Monday, September 2, 2019

HXR20YR RETROSPECTIVE: HXR031- BLEAK, "We Deserve Our Failures"

I feel like Hex Records was really coming to a point where many of the bands I had initially worked with were either split up, or extremely low-key with their activity.  Even the bands who split up and formed new bands that I was doing stuff for were old enough to be starting families, doing adult stuff, and letting their music take a back seat to more responsible activities.  I kind of made peace with that and sort of re-evaluated where the label was at and how it would exist going forward.  I always like releasing stuff for friends and I have the good fortune of consistently being impressed by their creativity to the point where I am happy to consistently work with them as time goes on and their ability to hit the road diminishes. 
But finally a newer band from around my way was getting very active.  And it wasn’t really new, or young kids with something to prove.  It was people who had been in bands before, and people I knew, and a perfect storm happened to not only make them a pulverizing force of nature, but they were relentless about being on the road and going wherever it took them.  Matt had been in Blood Money with Nick.  TJ played bass in Architect, but switched to guitar for this, and honestly, I had no idea where Scott came from, but it was somewhere rural and he had sung in a death metal band.  But Bleak, quite simply, crushed it.  They were so damn loud and so ridiculously heavy it was impossible to ignore their steamroller of a sound.  At times they reminded me of groups like Turmoil, and even sometimes like Engineer.  Other times they took on some Neurosis vibes.  But it was all heavy.  Their name was the perfect moniker for the inhospitable nature of their sound and I became quite impressed with their work ethic.
My band Dialysis ended up playing a ton of shows with Bleak.  We did some weekends together and often found ourselves on the same bill both locally and out of town.  We all got to be good buddies, even though most of us had known each other pretty well even before our respective bands got together.  So it was at one of these shows we played together down in Ithaca, New York where Bleak were coming home from yet another tour, but their first going out for an extended period of time.  I asked them how it felt and if they were sick of each other.  When they quickly answered that they couldn’t wait to go out again I knew that was a good sign.  I asked if they wanted to do their first full length with me and it was settled.  I loved working with Bleak because they had a great work ethic and moved right along with things.  They also sought ought my assistance with making tour posters, getting contacts for shows, and generally making me feel like a part of the group. It was always a really cooperative and engaging experience doing stuff with them and for them.
I mean, for a group of dudes who prided themselves on being angry and pissed off about stuff they really were good-natured characters and a lot of fun to be around.  Their bassist Matt Jaime typically handled most of the business of the band and we always had a lot of shared interests to talk about, whether it was music, playing shows, booking shows, comic books, or working day jobs in the same field.  So I figured it was a good enough time to give him a call and see what was new, as well as what was the story behind their debut LP, “We Deserve Our Failures”, one of the most crushing records to be released through this label.
The taller doppelganger of Steve Von Till, Mr. Matt Jaime

So it's been some time since this era of Bleak.  Do you have good memories?

This era of Bleak, yes, we can do laughing.  I can see some laughter in this era of the band.

Yeah, especially with that name.

(laughs) Yeah.

Prior to Bleak I had this impression that you ran in different music circles than all the people who ended up being in Bleak.  Is that correct? 

I was just desperate to get in with those people, to be honest with you.  I was desperate to play one of the shows you put on, and to play with people like TJ (Calandra, Bleak guitarist).  I went to shows my whole life growing up, but I never- for one reason or another- got in with people.  I would just go to shows.  Maybe it’s social anxiety or something.  So for years I hung out and played with whoever would jam with me.  And what I wanted to be doing was playing in bands that sounded like Oak and Bone, ya know?  I wanted to do shit like that.

I recall you being in more proggy types of bands.

Oh my god, are you talking about my band in college?

Yeah, I guess so.

Wow!  I’m surprised you remember it.  That’s where I met my friend Avery, who was in Blood Money with me (band prior to Bleak forming).  And that might be part of why I wanted to get in with more Syracuse musicians.  I took off to Canandaigua, which isn’t far, and was going to FLCC (Finger Lakes Community College), and playing with a band out there.  That’s where I met Avery.  I had a roommate who was really into heavy stuff, but not like heavy hardcore.  He was into accessible stuff.  So we were all into this progressive stuff.  We were all going to school for music recording with our respective instruments.  And we were all at that age where you get into weirder stuff.  So it was that perfect time where you’re getting into weirder stuff, and going to school with all these weird musicians, and you start getting into prog stuff.  I don’t think I was ever good enough to play the stuff I wanted to do.  But Avery and I were leaning heavier.  So after I graduated we all moved our separate ways and then Avery and I started Blood Money because I had met Nick Shelton (original Bleak drummer).
Nick was doing this band Cowards with TJ, and I would go see them all the time.  Plus, he worked at Soundgarden (Syracuse record store) and I was down there all the time too.  So I would talk his ear off about bands I liked.  So we became buddies and ended up jamming. 
I had played in bands since I was about 14, but getting to know Nick, that’s how I ended up getting in with the musical community here.

