Glow With The Flow: How Turnstile shut out the noise to stay true to themselves
Most of the time, Brendan Yates isn’t an interview kinda guy. An artist in his heart and soul, the Turnstile frontman finds it inherently unnatural to pick at himself and his oeuvre. The repetitive, impersonal, occasionally awkward process of the press junket (whether virtual or in the flesh) feels too much like the sort of conveyor-belt day job he has long striven to keep separate from his core creativity. And, though there can be a certain joy in discovering a fresh reaction to an answer he’s given 100 times before, it never quite nullifies the discomfort for a man who’d rather talk about things less and experience them more.
It’s an admission we’re reminded of as he joins us a few minutes past the hour this bright Baltimore afternoon, clutching an overdue coffee while grinning not-quite-apologetically against the bustle of one of his favourite local cafes. “Ohhh, that’s kind of a broad question,” he exhales, as we open with a challenge to unpack the overarching themes behind his band’s brilliant new album, Glow On. “I don’t really know where to begin…”
Right back at the start, we reckon. For as odd as the absence of slick PR savvy can seem from a modern, major-label musician, it’s just one facet of a broader free-spiritedness ingrained since Turnstile’s earliest rumblings.
More than two decades on from first bumping into lead guitarist and co-founder Brady Ebert skating through their childhood hometown of Burtonsville, Maryland (Brady was nine at that point, Brendan just 11), he insists that the bonds of experimental ambition and uninhibited wonder have only tightened. Their music remains an extension of the internal language of a rag-tag group of friends. Drummer Daniel Fang is Brendan’s old college buddy; guitarist Pat McCrory, a hometown pal. Wildcard bassist/co-vocalist ‘Freaky’ Franz Lyons jumped on a tour bus one day and has been around ever since, learning his instrument to be in this band.
“Turnstile will always be just the five of us making music,” Brendan stresses. “It’s never necessarily been about climbing upwards. It’s about moving onwards, expanding outwards…”
Plenty of bands can talk the talk. When Turnstile went from having rebuffed the mighty Roadrunner Records for 2015 debut LP Nonstop Feeling, to signing-up for 2018’s Time & Space, cynics wondered whether integrity might be sacrificed at the altar of ambition. Even after that 25-minute flash flood of colour blew everyone away (nabbing Kerrang!’s Album Of The Year in the process), questions lingered. Would becoming one of the most talked about ‘heavy’ bands on earth see them gravitate towards the mainstream?
From the moment needle hits wax, Glow On’s answer is a sun-bleached, spring-loaded, ‘No!’
Hear Brendan discuss Turnstile’s growth and evolution since the success of Time & Space
There are bangers in there, of course. Blackout is a pounding mosh anthem built around its jittery beat, with Brendan howling ‘Well if it makes you feel alive / Well then I’m happy I provide!’ before the whole thing breaks into marching-band whistles and drums. Underwater Boi is an exercise in shimmering sunshine indie-rock; Holiday feels like a stray missile from Time & Space, constructed of slamming, rhythmic riffs.
In its strident blend of abrasive hardcore and genre-melding progressiveness, however, at no point does this feel like the work of men trying to capitalise.
“There’s nothing rewarding in chasing any kind of gain other than a personal fulfilment of making music,” Brendan explains. “[Time & Space] opened up possibilities, in terms of being able to feel comfortable in doing whatever we want, as opposed to feeling pressure to do anything we don’t. Other people can have their opinions and points of reference, but we’re focused on making music which we love and which feels special to us.
“Music is something that we’ve never looked at as a job. Ever. It’s always been separate to business and commercial concerns. Even when I went to college, with no idea what I wanted to do, I said that I wasn’t doing music because that’s my special thing.”
