Interview: Periphery Discuss Their New Album, 'Periphery II: This Time It's Personal'
This interview originally appeared in the September 2012 issue of Guitar World. Pick it up in our online store here.
Once upon a time, video games were considered the nerdy domain of geeks, freaks and social misfits. Over the past couple of decades, however, the $65-billion gaming industry has become as ubiquitous and all-American as baseball and apple pie.
The long-term cultural and psychological impact of gaming and the relentless pursuit of “the next level” will undoubtedly fuel countless sociology books and psychiatric papers, but for now one only has to listen to the ambitious, cutting-edge prog-rock of Periphery for a glimpse of how gaming is shaping art and music in the 21st century.
The band’s leader and primary composer, guitarist Misha Mansoor, is struck by the notion. “I hadn’t given it much thought,” he says, “but I would say video game music has had a very strong influence on my writing. Nobuo Uematsu, who composed the music to the majority of tiles in the Final Fantasy video game series, is an incredible talent. His sense of melody and use of texture is definitely a big reference point for me.”
Guitar virtuoso and recent Periphery addition Mark Holcomb sees parallels as well. “The band is always talking about getting to the next level in terms of our playing skills. We’re all huge gaming dorks, so I can’t deny that the complexity of our music and dedication to our playing has some connection to that relentless pursuit of ‘beating’ the game.”
Adds Mansoor, “I remember learning John Petrucci’s Dream Theater solos back when I was just trying to get better at the guitar. I’d sit down for hours, and in many ways it was like trying to clear a level. I got the same sort of satisfaction when I mastered one of his licks. That kind of hyperfocus used in gaming definitely transferred into how I practiced the guitar. Playing a great lick or solo was never about showing off; it was more about the challenge of getting better and reaching new heights.”
A burning ambition to break on through to the other side has been evident throughout Periphery’s history. The group burst onto the progressive rock scene in early 2010 with the three-guitar attack of Mansoor, Jake Bowen and Alex Bois, the multi-octave singing of Spencer Sotelo, and the impossibly agile rhythm section of bassist Tom Murphy and virtuoso drummer Matt Halpern.
Their impact was immediate and electrifying: highlighted by the “djent”-metal signature of high-gain palm-muted guitars, Periphery’s highly idiosyncratic sound spawned two underground hits—“Icarus Lives!” and the soaring “Jetpacks Was Yes!”—as well as scores of imitators. With its mixture of aggressive seven-string guitars and glitchy electronica, punctuated with ethereal New Age and off-kilter polyrhythms, Periphery’s music was so stylistically set and distinctive that it was hard to see how it could further evolve.
But like any good group of gamers, Periphery has spent the past two years building solid strategies to move on to bigger, better and more challenging environments. Their second album, Periphery II: This Time It’s Personal, is a perfect reflection of their desire to advance their music.
The album is structurally tighter and compositionally more sophisticated than their debut. The ebbs and flows between the heavy sections and the more ambient textures are less forced, and the group has cut back on the chugging “djent” moments that threatened to turn it into a novelty act. The album features two new members—guitarist Holcomb, who replaced Bois, and bassist Adam “Nolly” Getgood—and it is the band’s first release to feature live drums and live orchestral elements.
A battery of superstar guest soloists also adds fresh color to the proceedings while adding credibility to the claim that Periphery is an important new voice in progressive rock. Dream Theater’s John Petrucci, Guthrie Govan and Wes Hauch of the Faceless all dazzle as they trade some of this year’s trickiest solos with new guitar hero Mansoor.
“We invited them to play for pure bucket list happiness,” Mansoor says. “It’s just a thrill to have them on our album. All three of those guys are guitarists’ guitarists. We can all solo in this band, but no one can play like them and it’s very cool to have their sound on this recording.”
In the following interview, Mansoor, Bowen and newbie Holcomb expound on their expanding universe and explain how listening to Periphery’s new album might actually make you more intelligent.
GUITAR WORLD: A lot has happened to Periphery since last year. You released an EP and replaced two band members. Then it was announced that you were releasing two albums simultaneously, but in the end you released only one.
MISHA MANSOOR The whole point of the EP was to give people something to chew on while we recorded a new album, which we knew we would need a lot of time for.
JAKE BOWEN We had an ungodly amount of new material, and initially we wanted to do two full-length albums. One was going to be a normal collection of songs and the other was going to be a concept album. But once we realized the magnitude of that undertaking, we realized we needed to slow down a little bit.
MANSOOR We tried to set aside six months to work on both projects, which would’ve given us plenty of time, but then we were offered an opportunity to tour with Dream Theater. As far as we were concerned, when you get a chance to play with Dream Theater, you rearrange your plans!
What was it like touring with them?
MARK HOLCOMB One of the things I really took away from watching a band at their level is that it takes dedication. They warm up in their dressing rooms for hours every night before they go onstage. It’s a harsh reminder that there’s work involved and there’s a reason they’re on top.
Before we talk about the new album, could you expand a little bit on the upcoming concept album?
