INTERVIEW: Tommy Rogers (BETWEEN THE BURIED AND ME)
If you look up "innovation" in the musical dictionary, chances are you'd stumble upon a picture of American progressive metal lords Between the Buried and Me.
Starting life in North Carolina after the demise of a previous band, Between the Buried and Me, aka BTBAM have since spanned close to two decades, exploring and sharing their genre-fluid ways. Garnering descriptions ranging from progressive metal to technical death metal and metalcore, BTBAM have consistently managed to surprise and bewitch, channeling everyone from Metallica to Queen with a touch of The Smashing Pumpkins in between.
And while they are indeed a band who has found undeniable success in the musical realm, their love for their craft underlies every new release or live show. And with a long-awaited return to Australia on the cards next February, what better time to grab frontman Tommy Giles Rogers Jr. for a bit of a chat about passion, progression and what he loves most about this enduring project. Interview below.
TIANA SPETER: Hi Tommy and thanks so much for chatting today! I still remember the first time I ever heard the Colors album back in 2007 and it totally shook me into a whole new world of music. You helped to changed my musical tastes (for the better), and for that I have to thank you! But onto the task at hand…there’s also the amazing news that Between the Buried and Me will be shaking stages down under next February. It’s been a few years now since we’ve had you visit, what are you most looking forward to about heading back to Australia in 2020?
TOMMY ROGERS: Man, Australia's always been really good to us. We were lucky when we first went...we did a van tour actually with Bleeding Through, this was years ago...god, probably over a decade ago! But yeah, we did like fourteen shows so we got to see a lot of the country. And I think from that experience we had quite a connection with the fans and with the country. And from then on our tours have always been really good and we've always had a great experience. And we felt doing an "evening with" there would be really...you know, something special for Australia! We're only doing three shows so hopefully people will travel to get to these shows. I really think it's a good set. And thank you for the Colors comment, I'm a big fan of music myself and there's lots of bands that have kind of introduced me to different genres of music and different styles of music, so I'm glad, that's a big goal for me, to have people explore new things and find new music they enjoy. Growing up that was super important to me, I was pretty close-minded for a lot of my younger years and then once I was kind of opened up to all the musical possibilities in the world...it made life better. So, thank you!
TIANA: It looks like it’s going to be a pretty whirlwind visit with back-to-back shows in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne…are you having any downtime to take in some of the sights while you’re here?
TOMMY: No (laughs). That's the thing I think for most US bands, you fly in everyday and you're already jet-lagged anyway because of how far away it is. So, yeah, you just take it one day at a time. And for me, especially now that I'm older and doing a set that's as long as this one is, I have to really focus on physically being ready for this show, and getting sleep. And that stuff takes precedence over being social and going out. I hate to be the "been there, done that" kinda guy, but we've done a lot of touring there, we've seen a lot of the country, I've experienced a lot of great things there. So for this tour I'll probably be pretty hunkered down trying to rest when I can and prepare for the shows.
TIANA: And these shows will also mark the first time we’ll (perhaps!) get to hear some material from Automata I and Automata II in action as well. Both albums drew pretty high praise from fans and critics alike, and showcased some new sonic terrain for you guys…and I’m interested to read that these Aussie shows are specifically designed to ruminate on almost 20 years of music for the band over two sets of music. How on earth did you manage to decide on the final set-lists given the enormity of your repertoire?
TOMMY: It took a while, we went through a lot of revisions. For us, we wanted to approach it...you know, because we're the only band playing and it's a 2+ hour set we wanted to make sure that it didn't get boring and that it wasn't too intense. We wanted to make sure it had the flow of, like, an album. Each set, I think, really flows like an album in itself, and we designed it in a way that we can physically get through it. And I think as far as the fans, so that they can get through it as well, and it kind of keeps you on your toes. We had to make sure that...I mean, our sound has drastically changed from 2002 to 2019...so when we're playing material that is that far apart from one another, we had to kind of get creative with ways to make it feel like one thing, make it feel good amongst each other. And we wrote, me and Dan (Dan Briggs - BTBAM bassist & keyboardist) especially wrote a lot of really cool segues and ways to kind of intertwine the songs and make everything flow in a really natural state. So, yeah! I think it's a good set, I think you'll dig it!
TIANA: On the topic of your earlier stuff, can you take me back to the very first gig you performed under the name Between the Buried and Me? Where was it, who was there and would you label it as a success?
TOMMY: Yeah, it was a big show actually! It was in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, I believe, at Ziggy's in the old location. We were lucky because Paul (Paul Waggoner - BTBAM lead guitar & backing vocals) and I and the drummer at the time, we were in a band called Prayer For Cleansing. And we had good success, especially in the South in the US...so in our home state of North Carolina, we already had kind of a following. And when it was announced that we'd started something new, there was some level of excitement, and people came out! It was a really good show, I believe Skycamefalling played, which is an old hardcore band from Long Island, New York. I don't remember a whole lot about it, I think you can find footage of it online...I remember I was really nervous because I played guitar in Prayer For Cleansing with Paul so it had been a while since I'd sung onstage. I'd sung for a band in high school but other than that I was used to playing guitar onstage. So I remember I was really nervous, I didn't really know what to do without having a guitar on (laughs)...and I probably had my back to the crowd a lot. But it was a good experience!
TIANA: I feel like anytime I try to describe Between the Buried and Me to people who aren’t familiar with heavier genres…there are so many words and/or genres to fling in, and I love that there’s so many jumping-off points to reel in a variety of fans from all over, whether it’s thrash fans, prog metal fans or people who just like their music with a tinge of theatricality. But for yourself, what music did you grow up listening to and devouring? Was there a particular band or artist who really grabbed your attention and led you into this heavy, eclectic world?
