Thursday, January 31, 2008

AGAINST NATURE Interview 2008!

They've become 1st Nature around the 'Realm!

It’s always a pleasure to get a great metal disc in the mail. AGAINST NATURE’s “The Anxiety Of Influence” is surely one of those. When you consider the fact that the CD in question is the work of a band who has not only come a considerable way since you first heard them, plus includes super-cool people who are from your local area, that’s special stuff. Then add the topper that this band has cranked out at least 3 other killer works this year (including the massive “Unfolded”!) and well, let’s just say that AGAINST NATURE is starting to reside in a very special place around The ‘Realm. Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to AGAINST NATURE guitarist/vocalist John Brenner. Here’s how that conversation went.

RAY: John, you’re one of the old-school metal guys from around these parts. How long have you been actively into music? How long has your hair ever been (ha ha)? What got you into playing guitar?

JOHN: Let's call it "continuing education" instead of "old school"? But I guess old is old and school is school. As far as bands, I've been playing guitar in them since I was 12, about 28 years. And I was a fan of heavy music before that, maybe since 1978 or so, just a kid, when I first listened to Rush, Kiss, Ted Nugent, Aerosmith, Queen, Black Sabbath, and a bunch of other bands. My friends' older brothers and my older friends introduced us to that music. Those bands themselves got me into playing guitar. I wanted to play like Paul Stanley and Ted Nugent and Brian May, especially them at first. (I still can't! Ok, maybe Paul Stanley.) My first guitar was a cheapy that reminded me of May's. I learned every song I could and practiced relentlessly, and still found time to be a neighborhood hooligan. When I was a teenager, I studied classical guitar at Peabody Conservatory here in Baltimore.

The hair question? It was long, long, long. Now it's...what it is.

RAY: You’ve had a storied history in the Baltimore heavy scene. Take us back through things like HAVE MERCY, REVELATION & AGAINST NATURE & whatever else I may be missing & give us an overview of your musical career.

JOHN: I'm aging with every question, Ray! It doesn't seem like such a long time ago that I was in Have Mercy; it's all still vivid. They were the first band that played original music I ever joined--I had played in cover bands since I was about 12--and it was a blast. I first heard them with my friends riding around in a van. 98 Rock played a song from their demo, and we thought "where did these guys come from? They're from Baltimore?" Less than a year later, I was in the band and we recorded the "Mass Destruction" demo. Rob Michael turned me on to so much good music then. And those were the days we'd go with you and others to New York and Jersey to record stores and shows at L'Amour's. Crazy times that I'll neither re-live nor forget.

Not long after Have Mercy (who made me leave the band, for a few reasons), I rejoined some friends and started Revelation. We knew from the start that we wanted to play "doom metal," a phrase nearly no one was using at the time and that meant something a bit different from what it's become. Even in Have Mercy, in 1985, we sometimes called ourselves doom metal, "white doom metal," because we loved Trouble. Anyway, we had Revelation from early in 1986 and we recorded a bunch of demos and traded them, sold them, and sent them to fanzines around the world, as every band did then, over the next 5 years. We recorded an aborted record in 1988 (which will soon be released on Leaf Hound Records and then our debut record on Rise Above Records in 1991. The second record came out on Hellhound Records in 1992, not long after Josh Hart had replaced Bert hall on bass.

Beginning in early 1993, I stopped playing heavy music for about 10 years. I didn't even listen to heavy music again until about 1991, when Rush worked its way back into my ears, and then all the old music I grew up on. During that hiatus, I listened exclusively to jazz and classical music, practiced my classical guitar, and occasionally played bass with Bert Hall, who was playing guitar at the time--we recorded hours of free-improv for ourselves. In 2004, Bert Hall, Steve Branagan, and I (the "Salvation's Answer" line-up of Revelation) got back together and formed Against Nature. In 2007, we also decided we'd continue recording under the name Revelation. So now we have two bands, same line-up, which doesn't make much sense, I know. We'll sort it out this year sometime; I'm in no hurry. Against Nature has released 9 full-length recordings on my Bland Hand Records label, a 7 in. single on Church Within Records (Germany), and a song on a Manilla Road tribute CD called "The Riddle Masters" (our contribution was "Crystal Logic," with Butch Balich of Argus and ex-Penance singing).

