Artist Interview: Heavenward – ‘Pyrophonics’
Posted: by The Editor
Somewhere in my early adolescence, I developed a revulsion towards cheerful, over-the-top, lighthearted songs with simplistic lyrics; or, quite simply, what I understood to be pop music. Over time my relationship with what pop meant would gradually change as I realized it had a little less to do with what I associated with the genre and more to do with the popularity of certain songs and artists. It’s fair to call bands like Nirvana, Third Eye Blind, or Oasis pop within that context, although the thirteen year old version of me would have begged to differ. Eventually I would realize that while I have an affinity for heavier music with fairly grim subject matter, I also have a deep love for a wide range of alternative pop rock from my youth. Both of these things could be true and with time I’d figure out that my identity does not hinge on the idea of any one genre. With that being said, every now and then I come across an album that unexpectedly hits the mark in almost every aspect of what I enjoy the most about music. Pyrophonics the debut album by Los Angeles project Heavenward, helmed by Kamtim Mohager, surprises as it charges forward with an infectious energy that is rooted in pop, but merges with gauzy alternative rock. Reminiscent of early 2000’s international alternative with tinges of space rock, it’s heartfelt and generously uplifting with Mohager adeptly crafting buoyant melodies while deconstructing various aspects of his own inner strife. Available through his own label Fever Ltd. on June 16th, Pyrophonics has the potential to overtake every other alternative rock album released over these last few years.
Heavenward came together soon after Mohager left his previous band Teenage Wrist in 2019, where he was both the bassist and lead vocalist. “It was just kind of out of necessity to be honest. It was coming out of me leaving Teenage Wrist, which was something that I was very passionate about and that I started with Marshall [Gallagher]. I cared a lot about it, but I left the band, then COVID hit and we were stuck indoors with the pandemic and I think it allowed me to get a better perception of what’s important in my life. It was just like, I miss making this guitar driven music and I feel like I still have more to say,” Mohager shares about the origin of his new project. The jangly first single “Hole” was released in September 2020, followed by a few more between late ‘20 and ‘21 before the thrillingly bright EP Staircase Music arrived in February of last year. With three new singles preceding the release of the album including the self-immolating “Gasoline”, the evocative and technical “Be My Blues,” and the album’s soaring closing track “Choke,” Pyrophonics boasts imagination and diversity on each song.
The title Pyrophonics is a play on words that depicts what the album explores thematically as Mohager delves into himself and expresses his struggles through the lyrics. “Getting the songs out is a way for me to face some issues that I’m personally going through, and when I’m able to get it on paper or recorded it kind of feels like therapy in a way because that’s me digging really deep into myself and figuring out the problem that I was dealing with. The term Pyrophonics is just a made-up word, but I always base everything off of imagery and I think when you hear that word you can kind of see it, at least that’s how it is for me. It came out to be this self-destructive language for yourself which ties into a lot of the lyrical content of songs like ‘Gasoline’ or a song like ‘Planned Human Combustion.’ A lot of the songs touch on self pity, embarrassing moments in life, struggles of being addicted to something, it all touches on that,” Mohager shares.
The creative process behind writing the album mostly relied on Mohager’s vision, but also involved collaborations with Teenage Wrist’s vocalist / guitarist Marshall Gallagher and Dear Boy’s guitarist Austin Hayman. “A lot of the process was just me up in my office with a guitar or my bass doing a lot of super minimal demo recording, but it would usually end with me essentially building out an entire structure of a song, having all the drums in mind, knowing what needs to be where, having all the vocal melodies and most if not all of the lyrics, and then from there, taking that bare skeleton and presenting it to Marshall or Austin. This project was created just because I missed making music for fun and I got pretty bored of just music being a business. I want to have fun with it, especially bringing my friends on board,” Mohager shares. Another collaborator was Mohager’s good friend Mike Robinson of Blame My Youth who plays drums on the album. Just as with his collaborations with Gallagher and Hayman, Mohager encouraged Robinson to freely express himself on the album rather than stick to the general guidelines. Robinson’s contributions to the songs enhance the album in making it more expansive with a compelling and forceful magnetism.
For the production of the album, Mohager reunited with LA producer Zach Tuch (Initiate, Touché Amoré, Dare) who had previously worked on Heavenward’s Staircase Music EP. Of the process Mohager shares, “I always forget how hard it is to make a record and the older I get, it definitely becomes more difficult, especially for my position with this band where it’s just me. I had to be extremely hyper focused when it came to every single element of the record that it did kind of get the best of me at certain times. Zach did a really good job making sure I kept my feet on the ground and he transformed some of the ideas into stuff that I could have never imagined. He brought them to life and really knew how to see the full potential of what the songs are. I was super grateful that he was able to accomplish that.”
