In 2009, Boston’s CONVERGE unleashed, Axe to Fall, an album equalling, if not topping, their acclaimed Jane Doe album, managing to titillate those with even the highest of expectations. Staying true to their style, the band bare their souls in a most caustic mix of hardcore and metal that resonates with sheer heart and honesty.
CONVERGE recently whipped through North America on an unusually larger (sponsored) tour with DETHKLOK, MASTODON, and HIGH ON FIRE. This was a unique opportunity for the band to showcase their powerful and unceremoniously raw live performance to a younger and more diverse audience.
APESHIT caught up with vocalist Jake Bannon and guitarist Kurt Ballou during their Los Angeles stop to chat about the tour, the new album, and what makes CONVERGE, CONVERGE.
APESHIT: How’s the tour going so far?
Jake: Good…interesting…a challenge, but I think a positive challenge at the end of the day.
APESHIT: This is a pretty big tour with DETHKLOK, a band that has sold a lot of records based on a TV show, which is a little weird.
Jake: It is a little weird. It’s not an altogether new thing though. I was thinking about that on this tour because people have been asking me about that like it’s a new phenomenon. There were THE MONKEES. There was ROCK IN WRESTLING.
Kurt: There’s two facets to music. There’s the artistic side and there’s the entertainment side. There’s always been SAMMY DAVIS JR. or WAYNE NEWTON. There’s two sides. With a band like CONVERGE or HIGH ON FIRE, we fall more on the artistic end of things. Like a DETHKLOK falls more on the entertainment side of things. It doesn’t mean that any one is any less valid.
Jake: You know what’s sort of cool is that MASTODON kind of fit both right now as an interesting bridge. They are musically a challenging band for a lot of people to get into because there’s so much going on and there is diversity in their sound. But visually live and the things they have going on now, call more to the entertainment side of things. So it’s kind of nice. It’s an interesting mix of things on this tour.
APESHIT: I remember seeing them in a tiny little club in Memphis after they released their debut EP, and to see them do this kind of stuff for years now is amazing.
Jake: Yeah, it’s really amazing.
APESHIT: One aspect of the band that really stands out is that it really sounds extreme. You can have a death metal band play blast beats and fast notes and that’s heavy and brutal. But you guys sound chaotic and really capture what the definition of “extreme” is.
Kurt: I think a lot of death metal and black metal bands…if you isolate a small section of their songs, it’s not very extreme but a lot of it lacks dynamics and contrast that we always strive to have in our music. That’s what makes the extreme parts seems more extreme. It’s like a photograph. If there’s no contrast, you can’t pick out the individual parts of the photograph. It’s a haze.
Jake: That’s always the thing for me too. If you’re talking about subgenres like black metal bands, there’s a big variety of them have this staple blast beat that they’ll just be flying through a song. It’s really repetitive and they’re just going for it. And everything else is just a big dynamic wash of things that kind of define the song. We definitely have more stuff going on. [Turning to Kurt] It’s interesting to hear you say it that way because the bands that appeal to me are the qualities that our band has; not stylistically but having different instrumentation all pulling its own weight.
APESHIT: Do you think that just the way you write music and how you’ve developed are the result of your influences and teaching yourselves how to play and all that kind of thing?
Jake: Yeah, there’s no right way for us to do anything. So it’s all unorthodox, would you say? [Turning to Kurt]
Kurt: We’re all essentially self-taught at both our instruments and how to write songs. That’s probably caused us to develop a lot slower than other artists or bands. There’s a lot of guitarists that you see now that have taken a lot of lessons and do all these speed arpeggios and all that kind of stuff. But when you learn so much from other people, you don’t learn to develop your ear as much. The person who’s instructed gets a lot of shortcuts and they develop a lot quicker and become a professional musician a lot faster than any of us ever did. But because we spent so much time teaching ourselves, we’ve developed our own playing style which creates a new, unique sound for the band.
APESHIT: The majority of the songs on the album are relatively short and potent. You go in and get out and do what you need to do. Is that the approach?
Kurt: We also try to keep the song really focused whereas early on in the history of the band we didn’t really do that. We were trying to incorporate all our different ideas. Each song was like a long, drawn out piece going through a lot of permutations but those songs became a “riff soup” in a way. We appreciate more now a traditional song format to keep the songs memorable for ourselves. In a drawn out song format, you kind of lose focus of the song, and it just becomes “riff soup,” like I was saying. You can keep it to a shorter format with fewer ideas, and use your best ideas for the song and then you have a short, memorable song even challenging and memorable.
