Aaron Pauley and Derek Hess detail the band's expansive and unorthodox artistic endeavor.
In the contemporary state of the music scene, the conventional nature of an album release cycle is well defined. A band announces a new full-length recording with a lead single and accompanying cover illustration on a particular day. From here until release date, the band unveils 2 to 4 more singles as a taste of what to expect, merchandise options, and a tour announcement as a post-release celebration. The record officially releases, the band goes on tour, and the cycle repeats for subsequent full-lengths. It's a tried and true formula utilized by all artists across the industry, yielding ideal results for the most part. For Of Mice & Men, this isn't a structure that allows their work to breathe as intended. Instead, they went another route, one that found them releasing a trio of EPs over the course of this past year that all culminate into one cohesive being titled, Echo.
Echo, which is comprised of the Timeless, Bloom, and Ad Infinitum EPs, is a timeline of the band at different stages, all illustrated by renowned artist Derek Hess (In Flames, Sepultura, Converge, Nine Inch Nails) in an intersectional manner. Musically, it's an electrifying body of work that uplifts as much as it does ground listeners into a state of appreciation. Of Mice & Men's SharpTone Records label debut arrived last week and is every bit intentional to the band's creative ambitions. The lyricism, conceptual undertaking, and visual identity was all brought to life by a collective honed in on the approach. One needs only stream Echo on Spotify or engage with the music videos on YouTube to observe the wonder of how it all coincides with the prowess of Derek Hess and Frankie Nasso becoming one. As you'll see today, the art and the music form one all encompassing collective accessible to all who wish to engage at both a surface level and beyond.
We go Behind the Cover of Echo with frontman Aaron Pauley and Derek Hess to learn of the interconnectedness of the unique release structure that gave life to the band's most trailblazing composition yet:
‘Echo’ is nearly here and with it comes a new chapter in the band's discography, one that I'd argue is among your strongest yet. You of course built up to this through the different EP releases, which diverges from the typical album release cycle. Is it all freeing to handle the release in these terms, where you're not limited to any predetermined structures?
Aaron: Definitely, and I think that along with that comes the creative freedom of knowing that when you’re working on smaller projects, there’s less trepidation about freaking your audience out a little bit by experimenting with sound. There’s a weird perception that when a band releases something that is a little bit different, audiences tend to be like, “Oh, they’ve changed and the band has become this or that.” What we’ve found is that with the EP format, you can blur those creative boundaries a little bit without having that same sort of anxiety from either the creative side and the fan side because they’re seen as smaller projects. I don’t know if it’s because they’re weighed differently in the minds of fans or not, but I’ve definitely found that we’ve been able to push the boundaries on our creativity and also our songwriting, and we’ve probably have been able to get away with more than if it was perceived as a whole album.
There’s definitely a psychological aspect to it, and perhaps because it’s more digestible for fans to engage with the material in pieces. You’re giving people a 3 or 4 song EP at a time to last a few months, and then another, slowly building up to one cohesive full-length.
Aaron: I think there’s something to be said about every song and every piece of music sort of getting its day. When you’re working on an entire album, generally there’s 3 or 4 songs that are singles. Maybe 1 or 2 of them, if you’re a more aggressive band, will get any sort of radio attention. What you end up with a lot of times is a portion of the record that ends up being a “deep cut”. It’s something you’ll throw into a set at some point and it won’t really connect because to the audience, it wasn’t something that was emphasized as being an important thing. This structure allowed us to ensure that every song is not only worked on and maximized to its full potential, but that the attention that we give it and the attention that we direct our fans to give it gets to live in the limelight. There ends up being no “filler” on the record.
It’s a very interesting way of doing it, that’s for sure. I think it paid off. This unique structure also extended to the visual side of things, which you of course enlisted Derek Hess to take on. For the cover, Derek depicts a very engaging and symbolic piece that finds a bird sitting gently atop a being's heart as they open themselves up. Beyond that, the animations you crafted for it beautifully capture what the bird is intended to do. Before jumping into 'Echo' specifically, what drew you to Derek's work initially?
