Failure By Degrees
For most touring bands, spending two days in Mountain Home, Idaho, waiting on replacement parts for a broken-down van would be a cross-country excursion's glaring low point. The town features little more than truck stops, motels and signs pointing to highways unable to be traveled in a van that's lost its heater blower tube. But for Nate Newton, bassist for hardcore lifers and perennial road warriors Converge, it was no big deal.
"We just hung out in the hotel all day," says Newton, 29, as he leans against a Belmont store window after his band's exhilarating, sweat-drenched, sold-out Friday show at the Chicago's Bottom Lounge. "We played poker, ate food, hung out in the hot tub. It wasn't that bad."
Such a laid-back attitude is atypical of an outfit as powerful and influential as Converge, who've sharpened their violent blasts of noisy, metal-tinged hardcore punk for well over a decade. Newton -- along with vocalist Jake Bannon, guitarist Kurt Ballou and drummer Ben Koller -- just finished touring the Boston group's latest release, You Fail Me (2004, Epitaph), which takes their breakneck sound to a new creative peak.
With its filthy guitar riffing, head-swiveling drumming and manic screams, the album sets a new benchmark for all hardcore albums to follow -- not unlike the band that made it. Revered by fans and hailed by critics as one of the hottest acts of its genre, the group amassed a cult-like following few contemporaries can rival. Converge's Chicago show was a violent, intense affair, packed with throngs of skinny hardcore kids, many clad in zip-up hoodies emblazoned with the ominous artwork synonymous with the group's aesthetic. Though the tour also featured metalcore-vets-turned-space-rockers Cave-In and spastic math-metallers Between the Buried and Me, it was apparent by way of the absolute insanity of the crowd when Converge took the stage who the crowd was there to see. And the band gave it all back, and then some, with a typically chaotic, audience-igniting performance that just may have left some scars -- on the band, that is.
"Our music wrecks our bodies, man," Newton says. "I've got arthritis, a torn ACL. We're all shredded, but it's all in the name of making honest, respectable music."
Honesty is one thing that's truly undeniable about Converge, Newton's main gig since he joined in 1999. You Fail Me's combination of devastating lyrical content and a throat-punch attack leaves no question as to what Converge are about. It's a formula that worked on 2001's Jane Doe (Equal Vision), and Newton said that, in recording You Fail Me at Ballou's God City Studios, it was as enjoyable experience as he's ever had.
"It was the smoothest recording we've done yet," he said. "We all live close to the studio, so we could just pop in and pop out."
Despite the exhaustive sound Converge puts forth on the record, Newton said that recording You Fail Me's tracks wasn't the cathartic experience one might expect. Or, at least, not for him. "There was no emotional bloodletting in the studio," he says, laughing. "But if you talked to Jake, I'm sure you'd get a totally different response."
Approach singer Bannon, whose powerful, cathartic vocals are the emotional centerpiece of Converge's sound, and, as Newton says, you'll probably get quite a different spin on the recording process. Plagued by depression, Bannon laid it all out in the recording of the new album in an attempt to exorcise the demons. How well his self-directed primal-scream therapy worked is up for debate, but the power of his lyrics cuts through his band's noise.
For a man bearing his soul and hanging out his dirty laundry, Bannon wasn't bashful. Newton says the singer was surprisingly open about his lyrics' meaning during the recording of the album, which centers on the breakdown of a five-year relationship.
"We're all friends, and we know what's going on in each other's lives," Newton says of the lack of veiled meanings in Bannon's lyrics. "But what I like about our band is that we can each get what we want out of (Bannon's) lyrics. It's not set in stone."
The lyrical content of You Fail Me overwhelms listeners with its bleak, pessimistic themes. With phrases like "All their devils and all their demons haunting me" and "The chase is on, my black cloud gaining ground," the group's songwriter obviously worked through some powerful issues in writing the record. Newton said that the theme of the record is equally contemplative.
