Telle Smith of The Word Alive

An Artist's Obsession

Telle Smith, vocalist for The Word Alive, is coming off the release of the band's sixth studio album, MONOMANIA. That was in February. This is, well, now. Originally planned to tour for the new album and play for millions, he’s in his house in California... trading stocks. HM contributing writer Andrew Voigt catches up with the quarantined Smith.

Photo by Dusty Winter

Telle (aka Tyler Smith) of The Word Alive is a busy guy during these days of quarantine, particularly when it comes to playing the stock market (but we’ll get to that a bit later). He’s coming off the release of The Word Alive’s sixth studio album, MONOMANIA, which was only released in February, which, to many of us, feels like a lifetime ago. As one would assume, Smith and the band were originally planning on touring for the new album – but that was then, this is now. Rather than being on a tour bus playing shows for millions, he’s sitting in his house in California doing interviews, stoking the fire for the album.

When he joined the chat, one of the first things I noticed was his hair. His dye-less hair. There was no product, no coloring, no styling. (To be honest, it was a relief knowing even a rock star is having barber withdrawals. He, too, is a mortal.) On MONOMANIA, the band doesn’t hold back the energy and emotion that has kept them in the game since they formed over a decade ago. Fans of The Word Alive have been delivered a riveting record, which turned out to be an absolute gift to return to since fans are trapped inside and listening to more and more music – now more than ever. As Smith reveals, despite the lack of an accompanying tour for the release of MONOMANIA, the isolation and continued experience with the music has left the band feeling more connected to their fan base than ever before.

The Word Alive released MONOMANIA in February. Of course, no one could have expected that with a new album release the tour would be put on hold due to a pandemic. How do you feel the album has been received by fans in the absence of having “live” interaction?
Telle Smith: Overall, it’s been really great. I think no one could have anticipated this happening, and it wouldn’t necessarily be the ideal way for us to release an album where we don’t know when we’ll be able to tour on it. But, at the same time, it is a unique thing and our band has seen a lot of things. We thought we’d seen it all; clearly, we didn’t. Now this is just going to add one more thing to our story where we are one of those small minority of bands and artists who dropped an album right before this all took place.

We were as excited as we’ve ever been. It’s pushed us to be creative, to really dive into our internal fanbase. We haven’t done as much of the “trying to gain new fans” process that we probably would have normally. But that’s totally fine because we’ve strengthened our core, I think, even more. I think our fans understand that this is going to be a hard time for a lot of bands, and they know we were really excited that we wanted to be playing this album for them live – so I think they feel bad for us, for lack of a better term.

And, at the same time – for all music right now – everyone’s starting to get their Netflix binges over with to the point where they’re like, “Alright, I want to divide up my days a little bit differently. I want to start going on walks, going on runs, going on drives just to get out of the house.” So people are starting to listen to music a little bit more. There was a pretty big decline – it was, like, almost 30% less – and now it’s climbing back up. And what we’ve found is that people are still discovering the record every single day. Whether it’s an old fan, a new fan, or a current fan, they have the opportunity to have way less distraction. There is less music being released right now, so in a weird way we’re having a longer period of time for them to really understand what we were trying to do with MONOMANIA. Time will tell how it will be when we start playing shows and how their reactions are, but when we left off on the “Drug in Me Is Gold Tour,” by the end, people were singing along to the new songs so they were spreading and it was catching the audience in the way that we want to.

What inspired you to write MONOMANIA?
When I get this question about songs, sometimes (the answer will) vary because there is a specific story. But, in general, I try to write what I feel is, oftentimes, in the forefront of my mind. With MONOMANIA though, it was definitely a lot of recalling emotions, recalling stories, recalling experiences and situations that mostly I had been in myself or things that had impacted me. Like, one of the songs is from a movie. “Another Year In The Shadows” is actually based on the rarely talked about love story in the movie The Sixth Sense. Bruce Willis’ character. The reason that he is a ghost is ’cause he loves his wife so much and he just doesn’t want to let go. Throughout it, he’s so confused and he’s trying to be understanding… He ends up finding out that he’s dead and that’s the reason she’s ignoring him; it’s not because she doesn’t love him. I always thought that that was such a cool story within the movie: What kept him alive. No one really talks about that when they talk about that movie, so I wrote that song based around that kind of love story.

