The Contortionist (Interview)
Listening to The Contortionist is like watching a ball of rubber bands explode in slow motion – and watching them fill the O2 Forum in London with progressive soundwaves was an incredible experience. Before the show – which took place a few days prior to the tragic Manchester Arena bombing, and is reviewed in full here – I got chatting to The Contortionist’s keyboardist, Eric Guenther, about life on the road and his band’s upcoming album and live plans…
You’re touring with Periphery at the moment – how’re you feeling right now?
Well, this being the biggest show of the tour, I’m pretty excited. We had a great show last night in Manchester, and tonight is close to selling out as well. We’ve been on tour about three and a half weeks with Periphery before coming over to Europe, and we’ve been here for two and a half weeks now. So we’ve been grinding with them for a while!
How’re you finding the UK? You were in Manchester last night…
Yeah, these are the first UK shows for this tour. So that was great, one of my favourites of the entire run so far.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen at one of your live shows?
There was a guy last night who was having so much fun, dumping beer on himself and facing the crowd with his back to the stage chanting every word to the crowd, as if he was singing onstage. I thought that was pretty funny!
Periphery shows are usually fun for us, because the crowd and energy is usually a little bit higher than at The Contortionist shows. So there’re people crowdsurfing and jumping off the stage, shit like that. But really crazy things, that’s like naked women throwing their clothes around and things…I don’t know!
Has that happened at a Contortionist show?
I’m not at liberty to say, actually [laughs]! But I’m told so.
There are rumours.
The prog scene attracts all types!
You’ve obviously got a lot of experience playing live, but do you ever get stage fright or nerves? If so, how do you get around that?
I’d say no at this point. There are moments and days, if it’s a special event – like tonight we’ll probably all be a little extra-energetic and a little hyped up. But for the most part, you get into a routine and try not to think about it too much. It makes everything easier.
But yeah, nerves and things like that – because it becomes such a process, it doesn’t even register unless there’s something really crazy going on. That’s a good thing, I guess – a mechanism to get the job done.
Like an automatic sort of hard-wired thing…
Yeah. You try not to even realise that you’re not nervous, you know what I mean? Otherwise you start overthinking it.
What are your pre-show rituals?
Everyone does different things. I’ll try and warm up, but generally I end up just trying to relax and visualise the set and visualise what I’m gonna be playing while pacing around in circles or watching the band before me! So some warming up – I’ll try and keep it pretty light so I can jump into it later. That seems to work for me.
If money and good taste weren’t issues, what would your stage show look like?
God! I designed our set-piece for the last touring cycle, which was this big wooden screen that related to the album art. That was super cheap, we were able to do it very efficiently, and it was an odd addition to our stage look.
We have a few programmed lights that we take with us in the States that’re automated to run with the music. So the easy answer would be more lights and strobes – but to be honest, I really dig three-dimensional settings and creative production ideas. I think the standard metal thing of putting a couple scrims in front of the amps and a backdrop or whatever, just the standard stuff, is kind of boring. I like having a three-dimensional edge to whatever we’re doing.
We’re not doing anything too special on this tour, because we’re overseas and our production budget’s not the same as it is in the States, but when we get a chance one day I really want to do things like what Nine Inch Nails used to do, with screens in front of and behind the band and projections going in-between. I spent a lot of time in college working on audio-visual interactivity projects that would take musical information from a natural live band or an instrument playing, and turn that into something visual. So I want to experiment some more with that once we get to the point where we have some serious budget to use. We’re not doing backflips onstage – we’re not that kind of band – so to me, having an interesting production and a setting to your stage, almost like a scene in a movie, is important. One day, we’ll have all that crazy shit [laughs]!
And then it’ll be like Iron Maiden, or Spinal Tap…
Yeah – and the little Stonehenge coming down [laughs]!
Do you have anything special planned for your set at Download? You’re coming back to the UK with some headlining shows before then as well…
I don’t know if I can answer that yet! I’m gonna pass on that one, because we’ve just finished an album, and we’re trying to figure out when it’s coming out and all the details. That should be figured out by the time Download happens. We’ll probably have a few things to announce around then.
Are there any updates about the album at the moment?
We haven’t figured the release date out, but it is done. We just finished it right before we started this tour with Periphery; we’ve been listening to it, and avoiding listening to it, and going back to listen to it…we’re really excited about it, and it’s an interesting jump for the band.
