Banged Up But Still Unbreakable: Comes With the Fall
PopMatters Music Critic Michael Christopher uncovers the drive that keeps Comes With the Fall going -- DIY style.
Times are strange in the Comes With the Fall camp these days, on the heels of a long, steady rumble in the underbelly of true rock and roll threatening to explode at any moment. While critics continue to sing the praises of their most recent effort, The Year is One, they've put out an appetizer DVD to temporarily satiate a rabid and growing fanbase until the new record drops, scheduled for early 2004. Live Underground 2002, which, according to singer and guitarist William Duvall is "spreading like a virus," offers a visual glimpse into the raw power Comes With the Fall so heartily embrace.
This spring, two years after being hand picked by Jerry Cantrell to pull double duty as an opening act and the touring band for the former Alice in Chains guitarist, the Los Angeles-based trio embarked on a national club tour. Roughing it on the road paved for them in trials of stink, sweat and sleepless nights by the likes of Black Flag and Fugazi, the DIY mentality was put into full effect. Changing vehicles mid-jaunt and traveling with bleary eyes city to city were only the beginning. For a band whose music is the very definition of what timeless rock should sound like, with powerhouse vocals and guitar riffs meeting drums and bass that bottom out with thunderclap heaviness, it was time to see what they were really cut from. The big '70s sound that seems so new millennium on The Year is One had been road tested with Cantrell. Now it had to stand on it's own.
Then, somewhere in between a homecoming gig in Atlanta and Charlotte, drummer Bevan Davies was nabbed by the legendary Glenn Danzig and whisked out of the country to take over stick slamming duties for the metal man in black. Duvall and bassist Adam Stanger made the decision to finish out the tour with drummer Brian Hunter from Dropsonic, who was sharing the bill at most of the dates along the way. The tour finished successfully. Comes With the Fall had taken the punk lifestyle exam, and they passed with a snapped pencil. Along the way, Duvall and Stanger sat down with PopMatters, a couple pints of Guinness and a few Jameson and Cokes to try and sort it all out.
PopMatters: This is the first time you've been on the road since the Jerry Cantrell tour, how does it feel to be going solo again?
William Duvall: It's cool. It's a real punk rock kind of a thing, us just out there roughing it, but we need to do it because there were people that needed to see us and we wanted to play for them.
PM: What do you mean by "punk rock kind of thing?"
WD: 'Cause we're just driving ourselves, with whatever vehicles we have at our disposal, sleeping on people's floors -- it's pretty punk rock.
PM: You're sitting next to a guy wearing a vintage Black Flag shirt. Do you ever look at yourselves as sort of a modern day Black Flag?
Adam Stanger: Yeah, we kind of joke about it, the whole Get in the Van thing.
WD: The thing about the Flag, Greg Ginn's favorite band was the Grateful Dead. A lot of people view that as a contradiction, like; "Why is the leader and guitar player and main songwriter for the gnarliest band ever into the Grateful Dead?" But the thing about the Dead was, they kind of created their own secret society within a society that was 90% outside of the mainstream culture. The Dead were about creating a scene, and you come into that scene and it's like a world within a world that doesn't play by the mainstream's rules. Eventually that scene grew to be so huge that the Dead could not only sustain themselves, but they could literally control their own destiny -- they created a culture. I think Black Flag and SST (Ginn's label) were trying to do the same thing in their day. What Ginn saw was a way to do it, he saw an example of a band that did it, where he was going to try an implement it in his own way, with the label and with all the bands on it.
So do I see us as kind of an extension of that? I do. It's starts out small, and you keep working it. That doesn't preclude us from ever working with another company, a lot of people misunderstand that because of my comments on the music industry. We all know the music industry is dodgy, so I feel like I'm stating the obvious whenever I've said anything about that, and why we didn't choose to wait around for them to wake up to us, why we chose instead to do our own thing. There are great examples of other bands that have taken a similar path.
