I had a chance to exchange some emails with guitarist Justin Lee Brannan about the band, Africa, Merciless and their successful label.
1. Can you introduce yourself and tell us what you do in the band?
Justin Lee Brannan, I play guitar and fall asleep at the wheel. I also blast Bright Eyes in the van to annoy Rachel.
Pushing the limits is the very foundation of hardcore and punk. There is something very wrong with a kid walking through a mall with a mohawk, dressed like a punk and no one even giving him so much as a sideways glance. This culture has become innocuous and homogenized. Even the duck on the Bubble Yum gum wrapper has a nose ring and a choker chain!2. The new album is really solid and you guys seem to be trying some new things with it. Can you tell me a bit about what motivated that? (electronics, clean vocals, etc.)
After being in a band for over ten years it really becomes more important than ever to be creating music for yourself before anything else. I always find it odd when bands say they can never listen to their own recordings. Our thought is to create music we would truly love listening to; we want to be IN our favourite band. If you aren't writing music for yourself, you're lost. So we're unafraid to try new things because we know what our limits are and we decide what "going too far" would be, whatever we're not comfortable with. So with this record we really wanted to get comfortable and try some new ideas but at the same time keep it subtle.
We weren't going to come out with a techno album... yet. We had clean vocals on the first MPB record so that was nothing new, the electronic stuff was something we're all into that we finally decided to try to integrate. We all listen to such a crazy amount of random stuff, so many different styles, so it was an interesting challenge to try to seamlessly inject that stuff into our sound without sounding like we were trying too hard. But in our van you'll hear us spinning everything from Aphex Twin to Emmy Lou Harris so trying new things is what we're all about. This, coming from a band thats in our hotel room after a show glued to CNN while other bands are in the hallway putting M-80's in the ice machine. Ok, well maybe once and a while we'll blow up an ice machine but just for old times sake and we blame it on Rachel.
3. Controversy seems to go hand-in-hand with the band's artwork and Lyrical content. Do you set out to push the limits in that way?
Pushing the limits is the very foundation of hardcore and punk. There is something very wrong with a kid walking through a mall with a mohawk, dressed like a punk and no one even giving him so much as a sideways glance. This culture has become innocuous and homogenized. Even the duck on the Bubble Yum gum wrapper has a nose ring and a choker chain! That being said, nothing is premeditated. We design the covers and send them to the label. What happens after that is unpredictable. When they came back to us and said "this cover isn't going to fly" it was deja-vu.
I think controversy is positive and constructive and it gets people talking but we just do what we do and if people freak out about it, then we just deal with what comes. I read some stuff where people thought we were rubbing our chins and cooking up these covers with sole purpose of creating controversy and thats really not the case. Thats insulting really; contrived and cheap. To us the virgin mary with a timebomb across her womb is making a statement, we don't see it as some sacrilegious abomination. Same goes for the corpse on the cover of the new record. We're attempting to translate the vibe of the record with an instant visual, the first thing you see when pick up the record. If we've learned anything from all the cover controversy its that obscenity, not unlike beauty, is truly in the eye of the beholder. What one thinks is a beautiful work of art another thinks is the work of the antichrist.
"If everyone loves what you're doing, you're doing something wrong".
Hardcore and punk is not just a fashion, a ripped shirt and a studded belt.5. You guys recently visited South Africa which must have been quite an experience. How did you end up booking shows there and what was it like?
South Africa was wild, quite literally. As soon as we landed police seized our guitars because they thought they were guns. Two hours later I explained we were a band and they let us go. The juxtaposition of lawlessness and cradle-of-mankind beauty is really insane. One night we witnessed an armed robbery, the next morning we were on safari hanging out with rhinos and elephants. The shows were awesome and the kids were really cool to us. They kept telling us they couldn't believe we there and we were like "TELL ME ABOUT IT!".
We never thought we'd make it to Africa!! Having kids singing along to songs we wrote in Brooklyn in Africa was really humbling. It was cool because we were the first U.S. hardcore band to ever play there. Trailblazing is hard these days because if Fugazi or Sick Of It All haven't been there then Good Clean Fun has. We'd finally found a place no one had been to. It was an amazing experience and I hope we can go return sometime.
6. How does songwriting work in the band?
We did this record a lot differently. Our drummer, Colin, lives in DC so he'd come up for a few weeks and we'd jam and get ideas together. Then he'd go back home and demo the drums and send them to me over the world wide web Internet superhighway. Rachel and I would then lay down the guitars and ship that off to Rob who would start writing some rhymes. It worked out great, none of us had to be in the same room, ever. In fact, I didn't see our bass player, Matt, until the record was out.
7. Hardcore has changed a lot since it's beginnings in the early 80s; what keeps listening and playing it fresh for you?
Just when I feel like we have nothing in common anymore with the people that are into our band, we play a show and kids start screaming the words back into our face and thats when it all makes sense again and its all worth it. Its hard to keep things pure when it becomes such a business and being in a band becomes your job. Other bands are falling over themselves worrying about scanning units and moving product, theres so much competition and hand-in-glove politics, we try to make sure we're still having fun so we're inspired to keep doing this. As time goes by your ambition changes and you have to be careful you don't become greedy and lose sight of yourself. You have to remind yourself why you started a band in the first place and keep yourself in check or else it will get old and stale and ugly.
