Interview with Jacob Bannon of Converge conducted by Greg Svitil in late 1996.
Converge consist of five people: Damon Bellorado, Kurt Ballou, Jacob Bannon, Aaron Dalbec, and Jeffrey Feinburg. They’ve existed as a band since about 1990. Their present catalogue includes the Halo in a Haystack full-length, two seven-inches (Unloved and Weeded Out and Petitioning the Empty Sky), and roughly three CD’s which consist of material from the aforementioned releases and then some. They are currently working on their next full-length, tentatively titled When Forever Comes Crashing, which is likely to be released some five or six months from now. There are few bands who convey as much emotion through their music as Converge. And there are few people who write like Jake Bannon. Reading his lyrics, I knew that there was much that he has to offer. His gift to articulate both thought and feeling is refreshing. This interview was a thoroughly enjoyable thing to do.
Greg: Petitioning the Empty Sky feels much more aggressive and a little darker than previous records, like Halo in a Haystack.
Jake: I think a lot of that has more or less to do with natural progression. As far as specific topics, they’re prominent in both records. There’s not really a dominant theme per se that would give it a darker feeling. I just think, probably we had a lot more to get off our chest per se in a negative fashion, things that weren’t exactly the happiest moments. And the greatest times of our lives certainly didn’t happen during that time when we were writing the record. So I think a lot of that came out in the writing in general.
Greg: You’re saying that would be coincidental as you further evolved musically as well, or do you think that has to do with your experiences through touring, or just personal lives?
Jake: I think touring is everything else, it’s really kind of all lumped into one thing. It’s basically what we do as the main part of all our lives, although we all have a million other things going on. We have a million different jobs, we do a billion different things. So I couldn’t really narrow it down to the experience of one specific thing that set somebody off to the point where they felt that they had to write this or do this or do that. IT’s a kind of tough question to answer there. A lot of personal things went on in my life that made me a little more prone to sitting down and writing and having to get emotional things off my chest onto paper, so they weren’t some sort of burden that I was carrying around with me. I don’t know. It’s such an open-ended question — is there anything specifically that you want to know about, or are you just saying in general?
Greg: At first I was definitely noticing something that was much more musically “straight-on,” for lack of a better expression.
Jake: I think that record certainly is a little more straight-ahead than Halo in Haystack and Unloved and Weeded Out, and things like that. I think a lot of that doesn’t’ necessarily have to do with our writing style. I just think our emotions were a little more streamlined this time. I really feel that a lot of things that we really wanted to cover — it wasn’t more or less a collaboration of sorts, how the other records functioned. But it was more or less Kurt having to get all these crazy things out of him, and, in the same right, lyrically myself, and that record came out between the both of us. And I think that’s probably why it’s more focused. Because, as far as the other people in the band writing stuff for that record, I think more of the input was done between myself and him, when he lived in the city. We used to get together every couple days and work on songs together. He would show me what exactly he had and what he wanted to do, and I would kind of pick and choose and tell him what I wanted to do. So I think we were more or less on the same emotional plane when we were putting the songs together, so ti came across a lot stronger. I think the new record that we’re working on now is in a similar vein of writing style, where we’re both pretty much going to be doing all of it. And I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, because I think it came across as a more focused record, like you said before, and I think that we had accomplished everything that we wanted to do together, without any of the other people having a lot to do with it, input. Not to say that they don’t have input, because they certainly do. But everyone else has other things going on, and we’re writing the record. Usually, myself and Kurt really permanently focus all our attention on it, and that’s all we do. That’s like our big thing. That’s pretty much how that works.
Greg: Converge strikes me as a band that is going to get out there in terms of musical experimentation, out of the ordinary. Are there certain things that you experiment with on earlier recordings that you’ll learn from, like “that definitely works,” maybe “that doesn’t work”?
