Alright, in the last bit regarding Ex-Breathers (see the 4-way split compilation 12” piece) I’d sort of got my foot in the door with working with the band. They were coming off of the compilation LP that featured three new tracks from them. Additionally, they had cut a 7” simply titled “EXBX”, which featured 12 very short songs in a significant departure from their self-released debut LP “Collision” that came out before all of this stuff.
I was left wondering what the band would go for next. If “Collision” erred more on the band’s metallic/thrashy side, the 7” emphasized their adoration of groups like ALL and Minutemen, while the comp songs fell somewhere in the middle.
The band was headed out of their home of Florida for a U.S. tour and I offered them a show up in Syracuse, which fit their routing and proceeded to have them stay over after the show. We talked quite a bit that night and discussed what would be happening with their next LP. I was fully on board to release it if they wanted and they tentatively agreed.
Later on, as things got more firmed up, they asked to again do the record as a split release. This time the far more indie-leaning Exploding In Sound Records (Pile, Kal Marks, Ovlov) would split the pressing and I thought that was a pretty good idea. After all, I feel like Ex-Breathers was a combination of sounds that my label had been known for (generally on the heavier side of punk music), while Exploding In Sound released a lot of wonderfully interesting indie bands. In my opinion, both labels release music that is not the standard of any particular genre and I thought it was a great plan. Plus, I was already an admirer of bands on Exploding In Sound.
This time around the band went around the route of recording themselves, or even remaining in their hometown of Tallahassee for that matter. They ended up recording out in Massachusetts at Sonelab, where records by Dinosaur Jr had been cut.
The result was “Past Tense”- a record that quite perfectly captured that space that Ex-Breathers had sought out between their hardcore-punk tendencies, their contemplative and left-of-center melodies, and a growing sound as musicians and as a band. Imagine if the early roster of the SST Records stable crossed paths with Fugazi and NoMeansNo as they were just gaining momentum, and then gene-spliced in a dose of modern punk. It’s an easy record to grasp because it’s fucking good. It gets more difficult as you take a deep dive into the songs, the influence behind them, and the band. They were a trio that, for a short time, created an interesting sound that was hard to exactly pin down, but it rocked.
And so I caught up with them again to take a look back at “Past Tense”. I interviewed the band before that record ever dropped so I had to come up with some questions that reflect more on the later era of the band. Bassist/vocalist Jack Vermillion was down to talk shop and catch up after a long day learning about physics.
I had to re-read the interview I did a few years back and make sure I didn’t ask the same questions I did back then.
I honestly don’t remember anything about that interview. Although I do remember we talked about ‘Forida man’!
But I remember I asked a bunch about the changing sound of Ex-Breathers. So the band went through a few different sounds and I think a lot of that had more to do with how the records were recorded versus the ‘sound’ of the band. Did you find that more to be getting better at recording, or a conscious decision to try different recording techniques?
I think it was definitely that latter because when Ex-Breathers started we did a demo and our buddy Paul recorded it. I don’t think that David (Settle, guitarist/vocalist) had even started going down that path of learning how to record bands. So we did our demo and everything we recorded after that, up until “Past Tense” David recorded. So he basically started with not knowing anything, but he did live sound so he understood live mixing.
I think there was a broad idea of what we wanted to sound like, or what sounds would serve our songs. But there was definitely a lot of learning going on. When I listen to “Collision” (Ex-Breathers first LP) now I realize we spent a lot of time trying to make it sound like we wanted it to, but it just sounds a little too blown out and bottom heavy. But David learned a lot just by making that record. Some of the stuff we did when making that record was kind of ridiculous and I’m surprised it sounds as good as it does. I don’t think it’s anything amazing. We were definitely doing some weird shit that no one would advise us to do now.
We were taping the microphone and converting the XLR to a quarter inch and plugging the mic right in to guitar pedals, and those right into the board, and recording vocals like that. We recorded the whole thing in our 10x10 storage unit. It was basically a metal box so everything was just bouncing around like crazy.
But that’s how you figure it out, by just fucking around.
Yeah, yeah! Exactly.
Talk a bit about the time leading up the recording of “Past Tense”. It seems you were touring a bit more, the band seemed to be making some inroads in different places and with various bands and people.
