Pillars of the 90s: Brian Cook Talks Botch's We Are the Romans
[This is the third installment of the Pillars interview series. You can check out the rest here]
Album: We Are the Romans
Label: Hydra Head Industries
Favorite Song: "Man the Ramparts"
The Bare Bones: We Are the Romans is the second full-length from Tacoma, WA mathcore quartet Botch, which included Dave Knudson (Minus the Bear), Dave Verellen (Narrows, Roy), Brian Cook (Roy, These Arms Are Snakes, SUMAC, Russian Circles), and Tim Latona. It would prove to be their final "real" full length as they disbanded shortly before releasing the An Anthology of Dead Ends EP.
The Beating Heart: Hardcore and metal had had their complicated, if often tenuous, relationship from pretty much the very beginning. Tenuous for what seemed like an unbridgeable gap in political and musical terms, with the somewhat more conservative metal scene maintaining a sense of grandeur and melodrama while the visibly more progressive hardcore scene seemed intent on demolishing pretty much all of those values, while relying on a threadbare DIY aesthetic. It was a battle of musical excess and musical frugality, and one that, for a while, seemed to breed entirely distinct scenes. And yet from the mid to the late nineties a group of bands began breaking down the walls of preconceived notions and remaking a new strand of dissonant, heavy music out of the working parts of both metal and hardcore. Few, I would argue, would combine those inclinations so explosively as Botch, the Washington outfit that seemed to come out of nowhere to confuse, disturb and probably put off members of both constituencies with their blazingly cerebral, and emotionally crushing musical attack. While the band did not last as some of its fans would hope, they reached an incredibly high zenith with We Are the Romans, an album so ahead of its time it still sounds like a jagged piece of angry art created somewhere in the distant future. For those few who would dare walk down their crooked path – present company included – they proved a blessing, a band that would be as heavy as any on earth and yet that carried that ever-moving, even-thinking, and ever-remaking spirit that served, and still serves, as the beating heart of the hardcore aesthetic mindset. All of which was more than ample reason for me to include Botch's masterpiece in this series through an in-depth conversation with former Botch bassist, and one of the most consistent and prominent artistic voices in American underground music of the past 25 years, Brian Cook, about the band's (too short) existence and the lessons that experience had provided for his later endavors.
What is Pillars? Before I get to my talk with Brian, a few words about what this all is, and what I hope to achieve in an investigation of the great albums of the 1990s. I feel like what happened, inadvertently with the Albums of the Decade project was a documentation and to an extent consolidation of what it is that I have loved an admired about the music of the past 10 years or so. I began writing this blog as a way back into music and heavy music after something of a hiatus from metal in the early 2000s and it was for me an investigation not only of what I love but also why I love it. And those interviews were instrumental in my own understanding of my appreciation of music and, really of art more generally. However, having gone through that series as long as I have has also pitted me face to face with the understanding that the wellspring of my own musical inspiration as well as that of many of the artists I admire today – that weird, unique confluence of inspirations that made up the musical scene of the 1990s – had to be tackled in some way.
So, if any of that pseudo-intellectual mumbo jumbo speaks to your soul, and if you haven't already, please follow follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Spotify and support whatever it is that we do on Patreon, and check out our kinda-sorta podcast, MATEKHET (YouTube, Spotify and all that). On to my conversation with Brian Cook.
Is there a moment with a song or an album, or a show, maybe as a younger person, that really changed what you thought about music or made you want to become a musician yourself? Obviously there might be more than one of these, but anything that stands out? A before and after moment?
I don’t know if there’s necessarily one pivotal moment where there was a “before and after” in terms of my relationship with music and being actively involved in it, as opposed to being just a listener. There are lots of little things. I mean, I remember during seventh or eight grade and I had to do some extra-curricular school thing on a Saturday, I don’t even remember what it was I just remember that I was supposed to go on some weekend field trip and that I was super unhappy about giving up my weekend as a 13-year-old. But a friend of mine had given me a Dead Kennedys cassette to listen to for the weekend, it was Plastic Surgery Disasters, and I remember listening to that on the trip and thinking…. I was just so gnarly and ugly to my ears and I was 13 I didn’t really know anything about punk music at the time, I just remember it was so unmusical but I could still understand and appreciate it. It kind of felt like being part of some secret club – something like: “I understand this but I also understand why most people wouldn’t understand the appeal of this.” It was a very exciting moment and that was the first time I heard something that was sonically difficult or unconventionally unpleasing and being excited by it. So that was an early first step.
