Interviews

THE AUSTERITY PROGRAM’S JUSTIN FOLEY INTERVIEWS CONVERGE’S KURT BALLOU ABOUT TACO RIFFS

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justin foley op-ed

Kurt Ballou is the guitarist for Converge and runs/is Godcity Recording Studio. In both of these capacities he has been a big part of making some of my favorite music ever. Screw the commonly used term “arguably” – Converge’s last record is their best/hardest record yet. And Kurt’s recording style presents live-sounding documents of aggressive bands that includes a ferocious midrange bite (see Young Widows, Disappearer, or Ghengis Tron, for example). It’s a compelling antidote to the heavily-edited/eq’d ProTools default deployed by most heavy music. He’s also an unabashed music fan who’s given some thought to what he likes.

Justin Foley: What’s the greatest Taco Riff of all time?

Kurt Ballou: Is it like the peasant food of riffs? Hmmm. Because a taco is like a universal favorite food?

But do you know what I’m talking about? It’s not just your favorite guitar riff…

Yeah, I do.

I mean if it was your favorite riff, what would the answer be?

I don’t know. I would definitely consider the first riff of “Wolverine Blues” by Entombed. That’s a big one for me. But my favorite taco rif … Oh, here’s one. “Earache my Eye” by Cheech and Chong.

That’s hilarious. “Duh nuh nuh – Duh nuh nuh – Nih. Nih Nuhhhh” You know that those guys were like “Let’s write a dumb rock song to go with this skit,” and they ended up pulling out a riff that’s genuinely great. [Justin admits he was wrong about this. Wikipedia says it was written by Gaye DeLorme. Really. That’s the guy’s name. Canadian. – Ed.]

It’s like this stupid thing – Tommy Chong playing giant novelty drumsticks and Cheech Marin singing and playing guitar. But you mentioned Deep Purple. Definitely the chorus of “Space Trucking.”

I can’t remember that.

Sure you can. Oh! And you know what’s an awesome? The chorus of “Everybody Wants You” by Billy Squire. Great riff. “Everybody wants yoooou.” Rocket from the Crypt ripped it off from their one radio hit “On a Rope.”

The Taco Riff is one that inspires people to copy it. Think of the guitar riff from “No Quarter” by Zeppelin. That riff gets copied a lot.

Now that I think about it, there was a band in Boston called Only Living Witness. They’ve got an absolutely great song called “Prone Mortal Form.” It starts with the heaviest guitar riff to ever come out of Boston. [No fucking kidding. – Ed.] It was the first time that a riff ever hit me at a show that was like “Fuuuck, I gotta do this.”

They were like the band in the early 90s. At that time, there were really three big bands in that underground music scene: Only Living Witness, Slapshot and Sam Black Church.

As for Sam Black Church — their early stuff is actually really great. Kinda Bad Brains, kind of like the the Accused. Then they got proto-nu metal which I didn’t care for as much. But their first 7” at the time was pretty wild. It was unlike anything I had ever heard.

For me, being like 16 or 17, there wasn’t an internet and I didn’t have MTV and the Accused weren’t coming through Boston. So my early favorite bands were just those that I could go see. It didn’t take long for me to figure out what I was really looking for.

When I was fifteen or sixteen, growing up outside of Chicago, I only had ten or fifteen records that seemed to feed the appetite I had for a certain type of music. So I must have listened to the first Pegboy record thirty or forty times before I realized that I just didn’t really like it.

Exactly. You’d spent your $10 on it because some friend told you about it or it was listed in the liner notes of some other record. So you were going to listen to it five or ten times just to see if you got anything out of it. Of course, people now have the option of giving twenty seconds of attention to whatever on MySpace if they’re interested. This makes music more competitive.

I can appreciate that some things grew on me, but me as a sixteen year old music fan would have traded that reality for this one in a second. The ability to quickly check out so, so many things.

Oh, absolutely. I’m not complaining. I’m not a Luddite that hates the Internet.

Converge can pull these massive Taco Riffs out as a tool when they want to. But while there are some bands and maybe even genres that are just about huge riffs, it’s obviously not everything that your band is doing.

Sure. You’ll see a lot of bands who will write songs around just showcasing a riff they came up with. Our approach is the other way around – to write songs. While we grew up listening to and loving music that’s sometimes just a different bunch of parts strung together, that’s not what we do. If there’s a time when it’s right to put a riff like that into a song, we’ll do it. But we don’t have a song that’s just about a cool sounding guitar riff we came up with.

The context where stuff appears is what makes a guitar part great. There may be a melodic shift or a tempo change that signals that something’s coming. And those things that are going on around that part can bring it all together. At least, that’s the Slayer and Metallica approach.

I think that’s true, although that’s a different thing than a big dumb Taco Riff. I wrote previously about the Slint record Spiderland. The final riff on that record is devastating because of everything that’s led up to it. But if you just sit there and play it on guitar, it’s kind of boring.

You know, speaking of that genre of music, there was a band called Hoover that has a song called “Electrolux.” It’s the same kind of thing – the whole song is structured around playing this riff at the end of it. When I saw them play live, they started this song and someone broke a string. The guitarist and bassist just played the riff over and over for about five minutes while the problem was being fixed. And I remember being there and just getting lost in it. My sense of being at the show, time, space… all that was just gone and I was only aware of listening to that music. It was only when the second guitarist started in again that I suddenly realized “Oh, wait, I’m at a show.”

I love it when that happens.

Yup.

Converge’s latest LP – Axe to Fal … c’mon, you don’t need to read this to know what’s up with that record, do you? If you’re lucky, you may still be able to nab their 7” from this year at a record store. You can also hire Kurt to record your band by emailing godcity@aol.com and it will most likely sound incredible.

-JF

Justin Foley plays guitar and sings for the Austerity Program.  Their record Backsliders and Apostates Will Burn is out now.  Visit them online at www.austerityprogram.com.  All messages about urban bike riding, vegetarian BBQ and monetary policy will be answered first.

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