Q&A: Brandon Bolmer of Chiodos Talks Joining the Band and Getting Heavy
Brandon Bolmer, current frontman for leading posthardcore act Chiodos, certainly faced an uphill battle when he joined the band a year and a half ago. Just a few months earlier, the band had acrimoniously parted ways with its original lead singer, Craig Owens, a fan favorite and a longtime face of the band. What's more, Chiodos was already knee-deep in writing new material, some of it partially penned by the departed lead singer and only half done.
Bolmer, though, was no clueless newbie. In fact, though he was just then 23, he was already an old hand on the major-rock-tour circuit. As an 18-year-old, the Southern California native had led his own outfit, Yesterday's Rising, through an entire run of the 2004 Warped Tour. A few years later, he filled in on vocal duties for friends Scary Kids Scaring Kids, a gig that eventually, indirectly, led him to Chiodos.
When he finally joined the band, though, it was trial by fire. There was a record to finish and an impending tour. But Bolmer and Chiodos not only survived but thrived. The band's latest album, last year's Illuminaudio, was hailed as a return to older form, with the group eschewing a lot of its more fanciful, proggy experimentation in favor of back-to-basics heaviness. Still, there's enough on the record to keep things interesting -- Bolmer's voice slides easily between a high, plaintive wail and a deep belly scream as the songs' dramatic narratives require.
Chiodos headlines the "Scream It Like You Mean It Tour," which lands in South Florida on Tuesday at Rocketown. In advance of the show, we caught up with Bolmer by phone to talk about his place in Chiodos and the band's current and future material. Here's what he had to say.
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County Grind: The band is originally from Michigan, but you're originally from Southern California, where you still live. When you joined the band, was there ever any question about everyone relocating to the same place?
Brandon Bolmer: No, it would have been easier and would have maybe saved on some plane tickets, but everybody already kind of lived in different spots -- only two of them live in Michigan -- so nobody ever really asked me to seriously consider moving anywhere. That was pretty cool. I was thinking they would ask me to do that, but they never did.
It's been almost a year and a half that they announced you had joined the band, in February 2010. How long before that did you know you were actually in the band, and when did you guys start working on the material on Illuminaudio?
I believe it was November of 2009 when talks began. That's when they were coming to the end of their auditions, and they had a few other people in mind. We started talking in November, and I believe we exchanged demos and stuff at that same time, and then I flew to Michigan and was there for about a month in December. I went home for Christmas and then recorded for a month after that. So I'd say two or three months.
How did the selection process go for that? Did you just hear about the auditions, or were you already friends?
Well, I had met Chiodos in 2004 on a tour that I did with my old band. That's when they still had Derek and Craig, of course. On Warped Tour 2009, I was called by a band called Scary Kids Scaring Kids to replace their singer for the last six shows. They had also had a fill-in drummer which was Tanner, our current drummer for Chiodos. And I knew Tanner from his old band, Underminded. We got closer on Warped Tour, and there wasn't really any talk of Chiodos at all; we were just kind of filling in and helping our buddies' band.
After that tour, we kept in touch, and I asked him what he was up to, and eventually he told me he was writing with Chiodois in Michigan. He had been in Michigan about two months before I ever went over there, writing with them and stuff. I kept in touch with him, and once I heard Craig was out of the band, I was kind of curious what the sound of the band was, the direction of the music and stuff without Craig. I was still in my band, of course, but I was kind of looking for something else because it was falling apart, and we were all looking to do new things.
So I had Tanner send me a couple of demos that they had written with him, just to check it out. I wasn't really trying to be in the band; I just wanted to hear what they were doing. But I ended up really liking the music, so I told Tanner maybe I'd demo some stuff to see what the guys thought. I think they had a couple of other people in mind, but they really liked what I had done and that I had tour experience and had been in a band before and had a little bit of a name for myself already.
You said you were curious about how the new stuff they were writing sounded, but I'm assuming you were already familiar with the band's music. So did you think that the search for a new singer was specifically marking an attempt to change the sound?
Obviously they were a little worried about their career and their band as a business and the reaction of the fans. So a couple of the other auditions I heard, they reminded me a lot of Craig's voice, so that was them trying out things that were similar to what they had had in the past. But I had never really wanted or tried to sound like old Chiodos; I just recorded how I sound and did my own thing. I think that was more appealing to them in the end than getting someone who would obviously sound like Craig.
