Last Giant is a Portland, Oregon-based Indie Rock band who got their start in 2014 comprised of members of previous band System and Station (1998-2013). In June, they released their fourth full-length album, Monuments, which leans into a heavier sound while building confidently on the terrain they’ve previously explored in surprising new ways.
The band features front man RFK Heise (vocals, guitar, keys), Palmer Cloud (bass), and Matt Wiles (drums), with Palmer Cloud more formally joining the group while writing the material for the new album. Unfortunately, a host of difficulties kept cropping up in the recording, mixing, and mastering process for Monuments that would be enough to drive even experienced recording artists to the edge. The inspiring thing about that experience is that they continued to chase their vision of the album and didn’t relent until they had captured the sound in their minds and brought it to public release.
I spoke with Ryan Heise and Matt Wiles about the remarkably precise sound of their previous live recordings/videos, Live From The Hallowed Halls, their recording woes while making Monuments, and about these interesting heavier elements that blossomed throughout the songs on the new album.
Hannah Means-Shannon: As a big Rock fan, I’m interested by the permutations of Rock these days. I don’t know if I’m as worried as Stevie Van Zandt is that Rock might die out, but I’m always happy when I see people making new Rock, like you are. The live videos that you made Live From The Hallowed Halls and the sound and quality were incredible. Those are some of the best sounding live Rock videos I’ve seen.
Ryan Heise: We actually filmed and recorded it at Old Arletta Library which is now Hallowed Halls. It’s a library from the 1800s, so has this massive ceiling. An old friend of ours from LA came up to film it. Larry Crane from Tape Op Studios mixed it.
Matt Wiles: Justin Phelps, the manager of the place, was involved, and it was the first live thing that he did during the pandemic. That paved the way to doing more shows there later.
Ryan: We were the first to do a livestream there, even, and kicked that off. They started featuring livestreams from Hallowed Halls after that. We were the guinea pigs! It was also the fact that we did not play horribly. [Laughs]
HMS: You guys played like you’d played those songs a million times. It was spot-on.
Ryan: At the time, Matt and I were the only full-time members of the band. There’s a guy who’s with us now, Palmer, playing bass. But we only rehearsed for two weeks before we went in.
HMS: Those were new songs for you otherwise?
Ryan: We had recorded them. Let The End Begin came out in 2020 and Matt and I built songs back and forth between studios, and we got together here and there. We never really played those songs live.
HMS: That was an incredible performance. Now that you’ve done the perfect live recording, you can move on. The songs on this new album, Monuments, have a bit of a checkered history regarding recording, as far as I understand, but what about writing these songs? Are they drawn from a common pool of songs, or are they specific to the time?
Ryan: A couple of the songs are ones that Matt and I started demoing between the last record and doing the live videos.
Matt: Yes, there were still a couple of demos left over from the previous live record that were taking shape.
Ryan: We had more songs that we were excited about, and that was right during the pandemic, so we kind of tapped the geyser and honed in on them. We had all these ideas going. After filming the Hallowed Halls deal, I ended up having to live between Oregon, Idaho, and California. I would go off and write, then send Matt some ideas. Whenever we could get together, we would, but it was a very slow process. We were making progress on new songs.
Matt: We didn’t have a whole lot of time together during the writing process, but when we did, we were still cooking on the good mojo from the previous album.
Ryan: We started playing shows with Palmer, and we showed him some of the demos we’d been working on after a show. He said he definitely wanted to be part of it. He hadn’t really written any of his own parts since 2017, when he played with us on Memory of the World. He wrote his parts for half of that album. But with these songs, he wanted to write all his bass parts and be super-involved. That made us super-excited.
Matt: The whole record before, it was just the two of us, so it was exciting to have another person writing with us.
Ryan: There was also camaraderie since I grew up with Palmer and had been on the road with him before. We work really well together and it’s always fun. Once he was all in, Palmer brought his process, which really benefitted the album. Finally, in September of 2022, we were ready to record. But things went disastrously at that point.
Matt: [Laughs] We hit a roadblock with just about every step of the process. Doing the previous record ourselves had been smooth, but this was the polar opposite. Everything went wrong from the board, to the tempos messing up in Pro Tools, to the software. Then the amplifier, too.
Ryan: We had a vintage Trident board blow up the day before we went to record. An orange amp in the studio blew up when we were ready to record. The tracking was messed up and Matt had to fix everything. [Laughs] We ended up with just the bass and drums from those sessions, so I spent the next few months just tracking guitars and singing. I did the guitars in my studio in Portland, Oregon, but had to do the vocals in weird closets, cars, and garages. I had a Midi keyboard for the key parts. I piece-mealed it.
HMS: I don’t mean to downplay your story, because in all, it’s one of the worst stories I’ve heard in a long time about recording an album. But some of this does sound familiar, people trying to find workarounds and just keep going. What happens with a vintage soundboard blows up? Are they just old and eventually give out?
Ryan: It all depends on how well they are loved and how well they are taken care of. This board was a 1974 Trident B. We had recorded on a Trident A before, but it was really-well maintained. I was excited for this Trident B, but it wasn’t so much well-maintained. The preamps were blowing. We had to do a lot last minute on the fly.
