WILMINGTON –– Halloween 2019 was the last time Exploding Math Lab (EML) took to the stage. It wasn’t planned that way. The band already hashed out an album release party to debut their 2019 recording of “Straight Into the Sun.” CDs had come in, the merch was made, and the date was set for March 2020 at Reggies 42nd Street Tavern.
Then it was Covid times.
“My wife told me every Monday during the pandemic to get out of the house because I was so morose,” lead guitarist Ben Schachtman told Port City Daily (full disclosure: Schachtman was the editor of PCD before heading to WHQR last fall).
The band would normally practice the first of every week at a friend’s place 15 miles west in the middle of nowhere in Winnabow. That stopped as mandates and restrictions were put in place.
“We weren’t sure if it was Covid or our friend just didn’t want us around anymore because we were too loud,” drummer Stephen Guilliams joked.
Last Monday at their new practice space at Loud Music, they were dusting off the rust ahead of their first show back at Reggie’s. Saturday’s bill is a three-fer, featuring Raleigh band Thirsty Curses and local rock outfit Sean and Her Dilemma. Exploding Math Lab joined at the last minute when Sean Binkley extended an invitation.
“They’re true to themselves and treat rock and roll with the devotion to craft it deserves,” Binkley said, “whether it’s their stage outfits or their incredible reach across the audio/visual spectrum.”
Saturday’s performance is not an album release show the band hoped to have 15 months ago. It’s not an album release show at all, in fact.
“That ship has sailed,” lead singer Will Copeland, aka Willie Pete, said during practice.
Actually, EML is already working on their next release, bassist Jeremy Roberts confirmed. “We’ve worked on some new tracks already,” he said, while tuning his bass. “We will play a few Saturday night.”
EML also will include songs from “Straight Into the Sun” on the setlist.
Making the album was a departure from how the band recorded previously. EML worked with Frank Stroehmer at Umbilical Recording Studios in Wilmington on their self-titled debut.
They also self-recorded stuff in the early days. “I think we destroyed it for everyone’s safety and well-being,” Schachtman quipped.
On “Straight Into the Sun,” the group headed to Overdub Studios in Durham and recorded it live with John Plymale (Meat Puppets, Superchunk). “He’s good at coaxing studio album-quality sessions out of live performances,” Schachtman said.
It was a marathon of a session, completed in about 12 hours. Schachtman said the band set up on a Saturday, recorded Sunday, and did a few overdubs that Monday.
“[A]lmost everything was recorded in one day, sunup to sundown,” he explained.
The idea was for “Straight Into the Sun” to capture the looseness and energy of the band, as they bring their frenetic movement and rhythms to life. “Doing it live, you have less control, but what you get on tape is what the band sounds like,” Roberts explained.
It’s clear authenticity is important and inherent to EML. There’s also a shroud of mystery involved in their songwriting process. For instance, Copeland prefers to keep his lyrics close to the vest. He recalls the first time he agreed to jam with Schachtman after they worked together at Osteria Cicchetti.
“It was like having your pants down,” Copeland compared to exposing his writings.
Together, the two set the foundation for EML’s most played song, “If In God We Trust,” which can be heard at every show. “It’s a lot of our influences and experimental weirdness and plenty of rock and roll — and it’s continued to evolve live over the years,” Schachtman added.
“It’s our ‘Whiskey River,’” Copeland said, referring to a Willie Nelson tune, which the country icon opens every concert with.
“Wouldn’t it be great if Willie decided one day just to open with ‘Carolina in My Mind’?” Schachtman joked after running through a few warm-up riffs.
“No one would ever believe it,” Copeland responded.
The band’s camaraderie was laid years before they formed. Copeland and Guilliams played together in FEMA Region Four before starting Exploding Math Lab. A few members had joined but left before Schachtman and Roberts, who had been together in No Labels Fit, came onboard. EML launched officially in 2016 with a loud, playful sound.
“One foot rooted in a grungy past and one foot moving forward,” described Binkley of Sean and Her Dilemma. “It’s technical without being pretentious and heavy while maintaining a groove that gets your head bobbing.”
Binkley was a fan of the band before sharing bills with them over the years.
“I like Will’s little foot shimmy, I like that Ben looks scary but isn’t. I like that Stephen embodies pure joy behind the drum kit, and I like that Jeremy has a swagger and tone that sets him apart from the other great bass players in this town. I just fangirl over those guys honestly,” Binkley said.
