Baltimore’s PIANOS BECOME THE TEETH know the value in living by their own rules. They have always described themselves as “slow burners” — which in a world obsessed with in-the-moment social media updates, taking things at your own pace is an accomplishment in itself. In 2014, they released Keep You — an album which introduced a completely new sound to their repertoire — and now, four years later, they’ve finished its long-awaited follow-up, titled Wait For Love (out via Epitaph Records).
Sonically, Wait For Love is a logical stride forward. Over the course of the album, frontman Kyle Durfey continues to perfect his distinct vocal style and give life to his poetically ambiguous lyricism. But with support from Chad McDonald (guitar), Michael York (guitar), David Haik (drums), and Zac Sewell (bass), the record is full of energetic contributions (“Manila”, “Charisma”) and moodier atmospheric tracks (“Bay Of Dreams”) that are unlike anything the band has done previously. They’re still the same guys responsible for Keep You and The Lack Long After, it’s just here there’s an inevitable growth and maturation that sticks out and speaks volumes.
With a new album and a mini East Coast tour on the way, we caught up with Kyle Durfey and chatted about podcasts, maintaining the life/work balance, and why no band should ever stay the same.
You started writing Wait For Love almost as soon as you finished Keep You — was that a conscious decision or did the momentum just keep producing songs?
I definitely don’t think it was momentum. After Keep You we didn’t want to get into a rut or sit on things for a long time; we wanted to keep ideas stirring to have them on the back burner. We never really rush to put out records because we just do it whenever it feels right. Keep You was kind of a streamlined thing and we wanted to sit back with it for a while and not focus too heavily on writing. We wanted to take our time getting back into songwriting, and in the end we kept up with it pretty steadily just to keep it going.
If you began writing Wait For Love as soon as you finished Keep You, why did it take so long to release it?
That’s a good question. I’d have to say just life stuff. I became a father, a couple of the guys were in the middle of buying houses and getting their lives together. We toured a good amount off Keep You and we weren’t in a rush to put another record out. We were writing but it’s not like we had a huge chunk of songs ready to go; we were just picking things apart for a long time. I think life stuff just took over and we didn’t really want to overdo it and kill ourselves with it.
It’s worked for us in the past — being able to find that balance. You see some bands and they just go and kill it forever, and then they burn out and are just over it because they didn’t give themselves any time to breathe. It’s important — if you care about the band enough — to let it sit for a little while and realize when you need to take time off and let it do its own thing. I’m appreciative we approach it that way.
Keep You marked a significant change in direction for Pianos Become The Teeth, thus making Wait For Love an opportunity for refinement. What did you learn from writing, recording, and releasing Keep You that helped you this time around?
I think Keep You taught us to be a bit more open to ideas and a bit more constant in what we can do as a band. Personally, when I listen to Keep You I can hear me figuring out how I wanted to sing instead of screaming, and learning my own voice. What I learned from Keep You allowed me to stretch my wings further this time and not be afraid to really, actually try to be a good singer.
I think this applies to the rest of the guys too. Like not trying to write these insane riffs and just allowing a song to be what it is — allowing it to be simple or catchy without jamming in parts that don’t fit. To me, Keep You taught us to allow the songs to breathe.
When you listen to your albums in chronological order, it’s clear you’ve been developing your “cleaner” vocal style for a while. Did you encounter any obstacles while doing so?
It’s still challenging for me to sing well, but it’s easier for me to sing well than to scream well. Screaming used to come pretty easily for me because I had been doing it for so long and you can get away with it being a little ugly because that’s kind of how its supposed to sound. With singing, there’s less leeway because it either sounds good or sounds bad. It’s weird because sometimes when I scream now it sounds different than when I screamed before.
Surprisingly, I feel like my voice never got hoarse until I started singing. I guess it just uses different muscles. When I would scream, I could scream every night for a month and a half and never have any issues but when I started singing on Keep You, I realized I had to take a lot more care of my voice because I could hear it getting raspier and raspier the more I sang. I’ve gotten better at babying it and listening to my body to know what works and what doesn’t. That was the biggest obstacle — learning how to take care of my body a little bit better.
Did you undergo any training or receive any really helpful advice? Or was this something you just took on personally?
