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:: Spotlight :: Interview with Converge

By: Justin Donnelly

Although there are bigger names within the metallic hardcore scene, few have had quite an influence as Boston based act Converge. Every one of their studio efforts has pushed the hardcore/punk sound to bold new extremes, and demonstrated what can be done outside the standard hardcore sound of most, which in turn has earned the band an underground following that has only increased in numbers as the years pass.

Following on from their highly successful ‘No Heroes’ album from 2006, the four piece act (comprising vocalist/lyricist Jacob Bannon, vocalist/guitarist/keyboardist Kurt Ballou, bassist/backing vocalist Nate Newton and drummer Ben Koller) are back with their long awaited seventh full-length effort ‘Axe To Fall’. As expected, ‘Axe To Fall’ is another step beyond anything Converge has attempted before, featuring a host of the group’s friends helping to bring the album together (In a sense, collaborating as opposed to guesting), with the end results sounding melodic in part, but all the while remaining very much a Converge album.

With the album out now, and Converge currently on tour, I caught up with Kurt Ballou while in Detroit to talk about the making of the album, some of the band’s collaborate efforts and the overall positive reaction to the album from fans and press alike, with some claiming the album is their strongest piece of work since 2001’s stunning ‘Jane Doe’.

“When I’m making music, all I’m thinking about is trying to express myself, and being thankful to be given the chance to make music in the first place. In regards to this album compared to ‘Jane Doe’, I personally always think that our newest record is always our best album. I think ‘You Fail Me’ (2004) is better than ‘Jane Doe’, and then ‘No Heroes’ is better than ‘You Fail Me’. So naturally, I think this album is better than ‘No Heroes’. It doesn’t bother me that some people think ‘Jane Doe’ was our best, because that was our kind of breakthrough album. Prior to that, I think we were just sort of trying to find our sound, and the right kind of people to play with. And then by the time ‘Jane Doe’ came out, we’d finally found the sound that we were after, as well as finding the right four people to be in this band. And that was really the first album that we had recorded that I was personally really proud of. I think it was light-years ahead of anything that we had done before (Namely 1994’s ‘Halo In A Haystack’ and 1998’s ‘Petitioning The Empty Sky’ and ‘When Forever Comes Crashing’). I can certainly understand why people gravitate more toward that album than any other one of our releases. But I really do think ‘Axe To Fall’ is our best album yet. The people at Epitaph Records will forward us press clippings as they come out, and yeah, everything I’ve seen so far has been really positive. So I’m really happy with that.”

Although every Converge release promises something new, it has to be said that ‘Axe To Fall’ boasts a very new and different sound for the band, especially given that their last three releases all followed a similar path in the directional sense – A sentiment that Ballou definitely agrees with.

“I think there’s a deeper sense of melody, and a bit more of a considered song structure within the songs on there. And just the fact that there are a lot of musical ideas on the album helps support that too. But while there’s a sense of melody on the album, I think the riffs are fairly harsh, but at the same time accessible as well. Put it this way, they’re assembled in such a way that’s memorable. If I dare say, there’s a bit of a pop sense and feel to the songs on this album, even if there isn’t necessarily a pop sound to the album. ‘Axe To Fall’ certainly has a melodic sensibility, but we haven’t compromised on our sound one bit. That was something that we were definitely going for on this album.”

‘Axe To Fall’ is a very much a collaborative effort from Converge, with members of Cave In, Disfear, Blacklisted, The Red Chord, Genghis Tron, Himsa, 108 and Neurosis all contributing to the album in various forms. But what’s really surprising is just how much it still remains a Converge album at its heart, while still sounding completely different from anything the band has produced before.

“I don’t think we ever worried about whether this album would sound like a Converge album or not. As long as the album sort of fits in with what we consider the Converge sound, it was kept in. After having the same four members in the band throughout the years, and taking into consideration our own respective abilities, I think it’s still going to sound like a Converge album no matter what style we do. I mean obviously some things we can’t do and make it sound like Converge, but those are the sort of things that we would put aside for other projects, rather than simply slap the name Converge on it. There are definitely some things that we tried to do on ‘Axe To Fall’ that didn’t quite work, and therefore we left incomplete because they weren’t up to our usual standards. I mean it was definitely a challenge putting together this album. But I think that when it comes to studio work, I always make sure that I’m calm and level headed enough to ensure that I get all the stuff done that needs to be done. We’ve been playing long enough to know that we trust each others instincts when it came to putting together the songs. Of course, there were some blocks along the way, but things eventually fell into place. I think we work well as a unit. It really wasn’t as torturous as it sounds. And I think that’s reflected in the music. It actually sounds effortless in its nature, and the songs go to show how streamlined the writing and the recording process was for us.”

