Interview: Mike York of Pianos Become The Teeth

Pianos Become the Teeth

It’s been four years since Pianos Become The Teeth have released any new music. But after scrapping one record and reuniting with producer Kevin Bernsten, the Baltimore quintet is back with their most challenging and immersive record yet, Drift. A 37-minute journey through the night, Drift exhibits the most thrilling musical work from the band yet, ranging from pulsating tracks like “The Tricks” and “Genevieve” to murkier, groovier numbers like “Skiv” and “Mouth.” I chatted with guitarist Mike York about the inspiration and creation of Drift, the unique sonic dynamics of the record, and more.

It has kind of been a minute since Wait For Love released, but that’s not really unusual for Pianos because there was a pretty long period between The Lack Long After and Keep You as well, too. But how does it feel to finally be releasing new music after four years and a pandemic in between all that?

It feels great and you know, terrifying at the same time. I think my anxiety with creating and I have a relationship kind of where it’s like, you’re kind of insular in the moment of just like working with four other people nonstop without anybody else really knowing what you’re doing.

So we’ve been working on this record for probably way longer than people realize. We actually had an entire record written for the most part that we pretty much scrapped and started over. So yeah, we’ve been working on this for a really, really long time and it feels really incredible to be able to get it out and getting people to be able to check it out and listen to it.

It’s just been this, in the climate of how music and art and things like that are kind of consumed in the 2020s. We’re a band that I think you really have to dedicate the sit down time to and really develop with the record. We’re not much of a singles band or like a fun summertime listen or something like that. So I’m beyond excited that stuff is coming out by all means. Just hope that people spend as much time with it as we did making it.

Speaking of singles, I think it’s kind of cool that you followed up the release of “Genevieve” with “Skiv” because it’s showcasing kind of the two different sides of Drift, so I’m assuming it was intentional. Especially with this record being the type that works best as a start to finish listen, what was the release strategy of these two songs being the first new Piano songs in the last four years?

Well, especially with “Genevieve,” that was one of the latest ones that we wrote but I think when it started really coming together in the studio and  as it developed while we were writing… it really felt like it kind of packed on all the sonic things we wanted in this record. I mean, it has a nice big fuzzy driving part at the end of it, it’s got a bunch of super weird, fucked up tape loop stuff and a bunch of weird warbling kind of pulled out of tune echoes and stuff. And the structure of the song, I think it’s got a lot of really catchy moments within it and I think “Genevieve” just kind of encapsulated all the moments of what Drift has just in this one song. So it was like coming out with that initially, it was like people that dig our band I think will dig this direction. 

We’re always trying, especially since we don’t make 15 song albums and we are working with 10 songs, we really have to kind of think about what is going to represent the singles in the record and what we’re going to do and it felt like “Skiv” ended up being one of the songs that was just like…I think all of us were very like, “yeah, this is a nice, interesting new direction for us,” and really loved just the downtempo-ness of it. Especially guitar-wise and stuff, I really wanted to do something that had musically kind of the sexiness of Portishead if that makes sense. It’s super dry, but it has this very, I don’t know, it just has this very kind of dark undertone but it just has that kind of sexy sound to it. But I dig following “Genevieve” up with it because I feel like it really showcases some of the quietest moments on the record but also some of the most dreamy and atmospheric and just kind of encapsulates how I think a lot of the songs take off on the record.

Yeah. I was thinking about the sequencing today and it’s like, after the dreamy intro of “Out of Sight” that starts the record, tracks two, three, four, and five are pretty uptempo, they’re kind of go, go, go. And then the middle portion of “Mouth” and “Skiv” kind of recenter it a bit.


Yeah, I noticed, this just might be the music journalist person projecting here, but I like that you said the Portishead influence. Because I definitely kind of hear a lot of interesting influence throughout the record. And every band I guess at some point in their career will gets compared to Radiohead. But I definitely feel like it’s important to how the writing is influenced. Some of those songs, especially “Genevieve” and “Easy,” remind me a lot of In Rainbows and the finger picking and the tempo of “Weird Fishes” and “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” and then I love how “Hate Chase” and “The Tricks” move to that early 2000s vibe of Interpol. What were some really important, maybe not just influences but also touchpoints that inspired Drift?

