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ysrhythmia may seem out of place next to its death metal and grindcore labelmates on Relapse Records, but closer inspection of this instrumental rock trio reveals chops aplenty, eerie tones, and an appreciation of the almighty riff that could only come from a steady childhood diet of Slayer. Over time, the band has earned a live reputation for not only caving in craniums, but also tickling them. If you witness a Dysrhythmia show, be prepared for the most intense displays of odd-metered air guitar since Rush’s Hemispheres tour.
After two self-released albums, the band signed to Relapse for 2003's Pretest, an album that was recorded by Steve Albini in his trademark "live in the room" style. For this year's Barriers and Passages, the band also tracked live. However, this time the band used famed engineer Martin Bisi (Cibo Matto, Helmet, John Zorn), who not only allowed overdubs but also slaved over them in the mix. The result was Dysrhythmia's sharpest-sounding, most concise album to date, with gleaming clean tones, twangy riffs, muscular bass, and deep textures filtered through modern classical, jazz, ambient, and even black metal influences. Stylus asked guitarist Kevin Hufnagel to explain various things Dysrhythmic.
You guys just played the CMJ Relapse Records showcase in New York City. What was that like?
It was cool; it was our third or fourth time playing it. I had more fun this year than in previous times. I think it was because I liked the venue we played at this time better than the one they used to have it at. CMJ is kind of nuts, because there's thousands of bands in the city all in the same night playing everywhere. Crowds come and go, because there's so much going on—everyone wants to see everything.
What makes this event CMJ as opposed to a regular show?
To me it feels like just playing another show. CMJ: it's kind of a big networking thing. I don't really think about it that much, but that's why a lot of people go, to meet other people in the industry. A lot of unsigned bands try to play it, hoping that label people will see them. Mainly, though, it's for labels to showcase their bands.
You guys recently toured with The Dillinger Escape Plan. How did that go?
That was excellent. That's something we'd been hoping to do for a while, so that was good to finally have it happen. It was kind of a shorter tour; it was only, like, two weeks. Dillinger at that time were out already with a band called A.F.I., a huge pop-punk band. They were playing huge arenas in major cities, and then they had two weeks off on their own. They weren't allowed to play major cities, because they were playing [them] with A.F.I. So that tour was a little strange because we were playing really podunk towns in the middle of nowhere, out in the Midwest. It was still good—it was good to play some place totally in the middle of nowhere and still have 150 or 200 kids show up. Their audience was pretty appreciative. A lot of them didn't know who we were at all. That was the point of going out with a band like that—to play for new people. It was a very young crowd.
You share bassist Colin Marston with [avant-prog metal band] Behold...the Arctopus. When Dysrhythmia tours with them, do you ever feel jealous on that account?
No, not at all. Behold…the Arctopus was his band before Dysrhythmia, anyway. I always used to go and see them before he joined the band. So it's not like he's leaving our band to do something else. If anything, we took him away!
So you're the homewrecker here.
No, no. I met Colin right when Dysrhythmia was first starting back in the late '90s. He had a different instrumental band at that time, and they played a show with us, and that's how I met him. We kept in contact through the years, and we started a band, Byla, before he joined Dysrhythmia. So we were already working on music together. And when Clayton [Ingerson, original bassist] decided to leave, we were either going to break up or see if Colin [was] interested. We had a long talk about, "If you join, will you really have the time to do this?" He was pretty busy with Behold…the Arctopus, and I understand that's his main thing; it's his baby. So I wanted to make sure he could actually do both [bands], and so far he's been able to.
When you toured with Yakuza you got Bruce Lamont to sit in [on saxophone] on "Seal/Breaker/Void." Technically, how did that arise? Did you give him sheet music?
No, not at all. Bruce is pretty used to jumping onstage and playing with people [and] just improvising. That was just a song where I [thought] that would be really cool to see what happened if he did that. It got better as the tour went on.
Normally your music seems very controlled. Was it weird to relinquish control temporarily like that?
Well, the part he was playing on was the outro, which is a repetitive part anyway. It has that bass melody and it's like the groove section of the new record.
Yeah, kinda. I'm not improvising much, I'm just playing a riff. It's just a background for him to explore on. It was kind of a simplistic part [anyway].
Let's talk about the album. What was working with Martin Bisi like, and how was that different from working with Steve Albini?
