Too Close To Touch on Grief, Vulnerability and Creating Their New Album: “This is The Reason I Haven’t Been Myself.”
Interview & photos by Shannon Shumaker
When you look back at everything that Too Close To Touch has been up to and accomplished this year, it’s safe to say that they’ve had an incredibly busy 2016. After kicking off the year alongside Secrets and Palisades for the Everything That Got Us Here tour, the band hit the studio to record what would become the powerful and emotional follow-up to their 2015 release, Nerve Endings before setting out to spend their entire summer on the Vans Warped Tour, earning a Skully at the APMAS for Best Underground Band, only to finish strong on the heels of Haven't Been Myself on their current tour with Crown The Empire and Blessthefall. Like I said, busy. But these five guys from Kentucky didn’t get where they are without countless hours of hard work, long nights, blood, sweat, tears and even some heartbreak. Although 2016 was a monumental year for Too Close To Touch, the past twelve months haven’t been easy, and their sophomore album, Haven’t Been Myself can attest to that.
The second that the band’s dark follow-up to Nerve Endings kicks in on the opening track, “Sympathy,” it’s apparent that there’s a lot of emotion packed into this release. Fueled by heartache, despair, regret and most of all grief, one might find themselves wondering what exactly happened to the band in the past year in a half to make such a transformation. Although their debut full-length was rather emotional, it is nowhere near as raw and vulnerable as Haven’t Been Myself. The eleven songs on the new album take listeners on a sometimes painful emotional journey, only to reveal their true meaning at the very end with powerful closing track, “Eiley,” written about the loss of vocalist Keaton Pierce’s sister. And in his own words, it’s in those final moments, as he sings his heart out, that you really learn why he hasn’t been himself.
In the days, weeks, and months following the release of Haven’t Been Myself, there has been an outpouring of praise and support from fans of the band, both new and old, sharing their own stories of loss, pain and grief. It seems as if Too Close To Touch have given listeners a shoulder to lean on - a group of guys who understand exactly what it is that they’re going through - and they couldn’t be a more sturdy and humble support system.
A fan myself, I’ve had the chance to catch Too Close To Touch each time they’ve come through Denver, and at every show it seems that they gain more and more fans, and with good reason. The band has come a long way since just last year, and as they took the stage at Summit Music Hall for the Colorado date of The Retrograde tour, it was to easily their loudest and most supportive crowd yet, fans screaming in excitement before they even played their first note. An hour after the show, I caught up with Keaton and drummer Kenny Downey, and as they rode the waves of excitement from their explosive performance, it was apparent that they’ve earned every single bit of success that they’ve seen this year. It’s safe to say that long nights, months away from home at a time and lots of hard work have really paid off.
The Prelude Press: Since the last time we caught up with you guys interview-wise you did Warped Tour, So What?!, released a new album… You’ve been really busy. What has been the most surreal or “holy shit, this is real” moment this year for you?
Kenny Downey: The APMAS
Keaton Pierce: Yeah, the APMAS and getting through record two without just totally blowing it. [laughs] There was a lot of pressure going into a sophomore record.
Kenny: It helps now that it’s out! The anxiety is slowly going away and now it’s just fun. Now it’s just back to the old playing shows and having fun with kids.
Keaton: We were in a… Not a weird position, but as soon as we finished the Secrets and Palisades tour, we didn’t go home or anything, so we didn’t have the month and a half prior to recording the record to really like, sit in a secluded area and write. We were doing stuff on the road and I found out that I suck at writing on the road. I don’t think that I used anything that I came away with.
Kenny: It’s pretty difficult, man.
Well yeah, you don’t get time to yourself to really sit and feel what you’re doing.
Keaton: Yeah. I was talking to Beau [Bokan] from Blessthefall earlier about it actually, and it was good to know that I don’t just suck at writing, because he was the same way. I would try to do it, but there were always so many other different things going on throughout the course of the day, and I’m super ADD too so that doesn’t help.
Kenny: Yeah, it was pretty much the same for writing the music, too. It was pretty hard. We definitely came up with ideas on the road - we would set up little mini recording rigs in vans or green rooms. We rented out an airbnb for a week before we went to the studio, but it was fresh off of tour. We didn’t even get to go home between touring and the studio. That was pretty wild, but we did write some stuff that went on the record.
