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“We want it all”: An Interview with Alex Strickland of Abacus

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Get ready. Tomorrow (March 3, 2015), Abacus will release its debut album, En Theory – and, trust me, it isn’t like anything you’ve heard before. Produced by Kylesa’s Phillip Cope, En Theory is an almost indescribable brew of punk, metal, and grind fury. Each member of the band – Alex Strickland on lead vocals (or on “lead spits,” as he might put it), Josh Bumgarner on guitar, Paul Huff on drums, and Kevin Scruggs on bass – performs in a highly personalized style that somehow meshes perfectly with what the other guys are doing.

In other words, each member of the band stands out while functioning as a unit that creates music that’s sheer adrenaline.

Strickland sat down with SEM for a long conversation in which he, in his inimitable way, tells the story behind the writing and recording of En Theory, which SEM will review tomorrow.

Get ready for a good time – and a good read…

SEM: It’s been a while since we last spoke, Alex. How have you been?

AS: Everything’s great, dude! A lot has happened since we last spoke. I moved to New York City in the summer and have since come back to Columbia, SC. Big city life is too much for me, dude…

SEM: It’s a very exciting time for Abacus. The band is about to release its first full-length, En Theory. What can listeners expect from the record?

AS: Discomfort. Pure and simple. We set the bar for this album to be gross and upsetting. We moved out of our comfort zone and now there is no turning back. We couldn’t be more stoked!

SEM: A couple years have passed since the release of your self-titled debut EP – which came out in 2013 – and En Theory. How has the band’s sound evolved?

AS: Leaps and bounds. We have grown so much as individuals and musicians, and within that growth, our musical tastes and playing styles have grown. Our EP had a few grandfathered-in riffs and lyrics that we couldn’t leave behind. En Theory was a culmination of all of us pushing ourselves past what we previously thought to be possible, in the realm of technical ability and song writing ability. So the result is a true sonic stepping stone, the first full fingerprint we plan to leave on the crime scene that is aggressive music.


SEM: How and why did the band sign to 10 Foot Woody Records?

AS: Our buds Greg and Zac, who both work at The Jam Room Recording Studio, own 10FT. They were both there at the studio everyday while we recorded En Theory. They both saw how much time and effort we had put in to get this thing ready and the amount of ass we busted to get everything tracked. They offered to help put it out and we obliged. Friends helping friends. It doesn’t get better than that.

SEM: Kylesa’s Phillip Cope originally told me about Abacus. You quote him on your Facebook page as follows: “This band holds the place for one of the most intense shows I have seen in Columbia.” Now, Phil has produced En Theory. What about your live show did he try to capture on the record?

AS: EVERYTHING. Phil emphasized that if we could capture our live show as much as possible within the album, he would be stoked beyond belief. What he captured was the energy, the heat, and the mood of a show. He first saw us play this rad (now defunct) garage/venue called Cult Classic. No stage, minimal PA in the middle of a huge warehouse with a bunch of broken down cars and mechanical parts lying around. Phil told us that we captured everyone’s attention in the room that night, including his. Phil pushed us to get that sound and feeling out while tracking and he somehow captured it for this release.

SEM: You consistently refer to yourself as a “spitter” or a “throat clearer” – and not as Abacus’ “lead singer.” What do you mean when you use these two terms and how do you keep your vocal cords alive and functioning?

AS: I know my limits, and I know when and how to push them, vocally. Some nights or some practices we have, I go way past my limits in an effort to capture something unique or, at the very least, uncomfortable. Sometimes this effort rules and comes off without a hitch. Other times, I pay the price and talk like Joan Rivers for a day or two. Stretching and vocal warmups, although not cool to see in practice, are crucial for me.

I look at my role as a vocalist in an aggressive band as the cherry on top of the sundae; it doesn’t make or break the sundae, but it’s a nice added touch. A lot of people, specifically family members of the band, say things like, “Why doesn’t he sing at all? Couldn’t he go for like screaming a little and singing a little, you know, like Slipknot? I can’t understand what he is saying.” I don’t want to sing. Understanding what I’m screaming about is not necessary to enjoying the music. I want to be offensive to the ears and hard to not look at while performing. Like a car accident, cringe worthy at times with the hopes of seeing some carnage.



SEM: Let’s talk about some specific cuts on En Theory. I can’t help but begin with the opener, “Culling Strength.” Please tell us why you chose to open with a moody yet intense instrumental.

AS: This song is the lullaby. It lulls you in to a false sense of tranquility. It captures the ebb and dynamics of the album in one song, chilling and creepy with enough drive and groove to force you to listen. It is the opening statement, our first impression.

SEM: Josh really shines on this track – and throughout the record. Would you please discuss his strengths as a guitarist and maybe tell us something about your relationship as musicians?

AS: Josh was my co-best man at my wedding (Paul, our drummer, the second). We are all buds and have known each other for a long time. We’ve seen and been through some shit with one another, and cherished accomplishments and good times with one another. Saw kittens born with each other. Josh is one of my best friends.

Josh’s guitar work in general is stupefying. Sometimes he’ll dick around and play something that is truly awe inspiring. Other times he’ll play Bon Jovi riffs until we want to strangle him or piss ourselves laughing, which ever happens first. Josh went to school for jazz guitar so he knows what he is doing. His love for the dissonant and aggressive music is constantly growing. Josh knows no boundaries and is integral to Abacus’ sound.

SEM: One of the most interesting things about Abacus is the interplay between your vocals and Paul’s drumming. The adjective that comes to mind when I think of this interplay – especially on a song like “Intentions” – is “raw.” How were the drum and vocal parts constructed to create this raw feeling?