Aaron: Derek is an artist who in my opinion has a rare and often unparalleled quality where he can take music and derive something that pulls heartstrings and emotions in the same way that the music does. He’s an artist that drew a lot of album covers and tour posters for bands that we all grew up loving. To have him be a part of our band and our story was a huge honor. When we reached out, he was excited about the project, which got me even more excited about the project, not that I already wasn’t.
The whole idea of creating multiple pieces of work and working with an artist who can bring the music to life in a visual way, in addition to working with Frankie Nasso and his team to take Derek Hess’ art and make these incredible hand-drawn animated music videos during a time like the pandemic, felt like a very appropriate thing to do.
Absolutely, and Derek’s visual style lends well to the messaging that you all convey on the record. I've always felt that his sketch-like illustrations allow audiences the ability to complete the image in their mind through their own understanding of the concept. From the EP covers to 'Echo' itself, was the visual timeline set from early on or was it something that slowly evolved over the months?
Derek: I feel it evolved as the band put it together piece by piece. I feel I was very much part of the big picture and grew with them.
Aaron: Everything that we worked on and released we did chronologically, not necessarily in terms of how the songs are arranged on the EPs. Each of the three EPs was worked on as its own sort of body of work. It was completed before we would move on to the next one. The whole entirety of the artwork came about because of that. The image of the bird is first found on the ‘Timeless’ EP and there are two birds on a wire, one is sitting there seemingly stuck and the other one is flying away. That image has such a palpable and emotional quality to it that really resonated with what the music was expressing, not necessarily visually or lyrically but very much rooted in the feeling of it, which I guess is esoteric or hard to explain to people that aren’t in the “arts” so to speak.
All of the themes that then followed developed from that. The bird on the wire was in the second EP, ‘Bloom’, sitting on a dead tree while it was raining. The rain represented loss, the bird represented the self, and it presented the notion that if you could survive the deluge, it’s the foundation in which things can grow. The third EP cover had the bird on wire back on a wire, but now it’s sitting with a bunch of other birds on a wire and it’s keenly aware of that. It’s almost as if it’s displaying an understanding of the human condition and realizing that we’re so connected in so many ways because we share a lot of the human experience. All human beings share in the idea that the greatest and hardest parts of the human experience are often deeply intertwined with regards to love and loss. All of these things culminated into the final album cover, which is understanding that the bird is inside. That’s probably the most literal imagery for what the bird really represents.
Derek is fantastic and it was always such a pleasure to get to talk to him and to get to talk about art. If anything, releasing four albums worth of artwork was one of the highlights of releasing an album in this form.
If that’s not an enticing enough reason to own ‘Echo’ in physical format, I don’t know what is. Even for those who stick to streaming, the animations of Derek’s art do wonders and are quite addicting to stare at. The art lives and breathes, and as you elaborate, follows a sequential format that culminates into one symbolic being. Every aspect of the release was given great care and it shows.
Aaron: For us, it was very important to offer depth, but not force it. We wanted to release the music in a way where it can be consumed by anybody who just needs a pick me up while they’re working out in the gym and need a pumping track. It also offers that depth where you can sit down with the art, music videos, and read more into the story. It’s not really forced upon people.
It’s there for interpretation, if you so desire. How would you characterize the collaborative process with Derek throughout the way, especially as it pertains to finding a common ground in how you’d want the music illustrated? It appears you were both as much ingrained in the process.
Derek: Actually, I never heard any of the new music. I got the explanation of the project directly from Aaron and went from there. Aaron’s vision was very clear, so we were on the same page for the start. I wanted to achieve the concept of the project to the best of my abilities and I think it worked out well.
Aaron: It was amazing and it was always something to look forward to. I’m not a very visually inclined person. I can’t draw. I can close my eyes and picture things, but I have a very hard time describing things in terms that a visual artist would make use of. The only real thing that I feel I contributed was the whole idea of the bird, and that was based off of sketches that he had actually sent us. Something about seeing how he designed the bird on the wire just made it seem like “the one”. It’s hard to describe how that works, but that’s the beauty of art. There was very loose direction with an emphasis on the music.
Derek is somebody who has said that he doesn’t work on things if he doesn’t like the music, which was a huge compliment to us. It’s an amazing thing to craft something that is viscerally honest to yourself and sort of hand it off to somebody and say, “What do you see with this?” To get that interpretation back from somebody that you look up to as a visual artist is incredible. I don’t think that the record would be what it is without the art. Even in a digital world, I don’t think I would be as connected to it even as the creator of the music. As somebody who doesn’t create visual art but is deeply moved by it, it was amazing to see Derek contribute something as strong as that.
