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The Joys of Sonder: An Interview with TesseracT

The British progressive metal quintet delves into the creation of Sonder, the touring life, our culture's increasing lack of empathy, and much more.

The British progressive metal quintet delves into the creation of Sonder, the touring life, our culture's increasing lack of empathy, and much more.

Founded roughly fifteen years ago, British quintet TesseracT—guitarists Acle Kahney and James Monteith, drummer Jay Postones, vocalist Daniel Tompkins, and bassist Amos Williams—has continually cemented itself as a dominant force in the realm of atmospheric djent. Blending divine deviations with fierce foundations, each of their studio albums packs a sublime combination of aggressive and angelic introspection that few, if any, peers can match. Fittingly, their recently released fourth LP, Sonder, may just be their greatest opus yet.

I recently caught up with the band (at the Theatre of Living Arts in Philadelphia) to discuss the creation of Sonder, as well as the touring life, our culture's increasing lack of empathy and mutual understanding, and whom they'd like to work with in the future. Oh, and we also talk about cat vomit and stealing beer from Dave Mustaine's crew.

So this first question is a bit off the cuff, but you and I have a mutual friend, James, and he wanted me to ask you about the time you toured with Dave Mustaine and asked him to get you beer.

James Monteith: Oh, yeah. Right. It was the second day of the Megadeth tour last year and we’d just finished the sound check. He came to us and asked if we wanted anything and it seemed the most sensible thing to do was ask for beer. Acle looked at me and said, “Well, we needed a couple things,” like we wasted our one free pass to get what we wanted from Dave Mustaine. He ran off and came back with a case of beer. What we didn’t know at the time was that he’d taken the beer from his crew. Ten minutes later, they came up and asked, “Where’s our beer?!” [laughs].

Jay Postones: They probably had an endless supply, though.

That’s between him and them, anyway, right?

JM: Yeah, yeah.

The album is billed as a culmination of your previous three studio LPs, which I can definitely hear. I wonder how you all feel about that. Was it an intentional decision or did it come more naturally?

Daniel Tompkins: I think that on a certain level, it was deliberate. We wanted to maybe make it a bit heavier. We all felt that it should be more aggressive. Inadvertently, we’ve kind of taken an element from each album. Like I brought the screams back and Acle brought heavier tones back. There’s the ethereal element to it as well.

I was going to ask you about bringing the screaming back. It definitely fits, but I was surprised to hear it return.

DT: There was a point when we were doing Polaris that I knew it just wouldn’t feel right. I couldn’t be bothered to scream; it would turn me off. Nobody else wanted it, either. There are a few tiny buckling screams in “Survival” and “Cages,” but we always felt that if we were going to do it, it had to be natural and organic. There are more of those places on Sonder.

It’s interesting that this album has arguably even more intensely tranquil moments than Polaris—almost to the point of minimalism—yet it also goes harder at times.

JP: Absolutely.

You also invited fans to send in field recordings, right? What motivated that choice and how were they used?

JP: It’s mostly in the background, I think. A lot of it is in “Orbital.” Aiden [O’Brien, producer] morphed them into something more musical.

Acle Kahney: You might notice the foreign speaker at the end of “The Arrow,” for example.

DT: Yeah, that was a guy’s recording of his grandfather speaking an old nursery rhyme to him in Arabic. Of course, somethings didn’t make the album

JM: Like the cat vomiting [laughs].

Someone sent in audio of their cat vomiting? Why?

JM: Yeah. It was a pretty nasty sound. Maybe it could’ve had a place, though.

We’ll never know, I guess. So moving on to something a bit more serious, I wonder what themes and concepts you guys explore on Sonder. Your music is always very sort of introspective and transcendental.

DT: In terms of lyrical composition, it all stems from the wonder “sonder.” Are you familiar with the meaning of it?

Yes, it refers to the appreciation of how every person you pass is living a complex and varied life like your own. I’m friends with a band in Philly called Sonnder.

DT: It’s become a popular word, for sure. A guy called John Koening wrote about it in “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.” I quite like the fact that he’s been experimental with Neologism, which is about the creation of new words. Linguistically, he’s at the forefront of progression in terms of the English dictionary. Have you seen his website?

I’ve heard his name before but haven’t looked into it.

DT: He’s very beautifully putting into words certain thoughts and emotions that I don’t think we’ve officially considered in the past. Like, there’s a word to describe the moment when you take a photo and you realize that it’s been taken a million times before by other people.

I’ve seen a lot of pictures that pair a definition like that with an appropriate image, but I never knew where that idea originated.

