inthebackground is a genre-defying five-piece instrumental rock group hailing from Riverside, California. Their eclectic compositions often draw strongly from the propulsive rhythms of math rock, while infusing them with a fresh melodic sensibility all their own. They have performed alongside artists as varied as Strawberry Girls, Kurt Travis, and Amarionette.
Five years after the release of their debut EP, Away With Words, the band is finally back with their debut full-length release, titled The Dash Between Years. I had the privilege of sitting down for an extended conversation with the entire band in advance of the album’s release. The Dash Between Years drops Thursday, August 20, and you can check it out (and pick up some great merch designs) on Bandcamp.
So obviously, this album has been in the works for a long time. The COVID pandemic has affected a lot of releases, especially for independent artists. There’s not really a support system or anything like that. Has there been any impact for you guys as far as your plans for this release, since everything sort of changed?
Steen and Stephen: That’s a good question.
Steen: I don’t know if things got impacted per se, but it definitely changed the way we were trying to do things. Before we started recording, none of this stuff was happening. As we started mixing the album, that’s when lockdown started. Going to the studio was interesting. We lost Jason for like a month or two. We didn’t see him.
Stephen: He went under complete quarantine.
Jason: It was my mom.
Steen: Even the studio was getting to a point where the wife of the owner said: “I don’t know if you should be having people come in anymore”. But we just persevered and kept going. It was kind of fun ’cause we were locked in the studio, like on lockdown.
Stephen: I guess the biggest impact is we just don’t know when we can tour and you know… Share music. That’s how we’ve always done it, which is live shows and traveling. So, you know, that’s kind of still a question mark, but I think the goal was just to finish what we started, I guess.
Right. I’d say probably that’s one of the benefits of being independent. There’s one band I know of where their label isn’t letting them put out the album that they have done because they’re saying: “You guys can’t tour, we’re going to wait until touring is back”. They’re going to have to sit on it for like a year.
Steen: That sucks… We’re fully independent right now, so we’re on our own.
Next question – kind of related – it has been about five years or so since Away With Words. Can you walk me through why it took so long for music since that point? What’s the deal?
Chanta: Long story short: a bunch of lineup changes. I think every time we got closer to getting serious about recording the new record, we just got burnt out. We would get a bunch of energy and then lose it. But since 2020 was supposed to be the year where everyone kicked ass and took names, we finally decided: “You know what? There’s no time to play around anymore. We’re going to do it now!”… and then the pandemic came.
Steen: I would say lineup changes was the biggest thing.
Jason: I think too letting it kind of simmer, you know, letting it soak in for as long as possible was necessary for it to turn out the way it did now.
Steen: Yeah ’cause we spent a lot of time kind of relearning the songs – at least us as a band – with Dillon and Chanta for a good year.
Stephen: But then even Jason and our friend Shaka, they wrote new songs as well that are on the album. So there was a lot of transformations that had to happen.
One thing I definitely notice with the new album is the EP (Away With Words) songs are definitely more based – in my opinion – around acoustic textures, even though there’s obviously more going on… Where this album, it’s a lot more eclectic, but there’s a lot more different textures, different moods. You can even sort of hear greater range of influences. I guess would you say that’s the result of spending so much more time on the album and it simmering for so long as he said, or was it kind of a conscious choice to move in a different sound direction?
Dillon: Yeah, it was kind of a conscious choice to break away from the acoustics. Cause before we were doing acoustic was with pedals and it was cool, but we would always run into problems too… like performing live where you get feedback with acoustic guitars. It’s just like a cleaner sound when you have an electric guitar. But we still really like using the acoustics and still write with acoustics all the time.
Stephen: I think we just started playing heavier and heavier too. It’s harder… The range on an acoustic guitar only goes so far. But a lot of the songs were primarily written on acoustic, so they still have that kind of glow to them. Which is cool, but they’re just captured differently at this point.
Speaking of that, walk me through the writing process for. I know these songs were written over a long period of time, but just in general, was it a very collaborative process? And how was the writing process different from before?
Chanta: I still think it was essentially just me and Dillon, sharing song concepts and riffs. I think the only song that doesn’t display that entirely is “Letters to the Bay”. Dillon and I started writing that back in 2014, it was more him and I just exchanging riffs instead of like a full finished song, you know? So to me, that was the most collaborative effort.
Dillon: We would write the base of those songs years ago, but then everyone else brought their own thing to the table to really make them something else.
