Like many Richmond, VA outfits before them, Hex Machine has been steadily nurturing their own brand of "is what it is" sound for well over a decade now. This fact is perfectly exemplified on the trio's forthcoming eight-song, 33-minute full-length #3, Cave Painting—out June 21 (pre-order now). It's metallic, but not exactly "metal." It's noisily rockin', but not quite "noise rock." It's mathy and challenging, but you can bob your head to it. On the whole, it's also a warpedly melodic, intellectually inebriated, topsy-turvy mishmash of wildly diverse yet fluidly cohesive journeys. It just... is what is it.
Stream "Spiral Outhouse" below—one of my personal favorites from the new disc—followed by an interview with frontman Trevere Thomas. Maybe you'll even learn a lil' thing or two...
It's been seven years since Fixator and the Hex Machine lineup is now back to a trio with an all-new rhythm section. Did the Fixator lineup just sort of go its separate ways as merely a consequence of time, or was it an intentional decision on your part to work with new musicians based on your personal experiences over the course of the "break"?
I think both played a part here. So, a little backstory. I moved to San Francisco from Richmond in the late-'90s, riding a wave of involvement with some incredible artists that I was lucky enough to just get to see play live many times, let alone get the opportunity to observe and be part of some of their inner workings... some of whom were and still are some of my all-time favorites. It was a crazy period of eye-opening growth and learning for me. There were about six or so years of just getting behind other people's well-oiled machines—whether it was touring, stage managing, working at the Knitting Factory in Hollywood, working on films, music videos... all while working on my own songs, practicing, and making demos (most of which became Hex Machine's first full-length, Omen Mas). When I moved back to Richmond, I got this going with the conclusion that after living in San Francisco and L.A., if it was going to be good and rather indigenous to our region, I would have to go back to Richmond and do it. We are, after all, a band from Richmond, most definitely, and at this point that's something people recognize as this haven that's grown immensely since well before my time.
Outside of Richmond, like I said, I was exposed to the minds and activities of groups I loved that wrote music like machines and could put it together with different great musicians depending on the show and the setting. I was in the Bay in part to play in a new version of Plainfield, which was a band that had a revolving cast of killer players, most of which was previously comprised of people we had been working or touring with. Years later, when we finally released Omen Mas and had a go at it on the road, going on tours amidst a major recession, the timing really sucked in some ways that proved to be a very challenging part of the path. From the time we recorded Fixator, it took about 13 months to come out, and during that period all sorts of life-altering happenings were going on. When Fixator came out there wasn't really an actively rehearsing solid lineup, and oddly enough Dave Witte got back on drums and went on the tour we did behind the record. So, that was interestingly in line with the aforementioned way of thinking.
Somewhat tied to that, you and current Hex Machine drummer Douglas Andrae played together in the touring lineup of Today is the Day for a good stretch, so I'm assuming it's obvious as to what brought Douglas into place. How did Alex Ricart come in on bass?
The year after Fixator came out, I went on tour with Melt-Banana as their tour manager (lite) and they did a bunch of shows with Retox. That was very much a reset button on what I had been doing before, and these guys had set the bar pretty high considering where I thought we should strive to be at in our own delivery and tone. It was great to be a part of that and on tour again. Those are two factions that can set up in a club and just tear the place apart. That's what I feel it should be about playing live with this kind of music. Getting home after the tour with my face properly melted, I had fresh ideas, but we didn't really have a working weapon... and then I met Douglas. Basically, we met on Craigslist after posting an ad that pretty much just said in a matter of words what I'm saying now. We clicked and then hundreds of shows later, it's just kinda crazy that he could come in and fill some pretty big shoes with his own artful hammering and then be a part of another trip altogether that allowed us to grow in other ways. I was playing bass and so he and I clicked in that regard, and when I'm writing songs as the bass player, he's kind of playing along to my instincts as a bass player as well. It really is something that's hard to come by.
We had learned a set of songs to start playing Hex Machine shows again (before joining Today is the Day), doing support gigs sporadically over the next year. At that point, we felt like we were in training to do something renewed out of where we'd been, we just didn't really know what was around the corner. We weren't playing with a full-time bass player at that time, and so it gave us some freedom to really fuck around free from prior conceptions for what the band should be like, even for myself.
