In August 1999, Seattle hardcore band Trial released Are These Our Lives?, an absolutely brilliant, passionate and essential modern hardcore record. Unfortunately, the band broke up the following year leaving tons of fans disappointed. Trial have been playing shows again sporadically since 2005 and will perform a bunch of dates in November throughout North America. Punknews staff writer Alexis Charlebois sent frontman Greg Bennick a few questions by e-mail and some amazing answers came back. Greg Bennick seems to be all about communication. And that's pretty cool in our book.
What are you up to these days? What keeps you busy outside of TRIAL?
First off…thanks for the interview. I am always honored when people are willing to take/waste seconds out of their life to ask questions of me. Outside of Trial, I am busy writing lyrics for the Between Earth & Sky LP that will be recorded in Canada in early 2013. Our EP on Refuse Records in Europe has done really well and I am excited to get into the studio and record some new music.
I also have been speaking a lot recently too. This summer, I did one tour themed to the Trial song "Unrestrained," which asks us to take our passion outside of the shows and music venues and into the world that needs it most. The second tour was about the Trial song "Reflections," which identifies that we each have limited time alive in the world and explores how we yearn for more life, more experience, more love/lust/passion/hope, yet are ultimately on our way to death all the while. It is the inevitability: the human condition of being blessed and cursed all at once with life and the ability to reason. We love life, we can imagine death, and that conflict kills our hearts. What we do in the midst of that tangle is the real question as we navigate wanting more life and knowing all along that it all ends in tears. Aside from navigating that conundrum, I also have been working hard on One Hundred For Haiti which is the non-profit organization I founded to do development work in Haiti. The 100FH team has a lot going on, focusing on job creation and sustainable programs for people rather than just relief efforts. Relief efforts were perfect for the time after the quake. Now we are focusing on empowering and enabling people to build better lives for themselves rather than to rely on handouts. Its going really well, but we are always looking for donations and support: people can donate even $1 or $5 a month on a recurring basis and all that support will be used for great projects. Other than all of those projects, I eat food often, sleep rarely, and text constantly.
Trial played some shows here and there in the last few years. This time you‚??re going to play 15 shows in 2 weeks. Is that any indication that you plan on investing more time in the band in the future?
I'd love to. At this point, in this last year, we have toured more than we did when we were together in the 90s. That's ironic, because people ask me all the time if we are going to be "a real band" again. Given that we tour more now than ever, I have to wonder what that means? Are we only a real band if we post "we are a real band" on Facebook? Regardless, I'd love to play more shows. I want to play in places where we've not played in the past like Australia, South America, Japan, Asia and go back to Europe as well. I'd also love to have a couple new songs. Never a new full-length, but just one or two songs, to play live just to throw something new into the set.
What led to the hiatus a couple of years after the release of Are These Our Lives?
The band dissolved due to disagreements among us. Like any other breakup, band or relationship, it just happens after a while. We each saw the future of the band differently. We also were a bit disillusioned about the album and how it wasn't really ever released. It had been put out on a label that didn't understand the record, and was focused more on profit than on the message at the time, the evidence of this being shortly after the record came out, that label started releasing copies of the record without lyrics in the insert. The good news is that lyrics are easily found online, so a stolen copy of that record can still yield lyrical content. Ultimately, if outlets selling that version lose money on it when they order it, they will stop ordering it. The official release is on Panic Records and it has the lyrics and liner notes. The profit margin on the Panic release is extremely low in order to inspire people to pick up a legitimate copy of the record.
What does hardcore mean to you today? Is it a "movement‚??‚?? that aged well?
It is a movement, certainly; a movement of passionate people with different aims, focused on very few things in common across the board, but it certainly has aged well. It has gone through transitions over the years, cycles really, from a time when politics was the most important thing, to a time when eyeliner was the most important thing, to a time when not being political was the focus of the moment. But through it all there is an indescribable through line that has held scenes and bands and shows together over the years. I love when hardcore has a combination of a message and passion, when people are willing to take risks in their lives and in the world on behalf of others, inspired by what they've found in the hardcore scene. That's what I get most drawn to. That is something that has never faded completely from hardcore.
What was your first introduction to hardcore/punk? First show you attended and some memories about it?
