Best of 2014: Get to Know Xerxes

XERXES: Getting Back on the Horse to Regroup After Lineup Changes and a Lost Year of Productivity

Talking to Calvin Philley on a Sunday afternoon in early October was a little bit like a therapy session between perfect strangers.

I’ve never met Philley. But the 22-years-old, who lives in Louisville and makes ends meet by bartending each night, sounds familiar. He works so he can play, and his ideas and sentiments are shared between millions of Millennials around the globe.

But Philley is also unique. He is the front man for the popular post-punk quartet, Xerxes, which has had a few incarnations since its genesis in 2009.

Starting in high school among friends, Xerxes grew in local popularity pretty quickly. Before long the group found themselves touring semi-regularly and producing solid tracks.

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When most of the guys were in their freshman year in college, they traveled to South by Southwest (SXSW) where they caught the attention of No Sleep Records. No Sleep signed the guys about two years ago and put out their first record with the label. From there, Philley says, they toured nonstop.

“We all pretty much dropped out of college,” said Philley. “That tour didn’t go especially well after that first record. Some of our guitar players dropped out, and our drummer quit. So we pretty much had to start over again, and that took some time, as far as member change ups – to the point where we were kind of off the map of music at all, just sitting in a basement writing songs. There was about a year of lost time with that, which is quite regrettable, honestly.”

Which pretty much brings us up to the present, where Xerxes has been re-founded with their current lineup – Philley on vocals, Will Allard on guitar, Joseph Goode on bass and Ben Sears on drums – an incarnation that is going to stick.

After that year away, the guys got together in March of this year to start putting together their sophomore release. This latest record, Collision Blonde, came out at the end of October. But it was not created or produced in the same way as their first EP, which Philley says is a good thing because it ended up exactly how they wanted it to sound.

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After a trying to produce the record on their own for a time, and not getting the results they wanted, the guys didn’t know what to do to get the sound they knew was possible.

“I was in Chicago, visiting a girl. Because I’m a sucker. And I had some time away from her – much to my chagrin – so I was visiting with Evan Weiss [Into It. Over It.], who is an old friend of ours. We were just hanging out having some drinks, eating some dinner, and I was telling him about the how the new record was coming, and he told me he wanted to produce it.”

So they holed up in Allard’s Louisville basement for a few weeks, and worked track-by-track on a new album. This approach, Philley says, was much more organic and beneficial for each of them as artists. Weiss pushed them all to create the vision they had in their minds for this album, and the guys couldn’t be happier with the outcome.

The creative process hasn’t changed much from the first EP, but the sound certainly has. This latest release was tracked with the instrumentals first. Then, Philley would come in and set vocals and lyrics to the melody, which he says was a challenge because he had ideas of what the songs would be about, but getting the inflection and intonations just right was difficult. But Weiss helped a lot with getting the exact lyrical sound that was necessary to fit the vibe of this latest generation of Xerxes.

The vibe, the sound and the emotion on this album is based on panic.

“What I told our booking agent, while we were finishing up the record, was that I wanted it to be kind of uncomfortable to listen to,” said Philley. “It’s an extremely anxious record. For me its catharsis, but for other people it might be a projection of what they’re feeling – or what they aren’t recognizing in themselves. Which is just panic. There is a ton of panic on that record. So for me, 22-years-old feeling like my life is about to end – that’s ridiculous. But the way it comes out on the record, I hope it’s explained properly.”

It’s a feeling that is shared by much of his generation, and comes across perfectly in each track on Collision Blonde. According to their label, “Collision Blonde is a lyrical wreck that’s driven by love, drugs, depression and waking up in a cold sweat wondering ‘What’s next for me?’ on a consistent basis.”

While his music is meant to resonate and be reflective of the sentiments of his peers, and he is still a 20-something living in a world of insecurities, Philley knows his life is really not average. He’s been in a recognized band since high school – which he left for a year to pursue music. He dropped out of college because he got signed to a label, and now he works so he can afford to tour.

He understands that in order to do what he loves and be a part of Xerxes, he has to work in what he calls ‘the real world’ to make it happen. Because what it comes down to, Philley says, is funds. And while creativity shouldn’t rely entirely on the amount of money you have, it is hard to be creative if you don’t have the time, space and platform that finances can allow.

“It’s an interesting balance, but what I’ve been thinking lately is that there is no balance,” he says. “It’s walking a tightrope. Your don’t get to balance, really; you just have to try to not fall off. If you fall off you fail, and you starve while you’re at it.”

For Philley, he knows that he won’t be trying not to starve on the road forever. But he also knows he won’t be playing music as intensively as he is now for his whole life. So for now, he and the guys are just trying to soak up as much of this life as they can, and make music that will capture this chapter of their lives forever.

Follow on Twitter @xerxesband

photos by Mary Burks

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