After experiencing their intense live show last year and being blown away by their first full length album “Commuters” earlier this year, ThisIsNotAScene‘s John Toolan had a few questions to put to Coilguns. Jona and Louis took time out of their busy touring schedule to answer them as fully as they could. They talked about the album, recording ‘live’, tour funding and much, much more…
What is the premise behind the tracks (and album in general) “Commuters”?
LOUIS: This record addresses ourselves as commuters; active people constantly travelling from a point A to another one called B. Somehow we, touring musicians, do the same. Point A being here the club we leave in the morning and B the one we discover at the end of the day. It may be a different club, city, country, it’s still a club. Just like these commuters, we’re part of a tribe of nomads, an informal population of rootless monkeys. And yes, we’re proud of our job.
What we usually forget is how static we actually are. We all end up spending most of our time in traffic jams, highways, petrol stations, motels, backstages. This is our C point, the one that’s not our destination but the whole way leading to it. C is the no man’s land.
Ever had the impression that your train is not really moving, but that it is the landscape itself that is moving instead? Well, touring is static. Our house is our bus and you are our visitors, not the contrary. Distances don’t get smaller, they just don’t exist for us. We make friends, they come to our show (they even bring a bottle or two) we entertain them, and they get back to their normal life. Nothing changes for us, we’re still on the road.
I made a few references to late 60’s architecture utopias. First of all because it is trendy and fun, but also because they crystallised the condition of the commuters. Plug-in Cities, No-stop Cities, Continuous Monument. This is how it feels touring the world nowadays, rock ‘n’ roll clubs are a continuum of standard equipment. Wherever we go, we’ll be sure to find what we need to survive and communicate. We’re the new nomads, and our life isn’t that far from what these architects predicted. Our tour van is our private life cell, e-mail English is our Esperanto, the world wide web is our monument.
The artwork makes it obvious : circular shapes, standard subway map colours, ocean tides, didn’t we realize the earth was round staring at the sea horizon ?
I wrote a first text named Minkowski Manhattan Distance and took it as a basis for these songs. I picked a sentence or two per track and paraphrased it into a new proper song. They all share the same theme: distance versus time, urban spaces, human relationships and so on. The usual blah blah. At the same time, these are just songs, you know, raw punk poetry to scream along heavy riffs and frantic drumbeats, there’s not so much space for clever thoughts. Don’t freak out too much if it seems absurd; it is probably meant this way.
What music has helped to inform the sound of Coilguns over the years?
JONA: At The drive-in, Botch, Breach, Deftones, Converge, Dillinger Escape Plan, Don Caballero… For some of these bands we are talking about the riffing, for some others about the production, the way they record their album (or recorded) and the way they play their instrument. Listen to any Breach record and you’ll understand what I’m talking about.
The Coilguns sound is incredibly complex yet abrasive and, particularly when experienced live, almost feral in nature. How does a typical Coilguns piece come about?
JONA: I usually come up with a couple of riffs, a draft of a structure. I record them, send them to Luc and after a week we meet in the room and start working on it. Then we go with the flow. Luc’s really involved in the song writing at this point. He’s a good guitar player and he gives me his opinion from a drummer point of view and since I don’t know how to count he often straightened my fucked up riffs and makes them more efficient. The very first riff of the very first song ever recorded for this band (Mastoid) was Luc’s riff. We spend a lot of time both seated in the living room with 2 guitars gathering ideas on how to improve the songs.
A good example would be “Commuters Part 2”. At first I had written this song that had this kind of “At The Drive-In” vibe to the main riff (that you can actually hear on Commuters Part 1) and the rest of the song was quiet melodic. It was pretty short with a proper A, B, A, B, C, B kind of structure…But eventually, Luc decided that it was too gay and that we should focus on these 3 chords that were a simple transition. We started jamming them out, looping different guitar lines and these 3 chords ended up being 11 minutes of an unbearable build up.
So we discuss everything and we also record pre-productions. Then we listen to them and meet the next day and share our feelings about them. When we’re happy we just send it over to Louis (who never ever rehearse with us) and he lays down his vocals. Sometimes he asks us to make one part longer or shorter but usually he’s fine with whatever we do.
With the release of the full length “Commuters” do you feel the sound of the band has developed in any way?
JONA: It surely did. All the obvious influences have been well digested I think. They’re still there, but much more diluted, it’s more subtle. Then we naturally went through this unconscious process of pointing at what made us sound like any other band and what sounded like us. We then focused on the latest option and after 3 ep’s, we can say that we wrote the album that will serve as a solid base for what this band will be in the next couple of years. This apply to the song writing as well as the production. We’re just at the beginning of where we wanna lead this band to but I really think that there is a strong identity in “COMMUTERS” and the way we’ve defined COILGUNS with this album leaves us a lot of room to experiment BUT still sound like COILGUNS you know what I mean?
