May 22, 2020 Interview – Telle Smith of The Word Alive Talks MONOMANIA
For the past 12 years, Arizona’s The Word Alive has been consistently delivering hard-hitting new music through albums such as 2010’s Deceiver, 2016’s Dark Matter, and 2018’s Violent Noise. But they have also been continually evolving throughout that time, moving from the angry bangers of their aforementioned debut toward something that crosses genres effortlessly, incorporating a zillion new influences into the band’s fearless sound.
And so MONOMANIA was born. Arriving in February 2020, the quartet’s sixth full-length continues on the trajectory laid out in its predecessor, Violent Noise, while searching for a greater slice of sonic glory. Once again reincarnating The Word Alive’s signature sound, the collection lifts the band’s material to the next level, emotionally and musically.
Amid the global pandemic that stalled their plans to hit the road in support of the record, the band’s Frontman, Tyler “Telle” Smith sat down to talk about all things MONOMANIA, his vocal growth, working with Producer Erik Ron, vulnerability, and much, much more.
Cryptic Rock – MONOMANIA picks up where Violent Noise left off and obliterates genre. And while the extremes of the band are more pronounced—the heaviness is at its heaviest and most powerful, while the more melodic moments take on an even loftier quality— one could arguably say that it shows a slightly less heavy The Word Alive. How are fans reacting to the album?
Telle Smith – It’s been doing really well. Obviously with the times we live in right now, you wouldn’t normally want to drop a brand new record three weeks before a pandemic starts. (Laughs) It actually passed Violent Noise on the charts and sales and streaming—it’s the highest we’ve ever had. The reaction across social media has been maybe the best we’ve ever had. Now, looking backwards, probably our most well-received and successful album since we began was Dark Matter, as a whole, and that was in 2016. But even when that first came out, it was such a transition in itself that it took a little bit more time for people to settle in with it.
Violent Noise was us searching for that specific sound and style that you could qualify as ‘The Word Alive sound,’ but we were one foot out the door, one foot still in the past; trying to please people of different generations of our fans. You can’t really be successful moving forward while you’re also clinging to the past.
What makes MONOMANIA so cohesive and special—while also pushing things forward for us, stylistically—is that we just did everything that we wanted to do. We didn’t really have any second guesses, we didn’t have that, ‘Oh, I think we should do this part because old fans might like it.’ We really just came to the realization that if we aren’t doing what we’re 100% happy with, it’s not worth it to us. We’ve been a band for over 10 years, touring the world, and we feel like our message and who we are as people, and the music we want to make, as long as it’s us making the music we’re most proud of, that’s going to speak the loudest. So, we just did it our way and we made the record we wanted to make. It’s the most happy we’ve all collectively been with a record, front to back, probably in our entire career.
Cryptic Rock – It’s a great record—you should be happy! Now, at first glance, the title MONOMANIA might seem like a societal commentary but these songs are very personal. Are you remarking on your own mental state with that title?
Telle Smith – For me, it definitely was a representation of where I had been prior to writing the record. I was able to come out of a really bad place at that time in my life—some of the worst few years of my entire life. I had a complete loss of perspective; I had lost sight of all the things that I should be thankful for. People in my life that meant a lot, I had chosen other thoughts, actions, or other people that pulled me further away from being close with them—some of them being my family, some being my closest friends, but mostly from myself. I just kind of isolated myself and I wasn’t communicating my problems and the things that were going on.
To a certain extent, what you see on the album art is a representation of, basically, my mindset: I was closed off to everyone and I just felt stuck. I didn’t know how or what to do to break out of that. It reminded me, when I was writing the record, of similar mindsets I’ve had. We made the throwback to Deceiver with it, because for that record, as well, I was in kind of an angry place; obviously it reflects that in the lyrics and the overall style of that album. For me, I just realized how easy it is to get stuck in these blackholes where you’re not your best self and you’re not seeing things clearly. I was able to see that I’ve been that way before, I’ve broken out of it, and I need to do this again.
I felt a lot of correlation with, not necessarily all the exact emotions that I felt while making Deceiver, but I felt like now I’m making a record where I can look back and reflect on that time—the previous few years when I was not in the best place or mindset. For me, that’s what it represents and it is very personal. When you look at the album art and then you listen to it, to me, it all makes sense. (Laughs) So, I hope it does for other people, too.
Cryptic Rock – It definitely does! And one thing that is abundantly clear with the album is how mature the band’s sound has grown and, particularly, how smooth and refined your vocals are sounding. Did you do anything differently, vocally speaking, when recording the album?
