Latest album: Periphery III: Select Difficulty (Roadrunner)Website: www.periphery.net
Washington DC proggers Periphery have always done things their way and thrived creatively by challenging themselves further on each album and subsequent tour. Their loyal fan base are in for a treat this week as the band are in the country for a tour that should appease djent and progressive metal fans as well anyone keen to see some jaw dropping musicianship on display. Loud caught up with Mark Holcomb, one of the band’s three guitarists recently to talk about the tour, their sound, the equipment used in embracing new technologies and how they keep smashing their goals.
You’re coming back to Australia and covering many states. Can you tell us about the latest set list?
We really just try and come back bigger and better, with more in store for our fans. That is really the whole point of it and to of course show off songs from the last record and stuff that you guys haven’t heard. We hope for and always bend over backwards to achieve a better show for everybody so we’re very excited.
Given all of the different tunings you use on each song, I’m guessing your guitar tech has a lot of working making sure everyone uses the right guitars on songs.
Yeah exactly and we’ve spent thousands of dollars before just on trying to get multiple guitars out to our shows. We’re not one of these bands that just flies with three guitars. We have to take up to six guitars in tour because of our catalogue existing on six, seven and eight stringed guitars and you need back-ups. So that makes planning a set list tough when you get charged as much as four hundred dollars for an overweight case with three guitars in it and that is on the light side. So, it can be a little tricky but the shame of it all is that sometimes it is just based on luck with the airline baggage service. Still, we are definitely bringing a lot of guitars with us and it does get confusing from time to time but normally we’ll have guitar techs to help us out and make sure that we don’t have to think too much.
I suspect that with your style of music, when you’re writing songs, you’re not really thinking about the performance aspects or at least specific instruments so much.
No, not at all and that can come back to bite you when it comes time to recreate the songs live. When we’re writing it is just about being inspired and then continuing to write the songs on whatever guitar you’re using. It is completely dependent on what you’re feeling at that moment. Coincidentally, Periphery III: Select Difficulty [Periphery III] features zero eight string songs which is funny because starting on Periphery II: This Time It’s Personal [Periphery II] and then all the way up to Juggernaut: Omega [Juggernaut], we were using an increasingly higher number of songs that had eight strings. Then Periphery III comes along and we just don’t pick up an eight string guitar.
How did you get into the eight stringed guitars?
It all started around the time of Periphery II and for me it is kind of a luxury or a shortcut to being inspired. Say on a given day you’re struggling to write on a six string guitar. Picking up a seven string could potentially give you more inspiration or at least a different look which could lead to more inspiration. Then an eight string guitar is just an extension of that and can help to get me out of a certain rut by switching instruments around. That idea started with Periphery II and continues to be a big part of our writing process.
Was it initial PRS guitars limitation for eight stringed instruments versus the readily available eight string Ibanez range at the time that created the impetus to go in that direction?
It was tough because only late in 2015 did PRS ever build their first ever eight string guitar and I was the one who they sent it to as well as Tosin Abasi from Animals as Leaders. So PRS built the first two for us whereas the first time I picked up an eight string guitar was in 2011 when I wrote sections of a song called “Ji” which is on Periphery II. Yeah, that was an Ibanez eight string guitar. It has always been challenging to find guitar companies willing to build eight string guitars. In the beginning it was only a small number of big companies and some small boutique builders but that is now changing.
Indeed and also, in getting your sounds happening you’ve now got a signature guitar pedal [Haunted Delay by Pro Tone Pedals]. How did that come about?
Yeah that was just a fun project. I was looking for something very specific with a pedal and through knowing Dennis Mollan, the owner of Pro Tone pedals he asked me if I wanted to build a fun pedal. I was up front and told him Periphery don’t really use pedals on stage because we have all of our settings being changed automatically by a MacBook which is quite a nice luxury. But I said I’d like something to use in the studio creatively so I described what I wanted and he was kind enough to build it. We were both so happy with the result that we decided to release it and it is a fun, inspiring delay pedal that I use and is nice to have when I have a creative drought to get me out of that rut. That’s kind of the reason that we have so many guitars, amplifiers and pedals at home. We have so many toys to give us a different look and for me personally, it is nice to mix things up.
Did you also seek out Fractal audio gear or was it just something that evolved into your live rig?
It was sought out really. I remember seeing people posting about it several years ago and I thought the way they were hyping it up was making it sound like God’s gift to amplifier simulators. I was kind of floored when I saw the reviews and had skepticism at first, like you do with some of this technology. But I was spending thousands of dollars each year on buying new amps and I was addicted to that so when I bought my first Fractal Audio Axe-Fx Ultra [Axe-FX], I just loved it. I wasn’t gigging with it at that point but just using it at home and it really changed the way I look at building a guitar tone. More importantly, it made it so that I stopped spending thousands of dollars of my hard earned cash on amplifiers every year. It ended the amp search, ultimately.
Presumably with touring being the best way to survive in this industry then a piece of gear like that is a godsend. It is amazing to think that now all your tones can be kept on a USB device with some gear.
