“It’s time for us to trust ourselves” — I See Stars talk about ‘Phases’ and beyond

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I See Stars Promo 2014

I See Stars is known for their electronic sound and hardcore breakdowns, so it surprised everyone when they recently released their gorgeous unplugged album PhasesTheir Phases tour is almost complete with a few stops in November remaining. While the tour passed through Cleveland, we sat down with brothers Devin and Andrew Oliver. Devin Oliver handles the vocals in I See Stars and Andrew Oliver is normally behind the drums, but stepped up to the front with his brother to share vocal duties on Phases.

Whose idea was it to create an acoustic album?
DEVIN OLIVER: It was kind of mine. It’s one of the very few things that I took the full liberty of making. Everything we do as a band a collective. No one has a more powerful say than the other. It’s a democracy. This was kind of one of those things, we’re home for a while, we decided to take a lot of time off and it was kind of like a passion project. It wasn’t even supposed to be a full LP. It was supposed to be revisiting some songs and redoing them just because I wanted to. Nick Scott [who played guitar on the Phases tour] engineered New Demons so I reached out to him and was like, “Hey, I want to do this.” We reached out to the label and they agreed that it could be cool, regardless if we were serious or not. We went in and we did it. At first we did six songs, and then the label liked it so much that they actually suggested a couple songs. [It] turned into a full LP and here we are.

What was the decision-making process behind the selection of songs on Phases?
DEVIN: We’ve been a band for 10 years and we’ve done four full-lengths and it was one of those things where we wanted to look at each album and figure out which songs impacted our fans the most. I think that was pretty much the only strategy going into it.

“Glow” is the only song off of The End Of The World Party on Phases. Was that done on purpose?
DEVIN: There were two schools of thought for me personally. One is The End Of The Whole Party is a lighter album and I felt that it would be really easy to rewrite those songs acoustically. Every song off of all the other albums were very challenging to revisit, rewrite [and] reintroduce them. That was one school of thought. The other was The End Of The World Party was actually our least impactful album, and with only 11 slots available, you have to be very careful [with] songs you decide on. We didn’t do “Filth Friends Unite.” We didn’t do a lot of songs that were our bigger songs because either A) they weren’t impactful enough or B) acoustically it wouldn’t work [like] more heavy-driven songs.

How was it revisiting heavier songs and making them acoustic?
DEVIN: It was fun. We had a really good time doing this whole album, there was no stress. We were simultaneously writing our new album, so having that’s in the works as well. This was kind of something with no expectations, so we just had fun with it. We went in, we’re like, “Okay, ‘Common Hours’ and there’s like this 30-second musical break, how do we make this [into] something more organic, get more instruments involved and turn it into something completely different, enhance it or convert [it] [in]to an acoustic version while still keeping that energy level up?” There’s a lot of things you had to consider and a lot of angles you had to keep in mind when doing this album.
ANDREW OLIVER: I think the ones that I turned on at the end of the process that affected me the most were the ones we wrote when we were kids cause it’s like, “Holy shit, we did this close to a decade ago.” Some of these songs were starting to be formed when we were really young, so it kind of hits a soft spot. Stuff that’s a little bit newer, it doesn’t feel there’s that nostalgia centered around them. “Murder Mitten” is definitely one of the songs, it doesn’t matter if it’s a new song, it strikes a chord. I like the fact that we took heavy parts and turned them into acoustic jam-outs. I think that’s a unique way to go at it rather than act like those parts don’t exist.
DEVIN: I thought it was really interesting to hear the changes in my voice from 3D to Phases. We did do “3D,” “What This Means To Me” and “Common Hours,” which were songs that I recorded when I was 15. Now I’m 23, eight years later—believe it or not, it kind of sounds like my voice is a little bit higher. Maybe it’s not higher, but it’s more comfortable. It’s probably where it’s going to be for a great deal of my life. I was in the puberty stage when I did 3D, you can definitely hear it. It was cool for me to be able to revisit that and be like, “I’m a lot more of an experienced vocalist. Let’s take these songs that I recorded a long time ago and try to top them.”

