Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Interview with Tom Schlatter from Capacities (and a million other amazing bands)

I first met Tom Schlatter way back in the day when I lived in Grand Rapids. My friend Yann used to book all the good shows in GR and his preference was for bands of the more d.i.y., screamy, Ebullition style. The first time he had The Assistant through I was completely blown away, not just by their chops (which were indeed ridiculous), but also by the honesty and humility that came through in their performance and records (well, CD’s, haha). They came through Grand Rapids once more and I got to see them out in Jersey once because Steph was living there at the time. Needless to say, when they broke up I definitely sought out anything with Tom’s name on it (yes, I discovered You and I AFTER The Assistant, I pose, I pose).

Thankfully, there’s been tons of it, as the guy forms bands that put out incredible records at an absolutely dizzying pace. I was lucky enough to play with and see Black Kites a few summers back when they brought Zann over from Germany, and had the privilege of booking Capacities this past Spring on their run with Coma Regalia.

Throughout all this, I’ve always been impressed by his musicianship of course, but also by just how kind and thoughtful the guy is. When I think of people doing d.i.y. hardcore and punk the right way, Tom is one of the first people that comes to my mind.      

I'm curious to hear a little bit about your childhood, your family, and how you eventually discovered, stumbled upon, or were introduced to punk and hardcore.

I grew up in a New Jersey suburb located about 10 miles from the beach. My family moved down there a month before I was born. Mom taught high school and Dad operated a crane as part of the construction union. My dad was an extremely bi polar and impatient person. It wasn't fun growing up with him. I had two brothers and a sister but we never really had the chance to forge any real bonds because I think everyone was always in survival mode around my dad.

I started skateboarding when I was about 8 or 9 years old. It was excellent and gave me some sort of outlet that helped me establish independence. Thrasher magazine always had ads for bands like Bad Religion, Suicidal Tendencies, etc., so the names of these bands became familiar. I had this friend, Ray, who had an older brother who listened to Minor Threat and Uniform Choice. The stuff was like pure gold to me.

What were some of your earliest experiences in the scene; shows, bands, people, and venues you first fell in love with and/or were captivated by?

Throughout middle school and early high school I was playing guitar in alternative rock bands. This was probably around 1992 or so, Nirvana and Pearl Jam were huge at the time. I played small house parties or VFW halls once in a while. By my sophomore year of high school I had gravitated exclusively to punk and hardcore. There were some older kids in town who had a house that was doing shows. They called it the 508 house (it was on 508 Main Street). My first show there was seeing Franklin, Fracture and Rye. Still Life played later on in the night, but being so young I had to get home before curfew.

The show blew my mind though; so many people tightly packed into this hot basement, swaying back and forth to the was something I hadn't seen yet. This wasn't a house party or large rock concert, this was a show. The focus was on the music and the musicians seemed to play extra hard in appreciation. From that point on I knew that this was the format in which I wanted to experience music.

I went back to that house for multiple shows. Grain, Hose Got Cable, Harriet the Spy, Floodgate, Endeavor...some bands were better than others, but it was always a really grounded way to experience music.

Once you went to one show it was easy to find out about others. Remember, this was before the internet. You had to attend shows to find out about others. Before I knew it I was hitching rides around New Jersey to small basement shows, meeting new friends and having new experiences.

At what point did you transition from playing in alternative bands to punk and hardcore stuff, and how was that experience different for you?

A lot of people talk about Nirvana as being this huge, bigger-than-life band. But to me it was a very different experience. When Nirvana became mainstream the musical landscape of MTV was a lot of hair metal and rock star caricature. Nirvana was a band that looked like my friends and I; their musical ability (straight forward songs, easy guitar parts) was very similar to ours and therefore it was easy to learn and play those songs. It was a less tangible experience than going to shows at the 508 years later, but nonetheless, it did make playing in a band look as though it was something that could be more accessible.

When I started listening to the Misfits, Black Flag, and Minor Threat it became apparent that those songs were even easier to play. On deeper investigation it also seemed that all those bands were forgoing the larger music industry and just putting their records out themselves. It added another level of tangibility and control to the music. It appeared much more grounded and realistic to me.