He flashes a broad grin. “Life is extremely short. If it ever came to the position that we were having to make the sacrifice where we were doing things that didn’t feel great for financial reasons, we would probably call it a day…”
Indeed, far more than fame and fortune, experience is everything. From launching the album on April 5, 2018 at Washington, D.C.’s Damaged City festival to abruptly finishing the cycle under the shadow of the rising COVID pandemic with a raucous 16-song set at London’s ULU Live on March 13, 2020 (Brendan and Dan would both be diagnosed on returning home), Time & Space was full of chaotically memorable moments. Playing Vietnam at the humid height of monsoon season. Screaming into the supernatural silence during a roadside stop at New Mexico’s Great White Sands. Having their show in Glasgow stopped because the stage-diving had gotten completely out of control.
“The cool thing about music – whether it’s making music or being inspired by it – is that it’s got this constant forward trajectory,” Brendan says, reflecting on how the past few years have been more about growth than change. “It’s this DNA you’re constantly adding to. Your entire life is about being excited by different influences and inspirations: people, objects, events. Adding them on, rather than swapping them out.”
That the singer names September 1, 2019’s outdoor hometown performance at the Ynot Lot on Baltimore’s North Avenue as his favourite of the Time & Space cycle is particularly illustrative. On one hand, it was played for the right reasons. With free entry and proceeds from merch sales and audience donations going to Maryland charity Health Care For The Homeless, it was an opportunity to make music work for good, and recycle those positive vibes. Other recent initiatives saw the band fundraise for Baltimore Youth Arts, the Baltimore / Columbus / D.C. Black Lives Matter bail and legal funds and the LGBTQ Freedom Fund.
With great power comes great responsibility, right?
“With a greater platform comes more opportunity,” Brendan counters. “Opportunity to support people in different life positions to your own. It’s exciting to think of ways that you can help out those in need.”
On the other hand, it was an overdue opportunity to reconnect with their grassroots. From a practical standpoint, Baltimore’s relatively low rent, “odd jobs” often available from friends, and space for indie record label Pop Wig that means Turnstile need never become wage slaves. From a creative one, its small-city community and diversity – which fostered luminaries as varied as Frank Zappa, David Hasselhoff and Edgar Allan Poe – remains utterly informative of their kaleidoscopic sound.
“I’ve always been open to the idea of going anywhere that was calling my name,” Brendan smiles. “But Baltimore is special. It’s not New York or LA where there are just so many different people making music that you become a small fish in a vast ocean. It’s a very intimate city that’s got a very unique beauty to it, which brings together a very diverse collection of people from different worlds: art, music, skating, whatever.”
In many ways, Turnstile have leveraged the reputational explosion of recent years to experience that same energy and diversity on a global scale. “It’s about the opportunity to play with different people, on different kinds of bills,” Brendan says, simply. “We had opportunities to play festivals where we were the only ‘heavy’ or guitar-based band there. Mixing in with all those different styles; being able to connect with people who don’t necessarily have any frame of reference for what we do.”
Alongside countless sweatily diverse club shows, Turnstile were invited to Tyler, The Creator’s Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival, Jay‑Z’s Made In America Fest, and even the mighty Coachella. Brendan picks out Trondheim, Norway’s Pstereo gathering in August 2019, where they performed alongside the likes of London indie troupe Bloc Party, Essex electronic icons Underworld and French synthwave enigma Carpenter Brut as a particular stand-out.
“Everything is about beautiful balance,” he stresses. “It’s so good to find that where you play a festival like that one day, then you go to play a small, basement DIY show the next. You’re always going to be who you are. It’s about embracing that and being willing to share it with anyone. Be open to any experience, without picking a trajectory. Let things take their own course.”
It’s an understanding that increasingly underpins their creative ethos.
“We’ve doubled down on this possibility of having ideas, and being able to put them into music without having to worry about anything other than it feeling right, and being a proper reflection of the five of us. Where we’ve been. Where we’re at. Where we want to be…”
When Brendan Yates closes his eyes to transport himself back to the recording of Glow On, he sees alpacas. Fields and fields of them, sprawling out over the Tennessee countryside a few miles north of Nashville.
