In the music world, “divisi” is a term that denotes a separation from a single section of the same instruments into a subsection of different instruments. It’s a fitting title for Sacramento-based rock band A Lot Like Birds’ fourth full-length, released on Equal Vision Records on May 5, which marks a definitive departure from their previous post-hardcore sound. Unlike their two most recent releases Conversation Piece (2011) and No Place (2013), DIVISI is virtually devoid of the screaming vocals that define their previously heavier songs. Instead, it is characterized by frontman Cory Lockwood’s clean, high-pitched voice. The five-piece band embarked on a 32-date tour in support of the album in April, which ends in Scottsdale on June 2. College Times caught up with Lockwood to discuss what to expect from what he describes as “the DIVISI era.”
Tell me a little about yourself and your background in music. What did you grow up listening to and how do you think that informs your current sound?
When I was young, I listened to a lot of classic rock because that’s the only stuff that my parents kept in the house… Led Zeppelin and Meatloaf and Lynyrd Skynrd. That’s what I knew—these long, epic songs that told stories. It wasn’t until I graduated high school that I started to branch out and listen to other music. Our guitarist, Ben (Wiacek), and I were friends in high school and he started showing me bands like Circle Takes the Square and Fall of Troy and that was the first time I’d really heard anything experimental or ‘non-radio friendly’ and I was just hooked at that point. In a way, that blend of both of those worlds — trying to approach storytelling in writing and tell intricate stories, and mixing that with the world of post-hardcore music and experimentation and always trying to push boundaries kind of brought me to where I am now.
Your vocals are much “cleaner,” for lack of a better word, on the two singles from your upcoming album compared to your last few releases. Can you talk about that and why you decided to do a shift in sound?
Singing was always something that I wanted to incorporate more into A Lot Like Birds because I felt like screaming had a place in our music, but if I wanted to approach every single song with screaming, it would be somewhat forced. I would always write melodies and try and incorporate them into more of our songs; there’s small segments of songs on Conversation Piece and No Place that I was singing on, but they weren’t huge features. It was something I really wanted to explore a lot more with this album and it just sort of went hand-in-hand with the way the music was being written. All screaming on the album is just points where I felt that screaming was the best way to approach it vocally. They’re pretty few and far between, but I’m really happy that they are where they are.
Your lyrics are very visceral and really quite poetic. Can you tell me about your writing process and how it’s evolved?
I’ve always said that screaming is similar to rapping in a way; you have a lot of freedom and you can get a lot across and just make variations in cadence to fit pieces together. But singing is a whole different world, so I had to approach the lyrics by writing them free-form the way I always have, but then sort of segment them into line-by-line and be pretty strict with myself on making sure that they fit the melody and that it wasn’t getting too wordy for the part and sacrificing the melody for it.
Is this new sound the direction that you see yourself going in or are you going to go back to more hardcore screaming elements?
I think it’s hard for me to say, and I think it’s hard for any particular person in the band to say because we’ve never really had a game plan further than what’s directly in front of us when it comes to music. We’ve never been one of those bands that can write a record and release it and then immediately start writing the next; we always need some sort of rest and reprieve so that we can move on from that. Each record from one to the next has just been whatever came out of us at that time, so when the next record process comes along, I don’t know where we’ll be creatively. I don’t know if we’ll continue to explore this path. I don’t know if we’ll go back into heavier, more frantic stuff. That’s sort of the nice thing about this band: the uncertainty of knowing what we’re going to do next. We don’t even know until it happens.
Your single, “For Shelley” is about your late mother. What was it like writing about such an emotional experience? Did you find that it was easy or difficult to write about something so personal to you?
It was difficult in the respect that I felt this pressure that I absolutely needed to write something that I couldn’t look back on later and go, ‘I wish I’d done this instead.’ So I rewrote that song more than any of the others, but I think it was easy in the respect that when a line did feel like it fit and described what I was trying to convey, it was non-negotiable, like as soon as the line came out, it was like, ‘Ok, that’s it. I can move forward and move onto the next part of the song.’ I think a lot of that is worrying about what those lyrics might mean to somebody else because I was so deeply involved in writing that song for myself; I wasn’t even sure it was going to be an A Lot Like Birds song. The evolution of that song from a song that might not have even happened whatsoever, to being our very first glimpse of the record was a little bit of a journey.
How long did it take you to write that song?
