Songwriter Interviews

Devin Oliver of I See Stars

by Greg Prato

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As the years go by, it is getting increasingly more difficult to put a unique spin on heavy music. But in the case of I See Stars, they manage to offer an interesting twist that has been termed "electronic hardcore," or as you'll read below, what singer Devin Oliver calls "electronic rock music."

Based outside of Detroit, the band formed in 2005, released their first album in 2009, and has been on the upswing ever since. A breakthrough came in 2012 with their third album, Digital Renegade, which was produced by Joey Sturgis, the man who helped shape the sound of The Devil Wears Prada and Asking Alexandria.

The group's fifth studio full-length, Treehouse, is their first as a foursome, as they dismissed original members Zach Johnson and Jimmy Gregerson in 2015. In statements from all involved, it's an amicable split, but Oliver pours out his frustrations on the standout track "Mobbin' Out," where he sings:

How can you just stand there with a straight face telling me
You did the best that you could
I'm giving up on you
But I'm not giving up on me


We spoke with Devin shortly before the arrival of the album to discuss this song and several others in the ISS catalog, and to learn more about how they make their music.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Let's start by discussing the new album, Treehouse.

Devin Oliver: We took a bit of a break between New Demons [2013] and this record. Which was great. Throughout my entire career, I get a little antsy and a little bit itchy if I'm off tour for even two months. So, almost two years off tour was a little bit bittersweet, but it gave me a lot of opportunity to go back to spending time on what's really important, which is writing the music.

I remember what my dad told me a long time ago when we wrote our first record. He said, "You have your whole life to write your first record. You've only got nine months to write your second." For me, it was nice to be able to go back to what it was like writing our first record, and actually spend a little bit more time and give it that little extra effort and make the tweaks and critiques that you want to make, and not really have any deadlines coming between that.

We did the record in LA. We did it with Erik Ron and Nick Scott, who was actually Joey Sturgis' engineer on New Demons. He helped co-write, record, and master our acoustic album, Phases. So it was an interesting process. There was a lot of people involved, which is great. With Joey, it felt like he was very hands-on with the production and with helping writing guitar. But with Erik Ron, he was heavily involved in helping with lyrics and melodies. So that was a different experience. It was nice to have a helping hand in that - just a different opinion.

Songfacts: How was it working with a variety of producers on the album, as opposed to just one?

Oliver: It was bittersweet. We go into every studio with a record already written. We're not the kind of band that walks into a studio and says, "Hey, help us write a record." We go into it, "Hey, here's our record." For a lot of producers, it's bittersweet for them too, because they want to be involved and they want to help and they have suggestions. They're hoping that we're not married to the ideas, which we tend to be, for the most part. But it was cool. I think it teaches you to step outside your comfort zone.

For me, I have one goal, and that's to make a great record. It's not about making my record. I'm not prideful. It's about making the best record. And the only thing that's important to me is that it's an I See Stars record. It's got to sound like an I See Stars record. I think in order for it to sound like an I See Stars record, it does need to primarily be my band, which it is from the start.

But when these producers come in and they want to make tweaks, you've got to be open-minded to the idea - you just can't shut out every idea because you love it the way it is. You've got to be open-minded, and you've got to listen to it, and you've got to be able to follow through with other ideas, and only then can you make the executive decision to veto the idea. It's an interesting process. At some points, it can be a little bit concerning, but you just have to stay relaxed and understand that no matter what, this is our record and we've got the final say. And if a producer wants to come in and give you ideas or wants to hear our ideas, you have to be open-minded to that. And that's a skill. A lot of musicians are prideful and they don't want anybody messing with their art. And I totally understand that - I feel it, too. But you never know. Somebody might be able to teach you a thing or two, and I think you have to be open-minded to that.

Songfacts: How does the songwriting work primarily in I See Stars?

Oliver: We have an interesting workflow. We're a four-piece, so it's me, my brother and drummer Andrew, my guitar player Brent, and my bass player Jeff. We all write music. I play guitar. We all can write drums and we're all pretty multi-talented in that aspect. I'm grateful to be in a band with people like that.

It starts off with an idea: I'll have one or any of the other guys will have one. We also all produce and we write electronic music - my brother Andrew has a side-project called Dream Beach. We're all really huge fans of electronic music, and within our music, we have a lot of electronic aspects. It really works in layers. It starts off with an idea and we'll pass it around.

But if you're asking how involved my band is, we will have finished songs going into the studio. Me and Andrew write all the lyrics, and we write all the melodies. We'll go in the studio with a record finished and these producers will listen to it and they'll tell you what they like and don't like about it, and they'll tell you what they think can be different. That's what being in the studio is all about: it's about making decisions and hearing out other ideas. That's why you're in the studio with a producer. A producer is supposed to help you produce and he's going to give you his honest opinion. But at the end of the day, we get to make the executive decisions. It's a stressful situation, but you have to try to remain stress-free.