So Bleak solidified with getting together with Nick, who was already in a band with TJ?

Yeah!  I had always talked to TJ and seen his other bands play (Architect), but I didn’t really know him that well.  Also, TJ used to come to early Blood Money practices and would give us some pointers, or songwriting tips.  So I really learned a lot from him from that.  Well, to be honest, I learned a ton from him in Bleak too.  But hanging out in that old Midler Practice Space was great.

So aside from TJ, you all ended up working at Soundgarden. Is that how it came together with Mike (Watson, original Bleak singer)?

Ya know, I believe Nick, Mike, and TJ had gotten together at the practice space and just jammed out for a little bit.  And then Nick hit me up and was like, ‘I know we’re in Blood money, but I got this thing with TJ.  We only jammed once, but we’ve been working on some other songs.  It’s going to be me, TJ, Mike Watson on vocals, and I wondered if you wanted to play bass.’  And I was like, ‘Oh my god, yes!’
I showed up expecting it to be like every other band I was in where everyone had a million ideas, and what are we going to name the thing, and go on like that for months.  But right away TJ was like, ‘it’s going to be called Bleak, this is what the imagery is going to be like, this is what the sound is going to be like, and I have a record written.’  So that was like a dream come true for a guy like me who just wanted to be in a good band desperately.

And they already had everything planned out.

They had everything ready to go.  The only thing was that they weren’t going to tour, or do much.  And I remember Mike would always say that when we did play it would be a big deal because we didn’t play that often.  So that was the original plan, and we played a couple shows, and we ended up really liking it, and it’s important to us, and we want to do it more.

Yeah, because right off the bat you all seemed to hit the road pretty hard.

I’d say that after our second or third show when people began to show some interest.  I had been used to begging people for shows most of my life, but people wanted to actually see this band, and see us do stuff.  That really lit a fire under our ass to go out and do it.
One of many tours the band went on
And how did you find yourself in the role of being the guy handling all the band business?

I was the one who was down to do it.  I’ve always been down to do that stuff.  I hold my own musically in a band, but I never felt like I was the guy who was the best player, or the person who writes a ten song record and makes sure that every one learns it.  I can’t even learn stuff at home, I have to jam out with people.  So my whole time coming up I felt like I had to be worthwhile.
You can be great.  You can be the best band in the world.  But no one’s going to know if you don’t do shit.  So someone has to go out there and get shows, or try to get the music out there.  So you can be the best band in the world and just play in your basement, or play a local show once a month.  So I always did that stuff out of necessity.  When TJ saw that I was willing to do all that stuff, and really do the booking, he was all about it.  It worked really well.  He did the writing, and practically all the recording, and I did the booking, and all that stuff.

So again, you all worked at Soundgarden minus TJ.  Did that make touring tough at all when half the staff wanted to take off?

Yeah it did!  Poor Mike left the company over it.  I eventually left too, and now Nick pretty much runs the place.  But yeah, it was really hard for awhile because we would have to get fill-in’s for tours sometimes.  We had a few fill-in drummers, and then we had a couple drummers we considered part of the band, depending on who was available.
Live violence

Oh yeah, there were points where Nick was still considered part of the band, but would be the guy who stuck around at Soundgarden while everyone else goes out on tour, right?

Yeah for awhile, for sure.  He would do what he could.  If, say, we had three weekends in a row booked he could do one weekend and then we would get a fill-in, which was usually either Andrew Hernandez (Tombs, Twin Lords), or Mark McGee (Architect), who both helped us out so much.  Nick did one really long run with us, but usually we were doing longer runs with fill-ins, like either Andrew or Mark.

So Mike didn’t stay with the group for too long before you got Scott.  How did you find him? 

Mike kind of decided that he didn’t wasn’t having fun doing the stuff you have to do, like playing small shows for little to no money so you can build those connections for better stuff later on.  He had done that sort of stuff in other bands, and he said he didn’t want to do that anymore.  So he decided to leave, but we were doing a lot so we weren’t sure of what to do.  So we posted online that we needed a vocalist. We lined up a couple people- Jessica Marvin (They Live, Radskvm), Brandon DiFabio (Meth Mouth), and I believe we tried out someone else too.  But whoever it was didn’t show up because Scott arrived and just crushed it.  He knew all the material and was good to go, and that was that.

