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The Oxford Coma doesn't sound like any other band you've ever heard, and that's the idea.
With thumping, funky-to-furious bass lines mixed with propulsive drumming and searing guitar action, the band blurs the distinctions between modern rock, alt-metal, and punk. The band's debut album, Adonis, is not something that easily can be compartmentalized.
It takes a few listens, and some deeper focus, to find the core of this band.
"That's kind of what we were going for," says guitarist/vocalist Billy Tegethoff.
When Tegethoff says the band's truly a "collaboration," he's not simply being gracious. What's central to The Oxford Coma's ability to merge such disparate sounds are the varied influences of bassist James Williams and drummer Casey Dillon. Tegethoff is an admitted fanatic for progressive metal band Tool, while Williams brings a heavy, deep groove that counters Dillon's jazz and hard rock background.
Tegethoff notes on the band's website that the result becomes something of a composite of Tool, Primus, Nirvana, System of a Down, The Mars Volta, Muse, and Incubus. The description seems accurate in select places — not overall — and doesn't give the band enough credit for its singular creation.
"I don't know if it's necessarily a conscious effort to combine all those artists," Tegethoff says. "I wrote that after all the music was written, and that was the best comparison I could come up with . . . I know a lot of my guitar riffs and vocal melodies are strongly influenced by [Tool].
"But then [Casey and I] brought in James, and his bass style is much more a groove and funk bass than anything that Tool does. And Casey has always been interested in jazz and electronic percussion, [which] deviates from what [James and I] are doing. Throw it all together and the collaboration comes together."
The Oxford Coma formed in the wake of the collapse of Tegethoff and Dillon's former band, Verico. Tegethoff and Dillon continued to perform together and, ultimately, were approached by Williams. An audition jam session sealed The Oxford Coma's fate.
"When we heard him play, it was an instant fit," Tegethoff says. "We didn't even have to try anyone else."
The three began jamming and writing songs and quickly discovered an amazing cohesiveness for a young band. But questions persisted: Namely, should the band bring in a singer despite the fact that Tegethoff wrote most of the lyrics? After some deliberation, the band remained a trio.
"One of the issues I had with the last band was trying to collaborate on lyrics and vocal melodies. I'm sort of a control freak, so I didn't like giving any of that up," Tegethoff says. "When we were starting this, we talked about getting a different singer, but it seems more sincere, considering I'm the one writing the lyrics and vocal melodies, to do it myself rather than pick somebody else up to do it just because they might be able to sing a little bit better."
This decision meant Tegethoff would play guitar and sing, something he'd never managed in previous outfits. Playing guitar alone had required less focus, but the challenge to handle both proved enlightening.
"It's very different for me, trying to carry both torches like that. I'm a lot more comfortable with guitar," he says. "Having to do both on stage and try to do them well — it's been difficult, but it's also something I've wanted to do for a long time, so it's been rewarding, too. I say to hell with it, and go for it."
Despite any reservations, Tegethoff's guitar sections chatter, chunk, skitter, sear, and thrash in dances of prog, alt-metal, modern rock, and grunge, while his vocals shift from powerfully melodic to raw power and death metal screams. Tegethoff's voice lessons have contributed positive growth and range.
"That was always the biggest criticism I got . . . my vocals weren't [up to snuff]," he says. "I didn't have a whole lot of confidence to be able to carry a band vocally."
Adonis drops Saturday, December 22, and features 13 tracks, including the three that appeared on the band's Infrastatic EP. The release raised expectations for the band, though Tegethoff says the EP was just a way to blow off steam, since the fledgling band didn't yet have enough original material to play gigs.
"We wrote some songs, but didn't want to hide out in the practice space. And we couldn't do a show with only three songs," he says with a laugh. "So we went into the studio and recorded those three songs."
That was the spark behind Adonis. It took over a year to put together the remaining songs but only six days of "hammering out the bullshit" to get it recorded. Tegethoff sounds happy to have it behind him and now looks toward building The Oxford Coma into a regional success — not just a Phoenix band — consistently playing cities "within a reasonable driving distance" over the next year.
"If we keep it pretty small, we can be fairly effective that way," he says. "Ultimately, the plan is not necessarily take over the world or rock stardom or whatever . . . but we all like playing live and like being able to tour. But we don't want to end up like a lot of touring bands who play at 1 o'clock in the morning at a road bar to 10 people."
The Oxford Coma's also distributing Adonis to major college radio stations with hopes of getting regular rotation on, at minimum, "a few of the good ones." But considering the strength of the album as a whole and radio-ready songs like "Last to Die," "Seven," and "Ellipsis," it's quite possible a record label will come knocking. That could mean big things for The Oxford Coma. But what if the label wants to reshape the band into something more generic for the mass audience?
"Ahhhhhh . . . I think I'd rather cut off my balls," Tegethoff says, struggling for the words to continue. "To me that would be worse than the most boring asinine desk job that I can think of. I don't know. I think it would ne such a waste of the gift of being able to write songs. It pisses me off to hear those bands like Three Doors Down and Nickelback who get strong-armed by the music industry and just get shit on — as well they should. These people are incredibly gifted! What a waste that they have resigned themselves to making this repetitive garbage."
Quality assured, the next step is the CD-release party, which beside the performance of Adonis and one "really cool cover," will also feature Tegethoff's original video imagery and body suspensions.
"I have some totally weird friends who are into hanging themselves from meat hooks," Tegethoff says of the unusual visual art. "In a sort of eerie way, it's kind of pretty, because you get four people hanging from pulley mechanisms. They do this strange aerial anti-gravity dance and it goes super-well to strange, heavy music."
But shouldn't the focus here really be on just the music, given the time and effort put into developing this band and sound?
"All my favorite concerts have had a visual element as well," Tegethoff counters. "So it's not just an audio experience, but it becomes an all-encompassing sensory overload. That was kind of the idea. Kind of a no-brainer."