Tesseract: Interview with James Monteith

Tesseract 2016 promo pic

All right, let’s face it: we’re greedy. When it comes to music, we’ve bypassed the corner store and gone straight to the all-you-can-eat banquet. With streaming platforms, online stores and torrents spewing forth new material faster than people can consume it, we are certainly living in a decadent time for music enthusiasts. We nourish ourselves with the rarest offerings through whatever device we have on us at the moment cravings set in and yet we want more, and it’s got to be complex and extreme and exotic. Those among us who enjoy such delights can look forward to experiencing Tesseract first-hand at the end of the month thanks to Turning Tricks Entertainment who seem to be following their growing trend of enticing rising champions of the Prog genre to our country. I was fortunate enough to spend an hour catching up with the band’s charming and light-hearted guitarist James Monteith, who shares similar refined tastes.

“When I first heard Acle’s demos eleven years ago I remember thinking that it was really exciting and like nothing I’d heard before. There’s lots of stuff that sounds like that now but back then I really thought it was a breath of fresh air in this sea of monotony. If anybody listened to our most recent album ‘Polaris’ for the first time and thought that, I’d feel happy.” ~ James Monteith (rhythm guitarist, Tesseract)

Having survived a circuit of the United States with French Prog monsters Gojira last year and hurtling off the back of a phenomenal tour with Devin Townsend in the UK, the band look forward to shifting their sights on warmer climes.

“Gojira are obviously one of the hottest bands in metal at the moment. Just going out on that tour alone was incredible, it helped introduce us to new audiences. They’re lovely guys, very chilled out – we had a bit of a drink-off towards the end! This last week round the UK was to dust off the cobwebs… well I’m downplaying that massively: we got to play some really big shows with Devin Townsend and it was awesome! The South African dates are kind of a nice little break. We jumped at the chance, none of us have been before. It’s a completely new experience for all of us.” ~ James Monteith

I take a moment to tease James about Townsend’s supposed jab at Tesseract in his song ‘Planet Of The Apes’.

“I’m really proud that our Meshuggah rip-off riffs helped inspire a lyric! I think it’s an honour. It’s on the album after ‘Addicted’, ‘Deconstruction’. That lyric where he says ‘While we all have lots of bands who influence, still we all rip off Meshuggah!’ I think he’s accepted that we all do!” ~ James Monteith

Tesseract Album Covers

When one examines any of Tesseract‘s album covers, they appear instantly digestible, yet upon further exploration the deep traces of the abstract, the metaphysical, emerge. Hit play and you’re instantly confronted by a similar audible paradox: The union of the melodic and the methodical. It’s like simultaneously understanding who we are as individuals and knowing our own vast insignificance. The aforementioned Polaris saw the erratic position of vocalist once again orbit from Ashe O’ Hara, the voice of the band’s Altered State era, back to former vocalist Daniel Tompkins. This had the effect not so much of sending the band on another tangent as turning the complex shape over to reveal an undiscovered facet.

“I think both vocalists had very similar qualities. Ashe had a higher range and a much more clean vocal. Dan is a bit more gruff, but tonally they were similar. The vocals aren’t always the focal point, a lot of it is about how the vocals sit in the mix as another instrument rather than being the lead instrument, so changing the vocals didn’t necessarily affect things too much. Having said that, when Elliott Coleman sung with us he had a much more soulful, bluesy Jeff Buckley voice, so it did change quite significantly.” ~ James Monteith

As with their coiled, intricate approach to song-writing, so too have the constituents of their albums slotted together in unusual ways, accompanying listeners on their sonic voyage sometimes gently, sometimes ferociously. Polaris signifies a new approach for the band as conceptual craftsmen.

“There was no conscious decision to do anything different, but I think it’s the first record where there are actual individual songs rather than long pieces of music cut up into bits and then labelled as songs because we weren’t able to put out records with one song on them! ‘Polaris’ was definitely a more – I don’t want to say ‘traditional’ – but it’s a bit simpler, it’s more palatable, more mature I suppose.” ~ James Monteith

Having honoured the process of writing, remaining steadfast in their stylistic direction yet seeking the defining sound of that moment in time, the band has refined their song-writing process to accommodate the physical distances between them. It seems more often than not it is Acle striking the first spark, guiding the rest as he has since the band’s inception.

“A lot of the process we do over email. Acle will create a demo, we’ll feed back ideas, record other parts and add them on and send them back. Dan will lay down some vocals. Everyone has a home studio setup so it all sort of grows that way. Nothing really gets thrown away; on ‘Polaris’ there’s one riff that would be nearly ten years old!” ~ James Monteith

Beyond the complex instrumental and vocal interplay, the songs are typically lashed together by fine strands of soundscaping, a product of Acle’s tireless exploration. From the drifting atmospherics of ‘Dystopia’ to the lapping tides in the intro to ‘Survival’, to the synth pads lurking behind the verses in ‘Utopia’ that evoke a howling wind and the swelling opening moment of ‘Cages’, listeners are able to ride subliminal currents throughout the album.