How difficult do you find it financing tours nowadays? Are record labels as forthcoming with the funding to support live shows?
JONA: NO. Record labels are barely giving tour support nowadays, even to bigger bands. Then you can imagine how it works in the underground scene…To me the only way is to be able to invest a little bit of money on your first tour and if you do things smartly, you should not be loosing money. Financing a tour comes along with managing your band correctly as well. All incomes you can generate when not on tour you wanna save to advance the money you need to make the next tour happen. This is one side of it.
The second solution and that mainly depends on the country you’re living in, is to get funding from state or private institutions supporting art. But there aren’t so many and it is never crazy amount of $$.
Bottom line is that even as a bigger established band you can’t count on your record label to support your tour financially, so it’s all on you and how you manage the finances of your band. And THIS is DIY. I can see purists crying while reading this: “management”, “investment”, “incomes”…But when no one does it for you, you have to do it and being a touring band implies expenses which means money needs to go out from someone’s pocket.
When I started COILGUNS I realized I could not be the band’s bank so I did it once, made the right choices and after a couple of months the band was generating enough incomes to cover my advance and pay for the next tour.
Then we started applying for funding and the first couple of times they did not accept. We kept on doing our thing with whatever we had and one day they started supporting us.
Now, with a good planning and a good pre-budget we can go on tour and know that nobody will have to put money out of their pockets.
That’s the only way I’ve found to be able to finance our tours.
How important was it to you to record your releases live as opposed to using the studio to manipulate your sound?
JONA: Playing live is what we do full time, on stage. It all started with the “Stadia Rods” ep. We had to write this extra 30 minutes of music to play our first show and after rehearsing so much we just felt we knew these songs well enough to record them live. Since then, we decided not to go another way of recording. We are not nerds, practicing our instrument at home and playing scales. But we play so much shows that being tight and playing with a certain sensitivity became natural…So why not do that in the studio?
It is also really important since we believe that this way of doing things is giving more character to our sound and to the band in general. It’s nothing new and a lot of bands are doing it. Maybe more in the noise/math-rock scene than the Hardcore one but still.
Being only 2 players also changed the way I used to write / play music. You always have to bring any new riff a different way as you don’t have a third person playing something else to get into the chorus or whatever…and for all the epic instrumental build-ups, you really need to play with a lot of dynamics which I find to be the essence of playing an instrument. So again: why not do that in the studio?
Knowing how to play with intensity and always keep a little buffer in order to unleash everything when it’s time to do it. That’s what I’m talking about. And there’s no way to reach this with a multi-tracks / separate recording. Unless you start manipulating everything but then, what you do isn’t playing music, but being good at using your computer…We also play a lot of parts on cue, live or in the studio. Luc and I constantly have a visual contact just to make sure we put the same accent at the same time. On some parts, Louis is the one giving the sign.
All of this is what the essence of playing music is to me and that’s what we all do when playing live so why not in the studio? We always look for the best version of a song in terms of atmosphere and “ballsiness”, no matter if Luc or I have fucked up a part. The record is full of mistakes. But that’s a detail compared to the energy you can find in the versions of these songs AND a big finger to all these shit kiddy bands releasing the same record, with the same sterile sound, programmed drums and guitars over edited…The one great thing is when you see them live and realize how fucking bad they are at playing their instrument…And even if they can, 98% of them do not understand what “playing with soul” is and how important it is when it comes to music…
I saw you play live last year in Leeds and you had a very impressive display array of pedals for the guitar. Was that a conscious decision or has that collection evolved over time? Was it a conscious decision not to incorporate a bass player into the band?
JONA: On the first EP, Louis (Vox) recorded bass. When we got that first show offer he literally told me “I don’t wanna have to learn your shit riffs and have to sing at the same time…” I did not want to have a fourth member so the only solution was to come up with a system that would allow me to play both guitars and the bass by myself. Not a new concept in anyway, just the only solution I had not to have this lack of sub-frequencies.
I was not a geek at all and had no idea how to do this but after being a bit curious, I bought a couple of AB boxes, already had a couple of amps and effects and then just tried it out. Since I had to build a custom pedal board for that I just started geeking around and bought a lot of different effects I thought could be useful.
