Converge, with Jacob Bannon second from right
photo by Matt Miller
To the uninitiated, the Massachusetts quartet Converge can be downright terrifying. And it's not because they appear clad in face paint or leather and chains -- this underground punk-bred foursome would never waste time on costume-like trappings. Rather, part of the reason they are so scary is because they are so physically unassuming, but so loud, and so clearly do not give a fuck.
And neither does their crowd, famous for starting pits in which you should beware the skinny, nerdy guys as much as the fat tattooed guys. (You should always beware a pit whose would-be participants can be seen doing quadriceps stretches in preparation.) Converge's hell-raising squall of noise inspires stage-diving by grown-ass men, the mid-show re-setting of fans' own broken noses, and occasionally a little thing called "headwalking," which is pretty much what it sounds like.
But peel back the layers of scariness -- which frontman Jacob Bannon is cagey about acknowledging -- and you get closer to the core of why this band's fans are so passionate. Simply put, Converge is on some next-level planet. They may have been a hardcore band at one point -- and generalist music media might still try to paint them as such. Surely, the hardcore ethos still informs the methods to their madness. Neither is it really straight-up metal, though.
Oh, there's enough technical wizardry from the cast -- drummer Ben Koller, guitarist Kurt Ballou, and bassist Nate Newton are all hailed as demigods of their respective instruments. And Bannon's lyrics, meanwhile, are obtuse and artistic without being overly pretentious (if only he could have passed on that finesse to some of his musical progeny). But with Converge, there has always been too much art for the knuckle-draggers just waiting for the next two-step, and way too much spastic energy for the art-metal purists.
Thus Converge has become a band by misfits, for misfits -- but a number that has continued to grow, steadily, throughout the band's now near-20-year history. In Europe and stateside they're a headlining heavy-music festival draw. And their slot on this bill opening for two of the biggest current mainstream-popular metal acts, Dethklok and Mastodon, cements their reputation as a draw in their own right.
And while a certain hardcore contingent of their fans may always see their 2001 album, Jane Doe, as a hard-to-beat magnum opus, the band's latest album for Epitaph Records, Axe to Fall, shreds pretty damn hard. From the galloping riffs of opening track "Dark Horse," there's a serious old-school thrash feel, with Bannon often swapping his trademark near-screech for a more guttural yell. Late in the album, too, things take an almost doom-metal, sludgy bent, with a particularly lovely track, "Cruel Bloom," featuring almost Tom Waits-ian guest vocals by Steve Von Till of Neurosis.
New Times reached Bannon recently by phone, where he was taking care of his business at the headquarters of his record label, Deathwish, which handles special vinyl releases for Converge and other bands. Bannon, by phone, is erudite, calm, measured in his words, and fiercely intelligent. We chatted about the Converge legacy, Axe to Fall, and the band's current tour with Dethklok and Mastodon, which lands at the Pompano Beach Amphitheater on Saturday. Read what he had to say below.
Converge. With High on Fire, Mastodon, and Dethklok. Sunday, November 8. Pompano Beach Amphitheater, 1806 NE 6th St., Pompano Beach. Show starts at 6:30 p.m., tickets cost $23.25 to $34.50. Livenation.com
New Times: First off, is it true you keep a human skull on your desk at Deathwish?
Jacob Bannon: Yeah, it's definitely true. A friend of mine gave it to me, actually. It's from a professor of his, he got it for him from a medical supply place when he was going to college. My friend got creeped out having it around, so he asked if I wanted it.
What are you working on releasing at Deathwish right now?
We just finished a number of vinyl re-presses. We're a small label, so we tend to get bogged down in current releases, and just trying to stay on top of the current releases as much as possible. With that, you can let certain things start to kind of fall out of press, so now we're at a point where we can repress a few of the lagging titles.
We're re-pressing a Hope Conspiracy album, Death Knows Your Name. We licensed the first album of a band from here called the Carrier; it never came out on vinyl. I've been meaning to get that ready for months. We also had to prepare a bunch of little Converge projects.
I last saw you guys play at the Scion fest in Atlanta this past February, and one thing I noticed was that you were a little less physically confrontational with the audience. You didn't seem to step on anybody's hands or hit anybody if they got in the way. Was it just an off day, or is that a conscious change in your performance style?