Matt: We were able to use other gear for the bass and drum tracks and they sounded awesome, at least.
HMS: I really wouldn’t know that stuff from listening to this album. Do you think that the fact that this was your fourth album made you more equipped to keep moving forward? Was there a time when you felt like, “This is just too much”, and wanted to stop?
Ryan: Oh, yeah. There were times when I was about ready to throw in the towel, for sure. But I think even from the demos of the songs, I knew the potential of these songs. We’ve both been doing this for a long time, both on separate projects and together. I think there’s an energy we get when we know we’re onto something and that was part of the fire that kept us going.
We knew these were the best songs that we’ve written together. I think we all had a sound together that we could hear. We were talking about old Rock ‘n Roll records from the 80s and the 90s. And we wanted a big sound like that. We just kept chasing it. For me, I guess I kept chasing the sound in my head, and I felt like this was the first time I ever truly got what was there. It was a challenge.
HMS: It seems like the mixing and the mastering had more back and forth than usual, and I wondered if that was about trying to find a particular sound, like the one you were just talking about.
Ryan: We had preproduction meetings about what we wanted the sound to be, but the first time around, when we got the mixing back, it felt cartoonish and not like what we were shooting for. We had to start over.
Matt: That was the point where we wondered if we had to scrap things. We almost had to rerecord most of the album.
Ryan: But we then went with the person who mixed our previous album. I think we learned our lesson that our previous process had been pretty good and maybe we should have remembered that.
Matt: The pandemic had forced us to work by ourselves on the previous album, so we were very anxious to get out and be more adventurous with the studio process this time around, but it bit us in the ass! [Laughs]
HMS: This album feels a bit heavier than your previous work. Was that intentional?
Matt: The first track we wrote among these songs was “Feels Like Water”, and that is probably the heaviest track on the record. Maybe that didn’t make it onto the previous record because of when we started demoing it, but we didn’t want to force it onto the record. There is a song we took off this record because it was even heavier!
Ryan: Yes, we have a song that we fully recorded, mixed and mastered, and we were right there for game-time but we just decided to pull it. It was the last song that we had written, about a month before going into the studio, but it didn’t really seem to fit with the others.
Matt: It was still great, we just couldn’t really fit it with the flow of the album. But that might be the impetus for where we go next time!
Ryan: That could be. The mental energy about how we want the songs to sound might have changed a little bit with that last song, and the newer songs that we are starting to mess with are starting to have that feel. The opening song on this album is called “The Patient” and I feel like it’s a perfect bridge between the last album and the new one.
HMS: Did you put it first for that reason?
Ryan: I think it was totally subconscious.
HMS: Shout out to the bass and drums on that track because they are really striking. In terms of the balance between elements, it does seem like bass and drums have a bigger role in these songs than with previous songs. Is that partly because of Palmer joining?
Ryan: Yes. And I think with the ideas that we had, we wanted a heavier rhythm section. We wanted to bring in that icing for the cake.
Matt: I think a big part of it is Palmer’s playing and writing. Then there are the sounds that we ended up getting despite all the hoopla of the original recording sessions. Those were the best elements that we took away from those sessions. It’s a very bass-centric record, I guess!
Ryan: We are fans of bass-heavy music, so that makes sense.
HMS: What about the song “Hell on Burnside”? It’s really a Rocker and very heavy. The video is also really fun. I think I forget how weird the world is, then I see real footage taken from the world and I realize again.
Ryan: I think Matt wasn’t quite sure about that one until he heard the vocal line on it.
Matt: Yes, the chorus vocal was what finally sold me on that one.
Ryan: Once we demoed it, we knew it was going to work. The main verse riffs are inspired by The Jesus Lizard, Duane Denison and his guitar playing. We wanted something that drives and doesn’t let up. It’s all rocking.
HMS: I don’t want to accuse you of being too intellectual, but…
HMS: …I think it is a little thought-provoking, too. There are some interesting things to think about in that song.
Ryan: Lyrically, for sure.
HMS: There are a lot of songs where someone wants to save someone else, or be saved, but this one’s a little more ambiguous with some back and forth. There are different states of being okay or not okay. There’s a story feeling to it, but it’s not sharply defined.
Ryan: One hundred percent.
HMS: The song “Broken Wires” is quite trippy, with big guitar solos. It’s a bit more on the Psych-Rock side, but still pretty heavy.
Matt: It’s kind of focused at the top and has almost a Gary Glitter feel, but at about the half-way point of the song, it goes into lots of guitar solos. It’s a 50-50 song, in a way.
Ryan: That’s kind of the idea. After the top, it’s almost a very rigid sound, a kind of march. The lyric is kind of about the boxes we put ourselves in, and our inability to accept chaos, and the end of the song is kind of an opening up of the universe, essentially, into chaos. But also into beauty. The melodies there are as pretty as possible, but they still rock.
HMS: It’s almost Zen-like at the end. Everything combines down into a kind of stillness.
Ryan: Into a calm. That was the thematic idea. It’s the longest song on the album, too. We definitely wanted it to be an adventure. Plus, we got to do the “Freebird” part at the end. [Laughs].