The album cover which shows an empty old hospital room washed in fluorescent shades of green resembles early 2000’s album covers and brings to mind heavy but off-kilter bands that paired their music with an opposing visual that looked sterile and cold such as Finch’s What It Is to Burn, Glassjaw’s Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Silence or Placebo’s 1998 compilation Without You I’m Nothing: B-sides. There’s almost a soft horror aspect to the desolate visual tone of the album as it demonstrates Mohager’s internal obstacles and lends itself to the world of Pyrophonics. “It definitely touches back on the whole theme of the record where it’s this acknowledgement of some darkness in me that’s maybe leading me into making some destructive decisions. So that imagery of the empty hospital is a representation of where someone should be, but isn’t. I’ve always been very into photo based album covers especially for Heavenward. It’s very influenced by Placebo. I think visually they have always nailed it and so a lot of it was inspired by that minimalistic, yet very stark style,” Mohager elaborates.
Also known for his visual work as a graphic designer for bands like Initiate, Trauma Ray, Foreign Hands, Koyo, and others, Mohager has a distinct style that he utilizes for his own album artwork. Having designed the front and back cover of the new album, he also collaborated with New York designer Ben Leigh who graciously offered to help with the vinyl packaging. Mohager emphatically expresses the significance of the visual aspect of an album: “I take aesthetics and visuals maybe a little too seriously sometimes. I find that to be important because you want to present a world to the listener. If somebody’s going to give me their time and listen to this song that I created out of thin fucking air, I better show them the same respect and deliver them something that they can really look at and feel and see and understand. To me, that’s just very, very important.”
Pyrophonics looks, sounds, and feels like an adrenaline rush. As it begins there’s a powerful feeling of transcendent compulsion that encompasses you as you’re transported elsewhere, locked into the world of Pyrophonics. The opening self-titled song “Heavenward” is a bold introduction that possesses ascending space rock melodies undoubtedly inspired by fellow Los Angeles based band Failure. The lyrics “head above the clouds / feet off of solid ground/ let me float here tonight,” mirrors the atmosphere of the song and is a repeating motif that’s met throughout the album. Vibrant and self-assured, it resembles catchy alternative rock from the late ’90s through early 2000s with Mohager drawing from a variety of influences to create a fresh and rejuvenating listen from start to finish. Inspired by bands such as Failure and Celebrity, he also found an abundance of sonic and lyrical inspiration from international artists like Swervedriver, Catherine Wheel, My Vitriol, Motor Ace, and Ville Valo of HIM. Even though Pyrophonics could be compared to some of the recent alternative rock albums that have surfaced, it’s almost entirely disparate in the way Mohager proudly sings with an ardent sentiment. It also possesses the one element that sticks out in my memory about early 2000s alternative rock that Heavenward wholly owns up to: unabashed confidence with just a touch of bravado.
One of the most compelling songs on the album is the bare alternative metal/post-grunge inspired single “Be My Blues.” Originally written for Teenage Wrist’s Chrome Neon Jesus sometime between 2017 and 2018, it was initially heavily inspired by Silverchair’s theatrical Neon Ballroom and would go through a couple of transformations before making its way onto Pyrophonics. “I was listening to Vein.fm and they had just released that B-sides remix album (Old Data in a New Machine Vol. 1) and they put out ’20 seconds : 20 hours’ and I was like, oh my god, I absolutely love this. This is so sick,” Mohager enthusiastically shares. After tracing Vein.fm’s inspiration back to Deftones’ B-Sides and Rarities, he felt inspired to collaborate with Gallagher once again to rework the song for Heavenward’s EP. When it didn’t make the cut yet again, it was modified one more time with Zach Tuch for the album. “He completely dissected the song and I was having so much anxiety about it. If it weren’t for Zach, it would not exist. He really helped bring out the ideas and bring in more trip hop elements, letting the first chorus not be so cliche, and would just switch things up a little bit adding some cool elements,” he continues. After they had finished the song, Mohager pitched the idea of incorporating a distraught voicemail ripped from Youtube at the end of it. When they couldn’t get the audio cleared from the original uploader, the voicemail was removed from the song. However, Mohager was determined and after writing up a script for his wife Isabella, he recorded her voice acting as if she were in distress in one take and sent it off to Tuch who would work it into the song as it appears on the album. “She nailed it and Zach did some chopping here and there and effected the fuck out of it and now I can say that my wife is on a record of mine. She sounds crazy, and it’s awesome,” says Mohager.
