Photo: Jimmy Fontaine
Brendan Yates On Turnstile's Vibrant New Album 'GLOW ON': "The Goal Was To Breathe As Much Imagination Into These Songs As Possible"
Brendan Yates stood in a deserted baseball stadium in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, overcome with emotion. He'd been there before; he couldn't possibly forget it. Where the place had once been filled with sound—roaring fans, a booming announcer, the crack of the bat—wild horses roamed all around him.
"It was this magical place that stuck in my head forever," the leader of the rock band Turnstile tells GRAMMY.com. "Something about it felt extremely lonely and beautiful. That kind of feeling that at one point, those stands would be filled." When it came time to direct their 2021 short film, TURNSTILE LOVE CONNECTION, it was a no-brainer as to where the shoot would take place.
When that 11-minute film—Yates' directorial debut—premiered in Brooklyn this summer, that forgotten shell of a destination became the framework for slamming rock. Young viewers of countless tastes and backgrounds came out in droves and, when the band appeared onscreen, cheered. What was so unpopulated as to provide grazing land for stallions took on new life.
The stadium feels metaphorical for the music scene that Turnstile grew from. Despite giving the world forward-thinking acts from Bad Brains to Minor Threat, hardcore punk is an often arid space where heterodoxy is tantamount to banishment. Turnstile, who add keyboards and drum machines to their music and collaborate with Diplo, were potential offenders right out of the box. Their intrepid new album, GLOW ON, which arrives August 27, is destined to send them even further afield.
But leaving the bounds of hardcore hasn't limited their audience; like a succulent in a new pot, it's grown and grown and grown. Some tracks like "HOLIDAY" and "T.L.C. (TURNSTILE LOVE CONNECTION)" are punk ragers with unexpected, ethereal drop-outs. Others, like "ALIEN LOVE CALL"—a collaboration with Dev Hynes (a.k.a. Blood Orange)—eschew power chords and bashed drums altogether, opting to float in interstellar space.
The throughline of all this is a lack of fear—of pushback, of resistance, of excommunication—that defines Turnstile. And, of course, Yates isn't alone in the fray. Together with guitarists Brady Ebert and Pat McCrory, bassist Franz Lyons and drummer Daniel Fang, he's open to try anything, gatekeepers be damned.
GRAMMY.com caught up with Yates over Zoom to discuss the road to GLOW ON, the learning curve of directing his first film and why he views the future of Turnstile as a borderless enterprise.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
There's a certain religiosity and orthodoxy in the hardcore scene. Given that you guys have pop and crossover elements, where do you guys fit in that musical sphere these days?
I think when it comes to that word of categorizing things based on sound, it's all based on an individual's perspective. I think in the world that we come from, we've taken from hardcore and punk growing up and going to shows and stuff like that. It's almost embracing the ideology and the sense of community. Embracing individuality and diversity over what some may predominantly categorize based on sound.
There's some bands that I consider some of my favorite hardcore bands that someone else might not necessarily categorize, sound-wise, as hardcore punk. I think it's more something that's not as easy to categorize by sound and moreso by, overall, where you're coming from.
When Turnstile started to gain momentum, did you face resistance from the gatekeepers of "true" hardcore?
Oh, yeah. But I think that's any kind of music. There's some people who are like, "This is what it is, and this is what it needs to sound like. If it's not that, then I don't mess with it." For us, it doesn't necessarily, in my head, fall into any sort of direct sound category. You can get negative feedback from anyone that needs it to be a certain way.
So, that's always kind of been something that happens, but at the same time, you accept that everyone wants something different in what they expect of you, as long as you're able to swallow that and keep moving forward doing what you want to do.
Was there ever a moment of doubt where it was like, "We've gone too far! We need to reverse course because people are yelling at us!"
Oh, 100 percent. I think with every album we've ever done, there's always this uncomfortable, extremely vulnerable feeling of "Is this OK? Will this be received in whatever world we exist in?" This goes back to earlier Turnstile records. Before an album came out, I felt so proud of the work and ideas we put into it. I felt like that was what we wanted to make, but I was also like, "This could be the last one because I don't think this will connect with anyone else but us."
That vulnerable state that you're in before putting something out, I think is something I grew to try to achieve and embrace a little bit. I feel like it's a sign, a feeling of being able to accept being vulnerable and follow through with it. At the end of the day, it's something you wanted to do.
I'm sure your solidarity with the other guys in the band helps you screw up your courage.