I guess I'm leaving out many, many details here, but that's a summary.

RAY: You know the infamous “influences” question would be coming up! Give ‘em to me! As an aside, what would your Top 10 desert island discs be? Any current bands you really dig?

JOHN: Ha--I knew it! Ok, I'm really going "desert island" here and not restricting myself only to heavy music. These are discs that I couldn't live without and that I could endlessly learn from:

John Coltrane - "A Love Supreme"
Rush - "Permanent Waves"
Rush - "Caress of Steel"
Trouble - "The Skull"
Robin Trower - "Bridge of Sighs"
Frank Zappa - "Lather"
Yes - "Time and a Word"
Miles Davis - "Bitches Brew"
Mississipi Fred McDowell - "Live at the Gaslight"
Black Sabbath - "Paranoid"

As for influences, at least on guitar: Leslie West, Robin Trower, Alex Lifeson, Tony Iommi, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Schon, Ted Nugent, Uli Roth, Michael Schenker, Frank Marino, Eric Clapton, Peter Frampton, Pat Travers, Ritchie Blackmore, Brian May, Rory Gallagher, Peter Green. The list could keep going, but these are the guitar players I listen to for inspiration, whenever I need to break out of a rut--they're the best guitar teachers around, and the price is only a record. (I'm listening to the first Journey record as I type this--Schon is amazing here, and this is one of my favorite records.)

RAY: If you had to use one word to describe AGAINST NATURE, what do you think would be most appropriate?

JOHN: Sincere. The music doesn't try to be something that it's not, or something that someone else is. That goes for us, personally, too. I hate the rock star attitude and everything around it. I'm not an actor and I have no claim to fame; there's nothing special about me as a person or as a musician. I just want to play music and be myself. Maybe that's not so great, but it's all I have that's sincerely me.

RAY: To me, AGAINST NATURE has made some pretty damn impressive strides since the first disc you sent me a few years back. Do you look at each recording as an opportunity to get “better” per se’, or do you see it more as “progressing?” Or is it simply a way to avoid watching lawnmower racing on late night TV?

JOHN: Once I thought that the music should progress and get better each time, and maybe it does or does not, I don't know. That seems more an opinion for listeners to form than for me to worry over. I think that we have many, many things we want to do musically, territory we haven't covered, influences that haven't yet surfaced, and it all needs to come out or something's going to burst. Sometimes I think my vision is going in five directions at once. And that's ok. No one's expectations mean anything to me but my own. If I have to take a step or two backward to find the right path at the right moment, then I'm ok with that. Retracing steps, returning to origins, going off on tangents, progressing--I don't know where I'm going. I'm just going. I just know that I won't follow any musical path half-way. I'd surely like to get better as a guitar player and songwriter, and by "better" I mean "better at making audible the music in my soul," as well as better in technique.

Someone is always going to say "this was your best record" or "I like record A better than record B." That's ok with me. I hope there's something for everyone in our music.

RAY: I noticed several things in particular on “The Anxiety Of Influence:” 1) The depth of songwriting, i.e., being able to make 20+ minute songs interesting. 2) The development of your vocal style. 3) The very cool tonal experimentation in lead guitar sounds. Can you comment on all of these in as much detail as you want? Feel free to become as long-winded as you’d like! J

JOHN: 1.) Lots of changes! I don't mean to sound glib, but variety keeps even the longest song going. "2112" is the perfect example. It's like a symphony in that there are themes and variations, digressions, returns, wide dynamics, introductions, codas. For "The Anxiety of Influence," I wanted the two songs to have this kind of variety. I also wanted them to be a survey, of sorts, of all the music that has influenced us as musicians over the years. Complacency kills creativity. I couldn't be complacent and write 25-minute songs with 3 or 4 riffs, although that would have been easy. I think you need to cast your net wide and deep to write an interesting long song, try to let everything flow into it that wants to, and yet still keep your eyes on the whole. Writing these songs, and then recording them, was a huge challenge for us. I don't know if we achieved want we wanted to, but I'm satisfied with the music as it is. If one day I think the songs fell short of my vision for them, then we'll just challenge ourselves even more and try it again with new songs. There are no rules.

