So right after the Achilles/Engineer split the boys from Rochester got right to work and became the first in a trio of Hex-related bands to head down to Louisville and record with Chris Owens of Lords at Headbanginkillyourmama Studios. Starting with The National Acrobat an alliance and companionship between the tight-knit Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo scenes and a bunch of bands from Louisville began to form. They all toured together, traded shows, and recorded records together. Breather Resist, Black Cross, Coliseum, and Lords were bands that all shared members and a similar ethos of really loud and gnarly weird punk/hardcore blasting eardrums with stacks upon stacks of guitar cabs and amps. And the bands they formed kinships with here in the Central and Western NY areas were of a similar mind. Maybe Achilles were a bit more technical and thought out, and deliberately controlled their chaos a bit more, but the seed was planted. “The Dark Horse” was their first full length and it lead to a great deal of activity for the band going forward.
For me, personally, I was excited to once again formerly work with my friend Rob Antonucci, who had played guitar in Building On Fire. I had always admired his guitar playing, and thought he was a top-notch graphic designer who came up with great ideas. Additionally, it was finally an opportunity to release a record with another dear friend, Rory Van Grol, a person who already had a history of playing and touring in Rochester hardcore bands, most notably Standfast. Rory was, by far, one of the most energetic and well-spoken frontmen in the region. He had incredible stage presence, thoughtful lyrics, and always wore his heart on his sleeve when he would discuss song topics between songs. However, there were a couple younger guys that I was quite unfamiliar with who held down the rhythm section. Bassist Josh Dillon emerged out of nowhere (OK, emerged out of high school) and joined in at about 16 years of age when the band got going. However, our man on the bass proved to be an essential component to the band and his light-hearted attitude and solid playing made him the perfect fit for this group. Finally, Chris Browne came into the fold to play drums. He had been playing guitar in a local group called the Breaking Project, which was incredibly technical, math-y emo type rock/hardcore. He was an extremely talented player who applied that skill to coming up with very unique and grooving drum parts for Achilles. It was a surprise to see someone so young have so much raw talent on a variety of instruments, which helped him with lending a big hand to the writing of a lot of the music for the band.
“The Dark Horse” was a pretty big undertaking for the band, who traveled all the way out to Louisville to record it and they came up with a great collection of songs. I specifically recall that part of the agreement of me releasing this and covering the cost of recording was that they had to re-record “In Lights” from their demo because I thought it was an incredibly ripping song that deserved to be heard through a wider audience. They came back with not only that re-recording, but some tracks that would go on to be some of their most well-received stuff that they still play when they make a rare appearance like “Wake Me When It Thunders” and “Every Hour Wounds, the Last One Kills”.
It was a very productive time for the band as they hit the road frequently, I saw them a million times, and before any of them had families to attend to, businesses to run, and all lived in the same area. To reflect upon this particular release I caught up with drummer Chris Browne, who now resides in the Los Angeles area to jog his memory about “The Dark Horse”.
How did Achilles come together? It seems like Rob and Rory were pretty much on the same page, but you and Josh (Dillon, bass), were of a younger generation of Rochester kids.
It’s interesting because I have to rewind really far for myself in regards to how this all happened. I had been doing a band called The Breaking Project and that band had ended when Matt Chalinor moved back to Australia, which caused the end of both The Breaking Project as well as another band The Avram. Building On Fire (Achilles guitarist Rob Antonucci’s previous band, and Hex Records alumnus) had kind of ended at the same time. So Achilles started with Rob and I kind of wanting to do something together. We had a couple different incarnations of it. Originally, it was going to be both me and Rob on guitar, Tyler Farren (Building On Fire drummer) and a couple others and it was going to be called All Doctors-
- Oh I have those practice demos.
So yeah, a couple people have that stuff and that was the prototype of what became Achilles. We jammed with a few other people and I think when Rory (Van Grol, vocals) got involved it was around the time that I said ‘screw it, I want to try playing drums’. We couldn’t quite find a drumming situation that fit what Rob and I were trying to do. I was definitely less-seasoned in terms of playing drums, but at least I knew what the vision was. So that’s how it kind of came together. I can’t really remember how we tapped Josh. I just remember he was a younger guy in Fairport (Rochester suburb). He was sort of the kid who would go to shows, and he was in younger bands, but he stuck out like a sore thumb because he was such a good bass player. I’d watch him and think, ‘that’s the guy we gotta get into our crew.’ So from there it kind of came together organically. Luckily, it’s been all four of us, the same people, since then. I couldn’t picture it ever being any other way.