I've seen in the past bands that have done that, like Saosin -- once they lost Anthony Green, they got someone whose voice sounded pretty close to Anthony's. I think that carries on the talk of competition between singers. So I think [Chiodos] was just looking for something new and fresh. I don't think they were trying to go for their old sound, but I think the music was staying similar, so they were OK with getting a singer that sounded different.
What was the biggest challenge for you in joining such an established band in the frontman role? Did you feel like you had particularly big shoes to fill?
Yeah, a little bit. I mean, I think the biggest challenge was writing songs with them. Most of the time, my mindset was just to be myself and do my thing and hope that it turned out well. But there was obviously a big fan base to please, so there were times when we were writing when I got frustrated and wondered if the fans would like it, because obviously Craig was a big part of their band. I don't know if I felt like I had big shoes to fill, but I definitely felt the pressure of the fan base. But the only thing I could really do was be myself.
What about the new material they were writing specifically appealed to you as a vocalist?
It felt a little more aggressive. Maybe it's just because of how I saw it with my voice that it felt that way. I was never really a big Chiodos fan -- obviously we toured together, and when you tour with a band, you gain respect for what they do, and you watch them every night and get into it. But after that tour, I didn't really listen to Chiodos or become a big fan of it or anything. But they always had this kind of abstract, wacky vibe to me, which was cool and was a big part of their career and why people looked at them as one of the bigger bands in the scene, because they did different things.
But I felt the new music had matured a little more, and was closer to your typical song structure, and I like that. They still definitely managed to keep their abstract structure on a few songs on the record, but overall I think it was just a little more aggressive and had a lot of energy.
After you first joined the band, at what point did you feel it was gelling and you were truly a part of the band?
Well, it's kind of hard, because I'm so used to living around my band and practicing on a weekly basis. That was my life for, like, seven or eight years with my old band. There's a part of me that kind of still doesn't feel like I'm in the band, but obviously there's a part of me that does. I would say that once we did our first tour, which I believe was in March with the Used, once we got out on the road and played shows together, it started feeling like we were clicking as a band.
For the first two months of me being in the band, we didn't practice as a full band until after the record was written. They practiced, and I'd watch them practice while we were writing, but I didn't have the ability to sing with them because there was no P.A. or anything. They would track songs with a room mic, and I would just record vocals on a recording program. It was kind of a weird way -- I wasn't used to that.
I remember actually feeling really uncomfortable at first, because when I first got to MIchigan, they wanted me to resing and redemo the vocals I had already done on the demos that Tanner sent me. And I had to do that by myself in front of them, into a microphone as if I was in a studio. There was a lot of pressure there.
You were probably just singing along to a backing track with silence, otherwise, around you, right?
Yeah, and I was in headphones. It was basically a total vocal audition, and they were watching me like I was in a cage. It was cool, though, to experience that and get over it. I think it got me comfortable with them faster because I just kind of showed them the bare-bones me. It was interesting, though, joining a band and not practicing or playing a show with them and just writing an entire record before playing as a full band.
Before that tour, when did you have a chance to learn the older material?
I think it was after the record was written, because that was my main focus for two months. I think I had, like, a few weeks to learn the songs that we had played, which was like, two songs from All's Well That Ends Well and two songs from Bone Palace Ballet. And then there were a few others they had asked me to learn that were just -- I didn't feel like it fit me to sing them, and I didn't want to, sing something that wasn't me. So I had a few weeks to learn them.
I had done that in the past when I filled in for Scary Kids; that was my first tryout for learning someone else's songs and trying to memorize stuff, which is actually pretty stressful. You can practice all day with headphones and the track playing in your ear, but at the end of the day, when you step on the stage, you don't have the vocal track on the song to correct you if you mess up. All you can really do to learn songs is just put that shit on repeat and beat it into your skull.
How much musical input did you get on Illuminaudio? It seems that some of it was already largely written when you came on board.
Musical? Yeah. Well, Jason and Brad -- well, Tanner as well -- are the main writers of the music portion of everything, and they had about half to a little under three-quarters of a record already written. Some of that was just parts and little guitar riffs and stuff, though. But they were very open to suggestion. They never made me feel like I wasn't heard and stuff like that.
