Modern Life is War

Deathwish hardcore act Modern Life is War has quickly risen to the top of the pile for fans of intelligent, passionate hardcore. Their last album,. Witness topped year end lists, coming in fifth for 2005 on our own year end summary.

Our friends at Define the Meaning recently spoke with the band, and allowed us to reprint the interview here. The interview comes from their second issue, which hits stands in August and also features chats with Lifetime, Ignite, 108, Modern Life is War, Shai Hulud, Ambitions, Blacklisted as well as author Beth Lahickly (of All Ages: Reflections on Straight Edge fame). Check it out.

Interview by: Rajon DTM
Photos by: Deathwish

How did you fall in love with Hardcore?

When I was in 8th grade it was way past my bedtime and I saw a video by Rancid for a song called Salvation on 120 minutes on MTV.

Back then I was playing sports and I wasn’t a total social reject or social outcast. But I didn’t feel like I found my place yet. There were certain things in that video that I connected with. For example, people in good neighborhoods can just throw away things that weren’t essential to them but were essential to life for other people. Like their garbage is somebody else’s treasure. Stuff like that hit me. There was a way those guys were acting and a way those guys looked. That made it seem like they weren’t a normal part of society. But for some reason it wasn’t a depressing thing.

Grunge was really depressing and self-loathing and I didn’t get a vibe like that from a band like Rancid. I really liked that kind of feeling, and I identified with it immediately

At that time grunge was a big thing. Grunge was really depressing and self-loathing and I didn’t get a vibe like that from a band like Rancid. I really liked that kind of feeling, and I identified with it immediately. I wasn’t able to express that feeling of course. All I knew was that I liked it, and I wanted to know what it was and get more in to it.

I started listening to punk rock.

So then I connected with some kids from a different town. They played in a band that was more melodic pop-punk. From going to their shows, I met kids that were like, "we’re hardcore kids, we listen to hardcore." They had their ears stretched and they were vegan, and that was a foreign world to me. I didn’t know what that was. They played the music that they were into for me and I hated it. They played me Earth Crisis, and I was like, "No, I don’t like metal music." They said, "No, it’s hardcore." But I just didn’t like it. I hated hardcore.

And just by chance, my aunt lives in Point Pleasant, NJ. So every time I visited, I would go to Vintage Vinyl in Fords, NJ. I would pick up seven inches that looked like punk seven inches and records. So I picked up Gorilla Biscuits "Start Today." And that was one of the first hardcore records I fell in love with. What I liked about it was that it was punk, but there wasn’t any posing. There wasn’t much nihilism, and there wasn’t that much emphasis on fashion. It was more about the lyrics and about the music and about the feeling that you got from it. And that’s what I really identified with because I came from a small town, and I came from a pretty normal working class family. I couldn’t really relate to having a seven foot tall mohawk and studded leather pants. So that was the music that really spoke to me. And that’s how I fell in love with it.

So once you got exposed to hardcore, where did you go from there? It really didn’t seem, from what you described, like there wasn’t much going on around your town.

Friends who I grew up with started this band and they said, "Do you want to sing for it?" At that point I was pretty much over playing with bands in my hometown. I had dreams like moving into a big city, getting involved with the scene, and doing something else. I just felt like my home town had nothing to offer me. The scene there pretty much died down since my friends and I who were putting on the shows moved off and started to grow up a little bit.

So I said, "I’ll do it, but I want to be in a hardcore band." My friends didn’t know exactly what I meant, because I was starting to get into Hardcore and they were all punk rock kids. So I made a mix tape and gave it to all of those guys. It probably had The Trouble, Gorilla Biscuits, Minor Threat, Black Flag, and In My Eyes. Once they heard it, they were like "Oh cool! We can probably do this!"

So we got together and started practicing. Our original goals were to put out a seven inch and to put out a real record. We’re not going to make a demo and we’re not going to ask record labels to put it out. We’re not going to find somebody to take us on tour. We’re going to save our money, we’re going to get second jobs if we need to, and we’re going to release our own seven inch, and we’re going to book our own tour, and put out a real record. And we said to ourselves, "if nothing happens by the end of the summer, who gives a shit, because we put out a real record and we went on a real tour."

Out of all of that shit we did growing up nothing really amounted to anything. We put on shows and we started our own band, and nothing happened. This was our one last shot to start our own band and put out a real record on vinyl. We put out our record and we went on tour out to the coast and that was it. I guess it just snowballed from there.

