In conversation: Jacob Bannon, Converge

On the 5th September 2012, I sat down with Jacob Bannon, frontman of Converge, to discuss the band’s forthcoming record All We Love We Leave Behind. This is the conversation in its entirety. 

Original photo by Andrey Kalinovsky

What can we expect from the album thematically?

We put a lot of emotional investment in writing our material. It takes a lot of time, emotionally and psychologically to actually write the music and write the lyrics, so when you’re recording you just try and record the best piece of music to fit your vision. 

We’re definitely perfectionists, this is our craft. Some people don’t understand that and just hear our music as a lot of noise, they don’t necessarily understand what’s going on, apart from perhaps the loud volume, but there’s a lot of method to what we do.

How did the song writing process work for this record?

We’ve always written the same way, we get together, one of us has something - a primordial version of the song, it could be a riff, a collection of riffs or sometimes a whole song and once that comes to the table we sit and edit it quite a bit.

We all have our strengths and we come together and try to work towards something bigger and try to make songs the best that they could possibly be.

We work really hard at each other, we don’t pull any punches in that respect, we all feel that if you’re going to write the best songs you have to be fairly opinionated. We’ve been a band for so long, we don’t really get together and practice a ton before we tour. We only really get together to write, we play together that way.

How long have you been working on the record?

We’re always writing. We don’t really keep to a cycle like other bands do. A lot of bands have a predetermined schedule, but we just write when we feel motivated to do so. Sometimes we won’t write for a year and sometimes 10 songs will happen in the space of two months. We let things happen naturally, we’ve always found that’s the best way to do things. This is punk rock, it’s hardcore, it’s aggressive music – there’s a certain professionalism to certain aspects of it but we just want to write the best songs that are emotionally fulfilling and satisfying so we always take our time. If this album was going to take 10 years, it would’ve taken 10 years. We have our own natural schedule where everything seems to happen every couple of years or so, that comes more so from touring than anything. We’ll release a record and then do the touring and you’re basically working that way for six months to a year and sometimes it’s hard to just find the time to sit down and write a riff when you’re playing a set every day and driving anything between eight and 15 hours a day for six months you’re creative mind doesn’t necessarily get to be exercised.

Sometimes you’re motivated when you’re touring and if you have a couple of hours to sit down before each show then you might get a chance to write. It always changes. There’s no formula. It’s just how everybody lives their lives, you have moments of spontaneity, you have moments of very planned, specific behaviour and sometimes things just happen.

It’s nice to speak to a band who don’t have a strict album cycle…

Any industry terms like ‘album cycle’ is literally the worst thing to us. We have no interest in that world. Usually it’s feigning professionalism. It’s people that want to be taken seriously using lingo and terms and adhering to schedules that they feel are going to bring them some sort of respectability by their peers and the music ‘business’, which doesn’t really exist.

To me, the only thing that’s really important is the music. It’s about how you feel as the player and how you feel as the listener. Schedules are irrelevant, a band could release a major record and not be able to tour on it for two years, that’s just the way that it is, or there could be a band that never records because they always just tour and that’s ok too. Everybody has a different way of approaching things. We’ve never been fans of making sure that we do a certain type of tour or anything like that. The only thing we pay attention to is that we try to cover as much ground as we can when we tour because we have a limited amount of time to tour.

We’re not a ‘career band’. We don’t write music to make money, although it’s wonderful to be self-sufficient in that respect – it’s something that I never could have dreamed of when I was 13 years old when we started the band.

How does it feel arriving at this record having started the band so long ago?

Oddly, for me, it feels exactly the same. Everything feels the same. I still feel like I’m still the same kid that I was when I was 13 or 14 years old. I have different responsibilities now but my brain is still the same. I’m still a person who deals with angst and emotion in a musical way. I think that the one really unique thing about our band is that where a lot of bands have musicians who’ve been in a lot of different bands of varying sizes for years and years.

Most bands try to reinvent themselves every few years. We have never done that. We have very few peers who have never done that. We started as a hardcore and punk rock band and we’ll end as a hardcore and punk rock band. We’ve never had a ‘phase’, we never decided to ‘wear normal human clothes’, there’s no ‘get-ups’, no nonsense, no posing, no playing a character; it’s just four guys writing songs that are challenging. That’s it.

People find it confusing that we don’t have to pose or be a character, we just have to simply write good songs and as long as we continue doing that we’ll still be a band.

I noticed that there’s no guests on this album…

There’s no guests this time. We’ve always included friends, mainly because they’ve been around and we’re social guys. Sometimes you bring someone in because you want a different background vocal that’s not one of the four of us, we really pushed that pretty far with the last record, we wanted to include a whole bunch of people so we collectively wrote a load of songs and purposely left room for our friends to come in and do guest parts. We orchestrated that.

We approached the last record almost as a collaborative record, this time around it’s just the four of us. I don’t know if it’s a reactionary thing. It’s kind of intentional kind of unintentional. I think this time around we just felt like doing something entirely ourselves.