A standout in the album is hidden almost towards the end as listeners will come to discover the longingly sentimental “Tangerine,” one of Mohager’s favorites. “When I wrote that song, I just knew. It just felt special. The verses are very influenced by Greg Dulli (Twilight Singers, Afghan Whigs) who I love, just the way he sings. The chorus really reminds me of either Happy Days– or Adam and Eve-era Catherine Wheel that’s balls-to-the-wall romantic bursts of energy. It’s a type of sound that really hasn’t been written in awhile. I think my goal with this was to focus on elements that haven’t really been touched in this specific scene that I think Heavenward lives in with these newer alternative rock bands. I think the world needs good alternative pop rock and that was my goal with this record, to make an alternative record heavily based around pop melodies. A lot of bands these days kind of make melody a bit secondary when it needs to go hand in hand with the music. I just really want to focus on that and figure out ways of doing interesting takes and really just do my best to make an album that reminded me of a lot of shit that I used to listen to from 2000 to 2003 and just make you feel somewhat nostalgic for that kind of stuff,” Mohager shares.
Following “Tangerine,” the next song on the album, “Planned Human Combustion,” is one of the most diverse in the way that it resembles Britpop in all of its sugary sweet pop beats and catchy choruses. It’s also perhaps the most nostalgic in the way that it couples vaguely romantic and playful lyrics with an upbeat rhythm that reminds you of the feeling of being young and in love under the warm summer sun. Mohager says of the inevitable summer hit, “I think records need to have that diversity. I don’t want to make an album that’s just in your face. I’m really drawn to romantic music and theatrical choruses and I wanted this record to have that romantic aspect to it, the somber aspect, and this very melancholy feeling. I think that song was a nice extension of it and gives a bit of a pop element to the record.”
Pyrophonics possesses an uninhibited energy that feels liberating upon listening to it. It’s almost difficult to decipher when exactly the album ends and begins as it retains the same level of high energy for almost the whole duration of the album, but rather than creating something of a singular note it’s quite varied and emotional, as well as tenderhearted and confessional. Pyrophonics grasps the crucial elements of alternative rock that evokes nostalgia and takes it to a new level as Mohager found himself actively pushing against his initial instincts on the album and intentionally pursued new directions. “I think there were a lot of aspects of this album where I maybe didn’t want to do what people would expect. I think seven years ago, I would have ended the album with ‘Pneumatic (Fly)’ but I’m like, you know what, I may as well hit them with this two and a half minute song that’s super loud and in your face, and one of the more aggressive songs on the album. And then funnily enough, I chose that as a second single for the record because there’s a beauty in having the freedom of controlling everything and not having to listen to too many opinions. I mainly wanted to rethink any immediate decision that I would make. I wanted to just challenge myself a little bit, which to some people may not seem like a big change but I think those decisions led to making an album that flows pretty smoothly,” Mohager expresses.
As an artist with years of experience in the industry through his past projects, Mohager has managed to keep his passion in the pursuit of making music alive. He shares what keeps him inspired below:
“I think a little bit has to do with ego. It does. I think I’ll see and hear a band that’s doing really well and I may listen to it and be like, ‘I don’t get this. Why is this so popular? I can make something that could be better than this.’ So there’s the fucked up side of me that thinks that way, but I also think that’s natural competition. Mainly it’s just a love for it. I’ve gone through a lot in my musical career. I signed my first record deal when I was 25, I’ve signed three record deals in my life. I’m 37 now. I’ve toured the world. I’ve had some minor to moderate success with certain things and I’ve had really cool things happen in my life, but I’ve taken a different trajectory. I’ve also learned a lot from how this industry can truly destroy people. So I had to step back and figure out what aspects of this industry work for me. I want to be able to focus strictly on the positives and build a foundation off of that, and just do it because I want to do it. I have to stop and just be so grateful that I’m able to do this and cherish the small wins and that’s something I had to learn the hard way. I’m just really grateful that anybody cares about this, there’s no reason why I should be getting attention because there’s so many more talented people out there but you know, I embrace it, appreciate it, put it out in the universe, and that’s all it is. That’s all I can do. I’m just stoked for people to check it out and hopefully find it to be a special record to them.”
Loan Pham | @senseofexile
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