JACOB BANNON OF CONVERGE: THE METALSUCKS INTERVIEW
Axe to Fall, Converge’s once-again excellent new album, is yet another stylistic shift: the majority of it is devoted to the band playing harder and more technically than they have in their post-Jane Doe era, while the closing two songs finding them venturing further away from their comfort zone than they ever have before. But even though guitarist Kurt Ballou darts all over the fretboard more than usual, vocalist Jacob Bannon changes nothing about his performance, from the breathless rambling on opener “Dark Horse” to his trademark pterodactyl-like shriek over the course of the album. But this isn’t to say that he’s in a state of creative stasis while the rest of the band moves outwards: Bannon’s hellacious scream is just as much a part of Converge’s uniqueness as is Ballou’s nimble riffing. Bannon’s work on Axe to Fall is as savage as it’s ever been, and once again adds weight and disturbing depth to the album’s metallic hardcore-fueled chaos.
Jacob Bannon’s place in metal, hardcore, and—for better or worse—metalcore is massive, with his trademark vocals incalculably influential and lyrics favoring the abstract over the melodramatic. Even outside of Converge, Bannon manages to be prominent, with a successful visual art career and running hardcore label Deathwish Inc. A surprisingly normal sounding (at least in terms of how he sounds on record), introspective guy, Bannon comes off as both wise about the metal and hardcore world while still impressed by and interested in it. In a lengthy interview with MetalSucks, he discussed the musical and lyrical intricacies of Axe to Fall, his approach to artwork in comparison to his vocal work, and people’s changing attitudes toward heavy music as they age.
I don’t really agree with that, so it’s tough for me to really comment on that. For every listener, including ourselves, we all take something away from it differently. It’s just the way music is. We all interpret it however we see fit. We look from the confines of our own lives, different experiences, and things like that. The way we all interpret music is all different depending on where we are at in our lives, what we’re listening to at the time in relation to the music that we’re experiencing at that point. Some people love a record like No Heroes because of the technical aspects of it. Whereas, for me, the album is less technical than previous releases that we did. In the late 90s, we were writing songs that were fairly technical, at least from a guitar standpoint. This record has quite a lot going on technically. The songs may seem straightforward, but actually they’re quite a brute to play. They’re not simple songs.
To clarify what I said, when I said “straightforward” I didn’t mean technically. I think the technicality on the record is all over the place. ” Grim Heart/Black Rose” and “Lonewolves” are not necessarily pushing a new direction, but there is a lot of variance where, and from what I hear and interpret, a lot of Axe to Fall is you guys just rocking out.
We do rock out quite a bit, but there is as much variance on this album as the others. We’re really conscious of the ebb and flow and dynamic of releases when you’re writing a collection of songs into a cohesive mass. There is a push and pull. You are correct in a sense, that there is a lot of rocking out, aggressive/abrasive aspects to the album, but there is also some significant dynamics where we shift dramatically. There is piano on this album. There are female vocals on this album for the first time. There is acoustic guitars. There’s just a wide variety of things included on the album.
To go back to what you were saying earlier: you said that a lot of what you guys put into composing the album had a lot to do with the frame of mind that you had at the time and what you are listening to. What influenced Axe to Fall? What were you listening to when you were making the album?
I didn’t say what we were listening to as much as what people are listening to when they judge another album – when they experience an album that interests them. For example, you probably have a variety of records that you listen to on a daily basis or a weekly basis or whatever. These things shift and shape your opinion on what’s a positive or negative on a record and things like that. It’s interesting to hear people’s feedback because it’s coming from a whole variety of different places. Some people favor really old albums and some people favor new stuff depending on where they are at when they heard the material. In relation to what influences us when we’re writing, it’s usually music that is interesting to us and challenging for us to create and to play. Things that are emotionally fulfilling, psychologically fulfilling are what influences us. Musically we’re comfortable where we are at as musicians and artists. We’re not really getting that first level influence that we did when we were kids at like sixteen or eighteen, and emulating the things that you are listening to. Now I think that we are our own kind of creature and have been for quite some time, especially considering that we’ve been a band for about twenty years now. Now we exist on our own weird plane when it comes to that sort of thing. We wanted to create an album that was really powerful to us. We never want to create something that is the norm or meets the status quo. We’re not really into that sort of thing. We’re not a band that’s been content with that. Every album that we’ve done, hopefully, is an evolutionary progression in our creative character. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t release it.
