INTERVIEW: Periphery’s Mark Holcomb

Mark Holcomb

The release of a new Periphery album is always like Christmas for fans of heavy guitar. There’s always so much to digest: unpredictable riffs, challenging solos, soaring melodies, complex chords. Every record is like a challenge to all of us to lift our game. And Periphery III: Select Difficulty really throws down the challenge. Although some parts of the record are more melodic and direct than anything the band has done before, there’s also some brutally heavy, insanely complex material for us all to bust our fingers learning, and then stretch our necks headbanging to. I caught up with guitarist Mark Holcomb to chat about the record and his new guitar.

I love the sound of this record. It’s so crisp and you can hear every detail even when there’s a lot going on. Did you do anything different in the way you recorded or is it just the evolution of Nolly’s engineering skills?

It’s very much the evolution. The mix is a Nolly Getgood special right there. I mean really, we were very happy with the direction things took on Juggernaut and this is an extension of that, but in my opinion a little bit clearer, a little bit more powerful. It just really brings the songs to life. And there’s a lot more vibrance in the material compared to Juggernaut, and the mix complements that. But that’s Nolly’s handiwork right there. He really brought his A game for this record in terms of the engineering and mixing duties.

It’s interesting because usually when I get a new Periphery album it takes a while for it to sink in because there are so many levels of detail, changes in time signature, stuff like that. This seems to hit more directly. 

Cool! I’m glad. That’s really good to hear. For us it was very, very deliberate on our part to make it a direct album. As you said, it hits you pretty directly. That was one word we threw around a lot before we even went in to write the album. We wanted this record to be a kick in the balls, to just be 10 or 11 Periphery songs that are to the point, aggressive, up-front and melodic. I keep saying ‘kick in the balls’ because that’s the most apt analogy to me. I think of Periphery III as a reaction to Juggernaut. Juggernaut was big and brooding and this over-arching epic concept album with a story, and it was fun. It was a lot of work to write and record and it’s something that we’re very proud of, but there were a lot of styles explored that we had never tackled before and we were experimenting a lot in every way with the writing and recording of the album. Periphery III was just us throwing all that criteria out the window, all the concept album criteria, and just going back to square one and saying to ourselves’ let’s have fun. Let’s throw all the constraints out the window, all the restrictions out the window to write these songs. And what we got was a really fun album. I actually have a lot of fun listening to the record! Normally I hate the album at this stage! After mastering and before release I’m usually like ‘Let’s record the next one.’

Tell me about ‘The Way The News Goes.’ I remember when I first heard it a few weeks ago I told you that was my favourite and you said ‘That’s one of mine, you picked it again.’

Yeah! You always tend to like the ones that I spearhead. That’s always funny, the relationship that you and I have, you always tell me the ones you like and it’s always the ones I spearhead.

Ah, but am I telling the other guys the same thing?

Oh, there you are! I don’t know, is that in your nature, Peter? Are you a three-timer? A four-timer? How many people are in our band… a six-timer?

Nah, I’m not that Machiavellian. 

Haha. That was one that I spearheaded last year. I started writing the basis for that song when I was on vacation in Spain. I was jetlagged out of my brain and I wrote that main riff and the pre-chorus. Then I brought it back to our home studio and me and Misha wrote the chorus and then brought it to the rest of the guys. I’m very proud of that song. It’s a really fun, all-over-the-place song. I like that we went with blast beats in the chorus.

‘Catch Fire’ is another example of the melodic side of Periphery really evolving.

Yeah! That was actually the first piece of music that we wrote together for the record. And that was kinda written by accident. I was over at Misha’s studio and so were Jake and Spencer and I started tracking this clean guitar part and Misha programmed a beat under it. Spencer had a chorus idea in mind and Misha started writing a bass groove for the verse. We had the basis for the song established but it turned out to be 100 percent different to how we started. It’s very melodic and the most commercially accessible thing on the album. But it was the first idea we had for the album. And believe it or not, the first couple of ideas for the album were ‘Catch Fire’ and ‘The Way The News Goes.’ Those two were very melodic and that was kinda the direct we saw the album going, so we said ‘Maybe we should start to focus on heavy material.’ And Periphery III ended up being, in my opinion, our heaviest album, but it started in more of a melodic, commercial sense. The heaviness was a reaction to the first couple of songs being more melodic.

