If you like your prog music with a high dosage of melody and ambience then The Contortionist is going to make you one happy listener. The band’s latest effort ‘Language’ is one hell of a journey, one that’ll take you up and down and around a musical landscape akin to something out of a fairy-tale. The sounds that resonate from ‘Language’ feel somewhat other-worldly and foreign, yet familiar. Shit, if that’s just the band’s studio presence, you can only imagine what it’d be like live! Ever one to find out, I caught up with Mike Lessard over Skype for a lovely chat about his upbringing in the music industry, the construction of The Contortionist’s songs and their tour down under with sleepmakeswaves, amongst other things.
Hey there Mike, what’s happening, man?
Not a lot Matty, just at home in Indianapolis and tonight I’ve been doing some photo editing and some video editing.
Oh cool, what’s all that for?
Oh, it’s a big hobby and passion of mine that I’m slowly turning into a career.
Awesome! What kind of photography are you into?
Really, anything. I mean, I liked landscapes more than anything but I’m a novice photographer. I don’t have a speciality like portraits or landscapes – I just kind of dabble in it all. And right now I’m a little more focused on film and at the moment I’m filming and editing the process of us making this new album!
Hell yeah! So if you’re starting to edit stuff would I say you’ve got a good start on the new record?
Yeah, we’re about three months into the writing process at this stage but we don’t hit the studio until January.
Oh wow, you’ve got a bit of time then.
We have a bit more of a budget this time around and so we planned it to spend a year writing. We wanted to make sure that we have enough time to write this thing. ‘Cause what’s happened before is we’ve ended up being rushed.
That’s awesome to hear. And considering you guys are such a technical band and like to evolve your songs as such over a period of time that’s gonna be helpful.
Oh, for sure! But I mean there’s never enough time no matter how much you’re given!
For sure, man, for sure. So you guys are heading down under this week to tour with sleepmakeswaves. You were out here a few years ago with Between the Buried and Me, since then, what would you say has been the most lasting memory for you of Australia?
Besides the memory of our sound guy getting some crazy insect flying down his shirt and him running down the street at 3am, ripping his shirt off, it was just taking in the culture and the scenery. Even the little things like instead of Burger King you have Happy Jacks [sic]. Even though it’s so simple and minuscule, it’s the little things that make you go, “Oh, I didn’t realise it was like this.” Like, I found out that I’ve been lied to about Fosters Beer – I couldn’t even find it down there! [Laughs] It’s just the interesting things like that. The fans were great and there were just some beautiful landscapes. Every time I’m out at a new place I just try and take it all in. The surroundings, the food, the scenery the culture. And on that tour, we got to spend about three days in Melbourne which was pretty awesome.
That tour was really good in that it was setup that we’d play a show and then have a day off then another show and a day off. This tour, however, is far more full on. I think we spend a few nights in Melbourne and I can’t remember where we end but we spend a few days in that city before heading off.
You’re a band that loves to just keep on evolving your songs as tours go on. And it’s been a fair awhile since you were Down Under so how far removed can we expect the songs to be from the way they are on the record now you’ve toured them all extensively?
Well, the things is, we don’t even play the Rediscovered songs the way you see and hear them on iTunes and stuff. What happened to those songs is that came out of us reworking them – I rework melodies every single tour. They might not hear the Rediscovered versions but they will be hearing new things. That’s how that album came about. We start rehearsing those songs for tours and we rework certain parts and I rework and change or add melodies and lyrics, we write new parts. So there will be some extended parts and some added stuff and a lot of new things for them to see, the people who are aware of what we do.
I just want to unpack that a little bit. It’s sounding like it’s all a very conscious decision, is that right to say? You said you rework melodies every tour so are you sitting down and doing that or is it more serendipitous and spur of the moment with the energy in rehearsals and shows?
A really good mix of both I’d say. When we get ready for a tour, it can kind of become a bit of an improvement thing. It’s one of those things where you change it up because you hear things differently or there were parts you wished you’d put on the album. I come from a bit of Jazz background so I can improvise a little. When I’m on stage sometimes I just do things without even thinking about it, other times, a part will be coming and I’ll just try something new.
How often would you say you or another member has gone to do something new “in the moment” and it has just not worked? Like, at all.
Oh, absolutely it happens. That’s the beauty of improvising. There is always a risk-reward going on. If there was no risk and everything you did was just perfect then there’d be no fun in that. The fun comes from jumping off that ledge and seeing where you land. Sometimes you miss the ground and hit the water. It has happened on many occasions. Throughout the course of an average set, I’d say Cam and I improvise the most. We do it a handful of times a set so you combine that with however many shows we play a year and there’s going to be a lot of mishaps.
Would you say that in the writing process of songs, the direct improvising happens more so because there’s less of a risk so you can take a bigger jump, so to speak?
That’s pretty much how I approach recording. I just keep going till they kick me out of the booth and the album is finished. We do it right at the demo stage even. See, this album we’re demoing it all ourselves then we’re going to another place to pre-production where we’ll re-record it and then we’re going into the studio to record it one more time. So every time we do that we’re gonna change things up and do it a bit different. So yeah, I’m this stage we do it constantly.
