Geeks in the Punk: The New Wave of Progressive Metal Roundtable

Originally published in Guitar World, August 2010

Pointy-headed proggers with an affinity for punk are making allies with
two once artistically opposed genres. Bill Kelliher, Ben Weinman, Claudio Sanchez, and other guitarists in the new prog movement share their perspectives in GW's roundtable discussion.

In the dark days before iTunes, punk rock and prog-rock lived in passionate opposition to each other. Music history includes one awesome (if apocryphal) tale in which Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols took to the streets of London wearing a doctored Pink Floyd T-shirt. His handcrafted addition? The words “I Hate” positioned right above the Dark Side of the Moon legends’ name.

Several decades later, things have changed: A new breed of bands is making music that collapses the distance between punk and prog, combining the raw, in-your-face energy of the former with the structural and instrumental complexity of the latter. As groups like Dillinger Escape Plan, Coheed and Cambria, and the Mars Volta have demonstrated, the desire to geek out and the need to throw down are no longer mutually exclusive.

Earlier this summer, three outfits at the forefront of this movement—Mastodon, Baroness, and Between the Buried and Me—hit the road for a joint U.S. tour. To get a sense of how this fresh sound came to be, Guitar World asked the band’s guitarists (along with some other important players) for their unique perspectives on the music. Their comments were revealing, to say the least. As John Baizley of Baroness noted, “Punk and prog have a lot of differences, but what both forms are doing is sticking a huge middle finger up pop music’s ass.”

GUITAR WORLD The word “prog” connotes many things to people. For some it suggests a commitment to musical innovation; to others it means wearing a cape festooned with glow-in-the-dark crescent moons. What does it mean to you?

DUSTIE WARING(Between the Buried and Me) To me the word “prog” in front of any genre only means that this band is thinking outside the box and doing something different. It means the musicians are paying attention to their music a little bit. So if someone wants to call us “prog,” I’m thrilled to be a part of that. It means you’re different.

PAUL WAGGONER (Between the Buried and Me) I embrace the term, but I think it’s become a little over used. Lots of current bands that are being called “prog” may not be progressive in the true sense of the word. The bands on this tour are definitely progressive—we’re not afraid to push the envelope creatively. Bands from the original prog era, like Yes and Frank Zappa, were trying to do the same thing.

GW Did the music of the original prog-rock bands make an impact on you as a guitar player?

JOHN BAIZLEY (Baroness) It was meaningful to me in the way that all music is. I have a great love for the history of music, and I’ve certainly listened to my fair share of prog, mostly Pink Floyd, who’ve had a huge impact on my songwriting and on my way of thinking about music. To me, the noodlier stuff—such as Yes and early Genesis—is music for a certain mood. It’s not the core of where I come from, musically speaking.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ (Coheed and Cambria) I grew up listening to tons of different styles of music through my parents. My father listened to Jethro Tull, and my first concert was Pink Floyd in 1994 on the Division Bell tour. Seeing that concert, how the band was larger than life, and then exploring its catalog and finding The Wall—that certainly had some influence on what I do.

BILL KELLIHER (Mastodon) I don’t see us in the ranks of Rush and King Crimson and Robert Fripp. I think we’re grittier and dirtier, rather than polished and perfect. We’re dirt rockers from Atlanta who travel in a stinky bus, you know? Prog to me is dudes in lab coats with beakers in their hands making riffs.

GW Your music may be dirty, but it’s hardly simple. And you’re not alone in that regard: after a long period in which technique seemed secondary to passion, knowing how to play one’s instrument is cool again. How do you think that shift happened?

KELLIHER It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and you can’t fake it in this business. You’ve gotta have something to offer. There are so many bands, and everybody wants to be a guitar player, so you kind of have to reinvent yourself into something interesting. Look at Metallica. They were on top forever with their first four records, and then they got kind of soft in the early Nineties. But they brought it back with their new record. They were like, “Man, we’ve gotta stop fucking around here and pick up those guitars and play solos again!”

BEN WEINMAN (Dillinger Escape Plan) Anybody who’s really into music, once they become desensitized to what’s ruffling their feathers, they’re gonna look for something more. That’s how it was for me, and that’s how it is for musicians today.

WAGGONER Younger kids definitely look up to the shredmanship of metal bands now. For me it was different. I grew up in an era when it wasn’t cool to know what you were doing on guitar. It was about coming up with something creative or something that sounded weird, rather than being blazing fast. But times have changed, and over the years I got into the shred thing, too. I think it’s just the progression of music in general.