TOMMY: I think like any kid I went through a lot of different phases...I was a metalhead growing up. When I was a young teen, even a young kid, jeez...! My first concert was Bon Jovi and Skid Row when I was eight! So I was a big 80s metal guy, and then I graduated to the thrash, the Metallica, Megadeath, Slayer, Anthrax, all that stuff. And then from there I found Cannibal Corpse and Suffocation, black metal...and then I had a big hardcore phase when I was in high school. And then in my 20s I just kinda realised...man, there's a lot out there that I need to explore. And I think part of that was my love for Faith No More and Mr Bungle and stuff that really opened me up to experimental music. And then I started getting heavily into electronic music and jazz and...yeah, from there, I've just really loved lots of different kinds of music. And I hated that I was so close-minded for such a big chunk of my early life. But I think we all kinda go through that, and being in a band, that's a goal of mine to hopefully help some kids get out of that if they are in that phase. But, yeah, genres are tough! I don't really ever categorise us, we just kind of do our thing. My dad grew up, you know, he listened to a lot of classic rock, and that's a big part of my DNA. I would say that's more important that I thought it was...I always heard the songs, but now that I'm older I listen to a lot of that music, really some of my favourite music is the old, classic rock era stuff.
TIANA: And when was the moment you realised you wanted to pursue music as a career? Was there a defining moment or did it just happen organically and suddenly you were on this wild ride?
TOMMY: Yeah, I've always wanted to do this, I got into music really early on with the 80s music stuff. And I always looked at those guys and saw something I wanted to do and the second I got my first guitar - pretty much instantly I kind of started writing. It was all bad, but from the get-go I knew that I just enjoyed trying to put something together that wasn't already done. So, yeah, it was pretty instant that I was ready to write music and wanting to do it. I never really had anything else I wanted to do, I was like: "this is what I'm gonna do!". Just like any kid, it's not like I took anything very seriously, I just kind of did my thing. I'm very lucky that it turned into a job, you know? Because when we started - bands didn't make money, it was never a goal for us to be a full-time band. We did it, we had our shitty side jobs and we thought it would be like that til we got tired of it. We thought we'd write maybe a few records and that would be that. And here we are 20 years later...
BTBAM // pic by Nathan Rogers
TIANA: Obviously over the years Between the Buried and Me have played countless shows alongside a remarkable line-up of bands…I can’t even start to list them here because we’d be all day and you’d probably not want to finish the interview. But along the way, has there been a particular standout live moment or two for you personally that has stuck with you throughout your career, Whether it was memorably good, bad or other!
TOMMY: (laughs) Um...man, yeah there's a lot. We've toured with so many bands and become friends with so many people that we grew up listening to...the Dillinger guys (The Dillinger Escape Plan), they were such a big part of my life growing up. We've toured with Converge, we've toured with Cave In, we've toured with Dream Theater...we played a show with Dream Theater, it was the first show we ever played with them, it was in Mexico City. There was 10,000 people there, and it was the most frightening thing ever. It was such a surreal moment for us and that tour, after that show, turned into the Progressive Nation with Opeth...it's been a wild ride, man! And the fact that people like Devin Townsend are our friends now...these are people that I grew up listening to! So, yeah, there's a lot of those moments for sure.
TIANA: You’ve had a lot of side projects and features throughout your career as well as the obvious fact you’re one of the founding members of Between the Buried and Me. But specifically, what is it that you love most about playing with BTBAM, if you could pinpoint one or two key things that make it so special for you?
TOMMY: We're a great team. I love branching out and trying really off the wall stuff with solo stuff. And there's a lot of freedom with just being you, there's no pressure of disappointing anybody, cos it's all on you. And once you get past that fact, it's really liberating. But...there's nothing that beats the feeling of unity with a band. I think my favourite part...a) we get along, we're friends. I think that's why we've been together so long, we legitimately get along with each other. And I think when we sit down to write, I think we still after all these years really surprise each other. Cos we write mainly on our own, individually. And then we start working together to make things happen, every record I think people send stuff where you're like: "oh, that's so awesome!". And the good thing about writing is: once something is exciting to you, it opens up something in your brain that you feed off of, and you create something new. So I mean, we've always kind of fed off each other and inspired one another and...yeah, they're just such a great talented group of dudes and it helps me become better at what I do. I think every album when I sit down to write vocals I'm like..."how the fuck am I gonna write to this?! It's impossible!". And then I do it, and it challenges me. And it's always been something that's creatively been very satisfying.
TOMMY ONSTAGE WITH BTBAM // pic by Andre Symann - Euroblast
TIANA: To slowly wrap things up, with nearly 20 years in existence, sold out tours and nine studio albums under your belts as a band…what’s next for Between the Buried and Me to kick off your 20th year? Is there anything in the pipeline you can reveal?
TOMMY: I cannot reveal anything yet, but we're trying to figure out...we're at that point of kind of finishing the cycle of Automata so we're trying to figure out when we wanna start writing, I think that's kind of mainly what we're talking about right now. But nothing's set in stone, we're trying to figure out what touring, if any, we're gonna do next year...and, yeah, we'll see what happens with it!
TIANA: And finally – given Australia is such a long way from home for you, is there anything us Aussie fans can do to help you feel more at home while you’re here?
TOMMY: Come to the shows! There's only three shows so hopefully people will travel and I think it's a pretty special set. We did a very similar set in Europe, it felt good there, so hopefully it'll feel good in Australia! We look forward to lots of delicious vegan pies and coffee! We'll see you soon!
BETWEEN THE BURIED AND ME WILL BE ROARING DOWN UNDER NEXT FEBRUARY, CELEBRATING NEARLY 20 YEARS OF MUSIC WITH THREE SPECIAL, INTIMATE SHOWS.
BY TIANA SPETER