So as much as the record was more than half-written, they were always open to suggestion. You can write a full song without vocals, but you never really know if that song is going to work with your vocalist on it until you put it together. So sometimes we'd change things around, and they were always open to it. I think they trusted my voice to do what I wanted, vocally, on the record, so I had a lot of freedom there. I was never given a song and told, "We want you to sing this, and this is our song, and this is what you're going to sing." I pretty much wrote a little bit of every song vocally.
What do you think is your biggest strength as a vocalist in this band -- or what do you think you brought to the band was fresh?
Umm... I'm not really good at talking about myself, but I feel like I really have a powerful voice and maybe even more powerful than what their old stuff sounds like. I have a wide range of melody and screaming as well. As much as I wanted to be myself, I also had a fan base to please. After my old band, I wasn't really big on screaming, but obviously with this band, that was a big part of them, and you can't just eliminate that factor out of their music. I feel like I have both a voice and a scream.
So that's there, and I feel like I perform well live and can sing well on a stage and not just on a record with Auto-Tune and all that bullshit that people like to use nowadays. I feel like me, along with the entire band, like to keep it real. What you hear live is what we're playing; we don't have extra things going on like tuning the vocal and stuff like that. I think it's important to have a band that can play well live and sound as close to or better than the record, live. You don't find that too much now. There are so many records that sound really good and then you hear the band live and you're like, "Wow, they really suck!"
On this record, as compared to the stuff by your old band, it really sounds like your voice has matured. Is that a result of you doing anything different physically in how you approach it?
It's funny, because I actually like our band's old EPs, before our full-length, better than our full-length. I think it was just because I got really sick of how my voice sounded on that. It was a lesson to me and kind of pushed me to want to get better. I've always just wanted to get better at what I do.
I don't really know if there's anything that I went out of my way to try to do differently other than just practice, but I did see a vocal coach before we recorded our record. She was really cool and fun to work with, but I didn't like, change my voice or anything, because I had already been singing for eight or nine years. I think it's just that over time, I've progressed and gotten a voice that's appealing to people.
One thing on the record I did try to do is have a lot of character. I tried to go out of my way to sing each word for what that word is, kind of like becoming an actor while you sing
It seems the lyrics too are really narrative. There are all these sci-fi and videogame references. Was that something you've always been interested in, or were you trying to fit into what the band was known for doing?
I did like that about the old Chiodos, some of the concepts they were going with. Actually a bunch of the song titles on the record came from Brad. He's always really into having interesting song titles, even ones that don't necessarily have to be about what the song is about.
I've always enjoyed writing about life in general -- struggles, real things. Well, I guess everybody does that. But sometimes I write very up-front and it's not very hidden. So there might be a little more hidden things that I tried recently, I guess. It just kind of comes out -- I don't know.
Speaking of your old band, you did the Warped Tour when you were about 18, in 2004. How do you think that experience helped you in joining such a large-scale band now?
Because I got to do that at such a young age, I feel like I really appreciate things more now. It was kind of a lesson to me to look back and see how running around like a headless chicken back then -- it was all so new and fresh and exciting at such a young age that you don't really take a step back. It was cool and I was thankful, but I don't think I really appreciated it at the fullest back then.
So to still be able to tour and travel and play shows in front of people, in front of bigger crowds than I've ever played, I'm very blessed. Music is very up and down. It can be really awesome, but it can be really depressing and hard and a struggle, but in the end, it's a rewarding thing. I'm very appreciative of what I can do now, and that's all because I started at such a young age.
As a final question, it's been a while since Illuminaudio was released. Have you written anything new, or are you still trying to finish out the tour cycle for the record?
We're still trying to finish out the tour cycle. We've definitely talked about writing, but like I said, we're all scattered, so it's not easy when you're all apart like that. It looks like we're going to be pretty busy for the rest of the year, but there's always the ability to write when we are together on the road. It's not the easiest thing to do, but it can be done. And with this age of technology, things can be sent without having to be together. So we've talked about writing a new record, but there's not much that's been written yet. I'd say we're more in the mindset of finishing out the tour cycle.
We've got a couple things coming, like a new video -- I can't say what it is, but I'm excited about that, and it looks really awesome. So we've got some things that we really want to do with Illuminaudio. I hope we get to writing soon, though; we're all anxious to start.
Chiodos, on the "Scream It Like You Mean It Tour" with Mod Sun, the
Color Morale, the Air I Breathe, Tek-One, I See Stars, and Breathe
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