Since their formation in the early '90s, Converge has been one of the most innovative and tremendous forces in the hardcore music scene. Though their blend of speedy hardcore punk and extreme spastic metal has advanced greatly over the years, the band has still managed to retain their signature intensity and raw sound. Their new album, Axe To Fall continues this progression and is a brutal follow up to their predecessor, No Heroes. Punknews contributor Matt Pagirsky recently sat down with Converge guitarist and music producer Kurt Ballou for an extensive discussion on everything from the new album, their own personal musical evolution, the hardcore scene and it's development over the past 20 or so years, as well as his take on the band being labeled as "this generation's Black Flag."
Your new album, Axe To Fall seems more technical than previous albums. What were your thoughts on the final product? Do you also see it as being a more technical or just a logical progression from your previous work?
Kurt Ballou: I think itâs both really. Itâs definitely more technical, not in all songs, but certain songs. Itâs part of that logical progression that within heavy music as time goes on, all the easy riffs have already been taken. As a band we always strive to innovate and not read ourselves too much. We tried to still maintain a sound that is the essence of Converge without putting out the same record over and over again. A lot of bands get kind of wrapped up in the so called "album cycle." They want to release an album every 18 months and they have a touring cycle they need to do because itâs their jobs. For us weâre not 100% dependent on Converge for income and we donât really treat this likeâ¦ well, I guess we kind of treat it like a job a little bit. But itâs something weâd be doing something regardless if we made money from it. Itâs a very cathartic thing for us and part of that is to always be pushing forward and always finding new ways to express ourselves. You canât write "Iron Man" today in 2009 because Black Sabbath already took that stuff. We need to write stuff that requires a little more thought and technical prowess. Itâs definitely the hardest record weâve ever had guitar wise and playing some of these new songs live itâs definitely difficult to move around because I have to focus on getting through the song.
Everyone in the band seems very technically proficient at their respective instruments. Did any of you guys ever have any formal training or was it something you picked up along the way and just messed around with?
Ballou: I never had guitar lessons. Nate never did either. Maybe he had one or two as a kid, but I never had any really. My dad played a little bit of guitar, he never really taught me anything, but he did give me a chord book. I had played saxophone and piano prior to it, so I sort of transferred my musical knowledge over to guitar. I think Ben was auditioning for music schools, but he never went. Weâre all just students of the artists we like who we spent listening to while we were younger and attempting to mimic what we heard on these records. When you do that you develop your ear a lot more than when you take lessons. Lessons seem to focus more on the dexterity of playing, whereas people who are self-taught have to use their ears more to decipher what theyâre hearing. I think you become a more observant player that way and you also start to learn how an ensemble interacts with each other. That being said, it also forces us to reinvent the wheel a lot. Thereâs a lot of things we couldâve learned that would have accelerated our musical growth. I donât think we did a truly good record till Jane Doe, which was in 2001 and weâve been around since 1991 so in my opinion that is ten years of sucking. In the end I think it was a blessing though because we were so stubborn, idealistic or lazy, the fact that we learned to play on our own so slowly it caused us all to develop our own style.
Iâve got to respectfully disagree; I really enjoy Petitioning The Empty Skyâ¦
Ballou: I think there are glimmers of good stuff in the first ten years, but thereâs nothing, thereâs no records that Iâm really proud of start to finish. There arenât any songs Iâm proud of start to finish. There are good riffs, but if I had them around today I feel I could focus them into a better song. Converge is challenging to listen to if youâre not familiar with the certain genre, but what Iâve learned to do over time is to take those inaccessible harsh sounds and put them into a more accessible song format. Not because weâre trying to be a pop band or anything. Like to me a song used to be like ten, fifteen or twenty riffs per song, but now thereâs only three or four that are assembled more in a verse chorus, bridge chorus kind of way. Even though theyâre weird riffs, they have a more memorable format.
It seems in general your recent albums have been more finely tuned packages (No Heroes, Jane Doe). You can definitely tell thereâs a major transition from album to album.
Ballou: Well we usually take a few years from record to record, because especially as weâve gotten older as peopleâ¦ when youâre 17 or 18 or whatever, youâre changing really fast. Over a course of 6 months you might become a different person. When youâre in your 30s like we are now, it takes a lot longer to evolve as a person and music is really a reflection of your own humanity. If youâre trying to put out a record every year in your 30s you as a person arenât really changing that much from year to year. So itâs not likely youâd have a lot new to offer musically if you put out records that frequently. We want to wait a few years between records and make sure every song on the record is the best song we could have written at a time and giving our listeners the most premium material we can offer.