It does sound a lot like Converge, but it also sort of sounds different than a lot of what you have done.
If you think about it, almost all of our albums have their own personality. None of our records are the other record. If you are interested in the character that we sort of created as a band, you can follow that path and follow that lineage of albums and see that path. A lot of bands that are around now, aside from the huge ones that have been around forever, haven’t really been around much. A lot of bands that are around now may have one original member or shift members every two years or something like that. We’ve been focused with this lineup since 1999. Things have been really solid since then. The only thing we did then was shed a member [former co-guitarist Aaron Dalbec] because it wasn’t really working out anymore. It’s really interesting for us to see how we’ve progressed and grown up as artists and as people. Since we were kids, we’ve been in this band.
I don’t think it gives us an advantage, but it gives us a solid foundation. All bands are dysfunctional, including ours. It’s why we’re a band. It’s a dysfunctional family that somehow works. Our chemistry just works. We know each other very well – personally and through our own creative process. We understand it and respect it. It definitely gives us, I don’t want to call it an advantage, but it definitely gives us a great starting point to create things together.
Do you still feel that you are at a really rich creative space after being a band for twenty years?
Definitely. We wouldn’t want to create emotional music without emotion attached to it. I don’t know if it’s fortunate or unfortunate, but the more we live and the older we get, the more life we experience gives us more to write about. We’re not necessarily writing about teen angst and one dimensional emotions. We’re writing about things that are complex and very real and rich to our own minds.
Since you guys started off so young and in a genre that is sort of geared towards young people and made by a lot of young people, do you guys find it harder to transition to being adults but not writing about the same angst you might have written about when you were younger?
The numbers have changed in our age, and we definitely have experience a lot. We toured and traveled the world a lot. We’ve grown a lot, but in many ways we’re still just regular old hardcore kids. Nothing has really changed. I think life has gotten a little bit more complex as you get more responsibilities and things like that. I think, in a way, that hardcore, punk rock, metal and aggressive music in general benefit from that. We still very much relate because we’re just relating to ourselves. Writing music is a very selfish thing. You write it and hope that people will appreciate it and want to relate to it and experience it, but it’s there for the sole purpose of expressing yourself and hopefully making a positive out of a negative in life in some way if that’s the kind of emotional message you want to put out there. I feel a lot of people, regardless of any age (whether a teenager or a young adult) are relating to that. That’s why if you look at the people who support the band, you see a wide age group from all walks of life that have had ties with punk rock and hardcore community or have current ties to it that are still supporting us and still appreciating what we do along with some select other bands.
Did you ever anticipate something like that when you were starting out?
The only thing that we anticipated or hoped was to create things that were real. The philosophy is that artists that influenced us were bands that we looked at as peers and not on some hierarchal level where they were above us in some way. We didn’t look at them on stage and go “Wow, you’re completely different than us. You’re god-like or you’re this or that.” The bands onstage were just like us. They looked like us. We took that message and influence and sort of ran with it. We still hold those same intrinsic values – those same basic punk/hardcore value systems and ethic system that guided us when we were sixteen and seventeen years old guides us now. A lot of bands abandoned that. A lot of bands feel that it is unnecessary at a certain point, but it’s the way that I choose to live my life. I want to be able to live a life that’s as pure and as positive as I possibly can because there is so much horrible stuff and negativity out there.
Switching gears, where is Axe to Fall coming from lyrically? Was there a uniform mindset when you were writing it?