I don't mean to do that. If someone's hand in the way, I guess that would happen. But that stage is a bit of a precarious stage in Atlanta. That stage [in the upstairs of the Masquerade] has a bit of a makeshift barrier; it's a bit dangerous to play on. So it's difficult to be able to interact with the audience as you want. It makes having a fairly physical hardcore show a bit difficult. We've played the room plenty of times so I'm used to it now. All venues impose their challenges.
I wanted to ask you about venue challenges, because where you're playing here in South Florida, it's a pretty rigid set-up, an outdoor amphitheater with a little room in front and then a bunch of bolted-down seats. When you're so physically separated from the audience like that, do you feel like it's still the full Converge experience?
It's not the first time we've done that. It's a different energy, a completely different animal. We've done it both in Europe and here, and in Japan, too, for that matter. It's just different than your typical hardcore show that has your typical venue capacity of 500 to 700 people, tops. But we're appreciative of the fat that we're invited to do these things. What I find to be ironic is that bands tend to feel more reserved on these big stages, at least metal bands. We still enjoy it; as long as we can engage people, it's okay.
It depends where it is, you know? We play small shows, we play large shows. We're playing a show in two days at the University of New Hampshire up here, and I think the room only holds 200 people. It's a $5 door ticket. In comparison, we've played one day with Slayer at a place that holds 5000 people, and the next day we'll play a basement show. We do that intentionally, because we have fun doing it. We're not one of those bands that looks at rooms as a stepping stone or something like that. We're a hardcore band, we're a punk rock band, that has the ability to cross over.
If anything, it's a little safer when there's a barrier. When you're playing in a small room, there are bodies flying everywhere, and very little room, and things can be very unpredictable. You can be standing in one place, and a minute later, there are 20 people standing on you.
It seems like one common thread about the live Converge experience is that people tend to expect this element of danger.
Yeah.... I mean we don't try to focus on that. Other people do, I guess. We don't really care about that. We just enjoy playing. It's about sharing our songs and music with people who appreciate them and relate to them. It's nothing more than that. If people want to be over-dramatic about any other aspect of it, to each his own, I guess. It doesn't really concern us.
Well, on to Axe to Fall, your new album. The first impression you get, listening to the first few tracks, is how thrashy it sounds.
The last album also was a bit, I guess, thrashy, yeah. No Heroes definitely had that aspect to it as well. You just evolve and progress and write songs that interest you. And for us, this record has a lot of ... dynamic to it. There's definitely an unrelenting part that's a bit abrasive and intense. Our approach musically has always been that way, or at least has evolved into that over the last 19 years or so.
What do you mean by that certain dynamic?
There are lot of abrasive records out there, but there is definitely a sonic and melodic flow to this one. We have piano and xylophone for this record, a wide variety of instrumentation that isn't exactly typical for a "heavy band" per se. We've been doing that for quite a long time, probably since '98 or '99. That's when we started breaking from the traditional band mold in the recording process, and doing things that we found to be interesting, that could bring some more life to songs.
Were you listening to more thrash when you wrote this?
We've a very introverted band, and that's mainly because we've been a band so long. We don't really look to outside influences like a lot of contemporary bands. There are things we listen to, but they don't really affect what we want to play. What we play is much more individual and unique to us.
How much musical input do you personally have on the actual songwriting process?
We all have tons of musical input. We write everything together; we all come up with ideas; we all propose songs for records. Sometimes stuff get used, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes we'll work on a song for two or three years, trying to get aspects of it included it on a record, and it might take that long for something to finally come together. Some songs take 20 minutes.
I think this record, there were some songs that were written purely from a guitar standpoint, by Kurt, and there were some that were started by Nate on guitar with some riffs, even Ben started some stuff with a drum riff before. I wrote a little bit for this album, but I don't think we used anything. There was one thing that I wrote that didn't really fit the energy of the rest of the album, it was another sort of slower song that would have been a little out of place, I think.
When you feel like making a new record, do you sit down and try to write it all at once, or is it more of an ongoing thing over time?
The three of us live within a half a mile of each other. Ben lives in Brooklyn, but he'll be moving back soon. So when we get together, it's very concentrated. We'll get together for a week and practice and write for a week, or two, or something. Then we'll go back and listen to what we worked on, kind of all let it settle in, then come back again, and start the process over. That's how we've always worked. So even Ben being in Brooklyn hasn't really changed anything; it's only a four-hour drive.
