[Photo credit: Joshua Halling]
When Alternative Press calls up Keith Buckley, he’s in the throes of a major annoyance: the dreaded summer cold. Turns out the Every Time I Die frontman has never experienced the annoying discomfort of cold symptoms in the context of the season’s heat and humidity. “I’ve never had one before,” says Buckley before releasing a loud cough. “I was convinced that my body postponed all this illness from Warped Tour and let me get through it. Because it happened the next day after it had ended. It’s a horrible time to be sick.”
It is a horrible time to be sick, because there’s plenty to celebrate. Every Time I Die’s next album, Low Teens, is slated for release Sept. 23 on Epitaph. From the twisted, angular Captain Beefheart-meets-Foghat intro of “Fear And Trembling” (which features a cameo from Deadguy’s mighty Tim Singer) to a full-on appearance of Panic! At The Disco’s Brendon Urie (“The Coin Has A Say”), ETID—Buckley, his brother/lead guitarist Jordan, guitarist Andy Williams, bassist Stephen Micciche and drummer Daniel Davison—maintain their patented ’70s-rock via hardcore sensibilities mindset while still exploring different contexts to bring their fury. That’s no small feat, considering their ambitious and palpitating immersion into atmospheres with producer Kurt Ballou on their previous album, 2014’s From Parts Unknown.
But Low Teens is more than just another selection of cool jams preparing you to get throttled in the pit and collect points on your driver's license. Late last year while on tour, Buckley was confronted with the brusque reality of his wife Lindsay falling seriously ill while carrying their first child. He left the tour and went to her bedside, seeing her connected to various life-support machinery. Faced with the very real thought of losing his family, he penned some of the most resonant lyrics of his career, grappling with all of the emotions one would face: saying goodbye, embracing the past, hating life, questioning higher powers (all of them) and plumbing the depths of fear that manifest when your life as you know it would be decimated. The story has a happy ending, as both wife and child are now healthy and flourishing, but Low Teens will remain the record that will forever trigger those trying hours. “I don’t want to be the person who uses this incident as an identifier,” he stresses. “I think once the record is out and the first wave of press is done, I hope I don’t have to talk about it again. I do want everyone to know that [my family] is fine. The amount of love and support we got from total strangers kept my wife and I’s hopes up. It felt like the last scene in It’s A Wonderful Life where the town comes together for George Bailey.”
Yet Buckley will relive all those memories every night, singing those songs when Every Time I Die hit the road supporting Beartooth, alongside Old Wounds and Fit For A King, next month. Before the album’s release, Buckley spoke with AP editor in chief Jason Pettigrew about his take on this summer’s Warped, choosing meditation over drinking, reliving the time in the hospital watching his beloved hold onto life and how to maintain a creative edge without getting consumed by it.
As someone who has played Warped quite frequently, how was the experience this year? I heard you made some major personal changes.
KEITH BUCKLEY: It was strange: I feel like it was a lot more mature this year than it ever has before. It’s becoming ubiquitous: I wasn’t drinking and wasn’t partying as much, so I just thought it was reflected in my material world. You’d look and there would be a yoga class over here, a mediation class over here… It was a very strange, adult, punk-rock tour. You can tell that the punkers were aging. It seems like a changing of the guard. I don’t know how long this is going to be sustainable before a new wave of young bands come in and go, “Okay, we’re ready to rebel, be rowdy and get in trouble.” [Laughs.] As I saw it this summer, everybody was very mild-mannered.
Any craziness happened during that half-hour set, period.
Yeah. It felt like it. That was what I was focusing on this summer—the performances. I didn’t drink this whole summer, I just focused on being okay to perform all the time. I think we sounded the best we’d ever been and excited to be there. It’s not like we’re removing all the antics and along with it goes the whole band. My focus is shifting to the more professional side of it, which is okay. Well, I tell myself it’s okay so I can make myself feel better. [Laughs.]
So you stopped drinking.
I did. That was important to me because I do understand I am getting older and performing is not as easy as it used to be. I was losing my voice a lot on tours. Every two weeks, I was in the Minute Clinic or an emergency care trying to figure out what was going on with my breathing and everything. It was just a mess. I didn’t want to believe it was the alcohol. I was drinking for 20 years, “it’s got to be something else.” [Laughs.] So I just thought, let’s see what happens if I bite the bullet, stop drinking and see how my voice sounded. I didn’t lose it once; I sounded great all summer. I know that the ETID fan is getting older. To come out to an ETID show, they’re getting babysitters, maybe taking off work—they’re really making a night out of the show. I owe it to them to be good. I can’t show up at a show hungover with a blown-out voice and expect these people to leave happy when they’ve invested a lot of time and money to watch a show.
It seems that ETID have a fiercely loyal fanbase that once you’re in, you’re in for life. There’s none of that churning, “Oh, I stopped listening to them five years ago” attitude.
I feel like up until this year, I used to think that Warped Tour was a result of our work. Now I realize that Warped Tour might be the cause of our work. The two-year orbit that we do around the scene touring and recording, Warped gives us that thrust again to keep going. I used to think that we were being rewarded with Warped Tour [like], “We’ve done two years, now let’s have this big summer camp experience.” But I feel like it’s because of Warped Tour that we’ve been around for 18 years and not vice-versa.
There is a kind of churning in the fanbase, but it’s only for the Warped Tour. I don’t feel like a lot of people who see us on Warped Tour will see us in clubs. And that’s okay, because the people who do come see us in clubs will sit out Warped. But I do feel like our fanbase feels like a clubhouse. It’s more meaningful because we built a relationship with people.