Jake: As far as musical experimentation goes, it’s really interesting, because I listen to records now that have come out recently, like the past couple months or whatever, and a lot of people try to do things that are new and unique, and they’ll just rehash old Earache Records riffs, and kids are incorporating speed metal things into their things. And there’s the whole jazz-fusion approach on punk rock, and about a billion other different versions, you know — Neurosis is finally getting the recognition they deserved, and kids are certainly biting off of that, like there’s no tomorrow. We’ve actually talked about people’s uses of samples and things like that to evoke mood and setting a certain specific pace to something, and it’s interesting because we’re pretty much against a lot of that. A lot of bands really rely too much on sound biting off other things, and we don’t want to get into that and become another band that can’t somehow rely on their own songwriting capabilities. As far as our progression goes and things like that, it becomes more or less just a lot of new chord progressions that are somewhat stylistically unorthodox. But just like any other band, we have our influences, too. We have the bands that we like and we listen to a lot, and a lot of things that we’ve come up with are definitely inspired by 80’s speed metal.
Greg: The part where it goes into the guitar lead on “The Saddest Day,” a bit like Slayer.
Jake: Yeah, see Slayer, I don’t really have too much of a respect for bands like Slayer. I feel that Slayer are the Spinal Tap of metal. There’s nothing to them. They’re just there, and they’re just a band that likes to write heavy, scary things. And there’s really not an emotional depth to anything they really do. It’s just all for shock value. So I think our solo is almost a metal parody. I remember, we were in the studio and Kurt said “I really want to put a solo here,” and we’ve always been pretty much die-hard against anything like that, but it was more of a slap in the face to a lot of people’s personal stylings, and refusal to admit where they came from as far as a musical background. I felt pretty good about it, and it worked really well. It comes off really well when we play it, we have a great time playing it. It just ended up coming off — I don’t know, was it a stock to you, more or less?
Greg: It certainly wasn’t a shock to me. It seemed like a natural place for the song to go.
Jake: A lot of people have imagined that song to go to anywhere except. Because it’s such a long song. We weren’t too sure how people were gonna digest that song. We had originally wrote it, and it was like our long, “fantasty metal epic” a lot of people call it, and it’s almost eight minutes long. It takes up one side of a seven-inch. And we just really wanted to be dynamic with it, and have a song that just didn’t stop, and just kept running you over and over and over. It just really worked for the lyrical things that I really wanted to do at the time. “‘How we get older, how we forget about each other,’ she said, entwined within the saddest of days,” and all that stuff. At the time, that song really was sort of hard to sing. It’s a pretty emotional song for me, like all our songs. It’s just really weird to hear people’s reflections on how they take my lyrical perspective. I don’t think a lot of people realize what I’m writing about. I’ve been accused of being vague in some instances, too. And at the same time, people consider our music vague. And I kind of think that it’s really just the opposite. I really think that people are just misinterpreting what’s exactly going on. I was actually reading reviews where people were somehow thinking that we were always just dwelling on a negative plane of thought, and that a lot of people would have a hard time somehow appealing to what we do because we’re “so negative,” or we’re “so deeply affected by certain aspects of our lives,” that people just weren’t going to be able to personally relate to them. I feel just the opposite. There’s a certain vagueness, but I feel that that almost adds to the fact that someone *can* relate to certain situations and certain things that I write about. I’m curious as to what your take is on that.
Greg: I don’t get a negative energy from it. I’ll look at it as a lot of personal struggle and personal victory. As for being vague, vague relative to what?
Jake: I guess vague as far as emotional spectrum goes. And I feel that that was certainly a wrong interpretation of what we do.
Greg: I think that any time you try to lyrically leave things to the imagination, and make things abstract in a way that people think about it, that’s gonna weed out some people who’ll think it’s vague. If you’re not spoon-feeding it to them.
Jake: A lot of people want you to spoon-feed things to them, especially in punk rock, and it’s kind of unfortunate.