The last straw was within the lyrical content of punk and hardcore as opposed to alternative music. Bands like Shelter, Endpoint, 108, Bad Religion, Fugazi, etc. had lyrics that seemed to take issues and stances head on. There was no abstraction or haziness to it. It was something that made you feel angry and aware. It was that last link I was looking for in music.
Talk a little bit about the formation of You and I, and the growth of the band into one of the more renowned screamo pioneers of the 90's.

We started You and I in the summer before my Senior year of High School. Justin, Jon and I had been previously playing in a band called Instil. We did a 7" and a split LP with Instil before the band fell apart. The three of us seemed to have a shared vision of doing another band that incorporated a ton of different influences. It wasn't being done much back then; the closest thing I could think of was the early Converge and Cave In material or the Reach Out side of their split with Honeywell. All that stuff was really appealing to me. The Endeavor "Of Equality" record was also something that just really blew my mind.

I wanted to challenge myself to write more interesting and varied material. Sure, we listened to One Eye God Prophecy and Reversal of Man, but at that time no one was using the term "screamo". It was all just DIY hardcore and punk. The three of us played with a few drummers and a couple different second guitar players before the more long term line up with Casey and Chris was established.

We just kept writing songs and playing shows. We were all in our late teens/early twenties, trapped in our little bubbles of self-absorbed life. It made for some very tense situations and resulted in music that was pretty raw and uncaring about how vulnerable it would come across to other people.

As we got older though, we all gradually grew out of the more chaotic and self-involved aspects of our lives. We were establishing healthy relationships, graduating college, just basically moving past all the catharsis that the band had originally involved. I don't want to say we "outgrew" the band, but it had definitely run its course and provided what it needed to provide for a specific time in our lives.

The whole "screamo" thing seemed to start after we called it quits. I remember once EBay and Skylab became a normal way to buy records and seeing our LP go for $120. It was strange. People seemed to associate us with this whole white belt/weird haircut screamo thing that we really knew nothing about. If you look at old pictures of us we look like a bunch of boys in thrift store clothes and proper haircuts.

If You and I's stuff was challenging and drew from multiple influences, it seems like The Assistant pushed that bar forward even more so, pairing Dillinger Escape Plan-esque technicality in some songs, with more straight forward punk songs and even dare I say a ballad here or there, haha. I saw you guys (and gal) a couple times as a 5 piece, and then once as a 3 piece. What would you say were some of the highlights of The Assistant and what eventually caused things to fall apart?

Yes, with The Assistant we definitely tried to push the technical aspects as well as try to jam every style together. A few months ago I listened back to some of that stuff and it's just so dense with technicality and changes. The songs are so long and just go every which way. At the time I think I was really fulfilled by playing it, but some of those songs are extremely tough for me to listen to, probably because it's so contrary to my writing style now.

Doing the band as a 3 piece for that short time was extremely stressful and was pretty much done due to my stubborn personality of not wanting to give up. I had booked a 45 day tour all by myself and about two months before tour our bassist and second guitar player left the band. In addition, our drummer's father was killed that Spring and the court trial for the drunk driver who killed him was going to be happening in the middle of the tour. The three of us made it all work though. I maxed out my credit card buying pedals and borrowed amps. Our drummer went home in the middle of tour to attend the trial and we played a few shows as an acoustic duo (which was totally weird) until he returned. It was one of the better tours I had ever done though and I'm glad we did it. Learning to play through 3 amps would later come in handy and I sort of embraced it for a while after when I was playing in This Ship Will Sink and Black Kites.

The issue with The Assistant was always me pushing the band to do more than they wanted to. My life was a mess back then and I was totally retreating into music as a coping mechanism. I would get super intense about it and want to play every single show we were offered, doing every tour we could, every release we could, etc. A good deal of that band was me pushing the other members to do more while they resisted. It wasn't a good situation. The band eventually fell apart when Ross, our drummer, got heavily into his profession of being a vegan chef. It got to the point where he was only available one day a week and we had to base everything around that. It was an impossible situation and couldn't really work. Ross now owns and operates his own vegan restaurant called Sprig and Vine. The place is amazing.
I don't want this thing to become too much of a talk about this band, and then this band, haha so let me move onto more generalized territory. Since The Assistant you've done In First Person, Black Kites, now Capacities, and probably a couple I don't know about (was there an Infidel in there somewhere???). All these bands while stylistically somewhat different are all super chaotic, aggressive, etc. While it seems that most people who stick around in d.i.y./punk/hardcore circles for a long while sort of mellow out over time, your material has continued to be just as intense, if not gotten more intense over time. Why do you think that is and what does it say about your personality, your experiences transitioning from teen to adult, etc.?