On the surface, I thought it would be pretty similar before we went in because they both deal with analog recording, and they've both been doing it for a long time. But actually it was pretty different. Martin's a little more excitable. He drinks tons of coffee and is, like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah!" while Albini's really laidback. It was kind of cool to have that energy [because] sometimes in the studio it's easy to get frustrated if something's not going right. Mixing with him was way more detailed than [with] Steve Albini. I don't want to say anything bad, but it almost seemed like he cared more than Albini as far as how our record was going to turn out. We went, like, every 15 seconds in a song at a time making sure that everything was being heard at all times.
Did that drive you nuts?
It kind of did at the time. It really drove our Jeff [Eber], our drummer, nuts. He was like, "Agggh!" and would just fall asleep on the couch. I [too] had never worked that way before. But Colin, on the other hand—he's a recording engineer, so he's used to working with other bands that are super-picky and analyze every single note while they're mixing. It didn't bug him so much. At the time, I was worried about running out of time, because we only had so much money and time to do [it]. But once it was all done, I was happy with the way it came out.
Did you guys track live for this album?
Yeah. The mixing took way more time than the tracking. The tracking took, like, two and a half days. The mixing took the whole rest of the time, which was [about] six days.
That's amazing, because you hear about things like this Guns 'n' Roses album that's taken 13 years to make.
See, that's what happens when you have too much money and too much time. I like to work with deadlines because [they] make you work hard. I think you get lazy if you have too much time and money. You start to become obsessed with every little detail, and I think that'll hurt the music. I think it's best to get the raw energy right away, when you know you gotta do it. The music will come out better; it'll be more real.
How are Dysrhythmia songs constructed? Are they composed or do they arise from improvisation?
Lately they're more composed, whereas in the beginning they came out of improvs more. I think some of that has to do with Colin. He's not so much into improvising. He's very into writing out parts or working on his own on music and then presenting it to the band. Whereas in the beginning with our old bass player we would sometimes get together in the basement and just start playing. Without even talking, we'd pick up our instruments, tune, and start playing. Usually we'd have a tape recorder running in case we stumbled across any ideas that sounded good. Now we write on our own, bring the part to rehearsal, [and] play it for each other. [But] it's very collaborative, no matter what. Even if one person is writing the song, we're still telling each other what to do, telling the drummer what to play. Not that I can actually play drums, but I always have ideas for drums. Usually [the drummer] will take my idea and make it way better. It's funny, he doesn't play guitar, [but] he'll tell me, "Kevin, no, don't play that, play something else." And I'm, like, "Well, what?" He's, like, "I don't know, but something else." We talk to each other in really primitive terms, making noises and hand gestures. [It's] totally nonsense, but somehow we understand each other.
So you guys aren't talking in terms of melodies and chords.
Not usually. The only time it gets to be technical talk at rehearsals is if we're talking about time signatures. Sometimes that needs to be spoken about verbally. But for the most part we're just using our ears.
I noticed that a lot of your playing is above the 12th fret. Where does this come from?
I like the extreme contrast of "BASS" and me playing really high, that contrast of high and low. You might notice, too, whenever the bass is playing really high, I'm usually playing really low. I like to have that switch up between our instruments.
Describe your signal chain.
I'm definitely not a gearhead. I meet a lot of people at shows that want to know what I use, and I don't even know what to tell them. I usually just show it to them because I don't know what it is. There's not much to it. I play American Fender Standard Strats—a couple of them that I keep in different tunings—through some old Boss effects processor into a Laney solid-state head into a Marshall cab. I have a MIDI foot controller so I can switch sounds with my feet. That's all I use.
"Sleep Decayer" ends with some chiming sounds and a wall of noise. How did you get those sounds?
There's not much to it—it's just delay. I'm playing a lot of harmonics over the fourth fret, which is a little hard to get harmonics there. Usually when you want to play harmonics on the guitar, you get them over the 12th, seventh, and fifth frets. Those are the easy spots to get harmonics. But you can also get them over the third, fourth, and ninth frets if you hold your pick a certain way and attack [the string] right. That "Sleep Decayer" ending that you're talking about—that was something that happened spontaneously. We were playing the end of the song, and we were, like, "Where do we go?" Colin hit this huge bass note and I suddenly came in and hit these harmonics. On the record, there's some acoustic guitar doubling the electric, so that's what gives it the chiming [quality].