All albums are thematic in some way. Most bands are, and it is very rare that a band writes songs that don’t relate to each other in some way. It’s a pretty introspective album in a lot of ways. The song “Axe to Fall” is a song I wrote about in my own life and my own perception of battling depression, battling a lot of… I don’t want to call it self-loathing, but battling the demons that pull me down psychologically. I think we all have them in some way. We all have dark places that we go for a variety of reasons in our lives, and we use music and art as a doorway out of those things. The song is very much about trying to split that aspect of myself from myself. It’s heavy. It’s metaphorical. I feel a great deal of people can relate to the message and that struggle that I have much like many other people have on a daily basis.
I don’t get into a redundant mode where I say the same message. I tackle a whole lot of things that are going on in my life since the last record in 2006. I write often, and I write when I’m moved to write in my life. I wrote a song a year or two ago about something that I was experiencing. It gets documented in a song like that. In the thirteen songs that this record has, it’s basically the struggle that I’ve had the last couple of years. All the albums have that slant, they always have. We’re not a band that’s writing songs about fucking Vikings and other nonsense. It’s about our real, day-to-day experiences. We’re not writing about breakfasts, but we’re writing about the things that have weight and meaning to us that change us and steer us in our lives. I think there’s a lot that people will relate to on this record. Vocally I’ve been trying for the last three or four albums to be a little more decipherable than in the past because a lot of the lyricist and vocalists that I took cue points from just didn’t give a shit about that for a long time, so I didn’t give a shit about that. I’ve been spending a lot more time with that on the last couple of records. This record you can hear a lot of it. It’s still hyper emotional and I emote quite a bit, but I think you can follow along a lot more easily than previous records.
Speaking of your vocals, is that you singing on the last song “Wretched World?”
I did sing on “Wretched World,” but the lead vocal is a friend, Mookie Singerman from Genghis Tron. All of Genghis Tron perform on that song with us, and Brad [Fickeisen] from The Red Chord and J.R. [Connors] from Doomriders and Cave In also play on that. That song, there is actually three drummers at the end, as well as Hamilton [Jordan]’s guitar work from Genghis Tron. It’s a pretty significant song. There is a whole lot of stuff going on. You can hear me in and out of there, but Mookie does a lot of multi-tracking with his voice so there his voice is in there with my own. I think he does three or four tracks just to build to the sound he was going for with that. It sort of has a bizarre Pink Floyd vibe to it by the time we get to the end of it. I think any more instrumentation could have been some clutter. I think there is a perfect balance in there as it is. I’m in there doing the intro prose that is at the beginning for the first two minutes, and then I’m in the end of the song. So he does the loop.
You guys have a lot of guests on this record. You’ve have guests on records before, but on this one you brought in a lot of other people.
It’s an idea that we’ve had for a number of years. We started recording a collaborative project with some of the Cave In guys a number of years ago. We sort of… I don’t want to say that we abandoned that, but because of all our schedules it was never going to come together. Experiencing that recording session, it sort of planted the seed of us going out and collaborating with a wide variety of artists that we’re friends with. After all of our travels, we have a pretty diverse group of friends that all come from an interesting musical place that may not be exactly the same as ours, but we all sort of compliment each other in an interesting way. We wanted to write music with some of them, and a lot of this music is essentially that. We didn’t want to make the entire album that, but a great deal of the album does in fact have that collaborative aspect to it. If you listen to the album, I’m sure you can tell that it’s not overbearing though. It’s not like you’re listening to an album that’s a compilation or something like that. We were really careful with how we worked with everyone and control the songs so that they don’t get away from them or us and strived for a unified vision. We have a ton of people involved on this record, and we’re really happy that all of them were willing to contribute their time, effort and talent to it.
I listened to it before I found out that so many people were involved, but up until the last two songs, I couldn’t really tell that there were other people involved. The last two songs are a real departure from what you guys have done before, but still sort of work under the umbrella of what you do.