(At this point we talk more about this, leading back to the original observation of Petitioning the Empty Sky’s comparatively aggressive feel)
Jake: A lot of that has to do with, seriously, just everything everyone was going through at the time. We were just all having a lot of personal things going on. I certain wasn’t the happiest person at that time. I was really, really in need of expressing myself, really putting everything that I had into those songs, and I think that’s why those songs came across as aggressively as they did. When I listen to it now, I almost feel that it’s schizophrenic in some way. It’s just really unstable. The reason why I get that impression is because when I wrote those songs I felt somewhat unstable, and I felt that I wasn’t exactly myself. Well — I *was* myself, I was tuned with something that was definitely not the happy part of my psyche. It was definitely a rough time, and I think it’s adamantly displayed in the songwriting.
Greg: You mentioned before that “The Saddest Day” is a hard song for you to sing. What are some of the other Converge songs that are hard for you to sing?
Jake: You know, every song, to an extent, has a certain amount of emotional impact on me. I don’t write songs that are emotional fluff, or songs that are supposed to inspire somebody to beat up their best friend in the most pit. It’s really weird. I won’t write unless I’m inspired, and unless I’m inspired by something great or tragic in my life that I feel a need to document it. So I think, in a way, almost every song that we play is a little rough to sing sometimes. “The Saddest Day,” I wrote about, since I’ve lived in the city, and kind of moved away from the town I grew up in, and have seen so many people I’ve been close to just kind of disappear, or go do this or go do that, or more or less find their own paths in life that are not necessarily positive ones, and people took pretty big downfalls here and there, including myself, and a billion other people I know. It was kind of a documentation of people getting older and forgetting the people that they cared about and forgetting the things that really meant so much to them. Not necessarily hardcore or something, but just like hanging out with one of your best friends and seeing them smile, and just having a good time and spending time with somebody that you really truly care about, even from a family perspective, if it wasn’t a friend, if it was your brother or sister, or your mother or your father. And I feel that that especially, when people are around each other so much, people really move away from each other sometimes, when they’re supposed to grow together and come closer. It’s just my interpretation on that.
I got a call from a friend that I had probably since about 7th grade, and I wrote that song right after I spoke to her. She was just talking about everybody that she was around, because, we have two different lives, we’re very separate, and she’s one of my best friends I’ve had forever, yet we’ve never been too close, we’ve never really had the same friends. We’ve understood where each other have been about, but we’ve never really been in tune. She’s not a punk rock kid really, she was never anything — that’s an interesting perspective when you’re surrounded with so many hardcore kids or whatever, and they have their lives completely enveloped in a little subculture like that, and to talk to somebody who isn’t like that, and you’re that close to that person, and they’re not a relative, it’s interesting to hear their perspective on things, because really, a lot of people who aren’t necessarily part of hardcore have things pretty nailed down as far as experiences. Just because you’re a hardcore kid doesn’t mean you’re a deeper profile than anyone else. But that conversation was a pretty heavy one, where she was just telling me about her friends, and about the people that she was around, and it got me thinking about people that I care about, and the way everybody was pretty much at each other’s throats for various reasons. And it just got me really thinking about it on a deeper emotional level, and why everybody was somehow forgetting that they cared about everyone else. Really crazy and really petty. I kind of left it up to anyone else’s interpretation, because I couldn’t find any specific answers to the questions I was bringing up. It was basically my documentation of it. The way I write about things, it’s all in the name of self-preservation, in keeping myself from being claimed by this crazy crazy world that’s enveloping and eating up everybody else. I think I wrote that song for a specific reason, to not be another statistic in that sense.
Greg: Another facet of not being a “part of their rusting machine” (lyrics of “Fact Leaves its Ghost)?
Jake: (laughs) I guess you could say that.
Greg: What does it mean to petition the empty sky?
Jake: I don’t know. Figure it out. People have asked me that before, but to really understand what the title means — well, why don’t I ask you the question — what do you think it means? What do you think I was somehow trying to convey in my literary thought?
Greg: I can’t work out an intellectual logical interpretation, but the *feeling* I get is of searching for motivation, searching to something to get you —-
Jake: It’s pretty much that. It’s searching for motivation, searching for fate, and searching for hope. Searching for something. Searching for some sort of salvation in something to more or less keep yourself going on a daily basis. And in that sense you’ve pretty much got it. It’s more or less questioning traditional faith and value in what things are important in life, and what things should or shouldn’t be important or deep or crucial, just elementary to everyday living. Certain people’s hopes and fears are different from somebody else’s. It’s just taking the unimportant things, which obviously just don’t count, and things that end up being pretty much material, unrealistic and unimportant, and casting those things aside, and trying to live a happy and somewhat pure life.
