The music industry is in the business of music as a product, but at some point there has to be room for inspired people
There are some artists whose music makes you want to communicate with them and address them a few questions about their work and their artistic approach. This is the case for me regarding Casey Cresenzo, the mastermind of The Dear Hunter. As their new - and yet again amazing - album "Act V: Hymns With The Devil In Confessional" was released a couple of weeks ago I had the chance to conduct an interview with him and his answers were as interesting as I expected them to be.
Hi Casey. As I consider you one of the most interesting and talented current musicians, I’m really glad to have the chance to talk with you about The Dear Hunter. How are things in the camp right now?
Well to start that’s a very gracious introduction, and I want to say thank you for that. Presently, I am taking steroids in the hope that the damage I may have recently done to my vocal chords can be kept at bay while I try and finish this tour out as something resembling a singer. The shows have been incredible and the response to this album has been genuinely inspiring - the band is playing the best we have, and this is our first tour in a bus, which is wild.
Is it just my opinion or with "Act IV" things escalated quickly for The Dear Hunter in terms of exposure and publicity? Are these albums ("Act IV" and "Act V") a significant turning point in your career? Have you noticed things changing for you?
That is a hard one to properly respond to. I think what you had was this sort of bubbling under the surface desire for "Act IV", since act III... and most of the people who have gotten into the band since "Act III", coming on during the "Color Spectrum" and "Migrant"... the release of "Act IV" was a sort of recharging for the bands primary focus. I think that recharged our fanbase in general- but it’s hard to say whether or not there was a large uptick. Im a very pessimistic person, so for me it’s easy to sit back and say "why would anyone like this..?", but the responses have been truly exciting and inspiring.
I will say that the team on the business end; our management... "Act IV" and "V" have been a really collaborative effort, in the realm of the way it is handled as a product... so much of what you would recognize as growth for the band is a result of them finding ways to carry the creativity throughout the process, beyond the music itself.
If I’m not mistaken the songs for both "Act IV" and "Act V" were recorded at the same time, so would it be more precise to consider them as one album in two parts or as two separate albums (as they’re presented)? What are the main difference between the two albums in your opinion and how did you choose which songs fit for which albums?
With the exception of a few tracks, both records were very much written and recorded at the same time. The important thing to note is that we knew what each record was about from the get go, and that is what dictated every song, from the ground up. I never viewed them as two halves of the same long album, even though they do have a decent amount of musical crosstalk. In my opinion, the main difference stems from drastically different subject matter - really one record is a rise and the other is a fall, you’ll have similarities because they both involve that journey, but they are opposites. Stylistically, tonally, everything down to the choice of which eq curve to give each song was reliant on the significance of that polarization.
I love the fact that you don’t seem to put limits to your creativity. I’m sure that people from the industry will think that you’re over-productive and maybe that’s not good business wise, but in my opinion that’s a characteristic of great artists. Do you agree with me that artists should be as creative as they can in order to achieve something bigger artistically? Have you ever considered slowing down because people suggested you do so?
I think I feel both ways at the moment. On the one hand, I think industry people would serve themselves and this community better by putting creativity first, and the marketing a distant second. I get that at some point the music becomes a product, and the music industry is in the business of music as a product, but at some point there has to be room for inspired people. I always come back to the idea of a body of work - and that the industry should be commissioning bodies of work from artists over the course of their lifetime - this means some records will be sore thumbs and others may be derivative, but it’s all in the attempt to grow as an artist.
I’ve always been ambitious and wanted to continuously create, but lately I have found my personal health and happiness failing at times, and I feel like the best thing I could do is take a step back and breathe for a moment.
One thing I love about your musical approach is the constant flow of melodies. You tons of melodies for the listener throughout the album and yet you try to keep them easy and accessible. Is that what you’re trying to achieve? An accessible yet challenging musical proposal? How difficult is it to achieve?
Truthfully, I find that the most respectful thing I can do for a listener is to not think about them when I am writing or recording music. I think that the idea of making something accessible, as an active thought, requires first cementing yourself in your mind as somehow superior - then taking your superior thoughts and dumbing them down to make them more palatable for other people. The thing I recognize is that I am not superior, and if you hear something that sounds accessible in what I do, I think it’s a genuine output of my mind just not being very sophisticated. I don’t find any particular happiness in challenging a listener - though I know for some fans of music they would find the music challenging… truly what I try to create are songs that embody who I am, whether its through transparency or fictionalization, they tell the story of who i am and how I see the world around me. At times, the fictionalizations are in disagreement with the way I see the world, but I try and embody them in a way that makes the disagreement sensible.
Also, I admire your ability to put multi layered vocals and lots of vocal harmonies in your songs. I think it’s an underestimated thing today in music and you deliver it great. How important are they for your music and for music in general? Do you agree that it’s a bit underestimated?
I just find such beauty in the sound of multiple voices singing together. One of the most incredible musical experiences of my recent years was watching my mother’s church choir perform a holiday concert... I am not a religious man by any means but it was overwhelmingly beautiful, haunting, and inspiring.
I think there are plenty of artists who love harmony - it’s just that the modern cookie cutter methods of production aren’t to interested in that wall of sound.
I guess you draw audiences with different musical tastes, like indie rock fans, progressive rock fans (like me) etc. If you had to say one genre or direction that fits your music the best, which one would that be and why?
