Monday, February 4, 2019

HEX20YR RETROSPECTIVE: HXR005- BUILDING ON FIRE, "Blueprint For a Space Romance" CD

In the late 90’s I was wrapping up college in Buffalo, NY. While there I encountered a guy who would go on to have a hand in shaping the direction of Hex Records, and who I would travel the United States with.

I distinctly recall there being an area near the student union where a number of hardcore kids who all attended the school would gather and hang around between classes. I would come over and chat with them. One of those people was Rob Antonucci, who was playing guitar here and there with different Buffalo bands, often filling in. To my recollection he was playing in a really metallic group called Dead To the World, as well as a more post-hardcore group called Grey In-Between. I believe he also filled in on tour with Despair briefly. But what really caught my attention is when he did a short-lived band named Voicekiller, which I immediately recognized as a nod to a Quicksand B-side track. So between that, our mutual interest in graphic design and early Meshuggah (way before hundreds of bands were copying their style), we became fast friends and remained in touch after we both graduated. Rob returned to the Rochester area and I went to Syracuse. And during that time both towns had very tight knit scenes that frequently overlapped so we saw each other quite a bit.

Fast forward to the craziness of Hellfest 2000 that almost did not come to be and thousands of kids hanging out in various parking lots, waiting to settle on a venue to host the festival. I caught Rob huddled with a group of other Rochester-area people I didn’t know yet. Of course, they weren’t from Rochester. They were from Newark, NY. Get it straight. There’s a difference. He gave me a demo of a band he had started with all of them. They were called Building On Fire. I asked if that name was referencing the Talking Heads song of the same name and he assured me it was. I was immediately interested.
                    Matt Werts and Sean Bailey of Building On Fire

Listening to those songs I was blown away by all the various influences and ideas that were exploding from the fast and heavy sounds on the tape. The band began playing shows around locally and making a name for themselves. They consistently had so many ideas going at once it was tough to keep up. They soon self-released their own 7” and it was this wildly packaged ordeal where the cover was in the shape of a giant matchbook, printed on metallic paper, with an insert stapled inside and the 7” held in place with a brass fastener. I was very impressed.

Within the next year I worked closely with Building On Fire to put out their full length, “Blueprint For a Space Romance” (originally titled “The Everything Outline”), get them on shows, and travel the country with them as a roadie. They were consistently creative, from coming up with intense and heavy music, cracking bizarre jokes, designing all their own stuff, creating a tour documentary (and a soundtrack to go with it, a la “Fugazi: Instrument”), and going on to make a couple more records before splitting up. They’re definitely one of the more unique bands I ever had the pleasure of working with and they’re also one of the more underrated bands because of all the creative chances they took with their music.

Tyler Farren from Building On Fire (drums) with Rob (guitar) in background

After splitting up both Tyler and Matt went on to play in a litany of bands together, most recently School Shootings. Jason and Sean haven’t done much musically since, and Rob has played in a number of bands including Marathon, Longest War, and most notably, Achilles. I’ve released 4 records he’s been on, he helped design the first Hex website, he did a bunch of artwork for my first band, and has created a number of various media projects associated with Hex Records. Lately, he keeps incredibly busy being an art teacher, coaching a couple kids basketball teams, and being in full on dad mode. He and I still keep up on a regular basis and he’s one of the most easy going and friendly people I’ve had the good fortune of meeting all those years ago. He’s pretty much been there since the beginning, so I figured we ought to talk about this record.

The rest of the guys in the band I didn’t know until you introduced me to them and they didn’t seem to quite be a part of the Rochester scene as I knew it. Am I incorrect with this? How did you all come together?

I look back on it all now in a much more fond light after seeing what we did and what we accomplished. So, anyway, Sean, Matt, and Tyler were all in The Chuds together. They were kind of like… I don’t want to call them a joke band because that makes it sound negative and people liked them. But they were kind of a comedy group, but they could play and that’s really what the Chuds were. And it’s funny how it all sort of organically happened that my buddies from growing up, who I didn’t see a ton of, gravitated towards Rochester hardcore and I gravitated towards Buffalo hardcore when I was living up there for school. When I moved back home it just seemed perfect, like ‘who do I know in the hardcore scene here who I could start a band with?’ And it turned out to be my buddies who I grew up with who are in The Chuds. And I just fell into hanging out with them again. That’s how it came together. We were all from Newark (NY, a bit East of Rochester). We all grew up together. And then the connection with Jason (vocals) was that he is Sean’s (guitar) cousin, who I grew up skateboarding with. We were huge skateboarders from about sixth grade on. We skated together every day. The other guys weren’t skateboarders, just me and Jason. We were a little older than those guys. So Jason and I were part of the skate culture. So when we decided to start the band it was natural to bring Jason into the fold because I knew him already and I took that leadership role and said, ‘hey, come on in, this is what we’re doing, and I have all these songs ready to go.’

