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6th July 2017
Spearheading the next generation of progressive music, US band Next To None have just unleashed their sophomore album, 'Phases'. A more accomplished effort than their 2015 debut, this new one sees the quartet take a darker, heavier path within the context of some breathtaking musical virtuosity. Metal Discovery posed a few questions to drummer Max Portnoy about 'Phases'; the painful process of self-producing; working with Periphery's Adam "Nolly" Getgood; and the invaluable support and advice provided by his dad, Mike...
METAL DISCOVERY: The new album, ‘Phases’, is generally much heavier, and a lot darker in tone than ‘A Light in the Dark’ – did you set out to make this new one heavier and darker?
MAX: I don't think, going into it, I wanted to make things heavier, but it's just how things ended up getting done. Thomas and I were both getting more into heavier bands, which is what I think inspired us to continue in a more heavy and dark direction.
(Max Portnoy on Next To None's progress between their debut and sophomore albums)
"I think this album was definitely us finding exactly what we wanted to do. The first album was us experimenting, and this album was us taking what we did on the debut and turning it up by 100%."
Next To None - promo shot, 2017
Interview by Mark Holmes
Photograph copyright © 2017 - Axel Jusseit
Next To None Official Website:
Thanks to Freddy Palmer for arranging the interview
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MD: ‘Phases’ is the recording debut of your new guitarist, Derrick Schneider, so how much of an influence did his playing style have on the direction you’ve taken your music?
MAX: Derrick joined the band after most of the album was already written. He was able to help write with the last 2 songs, ‘Denial’ and ‘The Wanderer’, which was awesome, but the rest of the album was already finished by Thomas and I. We definitely want him to join us in writing the next album from the start though, for sure!
MD: There are no guest musicians on this new one, so was it important for you just to present yourselves purely as Next To None for ‘Phases’?
MAX: We talked about getting a guest musician during the last steps of the recording process but, in the end, we decided against it. We already had 2 guest musicians on the last album, so we thought it would be a cool idea to just keep it us on this new record.
MD: There’s some incredible musical virtuosity in the instrumentations on ‘Phases’, but do you try to not fall into the trap of “for the sake of”. Do you try to maintain a balance between technical abilities and composition, in terms of only playing parts that are right for the song?
MAX: When we write, we definitely make sure that what ends up in the songs is what feels right, and natural, but going into the writing process we wanted to make things very musically technical. So, yes, it was an intentional thing going into the writing process, but say it ended up feeling forced, we would have cut those sections.
MD: The death growls are way better and more effective on ‘Phases’. Has a lot of time been spent on honing and refining these?
MAX: I know that Thomas has spent a lot of time making sure he could scream and growl correctly without hurting his voice, and I think it really paid off. His screams on this album are really amazing and are actually some of the best screams I've heard, in my opinion!
MD: ‘A Light in the Dark’ had a concept binding together six of the tracks, and ‘Phases’ has another mini-concept, dealing with grief, running through a small number of songs. So, are mini-concepts slowly becoming your thing?
MAX: I don't think so. Whenever a mini concept like that happens, it’s just because it was what Thomas felt like writing about. We don't go into the albums wanting a mini concept, which is why the music isn't necessarily a part of the concept, and it's more of just a lyrical thing.
MD: Did you draw on any personal experiences when writing music and lyrics for the tracks about grief?
MAX: Well, when we write, the music all comes first. We write all the songs and finish them instrumentally before even thinking about lyrics and then, when it's time for vocals and lyrics, we fit those according to the music, and the feeling the music is giving off. I think, for Thomas, when he picked those songs for his grief concept, they were already fitting for those certain steps. As for personal connections, I think the concept of grief is something that can relate to everyone on earth. It's an interesting topic to write about since you can write it about a very personal experience, but yet everyone can relate to it.
MD: Do you think you’ll want to do a full concept album in the future?
MAX: A full concept album is definitely something we would be into doing at some point. It all depends on how we’re feeling at the start of a writing session. If one day we get really inspired to write a massive concept album, it'll happen.
