Balancing Act: An Interview with Hex Inverter’s Christian McKenna
Forged by members of the extraordinary experimental, post-rock act Empty Flowers, Hex Inverter is a band obsessed with the concept of psychedelia: the illusory ability of heavy music to expand the listener’s perception. With vocalist and synthesizer manipulator Christian McKenna, we dive into the history and establishment of Hex Inverter, finding the balance between improvisation and songwriting, unusual production practices, and his own label Translation Loss Records. Dive in to get a deep insight into the brain melting sonic waves of Revision and listen to a premiere of “Cannibal Eyes” below.
Can you give us a brief overview of Hex Inverter's history?
Mick and I have been friends for years. We hang out, drink beers, eat Mexican food and listen to like Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, Genesis, Kyuss, Voivod and Earth, Wind & Fire records together. Only those four or five bands, though. We also listen to one song off the second Bob Seger greatest hits collection.
A few years ago Mick played me some pieces he was working on. The ideas had this certain vibe that spoke to me so we started writing together. It just kinda gradually turned into this little body of work that ended up being our first record. I didn't really intend for it to be released. I played it for my friend and he suggested we send it to Redscroll. they offered to help us out, they pressed some records and helped us get a few shows. Our first couple gigs were with Kayo Dot. We've played as a three piece, five piece, two piece, four piece. We're releasing Revision with our friend Shannon's label called Anthropic Records. It feels like we're just getting started.
Obviously you, Mick and Randy are also known from Empty Flowers. How would you compare the sound of Hex Inverter to Empty Flowers?
Hex Inverter has tunes that are built off loose arrangements. The songs rely more on mood. Empty Flowers is coming from a more precise place. I can't speak for Mick but there was nothing preconceived with writing this stuff from my end. My composing approach has always been about trying to say something without much clutter. Less is more.
Hex Inverter has a very elusive sound. How much of the end result is based on improvisation rather than wrote composition?
The process has changed and evolved over the last few years. I would say our music is 60/40 in terms of songwriting and improvisation. I can't say we really have a definitive way of coming up with stuff. The first record Mick wrote 90% of the music and I wrote my parts. I helped Mick arrange some of his ideas but he did the majority of the work. Revision was a product of the band getting out there and playing live a bit. "Cannibal Eyes" and "Something it's Not" are responses to some of the tunes on the first record. This band started as a studio project in many ways. When Redscroll agreed to put a little money into our band we felt obligated to go out and promote the album. The band never tried performing the songs off Hex Inverter live so when it came time to do so we ended up almost writing new songs in the spirit of the originals. Sometimes the interpretations were so far removed from the originals we decided to give them new names and record them. Keith who has played both drums and bass with the band brought in the main idea for "Daphne." This was the first time we've had someone else contribute to the songwriting outside of Mick and myself.
Compared with your debut, Revision is marked with significant leaps in composition and arrangement. Was the production process different?
The new record is sort of transitional for us. It's serving as a bridge between the first phase of the band and where we're going. We've actually started recording new material already. I think the next record will be even more of a departure with songs that have elements of what we've done but pulling it off in a more concise way. The next record will contain our first recorded cover. We're doing "Veterans of the Psychic Wars" by Blue Oyster Cult. I'm very excited about this.
Can you expand on the themes of Revision? You provide some powerful imagery with titles like “Cannibal Eyes,” and then you dwell into mythological figures such as “Daphne.” What is the connection between the two, and is there an underlying theme that runs through the record?
I think Mick came up with the name Revision and I immediately said "that's it!" The band has had several lineups over the past few years.. Hex Inverter is constantly revising itself.. figuring out how to play songs from the first record created these revisions of the earlier compositions. "Fled" is largely based off the instrumental part of another tune. After sending Will Brooks the tracks to "I Swear I'm Not My Thoughts" and being so thrilled with what he threw back at me I decided to add new lines to his revision. "Fled" just became this beautiful piece that could stand on it's own.
"Cannibal Eyes" is Mick playing with words. He's being a clever little bugger. "Cannibal Eyes" sounds like cannibalize. We're basically chewing up and spitting back out our songs in a new way. "Cannibal Eyes" is basically our live interpretation of "Bruise" from album number one. I'm not sure anyone has ever noticed. The lyrics are the most obvious similarity but they're much more even in the mix on "Bruise". "Daphne" really has no meaning. I came up with the key and vocal parts minutes before I recorded it. I don't know anyone named Daphne.
