Life in a 'Coma'

On a sprawling and engaging new concept album, Between the Buried and Me wants to put you to sleep. HM talks with vocalist Tommy Rogers about the writing process behind ‘Coma Ecliptic’ and why he took his characters on a search through past lives, all while asleep

Photo by Justin Reich

Between the Buried and Me

“We were really worried it wasn’t going to sound like Between the Buried and Me. Once we got into a song or two, we knew it was is different but it still sounds like us, and we were totally comfortable with that.”

On a sprawling and engaging new concept album, Between the Buried and Me wants to put you to sleep. HM talks with vocalist Tommy Rogers about the writing process behind ‘Coma Ecliptic’ and why he took his characters on a search through past lives, all while asleep

How are things going in the BTBAM camp?
Good. Real good. I’m at home right now, taking it easy before the record comes out and we start touring again and all that. Yeah, everything’s good man.

I had a chance to listen to the record. Digging it.
Thanks man! I’m super pumped. Very few people have heard it, so I’m glad people are finally get a chance to hear it. That’s one of the first things — you get done with a record and you like it, but you get so anxious for the rest of the world to hear it.

You end up finishing it and then sitting for months on it.
Yeah. (Laughs) I honestly forget about it sometimes, “Oh, yeah, we have a new record coming out.”

It’s an interesting record. On first listen, it still definitely has that Between the Buried and Me sound, but it’s quite a bit more melodic. Not just musically, but vocally you’re singing about 90 percent of the time. Was that a stylistic choice or was that just the natural progression of the band?
It was really natural for us. Normally, when we start writing records, we don’t discuss what’s going to happen. We go off and write a lot on our own, and we get together after a little while and see where everyones heads are, see what the vibe is around what everyone is writing.
But from the start, I think we were just in a different place. The music was more melodic — like you were saying — and we just went with that. It felt right. It felt natural to us. The writing process went really quick and smooth.

When I started getting into the vocals… My main thing as a vocalist is writing for the part, writing for the song. What needs to happen, happens, and a lot of the music didn’t call for the heavy stuff. It’s not that I was like, “I’m not going to scream.” There were even parts where I had screaming that didn’t work, and vice-versa; there were parts where I had singing where I changed to screaming because it didn’t work. I feel like a lot of the music just called for something different. I took it as a chance to write differently than I normally do and try something new on my end. I think I learned more about my voice on this record than I have in a really long time. Doing this as long as we have—over a decade—it’s nice to be put in that situation, like “hey, I’m still learning.” I’m still figuring things out about the band and myself. And I think we all were in that boat with this record.

Your vocals do sound really strong, like you pushed yourself on this one.
I appreciate it. It was a lot of work (laughs). It didn’t come easily for me. With writing it, it was just such a different record, I took a totally different approach. It was time consuming, but I think it came out really well.

Like you were saying earlier, we were really worried it wasn’t going to sound like Between the Buried and Me. Once we got into a song or two, we knew it was is different but it still sounds like us, and we were totally comfortable with that. This sounds like us, a new version of us, which is what we wanted from day one.

How was the fan reaction to (the first single)?
It was great. It was better than I thought, honestly. Me, personally, I always expect the worst. I know it’s different.

That and metal fans in general are notoriously particular.
Yeah. But it’s been great. And the way we’ve slowly progressed into what we are today, I think fans expect it. Fans don’t want the same thing over and over. That’s one thing that’s interesting with us: When you get a new record, you don’t know what every song is going to sound like. As a fan of music myself, I enjoy when I get a new record and I don’t know if it’s going to be like the one before it. The fans appreciate that and expect that.

You guys are gearing up to tour with Haken, the British prog band. Do you look at that as a chance to gain some new fans outside of the metalcore scene that you guys came up in?
I hope so. In some way or another, we try to do that on every tour. In Europe, especially, we’re kind of behind, so I really hope we can gain some new fans. They are a great band, we’ve listened to them for years, and it’s going to be cool to finally get on the road with them.

Speaking of the more melodic nature of Coma Ecliptic, with the music getting more expansive and melodic, are you seeing any overlap with the writing process of your solo material?
No… no. I’m not the only one with something on the side in this band, and we never work on our side projects at the same time as working on Between the Buried and Me stuff. When something is going on, that’s the focus, what we’re writing for. I wrote the last solo record on the road with Between the Buried and Me, which I enjoyed. I always write solo stuff on the road, but BTBAM stuff has to be done before I actually start working on solo stuff.