APESHIT: As much as I like bands that sound like other bands, the ones that sound more unique are the ones I like more, and that applies with you guys. Axe to Fall doesn’t sound like any other band. Were there any events in your lives, bands, moods, or feelings that influenced the album?
Jake: I just think we don’t force writing ever. We kind of take our time writing. We don’t follow the traditional album cycle like other bands do…16 to 18 months to get an album out there. When we get motivated, we start writing. I think when you’re doing things in a natural way like that, you start to create fresh, new, exciting music for yourself. You’re not really throwing a bunch of material out there because you feel obligated to do it like label responsibilities or just touring responsibilities or things like that. We do things on our own.
Kurt: Music is a reflection of your own humanity. You could try to put out a record every year. Especially with us, we’re in our 30’s now. We’re not evolving very much every year as people like we did when we were younger. Spending a few years between records allows us to evolve as people. And as we evolve as people, the way we express ourselves evolves as well. It causes each of our records to be different.
APESHIT: Do you tire of having each new album being compared to Jane Doe?
Jake: It’s funny. Before Jane Doe, people would compare records to The Poachers Diaries and compare records to When Forever Comes Crashing and compare things to Petitioning the Empty Sky. I think that’s just a pitfall of being in a band for a significant amount of time. People start comparing records. If people put albums like the Jane album on a certain level, they’re going to weigh everything after that against that album.
Kurt: It [Jane Doe] was a breakthrough record for us. A lot of people became fans of us because of that record. It doesn’t matter. I’m proud of that record. I don’t think it’s our best record. But it doesn’t bother me if something thinks that.
Jake: Yeah, it’s just a record. I think we just write records and move on.
APESHIT: The last two songs on the album, “Cruel Bloom” and “Wretched World”…I really like those songs. They bring the album down in intensity, and you guys always have less, chaotic, more mellow songs on albums. How did those two songs in particular come about?
Jake: They were kicking around for quite a while in various forms for a couple years. Then Kurt decided to want to include them on this record. All of us agreed so we started working on the songs with other people. [turning to Kurt] I believe “Cruel Bloom” you actually recorded all the instrumentation before we really started tracking it.
Kurt: When the whole band was officially tracking the record, I had already been done with my parts for six months for that song.
Jake: We had contributors and collaborators on that song that brought a lot to the table; kind of giving a different voice.
As far as the placement of the songs, we were going back and forth with sequences of the album for a couple of weeks. I think we came up with the best one with the challenges we had, the tunings, and the pace of the album. And just closing it like that…it’s an interesting way to close an album in a way that we haven’t really done before.
Kurt: I always like records that end in a sentimental kind of way. I think Jane Doe sort of ends that way.
Something about a more stark, intimate performance at the end of a record that I like. It’s like the artist addresses the end of a record in a more personal way. Almost like the last day of camp when everyone is sitting by a fire singing “Kumbaya.” Honestly. It’s like, “We’ve just experienced this whole album together so let’s come together and have a joyous cry together and close it out.”
Jake: It’s more palatable. It’s way less abrasive. It’s still heavy. It still holds people’s attention. It’s a different kind of intensity. You’re not, “I’m going to drive a 100 mph.”
APESHIT: Before the album was out, it was leaked on the internet. You found out about it and about who leaked it. What happened to the person that leaked your album. Is Epitaph Records going to do anything legally?
Jake: There was never any intention to do anything about it except to share his information. The thing is, his information was shared with us the second that he leaked the record. He said who he was. He kind of did it to himself. Aside from that, there’s no intention to do anything else. We just wanted to put the information out there and let the public decide what their opinions were going to be. We never put out our opinion. We never said that “This guy is a horrible person,” or anything like that. This is the guy. Here he is, and people ran with that. It became a topic in a variety of conversations about responsibility in the music writing community.
APESHIT: I think the fact that metal and hardcore are very commercially viable now…it’s pretty trendy right now, especially in Southern California. But it doesn’t seem like you guys have really participated in all of it like going on big tours like Ozzfest, Monster Energy Drink, or Affliction. You guys have always been doing what you’ve always been doing. Have you guys ever been tempted a little?
Jake: This is probably the biggest tour that we’ve ever agreed to do and [we agreed to do it] because it was with a bunch of friends. Adult Swim are promoting the DETHKLOK aspect of it but we are not really getting anything from that. We just see the popularity of the cartoon and what that band brings to the table.
