An exact alignment of diverse textures finally falls into place.
Words by Rohan (@manvsplaylist):
On the eve of the release of one of the most multi-layered, sonically diverse supergroups to have evolved from the contemporary underground of extreme music, we at Heaviest of Art were fortunate enough to have the chance to speak with one of its visionaries – Jacob Bannon. A man of many talents, he currently finds himself immersed in the release of Bloodmoon: I, the new album from his band Converge, who have broadened their cast to be surrounded with a devastatingly creative ensemble of talent in the likes of Chelsea Wolfe, Steve Brodsky and Ben Chisholm.
Bloodmoon: I is a richly layered, complex and nuanced assault on the senses, a true amalgamation of the unique voices that comprise this collaborative effort, which produces an album full of diverse textures and harnesses a patient, brooding force. A project many years in the making, Jacob was kind enough to share his insights with us as he delves into the evolution of the group, and a variety of other topics across a broad conversation that provides a fascinating glimpse into the process of creating one of the year’s most anticipated releases:
Well, we're chatting about 'Bloodmoon: I' today, which really has its origins and saw the light of day, thanks to the incredible Roadburn Festival, something you've been associated with for a number of years. Can you take me back to how the project was even originally conceived prior to that event? Is it something that is a product of Walter's creativity, a result of him giving you the space to experiment with? Or was it conceived years before Roadburn even approached you?
Bannon: I would think that we would say more option B, it predated Roadburn. But here's the thing. Because we've been a band for such a long time, as traditional Converge, or the version that people usually quantify as the band, we’ve been formulaic. We're a typical drum / vocal / guitar band, and we've always experimented and had dynamics and really tried to push the boundaries of what our musical character is - but there's always limits to that when you have a four-piece. So even going back to the late 90s, I remember doing demos and talking with Kurt about musical ideas and trying to bring in more instrumentation and different kinds of ideas and things. And that would happen, but only in kind of measured ways, collaborating with guest appearances and things like that. All that stuff was in a more controlled environment and done very much within the confines of what we already had established. We talked about doing collaborative records, basically from that point on, just do something interesting and try to grow within our own universe. And it took a multitude of shapes over time.
Like, for example, our album released in 2009 called 'Axe To Fall', where it featured guest appearances from a number of people. That was very much by design. Some of those songs even started as songs that we earmarked for a project known as “Verge-In”. “Verge-In” was basically Converge and Cave In as one compounded group and with two bass players, three guitarists, vocalists, two drummers, and those musical ideas. There were a couple of jam sessions and writing sessions and things, and some of those songs ended up becoming songs that are on the 'Axe To Fall' album. The project from there just sort of drifted out into space, like many things do, but we still held on to the idea of trying to expand our sound and do something interesting.
We felt we had had an opportunity to do something special at Roadburn, and when Walter came and met with us and basically said, “Hey, the floor belongs to you guys - if you want to do something interesting”, and that definitely reignited some talk about doing some of these things. And we just basically started thinking about things in a little more structured way and people we would want to collaborate with and how we even want to do it. At that time, we decided to do basically do a reimagination of some existing songs, Converge songs that we felt could be pushed in different directions. For example, Kurt had a very specific vision for a song like 'Last Light' - so we took that song and put together a demo of how he felt it could go together with additional people. And then we're like, "Yeah, this could be really cool." And we presented these ideas to Ben and Chelsea and Steve as well and just started slowly kind of building this idea and concept of expanding the sort of collective Converge character to have almost like a big band version of Converge.
It's not like we're reinventing the wheel. Many people have done things like this before, in different ways. Like, for example, the Melvins have their traditional line-up and they have their big band version of the Melvins. You could even go much further into commercial music and look at giant bands, like Metallica, who have done these big orchestral arrangements of things, or someone like Entombed who have done something similar to that and has been super interesting. But we wanted to do something that wasn't just a reinterpretation of the songs but actually to collaborate and write together. So that was the sort of flash point: it was doing those shows around Roadburn, doing the Roadburn festival, and having just a positive experience in that. We all really got along well creatively and personally, it brought us all closer together. So at that time we just said, "Hey, let's explore this! Let's start writing."
So what was the length of time after that tour first tour of then actually crystallizing on that idea to start writing in the view of 'Bloodmoon'?
Bannon: I think once we all collectively knew what the musical character the band was to be, we all had material in various forms and ideas in various forms. And because we were all so inspired by what we just did, we just started cranking pretty much right around then on demoing new material. Initially it was just a logistics issue, trying to work around everybody's schedules. We all have different professions, different lives outside of the band, different responsibilities, so that was always a little bit challenging, trying to figure out a way to make all work for everybody. In the beginning that was really the hardest part, because we were all pretty inspired, it was just a matter of being able to carve out the time to do it. And we did, eventually. We started slowly amassing demos and ideas, and we collectively set aside a time around March or April of 2020 where we could come together and start recording – and so all of that was essentially thrown out the window due to Covid.
