Making Music in the Wake of Balance and Composure’s Nearly Fatal Van Crash

Bailey Van Ellis talks the band’s first pre-crash release.

In October of 2013 we were involved in an accident that resulted in the total loss of our van and trailer, some broken bones and a new appreciation for life. It was the first auto-related accident most of us had been involved in. Our van and trailer fishtailed across a highway in Painesville, Ohio, and slipped through a ten-foot gap in the guardrail, plummeting fifty feet and eventually stopping one hundred and twenty feet from where it left the road. The police and tow truck drivers that responded were surprised everyone was alive. Needless to say, we were extremely lucky.

It took a good amount of time for the five of us to reconvene after the accident. We spent the better part of a year away from anything musical as a group, but still took that time to work on ideas individually. It wasn’t until July of 2015 that we started working together on what would become our new record, Light We Made. There’s always a weird indescribable feeling when you start writing a new record as a band. It’s a big step, and that initial starting point can sometimes be strange, especially when you’ve been away from writing collectively for a longer period of time. This time around, however, there was definitely a heightened sense of chemistry among the five of us and we all seemed to be on the same page more so than ever before. It was surprising to me, being that it had been the longest gap we had taken in between albums up until that point.

It felt like it was time to step out of our comfort zone, and I think a lot of that was attributed to the accident.

The vibe was different during that first practice, and from the very get-go I think we all knew we were going to try to make something different from anything else we had done. It felt like it was time to step out of our comfort zone, and I think a lot of that was attributed to the accident. I think any sort of life-flashing/eye-opening event can really put things into perspective for someone, and being that close to death, for us, proved that to be true. It opened a new creative window for the band and I think made us realize that there’s only a certain amount of time we get on this planet to create.

It’s easy to get caught up in playing what you’re used to or what you’re good at playing, and, knowing that, we tried to explore different instruments and different ways of living in a groove on this album. The majority of the music we all listen to on a regular basis is hip-hop, and that definitely had an influence on these songs. There’s something really cool to me about a song living in the same groove or beat the entire duration of the song. I think it challenges the artist to create melody or instrumentation that is noticeable and catching enough to differentiate a verse and chorus or vice versa without changing the foundation of the track. It’s something that we tried to do on a number of the songs on this record. “Midnight Zone,” “For a Walk,” “Postcard” and “Loam” are all good examples.

Going along with the whole hip-hop influence, the core of the majority of the songs on the album started with either a drum groove or a bass groove. I think this album has way more of a drum/bass feel than any of our previous works. The bass plays off whatever the drums are doing, and vice versa, and I think that becomes evident after hearing the first song on the album. The voicing is different and complements what’s going on from instrument to instrument. We were very aware of that. In every song, we layered the drum tracks with electronic percussion/samples/patterns, and that’s something we hadn’t done up until that point. We wanted to build a glitchy, percussion-based groundwork for everything. We had done this in the past on our previous albums, but only with live percussion and additional overdubbed drums.

We also experimented with adding electronic drums to the record, which is something else we hadn’t done before. There was definitely a mixture of surprise and confusion when we released “Postcard,” which we expected. A lot of people thought I had left the band. They came to that conclusion before considering that maybe we just wanted to try using electronic drums. I still programmed them/played them on a drum machine, which I’m sure a lot of people didn’t realize. It’s just a different form of sound, and I think it was confusing at first for long-time listeners of the band. I think it’s cool, though, that we’re challenging our listeners to lend their ears to something new — something that they maybe normally wouldn’t. No other bands (that I’m aware of) in this “emo revival” scene or whatever the hell people call it are using electronic drums in the way we did on “Postcard,” and I think that caused a bit of a stir.

After the album was recorded, we had to then tackle how were going to recreate the songs in a live setting. We played “Postcard” for the first time at Riot Fest in Chicago and I think people were pleasantly surprised at how well it translated. Out of all the songs on the album, it’s the most electronic-based. We’d never had people straight dancing at our shows, but I guess that song gets the people doing just that, which is cool to see. We also added live drums and some additional percussion that isn’t on the recorded version of “Postcard,” and I’m excited to implement more of that on some of the other songs off the album as well. I think, in a live setting, these new songs translate really well. There’s low end in them that we’ve never had before, and live I think it really slams you in the chest. You feel it more.

The guitars on the album are also a bit different than before; they add so much texture and mood to everything. They make it dreamy. If the drum and bass groove was there, there was no point to us in duplicating a bass progression on guitar. We saw that as wasted space and made a point to have everything doing something different. It’s easy to hide behind distortion and fuzz when playing a stringed instrument, but when you have a riff that’s only coated with some reverb and chorus, you’re able to hear more of it. It has more character than something layered in multiple effects that break up the sound.

Lots of people don’t explore beyond what they’re accustomed to listening to. It’s sad to me.

We also added spoken word parts to the record. They’re scattered throughout and bring another element to the songs. “Spinning” is a good example; that song is where we pulled the title Light We Made from.

Lots of people don’t explore beyond what they’re accustomed to listening to. It’s sad to me; there’s so much other great music out there besides what’s coming out of this scene of up-and-coming rock bands. It almost feels like there’s a ceiling on this world and the bands that are a part of it are expected to sound a certain way, and that’s not conducive to creating art. I’m hopeful that with Light We Made we can open up some of our listeners to something they maybe haven’t listened to before. At the end of the day, Balance is still the five of us getting together in a room and writing songs. That hasn’t changed.

Bailey Van Ellis is the drummer for Balance and Composure. Follow him on Twitter here and like him on Facebook here.