PM: So you look at something like Greg Ginn did, that no one else was doing at that time, but a bunch of other bands built on that foundation. Do you think that now, the way the scene is, very confectionary-like, that maybe you're laying the groundwork for a new kind of scene? Look at Seattle for instance, sort of like a Mother Love Bone, or Mudhoney, where they pretty much influenced the start of something brand new.
WD: Yes. I notice that a lot of people that are coming to see us are in bands, so that's where it starts. We can never say where things are heading or where they'll end up, but I know what I'm seeing right now. I hope that we're laying the groundwork for something that might come in the future, 'cause things are so bad right now.
PM: You guys have a sound, it's not a classic rock sound, but it's a classic sound. It's like it's so familiar, but it's so new. From what you were influenced by, you could've come out doing straight punk rock, so how do you go about coming up with this sound?
AS: It was a bit of a conscious shift. It was right about the time I got involved.
PM: The sound, with the big guitars, it's along the lines of a '70s kind of bombastic -- and not to break taboos, but it's almost Zeppelin-esque in that way.
WD: It comes from all of the things that we were listening to, so you have punk rock, you have punk-jazz. I like a lot of early rock. It's all a rush, Louis Jordan, some of the Coltrane Quartet stuff...hear Bo Diddley and Little Richard; that stuff still makes me want to throw shit. A Zeppelin record sometimes will do that...the point is, you're trying to plug into that rush.
People say that we sound like we could've come in any era -- it's true! Thank goodness because I believe that all the good music is ageless and timeless. [Timeless music] tells a story of its era, certainly, by virtue of its existence in that era, the point is that the real story is that the human existence is a continuum and that it's not of any era.
PM: Adam, what do you think that you brought to the band when you joined?
AS: A little bit of that Zeppelin that you're talkin' about...maybe a little of the Cream style approach, Hendrix...I mean, those are all big influences of mine, so we're basically trying to pull of what they were doin' with this band. I like to play hard, aggressive rock music, and I grew up with a lot of punk rock, played in New York with a lot of punk rock bands, so bands like early Police were an influence.
PM: What was it like moving from Atlanta to L.A.?
WD: That was about creating new opportunities. We had done everything we could in Atlanta...
AS: It was hard to do those same five clubs over and over again.
WD: There just wasn't the infrastructure in Atlanta to support what we were trying to do. For us, we just felt we were doing something so heavy, it was like, it's just gonna slowly wither away and absolutely drown here, we might as well just take a brick, jump off a cliff and see what happens. L.A. was almost like calling or something. Within a month of being in L.A., we had played several shows, and Jerry Cantrell was coming up and introducing himself to me as a fan. Then he ended up sleeping on our floor every night.
PM: So how did all of that come about?
WD: He got turned onto us, and once he finally heard it (The Year is One), he really heard it. He describes it as similar to the first time he heard Appetite for Destruction. We had spent a long time in Atlanta, basically not feeling validated. To come to L.A. and get all of this validation from somebody like that...
AS: It just drove the point home.
WD: Yeah, it was like, man, we were right, we were right.
PM: Then Jerry asks you to go on tour with him as his backing band.
WD: We toured with him for all of 2001 on, before he even had his most recent record deal.
PM: Did you think at any point it was going to stunt your growth as a band?
WD: It was a concern, it was something to have in mind so that it didn't happen, based on the fact that our existence was much more continuous. The time factor was something to think about. If you devote seven months out of the year to someone else's cause and you're not working at all on yours, maybe that can be a problem. You always have to weigh it against what else is going on, and we were constantly doing that.
We knew first and foremost that it was a tremendous opportunity for exposure, and we just wanted to make sure it didn't cost us more in the long run. As it happened it worked out really well. We just worked harder.
PM: How was it going back and forth between his material and your own every night?
WD: It requires different muscles to play our music than his. You can especially see it when you're doing it back to back every night. It was a period of understanding what it takes to do both and just doing it.
AS: I really dig our band, obviously, but Jerry, and all of his work with Alice -- huge fan. I kind of really connected with it. I looked forward to doing two-hour sets a night; that was awesome. For me, I wish we were playing longer sets, I honestly hate driving so many miles all around the country to get to a club to play these 40 minute sets. It's kind of a bummer but we do it anyway.