I find it strange too that you didn’t all know each other previous to the band starting. A lot of bands that stick it out with the same lineup for ages tend to be people who have all already known each other for longer than the band has existed. In your case, you all sort of assembled.
We knew each other from the scene, and from shows, but we all came from different little sectors of the scene. Plus, both Josh and I were huge fans of Rory and what he did with his old band Standfast. Growing up everything I did I wanted it to be Standfast. So we wanted it to be good, and we wanted it to be special because we were fans of that, as well as Building On Fire. So we got to join the older guys. There was a coming together of different age ranges of the scene. Sometimes that can make the chemistry weird, but in our case it made everyone more excited to do it, which was great.
Was there an intention from the get-go for Achilles to get on the road and tour quite a bit?
I think so, in hindsight. The idea of doing bands like full-full time at that point was something I hadn’t even thought about. Plus, I think it was a little bit more of apparent possibility to Rob because he had been through touring with bands like Union and Dead To the World. At the time he was the guy that knew how to get stuff done. And so teaming up with him we set out to do a band that was more serious and my definition of that was just doing as many weekends as we could, and recording consistently, and making an imprint. There was no explicit ‘we want to do this with our lives’ kind of thing, but it was definitely the most serious I had been about a band to that point. That also influenced the personnel choices- we picked people that we were stoked on what they were doing.
Was it tough to play out of town with Josh since he was so young when you started? Did you have to get parental permission to take him on the road and tour.
No too much. I don’t want to make his parents seem absent, or overly permissive, but it was never an issue with them. I think because Josh was always super mature. I think he was probably more mature at his age than I was at that point.. he probably still is. So that was never a problem. He always took care of himself, he was very independent. I think we may have asked him gently at the beginning, like, ‘hey, is this going to be an issue?’ And he was like, ‘nope, I got it under control’. He had a great relationship with his family, and I love his family too, they’re great. So definitely after the first couple of years it wasn’t even a debate anymore. Once we really got the first tour under our belts and his family saw that this was a cool thing it wasn’t a problem. I think his family also saw that he was with an older group of people and that we were safe about stuff and knew what to do. We were a pretty well-behaved band, we were just goofy. We were never really a party band. We would fart a lot in the van, but that’s about it.
Talk a bit about the kinship you all had with the Louisville crew and what was your decision for recording down there instead of staying in NY?
When I was thinking about the conversation we were going to have I was wondering if this was going to come up because part of the formation of this band had a bit to do with us all also being big fans of what was coming out of Louisville at the time. I loved Breather Resist. We all loved Breather Resist and Coliseum, and Lords. We were all big fans of pretty much everything coming out of that city at the time. That was very influential to us. And the fact that we got to occasionally play shows with them was great, as they were all touring a bit more consistently at that time. We jumped on some things and felt some level of acceptance from them. All those guys were always so gracious and wanted to collaborate with playing shows together. So we were excited to latch on to that scene a little and record down there. It was inspirational in the same way we started the band, in that we were fans of that and wanted to make music with these guys. We wanted to tap into, especially for me as a drummer, to get that Louisville drum sound- that dirty, room-y, loud, bashing drums. There was a very distinct sound at that time that I don’t think Rochester bands had previously tapped into. So we were just excited to have our songwriting, which was innate to us, put through that ‘factory’, if you will.
Chris Owens certainly had a particular way of recording. Were there any interesting experiences about recording with him that stand out?
Yeah! I tend to be very on-task and neurotic about recording, so I generally don’t think of ‘amazing’ experiences, or whatever. But I remember we stayed with the Patterson brothers (Ryan and Evan, of Coliseum and Breather Resist respectively) and the hospitality of that situation was amazing. It made us just want to be even more a part of what they had going on down there. They didn’t know us super well, but the way they opened their house to us for a good week or so was really awesome. As far as the recording part, when I close my eyes and think about it, it almost looks the way the record sounds. It’s kind of dirty and cold, but organic.