The band has been embraced by a bunch of different scenes over the years, such as the hardcore scene and youâve always touched on the punk elements as well. Even lately you guys have gotten attention from some "indie rock" publications; BrooklynVegan and Pitchfork has given you guys a bunch of coverage. Do you think that crossover has been helpful in pushing the band to its current level of notoriety?
Ballou: I think we definitely walk a lot of fences as people and as musicians in terms of our own personal interests in music. Weâre certainly appreciative of a lot of different kinds of sounds. I also think that genre names are things for marketing people and journalists and not something a band should concern itself with. Itâs your job to report on music and you need a language that can convey in words what something sounds like, but a musician is not constrained by those words. A musician can make something sound like what it is. We donât feel the need to confine ourselves to a particular genre; we confine ourselves to stay within our own abilities, the large umbrella that is the Converge sound. Weâre not going to push it so far that weâre not going to be able to do strongly. The ethos that drives the band and the scene we all grew up in is definitely the hardcore scene. We identify ourselves as more of a hardcore band than anything else because thatâs the community where we come from and we cut our teeth and a lot of early show going experiences are from there. I feel like as people we can relate to hardcore kids a lot better than most other people. Even though we may be into metal or country or indie or whatever, I think because we were born out of the hardcore scene our first love is hardcore. Thereâs a certain way hardcore kids get each other and relate to each other that maybe lacking in other forms of music. We just feel more comfortable in those kinds of environments. Thereâs an ethos to hardcore I think we still embody in a lot of ways thatâs not understand outside of hardcore. Our approach is definitely hardcore, despite the fact that weâre not constantly involved in playing with hardcore bands.
The latest Pitchfork review that came out called you guys "this generationâs Black Flag." How do you personally feel about that label?
Ballou: I donât think we deserve that. Donât get me wrong - Black Flag is definitely one of the bandâs thatâs been inspiring us since weâre 13 years old. We definitely strive to be musical pioneers as best as we can, but they were genre pioneers. They were touring pioneers. That was the band that went out and did things that no other band even thought of doing. Like I was saying earlier about Black Sabbath, they are one of the few originators of hardcore. I donât see how we could ever be revered quite at that level as them. But I definitely appreciate the compliment. I think in 20 or 30 years people will still remember Black Flag a lot more than Converge. I hope people remember us, but I donât think any hardcore band will achieve that same level of reverence as Black Flag, Minor Threat and Bad Brains.
The whole hardcore genre really seems to have changed Iâm sure since you guys first started. I know you keep producing a lot of great bands within that scene. How do you feel about todayâs current status of hardcore?
Ballou: I think itâs better now than it was in the 90s. I think in the 90s thatâs when hardcore went suburban and the metal influence came in a lot. Obviously there was a metallic influence in the late 80s with Cro-Mags, and Slapshot and Judge and Leeway and all these crossover bands such as Suicidal Tendencies. I think the suburban kids such as ourselves, we had that kind of hardcore influence from going to shows, but we were also the first generation that had MTV and Headbangers Ball. So weâd go to see Slapshot on the weekend or Bad Brains or whoever and come home and watch Headbangers Ball and see Slayer and Metallica. I think the 90s there was a lot of early attempts at fusing those things and a lot of it was really cheesy. A lot of that moshcore stuff that came out of the 90s was really bad. Thereâs always going to be bad music, thereâs a lot of god awful terrible music now, thereâs a lot of god awful terrible music from the 80s, but I think with time a lot of the bad stuff gets forgotten about and the good stuff gets remembered so I think certain time periods get revered more than others.