But I think the bigger moment that was profound for me, and I hesitate to bring this one up because I was already playing bass guitar and I was already playing in bands, but I was in high school and I went to see a show by a local hardcore band called Undertow and it was at a youth center in the suburbs outside of Seattle. So I went into the show, and this is probably ‘93, and because it’s a youth center so there’s a bunch of people who are there for the concert and a bunch of kids who just hang out at the youth center, so there was this kind of interesting convergence of two different demographics, show-goers and street kids. And I remember a couple of the regulars of the center, the kids who weren't there for the music but were just there to hang out because they didn’t have anywhere else to go, were picking on some of the punk kids, like: “Why are you so weird? Why are you such a freak? What are you, gay?” and that kind of thing. And it was just kind of awkward and I was sort of a witness to it and went: “Huh, that’s a real bummer.” At that point I think I was a junior at high school so I was about 16 and I just remember seeing that and being uncomfortable but also knowing that we were in someone else’s territory and maybe you don’t have a right to intervene in those kinds of situations. Just being uncomfortable and disappointed seeing that kind of behavior but not really knowing what to do about it.
And then Undertow went on stage and they had all these homophobic slurs that they had written on their arms, and they went: “We’ve heard that there are some kids here who were picking on some other kids and saying some pretty homophobic things and we just wanted everyone to know that we stand against that and that all people are welcomed at our shows.” It was the kind of thing that now, I think, a lot of young people are accustomed to from artists and bands, it’s expected to speak out and proclaim safe spaces and all that. But back in 1993 that was a total eye opener for me, like “Oh my god, this band gives a shit! They’re looking out for people, they’re calling out bad behavior, they’re not afraid to confront the problem and taking responsibility!” All that was really eye opening and exciting to me. And even though at that time I was a closeted gay kid and I think it altered my life’s path because I just went: “Oh, this isn’t just about music, this is about being a community, about being accountable, about being apart of a culture or a mini society that’s outside the mainstream world that’s trying to do better.” That was a really big deal for me, that was a very profound moment.
I have about nine questions I want to ask about that but I guess the most immediate one would be to ask whether the effect of that moment was a result of the crowd’s reaction to Undertow’s statement or that it was more a personal experience you had with that statement?
In my brain there was a very positive response from the crowd. Undertow was a very straight-edge kind of hardcore band but they were also involved with the other DIY style of hardcore. So there was always a kind of political angle to what they did and so I think most of the people who were there knew their music and were already open-minded people and open to that kind of dialogue. But for me, as someone who wasn’t yet well versed in that scene, it was definitely an eye opener.
The other thing I wanted to ask was that you told two stories, right? One was a story about how the music felt, how you experienced the sounds, and the other story is really a story about community. But I think they come together in an interesting way. That you’re listening to this “gnarly” music, as you say….It kind of reminded me of the narrative surrounding second-wave black metal bands that describe their music as something you’re supposed to not like and if you do like it you’re already “in.” So you’re in the “club” because you like the music, the “pleasant unpleasantness” of it, but then you discover that there’s a political aspect to it as well. That the people who are in this specific club – and this is, I should say in stark contrast to the black metal example I just used – think differently not just in terms of how the music sounds but also in terms of what the music does, right?
And so looking back at that story and then look at all of the things you’ve since done in your music career, would you say that was something you maintained, whether intentionally or not? This coupling of challenging or different music with the idea that its a music that’s part of a group of people who are also challenging themselves in different aspects as well? Your commitment to that “club,” in a way?
Yeah. I never thought of it in terms of choosing a sonically difficult path along with choosing a difficult path in terms of having an outsider status, but I definitely think there could be something there. I think a big part of the allure of a lot of punk, hardcore, and metal music is that it feels like a secret society, there is something of the tribalism of…whether it’s something like Darkthrone or Infest, just abrasive and anti-musical artists to a lot of people’s ears. But if you’re tuned into that frequency and you kind of know what you’re listening for when you hear those things then it’s very powerful and exciting. So I think that that bond of being able to understand and appreciate that, I think we’ve all witnessed that in the underground and we’ve all felt that kinship with other people. I think in my mind that stuff was always married to living on the periphery, to some extent. You know, so much of that music is primarily consumed by white, young males so it’s not necessarily the most diverse or open demographic of music fans, but for someone like me, who was figuring out who I was as a person, realizing that on some level I was different than other people, and having that musical culture that celebrated being different was really empowering. For me it became my form of civic engagement, in some way. I think everybody wants to be a part of something, everyone craves some kind of community, and I think a lot of people find it in things like church or in sports teams or other things that may serve as distractions – parent-teacher groups, boy scouts, all kinds of things that people latch onto because it gives them a sense of community and belonging.
