bill bodkin interviews the rock band Chemtrail, who are having their record release party tonight in Asbury Park …
“I’m not really sure why people describe us as ‘avant garde.’ We are basically just a rock band without a singer … not that ‘avant garde’ in my book. However, we are different than the majority of popular music out there, so I can see why people might say that.”
When I first heard about Chemtrail, I was told they were “avant garde.”
Pictures of five guys dressed completely in clothes made of turkey sausage playing acid jazz on accordions and tin whistles painfully danced through my head.
Then I heard the first track (“Peace Weapon”) off their new album new album Youth Obsessed Death Culture, and those evil, avant garde thoughts melted away. Instead of kooky accordion music, Chemtrail performs beautifully composed, highly emotionally and well-produced instrumental rock music. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, I don’t believe we can count the words just one track off Chemtrail’s new record is worth — it’s just that good.
I recently spoke with Mike Burke, guitarist and keyboardist of Chemtrail. We spoke about their record release party tonight at the famed Asbury Lanes in Asbury Park, N.J. (presented by Shore Alternative), instrumental music and more.
Band Name: Chemtrail
Dan Ridenour (guitar)
Mike Burke (guitar and keys)
Chris Camano (guitar)
J. Maggio (bass)
Chris Lukens (Drums)
We Formed In: 2006
We’re Based Out Of: Asbury Park, N.J.
Find Our Current Music (online, in stores at): iTunes, www.chemtrailmusic.com, AmazonMp3, and all other major online digital music distributors.
New Record To Be Released: May 3. Copies can be purchased early at our CD release show tonight.
Our Back Catalog Includes: Terminals (2008), Via Satellite (2007)
Our Sound Has Been Likened To: Mogwai, Explosions In The Sky, Sigur Ros
Pop-Break: You’ve described your sound as “instrumental rock/post-rock.” Where did the inspiration come from to perform the very unique style of music? I mean, you come from diverse musical backgrounds, why take this route?
Mike Burke: My bandmate Dan and I started writing the demos for Chemtrail back in 2005. We had the idea of being completely instrumental from the beginning; we never even considered a vocalist. We wanted to establish the sound and style of Chemtrail before we involved anyone else in the mix so that the foundation would be set and there would be no confusion about the direction we were heading in as a band. So to answer your question, we decided to go this route simply because Dan and I both were inspired by other instrumental music and/or music in which lyrics or singing was not the focal point. For example, we found inspiration in things like film scores and bands like Slint or Sigur Ros (whose lyrics are in either Icelandic or their own non-sensical, made-up language “hopelandic”). The vocals in Sigur Ros’ music function mainly as another instrument, not a tool to convey a message or tell a story of any kind.
PB: Your songs, despite lack of vocals, convey a lot of emotion. Do you find it harder to write music that’s so emotional and rich without lyrics or vocals?
MB: On the contrary. I think it comes naturally. Emotion is the driving force behind all of our songwriting. I know when I pick up my guitar or sit behind my piano to write, I know I’m getting somewhere when what I am playing brings a tear to my eye or makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Anger can be fodder for some of the heavier compositions we make. Everybody experiences a wide range of emotions, and we set out to channel those feelings into sound. I’m glad that seems to have came across to you when you listened to the album.
PB: Your new album is entitled Youth Obsessed Death Culture. Can you talk about if and how the title reflects on the overall theme of the record?
MB: The title is in reference to how we are living in a society that is “youth-obsessed.” Plastic surgery, face lifts, tummy tucks — everybody seems to be obsessed with looking 10-20 years younger. Its sort of a shallow and empty obsession, considering there are far greater problems in the world than your “crows feet” or sagging ass. I wouldn’t say that this would be an all-encompassing theme of the record because not all the songs are this dark. There is happiness, hope and inspiration to be found in our music as well. We try not to place too much importance on our titles. A lot of them are whimsical in nature. We are an instrumental band, so there are no lyrics for our song or album titles to coincide with so it leaves a lot of freedom when it comes to titling our music. Most of the time the titles come from something we find comical or some sort of inside experience shared among the band.
PB: How is this album different from previous Chemtrail albums?
MB: I would definitely say this album is more epic than previous endeavors. It’s home to some of our longest tracks to date and it is also our longest album. I would also say its our most focused and strongest material. There are levels of complexity in some of the song structures that we have never reached before. A good example would be the song “Space Invaders.” I’m not even sure how many different riffs or parts we squeezed into that five-minute song. I think it’s great because it keeps things fresh and exciting. When you are listening to it, you might not know what you might get hit with next. Hopefully it helps hold the listeners attention and interest. I think the album sounds like a Chemtrail album, just more evolved and refined.
PB: Can you talk about doing a song for the iPhone app game Backlash? How did this opportunity come about, what song of yours is in the game and how does your song fit into the game thematically?
MB: The guys developing the game were familiar with our music, so they contacted us and asked if we were interested, and obviously, we obliged. We wrote the piece specifically for the game. It’s not a song that appeared on any of our albums. We were given a description of the game and we went off that for writing the song. We didn’t actually see the game until it was finished, but I think the song ended up fitting well. Hopefully we will get more opportunities to do things like this in the future.
PB: Your record release party is tonight. What can people expect on what promises to be a very special night for you guys?
MB: I think they can expect to see a great performance from us that we have been practicing hard for. Also, a new song that we are debuting. The other bands promise to entertain as well. The Obvious put on a hell of a live show and Old Nick plays some beautiful music that I think pairs well with our own. Also, our own Chris Lukens will be DJ-ing throughout the night and his musical knowledge and taste is great. You might just discover your new favorite band that you never heard of. Last but not least, we will be partying and having a great time. Our music is pretty serious in nature, so you might not expect it, but we are a bunch of silly dudes that like to have a good time. Come and join in on the fun.
PB: You’re an Asbury Park-based band, who’s won Asbury Park Music Awards and is having their record release party in an Asbury Park venue. What is it about this city that keeps you performing and living in the area? Is there a certain magic about this city-by-the sea that inspires you to create music? Has it influenced your sound? And overall, what do you think about the Asbury scene in general?
MB: We are proud to hail from Asbury Park. In our opinion, it has the best music scene in New Jersey, bar-none. Also, it has such great venues. There aren’t any places that I can think of that are cooler than the Asbury Lanes to play a show. Not to mention, The Saint and the legendary Stone Pony. There is such great musical history and appreciation for originality in this town. Also, I think think the sense of community is great. Most of the musicians in Asbury know each other and support each other. You go to a place like New York City, and I think you are just lost in a sea of bands. There is a lot of talent in Asbury and we are proud to share the stage with so many great local bands.
If being a band from Asbury Park has had an influence on our sound, it’s unbeknownst to us. I personally don’t think about my surroundings when I write music; however, I do live here and might be channeling them unconsciously. Obviously, the people you are around and the environment that you are in must play some sort of role in the art that you make, whether it be conscious or unconscious.
PB: Finally, someone has never heard your music before but after reading this might be really interested in checking you out. Can you summarize the essence of Chemtrail and what a new listener can expect from picking up one of your records?
MB: Quiet and loud, beautiful and sad, angry and defiant, happy and inspirational … an instrumental emotional rollercoaster.