KEENE ON AN INTERVIEW: THE FACELESS’ MASTERMIND TALKS AUTOTHEISM
For fans of The Faceless, Autotheism was more than just a highly anticipated new album; it’s pushed the boundaries of death metal and fandom alike (read Vince’s official MetalSucks review). In the four years between the release of Planetary Duality and Autotheism, The Faceless have shed both band members and former ideologies. Michael Keene now remains as the only original member and primary driving force behind The Faceless, steering the band into what remains of the uncharted waters of progressive, technical death metal.
Dave Mustein: Did you just get back from the tour? Must be great to be off the road.
Michael Keene: Yeah, I did. It’s great to be just hanging out.
I was at the San Francisco show [of Summer Slaughter] and it seemed like the new material went over well.
I think so; it’s been really cool. It’s hard to gauge what people think before your record comes out. As soon as it came out on the tour, the reactions were pretty noticeably different. It was awesome.
Yeah, it’s hard to give a good impression of the music when you’re playing pretty technical material for the first time in a live setting. I like the new album a lot. I can’t stop listening to it. It has been quite a few years since Planetary Duality came out. What changed during that time to slowly make Autotheism into what it is today?
Well, a combination of a few things, one being life experience over that time. I’m not the same person that I was when I was writing Planetary Duality. I want my material to be a reflection of who I am at the time I write it. I think more than ever, this record musically and lyrically is of a reflection of who I actually am. With Planetary we were working within a format in the sense that we were “a death metal band” and were trying to present our ideas in that format, whereas with this one I wanted to take it wherever it would go and whatever comes out. That’s what it is.
Were you planning on writing more progressive elements after Planetary? Or did they just fall into place?
It was something we always wanted to do. It’s kind of hard when you’re dealing with people that want to hear a certain thing from you and to break out of that to some degree. I personally feel like when you’re an artist you have to make music for yourself ultimately and hope that other people will like it as well. That’s what we did and it has worked out. So, yes. We planned to do that.
I like hearing the reasoning from both death metal bands that somehow end up going in a more progressive direction and from bands who had their minds set on being more proggy the whole time; it’s just interesting to hear how certain albums came to be. Autotheism really does still sound like The Faceless to me, but I hear a lot of other influences. Is there anyone you would cite in particular?
There are so many. With this record, like I was saying before, I just wanted the things that we actually listen to outside of the format that we’re working in to shine through in our music. You can hear a variety of those things, everything from Alice in Chains to Mr. Bungle, even some industrial elements. All that stuff is somewhat apparent.
I hear a lot of different things. “Deconsecrate” in particular is really all over the place. Let’s talk about your clean vocals. You’ve significantly improved from Planetary. What was the process like for you? Your practice regimen? Recording techniques? What made them so much better?
More so than anything, having the confidence. You’re only going to sing as well as you think you can sing. It’s not something that’s widely accepted in death metal so I had a certain amount of apprehension about it previously. On this record, to be frank, I just didn’t give a shit about what anyone would say. I just wanted to make a record that I liked and wanted to listen to. The confidence is the main thing. Also, not trying to sing outside of the realm of my voice. I was trying to cater to what my voice naturally sounds like.
Yeah, that is kinda interesting, I haven’t thought about it that much.
Lyrically, all three of the albums have been futuristic but Autotheism is theological as well. What was your inspiration behind the lyrics?
The basic concept behind the whole record is transcending all forms of antiquated mysticism and ushering in the reality of our future. It’s about embracing everything that is ahead of us — all the positives, anyway — and abandoning all the things that have kept us under control and injured us from growing.
You mentioned Autotheism was a personal thing for you. Is that the same with your lyrics? Or are you really looking for listeners to also take a look at your lyrics?
Well, it’s definitely something I feel very strongly about, and Geoff [Ficco, growled vocals] does too. We worked on the lyrics together. Honestly, I think the message of the record is something that needs to be said; I feel really strongly about it and it needs to be talked about more. It is a message we feel strongly about and are trying to convey to people.
It’s cool to hear that you care about the lyrics more than just conforming to the genre’s expectations.
I get the whole death metal lyric thing; it’s like watching a horror movie. You look into this fantasy world, but at the end of the day you’re not making any real impact on anyone with that kind of stuff. It’s sort of a short-lived amusement. Whereas you have an opportunity to actually convey a message that you care about and you feel like people should hear. Add a little more value to it.
Agreed. It’s metal, we’re used to that. I don’t blink anymore when I read death metal lyrics even if the music is great; it’s nice to see something different. You had three lineup changes since Planetary – original and long-time members. Did that have a significant impact on the writing and eventual finished product?
