How We Wrote Colors, by Between the Buried and Me Bassist Dan Briggs
Between the Buried and Me are currently out on tour celebrating the tenth anniversary of their landmark album Colors by playing it from start to finish every night. Although most of the shows are already sold out — no surprise! — you can check dates and ticket availability here.
Bassist Dan Briggs has provided MetalSucks with a retrospective essay about how the band wrote was has come to be considered as a landmark progressive death metal album; what was going through the members’ heads as they came out of the Alaska touring cycle, the inspiration behind the songs on Colors and how they came together, the recording process and more. Read his recount of the events below.
The year 2007 began with a creative burst and a case of mononucleosis. I was 22 years old, sleeping on a futon mattress in a turn of the 20th century home in Greensboro, NC where I lived with one other guy and four girls, all of us 20-22. I wasn’t home much between 2005-2006, and when I wasn’t on the road I was usually going up to Pittsburgh or my old hometown of Erie, PA to visit family, friends and my significant other. I didn’t feel like my roots were quite in place in North Carolina yet, but the beginning of the new year was the perfect time to finally sink in. If memory serves, we were home from January until July to write and record our follow up to the Alaska LP, our second with the line up that has stayed in place since 2005. There was a lot of pent up creative energy, there were 14 hours and a country border between my ex-girlfriend and I, and the fact that we in the band were pretty broke and trying to stretch our tour earnings from earlier that fall out for about seven months all added up to no distractions and a lot of alone time in the bedroom to explore and adventure before meeting up at the practice space to grow our ideas. However, that would have to wait three weeks for me to have the energy to do anything other than change Dawson’s Creek DVDs (on the first of about 100 Dell laptops I owned between 2007 and 2011) and trips to the grocery store for soup and fruit.
With the heavy schedule we had during the Alaska touring cycle I felt like we all had a lot of time to grow. When we wrote Alaska we had basically three factions of people coming together; Tommy (24) and Paul (26) who had written the first two BTBAM albums together, Dustie (19) and Blake (20) who wrote all the music for their band Glass Casket, and myself (20) who had been the main writer in the groups I was in before joining. We all met up in the basement of Blake’s parents’ house and wrote the album at full volume in his old bedroom, where we lined the cabs and amps along the walls facing towards an actual drum riser Blake’s dad had built him in the corner of the room. It’s incredible we were able to do anything let alone write an album. I’ve always seen it as completely disjointed probably because of the memories of writing it. But we were able to expose each other to new sounds and groups we loved at the time, I showed the guys stuff like Oingo Bonigo and Gentle Giant, they showed me Emperor and Ulver. We found similarities and differences, the same as we’d find in our personalities over the next two years of touring on the album. We all went through relationships starting and ending on the road for the first time, good tours and bad tours, and we learned to gel together. What we would produce next would be a result of this growth and bonding.
Sometimes you bond in times of joy, and others in times of shared misery. One of the last tours we did on the Alaska cycle was Ozzfest 2006, one of the final years it was a full on traveling circus/festival. Victory Records used some insane amount of money to put us on this tour where we weren’t getting paid (also further making sure we never saw any royalties) and where we stuck out like a sore thumb. Playing between 9am and noon to a few rows of people in the absolute blistering heat and blinding sun and selling one or two t-shirts a day, losing weight rapidly as they were the one American traveling underground tour that wouldn’t cater specifically to vegans (of which we had three), and generally being treated by the people running the fest like we were subhumans was all the motivation we needed to write like we wanted to distance ourselves from that festival. We wanted to write something where the idea of a playing a 20 minute slot for a whole summer just wouldn’t make sense. This was never really spoken, but just came from that shared experience. A few weeks after the tour came to an end late that August, we got together for a weekend and wrote “Ants of the Sky,” and I can’t think of any better song to drive that ideology home and get the next record started.