Writing music for me was always an outlet for stress, anger, etc. so I think the result of that is naturally an aggressive style. I'd rather sit down and write ten angry songs than walk around with a bunch of pent up frustration. What it probably says about my personality is that I've made a conscious decision to direct frustration into creative and productive outlets. It's something to be extremely thankful for. I have thoughts of someday doing an instrumental post rock band or perhaps a 3 piece Jawbreaker influenced band, but none of those things have come to pass yet. I'm not totally opposed to playing a more subdued form of music; let's be honest, no one is angry all the time. Even more so, subdued music can sometimes hold the same passion and anger that aggressive music does, it's just a bit tougher to translate it properly (I think "The Impossible Leap in Ten Easy Steps" by From Monument to Masses does this amazingly). I started working on a project with my friend, Steve Roche, which is highly influenced by Embrace, Please Inform The Captain This is a Hijack, Bullets In, etc. Right now it's just a studio project that we've recorded 4 songs so far with. We'll see where it goes.

Connecting to that question of sonic consistency, lyrically all your projects seem to couple personal issues with various political and ethical topics. Almost paralleling how many people mellow out sonically, they also seem to mellow out politically or float over into "i-just-don’t-give-a-fuck-anymore" cynicism/nihilism. What keeps you committed to pushing against the status quo and trying to use music as a vehicle to open people's eyes about various topics?

This is interesting. It's pretty personal I guess. There are issues that I care about and as I've gotten older they only become more complex with more grey area than I maybe once had realized. It's a constant learning experience and I can't picture a life where I didn't take on some awareness. There's definitely times I take myself out of the conversation though. At times people would probably paint me as more conservative, particularly when there is the use of identity politics or cultural relativity to justify a point of view. I have no patience for it, whereas, at a younger age I may have.

Using music to express these things is just sort of a natural extension of what I was saying before. If you're angry about something it can feel good to apply that anger to something creative. If it gets people thinking then that's great. If it affects no one at all it still allows me to sort out my thoughts on a topic and clearly express them. There's no harm in that, in fact it's pretty healthy.

I'm glad you brought up Steve. I don't know him at all but I know a little about some of his bands and have always noticed your bands almost always record with him. Bands often talk about producers being an extra member or whatever and while you've had so many bands I doubt that type of relationship has existed with all members, I would certainly imagine you guys have a certain chemistry. What does he bring to the table as an engineer that keeps you coming back to him?

I met Steve back in 1998 when he was playing bass for Saetia. He was homeless and couch crashing, but surprisingly clean and very articulate for someone who was living such a nomadic lifestyle. From the start I was really into his down to earth personality and ability to hear people out on any situation. He was doing a radio show for WNYU at the time and had bands come do live sets on the air. You and I did a live set that he recorded to an 8 track tape machine. He started using that studio to record bands on a regular basis, most of the time for free. He didn't pay any rent on the room and I think he just wanted to get some experience under his belt. The Assistant recorded there a couple times.

I kept recording with him as he moved from studio to studio, accumulated more gear and got more of an ear for how to pick up sounds. Steve knows me, he knows my bands, he knows the style of music that I play. There's really no better way to go into a recording process than that. It cuts out a lot of the explaining you'd normally have to do with a recording engineer. He's also an extremely apt musician; he knows when things need to be redone and when you could go back and do it better.

Steve never really takes on a "producer" role, as he pretty much lets the band do their thing and doesn't seem to interfere much in any of the song writing per say. But he does add to establishing a vision for how the record will sound and feel. Right off the bat he has a good ear for coming up with similar records that project the same feel you're going for and he'll work to achieve that.

The Black Kites "Advancement to Ruins" LP and the Manalive "Pistol to the Head of the Modern Man" material that I played on were recorded by Chris Ross in his home studio. It was a similar experience to record with Chris because he's also a guy who's been playing in hardcore bands for years and understands your approach and influences. I didn't have the history with Chris that I have with Steve, and at the time of the Black Kites recording Chris was still establishing his studio, so it was different in those respects. We were one of the first bands to record there. He did the record in exchange for some pizza.
Recording for free, recording for pizza!? Damn I am doing it all wrong, haha. So anyway, your "main" project these days seems to be Capacities, which not only sees you playing bass rather than guitar, but which I also imagine is more collaborative in terms of the writing process than say Black Kites where you were the only guitar player. Do you, Rob and Eric write separately and bring stuff to the table or is it more a "let's jam and see what happens" kind of a thing?