A water color painting we used for our album cover was found on the wall of an art space gig that Hex Inverter played with Joe Talcum of The Dead Milkmen. We tracked down the artist from the owner of the space... a really talented guy named John Opal. I always envision paintings being revised as they go along. The name Revision just seemed to fit on many levels.
As your sound is heavily experimental, I guess you are making use of a lot of effects in your instrument chains. Can you tell us a bit about your setup? What are the effects/modules that you just cannot do without?
We're really trying to slim down our set up because it's just a logistical nightmare when playing out and we used to drag out embarrassing amounts of gear. I'm not much of a tech guy.. We used some different synths. I used a Moog and a little Korg that I have on the album. I have a looping pedal that I'm getting into more. Mick has been tripling up on himself live. He gets these loops going with guitars, bass and keys. We slowly build the songs up live based on various drones and loops. The set up changes all the time. I want to stay away from the drum machine in the future and work with a live drummer more.
You had a slightly unusual recording session, where most of the tracks were recorded at Machines with Magnets, with Seth Manchester and Keith Souza, and then “Fled” was recorded partly by Steve Roche and then by Will Brooks (dalek). How did you end up making this decision? Was there any difficulty during the latter stages, mainly mastering, due to the use of different recording spaces, techniques, and different people mixing them?
The process leading up to the recording was somewhat frustrating due to several personnel changes but once we got to the studio things went really smoothly. We've had four or five different people who have played with the band in the last few years. They weren't working out for various reasons. Some of it was my fault. Some of the folks I just felt were doing it for the wrong reasons and not really contributing anything but drama. It was growing tiresome teaching people the same songs over and over. We tracked the majority of the record live up in Providence, RI. A few days before heading up to Machines we lost our rhythm section. I didn't want to cancel the session because I wanted to document that stage of the band so I called my good friend Randy Larsen and he just did a phenomenal job. He really stepped it up on bass. Randy made the record much better and brought a fresh perspective to some tunes that we had been squeezing the juice out of for quite some time. He gave the songs a new sense of life. I've known Randy for a long time and he is one of my closest friends. We've worked on music together with Cable, Empty Flowers and some other projects over the years so it just made sense to reach out to him. Our engineer Seth came in and bailed us out on the drums. He's super talented and this was the first time Hex Inverter would have live drums on a recording.
I'm pretty fried out on some of these songs at this point though I'm proud of the record. I'm proud of what we accomplished at the given time. We're ready to move onto the next thing.
You also run Translation Loss Records, which has released albums from the likes Mouth of the Architect, Rosetta and Giant Squid. How do you find running a label in the current climate?
The bands you named are really great and they're all longtime friends. I'm very proud of the long relationships we have with the aforementioned artists. We aren't signing bands to long term deals. We have been working with Mouth of the Architect since their inception and it's always just been one-offs. I'm so proud of that. I've been running Translation Loss with Starkweather drummer Drew Juergens for the last 17 years. I can't believe we've been at it for so long. The label is a love-hate thing sometimes but the positives definitely outweigh the negatives. I've gotten to work with some of my favorite artists over the years. It's very rewarding knowing they trust us to handle their work.
It's getting harder and harder to get folks to purchase music. Things are constantly changing vinyl is definitely more popular now although I'm convinced 90% of the people that buy it from us never even listen to it. We've even released a couple cassettes over the years.
Translation Loss is located in Philadelphia, and I think it has a really good grasp of the local scene. How would you characterize the current bands in Philly? Anything we should be at the lookout for?
You're asking the wrong guy. I'm a homebody type and I don't get out that much. I live north of the city, out in the country. I'm not really in touch with the scene. I'm also not good at characterizing bands. Bardo Pond, Kohoutek and Stinking Lizaveta are three great bands from the area. I've shared bills with the latter two and I just saw Bardo Pond last Friday and they blew my mind.
It's funny because I like metal but I'm not like this strict heavy metal guy. Translation Loss is mostly known for some of the more metal type stuff that's been released but we've put out all kinds of records, singer songwriter, ambient, solo piano and all other kinds of stuff. People always think I'm like this "metal or die" dude.
I know it is very early to ask, given that the new album is out, but are there plans for any more music coming our way? Any EPs or collaborations on the horizon?
We're already into the writing and recording process for the next record. I think the gap between releases will be much shorter this time. We just played our album release show last weekend and it was our best gig yet. I'm sure we will get out there more this year, we just have to pick and choose what we want to do, what makes sense for us. We're always getting offers to play gigs.