For me it was the music scene, that was where I was: “Oh, these are my people, this is my tribe,” and a big part of that was such an open minded, diverse, and questioning scene. It was by no means perfect, and it was, as I said, a lot more homogenous than I think it cared to recognize, but at least it strove to be more inclusive and open minded and that was really exciting. Especially for someone like…. I was brought up in a very religious household so a lot of communal life revolved around religious activities and I always felt a little outside of that. I think a lot of people who had to deal with being a gay kid slowly reach this realization where they go: “Oh, I was left out of this equation, I’m not ultimately welcomed in these circles. And then you find something like punk rock where it’s like: “Oh these people have integrity, and they believe in a better world too and they might even be doing a better job with treating people with respect and in living an ethical or a moral life than people who are weird fundamentalists.” So I think punk really appealed to me for that reason. It felt like a noble community.
So I have nine things in my head again, it’s always nine for whatever reason….
But one of the underlying preoccupations that has been the kind of motor at least for a time was this idea that a lot of the bands that I liked growing up, say in the mid 90s or so, a period that I see now as one of great cross fertilization – rap, funk, hardcore, metal, post-rock, they were all kind of fighting it out – a lot of these were bands that didn’t really seem to fit in nicely in any one neat category. They only made sense in certain contexts, but even that wasn’t fully comfortable, which caused at least some level of discomfort that I think I identify with. Like “I kind of get where that could belong, but it doesn’t really belong anywhere, and maybe that’s me too.” And at some point I noticed that some of those bands begin in certain scenes, say the hardcore scene, but then there begins friction with that scene because suddenly they discover that the punk or hardcore scene, for example, that they saw, as you said, as this noble community was a little more restrictive than they would liked it to be – musically, politically, whatever. So my question to you would be: Was there a point in which that thing that you felt was liberating began to feel stale and that you had to, so to speak, differentiate yourself even from the “different” crowd?
I feel like that revelation came very quickly. We’re talking about this Undertow show and that would have been ‘93 so that was right about the time that Botch started. The other three guys at Botch all kind of grew up in the same neighborhood, they all knew each other, and for all of them their initial exposure to heavier music came through heavy metal, things like Metallica or Faith No More and just the heavier end of the alternative spectrum, with just a little bit of traditional metal kind of thrown in the mix. I grew up in Hawaii and was introduced to punk in Hawaii and then when I moved to Washington and met these guys – I was into some heavy metal but I was more into Minor Threat, Black Flag and that kind of stuff. So we came at things from a slightly different perspective but I think we all rallied around modern hardcore since it was rooted in punk and so it appealed to me for that reason, and then it was riff-driven so I think it appealed to the other guys in the band because they latched on to the heavy, down-tuned riffs. So we all latched on to heavy hardcore around the beginning of the band.
But when we first we tried to play shows we were not welcomed into the Seattle hardcore scene, because we were kind of these weird kids from Tacoma who were new to the scene and kind of playing hardcore but there were a lot of other elements in our music. So for as much as I loved how inclusive the hardcore scene presented itself in terms of, you know, being cool to gay people, being cool to women, being cool to people of color, they weren’t necessarily open to “new jacks” [laughs], or music that was outside of the hardcore formula. So I think there definitely was this realization in the first year of really being being excited about hardcore that “Well, this is not a perfect world and a lot of people in the Seattle hardcore scene seem a little closed minded and that sucks.” But all the bands that we were sort of obsessed with weren’t trying to win people over, they were doing their thing, and if it clicked with people then it clicked, and if it didn’t then fuck ‘em, who cares?
So very quickly we made a conscious decision that we weren’t going to take the easy route, that we were going to make the music that we like and hoped that it resonated with other people, but ultimately we didn’t give a shit we just wanted to do whatever we wanted to do. Eventually that caught on, we eventually became the “big” Seattle hardcore band, which was weird because we weren’t welcomed originally. But during that ascent we also watched a lot of more traditional hardcore bands sprout up in the Seattle area, and those bands took off and kind of had their own crowd and I remember feeling a little confused by it because in my mind hardcore was exciting because it was new and it seemed like it was pushing things forward. All those hardcore bands that I loved, they had become increasingly gnarlier or more dissonant and taking in weird other sonic styles, they were deviating from the formula. For me, bands like Antioch Arrow or Engine Kid, those were awesome hardcore bands, whereas your standard, varsity-letter, Judge-knockoff band wasn’t exciting – that was a sound that had already been around for ten years, why keep doing that? Hardcore is supposed to be about rebellion and pushing things further into the periphery so recycling something from ten years ago didn’t seemed like the exact opposite of what punk bands were supposed to do.