“A lot of it is Acle tweaking in his bedroom for hours and hours on end which I massively admire because I don’t have that level of patience!. The tones sort of evolve. When we first started he created this sound using an acoustic simulator through a plexi amp and he did some other funny things to it and it created this really glassy, clean sound that’s quite distinctive in his early demos. That sound has kind of stuck.” ~ James Monteith

Perhaps a sign of the stormy sociopolitical times we live in, we’ve seen bands shaking themselves out of their introspective trances and taking a critical look at their environments. The same youth that long for depth and meaning in the art they consume have become hyper-sensitive to the swelling ranks of those who prefer to stay asleep, dreaming as it costs their empathy and sense of true purpose. The grinding wheels of change have no doubt affected Dan’s lyrical content in subtle ways, though it remains wrapped in his trademark layers of lush, barbed expression. I’m convinced I’m hearing the word “Rosebud” uttered during the breakaway section halfway through ‘Hexes’, a possible nod to Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane which ponders themes of regret and the thirst for power. ‘Phoenix’ assures us “the revolution is here”, while ‘Messenger’ points a condemning finger at the media as they manipulate the truth.

“Lyrically, each song ranges from Dan talking about personal experiences to comments on society and the world, but sometimes it’s kind of off the wall and crazy. ‘Phoenix’ was written before this whole catastrophe that is Brexit started to happen, but the issues on social divides between different ethnic and class groups in the UK are very much present there. I guess it’s so much ingrained into society here. A lot of people stuck in their own social groups don’t understand how anybody can be different from them and it’s a reflection on that.” ~ James Monteith

It’s clear the lads see their songs having infinite inherent forms, as if their states were merely frozen at the moment of observation. Upon exploring Errai, the EP deriving from their last album, the hard structures of the tracks are deftly counterbalanced with softer substance. James attributes a lot of the translation to Aidan O’ Brien, the so called “sixth member” of the band, who helped them redesign the songs and explore something atypical.

“It’s just nice to not be metal all the time. Dan re-tracked all his vocals and it allowed him to really explore the parts and be more dynamic. Often when you’re singing over really heavy music it does limit the vocalist somewhat because you’re competing with other big sounds, so he really got to explore his voice. It’s a little break from the norm.” ~ James Monteith

Looking back to the year of Tesseract‘s formation, it was a time in the metal scene dominated by stark, unyielding albums like Korn‘s Take A Look In The Mirror, Lamb of God‘s As The Palaces Burn and Metallica‘s St. Anger. It’s remarkable to think of a band so resolutely on-course, courageously trending away from the curve to where many would soon follow.

“I think a record you’ve got to work to enjoy is going to stay with you longer. I love Nu-Metal and down-tuned stuff but often it’s instant gratification and you get bored of it after a few listens. I think it’s tougher for bands that want to experiment, but then I think there’s always going to be an audience. Once you calibrate your head you start to pick up all the detail and nuances. This project’s been going for a decade and a half. It’s always been a sort of slow burn, there’s no moment where we went, ‘Aren’t we succeeding? Isn’t this great?’ That never happened. I think it’s about that slow chipping away at people to get them to try something different.” ~ James Monteith

The live show taking place at Mercury Live on the last Friday of this month will most likely feature a well-balanced sampling of their primary album releases, with the warranted amount of attention being spent on recent material, judging by James’ musings on recent experiences on-stage.

“The one that goes down the best is ‘Survival’ ‘cos it’s like the ‘video song’, the ‘pop song’. That’s the one people know the words to. I quite enjoy ‘Dystopia’ because it’s a nice, big, fat riff, the first groove is really fun, really bouncy. ‘Hexes’ is fun as well because it’s very dynamic. If you’re a fan, thanks very much for checking us out and we’re looking forward to seeing you in a couple of months, and if you’re new to us please give us a listen, we hope you like and if so come out as well!” ~ James Monteith

This is an essential show for Prog fans who will undoubtedly bear witness to a high level of musicianship and technological finesse, culminating in an atmospheric yet intimate show. Our local support acts have been expertly selected to provide a fitting kick-off to each of the two events, and with the track record of the last shows Turning Tricks Entertainment have manifested, we’re certainly all primed for a memorable experience.

South African tour dates as follows:

Friday, 28 April 2017 @ Mercury Live, Cape Town
Supported by Verona Walls – Tickets from Computicket

Saturday, 29 April 2017 @ Rumours Rock City, Johannesburg
Supported by Deity’s Muse, Red Helen, and Only Forever – Tickets from Computicket

Authored by: Ric Shields