Well, it’s hard for me to remember what was going on exactly right off the top of my head, but we did make some really good connections in different cities like New Orleans, Nashville, Richmond, and Birmingham. And once we met Dan (Goldin, Exploding In Sound Records) in New York, and then you in upstate things came together more. The more we were a band, and the more we became involved, and the more we toured it was just easier for us to book a tour. We had been in touring bands for a few years before Ex-Breather started. Plus, me and David had run a venue here in Tallahassee called The Farside for a few years. So we just built up a pretty good catalog of people we knew that we helped out that we could cash in favors from. But the longer we went, the more we played, it just became a little bit easier to tour. The last tour we did before we recorded “Past Tense” we toured up to Western Mass to record it. We were able to pay for the whole 5-day recording session with money we had made pretty much just from that tour.
Yeah. We had booked a recording fundraiser gig in Tallahassee with just local bands and it was like $5. It was just to help us raise money to go record. So we had a pretty good head start just to get going. And then we also did a little loop around Florida because the drives are short, we knew people, and doing a little week around Florida can be pretty lucrative if you know you can get good shows. So those two things combined with the few shows we played on the way up were able to cover the whole thing.
That’s awesome. At this point it seems as if you all had become pretty familiar with recording yourselves. What led to the decision to go up to Massachusetts and record?
At that point we were not putting out our own records anymore, which we had done up until that 7” that came out right before “Past Tense”. We recorded that 7” ourselves too, but that 7” was more like a concept. We did that ourselves and when it came time to record “Past Tense” we thought to ourselves that we had always recorded ourselves, let’s try to get into a studio. Our first choice was to go to Kurt Ballou at God City and record with him. But we had some friends that we knew who recommended Sonelab, because we had never heard of it, and then we looked into that and talked to Justin, the owner. We hit it off with him and he liked what we were doing. Kurt did get back to us, but it was a bit after we had already been talking to Sonelab. Plus Kurt was going to be a little more expensive, certainly not a lot, it was still a very reasonable rate. But hearing some of the stuff Justin had did, plus with it being a little cheaper, we decided to go to Sonelab.
I think we were just ready to take that step. We wanted to just go somewhere and really have faith that it was going to come out in a way that we’re going to be really stoked on, and maybe a little different than what we could create on our own.
How did the relationship with Exploding In Sound come about?
We were just aware of Exploding In Sound because we liked a lot of the bands on that label. I think we knew some people who knew him as well. I think the Gnarwhal guys knew him. But we didn’t really have too much of a connection with him at all. So when we put out “Collision” we sat down and made a list of people we respected, whether it was people who did blogs, or people who ran labels, or just people who we just wanted to be aware of our existence. So we put maybe 20 records together and just gift-wrapped them with a hand-written note like, ‘hey, we’re this band and here’s our story, here’s what we’re up to, here’s our record, we just wanted to put this in your ear.’ We just wanted to make more connections. Up to that point the only connections we really had were just touring bands that were coming to Tallahassee. That was our primary source of any connection to other people in the scene. So this was our way of just branching out. So we sent out all these records, one of which went to Exploding In Sound, and out of all these people Dan was the only person to write us back and say ‘thank you’. We thought that was awesome. And at that time Exploding In Sound was me and David’s favorite label. They put out Pile, and Grass Is Green, and Ovlov, all these awesome, killer bands right around that time.
So that’s how we first came into contact with them. He was super nice so we just kept in touch with him and we then did our next record, that 7”, with this label called Texas Is Funny. That label ended up hiring Dan from Exploding In Sound to do publicity for the record. So we started having a working relationship with him at that point. So when it came time to start thinking about the next thing we began talking to Dan. Before that, though, we did that 4-way split, which was a good step because it got us talking to you, so we got to work with you. And Ovlov was on that split, they were on Exploding In Sound, so it all came together even more. So he hit us up about putting out the full length. We had sent him some demos and I think he booked us in New York, and he had chilled out with him when we played there.
So he offered to put out “Past Tense” but said he couldn’t afford to release it on his own and then you were literally the only other person we asked, and you agreed. It was a perfect situation, everything fell into place, it was so cool!