Though the band’s sound is all-encompassing, their vibe is low-key. Someone will come in with a riff here, another tosses out a beat there, the bass line is added, some laughs are had, and then Copeland steps up to the mic. Still to this day, he doesn’t reveal new lyrics until go-time. And he won’t go on the record about inspiration for writing them, either.
“We focus more on his melody than words,” Guilliams explained of creating the music around lyrics.
“It took a few months before I really knew what he was singing on one song,” Schachtman said.
Copeland tucked his head and laughed.
He and Guilliams went back to discussing the best way to make risotto (apparently, Copeland’s basil oil is the trick), while Roberts and Schachtman plugged in amps.
“Check, check,” Guilliams stated, as the mics were being tested.
Then the band launched into an impromptu “Living on a Prayer.” Turns out, EML opened for Bon Jovi — OK, a Bon Jovi cover band, really. It was Downtown Sundown on Front Street a few years ago.
“Sorry to fake Bon Jovi for drinking their beer,” Schachtman apologized.
The band likely will be shotgunning a few more ahead of Saturday’s conccert, the closest thing Schachtman said they had to a pre-show ritual — well, aside from writing a last-minute setlist.
More from EML
After visiting with the band during band practice early in the week, PCD asked Exploding Math Lab a few more questions about performing and creating new music. Here’s the rest of the Q&A:
Port City Daily (PCD): Do you always start band practice freestyling “Living on a Prayer”? Or was that just a special one-off?
Ben Schachtman (BS): That specific performance was a one-time only treat. But it’s not uncommon for us to sing songs like that. It comes in part from our time in kitchens — we’d change the lyrics, like singing “Over it — fuck sautee tonight” to Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian.”
PCD: Do you play covers during your sets?
BS: We do. We used to play Nirvana’s “Aneurysm,’” and we’ve also done Radiohead’s “National Anthem” and The Beatles “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” Each of them had something in them that we felt like kind of fit into our own weird intersection of styles and interests. Nirvana and the Beatles we play pretty straight forward, but the Radiohead we’ve sort of mutated into a heavier kind of thing.
PCD: You said you didn’t get together as much during the pandemic; can you tell me how this personally affected you creatively and as a band?
BS: It was tough. So much of the process is bringing a riff or a drum beat or even just a sonic idea, and then seeing what happens when four people start playing it. So, it was hard to really get out of the gate, you know?
PCD: You’re also already working on the next album — will EML’s sound change or evolve in this batch?
BS: We’re working on space and breathing — making space for weird noises and textures and so forth, but hopefully without losing the basic rock and roll idea. We’ve also been better about talking to each other about what parts go where. It’s less territorial, more “Hey, it would sound cool if you tried this or that,” type of a thing.
PCD: Will you also record it live in one day like the last?
BS: That’s up for debate. The live recording experience was amazing, even if it was fucking exhausting. It’s great to be able to capture the real sound of a band playing, and we all happily traded a few imperfections here to keep that. That said, we’d be down to go nuts, Spector or Rick Rubin style, live in a bungalow for a month and construct something more elaborate in the studio — but that’s expensive and time-consuming and we’ve all got day jobs. But if someone wants to foot the bill for that, and make sure we’re covered at work, then hell yes.
PCD: Jeremy, you talked about enjoying layering/tracking albums, as well as playing it live in one setting. Wondering if you’ll explain a little about the nuances of doing it one way or another, and what appeals to you about each.
Jeremy Roberts (JR): In the “industry standard” mode, you start with a click track set to the pace of the song, then you play drums on top of that, then you add guitars, add bass, add vocals. You have a lot of control over building the song, and you can tweak individual parts easily. That’s crucial for something like technical metal or fusion, or for really layered music — but the flip side is you’re not really ever playing as a band.
Will Copeland (WC): Also, because you’re locked into a set BPM, it’s much harder for songs to deviate, so you don’t get that part where a song slows down a bit or speeds up.
PCD: What’s your favorite EML song to perform? Why?
BS: I don’t know if we’d all agree on this on any given day, but I think ‘If In God We Trust’ is a good bet. . . . Gun to the head, you gotta play one song in front of a giant crowd, I’d go with that one.
Stephen Guilliams (SG): It was the first song we wrote and played as a band. It came together really easily, really naturally. It’s fun to play, it captures a lot about us as a band.
PCD: What are you most looking forward to on Saturday night when you return to the stage?
BS: Seeing people dance, or jump up and down, or look up from the bar when we hit a good part. Human reaction, and interaction.
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