Here we go, all sorts of similes and metaphors about soaring, lifting and vast melodies. Yep, that’s essentially what any description of a technical, challenging but ultimately soulful technical Prog Metal band such I Built the Sky would conjure up in these spaces.
Having supported scene giants such as Ne Obliviscaris and Between the Buried and Me could easily place a maestro songwriter such as “Ro” (Rohan Stevenson) in a place of either aloofness or straight out egoism, especially in a day and age where talent such as his is supported like never before through recording, production and gear technologies.
Fortunately, whilst offering dazzling but ethereal harmonies and windings structures, the man behind the band himself is refreshingly grounded, amicable and practical. Nothing like the writers such as yours truly, eh?
“I’m really excited about the whole thing,” he beams enthusiastically. “We’re doing the single launch soon and this is the first time we’re tracking real drum and bass, so I’m super keen for getting wrapped up in all that.”
Eager to be tracking more of the live instruments, the band are off to Rangemaster Studios, run by David Carr. “He’s an awesome producer, he’s worked with one of my favourite bands called Kisschasy, from back in the day. Great songwriters, which is what I love most and am most obsessed with, so I’m going to be chatting his ear off about that entire experience.” It’s readily observable that this man, whilst creative and technically competent, isn’t out to set forward in some virtuoso space race of one-up-manship at the edge of progressive music. In fact, he’s becoming more rapt about having others more involved in the process. “All the music is written, produced and recorded by me, this is the first time I’m getting people in to track instruments.”
When asked about what their practice schedule entails, he mentions that, “We only ever rehearse for shows, basically. It’s basically by necessity – we don’t just sort of rehearse ‘just ‘cause’ – all of us are a bit too busy for that. When we’ve got shows we’ll do a bunch of rehearsal but most of that is us doing our parts of the setlist on our own. Having them well and truly learnt by then just makes it more efficient.” He is sure to make a point that ensuring a good show is of equal or greater importance to the live musicianship.
With respect to this, I noted that my experience with I Built the Sky live was very positive and energetic, with all band members smiling, grinning and moving with gusto and just plain cheerfulness. “Definitely. I’m just at a point where I’m serious with music and obsessed with it and all that, but at the end of the day I just want to have fun with it, that’s all I want to do with it. When we’re about to go onstage, I will literally say to the guys, ‘Stuff it, let’s just have fun.’ A lot less dictatorial than other directives by primary songwriters in other bands, I’m sure. And you know what?” he adds, “I feel like that gets you better results musically as you’re more relaxed, you’re just playing for fun in that headspace.” Must be, seeing as their live shows are as gleeful as they are technically intimidating, an equal balance between fun and fervour.
“In general, live and on recordings I do probably gravitate towards the more light-hearted, catchy and upbeat end of tech-Metal,” he admits happily. “I try to mix up different emotions in there as well, though. I think the newer stuff will be a bit deeper, a bit more melodramatic.”
In the day of everyone strapping on a seven-string, whacking almost bass-guitar thick strings and downtuning to the low end of the spectrum, Stevenson prefers to keep his standard 6-string guitar and relatively lighter drop tunings. “I’m not deliberately avoiding that stuff. I enjoy writing music in Drop C for the most part, and sometimes I dabble in lower tunings. But for the most part I enjoy challenging myself to see how much expression I can get out of a drop tuning as opposed to just plain detuning. I don’t own any seven-strings, I’ve barely played one, I don’t need to. I don’t see it happening for me to go down that route. Don’t get me wrong, I love it and it’s awesome and I listen to a lot of those bands – for me, I just like six medium-gauge strings and focusing on melody in my songwriting.”
A similarly modest and minimalist attitude pervades his approach to thinking about gear too, it seems. Again, refreshing in age of songwriters burying themselves in hundreds of tracks, effects and tone designs. “The way you play and your tone will transcend whatever gear you’re using, in a way. Every little detail contributes, obviously, but it should be more a result of the actual expression in your playing. If you’re relying on whatever it is gear-wise, that’s not a good way to go. I’m not really a gear guy – I don’t get obsessed with pedals and amps.”
He does however admit quite some love for the Fractal Audio AX8 multi-effects modeller, but mostly “out of portability and convenience,” and Misha Mansoor (Periphery)’s Precision Drive for “adding character to the tone.” Sounds like his belief is tone is in the hands of the player, however. “You get Eddie Van Halen to play a seven-string with an AxeFX, he’s still going to sound like Eddie Van Halen.” That’d be some rocking djent!
When asked about current influences and muses he notes, “I just bought a new acoustic guitar, so I’m all about that stuff. I’ve been a listening to a guy called Antoine Dufour, he’s a French Canadian guy who does this stuff that is basically Prog but on an acoustic. Super expressive.” This is when the conversation takes an unexpected turn and electric guitar is completely dropped from the equation for a bit. “Acoustic guitar players are the real deal, for sure, ‘cause I mean there is NO hiding. They barely use compression on their playing, and as a Metal guy all that stuff is used heavily in the genre to make your notes pop out.” This is quite true of myself and many other heavy musicians who tend to adore our compressor pedals. “But with acoustic players, they do it on an instrument without the need of that, having so much expression with so little room for error. Hopefully that’s going to help me improve as well. I’m working on a release that’s all-acoustic, so I want to get right into it.”
Other longstanding musical influences are readily apparent in his mind, too. “I love pop-rock and pop-punk music. I think you’ll notice that in my music. I honestly don’t listen to too much in my own genre. I think a lot of people are like that, but it’s easy to burn myself out on it. It keeps a fresh perspective.” On both counts this is quite an intriguing position – here’s a guy writing this crushingly precise, complex but also lofty material with serious songwriting chops, and his various muses draw from genres probably very far removed from your average Meshuggah-worshipping guitarist. Someone who flirts with the boundaries of heavy music without having to ascribe himself to that aesthetic.
So, the kid seems like he’s got a pretty down-to-earth and upfront approach to his musicality. What advice does he have for new or upcoming guitarists and musicians in general? Really damn useful advice, actually: “Step one. Right out a you need to have a goal. Otherwise you’re sort of aimless without a goal. Even if it takes you six months to DECIDE on the goal, that’s still a method. You can get lost in just this sea of Youtube guitarists, it’s so easy to feel a bit inferior. Make solid, measurable steps, map them out as you’re heading towards your goal and check in with them once you hit certain stages.”
There’s no complex change-your-life business success self-help systems underpinning this ethos, though. “I had a moment in time when someone was like ‘When are you going to release an album?’ half-jokingly, and I’d always thought, ‘Nah, that’s too hard’, but I had this moment in time where I just thought, why not? Even if it takes me two years or longer, why not? Stuff it, I’m going to write an album. I literally wrote on my door the time that I started my album. I’d look at that every single time I woke up and see that every day as the reference point. It kept it in my mind and I was motivated through that to keep working through that.”
There you go, ladies and gents, a very humble beginning and modest attitude from a man with great musical talent. A breath of fresh air in today’s YouTube-driven arms race, indeed.
You can catch I Built the Sky on their upcoming ‘Celestial’ single launch on Saturday the 16th June at The Workers’ Club in Fitzroy (tickets) and Saturday the 23rd June at The Factory Theatre in Marrickville (tickets).