At that time, Ben C and Chelsea were just starting a tour in Europe for the Chelsea acoustic album, and they were basically going to come back and then come meet and us in the studio, and we were supposed to start at that time working on this material. Their tour got cancelled and their travel was obviously super interrupted and super stressful. Back home we were all locked down, and we had to cancel all of our things that we had going on, so we weren't really sure what to do in terms of approaching the material and even like moving forward with it at that time, because it was a weird holding pattern. It still is in many ways, dealing with reschedules of festivals and tours and things like that. It made it challenging to just figure out when we could do this. We started working on everything remotely when we could. Kurt thankfully had a lot of free time open up, and he spent a lot of his creative time really going through all of the existing demos and tracks and really trying to add just the organization to the madness.
It was quite an undertaking because you have seven performers, seven writers, and this huge mess of material, and so just trying to manage that and organize it was a feat in its own! He did a stellar job in doing that. It allowed us to sort of all get on the same creative path to be able to make 'Bloodmoon' work.
That’s wild. It seems like the writing all of that separately would be quite a different approach from the way that you would typically write for Converge, is that fair to say?
Bannon: Typically in Converge, usually somebody brings some sort of version of song to the table, whether it be fully formed or just some basic riff ideas that they want to put together. And then we all work together on that aspect of things, editing it and bringing it to its final form. For this 'Bloodmoon' album, it was very different. We wanted to be really fluid and really open to the idea of collaboration. That was a very different thing than we were used to. The four of us are used to just kind of like being short and direct with each other, where we can be just be like, “Hey - that's a cool idea”, or, “Hey, that's not great.” It's very much a sibling relationship, so we can kind of be short and to the point. But with 'Bloodmoon', it was a different kind of experience: we're respecting each other's boundaries in a different kind of way and really appreciating what each person brings to the table in a different way and really wanting, I guess, to dig even deeper. So for instance, I've never written lyrics really for somebody else to sing, or I’ve never really sat and edited somebody's lyrics in a more formal capacity. I've helped friends here and there and some stuff, but I've never done it in a big collaborative world, so that was really exciting because we essentially have multiple vocalists in this band. So doing that, trying to get the best out of everybody's work was really an interesting thing that I've never had to really do before. It's always been autonomous. It's always gone to me to get that narrowed in, and that took a lot of getting used to for me at first, but also became probably the most rewarding part for me just because it was a way different way of making art and music than I ever have before.
Typically, I would just be like: here's my story, here's my words, now let’s move on! But Steve and I spent a lot of time together, working on everything from basic lyrics and melodies to ideas to verse structures and really feeding off one another's positivity. That was a really cool, rewarding experience. The same goes with Chelsea: getting her input on things, as she sings in such a very different way than any of us do, and she approaches music in a way where she comes in before, like a root melody, and kind of dances around it and then digs in deep at some point. Whereas I'm very much a percussive vocalist because I'm yelling, I’m a loud vocalist or at least known for being one. And that has more in common with drums more than anything else, because it's just like hitting everything on the beat. It's just a very different way of working, and it really opened my mind and my heart to really appreciating collaborative work, and that’s something, at least at this point in my life that I really value.
I wonder whether that approach to writing and that experience as well as the different tone of this music, did that open up any other new thematic lanes for you to explore in your concepts lyrically?
Bannon: Well what's great about this band is that everything is unified by the general character, so it's not dictated by just me. Steve, for example, brought an almost fully finished lyrical song to the table. I wasn't trying to dismantle it and make it my own. I just wanted to identify with his voice and connect with what he was trying to communicate there, and so that was very different because I was so used to making things personal all the time - and this was just a different exercise entirely.
In the last bunch of years, I've been trying to get away from certain personal subjects. There's obviously really deeply personal songs, but I'm also trying to write about stuff that I can find, resolve in or at least I can have a healthy relationship with the venting. You know what I mean? I’m trying not to write about the things that I can't really control or that I can’t tackle within my own life. It kind of gave me another way of approaching art and music. It doesn't always have to be ripped from the very bottom of your soul to be deeply personal. I’ve come to a school of thought where I’ve done that for so long, to varying degrees of emotional fulfillment and success, in terms of what I get out of it artistically at the end of the day. But doing something like this with 'Bloodmoon' is just different, and it was just as equally fulfilling, which I'm pretty excited about, or at least very grateful for.
Speaking of Steve, you referred to him a couple of times there. Did you have any notion of his breadth of musical vocabulary back when you guys were playing together in the late ‘90s?
