Big Bottoms: Jeff Caxide of Palms/Isis
The breakup of Isis left a hole in the heart of heavy music. While it’s hard not to respect the band’s decision to end its career before becoming redundant (if you love it, let it go, right?), the individual parts are too stirring to stop creating music forever. That’s why the revelation of Palms, a creative reunion of sorts with Isis’ rhythm section of bassist Jeff Caxide and drummer Aaron Harris with Isis guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Bryant Clifford Meyer, is such a crucial one.
Palms takes a new angle on a familiar sound. The music is not altogether foreign for Isis fans; keyboards, delay effects, odd-meter and atmosphere are again a huge part of the execution. But there is a palpable difference in dynamics from Isis, as the trio of Caxide, Harris and Meyer deliberately pushed the project in a direction they felt Isis could never go.
Palms is a far less riff-oriented album than anything Isis released. The mix is breezy, bright and fresh, and the songs adopt traditional structures with sections more recognizable as verses, choruses or bridges. Caxide drives much of the album with his inimitable array of bass tones, combining rich, shimmering slapback with warm, viscous cleans and thick distortions. And then, of course, there’s Chino Moreno on vocals.
Over the first few listens, Chino seems a bit out of place. Isis fans will wonder what Aaron Turner may have done with songs like “Future Warrior” or “Patagonia,” but by the brisk, hopeful fifth track, “Tropics,” and on subsequent listens, Chino proves to be a formidable voice for the band. If you expected Chino to try something new vocally, you will be at first disappointed; however, Chino could not sound more at home in the quieter moments of Palms.
With the band’s first shows coming up in July, Caxide checked in to talk about his bass work in Isis and Palms and what to expect from Palms moving forward.
So what was the impetus for starting Palms?
It’s strange. I really didn’t plan on being in a band after Isis. I thought really that I had to stay in that context. But [drummer] Aaron Harris—I’ve got to hand it to him—is the one who kept it together. He said, “We should keep playing. We’ve got the practice space, we’re still good friends, we still get along. We should play a little bit and see what happens.”
I thought, “Why not?” We jammed a little and it started to shape into something that wasn’t going to be new Isis; it was going to be something else, so it held my interest. Then Aaron said that Chino was interested in what we were doing. So I thought that was exciting and I thought that would be cool collaboration. I’m really happy with the record and the way it came out.
I’ve been kind of taking my time with it, just absorbing it. I always find it’s good when you’re getting into a record to listen from different points; it gets your ear to hear things you might otherwise miss.
Sure, and we were just talking the other day; we think this record is probably more of a grower. We think this is something that you’ll listen to a few times and then it will click and become really satisfying.
Yeah, I feel that way. The first couple listens, the music sounded very familiar to me, in part because of Isis, yet Chino’s voice was a bit jarring at first. The more I hear it, the more I really it’s a cool, reimagining of that type of sound.
Right, that’s cool. I’m glad you think so.
Are you planning on taking Palms on the road over the next few months? You have some shows coming up in California, but what’s your goal?
We don’t really have a goal. We just wanted to get out and play some shows. The record was out and we wanted to get our toes in the water so to speak. There are no touring plans at the moment, and I really doubt this will be the kind of band that goes and tours the U.S. for any extended period of time.
There will be shows. I’m just not sure when it’s going to happen. Everyone has a pretty hectic schedule, especially Chino with Deftones and all kinds of other things. So it’ll all happen. It’s just a matter of time.
One of the things that’s always fascinated me on the bass player end of things—and one of the things I’m really happy with on the Palms record—is your bass tone. Personally, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what’s going on there. From your delay, your distortion and your clean, you always seem to have the right timbre to your sound; it’s not too tinny or too woofy. Justin Chancellor is really the only other bass player to whom I could compare you, but that’s not a great comparison.
Yeah, I’ve heard that before, and Justin is amazing. My biggest influence is probably The Cure and stuff like that. Listening to Disintegration over and over again and trying to emulate that album, not only bass, but Robert Smith’s guitar playing, I think for me is the most influential record.
What’s your starting point with a bass tone? Your dynamics change so much within a single song. You’ll go from that shimmery delay tone to a much more midrange-y clean.
Well, it requires a lot of juggling on my part—a lot of changing pedals and changing between pick and finger style. One thing I do when I’m playing anything with delay or reverb on it is that I cut all the lows on my Music Man bass and that way it’s not as muddy; it’s a lot cleaner and brighter.
I’m really into doing a lot of subtle things to change the tone, but it ends up being a lot of work. Some songs have some difficult changes, especially on the Palms record. It really takes a lot of practice to nail them. But I don’t really have a starting point. I’m not really sure.
I guess it starts by having gear that you like. A lot of people say they wouldn’t own a Peavey amp because they have a bad name with bass. But if you have something you like, something that sounds good, you should play it. I’m not really a gear head; I just like what I like. That’s it basically.
So for you it’s a combination between effect pedals and changing the settings on your bass.