We thought ‘you know what, it would be cool to have literally no one on it but us’. We have a weird adversarial relationship with nearly everything that we do. I think that’s part of our collective ethos. If people expect us to do something, if people expect us to zig, we try to zag. If something feels comfortable to us, we usually try to really come out of our comfort zone. We feel like we’re better that way.

When you’re writing without anybody else in mind, you can be wholly selfish and I think most music is like that and that’s how it should be. As a band you just write for each other, and try to write the best possible song and give the best possible performance. This time we just concentrated on us.

Kurt (guitarist) produced the record, would you ever consider working with anyone else?

Producers use their own musical voice to add to the record, some producers even go in and try to rewrite songs, but what Kurt does is he’s more like a hands on engineer with us. He’ll punish us to get the best possible performance. He’ll make me do a vocal 15 times for example. He’ll say ‘oh that was good… now do it again’. It’s punishing but that’s part of his role, he doesn’t try to make us sound like a different band like a traditional producer.

We’ve worked with some great people before, but nobody could possibly produce our band better than someone in our own band. He’s really hard on us but he’s our friend, I mean… I went to high school with this guy. I get pissed off and irritated doing vocals 40 times but really, I’m ok with it because I respect him and he’s my friend – I have a long standing, sibling like relationship with him.

If you work with other people you risk it being more like a transaction. It’s difficult when you’re recording aggressive music.

It’s so commonplace now for bands to go into a studio and have songs edited to death to the point where every single drum sound is chopped and things just start sounding mechanised and everything sounds artificial, you get bands using drum triggers and stuff like that and that is just not our style; we’re a very organic band.

We want things to sound organic, we want things to sound real, we want them to sound like they do in a live set in the sense that they feel overpowering and wild and unpredictable – and that’s something that you just don’t get by mechanising everything.

Sometimes I’ll get a hardcore record sent to me at Deathwish, and when I put it on I’m just completely shocked – some bands just lose sight of being a real band. They try to sound like other popular bands and put on ‘clothing’ musically. That is just not the way to write music that’s going to have any kind of longevity or even really be fulfilling. It’s more like they just want to play dress up.

What about this record are you most proud about?

When you record a record, and we’ve done a lot, the newest records are always the most emotionally and psychologically relevant. For me, this is the most emotionally potent record that we’ve done. Musically, I feel that we’ve had the best recorded performances that we’ve ever had.

When I listen back to the record, it’s emotionally intense and I feel it. If I feel the record and I can feel the songs in a soulful manner, then I feel like I have accomplished something.

I feel every single part of this record. I hear how hard the drumming is, I hear a guitar sound that sounds pretty much like nobody else in the world and I feel it. We’re all self-taught and we’ve never tried to do anything like other people.

We’ve been influenced by other bands sure, but we’ve never tried to emulate anybody. We’re different to everybody else. Some people find us difficult to understand and that’s fine, we’re not an easy band to listen to and we’re not meant to be. We’re certainly not a gateway band. There’s no verse chorus verse, soaring vocals or anything like that. We’re not easy to digest, that’s not what we are.

For most people who’ve listened to a bit of rock, it’s almost like playing them a Beatles record and then handing them a Jesus Lizard and saying ‘both these bands have guitars so you should be able to understand it’.

There’s no hardcore kid in the world that could tell me that the first time they heard Black Flag and heard a Greg Ginn solo they were like ‘oh this is perfect’. It’s supposed to be off putting, it’s supposed to be striking, it’s supposed to be abrasive and supposed to make you cringe sometimes and I think we’re a weird, contemporary version of some of those by-gone artists… in spirit at least, not necessarily musically.

Hopefully people can hear this record and relate to it in someway and learn to appreciate it.

Coral Blue on the album stands out as quite a different sounding track…

Sonically it’s different, there’s a lot more space in the song and the structure is really different to the other tracks on the record but it definitely has things in common with songs that we’ve done in the past, like things on the You Fail Me record, maybe even our split with Agoraphobic Nosebleed, there’s material that foreshadow that song. So it’s not a brand new song for us, but it’s certainly the best execution of it. It’s a very confident approach to something that’s sonically different. I wouldn’t want people to think it’s some kind of ‘top 40’ thing or a really accessible song, because it’s really not. It’s really dark and textural as opposed to fast and in your face. It’s somehow a ‘bigger’ rock song.

What’s the reception been like when you’ve played new material live?

I really haven’t paid attention to be honest. I get lost in song. I just have a good time when we’re playing, it’s fun, you’re being expressive.

I’m not the kind of person that looks for feedback, I don’t need that kind of reassurance. If I needed that kind of reassurance, I certainly wouldn’t be in punk rock because in aggressive music everybody’s a critic and everybody’s better than you… so why aren’t they doing it? But that’s fine, that’s the internet age and that’s part of what the community is, I just try not to pay any mind to it. Even when it comes to playing live, as long as the energy is good between the band when we’re playing a new song and the pacing of the set works really well, then I’m happy with it. There’ll be moment when we put together a set and you realise that it just doesn’t feel right, the energy drops and you lose pace for a minute – and that’s the kind of stuff that we acknowledge and pay attention to.