So many bands are caught up in this rock n' roll fantasy and its really sad. We usually just talk to Sick Of It All and we're good to go for another year. That band is inspiration.
8. "Merciless" s your third for Trustkill; how did you end up working with Josh and how has the experience been? Do you guys think you'll stick with the label after your contract finishes?
We've been with TK for a while now and we've grown together so thats exciting. We're a hardcore band so we don't have any major label fantasies. All we need is someone to manufacture our CD's and make them available to whoever wants them. We're pretty self-sufficient. TK works hard for their bands and thats all you can ask. Everyone needs to be on the same page to make things work. Unless another label comes along and offers to buy me a lifetime supply of dog food I think we'll stick with TK.
9. You guys have been publicly involved with PETA2, an organization with some admirable goals but that has received some criticism for some of their methods. What motivated you to get involved and stay involved with them?
The unfortunate thing about stores like Hot Topic is that they sell everything you need to dress the part but theres nothing there to feed your mind. Hardcore and punk is not just a fashion, a ripped shirt and a studded belt. Animal rights and vegetarianism/veganism is something we all discovered through hardcore and punk. Same goes for straightedge and all the other ideals that are so critical to making this a constructive subculture. Sadly most of these values, ethics and ideas have been replaced by a vapid quasi-counterculture of fashion victims with no concern for where it originated.
Trailblazing is hard these days because if Fugazi or Sick Of It All haven't been there then Good Clean Fun has.I always felt for hardcore punk the message was just as important as the music. The music was desperate and dangerous, there was an exchange of atypical ideas, it was truly the antithesis to the norm. Being a punk wasn't accepted and the scene and the shows became a safe haven for misfits. Its tragic because hardcore/punk has never been bigger than it is now, we've never had such a platform before but now that we've got it, most bands don't know what to do with it, or just don't care. Its like all these years we've been screaming for a change and screaming to have a voice, now we've been handed the chance to speak our minds while the whole world listens and no one is saying anything.
But you can't blame younger kids for not knowing because theres no one telling them about it. Theres nothing in Hot Topic about where this style came from. You can buy a Dead Kennedys shirt but you have no idea what they sing about. So for us carrying the torch for animal rights and vegetarianism is imperative because its something we were exposed to thanks to this subculture and we need to tell more people about it. Its something that goes beyond the music and into your mind. Something practical and life-changing you can take away with you from the scene and put into action in your life. Its not just a mosh part for everyone, some people are looking for more than a social circus.
I don't agree with everything PETA does but they do a lot more positive than negative so we back them 100% and think its important that they are around and exposing new kids to these realities. We've never been for shoving ideas down your throat, minds don't truly change through force. We like to lay it out there and let you decide how you feel about it. Thats the main point, we don't have an agenda, we're not a cult, we just want the facts to be available and subject for constructive discussion. But sometimes you have to drive a car off a bridge to get peoples attention when they are oblivious.
10. What bands do you love touring with? What have been your less-than-memorable touring experiences?
I'll tour with Sick Of It All anytime. We've had a myriad less-than-memorable experiences over the years, the one that comes to mind right now is being stripped searched in Austria back in 1997 with Indecision. It was horrifying, not because a guy with a glove was probing you but because you really felt alone and like anything could happen, they could do whatever they wanted to you or pin something on you if they wanted and it would be your word against theirs. I imagine thats what everyday felt like for bands like Black Flag when touring was still the first frontier.
11. What were you guys listening to while you were writing and recording the album?
Muse "Absolution" and Damnation A.D. "Kingdom of Lost Souls".
12. This might be a little older since you've already finished two records with him, but how did you hook up with Rob Fusco? I know I was thrilled to hear him singing again because I was a huge fan of One King Down.
Rachel and I met Rob in Albany back in the Indecision days. One King Down and Indecision played together quite a bit back then and we always stayed in touch. At the time we were parting ways with Tom someone suggested Rob and we started talking and that was that. He was looking for a new serious project and it just came together at the right time. It was very seamless, there wasn't much time for transition. I think we left on tour about 2 weeks after we tried Rob out.
13. What was the band/performance that made you want to start your own band?
There must have been something subconscious when I was really young because I was musical at an early age and always surrounded by great music growing up. I always knew I wanted to play in a band someday but I think when I bought "Scum" by Napalm Death was when I really felt it was attainable. I was into Black Flag and Guns N' Roses and all that but there were no pictures of Black Flag on the "Damaged" record and Guns N' Roses were these larger than life comic book characters so seeing the band photo of Napalm Death was really inspiring. I remember thinking "what the fuck, these guys aren't much older than me and they have a record out?!" and thats when it really clicked for me. I realised that anyone could do a band and that was all the inspiration I needed.