That’s a great question, man, because honestly I think it actually does kind of go beyond the, “we were influenced by this band and this band.” We have recording setups, mobile studios and we have a lot of gear that we’ve accrued over the years. And this record really was more of a, “Hey, I have this riff” and sending everybody a riff, but sometimes that riff would be this weird, fucked up loop that I made that was the sound of… Like on “Out of Sight,” for example, you can hear a lot of the ambience in the background, it’s my uncle’s house where we were recording and stuff. And I think this record, I really think we were all striving to create a sonic identity of the record, something that’s telling a story.

I think we did this really well with something like Lack Long After where it was almost taking the subject matter of the song and trying to piece together almost like this listen of the entire record that’s really going to carry you through these emotions and the sonics. “The Tricks” is another good example. There’s a part in that break where it just has this pounding kind of crazy loop and Kyle just says “how long” over and over again. And it’s really unsettling to listen to and I think we were more so trying to tap into feelings like that, where we’d finish a song and being five guys in the room we’d be like, “Cool, this is very cool. But you know, this is a song that we would’ve written five years ago. It sounds great, it sounds good, but what are we trying to kind of say with it? What should this song do?”

And kind of asking those questions really took us into a really, really interesting place. I’m hugely influenced, like my biggest influence probably on this record probably are the super left-field ones. Like I love Lorn, he’s like an electronic artist. So it’s like a lot of the big, dark, electronic kind of found sound stuff that was just trying to create almost like a cinematic feeling to listening to something, I really wanted to tap into kind of the sonics of those things. And “Out of Sight” and “Mouth” are actually good examples where the song as it progresses towards the end you get this really heavy pumping side chain sound where it’s like, you just get like the kick drum or something, but all the guitars and the entire mix are just sucking out of the actual record. It just feels really disorienting. And I think a lot of the record was more so just trying to create that kind of disorienting feeling when a song called for that or something like “Easy” where it’s the same riff, but it’s so delicate that the purpose of it is to create a bed for tension. It’s meant to be something where, when you’re listening to it from the last song and it has those strings that just bend out of tune into it. And just by total happenstance, “Easy” is actually at like 120 BPM which in half time is 60, which is the ticking of David (Haik)’s snare in the beginning. So the song kind of just sits you at this place where I always attribute it to watching a clock because it’s on 60 beats a minute. And we didn’t really realize that, but it kind of felt so right where the intro is so long before Kyle comes in that you’re almost waiting to be like, “man, where’s the tension?” Like this is really getting kind of uncomfortable to listen to and I really dug those kind of moments. So I feel like just trying to find sonic identities in the room I think were kind of the biggest influence and kind of tapping into everybody’s influences of like, “Well, what do you think? Because you would write something like this, so what would you do?” And those ideas always ended up being really cool.

A lot of focus on any Pianos record will fall on Kyle Durfey’s vague lyrics and his vocal delivery, but I think Drift really perfects the balance of his vocal delivery existing within the identity of this record’s music. And I think this is Pianos Become The Teeth’s best sounding record by far. Everything really pops with a really crystal-clear clarity. And for me personally, how I interpret it, I feel like the band working with Kevin Bernstein again, that really did an excellent job of meshing the energy of the early records with the current sonic direction of the band and I think a song like “The Days” was a perfect example of that.

Totally. You know, it’s cool because had we gone to almost any other engineer, they may have taken that song and turned it to this big, rock anthem thing. But the cool thing going to Kevin is that Kevin is a purist, man. Like whatever you’re getting in the room, that’s the sound that’s going to get on the record. He doesn’t do drum replacements or sound replacement. It’s like, what you get is what you get and that’s why we knew if we were going to do something kind of wildly different and experiment a bit more on this record, it really had to be something with Kevin where we’re comfortable. Like we’re actually like, “Hey man, this is going to take probably a year of your time but I think that the sonic idea of how this is going to build is going to be really cool.”

