Brandon Smith, founder of electrified grunge rockers The Anix, speaks to ReGen about the dystopian future the band’s music plays soundtrack to.
An InterView with Brandon Smith of The Anix
By: Ilker Yücel
With a sound that is equal parts early ‘90s grunge/alt. rock, ‘80s New Wave and modern electro, The Anix has built a steady following over the course of the last decade. Founded by Brandon Smith with his brother Logan and rounded out by guitarist Chris Dinger, the California trio has taken its intensely melodic and darkly energetic sound across the world, performing across Europe and North America. The critically acclaimed 2008 release of Demolition City put The Anix at the forefront of the underground electro/rock scene, with Brandon Smith subsequently joining Apoptygma Berzerk as live guitarist. With Die Krupps mastermind Jürgen Engler helming the production of the band’s latest offering on Cleopatra Records, Sleepwalker marks The Anix’s return after four years, embarking on a devastating trail of cinematic atmosphere and futuristic decrepitude. Like a soundtrack to a dystopian gothic and sci-fi fantasy, Sleepwalker is a document of Smith’s battle with insomnia and somnambulism during his years on tour, standing as a darkly introspective collection of songs melodic enough for mainstream consumption without losing its underground edge. With the band having completed a spring tour and prepping for future shows, Brandon Smith speaks to ReGen about his own sleepwalking experiences shaping the album along with some gear talk as he speaks about Fender guitars and his own plans for the technological dream that is humanity’s future.
Your most recent release, Sleepwalker, is your fourth album overall and comes four years after Demolition City. Besides joining Apoptygma Berzerk as their live guitarist in 2009, what other major changes occurred for you and the band between the two releases? In what ways did these changes influence the writing process of this album?
Smith: We worked with a lot of producers over the course of our career, varying from ultra high end to the unknown. We learned in the end that the only way to bring the sound we want to life is if we do it all ourselves. We self produced this new album in Chris’s garage, my apartment and on tour and brought in Jürgen Engler after we recorded everything to provide the finishing touches. We wanted this album to sound raw, rough and loud, unlike most electronic music, which is polished and sounds like it was made by pressing buttons on a computer. We wanted the human element to shine through and show that things are not perfect.
Sleepwalker was released via Cleopatra Records, and while they’ve been a prominent underground label for some years, they do seem focused on (or at least heavily known for) primarily tribute compilations. What prompted you to sign with them, and in what ways since the album’s release has their association been beneficial to The Anix?
Smith: I met Cleopatra Records while on tour with Apoptygma Berzerk in Los Angeles. The owner of the label, Brian, heard some of my music and asked me to do a song for a Halloween compilation they were going to release later in the year. We recorded ‘Cry Little Sister,’ and the label was happy with the results so sent us a contract to do a full album. Cleopatra is an indie label, so you have the intimacy factor that you do not get with a major, and we were able to have control over the art and design direction with the album, but they are also a powerhouse and have years of experience in the business, so things get done. The label gave us a budget to do a video, which we were also trusted with to control the direction, hired a publicist, took out several magazine ads, got one of our songs on a national TV commercial for Sony/DC Comics and put us on multiple top 10 compilations sold on iTunes and in stores. The benefit, of course, has been a wider spread of our brand name and more fans; the unfortunate part is that the music business continues the downward spiral, making it increasingly difficult for us to keep our heads above water.
This past March, The Anix performed a six-date tour of the USA. Having been performing for over a decade, what are the major challenges to playing live, and how have you personally dealt with them?
Smith: Playing live is the fun and easy part about touring; it’s the other 23 hours in the day that are difficult. Small scale touring, like us and 99 percent of all bands out there, is like going to war, in a way. We drive dangerously long hours on little to no sleep, roll into unknown areas, sometimes gang war zones, and have to still unload thousands of dollars worth of equipment while being watched by gangsters with guns showing out of the top of their pants, risk showing up to venues and not getting paid, breaking down on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, trying to find a place to sleep after the show, and the list goes on. So again, playing the show is definitely the easy part.
In what ways have these challenges become more or less difficult over the years, not just for The Anix but for other bands that you’ve observed or been a part of (i.e. Apoptygma)?
Smith: When we first started, YouTube was not around. YouTube and social media has been a huge benefit for bands, but also has provided millions of additional competitors for us, usually in the form of a girl singing a horrific version of Lady Gaga into a hairbrush in her bathroom. Social media has watered down the idea of a rock star or celebrity, because now everyone is a celebrity, and the less talent you have, the bigger you will become. The current battle is for attention-getting people to watch your video, listen to your songs and read your posts. We are competing with millions of bands and normal people that aren’t even promoting music. We are competing against a mom posting about her grandson, a kid showing a video of his new computer and so on. Services like Spotify are amazing for the consumer, but it would require bands to have millions of plays in order to get a check for 10 bucks every six months. The savior is touring if you have enough fans to make it work, which is a lot harder than it seems.