How were the early shows with MLIW for you? Did you play near your hometown, or did you just start booking shows for tour?

We just started booking the tour. This was around 2002. I think I sent out a hundred seven inches to book our first sixteen shows. I would try to find out about what shows were happening as early as possible, send the promoter a seven inch and a write up about the band. The write up said where we were from, where we are going, our goals, and a description of our seven inch. And for every show, we said we would open the show, we’ll play for fifteen minutes and you don’t have to pay us a dime. We didn’t have t-shirts to sell on the first tour. And we were in this rusted-out 70’s style dodge van that all of the bands from Marshalltown have used. All we wanted was to go on a tour and get out to the east coast and come back home and play shows in front of people.

We ended up on three shows with Champion. We played with What Feeds the Fire and Stay Gold in Connecticut. We also played with the Hope Conspiracy and Black Widows in Boston. We got on some incredible shows. I don’t know if it was just luck, but it was great.

Then some of those bands were saying, "Hey, you guys are actually doing something." By the time we got to the east coast on that tour, this guy from Martyr Records came to three of our shows and offered us a deal for our full length. We were surprised that someone actually wanted to pay money to put out a record for us. We thought it was hilarious, but we definitely wanted to do it.

We used to go to Jersey on tour and see this band from Waterloo, Iowa called Guilty As Charged, and they played with the ska band Mustard Plug, and Ensign. And to us, that was a hardcore show.

It’s been a real eye opening experience to go out on tour and we really learned that hardcore was all about being on the road, meeting kids face to face, and seeing bands. It was a real personal experience for me because it’s more of a novelty these days where everyone goes on the internet and kids get on My Space and get on message boards and everything’s so immediately accessible and everything’s not personal. It’s very easy.

Maybe we were one of the last bands that would get to do it like that. I’m just very grateful that we got that experience.

How were the crowds that you played in front of in this first tour?

A lot of shows we played weren’t hardcore shows. Some shows we played in front of almost no one. The only people there were the other bands playing that night. And they were indie-rock bands or pop-punk bands or metal bands. We would just play to whoever would watch us, whoever would want to see MLIW for 15 minutes.

And then we played with Champion in Detroit, and there were forty kids there. And we played in a town in upstate New York near Albany with The Promise and Champion and there were a little more than a hundred kids there. Connecticut had probably sixty. But honestly I think we played in front of decent crowds for our first tour.

Where’d you record your first record, My Love My Way?

We recorded our first seven inch in Iowa in a studio that usually records church choirs and elementary school choruses. We were happy with the recording but we wanted something more.

By the time we were ready to record our first record, we played with the Hope Conspiracy in Boston. We considered the Hope Conspiracy a band that sounded real pissed and real heavy and had a lot of guts and balls behind it. So we wanted something similar to their sound. So we went to Atomic Studios in Brooklyn because that’s where bands were going at that time. I think it came out alright.

We were all real nervous. We were saying, "Shit! We’re in New York City! We’re in a real recording studio. Someone’s putting money into our band." I think we were all apprehensive and nervous, but at the same time we all had this extreme drive.

How was it like supporting the first record?

It was real cool. We started to be a band that was cool to talk about. But we also thought that Hardcore was going to be this grand huge thing. But in reality, how many Hardcore kids actually live in each city in America? Not that many.

I wrote lyrics to that record and thought people were going to think I was crazy or won’t relate to it. But after My Love My Way came out kids were coming up to me saying, "You expressed how I feel, but I couldn’t put it into words." That’s when we realized that Hardcore is a real humble thing. There’s no stardom to get from it. It’s just going to be a lot of hard work because it really means a lot to the kids that really believe in it.

I wanted to sing about Skin Heads, dead punk rockers, and my hometown. And people need to understand how connected all of that is.

We toured for that record for almost two years and it was a real enlightening learning experience.

When did you decide to do the second record, Witness?

After we toured for My Love My Way we just wanted to do another one already. We knew there was so much more we could do. We started to get a keen ear for what we were doing. And we started to listen to a hundred bands a year from touring, and really started listening to what they were doing and really reading into their lyrics. We started talking and identifying that there is still so much more we haven’t tapped into yet. We knew that Martyr Records was good, but we knew we could still reach out to so many more kids.

