Recently I was able to schedule a Zoom call with Bryce Avary of ;[ to discuss his new album, Shadowkasters, that will release this Friday, May 12th. In this interview, I asked Bryce about the legacy of The Rocket Summer, how he typically composes most of his music, as well as the unique merchandise items for this album cycle. You can pre-order the vinyl/cassette options for Shadowkasters here.
All right, thank you so much for connecting with me today, Bryce. Let’s first talk about your great new single called “Sing at the Top.” What went into the writing and the recording of this particular single?
Oh, thank you so much for having me. I’ve been a long supporter and admirer of Chorus.FM and Absolutepunk. So, yeah, it’s an honor to be talking to you. And thanks for the kind words about “Sing at the Top.” It’s actually one of the older songs on the recording of the album. I did this one in LA, during the peak pandemic-era. So it’s actually been just sitting on a hard drive. But I had been doing these kinds of karaoke dance punk parties, where I had gotten back really back into the early 2000s dance punk scene. And so I just one night, I said, I’m gonna make a song that kind of sounds like this. But lyrically…every seven years or so you shed your skin and you’re essentially, not fully getting rid entirely of who you are. But it’s just wild to think that most of your makeup is new every seven years. And so I saw that as kind of a beautiful concept. And so it’s about moving forward, not looking back. Lyrics like “seven years separating, unzip your skin, step out of the old and in the new step in neon, neon skeletons.” I just felt like it was a really hopeful feeling. I was really grateful to put this on it.
Yeah, it sounds great to my ears. So what do you think makes The Rocket Summer so special, and what do you love most about performing this material to audiences across the world?
Especially after this time away, we’re about to go on tour, and I just announced it in June/July, calling it The Shadowkasters Tour just because it made sense. And I’ll also be performing songs from the entire discography. And I am just, man, after all this time, where I just can’t even believe that I get to do this…I’m just so grateful. And for me, I’ve never really been too attached or addicted to being on stage. I am certainly very addicted to the collective heartbeat in the room that happens with the fans. And it’s something that can be very challenging to always keep it going. But in those moments, it’s like, “Oh yeah, this is why I’m going to die to keep doing it for this.” I’ll do whatever it takes. I mean, I think over the years, it’s definitely evolved in a pretty profound way. I mean, I just celebrated, or I was told that my first album turned 20. And we might celebrate that later this year, potentially. But it’s definitely a bit of a mindtrip to hear some of the songs, and then hear this album, which is kind of almost the antithesis of where it began. And I don’t know, it’s just been really cool that my fans have grown with me. And I think there was a time where I was probably, if you’d asked me a couple years ago, I was very much a “don’t look back” person. I’ve always been thinking of what’s next. I’m always creating, but I think one of the byproducts of what happened over the last couple of years, we just ran into more issues of trying to get back on the road. While everyone’s kind of crawling out of that, it’s taken longer for me than a lot of artists and it’s made me just so appreciative of the past. And just as much as I am looking to the future. But as far as what makes it so special, there’s definitely that fan connection but I just always follow the songs. It’s not something that’s like a contrived thing…this album, I just kind of went into a room and just performed. I just write to exhale, and I think that’s something that maybe for better or for worse, that’s what makes it so special. It’s definitely not to get lots of people together to try to manufacture something. It’s an honest exhaling.
Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it too. I saw that Rolling Stone magazine highlighted one of your singles, “Stuck Inside Your Light” as a song “You Need To Know.” Do you pay attention to critical praise or even constructive criticism in your career? And if not, what tends to motivate you as an artist?
Yeah, I mean, I certainly responded to that. I don’t know if I really respond to times when it’s overly critical…
Especially if it’s somebody at Pitchfork bashing some music…I don’t know what constructive criticism can come out of that. (Laughter)
Yes, sometimes, you can definitely sense that. There’s an agenda. Sometimes I feel like I could put out a Dark Side of the Moon and somebody would want to paint it as a throwback. It is what it is. But yeah, I mainly just make music and not everyone has to like it, of course, but I hope most will
That’s good. So what do you think longtime fans of The Rocket Summer will find most surprising about your new record, called Shadowkasters?