How does the experience of performing your own music in The Anix differ from when you’re a member of Apoptygma Berzerk?
Smith: The experience is the same: same type of equipment, I use the same guitars amps and effects, same band member set-up. The main difference is that Apop is a lot bigger of a band, so everything we do is on a larger scale. We have our own sound, lighting and technicians that travel with us on tour; we get to stay in hotel rooms or travel on a tour bus, we get catering, etc. The Anix is like being in The Ramones back in the ‘70s: hardcore lo-fi punk rock touring.
Some years ago, you had a company building or modifying guitars with Roland synth pickups, which seems to no longer be active. What caused you to switch away from the synth guitar sound and in what ways do you feel your playing style has developed as a result?
Smith: When we just started, we didn’t have enough keyboards to make things sound electronic enough, so I used a Roland synth guitar pickup to achieve that sound and to mimic a keyboard. Later on, we started collecting keyboards and more equipment, which allowed me to focus on providing a more aggressive guitar tone, since all the electronic sounds were being taken care of. I was building the Roland guitars for fun, but when I started getting more orders than I could handle, the fun factor went away and it became work, so I stopped doing it so I could focus more on making music than chiseling away wood and painting things in the garage. The Roland guitars I was using did not have any traditional pickups on them, so they were very mechanical-sounding. There was no feedback, either, so you could have huge high gain sounding tones that were completely silent when you weren’t hitting the strings. I later started loving the grunge factor of bad pickups, like the ones found in Jaguar and Jazzmaster Fender guitars, and would use the feedback to my advantage when playing live.
You’ve been endorsed by Fender guitars for some years. As Fender is a longstanding, even legendary company, what is it about their guitars, particularly the Panther series, that appeals to your playing style and the sound of The Anix?
Smith: Panther is a Jaguar model that I made up; it’s just a slightly modified version of their classic player Jaguar model. I have always loved Jaguars and Jazzmasters since I first knew what they were back in 1990. My first guitar was a Fender Stratocaster that I used to learn guitar, playing Metallica songs, then for my 15th birthday, I got a Candy Red Jazzmaster. I later sold it when I started playing live so I could get a half stack amp, and have regretted it ever since. I think that is why I have so many of these Jaguars/Jazzmasters, because I am overcompensating for that first one I had that I sold. Jaguars have lots of tone-shaping controls on them, so you are able to get a very unique tone compared to most other guitars. I use a lot of fuzz and octave effects that when in conjunction with the right switch combination on the Jaguar, sound like a tank firing off a nuclear missile.
The album was co-produced by Jürgen Engler of Die Krupps, who you connected with at SXSW 2010. What is it about Engler and his working method that appealed to you and in what ways do you feel it has enabled the sound of The Anix to develop?
Smith: Jürgen was the first producer we have worked with that didn’t want to start changing things right away. He saw us live at SXSW and wanted to capture the live sound in the recorded versions of our songs. That is exactly what we wanted to do, as well, and knowing that Jürgen has been a legend in the electronic scene, I knew he understood what needed to be done to achieve this. We would purposely record things the same way we would when we were kids playing in the garage; we didn’t want this album to sound perfect or polished. It is supposed to sound violent. We would layer so many tracks of guitar, bass and synthesizers on the choruses that you couldn’t tell what instrument was what. It just sounded like a juggernaut, or like a giant plucking one huge string. Most producers are trained to have separation in the mix of an album and pride themselves on being able to hear each individual instrument. We weren’t interested in that at all.
You’ve stated that the album is entitled Sleepwalker due to it being written during a three-year bout with insomnia. How did your experience with this condition and somnambulism affect the outcome of certain songs in the production phase? In other words, between when they were written and when they were ultimately recorded and produced, how did the songs evolve or change?
Smith: I didn’t have anything positive to talk about with this album. There is a lot of negativity that I dwell on, and not being able to sleep just magnified that. There are enough songs out there about how great your life is and how many bitches you can fuck or how much money you have, so I don’t think anyone will be too upset that we don’t follow suit.
The album also represents what you’ve stated to be a more cinematic influence, like a soundtrack to films like The Crow and The Dark Knight, and you even include covers of ‘Burn’ from The Crow and ‘Cry Little Sister’ from The Lost Boys. As well, the video for ‘Glass,’ you’ve said, presents a vision of the future being a dark and desolate place. To what do you attribute this affinity for dark films and graphic novels, and what has shaped your outlook on the future? Do you feel your views have darkened or is there still room for light to shine through?
Smith: I set out to make a record that is meant to be listened to in a car at night driving through a city like Los Angeles or New York. Most of these movies I love are set in that environment, so I would just imagine my songs set to certain movies. If I couldn’t hear the song being set to a film like Inception or Tron, I would skip the song and start something new. I am excited about the future because I love technology. Now, if I could only find a way to be frozen for about 50 years so I could see some real shit when I wake up.