Max Phelps Discusses DEATH (DTA), CYNIC, DEFEATED SANITY, & Future of EXIST
I discovered Exist about a year ago when they released their So True, So Bound LP. I was so blown away by the experimental progressive tendencies and wide dynamics on the record that it eventually made the #1 spot on my 2017 Album of the Year list. Ever since, I've been dying to see the act live and I was ecstatic to see them as the opener on the Obscura/Beyond Creation tour.
After their set, I spoke to frontman Max Phelps about the tour, their last album, progress towards the follow-up, and his experience and future involvement with Defeated Sanity, Cynic, and Death (DTA). Check out the interview below.
This is the last day of the tour. How has it been and what was the most memorable moment of the past month?
It’s been amazing. It’s hard to pinpoint a specific moment, but there was some weird shit. I had to go to the hospital. I had a weird vertigo incident and I thought it was something more serious. I didn’t miss any tour dates because of that though. Besides that, the tour has been really good. We all did karaoke for Obscura’s set a few times because Steffen [Kummerer]'s passport and bag got stolen. That was interesting. It was like six different vocalists. I did “Ten Sepiroth,” which is the opener, and “Emergent Evolution” off the new album. [Alex] Weber from our band did “Diluvium,” one of my personal favorites. Simon [Girard] and Kevin [Chartre] from Beyond Creation both did some songs. And Stevie [Boiser] from Inferi did as well.
What was your relationship with Obscura, Beyond Creation, Archspire, and Inferi prior to this run?
I’ve toured pretty extensively with some of the Obscura guys with DTA mostly. We’re pretty good friends and talk regularly. Steffen [Kummerer] has gone to bat for Exist throughout the years. There’s a handful of people in established bands that have really fought for us, which is amazing. So yeah, him and Linus [Klausenitzer], I’ve toured with a bunch of times. The new guys, Rafael [Trujillo] and Sebastian [Lanser], I toured Eastern Europe with them for a DTA tour. It’s a pretty family-like situation. Their light guy is a really close friend of mine. He’s done like every Cynic tour I’ve been on. The Archspire guys, I just did the Bloodletting tour with last year when I was working with Defeated Sanity. They’re all really cool and goofy guys. I didn’t know the Inferi or Beyond Creation guys, but everybody is really cool on this tour. It’s a good vibe all around and I’m sad it’s over already.
Your most recent album So True, So Bound was released over a year ago. In retrospect, are there any aspects of the writing and recording process for the LP that you were particularly proud of or stand out?
I’m actually happy with things other people did. We had Adam ‘Nolly’ Getgood mix it and his guy who normally masters it, Ermin [Hamidovic]. And we had Hannes Grossmann drumming on it. I’m in very, very good company. As far as the writing, I stand behind most of the decisions. I still feel passionate about the music. And of course, there’s always the things you criticize later.
And since it’s been a year, what is the progress towards a follow-up?
Yeah, we’re pretty far into the next album already. We’re trying to track guitars and bass for that now. A lot of it is older material that was written before So True, So Bound. I’m going back and refining some things. And there’s a few new songs. I don’t know how to describe it. Maybe it’s a little weirder. I’ll let it speak for itself. The process isn’t terribly different. It’s Matt [Rossa], [Alex] Weber, and me mostly working together. We have a new drummer, who joined us on this tour and who is probably going to end up recording this upcoming one. The chemistry is very good. His name is Brody Smith and he’s only twenty years old.
Do you have a relative ETA for the release date on this upcoming album?
In my mind, end of next year. Or whenever we can coincide that with a tour. So, it’s contingent on what comes along and what is available. But yeah, that’s the goal. Everytime I work on an album, there’s a million variables that happen, so it’s hard to determine a timeline sometimes.
The last album certainly gets heavy, yet there’s many light parts to balance it out. In order to kinda reveal your wide spectrum of influence, what do you think is your most heavy influence and on the other side, your least heavy influence?
