Turnstile: Shine on
“I’m really feeling my mortality right now,” Brendan Yates laughs. The Turnstile frontman is standing in his family home on the edge of the woodlands in Burtonsville, Maryland – a small town of under 10,000 people, equidistant from Baltimore and Washington DC. “My childhood was basically playing in the woods, making dirt jumps and starting fires,” he says, the sound of birdsong getting louder as he steps outside. “Now everyone’s getting married, which, at one point five or six years ago, seemed so distant. It’s a funny way of putting things into perspective.”
As part of hardcore band Turnstile, time has proved an enduring fascination for Yates. Formed in 2010 with childhood friend and lead guitarist Brady Ebert – alongside bassist Franz Lyons, drummer Daniel Fang and rhythm guitarist Pat McCrory – the band rose to prominence through Baltimore and DC’s DIY punk scenes. Early releases like Pressure to Succeed and Step 2 Rhythm dealt in adolescent male angst – the all too predictable touchstone of the genre – and roared with a distinctly youthful impatience, with Yates frequently lambasting his opponents for wasting his time. Debut album Nonstop Feeling captured a freezeframe of the mid-2010s East Coast hardcore scene; their buzzsaw guitars still indebted to the straight sound of its torchbearing forefathers Fugazi, Minor Threat and Rites of Spring. On 2018 follow-up Time & Space, Yates questioned the best use of time as an incensed millennial in Trump’s America.
Right now, Turnstile are observing the present. In June, the band surprise-released Turnstile Love Connection, a four-song EP with an accompanying short film directed by Yates himself. Featuring a revolving cast of friends moving across abandoned sports pitches and suburban landscapes, the video is soundtracked by their limber strain of hardcore. The accompanying visuals are as small-town as they are limitless, capturing the mysticism of forgotten America and the DIY movements that bring these otherwise quiet corners to life. It’s the perfect depiction of Turnstile’s alchemy; for a band so adept at a zoomed-out sense of community-building, they also exude a subtle intimacy.
© Jimmy Fontaine
Turnstile Love Connection is their most complete artistic statement yet. It is also a precursor to their third studio album, Glow On. “I tried to use [the album] as an outlet to document a time,” Yates explains. “You know, all the iterations of growth.” Like most, the past 18 months of enforced self-reflection caused the members of Turnstile to approach life differently – starting with their music. “Our relationship as a band has strengthened,” Yates says of the effects of lockdown. “We never really practiced, we used to just make a song and that’s it. Recently, we’ve been able to get together more as friends and mess around.”
Eventually, that led them to Gallatin, a remote Tennessee town just 23 miles north of Nashville. They were there to write a new album under the direction of in-demand producer Mike Elizondo – the Dr. Dre protégé whose credits range from Avenged Sevenfold to Fiona Apple – in his coveted Phantom Studios. The strict isolation protocols meant that the band could get completely lost in the writing process, with their ideas steered by a producer who pushed them out of their comfort zone. “We’ve never been so involved,” Yates remembers affectionately. “We experimented with things we never expected to. In a way, we’re the most bonded we’ve ever been.”
“Personal growth is a challenge in itself. The last couple of years I’ve worked hard trying to become comfortable with adapting and growing”
– Brendan Yates
Glow On opens with the spellbinding synthwork of Mystery, a song that eventually bursts into the distorted riffs that whip up the punk euphoria of their live shows, but also folds in elements of electronic music and dream pop. This willingness to experiment is the only constant across the record as they bounce between Latin-inspired rhythms on Endless, Johnny Marr-like guitar jangles on New Heart Design or the otherworldly production of No Surprise. By Turnstile standards, Glow On is an epic. Their previous songs rarely make it past the two-minute mark, guided by the traditional hardcore formula: short, brute and gut-punching. Now, they’re slowing things down and taking it all in.
