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Misha Mansoor Interview (Periphery)

Misha Mansoor Interview (Periphery)

April 24th, 2010 by

Misha MansoorAlways striving to expand the outer limits of their sound, Periphery is a band that’s living up to their name – and storming onto the progressive metal scene. After years of anticipation, numerous line-up changes, and several re-recordings, the Bethesda, Maryland-based unit finally unveiled their self-titled debut on April 20th, 2010.

Leading the growth of the latest movement within the metal genre, Periphery’s style pairs the grinding polyrhythmic grooves of bands such as Meshuggah and Tool with the melodic sensibilities of pop music, and supports it with a harmonic platform that’s as complex as it is fresh. Topping it off is some glorious lead work and precise production that is tastefully infused with hints of electronic music.

Periphery opened new ears, but was also received by their established following – one which has had the opportunity to experience the band’s growth and evolution since its inception in 2005, thanks to the active Internet presence of its mastermind Misha Mansoor, or “Bulb,” as he’s known across the web.

The founding member and architect of Periphery’s sound, Misha has long been refining his writing and production skills, with an online portfolio of over 100 songs and ideas to date.  I had the opportunity to sit down and speak with him at the 2010 Metal & Hardcore Festival in Worcester, MA:

IC: Lots of exciting stuff is happening for you guys right now – your record came out just a couple of days ago. What are your thoughts?

MM: As you said, the record just came out and we’re really excited about that – because you of all people know that we’ve been trying to put that out. It’s very cathartic, to say the least, to finally not have to worry about that anymore. As long as we’re done after being re-recorded God knows how many times. It’s over and done with, I don’t have  to worry about it anymore – except for the fact that I have to play the songs every night, but other than that [laughs]…

It’s really good. Now that we’ve got a fully-functioning band and an album out, we can really make a move forward that we couldn’t in the past because we were limited by whatever problems. So we are getting on to some cool tours – we’ve actually been touring pretty much since the beginning of the year. This is our last show in the States for a little bit – we’re having a little break. Things have been good.

IC: That’s good to hear. Your SoundClick has something like 120 or 130 different songs at this point.

MM: Yeah, just little clips and ideas – it adds up, you know?

IC: So you guys have narrowed it down to… ten tracks on the album?

MM: Twelve tracks. The album evolved over time – interestingly enough, songs like ‘Letter Experiment’ and ‘The Walk’ were on the first incarnation of the album that we were planning four years ago. Albeit, they sounded a little different – they weren’t quite as tweaked as the way they are today.

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But still, it’s been shaped around certain songs being on there, and then as time went on and we had other songs to pick from… Even ‘Jetpacks Was Yes!’ – that’s a very recent addition, it’s a brand new song. And the bonus track, ‘Captain On,’ that was one I wrote in December. I didn’t even post it up, I wanted to keep it nice and secret.

So there is actually a fair bit of newer material on there – it runs the gamut. It wasn’t so much about picking it from the SoundClick as it was just trying to find stuff that was appropriate. We wanted to give as much material as we could – it’s a very long album. On iTunes, it’s 76 minutes long – it’s 73 minutes long without the bonus track. We felt after all this time, we might as well give a nice long album to the fans and the people who have been patiently waiting for it, and get as much material out of the way that doesn’t need to be worried about anymore [laughs].

IC: Are you planning on doing any Bulb tours, or pursuing your solo project with all of the other material you have?

MM: The dynamic and the relationship of Bulb and Periphery is very interesting, because I don’t even know what Bulb necessarily would sound like – at this point, it seems like it would be rejected Periphery songs [laughs]. Essentially all I do is come up with song ideas and I upload them to the SoundClick, and just because everybody’s been really busy with work and I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to produce and have a lot more free time, I’m usually the one writing the songs. With the exception of ‘Racecar,’ the album closer, which I wrote with Jake [Bowen, guitar], I wrote all of the other songs on the album.