2.) Vocals have always been my weakest point. But I think I'm finally learning my limitations and how to make the best use of them. It's not as if I don't stretch and try to sing in ways I'm really not capable of. I do that all the time. Yet many of the melodies in our newer songs feel right to me, and the range feels more comfortable. On the other hand, with our newest music I've been struggling again to do what I hear, and I fall short too often. Sometimes I get so discouraged that I'm ready to give up. But if I keep working on it, the comfort eventually follows. I'm too stubborn to let someone else in the band sing or to find a fourth member. It just wouldn't be the same.

3.) All the possible guitar sounds, all the wonderful sounds you can make with a variety of guitars and amplifiers--it intrigues and delights me. The tradition has been mostly that one person has one sound, a "signature sound," and learns to be expressive with it. It's a rich and ever-renewed tradition. But I want to approach lead guitar playing, at least on recordings, from another direction: one person can also have many things to say and can say them better with a variety of sounds. I'm thinking of the different guitar sounds as different languages in which to say similar things, different voices appropriate for varied situations. "Experimentation" is a good word too: some of my experiements fail, and I learn from that. I have several different amps and many guitars, and they all have a multitude of voices. I want them all to have their say. For rhythm guitars on our records, however, I mostly use one sound and one or two guitars. For the lead guitar parts, anything goes.

RAY: What do you find appealing about playing guitar and singing, as opposed to simply being a guitarist like in HAVE MERCY. Does singing ever limit what you’re able to do as a player?

JOHN: Absolutely. Some songs we don't play because I'm unable to sing and play guitar for them at the same time. Maybe if we rehearsed 5 times a week, I'd learn, but as it stands, there's no time to get some of them down. Singing also gets in the way of my listening to what I'm doing, the subtler things I'm supposed to play, the touch I want to have, the expressiveness of individual notes and chords--singing takes the focus because that's what's out front. I watch videos of someone like Hendrix and think "how in the world can he play that and sing at the same time"? I guess I don't practice nearly enough. Others are great at it, too, but I'm not at this point. The advantage is that it's done my way, and I stand or fall on my own merits...and without a singer, there's one less person to contend with in the band.

RAY: As far as songwriting in AGAINST NATURE, how does it generally go? Does the music come first or lyrics? Do you ever come up with a really cool-sounding title and then think, how the fuck am I going to write something that fits in with this? J

JOHN: The songs always start as guitar riffs. I have hours of individual riffs, and sometimes I string them together to make a song. Sometimes I write a whole sequence of riffs and then find a beginning or ending. The computer helps out a lot in re-organizing riffs and song structures, and I make liberal use of it. The result is all that matters, and I don't care how I get there. But the songs are guitar songs first and then vocal songs second. The songs are finished, instrumentally, and recorded before I even think about vocal melodies or lyrics. I usually assign titles to the songs before I write any words, and I feel free to re-arrange the titles and words to fit the song however necessary. I chop them up, cut and paste them, delete entire phrases, anything necessary to fit the song and the melody, which also usually comes before the words are written. All this is just in general, and I've used many methods of writing songs, including taking a boring riff, recording it, and then reversing it and learning it. That's actually an interesting way to work.

RAY: The titles of the 2 lengthy tracks on …”Anxiety…” are interesting, “Aporia” & “Mimesis.” What’s behind them (or to the front of them or diagonal from them?!)? How ‘bout the lyrics for that matter? Not having been an English major, I’m confused as well as being subject to faulty sentence structure!

JOHN: The titles of the two songs are associated with the title of the album and with the cover art...and with the allusion itself of the album title. That sounds tangled, I'm sorry. The song titles are ancient Greek words, words especially important in works by Aristotle and Plato. "Aporia" means something like "numbness" or "the inability to move forward or backward." "Mimesis" is "imitation." Harold Bloom wrote a book titled "The Anxiety of Influence," and that title resonated with me concerning music. That is, it's so difficult to write an original (whatever that means) song with so many great musicians looking over your shoulder, so to speak. Write something heavy, and Iommi is watching your hands. Write something blues-based, and Robert Johnson is looking on. So what do you do? The anxiety can immobilize you, if you're worried about doing something new, something unique, something that's not a pastiche or derivative. Then there's mimesis, imitation. A great way to learn from masters is to imitate them. But there's imitation and mere imitation. Mere imitation is just aping, mimicking, trying to be just like the original. Imitation, in the sense I mean, is learning how to sift the original through yourself to create something new. So, in me at least, there's always this tension between immobility and imitation, between doing nothing and doing something. Finding the balance is the art. I don't think I've found it yet.

