Interview: Chris Keene (of Surrogate)

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A few years back I ordered a physical copy of Surrogate’s 2013 album, Post-Heroic on bandcamp (where bands often fulfill their own orders), and as a result of a shipping snafu (which I’ll admit was a result of my own error), I was lucky enough to have an extended email conversation with their bassist, Daniel. As a long-time fan of the band, and someone who’s been deeply affected by the rich vocal work of lead singer, Chris Keene, I didn’t hesitate to reconnect with Daniel, a lingering Gmail contact, in order to talk with Chris about his first-ever solo EP.

Having recorded and released 3 albums and 1 EP with your band Surrogate, what made you decide to release Above the Ground or Under on your own?

The EP actually started off with the third track on the album, “Existential Bullshit.” I’d had that song written for a long time, and I tried to shoehorn it into the last couple Surrogate records but it just never really worked. I’d always liked it though, so I decided to finish it on my own, and since I was pretty happy with how it turned out, I just started writing more for this EP.

Besides you, then, who else plays on the record?

The recording was all me, but I can’t say that I could pull it off live. I did a lot of editing [laughs], but as far as the roots of everything, it was just me.

That’s impressive! I ask because I recently saw the Tiny Desk submission for Deluge, and I was wondering if you’d utilized some of those same guys for tracking.

The video was comprised of some super talented dudes from around my hometown (Chico, CA). We had one practice together, and they nailed it. But yeah, as it pertains to the record, no one else was involved with the actual tracking.

And I read that you recorded it at Cutters Cathedral?

Yeah, that’s my place. Actually, my day job is recording there. It’s a really small studio, and I mainly do mixing there. It doesn’t have a ton of real estate for drum tracking and stuff, but I made it work for my album. It doubles as a Surrogate practice space, and we’ve rented out a few of the rooms to different bands as well, but I primarily use the control room there to do my work in.

I didn’t realize that you were mixing full-time. I remember reading an interview a few years back that mentioned you working at Build.com or something.

I was actually working there up until almost exactly a year ago. I was in sales, they’re a retailer, and it was just kind of killing me. Plus, I was doing a lot of recording on nights and weekends. I had a couple of good sized projects come up that were going to keep me busy for 3 or 4 months, and it was either quit my day job or turn down those projects. I guess the timing just felt right, so I quit my job and started recording full-time. It’s been a weird year for sure, but it’s been fun.

Personally, I’m a big fan of your overall production style. This record sounds very clean, and it’s apparent that you had a spot in mind for everything that you included. I appreciate that you not only have a great voice and melodic sense, but that you’re also able to execute on a bigger-picture vision as a result of your engineering talents. That’s a cool tandem to wield.

Well thanks man. It all kind of came out of my embarrassment for my own singing. I didn’t like going to other studios and working with engineers because I take a bit of a long time to write, and I write almost exclusively in the studio, so I learned how to do it all and not have to rely on anyone else. The fact that it turned into a day job is kind of a dream come true for me.

You touch on that in “Not Your Man,” right? I’m thinking of the line…

“I’m only useful if I get to take my time,

If I’m on the spot I’m gonna change my mind.”

That whole song was actually about leaving Build, my old job, and striking out on my own. So yeah, that was definitely what I was referring to there.

Thinking back to Popular Mechanics (the 2nd Surrogate record), were you self-recording at that point or working with another engineer?

Oh, no, that was all on my own. Back then I was working part-time at a recording studio, that I didn’t own, here in Chico. I more or less got the nights and weekends to myself, so I engineered and mixed the whole thing, but we tracked it on their gear.

It’s interesting to tease out the differences between that record (when Surrogate was signed with Tooth & Nail) and Diamonds and Pearls (the independent EP that followed). On the latter, I feel like you definitely let your voice stand on it’s own a bit more, and that trend seems to continue on the new record (with pretty minimal vocal effects). Is that a taste thing or just a result of learning over time how you prefer to record and mix your own voice?

