Punknews.org's run up to The Fest continues right here as our own Dante 3000 interviews Richmond, Virginia's The Riot Before. The band recently released their first full-length, Fists Buried in Pockets.
Can you give me a brief history of The Riot Before and how you got started?
The Riot Before kind of started in late 2003. It was a four-piece punk band that sounded more like NOFX than anything else. We played a few shows around Santa Barbara, all at parties actually, until I passive aggressively stopped the band by joining another (Fly By Night) as the singer. I had no part really in the writing of any of the Fly By Night songs and quickly realized that I couldn't be in a band unless the opposite was the case. So I recorded some of my own material acoustically and posted it online as The Riot Before in the fall of 2004.
A few months later Brian from Fall of the West offered to put out a record for me. I decided I wanted it to not be acoustic since I had plans of eventually forming a band, and so I enlisted my friend Steve, from Fly By Night, to play bass and drums on the first record, "Horseshoes and Hand Grenades." That was recorded a week after I graduated college in 2005 and was "released" that next September, which was also the same month I moved to Richmond. The next eight months were spent meeting people (I knew no one in Richmond) and trying to get a band together. By the next April the line-up was solidified with Garrett Berneche on guitar, Cory Manning on bass, and Freddy Clark on drums. We immediately set to work booking shows (the primary goal of the band was to tour as much as possible) and went about playing 150 in next year.
The next summer (2007) we released an EP, So Long the Lighthouse,, a split with our friends Broadway Calls, and toured a ton. The following February/March we went on a tour through the south which went really well until the very last night in Charlotte, NC, when our transmission broke and Garrett quit. That sucked. We already had studio time booked for May, and so we didn't have much time to find a new guitarist and for him to learn the songs plus write lead guitar parts for the new record. We immediately recruited Jon Greeley. Cory had known him for 10 years and played with in a band called Your Fellow Rebels which broke up about the time Cory joined TRB. Both Freddy and I knew Jon as well and he fit in well very quickly and wrote some great parts for the record, Fists Buried in Pockets, which was recorded in May of 2008. Fists was released in September. I'm writing this from our last day of our most recent tour and I'm pretty sure somewhere on this tour we played our 300th show. I didn't really feel like taking the time to count them up, so I could be wrong. That's the history so far.
Having gone from a solo act to a full band (and having revolving members), how has that impacted the sound of the band
I think the change in the sound of the band is pretty apparent (at least to me) if you listen to the records through. Having a steady band has put a firm foundation under the songs and they aren't as sporadic as they used to be. The songs are equally as dynamic but they now have a sort of "The Riot Before sound" that goes beyond just having my voice attached to it. It's more cohesive and, well, better. I now have three other people who I can consistently bounce songs ideas off of, and that helps a ton.
The biggest change in the sound outside of that was replacing Garrett with Jon. They have drastically different playing styles and, seeing as how the lead guitar is not a subtle part of the band's sound, this has definitely affected the overall sound of the band. Garrett came from a largely metal background and his style reflected this. Because my guitar playing is very basic, he brought a really cool contrast to the songs. Jon, on the other hand, has similar tastes as the rest of us and plays much more focused on melody than technicality. This, I think, also played a huge role in the way the new record sounds more unified than prior records. Not to take anything away from Garrett, he's a great guitarist, but I think Jon brought an ear and a style to our band that fits perfectly.
You mentioned moving from California to Virgina, what was the reason behind that and how has it worked out?
I moved to VA for a whole host of reasons. First off, it was far away from California and I knew no one that lived there. That fulfilled some personal qualifications for moving. I had changed a lot from 19 to 23 and felt like I needed to move someplace where I could figure out all that stuff without being around people who knew me at 19 and held me to that in a way, even if they didn't mean to. Also, hell, I was 23 and had never lived in any other state than California (except for a summer in Kentucky when I was a door to door salesman…long story), why not move somewhere, you know?
Santa Barbara is great but it's just too comfortable a place to live out your 20s. I don't think that's a decade of one's life that should be defined by comfort. I did know that I wanted to spend said decade trying to do the whole band thing, and so after I decided to move far away for personal reasons I tailored my choice towards what would be the best town to be a home base for a touring band. Richmond kept coming up as good because it had a very respected local scene, plus it was relatively cheap (at least much cheaper than Santa Barbara) and it was right in the middle of the east coast, so it'd be easy to tour from. That was really all I needed. I packed my car up and drove out there.