Do you all see each other often when you're not actively working on something for Converge?
At least once during the week, in some form or another. It's more like a family relationship, you know? We're a very tight-knit little group of people, in that way. For people who are not used to our social circle, it's probably difficult to get into it, you know what I mean? It's not exclusionary, but truly family-oriented. We are very much like brothers at this point.
I have a closer relationship without question with these three guys than I do with my own brother. It's been that way since I was 13 years old. I make no apologies for that; it is what it is. A lot of people have fairly unorthodox relationships with friends and family, and ours kind of revolves around this band and music.
On some songs, like "Dark Horse," it seems like you changed your vocal style a little -- it's more like a straightforward yell than the high-pitched shriek you often use. Why the change?
I didn't really change things more so than I have on any record. I'm a bit of a one-trick pony, because I'm a traditional abrasive vocalist, and there are only certain things I feel comfortable with. I try to stay within the limitations that I have physically. Like, I never wanna be one of those vocalists that Auto-tune themselves to hell -- that's the worst thing.
Hmmm. Do you find a lot of your peers in the heavy music world are using Auto-tune?
Sure, they do! Tons of abrasive bands do. Almost all metallic hardcore or contemporary hardcore bands Auto-tune to hell! All those big, soaring melodic vocals you hear? That's 75 percent artificial. We've played festivals with plenty of bands, and they actually have that as backing tracks.
I'm guessing you won't name names on that one.
No, never. But it's pretty amazing when you see a band, and a guy is six feet away from a microphone, yet his soaring background vocal is still there. A lot of those bands do that. A lot of them will have everything from rhythm guitars set up through a click track live, and they're almost lip syncing. There are certain aspects for the more commercial-oriented bands that are real and live, but there's a lot that's just a band playing to tape. They do that to make things refined and tight and perfect, but it's just not real. And that's sad to me. We're the opposite. We'd rather be a crude, raw animal.
You have a bunch of great guests on this record, but it's from across a relatively wide spectrum. How'd you choose your collaborators this time?
Yeah, we've got all of Cave In, all of Genghis Tron, George from Blacklisted, Uffe from Disfear. All of them are friends in some way. We just wanted to do a collaborative record, or have something that went deeper than a few guest spots. We've had positive experiences with doing that before, having people involved in the refining of the song. We got to come up with a short list as we started refining the songs a bit, and we started reaching out to our friends.
The Cave In collaborations were essentially already done, because we started recording with those guys a few years ago, doing some small sessions. Two of the songs on this record are from that initial session.
How much were these other guys involved in actually refining the songs, as you said?
Well, we didn't sit there and say, "That's exactly what we want you to play." Because if you're doing that, you're basically just using them as an instrument. So we would just sort of give them some basics. Like Steve Von Till, for example. I was working on some vocal melodies and stuff, and I think I ended up just sending him all the raw lyrics unedited, and let him create his own phrasing.
Yeah, I was going to ask you specifically about that song, because it almost comes out of nowhere on the album. It starts as this Tom Waits kind of thing, and turns basically into a doom metal song. Who was responsible for the turn it took?
We've done similar stuff before. Having Steven involved was great, because he's been a huge inspiration forever. We've been following his work for over 20 years and it was cool to have him involved. He recorded his vocals on his own. I sing a little on that track, too, on the choruses. There's no song that I'm not on. The last song is pretty melodic, too, and our friend Mookie sings on that song. I ended up singing the end chorus stuff. It sounds like almost a more metal Pink Floyd at the end.
All of us are present on the whole record; it's not like we can wholly drop out for an entire song. You kind of share your presence with the guests, within the song. There are some songs that have three drummers playing at once, three guitars at once; there's a lot going on.
Since you also create all of the band's artwork, where did the concept for this album's imagery come from?
I just worked for a really long time. I wanted to create something that was kinetic, abrasive, but still timeless. I wanted it, I guess, violent, but also kind of romantic in a way. I've never been a fan of traditional metal imagery, or hardcore imagery. I like things that are just a little bit more than first-level thinking. I try to capture what I hear, sonically, in our songs, visually. I created a piece for every song for the album; it took about three months. I've done that before, because I like telling that visual story. I think it's interesting to do that, for a listener and fan of music to get that.