Paul shared a Power Tab file with us on that tour or right before the tour of what you could call the “verse,” pre chorus and chorus for what would become “Ants,” and I’d start filling in some gaps in the back lounge of our bus that summer, eventually leading to what would account for the gnarliest 1:30 ever to the beginning of one of our songs. A lot of the first half of the song was arranged in that three weeks at home before we were in the same place, kind of the first time we were putting big chunks together without all being in the same room. The energy was there as soon as the four of us (Tommy was living in Louisiana at the time) got there and I just remember plowing through this piece. We got to the ending chorus reprise and Paul had jokingly been playing the bluegrass variation on it and we were like that is THE perfect segue between this long clean section and the chorus, and he was on the fence at first! It seems crazy to me that we had to talk him into using his own part, but I knew he was into it once we got it laid out in the context of the song. The song ended with a ring out on a major chord, and we alluded to how great it would be to just pick up right there with a series of ring outs and a mid tempo rock feel and keep it going. It took us 14 minutes to get our point across, but our mission statement was laid out. We were writing a musically conceptual, no rules, nothing left on the table record. We weren’t only going to write a record, we were going to live in it; eat, sleep and breathe it. We were going to push ourselves and no one was going to hear from us until we’d brought the album full circle and delivered it as a complete piece.
After writing “Ants” we left for a grueling nine week long American tour followed after just three days at home by our first trip to England which took us right up to the holidays, so we had a lot of time to listen to the demo we’d done and all the people we were on tour with had heard rumors of this 14 minute long song that we were kicking our album off with. Well, it ended up in the middle. We kind of figured that, and we ended up writing to the end of the record first as soon as we got back to it after the holidays. We had one session where Tommy came to town and we wrote “Prequel to the Sequel,” a song that continued on the ideas we established in the 14 minutes before it. We wanted to hear what it would be like if we took a Rush sounding riff and put screaming over it, a fucked up 5/4 French accordion stutter waltz with our first character voice over it. We wanted to take some of the tempo tricks we learned writing metal and hardcore songs and apply it to the end of the song where we drop back into our melodic theme from the intro to the song. I feel like this was the first song that started with a prolonged multi-part melodic section that fed into the rest of the song. For a band rooted in metal and hardcore, that was a big step.
Somewhere along the writing Tommy said he kept hearing our good friend Adam Fisher from Fear Before the March of Flames, a band we’d just spent nine weeks traveling the country with, singing a small handful of sections in the song. Fear had their The Always Open Mouth album come out right when that tour started and I’d never heard the band before, but we all fell in love with that album. I listened to it almost every day on that tour and for a while after the tour had ended. Adam couldn’t believe we wanted him to sing on our album, he thought we were like mad scientists or something, but he quit smoking as soon as we asked him so that he could start getting his voice in perfect working order when we needed it. Funny because after this session, I started writing an album with my friend Ashley and I played her Adam’s parts on “Prequel” and the Mouth record and we started a band called Orbs right then and there, writing over an hour’s worth of music together in the months after Colors was written. The Fear Before connection also led to us working with Brandon Proff on the art for this album and The Great Misdirect after loving his work on The Always Open Mouth. This was the first track on the record where all of us were writing parts and hearing ideas we would reference at different points in the record. It’s one of my favorites from the album, and one we played on tour with bands as varied as Coheed and Cambria and Meshuggah.
When we were in England at the end of 2006, Paul had played me a chord sequence that was really nice, and I suggested when it resolved at the end to C# minor that he play a sequence in some sort of 11 pattern to fit as a lead in to a riff I had written in that time signature (he ended up with a 4 3 4 pattern), and “Viridian” was born, as well as knowing where “White Walls” would begin. Jaco Pastorius wasn’t a bass hero to me growing up but I definitely connected to him as soon as I heard his playing on the Bright Size Life record he did with Pat Metheny while I was in college. Needless to say, I was mirroring him in some of the licks and off the fretboard harmonics I did in “Viridian.” Paul originally had the idea of titling the record Meridian, but after that was scratched and Colors was adopted as the title we figured we should name this little instrumental track after a color and amazingly there was one that sounded like Meridian.