The thing is, it becomes synonymous with the record and this era of the band. The bird is a symbol for you all as a visual identity you’ve created with Derek. Touching back on the physical release, would you argue that some of the magic and intentionality you invested within the release is lost to those who opt not to engage with it in that manner?
Aaron: Maybe to an extent. On the flipside of that, when we made the music videos, they’re entirely consumed online and the artwork comes to life. Whether or not you have the printed 10” with the super high DPI artwork or you watch a five-minute music video with an environment created by multiple artists interpreting each other’s work, there’s that multiple sides to it. The depth is offered, but not forced. You can dip your feet in if you want, or you can dive in. All of it is just presented as entertainment and art to take you from wherever you are to somewhere else, at least for the time being.
In the contemporary time where streaming and digital media is the dominant form of media consumption, has the role of the arts changed at all? Derek, is it perhaps more important than ever as we seek meaning and a space away from the turmoil of the regular world? You and Of Mice & Men have certainly composed something special here that thousands will engage with on the regular.
Derek: For some, the role of the arts have changed. Some have known nothing different from it. I came up old school and find the way I work expresses my thoughts more completely, which helps express what the band is looking for. Pen to paper.
Judging from the feedback across social media, it’s looking like people are taking the dive. Your lyrical approach touches greatly on introspection, but more so from a universal perspective that is accessible to all who hear it. Would you say that you're both insular as artists, or is there an intended effect you wish to have upon those who engage with the material?
Derek: I tend to imply in my work instead for laying it all out in one statement. This way, the viewer is drawn in and the image can resonate rather than the instant gratification culture we’re in these days.
Aaron: Part of the learning experience of having done this now for seven albums is shutting off the part of you that thinks about the effect and putting whatever energy you would put into that more into the ethos and the methods behind creating it. For the first time in our career, we made an album without having tour plans for it. We created songs purely for the sake of creating songs. There was nothing else that was going to come after it. Rather than trying to either think about or work towards some sort of effect, we put a lot into our honest expression. It stems from the age old cliché: music is the universal language. We use language to communicate with one another. If you spend a lot of time on how you’re going to convey something or worrying about how it’s going to be received, then you don’t really have full energy to put into what you’re going to say. If all you do is focus on what you’re going to say, then the people that it resonates with will respond to you, and then you don’t have to worry about how it’s going to be received. The worst thing that happens when you worry about how it’s going to be received, it becomes somewhat contrived. People have a sixth sense about that. They know when something is a genuine expression of self versus something that’s made to elicit a certain reaction. People have that bullshit detector and it’s strong.
Our whole ethos and method of doing Of Mice & Men was if we can express ourselves as honestly both musically and lyrically as we can, then regardless of any sort of commercial success, we will have done our job and it will resonate with people that it’s supposed to resonate with. It’s funny because it’s by far our most commercially successful release in a really long time, and none of that was really a forethought. There’s a lot of questions that I’ve been asked regarding if we did the EP release format for the streaming numbers. Honestly, no. The idea of EPs was something we wanted to do for a really long time because we felt like we could release music that was emotionally relevant to our lives and the stories we’re telling are relevant to our lives. If it actually connects with somebody, we’re still present in that moment. Some of these songs were written a year ago and we’re not in the same place anymore. When you share things more episodically and on demand as you’re creating them, those conversations and connections become very real because both the creator and the consumer are in similar places. Working on the release cycle in this format has kept us as musicians more engaged with our band, the fans, and the creative process instead of just putting together 10 songs, doing a tour, and being off for another six months.
A lot of that came from being in the pandemic. We entirely self-produced it. Everybody produced their own parts, everybody recorded themselves, they sent it to me. I did bass and vocals, mixed and mastered it. We did the entire thing in-house with very low expectations of ourselves with regards to the after effects of putting something out. We held ourselves to a very high standard of making sure that what we wrote was not only honest but had enough creative integrity to it that it would resonate with our fans.