In a lot of ways, it’s not unusual to see a lot of names listed on ‘Axe To Fall’. After all, Converge have long been known to include guests on all of their albums. But as Ballou points out, this Converge album features a lot more collaborative efforts rather than mere guest appearances.

“The album really runs a whole gamut of things in terms of collaborations and guest appearances. The collaboration wasn’t a case of, ‘Hey, throw a guitar solo in here’, or, ‘Here, throw a vocal in here, and here’s what you have to say, and when’. We really turned over a song to an individual, or a group of people and asked them to re-imagine the song. We tried to stay flexible, and really listen to that outside perspective, and gauge just how that perspective would inspire us to change what we had already thought of. And yeah, we chose to work with people that we had forged close relationships with, or share musical history with, and musical and personal respect for.”

One of the more interesting tracks on the album is ‘Effigy’, which is the collaboration between Converge and Cave In. Obviously with the much talked Virgin project never officially seeing the day all those years ago (Which was essentially a collaboration between Converge and Cave In), fans will no doubt be both excited and curious as to the pairs joint efforts.

“That was one of the songs that we were going to do for that project. That happened about five years ago. At the time, there were too just many chefs in the kitchen, and we couldn’t all agree upon things. Actually three songs on the album began as Virgin songs, with ‘Effigy’ being one of them. ‘Effigy’ was the one song that remained most intact to how it was. That was the one song that we all collaborated on, and all agreed on. And then there’s the song ‘Cruel Bloom’. That’s a song that I wrote completely on my own, and then the Cave In guys came in and played on it, and handled some of the guitar lead parts. We just didn’t all agree on that song, and we didn’t get it finished until we took it back and rebuilt it into a Converge song with Neurosis’ Steve Von Till on lead vocals. And then the best example of this would be the last song on the album, ‘Wretched World’. I started out with a guitar lead, and then a bass line, and the Cave In guys came in with the primary drum patterns. But with the collaboration with the other guys, it drifted into a direction that nobody was really happy with. So after that the song has been scrapped for a long time, I ended up giving the guys from Genghis Tron (Vocalist/keyboardist Mookie Singerman, guitarist/drum programmer Hamilton Jordan and keyboardist/drum programmer Michael Sochynsky) the backing tracks to work with. They all came up with this really melodic direction for the song, using their own instrumental ideas and Bannon’s lyrics to put that remainder of the song together. There was a lot of back and forth between us, and finding that once they had done their parts, we put down our additional parts, inspired purely based on what they had come up with.”

It’s interesting that Ballou mentions the two closing tracks, as many consider them not just two of the stronger tracks on the album, but also two of the most interesting and different sounding tracks.

“I’ve really liked the idea of finishing off the album with a really sentimental vibe. And I’m not just talking Converge records, but any album in general. Ending an album in a brooding, sentimental way has always resonated on me. So for us, it worked best to have those songs at the end. As a band, we really went over the song selection in terms of pacing quite a bit. We felt that the faster, high energy songs worked really strongly with each other. But when we were interjecting them with a really dynamic seven minute introspective song, it just didn’t seem to work for the album. So we focussed on putting those tracks toward the end of the album.”

With ‘Axe To Fall’ on the shelves, there’s no doubt that fans have already snapped up the album. But for those unsure, Converge has released a promotional video clip for the title track to tempt. Needless to say, the video is quite intense, and something that reflect the band’s harsh hardcore sound.

“It is intense looking. We put that task into the hands of somebody else (Craig Murray), and he put that together from his interpretation of the music he heard. I think it’s cool. I’m never very happy with videos because we’re not very involved with them. We’re very involved with the artwork for the albums, because Bannon does all that stuff. And we’ve involved in the business side of things, and from my perspective, very involved in the recording side of things. But then when it comes to the video side of things, nobody possesses the skills to mastermind that stuff, so we kind of turn that over to someone else. I don’t know if it’s a case that nobody has our vision, but we’re really control freaks, and we don’t know how to surrender that to someone else. I never really liked videos as much as albums anyway. The video is what it is, and it’s cool.”

As the conversation comes to a close, talk turns toward touring, where the band is currently out on the road in support of their new release.

“We just played a show actually. It was great, and much better than I expected. I really enjoyed the show. We’re playing about four or five songs off the new album, and they’re going really well in terms of audience’s reactions. They’re certainly a lot more challenging from a guitar perspective to play than our older material. So that’s limited how much I could freak out. I really have to concentrate on playing. But it’s a new challenge for me, and I’m enjoying it. At this stage, we’ll be out on the road for most of November throughout the US, before heading to Japan in December. Unfortunately, we won’t be making a return visit to Australia this time. But hopefully early next year we’ll be back down there. In terms of the future, we don’t have too much planned at this stage. But as soon as we know, you can be sure it’ll be posted up on our website for everyone to know.”

I would like to thank Kurt Ballou for his generous time, and Emily Kelly at Shock Records for making the interview possible.

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