INTERVIEW: Pianos Become the Teeth on Dialing Down Their Abrasive Side

photo: Micah E. Wood.

Pianos Become the Teeth has escaped the trappings of the subgenre it once cultivated. The Baltimore-based post-hardcore outfit — who will release its third full-length, Keep You, on Oct. 28 — is less interested in belting out anguish, choosing instead to let it subtly pervade the band’s work. That’s no surprise considering Pianos’ contribution to last year’s split 7″ with Touché Amoré, as the wistful “Hiding” was indicative of the band’s later demeanor. Newest single “Repine,” meanwhile, makes additional developments toward that end, with lessened aggression and a layer of polish administered to the band’s heavier dynamics. This is and isn’t the Pianos Become the Teeth who wrote Old Pride, but only because the band refuses to stop growing. Not even their feelings toward Keep You are permanent; they admit that, two weeks from now, they’ll probably find something about it to nitpick.

Unexplored Avenues

Keep You trades some of the abrasive screamo leanings of previous releases for tuneful restraint. Following a trajectory that started with the melodic ending of The Lack Long After — the gut-wrenching “I’ll Get By” — Keep You ditches screaming, for the most part. But this was less a predetermined shift and more a natural evolution of vocalist Kyle Durfey’s personal preferences. At the beginning of the recording process, Durfey expressed some unease, but his level of comfort with singing grew as the process continued.

“I wouldn’t say I’m completely comfortable with [singing],” says Durfey. “I kind of embraced it, like, ‘This is what it’s going to be. This is what it’s going to sound like.’”

For a band at the center of a post-hardcore resurgence, it’s a marked change. Pianos Become the Teeth’s debut full-length, 2009’s Old Pride, is now far less representative of the band’s habits and capabilities. Still, Durfey says that he wouldn’t change anything fundamental about Old Pride.

“I feel like you have to, at least for me, just let it sit and be what it is, and accept it for what it was and where you were at the time that you wrote it and how it made sense then. And now, we wouldn’t write that record,” says Durfey.

Kyle Durfey. Photo by Anam Merchant.
Kyle Durfey. Photo by Anam Merchant.

The title “Keep You” invites multiple contexts, according to Durfey. It refers to holding onto a person — specifically his or her memory — but it’s also a fragment of the thought, “whatever keeps you happy.”

“Whatever you take from Keep You, that’s probably what it means,” explains Durfey.

Guitarist Mike York says the writing for Keep You was more collective than that of previous releases. Instead of having the two guitar players exchange ideas back and forth — as had been the usual routine — the band met at practice sessions and built songs from the ground up. That included not only a song that was written entirely in the studio, but also two sojourns to bassist Zac Sewell’s family’s home “in the middle of nowhere,” where everyone spent entire days writing.

Among the products of those sessions was “Enamor Me,” a song York tags “straightforward rock” and cites as a turning point.

“That was kind of the thing that got everything moving,” says York. “Once we did that, everything started falling into place much quicker and easier.”

The song’s completion also led to the realization that there would be no musical limitations to Keep You.

“We were all finally saying, ‘I think it’s okay for us to finally do something different for this record,’” says York.

INTERVIEW: Pianos Become the Teeth on Dialing Down Their Abrasive Side
Mike York. Photo by Anam Merchant.

Pianos Become the Teeth approached Keep You with a new angle to song structure, and in keeping with the band’s new “groupthink process,” the record was less part-oriented. And instead of merely stringing together riffs, the band experimented with convention, namely arrangements of verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus.

“It was fun to do something like that, but also being really meticulous about the parts — even if they’re simple — being really meticulous about how those things create this song underneath,” says York.

Even with the augmented collaboration, two members remained obligated to their side project United Nations, the hardcore outfit fronted by Thursday’s Geoff Rickly. Bassist Zac Sewell and drummer David Haik comprised the rhythm section of two very different bands, which posed a new set of challenges.

Completion of United Nations’ long-awaited full-length The Next Four Years required multiple recording sessions spread out over the course of a year. Nonetheless, progress on both The Next Four Years and Keep You happened simultaneously, which created some abrupt transitions. And those were only enhanced by the creative dissimilarities between the two.

“With U.N., we get together for a couple days, write songs, and whatever comes first, that’s what you do. With Pianos, it’s much more in-depth,” says Sewell. “Everyone has to be completely sold on every part. It’s a much more painstaking process writing for Pianos.”

“[They’re] both really different but equally fun to be a part of,” adds Haik, who grew up playing metal, an outlet he gets to revisit with United Nations.

INTERVIEW: Pianos Become the Teeth on Dialing Down Their Abrasive Side
David Haik. Photo by Anam Merchant.