But a lot of times, when I start writing music or the guys start writing music, you know… Music, I think, implores emotion on its own. Just the way a riff might sound, it might spark an idea or a memory. Then, once I start fixating on that specific memory or time, I’m able to navigate through what emotions match this song. So a lot of time, (the song comes) from life and the things that I’ve gone through – especially the last few years, trying to grow up – but then reflect on some of the harder times in my life.

I do believe, at this stage of our career, I can write about so many different things, but what I’ve found has been most impactful is when I’m super obviously blunt about the bad shit that I’ve either done or been through. I think when people feel like there’s a song that was written for them that expresses what they’ve gone through, that’s going to be a song that people listen to for a very long time. That was kind of my goal: to touch a deeper section of my experiences and share that so that hopefully the people who needed to hear whatever that story or song was found it at the right time.

Does the band plan on doing a global tour once the experts say that it’s safe to do live performances? Or do you think it will be a more abbreviated tour in only select cities?
You know, it’s hard to tell. I think different cities, states, and even countries have a different impact by COVID-19. I think some states are going to be looser and more “normal” than others. I think some are gonna be lax, some are gonna be really strict. I think our plan is, for our first tour back, it will definitely be in the states. We’re not gonna cross borders at all – maybe Canada because that’s not too much of an issue to get home (like, worst-case scenario). We’re definitely not getting on a plane and going anywhere right away.

I think the goal is to play as many places that make sense for us to play. If that goes well and things are cruising along, our goal is definitely to be back to touring internationally as soon as we can. But that’s not going to be the first thing that we do.

Telle Smith of The Word Alive Photo by Dusty Winter

Telle Smith of The Word Alive Photo by Dusty Winter

Something you’ve gotten really into is your jewelry line on Never Take It Off. Do you personally design all of the pieces?
It depends. I’ve designed a lot, and I went into the offices and was working on stuff around Christmastime. I’d say I design or come up with the concept of a lot of things. Each album, I’ve been doing like a drop and then I’ll do a select couple items in-between cycles. I try to find the songs I think have lyrics that translate to something visual when it comes to the jewelry.

I think Never Take It Off do a great job with all the artists; they are super open. They’ll let me do as much or as little as I need to. There’s a ring in the new line that is like a heartbeat monitor looking thing. It’s so sick. It’s so simple and it’s perfect; I wouldn’t have thought to put it on a ring. We were looking at doing something that was a hanging piece, and I’m like, “It looks so much cooler as a ring.” Little things like that. They definitely know what they’re doing and they kill it.

Do you design any of The Word Alive’s merch?
Yeah, I would say that I probably come up with the concepts of 60-70% of the merch. I am definitely the guy in the band that pays attention more to the shifts and trends, especially in the scene. We’ve found this out so many times: What we like is never what sells. It’s always, like, our least favorite. We joke, like, “Whatever we like the most, let’s do the opposite of that because what we like probably won’t do well.” That’s just how it goes.

We’re all in our 30s now and I would say the people who are buying a ton of merch – especially online – are more in that 18-25 year gap. On tour, it’s probably more like 21-30. When we first started out, it was all about, How many colors can we get on one t-shirt? Can we get gold foil? How loud can we make this? It just rotates. What people are wearing to our shows is a huge thing. I go out every night and I look at what the crowd is wearing and I’m like, this is what they’re wearing, and, not just owning it, but wanting it to be their statement piece (showing) that they’re going to see their favorite show or their favorite band.