Songfacts: What was the lyrical inspiration behind the song "Break"?

Oliver: That was an interesting track for me, because in my history and the rest of the catalogue, I've never really been big on writing about heartbreak. Maybe that's just because I haven't really experienced too much of it, because up until two years ago, I'd been in a six-year relationship. I usually hone in on writing about family problems or problems within the world - something that we're all in together. That's what I gravitate towards.

So this was an interesting song for me, and honestly, it was an interesting time. This record was in the process of being developed right as I was getting out of a pretty long-term relationship. I felt very heartbroken at the time, but it was really great, because I think that I was able to turn something tragic and heartbreaking into something beautiful, and I was able to find something beautiful in that.

On this record, I felt like I wrote some of the coolest lyrics I've ever written because of those new experiences I was going through. "Break" really talks a lot about it. It talks about the person I was, and it's mostly about being upset about being the boyfriend I suppose I was. I wasn't a very good boyfriend. I know it sounds cheesy, but it's the truth: you're on tour, you're gone all the time. You're gone like nine months out of the year. It's a hard life, man. And to have someone in your life for six years and you lose them, it's tough.

It's me looking at things from her perspective and understanding why we're not together anymore. I think that whole process was hard for me. It was hard to understand. It was hard to take that step back and be like, "This is the person you were, and this isn't the person you want to be." And until you can actually realize your mistakes and know that you're at fault here, you're never going to actually grow as a person.

But it was cool, man. It was cool to write about that. I never really was open about writing about stuff like that in my music, but it's great, because the song has such an aggressive vibe. When you listen to it, you don't really think about this "heartbreak song." It's so epic and aggressive that you lose yourself to the music and kind of ride the lyrics.

Songfacts: "Mobbin' Out"?

Oliver: I'm always scared to talk about what that song is about, because my band made so many changes in the last couple of years. But if you write about it, you've got to be willing to talk about it.

As most of our fans know, we're short two members. We let go of Jimmy our old guitar player and Zach our old screamer. "Mobbin' Out" is discussing what it feels like to be so heavily invested in something like music or your career, and partnering up with somebody who isn't always there, who doesn't appear to be as invested as you, and dealing with it for such a long period of time.

The issues we've had with Zach were ongoing for a long time, and I love the kid to death - we're still friends - which is why it's so hard to talk about it in words as opposed to in song. It can be a little more disguised when you're talking about it in your lyrics.

I think there is a difference between being friends with somebody and partnering up with somebody, and running a business with somebody. It's hard. Those two things are completely different. Some of my best friends in the world I could never imagine myself being in a business with them, or starting a career with them.

That was one of the hardest decisions we've ever had to make as a band, letting those two go. Because we are such good friends with them - still to this day. But I think that song just sheds some light on how it was a necessary thing.

Songfacts: "Murder Mitten"?

Oliver: "Murder Mitten" was about my relationship with my mother. She's had an alcohol problem her whole life, but at this moment, she went through her first stage of rehab, and she was in recovery. So as sad a song as it is, it's talking about the darkness, because we were at the light at the end of the tunnel - we were able to channel that darkness into song. But at the time before that, my mom... I don't know if you've ever had an alcoholic in your family, but it's a difficult process. They disguise it.

Alcohol really isn't as frowned upon as most other addictions, but it's extremely serious, and in a lot of cases, it's harder to solve, because it can be so disguised - unlike other addictions, like drugs. Everybody has a drink here and there, but to have an actual alcohol problem, it's really hard to diagnose. With my mom, it affected a lot of her life. It affected her marriage, it affected her relationship with her kids, it affected a lot.

And it affected her job. We lost our home when I was 17 - our house was foreclosed because she wasn't working. She lost her job because she was going through all these problems with alcohol. It was kind of tearing our family apart.

So it was a really sad moment in our life. It's probably the saddest moment. But I was able to write "Murder Mittens" with these guys through all that, and I was able to write it in a time when all of that was in the past.

Songfacts: "Filth Friends Unite"?

Oliver: "Filth Friends Unite" I would suppose it is about recklessness within our group of friends - how reckless we can get. We wrote that song back when I was 17 - I'm 24 now. It's about rebelling. No matter what level of rebellion it is, it's just about rebelling against your parents or against the world. In our video, we have this scenario where you're rebelling against the government.

Songfacts: What are your thoughts on the band's music being described as "electronic hardcore"?

Oliver: Mixed emotions, honestly. I know my band is hardcore, but if anyone asks me what my band is, I feel like "electronic rock music." I like that expression more. We kind of honed in on this EHM thing, which is "electronic hardcore music." And ever since then, it's kind of been stamped on us - for quite some time.

I'm not by any means ashamed by that - I love where we started. But I'm becoming more excited about where we are ending up right now. I think that our aggression in our music is a bit different than what it once was. I don't want to say that it "matured." I don't think hardcore music is immature - I love hardcore music. I'm just saying that I think we're evolving.

June 16, 2016
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