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Formed in 2015 by Brooklyn duo Brady Keehn and Melissa Scaduto, LA-based Sextile began life as an “occult-inspired” post-punk band, with the line-up quickly expanded through the addition of bassist Kenny Elkin and guitarist Eddie Wuebben. Initially compared to psychobilly surf rockers The Cramps, their album A Thousand Hands was an uncompromising and coarse debut - unsurprisingly so, as due to lack of funds Keehn would resort to throwing his microphone lead over the wooden beams in his shed to record a vocal take.
Subsequent LP Albeit Living (2017) was a no-less caustic yet more polished affair as the band added electronic layers to their signature punk sound. However, following the tragic passing of Weubben in 2019, Sextile entered a self-induced hiatus. Resurfacing three years later with their third LP, Push, the electronic component hinted at on Albeit Living has been moved to the forefront of their new synth rock sound. A tapestry of punk, EBM and rave, Sextile’s coveted fan base might want to strap itself in for a very different kind of ride.
Apparently, the name Sextile has an astrological origin. Have you found that people have misinterpreted the name of the band?
All of the time! I think a lot of people think it’s a play on the world reptile or straight-up about having sex on tiles, but we’re pretty welcoming to all interpretations. The original name came from former member Eddie Wuebben who passed away a few years ago to an overdose. He mentioned the word over a conversation with friends of ours from a band called Warm Drag who said, “Why don’t you just call the band Sextile?” Eddie was super into astrology and believed in the power of sticking with something that had resonated with all of us, but then band names are hard - I don’t even want to mention some of the original names we had; they were not the vibe.
Did you move from New York to Los Angeles to follow the “American Dream” or was that based on practicalities?
In New York you don’t really have a lot of space in your apartment to make music and studio and rehearsal rooms are expensive, but to be 100% transparent, we were struggling with drug use and needed to get out of NY to reinvent ourselves, chase our dreams and live life the way we wanted without being chained to substances.
Would you say that the band has punk origins or is Sextile’s sound more related to industrial and early electronic bands from the ‘70s?
Our first record was about us imitating our influences; we were still trying to discover our sound and how we wanted to create albums. A Thousand Hands was recorded in a really tiny shed at the back of an apartment that we’d just moved into in Los Angeles. All I had back then was a Mac tower, a copy of Ableton Live and a microphone, which I had to throw over the rafters because I couldn’t afford a stand. We recorded one instrument at a time and the LP very much reflected the late-‘70s post-punk sound with heavy industrial influences. Since then, I’ve got better at mixing and producing and would like to think you can hear how we’ve transitioned out of that scene.
Lyrically, were you one of those stereotypical angry young bands looking to vent?
Oh yeah. The first two records leant towards us being very political about our frustrations with the world and observations of what we were going through. Now I think we’re pushing more towards how we deal with life and conveying what we‘ve learnt in the sense that we’re not as fearful when it comes to our artistic endeavors. One of the things we’ve always had to deal with was overcoming stage fright or valuing the music we created. By that I mean devaluing it just because it came from us or being uncertain about whether people would like a particular song.
Were those fears related to the quality of a song or how you might be perceived as a band?
Both, but one of the things I’ve learned is that you should release everything you make because although you might think a song is bad it could resonate with a person living halfway across the world who’s going through a traumatic time. I’ve seen that first hand through YouTube comments on a bunch of ambient songs that we initially thought were trash but ended up selling the licenses to for a flat fee. Now YouTube owns the masters in perpetuity so we can’t release those songs, yet when we read the comments they’re pretty serious and emotional. You really, really don’t know how your music will affect people, so the most important thing is to just let your songs go. That can be a scary thing to do, but we’ve confronted those fears on this new record, Push.
There’s been a six-year delay between albums. Was there a concern that you might lose the audience you’d built up, especially as your sound has clearly shifted?
We definitely had some anxiety around that because we’d built a huge Goth crowd around Sextile that we absolutely love. We realize that the new music might alienate them, but what’s cool about Push is that there are a couple of songs that allude to our older sound. Plastic has elements of the darkness that was apparent on our first record but with much better production, mixing and more realized ideas, while Basically Crazy sounds like an updated track from Albeit Living. It retains the fun, guitar-oriented and dancey beats with punk-style vocals, but we bring in this whole crazy synthesizer element. Hopefully, some of the songs still nod to the audience that’s been with us while we try to explore and grow as artists.
Push clearly incorporates more electronic elements into your sound. I understand the Korg MS-10 helped instigate this change?
I always say that I’m not really a musician. I can’t put two hands on a keyboard or solo on a guitar, but I do know how to record. I’m kind of inspired by Brian Eno, who would also admit to not being a virtuoso musician but uses the studio as an instrument. On the first two records, I used VSTs, a Korg Polysix and a Yamaha DX-7, but the MS-10 has a very beefy and particular sound that I was drawn to. When I first came across it I couldn’t play it as well as I’d have liked, so I used Ableton as the brain, sending sounds out to a sequencer and using those to sequence the MS-10. That was the first time I started sequencing basslines and other sounds in time with other instruments, which opened up a whole new door, and we’ve been working in dance music ever since.
Formerly, the electronic beats and basslines would accompany the music, whereas on Push they play a starring role…
That wasn’t intentional, it was an influence from the music we happened to be listening to. We love guitar, but want to keep pushing and challenging ourselves and experiment with contemporary tools for generating and writing music. Melissa and I have been really obsessed with Underworld and were also pulling influences from The Prodigy who conversely felt they needed to differentiate themselves from the rave scene by adding guitars to their music. We’re still exploring that fine balance because, as you said, there are definitely punk roots in this band that we want to maintain. Whether we’re guitar or synth-oriented, it’s really the energy that is the true definition of punk.
