Exclusive Interview: Between The Buried And Me’s Paul Waggoner
Between The Buried And Me have been taking lovers of progressive metal on journeys of sound, space and music since their inception in 2000. They have proven with each album that they are without a doubt one of the most musically talented bands out there right now, and they did so again with their 2015 release Coma Ecliptic.
Now the band is back on tour again for their new album, so MetalSucks caught up with BTBAM axeman / MetalSucks NFL columnist Paul Waggoner at their March 12 stop in St. Louis to talk about the current run, the recording of the album and how an instrument that Paul never wanted to play ended up becoming his bread and butter.
Boozeman: I remember I was reading one of your past interviews — it was something about you guys playing Parallax in its entirety live — and you said you guys were going to wait a little bit to do that with this one.
Waggoner: Yeah, on the past few records we’ve released the album and then jumped right on tour and played the whole thing. We just want to do something different this time. We thought we should give the fans a longer period of time to digest the record and learn the material a little more. We’re waiting until closer to the end of the tour cycle to unleash the entire record on them live.
I can’t remember who told me this but they said you guys weren’t really playing anything off Alaska anymore?
I famously said that we probably would never play anything pre-Alaska anymore. It wasn’t because we’re over the old stuff, it’s just so far detached from what we’re doing now as a band. Most of our fans came on board around the Alaska and Colors time period so that’s the material that they’re most familiar with. And I say that but of course this tour we actually are playing a song from our first record.
“Shevanel Cut A Flip,” which is the last track on the first album. It’s fun to play for nostalgic purposes but I’m not sure it fits with what were doing as a band now. When we play these old songs it chops the set up a little bit. There are a fraction of our fans that appreciate it and have been along for the ride all these years, so it’s fun to play it for them. But generally speaking the old material doesn’t jive with what we’re doing currently nor does it really jive with what our fans expect from us at this point.
A lot of bands do that. In Flames do that too; they don’t really play their older stuff much because the sound is so different.
And from a fan’s perspective, like you mentioned with In Flames, I’m more familiar with their older material because that’s the stuff I listened to growing up. I would appreciate it if they played their old stuff but I totally get it. Most of their fans are more familiar with the new stuff so I totally get it.
I heard that you don’t like playing “Selkies.”
[laughter] Well, I don’t mind playing it. A song like “Selkies” is sort of different because obviously we’re tired of playing it and rehearsing it before a tour. We’re all like “Oh my god, I gotta run through ‘Selkies’ one time and make sure we got it.” But when you play it live, and “White Walls” would fall into this category as well, it’s such a crowd favorite you get this energy and you can see how much the song means to other people. That renews the spirit. I don’t mind playing it live.
It’s just rehearsing it that’s annoying?
Rehearsing it is annoying and the idea of playing it is exhausting but it’s the most interactive song with the fans. This tour we’re playing it last. It’s sort of the common denominator with all of our fans. They are all pretty familiar with that song so it’s fun to play live.
Kind of like drinking Fireball. The idea is terrifying but once you do it, it’s fine.
Yeah. I would compare it to a band like the Rolling Stones. I’m sure they’re sick of playing “Satisfaction” because they’ve been playing it for like 50 years. But the fans love it and every time they play it I’m sure it’s great for them because you get that immediate reward from seeing other people enjoy what you’re doing.
I think one of the things I noticed about this record is just how focused it is. I can honestly say that I don’t think I’ve ever heard a band play so in unison and I think that’s incredible. Do you think that if you had to record anywhere other than North Carolina you would’ve had the same result?
We love doing things in North Carolina. We love working with Jamie King, who we’ve worked with since the beginning. We recorded our first demo with him back in 2000 or 2001 so there’s a certain level of comfort and trust there. We’ve tried to get that elsewhere. We’ve tried to go to bigger names or better studios or whatever. We’ve never been able to capture that magic anywhere else, so at this point I don’t think we can get the result that we want recording with anyone else. There’s a certain synergy with the band, and that sort of environment fuels the creative process. When you’re recording an album, even though the songs are already written, there’s a spontaneity in the studio that happens as a result of the environment and the energy in that room, and you’re able to really put the pizazz on the album. We really do like working in North Carolina with Jamie and I feel that we get the best result that way, and as you said the most focused sound when we do that.