Bannon: Oh, yeah absolutely! Since I've known him, I've always felt that he was the most sort of uniquely talented of all of us, naturally talented. I guess what I mean by that is everyone's naturally talented, and we all work to find our artistic voice. But his vocabulary, as you put it, was so rooted in place at such a young age! Right from then I would be thinking, “Who is this incredible superstar right in front of me!?” Everything that he did it really connected with me at my core musically, and to watch him progress with Cave In and the myriad of related bands and his solo work over the years, it's just so cool. I’d say he’s also one of my most naturally gifted guitar players I’ve seen. All of those licks and that speed and the effortlessness that's there, all comes from years of teenage bedroom shredding.
But I guess the thing about our whole what we call our “universe of bands” and friends and whatnot is everyone has their own unique voice, and they're all so different, but yet so sharpened in their own weird ways. It's really cool to just see everybody grow, since we all knew one another as teenagers and now we’re middle-aged – so seeing what we’ve done and what we can do independently as well together, it's just really special.
It must be a real trip to then finally be able to bring that full circle with Steve - having seen that evolution and that growth and having talked about the Verge-In concept for a while, to finally bring this project to the light of day and see it come together.
Bannon: Totally, just being in a creative band with him again just feels great! But it’s great with everybody in this band: like Chelsea's obviously an immense talent and has this immense presence. She has such a powerful, unique voice, and is an incredible guitar player. Then having Ben C who's really like the secret weapon of everything, where he's this incredible multi-instrumentalist who can just really elevate songs to different heights that I didn't necessarily think that they could attain when we started writing this.
So I'll take the bait: The album title – 'Bloodmoon: I', are we going to see a 'Bloodmoon: II'?
Bannon: Ha! That’s a question that I’m really good at not answering! With what we demo’d and what we recorded, we have a lot of stuff! And what we created with 'Bloodmoon: I' is what we collectively felt was done and ready to go. Also, it was material that worked well as an introduction to this proposed idea, so there's a lot of stuff out there, and if there's going to be more than one, we certainly hope so. We're definitely ready for that. That's kind of where we're at. I would love to continue this for the longevity of our band. I would just want to just keep going and do a Converge proper album album, then do two or three 'Bloodmoon' albums, so who knows?!
One of the challenges with this, too, is also how do you name it? How do you present it to the world? I wanted to create an information system that would be flexible and packaging that would be flexible. So one of the solutions that we collectively came up with was 'Bloodmoon: I', 'Bloodmoon: II' and 'Bloodmoon: III', then also creating a certain packaging structure that can work with different art throughout those versions.
Well, I’ll be watching the calendar closely in the months and years ahead, as I did notice that the release date for this 'Bloodmoon: I' does happen to coincide with an actual lunar blood moon event. So I’ll be on the look out similar future events!
Bannon: We saw that come up as an opportunity. We said, "Yes, that sounds great." That's going to be the date. It was by chance and by agreement, but not necessarily by design.
I wanted to just shift gears a little bit and just talk a bit more about some of your most recent Converge experiences, if that's cool?
Bannon: Yeah, definitely.
So coming off the Philly showing for Decibel, that must have been wild with the downtime, and I don't know if you've ever had a show with that much space in between from when you last played. So how did you respond in both the physical capacity and mentally to that whole experience?
Bannon: I'm still kind of processing that, honestly, and it's still quite fresh. We've played a bajillion shows, so the muscle memory is still there to do that, but one thing to note is that since we started this band, basically since we got out of high school, we’ve toured every summer in some capacity, from 1994 to now. There's always been a year of touring, whether it be some sporadic shows or festivals, to longer tours. So the absence of that was interesting, right? I feel like 2020, at least for me, was a little easier to sort of navigate because it really felt like the end of the world, right? There was nothing to compare it to. So the absence of those things and then going into that fight or flight mode just to keep roofs overhead, that occupied so much brain space that I didn't really think about what I was missing, and it's importance to me. And I think just like anybody else who does something for so long, you take certain aspects of things for granted, even though you may try not to, but you do – it’s just human nature.
So for these most recent shows just now, I was questioning a bit if I even wanted to do it, because from a health perspective, I felt a bit nervous because I still have to come back and provide for various businesses and the families that they support. I was worried about what would I interrupt in the world if I got sick? Or if somebody got sick around me? That's a huge calculated risk. It could shut things down immensely. And so that was a little nerve wracking. I was definitely on edge psychologically because of that. In some ways, I also really enjoyed not playing for a summer, too! Especially now at the age that my kids are at, and at the age that I’m at, it was just nice to be able to just not be…
…on the grind.
Bannon: Yeah, to not be accountable for the clock. But it doesn't mean I didn't miss it. And so I didn't process that really until I think the first show, right before we went up - and I was just like, “Shit, this is crazy!” When we got to the first show, I was like, “I have not been around ANY people!!” I just realized that in that year and change, I had barely left my seven-mile radius and that was pretty intense!
