By Anthony Glaser
The Dillinger Escape Plan’s One of Us is the Killer is as innovative as the band’s renowned and genre-defining debut Calculating Infinity. No small feat for a band that pioneered the metalcore genre by adopting seemingly illogical tempos and so-called “mathcore.” One of Us is the Killer reaches unprecedented heights creatively, and it’s arguably among the band’s very best work.
Thrilling experimentation has been a staple of Dillinger records from the beginning, but more recent full-lengths have managed to harness the chaos into cohesive, well-sequenced packages. One result is the interplay between demented hardcore epics and straightforward melodic rock tracks (“When I Lost My Bet,” then “One of Us is the Killer,” then “Hero of the Soviet Union,” and so on). It’s simultaneously careful and exciting.
The Dillinger Escape Plan took the stage in Amityville, N.Y. on May 9 to a flickering display of bright, flashing lights; epileptics be warned. The band blew through more than half of One of Us is the Killer, “Farewell, Mona Lisa,” and other rousing classics. Frontman Greg Puciato sang and gestured with a commanding presence, while outside the venue a number of fire trucks, ambulances, and police vehicles assembled in response to an allegedly pulled fire alarm. The show nonetheless ran its course, with unsuspecting attendees far too wrapped up in The Dillinger Escape Plan’s noise to take notice.
Substream spoke with Dillinger Escape Plan guitarist and founder Ben Weinman before the show. Weinman detailed the band’s divided writing habits, One of Us is the Killer‘s numerous intricacies, new creative outlets, and the relevance of the band’s 2010 masterpiece Option Paralysis, particularly as it relates to the evolving digital world of music.
Substream Magazine: Your most recent record release is a non-album track single. What is the origin of “Happiness is a Smile”?
Ben Weinman: It was one of those things where, to be honest with you, I was just laying around on the couch, and I had a riff in my head. I just went down to my home studio and started tracking it, just played it and recorded it. Then Billy came over and played drums to it, and we recorded it as we wrote it. We decided, “Hey, why don’t we just put this out? Why wait for a record?” We hadn’t done anything like that in a really long time, just put out a 7″ or something non-record-related, so it felt kind of cool to do it and make it something special.
SM: During the writing process for One of Us is the Killer, you guys had talked about approaching songs differently by writing more varied intros. For example, “Understanding Decay” starts with a 20-second drum solo. Were these intros added after the songs were completed, or were they starting points in the writing process as well?
BW: It was all a part of the process. We had the luxury of, on this record, having recording capabilities right where we were practicing, so it enabled us to try a lot of different things. Record it, see how it feels, kind of get the tempos right, make sure everything has the right energy, and go into the studio really prepared. Yeah, it was all part of the writing process. The only thing that was kind of undetermined were some of the vocal things, because Greg doesn’t really like to demo that much, and also there was an instrumental interlude that we did that I put together after the fact. But after all the writing was done and while we were finishing mixing, I kind of worked on that on the side.
SM: The demo for “Nothing’s Funny” has a fairly different chorus from the album version. What other songs evolved the most from the demo stage to the final recordings?
BW: There’s a song, “Paranoia Shields,” where we wrote an entire new part in the studio. We added a part that was just kind of based off of the vocals. We didn’t really know what was going to happen when we heard the vocals. When we heard the vocals, we came up with some new ideas for it. But other than that, everything was really detailed. We had really detailed demos of everything, pretty much. Other than “Nothing’s Funny,” everything was pretty much almost exactly the same.
SM: I’m curious as to how One of Us is the Killer came together sequentially. Which songs did you write first, which songs were written last, and which songs posed the most difficulty in getting finished?
BW: It’s hard to say when and how this process started, because usually, typically, the first spark of a record happens somewhere on tour. I think many, many months — if not a year or two before the record was recorded — I think I made something on the back of the bus, in Europe, on my computer. That ended up being in one of the songs. I think the “Nothing’s Funny” rhythm, riff, I tapped out in the back lounge of a bus on my leg, and Billy recorded it with his phone, and then that sparked something. I don’t even know when that was, you know what I mean? So it’s like, there’s obviously a time when we start to really lock down and start to get down to writing and playing, but some of the first ideas could happen somewhere on the road. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when that happens.
SM: The title track from One of Us is the Killer contains the paradoxical line, “One of us must die, but the killer won’t survive.” Can you explain the meaning of that line in the context of the album’s overall theme?