Obviously the recording went well. Have any good stories to tell?
There are never any good stories with us because we’re so boring. We all get along and we have a lot of laughs and most people on the outside world would probably just think we’re idiots. If crazy stuff happens that’s usually a bad thing. So yeah, no crazy stories to tell recording this one and I think that’s part of it. We go in, we know what we’re in, for and we can just focus on recording the music. I don’t think recording should be a party. You’re there for a reason.
I guess bands that don’t have their shit together don’t last as long as you guys have.
True, and I guess we’ve had the same approach even on tour. We’re trying to put out a good product for people who have paid good money to see it and hear it so we don’t want to jeopardize that by going up on stage completely blitzed out of our minds or anything like that. I think that you compromise the product and you cheapen what you’ve worked so hard to obtain by doing that. For us it’s about giving it our best and having fun in the process but doing so in ways that aren’t self-destructive. We never have great stories from the road or from the studio because we’re just pretty normal people.
Another thing I noticed is that on Coma Ecliptic the keyboards seems to have a much more prominent role, especially in “The Coma Machine.”
Absolutely, and to me that’s one of the more noticeable things about the album. It’s not as guitar riff-driven. There are times where the keyboard is the driving force of the song, “The Coma Machine” being a primary example. It’s sort of the pulse of the song. The guitars and everything else are sort of complimentary, whereas in the past it’s all about the guitar riff. We wanted to move away from that, not because we don’t like guitar riffs, but we wanted to move toward a more orchestrated musical landscape. I think what makes the album cool is that we weren’t afraid to let other instruments be the driving force of the songs.
It’s kind of fun to write that way because it puts you out of your box, and for me, as a guitar player for all these years trying to be technical and play all these crazy riffs, it’s kind of fun to step back and think that maybe the guitar can serve a totally different purpose. There are parts that I write on guitar, but after I write them I’ll say this should be a keyboard part or this should be a horn part. I hope we’ll explore that more in the future because it’s a more mature sound for us. It’s kind of what we’ve always wanted to do but never quite knew how.
So you guys are becoming more orchestral… would you ever do the Dimmu Borgir thing and play with a full-blown symphony?
We would love to do something like that, man. The story of our lives is budgetary restraints and that’s really about it. The idea is cool but it’s hard to put stuff together like that, and in this day and age there aren’t enough resources to make it happen. It’s hard to justify doing a project that grandiose knowing that ultimately it doesn’t really pay itself back. We would love to do a movie with our music as the soundtrack but we can’t. It sucks but it’s just the nature of the business.
You guys use so many different styles in your music. Is there anything that you’ve tried to do in the studio and thought, “We can’t put this on a BTBAM album.”
Oh, yeah. I wouldn’t really say there are limitations, but we would do anything if we thought it sounded cool. There are certainly things we’ve tried to do that didn’t sound good. I can’t think of any off the top of my head but we’re always messing around with instruments. There are times where we’ll layer parts with a banjo, a mandolin or with a dobro, and maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. Usually it does work and we end up keeping it on there but occasionally we’ll say maybe the banjo doesn’t really work there. But nothing is really off limits for us. We feel like heavy music is this super free way of expressing yourself musically. You don’t have to worry about getting on the radio so you don’t have to follow the pop formula for a song. You can take so many liberties structurally with the song. you can take so many liberties instrumentally and with what types of vocals you use. There is so much you can do and that’s a wonderful feeling so we want to take that to the limit. If that means writing an acoustic song then so be it. If it means writing a 15-minute-long epic opus, that’s cool too. There aren’t limitations to what we can do and that’s what we thrive on. We love that.
For you personally, what’s your favorite song on the record?
That’s a good question. I really like “Option Oblivion.” It’s a little bit different of a song for us. Structurally it’s kind of simple and there’s a cool flow to it. We haven’t played it live yet but I’m looking forward to doing that because I think it will be interesting to put that one together. It’s one of those songs that’s a good example of all the instrumentation jiving, and — its not very prominent in the mix — we were able to layer some different instruments like mandolin on it. So, right now that’s my favorite, but it changes. I also like “King Redeem / Queen Serene” quite a bit; going into the studio I was iffy about it, but when we recorded it it came to life.