So I think at that point that was the kind of moment you’re talking about with bands like Faith no More and so on. We started out as a hardcore band, and I feel like we’re still a hardcore band, but then I look at what’s popular in the hardcore scene and that’s not what I identify myself with. I think for me a lot of my creative journey has been…. My formative years were [in] hardcore so I look at everything through a hardcore lens, but hardcore music isn’t really exciting to me anymore because I can’t see past that whole phenomenon of being locked in the four-chord formula. For me it’s more exciting to discover a band like Khanate, for example, where they’re not a hardcore band but in my mind they’re doing what a hardcore band should be doing. They should be pushing the boundaries and doing something really ugly and bleak, creating something that I haven’t heard before. That to me is more exciting and that’s what my musical journey has been, to always try to find something that feels like it’s moving forward and dismantling formulas in a sort of scrappy, self-sufficient way, and whatever it gets labeled by is besides the point. If a label is just going to trap it within a set of parameters and formulas that’s probably not very interesting. But if it it’s trying to push forward in the way the music I fell in love with in the 90s was pushing forward then I’m all on board.
I think that if you’re in that position of “I like heavy music because it makes me feel good” or “I’m an outsider and heavy music makes me feel good,” if you latch on to the “heavy music” part doing that then it becomes very difficult for you to evolve through or beyond that. But if you latch on to “What makes me feel good is the difference or the surprise” then that means that there’s a clear path out of heavy music, at least sometimes. So hardcore or metal can do that for you for a while but whatever form that takes becomes stale at some point because what you’re looking for is difference, or independence, or freedom. You’re looking to be free, and if someone else tells you what to do then that’s in the way of being free.
And sometimes in life things take on a kind of trajectory. At one moment you’re struck by how aggressive the music is, the next you’re struck by a sense of community, and then you can also be struck by being disappointed in that community. And there can be stages to what happens after that point, the first of which is to go: “Fuck you, I’m different.” And to my mind American Nervoso and some of the stuff that led up to that kind of feels like that. That whatever it is anyone was trying to pigeon-hole you as, you’re not that thing, in a very aggressive way. And all that aggression ends up in an artistic object, and then you look at it and, as something that’s already out there, it seems less interesting to you. But that kind of cleared the pathways for thinking about what it is you really want to do. And in my weid, music-fan ears, that's We Are the Romans, like a moment where you’re making it a bit different. Does any of that make sense? Or is it all randomness?
I don’t think you’re too far off from the way it went down. American Nervoso, that record was really the product of two years of songwriting. I think it came out in ‘98, and in ‘97 the only thing we put out was a split with Nineironspitfire and the previous EP had come out in ‘96, so it was basically two years of stockpiling songs and it was two years where we basically graduated from being teenagers and became young adults. So I think our musical palette was expanding. Nervoso was kind of a cool record because it captured our growth – a song like “Dead for a Minute,” which I think was the first song we wrote for that record, is a pretty standard, moshy hardcore song, but by the time we were ready to record that record we were writing songs like “Dali’s Preying Mantis, which as us tapping into things like The VSS or The Monorchid, more angular, post-punk style bands in the 90s. So, I think we were developing a lot in that time, and when we were done with it and had it I think we were all very proud of that record but I think it was one of those things where we had kind of outgrown beyond the level of that material by the time it came out. So there are songs like “Hutton's Great Heat Engine” or “Thank God for Worker Bees” where it felt like that was the direction we wanted to go, but there was a lot of stuff on the record where it was more like: “Oh, maybe we’re beyond that” or “That doesn’t really work for us anymore.”