Deathwish was a label we knew that was fiercely independent, yet still had a great aesthetic to it. They weren’t scared to sign bands that were a little more cutting edge or wrote a little more outside of things.

So we just contacted the label and asked them if they were interested in working with us. Immediately they got back to us and said they were definitely interested.

How was the recording process for Witness?

We recorded Witness over a year ago. We went to Chicago to record bass and drums. Then we went to Kurt Balou (guitar player for Converge) at God City in Salem, Massachusetts. We liked the God City recordings because there was a really raw, in-your-face sound about it, but we also noticed that the bass and drums weren’t standing out as much. We called Kurt and said we weren’t hearing that thumping backbone of the rhythm section, and he told us that in a small studio it’s really hard to get that big room sound. So he started listing off studios that he knew to do the drums and the bass, and we would come to him to finish off the rest. So we ended up going to Volume, which is like a big giant cement room in Chicago. We set up mics all over the room to record the drum and bass tracks, so that gave it the rhythm section that thumping in-your-face sound.

What do some of your lyrical content deal with in Witness?

A lot of stuff I wrote in our new record really reflected me going to shows when I was young. I remember stage-diving at shows where there were Skin Heads, and kicking around people in the chest, and this one guy wanting to kill me. I was sixteen, 130 pounds, and he was 215 pounds and angry. So these Skin Heads started to back me up and told him to take his shit some where else. Since then I have had a fascination with Skin Heads. That’s how I got to write about Martin Atchet, a fictional Skin Head guy from England in the late 70’s.

Then I write about this stupid goofball song like Dead Ramones, which is about how the Ramones symbolized the original American punks, and how they’re dying. It’s about how they all had a chance to live out their dreams, but their lives are over now. But then there are these misfit kids from Iowa who are sort of doing things in the same spirit to what they were doing.

I wanted to sing about Skin Heads, dead punk rockers, and my hometown. And people need to understand how connected all of that is. I wanted to make people understand that we gravitate to each other all for the same reasons, no matter what your hair is like or how you dress, we all have a lot in common.

You guys have been known in the press as very positive and very sincere compared to other bands in your genre. How do you address that?

I’ve never thought of our band as a posi band. I feel like a broken record when I say this in interviews, but because of our isolation from everything, I was relatively unaware about what we were supposed to be doing. All we can do is be ourselves and be very honest and play shows, and just see if anyone gave a rat’s ass about us. I always tried to be very hones in my lyrics. When we started to do this band, I was in college and I was in a panic, or almost frenzied state. I didn’t know what I was doing there. Higher education was disappointing me. I didn’t know how I was going to fit into this world and be a happy person.

I just always tried to write our lyrics very honestly, and I never believed in defeatism. I’ve never believed in "live fast, die young." Ever since I saw that Rancid video, I knew I was an outsider. Yet I knew there was so much to offer. I knew I could be a person of worth. That’s where I always wrote my lyrics from, and that’s where we stand today.

Do you consider yourself political?

My favorite bands have a way of saying how everything is connected in some way. I feel like politics are part of my life. To me, Congress in Washington and the Marshalltown police department affect my life in the same way. I understand how the US starting the war affects my life and the people I know and the people I love. I know where my tax dollars are going, but at the same time that’s personal. The way I relate to other people is kind of tied into politics. I think bands like Dillinger Four, the best punk band from the Midwest, and singer-writers like Bruce Springstein, Billy Bragg, and Bob Dylan understand that. For MLIW, I don’t feel we can be a political band, or we can be a personal band or a social band. I feel like we’re just a band, and I’m just a kid growing up and seeing things and putting it all together in my lyrics. I don’t feel like there are lines between those things in life. If you think there are lines between those things, that’s just ridiculous.

Are you happy where you are today in your band?

Yes, I’m very happy. Witness came out and I’m so proud of it. I thought we were going to lose a lot of our core fans when we wrote Witness because it’s a very different record. The music is very different. The lyrics are very different from most of contemporary Hardcore. It was very different from what we’ve done before from our seven inches and My Love My Way. But I haven’t yet heard of anyone who has dropped off and thought that Witness is crap. If anything, we’ve retained those people and more people have started listening to us from Witness. I’m thrilled, and I have been getting along with the other people in my band more than I ever have. I’m happier in my own life more than ever. I just can’t wait to see where things go.