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The Architects marry their music with a series of comics

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When it comes to concept albums, Architects leader Brandon Phillips considers himself to be a big fan.

“I like grandiose ambitions,” he says. “I like it when rock can reach beyond the [parameters of] three minutes and 30 seconds. But a lot of times, it does kind of end up a bit bloated and sort of antithetical to rock ’n’ roll and pop music.”

As he worked on Border Wars, his Missouri-based band’s thematic, 30-plus song project that will be spread across five graphic novels (illustrated by Mallory Dorn), Phillips focused on “those who have done it right.”

“What I wanted was more along the lines of Purple Rain and Streets of Fire,” Phillips adds.

The characters at the center of Border Wars are Tom, the son of a wealthy televangelist minister, and Josie, a runaway who’s working for a methamphetamine cooker. The first episode of the comic and its accompanying six songs will be self-released by the band on July 16.

In late June, Phillips checked in to talk about his approach to creating Border Wars, writing music within a self-imposed framework and the plans for releasing Episodes 2 through 5. In the introduction to the first episode of the Border Wars comic, you recap when and how the inspiration struck to begin this project. After that, what went into the marriage of the music and the visuals? Did you write the songs first, then present the music and the lyrics to Mallory so she could illustrate the story? Or were you working simultaneously and offering each other suggestions along the way?
Brandon Phillips: “The way it worked is I kinda started with a handful of songs and a general idea, and then I kept turning the idea over in my head while we were on tour. I’m the overnight driver, so I get to have a lot of quiet time on the road (laughs). So I kept turning it over and over in my head and decided that when we would get home, I was going to sit down and try to write the screenplay. Initially, my thinking was, ‘OK, I’m going into this treating it like a film.’

“So we came home from touring, and I wrote the screenplay. I spent the whole summer [of 2012] writing and rewriting and tweaking it, and then I went and found Mallory. So I basically brought the finished story to her and said, ‘I’m going to figure out how to break this up into five episodes, so I’ll do one more rewrite in order to break it up.’

“I tried to keep the songs loose. … I wanted to write Quadrophenia, not Tommy (laughs). I didn’t want to have specific character songs or have too many character songs that were too dependent on the comic. I wanted songs where you can definitely enjoy the entire package, and you should enjoy the entire package, but if all you ever heard was this one song on the radio, you can still enjoy it without having the context of the comic.”

What did you like or dislike about writing songs within this type of framework?
Phillips: “I really enjoy writing songs with this kind of framework. The last three Architects records have all had a loose framework that maybe only existed in my notebook or in my head. We didn’t take pains to describe that framework to anybody who was ever going to hear the record — we just knew it was there. And it just kind of helped us to have an organizing principle to write the record around.

“I really like doing that; I like the fact that it sets some limits for you. You put up the fence and then you figure out where to build the house and where to put the garage. It keeps you from sprawling out.”

There’s a list of “funders” thanked at the end of Episode 1. Did you use Kickstarter or some other crowd-sourcing avenue to generate the money you needed for this project?
Phillips: “We did an Indie Gogo campaign to generate the money that we needed to actually manufacture hard copies of the comic and start the wheels of publicity. The campaign was just for Border Wars Episode 1. It’s our hope that we’ll just take any and all dollars that we get from Episode 1 and dump them right into Episode 2 and create this self-sustaining thing.”

Have you been — or will you be — incorporating any of the visual elements from the graphic novels into the band’s shows?
Phillips: “That is so hard, and I have thought about that a lot: ‘How can we possibly do this?’ It would be so cool. A DIY comic book is possible, but a DIY stage show that incorporates the comic book is so much harder. I would love to find a way to do it, but I haven’t figured it out yet. Some of that is probably because I’m so used to throw-and-go kind of shows: ‘What else do I need? I’m up here, there are amps and there are kids in front of me.’ I should probably open my imagination up to some other way of doing it.”

Have Episodes 2 through 5 of Border Wars all been recorded and illustrated? And what’s the timetable for their releases?
Phillips: “The timetable is — we’re saying loosely quarterly. We’re expecting to do a new episode every quarter or so. And we’re being kind of loose about it because not only have we never done this before, but I don’t know anybody who’s done this before. So there are not a lot of guidelines here.

“For Episodes 2 through 5, all of the music is recorded. We’re going through and sweetening each episode’s songs as needed and sending them off to get mixed. All of the illustration for Episode 2 is happening now. Poor Mallory is going to be working with a gun to the back of her head until this whole thing is done, so I feel for her. But whatever, she said she’d do it (laughs).”

— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior

* From the archives
A SOLID FOUNDATION: Architects singer Brandon Phillips embraces songwriting basics (June 2008)