Three releases into their career as an independent entity, Philadelphia post-metal outfit Rosetta has provided listeners with a widely-varying palette from which to draw. 2013’s Anaesthete is their most punishing record. Quintessential Ephemera explores uplifting melodies that interweave with the swirling maelstrom, aided by the addition of guitarist/vocalist Eric Jernigan. This year they released Utopioid, a record that features the band exploring textures and instrumentation more than ever before.
Their first narratively conceptual work, it is also a very deliberately-structured sonic experience, split into a trio of three-song movements designed for front-to-back consumption. Rosetta has proven time and again to be one of the most thoughtful bands in the genre, doggedly pursuing ideas and methods of re-defining their sound, so we were very happy to have the opportunity to chat with guitarist Matt Weed.
After the release of Quintessential Ephemera you noted that the concept behind the album was “technology promises us utopia but costs us our humanity.” Now you’ve released an album entitled Utopioid. Is there a conceptual sinew connecting these records, or is the repetition of “utopia” merely a coincidence as you’ve moved on to new ideas and themes?
I wouldn’t say it’s coincidental, but it’s definitely not a formal connection. It’s more that it’s the same five people with similar interests and ideas writing the material. In either case, it’s talking about a promise or a wish that doesn’t materialize. One huge difference between the two is that Quintessential was a kind of collection of meditations on technology, whereas Utopioid is a much more formal, linear narrative that’s intended to be digested end-to-end. Quintessential is more of a critique — it’s detached and brooding; Utopioid is an allegory, fully in-character and much more concerned with what you might call “life story hermeneutics,” or a kind of tragic ur-narrative of disappointment and self-destruction in modern life. Obviously it’s far and away the most ambitious concept we’ve ever tackled, but Quintessential laid a lot of the groundwork for being able to work on that collaboratively.
Rosetta is clearly not a band that shies away from deeply thoughtful concepts. What are some ideas that you haven’t addressed yet that you’d like to mine for future material?
One that immediately comes to mind is environmental degradation. I know that’s something that a lot of bands, of widely divergent genres, have talked about. But I imagine addressing it not in terms of apocalypse, but in terms of melancholy — the loss we will experience when a great mass of our beautiful world passes away. I read a book a couple of years ago called “After Nature” that really drove home that idea to me, that even if we find technologies that allow us to survive comfortably in an ‘anthropocene’ world, we can’t ever fill the emotional hole that will be left in Nature’s absence.
Moving beyond ideologies to more sonic interests, the records you’ve released since going independent have all varied considerably in terms of sound and texture. What are some musical approaches you haven’t explored yet that you’d liked to? Any instruments you’d like to experiment with that haven’t yet played a part in the band’s sound to this point?
Utopioid has a LOT of new instrumentation, because we completely disregarded any considerations about live shows while we were writing it. So it has a lot of Bass VI for the first time, plus odd tunings and strange vocal techniques (there was ALMOST a whistling track). Synths played a big part for the first time ever, and I think that’s a new frontier for us that will keep expanding in the future. I’m not saying our next record will sound like Vangelis, but there’s just such a vast range of texture to be mined in the world of analog synthesis and circuit-bending. I hope we can integrate that into our toolkit.
I wanted to focus on something that appeared on your website when Utopioid first released:
“We can’t please everyone and we don’t try to. But please don’t assume that anything we do is haphazard or accidental—this album, even more than the ones before, is the result of a deliberative decision-making process that deeply involved every member of the band at every stage. We made every creative decision to highlight something that was important to us, and to serve the underlying concept or ‘thesis’ of the album. As you listen, if something confronts you, we hope you ask why we might have made that choice, rather than dismissing it out of hand. And we hope you can enjoy the music anyway.”
Even as the band’s sound has evolved, there has always been a melodic through-line that ties your material together and helps the albums to make sense in the context of your entire body of work. Despite this, have you found yourselves feeling an increasing need to defend your choices (particularly since becoming an entirely independent entity)? This statement seems pre-emptive, as if there was an expectation of backlash on your behalf.