But, his vocals are way different than Mike’s so I imagine there was some work involved with fitting the music to his voice?

When he first jumped on he was down to just get in the van and do the tours we already had booked.  So he did his own style, but he did the parts that Mike did.  But once those shows were over he did his own stuff.  TJ really did tweak the music a little bit to fit where Scott was.

So the name Bleak fit the music, but I’d characterize you all as generally being pretty friendly people.  Is there something they all felt worth honing in on that led to the name, or was it just happenstance?

It’s very much a cathartic output, and for me, I need this crazy, intense, angry thing in order to not be that way in regular life.  I used to have a real issue with getting upset all the time.  I still kind of do.  But I couldn’t handle stuff.  And being in a band really helps me with that.  It helps me with real life.  That’s what it always was to me.  I know TJ is such a brilliant person, so it may mean something different to him.  It may be more formulaic- ‘It’s one word.  You hear ‘bleak’ and you immediately think of this draining, dissonant guitar, and you immediately see grey’  He may look at it like that.
But for me it was perfect.  It was this cathartic, furious output.

Back to touring.  You all got out a lot.  Did it prove to be difficult, or did you have some early successes?  What were some of the highs and lows?

The first tour we did where Mark ended up playing drums on, was down to Florida and back.  It was funny, because at the time I hadn’t done any real touring.  I had done a few weekends or whatever, but nothing serious.  So going all the way down to Florida and back was a really big deal for me.  I really didn’t think it was that successful, and afterwards I thought ‘the next tour will be better.’  But looking back on it now I think of that as being a really successful tour!  It was a great tour!  We did really well.  We didn’t even lose any money!

That’s a success right there.

Yeah, for real.  But I had a really good time.  And we felt like we were really tight.  That was a great unit of the band playing with Mark and Scott.  We played with Primitive Man, as well as Shai Hulud, in Pittsburgh.  That was weird.  But we were billed as direct support, and that was kind of weird.  I had never imagined myself as being anything other than the local opener on any show.  So shit like that, seeing it be like a real band where people outside your home area care about what you’re doing, that was the best part of playing out.
The worst part of playing those shows was when our van rotted out.  The bottom of our van rotted out while we were in California and we had no idea what we were going to do.  I ended up buying a fucking Suburban, this big giant pick up truck with a cover over the back, and TJ had to leave his dirty clothes on the side of the road because there physically was no more room left in the vehicle for anything else.  That was the lowest point, easy.  Also Scott leaving sucked.  I’m not sad about it now, we’re good friends, but that was really hard.  We were really tight, we sounded good, Scott’s a great vocalist, but it was understandable- he moved to Egypt with his wife and had some real world shit going on.

Why did you chose Bob Gorham (Engineer, Blood Sun Circle) to do the artwork for “We Deserve..”?  Did you give him direction?

I’ve always been a huge fan of anything he has done, or basically anything the Gorham Brothers have done.  But Bob has always done artwork that I really like.  He’s one of my favorite artists, one of my favorite vocalists.  So I might have brought up the idea of having him do art because I always wanted him to do something.  We asked him to do a t-shirt design, and he ended up doing two or three of them. He just nailed it.
We didn’t really want to give him any direction because we knew he was an awesome artist, his style was really cool, and would fit what we do.  Plus, we knew that he understood the sort of abrasive music we did and would get our style.  So we just let him do whatever.
I think what he did looked so good.  I’m really happy with all the artwork he did for us.  He said he was just going to do this painting, and I believe he said he was going to do one thing and ended up doing something different.  I’m pretty sure he did the same thing for when he did the art for our next LP. So I’m pretty sure that’s what he did.  I mean, I’m in their shop at least three times a week bothering those guys, so I would keep up with what he was up to.  He would work on something and then get up at like three in the morning and just black it all out and start over.
Variations on the vinyl

That sounds like a Bob thing to do- come up with something brilliant and then just toss it out because a better idea comes along.

Yeah, right.  I saw in that other interview you did with him where he said they (Blood Sun Circle) have all those unreleased songs that they didn’t want to do anything with!  How much you want for those songs!?
Anyway, whatever his process is he really knocked it out of the park.  The palette for “We Deserve Our Failures” I love- those earthy tones are great.

So for recording the LP you mentioned that you didn’t play bass on the record?