The overall experience has been very positive. I think it was the right place to go for the band, and I think it was good for me as well. Granted, the first six months were really, really tough. The band made no progress and I made almost none socially. I was pretty depressed. But things slowly got better and I really like Richmond now. It's not a place I want to stay forever, but I'm happy there now. I've met good people and it's a great second home, my primary one being in a van on the road of course.
The EP, So Long the Lighthouse, was put out by Quote Unquote records. How did you team up with Jeff Rosenstock and Quote Unquote?
We met Jeff for the first time when we played a basement show with him in Richmond. He was moving down to Athens at the time I think. We had never heard of each other's bands before the show, but were mutually impressed, so we kept in touch like touring musicians strategically do. A few months later he asked us if we wanted to release something on his label. We deliberated, then said yes. The rest is history?
Additionally, the So Long the Lighthouse EP was released on a few formats, 7", limited CD-R and free download via Quote Unquote Records. How did you decide to spread it out and did either Fall of the West or Quote Unquote have issue with you releasing it as both a 7" and a free download?
Since the Quote Unquote thing was exclusively available online, it was going to be a release that did nothing to help pay for gas when we were out on the road. Plus it wasn't tangible and I think tangible music is fun. We wanted to put out a 7" for a while and so we convinced Brian, from Fall of the West, that it was a great idea to do just that. We also wanted to release a CD version to sell on the road because a lot of people don't have record players and a lot less people don't have computers, and those six people in America deserved a chance to get our EP. Unfortunately, none of those people actually like our band, so we made the CD version limited to 200, numbered 'em, and put an exclusive song on 'em that I wrote in the shower one morning, appropriately titled, "Lather, Rinse, Repeat." This helped convince the computer and record player owning people that come to our shows to buy the CD. Those CDs have since sold in their entirety and now rest snugly under coffee mugs and half empty beer cans on coffee tables all across this great nation. The record got an exclusive song too.
All the exclusive songs made it easy to convince Jeff and Brian that it was a good idea to release the different versions, and, I think it worked well for both parties. I hope. At the end of the day we released three versions of the EP all with exclusive songs for two reasons: 1) it's kinda like the three different versions of Take Off Your Pants and Jacket so that makes us really punx, and 2) we are scheming capitalists with a thirsty van.
You recently made a statement in defense of record labels (or more apt, how the labels you've worked with have been beneficial). Why do you think it was important to make that statement and how do you feel about bands who seem vehemently opposed to labels?
I wrote that whole "blog" thing because I felt like there was no one really coming to the defense of record labels and the people that run them. I have met nothing but good people who run labels and it just seemed really strange that all of a sudden the whole scene or whatever was crucifying them. Granted, I've met no one that runs any sort of medium or big label, but medium and big labels were small at one point and all the small label runners that I know are good people, so I'll extend the assumption to the larger labels until personal experience proves me wrong.
There are a lot of ways to express one's passion for music that don't involve playing songs. I think that's a really good thing too because it's that diversity of expression that gives us cool venues, and zines, and websites, and record labels. It makes the whole scene possible. I really like the idea of record labels because I despise self-promotion and labels help put a distance between the art and the business. I'm really uncomfortable telling people to like my band. It just strikes me as insincere to exert all this time and thought and genuine emotion into a song and then run around telling everyone how great they should think I am. But I don't write songs to hide them either. And that's what I love about record labels and promotion companies and middle men in general. They help keep your hands clean and they make the process seem more pure too. After all, if a person at a record label is excited about a band and tries really hard to convince you to like that band, it's completely not threatening. It makes sense that said person is excited, but you still feel like you can choose to like or not like the band without hurting anyone's feelings. But if I come up to you and tell you about how great my band is, you can't really give me an honest opinion because the person who made the song is standing right in front of you, and the pushy sales thing cheapens the music I think. You take away labels and the only bands who will be heard are the ones who can put themselves on the highest pedestal. And you know who's really good at that? Crappy bands from the suburbs, who are bankrolled by their rich parents. There are enough of those already I think, and I personally don't want to make it easier for them. I made that statement because I wanted people to know that when they buy a CD or record they are supporting more than just the band. They are supporting people who support bands. They are supporting the separation of business and art.
I can't speak for those against labels. I'd get it wrong, I'm sure, if I tried. And maybe I'm the one who's wrong here, and if that's the case I hope they speak for themselves and that truth prevails as the strongest argument. But truth is a porous and multi-sided thing and I wouldn't be surprised if at the end of the day their convincing arguments convinced them and mine convinced me and, somehow, we were both right in a way.
