Between the Buried and Me’s Paul Waggoner on ‘Coma Ecliptic,’ Sounding Like an Orchestra + More
Between the Buried and Me just released their seventh studio album, Coma Ecliptic, and its yet another epic adventure into the world of sonic science-fiction. We recently spoke with BTBAM guitarist Paul Waggoner about the album, delving deep into its concept, how Between the Buried and Me aim to sound like an orchestra, the band performing the entire album live and much more.
BTBAM fans want to know the deepest intricacies into the band's work, so we covered all bases with Paul Waggoner. Fans will eventually hear Coma Ecliptic from front-to-back in concert, but not on the band's Summer tour. Waggoner explains why below. Also, the guitarist chronicles the journey into finding the perfect tones and mixes for the album while explaining how BTBAM aims to sound like one entity rather than a group of singular musicians.
Enjoy our chat with Paul Waggoner below!
Obviously, the new album is not called Parallax III. It doesn't seem to follow that chronology, but is it connected with those two records in any way?
Not at all. Total fresh start.
Is it potentially a beginning of a new series?
I don't think so. I think when Tommy [Rogers, frontman] wrote the story for this one, I think it was a very much beginning/end that are both defined in the record. I don't think anything will continue from it. I think there's always little nuggets he likes to bring back from album to album, but generally speaking, it stands on its own. There won't be any kind of follow up.
I interviewed you guys a while ago and I remember Tommy was talking about potentially ditching the space themes, but this album feels totally spacey. What was the process in deciding where to go?
This one is more… I guess it's not spacey, really. It felt sort of sci-fi. I guess over the years we felt that our music, with the way it sounds, it lends itself towards sci-fi or some kind of fictional story. With this one, we had already started writing the music for it, we were already noticing there were going to be a lot of dynamic shifts within the music. We knew pretty quickly it was going to lend itself towards a story of some sort. Tommy pitched this idea of this guy, or this particular character that exists in a future time, who willingly goes into a coma in order to escape his current life and own journey through his past lives to hopefully find something better than what he is currently living. Then he has the option to either stay in one of those lives or keep continuing the journey or even he can opt to be woken up and return to his present day life. So, we thought it was a cool story and with the dynamic shifts in the music we thought it would reflect the musical direction we were going in.
The story was all Tommy. We thought it was cool. I think we like to use sci-fi elements to try and make a statement that is relevant to people in today's world. With this album, I guess that statement is something along the lines of being grateful or thankful for the life that you do have. It may not be perfect, but it's often times it could be a lot worse. To quote the old cliche, "Make the best of what you have." We just like to make statements through a sci-fi vehicle, I suppose.
The Parallax EP -- creating it and recording it was somewhat chaotic between you guys, and Parallax II was a really smooth, great experience. How would you describe the writing and recording process compared to those two pieces of work?
This one was much more akin to the Parallax II writing. The first Parallax was extremely weird for us. No. 1, it was an EP so it's much shorter in length than what we're used to so we're trying to cram all these musical ideas into a relatively short timespan. It seemed very rushed, we recorded it in Canada. We were really in kind of an uncomfortable situation, which is not necessarily bad, but it was just a different situation than we're used to. Parallax II, we reverted back to our comfort zone of writing and recording everything in North Carolina.
So with the new record, Coma Ecliptic, it was much more like Parallax II in that we wrote and recorded everything in North Carolina with Jamie King. The whole process was much more of what we were used to. It felt very natural. Nothing was forced. We had a lot of time to do it, we didn't feel rushed or like we were trying to beat a deadline. It was a smooth, comfortable process that we could go at our own pace and at the end of the day, the product reflects that. We were able to get everything done that we wanted to get done. Musically, it sounds very complete. It sounds very worked out and thorough. Same with the vocals and lyrics and even the artwork. We had time to really hone in on every little detail of the process.
Every fan wants Jamie involved. Your partnership is awesome.
It is, he's like a sixth member of the band. He gets what we're trying to do. It's a good feeling to have when you're recording an album.
Are you guys planning on playing this one front to back like you have with a bunch of records in the past?
Yeah, we are. I think we'll wait a little longer to do it. I think with the last few records we played the whole album right after it came out. It wasn't necessarily a bad thing, but this time we wanted to give people the opportunity to digest it a little more. I think we'll wait until later in the year to do a full scale, front-to-back live show of the album. We're definitely going to do it. That's how it's meant to be heard. We wrote the record as a continuous piece, like we have been doing, so we want to present it that way in a live setting. I think this summer we'll probably not do that and let the record marinate in people's minds a bit and do it later in the year.
That's probably a good plan. A lot of your records are very dense, so you have to stick with them a bit to understand them.
This one is so long, I think it's 70 minutes long. On top of that, it is dense. There's a lot going on. It takes a few listens and some time for all that stuff to really settle in.
When I saw you guys play Parallax II, it was maybe close to a year after it was released. It was super rewarding because I knew all 72 minutes of it.
[Laughs] Yeah, you don't want to feel like you're just playing a bunch of new songs up there for people that they haven't really heard before or don't 100-percent know. You want people to be familiar with what you're playing if you're playing an entire album like that especially.