And I got Rory’s permission to tell this story- there was no easily accessible bathroom in the place and there were sheets of plastic insulation up where walls should have been and this was December. And I know Louisville is a little bit warmer than upstate NY, but it was fucking cold! So Rory didn’t feel like going to the bathroom the whole time so he would store unused water jugs, like two gallon one, and he would piss in them and store them in the corner the whole time. That, in itself, isn’t much of the story. But Chris Owens would tell him, ‘hey man, I don’t care that you do that, you just have to make sure to clean that up.’ And when we were finished I guess Rory forgot one of them. And that ultimately got Chris Owens kicked out of the space he was recording in! (laughs)
But that allowed him a window into a much better room in Louisville. He got a much better space after that. So I guess he had a long-standing dispute with his landlord at the time and that incident was sort of the last straw that broke the camel’s back. We were sort of responsible for that, so years later, we can laugh about it. So there was sort of silver lining to it.
Achilles was keeping really active at this point and you all were still living locally and it was pretty much the only active band any of you had going correct?
Well, Polar Bear Club started for me around 2005. So I guess that’s the year “The Dark Horse” came out. So I had no idea that that band would get a lot bigger. It was super-part time at first. Josh was involved with Polar Bear Club at first as well, but as a high school kid with only so much time, he chose to do Achilles over Polar Bear Club! He called me one day and said ‘I’m out. I can only do one band and I want to just do Achilles.’ Later on he said he regretted it, and then went back on that later on, but such is life. But I think for the most part that was our primary thing for that stretch of time. For me that all lead into the next couple of years getting ready to do “Hospice”, which I will admit is my favorite thing of everything we have done, but it all started with “The Dark Horse” when we all upped the ante for sure.
How was the writing for “The Dark Horse” handled? It was a short amount of time between the split with Engineer and the recording of this album.
You probably remember that better than me. At the time we had a steady practice space in Rochester. We all lived in the same place. Looking back on it now it was just so much easier to get together and play music consistently as a function of life. Rob was teaching at Geneseo High School, while I was going to collage at SUNY Geneseo. So we would carpool up to Rochester and I would crash on his couch and ride back down with him in the morning the whole time we were writing. And then Josh and Rory would just drive out to the space and we could all be there for every practice, and we would practice twice a week, every week. That doesn’t sound like a ton. I mean, I remember hearing about bands like Engineer practicing six days a week. We were a little envious of that. We could have been a better band if we worked as hard as they did. But even the two days, totally unfettered, and completely focused on that, in a week was enough to do it. We wrote that record in a room together in Rochester. And at that stage we were a band that welcomed having riffs from multiple people, which was usually Rob and I, but some times Josh as well. It was just very collaborative. I think even internally, within every song, we tried to include everyone’s voice. I look back on it and maybe now I think maybe some things sound disjointed, or I would write a part different now, yadda, yadda. But it is sort of beautiful how it incorporates everyones’ voice into each song.
So the imagery of the record bears a striking familiarity to Deftones “White Pony”. Did that cause some confusion or discussion? I mean one’s a horse, one’s a pony, one’s black, one’s white.
Honestly, as obvious as it kind of is, and as right as you are, I think you’re the only person who has ever pointed that out to us. (laughs) It didn’t seem to bother other people all that much, and as much as we all love the Deftones it definitely doesn’t sound like them. So we get a pass for that because we weren’t ripping them off musically.
Nothing against Rob’s art because I’m always a big fan of his art and design work, and overall, I think that record looks really cool. But I think he didn’t like hearing that when I first mentioned it!
I can imagine that. He is the art czar for the band. My role, with visuals, was to look at what Rob would come up with- and he was incredibly prolific at the time- and along with everyone else, would select what logos and motifs we wanted to lean into. That sort of persists to this day. I love the artwork and I didn’t pick up on that correlation until you had pointed it out to me. It’s one of those things that you can’t un-see. But there’s a lot of things about that record that are very sentimental to me. And at this point it’s been, holy crap, like 15 years, and it sounds like something that’s from a different time in my life now. But the further away you get from it the more you appreciate it for what it is, and that goes for the art too.