100 percent. We're all so close and there are so many things that we try that are so far from something we've done. We try it and we're like, "Everyone forget that we even tried that. We're never doing that again." It's rewarding to feel those things out, but if something does click or feel right for some reason that's sometimes unexplainable, if we collectively feel good about it and it feels like it's coming from the five of us in a genuine way, then it's like, "Let's just embrace it and let it happen."
Turnstile | Photo: Jimmy Fontaine
GLOW ON is yet another big leap for the band. What did you want to say with this record—literally or abstractly—that you didn't in past works?
I think one thing that I've always kind of felt with our band is: I think the essence of it is in a live environment with other people. Live shows. I think that's always our goal: To maximize that feeling of being at a live show. The energy of the shows that we play. But also, with this recording process, on top of that, the goal was to breathe as much imagination into these songs as possible.
When you have a feeling you want to get across, sometimes, it's hard to capture that on a recording. There were a lot of ways we tried to capture the different dimensions of what one song could offer feeling-wise, whether it's working with a lot of keyboards or drum machines or messing with different kinds of melodies and rhythms. We were trying to let the entire thing feel a little more imaginative.
A lot of times, when I hear a song, my brain automatically goes to thinking of other things that could be in it. "I think I could hear a percussive thing here!" or "A melody here!" I think we had a lot of time to not hold back on trying to build the songs as much as possible, creating a world in each song that is a little more multidimensional, I guess.
Are you involved with the songs as they grow from their foundation, or are you more of the cherry on top as the singer?
Pretty much all the songs start with me in my bedroom. I just make the song and, at a certain point, bring it to the band when I feel like it's a full song. We see how it feels and build and shape it from there.
It's interesting, too, because with this album particularly, I feel like there are a lot of songs that started in such different ways, as far as the writing process goes. The song "MYSTERY," for example, that was on the TURNSTILE LOVE CONNECTION EP, I didn't even imagine as a Turnstile song at first. [I was playing] chords on a keyboard and singing really lightly, almost like a potential interlude or something.
Once the structure was there and I stacked the melodies and everything, then, we tried it as a full band with drums and guitars and everything. That wasn't what the initial writing was intended for, but once we all got together, it blossomed that way.
It's exciting when that [happens] as far as writing goes, because it's not like every song starts with a guitar riff and "How do we figure it out from there?" This album has taken on a lot of different ways of finding how songs feel good, whether it's starting with a drum beat or guitar riff or having a melody in mind, or having some chords on piano or something like that. That was rewarding: The process expanded in that way.
Was the TURNSTILE LOVE CONNECTION film your directorial debut?
Yeah, I guess so. I think everything we've ever done has been our idea. We bring songs in and help direct the idea. The creative direction is there and someone helps bring it to life. But this is the first time I fully stepped into a director seat, which was such a learning experience. Now, going through that process, you learn how much goes into it. [I have] so much respect for someone who does that full-time. There are so many small details that go into managing every single aspect of putting it together.
It only ended up being an 11-minute project, but what went into it was exhausting. It was really rewarding to go through the process, but even more rewarding when it was something that came from us as opposed to someone else taking over.
What music videos or films from years past went through your mind while directing TURNSTILE LOVE CONNECTION? What was your vision for the visual aesthetic and sound design?
It was moreso the visuals that were in mind first. I naturally had these visuals in my head for the songs as far as colors and how I wanted it to feel. And, I had location in mind. That baseball stadium that was abandoned, I'd found years ago. It was this magical place that stuck in my head forever. The first time I went there, it was this abandoned stadium that had wild horses running through it.
Something about it felt extremely lonely and beautiful. That kind of feeling that at one point, those stands would be filled. Seeing it in this state had this very strange, lonely feeling. I called my friend [Ian Hurdle], who was the DP [director of photography], and said, "I have these ideas and they're flowing together. They tie together in a lot of ways."
"I think there's a beauty in being open to everything that inspires you, whether it's music, people or relationships. Anything that's inspiring, be open to it and let it come out." —Brendan Yates
I explained the whole thing to him and had the idea of "Who should get to direct it?" and he was like, "I think you have the idea there. I can film. We don't need to bring anyone else in. We have an idea that already exists. Let's just try to make it happen." So, obviously, there was the location, but [as to] how to film it, there was plenty of inspiration from different kinds of films and music videos and live performances. It served as this mixing pot of inspiration as to how to actually film this stuff and edit it.
Back to the agreed-upon template of hardcore, or the lack thereof. Do you guys feel like you can grow limitlessly from here? Do you feel any boundaries after GLOW ON?
I don't think so. I don't think there's any boundaries. At the end of the day, when it's the five of us with our instruments, it's always going to be Turnstile. I think there's something comforting in that, because allowing inspiration or trying things, no matter how different they may be, will always [be our MO]. If it comes from us, it'll be a Turnstile song.