original ad for the record, which was initially titled "The Everything Outline"

BOF was definitely creative in a very unique way that I hadn’t seen before. Generally, with a lot of bands, there’s one or two people who handle the creative direction, but I got the impression everyone was really creative in their own way and all that made for some of the crazy ideas that occurred in the band. Can you talk a bit about how everyone contributed in this way?

It was definitely different than The Chuds, and Dead To the World, which was the Buffalo band I had been playing with. I mean, we were coming off of Stillborn Records, Jamey Hatebreed’s label where there is a definite sound and style connected with that. We were playing Queens and Connecticut every weekend. I still love that music but I kind of got to the point where I wanted something different and I was really into bands like Glassjaw and Drowningman. I thought, “I wanted to write a song that can start off in C# because every song I’ve ever written, between being in Union and Dead To the World, always started in a low E crunch, which I love. I thought, ‘I want to start in the C3 key’. So the first Building On Fire song, “My Conversation Piece” was nothing like anything I’ve ever written before. I just wanted something different and artistic. Matt and Tyler were really into bands like Orchid and all those nutty groups, which I don’t love. But I love their artistic aspect and how they were doing something so different. And that was really the goal- to push my songwriting. I can write metal-hardcore stuff, no problem. But I wanted to see if I could do something different and that was the start of the band.
                                    Jason Medero of Building On Fire

Yeah. It was creative in a way that I hadn’t seen before. Generally, in most bands, there’s the one of two people who handle the creative direction. But I got the impression everyone in the band was creative in their own way and that made for some of the crazy ideas that happened in the band.

I would come in with maybe three or four parts and have a general idea of how the song was going to go. I’ve done this with most of my bands. But the difference is, when I came into practice with Building On Fire it would generally start with Tyler (drums) and he would say, ‘OK, that’s pretty good, but we’re going to do it this way instead’. I was pretty open-minded at the time to trying something different and weird. And when Tyler would say, ‘we’re going to do it this way’, and then Matt (bass) would throw in something of his own, and Sean would have a part where he sang back-ups. And I never thought of it that way before. I always thought, ‘this is the drummer, this is the singer, whatever.’ So we would have Sean do singing parts, which came out pretty good, I didn’t know he could pull it off. And Jason (vocals) he would just sit there and write and smoke, and write, and smoke, and his lyrics ended up being really great. However, he wasn’t as much a part of the creation. He was the icing on the top.

That first seven inch has some of the best packaging on a record ever. How did you all manage to create it, and was it ridiculously tough to pull it off?

It was. The actual printing of most of it was handled by Tyler because he’s really good with that stuff. The actual artwork and concept was a project I had worked on while I was in college. I was still finishing up college when we started the band. One of my final projects was to create packaging for something and I thought, ‘perfect, we’re going to do it for the seven inch.’ So the initial concept was by me and Tyler and I’m sure Matt and Sean contributed too. But that was always our mentality- looking at it as art. Not like literal art hanging on a wall, but having songs that are works of art. This packaging is going to be a work of art. It’s a matchbook, but it’s not a matchbook. And instead of ‘how to start a fire’ it was called “How To Start a Lie”. We didn’t care. We just wanted to create art and I’m glad people liked it.

What was happening around the time that the full length was written and recorded? How did that process go?

This is funny. We didn’t really have anywhere to practice at first. So we had to practice in our friend Jenny’s house who lived in Newark. The seven inch had come out and we began writing the new record that you ended up putting out. So we would go to this girl Jenny’s house and write songs and we would have to load in and out every time we practiced from this empty room in her upstairs. And eventually, after the record had come out, we started practicing in Sean’s basement. But for a long time we had no where else to practice except for the upstairs of this girl’s house. We wrote the full length there.

