Chicago-based indie-punk outfit, Kali Masi, has carved out a name as a force to be reckoned with in the last few years. Their debut full-length in 2017’s Wind Instrument certainly had many taking note of the band’s ability to mix melody, chaos and slow-burning agony. But as their second LP, titled [laughs], reveals, the band has so many sonic directions it can go in, from pop to hard rock, it’d be criminal to shoehorn them into one particular sandbox. With that in mind and the record now out from Take This To Heart Records, let’s dissect the themes and creative process behind the album with Sam Porter (vocalist/guitarist) and John Garrison (drummer).
First off, it’s a unique title, so what does the name of the album signify and how was it creating and recording something so heavy in terms of its emotional theme, especially with COVID-19 weaving itself in?
SP: The album title is a reference to closed captioning subtitles. In closed captioning, when something is in brackets, it’s a description of a sound or an action, and if it’s in italics then it’s happening off-screen. So [laughs] indicates that someone not present can be heard laughing. I thought it was interesting that subtitles can describe something as personal and individual as someone’s laugh, and that the joyful word was a good juxtaposition and tone-setter for the record’s themes of finding happiness in unhappy places.
Recording the songs was very cathartic for me. We finished recording before the pandemic hit the U.S., like right before. Half of the lyrics I’d never sang before when we went in to record them, so when I was doing vocals, I was a bit scared since some of the lyrics are pretty personal. I think that only added to the sound. It felt justified and accurate to what was going on in my heart and my head. The group of us in that studio in Massachusetts—it felt like we were making something really authentic and truthful.
We recorded this record in the final week of February and first week of March in 2020. We drove back to Chicago from Massachusetts, practiced once and then didn’t see each other for half a year. It was absolutely surreal!
That’s really interesting, especially as the band seemed to time it just right. But outside of the recording, how has quarantine life influenced the release?
SP: Although we finished the record prior to the pandemic, we did a ton of work for this release while we were in quarantine. We didn’t get together or practice for about five months. We did all of the mixing for the record via email remotely, and relied on FaceTime and Zoom to discuss mix notes. We had roundtable discussions for the music videos and the artwork the same way. We are an extremely deliberate band, so there’s a lot of discussion about what our next project is. I’m really proud of us for not halting our progress and leaning into doing what we’ve been able to do during this time.
JG: We’ve definitely had to adjust to the Zoom life but it’s worked out. It actually keeps the discussions more productive and on track. It’s like, “Okay we’re all logged on—
what’s important we need to discuss?”
No small talk on Zoom! I’ve also found myself learning a bunch of new drum techniques and exercises since I’m not on tour. Falling into little YouTube rabbit holes of drummers giving advice. I can’t sit still for too long. I couldn’t just put the drums away for a year, so I’ve had to find new ways of challenging myself.
Well, that’s great to hear because the evolution in sound is most present. There’s a bit of The Menzingers on “Guilt Like a Gun,” tones of mewithoutYou on “Recurring (I)” and shades of Thursday and At the Drive-In on the closing track, “The Stray”—so what’s it like moving from album to album, progressing sounds, mixing and shifting?
SP: We definitely take a lot of influence from a lot of different places. I think that’s evident in how dynamic the record is. As I mentioned before, we try to be really deliberate with everything we make and sometimes that means scrutinizing each part of a song, trying to find what feels the most authentic to us and gets us the most excited and just running with it. And I think that magnifying glass method, while very slow, brought us to some really cool places in the writing process that we couldn’t have gotten to otherwise. We tried a lot of things on [laughs] that no one expected us to, the songs are really ambitious.
JG: Yeah, we are constantly growing as people and our relationships with our instruments are changing. I love being able to try out new things we’ve learned from album to album. I’ve learned a lot about drums the past few years. It keeps me hungry to make new music. I think that we actively stay away from getting stuck into formulas or routines. I’d hate to make the same record over and over. So, I think it’s important not to stress too much about, “But does this sound like us?”—of course it does! It’s coming from us! Let’s surprise people and surprise ourselves. Genuine redefinition is nothing to be afraid of.
Again, that’s conveyed pretty well on the record. Music aside, how was it shooting that “Freer” video during a pandemic? It’s pretty cool and simple, so what are the band’s thoughts on the creative process specifically moving forward during these times?
SP: We shot the video for “Freer” on my rooftop at the end of the summer in 2020, during the pandemic. It was one of the first in a handful of times we had been around with each other, so there was a lot of giddy, nervous energy. I think as everyone has learned during this time, any social interaction is a calculated risk and you just need to do your best to stay safe and hold each other accountable by communicating with your test results, roommate situations, etc.
Any advice for bands out there as well, struggling creatively as these COVID-19 times can be such a heavy shadow on their backs?
SP: Communicate with your bandmates about how you’re feeling physically and mentally. Get tested regularly. Don’t get discouraged: music will prevail, always! We’ve kept open communication about our physical and mental health through these times—it’s been crucial to make sure with something like a rehearsal or a music video, that everyone feels 100% comfortable being around each other during those times.
JG: Definitely. I’d also add being nice to yourselves. If you’re not churning out all the creative projects you’ve promised yourself you will, it doesn’t mean you’re failing. If you feel like making art, do it. If you don’t, take a break. The day away from creativity is just as important as the productive day. Social media will make it seem like everyone is killing it and you’re on the couch. Nah, do what’s right for you. These times will be a thing of the past someday so don’t think your band is over. Try to think in retrospect if you plan on playing music for the long run.
That’s pretty sound advice. Which begs: what were some of the biggest challenges and also, positives in standing tall in the face of a pandemic and making art?
SP: Without the opportunity or need to play shows or go on tour, we’ve had the luxury of being able to take our time with mixing and mastering the record. There was no rush to get it out. This also allowed us to go full-throttle on other projects like making music videos, merch, fun social media content and the like. I think personally, it’s just been nice to be home for a longer period of time, try some new hobbies and spend more time connecting with people who I’d been neglecting a bit with constantly traveling.
JG: Positives? We’ve had the time to get good at playing our new record. We don’t want to have to “re-learn” songs when shows start to emerge again. Challenges? Man, I would love to connect with people in real life as opposed to likes and comments on social media. One of the best parts of being in a band is making friends and traveling and that’s gone. People will comment on Instagram, “Love the new songs!” but I’d much rather play them live and watch them vibe and smile!
That makes a lot of sense! The songs are very emotionally-gripping and heart-tugging, so on that note, what would you say are your favorite tracks: both to create and also, to perform?
SP: My answer will change all the time. Right now, I really love playing “Hurts To Laugh.”
JG: Agreed. There’s a special place in my heart for all of the new tracks but there is something cathartic about playing “Hurts to Laugh.” The drums are fast and that sense of change feels around a ton. And hitting into the chorus is super satisfying!
Well, guys, the record’s solid, and once more, thanks for the time. As we wrap, what did you guys take from the past year and what are you going to channel into your future art?
SP: Thank you for saying that! I can’t say for certain what the next record will sound like or be, when the next tour is or what tomorrow will bring. But I’m confident that when it can come together, it will be great, and we will have three records of which we are immensely proud!
Listen to [laughs] below, and pick up a copy on vinyl and some merch here.
Images courtesy of Kali Masi.