The conventional wisdom on hardcore holds that the best bands are brief flare-ups of loud-fast-and-angry that exist just long enough to leave a legacy of some blurry black and white photos and a couple of rare 7" records or demo tapes. But Converge has spent more than 20 years smashing away any and all traditions, rules or calcified conventions. Their brutal, whirlwind mix of hardcore, metal, noise and punk has earned them a devoted, worldwide fanbase. And not only have they stuck it out for years, they've consistently upped the ante with each release. The band's latest LP, "All We Love We Leave Behind," is another collection of blazing, structurally complex hardcore that could've only come from them. The Times recently caught up with singer Jacob Bannon, a visual artist who's also responsible for striking album artwork for Converge and many other bands and who runs the label Deathwish Inc.
Converge plays a Nov. 4 show at Downtown Music Hall with tourmates Torche and Kvelertak (see calendar for more details).
You guys have been at this for more than two decades now. What are some of the biggest changes you've noticed in the realm of hardcore over the course of Converge's existence?
Changes? It really depends on how you define it. There are hardcore purists out there that would say that hardcore music hasn't really existed since '81 or '82, or that punk rock was a reactionary thing that was a specific date in time, and they live by those diehard belief systems. For us, we're a weird amalgamation of a bunch of different kinds of music, a bunch of subgenres and classifications. We're a melting pot that's hard to describe, so in a way, we embody what contemporary heavy music is; it's a whole bunch of subtle genre styles all blending together. They're not fragmented, it's not like we're a band that jumps from rap to rock or something like that, but sometimes it's the character of something, sometimes the spirit of something that you carry, but more importantly, it's your own voice that you express.
It seems like, compared to especially the '90s, things aren't nearly so hidebound and puritanical, not only in terms of politics, but music. Would you agree?
The political end is interesting. I think a lot of that has to do with how people have a fairly difficult time just wanting to speak their mind publicly about anything. There are a lot of bands that come out there that are numb or devoid of any personal stance, because their goal is popularity or their goal is to not shake up the foundation of their supporters or followers. I think you have a little of that, people playing it safe. You have music getting even more refined over time, ideas that don't work, things that don't artistically fit that well, they kind of tend to just go away over time.
What are small-venue hardcore shows like nowadays versus in, say, 1994?
They're a lot different. They're different in the sense that there aren't that many small venues that are independent venues anymore. Most have some sort of affiliation with a larger business, whether it's a larger conglomerate or a smaller subset of club owners. So it's changed a bit, it's a lot safer in that regard, whereas before all the way up to the mid '90s, you would definitely run into unscrupulous characters and you'd have less-than-legitimate promoters all over the country waiting to screw over bands. And you'll always have people who think they can get rich quick, come in, set up a venue and treat bands like dog shit and move on with some money in their pocket.
I remember five or six years ago, we were driving to a festival in upstate New York, Poughkeepsie. We were on tour, we left from Baltimore and did an overnight drive because it was an important show, and on the way there, we were getting messages saying, "Hey, we think the promoter bailed, nobody can find him." And it turned out he bailed and fled the country and he took twenty grand with him that was supposed to pay the bands.
So we didn't find out that we didn't need to be there until we were there. Because you're gonna gamble. What are you gonna do, pull over and then have the show possibly happen? So you deal with lots of little things like that. It's definitely changed, parts for better, parts for worse.
How have the business realities of being in an independent band changed? Gas is four bucks a gallon or more, and yet it seems like punk economics have not kept up with overall inflation.
Yeah, economics haven't, they haven't kept up with anything when it comes to independent music. If anything, it's gotten harder. We never knew the age in which bands truly made significant amounts of money from records. We weren't part of that. We never sold enough records or were around in that time for that to even matter. We only know the uphill battle and that's a little bit about being punk rock and hardcore and being a bit adversarial with things.
Now, I find it a bit bizarre that we have to spend our time and energy not just creating, but also educating people and convincing them that our art is worth something to purchase. And I also think that the system is completely fucked, where it's easier to steal our record than it is to purchase it. What kind of message are you sending if people can't purchase an album in two clicks and support an artist, but they can steal the whole thing or steal our whole catalog in 30 seconds? It's a little strange.
What about streaming? I watched an interview with you where you said you were a fan of streaming. Is that something you still feel?