The title itself and the cover art refer to the Greek sources of western civilization. Whitehead says that all philosophy is a series of footnotes on Plato and Aristotle. I would modify that and say all technology, all concepts of freedom and justice and democracy, all settings in which conversations about these things can occur, come from the ancient Greeks as well. If you live and think and create in the west, then the Greeks are always at your back.

So, that's a part of my thinking with the titles and the cover. It's something I'm not finished thinking about, and I may never be finished.

As for the lyrics, I try never to explain them. If they need explanation, then they fail as art. They should be able to stand on their own. Again, I'm so sorry if that seems smug; I don't mean to sound that way. There is something I can say, though. With Against Nature, instead of writing lyrics that are "about something," or that tell a story, or that serve as embellishment to the music, I prefer to let the words work associatively, instead of connotatively. That is, I want listeners or readers to find their own associations in the words, to find a personal meaning in them that's beyond a writer's limited intent of narration or exposition. One meaning is not enough and is impossible, anyway. Poetry isn't mathematics. (Euclid, however, I think of as a great poet! His geometry isn't mathematics, either.) The lyrics are full of literary allusions, word-play, direct quotes, purposeful misquotes and mistakes, irony, personal meanings, happy accidents, and stream-of-consciousness. I don't think that any artist owns the complete meaning to his creations--the listener, viewer, or reader can take part if the artist opens the work to association. I like to keep things open. I'll stop here, because I sound so pretentious now.
RAY: You know, back in “the day” when I used to fool around with guitar, I remember coming up with a song title called “Mortar & Pestle.” I always wondered why nobody had ripped me off on that and now you have! Ha. I’ll be calling my lawyer in the morning. Seriously, what’s the concept of this one?

JOHN: Did you really? I thought the title sounded really heavy, you know, associated with grinding and rock, pulverizing, and evoking brass and stone. From there, I let the lyrics take on their own life and used the title as a starting point for all sorts of associations to things in my life and experience. That's vague, I know. I don't know if I'm the mortar or the pestle. I'm still trying to figure it out. Maybe it's not even about me, in the end. Did you have lyrics or just the music for your song? I didn't mean to rip you off. I'm just not as original as I pretend.

RAY: You seem to be pretty prolific with AGAINST NATURE. What is next in store as far as recording projects go?

JOHN: A big part of our prolific music making is that we record everything at home, with my gear, and I record, mix, and produce it all. So we record whenever we wish. And we love to record. We've just finished two new releases, "Descend" and "Much in Little," both of which you can download for free at At the moment, I'm finishing work on the next Revelation record, "Release," which Leaf Hound Records of Japan will release in a few months. (They've also re-issued the old Revelation catalog.) Beginning in late March or early April, we're going to begin rehearsing and recording our next release, "Action at a Distance." This is going to be prog-influenced; we're going to let Gentle Giant and Rush and Yes find their way into the songs as much as possible. I'm unsure whether it will be all instrumental or if it will have vocals. I'll decide that once we begin to record. We're also going to approach recording this much as Miles Davis recorded "Bitches Brew"--we're going to jam and improvise and see what happens, and then I'll edit the songs to make something coherent and listenable and whole.

After that, I want to continue with some of the directions of the music on "Much in Little," a combination of 70s rock and prog. The future is wide open for the band, and that makes me happy.

RAY: How ‘bout touring? Where have you guys been to ply your wares live? Different levels of response in different places, I ‘spose?

JOHN: In 2007, we toured in the UK with Warning and The River, and it was the best time of my life as a musician. I met so many good people and bands, and I had a lifetime of experiences in two weeks. Patrick Walker (Warning) and I were able to spend our time walking about, talking of everything we could cram in, visiting art galleries and bookstores, playing chess in the van, discussing Shakespeare's plays. He is a beautiful, intelligent, amazing person, and I learned so much from him. Everyone in The River were like family. I played through Chris's Hiwatt amp and fell in love. Some of the crowds were amazing, some small, but everyone was welcoming and friendly. Dublin and Belfast were a whirlwind, but such beautiful places and people.