It sounds like a similar situation to Language – there had been a lot of lineup shifts, and the sound of Language was quite a break from what the band were doing before…
I don’t know if I would say it’s as extreme, but it might be to some people, yeah. It depends who you’d ask. But I like that – I think that’s more exciting, to sort of challenge what people would’ve expected…
Yeah – the thing with the whole djent movement was that people can get locked into one particular thing that they want. That thing stagnated quite a while ago, and now people are branching out from it in different directions. You guys brought in a lot more fusion influences and jazzy elements, while Periphery went for a fully prog concept album. So everyone’s kind of breaking from that scene…
Yeah, exactly – and I think one of the things we started to realise, and in my mind this record will show this a little bit, as a band we’re becoming more aware of our strengths and weaknesses and how to favour our strengths. Letting that guide the direction of the band…I think it’ll be interesting for people.
It’s about being true to yourselves rather than following a trend…
Yeah, it is – sort of looking at the tools and the strengths of each member, and what are the best cards to play if you can do this, this, and this…stylistically it’s interesting how that works out given our characters as musicians.
What’s the most challenging aspect of being a musician?
This may sound a little arrogant or dumb, but the music part is so natural for musicians and music people, that’s the easiest thing! It does become stressful when you’re working in a group and everyone has different ideas as to how the record is going to sound and what’s going to happen and every little detail, so there is some stress with that. But that’s limited to the creative stress world of wanting the product to be whatever your vision is saying to you.
I’d say the more difficult thing sometimes is surviving and staying healthy on the road! There’s the routine of doing a show every night and driving and travelling – that can be exhausting. Or just the very sort of isolated creative stress when trying to build a record – that can be difficult.
Yeah – the thing with touring is you get stuff like tour flu as well, people getting ill and it spreads around. Or people get bored not having much to do a lot of the time…
Yeah – it takes a special kind of person to maintain life on the road. The longer that I tour, I notice that the other people on tour, the other bands, the crew, and everybody…they share a certain gene, and they’re easier and easier to get along with because they’re good at it. They know their thing.
The creative stress as well, that’s limited to when you’re making a record and when you are able to create something everyone’s proud of, it’s a relief, you know? You know the next time you get in that situation it’s going to be that much easier.
So what makes you happy?
I love making records and putting out music – that’s something I’ve just always done.
Has that always been a goal, since you were a kid?
When I was a teenager playing guitar and just falling in love with rock ‘n’ roll bands…I think when I was a kid I wanted to be an astronaut, then a baseball player, and I finally settled on being a musician! So it’s not so bad!
I definitely have had music as a main interest – my complete main interest – since I was probably about fifteen or sixteen.
Touring’s taken you all over the place – how would you like to see the world change?
It’s a strange time to be an American right now. Politically, it’s a strange time to be alive. Lots of people want to talk to Americans about the political situation, and that’s concerning, not necessarily a great thing.
As for changing the world, with less war and more peace on earth I could get through the airport without having to pull my laptop out of my bag and whatever else! Travelling can be tough for that reason. You don’t know what’s going to happen – right now there’s shit going on in Paris, and we’re playing a show there tomorrow. So we’re going to have to avoid certain parts of the city and shit like that.
But we’re lucky – most of our travels have been mostly been uneventful in terms of larger world issues affecting them.
If you had to pick just one moment as a highlight of your journey so far, which would it be and why?
The Language release was a big deal for me. Putting out records that can stand the test of time and are in your history and that’s the artefact that you’re leaving behind – I’m really proud of that. So to me, having a successful release that’s promoted the band further and enabled us to make more records…it was a big jump for me.
Before that, I was playing in a lot of DIY bands doing session work and all kinds of things together – but when I joined the band full-time, more and more things started happening within the band. We hit a good stride there, and I think that was the point for me when I had a gig that was completely my main gig. I wasn’t spread out over a couple different gigs and bands and stuff like that.
I think the next record is going to be like that too, another benchmark for me personally. I’m proud of the record, and I did a lot of my best work on it. As far as live shows go, I know Download is going to be a huge check mark for us; it’s our first time playing a festival that big, first time playing an open-air European festival, so that’ll be super fun. And tonight – playing this huge venue, it’s going to be a great crowd.
It’s an awesome room – I love this place. Final question: What’s on your bucket list? You mentioned the Download slot just now…
Well, everyone would enjoy a healthy, lucrative career! That’s one thing I’m still fighting for, but I feel if I’m able to fill my time just making records then I would be pretty happy. As far as goals as a musician, getting the band to a point where we can do fuckin’ stadiums or something, that’d be something I’d love to do. I don’t know if that’s in the cards for us…
On the level of what Guns ‘N Roses are doing, or…?
[Laughs] I don’t know if we’ll ever get there! But you know what I mean…
[Laughs] Yeah, I know what you mean!
That would be fun, something to be proud of. But all you can do is try, and see what happens…or say a gold record, something every musician wants! But you have to try, and there’s only one way to find out…
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