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Kylesa: A New Breed of Southern Rock

The Georgia band returns to Memphis on the heels of a new album

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Savannah, Georgia's Kylesa came about from the demise of Damad, an enigmatic female-led band and early pioneer of the immensely heavy form of metallic hardcore distinct to a mostly Southern movement. After all, Memphis' own His Hero Is Gone is the rightful yardstick by which all of this music is measured. Kylesa's first lineup was rounded out by Savannah College of Art and Design graduate Laura Pleasants (on guitar, vocal, and songwriting duties), who would become one half of Kylesa's static core along with co-founder Phillip Cope. Like fellow Savannah exports Baroness, Mastodon and the Floor/Torche axis, Kylesa was more of a logical fit early on in regards to what is now widely known as the "Southern sludge" movement, but soon followed a creatively restless album-by-album progression away from the subgenre.

Though the band has released seven proper full-lengths (and a respectable amount of titles on smaller and compilation format) over the last 15 years, the five that appeared between 2006 and last month frame the development of a signature sound in the truest sense. Meaning, yes, this is a heavy band with a metal backbone throughout its discography, but no other band sounds anything like them. The noticeable leap forward in songwriting, serious uptick in psychedelic elements, plus a much more melodic and melancholic approach (especially Pleasant's now-clean singing style) occurred with 2010's Spiral Shadow, making it the band's artistic, critical, and profile-raising game changer. Follow-up Ultraviolet (2013) has become the band's sleeper fave amongst fans, and then there's last month's Exhausting Fire, an amalgam of everything that makes Kylesa a fascinating, exciting, and important band.

I recently spoke with Cope, who was generous enough to carve out a few minutes of the daily sweet spot between load-in and soundcheck (roughly 5 to 7 p.m.) during Kylesa's first, of what will no doubt be several, touring jaunts behind the release of Exhausting Fire.

The Memphis Flyer: You played Memphis pretty regularly for six or seven years up through 2011 in support of Spiral Shadow, but was there a reason why you didn't come through for the Ultraviolet touring a couple of years ago?

Phillip Cope: Yeah, we tried but had some trouble finding somewhere to play for that tour. We always really liked the vibe at the Hi-Tone, but is the stage at the new location any bigger? That would be my only complaint.

Yes, it is. On that note, you're a band that puts more thought and effort into your live sound than most. Do you prefer one playing environment over another, or was there a learning curve when festival gigs started to happen?

Being able to take advantage of such a huge sound system that does so much with your sound is a totally different experience. Just the other day a friend saw us at a bigger venue and had never heard us through a huge sound system before, and he was pretty blown away because he'd noticed all of these new things he didn't hear at the smaller shows. It's trying to suit yourself best to each venue or style of show.

With double drummers, it's a different ball game.

Oh yeah, we've had local sound guys walk out on us once they've seen it being set up. They just didn't want to deal with it.

I guess the conflict between touring band and local sound man is destined to be an eternal one. How did you feel about the critical reception of Spiral Shadow vs. that of Ultraviolet?

It's weird because when [Ultraviolet] came out it had the reception that it had, but now people are coming up and telling me that it's their favorite album. So maybe it was a little ahead of its time? I've been going at it for over 20 years, and with this band, 15, and eventually you see all kinds of things, you see the bigger picture. At the end of the day, people are going to say what they're going to say, and this is not me saying that critics aren't important, because they are. It's a thankless job, like most jobs in music, and I'm sure it's hard to do it while you're a fan of music and to have to keep up with everything that's coming out all the time. At the end of the day, word of mouth is still the best thing.

The aspect of outside expectation must be a real source of stress when making a new album, but I always find it ridiculous when bands say stuff like, "We're just doing this for ourselves, and if we're happy with it, then it doesn't matter what the rest of the world thinks," or similar sentiments.

Funny you mention that because I always cringe when bands say stuff like that. If that was the only reason why you're doing it, why go on tour? Why put out records?

I must agree with a lot of what I've read about "Moving Day" on the new album, though I didn't really hear the "death-rock" or Christian Death/Killing Joke thing professed in the Pitchfork review. Nonetheless, it is a truly gorgeous, sad song and some timeless songwriting, if you will.

Well, thanks, I appreciate that. "Moving Day" came naturally, and when something comes naturally and happens to be different than everything else, we don't think about it too much and just throw it out there, and what happens, happens. Though it probably seems like a weird thing to be on the album because nothing else sounds like it. So I've definitely been pleasantly surprised that people have caught on to that song.

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