“The first thing that comes to mind is how un-metal this background music is,” chef, restauranteur, and metal label founder Chris Santos starts. We’re sitting with him in the curtained off gold lounge in the basement of Vandal, a Bowery must-visit restaurant for the hungry art lover, as Justin Timberlake plays over the PA.
There are a lot of horror stories out there about the music industry being a ruthless machine; ultimately unfriendly and not beneficial for the artists themselves. Be it just a perception or a harsh reality, there are people who are trying to change that. In the past few years, we’ve seen an increase in intimate artist-created, artist-centric labels. Revival Recordings and Esque Records are a couple that HXC Magazine have personally covered. Now, we’d like to get you better acquainted with L.A. based Luxor Records, currently run by As They Sleep guitarist Nick Morris.
“Screening my calls?” I accuse, jokingly.
“Yeah (laughs). I was like, who do I know [with a number] from Hackensack, New Jersey?”
Travis is sitting on the other end of this conversation in Sacramento, CA., home to both A Lot Like Birds and Dance Gavin Dance, as well as his recently established record label, Esque Records. It’s this hyper-involvement in the music industry that’s got us talking. Between being a vocalist for multiple prominent bands, putting out his own solo project, being a band manager and now owning a record label, Travis fits the HXC Magazine “Diehard” description.
You’re going on the 10 year tour for Dance Gavin Dance soon, right?
Yeah. A Lot Like Birds is playing. A band I manage called Strawberry Girls (Tragic Hero Records) is gonna be on tour. I feel awesome about it. I feel super stoked. A Lot Like Birds and DGD haven’t done a tour in a while and it’s mostly A Lot Like Birds’s decision. We kind of wanted to branch out and play with other bands other than like the homie bands…But now that we got to do some other tours—we played with Enter Shikari and Stray From The Path and the whole Warped Tour thing a few years ago—it just seemed like a good idea to do another Dance Gavin Dance, homie tour.
So since you’ve done vocals for both bands, will you be making appearances for both bands on tour?
Yeah. I’m supposed to do three songs with [DGD]. I’ll probably do four. They’ll probably get me to do another one. Jonny (Craig, former vocalist for DGD) is doing the same thing, that’s why Slaves is on the tour. (Laughs) I think he’s gonna be doing a few songs as well. It’s gonna be an easy tour for Tilian (Pearson, current vocalist for DGD). Maybe we should get Tilian to sing on some A Lot Like Birds stuff.
You guys should just swap all your members.
(Laughs) Yeah, it should be really fun. I haven’t toured with DGD in a while and they’re always really fun to tour with. Ticket sales are doing really well, too.
You recently launched Esque Records, too.
Yes, literally like a month ago.
Why did you decide to start that up?
A lot of reasons. For one, I want something for when I can’t sing anymore. I don’t know when that’s gonna be, but you know, if my wife (Lauren Travis, web designer/public relations for Esque Records) and I have kids and I don’t wanna tour anymore…I’ve [also] toured so much that I’ve gotten the privilege to meet all these other bands and they always ask me, “Hey, what do I do to get big?” and I just kind of shrug my shoulders and say, “I don’t know, just keep doing what you’re doing.” So this is my way of helping other bands out and trying to get them where they wanna be. Also, when touring all over the country and even the world, you get to hear bands that open up for you. When I was younger I didn’t really pay attention much to it, but now that I’m getting a little older and I don’t drink and get fucked up as much, I’m actually paying attention to the talent that’s playing….and now I’m honestly listening to everything that people send me and show me and give me. And I just really want to help the music scene that has helped me. I figured a record label would be the perfect way to do it. Even though CD sales aren’t what they used to be in the decades before us, with the whole technology thing, I still think it’s a big representation, being on a record label. This band is on this record label. Well, why are they on that label? They take care of them and it’s like they’re part of their family. And that’s kind of what I want to have is a family of musicians.
“I just really want to help the music scene that has helped me.”
What kinds of bands do you want to support?
My first band that I put out, they’re called Floral, a two-piece instrumental math rock band. But honestly I’m looking for everything. I kind of want an element of each sound to be representing Esque. And that’s kind of why I named the record label Esque, because the word Esque [means] “to be like something”; my point being that if you’re a part of Esque records you are also like it, no matter what. Even if you are different, you are a part of it. But yeah, we have like, a throwback emo band, they’re called Lemix J. Buckley. We have a band that kind of reminds me of Lower Definition meets Chon, they’re called In Angles. I have an indie pop band called Rome Hero Foxes, and I’m looking to maybe sign a hip hop act. I love rap and hip hop and stuff like that.