You have described Coma Ecliptic as a “rock opera.” What’s the big concept here?
It’s a fairly simple concept. It’s about a guy who goes into a self-induced coma to travel to past lives he’s lived. Each song deals with a different past life. They are very bizarre concepts, and he’s trying to find something different from his own world. In the end, he realizes he’s just been in a coma most of his life and none of this stuff was real. That’s the gist of it.

I wanted to create something that could easily stand across a whole record and have the freedom to create stories within stories. That’s why I enjoy the “past lives” idea, because I could create all these disparate stories. When I’ve written concept records in the past, it’s easy to get stuck. You want to branch out but you can’t. This concept allowed me to be able to branch out. If one song was a little heavier and the theme didn’t feel right, I could create a story that would fit the mood for that song.

So, essentially, each song on the record is a chapter of sorts in the bigger story?

What was the genesis of the idea? What mindset do you need to get into to write these concept stories rather than personal lyrics?
Well, the way I write when it comes to concepts is really getting into the music. I want everything to work with the music. Almost like a backward film score — the music is done, but I need to write a movie. And that’s kind of how I do it. I visualize what should be happening in the moment and the moods that are created in that moment. The first few weeks or months of the writing process, I do a sketch of sorts. I kind of chart out what’s going to happen during each moment before I write the story.

Almost like writing a screenplay.
In a way, yeah. The thing is, you spend all this time coming up with the story, but there isn’t a whole lot of dialogue. So, sometimes, you have a lot more to say than you can, which is hard. Especially with this record being more melodic, I tend to write less lyrics when I’m singing rather than screaming. There were moments when I was like, “Man, this song is finishing up and I still haven’t gotten this thing across. I need to find a way to make that happen.” That was an obstacle I kept coming across with this record, in particular.

Has the band ever entertained the idea of doing The Wall-style visuals to go along with the concept?
I think that’d be awesome, but that’s a matter of money and resources. If we had the money, I’d love to (laughs). Maybe one day we can do something like that.

With the design of the layout, we really tried to convey the story, which we did with photography this time, rather than artwork. It was great. We had a photographer and artist that we’re close with go in the middle of the desert and take these photos. They were super hands-on. We worked very closely with them. We’re trying to have a really cohesive package we’re presenting with this record, and hopefully that helps with the story even more. I’m really blown away without the layout — even though it’s not a movie, I think it really tells the story well.

I know every band says that their new record is their best one yet, but do you think that Coma Ecliptic is the culmination of everything that BTBAM has been doing so far, packaging it together better than you ever have?
Like you said, it is cheesy to say. I think every record is that way. If you aren’t getting to that point with every record, you aren’t doing it right, just like any job. You’re working toward something. With every record, we grow as people and musicians, and hopefully that shows.
I’m very proud of this record. It is my favorite record we’ve done, but it’s also new. I love everything we’ve done so far, and everything we’ve done was perfect for the moment we did it. I’m super proud of what we’ve done. I know a lot of musicians hate on earlier material, but I think everything was made for a reason, and I’m stoked on everything we’ve done.

It’s easy to hate on previous material if you put out the same record over and over.
Right. Like, “I’m doing a better version of that now.” When I listen to Alaska, it feels like the same band, but it also feels like different music to me. And I know a lot of people feel like that. But we’re not doing a new version of Alaska. It is an evolution of that sound. We’re the same dudes. I still enjoy all of that stuff.

Totally. A week ago I was listening to your self-titled record from 2002 and compared to Coma Ecliptic — wow, what a shift.
(Laughs) Yeah.

But in looking at your catalog as an evolution, you can appreciate all of the records for what they are, even if they sound different.
Yeah, and when you listen to that stuff you remember where you were. When I listen to that self-titled record, I remember leaving the studio and driving two hours to go to work the next morning. Never sleeping. We recorded that one in five days, live in the studio. Its so much different than now, but was such a great experience. We learned so much. It might not be the best record ever, but it’s awesome. It represents that timeframe, when we were young and didn’t give a sh-t about anything.

Between the Buried and Me was posted on June 24, 2015 for HM Magazine and authored by .