I think it was really advantageous all the way around. I think you guys hipped me to that label and I ended up liking them quite a bit. And I could see that Dan had some connections that were outside my realm because he dealt with more of an indie crowd and my label has been known more, mostly, for heavier stuff. So just having both labels to put the record out there to probably two different audiences was a good idea.
We got a good perspective of working with labels through doing that 7” with Texas Is Funny. I think the guy who ran it went to school for music business. Everything about what he wanted us to do, and how he operated was kind of foreign to us because we were pretty strictly DIY. He wanted us to sign contracts and set up all these weird promotional accounts on these online services and play these conferences, like SXSW. We ended up doing that and playing there and it was great. But it was a different kind of world that he was operating in and what we were used to. I appreciate it all the work he put into it, but that was one end of music that people are into and when we met you and Dan we thought, ‘this makes more sense!’
I don’t think Dan uses contracts at all, and I know you don’t. It’s all very streamlined, like ‘this is the deal, let’s do it.’ You guys want to do it because you’re excited about music.
And as far as Exploding In Sound being an indie label, that’s one of the main reasons why we wanted to work with them because when we would tour and play local shows the hardcore scene did not care about us at all. They knew us, and I’m friends with a lot of those guys, but they did not give a single shit about Ex-Breathers. Or, really any band that you could describe as ‘punk’. The hardcore kids like hardcore and don’t want to listen to anything else.
We would play to whoever, we didn’t give a fuck. I know I’d rather play with indie rock bands instead of some macho mosh band or some shit. So when we started a lot more indie kids liked us as opposed to hardcore kids. So we thought going down that path made sense, even though we didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a band that plays to it’s genre.
Discuss the situation around having two drummers.
OK, so Adam (Berkowitz) was the drummer for the entire life of the band. But me, David, and Adam had always played with different people during the course of Ex-Breathers as well. Me and David had another band together. I think me and David were in like four different bands together for about a decade straight. But Adam joined this band The Mongoloids, from New Jersey-
(laughs) He was in The Mongoloids?!
You didn’t know that?! Yeah, they were not good. But Adam sort of came from that hardcore scene. So The Mongoloids just cycled through members like crazy. I think the singer was the only consistent member. So Adam was playing in this hardcore band from here and met The Mongoloid guys through that when they played here. And they were going on tour all the time. They were going to Europe and going everywhere. Ex-Breathers was active too, just not as active as that. We would do two or three tours a year for a few weeks.
But there were a couple things that led to us having two drummers. The first was that Adam was touring with Mongoloids and it was sort of holding us back a bit from touring and playing. So we thought we would just play with our friend Ronnie and he could fill in. But the way that Ronnie ended up playing on one of our records was that we had gotten the songs together for that 4-way split, and I remember they were the first songs that we had solidified after “Collision” had come out. And Adam wasn’t really all that into them, he was just sort of down on them. Plus he was on tour all the time. We didn’t want to stop playing with him so we were thinking of how we could make this work. So we started playing with Ronnie a little bit, just to record demos of these tracks so we could get them down. So Ronnie played on some demos and then we started touring with him.
To be honest I can’t recall how we decided to officially record those songs with him, but we ended up touring with him, plus he is one of me and David’s closest friends. And I don’t think Adam has any hard feelings about it or anything like theat. He was super busy touring.
And then Adam came back.
Right! And Adam would play with us while he was in Mongoloids too, like when he wasn’t on tour with them. I remember there was one tour we did with this band Direct Effect from Orlando. We started the tour with Adam and then dropped him off in New Jersey, and finished the tour without him. We didn’t have Ronnie either! We had the drummer from Direct Effect play drums with us who was a pretty good drummer, but Ex-Breathers songs aren’t exactly the most straightforward things in the world. So we finished the tour with this other guy playing drums, which was maybe three shows or whatever. But we only practiced one time. It was the day after we dropped Adam off. We practiced for a couple hours in a basement in Philly. It was pretty shaky playing those songs, not because the other drummer wasn’t good, but because there was so little time to get it figured out.
That whole tour was sort of doomed though. There was a lot more going on than just that. The day before we were supposed to leave Direct Effect came up and we were hanging out at our house. David comes home from work- he worked at some blueprint-printing shop- and he’s got his hand all bandaged up! He said, ‘man, I sliced off my fingertips at work today.’ The day before we leave for tour!