My first introduction to hardcore/punk came from a kid named Chris who lived up the street from me when I was growing up. He had climbed onto the roof of his parents' house and installed some crazy antenna so he could hear radio stations from NYC. He came over to my house with all these recorded cassettes of hardcore and punk rock and hip hop. I had never heard anything like it before. I had grown up on pop music and then had shifted over to metal, and I thought that hardcore/punk was terrible. It was a mess of sounds and screaming, it made no sense to me and I loved its chaos and hated its noise equally. I started exploring more of it anyway, and found some bands I liked, then some local record stores which sold records by those bands, and then started going to shows in Connecticut. My first show was H√ľsker Du in 1987 or so. They were incredible. Before the show, my friend and I were walking in back of the stage and Bob Mould and Grant Hart from the band were getting a drink of water from a fountain. My friend called out to them and said "Welcome to Connecticut‚?¶just don't drink the water" and they both laughed. It was a surreal moment for me. Ratt didn't respond when I yelled out at their shows. Tommy Lee never laughed at anything I said when he was inverted during the drum solo on the Motley Crue Theatre of Pain tour. But these punk guys did. It was a huge revelation for me. This was music that was accessible and real. I had to see more of it. The next month, Ramones were playing an hour away. I had to go see the show. To get in, you needed to be 17 but I was only 16, so I asked my mom to forge a fake birth certificate for me and she did. She took my regular birth certificate, made a copy, and then we used white-out on the date, and made me older than I was, copied that, and then sent me to the show along with it as my fake ID. Coolest mom ever, FYI. When I got to the show, there were all these older punks in leather jackets who had come up from NYC and I was totally outclassed. I was just some idiot kid from Connecticut way out of my league. I waited in line with everyone else. When I got to the door, this huge security guy asked for my ID. I gave him the fake birth certificate. He unfolded it saying, "What the fuck is this…a note from your mom?" Oh the irony. He looked at it for a moment, tossed it back to me and said, "Whatever…go in." And so I did. And I saw The Ramones. And it ruled.
Is Trial still a straight edge band? If so, what‚??s the biggest difference between being straight edge today compared to being edge at 20?
It all depends on the drummer. We have had a problem with consistency of drummers in the last few years. We love playing with Alexei because he is the greatest drummer in the world, and while he isn't straight edge, that is a small price to pay for his brilliance. Nick Platter plays for us from time to time too, and while he isn't straight edge anymore either, my feeling is that I would rather be able to play the catalog of songs we have than to dissolve the band over that issue. Jason Shrout played for us on our west coast 2012 tour and he is as straight as the line that you sniff up your nose. For me, Trial was always a political/passion driven band first and a straight edge band second. I am straight edge. I don't even drink caffeine, but then again who would, because caffeine is not straight edge. Timm is still straight edge. EJ is the most straight edge person who has ever lived. Roger is too. And playing the songs for us is the most important thing, even if our drummers range from xedgex to respectful but not edge.
What do you consider being the most dangerous show you ever attended or played?
The most dangerous show I ever attended was either Agnostic Front in 1988 at the Anthrax - just a total maelstrom of skinheads - or Cro-Mags in Seattle in 2009. The Cro-Mags started playing and I was almost unconscious literally 30 seconds later. Tons of fights. Chaos everywhere. In terms of played…dangerous personally? Or dangerous as a band? I would say the most dangerous personally was the night in Cleveland in 1997 when my forehead and the headstock on Timm's guitar connected during a song at about a trillion miles per hour and my head exploded with blood and gore. A tie for that one, in a different way was the night we played in Philadelphia with a band who had a member who had offended Floorpunch somehow. My cousin came to see the show. She had never been to a hardcore show before. After we played, she wanted to see our tour van. I took her to see it and suddenly that band member came rushing into the van hyperventilating and crying and slammed the door behind him and locked all the doors. The guys from Floorpunch showed up outside the van to beat him up, demanding that he come out of the van. And there I was inside the van too, with my orthodox Jewish cousin, trying to explain to her as she sat there shocked and terrified about the dudes in varsity jackets pounding on the van windows that this wasn't what hardcore was like all the time. Good times. They eventually went away and the band guy escaped into the night. Dear Floorpunch, you owe me an apology for including my cousin in this craziness. You may write me a hand written letter anytime.