I would record the song and be like: ‘Hey, do you want to play this live?’ and the guys would be like: ‘Okay, sure.’ That’s sort of how Bulb becomes Periphery – Bulb can be any style of music: rock, electronic music, trance ideas, metal, whatever – and then if the guys think it’s appropriate… It surprised me sometimes. I didn’t think the guys would be down with ‘Zyglrox’ being a Periphery song, or ‘All New Materials’ for that matter. I thought that they might feel it pushes too far in either direction, but they were really happy with it. That made me very happy, because I want to have as much of a broad base as possible.

Misha Mansoor - by Ivan ChopikWith that in mind, probably a lot of Bulb stuff is going to end up as Periphery, and as a result, I don’t quite know what Bulb is going to be as of right now, other than instrumental ideas. I don’t really have plans for an album, because things are moving really fast for Periphery now, so I’d like to keep my focus on that for the time being.

IC: You mentioned that you recorded the album a couple of times, and following your clips over the years, your sound keeps changing – but I feel like the biggest jump in your mixes and your sounds in general was from the last demos that we heard, to the album. I feel like this mix sounds a lot bigger, and you also seem to have, roughly speaking, a lot more mids happening in your mixes. Do you have a certain process [for mixing]?

MM: It’s just experimenting. We recorded the album last summer, when we had our old vocalist, and the vocal process ended up taking so long, that in the time that it was just sitting around I’d managed to improve my mix to the point where the old album mix was just sounding terrible to me, and I was just like: ‘I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if this was out.’ So this was me kind of being OCD about it.

So I did some mix tests, and the band thought I was crazy, they were like: ‘We just tracked the album. Are you sure you want to re-record?’ I was like: ‘Just trust me.’ I did one song, I think I did ‘Letter Experiment,’ and I showed them the tweaked version of it, and they were like: ‘Okay, I see where you’re coming from.’

Then when we did the transition over to Spencer [Sotelo, vocals]. There was a bunch of work to do there, and that freed up at bit of time for me to re-record everything. I was able to get a lot tighter takes, because I got better at guitar and at recording myself. I developed some better techniques and tricks. So I’m really happy that it happened, as stressful as it was – and we’re just talking about the last two times we re-recorded it. It’s been re-recorded a bunch of times in the past [laughs]. It’s all just refining your craft – just getting better at mixing. I learn by doing. I’m probably not doing it the most efficient way, but I’m doing what works for me.

IC: Did you re-record literally everything on the album?

MM: Yeah.

IC: How did you do drums?

MM: It was very interesting. I really love the Toontrack sample library, and Superior Drummer 2.0 in particular – which is what we used for the album. But I also really love the way Matt [Halpern] plays – he’s got a very unique approach. So what we did was… I used to have a Roland TD-20 [Electronic drum kit], and I ended up selling it to our tour manager Justin Gosnell – he’s got an entire recording setup as his place. So Matt went over and tracked the drums there, and took the MIDI information and then I imported it.

So we were able to get Matt’s unique performance, which I’m really happy with, and then replace it with the Superior Drummer samples. I feel that’s the best of both worlds – you get the performance and you get the sounds, which in my opinion are very hard to match without going to a ridiculous studio, because those are recorded in the best studios in the world. I’m very happy with the way the drums came out on the album as a result. That is probably the way we’re going to continue to record. He was more than happy to play through an electronic kit, and that way we have all his beats and his fills and ghost notes.

IC: Where was the album at when Spencer came into the equation, and how did Spencer come into the equation?

MM: Spencer came into the equation late October or November of last year. We just realized that things weren’t working out with Chris [Barretto, former vocalist]. Chris is a great guy, and I don’t want anyone to think that there’s any animosity… Really, what I would I relate it to is: sometimes you get along with people, sometimes you don’t. I wouldn’t even say that we didn’t get along with him, but we just couldn’t live with him.

It’s very much like the way you have some friends you can hang out with every day, some you can live with, and some that you can’t. If you’ve ever tried to live with a best friend, you’ve realized what an epic fail that can end up being. But he’s a very talented singer, and that’s why as soon as we were like: ‘We can’t work with you anymore,’ we also said: ‘I don’t want you to give up, because you have an amazing talent.’ I got him involved with the Haunted Shores project that I was doing, because I wanted him to know that it wasn’t anything personal.