I know our music has a spectrum like that, but I guess I don’t really think about it deliberately like that. Some artists that may be not be considered heavy from a pure aesthetic standpoint, I might still view as heavy. Like Elliott Smith is one of my favorite artists. His music is really dark. There’s a lot of jazz we like that sounds really heavy to us. Like there’s this new album called Starebaby album by this drummer Dan Weiss with guitarist Ben Monder. As far as more what someone would traditionally consider heavy, Meshuggah is really high up there. And I would say Defeated Sanity, honestly. Not the stuff I worked on with them, but everything else. They’re a really heavy band that I like. And Gorguts, we absolutely adore. Sikth is maybe not a brutal band, but I consider a favorite. Also, Ihsahn is one of our biggest influences.
You mentioned Defeated Sanity, do you know what the future holds there with you?
I’d say probably nothing. I mean that was a one-off thing that Lille [Gruber] wanted to with that Dharmata material. We might do more material like that in the future, but probably not under the Defeated Sanity name. We might even call it Dharmata. I think there’s no real rush to do that. We get along real well and Lille’s someone that I really like all his musical ideas. I love those guys and we gel really well. Defeated Sanity is going back to that slam thing. The new stuff they’re working on is insane.
On the topic of other bands you’ve been involved with, I was hoping you could discuss your experience with Cynic and if you’re still connected with them? Also, what material was your favorite to perform live?
I mean, they’re like one of my favorite bands. I got to tour with them and that was insane. Paul [Masvidal] is here tonight, I was just hanging out with him. And Jacob [Schmidt] from Defeated Sanity is here too. I would say most people I tour with, I’m in fairly regular contact with. As far as performing live though, I like “Celestial Voyage” a lot. “The Space for This” is really cool and it translates really, really well live because of the dynamics. Those would probably be the favorites. “How Could I” is cool just because it’s hard to hack through Jason [Gobel]'s crazy shit. “King of Those Who Know” would be up there as well. It’s a simpler song, but “Gitanjali” from the last album is fun.
And in regards to touring with DTA, what were the favorite songs to perform?
My favorite songs to play would probably be “Suicide Machine,” “The Philosopher,” and “Symbolic.” I’m a sucker for the Symbolic material. That was the first album I really got into. I’m younger so I went backwards through their discography. For the older stuff, “Spiritual Healing” is cool. We would always medley it with “Within the Mind.” “Pull the Plug” and “Left to Die” are pretty epic live.
Are there any plans for DTA in the future?
Yeah, probably. Nothing is super defined right now. There’s always a lot of moving parts with it, but the way it left off was good. There’s a cool chemistry between Bobby Koelble, Gene [Hoglan], and Steve [Di Giorgio]. And I still talk to those guys all the time. They came out to one of the shows on this tour. With how things are and everyone having fun with it, I could see it probably happening again. At the same time, I can see where doing it too much becomes distasteful. But then, it was something that ran organically on demand. I never thought it would be an ongoing thing, but then it just kinda happened like that.
Comparatively, would you say performing in Exist is more fulfilling than with any of these other mentioned projects?
I think it’s more personal. With Exist, it’s more fulfilling in the sense that I don’t have to give a shit. I mean I do immensely about the music, but there’s a certain performance aspect that there’s no shoes to fill. I can go onstage and if I fuck up shit, I’m fucking up my own shit. And actually I feel a little bit that way about the Defeated Sanity material, just in the sense that, even though it’s not mine, when we were doing it, it was something that was totally unheard of. Where with DTA, there’s a standard. You’re doing something that means something to a lot of people. And it’s bigger than the individuals involved by far. It’s not even a pressure from other people, it’s like a moral obligation. You can’t fuck that up. You have to really do your best. With Cynic, it’s like that to a degree too because it’s two really amazing guitar players who played in the band before me. So maybe with Exist it’s more liberating, but I still love doing those other projects, don’t get me wrong.
We’re going to go home and I want to try to grind on the next album. Especially after this tour, it fired me up. I teach guitar to students privately, so I’ll go back to my normal routine on that. There’s a bunch of things that could happen next year, but nothing is solidified yet. So it’s possible we won’t tour until the next album is out. And it’s also possible that other projects pop up, but everything is up in the air.