say exactly why that happened. It was awhile ago. I think Jon had all kinds of crazy shit going on at the time. This time around, definitely, the melodies and lyrics will be more integrated into the entire writing process and not just something that’s done afterwards in a secondary manner.
Frank: Alright. As a guitar player, how do you approach your song constructions? For example, do you have a concept or feeling you want to get across musically, first? Or do you start with a riff or with a lead?
Robby: It’s really different for every song, but for me, yeah, it usually starts off with some riff that I think is cool. I definitely still have a ways to go as a songwriter. Sometimes, it’s hard for me to just sit down and build an entire song by myself. For me, as a guitar player, it definitely starts with some part that I think is cool or some keyboard part that I wrote.
Frank: Also as a guitarist, coming from that perspective, do you feel more satisfied from lead playing or rhythm playing?
Robby: It could be both. It could be either, as long as I’m enjoying playing it. There are some lead sections on the record that I dig, and then there are some really cool rhythm sections that I wrote, so it could be either.
Frank: So, no bias one way or the other?
Robby: Sometimes, it’s dangerous getting into that mindset for me. I’ll think about some lead that’s coming up, and I’ll be like “Alright, here it comes…” And then I just fuck it up.
Frank. (laughs) Haahha. So what is your favorite guitar technique that you utilize in the songs?
Robby: I found myself, on the last record, doing a good chunk of finger-picking on electric guitar.
Frank: Lindsey Buckingham style.
Robby: Yeah, which I found, in the studio, was something I needed to work on as far as dynamics go. I wasn’t really thinking about, how, when you’re finger-picking, this finger you’re hitting harder than this other finger. I found myself enjoying a lot of the finger-picking stuff, and I’m actually writing a bunch of stuff that is centered around that technique.
Frank: Awesome. I would not have pegged you for that. That’s really cool.
Robby: Yeah. There will probably be a lot more of that on the next record.
Frank: As one of the more balanced bands, these days, do you find that you have to constantly restrain your playing to fit the songs, or do you find that you have to push yourself to make the arrangements more intricate?
Robby: There’s definitely a lot of pushing. Definitely no restraining. I’m not a trained musician at all, so I’m not super intuitive when it comes to technique or theory or anything like that. When stuff comes out, I wouldn’t say it’s to the maximum of our ability, but it’s not stuff that we’re having to dumb down.
Frank: Within the band, and I know you were mentioning how Mike Lessard has all these different ideas for the parts for the band, do you guys write parts for the others in the band and then work it out later as a general rule?
Robby: Oh yeah. Definitely. For example, we’ll put a section together and it will have everybody’s parts already written out. Then we’ll give that to our drummer, Joey. Of course, we’re guitar players writing drum parts, and perceiving them as this MIDI file on a computer… Then we give it to our drummer and he’s like “I can’t play this!” Then he’ll re-write it in a playable fashion. It usually ends up making the part more interesting, having the parts changed around by the people playing them.
There’s definitely a lot of sections that we’ll write where one person writes all of the instrumentation for it, but it ends up being changed around. Not a whole lot, but enough to where it has four or five people’s fingerprints on it, opposed to where it was before with just one person’s. It ends up making it cooler in the end.
Frank: Right. When you’re not on tour, what do you normally do? Since this is the last date and all, what are you going to do now that this tour is wrapped? You have about two weeks of time before you guys hit Australia.
Robby: We’re probably going to dive right into rehearsing for Australia, because we have twenty minutes of music that we’re going to be adding to the set. That’s probably three songs or something that we’re going to have to rehearse. With Mike, there’s a lot of songs that we haven’t played yet. We’ll be doing that, and since he’s in town, we’ll probably spend a good chunk of time working on some new music. We’ve got a couple of little recording rigs set up, so we’ll bounce around from my house to Cam’s (Maynard, guitarist) house to the practice space and write stuff. I’m kind of stoked to get going on that.
Frank: So you’re going to stay active even in your down time.
Robby: Yeah, it’s definitely going to be a busy couple of weeks. Plus, all the preparing for international travel, which is a goddamn nightmare.
Frank: Yeah. Just don’t make the same mistake I did. I took an inactive bullet round on a keychain with me.
Robby: Uh oh.
Frank: You can’t have it. They took it away, put me on this list, they started writing down my details, “Is this the correct address for you?”, they’re phoning some guy, and a sheriff’s in front of me…
Frank: I’m like “I don’t even have a gun!” “This bullet can’t be fired!” (laugh) Now I’m on some watch list…
Robby: Now you’re on some government list now… International travel is just a fucking nightmare, especially when you have six other dudes with you and you’re lugging around all this gear and guitars. It’ll be fun, though. It’s Australia.
Frank: Do you normally have good experiences in Australia as a band?
Robby: We’ve been there once, and it felt like we were starting over. It was almost like a DIY tour. The guy bringing us over had the resources to do so. He booked all of the shows himself. Some of the shows were, like, five people… Melbourne was cool. There was probably a good 150 kids there. This time, obviously, we’re with BTBAM and it’ll be way more legit. I’m stoked about it.
Frank: Onwards and upwards, as always.
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