But at the same time, we were demoing some ideas with Spencer, and we didn’t want to make the announcement until basically everything was done – because I didn’t want it to be like: ‘Oh, we have a new singer and you’re going to have to wait for the album.’ So we actually announced it once about 95% of the album was tracked and written. Spencer had rewritten a bunch of the parts.

We were under a tight time constraint, so we had to really walk that fine line between rewriting parts, adapting parts or just keeping them the same. Given the fact that Tom [Murphy], the bassist and I, had written most of the vocal lines for a lot of the songs anyways – the album’s a nice mix of everybody’s input. Spencer did a fantastic job – he tracked the album, considering how much material there was, he did it in a matter of weeks for 76 minutes of material. He was just working twelve hours a day every day. It was just clicking, chemistry-wise it was exactly what we were looking for. And we’re a very selfish band, so what we’re looking for is always the most important thing.

IC: So you guys actually wrote most of the lyrics before Spencer came onboard.

MM: Yeah, and it’s a big mix – some lyrics are Tom’s, some lyrics are Chris’, some lyrics are Casey [Sabol’s], our old singer, and I contributed some of the lyrics and Spencer wrote some of the lyrics, too. So it’s a big amalgamation of all of our previous singers. And I think it’s cool the way we did it – I don’t think that too many cooks spoiled the…

IC: I remember around the time that Chris was still singing with you guys, Casey was involved in the production process, and when I heard that clip of ‘Letter Experiment’ it reminded me right away of something Casey might do. Was he involved at all with the vocals once Spender came on board?

Misha Mansoor 2

MM: He was involved with Chris’ recording, but that didn’t end up working out. He was doing that as a favor to us, and with our window of time we couldn’t do it with him. We really loved working with him, and I’d like to have him do vocals on whatever project or album we do, because he’s incredibly creative – just off on another planet in his approach, which I personally love.

With this, we ended up going with Matt Murphy, who’s Spencer’s friend, producing the vocals out in San Diego. He’s a really good engineer and has good production ideas, as well. Casey did contribute to some parts – because we liked that ‘Letter Experiment’ bit so much, since it’s a vocoder part we had Spencer talk in and Casey went nuts and made it even crazier than the original. So he definitely contributed a few things, but he just didn’t have the time to record vocals, and we were under such a time constraint that it was like: ‘It’s gotta be done now.’

IC: Tracking back a bit – you’ve been putting up samples for years and playing all the time, but at what point did you realize that you wanted to pursue this full time and make this your career?

MM: In all honesty, that’s something I decided I wanted to do when I quit school. I first put ideas up on the SoundClick when I was in Toronto going to school for philosophy or something like that. I just hated school, it’s not for me. I was there for all the wrong reasons – just because I was expected to be. I just couldn’t see myself pursuing any sort of career that I would be happy with – I was miserable. I asked my parents if I could come home, work full time and try to take my band off the ground.

That was pretty much when I decided. When I was doing that, I was pretty much working all time and it was just like a pipe dream – I was happier than I’d ever been. That’s when I realized that this is what I want to do, whether it works out or not. So it really doesn’t have to do with it even working out, it was just something that I was really determined to do from the beginning, because I really don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t doing this. It’s the only thing that seems to make sense to me.

IC: You really seem to be up on new music technology, from Axe-Fx to Superior Drummer. Is there anything you’ve discovered recently that you’ve been playing with?

MM: We just got endorsed with Fractal Audio – they have some cool products coming out, which I don’t know if I’m allowed to talk about yet, but I can’t wait to try them out. They did send me this one little power amp – this 50 watt tube power amp, this little 50-watt Mono Block. It’s the size of a lunchbox. I haven’t really had a good chance to sit down with it, but I’m really excited to try it, because it’s so small and it weighs nothing. If you’ve ever lifted a straight power amp for an Axe-Fx or something like that – they’re so heavy, and this is something I didn’t realize could be done. So I’m really excited to play around with that – I don’t know if that’s out or if that’s coming out.