The band line-up seems to have changed over the years. Are you now a two-piece because there’s no longer a necessity to use live bass, guitar and drums?
Melissa and I are the main songwriters in the band but Cameron Michel is also part of that core, playing guitar and synths. He was in the band back when it was a four-piece with Eddie in 2017, but after Eddie passed we paused for a while and then Cameron came back in. In terms of the drums, I love having a drummer on stage because I believe that the audience really likes it when a sound relates to an action, but we’ve been messing around with drum machines so much lately that it’s difficult to get a drummer to actually perform those parts. For our upcoming gigs, the main focus will be on drum machines, which allows us to create different sounds, rhythms and emotions than a standard drum kit can convey.
Alongside the beats, 808-style synth bass replaces guitars as the driving force behind many of the rhythms. Are you using vintage sequencers?
There’s this really cool synth shop in Los Angeles called Rosen Sound who we’ve been friends with since forever. Over the past few years they’ve been collecting a massive amount of amazing vintage synths and drum machines and have a beautiful studio that they let us use from time to time. Sometimes I’ll go there on the weekend when it’s quiet and sample all of the original 808s and 909s, chop them up and create round robin drum machine racks in Ableton Live. So although I don’t actually own an 808 or 909, those sounds are always available to use in our productions.
The track Crash has very ambient undertones and a more direct electronic pop feel. It seems to be another new direction that you’re exploring…
Crash resonates with all of us and is definitely a direction we’d like to explore further. I remember waking up on a cloudy Sunday morning, walking up to the synthesizer and there was the sound, albeit not in any particular key. After I recorded the melody I realized the song wasn’t actually in tune, but rather than change everything I simply detuned the rest of the instruments. It’s only the second time we’ve had a guest singer on any of our tracks, but Melissa and Izzy Glaudini from the band Automatic really knocked it out of the park.
In general, it seems that you have been increasingly moving towards a more hardware-based setup?
Right now I’m working from a home studio, which holds the majority of our equipment. As mentioned, the Korg MS-10 was the first keyboard I bought, but now I own the whole series including the MS-50, Rev 1 and Rev 2 versions of the MS-20 and the desktop version. I’ve also got a nice unit full of rack synths, polysynths, patch bays and effects pedals and recently purchased an Elektron Analog Rytm MKII drum machine. Melissa has her own old-school setup with an original Sequential Circuits Pro One, an MS-20 and a couple of other things to get going with.
On Push, you pretty much share songwriting duties with Melissa, which is another evolution of the band. How do you combine to develop the tracks?
Sometimes one of us will be walking around and come up with a vocal idea that we’ll record as a voice memo or we’ll reference sounds that we really like from other artists, but we generally prefer to work in the same room together and start tracks with a beat or a bassline. Things rarely turn out the way we envisioned and there’s definitely a spontaneous energy that comes from working together in a space, which might be provoked by words, conversations or ideas that we have and trying to capture those as fast as we can before they get lost.
Do you have any examples of that?
It’s pretty basic. On the track No Fun, Melissa just stood up and said let me try a vocal on this one, and that was basically the whole vibe behind Push. It’s really about whoever is feeling the energy of a song and has the confidence to interpret a vocal take on it. Over the past eight years, our understanding of music and mixing and our approach to songwriting and the tools we use is getting better and better. It’s a never-ending learning process, but then you’d never want to think that you’ve got it all figured out - that would be boring as hell!
Despite your shift from punk to synth rock, Ableton Live has been an ever-present tool in your armory. When did that learning process begin?
I studied sound design at college, but the teachers would always be mad at me. They wanted me to learn Pro Tools and I was never given good grades because they were teaching me to use software that I felt was archaic. I wasn’t about to do all of that work in an old program, so I kept using Ableton Live and when I’d present in class they would just see all these big chunky waveforms [laughs]. I taught myself how to use Ableton when I was 18 and would spend eight hours a day learning how to record and use all of its EQs, delays and reverbs. Although it was used on A Thousand Hands, for the second and third albums I began exploring its MIDI tools and instruments much more, learning how to achieve different types of sequences and sounds.
How did those explorations factor into your process when creating Push?
It controlled and sequenced everything from a vintage 808, Prophet VS and Korg MS20 to the classic Linn Drum. By using Live’s external instrument tools, we were able to fine-tune, sync and get every instrument to harmonize and stay on the grid. That was absolutely necessary because we had a super tight deadline and having everything on-grid allowed us to edit, produce and structure new parts of a song very quickly. When mixing, I rely heavily on a lot of Live's compressors and audio effects, everything from the Utility plugin to control the stereo imaging of sounds, EQ Eight to manage frequencies and Echo for vocal delays. I may have used guitar pedals in the past, but I don’t have any outboard because Ableton’s effects keep getting better and it’s easy to automate them to achieve the sounds I want.
I understand you recently acquired the Push 3 standalone?
For the live stage, we wanted to find new ways of experimenting with music besides using the sequencers we’ve relied on in recent years. It seemed weird to have to obtain a groove box that forces us to rewrite all of our MIDI parts, so Push 3 will enable us to perform tracks in new ways and have more control over those performances, sequencing other gear on stage in a way that’s in sync with Ableton’s workflow. One of our biggest fears is to have a laptop crash onstage. It happened to me back in the day at a couple of gigs and was the most embarrassing thing ever and something that I never want to experience again.
Text and interview: Danny Turner
Photos courtesy of the artist