BW: A lot of the album has to do with codependency. That’s something that we deal with a lot, being in a band. We have this crazy dichotomy. Our life is this crazy dichotomy where we’re drastically immersed in each other, for months at a time, living in the same quarters, and then apart for so long trying to deal with our personal lives. There’s not many other jobs where you’ll be home for six months to a year straight, just making music and being in your home environment without having a normal job, or without being part of normal society, and then being on the road away from that for so long. So you have these weird interpersonal relationships with people at home, your family, girlfriends, wives, and then with the people in the band as well. I think that is symbolic of that idea, that our lives are sort of dependent on each other, yet it’s really hard. Greg and I had a lot of stress going through the process of the record, because he lives in LA, I live in New Jersey. We live very different lifestyles, yet creatively we’re so dependent on each other and we work so well together, so sometimes that’s a tug and pull a lot. At the same time, we know that when we come together, it’s the best. The differences make the whole so much greater. I think some of that stuff is symbolic of that kind of thing.
SM: Who is the “scum of the earth, scum of the ocean” referred to in “Hero of the Soviet Union”?
BW: Probably me.
SM: Greg wrote that about you?
BW: I think so. I don’t know, though. He would never say that. Maybe I’m paranoid. I don’t know. I love that song, though.
SM: Brian Montuori’s art design for the liner notes of One of Us is the Killer is unique in that it substitutes small drawings and ink blotches for some written lyrics. Can you talk about how the design came together?
BW: He actually did the artwork for Miss Machine, which is all kind of mixed media, cut and paste stuff. It’s very opposite of what this is, which is straight up black and white illustration. But yeah, he’s an artist friend of ours that’s been around forever. He even used to come on the road and do lights for us and stuff. He’s been part of the Dillinger family for a long time. When we were looking for artwork for this thing, we had a couple people submitting things, and it just didn’t really feel like Dillinger. And then I talked to him and was like, “Hey, what can you do with this idea?” Pretty quickly he came back with that feather, and I was like, “This is perfect.” It really represents exactly what we’re about, this kind of dynamic of life that’s both soft and hard; it’s almost like this feather that looks like it could be blood, it could be ink. I feel like that really represented the reality of life and what we try to convey with our music. We also just loved how simple and hands-on it was. Everybody’s using this massive graphic design work, and all these tech bands are using these crazy murals of technical things, and it was cool to just keep it simple.
SM: What about having him do those little drawings and diagrams? Was that an idea he brought to you?
BW: Yeah, he was like, “I want to write everything with the pen and ink.” And we were like, “That’s ambitious.” I think God is in the details, you know? I think being that hands-on with something in this day and age is so cool, you know? Everything’s so digital right now, and that was really just him with paper, doing the whole album. It was pretty cool.
SM: If you include “Chuck McChip” from Option Paralysis, there have been one or two instrumental tracks or interludes on every Dillinger Escape Plan LP thus far. Do you ever start writing those with the goal of turning them into songs with vocals and lyrics, or do you usually have a definite idea of how they’ll appear on the record?
BW: No, typically those are afterthoughts. Sometimes they’re things we have laying around that we’re just working on for fun, like, “This could be a cool interlude” or something we just kind of work on at the end of the record just to iron it out. Things like on Ire Works, “When Acting as a Particle,” “When Acting as a Wave,” those kind of things, were things I was just playing around with that we thought would be cool instrumentals. They weren’t really songs, but we thought they were cool enough to be included.
SM: The title of your most recent instrumental is a seemingly random string of numbers and letters. Can you explain “CH 375 268 278 Ars”?
BW: I can’t. I just can’t. I’m not allowed. I’m not permitted.
SM: Okay, so there is a meaning behind it?
BW: It’s top secret.
SM: You played piano for both Option Paralysis and Ire Works. Being that it’s absent from One of Us is the Killer, how do you feel about writing piano parts for future Dillinger releases?
BW: I love playing piano. It’s fun. Those songs, particularly, were songs I had just written on a piano, not specifically for Dillinger. I think every album up until One of Us is the Killer was a combination of things written specifically for the record and just things I had laying around, maybe not Dillinger. I wasn’t thinking Dillinger. I was just making stuff, and at the end, we were like, “We need more stuff,” or, “Let’s see.” Why exclude? If I write Dillinger stuff and I write this, why would we say, “Oh, this isn’t Dillinger?” It is Dillinger. We don’t want to be backed up in a corner, confined by any restrictions, so it was almost like, “If the guys dig this stuff, let’s include it as well.” So yeah, those piano songs were not necessarily specifically written for Dillinger. They were just things I was playing around with and we incorporated them in later. But with this record, everything was written specifically for the record. We sat in a room, Billy and I, and wrote and made music. That’s the first time, really, that ever happened. It was a little more focused on just guitar and drum and stuff like that.