I am happy with the Prog Rock banner. It just means progressive, which is what all art should be. I don’t think we fit with bands like dream theatre, but that isn’t to say they weren’t trying the same thing: writing from the heart, regardless of what mold it fit.
As a long time progressive rock fan, I am obviously fond of this epic concept, this musical journey you’ve created. Is it easier for you to express your thoughts and feelings through a fictional character and write songs and melodies in the context of a specific story?
Admittedly yes. Sometimes I find writing lyrics to be incredibly overwhelming - I can feel very exposed and too timid to say certain things, but from the lens of the story, I feel truly comfortable exploring any concept or idea.
Here’s a quote from an interview I conducted with Steven Wilson earlier this year: "What I always do, whenever I create a character that I want to write through, is I basically write about myself. And I think that’s probably what everyone does. Everyone that creates a fictional character ultimately ends up writing about himself, because you have to. You have draw on your own experiences to make your characters believable, to make people really believe in the fiction you’ve created." How do you feel about it? My impression is that you follow the same path, judging from songs like "Waves" or "Light". What are the most personal moments for you on this "ACT" saga?
I find that to be true to a certain extent. Songs like "Waves" and "Light" are autobiographical in a certain context, though a song like Light is interesting when you take into account that I haven’t had children. What it was for me, though, was writing from the point of view of my father, and the struggle I can only imagine at this point of wanting to impart good onto someone when you have a fear of them knowing your flaws and repeating them. My father is an incredible person, and this isn’t to say I really know if his flaws - but the reality is that you always want your child to be better than you, and to leave the world better than when you showed up in it.
"Act IV" and "V" are extremely personal, though deeply veiled in the context of the story. Specifically, the song "The Moon / Awake" is incredibly important to me. Long story short, the song is about identifying your younger self as a different person than you, and addressing them in a way that you want them to know you will do right by them - feeling that you may have gone astray.
So, could you make a summary of what is going on in the story of “Act V”? It would be much appreciated.
"Act V" opens with the main character, now living life as a Mayor in this fictional city. After being blackmailed by the main antagonist of the previous four albums (maybe not III) at the end of act IV, he has had to act against who he believes he truly is, and finds himself living a fractured life. On the one hand, he is a public official, living a public life under a stolen identity. On the other, he is who he truly is, and finds that he can only be himself in the arms of a former love, as well as in the deep hallucinations of an opium den. The story takes off when he decides he isn’t going to go with the flow anymore, and that even if it kills him, he will attempt to right his past wrongs.
How difficult is it to perform the music from your latest albums live? It seems pretty demanding on many terms, like production, vocals etc, so what does it take to give a good show and how long should a Dear Hunter live show be to please everyone?
At a certain point, we have to recognize the difference between an album and a live show. It takes a good deal of work, but everyone has the same goal, and is selfless. If the live version requires augmenting what we did on record in some way, we are always happy to do it. Everyone who is able to (except my brother) sings- and at times we need to use backing tracks to account for moments of either digital percussion or the orchestra.
In the past, our live shows have really fluctuated. We have done 1 - 3 hr headliners, but I am finding that around 1:30 is the perfect time.
Have you considered doing a special series of shows and playing the entire ACT albums night by night? Coheed And Cambria did that some years ago and it was amazing. If it could be done, how would you imagine it?
I have thought about it, but we have no plan at the moment. I think after this tour I need to find some personal time before I go doing something crazy like that... It would have to take some serious thought because of the inclusion of an ep ("Act I") and the varying lengths of the albums themselves.
Many people - including me - draw parallels between your vision and Claudio Sanchez’s with Coheed And Cambria. How do you feel about this comparison? Are there any other artists that you feel you share kind of the same vision in your approach towards music?
While I wouldn’t want to sound defensive, I’m not sure there are many comparisons to draw. Stylistically, I think we are very different, and thematically, we could not be more different. He has a very forward thinking sci-fi epic, and I have a fantastical period piece. While I am sure there are other artists who have already done what I am trying, I am just not aware of them. That is only to showcase my own ignorance - not to make a claim of originality.
Now, you’ve already announced that the closing chapter of the saga, "Act VI" will not be a "rock album". Why is that?
The themes and story of Act "VI" exist in such a way that properly representing them as an album, similar to the last 5, would be very clunky and, I think, boring. I find it to be an opportunity to try something I have not yet done, and that’s the most exciting thing to me about moving out of the ream of a rock album.
Have you thought of how you’re going to continue after the circle of the Act saga is closed? Would you consider starting a new concept or are you done with epic concepts and stuff?
I actually have a few ideas kicking around upstairs, but I don’t know if I would immediately want to launch into another multi album concept. That being said, I do find inspiration in conceptual music, and feel I will most likely continue in that realm.
You are also into filming and you took care of the "Gloria" video recently. How is this affair going? Would you consider making a visual representation of the "Act" story sometime in the future?
To be fair, I only helped write and do VFX on “Gloria”. The director was Erez Bader, and I think he did a phenomenal job. I would love to work on more visual material for the Dear Hunter, but I think that will always come down to what kind of budget we are capable of getting. “Gloria” cost over 2 times the amount of money we were supplied by EVR, so it’s not the best business model for continuing on other videos.
Thank you for your time. Hope I didn’t tire you with this interview and provided some questions equally interesting to your music and your art.
Thank you very much. I appreciate you taking the time to send these questions my way, and hope my answers are relatively interesting for you and your readers.