The Felix Culpa's Marky Hladish talks about signing to No Sleep and writing 7-minute songs

Since the early 2000s, The Felix Culpa has steadily built a large grassroots following for their blend of post-hardcore, arty indie rock, melody, and dissonance. The Illinois/Wisconsin-based quartet recently signed with the West Coast-based indie label No Sleep Records, which re-released the band's behemoth of a second album, Sever Your Roots. Originally released by the band independently in 2010, Sever Your Roots spans 14 tracks, with some running over the seven minute mark. These aren't bloated prog-rock tunes though; Sever Your Roots is the rare album that feels as though every song needs to be that long to fully develop.

The punk-leaning magazine Alternative Press even featured the album in many of the editors' 2010 year-end Top 10 lists.

The Culpa, as fans affectionately call them, have been busy since signing with No Sleep, releasing a music video and a new companion EP to Sever Your Roots. And soon, they'll be heading out on tour with experimental indie rockers The Dear Hunter, with a stop at the Triple Rock.

In advance of their Twin Cities appearance Friday, Gimme Noise spoke with singer and guitarist Marky Hladish about what they've been up to lately, writing for such a major album, and their recent decision to finally sign with a label.

What have you guys been up to lately? I always assume that you have another whole album of songs ready to go.

[laughs] You know, it's been a weird few months for us. We signed with No Sleep Records back in October, and we completely re-did all the packaging and everything for our last album, which we initially put out independently. We recorded a three-song EP [Bury the Axe] of material that we wrote as a part of the Sever Your Roots collection of songs. That was put out with the re-release of Sever Your Roots, and that was put out in February by No Sleep.

Since then, there's been a lot that we've been doing, but it's mostly been under-the-surface sort of stuff so we haven't seemed like we've been doing anything. We did a video for "Our Holy Ghosts" and that's going to be debuting on Comcast pretty soon. And we've actually been working on another video. We recorded a cover song for a Hum tribute CD on Pop Up Records coming out in September. They're one of my favorite bands of all time, and they're from Champaign, Illinois. It was really, really cool that they asked us to play a track for that. Other than that, we've been doing a lot that I can't talk about too much of right now. We've definitely been working on some stuff, and I'm always writing too.

The Felix Culpa - "Our Holy Ghosts" from Nick Cavalier on Vimeo.

With Sever Your Roots, you've moved on to writing a lot longer songs that don't just have extended instrumentals at the end. It sounds like the song needed to go on for that long to fully develop. How did that come about?

It wasn't a conscious decision to all of a sudden be writing these long, epic songs, it was just a product of where we were. When we started writing material for what turned out to be Sever Your Roots, we actually came out with like 30 songs. They were in all sorts of different places. There was some stuff that was more electronic, some more straight-up pop songs, and then there was more stuff that was darker, and that had more of, I hate to say oppressive, but had more of this epic overtone to it. That darker material is what we gravitated towards as being real to us, especially at that point in time.

When we were putting together that music, the band went through an awful lot, individually in our personal lives. That was the music that actually stuck with us and that we wound up really wanting to record and put out there as ours. Honestly, when we were recording Sever Your Roots, and even when we put it out, we didn't know if we were going to even be a band anymore. We didn't know if this was going to be the last album we did, we didn't even know if it was going to come out at all. It was kind of a dark time, so I guess that music kind of speaks for where we were at that point in time. Suffice to say, we're definitely in a different place now, and the new stuff that you'll hear from us, you can expect it to be a little bit of a different bent.

Sever Your Roots also has a really interesting dynamic balance within the songs as well. They're loud, but that's always counterbalanced by more delicate parts. How do you achieve that balance?

Thanks, it's great that people can notice that choice because it was intentional, whereas the overarching dark, epic feeling wasn't really intentional. Utilizing lots of different textures, sounds, and lots of recording styles and even songwriting techniques was very, very intentional. We took sections of songs that we had initially written as straight-up guitar/bass/drums rock songs and completely replayed them on other instruments, like pipe organs and boxes. You know, literally, boxes. And acoustic guitar. We recorded a bunch of stuff live in the room, just one take with everybody yelling at the same time, that kind of thing. There are a couple of songs that are nothing but me and my laptop, like the song "Roots." There's very little that was done in the studio on that song, you can kind of even hear the hiss of the condenser mic picking up the fan of my laptop [laughs]. That was all very intentional. We wanted to make a very particular album, and that album we wanted was expansive. We wanted to push our boundaries and see what we could make.   Did you try to write an album that was a cohesive unit, that belonged in a particular sequence and a particular order?