We did a lot of writing the first week we were in the studio as well. We kind of spent two weeks in the studio writing and the rest recording. There was a lot of time in the studio spent sitting with headphones and banging out ideas.
Keaton: Which works for me. I’ve found out between the last two records that being in the studio, or just an environment like that where it’s just us and it’s closed off is easier.
Kenny: It’s a different feeling. It’s very comfortable. Being comfortable in a studio setting is very important when it comes to writing, because it’s going to be stressful. It was stressful, writing a sophomore release, trying to follow up Nerve Endings… It was a lot to think about. Writing a second record was wild, I can’t even imagine what it’s going to be like writing a third record.
Are there any lessons you learned that you’d take into writing a third record?
Kenny: Take more time.
Keaton: Be more prepared. [laughs]
Kenny: I think we were in the studio for six weeks and we spent like two or three months prior writing. We met with other producers and writers, but still… When we got into the studio it didn’t feel too rushed, but to take a step back and have more time creating the songs would be very ideal. Being in the studio for six weeks, it sounds like a long time, but in the grand scheme of things, you have to really focus your time. You can’t take all the time and make all of the little meticulous changes you want to do.
Keaton: We did do well with time management.
Kenny: Oh yeah! We actually finished early. We were finished two days early, but oh man, it was nail-biting the whole time in the writing sessions. We knew that we only had like X amount of time to write songs because we had to spend X amount of time recording them. And we did two writing sessions. We wrote the first six songs - not in any particular order - but we wrote five or six songs and took a week and a half finalizing ideas and then recorded that for what, two and a half weeks? We didn’t leave the studio. And then after that was done, we got everything ready to go to mixing and to post production and all of that stuff. We started recording the second five songs and then finally, we got to leave the studio!
Keaton: And I liked that too, and I think that’s something we’re going to be able to take with us when we start writing the third record. The first record we did with Erik [Ron] wasn’t all in one setting. It was all over the course of a year, maybe more. So when you sit and think about it, something that freaked me the fuck out, was in one setting writing eleven songs worth of vocals and lyrics.
Kenny: And trying to make it sound cohesive and diverse. That first record, we didn’t want all of our songs to sound the same. That was the cool part about writing the record, like Keaton said, in three parts over the course of a year - every time we went back, we were different. We were playing, touring, learning new stuff about ourselves. Everyone is having new experiences to write music about. Doing that over the course of a year, you get so much diversity without even trying. Your tastes change, you’re at a different point in your life… The first time we went to the studio for Nerve Endings, we had never been in that kind of studio environment before, so far from home, and just locked there for such an extensive period of time. And then the next time it was slightly more comfortable, so the songs came quicker and we knew it was coming. Every time, we got a little bit better, and that changed the sound of the record.
So, coming to record two we were like, how do we get that subtle diversity all at once? We were trying to make sure that we had songs in there that weren’t the same as all the other songs. We didn’t want people to listen to the record and be like, “Man, every song is just a repetition.”
Keaton: Going back to what I was saying about doing it in chunks, when you have five songs to worry about and get done first and focus all of your energy on those, it’s easier than eleven or twelve. And I would say the best thing record-wise, or my favorite part of the record that came from us writing before going into it was definitely “Art Of Eye Contact.”
I think that song is the most diverse, too. It’s very R&B.
Kenny: I actually wrote the skeleton for that in my bunk on my phone in garageband. It was just like a piano line and an 808 beat. It was super straightforward. I remember thinking like, man, if Keaton just takes control of this song vocally, I just want to keep it as simple as possible. And then Erik got his hands on and put that shine on it. He moved some things around a little and organized the thought a little, and after that we actually went to Malibu so that Keaton could record vocals in a beach house. So if you listen to the track, you can actually hear the ocean in the background.
Keaton: That’s another reason I think why - other than it’s not a rock song - it’s so diverse, too. It was written vocally in a different atmosphere. That was not a song that was really conceived the same.
Kenny: For me, it was coming up with the idea was me in my bunk by myself, which was not how we were writing. We were all in the room together. And then for Keaton, it was him and Erik, sitting outside at a table.
Keaton: One of my favorite parts of the record, too, is like… When we tracked those vocals, they weren’t intended to be the takes. Those were scratch vocals. Scratch vocals with Erik aren’t scratch vocals.
