EXIST: Interview with MAX PHELPS


Exist have returned with the release of their sophomore studio album titled ‘So True, So Bound,’ a follow-up to 2014’s ‘Sunlight.’ So True, So Bound features drummer Hannes Grossmann, and was mixed by Periphery‘s Adam “Nolly” Getgood and mastered by Ermin Hamidovic. The trio led by singer, guitarist and composer Max Phelps is currently on a North American tour supporting Gorguts. We teamed up with Max for an interview, and he walked us through the creative process of the new record.

So True, So Bound seems to be quite a challenging work. Lead me through the creative process that informed the release.

The overall creative process was fairly similar to Sunlight, the ideas stem from intuition and come fairly easily. The bigger challenge sometimes is in the arrangement. The main difference in this album is that we weren’t rehearsing in the room together, we laid everything directly down in pre-production and sort of recorded as we went vs. playing through the songs as a full band. With Sunlight, we had already rehearsed everything and played the material live when we recorded. With So True, So Bound this process was all done through demoing in studio together. The core band members were working on the songs together in the same room but often not playing our instruments together at the same time, if that makes sense.

Where was the album recorded, and how long it took you to complete the work on it?

Guitars and bass were recorded in our own home studios, primarily with our other guitarist, Matthew Rossa. Hannes Grossmann tracked drums in his own studio in Nuremberg, Germany (Mordor Studios) and vocals were tracked at Mystery Ton Studios here in Maryland. We spent the better part of a year doing pre-production which was sort of simultaneous with a lot of the writing process, and then about six months recording and a month for Nolly (Adam Getgood) to mix.

Exist - So True, So Bound

Speaking of challenges, is there a creative challenge to deal with in that the band members occupy similar sonic spectrums?

Not really, I do most of the composition and most of the main ideas are pre-conceived even before we’re touching our instruments. I transcribe a lot of it as well and sometimes Alex (Weber) helps me transcribe drum parts. There’s a layer of their performances that then goes over that. Improvisation in the bass lines and drums, added guitar parts to layer with textures etc. etc. Alex primarily wrote “To Sever The Strings.” If there are challenges it’s more in relation to the arrangements, not the orchestration of the instruments. Everyone generally understands the importance of supporting the song and that the individual parts are generally less important than the sum of everything.

Delve deeper into what “So True” and “So Bound” songs are communicating.

Themes include innovation vs. imitation, vanity and the effort of portraying one’s self a certain way, and the permanant human condition of discontent. That’s the most basic summary at least, there’s a lot of stuff in there.

Have you managed to make any new discoveries as the time passed during the creative process? Do you think that at some point of that process your writing approach changed drastically?

I’m sure there were plenty of smaller discoveries in terms of what works better or what doesn’t work better when recording the instruments or listening to the arrangements as a whole. All in all the writing process hasn’t (and didn’t?) changed dramatically, I generally have a pretty good idea of what I want going in. Of course there are lots of surprises along the way, but the overall shape of the album and structures of the songs tend to be very focused and we’re able to stay committed to that the whole time.

What have you been listening during the songwriting process of So True, So Bound, and in which measure it shaped the album’s final structure?

Oh tons. Everything from death metal and weird ECM records to pop. The writing process was nearly a year and I’m always trying to check out new stuff (although I think I’ve slowed down in my listening in the last few years compared to how it used to be). I don’t really know to what extent it directly impacted the album.

Where do you draw the inspiration from and how do you go about channeling it into writing?

I’m inspired by tons, from music, humor, other arts, personal interactions, maybe even teaching music. I don’t know about channeling it into writing though. While I’m sure it all does influence writing, this isn’t a conscious effort that I try to make. Music is pretty abstract, I try to just let it happen and go for what I want to hear. The things that come out which inspire me the most are generally the more effortless ideas.

What is your viewpoint on the struggle bands are facing today as they try to monetize their output?

It is what it is I guess. Sure, it would probably have been better if we had been doing this 15 years ago, but there’s nothing you can do to change it. The best you can do is accept it and then do what you can within the realm of what’s worthwhile for you. It’s also important to be able to separate the art aspect from the business. Ideally they aren’t related and I think if you end up letting the business inform the art you run the risk of doing something dishonest.

What does the future hold for Exist?

Currently we’re on tour with Gorguts. I’d like to get started on the next album (which is largely written already) before the end of the year. I’d imagine we’ll be doing more tours, if not in 2017 then in 2018. I guess we’ll see.

So True, So Bound is out now; order it from Bandcamp.

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