“White Walls” was the first song we tackled after we got together in late January 2007 after I broke out of my bedroom/quarantine zone. A lot of the material in that song was written by Paul and I, riding that same wavelength from putting together the end of “Viridian” — referencing the 4 3 4 chord pattern from the end of “Viridian” as the ending pattern for the lead section of this song, and Blake had a big hand in arranging. Blake kind of works in mysterious ways to this day. He can find a way to take a riff that feels weird, or a chunk of a song, and either by just deleting it or rearranging a few pieces and writing transitions he can make it suddenly work perfectly, which is a great asset to have when you’re putting such a long song together! This was the first song where we started referencing musical ideas from earlier in the record; the build up into the breakdown at 9:33 came from a fleeting section at 2:30 in “Ants,” just at a slower tempo and different time signature. And the key change at 12:57 is the same progression as 5:52 in “Ants.” Variations like those are examples of how deep into the smallest parts we were getting. The song ends on a G#m chord, but it wasn’t until after we wrote “Sun of Nothing” (the last song we finished) that we added the piano outro to the album, which not only helped connect it to the middle of the album, but the beginning by ending on a G# (which opens the album as well).
This is probably a good time to mention that I was wildly excited to finally be a part of writing a concept album, even though we knew lyrically it wouldn’t be connected. Of course we were all inspired by Dark Side of the Moon, but in high school three of my favorite albums were The Ugly Organ (Cursive), Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Flaming Lips) and Scenes From a Memory (Dream Theater), so I had been locked in and ready to do this for years, I just never had the opportunity. It’s funny mentioning Dark Side; Tony, the head of Victory, initially said he didn’t like our cover because it was too similar to Pink Floyd’s album cover (black + rainbow colors?), but later when he flew us up to the office before the album was released to do a series of meetings with every branch at the label he’d tell us that we were going to be the Pink Floyd of metal and this was going to be our Dark Side or some bullshit. He was the king of blowing smoke up your ass. I guess it turned out that our fans probably would consider this album similar to that one in terms of its place in our catalog, so kudos. Oh, I didn’t mention, that meeting we had? Everyone that was at them was gone when the album came out… but that wasn’t too atypical.
I’m foggy if we started working on “Foam Born” or “Informal Gluttony” next, but we’ll just start from track 1 and work to the middle. Tommy had written the great intro into the very Weezer sounding burst that opens the album. To my knowledge this was the first section he’d written on the keys, besides maybe “Reaction” from Silent Circus. Remember that song?! We just had to find a way to get from that to the very metal sounding section Dustie had written to start the B part of the two-song opener, a not very atypical BTBAM problem to have. I could probably play the 5/4 tribal chorus on a loop for an hour, I had written so many variation grooves on that rhythm. I don’t think Dustie did much soloing before joining the band, or really before this record, but listening to the end of the song it’s a style that is still inline with what he does today which I think is cool to see. It’s kind of like the moment he found his style and phrasing and ran with it. “Informal” was built around a 6/8 percussion idea Blake had been talking about. He, Dustie and I got together one day and I found a phrase on the bass I liked and we looped it for a while for Dustie to find melody ideas that fit over top. Then we took that tonality and based a lot of the song around it, which was new and cool. We wouldn’t get back to that idea until Parallax II, finding a tonality and carrying it through the song. We had the intro-verse in place and Paul came in with the chorus idea, a simple Floydy three chord progression, still one of my favorite choruses. The original demo idea was pretty different and the reprised chorus I think didn’t come back in for another three minutes or so. There was a ton of noodly stuff we cut out that never resurfaced, but it was definitely for the better of the song. As atypically arranged as the songs on the album were I still felt like they flowed really well. We were still cautious even though we were taking big creative leaps headfirst into progressive rock and whatever else to make sure it was all for the better of the song.
