When we interviewed the Buckley brothers at the tail end of 2009 in a dingy room backstage at Hammersmith Apollo, Every Time I Die had just released their fifth album, New Junk Aesthetic. We asked them to rate all their albums and they were remarkably honest. Despite looking back fondly on 2003’s Hot Damn! and especially 2007’s Big Dirty, Keith was less than convincing on his appraisal of the latest one.
That’s not an issue with Ex Lives. Just like pretty much anyone who’s taken the time to listen to it, he loves it.
“This is my favourite one,” he says with no hesitation. “I know everyone always says that about their newest one but I don’t feel that I said that about New Junk Aesthetic and Gutter Phenomenon. I don’t think I’ve ever been like, ‘Yep, this is our best one.’ I don’t think I believed it, but I believe it for this one.”
That belief stems from his position as an ever-improving singer. The sweet melodies found in ‘Indian Giver’ and ‘Revival Mode’ are a marked improved even from the brash tones of ‘Wanderlust’ from their last effort.
“When you can sing with confidence and write with confidence, it adds a completely new dynamic to your voice,” he explains. “And you can hear when somebody’s confident.”
“I didn’t want us to stay in the wheelhouse, writing really basic melodies and plugging in a singing part here and there to change it up,” Buckley continues. “I really felt I was capable of delivering something different and interesting and for me it was a challenge. I don’t really compete as far as vocalists go. I’m not in competition with anybody except myself. I’ve just got to use my voice to its fullest capability, which I think I am.”
Did being in The Damned Things help?
“It showed me that there was a lot that I had to learn, for sure,” Buckley says respectfully. “I definitely was taught a lot by Rob Caggiano, about how to approach the songwriting process. I think that just being around those people and learning how to take care of my voice was definitely a huge step for me too because I wasn’t just screaming my head off every night. It wasn’t all muscle memory yet. It was a good training camp.”
There is one incident that Buckley points out as a definite factor in his vocal performance on Ex Lives, though.
“While we were recording, my wife got mugged right outside of our house so I had to fly back [from California] and deal with that,” he explains. “It gave me some anger, which I got out on the record. If some songs sound a little more hectic, it’s because it was post my wife being mugged. I don’t remember which ones but I can tell the difference.”
If you’re a fan of the macabre, see if you can figure out which songs are pre-mugging and which were records afterwards.
It’s not just being better musicians and unexpected difficulties that have increased ambition. Signing to Epitaph Records has allowed them to create real music videos and while the scattered images found in the stark and morbid video for ‘Underwater Bimbos From Outer Space’ were a jarring experience, there was a more fun approach for ‘Revival Mode’.
“It was something I always wanted to do but I never thought it was possible so didn’t focus on it too much,” he says. “We’ve only done videos that show us playing our instruments so it was really cool to act a little bit. It wasn’t important that it stuck directly to the lyrics – we thought the song was creepy and we wanted the video to be creepy.”
“We were assured that nobody would think it was a rip-off of No One Knows by QotSA,” he laughs.
It’s curious that Buckley says that he never thought making an ambitious video would ever be possible. It’s like he never saw Every Time I Die as a viable prospect. It goes back to the confidence thing but when there are lines like, “We made a scene when we made the scene,” in ‘Underwater Bimbos…’, you wonder how much humility there really is underneath.
“People attribute that line to me talking about the band, but I wasn’t necessarily talking about the band. I was more talking about the group of people that I associate with,” he explains. “Obviously that is the band but in the context of the music scene which came much later. 99 per cent of the time I figure out what my lyrics mean after somebody tells me. Some of it doesn’t even catch until I’ll be doing an interview and I have to talk about it and I’ll surprise myself with what I say or what someone suggests to me. It’ll always keep evolving between the people who listen to it and the people who make it.”
There’s one aspect to Ex Lives and Keith Buckley’s lyrics that really does warrant further examination, however. There’s another line in ‘Underwater Bimbos…’ where Buckley screams, “The iron sharpens the iron.” That’s a line from Proverbs 27:17. That’s in The Bible. There are several lines in the quite fantastic ‘Partying Is Such Sweet Sorrow’ that refer to God and the Devil and a beautiful harmony where he sings how he “used to be a holy man”. That’s a whole lot of religious imagery for a vehemently self-proclaimed atheist.
“Oh, I’m aware of it. I’m not just like, ‘I don’t know anything about it, but I hate it,’” Buckley retorts. “I grew up in a religious family and I went to Sunday school – I did all that stuff. It was a big part of my upbringing but I got to an age where I was able to make a very conscious decision based on my gut feeling that it doesn’t really exist but I still carry all those messages that I was exposed to while growing up. The reason that I do like The Bible to some extent is because the stories in there are amazing, if you don’t try to apply them to daily life. I just wish so many people didn’t take it literally.”
“I’m more than willing to say I favour science over religion but it’s everywhere and it’s unavoidable,” he continues. “When I talk about religion I just mean there’s something bigger than me that I can’t ever stop grappling with. It’s always going to be there whether I accept it in my life or not. It’s not something I want to be fighting against because it’s everywhere and it’s done no good whatsoever in the history of humanity. I certainly believe it’s one of the most evil things that humanity has ever invented and I just feel like it’s a bigger enemy than anyone will ever be able to defeat.”
Strong words right there but if Every Time I Die started a religion, we’d sign up and so would you. Right?
Every Time I Die play at Slam Dunk Festival in Leeds (26 May) and Hatfield (27 May). Go and worship.