It was something I took on personally. I’m definitely not against vocal lessons — any help to be a better singer I will take — it just never crossed my mind to do that for a record. I decided I was going to use what I had and see what I could do with it, and hopefully it came out alright. Maybe in the future I’ll invest in some singing lessons to help up my game if I need to. It’s really a self-taught thing. I don’t think I’m the best singer in the world by any means but the longer I do it and the more I trust myself, the more confident I feel to keep doing it as long as it doesn’t sound like total garbage (laughs).
What is your writing process like in general?
I’m writing all the time and jotting down ideas here and there. I usually wait until we have some sort of structure for a song and get the vibe of it, and then I’ll try to take what I have and match that vibe. Our guitarists, Chad [McDonald] and Mike [York], bring riffs to the table and then we all get into a room together and construct or deconstruct song. We just tear them up sometimes and then reconfigure them. For the most part, we just need to be in the same room together. We send ideas back and forth all the time but really the five of us need to be together to feel it out and figure out what the song is asking for.
I’ll have my say during the writing process, but usually I’ll sit back and wait for the song to be more or less finished and then I’ll put my lyrics over it. Once that step is done, we can really finalize things because sometimes things change when I add vocals. Overall, it’s a very cohesive writing process.
Do you often get the opportunity to all be in a room together?
The older we get the more “life stuff” takes over and it gets harder. We’re pretty good at getting together at least once a week when we’re trying to get ready for a tour or if we’re working on a record. Usually when we have stuff going on with the band we’re good at getting together at least once a week. We’ve been doing it for so long now, it doesn’t take much effort to schedule. It’s usually Tuesday nights for us but if we can’t, then cool — next week, no biggie. I’ve heard from some friends in bands that it can be such a headache trying to organize, but we’re a pretty well-oiled machine as far as communication goes and I’m grateful for that.
Were you listening to anything in particular while you were writing this album?
I was listening to a lot of stuff, but mainly podcasts. I really try not to delve heavily into other records when I’m working on a record of my own, but that being said, it’s really hard to do when you’re working on one for two or three years (laughs). You’re obviously going to be influenced by certain things. But I’d say one record I think is just incredible is by this band called Sylvan Esso. They’re a dance-y dream pop band. I think they’re just a guy and a girl, but her voice is incredible and the rhythms they come up with are amazing to me.
We’re all suckers for people like Ryan Adams. Artists like that are always a go-to for us — just sad, bastard country-sounding music, you know? (Laughs) One of our guitarists got heavily into EDM recently. I wouldn’t say the genre influenced our record too heavily, but that’s in our line of sight when were working on songs so maybe it crept in subconsciously. Obviously we like the style of music that we make, but there’s a pretty wide range of interests.
You mentioned podcasts — do you have any favourites?
My wife got me into this one called Pod Save America; it’s a political podcast. My buddy Jonah [Bayer] has a podcast that’s more or less about music and they interview a bunch of random people who are sometimes famous and sometimes no names. It’s called Going Off Track.
Going back to recording, what was it about Will Yip’s contribution to Keep You that made you want to work with him again on this effort?
For bands and musicians in general — and certainly for Pianos — stubbornness goes a long way and we’re always very hesitant to let an outsider come in and tell us what he thinks. I think Keep You was that balance of us being stubborn and hesitant, and Will not wanting to step on toes. It was a good balance and it helped us get all that awkwardness out of the way so when it came to Wait For Love, we could just go in from day one with an “all bets off, lets try anything” attitude because we’re comfortable with each other. We know what works well and what doesn’t so we could just run with it. Working with Will on Keep You allowed us to be free without any unrealistic expectations or awkwardness.
When you’re in the studio, you’re already stressed out about everything else and you don’t need the stress of what your producer is thinking. Will is the best because he just gets it and he’s incredible. He has this ear for things you wouldn’t even think of. Aside from producing, he’s just the best guy to be around as he’s always so positive and he’s always down for whatever. He’s also one of the busiest guys I know. I don’t know how he has time to do half the stuff that he does. I never feel more unproductive than when I’m hanging out with Will (laughs).
What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned while working with him?
I think the courage to try new things and not doubt myself. I get pretty down in the dumps pretty quickly when it comes to recording. I love writing and I pretty much love everything about being a musician, except for recording. I hate it. It stresses me out to no end. Will settles me down really well because he’ll say, “Dude, don’t get stressed. It’s fine, you’ll get it”. Then we’ll do a hundred takes and I’ll want to walk out the door and kill myself, but he’ll keep saying “You’ll get it”. He’s such a force of positivity. He taught me to be not as hard on myself, which is good.
