Music

Castle Walls of Blood and Bone: An Interview with Converge

With four landmark albums this decade alone, Converge has saved its best work for last. Vocalist Jacob Bannon talks with PopMatters about his music, his art, and his insanely talented band.


Converge

Axe to Fall

Label: Epitaph
US Release Date: 2009-10-20
UK Release Date: 2009-10-19
Artist Website
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Amazon
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Of course it's foolish to ever think an artist partially responsible for some of the most imposing, cathartic, brutally intense extreme music this decade would be "on" 100 percent of the time, but still, hearing Jacob Bannon speak quietly and lucidly on the other end of the phone line is a bit jarring. Especially when you've spent the past week leading up to this interview listening to the Converge vocalist unleash line after line of gut-wrenching, deeply personal lyrics on his band's brand new album, in a scream that send the most hardened souls running for cover: "I need to learn to love me! / I need to stop this suicide machine!…I need to stop this self destruction!" Lyrically, Bannon has rarely if ever been about subtlety, projecting an unblinking intensity that can be damn near frightening, but away from the stage and the studio, he's as soft-spoken as it gets.

"With any form of music that has a personal subject matter in the lyrical content, you do take a risk, you expose yourself in a way," he admits. "But you're doing that so you can work through things in a healthy way, you're basically using your art as therapy, as sort of a positive outlet in a very negative world that has a lot of complexity to it. And if people relate to that and they want to communicate with you, that's a very positive thing to me. They might not be in the exact same situation I've had or our friends have had in our lives, but they relate in such a way that a song connects with them, and I think that's what all good music does. We all have records that are that for us in some way."

Having gone through that art-as-therapy process for nearly 20 years now, you'd normally expect a band that's been around for that long to have settled into a nice, comfortable rut, churning out reliably good records that offer mild musical challenges and explorations while remaining true to its original formula, but Converge has always been an anomaly. The older they get and the longer they stick around, the bolder they become. Never for an instant showing the slightest hint of complacency, they've been drastically broadening and redefining their sound with each new release since their watershed 2001 album Jane Doe, and their seventh album Axe to Fall is, by Converge standards anyway, their most accessible work to date. Most crucially, and what has many in the metal and hardcore media all abuzz, this sucker just might be their finest work yet, which, considering the lavish acclaim Jane Doe, 2004's You Fail Me, and 2006's No Heroes all deservedly received, is very, very high praise indeed.

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"You just write music that's honest," Bannon responds when asked about Converge's seemingly effortless way of creating a landmark album every time out. "You write sincere music that's challenging and fulfilling for yourself, wholly. That's it. That's all you need to do. I think this goes back to what I was saying about not really getting too introspective about records or not reflecting on them too often. You sort of take them for what they are, and if they move you and excite you in the creation process, then you're doing it right. You're not emulating other things, you're just writing honest music, and I think if you're doing that, then you're going to stay inspired to be creative in whatever band or art you're involved with in some way."

One of Axe to Fall's most important ingredients, however, and what sets it apart from every other Converge release, is its collaborative aspect. While metal has always thrived on being a separate culture removed from all other facets of rock and popular music, hardcore and punk truly excels at creating a real sense of community among artists and fans, something that's reflected quite beautifully on this album. And while it is first and foremost a Converge record, Bannon's tortured vocals underscored by Kurt Ballou's typically masterful blend of metal riffing and atonal Jesus Lizard-esque angularity and punctuated the towering rhythm section of bassist Nate Newton and drummer Ben Koller, there's no question Converge gets by with a little help from their friends on this disc. No fewer than ten of their peers lend their skill to this already formidable piece of work: three members of Cave In perform on the throttling, 102 second "Effigy", Disfear and former Entombed guitarist Uffe Cederlund contributes to the raucous d-beat exercise "Wishing Well", Neurosis's Steve Von Till adds dynamic vocals to the smoky, Tom Waits-ish "Cruel Bloom", and two thirds of Genghis Tron play a vital role on the dramatic, staggeringly beautiful seven-minute closer "Wretched World".

"I wouldn't [call them] 'guest appearances', but I do agree with the communal thing, because it was much more of a collaborative approach to songwriting and working with people, as opposed to just opening the doors and saying, 'Hey, come and record this part the way we want it,'" says Bannon. "That's usually how a lot of guests work, and our record was far from that. It was much more organic, and we just actually worked with the people we wanted to work with. So it had a different feel than just a guy coming in and saying, 'Okay, this is the part I'm contributing, see you later.' That was a cool experience, for sure…Some [songs] were written with them in mind. Or rather refined with them in mind, and refined with them during the process. So they would demo some material and send it to us to see what we thought of the specific contribution or approach to something. The majority of it was really successful and felt really comfortable for all of us, so it worked out."

He adds, "We've been a band for a really long time, so it wasn't that hard. We have a lot of experience and we had a pretty solid vision of how we wanted to come together. Sonically all the songs are rooted in just being Converge songs. We're very adept at being ourselves. It wasn't really difficult, it wasn't like it got completely foreign or anything. There aren't really huge departures on the record, just interesting collaborators enhancing the musical environment with us…Like-minded individuals tend to migrate towards one another. [Hardcore] needs expression, it's just a platform. The hardcore community is an open soapbox, that's what's so beautiful about it. It's supposed to be free of a wide variety of limitations that other subgenres of music have."