Then in the 90s you also had these hardcore kids from suburbiaâ¦. like in the Black Flag era there were a lot kids who had no other choice but to be hardcore kids. Theyâre urban kids, theyâre runaways, theyâre from broken homes, theyâre people that are suffering and desperately needed an outlet. It had nothing to do with fashion or anything like that. Thereâs definitely some posturing going on, but it wasnât a fashionable thing, it was dangerous and itâs just what these people were coming to do. Thatâs not to say affluence precludes any kind of suffering, but itâs a different kind of suffering that happens among suburban and upper middle class kids which is where hardcore starts to move in the 90s. So you have this new thing that starts to happen in the 90s called emocore, which is driven by people that donât have such a dangerous life. Itâs the classic suburban depression, kids who otherwise would have been into The Smiths or The Cure or even The Red House Painters and then started to form this more tempered music. When that term was coined, they were referring more to the D.C. scene, which is more like the intellectual side. There are a lot of politics in D.C. so you have a lot of politicians, lobbyists and other businesses in the area so you have a lot of intelligent people in the area who are having intelligent kids. So these kids are thinking more outwardly and more politically. So you have the Revolution Summer and the birth of Rites of Spring and later Fugazi and Moss Icon and these other kind of bands. All that stuff gets filtered of this kid who knows about hardcore and the metal theyâre playing on MTV and the result is the 90s screamo, sweater vest, horn rimmed glasses sort of scene and so little of that stuff was any good. And between that stuff sucking really bad and that early metallic stuff sucking really bad I think it took a really long time to flush itself out and become itâs own thing than being a poorly played derivation of a lot of other things. Now that I think that evolution has happened itâs refined and itâs a higher caliber than it was in the 90s.
Another big difference in how the music has changed since when we started is the business. Thereâs this constant access to music that we didnât have back then. Itâs not really better or worse, itâs just different. We used to buy 7 inches and we used to take it and send it to your friend or your pen pal and youâd have to recycle your postage because thereâs no email yet or downloading so local scenes would develop a lot stronger. Bands from Boston tended to sound like each other because bands wouldnât go on tour very frequently so youâd end up playing with the same bands a lot and influencing each other more than bands across the country. So thereâs this Boston sound, this L.A. sound, this New York sound. But then downloading and MySpace starts coming up and it dilutes the local scene identity and it makes music a lot more competitive in all genres of music. Thereâs so much out there and thereâs so much access to it so only the music that requires the shortest attention span that people will pay attention to. So if something doesnât have a great recording or a hook right away itâs really easy to dismiss it and move on to something else. It used to be like I would go to the record store and buy a few CDs or records or tapes and even if I donât like it that much, I donât have that much music in my collection so I spend a lot of time with each record and getting to know it and it might rub off on me and I get to understand it. That kind of thing doesnât really happen anymore so itâs a really different environment. Touring has become the same way as the scene has grown and people are able to make money touring. Everything has become a lot more lowest common denominator with regards to the tours that you do and the music that you write because people are thinking about their careers more than about expressing themselves. The fans support that mentality through their buying practices.
In a sense itâs interesting though, itâs almost a testament to you guys in a way because I think nowadays even though some people have short attention spans there are people who really want to discover bands and listen to the records over and over and get to great quality music. Even though thereâs so much access, really great music will end up prevailing and rise to the top.
Ballou: I also think we have a certain degree of insulation from that because we came up before that current environment of music and I think if Converge started today or five years ago we might not be in the same position we are now because weâd have to go through all that competition. I think some of that people can put it aside and check out what weâre doing because weâve been around a while now.
Youâve been on Epitaph for three albums now, howâs your relationship with the label grown over the years? Will there be any future material through them?
Ballou: Well this is the last record in our contract so weâd have to negotiate something new but we feel a kindred spirit with those who work there. Theyâre a really big label, but theyâre still an independent label so ethically we stand behind what they do. A lot of people seem to have the mentality that a label makes the band, but thatâs not the case for us or how they work. They just empower us to do what we do. They donât ever tell us to put out a record or go on this tour or do this album cover or T-shirt design or anything like that. They are completely hands off with our scheduling and our artistic decision-making. Thereâs always a little discussion, but theyâre just there to back us up.
Youâre currently on tour with Dethlok, Mastodon and High on Fire. Any chances of a headlining tour in the near future?
Ballou: We have some international plans after this tour and then in the spring weâll probably do a U.S. headlining tour. Weâre just trying to put together a good package and at this point in our lives trying to avoid winter and U.S. summer touring. Summer tours are really competitive and winter tour is just dangerous and you get sick so weâd mostly be doing spring or fall type stuff.
Youâre still producing some records in the spare time. What are some records that people should be looking forward to?
Ballou: I did the new Trap Them record a few months ago. This year the Converge record really soaked up a lot of my time. People ask me this question all the time and I draw a blank. This band Black Breath on Southern Lord, Iâm really excited about that. And my friend Todd has a new band called Nails. He used to be in Terror and Carry On and Blacklisted, but now he has this band Nails that heâs singing and playing guitar in and Iâm recording them at the end of the year.
Thank you so much for your time.