With this album, I had really allowed myself to just kind of reset and tap into some sonically neglected places that have kind of always been there. But just due to the train of my life moving so fast, starting so young, sometimes it’s been hard to just kind of fully exhale in that way. And so at this one, I really wanted to do that. And for a while, I was actually very convinced I was not putting it out under the moniker, The Rocket Summer, because I had been writing these fictional stories, and I was trying to make the short films. And by doing that, I ended up kind of tapping into some new places. And I started making music that I thought would just be a soundtrack to all this stuff. And then I ended up making so much music and then all the other stuff, I kind of tabled for a while. And then one day, I just realized I just made a really evolved Rocket Summer album. And so I think it’ll be a bit surprising in a sense, but I’m really, really proud of it. I think for fans that have kind of gone the journey with me starting at the beginning, I don’t think it is too shocking.
Nice, and I love that album artwork too! Who designed that, and also can you talk about some of the merchandise designs and everything else that went into this cycle?
Yeah, so we took that photo in Mexico, actually. A lot of the stories I was writing, I was kind of living in my mind in this sort of West Texas/Mexico region surrounded for years with what I was writing, and I still have to put those things out. And so even though I had kind of formed so much of that and it’s not actually coming out with this project, at least right now. It’s a bit of a Southwestern trip into outer space or something. But yeah, I met a girl at a Christmas party a couple years ago, Whitney Smith, and she did graphic designs. I called her one night and was like, “Hey, I got this cool photo. How can we make this an album cover?” And she did a fine job!
Is there anything the fans can look forward to, from either the vinyl packaging or anything like that?
Oh yeah, so with the album cycle, we’re doing quite a lot of things. We’re putting out glow in the dark cassette tapes and different variants of vinyl. We have kind of the audiophile version, that’s 180 gram, on classic black. But then we also have this eco-mix version that we don’t actually even know what the color of the vinyl is going to be…
Yeah, I’ve seen some artists do that recently, where they do the Eco ones and each one is truly unique.
I mean, it’s good for the environment. It’s just kind of using what’s already there. And, ultimately, that just kind of makes it kind of fun. So it’s the first time I’ve ever done that. Normally, I’m pretty extreme about perfecting the vinyl to go with it. But there were also just some realities that it was going to take a really long time to do anything overly creative. And somehow I came across this idea.
I can’t wait to get my hands on it, too! How do you typically compose most of your material? And how has that evolved since the early days of The Rocket Summer?
So I mean, The Rocket Summer has always kind of just been me. I just go in the studio and I come out with stuff. And part of that’s just from a really early obsession with all things music. My instruments were kind of like my best friends growing up. I grew up in Texas, football country, and I was a kid wearing high water pants. I covered Pavement in my middle school talent show, stuff like that. And I was very much a big fan of stuff that was happening in the UK. Obviously, the big stuff, Radiohead, Blur, and then like, really obscure bands, like Ash…
Oh! I absolutely love Free All Angels. I just put the vinyl on the other day…
Hell yeah! And Tim (Wheeler) actually took me on my first Rocket Summer tour. I met him at a show, and I gave him some demos, and he hit me up on an email. He’s like, “This is great!” The original days, demos were pretty cool. I’d done them all in my bedroom. And then somewhere along the way, I kind of got convinced that I needed to go make a record. And I kind of got convinced that I needed to make it really perfect and polished. And that the demos kind of had this like Cloud Nothings sort of sound to it. And sometimes I wonder, what the trajectory of how things would have gone out…It was a bit like The White Stripes. I mean, obviously in the early days, I didn’t even know MIDI was until probably 2013. I made a ton of albums and just every album I ever made was like, you put a microphone on an instrument, and then you play it. I didn’t know about programming and stuff until later. And so everything was always just physical. I played the drums, the bass, piano and guitar, and there were always so many tours. And then I would have like five minutes to write an album, make it, and then just be on