Converge has always been a band known for throwing listeners a few curveballs along the way, like such tracks as "Jane Doe", "You Fail Me", and "Grim Heart/Black Rose" on the last few albums, but what makes Axe to Fall so compelling is just how versatile the entire band is, with or without the collaborators chipping in. Whether it’s a blend of classic hardcore with insane metal fretwork by Ballou ("Dark Horse"), brooding tracks that border on doom ("Worms Will Feed"), bruising tones reminiscent of Big Black and Unsane ("Damages"), or that aforementioned theatrical climax of "Cruel Bloom" and "Wretched World" (yeah, that's a piano you're hearing), the four core members pull it off impeccably. And best of all, for all the diversity and forward thinking on this record, it's remarkably cohesive. It still sounds like a Converge CD. "I marvel at my whole band," Bannon admits. "Our whole band is a really interesting group of characters, and we all bring this weird, I don't know if you want to call it talent, our strengths to the band. So I'm always impressed by the technical ability of everybody. And it's not flashy, we're not a noodly band, we don't want to be a tech band. We just want to be a powerful band that has the qualities that we dig in music. When I watch Ben play it's inspiring to me, when I watch Nate play it's inspiring to me, and Kurt as well."

Still, although it's easily the most palatable album in Converge's deep discography, Bannon is well aware that his band will always be somewhat of an acquired taste, especially among certain genre purists. "We know we're a polarizing band, we're not an easy band to digest, especially if somebody is a first-level, aggressive music listener, if they're just into punk rock, hardcore, or metal. We know we're weird as hell, we know we're too weird for metal people, we're too hardcore for metal people, we're too metal for punk people, and yet truly too bizarre for hardcore kids… If they sort of grow towards finding us to be interesting and something that relates to them, then that's cool. But we don't really try to think about winning them over, it's not about that for us. We could play to a room full of 3000 middle fingers and don't really care."

As if Converge's music isn't already memorable enough, Bannon's own artwork on a Converge record is always something to look forward to, and not surprisingly, Axe to Fall features plenty of indelible, striking imagery. "It's extremely hard, I'm my own worst critic," he says. "But it's a natural process too, you just sit there and take a long time to develop imagery and visual experimentation that brings you to a place that you feel like you've created something that has all the psychological components that make up a Converge record, sort of trapped in the visual metaphor of something…The Jane record was more about creating an all-encompassing visual presence that had elements of the songs and reflected the songs. It was also really fragmented. Whereas You Fail Me was an extremely cold and dark record that was meant to be that expressive and convey that real stoic emotion. No Heroes was much more explosive and had a bunch of visual interactions that could work with one another. With this record, I've decides to take a variety of approaches that I've done in the past and inject more meat into them, where I wanted to create a spread and a visual for every song on the album. But also just experiment with visual repetition to tell a story. It's an age-old design experiment that you do when you start going to school, like what Andy Warhol did, but it's a very interesting way to tell a story, so I want to exercise that in my own work."

Whether creating the artwork for Converge's albums, doing freelance projects for countless other bands, designing Converge's website, or the band's apparel, Bannon's distinct visual style has had an enormous impact not only on metal and hardcore, but as it turns out, on popular culture as a whole. Such hugely popular mixed martial arts-oriented clothing lines as Affliction and Tapout Black Label have co-opted that paint-splattered, winged-skull look and ran like hell with it, taking it to suburban America, and despite the fact that it works on a cynically calculated, far more trite level than his own sincere artwork, there's little that Bannon himself can do about the matter.

"The only official thing I have in life is a lawyer, and I've had him have to serve some cease and desists on a variety of apparel companies that have used work that I've created to simply make a shirt," he states. "I've had people in stores send me pictures of things that I've created being used by large companies. I've won a couple little settlements, nothing substantial, but at least I can get people to admit that they plagiarized my work in some way. Which is essentially the battle, anyway. After lawyer fees, it's not like there's any financial compensation. But I have had to go to battle for some things. One of the companies that we did find something a bunch of years ago was one that had some sort of ties to Affliction, but we ran into a dead end with that and I just kind of gave up."

He concedes, "I don't really think about it, I just try to pay my bills. And I can barely do that. Maybe when I'm 80 years old and I look back on my life in some way and see if I accomplished things that I want to accomplish, or leave some positive mark, maybe at that point I might get a bit introspective about things and reflect a little bit. But right now I'm just concerned with making art and music, that's really it. Unfortunately real life gets in the way of appreciating any of those things, even on a surface level like that. You just don't really get the chance to. I can't work for three months on a project and sit back and go, 'I'm really extremely excited as to how this came out.' I have to move on to the next thing because I've just realized that I just made three dollars an hour for three months, and how am I going to live? Literally, that's what it's like. So I'm not sure how to get around that, aside from just creating more work, and be happy that I'm creating more work, that there's an audience there for it."

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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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