Another thing: this company Morpheus makes a pedal called the Droptune. I really want to pick up the pedal. I’m not associated with them in any way – I’d like to be. I tried it out and it’s a pitch-shifting pedal, but it’s the first pitch-shifting pedal that really – when they say it doesn’t mess with your tone or your feel – it really does the best job. It can handle chords. Distorted chords are always the difficult thing to pitch-shift, and this thing actually handles that better than just about anything I’ve ever tried – including the pitch-shifting on the Axe-Fx, which I thought was some of the best I’d ever tried before. It’s a dedicated unit, and it can do USB firmware updates so it can get better and better, and I believe it’s gotten better since it came out. So I really want to pick one of those up.


Fractal Audio's Axe-Fx Ultra

Other than that, I don’t know. The Axe-Fx has really been my focus, because that unit is revolutionizing gear, in my opinion. So many people are switching, and so many people are staying – because it’s hyped to death, and 99% of the time that just means it’s a fad or a phase. But with that – it’s Axe-Fx, power amp, guitar. There’s nothing in front and nothing after. It’s so simple, and it sounds ridiculous. It’s the obvious solution for me, so we’re all switching just for practicality’s sake. You can go direct to the board and have recording-quality sound. That is really what has been my focus lately – just getting our whole band switched over entirely to Axe-Fx.

You’re always in denial: ‘There’s no way it’s going to be that good.’ Taking it out on tour for two months and hearing it every night, Alex [Bois, guitar] and I were just like: ‘We gotta go Axe-Fx.’ So that is the route that we are gonna be going. That is my toy that I’m gonna be playing with for a really long time. We did all the guitars on the album with it, too.

IC: One thing that I want to get your thoughts on is the whole Internet situation: you’ve always been on the positive side of it, because it’s gotten you all this exposure, all of your MySpace plays – you pretty much created your fanbase online before you got the whole band together and started touring… you did some touring with the previous line-up but it’s really now that you’re doing the heavy-duty touring.

MM: As a pro, signed band it’s really been since last summer. We did a few DIY tours before that. With the lineup changes, I almost want to say that it’s been since the beginning of this spring that we’ve really started – because this is the lineup that on the road, in the studio, in every situation really, has felt right and stuck – and I can really say that I don’t want this to change. I don’t foresee any changes. We’ve been on the road for the last few months, so this is also the lineup that has stuck the longest in practical terms, as a touring band. So yeah, we were on some tours before, but it’s really been since last summer that we really started taking it seriously as professional fulltime band.

IC: So far, the Internet has been able to help you spread the word and post your music – until very recently when the album got leaked just a little while before it came out. What are your thoughts on that? Did you find out how that came about?

MM: It leaked about six days before it was going to come out in Australia. It leaked on the 10th, I think, six days before it was coming out in Australia. It probably was leaked while the CDs were at the warehouse level, and that’s very difficult to control. Someone seems to think that it was leaked by a kid in Missouri – I don’t know and I don’t care honestly, because I think if you make to about two weeks before the release, you’re solid. I’ve seen albums leak three to four months in advance – and that is a substantial amount of time. That’s enough time that by the time the album comes out, a lot of people have absorbed it and moved on. By the time it comes out, they’re like: ‘Well, I’ve had my spins with this album.’

Misha Mansoor 3

So I think it was good with us, because it wasn’t enough time for people to even catch on – certain people knew, but when our album came out, then that’s when most people found out that it was even leaked in the first place. So I don’t have a problem with that. And another thing, which may not be politically correct from a label standpoint – so I apologize, labels: from my point of view, there are three kinds of music customers in the industry: there are the people who are going to buy it no matter what – they want the physical copy or the iTunes copy no matter what, and they really feel like supporting you. We love you guys.

Then there are the guys who download it, but if they like what they hear, they go and support you – they buy your album, they’ll come to shows and buy your merch – and that is a very real market, whether you like it or not. That’s why I think that leaks aren’t the worst thing in the world, because I really do believe that a lot of the people who downloaded the leak bought the album.

Then you have the people who are going to download no matter what, and not support you in any way, shape or form even if they do like it – and that’s a very real market, which whether you like it or not, exists. Some of those guys might come to your show and buy merch, at best. They might not even do that.