Any post-hardcore acts you think you want to sign? Since that’s where you came from as a musician.
There are some post-hardcore elements in In Angles. I manage a band that’s very post-hardcore, they’re called Adventurer, but they’re on Blue Swan Records and that’s kind of a sister label to us. They’re actually the first band that I started managing before I even thought about a record label. I got them signed to Blue Swan Records, and their demo is coming out pretty soon.
So you’ve been in a ton of bands, you manage other bands, you’ve started a record label. What keeps you so motivated to be so involved in the music scene?
Honestly, it is hard to stay motivated. It’s hard to keep the excitement level of anything going. You know, when you’re a kid, you get a new toy, you like it, like a Transformer—I loved my little Transformers when I was a kid—but they’d end up being at the bottom of the toy chest in a week. It’s hard to keep that spark alive, but honestly it’s the bands that I work with. I love every single second of music that they play and it really, really, really excites me to hear new music. So that always recharges me if I’m feeling frustrated…Also [the] fans. I try not to look at comments online just because it gets too overwhelming, but every now and then I’ll look up and see what they’re saying about my solo record or something like that and I’ll see a lot of good comments and it helps me get through it. It really does. This nice lady, she sent me a long Facebook message on my band page and just talked about how I got her through, and when times were hard for her she turned to my music and so that really keeps me going. Hearing things from people and seeing how much I’ve impacted other people. It’s very, very energizing and gets me right back on track if I’m in a slump. Music is definitely the thing that I think I’m supposed to do with my life. It’s been hard financially, mentally, even spiritually sometimes. Weird shit goes on and you just don’t know what to do, but at the end of the day you can look back on what you’ve done and be proud of it. Or even cringe, too.
What are some cringeworthy moments for you looking back?
Oh god, they’re everywhere (laughs). Mostly my very first band, my high school band. I can’t even listen to that whole thing. I was in a band called Five Minute Ride. We actually got pretty big. There’s a lot of kids that still know about that band. I actually got the gig to sing for Dance Gavin Dance because of my old band….So even though it was cringeworthy, it definitely opened some doors for me. You know, you’re always more critical of yourself than other people are but it really is pretty bad (laughs). I used to sing kinda low because my voice was already too high and my band was like, “Dude, you’re singin’ way too high. You need to have a lower, grittier sound.” ‘Cuz it was like, the late 90’s and we really didn’t know what was gonna be popular. It’s weird, it’s super weird (breaks out into laughter).
What about some of your favorite moments?
Oh my gosh. There are so many. That’s the cool thing about having opportunities to tour around the world. I feel like I’ve lived a couple lifetimes already. I’m 31 years old, so I’ve got plenty more to go. But I really enjoyed the last European tour that I did with A Lot Like Birds…So yeah, looking back on the memories, just being able to sightsee with my homies, you know being able to go to like the Eiffel Tower. Those are some really cool memories. I still haven’t gone to Japan. I really wanna go to Japan. I’ve got a frickin’ Totoro tattoo on my arm. I’m really, really about Miyazaki films. But looking back on it, the memories, the sightseeing, being able to hang out with my bros–priceless. It really was.
Interview condensed for clarity.
“I control my vision and my vision is you, the fans.”
Alesana have led arguably one of the most prolific careers of any hardcore band of the past decade, not necessarily in terms of the amount of albums released, but in terms of the amount of work put into each record. Anyone would be hard-pressed to name a band as consumed by the art of storytelling and as loyal to their artistic vision and their fans as this theatrical six piece sweetcore family. Yes, family, because that’s what Shawn Milke (vocals, guitar, piano) insists good music is all about. In the interview below, HXC picks Milke’s brain about the upcoming Alesana record, the self-started label Revival Recordings, and why there’s no place for ego or dollar signs in true art.
HXC: Why did you choose Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet as a lens to finish Annabel’s story?
Shawn Milke: Well Dennis and I really wanted to involve time travel in the third installment of The Annabel Trilogy. Whereas with The Emptiness and A Place Where The Sun Is Silent we chose the literature and then built our story in support of it, with Confessions it was the other way around. We decided on time travel and then discussed literature that we enjoyed surrounding that concept. L’Engle writes with a social conscience at the core which is something we love to do as well. There are several really cool allusions and nods to L’Engle throughout Confessions.