"It's meant to be the royal 'you,'" he says of the album's title. "It's about looking around, about seeing how people fail you and themselves, about realizing how you fail yourself by not living to your potential."
Yet You Fail Me's final line, "Be my light in this world of darkness" is strikingly full of hope, a notion Newton said is meant to be directed inward. "For me," Newton explains, "that's about realizing your shortcomings, about facing them and changing them. Because you really can't depend on other people for happiness."
When coupled with Converge's departure from Equal Vision Records, that spirit of independence -- and the therapy-ready trust issues it raises -- could inspire a hurricane of Internet speculation. Toss in the band's new home, Southern California punk mainstay Epitaph Records, which is more known for its roster of skate-punk lunkheads such as Pennywise than they are for envelope-pushers like Converge.
Alas, rumor-mongers, there's no juicy story about label/artist breakdowns between Converge and Equal Vision. The change from the New York indie, after the release of Jane Doe in 2001 was simply a matter of the band and the label moving in different directions: Equal Vision branching out to embrace everything from power pop to metalcore, and Converge sticking to its dyed-in-the-wool hardcore roots.
"It was just time," Bannon says. "They were going one way, we were going another. But we're still friends. It's a great label, but we just felt like we didn't fit in."
The change to Epitpah worked out wonderfully. "It hasn't been weird at all," Newton says. "Epitaph's been great. Everyone there has gone above and beyond the call of duty."
Of course, Converge has been able to adapt to changing situations without losing track of its identity remarkably well. Since the band formed in Boston in 1990, it put in the perfunctory time as an unsigned act, then made its debut in 1994 with Halo in a Haystack. In the past 14 years, the act's been through five labels and adjusted to some serious lineup changes: Newton joined Converge after Steven Brodsky, bassist for friends and current tourmates Cave-In, left the group.
For Newton, who was staring down the possibilities of a dead-end future in manufacturing, the opportunity to join the act couldn't have come at a better time.
"I've known these guys forever," he said. "We've been friends since the beginning. I had been in bands that had toured with Converge, and, you know, they needed someone to fill in. So, I had no job, and I was like, fuck it, I'll go. So thank you, Converge, for ruining my life. I was about to spend the rest of my life working as a cabinet maker."
Converge, a group known for their workhorse touring schedule, has provided Newton with lots of great memories -- indistinct though they may be.
"They all blend together," he reflects. "But I love playing Chicago, Montreal, Boston, of course. I've made a lot of great friends, and I feel blessed to be surrounded by them."
As a lifelong punk fan who entered the scene in the mid-'80s via skateboarding and old-school hardcore acts like Agent Orange and Agnostic Front, Newton doesn't seem affected by the recent shift in media attention toward the hardcore/metal scene, a genre that, for decades, flourished in the underground but avoided mainstream attention.
"Honestly, I don't care [about the bands from our scene getting played on MTV]. We've never reached for that," he said. "They have nothing to do with me. I've got nothing in common with them. I just love playing this music. I'd still be doing this either way."
Yet Newton still feels there are viable, interesting hardcore acts out there, blurring the genre's lines and pushing its sound further and further -- aside from his own group, of course. "There are so many great bands out there," he says. "Planes Mistaken for Stars, all the bands on Level Plane, all the Seattle bands. There's so much good stuff."
Of course, most of the bands Newton digs probably couldn't have happened without Converge's do-it-yourself ethics and pioneering sound. Perhaps it's that dedication to its music and disregard for commercial success that kept Converge so relevant within hardcore music. With their peers signing major-label deals and shooting high-budget videos, Converge -- which only recorded for independent labels throughout its career -- stayed true to its music while making a bid to become an underground legend, much like the bands that inspired it.
"(I admire) bands who don't give a shit about whether they sell a lot of records," he said. "Bands who just play because they were born to do it. Honestly, I just want to be able to pay my rent."
That should be pretty easy now -- Converge has certainly paid its dues.
By Alex Frank