These are the three sorts of markets that I have in my head, and your music is going to cater to them whether you like it or not. And it sucks, but you just kind of have to deal with it, and be okay with it. I feel like if you aren’t aware of that, you’re in denial and you can’t make any realistic assessments on anything, because you’re not accounting for a whole group of people that exists and are doing it – you can’t will them away.

So from an artistic point of view, I’m just glad that people got to hear it. From a business point of view – because we are trying to make a living doing this – I’m glad that a lot of people have been buying it. So first two groups, please support us if you like what you hear, pick up the album, come to a show and buy some merch and help us eat some real food, because we like it – as much as we love ramen [laughs]…

IC: The group that surprised me is, if you will, a fourth group – the guys that go out of their way to post stuff on YouTube and other places. I don’t really get that.

MM: I shouldn’t say this, but I don’t really have a problem with that, because we’re such a small band that we need all of the help that we can get. I really believe that a lot of the people who heard stuff on there went out and bought the album – maybe not everyone, but think about it for a second. It’s very inconvenient. It’s like MySpace – it’s low quality and you can’t take it in the car with you or anything. I really think that a lot of people who see it on YouTube or wherever will end up buying the album, because they’re like: ‘I want to have a copy for myself.’

I know this from the SoundClick stuff, because all of our stuff on the SoundClick site is for free download, and so many times people would come to me and be like: ‘Hey, man – I want to send you money. I want to pay for this!’ ‘Well, that’s not the point. I’m trying to give this away for free. Do me a favor and put a bunch of songs on a CD and burn it and give it to your friend – that would be a better favor than giving me money right now.’

But that very mentality translates to this, where it’s like: ‘Okay, well now we do have a CD for sale, so just go and buy it.’ People were like: ‘Oh, I couldn’t find your CD, so I just want to give you money.’ Now you can actually go buy our CD. I think it’s important to focus our business plan on those first two groups who are going to buy it, rather than focus on the people who aren’t going to buy it – because they’re not going to buy it, no matter what. You can’t yell at them, you can’t reason with them – they’re just not going to buy it. So factor them out when you’re making your business plan.

IC: Can you tell us something that you’ve never mentioned before in an interview? It could be anything – a story, something about yourself…

Misha Mansoor

MM: Here’s a little secret: we did about 500 signed posters for the presale, and we definitely personalized a bunch. We were actually playing a show with Dillinger Escape Plan and our good friends in Animals As Leaders – I produced their album – so Tosin [Abasi, of Animals As Leaders] was over there, and he ended up signing a bunch as well, and he misspelled his name on a few, because he gets people trying to argue that his name is Tobin or Ossin or something [laughs]. We personalized a few by writing some crazy stuff… I signed Blub on a few. I would love to know who got the personalized posters.

IC: What are you listening to these days?

MM: A lot of fusion, a lot of electronic music – I’m a sucker for trance. I’ve always been. It doesn’t make any sense, because I’m such a snob when it comes to any style of music – I’m so picky. But trance has the [imitates trance beat] – you know? I just love it. I can listen to two hours of the same damn beat at the same damn tempo. I just download these ‘Top Of Trance’ mixes and listen to nonstop – the sound design is always great. It’s inspirational.

I really like stuff like Telefon Tel Aviv, Prefuse 73, Jaga Jazzist – I love Jaga Jazzist. Allan Holdsworth never gets old to me. Guthrie Govan, and Greg Howe – Extraction is a classic record.

IC: I see a lot of the Guthrie and Allan-isms creeping into your style – especially with a lot of lead work on this album.

MM: Thank you. I will take that as a compliment, because I revere those dudes, but I do not have an ounce of their capability. They’re inhuman – they’re in a class of their own. That’s why Allan and Guthrie are my two [inspirations] for creative lead playing – Guthrie for everything that’s in and tasty, and Allan for everything that’s out and weird. Those are my two guitar gods right there – I’d love to have some guest solos from them… hint, hint [laughs].