Do terms like "math rock" and "prog rock" bother you? There's a strong geek connotation with those terms.
Yeah. But I can't deny it, so it's fine. [Laughs] I guess that's what it is. On the surface, that's probably an easy genre to throw us in, but I really think there is more to our sound than just that. It's not like we're just hung up on being math-y all the time. There are a lot of other influences in our music, but they're not as obvious. So people immediately latch on to "math rock" and compare us to Don Caballero and stuff.
What influences or parts of your sound are outside of math rock?
Well, on the new record, for instance, there's a real subtle black metal influence on "Seal/Breaker/Void." Colin's into a lot of the super-underground Norwegian black metal stuff. The real noisy part [in the song] that's all fast strumming—that's the [black metal] influence there. A lot of the ambient parts in our record are influenced by ambient music. Of course, Colin and I have Byla as our outlet for our ambient interests, but it also finds its way into Dysrhythmia. A song like "Luminous," which is just a solo bass piece—that was influenced [by ambient music]. There's a band called Rothko from England that [plays] ambient, spacious music with three bass players. They've influenced us. I love a lot of the old 4AD records—This Mortal Coil, Dead Can Dance, Cocteau Twins, and all that stuff. I grew up listening to that music, [but] at the same time I was listening to metal. I grew up with Slayer and Dead Can Dance at the same time.
You guys get compared to a lot of bands. Which comparisons annoy you the most?
Primus. That's the one. Nothing against those guys, but I've never been a fan. Seeing that comparison...it doesn't happen so much anymore, but in the beginning I saw it a lot. When people compare us to bands that I either never liked or never listened to, I'm, like, "We don't sound like that!" Who knows what people hear. Maybe we do [sound like Primus]. But I don't think we do. I think the Primus thing comes from…Les Claypool, he's a really innovative bass player. When people hear prominent bass guitar in a rock or metal band, for some reason they think of Primus. There's not a lot of rock or metal bands where the bass is really active and heard. Plus, the guitar player in Primus does play a lot of weird, high, dissonant guitar parts. I guess [the similarity] is there.
You've started a side project with Bruce from Yakuza and Charlie [Zeleny, drummer] from Behold...the Arctopus. How did that arise and what does it sound like?
That arises from just being on tour together. And having Bruce sit in with Dysrhythmia on that one song—it was fun to play with saxophone, an instrument I'm not used to playing with. Once we got back from that tour and all our bands had some time off…Bruce lives in Chicago, but he was coming to New York anyway to visit some friends, so he was, like, "We should get together and just play and see what happens. If it's bad, we'll throw it out, and if it's good, then maybe we'll try to do something." We've only gotten together twice so far, because we're all spread out. At first it was a little rough and not so hot-sounding. After a while we started to latch onto something. We have two songs that are finished, mixed and everything. So far what we have finished—it's kind of mellow, it's not super-crazy like Behold…the Arctopus is. It's a little more like…are you familiar with ECM Records?
Yes, the sort-of-jazz label.
Yeah, yeah. It reminds me of some of that stuff, like nocturnal jazz. It's kind of mellow and dark and real spacious and lush-sounding. It's cool to play.
It's been half a year since Barriers and Passages came out. How do you feel about the record now, and what will you do differently in the future?
I'm still happy with [the record]. In the future…we're either going to record with Martin again or we might try to do it at home with Colin. His studio sounds great, and the advantage of doing it ourselves would be [that] we'd have more time and could work on our own schedule. But as I was saying before, sometimes it's bad to have too much time. I'm also interested in adding more textures to our songs. That's something we touched on with the latest record, more overdubs and stuff. I used to always want to keep [everything] stripped-down and not do anything on the record we couldn't do live. But now I'm thinking, "Why not?" If I really hear something that makes the song that much more effective, why not put it on there, even if I can't do it live? I think that with our previous album, Pretest—when it first came out, some people were like, "I bought the record and it was just like hearing you guys live." I think they were saying that kind of as an insult, like, "I wanted something more. I don't want to [just] hear what you sound like live on a record." [Playing live] was the purpose of that record. But I could see what they were saying. I don't know what we'll do next until we do it.
Dysrhythmia @ MySpace
Byla @ MySpace