Doing the album in this structure this far into your career means that you’re not willing to settle into any particular comfort zone. Derek, whether it be your book, ‘31 Days in May’, your cover illustrations, or your personal pieces like ‘Inadequate’, your artwork is the ideal representation of powerful artistic messaging. As you’ve seen, thousands of viewers from across the world have become introduced to music through your work or have cried, smiled, and simply felt a myriad of emotions by looking through your expansive portfolio. Is it cathartic in any way to have invested so much heart in your work and get to see it have a profound effect on others, even if that wasn’t the intention?
Derek: It’s very humbling. That wasn’t my intention, but I found that I generally deal with core human emotions and that’s why people connect to it. We are all moving through this world as human-beings and all have felt very deeply about something at one time in our lives and that’s why I find the work is successful.
I'd agree. Aaron, with ‘Echo’ being a culmination of your growth as a band, what role did the camaraderie between you all play in the record’s development?
Aaron: It was central to the entire project. I don’t know that the art would exist without the music. I don’t know that some of the later music would exist without some of the original art. It was such a symbiotic process and it gave everybody an outlet of creative expression. For us in the band, getting together and working on something through Zoom kept us sane. I had a reason to get up in the morning, put clothes on, get coffee, and sit at my computer and work on something. That time could’ve just been filled with recognition of what we’ve lost instead of trying to see the silver lining, which is having time to create something without the stress of a looming tour or looming expectations from our fans. We got to work pretty quickly after releasing our last record. I don’t know that anybody was necessarily expecting new music. Going back to what you said, the comfort zone is where art goes to die. It’s where inspiration goes to die.
There’s a lot to be said about pushing yourself to try new things creatively because you will learn something. The day you stop trying to learn about yourself or your capabilities is a sad day. A lot of times, I don’t feel like a creative who creates. I feel more like an antenna that takes creative ideas out of the ether. I don’t really feel like I’ve ever cognitively written a song. I feel like I close my eyes, tune out, and hear music in my head. I try getting out what I hear into the real world. Keeping yourself out of your comfort zone, especially when you feel in that antenna state, you never really know what you’re going to pick up on. You never know what’s going to come out. That keeps it exciting and fresh. Knowing every day that I was going to log into Zoom and at some point, one or more of my bandmates was going to do something that triggers a spark, keeps it exciting. You lose a lot of these moments when you operate from a place that you know very well, a place designed to reach expectations set upon you. It becomes more like painting a house rather than painting a portrait.
Beautifully said! Seeing as you all came at this in a very like minded manner rooted in strong understanding, in what headspace did 'Echo' find you all? There were certainly areas where you had to adapt given the self-production and Zoom usage.
Aaron: Now, we all feel very empowered. We feel somewhat validated in our efforts. The idea of releasing an album as EPs was an idea we’ve had for several albums. This is the first time that we were kind of allowed to do this. We specifically signed to SharpTone because they were excited about this. It was a fruitful endeavor, not just on the commercial side or because the label was happy, but because our fans were stoked on it. We are music fans. Anybody who does art for any kind of living does so because they’re fans of it. It moves them and it enriches their lives.
Any success we’ve had with this is a testament to our fans and it’s a testament to the people who have allowed what we’ve created to move them in some way. Thinking about what you create in those terms keeps you humble, grounded, and connected to the idea that the whole point is not to create art so that somebody looks at it and thinks, “Oh cool!” Songs to me are not fireworks. It’s a language. It’s about deeper connection, because that’s something we all found in music.
When you’re on album seven, it’s hard to break a routine. It’s hard to break expectations. We’re so blessed and humble that so many people have allowed our music to be a part of their lives in a way that our platform feels secure enough to experiment with something like this. That’s entirely a testament to our fans. It has so little to do with us. It’s really easy to get that backwards over time.
Fans are the driving force and you value them well. Is this at all as exciting as it once was when you first began?
Aaron: It is. It is because of those moments that I talked about where these different musical elements come together and all of a sudden, what you’re listening to is greater than the sum of its parts. That’s always exciting, I think. You never really know how the culmination of different creative minds and different creative ideas can build something that is far greater than the sum of its parts. That’s probably the best and most succinct way I can describe it.
Echo is available now via SharpTone Records. Order your copy of the record HERE.