The framework for those two songs has been kicking around for a long time, including the artists that were all on those made a lot of sense because it didn’t make them sound different, but they all sort of worked within the confines of the album. As I said before, there is an ebb and flow, so it’s not like the whole thing is sort of ripping for forty minutes. We allow the album to breathe a bit because some of the songs are so dense and intense in places that it’s nice to have that. We’ve done that on a variety of records. I think it’s more of identifying the vocalist. So if I don’t start off a song, they’re like “Wait, who’s that?” if it’s not a familiar voice within the band doing a backing vocal or something like that. For example our friend Steve Von Till sounds like Steve with a real distinct voice that’s really unmistakable, whereas Genghis Tron’s singing is so smooth and glass-like. It’s clear that it’s not one of us. That’s the human element that you can hear in a song that can really pull you in. You feel that dramatic shift in those two songs. The acoustic guitar and the piano/keyboards within those two songs are a bit of a departure and take a lead role in those songs as opposed to the traditional band format that we use in most of our other songs on the album.
Even before I heard Steve Von Till singing on “Cruel Bloom,” there was definitely a big Neurosis vibe to that. I never heard you guys use piano and stuff like that before.
We used piano on You Fail Me, and we’ve used other instrumentation. We’ve used a theremin before, keyboards, and xylophones and stuff like that. People tend to generalize even when you listen to something that has dynamics. People think that Converge is an abrasive and intense thing, but you almost forget that nearly every release that we’ve had in the last twelves years has had a dynamic to it.
In making the album, Jane Doe has cast such a long shadow on your legacy and on the genre of what you do in general, do you feel pressure to ever top that or is that something that is the furthest thing from your minds when you’re writing music?
The long shadow gets cast with every record you do. With everybody that may hold Jane Doe in high regard as a high point in our creative life, there is also a variety of people that hold the previous album, When Forever Comes Crashing, in that way. There are other people who hold Petitioning the Empty Sky in that light. There are the old die hards who like the stuff from the early 90s as the definitive work and everything else is not their cup of tea. You have that always going back and forth. I touched on this earlier – music is really interesting thing. It’s personal for everybody. Everybody who listens to aggressive music is fanatical about it in some way. You have your favorite writer, and you are a connoisseur of musicians in some way. You have these sorts of things that blow your mind, and things that you are emotionally and psychologically attached to. We all have those records that we heard at a certain point in our lives that became our best friends. There are records that you turn to and go “Yes, this is the record I want to listen to when I’m in the worst mood in the world, and I feel like I want to throw cinderblocks through a wall.” You have uplifting records and you have this and that. Jane is that for a lot of people for a lot of reasons, and we’re really appreciative of that. There are a whole lot of people who hole You Fail Me in that regard as well. We’re just happy that people are listening and appreciative of what we’re doing. So the only pressure is to make sure that we’re still writing things that are really moving to us now in our lives because if we’re not, then none of this is worth a damn. We never want to go through the motions. We never want to be a band that kind of goes up there and performs. We’re not entertainers, we’re artists, and there is a huge difference. Entertainers go up and play and perform, and you can liken them more to a circus act or to something that is on repeat. They might as well be lip synching. Whereas what we do is a much more raw experience, and a much more human thing. That’s the only pressure that’s there. It’s not pressure that we’re trying to hold onto that, it’s pressure just to make sure we never let ourselves down. We never want to put ourselves in that position.
With you guys becoming elder statesmen with what you do, what do you think has changed the most since your inception both within the band and outside of it in the general environment in which you exist?
JB: Not much. We just put up our van for sale that we’ve been touring in since 2001 [laughs]. We have 230,000 miles on it. We’ve done every U.S. tour in it since 2001. We just know that it’s finally time to pick up something else because it was just going to die on us soon. Not much as changed. That’s going on between eight or nine years of solid touring in one vehicle. We’re not a band that is about ego. We’re not a band that is about elitism. We’re not a band that is about riding waves of popularity and trend. All we want to do is write powerful music that moves us, and I feel that a lot of people relate to that. That core of what we are hasn’t changed and won’t ever change. We’re still just a bunch of hardcore kids from Massachusetts doing our thing. Literally, that’s it. When we tour with larger bands or are around people that we… I wouldn’t say looked up to, but sort of have a celebrity about them, which we have been in the metal and music world. We see these people and go “Shit, I’m sitting next to Kerry King right now, this is weird.” We still get a weird feeling. I have genuine friends that I still feel that way when I talk to because I’m still like a teenager walking on the train tracks listening to Slayer on my Walkman. I’m still that guy. I haven’t changed. Our past is here with us. Not much has changed in that respect for any of us. We’re older. We’re not in high school or in college. We’ve moved on there, but aside from that, we’re still self-made and doing our thing ourselves. We still work for ourselves in some way. I think that not straying from that past has really kept us focused on what and who we are. We’re very much in the mix with really interesting artists and people, and I think that sort of keeps us excited about aggressive music and the music community in general. A lot of people kind of fade away at times.