Sometime between PM and D&P I read an article about how the male voice doesn’t stop maturing until you’re about 26, which was right around then for me. My voice has definitely changed over the years, and I would label it as more of a head voice, in less of a breathy subdued way, which was never really intentional. I’m a smoker too… so I’m sure that’s had an effect on it as well [laughs]. But yeah, finding my preferred technique wasn’t something that I ever really set out to do. It may have been subconscious though, because as I go back and listen to those records, I sometimes think that I sound a little whiney or affected. After that second record, I definitely found where my voice was strongest and slowly started catering towards that.

That whole transition from being on a label to being an indie band was accompanied by a rather stark stylistic transition, both musically and lyrically. Many of the lyrics during your time on the label seemed to be more thematic in nature (i.e. “A Constitution” or “Exercise Machines”), whereas recently, your lyrics have more directly related to personal experiences. Was there any freedom in leaving the label that lead to those changes or was it merely coincidental?

I can’t really put my finger on why exactly my lyrical style changed at that point, other than that I’m a huge David Bazan fan. I started off listening to his old stuff, which was always based heavily in storytelling with almost no auto-biographical aspects to it at all. I loved that, and I still do, but I think, and this might sound a bit stupid, but I think that once he started becoming really autobiographical, it gave me permission in a weird way to do the same.

I think of the song “People” from Strange Negotiations where it was like, yeah, he’s making a personal statement here that he wouldn’t have made back in the Pedro the Lion days.

I think you’re totally right. It’s so personal now, and I honestly have mixed feelings about it since I loved his conceptual records so much — Winners Never Quit, Control, etc. — because they seriously changed my life. I think that the newer albums have rubbed off on me too because it’s often objectively easier to write about the way that I’m feeling in the moment. So it might be some combination of laziness and a little bit of ripping off my hero.

I often find that I connect most with songs where I’m convinced that the artist really means what he/she is singing. Even though you can certainly do that by attempting to get at some larger truth through storytelling, when the lyrics come from your own experiences in life, there’s gotta be something easier about singing those songs passionately.

For sure, and the perspective is obviously a lot more genuine because you have the element of that story happening to you in real-time. You begin to analyze your emotions and reactions in a realistic way rather than trying to superimpose them over this character that you’ve just created.

That’s a great segway into a song on this record called “Brother,” which is absolutely heartbreaking. Can you give me some background on that one?

That’s actually the one song that is totally fictionalized…

You’re kidding me!

Nope [laughs], I don’t even have a brother. Although, there is a bit of an allusion to when I quit my last job and took out a loan to buy some gear to upgrade my studio. The money part is the most autobiographical, but as far as the family stuff goes, that’s all fabricated.

But it makes perfect sense now that you explain it like that.

Right — singing about owing money to VISA is not quite as engaging as owing it to my “brother.”

Brother business aside, that song has one of my favorite lines from the whole record on it…

“Making money’s harder than you think;

you’ve got to lead the horse to water, then negotiate a drink.”

What I really love about your songwriting is that you never seem to take a phrase off; you’re never throwing away an opportunity to articulate yourself thoughtfully.

That’s always been a point of pride for me, and it’s also something that I could have lifted from Bazan. Lyrics are so often, and especially in pop rock music, just throwaways and placeholders. I get that sometimes it’s intentional, like in the case of Radiohead where they just want the right syllables for the right parts, which is fine, but I think that the narrative’s been dying for a long time. It’s kind of a heartbreaker, you know? With that being said, it’s definitely become more important to me the older I get to write thoughtful lyrics, and it’s nice to hear that people are catching on to that.

So I remember back on Post-Heroic (the 3rd Surrogate album) this line that goes…

“I enjoy the finer things; that’s why I’m working so hard.

I know that Purgatory’s only heaven on a credit card.”

Even though the phrase didn’t fully relate to the rest of that song (“Sleep Alone”), I was almost immediately taken by it. Ironically, that same lyric makes it’s way onto this EP as well via the song “Purgatory.” I was wondering if that was how it happened for you, like, “Man, that lyric is killer; I’ve gotta write a song around that concept.”