IC: How did the Jeff Loomis solo on this album come about? It’s a killer take.

MM: Yeah, I’m so happy with that. Jeff actually contacted me a few years ago via email – apparently someone posted a link to our SoundClick stuff on his forum, and he checked it out and he really liked it, so he sent me an email. It was really funny – this was back when I had my Hotmail account, and I used to have my MSN open and it would update me: ‘You’ve just received an email.’ And it said: ‘You’ve received an email from Jeff Loomis.’ I was like: ‘Ha! Some asshole has the same name as Jeff Loomis. What a douche!’ [laughs] Then I was like: ‘Oh shit! It’s really Jeff Loomis!’ I didn’t know why he would be emailing me – someone of that caliber.

We just started talking, and he came to town with Nevermore, and I got to see the show and got to hang out with him – he’s just a really cool guy. We’ve kept in touch since – we talk gear and all of that. He was not so hip with the newer gear, but he wanted to be – so I was telling him about my rig. I actually got him into the Axe-Fx.

IC: I was just going to say that he’s using that now.

MM: Oh, yeah – he loves it. As he should. So we talk about gear and music and the industry, and he always said even way back in some old incarnation of the band that: ‘Yeah, I’d love to do a guest solo on your stuff.’

When I recorded the last version in December or January, he said: ‘Yes, I’m still down to do that guest solo.’ I was like: ‘Really? Awesome!’ So I sent him ‘Racecar’ and I was like: ‘Here’s the section I’d like you to do a solo over.’ I didn’t tell him a thing, and he just nailed the feel I was going for. Trust me – if I could play like that, I would. The one downside is that I will never be able to recreate it live, ever [laughs]. That solo is just stupid. I do not have the ability to recreate that – so I apologize for that in advance, but I am not Jeff Loomis. That was a cool guest solo to have. I absolutely love him as a guitarist – he’s a well-rounded riff writer and a tasty shredder.

IC: You have an extremely current perspective on getting yourself out there and on the road, and on taking the next step as a band. Can you give any advice to other young bands trying to get to the next level?

MM: I can give you advice – be patient. That’s the best advice I can give you. It’s really, really hard. We are probably a lot smaller than we could have been, because we passed up so many deals – but we have a much better deal because of that. We turned down so many deals that could have gotten us signed, and maybe gotten us to a much bigger place than we are right now. Or maybe not – it’s hard to say. You never know.

But what I do know is that by waiting, we’ve ensured that if we do have a long career, that we will have something to show for it in the long run – even when we aren’t musicians anymore, if the music thing doesn’t work out. We own our stuff, and that’s a very important thing.

Ivan Chopik and Misha Mansoor

Ivan Chopik and Misha Mansoor

In today’s day and age where recording is cheap and labels have changed, the rules are different. No one really knows what the rules are, and if you find a label that’s willing to be flexible and work with you, and maybe invent some new rules on how things should work…

Sumerian were very good about that, and that’s the reason we loved them. They’re incredibly forward-thinking, and they are very hip to the changes of the market and the Internet, and how it’s affecting things and how that can be taken advantage of. We have a very symbiotic relationship with them in that regard – where if we do well, they do well.

Stay away from 360 deals [laughs]. Just be patient. It’s hard, and a lot of bands are like: ‘This is the only deal we get offered.’ We waited years, and we turned down a lot of deals, but it really did pay off in the long run. I am so glad that we waited – I’m so glad that we waited as long as we did, because when we finally got that deal where everything was right, it was like: ‘Yes, this is it.’ You learn about mistakes that other bands have made – that’s what helped shaped our view into what it is. So try to learn from others, and be very patient.

***Check back soon for an exclusive Masterclass lesson with Misha!***

Misha Mansoor Interview (Periphery)

About Ivan Chopik

Ivan Chopik founded Guitar Messenger in the Fall of 2007 and is currently running the online magazine as Editor-in-Chief, webmaster, and writer. He is also a guitarist, composer, and audio engineer who graduated from Berklee College of Music in May 2012 with a Bachelor of Music degree in Guitar Performance, Music Business & Management, and Music Production/Engineering.

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