Isabella Ambrosio sits down to dissect ISSUES’s new instrumental release, ‘Beautiful Oblivion’ with bassist Skyler Accord.
“That second opening band has… issues,” my stepmom had commented when leaving the House of Blues in Chicago in 2013, poking fun at their name. The headliner for the show had been Sleeping with Sirens, with ISSUES as one of the openers.
I remember looking over and laughing, “Yeah, but they’re good issues.”
“Alright, Bella, whatever floats your boat.”
Since 2013, ISSUES has gone on to take the hard rock scene by storm, offering a blend of R&B, jazz and metalcore, with a keen focus on genre-bending that’s focal to their identity. Their uniqueness served them well, winning awards such as Artist of the Year in 2015 at the Alternative Press Music Awards (AMPAs) and winning Skyler Acord the award for Best Bassist in 2016 at the APMAs. Their 2016 release ‘Headspace’ peaked at #1 on the US Billboard Alternative and US Billboard Hard Rock charts. They’ve toured extensively, put out cutting edge music and have remained unbelievably respectable in recent controversies.
ISSUES released ‘Beautiful Oblivion’ in 2019, an album full of hard riffs, funky basslines and instrumental breaks with great vocals. But after a controversy in 2020, vocalist Tyler Carter was kicked out from the band and ISSUES rereleased ‘Beautiful Oblivion’ as an instrumental. There were no vocals on the album, and it showed ISSUES in a brand-new light. Their neo-funk, R&B influences radiated through the release, connecting hardcore choruses with melodic verses. The entire album felt cohesive and nothing felt overdone or repetitive. It was entirely stripped and mixed to be heard as an instrumental, and it was done incredibly well.
Skyler Acord entered the Zoom meeting room with a genuine smile and a bass in his lap. The conversation was ridiculously easy at first – he was inquisitive of why I had an American accent instead of an Irish one. He wanted to know about me, my degree, how I ended up in Ireland. It felt like I was talking to an old friend, small questions being asked back and forth, including how I started listening to ISSUES. I later wonder if my candidness and willingness to answer his questions influenced the way he answered mine. He had plenty to say, so I jumped into the questions after a ten-minute conversation about life with him.
It kind of made me feel good about ISSUES again.
I queried why ISSUES decided to release an instrumental album in a music scene where lyrics are considered to be vital to the song. “ISSUES is kind of a funny band" Acord responded, "Because I feel like most bands have a primary songwriter. And everybody kind of follows suit – so somebody will write the bass, somebody will write the drum part, somebody will write the guitar part, and somebody will be writing the songs with a co writer. But the way ISSUES writes is super collaborative, and I don’t mean the band just writes the instrumentals all together and then Tyler [Carter] will throw his stuff on it. We all wrote completely integrated together. So, I would have an idea on the guitar part, AJ [Rebollo] would have an idea on the drum part, maybe [Carter] would have an idea on the drum part because he was a drummer. We would all have plenty to say about the vocals. It made sense because of a couple things: it made sense because we’ve always wanted to do an instrumental release because we align ourselves with the progressive community, a lot of our fans don’t, but musically those are the bands we like and look up to. So, it made sense because they do that, and the instrumental is so important. Also, with losing [Carter], and in such a mysterious way… one way to protect the legacy from all of that controversy was to put out this instrumental thing we’re all so proud of… It kind of made me feel good about ISSUES again.”
This prompted me to ask about ISSUES and their roots. I asked where their neo-soul, funk, and djent influences came from, and whether said influences were implemented consciously. Acord kept telling me, ‘great question’, before easily sliding into the answer; “It was conscious. My brother, who many ISSUES fans know as Scout, and in the producer world, many people know him as Lophiile. He’s not in the band, but he’s my twin brother so he’s always involved. Like I’ll text him, ‘bro, help me’… The whole thing was his idea. So, Tyler [Carter], after Woe, Is Me dissolved, went up to [Lophiile] and was like, ‘bro, we should start a band. What’s poppin’ now?’. And [Lophiile] at the point was like, ‘currently, I like R&B, R&B vocals, melodic hardcore and djent’. So, the EP was an experiment to mix those styles in different ways. The self-titled was a manifestation of our favourite examples of the EP.
"The EP was literally every song we had at that point. There was no throw-away tracks. Everything that had been written had been released on the EP. I came in a little bit late for that, so I didn’t have a whole lot of input on the writing, but I did play bass on it. I always say I’m a day one member, even if I wasn’t official,” he laughs, “So, yeah, it was a conscious decision and it ended up sounding cool. And it kind of developed into a true fusion. ‘Cause I think there’s a big difference in the fusion genre: say like, a jazz song with some rock elements versus fusion jazz, which is jazz and rock truly fusion-ed into its own thing. Same with nu-metal. For years, nu-metal, like early Slipknot stuff had like a weird hip-hop part, into a death metal part, into a jazz part, but it was technically ‘nu-metal’. But it took years for it to turn into its own thing. So, now when someone plays a low, bendy one-string riff, it’s like ‘oh, that sounds nu-metal’ as opposed to like ‘that sounds like those bands that used to mix jazz, death metal’, you know what I’m saying? So, that was our ultimate goal with ‘Beautiful Oblivion’, and I think it’s the closest we’ve ever gotten to a true fusion. Because it’s not necessarily that there’s an R&B part and there’s like a djent part, instead there’s like an R&B riff.”
From there, I mentioned that ISSUES songs are catchy, yet very riff heavy. And I asked him for the thought process behind that. He looks down at his bass before answering; “Actually, a funny story, the whole EP was based on solo Tyler Carter’s material. Like, ‘Love, Sex, Riot’ was a pretty good song, over a really awful beat, same with like, ‘Her Monologue’. Like these were all really crappy, early dubstep like,” he then proceeds to imitate the sound, making me laugh, “Like really awful beats, cause [Carter] didn’t really know who he was as an artist, but he wanted to write songs. So, he was just writing songs with anything he could. And basically, what we did was we took the vocals and ripped it off of the beat, so all we had was the vocals.