DT: Sure. I find that overriding theme really interesting. It made me feel two different ways when I really considered it. It can make you feel insignificant because you realize that you’re just not that important. It also plays into the artwork that Amos did. He wanted to represent the feeling of sonder in one image, so he captured the solar system. You look at the small things in life, like microbes and microscopic organisms and flora and stuff, and then you take a step back and see the oceans, mountains, planets, and galaxies. The further you go, the more insignificant you become, but at the same time, you become even more special because you exist in this vast universe.

The Joys of Sonder: An Interview with TesseracT

That’s a very existential way to put it. It reminds me of Watchmen, where Doctor Manhattan talks about how everything in the universe had to align so that each person exists as they do. Going along with that, do you find that people have lost the need for empathy and understanding? That people don’t want to share ideas as much; they’d rather stay closed off?

JP: Over the last couple of years, especially, social media has turned political discussion into just, you know, “I’m right and you’re wrong. Fuck off.” That’s basically all it is; it’s not really about your friends anymore. That’s kind of upsetting.

Like group polarization and binary thinking. It’s just a bunch of echo chambers.

JP: It’s not a very supportive way to channel such big things. I’m only using Facebook as an example, but there’s been a flip in how we communicate with people and remain social. I mean, you can still do that, but there’s so much bullshit on there about believing one thing over another and that’s not helping humanity overall.

JM: In a way, though, the social media platforms are forcing different groups of people to engage. People do tend to stick together into these clusters of shared perspectives and now social media kind of baits us into arguments.

DT: It’s got to start somewhere.

JP: Then people will just start trolling, I think it’s called, because there’s a safety to saying anything behind a screen. People wouldn’t say the same things in the real world, and that’s kind of—I don’t know, annoying, I guess.

You’re all right, though. To bring up Sonder again, you’re also putting out a 2-CD set with a “binaural bonus disc.” That sounds very ambitious. How did it come about?

Acle Kahney: Well, it just sounds a bit weirder [laughs]. It’s a bit more 3-D, with sounds moving around your head. Ideally, we’d have had more time to play with that and mix it, but it’s still quite cool to add that extra element.

Kind of like what Pink Floyd would do in concert, and what The Flaming Lips did with Zaireeka.

AW: Except that it never works because no one has the set-up for it. If you’ve got four outputs and a great system, it works brilliantly.

JM: It’s become quite common for bands to do 5.1 surround sound as a sort of compromise. It’s a more accessible way to do something different.

Like with Steven Wilson’s albums. It’s a good concession. How did “Luminary” and “King” come to be the lead singles, and then how did “King” also become a video?

JM: “Luminary” has maybe the biggest riff on the record, so we thought that it should probably be the first one.

DT: It’s fairly short as well. There is an element of attempting to create a radio-friendly song. I mean that in terms of length.

Do you find that that saying something is “radio-friendly” is negative, though? Does it have a bad connotation? I just see it as notably accessible rather than, say, generic or a sell-out song.

DT: It’s radio-appropriate. That’s how I’d put it, and it has worked in terms of getting us on playlists and things like that.

JM: Have you seen those two reaction guys on YouTube? What are their names?

Oh, I know who you mean. I think their channel is called Lost in Vegas.

JM: Watching their reaction to it made me realize how our own calibration of what’s pop and what’s not is actually way off. They were commenting on how crazy the rhythms are.

Well, the dynamics there are so extreme. I find that a lot of bands don’t play with levels of softness and heaviness enough. I love stuff like that.

JM: Yeah.

Are there any plans to do a subsequent EP, like you did with Errai after Polaris?

: We’ve thought about it.

DT: It seems like the natural thing to lean into, but to be honest, we’re more interested in writing the next record rather than trying to fill in gaps throughout the year. We’ve always suffered with being really happy with the end product of an album, so I think that’s what we’d like to focus on.

JM: The idea of doing remixes with other producers was been thrown around at one point, but nothing really came of it.

It’d be an interesting experiment, for sure, but you shouldn’t feel obligated, of course. Go with whatever is the natural next step.

JM: Maybe, like, a banjo cover version of something.

JP: Or a whole folk/acoustic EP.

There are a lot of bands who do totally different arrangements and timbres. It’s usually pretty cool.

DT: If we have the time, maybe.

Of course. Do you have any favorite songs on the album? I know that’s like choosing a favorite child or something.

DT: We all have different ones. My favorite is the end one, “The Arrow.” I’d like to rework that into a much bigger piece of music.

JP: “Beneath My Skin” is mine. I just really like the mid-section and the chorus. When we were in the demo phase for it, it really hit me. It’s like the “Hexes” moment on Sonder.

JM: I think the standout moment for me is the main riff in “Juno”—just because it sounds so powerful.

AW: It feels very traditional in terms of the Tesseract sound.