Basically, I’m using 25 different pedals divided in 3 chains: Guitar 1, Guitar 2, and Bass. For the Bass I’m using an octaver, an overdrive and a looper so I can sometimes have in certain build-ups different bass lines than what I play on the guitar. Some effects are going only in one guitar amp or the other so I can harmonize what I play or loop it or “freeze” some chords on one side and keep playing some evil shit on the other. I also have 4 AB boxes so I can play only 1 guitar, 2 guitars, with or without bass, only bass…I’m really happy with this setup.
I understand the Coilguns project came about as bit of fun in some down time with The Ocean. Do you see the Coilguns element of your musical path developing further?
JONA: Starting Coilguns when we did was the worst idea timing wise as we were really busy with THE OCEAN. We def. wanted to do something with less production and more spontaneous than The Ocean though. And it did start as a joke.
And that’s why everything happening since the then is a bonus on what we were expecting from this band which was NOTHING. But yeah, I’ve been taking a bit of distance with THE OCEAN for the last couple of years and have focus myself on taking care of COILGUNS. Feedback started being good and we found ourselves having a lot of fun with this band so we just decided to jump on every opportunity we could take and eventually we became a band with proper releases and a real touring schedule!
So to answer the question we’ll keep on doing our thing, releasing our own records when needed, organize our own tours when we feel like it and take it from there. I would not mind this band to expand. But I also want this band to stay free from any classical canvas. Besides developing the band as a regular touring band that records an album, promote it and tour, we also wanna develop the experimental side of it by collaborating with unexpected artists in different setups for example…We’ll see.
Are there any other Swiss bands that may be of interest to readers at the moment?
JONA: Many! I’m gonna start with the bands I am releasing through my label Hummus Records which are THE FAWN, a wonderful experimental-pop-acoustic collective featuring Louis and Luc, ØLTEN, an instrumental sexy moustache-rock trio, KUNZ & WELINGTON IRISH BLACK WARRIOR, 2 bands playing some awful noise-rock and then I’m just gonna make a list of dead and active bands: KNUT, FORCEED, UNFOLD, ABRAHAM, RORCAL, VUYVR, ELIZABETH, CORTEZ, KEHLVIN, SHELVING, WARDHILL, MONTE-CHARGE, KRUGER, ZATOKREV, MONOSKI….so many…
How important nowadays do you feel on line social networks such as Twitter and Facebook are?
JONA: Social Media is a powerful tool if you know how to use them. I guess that nowadays we’re going back to what used to be the real DIY scene BUT with the Internet as a tool and this is def. an improvement. If you’re a little bit smart you’ll realize that you can make sure to reach to the people that have some interest in checking you out instead of fishing for new “fans” that don’t care.
I got into this whole social network thing as soon as we started the band. I did not know what to use, how to use them and what to say. But eventually, after checking other bands profiles and the different social medias they were using I started my thing and it worked out. We were able to create a small fan base that’s now supporting us on a regular basis. Can be with helping out for a last minute show, a place to crash, news to share…I was talking to Robin from Pelagic Records a couple of days ago and that’s incredible how much more records we are selling directly through our bigcartel and bandcamp than through the label’s physical distribution. I mean, it’s def. not a good sign as our sales figure will never be good enough for us to sign on a bigger label…But of course, we don’t give a fuck.
It’s also that through these social medias the relation between the band and the listener is direct, personal (at least to our level) and I think that’s great to be able to know what people think and that they can ask you directly what they want. I hate spending all my time on my computers sending e-mails and handling all these different profiles, but fact is that this allows us to play shows and meet people that share the same passion for music as we do. I could not imagine someone else than band members handling the social media content of our pages as for me that’s what makes it interesting.
I’m sure you can do without social medias, there has to be some different ways, but in my case, I think this band will not be where it is without them.
If Coilguns came about originally as a bit of fun, are there any other projects/avenues that you would like to explore musically?
JONA: SOOOO MANY! Louis is involved in many other projects already and he never stops. I will be releasing some of his work later this year. He is also taking part in museum exhibitions with another team of people. He actually builds machines and play music with them…more like art performances…Both Luc and Louis are involved together in other bands like THE FAWN, KUNZ…Luc is also taking part in other projects that are more “performance” oriented.
I have several things going-on at the moment, 2 years ago Loïc (The Ocean’s singer) and I started something and we’re close to the final product (Luc’s involved as well), I’ve spent a couple of days in the studio with a great electro producer from London called “Broken Note”, I don’t know whether this will lead anywhere or not but both him and I would love to repeat this experience. I’ll have the chance to join THE FAWN for their next show and play with people I truly admire but never had the chance to play with, and I’m on the verge of starting something much more old-rock sounding. I’d love to play acoustic music and I’d love to have a one-man band where I could use my pedal board and some extra keyboards!!
Music is something you can never get bored with because there will always be something to learn / do / play.