Telle Smith – Well, my vocal performance on this record is indicative of a few different things. Definitely the mindset that I was at: I was thinking very clearly, and I felt the most creative I ever have in my whole life while working on this record. I was the most involved with the music, of any record, so far. The guys were totally fine with that, because it wasn’t necessarily about playing every part; it was connecting all the emotionality of the vocals and the lyrics to the guitars, to the drums. I expressed what the songs were about as we were writing them, and as the guys were working on parts, I was like, “This is what it’s saying right here, right now, and this is how it needs to make you feel.” We just had never really done that before with any record. Also, I’ve worked really hard on my voice.
But going back to what separates this album so much from, not just the rest, but Violent Noise in particular, would be that I didn’t have that one foot in the past. For me, this is what my voice sounds like, this is what I want it to sound like. This is the performance I wanted to give, and this is the style that I feel most comfortable with. If I were to look back and be like ‘What represents how I feel and how I want to hear my voice?,’ this album is that record for me.
It was awesome because Erik Ron—our producer, who is also one of my best friends—he knows about the struggle; he knows about what a lot of the songs are about or the stories of what they came from. When I would be like “I want to do this idea—it’s so different from anything we would normally do,” he was all about it; he just kind of let me do my own thing. I think a lot of our previous records were a portion of, “Oh, that’s good.” There wasn’t a lot of pushing, necessarily; but he really pushed me because he knew what I was going for. He knew what the songs meant to me, and he was like, “This isn’t it yet.”
He didn’t let me settle for anything, which is frustrating; but it’s the best kind of frustration when someone’s pushing you to be your best, and to ultimately nail the stories that you’re trying to tell and match the emotions. I needed him to push me several times throughout the record, in moments where I was settling and I was like, “This is it! This sounds good to me.” He was like, “I’m telling you this isn’t it.” (Laughs) I trusted him.
It was so collaborative with allowing input and people’s opinions, and everyone was understanding what the songs were about, and why I was singing the way I was; everyone had a clear understanding of that. It’s necessary to create a record like this where you can be super proud of every single song and not a few, a half, or a handful. It took everyone being like let’s all step back. Let’s all try to come at the songs from the same angle, from an emotional standpoint—what is the song about and what are we trying to accomplish with this song?
I think everyone did their job and that makes the vocals shine even more. They could have come in with parts and been like, “I really need the guitar to be super busy at this time.” It might not have called for it, and in the past, I think we’ve done that. Everyone’s just been trying to do their own thing, and this time we were all working together; everything is doing what it needs to do when it needs to do it.
Cryptic Rock – The band is really operating at the next level on MONOMANIA, and several of the songs are apt to make listeners tear up. (Laughs)
Telle Smith – Aww, well, I don’t necessarily want to make someone cry. (Laughs) But I do want people to connect with the songs that deeply. So, that’s very special. Which are the ones that you felt you were connecting to the most, where the message was resonating with you?
Cryptic Rock – “Greatest Almost” and “Another Year in the Shadows.”
Telle Smith – “Another Year in the Shadows” is my favorite song. That song, to me, is one of the most unique Word Alive songs we’ve ever made. I love it!
It didn’t have guitars in it for the longest time. They were very vibey, very kind of background. When you get to the chorus and the riff hits hard, we were just so stoked on how we combined this almost Hip-Hop, dark Electronic Pop—I don’t even know what you would call it—and then combined it with Rock. I want to hear ten of those songs, personally. (Laughs)
Cryptic Rock – (Laughs) It actually makes you think, and I know this is a little out there, but would you ever consider doing a Pop/R&B-influenced solo project?
Telle Smith – It’s funny you say that. I have actually been working on a solo EP for over a year now, I think it’s actually closer to a year and a half now. I have almost all of the songs written, but I might write more just ‘cause that’s how it goes. (Laughs) It is more Dark Pop—it wouldn’t be comparable to Top 40 Pop by any means. I think a Word Alive fan or a heavy fan would just call it Pop, but it has a lot more to it—it has guitars in every song. But I would say “Another Year in the Shadows” is the closest song to my solo project out of any Word Alive song ever.