One of the things we had in mind when we started working on Romans was that we wanted to eliminate power chords. We just didn’t want to have the standard drop-d, one-finger riff action that was on some of our earlier records. We wanted to have everything be a bit more pointed and we wanted the heavy parts of the record to be more like Drive Like Jehu or something – dissonant, single-note riffage. That was more exciting. But really Romans was kind of a fluke because as a band we were very slow at writing, we’ve always had really long periods of writers’ block. Basically we put out American Nervoso, we did a big summer tour off of it, and then we came come, just basically thinking about what our next tour would be and we decided it was going to be the following fall and we just wanted to have something out in time for the tour in September of ‘99. So we just booked some studio time in May and whatever we had out that was going to be what we were touring on, and it so happened that that coincided with a very fruitful, productive writing phase for us, that was really the only fruitful period we ever had as a band [laughs]. Nervoso took two years to write, we wrote Romans in less than six months. It was just a flurry of creative activity, and it was almost like one of those things where once we we’d given ourselves a few more parameters, once we established that we were not going to do standard, palm-muted mosh parts, just cutting that completely out, so then it’s: “What can we do that’s way more satisfying than that?” Someone by creating boundaries and limitations it opened things up for us, made us think a little more aggressively, and thinking outside the box made things a lot more exciting – doing things like looping guitar parts in “Transitions from Persona to Object.” We were by no means the first band to come up with that – you can listen to “Self Pity” by NoMeansNo from 1981 and they do a very similar thing in that song – but for us that kind of musical technique was uncharted territory and super exciting.
I just remember playing that song live for the first few times and knowing it was just going to completely baffle hardcore audiences, that they wouldn’t know what to do with a song like that. And that to me was way more exciting and confrontational than writing a super-heavy chug riff. Just knowing it was going to confuse and frustrate people was really satisfying [laughs].
I would imagine [laughs].
So there was this weirdly confrontational element of Botch where some of the best stuff we did as a group was also stuff that we knew was going to be difficult for people to wrap their heads around. That made it more exciting.
So with this new freedom-through-limitation also comes a much more diverse set of songs. And you’re the bass player, which is an element of bands that doesn’t always get its credit, but I would imagine that with a wider palette of songwriting then bass becomes one other brush you can paint with, not just something that follows the rhythm.
Yeah. Botch songs were really written around the dynamic between Dave Knudson on guitar and Tim Latona on drums. Those two guys were responsible for the majority of the material. But I do think that everyone in the band lent something to the sound, and as a bass player I was… ambitious, I guess? I wanted the bass to be on level footing with the band, I didn’t want it to be just a supplementary that’s just filling out some of the guitar riffs. I wanted it to be like Unwound or Minutemen or something, or Rush. I just loved bands where the bass was a very audible component, where there was some interplay with the guitar, it wasn’t always just walking into what everyone else in the band was doing. I’ve always felt like a good bass line should stand on its own, that if you took the guitar out of the equation it should still be a cool song with just the bass and drums.
And so I think having that mindset and approaching the bass throughout the course of the band in that way, I do think that helped inform the band’s sound and I think it helped nudge the band into the territory we got to in We Are the Romans where Dave is playing all over the fretboard because we were fine with having that separation in frequencies. It was fine for Dave to kind of go off into the upper registers of the guitar because that opened up a lot of the lower registers for the bass to move around and fill things out. So, yeah.
It’s interesting because I recently revisited We Are the Romans just ahead of this conversation and one of the things that struck me that I’ve never noticed before was – and this is not to make it sound derivative, or anything like that – was that it sounds like a heavy Fugazi.
And this idea of a “heavy Fugazi” plays into a lot of what we were just discussing. Also in the political/social side of things, as well as in the “not really fitting into a scene” type of way, but also in what you were just saying because I think Joe Lally’s bass does a lot of what you just described. Fugazi songs could be unforgettable precisely because of the bass line, to the point where sometimes the guitar line is almost derivative to the bass line. And so I wonder, and not necessarily by way of direct influence, whether or not Fugazi was in your consciousness at all at that time?
Fugazi was actually the first concert I ever went to, in 1991. I’m totally a product of the 90s, those were my teenage and young-adult years, so I hold the 90s in very high regard. And, to me, I think Fugazi is the greatest American rock band of all time. To begin with, every record is great, every song is great – there isn’t really a bad Fugazi song. With some songs they fuck with the formula and get into some pretty trippy territory that may no have the same power as “Faucet Squared,” or whatever, but ultimately there’s no bad song. They evolved, they created their own culture, their own community, they never compromised their core values, and they were an amazing band from beginning to end. So for me Fugazi was always a huge template. They set a very high bar as to how bands should conduct themselves and I think a part of growing up was realizing that only Fugazi can be Fugazi, only Fugazi had the leverage and the power to do the kind of things they did. They don’t necessarily need to be the “rule makers,” you know? We learned over the years that you need to charge more than five dollars at the door because sometimes five dollars didn’t cover the cost of expenses. We were very adamant about all-ages show but eventually we realized: “Oh, we can do an all-ages show and a 21-and-over show, it’s totally fine.” Everyone gets to see the show and people get to enjoy it in different ways.