What was the reasoning behind putting four cover songs on the album? I can understand “Your Love” but what about “Take Me To Church,” “Latch” and “Youth”?
DEVIN: We chose “Latch” and Hozier because they’re vocally incredible. Say what you want, I get it, “Latch” is a Top 40 song on the radio…
ANDREW: So is Hozier.
DEVIN: So is Hozier, so people are like, naturally, “Oh, typical.” For us it was like, let’s do some songs people know for sure, but let’s do a song that’s going to challenge me as a vocalist. Let’s not try to do a rap song, don’t be all silly about it. I wanted to go in and be like, “Which songs are going to challenge me as a vocalist?” And they did just that. Going in, I learned a lot about melody and what it really takes to sing a song like that, especially Hozier. He’s all over the place in that song. I’m not saying I’m not all over the place with my vocals and our melodies aren’t complex in our music, but it definitely opened up a new avenue that I’m kind of excited to carry onto future albums. I think that’s the two big reasons why we covered those two songs and “Youth.” I was hanging out with Ash [Avildsen], the CEO of our label, and he showed me the song. He was like, “You guys would do really good. You guys would pull this song off.” We either see complete eye-to-eye or we don’t. But we clicked on that idea for sure. He showed me and I was like, “Hell yeah.” This song is not just vocally amazing, but lyrically [and] musically everything about it was a home run. It wasn’t just like, “Let’s go with these songs.” It was a process that we had to think and figure [out] which songs would work for us, because we don’t really like covering songs. Even though we do it quite frequently, it’s not our favorite things to do. If we’re going to cover a song, it better be a song worth covering.

Andrew, not a lot of people know you can sing besides “iBelieve” on Digital Renegade. How was it stepping up on this album and taking more of a vocal role versus just playing drums?
ANDREW: It’s definitely an experimental stage in my musicianship. I never planned on being a vocalist. At one point I dabbled a little bit, but I’ve always been part of the writing of lyrics in our band. It just kind of naturally worked itself out, especially with this live tour. I’ve stepped up. We have an additional percussionist, because I’m not back there playing the drums. I’m up there singing [and] backing Devin up. I’ve really learned a lot about what he goes through every single night compared to what I used to go through. And I definitely think that here on out, I’ll be doing more vocals because I really like the chemistry between our different sounds. “Murder Mitten” was a really good time and resonated with a lot people, [even with] having one part. We don’t want to overdo it. I just want to do it where it makes sense and some of my favorite bands had two vocalists—two singers, not a singer and a screamer. Taking Back Sunday had color in their vocals. The Mayday Parade album that changed the way I listen to pop music [had] two vocalists and that’s why I liked it. What drew me in was that chemistry between two people with two totally different voices. That’s really what’s drawn us into the next step and the next step for me as a musician.

Will I See Stars be doing more acoustic songs in the future?
ANDREW: We want to experiment. We really started something, even in “Judith Rules” on New Demons we have an acoustic guitar show up in the middle of the song. We’re going to take things where they naturally gravitate, but after doing this album, I’m saying it’s very likely there might be a surprise acoustic [song] on our record. [I] wouldn’t put it past us at all.
DEVIN: Yeah, we don’t close doors. If it makes sense we’ll do it. Our fans are awesome. They love what we do and it doesn’t matter if it’s heavy [and] it doesn’t matter if it’s acoustic, so for me it makes things a little bit more comfortable going into this next record. Our fans trust us as musicians so let’s trust ourselves, because sometimes your fans can make you jaded and make you a little insecure about what you’re doing. This album they’ve been so wonderful and this tour has been so great. It’s like, “Okay, our fans trust us. Time for us to trust ourselves.” I think that’s a huge part of being a musician, being able to trust yourself as an artist. Somebody that tries to create something new and something fresh, it’s not always going to work out, but that shouldn’t make you scared. It should actually challenge you at the end of the day. It’s been great. This album has been awesome. We’re definitely opening the doors to a whole lot of ways to approach writing a song and what albums can be evolved, not our typical stuff.

What’s the next phase for I See Stars?
ANDREW: We enter the studio two weeks after this.
DEVIN: We’re in the studio for six weeks and we’re doing a new record. The plan is having new music ready to go next year pretty early. I think our fans can expect to hear some pretty cool stuff from us come January [or] February. We’ve got some cool tours lining up right now so we’ll definitely be hitting everywhere here in the U.S. for sure.

You can watch I See Stars’ full set in Cleveland below: