In an ideal world, the release of a record is marked by overwhelming sales, a successful world tour, numerous awards and critical acclaim, changing the world of music, mountains of cocaine, and taking forever to release your next masterpiece.
(Unfortunately, Chinese Democracy turned out to be kind of a flop, and last we heard, Axl Rose is now trying to escape prosecution for possibly single-handedly bringing down the US economy. Tee hee.)
In the real world, stuff actually happens differently. After the release of Highland Park, Six Seconds Away's debut album, in the summer of 2006, vocalist/instrumentalist Matthew Hepworth didn't exactly expect to turn around and start living the rock star lifestyle, but...
"It's kind of hard to promote an album and play shows when you're the only member of a band," he notes, sighing. "I basically had a couple of shows in about six months in between trying to work full-time and go to school, and at some point I felt it might just be better to focus on Six Seconds Away as a studio project."
Fair enough. But unlike the relatively quick turn-around time of writing and recording Highland Park (9 months between Hepworth's exit from his former band, Nearfall, and the album's completion), there would be no quick follow-up to strike while the "iron" was... well, if not hot, still sort of lukewarm. Having supposedly learned a lesson from his freshman year of college (i.e., don't drop out of classes to record an album), he transferred to a new college in another town in 2007 and tried to focus on school and the rest of his life.
"I was back in a dorm setting where I was sharing space with other people, so I really couldn't just jam around and write like before," says Hepworth. "I didn't even have my recording computer, just a drums program on my flash drive that I'd carry around. So I'd come up with these ideas, kind of piece together the drums at whatever computer was nearest, and I started stockpiling these little one or two-minute compositions of just drums."
Meanwhile, a couple of changes in living environments found Hepworth in a space where he could once again (sometimes!) plug in and turn it up... and so a second computer was built, and a tiny space in his shared apartment became the refuge for the deluge of ideas that was threatening to leave Hepworth for a more worthy, deserving musician who was actually going to do something with them.
"I had actually demoed a little bit of the structure to "The Watcher" to 4-track, and "Cut Drama Out of Your Diet" had a complete, sans vocals, demo on 4-track as well, but mostly all I had was lyrics and all the drum parts I had come up with," he says. "Nothing really cohesive or organized, at all... it was a little frustrating. I didn't know where to begin."
Then, one night, while testing out his new computer setup and messing around with delay ("I was obsessed with U2's Boy and I suddenly thought delay was the coolest thing ever"), he stumbled across the opening part of "The Watcher"... and within the hour, had the first half of the song demoed out.
"It sort of took off from there - just hearing something finally come together, which I really felt like hadn't happened since I was recording Highland Park, was enough of a kick in the ass to get things rolling again, and it had this completely different sound from anything else I had ever written... suddenly there was hope for Six Seconds Away again."
Except the real world still existed. Even as Hepworth's routine became increasingly centered around writing and recording, it would still take almost two years to sift through everything he had come up with - at last count, around 80 different ideas. Meanwhile, any notions of sanity regarding the approach to actually making a record out of this mess of material went out the window, as Hepworth freely admits:
"At one point, I went out and purchased a whiteboard and came up with this three-part album that somehow utilized around 55 of the songs I had come up with... and for a time, I actually assumed that's how I was going to approach my next release, or I guess, releases.
"It was this whole mess of too much time and not enough objectivity, focus, whatever you want to call it," he adds.
It would take yet another school-related crisis of identity in the fall of 2008 - "Basically, I decided that I was getting tired of paying for classes that I didn't give a crap about when I had no idea what I actually wanted to accomplish with school," he says - to refocus Hepworth's vision. And interestingly enough, it all came back to the drum parts he had stockpiled.
"A lot of the new material I was coming up with was really pretty neat, from an atmospheric or texture perspective - and I still think I'm going to get something out of it, eventually - but I kept coming back to the songs where I had written the drums first, and they didn't just sound like parts slapped together into some kind of structure - they just felt like songs."
And in the end, that's how it all came together. With some semblance of organization, the demoing and writing process finished up in April of 2009. When it came time to actually record, Hepworth (surprisingly) had a plan...
"I thought Christian Brown (producer, solo artist and keyboardist for The Beat Strings [XOXO Records]) did a great job at pulling out the vocal performances I needed on Highland Park and kind of guiding me past some of the problems I had when I recorded everything else, which is why I ended up giving him co-production credits on that record," says Hepworth. "I thought his solo record and Give Away The Plot's The Ecliptic were just excellent, too, so it just sort of made sense to go record the whole thing with him this time."
So, in late May, Hepworth entered the studio, equipped with a number of demos and a secret weapon: former Daimera [Equal Vision Records] drummer Joshua Sparks.
"I almost think that more than anything, Josh was the magic ingredient on this record," gushes Hepworth. "I knew I wanted to go in and have live drums [as opposed to the computerized drums on Highland Park], but I couldn't find anyone to commit to that time frame, so at the last second, Chris called Josh [who had also played on Brown's solo record] in.
"And seriously, with him, it was like this: he'd listen to the demo that I had made maybe two or three times in the control room, go out into the tracking area, and knock the part out. DONE. And I had been afraid that we wouldn't be able to get all the drums done during the time I had booked, without any rehearsal anyway, but he really came in and, I think, made each song its own thing and glued it all together."
With recording finished, Hepworth faced a new problem: what was supposed to be a four-song EP had turned into seven songs, yet with no connection or overarching vision between any of the songs, he didn't feel comfortable releasing it as an album.
"It's probably a little snobby and old-fashioned, but I think that an album should only be released as such if it's got an overall message or feel or sound or vision to it - throwing a bunch of songs together under that sort of umbrella makes no sense otherwise," he says, adding, "and maybe that's why the quality of mainstream music has dropped so much in the last 20 years - people are tired of buying 13 songs and really getting, maybe, 5 or 6 good ones.
"That being said," he notes, wryly, "all of these songs needed to get out there. So an EP made sense to me - even if there's not an overall story to it, each of these tracks really stands on its own, but luckily, you're getting all of them on the same release."
What is remarkable is that not only do each of the songs stand up on their own, but that each one is also completely different from all of the others, stylistically. A pop-punk relationship manifesto like "Cut Drama Out of Your Diet" is an odd bedfellow with the U2/Dredg-influenced anthem "The Watcher," to be sure; and really, the ballad "...Like The Rain," with its heartfelt message of devotion and bluesy, muscular, wah-inflected solo is worlds apart from the aptly-named "Contrast Radio," which splits its personality between the hardcore punk sound that Nirvana hinted at on In Utero and Refused perfected, and the jazzy post-rock of bands like Kaddisfly, Mute Math, and Minus the Bear. Then there's "Grains of Sand" - what piano rock along the lines of Something Corporate would sound like if it was darker, moodier, and sipping on a hip-hop vibe. "Something's Got To Give" may, in fact, be the only song that even sounds like the Six Seconds Away of the past, and even its chaotic ending strays far away from the more straight-ahead alternative vibe of the rest of the song. The ending song, "Flashflood," mixes the disparate sounds of electronic drums and acoustic guitars with a strong bass performance by Hepworth that enhances the mechanical, dreary vibe of the song before it explodes into an epic, loud finish.
Themeatically, it may be easier for each individual to craft their own interpretation of the lyrics and melodies, especially given the supposed lack of a theme, but the title of the record does have a legitimate connection to each of the songs.
"In essence, the name A Preview of What Lies Behind Us works on a couple of levels - it's literal, as in the evidence of the changes in my songwriting and styles, in the sense that it maybe points to where we're going, even as some of these songs have roots that are as old as Highland Park; and on a more personal level, it sort of represents this weird, frozen moment in time for me, between where I was 3 or 4 years ago and now, and where I want to be down the road, what I think I see just over the horizon, but haven't gotten to yet," Hepworth explains. "Maybe it doesn't completely confront the things that have happened or that I've experienced, but it's sort of glimpse, a taste, of closure, and a promise of something new and even better."