Then we had to figure out where to record. Everyone had recorded with Doug (White, Watchmen Studios) and we wanted a different sound. Doug has made some awesome, heavy records, but we wanted something different because that’s how we were at the time. So we recorded at this place that I had recorded at a long time ago with an old band I was in Grey In-Between. And that place was, ironically, the upstairs of this guy, Derrick Prellwitz’s, mom’s house. I feel like you were there?

Yes. I came up for a day or two, not the whole thing. 
Building On Fire at Westcott Community Center, Syracuse

R: It was an experience, let me tell you. At one point Tyler smashed something and it ended up being recorded and we used it at some point on the record. Do you remember that? It was a backwards sample. And I’ll give Tyler and Matt a lot of credit for this because it was definitely their sort of thing, but once the songs were done and the tracking laid down, those two loved to go in and add in all the little things that you’d hear if you listened closely. They would add weird bubble samples to stuff and these weird backing vocals, and all these little spices. That’s why I loved it, that’s why I loved this combination of guys. Everybody brought something cool and weird to the table. But that’s why I had to let it go. In a lot of my other bands I had this tight grip over everything that happens because that’s just sort of how I am. But with this group I just had to let that go. These guys are so creative and I had to just let it go. When it got to mixing Tyler would step in and have it mixed really differently and pan certain things all the way to one side. I just look back on it and I’m proud of what a creative piece of work we came up with.
One of the good shows from the 2001 US tour, in Portland, OR (Standfast did not play)

The U.S. tour was sort of a disaster. What are some of your best memories of it and what are some of your worst?

Well, we made a movie out of it, you can watch it for yourself! But the worst part was just the end of it. I kind of regret how it ended for me. We got to Texas and it was so hot, and I was just so miserable that I just called home, asked my folks to pay for a ticket for me to fly home, ended up paying them back for it, but I regret that. That’s kind of a wimpy way out. And when I go back and watch that video years later I feel kind of bad. I should have just driven home with everyone else, and I didn’t. And I kind of regret that I did that. I made the wrong choice at the time, I was a stupid kid, I got bailed out, and I probably shouldn’t have. That’s kind of my worst regret from that tour.

But I tell you, that tour was the only time I’ve ever done a full US tour, even if it really wasn’t that much of a tour. We drove out to California. I don’t know if the highlight for me was the shows. I think the highlight was just being with all of you guys and having a great time.

When I was little my dad told me about a time that he and his buddies drove out West and they didn’t have a reason to go. They just did. They got in their car and drove out West for the hell of it. And as a kid I thought, ‘I’d love to that some day.’ And when I did I had a reason to, and it was to play shows.

I think it was the same for me too. That was my first time going across the whole country and seeing a lot of places I’d never been to. That was great. The worst for me was probably packing seven people, and whatever gear we could take, into a minivan in the middle of summer. When we got to Dallas it was so hot, and we had no air conditioning, and I was dehydrated, and I think I passed out in van. That sucked. But after that first U.S. tour though you all came back and did a couple more tours through the East and Midwest that went way better, correct?

Yeah. I think what the first big tour did, if anything, was really hold the mirror up to us and we got to see who we really were. We had never really experienced anything like that ever before. I had driven back and forth plenty with my other bands, playing shows all over the Northeast, but I had never driven that far, or did anything like that, and you earn a lot about yourself when you’re out on the road and you have next to nothing. I had my guitar and my head and we had to borrow cabinets everywhere we went. So not only were we playing shows on the road, but there was the added stress of having to borrow equipment every time because the trailer was gone and Standfast was gone (quick back story- the summer 2001 tour was intended to be Building On Fire and Standfast. Building On Fire toured in a minivan, Standfast had a van and trailer. Standfast took the majority of the gear but on the first day of tour their van broke down and was beyond repair so they headed home. Building On Fire continued on with as much gear as could be packed in the minivan and had to connect, as best they could, with promoters and bands a long the way to borrow gear at each show- ed).
Rob (left) and myself (right) on the 2001 US tour somewhere in Salt Lake City

But we did a couple more tours after that that went well, but they never went as far as that first one. And we did that EP, “1+1=Blue” on a different label during those tours. But once we did these tours, and began writing other material, I started getting into stuff like Isis and heavier things like that. And the final downfall of the band was that Matt was not as into the new material that we began writing. So he said he didn’t want to do the band anymore, which is fine because we were all friends who had grown up together. That was a part of it anyway. No one was really mad at him because he’s a great guy. T’s hard to be mad at him. It sort of made sense. It was around that time that we recorded our final material, which was a record called “Newark”. It was wild. It was a fun record to do, and it was pretty much after we had split up. So that’s why it never really came out. We just wanted to record that last material.