Steen: That’s something to note as a new member coming into the group. I was never forced to learn the old way of playing it. They just kind of told me what key it’s in and let me go off as a bass player, which is fun. I’d say we did the same thing for Jason as well, like “don’t play this specific part”. Maybe a few times it was like, “here’s a specific part we’d like you to play”, but it was Jason bringing his own influence into the group as well, which is really cool.
So I want to talk about the actual artwork with the album, which I know Dillon, you made created the artwork yourself. I wanted to ask you what’s the meaning of the artwork and how does it associate in your mind with the music on the album?
Dillon: The album artwork’s interesting! Some of the influences are Salvador Dali and The Mars Volta. There’s a lot of different elements in it. The bird people was something I was messing around with and then COVID happened. So those aren’t really related, but it kind of looks like a plague doctor’s mask, I guess. There’s a bunch of little things in there that are cool. For example: the fish are made of bacon ’cause we have a tambourine that’s called bacon fish.
Stephen: It’s orange with the white fat stripe in it.
Chanta: You could definitely see the bacon texture if you zoom in on the fish. It’s really funny.
Jason: Just look at it haha!
Yeah, I can see it.
Stephen: There’s clocks too… The Dash Between Years is more so the five years between what was Away With Words and then what we are now. But it kind of does play into the whole COVID thing… the dash between whenever…
Dillon: Chanta’s head was also in the bubble at some point but we got rid of it. It looked kind of weird.
Would’ve been a nice touch! Let’s see… What are some of your guys’ greatest artistic influences when writing songs? So this can be either musical or non-musical.
Chanta: I mean you’re familiar with me, Alex. A lot of movies inspire the song concepts I write. You and the guys know that whenever I watch a movie and I hear something, I’ll write down a phrase from the movie for a potential song title. I’ve recently been into downtempo nu jazz lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of Cinematic Orchestra, which is outside of what we typically listen to, you know, the Swancore post-hardcore stuff. Nu jazz falls into the category of like ambient instrumental post-rock music. Which is funny because you would think as a guitar player, I would continue to listen to a bunch of guitar based music. But that’s kind of not the case at this point. Plenty of good psychedelic soul stuff has been coming out. I’ve been listening to Free Nationals, Khruangbin…
Steen: Tom Misch.
Chanta: Oh yeah, Tom Misch! Do you know about Tom Misch and Yussef Dayes?
I don’t think so.
Chanta: Steen shared Tom Misch and Yussef Dayes with me and that is some smooth stuff that I think you would enjoy. Like if you already loved the production of Frank Ocean, then you have to like Tom Misch and Yussef Dayes!
I’ll check it out.
Chanta: But yeah, it’s kind of funny writing guitar music but not listening to a lot of guitar music. It’s very interesting.
I think sort of disparate influences can actually, you know, make a work of art more interesting. If you’re just listening to things that are similar to what you’ve done before, it can kind of put you in a box. I feel like in my opinion trying to emulate different sounds is probably what made this record so diverse. I think it’s cool.
Chanta: It’s really funny you say that because, someone told me at a show a long time ago that let’s say that you’re a band in a certain genre… Let’s say that you’re a post-hardcore band and you keep playing post-hardcore shows. You’re going to want to stay away from listening to post-hardcore music as much as you can. That way, your creative curiosity can always be kicking. Otherwise you’re just kind of stuck in the same soundscape.
Do you other guys have any other influences you want to talk about also?
Stephen: At least for me I guess, sort of Steen too – ’cause me and Steen have played in other bands before this – we come from rock and roll, jazz fusion, even heavy rock. Then meeting Chanta, Dillon, and Jason – they’re all very twinkly, tappy, “droney”, and ambient and stuff – you know? So there was definitely a different door I had to walk through. And in a weird way, ’cause it’s instrumental as opposed to playing with a singer, there’s a lot of room to kind of create your own feel. And a lot of my favorite drummers, like Darren King and Thomas Pridgen, they’re like, just like… I don’t know: the force, the feel and power behind everything else that’s happening. Not to overshadow it, but you kind of have to. You’re able to create something underneath, something very different and creative, which is cool.
You said your past band was more hard rock – just to get into a short tangent – what were some of those influences from your past work that you maybe brought a little bit to the table here?
Stephen: A band that Steen and I played in was City of Thieves. That touched on indie rock, blues, Delta blues rock…
Jason: Like Mutemath?