Greg: Sometimes, even being as young as 19, as I am, you feel so old and tired out.
Jake: It has nothing to do with age, it’s more or less, experience. Someone can be emotionally tired, and completely and utterly burnt out to a certain degree what they’re 11 years old. It just depends on their life experience. To question the validity of that is preposterous. I can’t see anyone making any sense of deeming someone’s emotions and values unimportant because of their age.
Greg: When these things come up in conversation with people who are into what Converge is doing, very often, the big thing for them is “Becoming a Stranger.”
Jake: That’s pretty weird. And why have people said this when you’ve spoken to them about things?
Greg: It seems to be one of those songs that seems to carry just so much emotion. It just — I don’t know what it is about that song — it seems to be a cherished song.
Jake: A cherished song?
Greg: A cherished song.
Jake: It’s really weird, we met a lot of people on this past tour that we did this summer, and actually, even in our short tour that we did with Coalesce a couple of weeks ago. It’s really interesting to hear people’s takes on our songs, and how they’ve affected them. And I think it’s actually fantastic that people can be do — religiously dedicated to a lot of things we do, and to find people and to strike an emotional chord with people that’s on the same wavelength on what they’re trying to do and with what I’m trying to get across. I mean, you can’t believe how many kids I met with Converge tattoos on tour. That was pretty nutty. My friend Jake was saying, we were talking, probably a good week or two ago — he sings for Cast Iron Hike —- we’re the two Jakes in the city, and we were just talking, and he was saying how we’re one of those bands that really has a fanatical fan base. Kind of like Slayer (we both laugh). And I was thinking about it, and I guess there are some parallels to that, and he said that, you know, it’s kind of scary, because every record we do, and tour, and kids are exposed to us, won’t we somehow water down our emotional content the more people we’re exposed to? It’s like, more people become fanatical and it’s scary, because you don’t know where it’s gonna stop, if it’s ever gonna stop. And I really truly feel that as long as we’re truly sticking behind what we emotionally feel is right and what we morally and ethically feel is right, and I see that the same people who have liked us for a really long time are still going to like us and care about us — because, honestly, from what I’ve heard from a lot of people, a lot of people are really emotionally attached to us as a band, from the experiences they’ve seen us go through in our songwriting. And I just think that’s great that people can have that kind of connection to a body of songs and a body of people who are just trying to do something that’s really meaningful to them. And that is what we do, hopefully. I can’t really explain anyone’s attachment to “Becoming a Stranger” any more than I can to any other song. I just think that’s fantastic that people are really into something that we do. And it’s not something that has anything to do with money, or our fashion, or, you know, the fact that if we’re the cool band of the hour, you know what I mean? It has everything to do with just being a band that actually cares about what they do arnd aren’t trying to be anything except who they are and what they are. And that’s my take on things.
Greg: Talk to me about some of the artwork on the inside of Halo in a Haystack.