Yeah, pretty much. I have two different distortions and a booster pedal and two different delays and reverbs. Maybe some part needs more, maybe some part needs less.
What kind of gear did you use on the Palms record?
I used my Aguilar setup. I have an 8×10 cab and an Aguilar solid state amp. They endorsed me starting in 2007 or 2008. I got an email from a rep and he asked if I wanted to try out some of their gear. Isis was in New York and I tried some stuff out for sound check and I really liked it, so I played the show with it that night. It worked out really well and I never really looked back. I’m really psyched; I think their amps sound tremendous.
As far as what else I used on the recording—on a couple songs—Bryant [Clifford Meyer], our guitarist, has an old 215 cab that he’s had for years. We hooked that up on a few songs to give it a little bit more low end. But other than that I used the same pedals that I used in Isis. It’s the same bass. I’ve had the same bass for ten or eleven years.
How do you manage to cut through the mix so clearly with your bass? It seems like, no matter what sound you’re using, it always cuts through really well.
Well, that’s more from an engineering level, but you just kind of know what a song needs or what it doesn’t need. If you have a good feel for the music you’re doing, that kind of comes naturally. Aaron [Harris], who engineered it, he obviously knows my bass tone and how it should cut through.
Well, even live the few times I saw Isis, I was always really struck by how clear everything was, not just bass. With everything Isis had going on sonically—three guitars, three keyboards, a bass with a shitload of effects, drums and a bunch of different voices…
Well, our sound guy, Greg Moss, is one of the best we’ve ever worked with. He doesn’t have an easy job mixing all that shit. He really was our live secret weapon. I’m psyched that he’s going to be coming out to California to do these shows with Palms.
That’s a big part of it that people don’t realize. The sound guy is like the hidden hero of any good live performance.
Also, I think we had good gear and Aaron [Turner] and Mike [Gallagher] really knew how to dial in their guitar tone perfectly. Aaron Harris is a drum master. Little things like that kept the band sounding really good. It could be something as small as changing your strings every show.
Do you change your strings every show?
I change my strings every show, definitely. I really like that bright sound of new strings. I love it. To me it makes a huge difference. I don’t know if anyone who’s listening would notice. It’s a lot of sweat and grime after a show; they’re just dead after an hour and a half set.
Wow, that must get expensive for a bass player.
It does. Luckily I get a nice discount from GHS. Though it’s been a long time since I’ve talked to them; I might not have such a good deal this time around [laughs].
I’d like to talk about some songs on the Palms record. In what time signature is “Future Warrior”?
[laughs] I’m not sure. I’m the wrong guy to approach with that. That’s more Harris’ department. For me, it’s whatever works.
Okay. I’m pretty sure it’s 10/8, but I wanted confirmation [laughs].
Yeah, drummers know that shit way better.
So are you more of a feel guy when it comes to rhythm?
Yeah, I would say that. I’m not really trained in any of that at all. I took a few lessons when I was 15, but it’s pretty much all feel. I think that’s a really important thing to have and a lot of musicians out there don’t have it. Someone can shred and be an amazing player, but they’re doomed to play in cover bands because they have no feel and they can’t write.
Do you write mostly on bass?
Ninety-nine percent of what I write is on bass. Although the very last song on the album, “Antarctic Handshake,” I played all the guitars on. That was just me and Cliff, sitting in the practice space, messing around with the drum machine. We had a drum loop Aaron recorded. We just put everything together and messed around. I remember writing this guitar melody and then Cliff said he would put some keys over it. Before you knew it, I was playing like six guitar tracks and Cliff was on keyboards. So now I’m playing some guitars live, which should be interesting. I’m not a guitar played at all. But I write on bass pretty much exclusively. A guitar feels very foreign to me.
I totally understand what you’re saying. On the other hand, the song “Patagonia” sounds like it was written around the bass part.
Yeah, it was. A lot of the parts on the album are. I think that’s why it’s a lot less riffy than an Isis record. That was just us messing around in the practice space. That’s not something I wrote and then brought to the band. I just had these chords that sounded nice and bouncy, and we went from there. That was one of the quickest songs that we wrote for the record. That one took maybe a week or two, maybe even less.
I would say most of the song was written around that bass line.
Do you feel like you still have perspective on this album? Is there one song on it that you feel is 100 percent what you were going for?
Yeah, I really do feel like the whole record is. We definitely made the record that I hoped we would make. It was something different than what we were doing before, but it’s still familiar enough not to alienate anyone. We just wanted to make a record and keep playing music.
There comes a point in the process where you lose perspective, you’ve heard a song a thousand times, you start to get sick of it, you think it sounds terrible. I’ve gone through that with every single thing I’ve ever done. This one, I’m still very excited about and very happy with it. I know it’s different. I know some people can’t wait to trash it. I’m happy with it; we’re all happy with it. That’s what matters.
Awesome. I really can’t wait to listening to the record more and letting it grow. I’m looking forward to hearing more stuff from you. I hope you keep making music.
Thank you. We’re working on new stuff now for the show. I’m always trying to move forward.