On your last couple of releases you've donated portions to "These Numbers Have Faces." Why have you selected this particular organization and do you think you'll continue to work with them?
Selecting These Numbers as an organization to support and raise awareness for was easy because the founders are very good friends of mine. I had always wanted to work in one capacity or another with a non-profit and so when Justin told me he was starting his own, it was a no-brainer that his would be the one The Riot Before would team up with. But aside from friendship, I do truly believe in the cause--focusing on helping individuals in the midst of huge, often overwhelming statistics. I love that it's positive, that it's main mission is to fight for people and not against something, and that it isn't partisan or divisive, but instead works for the eradication of injustice in one individual life at a time. The organization's work is entirely hopeful, and it's goals are remarkably tangible and grounded, yet incredibly powerful at the same time. I plan on indefinitely supporting These Numbers Have Faces, and, well, I think others should as well.
I know you rerecorded "We are wild Stallions" and "Threat Level Midnight" for your new album, Fists Buried in Pockets, any particular reason for that?
Both those songs, more than any other we've recorded, just felt like they needed to be [on the album. "Fists Buried in Pockets", "Threat Level Midnight" contained themes lyrically that fit in perfectly with the feel of the record, and it was a line from the end of the song, "I'm burning down to build back," which was the inspiration for the artwork and that idea is pervasive through the record. Also, I wrote the song, "Fists Buried in Pockets," as an intro to "Threat…" and since we wanted to record the former, and it makes the most sense preceding the latter, we had a pretty easy time choosing to re-record the song.
As for "Stallions," we all just really like that song and felt that it should exist on a proper full-length record and not just a split 7". Plus its‚?? lyrics are still incredibly relevant to our lives and how we exist as a band, except that I don't lose my voice anymore. I got some voice lessons. It's great, I can actually talk to people after the show. I couldn't do that for our first five tours. Also, when Garrett quit the band and Jon joined, we made a conscious choice not to have Jon duplicate the riffs Garrett had played. Jon was in the band and I wanted his style of guitar playing to be represented on all the songs during our set. He wrote new parts for those songs, and because we play both those almost every night, I wanted to get his parts recorded so they wouldn't sound out of place when we played live.
I know you have mentioned religion in the So Long the Lighthouse EP and in "Fist Buried in Pockets" you sing, "I'm sick to my stomach with this deep fear of death/ That heaven's not coming, I've learned to accept". How has religion played a part in your life and has you view changed over the last few years?
Religion, more specifically Christianity, played a huge roll in my life. My parents are both ardent Christians and they see the world unceasingly through that lens. As a result, growing up I knew no other shade to my surroundings than the one colored by Christianity. The answer to most questions, when reduced down to their smallest most concentrated parts, was almost always, God. I embraced this entirely because, well, my parents were, and still are, good people, and I had no reason to even consider challenging their core belief, even if at times I disagreed with how it was articulated and acted upon.
I've never really been one for going through the motions, and since I was at church at least two days a week throughout my childhood, I engaged my surroundings. I never doubted the overarching veracity of the Bible, and diligently worked on its correct personal and nuanced application. By the time I was in high school I was leading Bible studies, teaching my peers, leading worship services, and I even prepared and gave a sermon once to three services of church. I met once a week for breakfast with my youth pastor just to talk about various things. I wasn't fanatical, just sincere. I didn't preach to my friends or hand out pamphlets on the street corner. It was just that I was completely immersed in a culture that eschewed negative capability, and so when everyone else appeared doubtless, I didn't think to doubt either.
What led to this all changing was when I went to college. I attended a Christian college that took seriously both faith and academics. As a result, the assumptions I had grown up surrounded by were called into question, and not by crazy Satan loving atheists whom I could write off, but by genuine believers who were also dedicated scholars and believed that one of the cornerstones of scholarship lay in the ability to asked informed and challenging questions. The assumptions I had once called my faith, were quickly dismantled, and my worldview was shaken. I was nearly a blank canvas, half clinging to my past, but also working towards a more informed and educated future. At the same time President Bush started talking about invading Iraq. It was the first time in my life I was able to look at a political event in a bubble of sorts (I was pretty evenly surrounded by those opposed and for the invasion) and after reading a lot and trying to learn as much as I could about the reasons for and against war, I concluded that the war was wrong, that the invasion was immoral, and that there was obviously a lot of deceit involved on the part of a so called Christian president who was a member of a party I was raised to believe was nearly infallible. But I saw all kinds of Christian people I respected blindly trusting him. And it made me wonder what other things they blindly trusted. I realized that if they could be currently wrong on Bush and the war, they could be wrong on other things too. All of a sudden, the once solid belief that I had inherited felt incredibly fragile and foreign, and I realized that it was going re-learn all the things I had been taught. It was as if I had had a spiritual stroke of sorts.