MD: The album closes with the near 20 minute piece, ‘The Wanderer’. Did you decide you wanted to try your hand at such a lengthy composition, or did it all get out of hand and the track naturally transpired to be a 20 minute beast?
MAX: A bit of both, to be honest. How ‘The Wanderer’ started was with the idea of using sections from all the previous songs on the album and putting them into one big finale at the end of the album; that way, it felt like a complete conclusion. So, going into writing the song, we expected it to be long, but as for it going up to 20 minutes, that was just us naturally writing it.
MD: Do you feel like you’ve found your feet more as a band now, or do you think you’ll continue to progress with your sound and style?
MAX: I think this album was definitely us finding exactly what we wanted to do. The first album was us experimenting, and this album was us taking what we did on the debut and turning it up by 100%. Now that we know the sound that we’re going for, we’re excited to get working on the next album!
MD: You decided to produce the album yourselves this time around and, dare I say, you’ve attained a better sound than your debut. Did the whole production process come naturally to you, or was there a lot of hard work to get the sounds you wanted when tracking each instrument?
MAX: I can tell you 100%, it was way more difficult self-producing an album rather than having a producer there. It was a long process recording this album; it took about 6 months of hard work and dedication. There were a lot of things being discussed and argued over, since there were four opinions in control. At the end of the day, I'm proud of the result and glad that we tried this out, although I don't think I'd want to do it again. Haha!
MD: Obviously, your dad produced the first album, so was he very encouraging for you all to take up the production reins yourselves?
MAX: Yeah, my dad is super supportive when it comes to Next To None. When we were talking about self-producing as a band, he said it's a good idea and talked about how he self-produced a lot of his own albums. So, he was very supportive about it and was always there if we ever needed some help.
MD: Nolly, from Periphery, mixed the album, so was he always your first choice? Are you fans of his production work, and would you want to work with him, in the future, to actually produce one of your albums?
MAX: Nolly did an amazing job mixing this album and we are so happy to have been able to work with him! When it came to mixing, we all started listening to our favorite bands and figuring out who mixed our favorite albums. Thomas was talking about how much he loved the Periphery mixes, so we thought we would see if Nolly would be into mixing the album and, luckily, it was able to work out!
MD: Talking of Periphery, there’s a prominent Periphery vibe to some of the tracks on ‘Phases’, mixed up with a Between the Buried and Me aesthetic. Has the music of those two bands been an influence on your songwriting and how you’ve developed as musicians?
MAX: Our influences actually vary a lot. For me, I find myself listening to more nu-metal (Slipknot, Korn, SOAD, Mudvayne), whereas Thomas is more into the metalcore/djent scene (Periphery, Attack Attack, I See Stars). So, when it comes to writing, we end up getting a mix of these styles along with our shared love for progressive music, which we think ended up creating a different and unique sound.
MD: How has the new music been received at your run of European shows supporting ‘Mike Portnoy’s Shattered Fortress’?
MAX: The crowds here in Europe seem to be loving the new material! So far, we were able to see their reactions with our first album songs back when we toured with Haken, and now we get to see those crowds react to the new material, which is a really cool thing for us. Luckily they have been totally into it and loving it!
MD: Have you felt well looked after by being out on the road with your dad? What’s the best advice he’s given you for being on the road?
MAX: Definitely, my dad is such a big supporter of the band and, luckily, we get to do a quick tour with him now! Over the past 6 years, he's given us constant advise and help that we can handle ourselves pretty well at the moment, but there's always room to improve, which is why it's cool to have him hanging around with us in case there's something we can be doing better.
MD: Do you think Next To None are ready to tour Europe and further afield as a headline act? Is this something you’d want to do at this stage of your career?
MAX: Right now, Next To None is just looking for support slots. That's our mission as of now! We want to keep making music and hopefully continue to get these amazing supporting gigs until we believe we’re ready to try and headlines some shows.
MD: Finally, if you had to choose five words to summarise the new album to encourage people to check it out, what would they be?
MAX: Technical, brutal, heavy, dynamic, dark.
MD: Cheers for your time, and hope the new album does great for you!
MAX: Thanks for the interview!