It seems to recall the Jane Doe cover a little bit, if only because the main image again is a young woman's face.
I use human faces and silhouettes a lot. What I wanted to play with this for record is the use of image repetition to tell a visual story; it's pretty common in the design world to play with that. You can see Andy Warhol doing the same thing. My work is way more kinetic and sort of distressed, though; I tell the story in an abrasive way. But that approach has always interested me.
Do you worry at all, when writing new material, that it's just going to get compared to Jane Doe? That's seen, now, as this sort of post-hardcore epic masterpiece.
What's ironic about that is, it wasn't when it came out. I have all the press, and I would say half of it is negative. It's great that people appreciate what we do. But we don't really look back at our records at all. I think that's one of the reasons why we're a band as long as we have been. We've continued to do things that people consider relevant. Because we do what we want, not what other people want us to be doing, you know?
We understand the character of our band, but we also want to always challenge ourselves, and just excite ourselves. We want to be able to share new ideas and interesting ideas with people that are fresh and exciting for us. So if we start looking back and emulating what we had done previously, then we're not writing honest songs. We're writing songs for critics. And that would make us dishonest, or at least not sincere in our writing process.
Everyone always talks about your band's hardcore lineage, but do you feel like, musically, you all have much to do with hardcore any more?
I guess to a degree. We're not above anything, you know? We've been a band for a while, and you just kind of become your own weird animal. We just sound like ourselves. That's where we have been for a long time. We haven't really heard outside influences and said, "Hey, we want to sound like that," the way we did when we were 15 or 16?
It seems, actually, like it's the more mainstream, generalist music magazines and web sites that are always most concerned with trying to pinpoint these exact hardcore-influenced moments in your songs.
Well, it's a critical thing to understand that writers and first-level fans of music will always try to define what you are, okay? They will always try to classify what you are, because that's their only basis of understanding at that point. They're not, like, wholly familiar with the efforts of your band, maybe. So they're tying to figure out a way to define you and further subdefine you to give people a starting-off point. Sometimes it's fitting, sometimes it's not.
A lot of contemporary hardcore and metal - the more popular hooky stuff that's out there, that's less abrasive - that stuff, we don't have anything in common with. Somebody reading a generalized article will get that idea, that that's the kind of band we are. But we're just not. It's not the same thing.
Points of reference, sonically, for what we are don't really exist as much any more. It's not like you can go and say, "Hey, this band is a really strange mix of the Accused and Rorschach and Entombed and Starkweather, mixed with whatever." Those bands are essentially obscure and off the radar of even underground music at this point. That's fine, that happens. That's the progression of a community.
But people try to -- People heard "Dark Horse," and people were like, "This guitar part sounds like this metal band," or this or that. To me, that song sounds like Tony Joy playing Universal Order of Armageddon-style riffs -- which is totally different from contemporary metal. But that's what people hear, and that's what they relate it to, which is fine. Those generalizations miss the mark in the mainstream press, but we're just happy people are paying attention to us. People have to start somewhere.
How do you think people are going to react to Converge on this tour? Someone who's coming for, say, Dethklok alone, based on Adult Swim, might be sort of ... taken by surprise.
It's going to be interesting. We're definitely a unique band on the tour. There are a lot of people who have never experienced us as a band, but it's not the first time that we've done a tour like that. It's always exciting to us to do that.
As much as the hardcore community wants to be exclusionary on message boards, in all actuality, 80 percent of those kids typing that stuff have Korn and Limp Bizkit shirts in their closet from years ago. So they're not very far removed form the things they're being critical of in some way. And they probably DVR "Metalocalypse," so they're not above anything.
Plus, you really can't be too cool for High on Fire.
Yeah, Matt Pike is an interesting guy. There are gonna be some really great bands. Even the lineup that is Dethklok is pretty impressive. People have to start somewhere, so if people want to judge the fans of more popular metal, well, they were one of them two or three years ago. You need to be welcoming to these people, and vice versa.
There are definitely going to be hundreds, if not thousands, of kids every night who have never heard of us. Maybe they'll despise what we are and not understand us, or maybe they'll be motivated to look further into the community and get into other bands. Hopefully we'll broaden some horizons, and that's a good thing.