"In the computer software, you literally have a single track with the vocals. And then you build out the song under it, literally under it. So, you can have the vocal playing while you’re writing the riff. So basically, that was the formula of the whole EP and the best songs on our self-titled, so the songs all of our fans like, ‘Mad at Myself’ and I want to say, my favourite, ‘Tears on the Runway’ and ‘Never Lose Your Flames’, even though it was a pop-punk-y thing. All of them were Tyler Carter solo songs that we just flipped into ISSUES songs. And ‘Beautiful Oblivion’ was basically, ‘okay, all of our best and favourite songs were written that way. Why don’t we just do the whole album like that?’ So, we wrote the top lines to be as catchy of a pop song as possible, and then arranged the riffs.”
This led me to my next question, wondering what the songwriting process usually looks like for ISSUES. Acord had a smile on his face as he recalled the beginnings of ‘Beautiful Oblivion’. “How ‘Beautiful Oblivion’ started actually… initially, no one was sure of where we were going to go. And I just had a vision to do the R&B thing a lot heavier, like a lot more R&B stuff and neo-soul since we had started thinking about [the album] in 2015. And ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ [by Kendrick Lamar] was about to come out and the climate was very neo-soul, which I was super stoked about since that’s what I grew up on.
“I flew to LA and had a bunch of initial writing sessions where I would make beats and write songs with writers who were way better than me and they were all R&B people. So, this woman Ivana [Nwokike] from this group VanJess (a Nigerian-American R&B group), was one of them. We wrote ‘No Problem’ together, well, mostly her” he chuckles. “And this other guy, Jesse Boykins III, what a name, very elegant – so we wrote ‘Here’s to You’ together. And those two initially looked nothing like the final product. So, it was just R&B beats. Like, in ‘No Problem’, it has that piano loop, right? So, basically, the verse with the bass, the piano, and the programmed drums – that was originally just the entire song. And she [Nwokike] wrote the entire song over that. And that’s the best example of it, really. You can hear it, as the song goes on, all of the stupid ideas I had like, ‘let’s throw a riff here’ or ‘let’s do this’ or whatever, and it unfolds as if it were writing itself,” he practically giggles this time. “And ‘Here’s to You’, same idea, except the loop was way weirder, it was just like the intro, the weird harpsichord thing for four minutes straight, and then we riffed it and arranged it. So, it takes a lot of imagination when you hear early ISSUES demos.”
At the time of the interview in November 2020, America had been dealing with mass protests due to police brutality incidents since the beginning of 2020. ‘Blue Wall’, from their 2016 release Headspace, addresses the police brutality occurring at the time. I had asked what the recent events had meant to him as an artist who had written the song four years beforehand and have it be just as relevant now, if not more. “Well, honestly, all of the stuff that happened from George Floyd on, everyone was just stuck in their house, forced to look at it. That’s the difference. The nature of his death is no different than the stuff that has been happening for uh” - he jokingly checks an imaginary watch on his wrist - “400 years, or so. So, I guess the most surprising thing to me, was the fact that frankly, white people cared. And to put out a song that was directly addressing it, I guess four years before it became relevant to white people. It kind of framed how the paradigm had shifted, because when we had put that song out, it was not a popular opinion to have, and people were mad…”
“Black and blue don’t get along/ Blue just wants them dead and gone’ - that’s me, just putting that out there”.
Acord and I begin to discuss the history and evolution of genres. “The one thing I’ve noticed is every genre has a cultural lifespan… I think rock has been so complacent for so long that an idea like that is basically going to fight, not necessarily the rock scene, but the mainstream white culture at large. So, that’s why it didn’t get received very well. And now, after a few years, mainstream white culture has shifted because it’s hard to ignore the George Floyd thing, right? And even though none of this is surprising for me, I’ve been watching, every time it’s happened, it’s never felt any different than George Floyd… One of the biggest takeaways, personally, from putting that song out in 2016 is the fact that, obviously me, and Tyler [Carter], Michael [Bohn] and the rest of the band have gone through so much, good and bad, and one of the things I will always be thankful for from them, is backing up the coloured folk in the band and being down to do that song… ‘Black and blue don’t get along/ Blue just wants them dead and gone’ - that’s me, just putting that out there.
“Their hearts weren’t as connected to that issue, as obviously me or AJ, who see it every day and relate empathetically naturally to the victims. And that’s something that white people aren’t naturally going to have, because they don’t experience it. And what they did, that I think any white person could do, is listen. That’s all anybody has to do… They listened and they trusted enough to put that song out, and I will always be thankful for them for believing in the vision. Because they hold the microphone. And the fans that did latch onto that song and did appreciate it, I definitely appreciate them, big time. Because there was definitely a big backlash among the rock community. So, if they didn’t stick up for us, it kind of would have been a bummer. Basically, what happened was it created a discourse. I think that people that disagreed with that song’s message didn’t understand that there were people in the rock scene that had a different view, and it kind of shattered their bubble a little bit and it shocked them that there were people who were a part of this scene to have a conversation with in the comment sections. And then hopefully, because repetition makes something real, so down the line, when George Floyd happened, they’re going to be paying a little more attention.”
We chatted about his origins with playing bass and it became clear to me why ISSUES is as successful as they are. They’re filled with passionate musicians with an impeccable attention to detail who aren’t afraid to push boundaries when it comes to genre and the music they put out. Skyler Acord’s openness and candidness about all aspects of ISSUES was something to admire, and it brings a brand new meaning to an already impeccable instrumental album.