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.
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.
Gwynbleidd: Nostalgia (Black Currant)
Hailing from Brooklyn by way of Poland, this foursome showed enormous promise on 2006''s Amaranthine EP, and their superb, at times beautiful full-length debut goes even further, an epic, reflective journey as filtered through the diverse tones of black metal, death metal, Eastern European folk music, and progressive rock, confidently executed, tastefully arranged, and adorned in lavish artwork. If you like Opeth's Orchid album, you will love this one.
Revocation: Existence is Futile (Relapse)
With one foot firmly planted on traditional American metal ground and the other on the more progressive death side, this Delaware trio emerges with an album that both acknowledges its influences yet has a distinct identity of its own. Leading the charge is one David Davidson, who will be regarded as one of the genre's pre-eminent shredders in no time. Why anyone would waste their time listening to the latest albums by Lamb of God and Shadows Fall when there's this stupendous album around is beyond me.
Sacrifice: The Ones I Condemn (Sonic Unyon)
It might be 16 years since their last album and 22 years since the classic Forward to Termination, but the Canadian thrash legends have not lost a step on their greatly anticipated return. Stylistically nothing's changed at all, in fact Rob Urbinati's vocals are the same as ever, but when a band has the swagger that these guys clearly still do, lack of change hardly matters, and hearing this is as comfortable and familiar as an old denim vest from the mid-'80s. Welcome back!
"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."