We still went though and at the first show I think I played guitar and David just sang. It was a disaster! That tour was scraped from the get-go!
Ex-Breathers playing Gainesville Fest with Ronnie on drums
Around the time the record was released you all did a U.S. tour to support it. How did that go and was there anything particularly interesting about it?
We went out West with Gnarwhal and I can’t remember if we did another one after that. We did the West Coast and some of the Midwest, it wasn’t a full U.S. tour. But that was definitely the last tour that Ex-Breathers did. We did do some final shows as well. We did a hometown show and we played Gainesville Fest, and then that was about it.
Not too long after that tour the band decided to part ways. What were the reasons behind that?
By the end of the band I had been working at this vegan restaurant for around five years. I was pushing 30 and the owner was in the process of moving and offered me a stake in ownership of the business. So I decided to buy in and I told David and Adam that I was going to do this so I wouldn’t really be able to tour. I was still down to do the band, it would just be part-time. But David and Adam both also really wanted to get out of Tallahassee, and if they couldn’t do Ex-Breathers in a full-time capacity then they didn’t really want to stay in town. Adam ended up moving out to the Boston area and going to school for music. David moved to Philadelphia. Both those guys wanted to pursue music full-time. It seemed for a bit that Ex-Breathers would do that- be a full time band. I was having a great time with the band, but me deciding to take on owning a restaurant didn’t really fit in with being in a full-time touring band.
I’ve always been curious about the cover of the record. I had assumed it was just a silhouette of the band, but there’s only three of you in the band and there are four people on the cover.
The cover is a picture from when we went to Massachusetts to record the album. We stayed with our friend Adam Reed, who lived in the Northampton, or Western Mass, area. We were crashing with him the whole time we recorded. The day before we went to record he took us up to a park on a small mountain and it had this elevated platform. The sun was behind us and our shadows were on the ground below. David took a picture and put it on his Instagram. When I ended up seeing the picture I said we ought to use it for the record cover because it’s a nod to Ronnie because he was like our forth member. But he’s not in the picture. It’s me, David, Adam, and our friend Adam we stayed with.
So even though it’s not Ronnie it’s an ode to the four people who were a part of the band, even though you were a trio.
Yeah. I mean, you can’t tell it’s not him because it’s just our shadows on the gravel.
Video from Gainesville Fest 2013
So what was the best and the worst part of being in Ex-Breathers?
The best part of the band was towards the end and being able to put that record out. I mean, music-wise I love all of our stuff, but looking back I think the “EXBX” 7” was my favorite. But getting to work with you and Dan was great. We toured with Pile for like a week out to Texas, which was awesome. We had known them a bit, and we had put on shows for them in the past. And then we just reached out to them randomly and asked if they would ever want to play together and they replied and just said, ‘you know, we’re actually headed down that way pretty soon, why don’t we do some shows together’. It was awesome. The story of our band just seems to be, ‘hey, let’s Hail Mary this idea’ and then it just ends up working! The last tour we did with Gnarwhal was fantastic. It was just the five of us- because they were a duo- hanging out every night.
The worst thing was probably that we played some really bad shows. There were a few bad shows on that last tour, the kind where the promoter doesn’t care, or doesn’t pay you, or has nowhere for you to stay for the night. That tour we did with Direct Effect was just doomed from the beginning. We played in Champaign and no one came. The opening band left before we played. I think it was just a guy and his girlfriend there. I almost died before we even played because I got electrocuted from the mic. We toured in cars so I couldn’t bring my regular bass cab, and I had to use this smaller thing and I think something was wrong with the electrical. So when I went to check the mic I feel like I had gotten punched in the face. I blacked out completely and when I came to I was just leaning on my amp! I was out for a few seconds there. So I ended up putting a coozie over the mic or something and still played to no one. Afterwards the promoter had no money for us and nowhere to stay. But that tour was just doomed with obstacles.
But overall, the band was fun to do and we’re all still friends.
And there you have it. So these days you can catch Jack studying physics and still booking some shows in Tallahassee, or take a listen to David's podcast Under the First Floor, while Adam resides in Western Mass and plays with bands here and there. But if you want some Ex-Breathers in your life I still have copies of the LP and you can get it for 5 measly bux. That's it. Get it HERE cheapo.