But it really felt strange. I typically have panic attacks, but now I feel like I'm having the symptoms of at least having some serious anxiety here. That was definitely challenging, for sure. There were two things that were comforting: number one, I was around the guys, which I haven't been around in a while, but also we were traveling with Cave In as well because they were with us for that first show. So, it was like being with old friends and family again and that took a little bit of the edge off, but I still don't feel wholly comfortable with it. It just kind of makes you analyze your relationship with art and playing live and music in general.
Man – I feel like we could unpack just that response right there and just go super deep on that topic alone!!
Bannon: I’ve been going down that rabbit hole a lot! For the last bunch of months and leading up to those shows, and then after it, there’s a lot there!
I'm curious how much the material itself plays into that. If at all. When I look at what that record represents in 'Jane Doe', and I hear what you’re processing in that - it's heavy shit, right? Like, I'm just wondering, just going back into that mind space and reliving that album in full, it seems like that's a lighter burden than just actually the physical aspect of playing it. Would that be correct?
Bannon: It depends on the day. For me, when I play a song typically, I don't get ripped right back that moment, per se. But what can happen is that you sort of align your current mental state and your current state of life and your trials and tribulations that you currently have, the things that you're thinking about that could be boiled down to personal things or big existential questions, and you're still up there performing and you're still having that sort of evocative emotional response while you're playing. So, it almost becomes about different things sometimes for you in that process.
It's interesting. People will always gravitate towards specific records and songs in their lives - I do it with artists, too, but it doesn't necessarily mean that the artist that made it has that same sort of feeling or relationship with those things. For us, our band was pretty dismissive of that. We would just be like “Yeah, whatever we make records, we move on”. And to a degree, we still kind of think that way because those personal relationships are between the listener or whoever is experiencing that music and art, and the record itself. It's no longer ours to dictate once we set it free and out into the world. So we just kind of go, “Yeah, it is what it is." We’re appreciative of it, but we don't dwell on or really talk about it.
So we’d mostly brushed off those ideas of playing full records and shit like that most of the time in a pretty hard way. It just doesn’t interest us. Especially like doing full tours on records and doing anniversary things. But then we also are starting to understand that these relationships that people have with the record are just as valid as, like the reasons why we made the records in the first place. And those connections should be things that should be celebrated. If people want to celebrate them alongside us - that's cool.
But, yeah, playing that stuff and being in that visceral place of just playing something that heavy and abrasive when you're sort of unpacking all that shit emotionally – yeah – it’s like opening up a big can of psychological worms to deal with. It’s weird - I think that would’ve happened playing any kind of set, but I think when you boil it down and people relate to that being an emotional record, then absolutely yeah, that's going to be an emotional time for you, right?!
Well, I'm looking forward to seeing it performed out this way in LA in December, touch wood though, right?!
Bannon: Yeah. It seems that the world hasn't caught fire yet again. The chaos is just sort of holding steady, so I think those shows will happen. We're still in this weird holding pattern. We don't even know what's going to happen when! Even up to those last ones that we just discussed, just a couple of weeks out from those, we still weren't sure if they were going to happen! But you never know what the state of affairs is right now, so we're just kind of taking it one day at a time, that sort of thing.
I'm sure that also applies for the tour that you've got scheduled with Meshuggah next year as well, right?
Bannon: Yeah, and that one is even much less under our control because we’re their guest. So if anything happens in their camp, we’ll just have to end up following suit. The thing about a tour like that and talking about the situation health wise in the world currently, if one person gets sick, there's a lot on the line there! But I think about some of these larger tours that are far larger than anything that we are a part of, these larger metal and rock tours or however you want to define them – we just don't operate at a place where we're financially insulated from that sort of thing. So a lot of those arena tours and those big rock tours, there's a lot of insurances and things that are built in that allow these people to be able to take a hit but also not adversely affect their lives if things have to get canceled.
But when you're a working class band like we are, and just like any other working class band on any end of that spectrum, nobody's fronting anything for you, it’s mostly coming from your collective pockets as a group of individuals. That's some scary shit if you have the whole expense of a tour on the line and it can just get canceled on the fly for whatever reason. And it's so much more real now than it ever has been because of the pandemic, so those stressors are quite high, at least in our world, in our peers and bands that we're friends with. I know a lot of people don't think about that sort of stuff, and they probably think that we're all doing well. We're all surviving. We're making a living. We all have multiple jobs, I guess, for lack of better way of defining it. We're all creative people, and we make a living by being creative people. But it's an uphill battle, especially now in the pandemic.
Bloodmoon: I arrives November 19th via Epitaph/Deathwish Inc. Order your copy HERE.