We got to know how to play with each other really well—and not just with structured songs, just really making walls of sound and deconstructed loops and general fuckery. Then, when the whole Today is the Day experience opened up, we all of a sudden had something to focus on and it worked really well while it was happening, as we were just really flexible to doing anything. I mean, it was like boot camp. And that show had so many types of songs from different eras, so we're playing all these takes on heavy music.
Around that time, I had been selling equipment to this young guy who just kept buying cool junk from me, randomly, and some of it was bass equipment, and I finally just asked him, "Do you know how to use this stuff, like, really use it?" And ultimately he came back with, "I can't play that, but I know somebody who can." And he basically sent Alex to us, which is really random, but it's one of those stories that's kind of stranger than fiction. Alex came in pretty fresh and eager, you know, willing to vibe with us, as this was just after Today is the Day tours, and so here's this great new mediator to these two weird beasts, and it's been working out great. It's a great new dynamic that's got this renewed energy and execution with basically as much new material as our whole back songbook, so that's exciting.
Sort of jumping off from the connection to Steve Austin/Today is the Day—and what you were saying about your time on the west coast—you've played alongside some killer musicians in your day. Beyond Steve, Hex Machine's first drummer was Dave Witte, former Hex Machine guitarist Scott Hudgins is an underground legend around Richmond... How do you feel that having had the opportunity to perform with these types of artists has impacted your own skillset or vision?
Well, much like the bit about being around other talented performers, no matter who they are, there's a good chance they are going to have some kind of impact on you. Whether I could tell it right away or sense it later, there are certain things everyone brings to the table that's unique that you can learn from. I wouldn't want to play with just anybody that I didn't think was very talented. There's not a lot of room in what we're going for, you know, which is naturally more left-of-the-dial, not fair to middlin'.
As a whole, Cave Painting feels a little less rhythmically chunky/directly "heavy" than some of Hex Machine's prior outings—the diversity of the band's overall palette seems a little more consistently explored from track to track, perhaps. That notion kind of extends to the production and vocal approach as well. Do you feel like you were knowingly coming at things from a slightly different angle this time out, or...?
Most definitely. We had gotten out a lot of the rocks from the socks that didn't get shaken out in the '90s. By the time Omen Mas came out, to me it was 10 years overdue, but it was like I was coming out of some closet, like, this is what I'm (still) into regardless of what is hip or whatever. I'd just wanted and needed to drop this for a while and just here it is. Fixator was written in about six months' time, like I was on fire with trying to tie-in what we had done and seen with where I wanted to go, like "Handstand." I was of the mindset that this one has just got to rip, a bit more pointed, but also looking forward. Granted those songs didn't show up overnight. I started writing some of these riffs for the new songs we have now a few years ago, and I feel I pretty much had the luxury of learning to play them to the point where they are really just naturally well-worn t-shirts. Also, you have to understand, I have a ton of relative interests that I like to cram into everything, but it just gets fired out of this cannon. Somehow they get shaped so it never feels entirely like the same song twice, unless that's intentional, and I'm a sucker for when bands reference themselves. It's just funny to me. The trick is to make them all feel connected, especially when you're making a record. It was going to be a rather different offering no matter what, but there's always a touch of some foreshadowing of what could come next in everything that I'll ultimately arrange, and that is mostly by design. But some things just happen to work great without too much massaging into place. There are a couple tracks on Cave Painting that were actually one really long, winding track like "Godheads..."—only much weirder—and they got written into their own songs... for the better, I think.
You've tracked at different studios for most of Hex Machine's output, so how did the experience at Ronnie Jones Sound with Kyle Spence differ from past efforts?
I've wanted to make a record with Kyle for quite some time. He's fantastic and we get along like the best of friends. Years ago we played with Harvey Milk and hung out after the show at our friend Gus', like this big adult sleepover party, and heard he had this great studio. People I talked to who had worked with him had nothing but great things to say, and all signs just seemed to point to going and recording with him. He's in Athens, GA—which has had a very rich musical landscape for years—and between Harvey Milk and a number of other bands that had a shared rapport with this area, along with its relative proximity to us—just far away enough—made it a no-brainer. We've worked with quite a few great engineers and they as well all bring something unique to the table. They play a role, whether it's some full-on production ideas and guidance they offer, or just their expertise behind the desk. We will surely be working with Kyle again. He's fast. For the money, I'm of the mindset that we can't just go into the studio and hope for the best; it's got to be premeditated with some room for experimentation. We're not on some big yesteryear label out to just make Loveless over the course of a few years. I'm kind of a... put the flag on the moon and we're done. Cut and print.