straight1

Let’s talk guitar! You’ve just launched your new PRS SE model. You’ve been hinting at this guitar with pics on your Instagram over the last few weeks but you always cleverly kept the headstock out of view…

Yeah, I have no subtlety whatsoever, just crop out the headstock and voilà! We just launched the guitar and the response has been really nice so far. It’s a PRS SE model, meaning it’s made in Korea but it’s a take on the US model we made last year. It’s pretty much the same specs: fretboard radius is 20 inches, scale length is 25 1/2 inches, it’s got the same exact pickups in there which is a huge win. I pushed for that ever since it was conceptualized. We absolutely had to have the same pickups in there, not a cheaper version or something like that. So we got those in there. And aesthetically there are some pretty big differences between this and the US-made models. But in terms of its main features, the features that set it apart from the PRS catalog, those are 100 percent intact. And that’s why this model made sense from the very beginning for us to pursue. It just seemed very obvious that we should go down this route.

It is very unique because you haven’t just gone with an existing model and changed the paint job.

Yeah, and that whole approach of offering something different which the product line-up didn’t already offer, that was always the main point behind all of this. If I was going to just change the finish I would go and play a Custom 24 because those are amazing, amazing guitars. But I wanted to satisfy two criteria: I wanted it to be exactly the guitar that I wanted to play in every single spec, and I was lucky enough to make that happen. And it had to be different enough to be justifiable as a signature product, which is actually more to satisfy PRS’s desires. They need to make money, they need to make a smart business decision and they need to fill a gap in their product line-up. And fortunately it worked out for both of us and it seems to be working very harmoniously.

And you have an 8-string custom on the way!

Yes, I have an 8-string on the way! That’s something we’ve been talking about for a while and Paul decided to build an 8-string for these upcoming shows we have. And he knows that a third to a half of our headlining songs have an 8-string and he doesn’t like seeing other brands up there on stage (laughs). So he wanted to build me one. It’s going to be pretty much an 8-string version of the 6-string model we put out last year, and the 7-string version I have. So it’s going to look very similar to the guitars I already have, which is very deliberate on my part.

Next you’re going to have to start writing 9-string songs just to see what they can build for you. 

Right! Or ‘Hey Paul, a lot of our songs feature trumpets now.’ ‘Hey Paul, we’re playing briefcases filled with a million dollars onstage now.’

peripheryiii_selectdifficulty_2I’m looking forward to seeing the flame-maple trumpets in dentist offices. So what are you working on playing-wise at the moment? Are there any concepts or techniques you’re drilling into your head or is it all tour prep right now?

Mainly tour prep. But I’m always working on little aspects of my playing. The main technique that I’m working on is something that has plagued me yet benefited me throughout the years, and that’s my left-hand posture. As you may know I use my thumb a tonne when I write and play, and that’s sort of become synonymous with my style. I don’t ever want to get rid of that but I want to be able to convert back from a normal left-hand posture from that sort of left-hand-thumb-hanging-over-the-fretboard type of posture. And frankly a lot of material on our albums is pretty tough to play with my freak posture. So I’m trying to straighten it out and do exercises that force me to correct that. It’s something that’s ongoing but I’ll get there. I’m always trying to work on that, but I’m doing it because of, like you said, tour prep. I’m trying to get this song called ‘Marigold’ worked out. It’s track three on the new album. Misha wrote a couple of riffs on there that are just mind-benders. He wrote the first verse riff that’s crazy and he wrote the second verse riff that’s even crazier and it requires that perfect left-hand posture. To his credit he’s also worked on this as well and I think that riff was a product of him learning how to put his hands on the guitar neck like a normal human being.

Does it happen often, that someone brings a riff in and everyone’s like ‘You bastard’? 

Oh yeah. Because we all have such different styles of playing. In terms of tastes, me, Jake and Misha are very similar in terms of what we like, but in terms of the little nuances, the things that differentiate us as players are pretty enormous. It’s hard to sum up concisely but Misha has very alien technique which plays a big part in the types passages he writes. My technique is super untraditional as well which has a big impact on parts I contribute, and Jake has a completely different style and melodic sense of his own. The result is us trying to adapt certain aspects of each other’s playing and has evolved into each of us writing parts that could pass as the work of one of our other guitarists. It’s a fun environment to be in when you can learn such radically different approaches from some of your bandmates.

Periphery III: Select Difficulty is released on July 22.

Periphery