Jake: A lot of it was artwork that we found. I believe the watercolor piece, and there’s a large illustration of Saint Francis, and those were actually found in a book in a second-hand store when we were recording the record. We went to this bookstore and I found this. Those two specific images were things that I really truly wanted to see printed in our record for the sake that they really captured what I was trying to convey in the artwork, things that I was doing at the time for the record. I really wanted to symbolize hope, and a sense that, even after you hit the emotional ground zero, and there’s really nothing specifically around you that will make you want to pick yourself up, there’s still that one thing, which is hope or some sort of motivation that can really get you off your ass, or really get your back on your feet and stand up for everything that you did before, regardless of how much the odds are playing against you in some fashion. I just wanted to symbolize that in the artwork, and an appreciation of everything. I didn’t want it to be remotely self-centered or anything like that. It’s pretty interesting. Aaron (Turner) does the artwork for us now, and he’s working on a series of lithographs and making things for the When Forever Comes Crashing record right now, and it’s interesting to see his emotional take on things that we do, because he’s on pretty much the same emotional wavelength that I am artistically, and that’s fantastic, and that’s why I love the fact that he does the artwork for us, and that we’re fortunate enough to have somebody like that be close to us and want to help us out in that fashion. It’s pretty awesome. His artwork conveys a lot of the moods that are displayed in what I like to write, and actually the video still stuff that was in the Petitioning the Empty Sky 7”, and is also on the cover of the CD, is a friend of mine, Mark Lickosky, who plays bass for the local band Arise from here who had that split come out with Overcast just a couple months ago. And I go to school with him, he’s a photo major, he takes a large variety of video stills and things like that, and they really have a unique feel to them. And it’s eerie in the sense that — I don’t know, it’s so hard to describe. But the emotional impact a lot of his photos have on me, not all of them, but some of them, is really deep to me, and really truly means a lot to me, and so it was really great to have him let us use that photograph for the cover of the record. That was pretty awesome. I always want to make the artwork of the record feel just as a part of the record, with the imagery and everything, as the actual music and the lyrics. I feel that everything embodies everything, and all has to do with one common unification, where everything seems to fuse together to make a whole lot of sense.
Greg: It someone were to give a title to all the photographs on the inside of the Empty Sky CD, I think a fitting one would be “Farewell Note to this City.”
Jake: The photographs on the inside were definitely my choice. It was pretty strange, because it was something that came as a part of the ending of the creative process. It really kind of fit the bill. I saw there and I listened to the record over and over and over and over again, and when I stumbled upon those specific photographs, they really were a monument to something. Something that I didn’t necessarily see as violence or as somehow sick and unorthodox to see in a record sleeve, but I sort of felt that they really and truly embodied this sense of having a monument in time to everything that I wanted to create and the overall feeling of the record. The pictures of the bodies weren’t necessarily a monument to death or deconstruction or “evil” or some sort of negative energy, but the fact that something crucial happened, and something absolutely detrimental and damaging happened here, and it’s an occurrence that not necessarily these people could control, and they’re victims of circumstance in a lot of ways. It was just something that I really felt an emotional attachment to when we were putting together the artwork for the record.
Greg: Just looking at those pictures, I get a lot of the sense of grief and loss from a lot of the songs are reflected in those pictures.
Jake: We pay a lot of attention to loss in my lyric writing. Loss is one of those things that can hit you so hard, it was weigh so heavy on your own shoulders, that it’s absolutely unbearable. You can walk around, and go on a walk for hours trying to blow off steam if you’ve lost a person or something that you’ve certainly cared about a great deal, and you can’t get rid of that, you can’t walk that off, you can’t wash that away — it’s there for good. I agree with you. I think that the photographs really embody that, especially in the context that I used them in.
Greg: You have quite an interest in film, don’t you?
Jake: To an extent, yeah. I think film’s fantastic. I just finished my film class last week that I was taking. I’m a really big fan of the classic gangster/mobster movies of the 80’s and the 70’s, and even the 90’s. Brian De Palma stuff is awesome. I’m a huge Robert De Niro fan. I’m a huge Christopher Walken fan, Harvey Keitel fan. Kevin Spacey is awesome. I’m just really into certain actors. I just saw Mars Attacks (we both laugh). I saw the sneak preview of Mars Attacks, and I thought that was one of the greatest movies ever. Oh, it was fantastic. If I had wanted to make a wonderful movie with tons of black humor, that would be it. I’m a film fan to the extent that, right now, I’m on my way home from work, and I rented a bunch of Japanimation movies, and I haven’t seen these yet, and I’d like to. I’m just a fan of stories (laughs), and things that are really well done. I feel that any form of expression is fine. I love movies, I love film, I love photography, I love art, I love music. I just love good versions of everything. I love good art, I love good movies, I guess that’s my taste, really. But, of course, everyone thinks that their taste is superior. So I think I have the greatest taste in everything. But, of course, that’s always left up to interpretation.