Definitely. In the sense that the new people [added something, such as] Geoff collaborating with me on the lyrics. Which is nice since it’s not something I really had any help with in the past, which sucked. The actual performances were different with new people, but in a good way. The writing process? I sort of wrote most of this record when we were between people. Which isn’t that different from the writing process of the other records/ I’ve always been left to my own devices whether I like it or not. But now I have some new people who are really amped up on helping writing and being involved. Everything we’ve done so far as a collaborative effort has been really awesome. I’m really excited about that.
The production on this one is pretty different from the last one. How was the process different on this album?
I didn’t go into it with any preconceived notions. With Planetary I had some guidelines of what I was going to do. I wanted the record to sound raw, mainly because I was trying to achieve some kind of death metal cred or something, which, looking back now is totally stupid and I don’t care at all anymore. My only guideline [for Autotheism] was that I wanted it to sound as good as it could. I took my time and I wasn’t rushed, which is also different from Planetary. I ended up having to mix that in one day when it came down to it, which I was not happy about. I took my time on this one. I had some time to sit on it and make sure I was happy with things.
One day, wow. Did you change anything in terms of gear or tuning, anything else?
There’s a lot of things that were done differently. There were no actual amps recorded on the whole record on guitar or bass. On the previous album I used mic’d amps.
Yes, all amp simulators. I used Waves GPR. It’s really cool. Waves is a big plugging company, they make a ton of stuff. The only bummer about their stuff is that it’s ridiculously expensive. Retarded expensive. They make an amp simulator that’s pretty insane. It’s what I use live too.
Yeah, there’s been a lot of buzz about all the DI lately, AxeFX and whatnot.
I’m actually running my guitar into an audio interface, into Waves, then back out of the audio interface. That’s my amp live.
That’s definitely different. What about drums? Did you produce anything in terms of the drums? It sounds really different from Planetary, probably more than any other instrument.
It’s kind of ironic: on Planetary all the drums were mic’d up and I didn’t sound-replace anything except the kick. And I’ve heard a lot of people say that the drums sound fake on Planetary which is weird to me because they’re not fake, they’re mic’d. Whereas on this one, I haven’t heard anyone say that and the drums actually were sound-replaced. That’s one difference. I didn’t use any reverb on the drums; it’s all room mics for ambiance. We compressed the ambient mics; I wanted the drums to sound like they’re actually in a big room rather than have any synthetic reverb on them.
I can see why people would say that the Planetary drums sound fake, only because they’re definitely more in your face than they are in the mixes on Autotheism.
That’s one of the things I wasn’t happy with on Planetary. That in my panic of getting the record done I over-compressed the drums in the mix a little bit… they were squashed.
Are you classically trained in terms of your guitar playing?
My dad is a guitarist; he’s been playing since he was a kid. Growing up I learned from him and he’s more than a qualified teacher. I always had a built-in guitar teacher. If I ever had any questions about theory or harmony, I could always refer to him. I guess you could say I’m trained in that sense, yeah.
How long have you been playing?
My dad had guitars in my hand when I was 5.
You mentioned theory; has that always been a part of your music?
Definitely. I remember being super-young and my dad overwhelming me with things. Like, I’m seven — I don’t know what you’re talking about! I’m glad he did, though.
Did you ever have lessons other than from your dad?
I had a guitar teacher for a brief period of time. Other than that, just him. If you ask him he’ll say he didn’t teach me but he definitely did.
Overall, how would you describe how The Faceless’s music or how your music in general has changed since you started, even before Akeldama?
It’s matured a lot. The songwriting has developed quite a bit. There’s no preconceived notions about what it should be anymore. I think the sound is more expansive because it covers a lot more ground. I’m surrounded by better musicians now than I was when the band formed. Years of experience and years of playing have made us all better players with better ears for things. I think my sense of harmony has expanded quite a bit since then. Honestly, just life experience changes things too. Definitely more of a reflection of… you hear more of “me” in the music now than before. The old records were working within the format of death metal. Now, whatever is in me is coming out.
Cool to hear. I think it’s pretty cool to look at all your albums one at a time; even though they’re all really different, they’re all really good in different ways. They don’t really feel undeveloped that much to me, which is interesting. You hear a lot of bands, their first album is completely different from their album 5 years later, but I don’t feel like it’s that drastic with your music.
There’s definitely a core sound with The Faceless that I always want to try and maintain and it’s not so much a conscious effort anymore. When I write metal, there’s a certain way it’s going to sound because that’s the way I write metal. That will always shine through.
That’s important: I can always tell when I’m listening to The Faceless. That’s not something I can say for a lot of other bands. Anything else you’d like to mention?
We’re doing a headlining tour in October or November. I guess that’s about it.
You’re getting back on the road fast.
Well, you know, new record — got to keep it out there.
It’s not all confirmed yet, so we can’t really announce any bands.
That sounds great. Thanks for your time, and hope to see you on the road!