Cave Painting will be issued through your own Minimum Underdrive label, which dates back to the mid-'90s with your work in Human Thurma. Was it a deliberate move to shift back to the D.I.Y. route?
Basically, having done this before, it's part necessity and part because I can and I want to. We are in a place where—though it did take us a while to put it all together, like we were aging these songs in their own special way—I just thought once it was done it should come out right away. At least as fast as it can, because it's a bit overdue, if just by my timetable. Yet the process can still take a while, and not just because it's waiting in some queue to be pressed. After you do it a few times, you almost fall in love with the process itself, and thus you might prolong it or it prolongs itself. It's funny how that works. Getting to be hands-on in all aspects is very rewarding, and this time is no different. Years ago, we didn't really have many upwardly mobile labels around here, you know, there were just people making records and starting to build some kind of catalog because they loved it, and released things they dug that other people let them be a part of. Then, if someone else gets involved in a release, you basically owe it to them in some way to get out there and sell it as much as you can. It can be a tough pursuit with some pitfalls, and I just don't like owing people in some ways, especially when we're still pretty underground in our appreciation and execution.
I don't know if we're allowed to talk about it, but you mentioned to me a few weeks ago that the band actually has a shitload of other new material ready to go, some of which could yield another full-length before year's end!?
There's no reason to keep this under wraps, considering everything that's been said. We tracked and mixed a ton of music back in January. It felt like two separate entities once certain songs were split up. People can't really handle more than 35 minutes at a time with this business, and I myself like to listen to things over and over. I mean, I just consume albums whole, but when they're like 80 minutes, some songs can get lost, I feel... I'm one of those that really enjoy these records like Rush made that are about 30 minutes. Like, the next one is Hemispheres, but this is definitely Permanent Waves, in some weird way of looking at it. Cave Painting is more a mix of a variety of tracks that have a lot going on. This other record in the can is called Violent Chrysanthemum and it's more weird, I think. Akin to some score where there are flashbacks and flashforwards. It's pretty cool. It's heavy, and some new territory for us, but is definitely still us. It naturally plays like it comes immediately after Cave Painting, but has its own thing going on, so in that respect it makes sense to separate them and not initially make some double-album. We moved into a pretty nice new studio a few years ago that's been very conducive to creativity. It just feels good in there and the song ideas flowed to the point where I had to stop writing to get all we had solid at that point and learn it so it's really tight, but really fresh. There is a lot more where this came from, so we're gonna see how it goes.
This line in the press release about the "necessity" of "expelling demons through art" got me thinking that the way you express yourself through your music and lyrics strikes me as an extension of your unique perspectives on and approach to life in general. You're a different sort of person. One of these "unsung lifer" types who's been doing cool shit for decades, to varying degrees of not-quite-sufficient recognition. I don't know where the question is here. I wish I felt that "necessity," though. I'm fascinated by and greatly admire those who are able to create without concern of reception (or lack thereof). I guess, if you had to try and boil that down from your side, what does it look like?
Well, I appreciate that. My instinct and necessity here, in regards to being a creative, are to have something to do that I could grow old with that would, in theory, only get better as time went by. B.B. King, Les Paul, the Ramones, they took music to their graves. Great auteurs and painters, poets... I feel like it's healthy and natural to do things to satisfy you firstly. I'm rather selfish as such. I may not enjoy looking at weird photos and videos of myself, but the music is something I can control and thusly I make it so first and foremost I love it. I listen to it. It should entertain me. If it doesn't, I probably wouldn't do it. I'm not like that with many other things in life, but with this, absolutely. It's my trip and if you're along for the ride and dig it, that's great! I hear other musicians say, "Oh, once that's done, I move on to the next and don't look back." Maybe that's an expression some have on those particular experiences making something they didn't like, but overall I enjoy what we do. I also think an artist should get to grow and exist without all eyes on you all the time. Some performers spend their artistic lives almost entirely in the spotlight and you know just about every move they make. Maybe some of what they produce is not exactly how it would be under certain pressures... but uncertain pressures? I think that's how I work best, because I'm surely the one making them [laughs]. I can take my sweet time when I want to until it feels right. That's basically what we did after Today is the Day. The people that were paying attention to us a few years ago may not be there now, as it's been a few years. Maybe they are, but we look at it like we just started over in some ways, and that too is exciting. It keeps it fresh in our minds, like a reset... keeps us on our toes, like we're giving this to people for the first time, every time. Some people may see that as a setback, but I get a kick out of people seeing us for the first time and really getting it. That's its own reward.