In fact, there has always been a backlash! We’ve had a running joke in the band for almost ten years that everything we release will immediately be hated because it doesn’t sound exactly like the previous album (or in many cases, because it doesn’t sound exactly like the FIRST album). People generally are most excited about the 2nd-most-recent album, and then there’s always a little contingent of “dead-enders” for each album we’ve made. The reality is that we will make what we want to make regardless of who complains about what. But we also aren’t switching things around to intentionally alienate people; if it’s possible we want to educate people about our motives and ideas and invite them along for the ride. You can’t make people like something. All that said, it is remarkable how many people have complained about creative decisions we’ve made and blamed their disappointment on our being independent — something along the lines of “I don’t like this production, it must be because they’re broke and can’t afford a real studio.” In fact, being independent has meant that our production budgets have almost tripled and we have the ability to make exactly what we want to make — every time. We just want people to know that we have priorities other than arbitrarily-defined “sound quality” or “heaviness” or “epic riffs” or whatever their yardstick is. At the risk of ranting, I am endlessly frustrated by people who consume music as a way of building their identity — it means that everything needs to remain predictable, safe, similar. Otherwise, it doesn’t reinforce their personal brand. Honestly, it’s hard to imagine anything LESS relevant to what we’re trying to accomplish as a band than “branding” of any sort.
How have you managed to keep the relationships between band members tight over the years? Is it as simple as just being a testament to the strength of your friendships? Or is it the collaborative spirit through which everyone is expected to contribute to all facets of the music, rather than a group of people serving one individual’s singular vision? Some combination of both? Especially in today’s music environment, it seems very valuable to have a band like yours that can offer perspective to younger independent bands seeking to make it work.
I think every member values the work above almost everything else. So any conflict that happens has to be dealt with in a mature way in order to preserve the band and our common investment in it. After so many years, it’s more like family. We’ve all experienced that deeper collaboration means better work, so people have had more and more willingness to be vulnerable and suspend their ego in that pursuit. It’s uncomfortable sometimes, but it’s worthwhile. We’re still making progress.
I’ve seen mention in the past of bands such as Oceansize, Botch and Stars of the Lid having a great impact on you. But I’d like to know more about what moves you in the current landscape. What are some bands that have stood out in the past couple years, or maybe some artists you’ve discovered that you find to be flying under the radar?
I can only really speak for myself in this regard, but I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by doing deep dives into Bandcamp. I’ve found some drone artists that I really like, just by paging through and exploring — Nuances and r beny are two artists that I’ve really enjoyed this last year. In terms of heavy music I’ve really appreciated recent releases by The Body and Bell Witch, just for the risk-taking and boundary-violating that they do.
You’ve noted that adding Eric has opened you up considerably to the idea of collaborating with other artists. Are there any musicians or visual artists in particular that you believe would bring a strong perspective to the Rosetta aesthetic?
I think this is probably over-the-top aspirational, but I’ve always admired the work of Thomas Koner, in the way that it’s sonic, visual, and place-based all at once. Murcof is another artist that comes to mind. They’re both people that I think have probably never heard us (and may not care at all about what we do) but whose work I feel a strange kinship with, because of its emphasis on mood, place, and implicit narrative.
Moving away from music a bit, you just finished a tour of the Western US. Can you share anything that stood out to you during your travels? An amazing restaurant, a particular location you visited that left you in awe, a show that stood out for an interesting reason, or any good stories from the road?
We love to use touring to connect with nature. We had two days off in the Canadian Rockies on this most recent tour, and got to visit Banff National Park in Canada and do some hiking. I know that’s a pretty popular destination, but it’s just not possible to overstate how sublimely beautiful it is. I was so happy to be able to visit there during the autumn when it’s still passable, but there’s snow in the higher elevations. Just a magnificent place and deeply restorative to be in. Highly recommended!