Going back to the entire discography, which is pretty big, which song gets you energized and the most amped? Which song means the most to you?
That’s always going to be a new song no matter who you ask in the band because that’s what were most proud of. Not because I don’t like the old stuff anymore, but we’ve toured on all those albums, we’ve played all those songs. We put everything we had into them and now it’s in the past. I feel like if I were hanging on to one of the older songs as my personal favorite I would feel like we weren’t moving forward. I feel like you have to keep those songs back there in order to stay on the forward path and still maintain some momentum. “White Walls” will always be a landmark song for us. It came at a time when we were moving in a certain direction stylistically. So that’s an important song, but again, most of the new ones are that same sort of mentality because we’re trying to break the mold of what we’ve done in the past.
So you don’t end up doing the Disturbed thing by writing the same record five times?
Yeah. We’d probably be more successful if we did stick to a certain formula but it’s just not fulfilling as an artist. You want to feel inspired and create stuff that pushes the envelope a little bit for yourself.
Dusty and Blake have Glass Casket going on with them, Tommy has his solo project. Do you have anything in the works for yourself?
Not musically, no. This is sort of my baby, musically. Anything I write, regardless of what style it is, I try to interject it into the context of BTBAM because that’s just what I like to do. It’s not that I don’t have time to do another musical project… I’m just not really motivated to do one. Music is a tough bracket to be in and I don’t know that I want to devote all of my time to music even though I love it. You don’t get a ton of reward from it as a grown man. It’s not like you can make a lot of money doing it. I would rather pursue other passions in conjunction with music. BTBAM is always on the forefront of everything I do in life, so beyond that I like to do things that aren’t musical at all. I have a coffee business and I love sports so I try to diversify a little bit. Music can be very frustrating if you absorb yourself too much in it.
You need time away.
Yeah, and again, it’s not to say that BTBAM is not the most important thing in my life. It is, and hopefully always will be, but I’m not motivated to do other projects. Not the way that Tommy and Dan are. They’re always busy with music.
Tell me about the first time you played guitar.
I’m 37 years old so I was 14 or 15 when I started. I never really wanted to play guitar — I wanted to be a singer or something. I didn’t have any interest in playing the guitar but all of my friends played. Inevitably, I would pick up the guitar and try to play and I was terrible. But I eventually learned how to play it. It was weird, I had a guitar before I ever even wanted to play guitar. I just looked down and thought, “I have this cheap guitar here, I might as well learn some riffs.”
Do you remember what kind of guitar it was?
It was a 1980s Ibanez Studio. It had sort of a Gibson design but a double cut away. It looks like a PRS. I still have the guitar and I’ll always keep it. It’s just an old used guitar that I bought for maybe $100 or something. I can’t remember the first song I learned, it was probably some Nirvana song, maybe a Weezer song. But that started it all. I was a child of the ’90s so I learned all the alternative grunge stuff. I never aspired to be a technical guitarist, I never aspired to play a guitar solo. I just wanted to pay bar chords and three-chord songs, but before I knew it I started getting into heavy music and the rest is history. I guess the first time I played guitar was pretty uneventful because I didn’t know what I was doing
Well then, I speak on behalf of all BTBAM fans by saying thank you for not wanting to play guitar. One last question: what is the least amount of clothing you have ever worn while tracking a song?
I’ve tracked shirtless. When we record acoustic guitar, we record it in a vocal booth, and because we use very sensitive microphones to record acoustic guitar they pick up EVERYTHING. There is airflow that comes into the booth to keep it cool, but it makes a sound, so we have to cut that off. Everything has to be played perfectly — you don’t want any string noise. So to track one part it can take a long time, and it’s extremely hot in there and I will have to take my shirt off, absolutely. But other than that, the pants stay on. There are a lot of outtakes that would be hilarious to release on a blooper reel of me recording acoustic guitar, with cuss words strung together in ways that no one could imagine out of frustration. Recording acoustic guitar is extremely frustrating. But yeah, we do it in a vocal booth and it’s hot as hell in there and almost every time I have to take my shirt off at some point because I’m literally soaked in a sweaty mess.