At first glance, Death Stairs sounds like bleak post-punk, which in itself is a unique addition to the DFW music scene. But a closer inspection reveals a surprising sense of humor. Not only that, but Death Stairs play heavy music without guitars. This is especially odd for a band made up of four guitarists.
The four musicians are sitting in their rehearsal space and Sealion can be heard practicing just a few doors down. Vocalist Mike Stoner and bassist JT Ward have known each other since kindergarten and they met drummer Matt Gillispie and keyboardist Paul Minter as teenagers. All but Minter were once in a rock band with a heavy '90s alternative sound, Elm Fooy, that actually won “worst band name" at the Dallas Observer Music Awards two years in a row.
As the band grew older and their tastes in music changed, Elm Fooy disbanded — which at this point was years ago. Last year, though, they stayed up drinking one night and decided to reunite and finally work with Minter. “I’m mostly a guitarist,” Minter says. “I was kind of stuck with the guitar and wanted to do this all-keyboard thing. I do try to mimic some feedback, kind of squealing noises for the guitar, some of the distortion.” Coming from more of a soft rock background, Minter initially thought the music seemed like metal.
Stoner admits that he spent a long time listening to bands like Joy Division, but also likes newer bands like Viet Cong and Protomartyr. The darker sound of Death Stairs wasn’t intentional, but was the natural result of removing their guitars, which they did just to see what would happen. “It turned out just being dark,” says Stoner. “It wasn’t planned that way. It’s weird.”
But Death Stairs decided to embrace this new, experimental direction. “It kind of lends itself to an openness that you don’t get with a guitar,” says Ward. “A lot of low-end.” “It forces you to be a little more creative than relying on a guitar to make a lot of noise,” Gillispie adds. The band also enjoys throwing off listeners who are typically used to focusing on the guitar and vocals in this sort of music.
The guys haven't lost their knack for, uh, memorable names either; the band’s name even sounds like an unintentionally funny drive-in horror flick. “It was meant to be a play on words,” says Stoner. “It makes you think about it for a second, so people remember it.” Having released their first EP, Believe in Doom, in September, the band jokes they will call their second release Bride of Death Stairs.
The opening track, “Party Cult,” was the first song they wrote and it kicks things off sounding creepy and angry. But the song tells the campy story of a cult induction mistaken for a really good party. “It’s kind of a silly idea,” Stoner admits. But as the band kept writing songs, the theme of silly yet dark stuck and has informed the music. “It goes back and forth between the very dark and the kind of silly,” Stoner adds.
Many bands influenced by punk have used a tongue-in-cheek approach, but an approach like Death Stairs' is much rarer in a post-punk or goth rock context. “We think we are creepy,” Stoner says with a laugh. But most of the songs seem to tell outlandish stories with fictional characters. “It doesn’t hit me as goth,” says Gillispie, who is playing drums in a band for the first time. “It’s like a pretty good soundtrack to a Halloween party.” “That’s goth,” Stoner interjects. The unexpected sound has the band checking out goth bands they haven’t listened to before and they seem divided on Killing Joke.
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With lyrics like “Don’t even want to love/Don’t even want to try” and “My god is death,” the sense of humor is easy to miss. “I’m not trying to sound satanic,” Stoner insists. “It’s silly to me.” But Death Stairs aren’t trying to mock the genre so much as insert a bit of fantasy into it: “Crime Night” is a song about a guy who tries to become a superhero and fight crime on his own by suiting up with gear he bought online. It takes cues from comic books and graphic novels, but it’s their heaviest track.
The EP’s closing track, “Homecoming Mask,” is about as pop as Death Stairs get, but it tells the story of cool kids struggling to keep ruling the world after being crowned as prom kings and queens in high school, as if they are part of the occult. It is the type of pop song they usually throw away, much to the disappointment of Minter. “If we play with a little bit of heart and soul, Paul gets attached,” Stoner says.
“Ghost Fight” is ostensibly a story about soldiers who died in a war and come back home to fight each other in a bar. But Stoner admits that the idea is abandoned as the song becomes more about depression in general. “I think that one has the darkest lyrics,” Stoner says. “But it has the best harmony,” Gillispie adds.
Death Stairs have figured out how to temper a bleak sound without guitars. “It sucks that people don’t pick up on the sense of humor,” Stoner says. Or maybe it doesn’t.