But, musically they’re super important too. As you pointed out, Joe Lally was a very interesting bass player and they would have been a very different band. You could take the guitars out of the equation and just have it be Joe and Brendan [Canty] and it’s still an amazing song. That was definitely something that was in my mind at the time when we were making those records, Fugazi was a huge influence. And that takes me back to what we were talking about earlier: When we were writing Nervoso and we didn’t want to play power chords anymore, you start laying out things that you do and don’t want to do. And a lot of abrasive underground music is really contrarian and it’s really about negating things and sort of saying: “We don’t do that or that.” A lot of times that can make music difficult, and I think it’s good to keep an open mind and remember that nothing is off the table, that we could try whatever, but I do think there’s something interesting about having a little bit of that negation process.
I look at a band like Daughters…. I’m good friends with the Daughters guys and have talked to them at length about their creative process. So much of what Daughters does is that all those guys have such divergent opinions on music and such different interests, and so what they do is basically weeding out all the things they don’t want to do and what’s left is the song. They’ve said “no” to so many things that all they have left is this weird, ugly, dissonant music, and it’s amazing. There’s a weird paradox there where on the one had you want to be open creatively and be open to trying new things and never pigeon-holing yourself, but sometimes the best way to do that is by saying “no” and eliminating variables until the path kind of reveals itself.
I think that’s absolutely right. I think Daughters are an extreme along that spectrum, but I can think of Giles Corey, the solo project of Dan Barrett from Have a Nice Life, where he decided to not have electric guitars as a way to limit himself. But I think those things are extreme versions of a process that happens naturally, just as, as you said, sometimes you just outgrow a certain element and you know precisely that you don’t want to repeat that in the future. And so you start asking yourself questions like: “So, if I don’t do that what do I do?” If you’re a critical, creative person who isn’t afraid of experimenting as much as you’re afraid of staying put then that kind of happens.
And this has been a steady issue in my conversations with people who have had long, varied and successful careers – as long as yours, I should say. I just thought about this before we spoke that I could essentially talk to you about significant bands that you were a major part of in three different decades. I don’t think there’s many people who can say that. And so people, as yourself, who are invested in a long-term creative process, I think that constant shift and self limitation happens just naturally along the way. So Brian Cook who’s in Russian Circles and Sumac might feel weird about having been Brian Cook who was into hardcore – excuse my use of the third person here, I just think it’s cool…
But there’s a progression there from one moment to the other. So you’re not the same person but there is this weird relationship, a weird coexistence of the two together.
I think that one of the things we were also very cognizant of when Botch was active was that music shouldn’t be super period-specific. I feel like a lot of people are really into the zeitgeist, tapping into something that’s super reflective of the times. And that’s cool, but to me that feels really calculated or like you’re trying to chase a trend. I think it’s more interesting to do just what you feel compelled to do and then you can check back on it later and see how it was a reflection of the times. So much of the music I’ve made, it’s not like we’d go into making a record with a template or this message we’re trying to get across, it’s never like that. It’s always: “Find the things that work together and you piece it into a record and then you just sort of see what it is and you hope it has some lasting power.” So much of the music that inspired me growing up wasn’t music that was current, it was music that was maybe a couple of years old, maybe ten years old – I’m talking about 1991 or 1991 and I’m listening to the Dead Kennedys and Minor Threat, bands that had broken up in the 80s. But they still spoke to me and they still seemed very urgent and important. And even though they were these bands that existed on the fringe in their active years, their influence only grew with time and they only became more and more important in the landscape of American music. To me that was something that was way more interesting.
In terms of Botch, I think we were pretty mature in the sense that we weren’t trying to make music that made sense in 1998 or 1999, we were trying to make music that we thought would still be interesting in five or ten years. And that seems to be how it kind of played out and so I think we were very successful in that regard. Even now it’s still something that’s very much a part of my approach to making music. It’s fine if [music] represents a time frame, it’s fun to listen to records form 1968 or 1969 knowing what was going on in our society at that time and how that might have been reflected in the music. I think historical context is very cool, but it’s always in hindsight. I think it’s more interesting to make music that when you hear it you don’t really know where it came from. It’s not ephemera, it isn’t something with the shelf life of six months, it’s something that becomes its own historical document. I don’t know if that’s how a lot of people approach music, it’s not something that I think people talk about that often.
It’s perhaps not spoken of a lot in those terms, but I think…. So, we’re talking about a pretty small pool of artists right now, and let’s call that pool “artists that Ron respects”….