A Place Where The Sun Is Silent was even more winding and complex than The Emptiness in terms of sound. Sonically, what can fans expect of Confessions?
It’s intense. When describing the record to my wife I’ve used the phrase “panic attack” to explain several of the movements. There is a lot of chaos but on the other hand there is also a lot of super spacey and atmospheric passes. After all, this is a story about bending time and space. There are a lot of moments where you feel like you need to catch your breath. Several of the tracks are more progressive than anything we have ever done and that was very intentional. The storyline is coming to a climax and, especially with a handful of the songs, I very much wanted the listening experience to mirror the intensity. In the past we have had labels to please and “singles” to release so we would re-structure certain tunes to fit that particular mold. This time around it was about the album as a whole, about the whole creative experience being true to itself first and foremost. This was the most organic approach to writing a record that we’ve had since On Frail Wings of Vanity and Wax in terms of going with our gut. Pat and I were very on the same page musically and Dennis and I brought the story to life lyrically in a way that we never have before. It was a blast and I’m very, very proud of Confessions.
Why did you choose the track “Comedy of Errors” for a short film?
The decision to use Comedy of Errors for our short film/music video was an easy one. Stylistically, it is all over the map and really showcases what Confessions is all about, musically. It is the third chapter in the story and is a pretty critical turning point in terms of setting up the rest of the prose. Working with director Justin Reich on this was awesome. It is a dream come true to get to do a music video that is more a short film than anything.
You use several different media to tell your stories; film, literature–even the instrumentals on your records help narrate what the lyrics are saying. Why do you like taking this multilayered approach?
I love for our records to be multi-dimensional. A fan can choose to simply enjoy a song or they can dive headfirst into our fictional world. The idea is for the music to tell a story on its own before it’s even concerned with the lyrics and prose. The more layers you create, the more emotions you can convey. When you’ve layered something so dynamically and drastically it can then become the absence of layers that conveys the emotion. A brief moment of silence or a single cello can be just as effective as a full blown orchestra behind three-part guitar harmonies, layered vocals, and screams. It’s always about the push and pull, the building of the tension. Dynamics are everything.
How does it feel knowing The Annabel Trilogy is ending?
It is extremely bittersweet. On one hand I am extremely proud to see Alesana see the trilogy to its completion. On the other hand, Annabel has been a part of our creative psyche for the better part of nearly six years. It is tough to say goodbye to her but I am also pleased with her sendoff. It was a pleasure spending so much time with her and it is because of her that we have developed one of the most dedicated and caring core fan bases in the world.
It’s still early in the game to think about next moves, but do you see yourselves taking on other concept efforts this size in the future?
It’s hard to say, but I don’t think we would do quite this magnitude again. I’m very big on, “Okay, we accomplished that. Now, what can we do that is different and challenging?” We’ve done a trilogy so to do another one would feel like regurgitation. I have several ideas for our next EP that I am super excited about and it would create a whole new set of storytelling challenges.
You’ve earned yourselves an intensely loyal cult following over the years. How do you think that idea of community translates to Revival Recordings?
The hope is that our most core fans will also believe in the positive and artistic community we are creating at Revival Recordings. Music is the flame that lights my artistic world and I will only sign bands who push themselves as hard as I have, creatively. Positivity, open-mindedness, and a lack of ego are all major prerequisites for what we are trying to build. Good Music By Good People is not just a slogan, it is a way of life for our family of artists and our team.
What exactly are you trying to revive?
The belief that good art is paramount. I understand that the music industry is, in fact, a business and, in order to sustain a career, money must be made and success must be had. However, success is in the eye of the beholder and here at Revival we stare through a lens built by art, not the industry. Surround yourself with the right people and keep your focus on the art, the songs, the music itself and you can only win. It is up to us, the fans of great music and art, to not allow the industry to dictate what we enjoy. Fight for what you love and together we can revive an otherwise narrow-minded, dollar sign driven industry controlled by the few.
Revival is a very DIY project, much like Alesana’s overall approach to making music has been. Why do you think “doing it yourself” is so important?
If you do it yourself then you have the power to dictate your goals, your dreams, and your destination. I refuse to be told by some industry drone what my vision should be; I control my vision and my vision is you, the fans. I will be striving to develop great bands comprised of good people who do things the right way for as long as I’m allowed to live on this earth and I’ll be damned if I will ever base my decisions off of the opinion of some corporate zombie who wouldn’t know a good record if it kicked him in the ass.