Subterranea: Kylesa

Kylesa have spent their entire career resisting categorisation, wilfully melding the might of metal with the grim portents of doom, a psychedelic battle fought to the beat of two drummers.

Equal parts primal groove and cerebral angst, it’s a fitting soundtrack from a group named after a Buddhist term for delusory anguish.

‘Keep moving, don’t look back’ has become their motto, one that’s taken on added resonance following a period that both founding guitarists/vocalists Phillip Cope and Laura Pleasants describe as the hardest of their lives. The struggle was documented on their darkest record to date, 2013’s Ultraviolet, which met with a mixed response at the time. Laura describes it as a rough chapter in the band’s 15-year career.

“It was a difficult record. Some of those songs I really, really like, and some of them… aren’t my favourite.” She trails off frequently, considering every word. “Ultraviolet was dark. I was going through the darkest period of my life. I lost my mother to cancer and it was… epically terrible. I don’t wish that on anyone, but it’s part of life. It was a difficult time; we had to take a long break.”

Two years have passed. If Ultraviolet was the sound of Kylesa at their lowest ebb, new album Exhausting Fire documents their attempts to understand and overcome their difficulties, to start anew. It is by turns direct and ambiguous, the brazen riffs of old making frequent returns on a dreamlike journey, falling in and out of focus, lost in multi-instrumental hazes, and torn between optimism and melancholy.

“Phillip and I, ironically, were both going through heavy relationship stuff,” says Laura, “and it’s easy to get lost in your head; you’re totally lost and confused, you need escape. There’s a lot of that in the lyrics, and the music takes on different aspects of those thoughts.”

As well as recording Exhausting Fire, Laura has spent a “crazy” summer renovating her new home, symbolic fresh starts for both her band and her personal life. For Phillip, the studio seems a spiritual home, and at times during the writing process, a literal one. He’s “locked in” there today, and sounds affably tired, preoccupied, giving the impression that he spends a wealth of time here: “I write continuously, I never take huge breaks.” Laura spoke of needing escape, and it seems a pertinent theme for him as well. Did writing *Exhausting Fire *offer that escape?

“We’re not escaping anything,” he answers. “We’re facing issues head on, writing about them. The only escape was that I was so busy working on it that I shut myself off from everything else. I spent over a month in the studio – I didn’t leave! I woke up, worked on the album and then went to sleep. The album starts where *Ultraviolet *left off, moving into getting away from dark times, dark thoughts, trying to keep your head up. *Exhausting Fire *is a way of getting a lot out of your system, and moving on.”

For Phillip, moving forward is an absolute necessity. “I’m not someone that likes to live in my past,” he explains, “I don’t like to dwell on it.” Perpetual evolution, it seems, is the foundation upon which this band was built.

“Our manifesto from the get-go was that we were going to play heavy music, but not pigeonhole ourselves,” Laura recalls, “because then your band can only last for so long; it would get incredibly boring. That said, at this point too I think it would be foolish to neglect our fans, like, ‘Fuck ’em, we’re gonna write a shitty pop record now.’”

Because there’s an expectation of what Kylesa should sound like?

“Yes… but I think we’ve found a nice balance of keeping it pretty heavy, whether sonically or thematically. We’ve done a lot of experimentation, and at this point I think we’ve successfully been able to combine our musical interests, which are pretty vast, into this one entity that is Kylesa.”

Phillip, who has also taken over production duties on the last two records (“As we go on it’s getting to the point where we have our own language… it’s just easier to do it for ourselves”), has been expanding his musical abilities, encouraging their evolution. “There’s always been a drive within myself and Laura to try new things. I’ve spent years with guitars, and there’s plenty of room for me to improve, but at the same time, it’s been fun to try new things. I’ve been playing the theremin for a few years. There’s a good bit of it on the last two records. I try to find ways to make it sound unique and not like an old sci-fi movie!”

It’s a creative tension that has its roots in Phillip’s former crust band, Damad, where he found himself frustrated by the expectations of the music scene surrounding him.

“Looking back now, Damad was a little too ahead of its time. Nobody knew quite where we stood, even in the underground, but I was OK with that. I saw how easy it was for people to want to put you in a genre at that time, and that’s not the kind of person that I am or Laura is.”

Laura concurs, strenuously, having moved to Savannah whilst still in school, meeting Phillip and being really “gung ho” when the duo first started Kylesa. “In the beginning we were this heavy band that was kinda sludgy, kinda punk, kinda metal, but the punks thought we were too metal, the metalheads liked us but we weren’t quite metal enough, and the stoners dug us, but we weren’t quite stoner rock enough. We were always outsiders. That was disheartening as an idealistic early 20-something… That said, there’s since been a lot of cross-pollination of genres, and that’s cool, I think people are much more accepting of it than they were 10 years ago.”

As Kylesa continue to push their limits, it’s to Phillip’s chagrin that they now find themselves lumped in with scenes that they’ve never considered themselves part of. “I think we’ve been put into certain genres, or people associate us with certain themes. It’s kind of weird in a sense because in a lot of ways we were doing some of these ideas before some of the bands that people think we were trying to be like – people just heard those bands before they heard us! Does it annoy us? Yeah! It can be weird. There are always going to be people who try to lump you in with other bands, but at least at this point its bands that we know and respect. It could be way worse. We’re not ever going to feel bound to any scene.

“It’s always been our intention to expand within heavy music, that’s our canvas, and I think there’s still plenty of room,” asserts Phillip. “I started in ’93, and coming all the way now, all these years later, I think we’ve found a way to expand with every record. I don’t think there are any limits.”