In the past you've spent a lot of time and energy in finding the perfect tone for your guitar. How long did it take you this time to find the right tone for this record?
That's a good question. We put way more time into it. We probably spent an entire day in the studio just getting a rhythm tone that we were happy with. A lot of it was because when we wrote these songs, we knew that musically and instrumentally they were so dense. It's almost always keyboards going on, of course the guitar lines a lot of the time are very involved. The drums are very busy some times, there was more of an emphasis on melody and harmony. We really felt like, man, this record; the clarity has to be of utmost importance. Everything has to be heard at all times. We didn't want to drown the guitars in gain and effects, so we really put a lot of work into trying to find a tone that was heavy, obviously, but also in terms of the EQ, really fit well in the mix. Man, like I said, I spent a whole day trying to find that balance.
We kind of lucked out. Dusty and I, we play very different guitars with very different pickups so they're voiced very differently. So the combination of those guitars, his guitars on one side and mine on the other, it really balanced out and made for this really big guitar sound without having to use a ton of gain or low end; things that kind of muddy up a mix. We definitely put a lot of time into it. Any guitar player will tell you finding the perfect tone is a lifelong journey. For this record, I think we found something that works really well. Even for the other parts, clean guitar parts and leads, we took it part by part and really analyzed it. We went through it with a fine-toothed comb to make sure that we got the perfect tone for every individual part; something that worked really well with all the other instruments. It was about complimenting the bass, drums and vocals as opposed to, "Oh man, that's real great guitar tone. Let's just do that." It's not about that. Sometimes it can sound great on its own but once you put it in there with everything else, you realize it's very distracting or not complimentary. It's really about working well with the other instruments.
That made me think of your evolution as a band. I think with each album you sound more and more like a single entity rather than a group of musicians. Is that a goal of yours? To be one well-oiled machine?
Absolutely. That's a great way to put it. I never really thought about it that way. I think the way we're writing music now, it's not so much about writing a good riff or writing a cool solo, it's about orchestrating all these parts so that they sound good together. In that sense, yeah, we're trying to sound like a band. We're trying to sound like an orchestra, if you will, where every part is designed to fit with all the other parts. That's a different route to take, really, especially in this genre of music where it's often all about the guitar riff or the drumbeat or vocal line. In our case, especially on this record, the big picture is always the emphasis. We want everything to be heard and everything to sound good together. In that sense, I think you're right. We're trying to sound like one thing.
Tommy has been doing some solo stuff. There are different parts on this album, especially on keyboard and with digital sounds, that remind me of his solo stuff. Do you think Tommy brought some of his inspiration from his solo project into this record?
Yeah. In a general sense, we're all growing as musicians. Obviously, he is, as well. Every record that we do, everyone kind of brings more of themselves into the picture, so I think absolutely. Him writing his solo records, I'm sure enlightened him on some new things that he's good at doing and he brings those to the table for BTBAM. So yeah, you'll know when you hear the record. I'm sure you noticed, there's a ton of keyboards. There's a lot of it. Again, that's him growing and knowing what he can play in different parts. A lot of times in the past, there was just no room for keyboards, sonically. The guitars were either too heavy or too complicated and it was like, well, you can't put keyboards in there, it's just going to sound like a total mess. Now with the way we write, there is room for that kind of stuff and Tommy is getting better at knowing what is appropriate to play in certain parts.
A lot of times, some of the parts Dan [Briggs, bass] writes are already orchestrated. There's a bass part, guitar part, keyboard part… same with a lot of the stuff I'm writing. I'm thinking of all these instruments at the same time instead of just writing a guitar riff. Everybody is thinking of the big picture and I think Tommy is doing that as well. I think it definitely helps him. Every recording experience teaches you something and I think doing that solo stuff certainly helped him.
I find that when I listen to your records for the first time, I think more this one than anyone else, I tend to, at first, feel confused trying to take it all in. I can't put my finger on it, but then there's just something that draws me back in to listen to it again and again and eventually it clicks. Is that the desired response that you want from your fans?
Yeah, definitely. Obviously, our music is not for everybody. They're really long, complicated songs. There's a lot going on. We know that in one listen the song isn't going to be stuck in your head. [Laughs]. We try to write music that takes a little effort to listen to and understand; something that you can listen to a year from now and pick up something new out of it. So many albums are great, but you listen to them a few times and then you're like, "That's it." I think we try to write music that is more timeless. You can listen to a lot of times over a large span of time and get something new out of it every time.
Like you said, it takes a little work. It's not easy to just listen to a 70-minute album with all this stuff going on and write when you're done, "That's awesome!" It's not like that. You really do have to find all the nuggets and then go back and listen again. Then you pick up some more nuggets. I think that's how it is. It's kind of like a David Lynch movie. Each time you watch it you're like, "I think I like this but I don't really know what the hell happened." Then you watch it again, then you start to get it. Eventually you get it, or maybe you never get it, but there's something about it that keeps you coming back to it. I think that's what we're trying to do.