And so within that small pool it is quite common – perhaps not in these terms – to say…. I should say that my first ever interview was with Ian MacKaye. And one of the things I asked him then was “How come all the Fugazi albums are different and yet they all sound like Fugazi albums?” And he said something like: “Our first priority was that we had to be free, and if we felt free then it was always us but sounding different.” And just recently I spoke, for this current project, with Steve Von Till and he kind of said the same thing. Something along the lines of “People gave [Neurosis] a hard time because we weren’t playing hardcore anymore but we wanted to play what was interesting for us.” And so what we’ve been discussing as an investment in the long-term creative process is couched in terms of creative freedom. So I think those two are quite related.
That if you’re completely invested in what it is you want to do with your music then that music has a greater chance of resonating at some later time. But that leads me to a different question: the life or attitude I just described, that’s a tough life, for various reasons, not all of which are financial. It’s a tough life because your identity is always shifting. I, for one, am always envious of people who seem to have a stable sense of who they are, because I’m always all over the place, and bored by things, doing more things – this interview project being one. And so I’m always jealous of people who are comfortable in their own skin, or even people who have a steady income.
And so it can be a very difficult existence. On one had you’re fulfilled, you’re expressing your artistic freedom, but on the other hand – not a lot of people come to the show because you’re not metal enough for the metal people or hardcore enough for the hardcore people, or people are unsure how to book you, all these real-life problems. And you could look at that now in retrospect and say: “Well it amounted to something, and that something is me” but what is that motivated you along the way? Idols like Fugazi? Your own community? Your art? What works when you’ve been musically “homeless” for as long as you have been?
I remember touring with These Arms Are Snakes and we had some great shows, we were a popular-enough band that we were able to tour regularly. But we were all pretty poor, we owed a ton of money to record labels, t-shirt manufacturers, it was definitely a struggle financially – we would be on tour for a month and we would be lucky if there were five good shows that were worth remembering. There were a lot of shows where it was 20 or 30 people and you just had to work a little harder to make it into a good show. Those kinds of scenarios are definitely difficult. Botch went through a similar thing but we were able to eventually cultivate a fanbase and go out on top. I think we were able to put that band to rest feeling good about what we had accomplished and feeling a sense of closure, whereas with These Arms Are Snakes it was like we went as long as we could and then things just fell apart. We couldn’t salvage it.
But I think that with a band like These Arms Are Snakes the thing that got me through it was that we were still making music that I felt really good about. I realized that that band didn’t appeal to a lot of Botch fans because it wasn’t heavy in the same way. I think a lot of people of people were confused by the band because we were on Jade Tree and we had moppy haircuts and a weird band name so they thought we were a screamo or emo band or something, and I think we were trying to be something very different than that. But the whole time it was happening I think I was aware that we weren’t of that time, we weren’t necessarily a reflection of what was going on elsewhere in the music scene, we weren’t necessarily a part of anything we were just these weird free agents who would latch on to anything that would allow us to play a show. So, again, we were sort of an outlier in a lot of ways and we were an outlier with the successes. And that’s frustrating and it got to be a bit more than we could handle but I’m still really proud of those records, and to me it’s part of that same continuation of what was going on with Botch and what’s going on now with Russian Circles and Sumac. I feel it’s a part of my repertoire, it’s a part of the journey. So, if music is meant to be timeless then it might not be of its time of existence, you know? Maybe These Arms Are Snakes shouldn’t have been a band in the first decade of the century? Maybe it wasn’t our time?
To me it was a continuation of what we were trying to do with Botch – to try and make aggressive, noisy music, confrontational music, while trying to avoid some of the trappings that I felt kind of sunk Botch toward the end. Things like being afraid of melody or of certain “rock traditions.” These Arms Are Snakes were more a matter of recognizing those and trying to manipulate them to our advantage. Some people loved it, a lot of people didn’t – not every band I’m in does well ,but I’m proud of all of them. I feel like for me the whole point was not to latch on to resonating with people because if you’re trying to appease people or if you’re trying to reach a certain subset of the population then if it fails – which it very likely will – it’s a failure across the board. But if you’re making something that you like and other people don’t like it then at least you have something that you feel good about. I still feel good about the Snakes records and that’s more important than “We made some concessions and we popularized our sound and sold more t-shirts.” It would have been nicer paying rent, but it would have yielded something that I wouldn’t have been proud of. I’d rather be proud than a little richer in my 20s.
Words to live by. Though it would have been nice to be rich in my 20s, but words to live by.