There’s trust there. ETID haven’t done anything stupid under the excuse of “progressing” or “branching out.”
[The band] are fans of music. We know what it’s like when a band disavows its style to reach a brass ring for the pop hit to stay fresh and current. I don’t know: Inherently, what’s beneath change is disdain. People who change the sound of their band hate something about their band. They hate their fans or their own music. That doesn’t exist in our world. I love the people who like our band and the music that we make. Our North Star is, do we love what we’re doing? If it’s no, we don’t do it.
There was that one year where you were livid to be on Warped Tour. Lots of neon-pop, dancefloor-focused music and the rise of those misogynist shirts.
It was because I was jealous. I hated the fact that people liked something I couldn’t do. I didn’t have what it took to write “popular music.” Not necessarily that I wanted to—even if you’re not going to the party, you still want the invite. At that time, I felt the bands [that established Warped] were fading out and bands I thought, said or truly believed were dishonest were coming up and taking kids away. I was a grumpy old man. I used to feel there was a right and a wrong way to do music and Every Time I Die’s way was the “right” way. And it’s not. But there’s a lot to be said about being honest to yourself. Most of the time, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, like watching something you truly love change completely.
There was a point after the making of Ex-Lives that you didn’t see the point of being in the band anymore.
Right. That idea now works itself into what [ETID] does. It finds itself out in front of everyone. When I’m confused, it comes through in the lyrics and I try to make sense of it through the band. I didn’t throw in the towel: I was not happy with what the music scene was doing. Instead of quitting, I feel I had to figure out how to get through it.
And then you did From Parts Unknown with Kurt Ballou that reconciled that frustration with a different sonic context that felt like a reboot of the band. You were still the band you were, only more terrifying. Ironic, that by then, you found meditation.
In my opinion, Kurt was a saving grace for the band. I just got so sick of being angry all the time. I found meditation and started trying to just calm down. The lyrics were a total mania of… peace. [Laughs.] I was so crazy about being calm, I found a totally new trove of inspiration. I think that peace and Kurt’s production were perfect for the band.
You were telling friends that when it came time to make Low Teens, you didn’t have any idea what you were going to write about. And then you were faced with the precarious future of your wife and child. Yet while that emotional upheaval was unfurling, you didn’t make a saccharine, acoustic record. Ruminating on a life without your loved ones ramped up the kind of nihilism and rage 2009’s New Junk Aesthetic explored.
Yes, but with a broader understanding of that, which was made possible by writing From Parts Unknown. That album was written about my transition into meditation to become mentally more stable—like I’m the guy with the sandwich board saying, “Look at me! This is who I am now!” Which is naïve, because when everyone finds something they love, they make it their identifying character trait. And then something terrible happens and it all goes out the window. All of a sudden, I’m back to square one and I’m the only thing in the universe, like, “Everyone hates me, God hates me.” My nihilism isn’t so selfish these days as it used to be. There’s just a lot of horribleness in the universe. I think there’s a reason for it somewhere—we just don’t know it yet.
At the time, I had no idea what the reason was for all that horrible stuff that was happening to my family. It came out of nowhere, no one could have prepared for it, the doctors missed all the cues—and then it happened. As it’s happening, it’s like, “What does this mean? Why is it happening?” and at the end of it, everything goes back to normal. My wife is totally fine, my baby is totally fine. So now, I’m like, “What the fuck was the reason for that? The before and the after have happened, what is the reason for the during?” It could be the record. Maybe that’s it—you don’t know it at the time. The whole record was about everything I felt that night.
I have no idea what your set list is going to be on tour next month. But playing songs off Low Teens and revisiting that psychic place of possibly losing your family every night? That would do a number on anyone’s psyche.
Of course. I don’t know what it’s going to do with mine. But at the time I was writing, it was the only thing that was helping me—if that’s what I’m feeling, then it’s there. I was thinking, “When my parents read this, they’re going to fucking hate me. They’re going to know all this stuff I didn’t want them to know.” But it had to be done. “Petal” was the first song that I wrote during the whole thing. We played it during Warped and I could just feel it, like, “Holy shit, this is a tough one to get through.” Luckily, we swapped it out so we didn’t have to play it every day.
The nihilism and contempt for a life without your family is positively jolting. But there’s a point on “Two Summers” where you say goodbye to them as if to say, “It’s okay if you can’t hang on, I understand. I don’t want you to suffer.” That’s a hard fucking thing to write.
Were you writing in your wife’s hospital room?
Yeah. I was just writing. I hadn’t heard any songs, so I didn’t know what it would be, if it was going to be a letter or whatever. Then when I went back to put the lyrics to the music—they were still in the hospital when the record was being made—I took things out of the stuff that I had written. There was nothing I could do; I was sitting there holding her hand. It showed me new depths of what I am capable of feeling, especially after so many years of being in a band where you think you’ve dulled all of your edges by now.
At this point in time, are Every Time I Die a band or a way of life?
[Laughs.] For us, it’s very much a way of life. There’s no hobby in it. With the news of Dillinger Escape Plan breaking up, [people] are like, “You’re the last from that era.” There’s no shelf life to a band, it’s not like we’re, “Oh, we’re too old now, bye.” We’ve done this band since we knew we wanted to do anything at all. When you feel like it’s your calling, you go on until you feel like it’s not your calling anymore. But while it is, it is absolutely a way of life. alt