“Sun of Nothing” was the last song we wrote for Colors and it was the only one where we really knew we had to end it in a certain way, a bizarre thing to work towards. The beginning of “Ants” already sounds like a run that is in motion from something beforehand, but it was actually written with the beginning of the track being the first thing Paul wrote. So in working backwards, I wrote the whole last section as a build into “Ants,” one of those sections I mentioned earlier that I wrote on the bus the summer of Ozzfest. I wrote this section and 10:14 of “White Walls” at the same time, kind of helping give a cohesive feel between those three tracks. “Sun” was another fun track where everyone was on board writing riffs, and aside from the very opening riff (which I believe Blake had written the drums to start the song and Paul wrote the opening riff after hearing the fill), once the acoustic interlude happens at 2:00 the song takes a more melodic and focused turn through the end of it, definitely a hint at the future of things to come and probably why it’s found its way into so many different sets over the years. 4:10-6:48 was the first material I remember writing for the album, back on said futon in between some of my first tours with the band in 2005. Sometimes it just happens that a writing session comes full circle to the ideas that initially began the whole thing.
The recording of the album was significant in that Jamie King was just moving into a new house/studio and was really rushing things along to make sure we were the first band to record in there. I remember going in a handful of days before we actually started to track drums and we were just listening through some demos with him as he was finishing getting the vocal booth put together, something that seemed so luxurious after the way we’d made Alaska in his parents’ basement! We’ve done a lot of work in that room now between a number of groups we’re involved in, and ten years later as I’m writing this we’ve just wrapped up recording another record there, our tenth as a band.
I remember leaving the studio. We did a short run up the East Coast and into Canada, but when it came time to leave in September I don’t think there was even much of a conversation that we’d be going on tour playing anything but Colors. There were myriad discussions involving managers and booking agents weighing in on when it makes the most sense to play a full concept album in relation to when it’s released. The album came out on September 18th and ten days later we were on tour playing it. I think we were all just so excited about it and knew that it was absolutely the best hour of music we could present at that time and we didn’t think twice about playing it all live. Between 2007 and 2008 we probably played the album in full 60 or so times between three tours in the States, Canada and Mexico. We were fortunate enough to have it place us on the progressive rock/metal scene for the first time: we did tours with Dream Theater, Opeth, Meshuggah… it exposed us to an audience that wouldn’t have known about us or have really cared for us or had much in common with our music beforehand. It felt like our music was really evolving as we were growing, and ten years later it’s still an unspoken goal to always be moving forward and not to look back when we’re writing.
I’m proud of this record and what it stands for, which comes back to “White Walls:” not being confined in a space or mindset, letting the colors be so vibrant that the walls burst all around us. We’re gonna have some fun this fall playing the record and reminiscing on the last ten years before we blast full steam into the new year and our new album. I’m thankful that there’s remained such an interest in this album ten years later and in our band in general, allowing us to grow as much as we have with the time needed to do so naturally. Here’s to the future!
Remaining Colors tour dates:
9/26/2017 Mr. Small’s Theatre – Pittsburgh, PA
9/27/2017 The Agora Theatre – Cleveland, OH
9/28/2017 Crofoot Ballroom – Pontiac, MI
9/29/2017 Opera House – Toronto, ON
9/30/2017 Bottom Lounge – Chicago, IL
10/02/2017 Granada Theater – Lawrence, KS
10/03/2017 Summit Music Hall – Denver, CO
10/04/2017 The Complex – Salt Lake City, UT
10/06/2017 The Catalyst – Santa Cruz, CA
10/07/2017 El Rey – Los Angeles, CA
10/08/2017 Glasshouse – Pomona, CA
10/09/2017 SOMA – San Diego, CA
10/10/2017 Crescent Ballroom – Phoenix, AZ
10/12/2017 Trees – Dallas, TX
10/14/2017 House of Blues – New Orleans, LA
10/15/2017 Vinyl Music Hall – Pensacola, FL
10/17/2017 Culture Room – Ft Lauderdale, FL
10/18/2017 State Theatre – St Petersburg, FL
10/19/2017 The Plaza Live – Orlando, FL
10/20/2017 The Masquerade (Heaven) – Atlanta, GA
10/21/2017 Neighborhood Theater – Charlotte, NC