We also went on a short tour with Electric Magma across the US, and we were like teen-aged boys, carrying on and goofing off, watching cartoons, laughing all the time. We stopped at the Grand Canyon, which I'd never seen before. No words can adequately describe what it was like to stand on the cliff's edge and look a mile and a half straight down, or to become dizzy just by looking into the distance. It was sublime.

During 2005-2007, we played the Doom Shall Rise festival in Germany, Stoner Hands of Doom, Doomed to Fall, Templars of Doom, and individual shows in Baltimore, Frederick, Rochester, Toronto, Portland, and Boston. This year, we're touring in Europe, probably again with The River, and we're hoping to go to Japan for a week or so in the summer. Oh, and we have two upcoming shows: At Rex's in West Chester, PA on 2/2 and at Krug's in Frederick, MD on 3/1. It's going to be a busy year.

RAY: Besides playing in AGAINST NATURE yourself, you also have a label going, Blandhand Records. First, tell me something about the name of the label and then about what your hopes & aspirations are for it. You have some pretty damn good stuff on there, like CHOWDER, for instance who’s disc completely and utterly rules!

JOHN: Haha...the name of the label. Though it's only a few years ago, I barely remember how the name came about. We have a song called "Bland Hand Society" that's a dig at "Black Label Society," Clapton's nickname "Slow Hand," and generic doom metal all at the same time. It's also a bit self-depricating. I was going to call the label "Aporia Records," but Bert suggested Bland Hand because it sounded kind of funny and had a good ring. I like the irony of it--I certainly don't think Chowder, Dwell Within, Argus, or any of the bands on the label are bland! Like so many things with us, what starts out as a joke often becomes serious with time. The label's name is like that.

I don't have any big plans for the label. I'll never make money on it, mostly because I give all of the music away. But that's my philosophy for the label: all the music is available for free download, and we accept donations. When we have the money, we press some releases on CDs in runs of 100 or 200 and no more. If the demand were higher, we'd press more CDs. It's mostly a vehicle for us and our music, individually and as a band, and for those I've been involved with musically, and my friends. I might branch out into bands that are new to me, but the music will still always remain free. I want people to hear this music, regardless of whether they can afford to buy it. We don't have contracts and everything is open and friendly and honest. I want the label also to be a jumping off point for the bands, a place where they can start and let people hear them before moving on, as Chowder and Argus are doing. (They'll have a full-length release on other labels this year.) Chowder is a monster of a band! Josh Hart has many ideas, and I hope he gets to realize all of them. He's throwing around the word "mellotron" a lot lately, so I'm excited so hear what he has planned. I'd love to get John Gallo to let me make his Blizaro music available through the label. I want the label to be a source of free, heavy, interesting music. I want to remove the monetary value of the music so it can be free, in every sense.

RAY: With all this going on between playing and getting other bands’ stuff out on your Blandhand imprint, plus organizing a show like the Doom Or Be Doomed one here last April, what do you do for a living, John? How do you fit it all in 24 hours a day? I know you’re also married, how does your wife react to all this stuff? Is she into it or does she just accept it? Do you have kids?

JOHN: That's the key, isn't it, no children? It is for me, anyway. So I can dedicate much of my time to music. I'm a humanities teacher, but I teach only part-time now, mostly computer classes at this point. (This I'm hoping to change, soon.) My wife is into it and accepts it, and she's great about everything. She's becoming a big Zappa fan, too. Sometimes we have a house full of people staying with us, and she loves it. She even puts up with my spending so much time working on music, touring, and rehearsing. When I'm not doing something musically, or teaching, I also paint and draw. Some of Against Nature's cover art is my original art, and most of the layouts are, too. I like to keep busy. I don't know how long this will last; sometimes I feel like there's a devil chasing me. I need to keep moving while I'm able.

RAY: As both a band member and a label guy, if you had one piece of advice to give a new band who’s just starting out & wants to do original music, what would it be?

JOHN: It's probably poor advice, especially for success, but I'd say "Do whatever you want to do. Don't act as if there are any rules--there are none. Start your own label, distribute your music yourself, do whatever it takes for people to have access to your music. There's nothing flattering than for people to spend their time listening to your music, when they have so many distractions and other interests.