It was over the course of four or five months, because the first portions of it were actually written before my mother had passed. It was writings I had done after I visited her in the hospital and seeing her in the condition she was in, and I wrote both of the verses about that and wanted to put those descriptions out there. When she passed, that’s when the chorus and the bridge came together and the song was complete. When the verses were written, I didn’t want my mom to hear it and know that that’s how scared I was when I saw her.
Tell me about your other single, “The Sound of Us.” Is that equally as personal?
No, that’s actually almost at the opposite end of the spectrum. That lyric style is more old-school A Lot Like Birds: very, very imagery-based. I wanted to write this long story and it’s literally about two people traveling through space. That song meant a lot to me because it was such a blending of the two styles with this album, so the old familiar lyricism that people were used to from No Place, which is just one very longwinded story.
This is your second release on Equal Vision, correct? What was it like getting signed with them? How does it feel to be on the same label that worked with veteran bands like Saves the Day or Coheed and Cambria?
Yes, that was huge for me. My guitarist Ben and I, we had idolized Equal Vision bands when we were young and the idea that we could ever be on the same record label as bands like Bear vs. Shark, Fall of Troy and Fear Before and bands like that, we were just blown away when (label manager) Dan (Sandshaw) approached us… and even more so, it’s been kind of sentimental because so many of the bands that we’ve considered a family are now a part of it, with Hail the Sun and Stolas. EVR is straight up just an extension of our family now, which is bizarre to say out loud. If I told 19-year-old me, it would’ve blown my mind.
You’re about to head on tour here in a few days. What are you most stoked on about this tour in particular?
The record and live versions of songs have always been this strange dichotomy with us. The songs that I feel so strongly about, on the record I don’t feel like they’ve been done justice just because we can perform them live differently and vice versa. There’s songs on the record that don’t really come across as well live and they were meant to be heard with all the different layers, so I think it’s going to be news to us to see how these songs translate live. I love seeing what a set ends up becoming when it’s played, when each of the songs are realized onstage.
Describe what it’s like to see A Lot Like Birds live. What would you say is the most important aspect of your live sets?
The biggest thing for us has been the connection with the audience — not having a disconnected performance where it just looks like a band immaculately performing the same set over and over. Each night, we embrace any flaws and any weird idiosyncrasies from performance to performance and sort of make that special; each city feels unique. There’s certain stages where we’ll be more intimate and low-level and try to hit an emotional connection with the crowd and there’s other cities that when we play, we have to just lose it and blow our voices out and jump off the stage and come close to breaking our necks because the crowd demands it. I feel like if you asked each crowd, they might have a different way of looking at our shows.
Is there a deep meaning behind the name of your band? Does it represent anything for you guys?
Actually, the band name came before most of the members. It was back when it was just Michael and our old bass player and ironically enough, they named the band A Lot Like Birds because they didn’t anticipate having vocalists. If there was going to be any vocal elements of the band, it would be just light melodies in the background, not really focused on lyricism or anything and it would be ‘a lot like birds.’ And then of course we ruined it by adding vocals.
There’s been a few changes in the lineup since you started, most notably the addition and departure of Kurt (Travis). What can you say about that and what is the dynamic of the current lineup?
One of the things that has always been fascinating to me and made A Lot Like Birds my focus through the past eight years of my life, was the nature of constantly changing and constantly evolving and never really settling down. The very first album that we ever made had like 12 or 13 different members. We had trumpets and violins and just a mess of people and I wasn’t supposed to be a permanent member; I was supposed to be a guest vocalist, so I think it’s just a natural progression and just a way of making this the DIVISI era of A Lot Like Birds.
Tell me more about the upcoming album and how it differs from your previous releases. How do you feel when you go back and listen to your first full-length?
DIVISI is something that’s hard for me to try to envision as one song or one single or a handful of songs. It just feels like an album that has to be perceived as a whole. It feels like such a natural A Lot Like Birds album and it has everything that all of our old albums had, it’s just a variety of range, heavier songs, softer songs, flows of energy, themes that make themselves present through some songs and some songs have standalone themes. It’s got the backbone of a real A Lot Like Birds album, but it’s just in a different skin.
A Lot Like Birds, Pub Rock, 8005 E. Roosevelt Street, Scottsdale, pubrocklive.com, Friday, June 2, 7 p.m., $13-$15.