I actually wrote “Purgatory” first [laughs], and I remember really liking that line, but also thinking that I was never going to release the full song, so I borrowed it for “Sleep Alone.” When I came around to releasing this record, I couldn’t bring myself to remove it from Purgatory because it fits better there than it does it in the song I borrowed it for, so I left it in. I was hoping not many people would listen to those songs and draw that conclusion… [laughs]

What caused you to write “Purgatory” in the first place? The line mentioned above is fairly pointed, and the rest of the song doesn’t necessarily pull any punches either.

That song is sort of in reference to some issues that I grew up with. I was raised in a very conservative Christian home, and I guess I’m sort of a late bloomer in that it’s only been in the last couple years that I’ve really sussed out my true thoughts on the inerrancy of the bible and everything that is involved with the American Christian church. I’m definitely someone that still finds value in the Bible, but I don’t necessarily think that it’s inspired by God. “Purgatory” is more specifically referencing the idea of Hell, which has always been really really hard for me to swallow. It’s certainly not meant to be a tool of persuasion to anybody since I don’t have good feelings about angry preachers on either side of the issue. It’s really just meant to be a piece of art, first and foremost, but it definitely also serves as a reflection on my spiritual journey lately as well.

So what’s the band up to these days? Are you guys recording or looking to put something out?

Yeah, we’re actually in the process of demoing out a bunch of songs, which I’ve been slowly and tentatively showing to the guys. I’ve got about 3 and a half actually written, and we’re not sure if we’re going to do a full-length or an EP at this point. Post-Heroic was willed into existence by a lot of different factors, but in the end, it probably should have been an EP. We decided kind of last minute to make it a full-length, so there are a couple of songs that weren’t really supposed to be on the record, but we sort of, forced isn’t the right word, but it’s definitely something that we were coming into the 11th hour on and had to come up with 3 additional songs in a short timespan. I don’t want that to happen again with the new record, so we’re trying to be as intentional as possible. We’re shooting for a Fall 2016 release, and we’re also planning to put the record out on vinyl regardless of the length, which will be a first for us.

To close, what’s the significance of the album cover? I’ve looked it over a bit, and I figured that there has to be a story behind it.

Above the Ground or Under EP

I’m glad you asked! My sister drew it. She put a hydrangea, a flower I’ve always really liked, down the barrel of a six shooter, which is the piece that the stem goes into. The art in full is intended as a tape cover (available for purchase at vultureprint.com), and in the wraparound you can see the entire revolver. It doesn’t have much to do with the lyrics or anything like that, but I had just intuitively asked her to draw a hydrangea and that’s what she came up with. It’s a little emo, but after turning the original upside down and augmenting it a bit, I think it fits really well.

 

 

Buy the Above the Ground or Under EP on Chris’s bandcamp page.

More Info:

Facebook: Chris Keene

Twitter: chris_keene

Soundcloud: Chris Keene

Website: Christopher Keene

YouTube: Chris Keene

 

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About Author

IT professional by day, surveyor of all things indie-rock by night. I am a recent University of Minnesota grad with the distinct pleasure of calling the Minneapolis "Uptown" area home. Prior to this digital age, I was the friend you visited to borrow CDs by the tenfold. From my humble beginnings as a fusion jazz aficionado (thanks, Dad), I've come to enjoy music in a variety of genres and contexts. Whether it's catching a $10 steal-of-a-show over at First Avenue's 7th Street Entry, spending my Friday mornings sifting through the day's new releases (yes, I am one of the few still lamenting the death of New Music Tuesday), or strapping on a guitar for a worship set at Hope Community Church, music touches nearly all aspects of my life. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to share with you (in the form of reviews, recommendations, and the not-so-irregular begging plea) my intense passion for one of humanity's greatest accomplishments in collaboration... MUSICAL PERFORMANCE. Follow me on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/user/1251204357

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