Maybe sort of in a way grow out of it when they get bored of it?
It’s not so much that. Here’s the thing, aggressive music is something that appeals to youth. I’m a young guy. I’m not an old guy by any stretch of the imagination. It still appeals to me. It doesn’t necessarily appeal to the 55 year old guy down the street. With that said, when you’re a kid and you discover hardcore, punk rock or metal, it becomes the greatest escape in the world. It becomes your life. You become completely fanatical about it. What changes about your life after that is you grow up and get other responsibilities. Some people don’t hold onto those things. Some people sort of fade out of things when they have to get a job out of high school or something, or college or whatever and no longer have the time to devote to simply being a connoisseur of the thing they once loved. Some people give it up without even knowing they gave it up because they sort of moved on in their lives. I don’t think that you need to, but to each their own. As long as you take what you’ve learned and what you took as a positive out of that community and use it elsewhere in your life. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. A lot of people sort of hang out between the ages of fifteen and twenty years old, and they go “Oh man, I used to listen to that band so long ago.” “Oh yeah? How old are you?” “I’m 22.” You go “Bro, you’re not fucking old. You have no idea what you’re talking about.” That’s all great. Their life experiences are completely relevant in that five or seven years between the time that they discover a band and got out of a band, they may feel that they’ve lived ten lifetimes. The fact of the matter is that we’re all progressing, we’re all evolving, and we’re all living on a daily basis. You choose what you hold onto, and you choose what to let go of. I don’t let go some of my favorite artists from when I was a kid, and they’re still as relevant to me as they were the first day I heard them. I still listen to Leeway and the Cro Mags on a daily basis because I listened to those bands when I was 16 years old. I loved them, and they moved me then and move me now. Maybe there are fans of those artists that let go of them or they moved on, but I think a lot of people hold onto that weird, almost embarrassment of their teen years or gawky years. “Oh I used to listen to that way back when,” or “I listened to metal way back in the day,” or something. “Oh you listened to metal way back in the day? What did you listen to?” They reference Korn or some shit like that as opposed to some classic bay area thrash band or whatever. It’s all about the time and place. That’s all.
And when it hits you.
Yeah. I would never want to discredit those experiences. I always find it interesting when people give up on the aggressive community. I think there are a lot of positives in it that you can take elsewhere in your life. Our former bass player is a math teacher now. He teaches high school math. We have a variety of friends that are into education, and they actually talk to students who are fans of things and are supportive of things. That’s really cool. That means they took some of the influence from the punk rock and hardcore world – making a difference and being a truthful and relative person, and applying it in other places in the world. That’s a positive thing. You don’t have to have a back patch all of the time. You don’t need to have the perfect hardcore uniform. You just need to keep it in spirit and soul, and I think that’s a really powerful thing.
It can shape who you become after that intense teenage period.
Yeah, I still hang out and listen to Entombed’s Left Hand Path really loud sometimes. I still listen to old Obituary records really loud sometimes. I don’t do it all the time because I’m comfortable with whom I am as a person, and I don’t need to wave that flag all the time. I’m still a hardcore encyclopedia because it’s ingrained in me since I was a kid. I love that. It’s a great thing. People should never be ashamed of that.
Between Kurt’s production which is very distinctive and your artwork, you guys have a lot of control over the way Converge records look and sound. Is that what you guys were always working towards or was that something that became important to you guys after you’ve been doing it for awhile?