Are These Our Lives? is considered an essential ‚??‚??modern‚??‚?? hardcore album by many. When you look back at it what do you think of it musically and lyrically? Do you listen to it yourself from time to time? In what kind of mindset were you when you wrote the lyrics for that record? What was the overall mood of the band when you wrote/recorded it?
I listen to the record all the time, and I am still totally happy with it musically and lyrically. If I could write it exactly the same way today, I would, with only one exception. As I explained in the liner notes, in the song "One Step Away" I say that cultural norms are "functionless forms." That isn't true. They serve a critical function. Cultural norms are the result of our collective striving to find a sense of psychological equanimity in an unsure and overwhelmingly painful world. Without cultural norms, we would lose our minds. We are social creatures, we need one another to survive and culture is one way that we manifest that need. We define ourselves through our norms via culture. So I always invite people to sing the words "functioning forms" instead. Other than that one change, I think the record is really great to this day and it‚??s doing lyrically what I intended it to do: stand the test of time. I was obsessed when I was working on the album. I would spend days staring at walls, thinking of words, considering lyrical options. Not just days. Months, years. It was my complete obsession. The band barely existed when we wrote the record. We had three members give up on the writing process and quit while we were working on it and Timm and I crafted it all together from what had been sketched out with those members still in the band. Once we were ready to think about recording, we got Brian Redman (RIP) to play bass and invited Alexei who was still in Catharsis at the time to come out to Seattle and play drums. He learned the entire record in about three days and recorded in a day and a half. The second we listened to the recordings, I knew we had created something lasting.
In the booklet of Are These Our Lives? there‚??s a book quotation before every song. Did these quotations inspire the songs in any way, or was it more of a way to get some people to discover these authors?
They were all quotes inspired by the songs, meaning that I wrote lyrics and the ideas in the songs made these quotes jump out at me when I read them later. Some came at different points of the writing process, but they were all inspired from the songs, not the other way around.
Some of these authors are well known anarchists. Do you consider yourself an anarchist? Do you consider today‚??s anarchist movement in the USA to be a significant one like it used to be in the early 1900s?
I am not much of a historian like other people might be, but it certainly seems that political mindsets and movement-driven initiatives are quite significant these days. I can't say how this compares in terms of numbers to the early 1900s but from what I have read, the thread of disillusionment and feeling that there are better alternatives than misrepresentation is obviously still intact, especially after Mitt Romney's recorded comments about how the poor of America are needy and feeding off the system, and just a general sense that government serves itself and not the people. I think that asking anyone if he/she is an anarchist given the ways that such people are targeted today whether or not they have any real political motivations is unfair. Everyone strives for a degree of personal liberty. Some work actively to insure that this is available to everyone. I personally feel the individual freedom along with the ability to determine one's own destiny (as best anyone can do in attempting such a silly thing as to guide the unknown) in conjunction with social awareness and supporting others to live to their fullest as well without oppression is extremely important.
Last mindblowing book you read? White Noise by Don DeLillo. It‚??s an account of the clutter that fills our minds and our lives as we wait to die. It is told in this story-form rather than being literal and the style is really sharp, unique, and creative. It‚??s reminiscent of The Journal of Albion Moonlight by Kenneth Patchen, which was for a long time my very favorite book. I used to tell people about it in interviews for years and years and one guy came up to me three years ago and told me he'd read it as a result of reading about it in one of my interviews. I think I high-fived him.
Most influential record: Cro-Mags‚?? Age of Quarrel or Judge‚??s Bringin‚?? It Down?
Easily the Cro-Mags. The influence of the Judge record was in its production. No one had ever heard a hardcore record so "produced" before in terms of its heaviness and sounding like a metal record. And the songs are great. But in terms of inspiration for bands, scene building, creating of an identity for hardcore itself, the Cro-Mags record is limitless. Judge was built on the foundation laid down by the Cro-Mags, by Agnostic Front, and by the early NYHC bands who had come before them. While we are somewhat on the topic of Judge, anyone who likes them, is interested in them, or curious about what happened to them, must read the Mike Judge interviews in the new issue of Rumpshaker fanzine from NYC. Seek it out on the web, or write me and I will tell you where to find it. Whatever the zine costs‚??it‚??s huge and might be $10‚??it‚??s totally worth it. But yes, my answer is Cro-Mags Age of Quarrel.