Was the album title (taken from the final track) an obvious choice for you?

Not really. I wanted to leave it open ended and in the world that we live in right now, people really want information all the time and that’s kind of difficult when you’re in the throws of the creative process. But you have people saying ‘what’s the title of the record?’ but not everything is fully realised yet, things are still coming together. So I threw out a couple of names and ideas and that’s just what ended up sticking. Thematically it really works with the overall material of the record. It’s a very unified title, it really made sense to me.

We got away from doing long titles in the late 90s, mainly because a lot of bands started doing it and as I said before we tend to zag when everyone else is zigging. I just did it back then because I liked to write prose and I like things to be descriptive and powerful, so if it took six words to paint that picture then that’s just how it is. But then everybody started doing it and we’re reactionary and adversarial, even with our peers, so we were just like ‘fuck this, we’re going in the other direction’. We want a title as simple as possible so we did that with the Jane Doe record. It just felt right.

Was the artwork you designed a similar process?

I do artwork and branding for a lot of bands, but for my band I have a different emotional weight. I’m trying to recognise my vision. It’s very different, it’s a tiring process for me. It takes a bunch of months to get everything together and feel comfortable with how I want to present things, but at the end of the day I’m really happy with it. We have a visual character that we’ve developed unintentionally, it just sort of happened, but every record looks very different. Every record has a different kind of feel and a different meaning.

I feel like the least cosy fit was probably the last record, mainly because I had to represent a variety of voices and I tried to develop different artwork for each individual song and tie things together with a colour palette so there was a little bit more of a disconnect rather than the other records having a very specific title and artwork correlation. This album art goes back to that idea that I’m comfortable with.

You now have monochrome artwork and there’s no guests, is this a refining of Converge? Do you feel that this is a purer record?

You can definitely read into that, but that’s for you guys to read into. As an artist I don’t really know. To me it was interesting to do a really monochromatic cover, mainly because I like making stuff like that, and then all the internal artwork is really bright and vibrant and has literally no rules. I did whatever I felt like and everything got really wild and I guess that was just flipping the idea on its head. People were expecting a new Converge record with a limited colour palette because my weird OCD makes me want to do that and for every record to have a colour palette and this time I just wanted to do something entirely different. Again though, that’s mainly to change it up.

I want the art and music to be exciting to me, first and foremost – to me that’s the way to do it.

With that in mind, was there something lyrically that you were trying to resonate?

That’s probably the one thing that’s always the same, it’s the same with the way that we write together, lyrically I write about my life. Throughout the day if I’m going through some kind of experience or the people around me are going through some sort of experience, then I have a need to artistically vent that and put something out there. I’ve done every record like that so far.

Is there anything that you’ve tried for the first time on this record?

Songs are constantly changing. We started this band when we were 13 or 14 years old so the subject matter has changed significantly from being a kid heaving with teen angst and the anger that I felt then is different to the anger that I feel now. I think that there are people who will really listen to what a song’s about and really understand it. Other people who’ll listen to it and think that every song just sounds really sappy or just a really angst ridden song and they won’t understand that it’s perhaps about more than that. I get correspondence from people and talk to people all the time who misconstrue things and don’t understand where our music is coming from. They think that we’re repeating the same thing over and over again, but our songs are about very different subject matter. There’s a generalisation that people put out there when they over-romanticise certain albums or certain ideas or certain visuals, they just start making their own history for your band.

Does that put any pressure on you when it comes to writing new material?

No, mainly because I don’t pay attention to it. I’ll gladly speak to somebody about it if they want to talk about it, I’ll discuss it with them, but it never changes anything that I do. The bands that I like, the bands that I’ve matured with, they have very personal songs and they don’t do the same thing over and over again.

I’m not a fan of bands with a schtick. I want to hear songs that are different and that pull from a different territory. For example, if I was to listen to a Neil Young record now, I want a contemporary Neil Young record to reflect his life now and be an honest record. I don’t need another Rocking In The Free World song, unless it’s relevant to this specific moment in time. I don’t like things repeating like that.

I think what’s difficult for people to understand is that when a band’s catalogue grows, the importance of records grows to people. It’s all about a time and place. Our mid-late 90s records are extremely relevant to the people that related to them at that period in time… and everything else we’ve done is shit after that. They don’t understand it and they don’t care to – and that’s fine. That’s just the music that’s relevant to them. More often than not though, that’s the identity and character that people associate with, it’s the time and place at which they entered the band’s existence as a listener.

They don’t necessarily understand that bands are human and things evolve. They just think that you have a heavy, angry band when you’re young, then you break up and you start a rock band. They don’t realise that you can grow within a heavy band as well.

John Longbottom

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    This interview is excellent. Read it.




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