That is never necessarily anything we have to try to mainstain, necessarily. It's just the combination of the two guitars, the drummer, the singer and the bass player coming together. It is refreshing to know that it's a blank canvas for the future as long as it feels good to the band as a group of five.
When you look out at your audience, which is wide, healthy and varied, I'm sure it dawns on you that you won them because you didn't box yourselves in. Does what you do invite a larger, more varied swath of people into that community that might have been very insular before?
I think so. I think it can be. I think any subgenre or community can sometimes be a little insular or potentially inaccessible to some. Coming from Baltimore, too—maybe that's just partially our experience—but I think Baltimore being a small city where there's a lot of different kinds of music and art and people doing a lot of different things almost forces those things to overlap. You play shows together. I think that alone is always subconsciously a trick of how we approach it.
The hardcore or punk community or any kind of subgenre of music has blended together right here, and I feel [everyone's] been welcoming and supportive of each other. I think that has subconsciously ingrained us as being open to play for whoever, to take any opportunity to play for people who would be excited to see the band.
The reason I keep harping on this is because I'm primarily a jazz writer these days. That's also a highly insular world, but the drum I keep beating is "If you don't bring in new blood, this music will die." Do you feel similarly about hardcore?
Yeah. I think, too, [as far as] someone's idea of jazz or hardcore or indie or any kind of stuff, those ideas are never set in stone. It's something that's constantly, always evolving.
It's the way I look at life or being a person. It's cool to have a certain set of directions or have ideas on how you want to be, but I feel it's also important to always be able to change or have someone else's idea or perspective. From my perspective, someone's life could be totally different from mine. If I close it off and go, "No, this is how it's supposed to be," and they're also like that, then it's this wall that's come between.
And for something like jazz, too: Jazz, to me, has always felt like such an inspiration because a lot of great jazz musicians have vocalized this idea of not even wanting to call their music "jazz," because if it's good, it's good. If it feels good, it feels good. That's always inspired me as far as working to ignore the genre barriers that are put in place by society.
People feel comfortable putting things in categories, and I think there's something freeing in jazz, where there's such a wide range of inspiration. The beauty in it, I feel, is in accepting whatever it is for whatever it is. If you like it, you like it.
Everyone's perspective, everyone's truth is very different. I feel like that's how we look at things. We try to navigate through life and be open to whatever. Our music preferences and tastes are all over the board. It's silly to close off the inspiration of what you're doing to only a limited thing that you think would feel comfortable to anyone else.
I think there's a beauty in being open to everything that inspires you, whether it's music, people or relationships. Anything that's inspiring, be open to it and let it come out.
As a musician myself, I like to ask about moments on records more than songs. What are your favorite moments on GLOW ON?
[Elated sigh.] Ah, so many moments.
I really appreciate the song "Alien Love Call," where we ended up collaborating with Dev Hynes of Blood Orange. I think one thing we've always been open to as well—and songs on previous records have formed this way—but there will be a riff, or one little idea, and we'll be on tour and throw it on the set between songs.
That's how so many songs have formed. Sometimes, it works and we do it again. That song, particularly, was a thing that we would play live. Someone might have broken a string and we went into that because the dynamics felt right. Once we played it for so long on tour because it became naturally part of the set, when it came time to record the album, it felt like fully our song at this point instead of this little jam thing. It was worth the effort to try to build it into a song.
After building it into a song and collaborating with Dev, it was different sonically than a lot of Turnstile songs we've done, but at the same time, it was a moment that felt very true to us because we'd been playing it and it formed in such a natural way with the five of us together. Then, when we and Dev came together on it, that's the kind of stuff that I'm really excited about—when those things happen.
Sometimes, they're not necessarily always perfectly explainable. It's something forming and just embracing it.
What do you appreciate about Dev's music—or just Dev as a person?
So much. I'm such a big fan. He's such an inspiring person, especially his ability to exist in so many different lanes while always genuinely feeling like him, whether it's soundtracking or producing or featuring with artists that are very different sonically.
As we were talking about, some people may categorize [him], but especially upon meeting him, there's such a great, wide range of inspiration that is built into his DNA, whether it's metal, rock stuff, jazz, classical or R&B. He's so creative and has such a beautiful vision. When we work on things together, it's just so fulfilling.
It's a vision I feel like I can connect to and appreciate. In many ways, I feel like I can relate to the way he looks at things sometimes, which is super-amazing. I have nothing but love for Dev and what he does.