I think we’ve always done it. People just kind of noticed it as we progressed as a band. Kurt took some time to become an engineer. He went to BU [Boston University] for actual engineering in a very different world. He got laid off a number of years ago and decided to devote his time to recording. I think that was a really positive calling in life. He’s progressed in that as I have progressed in the art world. It’s a distinctive thing. We’re not crazy control freaks in the sense that we don’t want to work with other people because a lot of people are involved in many processes. We’re very aware of it. We just don’t lock into a studio. I know bands that record an album and have no interaction with anybody after that. They record the album and walk away. They don’t really have any sort of drive to partake in the development of everything after the fact. For us, being in a band is an art form that has a lot of levels to it. You have the visual level. You have the prose level. You have the sonic level, and you have the musical level. There’s a lot of stuff there. We really feel that to be the band that we want to be and bands that we are fans of; a lot of them have control over that stuff and paid real close attention to detail. We also do that ourselves.
It’s essentially the same. It’s all coming from the same place. It’s all about the same stuff. I try to capture the lyrical and musical appeal of the song in my visual approach to it. So yeah, it comes from the same place essentially.
When you’re doing artwork for another band, where does that come from?
There have only been a few bands that I actually have a personal attachment to and friendship with. I look passed that client level and passed the level of me designing something for somebody. Those bands are few and far between. I treat all those artists with a huge amount of respect that grant me permission to work with them and come to me to work with them in some way because they have to trust me. They’re coming to me for a specific thing, and I need to be able to provide that. Some artists are really hands off, and some are really hands on when it comes to that sort of thing. Some people leave me alone and say “Hey, make something that’s interesting and captures what you feel our record should be.” It just really depends on the record. It does come from a different place than when you’re creating your own thing. When you’re creating your own thing, you are your own worst client in a way because if you don’t like something, you just start over. There were three months of solid work between the studio and here at Deathwish working on visuals for the record. I would work maybe 40-50 hours a week on Deathwish related things here and anytime that I could squeeze in Converge things in that timeframe. When I was in the studio, I would devote all the time I could to Converge sleeping about 3 or 4 hours a night. Any other time was devoted to creation of that album whether it would be visually or musically in some way. It takes a lot. I think that’s also why our records are different than a lot of other bands. Our releases are a different experience. You don’t really don’t get some songs and a record cover. It’s a larger piece for us.
That’s sort of total emersion in having the art synthesized with the music on the record and the meticulousness of the music on the record. Is there any way you could visualize doing Converge other than that or does it need that sort of effort?
It needs that sort of effort because that’s the only way to do it. I mean that’s the only way to do it with the way our band is. If we were a different kind of band that didn’t really have that attention to detail, I think it would be a lot easier. I think someone always needs to raise the bar. Someone always needs to be challenged and challenge themselves. We’re good at doing that for ourselves because we’re never wholly content. We’ll finish a record, and we want to jump into the next thing because we’re not overly excited. I worked so much on this last record that by the time I was finishing the visuals a few weeks ago, everything was almost white noise to me because I was working on it for so long. I could almost not distinguish one thing from another because I put so much attention to detail and became blinded by the whole thing. I needed to take a step away from it for about a week or two and clear my head a bit. It’s really important to do that.
Is returning to it hard after doing so much work on it?
Not really, because there’s a celebratory aspect to it. You’re like, “Yeah, I’m done with this thing. I’m excited. Now we can do the secondary things.” The night I finished the cover, it was about 3 A.M. after working on it for a couple of months. I went home at 3 A.M., laid in bed for ten minutes, got back up and went back to Deathwish because I needed to stare at it longer to make sure everything is how I intended it to be. I sat there and stared at it until seven or eight o’clock in the morning and went home. I just choose not to sleep that night because I needed to make sure that within the whole creation of this record that I didn’t lose what I wanted to capture visually. I wanted to make sure that it really made sense to me psychologically and that it tied together well and that it worked together well. I needed to perfect it. People need to give themselves projects like that sometimes to be able to get everything they can out of them.