Stephen: …a little bit, less Mutemath. I don’t know, what else did we sound like?
Steen: I mean, we were into all sorts of stuff back then. Like Thrice, Raconteurs…
Stephen: Explosions in the Sky.
Steen: Royal Blood… The Mars Volta was a huge influence on us, but we sounded nothing like them.
Stephen: Yeah, we tried but… Haha…
Steen: I’d say jumping in on that note, like what Steve said about opening the door. When I joined this band, I came from a completely different world and playing with them was like: “Wow, I’ve never played this kind of music before”. It happened so organically, how we just kind of grooved. But you know, at first they’re talking about bands I’ve never heard of and I’d listened to them and say, “Oh yeah, that’s cool! It totally is our vibe”. They helped me grow as a musician, just as much as I hope I helped them grow as well – in terms of bringing new influence to the group.
Jason: At that point I feel like it’s necessary to know when you’re PLAYING a certain style of music, but you LISTEN to different styles of music to INFLUENCE that certain style of music. For me it was Jim Croce, I grew up listening to him and Mary J Blige – for some reason – it was a weird mix. My dad got me on that. And that progressed into heavier and heavier music as the years went on. I didn’t grow up listening to heavier music. So I’m at that point now where inthebackground’s kind of becoming heavier as well, now that we’re all plugged in. I’m still listening to new music… I like American Football!
I wanted to talk about my personal favorite song on the album, which is actually DDLM.
Chanta: Oh my god, hahahaha!
I think I’ve probably told Chanta that before. To me it’s just a really interesting composition that feels almost like progressive rock inspired, out of the songs I’ve heard from you guys personally. I think to me it’s almost has a pounding groove, but it also feels like it could be a soundtrack to a chase scene in a movie or something like that. It feels extremely intense, but also has a really cool groove to it. What were some of the inspirations for that track specifically?
Stephen: Drunkship of Lanterns.
Chanta: Drunk Ship of Lanterns by The Mars Volta, for sure!
Dillon and Stephen: Madness. Madness.
I definitely heard Mars Volta in that, yeah.
Dillon: Yeah. Latin influence.
Stephen: How did that even happen? I just remember one day we just hit that shit. It was just…
Chanta: Dillon wrote the basis for that song.
Dillon: Yeah. I wrote it in music class in college. It started off as this nice little Spanish sounding song… Then we just turned it into this monster.
Steen: It’s really funny! I was friends with the band before I joined the band. When I would hear them play that song, I would crave to play the bass because it’s just such a cool song. I said to myself: “man, I would fucking love to play bass on that song”. Bringing into that one for me, I actually listened to a little bit of Latin music… to kind of figure out the realm of what bass can do in a rock setting, but still have a Latin vibe to it. It was kind of interesting. The Mars Volta is huge though. I feel that it almost sounds a lot like The Mars Volta.
Chanta: That band in general is pretty huge for all of us. I think all of us just grew up basking in the glory of that project. It’s a shame they’re done, but you know, Omar and Cedric always try to make a new project. Unfortunately most of the time, it doesn’t seem to hit very well. Everyone just loves The Mars Volta or they’re just old hardcore fans of At The Drive-In, you know?
Steen: It’s interesting, also, how it evolved.
Chanta: Yeah, because it started on acoustic guitars. Imagine what you just heard, but with just a steel string acoustic guitar and a classical nylon. That’s just very odd.
Steen: It helped working with an engineer that actually worked with The Mars Volta as well. ‘Cause there’s little textures in there that no one else would have been able to do, except for that guy.
Chanta: You (Alex) texted me and you almost freaked out. You thought it was Sean O’Sullivan from early Dance Gavin Dance! But Shawn Sullivan, the mixing engineer for our record, he actually worked with Omar and The Mars Volta. He’s worked with the older members of Saosin as well.
Stephen: We hit it off pretty quickly. I think.
Chanta: I would agree.
Steen: I mean, there’s a part in that song where I told him: “how does the bass player… what’s his name, Juan Alderete, get the bass sound like that?” And he’s like: “Oh, I know exactly what you want.” And he did it. In my mind, all I could think was: “fuck…” Just some phaser, a little bit of distortion. So cool. He really helped bring that song to the next level.
I’m actually pulling up his credits right now. He was… a mixer on Bedlam in Goliath?
Stephen: He was one of three editors, I think as well.
Wow. Okay. That’s really cool actually.