AS: Paul, our drummer, is a conundrum. One of the most awkward dudes I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. He will never be comfortable unless he is behind a drum set, but when he is back there, he is a force to be reckoned with. I take a lot of cues from him when we write. What can I do to showcase this insane blast section? Which hit should I carry over? His rhythm and execution is mind boggling sometimes.


SEM: Let’s talk about the composition process of the song “Snake Eater.” Would you please briefly describe how the song came together from beginning to end?

AS: This song has been in our arsenal for quite a while and En Theory gave it its own niche. Fast and abrasive from beginning to end, a real crowd mover. “Snake Eater” is one of the most organic songs we’ve ever written. Paul, Kevin, and Josh all had riffs they had written that worked so well with one another. It was almost effortless how it all came together. Josh took his tone and really made the song drive. Kevin had the idea to do this multi-layered vocal part at the end that really pushes things to a chaotic threshold. This song might be the best example of all of us taking an active writing approach together as a cohesive unit.

SEM: “Loyal Death” has a very cool arrangement. Would you please discuss the guitar parts that Josh plays and how you managed to weave your vocals around them? This track has the feel of a metal-punk-progressive rock amalgamation…it’s that unique.

AS: This song was a pain in the ass in the writing stages. We fucked it up so many times that we were getting sick of it. One day Josh introduced that cleaner guitar melody that is the body of the song. I remember specifically thinking, “This shit ain’t gonna work.” What you hear is me overcoming my preconceived notion of what can be heavy.

There is a ton of open space in the song. Two separate distinct noise sections with driving drums and bass and a crushingly heavy riff in between. Vocally, I didn’t want to step on any toes. I thought the song was so unique that I wanted to give it space to grow. In a nutshell, I just accent what was already there.

SEM: “Loyal Death” is probably also a good departure point for a brief discussion of your lyrical themes and writing process. Would you please talk about how and why you wrote the words for “Loyal Death”?

AS: I am a very narrative writer. I love songs that have story and substance versus songs that are essentially poetry. Not to discredit poetry at all. I’m just way more literal in my writing style and not as abstract. Lyrically, the song is about the expectations of friendship. What you are willing to do for your friends, good or bad, and how that is perceived within society. Friendship is strength and that strength can be used for positivity or for nefarious shit.


SEM: Is your lyrical approach to this song similar to the other songs on En Theory?

AS: I do take a similar approach in songs like “Gold Standards” and “En Theory,” where there is a specific narrative or perspective that I’m screaming about. The flip side of that coin are songs like “Intentions” and “Bodies of Water,” where analogies and slightly more interpretive passages are screamed.

SEM: After listening to “Bodies of Water,” I want to ask you about why Phil and the band decided to go for such a punchy drum sound and crisp lead guitar lines? The drums and lead guitars really stand out from the distorted sounds. It’s a very stark contrast.

AS: We didn’t want to get stuck in the mud, you know? We love bands that can utilize intense low-end to their advantage, but we just don’t write music to accommodate that. We don’t want any one instrument or section to be disadvantaged for the sake of another. We think our attack and midrange presence is a unique characteristic, and Phil agreed with that. Plus, it makes those low-end parts pop out that much more.

SEM: Let’s use “Disclaim” as a way to discuss Kevin’s contributions on bass.

AS: “Disclaim” is another older jam. Kevin’s attack is so prevalent on this track. It really makes those super dissonant guitar riffs seem extra dissonant. Kevin lays the foundation, allowing those weird disconnected sections to work. Kevin straight knocked the tracking of this album out of the park. They don’t call him Kevin “One Take Wonder” Scruggs for nothing.

SEM: Tell me how you guys came up with the amazing noise freak out, with which “Gold Standards” concludes.

AS: That’s all Josh. It’s not so much a noise freak out as it is a complicated riff perfectly placed to ensure insane results. Listening to it now, I don’t know how he pulls it off.

I think I just made a pull-off pun.

SEM: You did. Why did you choose “En Theory” as the single? Is it representative of the album as a whole?

AS: I think so. It is our definitive game changer. “En Theory” and “Nothing is Sacred” compliment each other so well. Both of those songs are us pushing past what we thought Abacus could do sonically.

“En Theory” encompasses everything we wanted this album to do: serve as a fast-as-fuck reminder of our punk inspiration, crush with a heavy as hell disposition and destroy any preconceived notions of what our version of aggressive music it.


SEM: Is nothing sacred – as the album closer indicates?

AS: Positively. Nothing is off limits. Everything is to be questioned. There is no one thing that is above anything else. Limits are to be pushed.

Lyrically, it is disturbing. Sonically, it is disturbing. We wanted this song to make people squirm in their seats, our parents to question our thoughts and actions and our friends and family to wonder if we are okay. I think it does that very effectively.

Josh still wonders how he got this song to sound like this. When he was done tracking this song, Phil came out of the control room and noticed Josh looked upset after they had listened to his take. Phil said he thought it sounded great, but he could tell Josh was unhappy with his performance and asked if he wanted to do it again. Josh replied, “I can’t believe I helped write this. What’s wrong with me?”


SEM: Please tell us about Abacus’ tour plans.

AS: Oh man!!! We are stoked beyond belief for our March tour. Last time we toured to SXSW, we met Christworm, a two piece blackened doom band from Baton Rouge, LA. We were blown away when we played with them, so when we started talking tour talk, we asked if they were down to come with. We are hitting 15 cities in 15 days, double what we did last March with Sein zum Tode. We plan to tour a lot this year. Florida tour, west coast, and back.

Really, all of this, the album, this interview, everything, is done so we can go on tour. Thats what we want to do. Perpetual touring. As much as possible. The good and the bad of touring. We want it all.

Artwork by Fernando Pena.

Photograph of Abacus by Sean Rayford.