I'm a huge fan of all of it. If people can experience music in any way, shape or form, I'm a fan of it. If they steal it, they steal it. What are they gonna do? More often than not the people who are stealing massive amounts of records usually don't have the financial resources to buy the records that they want. And I've got to say "want," because sometimes they say they need them. They don't need them. They want them. If you really need something or if something means that much to you, then you purchase it and you support it.
I think what's going to happen, and it's slowly starting to happen and you're seeing this with streaming services like Spotify and even iTunes, is that it's slowly going this way as well and Apple's working on this model where everything's going to be cloud-based. Rather than trying to miniaturize technology and try to have storage devices and phones and whatnot that can hold a lot of media, they're just going to be in the cloud and we're going to depend on the streaming technology. You're going to pay X amount of dollars a month for that service to use it and it's going to be identified specifically to you.
I've been subscribing to Spotify, and it's amazing how natural that feels now.
Yeah, you're used to it, and your listening habits have changed because of that.
Yeah and listening habits for myself are still rooted in a bit of an older model, because that's what I grew up in. I grew up purchasing cassettes, vinyl, CDs.
Yeah, I used to scour the back pages of Maximumrocknroll's classifieds, you know?
Exactly. You'd mail order for a record and hope you got it. I find that to be really kind of funny now too, because you have kids that will order a record, and if they don't get a confirmation e-mail that it was shipped within the hour, they'll start sending angry e-mails to you. I remember mail ordering records and just never getting them. I'm sure I spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars as a kid, of my hard-earned money, sending stuff out, and you had no recourse. You were ordering things on a whim and a prayer.
From an economic standpoint, what's it like a running a label? I saw that Hydra Head had recently decided to cease operations, so I know it can be tough. What are some of the keys to a successful long-term operation in your experience with Deathwish?
It's intense, it's rough but we also don't know anything else, much like our band has always known the world we live in. Deathwish started 10 years into the band. So we started when Napster was at its peak. You know what I mean?
The worst time to start a record label, right?
Yeah, yeah. Our goal definitely wasn't to become rich, because No. 1, we wouldn't be dealing with this, we'd be dealing with stocks and virtual money, you know (laughs). All we want to do is just release music that means something to us. I think the one thing that we've had to be really careful of is the overspending, which gets a lot of bands and artists and record labels in trouble.
You see it with bands all the time that we know that spend tons and tons of money on tours, on vehicles, on equipment, on unnecessary comforts and they spend all their hard-earned capital before they actually get home. And that's a sad thing to me. You see bands break up over stuff like that, and over the stresses that it causes. It's already hard enough just to be a band. I wouldn't want to add that into the equation.
As far as the label goes, it's similar. We don't sell a whole lot of records. We're a boutique-style label. We sell a few thousand records here and there. Some titles are larger, but it takes a lot of effort and a lot of time and if we looked at putting a dollar value on all the time and effort that we put into promoting and publicizing the artists that we work with, we'd probably be hugely in the negative.
I was working on some old taxes today because I'm an idiot and basically leave things until the last second because I have to. And I was working on stuff and I lost like twenty grand from the business in 2011. I don't care, that's fine, there's an ebb and flow to things. But it puts into perspective. When records are downloaded, when people steal, when people do a lot of things that are not conducive to supporting artists and labels, there is a direct effect. That's not only twenty grand that my business lost, it actually lost more than that, it lost like $40,000 that year. But it's a significant amount of money that bands don't also get as well.
And it's not to say I would have made that. If we'd made $40,000 more, I would have made zero that year (laughs). That's pretty depressing, but here's the thing: Deathwish employs a few people and it's a great working environment. We all believe in what we do, we believe in the artists that we work for, so we're OK with working really hard and having little return, as long as it usually pays for itself in some way. Some years it does and some years it doesn't. That's the way business is with any small business.
You're taking the long view, though.
Yeah, you have to. If you don't you can't stay in this community.
Just on a local note, I was looking through your tour schedule and I noticed that Little Rock is probably the smallest metro area on the whole tour. How did that come about? Did we just get lucky over New Orleans or somewhere else?
I think we had to cancel a show a couple years ago there, because our van broke down on tour. Although, actually (to bassist Nate Newton: "Hey Nate, when you got sick, did we cancel Arkansas?") Yes. We had a health issue in the band and we had to cancel a few shows. So we've been trying to get back and this routing was taking us basically through Little Rock. So we were like, "Let's play Little Rock, it'll be fun." I don't care if there are 10 people or 10,000, just as long as there are people who care about hearing the music we make, then we're cool about it.