So this ties in a bit with why Nick didn’t tour with us too much- he didn’t want to lose what little benefits he had with his job.  And I kind of plan my whole life around being able to tour.  Once we did that tour down to Florida I thought, ‘I never not want to be doing this.’  So I sort of routed my life around being able to do this.  I have a job in the same field that you do, and I really like it.  I work a ton when I am home, but I forfeit having any kind of benefits and paid time off because I go on tour for X amount of time whenever the hell I want.  So it was partially that when I wasn’t on tour I was working around 60 hours a week, which kept me from having the time to go to the studio.  But also, and I’m not shorting myself because I was a big part of what Bleak did, those are TJ’s songs.  It’s his material. 
I don’t want to say he’s picky, but he has a certain way that things are supposed to sound, and everything is a specific way for a reason.  And I felt like, and this might sound weird for the bass player in the band to say, I really felt that he should be the one to play on the record because he wrote all the songs.
So it was a combination of those things.  Also, we were on a bit of a time crunch, and I would have gone in the studio with some anxiety, versus TJ, who just went in there and pounded it out instantly and perfectly, made things move along faster.
I know a lot of people who would thumb their nose at that, but seeing that Bleak is really TJ’s material, I wanted to respect that.
Holding up the most negative test press cover I could think of making for them

I actually think that shows a lot of honesty, as well as confidence.  Most musicians would not be comfortable with someone else playing their parts, but you put it aside to work on other mechanics of the band, which are also necessary.

If they were to hire some outside person to do it maybe I’d feel a bit weird about it.  It was an odd situation.  And there were a couple of parts where when TJ showed me the part I would add a bit of my own thing to it, or add an inflection, or something and he was all for it.  And he did it on the record.
Also, when TJ writes parts for a band and there’s certain people in those bands, he writes with them in mind.  Like, ‘how would Nick play this drum part?’
But I just wanted the band to do as much as possible, and if me not being able to take off a chunk of days so we could record made it possible to play a bunch of shows the next week that was OK with me.
Now that the band is over, honestly, I do sort of wish I had played on the records.  But I don’t feel like it takes away anything from it.  I don’t have an ego about my playing.  I’ll admit I have a bit of an ego about my work ethic with my band though.  If someone says I don’t have drive, or passion, about my band I won’t be able to let go of that.  Like ever.
But if someone says, ‘you got a great bass player, but there sure is a lot of distortion!’ I wouldn’t think anything of it.

Yeah, I initially thought you might be upset about not playing on your own record, but I get the reasoning.

Right.  As I said, it’s TJ’s material and I just got it out there as much as I could.
TJ- 'metal face'.  Playing the shit out of "Fuck You Yankee Blue Jeans"

What’s the best thing about Bleak and what’s the worst thing?

The worst part of the band was the end.  It was really, really hard.  It was really sad, really terrible, and just stuff that still affects me to this day.  That band did so much for me and really opened up an entire world of being able to tour because of people I met through that band.  A lot of the contacts I have now for touring came from doing Bleak.  When you really want to do a band that does a lot it’s hard to find the people who are down to do it.  Getting in with Bleak showed that I was one of those people that was down to do it.  But the end was a really difficult time.
That was the first time I ever felt like I was in a real band and that we actually did stuff.  I think some of the best stuff was surrounded by some of the worst stuff.
I think one of the coolest shows we ever played was probably this fest in Arizona- the Southwest Terror Fest.  Drop Dead, Sleep, Bongripper all played, it was great.  The poster had a picture of Tony Iommi on it, just great.  But the whole tour getting there was miserable!  We had this opportunity to go on tour with this band Call Of the Void that got us out there to the fest, but the tour was terrible.  It was booked by someone else, someone that Call Of the Void had working for them.  And we had a guarantee.  It was a very modest guarantee, and we got it almost every night, but we were playing to nobody, and most nights the promoter would come up, give us our money, and tell us to get the fuck out of there.  But once we got to the fest it was the best possible experience.  We were treated really well, we got paid really well, we played in front of a ton of people with bands that we really liked.
But I guess that’s a good way to describe what being in a hard-working band is like.  It’s going to be all this awesome stuff, but it’s going to be surrounded by all the worst stuff ever.  You’re going to have to go through all this shit to get to the good stuff.

And there you have it!  If you, by chance, want to grab a copy of this sledgehammer of a record I'll give it to you for only $5 for the next week.  And if you're a digital-age person throw down $4 and you can get that.  Get that deal on over HERE or HERE

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