I had also began playing with Marathon as well, which was the next thing for me.
                                       Matt Werts from Building On Fire

I definitely remember being at a show we were hanging out at, I don’t recall if you were playing or not, but you approached me with all these ideas you guys were having for the next record, which I was going to put out that ended up being “Newark”, which I didn’t put out because you all split up. But the ideas you all had were crazy, like it was going to be about a railroad heist or something and it was part hilarious, but I was excited regardless. What are some of the more elaborate ideas that were proposed with BOF that never happened?

I bet Tyler would remember a lot of that stuff. A lot of that is gone because my memory is bad and I’ve done a lot of stuff since then. I do remember the bit about wanting to originally name the record after a railroad heist. But, yeah, it ended up being called “Newark” because it was the one thing that bonded us all together the whole time. We all grew up there and had the same experiences. I mean, how many bands have the same five people for their whole existence, and are all from the same town? The album cover was supposed to be just the sign of the Newark Plaza, where there was a Wegmans and a Chase Pitkin and an Ames, and all those stores. It ended up being that crazy piece of metal folded up into a CD case. I think since we knew we were going to split up Tyler just took over the project and decided he was going to make this thing, which there was never an argument over that aspect of stuff. He worked at a place that manufactured metal products, so he had access to that stuff.

I think back to what you said earlier, I think we had all these insane ideas where we were going to go next and once Matt was ready to move on the whole thing sort of dissolved and I had to change focus and figure out what I was going to do next.
                    Rob Antonucci of Building On Fire playing in Rochester

What was the best part of being in BOF and the “Blueprint…” record in particular? What was the least favorite part?

I listened to it recently and I don’t love the way the recording is. But as I go through I think, ‘it’s the right recording’. My explanation for that is if we were to record that somewhere where it would be perfectly clean and big and bold I don’t think it would have had the same effect as where we ended up recording. I don’t think it would have had the same charm and charisma if it were recorded somewhere else. I’ll use this comparison, and hear me out- it’s like the first KISS records. The early KISS records- I know you’re going to laugh, but it’s real- if you listen to those early KISS records the recording is not what you think it would be. The recording is really rough, but it’s really special and that’s what gives it it’s charm. My comparison is just the strange recordings. I wouldn’t want it recorded it any other way. It’s not bad, it’s just an entirely different flavor. If you eat candy bars your whole life and all of a sudden you get a candy bar that’s salty and bitter you’re like, ‘oh, this is awesome! It’s different and cool’. That’s what it was like for us. I’m proud of it. The other thing I love is there’s such a variety. We had songs with clapping that were in a major key on that record. Who does that? Punk bands do that and we weren’t a punk band. We had breakdowns that came out of the middle of nowhere that you never expected would have a breakdown in. It was always a surprise. We would play in a different key, or have a blast beat, and it really was a… what was the term you used for us? Cacophony? Yeah, that’s it. I thought that was a perfect term.

The least favorite part was that whenever we played live we never played the song the same way twice. I’m kind of in the frame of mind where ‘this is the way things are played’, but Tyler would always change things around a bit and I had a hard time with that.

But the best part was that I think it was the most free and artistic experience I had because we never really said ‘no’ to anything. We would put any kind of part in any song. I loved the friendships. I loved playing in a band with kids I grew up with. I loved being part of a record label that loved what we were doing. I loved that whatever we decided to put down on that record you were up for it and supported it. I thought that was great to have such great support. That meant a lot to us. And that you came along on the big ‘tour’.

That was a beut, eh?  Well, you know the drill now- you wanna/have to check out Building On Fire's lone full length for Hex, "Blueprint For a Space Romance".  It only came out on CD so you can score that for only $4 this week.  And you can get the digital version of the release through bandcamp for $2.  So jump on that and follow the linky-loo.

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