MacDara Conroy talks to Kurt Ballou of Converge, ahead of their gig in The Button Factory on November 30th.
Twenty-two years of hard graft can take its toll on even the best of bands, and especially those that face the struggles of doing it yourself in the underground. The Massachusetts metallic hardcore stalwarts Converge are one such band, but they’re not only soldiering on, they’ve also just produced what’s possibly their finest artistic statement to date in All We Love We Leave Behind. It’s a record that mulls over the passage of time and the difficult sacrifices one makes to do pursue a passion as much as it rages with an intensity not heard since their 2001 breakthrough Jane Doe, which helped define metalcore (at least as it was then) and debuted their current and longest standing lineup in vocalist Jacob Bannon, Kurt Ballou on guitar, bassist Nate Newton and drummer Ben Koller.
Ahead of their show at the Button Factory later this month, MacDara Conroy put the questions to guitarist, main songwriter and producer Kurt Ballou about the challenges of doing music today on one’s own terms, and lucky escapes from the perils of the road.
You’re playing Dublin on 30 November at the Button Factory, a larger venue than Whelan’s or the Voodoo Lounge where you’ve played here before. What difference does it make to you playing larger spaces compared to more compact pubs or clubs? We generally like playing medium-sized clubs the best. We like enough space to breathe, but we also want to feel like one with our audience. The best shows for us are when the band and audience makes something happen together, rather than the audience just being spectators. A lot of those bigger venues set up barricades and have huge stages and tons of security which creates a big disconnect between the band and audience. However, sometimes it’s necessary to play a bigger venue if they’re expecting a lot of people at the show. We don’t want to intentionally exclude people from coming just because they didn’t buy tickets right away.
Your touring schedule seems pretty hardcore – just two days off in a month across Europe. Has it got any easier over the years? What do you do differently on the road today compared to when you started the band? It’s gotten easier in the sense that we’re all really comfortable with each other, and we’re playing a lot of familiar places with familiar promoters, so the sense of uncertainty has diminished a bit. In a physical sense, as we’ve gotten older, and our sets have gotten longer, it’s harder to play. But we’ve been touring in a bus in Europe for the past few tours which really helps us stay rested.
Your new album, All We Love We Leave Behind, has a much rawer, live sound compared to your last few records. Was that what you were aiming for from the start, or something that emerged later in the process? We believe that songs have lives of their own. They will tell us where they want to go. We just aim to make the songs the best they can be, rather than try to squeeze them into some sort of preconceived idea about what we want them to be.
What have you done differently with the recording of the new album, if anything? And more generally, what approach do you take to recording with Converge that might be different from producing other bands? I imagine the experience of producing your own music is some degrees apart from working with other groups with their own sounds. I’m slowly pushing Converge towards a more organic, minimalist recording aesthetic, because that’s what I enjoy the most to listen to. But I don’t want to make too great of a change all at once. I’m very conscious of trying to maintain a sense of continuity both with the songwriting and the production from album to album.
Working with Converge is different from working with other bands mostly because we spend more time on the records than most bands and we tend to pick at it rather than recording straight through.
The new album seems to cover some of the same thematic ground as the new Old Man Gloom record; both come across as statements on getting older, gaining perspective on past choices and actions, and deciding what to do about it. Considering both bands share a member, is that a feeling that’s generally in the air among yourselves and bands and friends you’ve come up with? That’s true, but not because we share a member. I think a lot of musicians, particularly ones like us who’ve had enough commercial and critical success that we’ve been able to support ourselves (in a modest way) while steadily touring, eventually reach a point in their lives when they start to think, “What the fuck am I doing?”
It can certainly be a challenge to maintain this sort of life and to maintain the inspiration to continue to write music as we get older. Everyone who does it has to find their own path. I just feel fortunate that we’ve been able to do this together for so long.
You all have side projects – how does that extracurricular work feed into what you do together as Converge? Even aside from just the musical aspects, does it influence your ways of working together? Having some other musical outlets allows us to keep Converge writing especially focused. I think it also helps people learn more musical vocabulary and other ways of working that makes everyone involved better players and better songwriters.
You’ve said before in interviews that you don’t pay much attention to what reviewers or even listeners say about the band or your records. I imagine that attitude must insulate you from the criticism and outside opinions that could sway other bands one way or another and pull them apart. How do you think that attitude has contributed to your longevity as a group: not just four friends but four people making art together? I usually only care about opinions from people I know and respect. I really enjoy getting positive feedback from friends. And it’s nice to hear when other people enjoy something we do, but it’s not the reason we do it. I believe that basing what you do on what you think people want to hear is a recipe for failure.
Did news about the impending closure of Hydra Head Records give you as a band or Jacob as a label head any pause in terms of doing your own thing? It seems that Hydra Head and [Bannon’s label] Deathwish Inc take a similar approach to presentation, that the art is as important as the music, so how fair is it to say both have faced similar challenges? It’s definitely a tough time to be in the record business. Records just don’t sell like they used to and because of it, genuine people with a true dedication to art, like the people at Hydra Head, are finding themselves in a tough spot. I’m really sad to see that label shut down, because I’m old friends with those guys. I wish them the best in their future endeavours.
Speaking of art, the cover of All We Love We Leave Behind is very striking – especially in that the band name and title are absent. What was the intention behind that? Is it about wanting to make the music speak for itself and encourage listeners to put aside their expectations, or something else? For me, the album art mimics the sound of the record, in that it is simple and stark at face value, but it blooms with ever increasing complexity as you delve into it.
You say that it’s a tough time in the record business, and how it puts people with true dedication to their art in a tough spot. How are those pressures affecting you from the musician’s side of things? I’m fortunate that Converge and Godcity [Ballou’s home studio in Salem, Massachusetts] came up in a less competitive time, and I was able to establish myself prior to the proliferation of internet-based music. But between the increase in gas prices when touring, and the decrease in record sales, all bands are seeing a big downturn in the amount of money that is coming in. I’m seeing that trickle down in the recording budgets as well. Bands have to do more with less in an increasingly competitive market. It’s not the best time for recorded music, but at least it’s putting more bands on the road than ever before!
What responsibility do you and the band feel as ‘elder statesmen’ of the punk scene, in terms of imparting wisdom to younger bands you play with or whose records you put out? Or putting it another way, what advice do you share with others now that you wish had been shared with you? It’s interesting and flattering to have younger bands look to me. But it’s tough to give them a lot of advice because my experience of coming to age in this scene was at a much different time for music. If I could go back and advise myself, it would be mostly about putting ego aside for the benefit of the song.
What are you doing in your downtime travelling between shows in Europe this time around? Is there any shared listening in the tour bus/van? Any books you’re reading on the road? When I’ve got down time, I like to spend it with my girlfriend and dogs. On tour, I’m usually pretty busy between the shows, soundcheck, driving, interviews, etc. But when I have free time, I’ll watch movies on my laptop.
How are you doing after the recent van crash scare? [On 24 October their van skidded on black ice in the Oregon mountains and hit a highway divider.] Thankfully no one was hurt and you didn’t lose any gear. But how do incidents like that affect you in the longer term? It’s definitely makes us nervous about touring – especially in the winter. Human beings are fragile machines and playing a show isn’t worth dying for. Yet at the same time, this is who we are and this is what we do, so we’re not going to stop.
Converge play the Button Factory on 30 November with Touché Amoré, A Storm of Light and The Secret.