Write constantly! Write dozens of songs and records, keep refining your approach, your ears, your attitude. Don't make a big damned deal out of every record and song. Write one and move on. Don't play 'genre music.' Just play heavy and loud and sincere. Above all, imitate but don't copy. Imitate the classics: they're classics for a reason. Don't become a 4th generation copy in new, vague, or currently hip genre. This is 2008, not the 70s or 80s or whatever decade will next become trendy. Imitate the best, listen to the best, play like the best."

RAY: Ok, now fun time! (Well, it should have all been fun time, but…) With all your long years involved in this stuff…what is one of the craziest or most ridiculous stories you can tell that will amaze, confound or just plain disgust our readers. If you’re going to go back to the New York trips & Holiday In days, simply refer to me as Friendly Restaurant so my wife doesn’t divorce me or anything. Ha Ha.

JOHN: I knew that would come up. I was a different person then, just a stupid let's not mention that!

When Revelation used to rehearse on Eutaw St., near Rt. 40, in downtown Baltimore, in the late 80s, we saw and did some crazy and stupid stuff. We rehearsed in a squat run by the owner of that old punk club The Loft. He lived upstairs in one building and stole electricity somehow. He gave us a long orange cable into our room downstairs and next door, and we'd run all our gear and lights off that. The room had no heat or bathroom, so we had a kerosene heater inside--illegal in Baltimore City, and deadly anywhere--that made us nearly pass out from the fumes each night. It was generally about 35 degrees in there from November to April.

Our bathroom was the back room in any dark corner, a room that had no doors or windows--or toilet--and which we secured with scrap wood and carpet. We nailed old, moldy, smelly carpet on all the walls and spraypainted "DOOM" behind the drum pallet. It was a death trap, a total fire hazard. The "owner" and his friends would smoke dope the whole time next door; they had a seat from an old El Camino or something for a sofa and they made walls in the room out of plastic sheets. Homeless people would knock on our door and ask to come in our rehearsal space to get warm (not likely), gangs of young punkers and skaters gathered at the door to listen to us. There was a trap door that led to the scariest cellar I've ever seen. I swear there were bloodstains in the dirty, broken bathtub down there. It was all seedy and scary. We didn't care. We called it "The Eutaw Palace."

The previous year, we rehearsed upstairs in the same building, above Have Mercy (who used to make fun of our slow songs by mimicking them in between our playing). It was their space we took over downstairs when they left. Some squatters next door started a fire that almost wiped out all our gear--firemen were there, we heard later, with hoses pointed at our amps and drums but were talked out of it. Our gear smelled like smoke for months, even after we scrubbed it with Ajax. A guy lived upstairs from that room--we didn't even know about it until he staggered down the stairs into our room in his bare feet one day, walking across broken glass and moldy carpet in some drugged haze. We didn't even stop the song, we just looked at each other like "who the hell was that?" It was surreal.

Steve and Andy, our original bassist, used to pick me up from Peabody after class and we drive a mile or so to the rehearsal space. What a huge contrast from the upscale music school with pianists practicing Beethoven and Chopin to our filthy and cold squat where we played as loud as we could. The police never came, not even once. No one ever gave us trouble or harassed us, and then was no danger, even when we walked around outside. I guess thought if we were crazy enough to be in that neighborhood at night, we belonged there. No one ever broke in, although they could have at any time without anyone noticing. We paid about a hundred bucks a month to the "owner," until the buildings were condemned. Condos and fancy stores replaced the entire block of squats.

RAY: John, any last comments anecdotes or words of wisdom for our readers?

JOHN: Thanks, Ray, for this interview. I've been reading your reviews and pieces since the Record Bar days and Chaos 'zine (I remember fondly your issue with a review of Kill 'Em All, and another with Hellhammer on the cover--or maybe they were in the same issue?). So I'm thrilled and flattered to be a part of its long history. Your new blog is great, and I'm still an avid reader. Cheers to everyone!

The music that AGAINST NATURE has released, especially this year, has been absolutely superb. It’s a wonderful thing to then have a conversation with the man behind and find out how focused and down-to-earth this driving force is. My only advice to you, as a reader is to run, don’t walk to and order/download away!

1 comment:

Mark said...

Outstanding interview! I need to know the 'Friendly's Restaurant' story now.

Ray - you need to go crazy with the xerox machine and get those old chaos rags into our hands!

Great job!