The creative force behind A Life of Science is the duo of singer/bassist James Keenan, 25, and guitarist Zakk Geist, 24. The longtime friends met in grade school and have been musical collaborators since their early teens. They began writing music for The Apneist in 2007, eventually bringing drummer Angel Garcia and guitarist Scott Passamonte onboard to complete the lineup. The scope of the project expanded as the songwriting progressed, Keenan says.
"Originally, we were just going to do your classic concept album, with the story and lyrics," he says. "Then, as we started telling everybody about it, we really started to get attached to the story. (Our friends) were like, 'Why stop there? Why don't you do a comic book and a video and really make this as multimedia as possible?' We were like, 'Oh, yeah, yeah, right. Sure, we'll do that.' But then we started to realize, wait a minute, so-and-so writes novels. Wait a minute, we know video production people. Wait a minute, we can do this."
And a franchise was born. The band enlisted New Jersey comic book artist Will Torres to create a three-part miniseries based on The Apneist, with the first issue due in July. Keenan has been traveling back and forth to Phoenix and Hollywood, meeting with director Joe Homokay of Talent by Association Films. Keenan says the film will serve as a long-form music video for the album, combining animation with live-action footage. Filming is set to start in July for a tentative release late this year. The novel, meanwhile, is being penned by Phoenix author Josh Isaac and should also be completed by year's end. The band has also created theapneist.com to serve as an information hub, keeping fans updated on the status of the various projects.
The Apneist is set in a war-torn, dystopian future and follows the story of Jon Tate, a child prodigy forced by his father to work for the government in the underwater city of Seascape. Tate designs a robot army intended to disarm the warring factions and save mankind from imminent destruction. Predictably, things go horribly wrong, and Jon must find a way to save himself, his one true love, Sandy, and the rest of humanity from his marauding robotic creations. The album was recorded by noted Valley producer Larry Elyea (Jimmy Eat World, Authority Zero) at his Phoenix studio, Mind's Eye Digital.
"Larry we connected with pretty much from the second we walked into his studio," Keenan says. "He was totally into the project. I think the big thing with Larry is his patience and his relaxed environment. He's always willing to experiment. He's always willing to do whatever you want to do."
Musically, the album is all over the map, combining elements of prog rock, electro, metal, indie rock, and power pop. Keenan's slightly nasal delivery sounds a little like Fountains of Wayne's Chris Collingwood and is occasionally augmented by Auto-Tune and other effects. Spacey, psychedelic keyboard passages segue into distorted guitar riffs and Geist's metalcore screams.
"We all bring a lot of different tastes to the table," Geist says when asked about the album's diverse sound. "[Keenan] is always on Pitchfork and all these indie sites, bringing up random bands like Evangelicals and all this stuff that I would never find. I love Daft Punk. I've got their poster on my door. I love electronic music and, like, fringe electronic stuff, but at the same time, I'll be listening to Black Dahlia Murder driving around in my car. We've always loved bands like Weezer, too, through high school. I think, at a base, I want it to be power rock, like Weezer, but obviously it can go from one end of the spectrum to the other . . . I think, at times, we try to follow a pop structure and not make people have to think too hard about it. I mean, Mars Volta is cool, but at the same time, sometimes you're like, 'What the hell? I'm kinda lost during this trumpet solo.'"
A concept album also presents a unique set of challenges, especially for a relatively new band. Playing mostly opening slots, ALOS rarely is allotted enough time to play the album in its entirety. The numerous overdubs and effects on the album have also proved tricky to replicate live, forcing ALOS to occasionally rely on prerecorded backing tracks.
"When we were first starting out, we had so much shit to set up," Geist says. "I remember one show where it was just embarrassing — we took, like, 45 minutes to set up. We fucked up the whole night for everybody without even realizing we were doing it. I was working as fast as possible, and (I realized), 'Holy crap, we've gotta streamline this project.' Even now that we have backing tracks, which a lot of bands play with, it sounds good, to an extent, but it's not something we can just set up like a punk band in five minutes and just bleed it out onstage."
To avoid such pitfalls, the band has started booking summer festival shows, which offer longer set times. They're also not afraid to ask for help.
"We've played shows with just guitar, bass, drums and vocals, like raw rock versions of the songs, as well as done the backing track thing," Keenan says. "For this upcoming show at the California Music Festival, we're bringing on a drummer and a bassist who are actually two members of Comfort for Change that are going to help us out at the show. Angel's gonna move from drums to keyboards. Ben [Anderson] from Comfort is gonna play drums. I'm gonna give the bass to [Comfort for Change guitarist] Anthony [Gabuzzi] and I'm gonna focus on keyboards, so that way, we're gonna be able to get the full experience."
Perhaps the biggest challenge looming for ALOS is determining what they will do for a follow-up, having set the bar so high with The Apneist. At this point, they're not sure if they want to follow in the footsteps of Coheed and Mars Volta by making additional concept albums.
"If this becomes a really big success, people are just gonna expect concept albums from us," Keenan says. "I definitely wouldn't rule it out, but at the same time, it sounded like a great idea at the time — 'Oh, let's do this (multimedia concept), we'll get everything and it'll be awesome!' But the scope of the whole thing, it's definitely a 'cancel your social life' type of experience. It's just such an enormous time commitment."