You described Keep You as an album that listeners should “give some time” – do you feel the same way about Wait For Love?
I do. I’m biased, but for someone in this world of music who has never heard our band before, I think Wait For Love may be a little bit easier to latch onto than Keep You. I don’t think you need a ton of time to digest it, but like any record you have to sit down with it and give it some time. If people do that with Wait For Love, hopefully they will find things in there that they love about it. Same with Keep You; I don’t think it’s any harder to enjoy, but it depends on the listener.
What’s the meaning behind the title Wait For Love?
Mainly just letting yourself be open to certain kinds of love at different points in your life. There are so many things you learn that change the way you view love. There are so many times when you need to be patient and just wait for good things to come or wait for good things to leave. It’s an all-encompassing thing. The line is also a lyric in one of the songs too. We were struggling with the title for a long time and when that popped into my head, I knew it was the one because it ties everything together. Though all the songs are about something different, they’re all about love.
Is there a song on the album that is especially important to you?
Well there’s two. “Charisma” is one of my favourites; it’s a straightforward rock song that came pretty easily and felt pretty natural. That song is more or less about the birth of my son, so that one is pretty near and dear to me. Musically, “Bay Of Dreams” stands out. It’s a very minimal song that appears half-way through the record and it changes up the pace a little bit. It has a really nice place on the record and I feel like musically, it was one of the songs that came across more or less the way we wanted it to.
We’ll often have an idea for a song and it’s just so hard to make that vibe come across on record, but “Bay Of Dreams” is one that hit the mark pretty close and that’s always a really good feeling because it’s very frustrating when it doesn’t. Hopefully the future allows us to open up and strive for some weirder things — not that the song is really even that weird, but it allowed us to branch into other territories which is exciting.
I think “Bay Of Dreams” is my favourite song on the album so far as I love the emphasis on instrumentation and atmosphere. Can you tell me what the song is about?
That’s awesome! But that’s a loaded answer. I have a way of writing things that I think are straight to the point, but obviously no one else does (laughs). The song is about different partners you’ve had in your life and how it feels when they leave your life, and how certain memories you have stick with you forever. Like even though you’re so far removed from that person, there are still things you see that take you right back to that moment. In a nutshell, that’s what it’s about – seeing something and remembering that person and how that constantly happens in life.
Do you think the shift in your musical style from 2014 onward has opened you up to a larger fan base?
I’d say so. It’s hard to tell because for as many fans as we gained with Keep You, we probably lost just as many (laughs). Just because of not being “screamo kings” anymore. We don’t let that play into it at all as we just write the record we want to write and hopefully people dig it. Overall, we gained more than we lost by changing our sound. That wasn’t the goal, but that’s definitely a plus. It definitely makes it easier to keep writing music so we’re not going to complain.
It’s weird because I’ve been like that too — where I’m mad because I love a band so much and they’ve changed their sound. I know how that feels because I’ve been there as a fan, but I’ve never been overly upset about it because you always have those records. If you like the way a band sounded, listen to those records — they’re not going anywhere.
I get it and I don’t because do you really want them to sound the exact same? I don’t want any band to sound the same after 10 years unless it’s Aerosmith or some shit, you know? (Laughs) If you know exactly what you’re getting, what’s the fun in listening to them anymore? I see both sides of it, but you’ve always got those records to listen to.
What do you hope to accomplish as a band in 2018?
I definitely want to play places we’ve never done before. We’ve never done South America or Asia. I’d like us to play as many shows as we can to new people who haven’t heard of us yet, and to some people who already like our band too. I’d like to see our fan base grow a little bit. I don’t think we have any extravagant goals, but we want to keep moving up. We’re a slow burner of a band, and I feel like we always have been. So I just want us to always keep getting better. Bands start to taper off when the people who are making music lose interest so I want to keep doing cool things and playing cool shows and take it from there.
The record comes out in a couple days and I feel like we’ve been waiting for forever, but now it’s almost here. It’s ours still, but it will be out in the world for people to feel however they want to feel about it, and that’s a very stressful and exciting feeling for us.