PM: So it's 2002, Jerry Cantrell's new record comes out, you're all fired up about being his backing band on the tour, and word comes out that Layne Staley died. How does that affect everything? Especially William, because not only do you have to play the music, you have to sing his lyrics.
WD: It was heavy. With the risk of sounding like some basketball player on the court, you have a job to do and you go do it. I mean, it definitely gave new meaning to some of the lyrics, a lot of [Alice in Chains] songs are about death, either literal or metaphorical. There's kind of a dark cloud going through all their music, and some have made the argument that that dark cloud has kind of perpetuated some of the bad things that have happened in and around their scene. So when Layne died, it was tough because we were just about to go out on the road, and had to play through.
I lost my grandfather in the same week, so Cantrell and I both hit the road with immense personal losses dogging us. There were times on stage -- there was one show in Charlotte where it was just so heavy. I'm holding back tears onstage, and Jerry would start crying onstage too a lot at that point, and a lot of times we would just look at each other when we were singing the stuff because it was the only way...it was heavy. I can't quantify it really in words.
There was also the issue of: "Now Alice isn't coming back -- and who's that guy?" In the end, I was helping my friend, and he was doing material he had every right to do. He has every right to eulogize his friend in any way he can. I thought it was very healthy that we went and played through.
PM: Did you ever meet any of the other guys from Alice in Chains?
WD: Oh yeah. I never met Layne though, but I met his family. I met his mom, it was right after he died, when we played Seattle. There was a lot of people at the show, obviously very sort of heavy -- Chris Cornell is standing on my side of the stage all night, like right where I have to go change guitars, that guy is in my way every time...I had to like, Jedi mind trick myself: "He is not there." It was weird because I slashed my hand open during the first or second song, I was bleeding all over the place and I was just like: "Oh God -- it's gonna be one of those." One of those nights where it's just not effortless; where everything is going to be crazy, I'm tangled up in my cord, and all kinds of things going on. And Cornell is standing there. Ann and Nancy Wilson came out, they sang a song, I'm sharing a mic with Ann Wilson.
Then after the show, there's all these people hanging out, and Layne's mother comes up to me and takes both my hands and she's crying her eyes out and was like "We're so proud of you!" It was just too low to get under...it was like "Whoa -- ok." You can't let it sink in.
PM: Tell me how hard it is now, you're trying to get some momentum building, and your drummer leaves.
WD: The thing is, it's only temporary. The way we looked at it is, it's cool because Danzig only works like five months out of the year anyway, and it's a good opportunity for our guy to make some dough, playin' the drums, and this is another positive association between our band and another guy who has worked really hard for a long time, is an icon with a well deserved reputation for all the work he's done.
The timing was horrible, it's hard to get over that. But again, of all the tours we could've been doing, we were bringing a band from Atlanta in Dropsonic, because we had to consolidate our gear. Bevan took all the gear, it was his van, and it's like: "You gotta go, and you gotta take the van, well you might as well take all the gear too." I bought a station wagon in Atlanta, and we could only carry what's absolutely necessary for us in this wagon. I can't think of another band we could've done this with.
PM: Was there ever a feeling of, "We're building this thing, Comes With the Fall, you can't leave us now, we're laying it down now, this is it?
WD: I'm not going to lie -- it's extremely hard. To say that there's no strain would be a complete fallacy. It's hard because I have a fervent belief that we're doing the right thing in this grassroots thing. A band like us would never have gotten picked up by a major label and had that magic button pushed to get us that easy ride. So we put all of this work into this grassroots thing, and this is going to be our national tour, we're going to do this, I'm gonna book it, we're gonna kick ass, and then Bevan has to leave. It's a setback, it's a temporary setback, and it can be turned into a positive.
All things being equal, he would pick this. All things being unequal right now, especially financially he's trying to do both.
PM: It's winter, you guys are getting ready to record a new album -- who drums?
WD: Absolutely. Comes With the Fall is me, Bevan and Adam.