“You could say I’ve been feeling adrift lately…” Yates trails off, as if on cue. “Some of these songs came from a place of no reflection. I think the purpose of writing is to turn something that happened into something positive, even if it’s not necessarily a positive thing.” This is apparent in Glow On’s lyrics, where Yates trades in punk bravado for something softer. Underwater Boi, the album’s bittersweet masterpiece – and a cleaner sound from the band in general – confronts these feelings of dejection and isolation. Over chorus-effect guitars, Yates lowers his shout to a melody and reveals: “Boi has got a long way to go/ Swimming through the seasons of cold/ Living with a pain he didn’t know.” More vulnerable yet is the Blood Orange-assisted Alien Love Call, a pop ballad that seemingly floats in space. As nebulous as its title, Dev Hynes’ breathy vocals meanderingly call out for the “loners out to roam, sewn at the seam”.
© Jimmy Fontaine
“The purpose of writing is to turn something that happened into something positive, even if it’s not necessarily a positive thing”
– Brendan Yates
At first look, the collaboration might be surprising to fans on both sides. But Hynes’ affinity for hardcore goes way back to his days as lead vocalist and guitarist in Test Icicles, the dance-punk band that set him on his musical path. Perhaps more significantly, Hynes and Yates both found themselves in turbulent emotional spaces during the writing process. “Honestly, I was in a pretty dark place,” Hynes admits to me over the phone. “There was this huge cultural depression, which is still happening now. I wasn’t even making music. My time in the studio with Brendan [Yates] was so positive and relaxing that I didn’t even realise at the time how depressed I was until I got back to New York.” The London-born producer also lent his voice to thrashcore highlight Endless and Lonely Dezires, the ethereal closer influenced by Cocteau Twins – a musical inspiration both artists share.
In spite of his collaborative mood, Glow On was an intimate process for Yates. He wrote the majority of the lyrics during lockdown, the time alone allowing for ample rumination. A lot had happened since they had released Time & Space: the recognition outside of their scene, a seemingly unending pandemic and personal loss. This is addressed on Wild Wrld, in which Yates grieves the untimely death of friend and Power Trip frontman Riley Gale in August 2020. “Lost another friend to a fight that I’ll never know/ Running like I got somewhere to go/ And every high is followed with a low low low low,” he screams, that angst creeping back in.
“I feel like personal growth is a challenge in itself. The last couple of years I’ve worked hard trying to become comfortable with adapting and growing, you know?” He pauses. “The best way to face the world is being honest, fluid and open to letting go.” I ask him if he’s become more sensitive with age, rather than hardened by experience. “One million percent,” he replies without hesitation. “I’m totally sensitive, especially when it comes to putting out music. But I try to be aware of negativity as a good thing because I think there’s something good about being a little bit uncomfortable.”
© Jimmy Fontaine
It makes sense. Turnstile have always inhabited a liminal space in hardcore, never quite slotting into one style. But there’s a power to accepting yourself as you are, and it’s a philosophy Yates has carried into his personal life. “I don’t go out to social events or bars or things like that. I used to wonder, ‘Why do I feel anxious? I know every single person that’s going to be in this room.’” he sighs. “I’d rather stay home and be comfortable by myself. It’s the art of knowing when to push yourself out of that place. Like, I know I feel a little social anxiety right now, so I’m gonna go because I gotta go.”
This emotional intelligence is Turnstile’s guiding light, and it’s only strengthened on Glow On. It’s an album for the new generation of punks who are embracing the contours of life – darkness and all – and finding vulnerability in a genre that can take itself too seriously. Glow On, Yates explains, is also about the bigger picture; what remains when we’re gone. I ask him what mark he wants to leave on the world. “That’s a big question. I don’t even know if I want to leave a mark…” he sheepishly answers. But they have; to deny this would be to ignore their position as one of contemporary hardcore’s most adored bands. Eventually he loosens up. “Do I feel good about what we’ve done? Yes,” he smiles. “But at a certain point, you realise you’re not in the driver’s seat. You just do the best you can, make music and be yourself.”
Glow On is out now via Roadrunner Records