FRANK ARESTI (Fates Warning) Our culture goes through mood swings. You had cock rock in the Eighties, then Nirvana was the backlash to all of that. Then the grunge scene went too far, and along came something else, and so on. Now prog is coming back as an answer to everything that happened previously.

BAIZLEY I’m one of those guys who came up in the Nineties when it wasn’t about musicianship. I was impressed by Sonic Youth and Duane Denison of the Jesus Lizard—guys who didn’t necessarily sound like they were playing super-technically but who could put their own stamp on music. When Baroness started playing, though, all the bands around us had real players, and that was good for me, because it made me work on my technique.

WAGGONER More people aspire to be great guitarists now, and I think that’s good and bad. It’s good to want to play well, but I’ve always felt like the song should be at the forefront of what you’re trying to do. I mean, you can go on YouTube and see some guy shred the daylights out of his guitar, but he probably never wrote a song in his life. And kids see that and say, “I wanna go through a scale that fast.” It’s become almost competitive.

WEINMAN Whenever playing lots of notes becomes really popular, you always get to the point where there’s a bunch of bands who are just about that—who don’t see the difference between writing real songs and just trying to be show-offs. I fear we’re getting to that point now.

BAIZLEY Walking into Guitar Center, I’m astounded at the technique that kids have. They’re unbelievably precise and fast. I don’t get it, frankly; that’s not how I play. But when you can take lessons online and that technical world is at your proverbial fingertips, sweep picking becomes the order of the day.

GW You sound dubious about that.

BAIZLEY I’ve known enough people that have gone through this, where technique maxes out and they put the same feeling into 30 notes that they put into one. Ultimately, they’re doomed to be employees at guitar stores or teachers or session players, and I think that can be a fairly soulless source for creative output. With Baroness, of course we’re constantly trying to improve our technical and songwriting abilities. Our MO has always been to keep an eye on the weak spots and try to turn them into strengths. But at the end of the day, it’s all about communicating something.

WEINMAN The most important thing about music is emotion and energy, not how well you can play. Technique should be a tool to achieve your vision, not the other way around. In Dillinger, our technique doesn’t control our vision. I’ve always tried to make that the difference between us and other bands.

SANCHEZ I think structural ambition can be great, and that certainly gets displayed in our songs. But it’s also nice to have a balance, to have some songs that are like a release from the chaos. It’s important to create a landscape where there are peaks and valleys. That way, the songs that are really ambitious can pop and make an impression, as opposed to all the tunes being that way. As a songwriter, it’s nice to give those moments their place to shine.

ARESTI I used to give lessons, and I always tried to instill in my students that it’s okay to be technically gifted and to work on your technique, but you have to know how to use it. Just because you have a room full of tools doesn’t mean you have to use everything in the room. You’ve gotta know which ones to use.

WAGGONER I grew up listening to really aggressive music at the same time that I listened to a lot of classic rock. For Between the Buried and Me, it’s all about marrying those two things. Even though they’re at opposite ends of the spectrum, they actually work nicely with one another. Whether it’s a two-minute punk thing or a 15-minute prog epic, they’re both the antithesis of a radio hit. Neither one is a three-minute pop song.

WARING We definitely have a lot of really clean, precise noodly parts, but we also have lots of dirty-sounding rock stuff that’s not slick at all. The whole slick metal thing is very modern. All the old metal bands were totally raw. You listen to an old AC/DC song and you can hear how those dudes were hitting the chords.

BAIZLEY That rawness is part and parcel of what we do, and it speaks to the fact that when we were angry young teenagers, I would not have sat through two seconds of a progressive-rock record. At the time, I was listening to punk rock; that’s where the inability to color within the lines comes from. It comes from years of touring and sleeping on floors and playing the shittiest dives and the grungiest clubs in the world. That leaves an indelible mark on you.

WARING Mastodon were one of the first bands to do that combination of slick and raw, with those super-dirty Soundgarden riffs and the crazy drums and the screaming over everything. They’re very forward thinking. Tons of people have taken influence from them.

GW How’s it feel to have become an influence, Bill?

KELLIHER I was that same kid looking up to James Hetfield, looking at how he dressed and listening to the angry shit he wrote about and thinking about how it made me feel. I thought, Man, I wanna be that dude, expressing myself through a Gibson Explorer every night in front of thousands of people. It kind of seems like a dream to be doing it. For a kid like me who maybe didn’t do great in school and maybe didn’t wanna go to college, who thought that life was kind of bleak and didn’t know what was in store—music was huge. Without music, I don’t know what the fuck I’d be doing. I might be dead, or maybe a bum living in a trailer with five kids.

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