I could write almost endlessly about this subject because it has been the defining event of my early adulthood, but I'll end by saying that it took a few years after these first epiphanies to even begin to embrace the idea that maybe there wasn't a god at all. And I tried very hard for a long time to avoid that conclusion. But eventually I realized that's probably where all my diligent rebuilding would lead, and I knew that in order to get to that point, I couldn't be around people who knew me as a Christian and expected me to act like one. Hence, the moving to Virginia that I talked about earlier. The song "Words Written Over Coffee" is entirely about this un-conversion of sorts, and it probably won't be the last song I write on this issue. So I guess I'm an atheist now. And I'm really happy with it. But I don't think it's for everyone. I just think I have a disposition that favors extreme rationality and clings to the hope of a sort of potential knowableness to current unknowns, and adding god to the mix always just clogged everything up and made me confused and depressed. In the mean time I've been working really hard to not vilify Christianity, because I think there's a lot of good there, a whole lot truth in the teachings, it's just that I don't believe the story to be true anymore. I guess I'll end with that.
The track "Election Day" takes a fairly cynical look at America's election process. With America's current political climate, do you participate in the election process? Also, how would you recommend other people become active in ways beyond voting?
I wrote "Election Day" originally as a poem, on election day a few years ago when Virginia was electing a new governor. The whole process was pretty absurd, and there was this whole TV ad back and forth where the Republican candidate accused the Democrat of being against the death penalty, and then a counter ad of the Democrat promising to uphold it, and it made me totally sick to my stomach that whether or not someone promises to kill the already incarcerated is perceived as a significant issue. It's just so absurd that campaigns make all these tertiary issues into big debatable things, when significant issues are either not talked about or talked about in a way insulting to people brain's and the English language itself. It's a process that invigorates all those tired George Orwell references that I'd really like to not talk about anymore. I honestly hoped that this current presidential election would render a lot of the lyrics obsolete because, as far as politicians go, I had a decent amount of respect for both McCain and Obama. But they have recently rendered my fears invalid, McCain more-so but not exclusively, and the song is sadly as relevant as the day it was written.
I have no advice for political participation except that yelling in groups, be it for a candidate or against other candidates, seems really silly and pointless to me, except in extremely rare cases. I don't like groups of self-righteous people and I hate holding up signs with shallow interpretations of my complicated beliefs. I unenthusiastically vote. I see the current presidential choices like being forced to choose Taco Bell or McDonalds. Like, of course I'm going to get that crunchwrap supreme, it's pretty tolerable and way better than a crappy burger, but at the end of the day it's still fast food. It's still unhealthy and only palatable when covered with hot sauce. I'm not really sure how that hot sauce metaphor translates, but whatever. I am kinda hungry now.
Beyond voting, I think non-partisan and positive organizations, like the previously mentioned These Numbers Have Faces, are the way to go if you're looking to make a difference. Also, I think there's a lot of validity behind the idea that we're all good at something, that we all have certain abilities, and one of the best ways to contribute positively to the world around you is to do what you do best, and do it well, and do it justly. I mean, I'm horridly organized and pretty intimidated by the complicated politics of world suffering and issues of social justice. I shouldn't really run a political or social organization. It would be better for everyone if I stayed out of the way. But I am, if I can say so, pretty ok at writing songs. And my song-writing gets me in front of people regularly (tens of twelve‚??s of them mostly, but still, people). Organized political types don't really get audiences very often. So why don't I use my ability to get an audience to point said audience towards something I think is great that an organized, more political person is doing way better than I could do myself? It just makes sense. This sort of symbiotic relationship has devolved between my band and These Numbers and it has worked remarkably well. My playing in a band and making a thirty second speech most nights has probably done more to help people who need help than any personal effort to organize a community event would have. And it was effortless. So much so that I feel almost guilty. And, to top it all off, this idea that we should work for good within our areas of talent, is totally from the Bible. Underoath is stoked.