MANSOOR I always thought that it would be really cool to compose an album of music in the same way that you’d score a movie. In other words, the lyrics and storyline would come first and the music would be almost secondary to the plot. The arrangements are going to be very unconventional, even by our standards.
While not a concept album, Periphery II has some reoccurring themes.
BOWEN It certainly does. The first, the seventh and the last track are the beginning, middle and end of a story. They share lyrical themes, melodies and guitar parts.
MANSOOR It’s a little dorky, but the three songs—“Muramasa,” “Ragnarok” and “Masamune”—refer to three swords from a Final Fantasy video game. Muramasa and Masamune were Japanese legendary sword makers, and Ragnarok is a Scandinavian reference to the end of the world—Viking stuff. That’s the cool explanation…but really we just ripped off Final Fantasy!
You’ve recently undergone some changes in band members.
BOWEN Things didn’t work out with Alex Bois, and Mark had been playing in a band that Misha produced called Haunted Shores. They had written some really great songs together, so when it came time to pick somebody to fill Alex’s immense shoes, Mark was an obvious choice for us. It also helped that he lived right down the road from us.
We had a headlining gig in Australia last summer and Mark’s challenge was to learn an hour-long set of ours by ear, and he completely nailed it. As a player, he’s set a new standard for the band.
HOLCOMB They gave me the instrumental version of the album, and I just picked it apart. Sometimes I’d have to refer to videos of live performances on YouTube to get hand positions. For example, Alex’s parts on “Frak the Gods” were a little buried and they were also very fast, so I’d run video in slow motion and see where his fingers were. It was a lot of work, but in the end, it was one of the main reasons that they hired me.
On the new album, you invited outside players to solo on some of the tracks. You have three excellent guitar players in your band, why did you feel compelled to go outside the group?
MANSOOR My top three guitarists of all time are John Petrucci, Guthrie Govan and Allan Holdsworth, so it’s always been a dream of mine to play with those guys. We weren’t able to get in contact with Allan, but we reached out to John and Guthrie and got them to participate.
I play the first solo on “Have a Blast” and Guthrie plays the second. On “Erised,” once again, I play the first solo and John plays the second, and Wes Hauch from the Faceless plays on “Mile Zero.” Wes is the best guitarist that no one’s heard of yet, and I guarantee that you will have him in your magazine very soon. And when you hear what he can do you will understand why we had him as a guest soloist. He’s unfairly good. In some ways, his solo might be the biggest surprise.
Despite the guest spots, there’s so much stylistic continuity on the album, it almost feels like one continuous piece of music.
HOLCOMB We intentionally have the songs spill into each other so you lose track of what you are listening to. We want people to lose themselves in it.
MANSOOR It’s our way of rebelling against this short attention span that is destroying the album format. We figured if people can’t tell where the track ends then they can’t stop the song.
The structures of your songs aren’t tied into anybody’s traditional notion of verse, chorus, verse, but they do have their own internal logic that is consistent. Your ideas aren’t classical, but they are symphonic.
MANSOOR I really admire bands like Dream Theater and composers like Devin Townsend and Nobuo Uematsu, who are good at writing themes and bringing them back with a twist. Their music evolves, but it doesn’t ramble.
I hear a lot of music that has no regard for big picture—it just feels like one riff tacked on to another. It really creates another dimension of emotion when you can create a musical roller-coaster ride that is clear in its intent.
Amidst the virtuosity, the album has plenty of hooky choruses, so you are completely capable of writing a fairly radio-friendly song. Is that something you are opposed to?
MANSOOR I don’t think it really occurs to us. We just write music that sounds cool to us.
Dream Theater had a hit with “Pull Me Under,” and the classic progressive band Yes had several hits, including “Roundabout” and “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” They managed to write for the radio and maintain their dignity.
MANSOOR I don’t think we’re against writing a radio song, but I have a hard time imagining sitting down to do it. It’s funny: many of the album’s most commercial moments come together in such a weird way. One of the catchiest choruses on this album is on the song “Ji.” We wrote the instrumental backing tracks first and gave them to Spencer to write lyrics and sing over. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what he was going to do because it was so weird harmonically. Somehow he reeled it in and was able to make it really hooky with his vocal line. That’s part of his genius—he can write a great melody over anything.
“Scarlet” is probably our most conventional, because it has a verse-chorus-verse-chorus arrangement. When we were working on it we noticed that the first couple of riffs were pretty catchy, and we decided to follow that—we thought it would be an interesting exercise to make each part ear candy. That’s probably the closest we’ve come to writing something commercial, but it certainly wasn’t premeditated.
Your music often features three or four independent melodies that happen simultaneously. There have been studies that have shown that listening to Bach’s four-part inventions or music that regularly employs two or more independent melodic voices stimulates your brain. Will listening to Periphery make you smarter?
BOWEN [laughs] Yes, I think it can! I think if the rhythms and the melodies are stimulating enough, you might notice things about music that you haven’t really considered before. Any musical intelligence I might have is from listening to bands that play stimulating music.