I don’t want to take up much more of your time but I have one small question and then one last one. The small one has to do with what you just said about the end of Botch having to do with being uncomfortable with melody. I know that An Anthology of Dead Ends is exactly that and perhaps not finished songs by your standards, but “Afghanistam” on that album was really a huge moment for me, personally. And when I listened to it recently two things came to mind: A) Fugazi, again and B) “This is Brian’s song,” which is kind of a rare first thought about Botch songs, just because the bass is such a prominent aspect of that song. So, two questions: A) How did that song come about? And B) which is more of a counterfactual question in my mind, which goes something like: “Would this have been the direction forward for Botch had the band been more open to melody?”
Yeah. Well, after with did Romans we did a bunch of touring. We all lived in Tacoma up to that point, and then Dave Verellen moved up to Seattle and I was in between Tacoma and Seattle so we were all living in different places and we didn’t have a practice space so in order to rehearse we had to rent out a room…. There were just a lot of life interruptions and geographic boundaries that made rehearsing regularly more difficult. And I think that one of the reasons Romans came together so smoothly was that we weren’t touring, we weren’t playing a lot of shows, we all lived in the same city and we practiced regularly, so we had that creative muscle well trained. We had our own creative momentum going and we just kind of rode that. Whereas with An Anthology of Dead Ends we were touring, we lived in different places, and we never got into the groove of things. And so we eventually wrote three songs, decided we were going to break up, and then it was: “Well, do we stick around long enough to make a whole album or we just put out a three-song EP?” Eventually what we decided was that we were going to do the three songs and then we were going to each do a little solo track for the record. So our homework before we came to the studio was to come up with some sort of solo song for each of us and have it be like Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma or something where we all have our own vignettes of our own creation. No one did it [laughs], except for me.
So, wait,“Afghanistam” is that song?
Yeah. So, that was like my solo song, but no one else…. Technically the opening part of “Spaim” was Dave Knudson’s solo song, even though it’s just one repeating riff. But, yeah, I had “Afghanistam” and people liked it. Tim played some drums on it and it wound up as this thing on the record. And, yeah, I think it’s kind of an outlier, and maybe kind of an indication of what we could have done if we had kept going. But I think we all were just in very different places in our adult lives and in our musical journey. I do remember as we were writing An Anthology of Dead Ends that there was some overlap with Dave starting Minus the Bear, but even before Minus the Bear was officially a band he played us a few of the riffs that I think actually ended up as Minus the Bear songs, these very elaborate, minor-scale, finger-tapping things, and I think everyone kind of heard it and went: “Oh, that’s really cool. That’s not a Botch song” [laughs]. Not to shoot it down, but I think we all realized that he was pitching it, we thought it was more kind of “Oh look at this thing I made!” Maybe if people had been more receptive to that then the next Botch record would have been some weird hybrid of We Are the Romans, “Afghanistam,” and some of the early Minus the Bear stuff, I don’t know.
But I also kind of think we were just four very close friends who all went off in their own direction and I think it had just run its course. We’ve been a band at that point for nine years, and most of that time wasn’t super productive, most of our early years were spent making really awful demos, which, fortunately, were not archived on the internet. It had just run its course.
Yeah, that makes complete sense. So, the last question is whether or not, looking back at all of the things we’ve discussed, there’s anything about We Are the Romans that you’re especially proud of today? Something that, as you sit atop Mount Olympus of music that not a lot of people like…
…you think held up especially well?
I don’t know, I still feel like “Transitions from Persona to Object” is maybe the pinnacle of our songwriting as a unit. Just because one of the things we strove for in that band was to have these nonlinear songs, we didn’t want to have the traditional rock formula of “Part A, Part B, Chorus, Bridge, Verse, Chorus, Bridge.” We wanted the songs to feel like they’re evolving and moving and we also wanted the songs to have a sense of a very specific sonic identity, if that makes sense. We wanted the songs to feel like their own separate universe, like a microcosm of language, I guess. Which maybe sounds like gibberish, but I think that if you listen to “Transitions from Persona to Object” there are repetitions, in that there are these little melodic fragments, these rhythmic things that keep returning and cycling through the song, but it never feels like any part really repeats itself, always kind of moving forward and evolving and working off of a couple of central musical ideas that are just: “Let’s see how many different ways can you take an idea apart and put it back together?” I think that song does the best job of achieving those aims. In a lot of the other songs it feels like their logic is only apparent to maybe the four of us or to people who are really listening to the song under a microscope, but I feel like that one is the clearest example of what we were trying to do as a band.