Exhalants are an Austin, Texas-area noise rock band united by friendship among the members and love for the music that the group sprung up amidst. On their new album Atonement, which is available via Hex Records, the group has captured an especially heavy brand of noise rock with rattling drum rhythms, super-heavy bass groove, and propulsive guitar riffs, all of which help whisk listeners off into the band’s creation.
The band’s guitarist and vocalist Steve cites inspirations ranging from groups like post-hardcore trailblazers Unwound and Fugazi to more doom and sludge-oriented bands, like Sumac and Kowloon Walled City. Crucially, he explains, he doesn’t want to simply emulate either the greats who have come before or even the previous output from Exhalants themselves. Rather, he and the rest of the band would like to make their own fresh imprint with Atonement.
“The older I get, instead of trying to emulate their sound so much, it’s like—alright, obviously I’m influenced by these people, but what can I do—how can I push myself as a player?” Steve comments, discussing some of his personal inspirations.
“People throw us under the noise rock or the post-hardcore tag all the time, which is easy to do, and it’s a really easy, quick way to describe our band, but it’s also been done so many times, no matter how successful any of these bands are. How can we push ourselves as musicians and as artists to create music, and how do we push the boundaries of our sound? The last thing I want to do is recreate the first record over and over agai, because that’s a disservice not only to the people who listen to our music but also to ourselves.”
For Exhalants, Steve explains that some of the emotional sentiments that course through Atonement come from “strife” that the band members were experiencing in their own lives around the time of the album’s creation. He himself was working at a long-running Austin-area music venue called Beerland that closed after employees were left unpaid and went on strike.
“I was really emotionally invested into that venue because, when I came up playing music in Austin, that’s where we always played and that’s where like all the punk and rock ‘n’ roll bands were playing,” Steve explains, observing: “The loss of that club really left a huge hole, and a lot of anger and frustration.”
The band members also worked under the shadow of strife on more distant horizons, like in the U.S. political climate, he says. “And also outside—current affairs, world events, and even just looking in our own backyard in Austin and kind of seeing the problems with that, seeing the frustration with that,” as Steve puts it.
The music reflects a lot of that tension, but the members of Exhalants—including, besides Steve, Tom on the drums and Bill on bass—don’t stop there. Steve explains that he and the other folks in the band worked very collaboratively on the songs.
“It was nice because with this record, it wasn’t just like hey, here’s all these completed songs—it was more like we wrote this record together. You know, we all put everything. It’s not like there’s one principal songwriter in Exhalants. We write songs togethe—like we might bring different ideas to the table. We all just kind of make something new out of it, make it where it’s like all of our fingerprints are on it.”
Steve had prior experience working with one of his latest collaborators prior to Exhalants—he and Bill were both in an Austin-based rock band called Carl Sagan’s Skate Shoes. Tom, meanwhile, connected with Steve after the guitarist made a Facebook post seeking collaborators, although Steve had already seen the drummer play around town.
“The way we do this band—what comes first really is the friendship,” Steve explains. “Tom and Bill are my best friends—they’re my go-to people. I trust my life with them. Obviously, I’ve traveled the country with them numerous times, and whenever we go through shit, we always talk to each other. We’re our own support network, and so it’s kind of nice being able to be such close friends and then being able to also create this music together.”
When originally founding Exhalants, Steve says he “wanted to lean more heavily into really pushing” himself “into writing aggressive and more thought provoking music.” By the time the second Exhalants record rolled around, Steve says that he’d begun to be inspired artistically by some of the band’s friends.
“We were influenced by our friends too on this second record, because after we released the first record, in the writing process for this second record, we did three tours,” he explains. One of those tours was with fellow Texas noise rock group Pinko, who Exhalants did a split with in 2018.
Meanwhile, Steve and his fellow Exhalants members also shared the goal of getting their music outside of the bubble of the local heavy music community in Austin, he explains.
“We had goals in mind, like, we wanted to tour with this band. The goal was to just get outside of Austin—because it’s so easy just to be like: alright, cool, we’re gonna play three shows a month in Austin and that’s about it, but we wanted to do more. We wanted to be, like, an actual band—like an actual touring band where we go out, we play shows across the country and just try to get our music outside of Austin.”
The band’s spot on the Hex Records roster seems helpful towards their aim. The now Portland-based label, which specializes in off-kilter noise rock like the music of Exhalants, was founded all the way back in 1999. The band signed with the label after its founder, Ryan Canavan, attended a couple of the stops on the band’s 2019 West Coast tour, a gesture that Steve says he was “blown away by.”
The friendship and artistic cohesion that Steve and his friends share feel readily evident in the music that has drawn in Canavan and the band’s other fans. There’s a huge helping of frazzled energy in the vibe of the songs, but Exhalants never feel like they’ve gone completely off the tracks—the band’s truly strong melodies keep their latest sonically powerful album feeling like it’s running full speed ahead.
That metaphorically looming destination feels like it could provide some sort of respite, or at least catharsis. Besides the emotionally enriching sense of focus shining through the noisy haze of the songs, the tracks also seem quite energizing to listen to. There’s a lot of grimy energy packed into Atonement that fans of rock shows in crowded bars can latch onto.
Steve explains that originally, the band wrote 16 songs while developing Atonement.
“When we narrowed it down to the 11 songs we eventually recorded, it was all very thematic with the lyrics—whether it was intentional or not,” he shares. “I don’t think we went in with the intention of writing a concept album; that’s just the way it was, and so when we ordered everything, we were very conscious about the flow of the record, like we knew where it was gonna start and where it was gonna end. If you listen to the words, [the record is] kind of going through the experience that we did and processing it, but at the end of the day, when you come out of it, it’s a release—that’s what music is for us. It’s an emotional escape; it’s an emotional release, and at least for us and some of the fans that we talk to, it’s like yeah—they connect to it on an emotional level.
“And to me, that’s like the whole goal of this band is to connect with people through music, whether it’s sonically or emotionally, and if we can do that, then I think we’re doing our job. We want to create music for everybody because that’s how music is supposed to be.”
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