Exhaustive Production

For Keep You, the band worked with producer Will Yip, whose unabashed perkiness made for a challenging but educational studio experience.

Pianos Become the Teeth entered the studio with more time to record than it had ever had previously. Scheduling was stringent nonetheless (contrary to early assumptions that they would have ample time), and the band continued to record and finalize ideas up until its second to last day in the studio. York notes the stark contrast from the “bottled momentum” approach of previous studio experiences; Yip’s rhythm involved constant restarts and fine-tunings, which applied to practically every dimension of the record.

Yip observed flaws, insisted on perfection, and provided encouragement with an eccentrically can-do attitude. The band appreciated Yip’s role, despite the quirks and frustration that came with it. The collaborations were intimate and, admittedly, pestering. All for the best, according to Pianos.

York recalls Yip contacting him at unearthly hours:

“He is tireless. I’m convinced he doesn’t sleep. He’d send us rough mixes at five, six in the morning, and then we’d be coming back in to the studio at like 10 a.m., and he’d be like, ‘All right, man. Let’s knock out another day. It’s gonna be great.’”

On the first day in the studio, Yip and the band hashed out their intentions for Keep You, which overlapped with one another.

“We want everything we do as a band to be as organic and as real as it is us playing live,” says York. “His main thing was, ‘This record has to be completely organic. Nothing on this can be a quantitized drum, or an autotuned vocal, or a fake snare drum.’ He was like, ‘You guys aren’t a band that can be that. It has to be perfect.’”

“That was my favorite thing in working with him,” adds guitarist Chad McDonald. “He was so overly positive.”

INTERVIEW: Pianos Become the Teeth on Dialing Down Their Abrasive Side
Zac Sewell and Mike York. Photo by Anam Merchant.

Yip and the band produced 13 tracks, 10 of which ended up on Keep You. The album isn’t much longer than either of Pianos Become the Teeth’s two previous LPs, but it marks the first time material had to be cut, which led to the new process of determining a set track list. York says the band didn’t anticipate recording as much as it did. Additionally, there are no immediate plans to release the album’s three leftover tracks.

Blooming Relationships

Keep You is Pianos Become the Teeth’s debut release for Epitaph Records, a partnership that formed after the band sent demos to and met with numerous other labels. Pianos concurrently departed Boston-based Topshelf Records, who had released their two previous full-lengths (most recently, 2011’s The Lack Long After, which remains one of the label’s best-selling records). Topshelf recognized Pianos’ potential for wider acclaim, and encouraged the transition.

“Topshelf was really supportive in wanting us to take the next step,” says York. “Of course, they were like, ‘If you guys want to put a record out with us, we’ll totally do it.’ But they were like, ‘I think you could do something bigger.’”

The band lunched with Epitaph owner Brett Gurewitz, who approved of Pianos’ new direction. Additionally, York says that the label’s visions aligned with those of the band.

“I think just the combination of [Brett Gurewitz’s] excitement and their staff’s excitement, mixed with me knowing the reach that they have in releasing a record, we knew how important it was to us, and how special it was to us. We wanted as many people to hear it as possible,” says York.

Members of Pianos Become the Teeth have made new personal commitments, as well. Durfey and McDonald are recently married, and York is engaged to be married next year.

“I’m sure my fiancée got frustrated with hearing a tiny, shitty guitar amp playing for hours,” says York. “Sitting at a computer trying to write the same riff over and over and over again, and being like, ‘I really support you.’ With all of our significant others, they’ve been nothing but supportive, which is why I feel like you decide to make that commitment, only because you know there’s no one else who’s going to put up with it like they are.”

McDonald adds, “Obviously, it’s a huge step in your life when you marry somebody, but it’s kind of a vote of confidence for somebody to be like, ‘Oh, you’re in a band? You’re going to be gone seven months out of the year? Cool. I’ll marry you still, because I love you that much, and I support you that much.’”

Haik, still single, interjects, “Kesha’s been really supportive of me.” Everyone laughs. Haik has been a serious Kesha fan for years.

McDonald says that although those events might’ve had a slight effect on Keep You, he’ll need a few years to fully process them in the context of the band’s songwriting. York, meanwhile, anticipates the path ahead:

“I can’t wait to go to all the family functions, and when they ask you what your job is, you still say, ‘Oh, I wait tables. But I’m in a band, man!’”

And, of course, Keep You represents another commitment, one that started in Baltimore in 2006.

“I feel like now, especially with this record, it’s a time where we’re really like, ‘Let’s see what we can do, and really try to push it,’” says Durfey. “Not like a last hurrah, but like, ‘Now’s the time.’ So we’re going to keep doing it for a while.”

INTERVIEW: Pianos Become the Teeth on Dialing Down Their Abrasive Side
Kyle Durfey. Photo by Anam Merchant.