How does hardcore have an impact on the person you are right now? What values did you discover through hardcore that you still cherish today?
This is a great question. Brian Peterson, who wrote Burning Fight, and I have been writing a book about this very topic for a couple years now. Hardcore taught me about immediacy, community, communication, integrity, passion, intensity, artistic process, and about being spontaneous. I have elements of each of those things in my life every day and I can trace a lot of that back to hardcore.
In ‚??97 you released Through the Darkest Days on CrimethInc. How was it to work with them and how did you hooked up with them? Were you involved with that movement back then? How was the experience?
Working with CrimethInc. was great. Brian and I have been friends forever since then and it all started with them asking to release our record, having heard our demo. They were attracted to the ideas and music combined in the demo songs, and wrote to us out of nowhere. We definitely spread the idea of personal liberty and social responsibility back then (as we do now), and got the word out about publications and books that were circulating around that time. It was exciting to watch it all build from one guy in his apartment making zines to a zillion people connecting and sharing ideas. Bunch of lunatics if you ask me, but they would say the same. I love them.
Just a little nerdy/technical question: How come is the Are These Our Lives? LP re-issue not on Equal Vision Records?
Equal Vision Records is not authorized to put out the record because they are not our record label. Their priorities for that record were never in line with ours. Their only comment to us when the record came out was, "We could go to radio with this!" That says it all. Radio. A format built for and around sales, not ideas. They never really advertised the record, and then they took the lyrics out of the version they continue to sell. I would be surprised if they ever listened to it at all beyond one pass through. It‚??s best for us to stick with a label in line with the priorities we value, and that is why the only authorized version of the album is on Panic Records. A hardcore label. Rock on!
In 2003, your award-winning documentary Flight From Death came out. Do you remember the first time you had the idea to do this documentary? Was it a reaction to the fact that you were/are uncomfortable with the undeniable fact that one day you‚??re going to die?
The original idea for the film came from Patrick with whom I worked on the making of the film. My original choice was to involve myself with this research and also the film was inspired, in part, because of my own anxiety about mortality, but also because I really wanted to help any effort to get to the core of why humans behave the way they do specifically in regards to violence. We live in a seemingly increasing violent world and figuring out why it starts, with an exploration into human psychology before it does with an exploration into economics or politics, [is important] in my opinion.
How is the One Hundred for Haiti project doing?
One Hundred For Haiti is going great. Thanks for asking! We just decided to buy some bicycles for some former child slaves who are really struggling with getting to and from destinations, and we feel that if they made it through slavery then the world deserves to buy them some bikes. We are looking always for people to donate on a monthly basis, even just $1 or $5 a month. If enough people do that it would lead to great things for sure, and we already have a lot going on. We launched a program called Moto Logistics; we are buying motorcycles for each of the medical clinics and orphanages with whom we partner, on no-interest loan. They will use these motorcycles to transport supplies or patients by day, and then by night use them as private motorcycle taxi vehicles, because a large part of the population in Haiti uses moto-taxis daily. A small percentage of the money raised from the taxi business will go towards repaying the principal on the loan for the motorcycles over time, and another percentage also go towards paying the drivers of those motorcycle-taxis. A last percentage goes to a repair fund and also to the organization itself. This process will create jobs, and will make donations to the program sustainable and reusable in time. When the money from the loan comes back, the initial dollars used for the motorcycles will be used again to buy more bikes in other locations. The reason to make it on a no-interest loan is because then organizations don't have to repay more than they should. We post updates regularly on onehundredforhaiti.org, and we'll have some big news and many updates coming in the middle of November. This is the best time to be caring and to get involved. Donations help all of these programs work.
Are you expecting anything out of the upcoming election?
I expect that either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama will win. As a result, taxes will either go up or down. Then, we will either have overt or covert challenges to our civil liberties. As always, the proverbial pawn will get pushed forward or backwards or side to side as the next four years roll on. And while more social programs will be cut under a Romney administration, I expect the same structures to stay in place regardless of who wins. This is why it is up to the people to stay vocal and active always, creating new ideas and grassroots initiatives and then following them through to see them become reality.