Releasing “The Dark Horse” yielded you all going to Europe to tour for the first time, and only time, as a band. How did that go?
It was incredible. Every stereotype about going to Europe for the first time with your band was totally true. It was huge for all of us. I was in collage at the time and I saved up all year doing work study, and all this stuff. And we weren’t making money on the tour, that’s for sure. But we did a great job of thinking of it as a vacation with each other where we played shows. We had some good shows, and we had some bad ones too. That will always happen. But it’s one of my favorite tours I’ve ever done, to this day. You can never re-create the magic of when you first do that. When you experience something like that for the first time with people like Achilles, whom you’re really close with, and stay life-long friends with, you keep repeating those stories forever. It’s still meaningful to me today.
There was a really weird version of “The Dark Horse” that was released on vinyl in Europe to coincide with the tour correct?
It ended up being a split with a band called Seven Bowls Of Wrath. Their singer, Chris Mautes, released it and he was also our driver, and the tour manager, and sort of our all-purpose gut for that tour. He did a great job of facilitating it and bringing it all together. None of us had ever heard of his band, but he reached out to us in those early days of MySpace. He got the vinyl going, and a tour for it and he did a great job. He was based out of Germany, so stuff out that was great. We did a few shows in the UK that were sort of rough, but I wish I kept in better touch with him because I don’t know what he’s doing now. But it was a lot to bring together. The other band on the split is cool. I think it’s weird that it exists that was on vinyl, it’s a weird quirk.
Yeah, I thought it was odd that they were able to fit your whole full length on one side of an LP and then I realized it was missing a couple tracks from the CD version.
(laughs) Yeah, that is odd! I know we had to come to that decision, but if you pressed me over what we had to leave off I couldn’t tell you (it’s “Reprise” and “Wake Me When It Thunders”- ed.)
Is there anything you would change about “The Dark Horse”, or are you pretty happy with how it all came together?
I am very particular in the studio. I kind of alluded to this before, but yes, if I were making that record now I would change literally everything about it! It would just be a different record. It’s interesting because I can listen to stuff like that and imagine what I would do different. But I still like it stylistically, and I do definitely enjoy that record. But I’m also a person that has a hard time listening to his own stuff because I’m too critical of it all. However, the further away you get the more it re-endears itself to you, and I’ve definitely hit that place with “Dark Horse”. I listened to it this week before we spoke. And we’re going to do a show this November in Rochester and we’re going to dust off some songs for it. That will be a cool opportunity to deliver those songs the way we want to now.
So that all being said, I would change a lot about that record, but I like the way it exists as is because it’s a documentation of that step in the process. I know we’re all always learning and getting better, but for me, as a drummer, that was a snapshot of the learning process. It exists, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, but I would do things different if I made it now.
What has been your favorite part of being in Achilles, and what is your least favorite?
My favorite is the family dynamic that we have. We talk to each other like family and somewhere along the way that happened. I don’t know at what point, but at some time it went from just being band mates and our friendships became more like family. We address each other like that. We are that open with each other, both for negative and for positive. In our case it’s usually for positive because we like each other so much and also because we all have so much other stuff going on that we want Achilles to occupy a cathartic place in our lives. It’s all positive relationships for all of us and it has a very healthy role in our larger lives. So that’s my favorite part.
My least favorite part is that we always have to go so long between doing anything that most of the time nothing happens and it’s incredibly difficult to make something happen! We played some shows in 2016 and we had to plan that stuff out like 9 months ahead. Every time we go to play something I don’t have access to a drum kit, or space to play, so I have to line that up and basically re-learn to play drums from scratch every time we go to do shows. It’s fine. It’s like riding a bike. It’s just a ton of effort to do it. And for this year we’re going to play a show and maybe write a bit, and we have already been talking about that. It’s just going to be a long process. I’m going to be in Rochester twice before that all happens, and Josh once, so how can we get together, what’s the gear situation, are we going to write stuff, we have two hours- go. And if we didn’t love each other so much it probably wouldn’t be possible, but we all just want it to happen.