tour again. And I’m really proud of all those albums, for sure. But it wasn’t until the Zoetic era where I allowed myself to kind of set a little bit, and start getting much more into things. I allowed myself a little bit more time to start getting more creatively tapped into the Trent Reznor parts of my heart, that were always there, but like one summer I was like there’s no Radiohead in all these bands. I was mostly just really into Sub Pop kind of bands. And then a friend of mine showed me The Promise Ring’s first CD, and the first couple chords were like, “Oh, wow!” It sounded like all the stuff I was into but, but it was but it was very much like bringing in this punk kind of thing, which all my friends liked. I was like the indie, Brit-pop kid and all my friends liked MxPx, and stuff like that. And so for me, it was kind of like this moment where I saw this middle ground. And so I wrote the songs so fast. I wrote this whole EP, and it was influenced by that kind of thing, for a minute. And I went into the studio, a tape-based studio, no computers in sight, and I made this fully-layered rock. And right before I put it out, it just said “Bryce Avary” on the artwork. And then I just had this idea, before I’d ever even heard of Dashboard…I liked Nine Inch Nails. NIN is just a guy, but it’s not about him so much. It’s about a thing so I thought that was really cool. And I named it The Rocket Summer, and then everything kind of started happening really, really fast. The radio started playing it here and it was an enormous blessing. It’s certainly been a long time, sometimes long and difficult to explain. But I didn’t realize it was gonna be my whole life. So it’s evolved quite a lot. Yeah, so and it’s really hard. People will brand you quick. But then, I took a couple tours, which were so awesome with more emo/pop-punk leaning bands, and the fans just totally embraced it. And it made me go “Oh, wow!” Because at the end of the day, it’s just a guy behind the curtain.
I’m glad the fans embraced you so early on in your career, because that allowed you to kind of explore more of the creativity in your music as you evolved…
Yeah, I mean, at the end of the day, man, I’m grateful I get to do this. And I just can’t believe I’ve been this fortunate. And maybe I’m the last one to know. But for me, I wholeheartedly just always feel like it’s still kind of the beginning. I feel like I haven’t really made my best album or my best music yet. And so, I think, Lord willing, I’ll be here for a long time.
Good, good. And the music that comes through the speaker sounds great to my ears. So the last question I have for you is, who do you typically trust in your inner circle to bounce ideas off of and get feedback on your music?
That’s definitely a good question since a lot of the records that I’ve made in the past, there were engineers in the room, or people like co-producers. In the early days, it was a bit different producing, certainly with a lot of the records that it was almost like engineers saying, “Hey, can you do that again?” That kind of a thing. But obviously, producing now, it’s completely shifted. They play some of the instruments…
They’re basically like another band member at that point.
Yeah, definitely, and I actually tried to get Jon Brion to produce a lot of my early records. I always wanted to have someone in the room that I knew and just went out on every possible thing. I just thought that was him. And he was making all those Kanye records at that time, and it was expensive. But maybe in the future. My management, friends, my wife, my family, and I do show <my music> to a lot of other bands that I’m friendly with. I’ll show the music and kind of get knee-jerk reactions. I’m pretty confident in what I’m making. But yeah, occasionally, it’s definitely nice to hear <feedback>. It’s the longest I’ve ever had an album done and I just ran into a lot of logistical things. I feel like I’m still kind of one of the last people but it’s all in the right timing. I’m trusting at least but some of the benefits of that are like I haven’t listened to a song in like a year and feel almost new at that point.
But yeah, cool. Well, it’s so nice connecting with you today, Bryce, and I wish you nothing but the best. Hopefully this album does really well for you, and I’ll do my best to support it as best I can.
Thank you so much! Are you from DC?
Yeah, I’m just outside of DC in Silver Spring Maryland. I don’t know if you’ve played 930 club or maybe even the Fillmore Silver Spring?
The Fillmore Silver Spring is about 10 minutes down the road for me.
Yeah, I think I was one of the first shows they had at the Fillmore.
That’s really cool! If you ever come back around to the DC/MD/VA area, I’ll try and come to a show.
Awesome! Hope to see you soon.