Definitely. Both lyrically and musically, there are themes that tie in and weave together throughout the album, and then there's stuff that I'm sure people haven't even noticed. Stuff like kick and snare patterns that repeat throughout different songs, or chord progressions that are played throughout different songs, that's stuff that I don't think anyone would notice but us. There are other things that are a lot more obvious too. We call out to specific hooks and lyrics a few different times throughout the album, and that was very intentional. We didn't just want to have a collection of songs, we wanted something that had some weight to it, that had some depth.

I don't know, we see a lot of music coming now, and it's very single-oriented. It's very "go download our new track, our new song's up on iTunes." People seem to have an "I know that band's one song because I have it on my iPhone" attitude. We wanted to create something that's a listening experience from start to finish. We wanted there to be no point in listening to the record where you would be able to turn it off without feeling like you stopped it prematurely, and that's for better or worse. People are gravitating more towards singles, but we like the idea of having a cohesive album, having a listening experience, sitting down at a record player and physically putting it on there, sitting back and taking it in. That's what we appreciate and like.

The Felix Culpa's Marky Hladish talks about signing to No Sleep and writing 7-minute songs
Courtesy of The Felix Culpa

A lot of the songs fade in to each other instrumentally, too.

Yeah, absolutely. A few of them were written or thought of as movements that go together. There are a couple places where we used some studio tricks to bleed songs together, but the bulk of them are written to be stacked on top of one another. Some of the songs we performed back-to-back live, where it's just like on the album where it goes song to song.

I haven't seen you guys play for a long time...

Oh neither have I! [laughs]

...but I remember you playing a lot of songs that gradually developed into other ones, even some of your early material.

Yeah, that's definitely where it came from. It came from the fact that we're a bunch of goofballs, and we play this pretty serious, weighty music. We probably take it way too seriously sometimes. But we're goofballs, so we get up onstage and we have no idea what the hell to say to people, so we always end up coming off like idiots. We try to keep our stage banter to a minimum by having all of our songs bleed in to one another, and then we thought, "Hey, let's do that with an album." [laughs]

Jumping topics here, it seemed like you guys didn't want to work with a record label for a long time, so could you talk about the decision to sign with No Sleep Records?

Well, there was a point in time a few years back where we had lots of labels talking to us, and there was lots of interest. There was a lot that we didn't like about signing with a label, and there was a lot we were going to have to do in order to make everybody happy, and it wasn't really what we wanted at the time. So, we took a step back, took a few years off to write and record Sever Your Roots.

The reason we like working with No Sleep is because Chris at the label is so great. The first thing you notice is that any time he refers to the label, he refers to it as a family, and that's the way he treats it. Everybody is cool, everybody is equal, and everybody is all about what's best for the band and what's best for the music. The dude puts out music that he loves, he puts out quality music. There's a very DIY ethos to it, but it's done right, and it's done big, and it's really cool. It's a great place for us to be, and it was kind of a no brainer when it all fell in to place. Our buddy Evan Weiss from Into It. Over It has been working with them for a while, and he's been a friend for a while too. We toured with his old band The Progress a long time ago. He tipped Chris off about us, and Chris was like, "Yeah, we'll put out the album."

It really does seem like you've been thriving since then.

Yeah, everything about No Sleep is run right. It's very loose, but also very serious. For us it's nice because we're all family guys, we're all working guys outside of the band, and it's hard for us to devote 200 days a year to tour, much as we'd love to. I mean, no one's making money traveling around the country playing rock music. There are very few bands that are actually rock stars, and especially playing the kind of music that bands in our genre play. For us to be able to tell Chris "We're not going to tour for a couple of months" or "We're going to put out this album and maybe do one tour on it," and for him to be fine with that, that just means the world to us. We couldn't ask to be in a better place.

Are you still doing graphic design work as well?

Yeah I am. I do graphic arts for a bunch of different people. I just did some artwork for Universal Music Group label, and I just did some artwork for Fearless Records, and I'm working on some stuff for Hopeless Records. So that's what I do full time, which is great, because I can do that from the road. I can just grab my laptop and do that while touring. My business name is Midwest Love, though. The Felix Culpa play Friday July 22 at the Triple Rock, opening for The Dear Hunter, Kay Kay and His Weather Underground, and O'Brother. All ages, 5 p.m.

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