Chanta: He said it was a nightmare doing that record, bro.
Stephen: He said he had to write something along the lines of 120 tracks into one clip.
I know Omar, specifically from what I’ve read about his reputation, is a huge perfectionist… So next question: what is each member’s favorite song on the album and why? Whoever wants to go first.
Stephen: It’s hard to choose.
Steen: I would say Between Two States, as mine. That song just felt magical. I’ll never forget the moment I recorded the bass to that song. And it was just like, that’s it. That was the spot I needed to be in to get it. ‘Cause I actually struggled a bit – well not struggled – but I was being a perfectionist with it. One day the song just came together. Probably did about a hundred takes. That’s probably my favorite, Between Two States.
Chanta: The album version is totally different than the EP version, we changed the ending entirely.
It’s definitely a lot different.
Chanta: You would expect me to say In Taxis. I’ve been waiting to record that song for nine freaking years. But I’ve heard it a bunch of times. I already know how it makes me feel. If I had to choose it’d be somewhere between Circle City or Letters to the Bay. The textures in both of those songs just jump out at you, it’s so gorgeous.
Steen: Circle City’s a sick one.
Stephen: That one did a 360 from our original takes on it. That was another one where we did some wild stuff to make it sound the way it did. It was a pleasant surprise, I think.
Alright. Dillon, what is your favorite?
Dillon: I’m stuck between Between Two States and Budapest. I’ll just say Budapest, ’cause no one has said it… it has a lot of different feels I guess.
Jason: I like Budapest too… Budapest is chill. That’s my favorite one too. I think it’s my favorite one because there’s a lot happening. Coming in and writing to Chanta and Dillon, that’s already two guitars. Finding your niche as a third guitarist can sometimes be too much. When I was writing to Budapest, I tried to go off in the spaces they weren’t in. I wasn’t playing really difficult things, but I was focusing more on just like the groove of it. When you’re listening to it and can catch on to all the grooves happening at the same time, you can hear the cohesiveness between everyone. That’s cool. That’s why I like it.
Stephen: Strangely enough I’m going to actually choose Circle City. Mostly because that was the one I hated the most during pre-production. I thought it just sounded awful, to be honest. But then once we re-amped everything, re-did drums and did our, uh… what was the thing called where we like spun the mic…?
Chanta: The Doppler Effect?
Stephen: The Doppler Effect for Chanta’s guitar tone for the little outro… I fell in love with that song in a different way. And it’s the opener. I feel like it’s a good first foot forward.
Do you guys have any final thoughts, or closing things you want to let people know?
Chanta: We’re happy to finally release a record with the lineup that we have now. And we hope that people just find a way to connect with it during these times.
Steen: I hope that our album can provide a release for people, especially people who’ve been fans of us for awhile. And new people too! We’re just getting started. I think that would be the coolest thing. We plan to do more past this as well.
Stephen: I feel pretty fortunate we were able to pull this off. We started before quarantine and then it was finished during quarantine. We’re still going to be in this mess for a bit. So I hope, hopefully it inspires people to just keep making music, art, whatever their craft is. ‘Cause it’s tough right now.
I’ll end on a fun question I just thought of. Once touring is back, hopefully not too far from now, what would be like a dream tour? What band or artists would you guys like to perform with?
Stephen: Psychedelic Porn Crumpets.
Chanta: They would be pretty tight. They’re from Australia, right? They’re another like psychedelic soul group that I think you would like Alex.
I have not heard of that band name. That’s the first time I’ve heard of it, but that’s a great band name. I actually wasn’t sure if that was a joke band name at first.
Chanta: At first I thought it was a joke. I was like, there’s no way there’s a band called Psychedelic Porn Crumpets.
Stephen: There’s no way they sound this fucking good!
Steen: They’ve got to be the best new rock band too. They’re nasty. That’s a tough question too. I mean, we all have different people that we like.
Stephen: That was just the first one that popped in my head.
Dillon: It’s tough to say where we would fit.
Steen: Yeah, it is hard to say where our niche is.
Jason: I would want to tour with The Appleseed Cast. Just ’cause they’re great.
Stephen: Toe would be cool.
Steen: Our boys, Strawberry Girls, would be excellent to go tour with.
Stephen: Strawberry Girls. For sure.
That’d be a good fit! Anyway, this is a great place to wrap up this interview. Thank you guys for joining me.
inthebackground: Thank you, Alex!