A veteran of everyone from Mastodon and Avenged Sevenfold to Eminem and the Jonas Brothers, producer Mike Elizondo came up on the cutting edge of America’s West Coast, but his Phantom Studios in Gallatin – surrounded by farms full of the furry camelids – was the perfect place for Turnstile to self-isolate and stoke that crucial internal chemistry over six weeks last summer. Where they’d previously collaborated with friends within the hardcore scene (gritty veteran Will Yip oversaw Time & Space), Mike’s eclectic experience and fresh ears allowed them to push on with new sounds.
“Mike’s worked with some metal acts, but he came up under Dr. Dre and he’s done stuff with the likes of [avant-pop songstress] Fiona Apple, too,” the frontman enthuses. “That broad spectrum of artists he’s recorded with meant he made sense for a band like Turnstile who don’t necessarily fall into that category so easily.”
With Brendan also dabbling in co-production for the first time, the set-up allowed new shades of alt.pop and brittle indie to be layered onto the soul and psychedelia, rap-rock and R&B already at play in the Turnstile sound. He talks with evangelical zeal about their attempts to distil the “complex, multi-dimensional” nature of human emotion into coherent sonic constructs, managing to come across neither too pretentious nor overly fluffy.
“This album has been inspired by a lot of dance music. Being a band of drummers, we always focus on rhythm. Every song is intentionally – or, maybe, not intentionally – danceable. That’s not to say that it needs to be super-fast or groovy; it can be mid-paced, slow, or whatever. Latin Marenghe rhythms. Jazz music. Really heavy hardcore grooves. It’s that the excitement is constant.”
With Brendan also dropping jangly solo output under the banner of Free The Birds last year, and popcore supergroup Angel Du$t (in which he, Daniel and Pat perform behind TUI frontman and good friend Justice Tripp) putting out the excellent Lil House and Bigger House EPs, we can’t help but wonder whether there might be a little overlapping influence in the broader collective’s prolific invention?
Brendan rankles at the idea, initially, but softens to explain, “It’s beautiful to have that circle of all these ideas being shared. Justice is such an inspirational songwriter. But there’s so much work put into those other things it’s nice to let them have space and exist on their own.”
That’s not to say outside input is unwelcome. English singer Blood Orange (AKA Dev Hynes) crops up on not one, but two of Glow On’s trippiest soundscapes – the woozy Alien Love Call and rambunctious closer Lonely Dezires – and Brendan is overflowing with praise: “Dev is probably my favourite person making music in the world right now. When we finally got together to go into a studio, it felt like it would be a disservice to limit it to just one collaboration.”
Many of Glow On’s most poignant and powerful moments were devised away from the studio altogether, though, with Brendan earnestly explaining that his bedroom is where the real magic happens. The past year or so has been a hell of a time to sit alone and reflect, he nods, a fact reflected in the album’s length (15 songs running to almost 35 minutes make it an epic by Turnstile standards), its shapeshifting “mixtape” quality, and some of the most soul-searching lyrics of their career.
‘I believe in holding on to life / But I’m afraid to,’ he sings on outstanding opener Mystery. ‘I know you’re scared of running out of time / But I’m afraid, too…’ The flailing, fast-paced Don’t Play is the vehicle for a potent declaration of independence: ‘Release my mind, my garden grows / Found a place where I can play / Now don’t you take my thrill away…’ Even the seemingly COVID-inspired Humanoid/Shake It Up (‘Ain’t nobody getting in – Locked down! / Ain’t nobody getting out – Locked down!’) is a statement on the human condition written long before the world stopped.