And like a song like “The Days,” that song to me recorded with anybody else could have been very crystal-clear, polished rock thing whereas the way that we wanted it to come across is the way that Kevin made it come across which to me, it sounds like a Smiths song or it sounds like it could be like a My Bloody Valentine like fuzz thing. So it’s like the sonics of where Kevin’s head was at was exactly where we were going and he was just down to experiment with everything. And I think because we have that rapport with him for doing the first two records, it was just amazingly easy to hop in and just be like, “Hey man, what do you think if we do a pitch full octave down guitar and it’s all fuzz, but you can’t hear it, but it’s mixed in with this,” just crazy shit that was just, probably a lot of it would be stupid, but Kevin was down to try it and it was really cool to be able to get back there.

Yeah, I think that’s so cool. I love the experimentation on this record.

As an aside, a lot was written last year about Pianos, Touché Amoré and La Dispute and the quote unquote, “Wave” and how you all released these genre-shifting records – The Lack Long After, Parting the Sea, and Wildlife. And your band along with them are always just going to be like lumped together probably for the rest of each band’s career, you know just because of how you came up together over the years.

(laughs) Yeah, probably.

But what’s been so cool to me is like over this past decade, each band has made incredible musical strides with each record since, pushing the boundaries of what each band could create and existing outside of the hardcore or screamo genre. I just think it’s so cool to see Pianos, La Dispute and Touché all evolve past the trends of this last decade, when instead it could have been really easy to just make repeats of Lack Long After and Wildlife and everything like that, but rather every new record from these bands pushed it a little further and I think all three of your recent releases, which includes Drift, I feel like is each band’s best work yet.

Thank you, man. I mean, seriously Drew, that means a lot. Because I’m sure that both La Dispute and Touché Amoré feel the same way, too. It’s just when, I don’t know, when you grow up and you get kind of into a certain space…like we are obviously nowhere in the head space or the people or whatever we were when we were writing our first kind of demos that came out 15 years ago, right? And we’re nowhere near where we were when we were even doing Lack or Keep You or even Wait For Love, we’re just vastly different people.

So I think honestly the real beauty in this record to me is that I got to, and I mean, I get emotional kind of when I talk about this, but I got to spend time with my best friends again and I got to really spend some real time creating something and then just laughing together and joking. Towards kind of the tail end of our last shows which was in April of 2019, I think a lot of times it was easy for us to kind of get to the motions of a lot of stuff because it’d be like all right, go home, practice a little bit, write a song if you can, if you can’t do that, that’s fine. Then prepare for this tour, go on this tour, come home. I feel like we got into this cycle, this burnout really and I feel like we were all itching to create something that we considered to be our best work by far, but also just something that really pushed us creatively.

And a song like “Hate Chase,” we would’ve never put a song on our record that would’ve been less than two minutes long five years ago. We just never would’ve done that. But that’s what made that song so cool is that it’s like you’re in, you’re out, it’s just exactly what it is. It’s like you said, a super brash, fucked up Interpol and that’s just what it is. It’s just on the record because it serves its purpose on the record when you listen to it as its whole. And yeah, I’m just really proud of this record and I also believe that it’s our finest work that we’ve done by far.

I think my favorite song on the record is “Pair,” which I feel is kind of cliché, because my favorite song on every Pianos record’s always seems to be the closer. (laughs)

Yeah, we get that a lot. (laughs)

I feel like Pair, though, really perfectly captures Drift’s journey from start to end.

Yeah. Yeah. I can definitely see that too. I think “Pair” also feels like the morning to me. Like it’s the first glimpse. Like I remember Kyle said this best a while ago where this whole record kind of feels like one long night and “Out of Sight” kind of starts at the twilight where you start seeing the sun go down but as soon as Zac’s bass comes in, it’s like, “oh, okay, it’s nighttime now.” And the whole record kind of just sits in this super murky, dark twilight into midnight into the dead of night, like 2:00 AM feelings and then by the time you get to “Pair,” it’s like you start seeing the sun peak over the horizon again.

And sonically and kind of emotionally, I think we were able to kind of capture that feeling of that and also loved the pulsing kind of beginning of that, just like the pumping guitar sound. And I just loved how that ended the record of just this like pumping tremolo thing. There’s all these just little moments on the record that I think really kind of reflect where we were writing and where our head was at making one, too.

It’s cool because while past closers like “Say Nothing” and “I’ll Get By” always kind of end those records kind of somberly for me, personally, but with “Pair” you basically feel refreshed afterwards. Like you got through the night and this is kind of like you’re seeing the sun, that awakening and I think that’s a big difference between this one and past albums.