SM: You talk about working on this stuff outside of Dillinger. Would you ever consider pursuing some kind of side project or some other outlet for that?
BW: Yeah, definitely. I’m working on a solo record. I have a lot of stuff laying around. That was kind of one of the main reasons for not including my other stuff in this record, because I never had a chance to do any other outlets, because I’d always add it into Dillinger. So specifically, we worked on Dillinger just for this, and things I had laying around I’d kept on the side, for the first time. And also I have a side project called Giraffe Tongue Orchestra (http://www.metalinjection.net/upcoming-releases/ben-weinman-offers-us-an-exclusive-update-on-the-dillinger-escape-plan-and-giraffe-tongue-orchestra-recording-schedule), and that’s with Jon Theodore who plays in Queens of the Stone Age, Brent Hinds from Mastodon, and Eric Avery, originally from Jane’s Addiction. We have six or seven songs. We’re all very busy, so there’s no real exact timeframe, but it’s something we do for fun, and eventually it’ll surface.
SM: What can you tell me about your solo project? Is it just you?
BW: As of now, yeah, it’s just me, but I may have guest people and things like that, a lot of my friends.
SM: What kind of music would you describe it as?
BW: So far, it’s a lot of electronic with guitars and ambience.
SM: You released Option Paralysis in 2010, and that was an album largely inspired by the deafening presence of technology and media. How is that album relevant four years later, in an environment now dominated by Twitter and Instagram?
BW: It still is pretty relevant. I’m a little less cynical about the whole thing. When we were working on that record, I really felt an absence of real scene in the way that we had it back in the day. Online, obviously, digital had taken over, and while people had way more access and the ability to discover was way easier, it didn’t seem like scenes exist online in the way that they existed back in the day, before that was that kind of form. And to me it felt like a little bit of a cultural depression, because when I was coming up in music, there was this tie that bound everything together in the scene, but at the same time, there was so many influences, like geographical location. All kinds of things influenced the way bands sounded. When they all played together and toured, it was cool, but you had like the Boston sound, you had the New Jersey thing, the LA, Cali thing. You had all these different kinds of vibes going on, and then I started to see — as the Internet started booming and everything started to become much more homogenized — that everything started to sound the same. Everyone looked the same. We’d go to Europe and everyone would pump their fist at the exact same time at a part, no matter what country you were in. Like, how is that possible, you know? You could see a band play on Youtube and in any country at any time in five minutes without actually going. So that was a lot of what inspired it, and it’s still like that, but at the same time, I feel like now there’s so much noise and so much out there that it’s starting to correct itself, and I think that curation is becoming much more important, and people are starting to say, “This is where I like to go. This is what I trust. There’s too much. This is my few little apps or few websites I check out, and that’s it. I don’t have time for everything else. I trust the guy that writes here. I trust this label, or what they do.” And that’s becoming a little more of what it was on an online scenario. I think it’s starting to correct itself a little bit.
SM: You tend to write the vast majority of the band’s music. What were the most fully collaborative experiences you’ve had in writing a Dillinger record, or is it always an isolated thing?
BW: I guess the biggest collaboration was probably Miss Machine, because I had a lot more involvement in the lyrics and stuff like that than I do now, because it was Greg’s first record, and I was just stepping in and doing a lot of stuff. And also, Chris Pennie, our drummer, wrote a song called “Phone Home,” which was predominantly all his. I didn’t really do anything except write some guitar parts to it. That was probably the most collaborative, just because of that, but it was still predominantly me. And since then, it’s been much more collaborative in the way that Greg’s been doing most of the vocal duties without much of my involvement after Miss Machine. I had much more involvement in things then. It was his first record. We were kind of breaking him in. But after that, it’s been pretty much just me and whatever drummer we have working closely to create these songs and these ideas, and Greg doing vocals. And that’s pretty much how it’s been since Miss Machine. It was a little more mixed on Miss Machine, I think.
SM: You and Steve Evetts are scheduled to teach an online course on guitar tracking for CreativeLive. How will you prepare for the course?
BW: I’ve done a lot of master classes on music business, and I’ve done some producer conferences and things like that, but this one is predominantly going to be Steve’s thing, and I’m just coming to help. I think the focus of this one is going to be tracking guitars, so they thought it would be — just me having production experience and working with Steve for so many years — it would make sense for me to come in and help out. I think we’re going to talk a lot about guitar tones and techniques and getting tone out of your hands and not relying on technology, just how to really create energy and feeling in a guitar take.