For the better part of a decade, The Contortionist have been adding their unique blend of tech-death and progressive rock to all manner of weird and wacky touring packages around the alternative world. Last year’s haunting masterpiece ‘Clairvoyant’ marked a watershed moment for the band, with the group confirming themselves worthy contenders for one of the most excited, and long overdue, emerging acts in contemporary heavy music. With a huge 7-month touring itinerary awaiting them in 2018, including an Australian visit in May with the almighty SikTh, singer Michael Lessard took time out of the band’s headlining US run to chat close encounters with Breaking Benjamin, the insanity of touring with Nothing More, how early live shows in his youth affected him, and to give us some hot movie recommendations.
It’s coming up to a year in ‘Clairvoyant’ album cycle. Now that this record, as well as the more melodic ‘Language’ are staples for the band, how is it potentially changing your approach to live singing as opposed to the harshness of your earlier material?
Singing will always come with its difficulties. It’d be amazing if I could scream the whole set because I wouldn’t have to worry about pitch, but at this point, we’ve been out on the road for a month and a half, and at this point, it’s getting difficult to maintain. Keeping consistency is difficult, so I think an all screaming set would be easier-however I much prefer singing live. You get a performance factor that you just don’t receive with screaming.
When in your career did you begin screaming for vocals?
I started when I was about 15! I’m 30 now to give you an idea, but I’ve been doing it for awhile. I was a singer first, however, which I started doing when I was 13. Back then I started my own try-hard radio rock band, like Godsmack and stuff, so I was trying to sound like I was a 45 year old, using this really deep voice, but then when I was 15 I played a show with Haste The Day, who was unsigned at the point, and it was the first time I’d seen the scream/sing thing, and that was a changing point for me. From then on I wanted to be both a good singer and a good screamer.
It’s funny because even thinking about the effect of those earlier shows because when I was 14 I saw Breaking Benjamin play with a band called Cold. Cold was the band that made me want to make music, so they were my favourite band for three or four years. I left the show early because I thought I’d be able to find Cold’s bus, but I ran into Ben from Breaking Benjamin, and it wasn’t anything crazy, but he spoke to me for 15 minutes about movies and stuff, and the fact that he did that changed my entire view on how you should approach your fans. To this day, if someone wants to talk to me, they have my undivided attention.
What are some other big watershed moments that affect the way you perform and approach your work with ‘The Contortionist’?
I feel like any time we tour with a band that’s a little different from us, we have this crazy epiphany over new stuff we can do. For example, this last month we’ve been out with Nothing More, and they put on such a great rock show. They have these different stages during the show, so like this 3-piece machine that starts out as a drum riser, and they add extra percussion and pieces where all the members are hitting different instruments with sticks together, and it all turns into the 15 feet-tall mechanical monster that the band take turns of playing different parts of. It’s so insane, and it made us think ‘Oh wow, we don’t focus on this, but maybe we should!’
Theatrically speaking, The Contortionist is far more Radiohead-esque, not breaking out of the trance of the show and talking to the crowd at all. Will that be a constant, or do these tours challenge that habit?
With this last tour, at times it’s easy to be caught up in the ego, so at the start of the Nothing More tour I did my ‘no talking to the crowd’ thing, because to me it’s like a play so the actors don’t break character, they keep the 4th wall until the very end. The Nothing More crowd, as a general stereotype, seemed to not like that because those fans generally go to very interactive rock shows. I noticed very quickly on the first few shows that the crowds were a little standoffish towards us, so instead, I picked 3 different spots in the set where I spoke to the crowd, and those 3 steps hanged how the entire show went for the rest of the tour. I love doing the trance thing, and I can still doing that when we are with the proper band’s, but I’m not above adapting. I think it’s a tricky balancing act with trying to figure out what you need to be. It can even depend on what country you’re in. That’s an awesome extra challenge.
Coming straight off of that tour onto your headliner, your out there on the road for about 2 months. How is the band avoiding burnout this deep into the record cycle?
In a way, we’re used to it, and things have only gotten easier. When we first started, we used to do 9 months on the road per year, which was really gruelling. By the end of this year, we would have toured 6-7 months of the year, which is still decent, but it’s a little easier. We stay fresh by picking tours with band’s that we like, so the bands motivate us every night. We also try to be creative in other ways, like what we can do for the next tour in terms of the setlist and all. The fact that we aren’t where we wanna be musically wise, or merch wise, or stage set up wise; that helps us continue to push forward all the time.
Your drummer Joey is sitting out of this run, and all the best too him, However, when little hits happen like that to a band when you’re around each other so much, how do you keep things motivated and focused when the routine has to change with a new member coming into the travelling fold?
It’s very hard. Obviously, it only makes you stronger, but as a musician and as I said earlier, you have to adapt at all times. We brought in a guy who we all grew up with, and it’s been pretty seamless with Johnny stepping in on drums. It was definitely nerve-wracking for the first few shows, but we’re accustomed to it now, so it’s kind of at a point where we would happily let him come along regardless of who was with us because we’re a family now.
To wrap up, you’ve always said that the film world is a big influence on you. What’s been on your watch list lately that’s been inspiring you and giving you ideas to move forward?
I haven’t had time to sit down in a while to focus on a film, especially because I like very heavy films where you walk away thinking about what they were trying to say. Once I think about that, I think about how did the editing reinforced that and all… so I’m very analytical with those things. I can’t sit down and just consume, so I usually watch stuff I’ve already seen to think about again. However, we’ve watched Spinal Tap about 20 times on the bus recently. But outside of that, one of the last really good ones I saw was Swiss Army Man with Daniel Radcliffe. Some people might not get it because there’s a lot of fart jokes and stuff, but the premise is this person who discovers a dead body, and this becomes this Swiss Army Knife. Aside from all the craziness of it, it’s a very heartwarming film and the cinematography and soundtrack are beautiful and absurd at the same time, and that somehow manages to pull on your heart.
‘Clairvoyant’ is out now. Catch The Contortionist in Australia this May with SikTh – tour dates & tickets here.