Yeah, it is pretty incredible and unlike working with a vintage amp with tubes in it, your sound is pretty consistent all the time. If you can dial it in at a given venue one night, it should be the same on the next night because nothing has changed inside of the unit in the firmware. It is convenient and light so if I do a guitar clinic, I can fly with just a suitcase shoving a tiny power amp and Axe-FX in there and then boom, I am set and I can do the clinic with just that. It has really come to define our band in a way because we place such a high emphasis on guitar tone and trying to be unique in terms of the way we use the guitar and the tone. So it has become the brain of our entire rig.
No doubt it also helps with being creative when writing.
Oh for sure, yeah. To be able to achieve a sound with a couple of switches that would otherwise take an hour to set up an array of pedals it makes all of the difference in the world. You can keep that creative momentum without having to set it on pause. Also, if you take a song like the end of “Masamune”, the last song on Periphery II, there is a riff at the end [sings riff] that we cannot play without the Axe-FX because that sound that it gets it kind of impossible to achieve with an analogue or digital pedal. It is pretty out there but what is does is takes a couple of milliseconds of a guitar signal, chops it up and then repeats it for fifteen minutes straight. We can’t really get that and switch to it or more importantly, switch back from it without having some impossible stuff in pedal wiring. So that causes you to do some writing that you wouldn’t normally do with a normal pedals set up in mind.
Times have changed from the world of MXR phaser and Digitech whammy pedals.
They have changed but you know that stuff never stops being fun either. I’ve had so much fun jamming at home using older pedals and vintage gear with a really simple set up as well. At the same time, there is nothing quite as satisfying as plugging into a big, mean, angry, heavy amp. So, I can appreciate it from all angles.
How does being known as one of the djent style pioneers sit with you given you like to evolve your sound with each new recording? Is it a limitation much like say AC/DC tends to make many similar albums in case their fans feel alienated?
Ha, I love AC/DC but that sounds like that worst curse, to have that stigma. Of course they probably love life, they’re awesome and hugely successful but I would hate to be pigeon holed and sort of be expected to sound a certain way when a record comes out. I hope that we haven’t set ourselves up for that kind of thing am trying to look as objectively as I can at our body of work so far, I don’t think we’re doing that. I don’t know and maybe that is because I don’t often look at where we sit in the world of music and at where we sit in the genre or progressive metal or djent. I just focus on the music, keeping my head down and working on what I can control. That is probably why we have so many busy bodies in the band in that a lot of us don’t stop from focusing on the band and on what we do in our music and everything else attached to it. Yeah, it is a slippery slope once you start to think about where you sit in relation to the rest of what is happening around you. It can be a little scary and make you start focusing on things that you cannot control and that could then be the demise of you.
Has the songwriting process in the band changed substantially within the band since you joined?
Yes, it has gotten much more collaborative over the years. In the beginning, Misha [Misha Mansoor – lead guitar and programming] wrote most of the first record. That was basically because it was a collection of demos and he just needed a vehicle to put out those demos. When Periphery II came out, that was when I started contributing a lot more ideas. Jake [Jake Bowen – rhythm guitar] started contributing a lot more ideas too and we kind of started arranging the songs together as a band. When Juggernaut came out, both records were written from the ground up together and we recorded everything together. Periphery III was an even deeper extension of that where we got into a room and were together throughout. We have definitely changed for the better in terms of the way that we collaborate.
Is that the same scenario for producing and programming within the band?
Yeah, our bassist Nolly [Adam ‘Nolly’ Getgood] has taken on a bigger role; every time we come back to do an album to the point where now it is really impossible to imagine not doing one where he is co-producing, being the engineer and mixing the record. He’s had such a huge hand in shaping the way that we sound in terms of mixing and the final production.
Good old vinyl has come back. Ironically enough, is it something that Periphery embraces as a format?
Yeah, as a hobby it is cool. I definitely think that it is coming back in a big, bad way. I am not a vinyl collector but some of the other guys in the bands are. Misha is a vinyl collector and it really – he views it more of a novelty that anything. We don’t ever think about how we should adapt our sound for vinyl but we definitely realise that there are a growing number of people out there who enjoy picking up vinyl as a novelty. So I think that with every release we’re going to have a vinyl option come out and yeah, it seems like it is getting more popular. For every Periphery release, you’re probably going to see a larger amount of vinyl printed. We like supporting those type of people too. We realise that there are always going to be the kind of people who want to steal the music by downloading it illegally or somehow getting it for free but it is always nice to see the number of people who want to support physical media growing.
It is more demanding as a format because you cannot easily fast forward so you’re more likely to listen to it all in one hit.
Yeah and I notice too, when I listen to vinyl, that I listen more. I not just checking my phone or scrolling down Instagram or something like that. When I put on a record, I am listening to it mainly because I know that I can’t skip through it. You cannot just put something else on like you would with Spotify because you’re bored in that instant. I realise listening to Spotify for actual music has made me a lot jumpier as far as patience goes because I know that if I can flick to a different artist with the flick of a button, I can do it and I will do it so my patience becomes a little bit weaker whereas, I was listening to Opeth on vinyl and I listened to it. I was really listening to everything and I hadn’t done that in a long time, unless it was our own music which I am listening to critically. So I don’t really listen to music like that anymore and it is kind of funny to rediscover where that attention span comes from and I think that it has something to do with the effort that is involved, me knowing that it is physical media and knowing that I cannot skip around.