Q&A: Isis

Isis: “Grinning Mouths” from Clearing the Eye live DVD (Ipecac, 9/26/06)

In June of 2010, post-metal quintet Isis called it quits following a farewell tour. The LA band was one year removed from its final studio release, Wavering Radiant, and feeling that it didn’t want to “push past the point of a dignified death,” its members parted ways right before the release of a split EP with Melvins.

Now the band is giving wistful fans another taste of its melodic sludge rock. On May 31, Isis posthumously and digitally reissued the first of its five live album, which originally were released over the span of 2004 to 2009.  The rest are being rolled out in two-week intervals, with the third becoming available this Tuesday, June 28.  ALARM recently spoke to drummer Aaron Harris about the reissues, the band’s personal significance, and what the members have been doing since the breakup.

What was the catalyst in putting together the live album series?

We wanted to have something we could offer to the fans. We were getting a lot of live recordings coming in from fans that had been to our live shows, and it was just starting to pile up, and we figured we should do something with all these live recordings. So we started sifting through them and figured that we would do a little live series, release it ourselves, sell it at our shows, and make it a limited, special thing.

We did small runs of them, and once they were gone, they were gone. Recently, we decided that we would make them available digitally and reissue them. So that’s what we’re doing now. They’re digital reissues for people that weren’t able to get copies the first time. It’s just kind of a cool idea to strengthen the fan/band bond, something between us and the fans.

What do you miss about touring and playing with Isis?

The thrill and the energy of playing live. I don’t know if it can be replaced by anything else. There’s something special about touring and visiting your favorite cities and playing shows in some of your favorite spots and getting to see old friends. It’s something I’ve done since I was a teenager, so it was part of my life, and I guess, in a sense, it’s part of me, and it’s not there anymore. So I definitely miss it.

What kind of significance does the time that you spent with Isis hold for you in your personal life, professional career, etc.?

It’s a big part of who I am. I was a teenager…we grew up together. I’m 33 now, and I spent a lot of crucial years with the members of Isis and in the band, touring and building the band up. It definitely shaped who I am and made me a semi-established musician. A lot of important things happened for me throughout the career of Isis. The first time we got to tour in Europe — that was amazing. I had never really been outside of New England.

I grew up in Maine and spent some time in Boston; that’s where the band formed. I never really imagined that we would leave the New England area, let alone play shows in Australia, Europe, and Japan. I got to see a lot of places that I never thought I would get to see, which is pretty amazing just in itself. The fact that people on the other side of the world were fans of our band and willing to come out and see us play — that was pretty incredible.

Do you feel like there are any bands out now that have kind of picked up where Isis left off?

I see the name Isis tossed around in reviews in references to other bands when referencing a sound. I just saw something the other day, where a band was described as sounding like early Isis. It’s cool. That’s another thing that I never thought would happen — that we would be an influential band or make a stamp in the vast majority of music out there. It’s definitely an honor to be influencing other bands.

There seems to be a balance of light and darkness between the melodic guitars and driving bass, and the singing and more intense vocals. Is that something that Isis tried to accomplish?

It’s just something that evolved in our sound. Early on, we didn’t really know what we wanted. I mean, we had an idea of what the music we wanted to play would sound like. It wasn’t until a few albums into it that we started to develop our own sound. We always wanted to have a lot of dynamics. When you’re a young band, your idea of dynamics isn’t very focused. It was just loud and quiet, there wasn’t much in between. We had to work on the building part, composing the songs, making them flow and find our own sounds individually to make it all work. I don’t think it’s as simple as being quiet and loud. It’s almost like making your sound 3-D, like in all dimensions.

Do you feel like the sound changed a lot when Isis signed to Ipecac?

I guess so, yeah. I don’t think it really had anything to do with signing to Ipecac. That was the point at which we were taking the band a little more seriously, so I guess it did have a bit to do with that. We were able to make a living off the band and focus on it more full-time.

How do Isis songs take on a different shape in a live atmosphere as opposed to recording in the studio?

There are just elements to seeing a live band that you can’t really capture in the studio, and I think we were definitely a live band. I mean, I think our records are great, but we really existed in a live realm. To the Isis fans that didn’t see us live, it’s disappointing, but I think our records definitely hold up. It’s just two different things — there’s the record, and then there’s the live show. I think a lot of bands, their record is better than their live show. For us, that wasn’t the case. There was an element to the live shows that I think made us more of a live band.

What projects are you currently working on?

I’m still continuing to engineer, mix, and produce records. That was something I was doing on the side throughout the Isis career. Musically, I’ve just started playing again with Jeff [Caxide] and Cliff [Meyer] from Isis. We started a new band. We don’t have a name or anything yet, but we’ve written a handful of songs, and we’re continuing to write.

I think, right now, we’ve just focused on writing a record. The name and the idea for the release will come later. It’s more than half of Isis, so there’s going to be that sound in there, but it’s going to be different. Aaron Turner is in a band called Mamiffer with his wife. Mike Gallagher has a solo project called MGR and scored a film recently.

Have you considered the possibility of a reunion tour? Did you have that in mind when you started working on the live albums?

No…I mean, honestly, we’ve only been split up for a year. I think people are not really thinking about that. I’m not even sure if it’s a possibility. I hope that someday I will play with those guys again as a group, but a reunion, I’m not really too sure about. We all still keep in touch. We have a lot of live material and some stuff that we’ve been planning to release that we did for Wavering Radiant — some bonus tracks, live video footage. There will still be a few things coming out here and there for Isis.

It’s funny — I see people leaving comments on our Facebook page, and they’re kind of confused, like, “I thought you guys broke up. It’s kinda weird that you guys are still doing stuff, but you’re broken up.” That kind of confuses me. Just because we’re not continuing to write music as a band, we’re still trying to keep Isis alive. Not with new releases necessarily, but we still have some material that we want to release and plan on releasing. I just hope people can understand where we’re coming from.

3 thoughts on “Q&A: Isis”

  1. When I saw their last L.A. show at the Troubadour I asked their staff about the possibility of a DVD/Blu-Ray of a show from that last tour. Any further word? Thanks for all the years of amazing, incredible music!

  2. I understand, man. I sadly only found out about ISIS with Wavering Radiant, and by the time I got Oceanic and fell totally in love, it was too late, the band had split! But I’m excited about the release of live material and the new project(s). Sad as I am I’ll never see ISIS live, thanks for having the damn dignity to end it when you felt you should. Best of luck, boys.

  3. Great interview! Aaron’s one of my favorite drummers and I can’t wait to hear the new project.

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