MANSOOR I’m not sure whether our albums will make you smarter, but I’d say that it probably doesn’t hurt your brain to be challenged with something you like.
Is it me, or does this album have less “djent” moments in it?
BOWEN It’s not you…
MANSOOR Well, where it happens, we tried to make it count.
Jake you were quick to say, “Yes, we did cut back on that.”
BOWEN Yes, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.
MANSOOR That’s funny. I didn’t even know Jake felt that way! That’s fine, and that’s probably a big part of why the “djent-y” moments are a little less evident. But it’s also probably an example of how we work. We don’t really talk that much about our music. We just play and get excited over ideas and riffs.
On the previous album, Misha wrote most of the music. It’s been mentioned that this album was more collaborative. Can you give me some examples of how that worked? How about “Have a Blast”?
MANSOOR I was jamming around on the opening series of riffs forever and I remember being very intimidated by them because they were a little all over the place. But I would pull them out on occasion and play around with them to see if anything developed. I got up to the two-minute mark, right after that first solo and that bit right after it, but that’s all I could come up with. So the beginning of “Have a Blast” just sort of sat around for two years. It was a little frustrating, because the initial idea was cool, but I just don’t know what to do with it. Mark came over one day and we just put our heads together.
HOLCOMB We were on our U.S. tour last September and I was soundchecking on a couple of riffs that happened to be at that same tempo as the ideas Misha had been working on. I made the connection, and soon we were on our way to a six-minute song.
What about “Facepalm Mute”? It’s one of your more “metal” songs.
MANSOOR Our singer wanted to write a heavy song for the band and that was the result. Spencer’s not a great guitar player, but he can play his riffs and he can record himself well enough to where you would never be able to tell. We heard it and we were like, “Dude, this is awesome. We didn’t know you wrote metal!” I produce other bands, so I’m used to working with raw ideas and arranging them. He showed me how to play the riffs and I expanded on it, but I wouldn’t have written a song like that if he hadn’t brought in those ideas.
Can you point to as something that is specifically new territory for Periphery?
MANSOOR Yeah, there’s this section in the middle of “Ji” that is probably one of my favorite moments on the album by virtue that we’ve never done anything like it before. Mark and I composed what I would call a “rhythm solo,” where the rhythm parts just evolve, layer and never repeat.
You guys have been one of the champions of the Fractal Axe-Fx system, an all-in-one amp modeler, preamp and effects processor. Is that still your primary sound source?
MANSOOR Yes, our work with Fractal is still evolving. “Erised” was the result of an experiment with the Axe-Fx. One night I was playing guitar to my girlfriend, who was playing video games. I thought, If she’s going to listen to me, I better play something pretty. So I dialed in a really trippy-sounding patch, and it ended up being that sound you hear in the beginning of “Erised.” I really don’t know how you’d recreate a sound like that on any other rig. It’s just insane.
BOWEN It’s definitely affected how we perform live. For example, we don’t have pedal boards—our computer does all of our switching for us. It’s great, because we can stand wherever we want and just play. We are definitely using the technology to our advantage.
Do you ever feel like the Fractal is too digital sounding? Do you miss the tone of a tube amp?
MANSOOR No, not at all. The new Axe-Fx II has this Tone Matching feature that is just incredible. And don’t get me wrong; I love amps. I have a killer EVH, but the Fractal is so much more practical when you are playing live. I feel like Fractal is at the point now that if you don’t tell people, they will really have no clue that it’s not a traditional tube amp.
You have three guitar players in the band. As time passes, have your roles become more defined?
BOWEN Absolutely. With the personnel changes that we’ve been through, we’ve kind of realized that there’s a lot more to being in a band than just showing up at a gig and playing the parts. There are a number of things that need to be attended to when you’re in this business. When it comes to figuring out who’s going to do what, it’s always best to play on the strengths of what each member brings to the table. I think its pretty clear to everybody that’s in the band what their role is. That’s why Mark fits in so great. He’s eager to pick up new responsibilities and he’s eager to learn.
Besides playing and writing, I’m primarily dealing with the business and financial side. Misha is very heavily into the production side of things and making sure everything fits this vision that he has for the sound. Matt, our drummer, contributes creatively, but he also has this other business that he runs in parallel with the band called Band Happy, which is an online music web site where you can take lessons from your favorite musicians. While it doesn’t seem connected, he’s networking our band to all these people who would never normally listen to us.
MANSOOR Periphery is more of a vessel to find likeminded people. I actually have less power than I did a year ago. I don’t make micro decisions anymore, and I love it. I handle the big picture—the deals and the concepts for everything, and the vision for what the business side should look like and the vision for what the artistic side should look like. But the details come down to everybody: it’s all split up, and that allows me more time to focus on being creative. It just makes for a much more well-oiled machine. We are all business partners—we’ve all invested in our LLC. Our stake is a financial one, as well.
When you are a band in the music industry, you are always dancing between that line of art and commerce. You are trying to monetize your creativity as best and as efficiently as you can without destroying the artistic side. And it’s a dance that you do every day, but you have to manage the business side of it or it will go to crap and people will take advantage of you.