Kurt: It doesn’t matter to me either because it’s not like anyone on this tour is co-opting a sound or a subculture for something whereas a lot of the commercial metallic hardcore that’s coming out is sort of a shadow of what I remember hardcore being like. They’ve sort of taken the aesthetic of that and made it more marketable without taking any of the [hardcore] ethic with it. There’s none of that posturing going on here. There’s no one on this tour hiding underneath the banner of hardcore without actually representing it. It doesn’t feel sleazy in the least.
Jake: I don’t feel like there’s a beverage that is trying to co-opt this community. [Editor’s note: A representative of Monster Energy Drink was passing out free cans of their product to the long line of fans on the street outside The Palladium. Every fan who received a can appeared to be extremely happy.] It’s pretty pure…at least for us. It’s not our style to do something like that. I would never want to be associated with a tour that had like nine sponsors. It’s embarrassing.
APESHIT: Or a band playing on the second stage of a tour for $5,000.
Jake: Try $75,000.
APESHIT: Oh shit!
Jake: That’s how much those bands pay.
Kurt: There’s a lot of “unreality” in music. We’ll participate on things on a large scale that are real, and we’re not going to participate on things on a large scale that are not.
Jake: We participated in the Sounds of the Underground Tour. That was the closest thing we did. We did like a week and a half. No bands bought on it but it was just a larger tour like that. It was something we enjoyed.
Kurt: I think a lot of people who buy records realize that a lot of the bands that are high profile are high profile because they paid to be, and not because people actually like them. [Laughs]
Jake: People eventually get tricked into liking those bands. It’s a game. I have no interest in that game at all.
There’s bands that have gotten signed by metal labels because of their interest on Myspace. And what these bands do is pay for “friend adding” software and they add a zillion friends. They also alter their plays on their MySpace so they seem to have a million plays and these labels that are looking for “the next big, young thing” sign them because they think they’re hot on the pulse.
Kurt: There’s also independent publicists that will sign certain bands for online contests. They’ll have a “street team” or interns whose job it is to go on these big websites and vote for the band. That’s what I was talking about about “unreality” in the industry. I think that there’s definitely a lot of genuine music out there that will be heard and can stand the test of time but it’s a tough sell.
Jake: It reminds me of the glam rock flood that happened in the late 80’s when you had hundreds of thousands, or at least it felt like hundreds of thousands, of bands. They were like weird MOTLEY CRUE emulators.
Kurt: I remember being 13, 14 years old and not making a distinction between those bands. They were all presented on the same level. We thought DANGEROUS TOYS and MOTLEY CRUE were on the same level.
Jake: Yeah, you think BRITNEY FOX is the same as CINDERELLA, which is the same as whatever. People were trying to sell you Nitro Records and you were supposed to believe what Riki Rachtman said was “awesome” on Headbanger’s Ball. You were supposed to like Kip Winger because he played bass in OZZY‘s band. There was some weird shit like that, which is kind of where we are kind of at with this “metallic hardcore, rock commercial hybrid thing.” It’s weird.
APESHIT: I finally read Henry Rollins’ Get in the Van. Have you guys read that?
APESHIT: Man, that book depressed the hell out of me to no end!
Jake: Why? It’s motivating!
APESHIT: Yeah it is, but just the shit that they had to deal with was just terrible.
Jake: Yeah. They went through some shit!
Kurt: If they hadn’t done that, then we wouldn’t be doing this.
APESHIT: Were there stories in there where you guys experienced similar shit?
Jake: There’s definitely some parallels with all bands that tour in vans, who rough it. It’s obviously a different time and place for us compared to those bands back in the early 80’s.
Kurt: What you don’t get in that book apparently is that at a lot of those shows, there are like 700, 800, 900 people at those shows, and there still getting screwed by promoters for money. That’s what was happening to us when we were playing to like 60, 70, 80 people. This was on a much bigger scale.
Jake: There’s stories of them playing L.A. in front of a 1,000 people and were fighting to get paid. We’ve had experiences like that before.
Kurt: Actually two.
Jake: It’s far less than it used to be. There’s still snakes in the grass in independent music as well as the large part of it. It’s not just people at major labels. There’s lots of evil people in small stuff as well.
Kurt: I think the relationships you have with people are much more important than what branding you have.
Check out our review of CONVERGE‘s Axe to Fall: http://www.apeshit.org/reviews/converge-axe-to-fall/