Kenny: I think you layered a few in studio vocals over it, right?
Keaton: No, we got back and then the next day, we had two songs left to do. We had that, and “Eiley.” We had four days left, and I woke up and warmed up that morning expecting to go track it, and Erik was sitting going through the takes and he was like, “You know what, this is already something special.” It was like a bonding experience with all of us and Erik, doing something like that. We’d never done anything like that before. He was like, “You know, why don’t we just put the icing on the cake and make this even more special. These are perfectly useable vocal takes.” It was a different mic and everything and he was like, “You don’t have to worry about re tracking this.” So that took a lot of pressure off and then we had two solid days to work on “Eiley,” which to me personally was the most important song on the record.
Kenny: “Eiley” was a long writing process, probably the longest. We kind of wrote all of them in order. “Sympathy” was the first song we wrote, and it was also the first song we tracked and recorded and finished out. And “Eiley” ended up being - in the second batch - musically the first song that was written and he decided that he was going to write it about Eiley, so we decided to push that to the side and save it for last. We got everything else done and came back to it so we had more time for it.
Keaton: It was an important thing for me, and for Erik too.
Kenny: I think he wanted your voice to be thrashed, too.
That was the first thing I noticed about that song.
Kenny: Yeah, he kind of wanted that sound out of him.
Keaton: We knew what the song needed to be about, and after he listened to the instrumental, we sat down one day and he was like, “Hey, here are three songs that I want you to listen to that, from a producer standpoint, I’m feeling that would do really well and would really inspire you.” One of them was “3 Libras” by A Perfect Circle, “Judith” by A Perfect Circle and a Thursday song. That’s kind of where the inspiration came from. It was already in three-four, and I had never really done anything in triplets, so that’s where the inspiration from “3 Libras” came in. I’ve always liked A Perfect Circle and bands like that growing up, but they weren’t a prominent inspiration to me just because my musical tastes had kind of changed, so going back and listening to how dark and emotional those songs were for their time really set the pace for how different the song was going to be. It just worked out.
I know last time we did an interview together, we talked about vulnerability on Nerve Endings, but obviously “Eiley” and the rest of the new album is really, really vulnerable sounding, so recording that song, or any of the others, was it ever emotionally draining on you?
Keaton: So in the bridge of “Eiley,” when I tracked it, I got choked up. I actually started kind of crying, and just like pushed through the take. It’s that moment when you really channel, like, “Fuck, I’m feeling this right now.” And I did it, and I thought it was a good take, but that wasn’t the first thing on my mind at the moment. So I told Erik right after I did it - he didn’t say a word - and I was like, “Alright, I got it now. I’m composing myself, let’s run it back,” and he goes, “No. No, that’s the take. Please just trust me, you’re already so vulnerable on this record. I really think that you should keep this.”
Kenny: And that’s the most powerful part of the song.
When I was listening to the album for the first time, I was listening but not really listening and then that part came, and I was like, “Wait a minute,” and had to start the song over. I cried when I heard that song.
Keaton: Erik cried when he mixed it. But that’s the goal with a song like that. You want to channel those emotions. Everything ranging from the way guitar is tracked on a song or drums are tracked on a song or bass, everyone has that emotion that differs from other songs when they’re playing it. I assume when Thomas is tracking guitar and he already has context with how emotional the part is, you sort of dive into that different realm and live with the song in that moment.
I could say that about everyone’s performance tracking every song on the record. Everyone fully understood what the end goal of that song needed to be, so we would have full instrumental songs, and that’s when I like to write the best, when these guys have gone and laid down leads or rhythms or drums that I can work around to make it more cohesive.
Kenny: We just create the energy. We set the mood and energy levels and make sure he can deliver the emotions that he wants.
The whole album is a lot darker than Nerve Endings, too.
Keaton: That was the goal.
Kenny: We knew going into it that it was going to be a dark record.
Keaton: I remember us all on a conference call between the Hands Like Houses tour and the run we did with Craig Owens, and we were all talking to our management about diving into writing early in the year and really getting ready to do this thing, and understanding which songs from the first record connected with kids the most. We knew we wanted to write a dark record, but contextually, I had no fuckin’ idea what I was gonna write about. I even remember telling Daniel that like, “I know we have to write a dark record, but I’m really happy right now,” and then the next morning was actually when I got the call from my dad about everything happening. So from my end, from my point, I knew what to channel. I just didn’t have any fuckin’ idea how to do it at that point.