Another part I love about the journey is, if and when someone gets it, even well after the fact, they have that nature trail, and that's what I love about music and recordings and discovery of an artist's back catalog—regardless if it's two or 20 records. That part inspires me to keep going to be a part of something that, for the most part, I get a great deal of joy out of.
I often ask this question for my own selfish curiosity, and I think you'd be a perfect resource: what are some of the top albums from your listening spectrum that you'd cite to be rather undervalued and deserving of more ears?
I fell in love with this record by Neal. called Bang (Royal Family Records). It just knocked me out. Really nice. I guess you would call it progressive, experimental soul-jazz, but it's otherworldly—very meditative—I'm actually listening to it now. And I'll listen to it for hours on end, just flip the record over and over. The playing is phenomenal and the recording is so clean and kaleidoscopic. Just the way all the instruments sound, the production, it's really timeless sounding. A genuine treat to hear and something that influences for sure in its own special way.
Lansing-Dreiden, who Scott Hudgins turned me onto years ago, was a group where I was hooked immediately. I love everything about them. I bought all their records and followed other projects, like Violens, which were also great. They had a bit of a mysterious story... and most recently the main man, Jorge Elbrecht, released a record I think is magic called Here Lies. Aside from the fantastic arrangements and melody, no two songs are seemingly alike, which again is relative to my style and interests.
More in our relative tone and audience spectrum, there's a group called Geronimo (on Three One G) we had the pleasure of being introduced to years ago while on tour in San Francisco. I bought their CD at Aquarius by Andee's strong recommendation and I proceeded to listen to it on an all-night drive from the Bay down to San Diego. I mean, all night, over and over. Just seared it onto the brain. It's that kind of record for me. At times it's like if Bohren & Der Club of Gore got its post-hardcore on... like some kind of fucked Eno/Music for Smoke Alarms... you know, it's not for everybody... some severely ominous, end-of-the-world party music, with some post- "we're all dead" coitus soundtrack vibes to cleanse the palate between the beatings. I love it. We got to play with them a few times and they are killer live! They have an album coming out soon as well. I highly recommend checking that out.
I have recently been listening to records I'd never heard before that I really enjoy from The dB's. One, just an IRS collection. Very weird, dark, and poppy from the '80s, which I had never listened to, and it's like what I think the Butthole Surfers kinda dipped into in their major years, but in some ways weirder, more straight-faced, near insanity. I don't hear a lot of music like this. Kinda like Stan Ridgway/Wall of Voodoo. Maybe an influence on Ween. Who knows? Very talented and proficient musicianship.
There's a group called DBUK, from Denver, which is Slim Cessna's Auto Club stripped down to four members and they have this American western Bauhaus-like sound that blew me away live recently. Their records—and lead singer/guitarist Jay Munly's records—are really great. They have a few new records out that I'm into. Not sure if many people know them, but they are rather different than Slim Cessna's Auto Club. The song "Three Bloodhounds..." is a favorite.
It may come as no surprise I'm a pretty big fan of Failure. There's a quality and approach to their music and lyrics that's got my number. They have a new record out that they released themselves that I think is the best thing they've ever done. This is one of those groups that over the last 20-plus years I've grown to truly appreciate through and through. I basically got into them right after they initially broke up in '97. I've just been, like, this is really fucking good and some of my favorite records from that era. It's had its impact. I don't know if many people know they've been out touring, but I've seen them a few times and feel like it's surely the best they've ever been. They put on a fantastic live show.
I don't know if this is so much undervalued, but things I've been listening to this year on any given day: Cocky Bitches, USA/Mexico, We are the Asteroid, Cherubs (all of that ferocious Austin-based rock which is back in swing, I'm pretty into)... My iPod spits out a fair amount of Sparks, Craft, Siouxsie and the Banshees, X, Judas Priest, Nels Cline, Flipper, Emitt Rhodes, Oxbow, Beak, St. Vincent, Japan, Gary Numan, Deathspell Omega, ESG, Iggy Pop... I'm all over the place with what I'm into.
Cave Painting will hit the streets via Minimum Underdrive in less than a month. Pre-order straight from Hex Machine, and become a digester of their hijinks on Facebook and Instagram. Jam some of their prior releases into your earholes while you're over at Bandcamp, too.