Listen to Brendan explain the overarching meaning behind Glow On
Having the gears of band life grind to a halt overnight opened a pit of existential angst that hadn’t been present previously. Seeing the passing of friends – particularly Power Trip frontman and fellow hardcore revolutionary Riley Gale – deepened it. ‘Thank you for letting me C myself / Thank you for letting me B myself!’ barks the outstanding T.L.C. (Turnstile Love Connection) with defiant appreciation. The cry of ‘Still can’t fill the hole you left behind!’ on Fly Again, however, feels starker and more desperate than any in their back-catalogue.
“Loneliness. Feeling adrift. The search for meaning,” Brendan lays out some of Glow On’s recurrent themes, while revealing the meaning of that luminescent title. “A lot of it is a big-picture reflection on the effect that you have on the world as a person, and on what you leave behind when you’re gone…”
Fixated on light and love, however, few sets of songs have ever sounded so thrillingly alive. From a band for whom there’s always been more of a focus on live performance than written and recorded output, you can feel those compositions straining for a stage-dive, or to be screamed into the sweaty faces of a manic front row. Where that last London show was drenched in a cocktail of fear, confusion and party-at-the-end-of-the-world abandon, we can expect Turnstile’s return to the stage to explode in a cathartic dam-break of relief, jubilation and months and years of pent-up energy.
Their first show back, booked for August 22 at New York City’s 1,200-cap Irving Plaza, will doubtless go off like a bomb. For fans on this side of the Atlantic, too, next June’s return headline slot at Manchester’s Outbreak Fest (a gathering which, in 2013, was the furthest they’d ever been from home) will be a truly special moment.
“It’s been difficult for all kinds of creatives,” Brendan says. “It’s been hard to focus because there have been so many distractions around us, and such a lack of connection with others. But it’s also been exciting to be able to dream forward with this hope and aspiration to be able to connect with people in the future and have live music come back.”
Listen to Brendan discuss how recent events have shaped the “DNA” of Glow On
In the meantime, Brendan made busy his idle hands directing Turnstile Love Connection, the 11-and-a-half-minute short film which dropped along with the promotional EP of the same name on June 27. Having discussed the idea of a shapeshifting, patchwork music video featuring multiple songs stitched together with Director Of Photography and good friend Ian Hurdle, Brendan was challenged to see through his own high concept. He describes the chance to get hands-on with every element of the production, while reuniting with a crew staffed by old friends from Baltimore as the most “beautiful, rewarding thing”.
Watching back said mini-movie’s intricate camerawork, flashes of fashion shoot verve, and artful magic hour visual compositions, we’re reminded of Brendan’s old mission statement: “Hardcore can be whatever anyone wants it to be.”
As Turnstile push further and further, the frontman insists that it’s still very much fair to call them a hardcore band, though he’s increasingly detached from genre definition as a concept. “I’ve never really liked labels. They tend to be things that divide people. I work to do the opposite. It’s important to emphasise anyone’s uniqueness and what bands [really] are within those genre definitions. It’s never about excluding anyone.”
That applies well beyond music, he stresses, but the wider world might finally be catching up. With those core values of individualism, self-determination, non-traditionalism and diversity, Turnstile could scarcely be better placed to provide the soundtrack as humanity steps back into the sun through 2021 and beyond. “People spend their lives trying to assemble this system where everything is categorised, and they’re happy because things can easily be defined. There’s a lot to be said for trying to break that down, and to leave room for mystery, learning, and understanding people you didn’t previously understand.”
And, while they’ve got faith that COVID’s dark age will ultimately flourish into a “renaissance” of new music and art, open hearts and higher minds, now more than ever Brendan and his bandmates are happy to take each day, and to relish each experience, as it comes.
“It feels like we’re on the edge of something exciting. But we’ve come to understand that nothing in the future is promised or guaranteed. People don’t often even think about it, but just getting to share in this world of all these people doing the same thing is so, so special.”
A parting grin as he savours a last sip of that coffee and turns his eyes to the blue skies overhead.
“Sometimes, just being able to exist is enough…”
Turnstile’s Glow On is released on August 27 via Roadrunner Records.
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