"We knew going into it that it was going to be a dark record." - Kenny Downey
The album is named after the line in “What I Wish I Could Forget” - when was it that you knew that that’s what it needed to be about?
Kenny: We definitely brainstormed a lot. It just made the most sense. When you listen to what the record was about and the things that Keaton went through, hearing that line always stuck. It just made sense to make it the title because it just sums it up.
Keaton: I’m like really attached to our track list, starting off with “Sympathy” and ending with “Eiley,” and having the album named Haven’t Been Myself. It starts off so dark, and there’s really no context throughout the rest of the record other than “Eiley” that the reason that I haven’t been myself, or why this is fucking me up, is because of the passing away of her. The entire record is different things that had a physical effect on me, but we kept it pretty vague.
“Sympathy” starts off perfect, it’s like the denial stage. You lose somebody and people are like, “You’re going to be alright, you’re gonna make it,” and you’re like, “No, because I don’t even fucking know how I’m feeling right now. Don’t you say that, don’t tell me that, cause you don’t know how I’m feeling.” And then it just builds up and builds up and then finally “Eiley” comes in at the end and it’s like, “This is the reason I haven’t been myself.”
Kenny: It’s a really good finale of a song.
Keaton: And we had to follow up “Until I Collapse” from the first record too.
Like you said, the whole album is about the grieving process, which a lot of people write about, but I feel like not a lot of people write about the ugly side of it. Was that a conscious effort on your part?
Keaton: A lot of it, I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand certain mannerisms that I was starting to develop, and the way I would cope with things and handle things, because I was still sort of in that denial phase. I didn’t realize that all of it was a direct cause and effect type of thing. Like the song, “What A Shame,” for instance, that’s the moment when you realize that you’re fucking up. There’s so many other things that you could blame other than what the harsh reality is. The second verse starts off with, “This hurt me bad, she hurt me more,” finding different things to be upset about and making excuses because a girl hurt me. It was kind of that moment of, bury your excuses, this is the moment that you as a person have to learn how to move forward with this and stop beating yourself up and stop allowing yourself to fuck up.
"It was kind of that moment of, bury your excuses, this is the moment that you as a person have to learn how to move forward with this and stop beating yourself up and stop allowing yourself to fuck up." - Keaton Pierce
I feel like the week that the album came out, too, everyone was really affected by “Eiley.” Everyone I saw posting about the album was talking about that song. Did you think it was going to touch as many people as it did the way that it did?
Keaton: I hoped that it would. Erik was really adamant, especially after we tracked it, was like, “It’s gonna be a big one. I’m proud of all of you guys.” But I didn’t… I had no way of knowing. That’s such a sensitive subject that a lot of people don’t really feel like opening up to you about. You don’t meet somebody and they’re like “How’s it going?” and be like, “Oh, I’ve been better, I lost a family member six months ago.”
So I had a lot of people, even people in bands on Warped that were totally different sounds from us - like [Elijah] Witt, from Cane Hill. I remember sitting in the trailer, playing him that song on Warped and they’re like fuckin’ rock-n-roll and he started - sorry Witt, if you read this, I’m totally selling you out right now - but he just started crying and was like, “Dude, you’re fucking me up right now. Don’t do this.”
I feel like people hearing that different, totally vulnerable side that they had no idea about made them feel more comfortable about opening up about things and being like, “Hey this is why this song touches me, because I actually went through this.” I actually had a really good talk with Adam [Zytkiewicz], the guitar player of Oceans Ate Alaska about it and he told me things that I never knew about him. That’s why we write songs like that, because people might not know you, but that sets a level ground to where it’s like, “Okay, I feel something from this song, I feel comfortable opening up to them about this, because they just opened up to me, and they didn’t even know they were opening up to me.” So yeah, I was extremely at a loss for words, mostly, when it all started happening, but was definitely very proud.
Kenny: I think we all knew, man. When that song was finished, I think we all knew what was going to happen when people heard that song.
God, guys. I don’t think I have anything left to ask. You pretty much said it all. Do you have any plans after this tour? Are you finally gonna take it easy?
Kenny: I think we’re done for the rest of the year, but early 2017 you’re going to see us.
Keaton: All year.