The Contortionist recently released their revolutionary full-length Language, tapping uncharted musical territory. This fall, after months of writing and recording, they headed out on the road to give fans a real, live taste of their signature atmospheric and progressive sound. I was lucky enough to hang out with vocalist Michael Lessard, in Syracuse, New York while on the “Escape from the Studio Tour,” and find out a little about the philosophy behind Language, as well as talk tour life, whiskey and even get a quick vocal lesson.
Substream Magazine: How’s this tour with Periphery been treating you?
Michael Lessard: This tours been pretty rockin’. The crowds have been good, bands have been awesome. It’s my first time out with the Periphery guys, and it’s been really great.
SM: Language is your first album as the vocalist for The Contortionist, so what was the writing/recording process like?
ML: It was stressful, like any writing and recording process is, just because we put a lot of stress on ourselves to put out a good product. We pretty much spent three and a half months writing. I actually lived in Indiana with the guys and we did it every day all day for three and a half months. Then we went to the studio for a month, and did that all day everyday and Language was the end result. It was a good process, it was really relaxed and everybody clicked well.
SM: Language is a very deep, multi-faceted album that I think can be interpreted in many ways, lyrically and musically. What does Language mean for you?
ML: It is a story and there are core concepts that go throughout. Basically the idea is creating something and the communication between what is created. That is told in the form of a story, it can be anything, even a mother having a child, which actually the mother and son is a dual representation. It is metaphorical for a mother and son and it is the communication between those two, not necessarily through speaking. In everyday life, you communicate with your surroundings even if you’re not aware of it.
Just like tests that show the color yellow is supposed to inspire happiness amongst people, and you don’t really know why but it just does that and invokes that emotion. When you’re walking around and it’s a sunny day, you might be happier. Even though you don’t realize it— you’re communicating with your environment. The idea behind Language is that communication. It is as much between the album and the listener, as it is between me and the music, or the mother and son in the story. That’s the real basic rundown of it. There are a lot more layers. It represents knowledge as well, and the human quest to figure everything out and find answers. Also there is the other side of that, which is the intuitive process, which is represented on the album as soil and dirt, the way a plant roots into the ground naturally.
SM: So I understand that there have been a few lineup changes recently. How has this transition been for the band?
ML: It has actually been really smooth. When I joined these guys, I had known them for a few years because of my previous band, they called me up and asked me if I would fill in with a week and a half notice, so I had to learn a bunch of songs within a week, then go to play them for two months out on the road, and then it turned into a full time thing.
When our bass player Chris Tilley left, one of our crew members was on tour with another band and he was staying with Jordan, who is now our bass player. He happened to be with him in Houston and (our crew member) told him Chris left the band, and Jordan called us up and was like, “I want to play bass.” Literally, we had Jordan lined up within a day, and we didn’t even ask him about it, he pretty much demanded the spot, so that worked out well.
With keyboards, Eric had worked on an album with my prior band. He did keyboards on that, and we knew we wanted a keyboardist, so when the time came I was like “I know a guy, he’s excellent,” and he actually did some keyboard production on Intrinsic, the album before I ever joined the band. He was perfect for the spot. Everything kind of clicked into place. There was no real struggle to force any pieces in.
SM: Your clean vocals are on point, but so are your screams. Do you have any tips for aspiring vocalists?
ML: Practice, practice, practice. The more you practice, the more you realize what you need to change, the more you realize what you enjoy about your voice, and you learn to embrace those things and toss the things you don’t like to the wayside. And the more you redo it, the more you become comfortable with your voice and know how it works.
When I wake up in the morning, I know what notes I can hit and I know what notes I can’t hit, just by how my voice feels. That’s even before I start talking. I practice a lot, and you need to be familiar with your instrument, know it inside and out, and that’s the best advice I can give. Just sing, scream, do whatever and do it a lot.
SM: What’s your pre-show ritual like?
ML: I pace a lot. And I don’t really think about anything, I just pace. It kind of gets me in a blank place so when I go on stage I don’t really think either. It’s all intuitive at that point. I rehearse so much that when I get on the stage I shouldn’t have to think about the song, I shouldn’t have to think about the next word I have to say, I shouldn’t have to think about the crowd and I just jam out.
I do warm-ups and stuff like that, usually I’ll just take a song I’m listening to that day, and I’ll just go through and scale it up, going higher and higher, so I feel my range.
SM: Have you ever had something go really wrong during a show?
ML: Ha, yeah I’ve had many things go wrong. I’ve been touring off and on for now nine years, and I’ve been touring straight for pretty much three or four years now. So yeah there’s a lot of stuff that goes awry. We play with a backing track, so every now and then we get off the backing track and it gets a little crazy, but nothing to the point where we had to walk off the stage or anything. Everybody messes up, it’s human nature, I’ve fallen off stage on accident and stuff like that.
SM: Tell me about your weirdest fan interaction?
ML: Usually the weirdest ones are the awkward ones, where people don’t really know what to say. I find as an artist, people tend to put people up on pedestals in a weird way. It’s a really strange thing to me because I’m just a person who plays music, and I do it a lot, so I have gotten good over the years, well I don’t know if I can say good, but I’m happy with the progress that I’ve made. So it’s weird to me when somebody comes up and they’re a little awestruck because, I mean, I deal with myself 24 hours a day so I know my flaws and I know my strong points. A person screaming when they meet me is a really strange thing.
SM: Most embarrassing music you’ll admit to listening to?
ML: Oh I’m actually never embarrassed by what I listen to. It’s music, it is nothing more and nothing less, its just sounds but people tend to put up a little bit of a front when it comes to what they listen to. I listen to everything. I’m a huge R&B fan, folk music, those are my two favorite genres. I rarely listen to metal at all. Nothing I’m too embarrassed about, but what I’ve been listening to a lot lately is Frank Ocean, a guy named Cody ChesnuTT who has got a beautiful voice, stuff like that. Ellie Goulding has a really awesome voice. I like some pop music, Michael Jackson is one of my favorites, Stevie Wonder, stuff like that.
SM: What’s your drink of choice?
ML: Whiskey Ginger. I’m not too complex when it comes to drinking. I drink every once in a while, I’ve been drinking a lot on this tour because of the people I’m around, but when I drink I keep it pretty simple. I’m a simple man.