JM: Right, and the tempo really gets you.

Were there a lot of songs that didn’t make the cut?

DT: Oh, there were loads. I mean, we’ve got a massive bank of songs and ideas that we might use elsewhere.

AW: We’ve got stuff that’s ten years old.

JP: We tend to start with fresh ideas. There are a couple of examples, though, where themes will come back. For the most part, we leave them behind. Maybe one day we’ll use more.

I think Devin Townsend does that a lot. There are tons of repeated motifs within his catalog.  Speaking of the tour tonight, how did Astronoid and Plini come to join the line-up?

DT: We’ve played with both of them in the past.

JP: Astronoid played a bit on the Megadeth tour. I think Plini was suggested to us.

AW: We toured Australia with them [laughs].

JP: Oh, that’s right.

I’ve heard from a lot of bands that it’s not so much of a choice to play with other bands as it is a financial decision or a matter of convenience.

DT: Initially, we got a specific pitch but we didn’t think it worked, so then we got a whole list of bands that were campaigning to join the tour. Some of the ones we wanted to bring along at first were already on tour, so we were too late.

JM: What’s nice is that each band is very different but complementary to each other.

You can satisfy what people want but also turn them on to music they may not have heard.

JM: Our fans are generally open-minded, which is really great.

In Europe, Plini will be there again but Astronoid won’t. Instead, you’ll have Between the Buried and Me. Was that change due to scheduling or trying to offer something different?

AW: There wasn’t a way that Astronoid could afford to do that part of the tour. The opening band doesn’t get as much as the rest of us, so it’s easier for them to tour the states.

JM: Plus, the stars just sort of aligned for us and BTBAM to be there together. It’ll make for a really cool prog metal fit.

AW: Especially since they have their new album to play from.

Yeah, Automata II. I’m really eager to hear it. Anyway, we’re at the Trocadero in Philadelphia tonight. You’ve played here before, correct?

JM: Yeah, this is our third or fourth time playing here.

AW: This is our second headlining show here, I think. I also really like The Electric Factory. I’d like to play outside there sometime.

It’s an old venue but it’s really good. How do you guys unwind on tour? I imagine that all the stops start to run together and that at some point, it becomes more like a job and maybe a bit less fun.

AK: Sleep. A lot of sleep [laughs].

JP: Every day is pretty much the same: you arrive in the morning and load in. It’s a routine you get into and you try to eat well. Like nice coffee. It’s the little things you do during the day, around the schedule, that make each show stand out. You tend to remember the show by the backstage or—

AW: Or what I chose to have for brunch.

JP: Things like that turn it into a trip as much as it is a job. At times, it’s definitely work, but then again, it’s what we’ve worked toward for so long.

JM: We think of the story of Anvil.

AW: Then we follow that up with Heavy Metal in Baghdad to show us how good things are. Instead of worrying about not having a bathroom in the dressing room, we’re happy to not be shot at for playing loudly, you know?

DT: We are super lucky in that regard.

Of course. It’s much deserved and it’s nice to only really have what’s called First-World problems, I guess. Something I always ask musicians is who’d they’d still like to work with, be it in the studio or on tour.

JP: I think a tour with Tool would cross one off my bucket list. That’d be the tour that’d make me think, Shit, we’re doing alright. In the studio, I’m not totally sure. No one springs to mind, really. I enjoy this too much.

JM: Daniel has done a few things, haven’t you?

DT: Well, I produce it all myself. I suppose that’s a bit different. It’s not like working with someone equally.

AW: I’d like to work with anyone who’s not locked down to traditional instruments like drums, bass, vocals, and guitars. It’s just about different sounds, so a producer like that would be good. I feel a bit anchored down with those instruments and I’ve always wanted to do something different.

That is the standard rock formation, so you’ve got a point.

JP: I think that the more you do this, the less impressive it gets because you’re so familiar with the fundamentals of it. There are very few rock bands that really do something new. The only one I’ve seen recently is PussyFoot; they’re doing something different. They’re not everyone’s cup of tea, of course. Some friends of mine can’t stand them. I’m looking into a lot of electronica music because it’s so different and I don’t know how it’s made.

I know what you mean. A lot of progressive metal, in general, can sound too similar, but then you have bands like Diablo Swing Orchestra and Major Parkinson doing radical, weird things.  Usually, the most inventive music isn’t promoted on mainstream radio.

All: Oh yeah.

DT: Most of the great new music requires a bit of investigation to find it. When you find someone else who’s into it, too, it’s kind of special.

Totally. Thanks so much for taking some time to speak with me tonight, guys, and congrats on the new record and on this tour. I’m eager to see you play in a bit.

DT: Oh, no problem.

JM: Thanks, Jordan.

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