I believe people give off energy in the way you speak to people, the way you treat people, your actions, your character… I think all those things play into leading you towards a brighter, happier, more fulfilling life.

When it comes to matters of spirituality, I have to ask how that plays (or doesn’t play) a part in your life as well as your art. Is faith a part of your journey?
I mean, it definitely plays a deeper role in the overall aspect of my life. I am not religious, although I was raised religiously. I definitely am spiritual. I believe in something greater than us that is unexplainable. I don’t know if it matches every guideline within all the offerings that are out there, but I believe people do give off energy in the way that you speak to people, the way you treat people, your actions, your character… I think all those things play into this thing that can either lead you towards a brighter, happier, more fulfilling life. Or it can bring you towards a darker aspect when you’re not living as your true self. Cutting out ego, cutting out bitterness. Envy. Jealousy. It’s a hard way to live. Unfortunately, I think the way that the world is, it’s very easy to live in that world and not talk about your feelings, not talk about things that are serious or important. Everyone wants to portray this great, perfect life and that’s just not the reality for a lot people, and it’s certainly not the reality for anyone every day.

For myself, I try to stay in tune with my center. I try to live the best I can. I know I will fail on different days, but I am actively seeking a more positive lifestyle. I pay attention to my mindset. I’m like, “Am I sitting here feeling complacent? Am I depressed, or is it because I’ve just not done anything to self motivate?” The power of choice is so important for anyone with anything, but especially when it comes to your mental health. Making choices that are good for you mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally – they are going to naturally guide you to a higher level of happiness. Obviously, there are mental health issues on the actual disease side, a chemical imbalance. But, for the average person, a lot of it comes down to the choices you make, the way you think, the people you interact with, and the way you live your life. Going through it the wrong way for so many years, I have shifted and I have really tried to focus on being happy and being the best person I can be. That, to me, has engaged more spiritual openness that I think everyone has – they just might not call it the same thing as someone else.

With being stuck in quarantine, what have you been up to?
Well, I would say the most random thing I’ve gotten into is the stock market. I am not a morning person and I have a Monday through Friday 6:20 a.m. alarm set on my phone. I wake up now to be there for the market open. I’m reading all day long throughout the day about different stocks, about different things that are happening in the world – stuff that I would have never pictured myself doing – ever – and that I may not have done had this not happened. Had an inevitable crash of sorts happened, I don’t think that I would have felt confident just jumping into the deep end of the pool. So I started doing that and I love it. I love reading about it. And I’m no expert by any means, but it’s a rush in a weird way that I hadn’t ever experienced. It is, in a way, gambling, so it does release some of those endorphins.

Millions of people are being severely affected financially due to the pandemic, including music artists. For fans who are financially able, how can we best support you and the band?
Well, for The Word Alive, we do have a Patreon, so that’s direct to the band. We do all the work. Everything you see on there is done by someone in the band or us collectively. We do have a little help with certain things from our management team, but, outside of that, all the responses are from us. It definitely is a huge help. It’s the best way to directly impact the band, financially speaking.

Outside of that, streaming music, purchasing music, buying merch – all those things are still invaluable. If everyone is like, “Well, my $5 doesn’t really help,” well, if 10,000 people all were like, “I think $5 will help,” that’s a much larger number. I think it’s about that mindset. I think a lot of times people are like, “Eh, this isn’t going to really do anything. I don’t want to buy an album, because you guys are only gonna get like a $1 or something.” Well, yeah, but nobody buying it is $0.

Whatever you’re passionate about… Some people love collecting vinyl. Over time, collect all of our vinyl and you’ll have a cool collection to look back on one day. Some people want to have a physical CD, they want to read the lyrics. There are other people who are like, “I don’t financially have the ability to do much for you,” but we have YouTube and Spotify, Apple Music, all these things. People nowadays can still support a band for technically free that benefits us.

Photo by Dusty Winter

The Word Alive was posted on May 27, 2020 for HM Magazine and authored by .