I think no matter where you are whether writing or live, it’s a balance between being calculated and being spontaneous because that’s how you’re going to get new and interesting results. If you continue to do the same outline every time you’re going to repeat yourself.
I have a few friends who are actually against the whole ‘changing the songs up live’ because they go and they want to see that one melody line that tears their heart open or they love a certain key more so than another. Can you speak to that criticism a bit for those who might harbour it?
Maybe we’re not the band for them. [Laughs]. At the end of the day, we have to do what keeps us sane. But there is really nothing wrong with that criticism. I’ve been like that. I’ve gone to see bands and my favourite part wasn’t delivered as well as I wanted it to. But I’ve also gone and seen bands where the reworked stuff if better than what I heard on the original. So it’s another risk-reward thing. You take a lot of risks with it but sometimes the rewards are better. The other thing too is that I’ve done shows where kids have come up to me and asked “Can you do the melody like this?” and then seeing their face light up when I do that is fun for me because they see that I’ve taken on what they’ve said and am giving it a go. But for those who people who take offence to us doing that it really isn’t meant to be offensive, it’s meant to be us experimenting ourselves. But if they don’t like it then as I said before, maybe we’re just not the band for them.
Wow, that’s actually really cool that someone has asked you to do that!
Yeah, it actually happened recently on the last tour we did.
Good on them for having the courage to ask that of you, though.
It really was a bold move for someone to come up and ask me to sing a certain way but I admired his effort so I delivered what he wanted.
So cool. You mentioned before about having a jazz background. How would you say that’s affected your musical journey to be the vocalist you are today?
So my musical journey has been going since I was just a kid. Always loved music, always been a fan of it and fascinated by it. I’ve also always had a knack for visualising things even at an early age. In my early teens my grandfather gave me a guitar, he was a country musician and wanted me to learn how to play. I was god awful for ages but my friend Tom had one and was actually good and one day he was in his garage and was playing a song that I knew so I just started singing it. From that day on, I never looked back. Started off with more radio rock type stuff and didn’t really quite get into jazz. I was never a jazz musician. The reason I say I have a jazz background is because once I got out of high school, was the same time Tom went to a jazz school for jazz composition. Which is where I met the guys who I went on to form Last Chance To Reason. That jazz school was a ten-minute walk from my work so the professors used to let me sit in on classes, I did the recitals and I would go into the jazz rooms and improve with all the kids. I was very immersed in the school but I wasn’t actually a part of it. When I joined Last Chance To Reason was when I got a bit of a crash course on the technical side of music. But having my rock background was good ‘cause when working with anyone more on the technical side of things I would always try and bring it to justifiability in the vocals. I always wanted the vocals to be something the listener could grab a hold of and follow along with no matter what was going on underneath it. So that’s how that all came about.
I’m also pretty big on going through phases of what I listen to, whether it be country or RNB or progressive rock, I try and take little pieces of all of those styles and incorporate that into whatever I’m doing and my vocals.
So if you hadn’t of immersed yourself into that jazz school and picked up influences from there, do you think you’d be where you are now as a musician and performer?
Well, I do think I would still be in a band that was doing fairly successful. Even before going to that jazz school I had already done tours for three or four years. I was fairly business savvy in the DIY scene. I was booking tours and playing shows at a really young age, playing two shows a week in my home state and then working on getting out of my state. I did my first tour at seventeen and I’ve always had a strong work ethic on the business side of things. So I do think I’d be in a successful and engaged band had I not walked into that jazz school or not. Would I be doing this style of music? Probably not. I think Last Chance To Reason was what got me into the progressive side of things and was also how I met The Contortionist. We had toured together and what not.
It’s interesting that you touched on being a jack of all trades. Would you say that that is something a lot of young bands are missing nowadays? They don’t know the first thing about the business side of things or how to talk to higher ups and make connections or book shows. I take it you think that’s something younger artists should tap into if they want to take the next step?
I really believe so, man. It’s priceless to be able to do that. You can be a band without business sense if you have a good manager; that’s what they are there for you know? To handle the business side of things? But the more things you can do on your own and the more you know than the more work you have. That alone is priceless. Say tomorrow The Contortionist breaks up. I know I have all the resources and the know how to pick up from where else where I left off. And that’s the thing, a lot of people don’t know any of that so when their band breaks up you never hear from them again because they weren’t the one keeping the finger on the pulse. And that is fine. Some people just aren’t in that realm of things. I do think it’s something everyone should learn a little bit in, though.
I’m a pretty big jack of all trades when it comes to all of this stuff. I’ve produced all of our music videos, I’m doing the filming and the photography, I know the business side of things and singing. I can crudely play guitar and piano too! I just try and pick up as many things as possible. Because in this industry it’s about taking up as many streams as possible and then whatever stream becomes a river is the one you follow. That’s my philosophy when it all comes down to it.
That’s actually a really amazing point, Mike! Thanks so much for your time today and all we’ve talked about, it’s been fun. Best of luck for the tour with sleepmakeswaves this week!
No worries, Matty. Thank you so much for taking the time yourself. Have a good day!
The Contortionist will be on tour with sleepmakeswaves later this week all across the country. Pick up your tickets here!