Smile Politely

Metaphysics is music with a mood

Some of the coolest bands are the ones that update their sound as time goes on. In the case of Metaphysics, the audio evolution occurred within the space of a few short years, and was due to locale more than anything else.

Even the most casual of listeners will notice the band’s surprising transition from a layered, ethereal haze of tunes on the albums Reformation (2017) and Deconstruction (2018) to the much grittier songs on Wasteland (November 2019). But whether recording in an organic way with bass, guitar, and drums or creating computer-generated music that’s atmospheric and moody, Metaphysics has a satisfying, diverse sound — stimulating for those who want a true album experience.      

The band is led by Michael Thies, who sings and plays guitar. He and his wife moved to New York City in 2012 so she could attend graduate school. The couple is now back in C-U to be closer to family, and Thies said local artists such as Zzo, CJ Run, Cole Bridges, and The Dry Look have influenced his sound.

Metaphysics’ first two albums were created in a “cut-and-paste style,” according to Thies, which involved a lot of Internet interaction with bandmates. Living in New York, it was difficult getting the group together regularly to practice and play. And though Wasteland wasn’t recorded live either, it boasts thick, crunchy guitars, heavy-sounding drums, and an on-the-spot feel that makes it seem as if it was. Thies has soft vocals that are reminiscent of some of the songs Courtney Taylor-Taylor croons on for The Dandy Warhols. 

Smile Politely: Who are all the current and past members of the band, and what instruments do they play? 

Michael Thies: Currently Chris Wahlfeldt is playing drums, Janelle Abad is on guitar and synth, Nico Hualde is playing bass, and I sing and play guitar. When the band started, the main idea was to keep things somewhat fluid and collaborate with other people as much as possible, so there have been a lot of people who have contributed at different points. But basically there has been a New York chapter and a Champaign-Urbana chapter, plus a few people who collaborated over the Internet.

The first album, Reformation, and the dubbed version of that album, Deconstruction, both feature vocals from myself, Racquel Simone, Darlene Charles, Bridget Collins, and Justin Johnson, who rapped on three of the songs. On the latest album, Wasteland, I’m handling all the singing. 

SP: Wasteland has a real garage band type of sound. Tell me where you recorded the album and about that process in general.

Thies: I really wanted to make something that sounded raw and gave off the vibe of a band just retreating to the basement to bash things out. I think the idea likely came from making the move back to Champaign, which is where I grew up playing music with friends in situations not unlike that. So making this big move back to my hometown meant also making a move back to a familiar way of playing music. I wanted that to be reflected on this album. 

It would have been nice to actually record everything live as a band, but we didn’t really have the time or a recording setup that would allow for that. Drums and bass were recorded at Bull & Dog Collective in Downtown Champaign, with just a few mics and an audio interface running into a laptop. Guitars, synths, and vocals were done at my apartment. Almost everything was done in one or two takes, and we kept all the levels set up consistently throughout the process so that it would maintain that feeling of a band just bashing it out in a room together.

IMAGE: Red square with blue streaks. Album art for Wasteland.
Album art for Wastland.

SP: All the vocals are so quiet on your songs. I’m curious how that translates when you play live and have to sing above the din of the instruments. Do you have to belt the lyrics out louder or do they turn up your mic a little extra?

Thies: I like to keep my vocals low for a couple reasons. For one thing, I don’t have a lot of confidence as a singer. It’s just not my strong suit, but I do it to deliver these songs that I am, ultimately, proud of.

At the same time, I’ve come to really appreciate the way some people use their vocals as part of the sonic texture of a recording, rather than having it be the main thing in the spotlight. I know people have been messing around with vocal manipulation forever, but when I heard the way that Kendrick Lamar manipulates his voice to play the role of different characters on his albums, it made me reconsider my approach to how I use my voice on a recording. Nico also once told me I kind of sing like the guy from The Jesus and Mary Chain, and I’m OK with that. 

When we play live, I just try to keep it close to what it sounds like on the record. I know sometimes it can lead to feedback issues because the audio engineer is out there trying to turn my mic up and I’m just sitting there mumble-singing, but I’m always trying to improve.     

SP: I’m amazed at the difference in sound between your first two albums and Wasteland. How did that evolution come about? Was it a case of still trying to find your sound, or were you intentionally wanting a more rock and roll album?

Thies: The first two albums were recorded in New York, where it really wasn’t easy to get a band together. Even if we had a decent practice space, getting a group of people to all ride the train for an extra hour or two a week to and from band practice seemed almost impossible. So as a result, it ended up being a cut-and-paste-style album with people patching in recordings over the Internet or meeting up once or twice to work on things. I think the style of the album somewhat grew out of the necessity of the situation. After that process, I was ready to shift gears and write an album that was more band-oriented, and moving back to Champaign really made that possible. 

SP: What did the band have planned in terms of shows or anything else prior to the coronavirus sweeping the world?

Thies: We had a show coming up with Nap Eyes and CONA that we were really excited about. We were also in the process of getting some more shows booked regionally, but nothing had been locked in yet. Janelle is actually planning to move later in the summer, so I was really hoping to book a string of shows between now and then. I feel like the live band is the tightest it’s ever been, so it will be sad to miss out on these opportunities to play together, but I’m hopeful we might be able to find new ways to keep active. It’s probably a good time to go back to making beats on the Internet. 

I’m excited to keep things going with this band. I have always felt encouraged by the music scene in C-U, and it feels good to be back in the mix.

Top photo by Alan Mitchell.

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