Definitely. It’s funny, “Pair” is the one which I feel like…especially when Kyle gets to the end where it just has like the drift away part and everything…it’s the part of the record that even when I listen to it a hundred times, it still makes me tear up. I feel like with “Say Nothing” or even with “Blue” and “I’ll Get By,” they all had this giant moment where the song opens up and I love that that never happens on “Pair.” It’s just this brooding kind of just, yeah like you said, just the sun is coming up kind of feeling but it still has that somber taste in your mouth like after a long night.

I know a lot was written about when the band made the then-jarring transition from Lack Long After to Keep You, and I know so much was written about how Kyle doesn’t scream anymore and they’re not a screamo band, etc etc. But I feel like to the keen observer, someone who’s really into Pianos, they probably realize that every record has incorporated a big sonic shift. At least I’ve noticed that.

Totally. Yeah. It always made me laugh when people were like, “Where did this come from?” It’s like, if you haven’t been listening, like, I mean, it’s pretty obvious.

Right. And I think just with all the guitar finger picking and just the layers upon layers on this record, sonically is just like, it’s so engulfing but it’s not necessarily immediate, which I think is great because it’s a record that’s really going to seep under the skin. And I love how challenging this record is. It’s just not like, I just want to listen to one or two songs from Drift on my drive to work. It’s a record you just totally got to dive into. And I never think this is a bad thing, I think it’s a record that’s going to take a couple listens for people to totally get and I think that’s a good thing. That’s what makes certain records everlasting, the ones you put the time in and challenge you as a listener. And Drift absolutely falls into that category for me.

Definitely. I mean, I think we’ve always been a band that’s probably going to be a bit… I was just talking to somebody else about this, where it was like, I think we will forever be a band that we’re not heavy enough for a hardcore show, we’re not hardcore enough for an indie show, we’re not rock enough for a rock show. And I was talking to somebody the other day and it’s like, you know, I think at this point in our career, genre-wise, we’re just Pianos and it’s really hard to even kind of put a finger on what this record is. Because even when I listen to it a lot, it’s just like, it has all the markings of a rock record. But it’s like, not to compare it by any means, but it feels like a rock record the way that Kid A feels like a rock record to me where it’s like, yeah, it’s got the moments. It’s got the feelings of it, but it’s something a bit murkier and a bit harder to describe.

And I think we’ve always been a slow burn for a band. We’ve always been a band that takes people a few listens, we make records that take a few listens. We’re obviously not as big as say, even say a band like Touché. We’re not that big in the sense of what catches on, but I think that the people that do spend time with the records, they like you said, get to really get under your skin and you start hearing like, what is that weird tapping sound? Especially when you listen to this record in headphones, it’s like, “What the hell is that sound in there?” Or “Who’s that singing on top of Kyle on this part?”

There’s just so many cool moments that I really wish, hindsight being 20/20, I wish that we would’ve been able to video document the entire process of this, because I think people would have been kind of flabbergasted with how a lot of this shit came together and just some of the hidden stuff that’s inside of it that I am so excited for people to pick up on. That’s my favorite stuff on the record. Like with 22, A Million, that Bon Iver record, I listened to that thing nonstop because it would be like, “Why is there a little glitch of a thing coming in for a second and out, what does that mean?” And I just love those little sonic treasures, those little footprints that you kind of add because they’re intentional. It’s intentional, but there’s a reason that everything is there. It’s not just there to take up space. I dig that almost every song kind of has this different sonic character, but there’s this weird through-line of these weird voices and echoes and chopped off things that just kind of glue the whole thing together into this just weird subversive night. There’s a reason that there’s like the howling weird ambience at my uncle’s house in the beginning of “Out of Sight.” There’s a reason why the guitars are this tone in the middle of “Easy,” or there’s a reason why all those weird glitches in “The Tricks” are randomized, they’re not even placed. It’s literally running drums through guitar pedals and then chopping them up. It’s weird shit that we’ve never gotten a chance to do but all of it having a defined reason I think is what really made this, not only a joy to create, but I really hope a joy for people to listen to as well.