Cryptic Rock – Your voice is absolutely perfect for that. Unfortunately, in any heavy music, people tend not to give credit to a vocalist when they can actually sing—they just want you to growl and scream. (Laughs)
Telle Smith – (Laughs) Yeah, it is very true. I’ve experienced both ends. When I joined The Word Alive, I couldn’t scream. My screams were suffering, you could say, and people were like, “The singing is good but he can’t scream.” Then, when I was able to find my voice with screaming, people were like, “I love the screaming but I wish they’d just cut the singing out completely.” I was like, “I’m a singer first.” (Laughs) So, that’s never going to happen.
I enjoy both so much. I listen to all kinds of music, as do the rest of the band. I think that’s what really showed the most on this record. Hopefully what we can provide to our fans who feel the same way is you can put The Word Alive on and not feel like you’re just listening to the same song for an hour. I hope that people are enjoying a little bit of branching out with genres.
Cryptic Rock – Obviously on the album you allow yourself to be very vulnerable. Was it hard for you to do that or is that something that you’re just comfortable doing for your art?
Telle Smith – It is and it isn’t. It definitely is hard, because you are sharing pieces of you that aren’t always—it’s not always things that make me feel proud necessarily. At the same time, I feel like it’s a good release to let go of things. I think it’s a good release to tell yourself that, yes, that did happen, and yes it was fucked up and it sucked, but look at where you’re at now. I think it’s good to have these placeholders.
To me, writing our music—we’ve written over 70 songs now—that’s like a book. I can go through our lyrics record to record, and I can remember exactly where I was, how I felt, what was happening in my life; why I wrote the song that I did and how I would have written it now—what I would have done differently. (Laughs) For me, I think it’s good to put it out there and share something that is real because, whether you like it or not, it is a part of yourself and your story.
Maybe me expressing this is something that can benefit someone else and help them to understand how they feel. Recently, it’s becoming more and more common to talk about your feelings and your struggles, especially with mental health and the different, emotional ranges that we go through. But it’s not easy for a lot of people to put into words how they feel or why.
With this record, I’ve had the most amount of response to the lyrical content. I think that’s because I was so vulnerable in putting it out there like that. So, I don’t regret it; I never really regret the lyrics, per se. I look back and sometimes I laugh at them. I’m like, “Damn, you were so angry over nothing!” (Laughs) I do that, but for the most part, I’m like, you know what? This is all a part of my story; it’s a part of who I am. I’m proud of who I am today and if that meant me going through what I have, then so be it.
Cryptic Rock – Obviously, “K.F.” is a beautiful tribute to Kyle Pavone of We Came As Romans, who passed away in August 2018. What would you like the world to remember about Kyle?
Telle Smith – I hope that people just remember how positive he was. He was always making all of us laugh. He was always the life of the party, to a certain extent, and he was a really good person. He had his struggles and he made some choices that unfortunately took him down a path, but I think a lot of people can relate to that.
People make choices they can’t come back from, and I hope that when people hear about his story that it reminds them how important it is to really communicate; to share what you’re going through no matter how bad it is, no matter how hard it is. I just hope that people will be able to confide in their families, their friends, and get help when they need help. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with people asking for help—it’s something that people need to do more of.
I just hope that they will remember him laughing and smiling, and him being a good person. Through everything, even when he was struggling the most, he still loved his friends and family; he was always good to all of his friends and family. That’s what I hope people take away. Obviously he was a great singer, great performer, great artist. He loved music, he loved what he did, and I hope nothing ever takes away from that.
Cryptic Rock – Last question. You may recall from your 2014 interview with Cryptic Rock we also cover movies. So, we are going to ask again, what are some of your favorite Horror and Sci-Fi films?
Telle Smith – Halloween (1978) is my favorite Horror movie of all-time. I’m more of a Thriller person, I would say, but that tinges on Horror. I’m not as much for Freddy Krueger as I am for Halloween. Halloween gets to be somewhat unrealistic when he is continually getting shot over and over and living (Laughs), but to a certain extent, it’s more realistic. There are these stories of people in real life—serial killers, people who are just so evil that they do survive some of these things; they are hard to kill and they do things for no reason.
I like The Strangers (2008) where they literally pick a random house; there’s no rhyme or reason. To me, movies like that are so good because it’s real. What makes you feel afraid and scared is because you’re like, shit, the next time someone knocks on my door, what if it’s that person? For me, I like that side of Horror more.
But I do love Sci-Fi movies: Star Wars (1977) is one of my favorite movies of all-time. So, I love Sci-Fi too. I get lost in it, and I’m just like, “Wow, this is amazing! People are flying around.” (Laughs) I’m not critical of Sci-Fi, but as far as Horror goes, I’m more drawn to what I think could happen.
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