By the time Black Kites ended and Capacities began I was very happy to no longer be the primary song writer of a band anymore. I was happy to only be playing out of one amp as well. Bass is the instrument that I now feel most comfortable with and I don't really think I'd ever feel comfortable playing guitar in a band again. I think all those years I was playing guitar through multiple amps, I really just wanted to secretly play bass.

With Capacities I still write songs on guitar and then bring them to the rest of the band, but it's a different feel than performing them live on guitar. Most of the Capacities writing is done with Eric, Rob or I bringing full songs that are done to the band and then working them/reworking them so that they're to the point where we're all happy with it. Sometimes we'll just have one part and we piggyback onto it from there as well, but that doesn't happen as often. The only time we ever just jammed to write a song was for a 7 minute instrumental song called "Sons of a Silent Age". Basically Eric and Rob jammed off each other and Chris and I backed it up with drums and bass that would change every 16 measures and get more intense. It was a cool experience and sort of fulfilled that dream of playing in an instrumental post punk band for a second.

So it's obviously been a busy year, you guys put out the 10" and did a small run in the Spring, then went out West a little while ago for some shows, and recorded for an upcoming 4 way LP. What's coming up next and where do you see Capacities headed in the future?

Capacities started out as Eric and Rob getting this idea to do a band. What it's turned into is four guys who just really like hanging out and travelling with each other. We appear to do a lot and I guess, compared to most bands, we've achieved quite a bit in a short time. Our weekend trips, tours, etc., they're like mini vacations. We never just drive to the show, play, sleep, drive to the show, play, sleep....we always make time to go sightseeing, see old friends, find the interesting small businesses, search out good food, etc. Our personalities seem to all feed off each other too, so it's easy to go from just joking around to having some serious conversation. It makes touring and being in a band a lot more than just touring and being in a band (that sounds weird, I know). It's really an extension of the relationship that the four of us have with each other.

The 4 way LP should be out very soon. We've started writing a new batch of songs recently for some records we have in mind. We're messing around with these songs and incorporating some different styles so we'll see where it goes. I'd like to make our way back to the Midwest again soon though. That tour was so much fun. California was great too. We have the folks in Itto to thank for making that dream come true.

So I've been asking this to a lot of people lately, but as someone who has been around for pushing two decades now, what have been the most significant changes you've seen in hardcore and punk, whether those things are for the better or for the worse?

Off the top of my head: The internet has made music sharing, touring and overall communication less expensive and easier. There are pros and cons to this. The pros being things like I'm not paying a long distance bill to book a tour and someone half way across the world can hear our new songs the day that we release them. The cons are that everyone wants to tour now, everyone uploads their music and everyone can market themselves as way more impressive that they might actually be.

For a while there in the mid 2000's there was a severe lack of political commentary in hardcore. It seems to be coming back now and there are pros and cons to that too. The pros being that people are being exposed to different issues and perspectives. The cons being that interaction doesn't take place in person anymore, it's mostly over social media outlets or message boards. This often stifles the conversation down to assumptions and accusations in situations that need to be more fully explored in person.
Last year when Great Rev went to Chicago and we all met him for the first time, Zibutis told me you had started up a project with Rob Fish. Please tell me this is real and that the results will be gracing my ears sometime soon!

I met Rob a few years ago when Black Kites played with 108 in Brooklyn. 108 is one of my favorite bands and meeting Rob, becoming friends with him, was really great. He's a super nice, approachable guy that has a great honesty about him. He sent me a message shortly after that show and said we should do some songs together. I recorded 4 songs with Steve Roche on drums. The music was pretty technical, heavy and intense. I recently got a message from Rob saying that he tried many times but couldn't really land anything on the songs that he was happy with. Steve and I may very well take the songs to another vocalist and see if we can do something with them (perhaps Brendan DeSmet of Groundwork/Absinthe fame), or they may just sit on my computer doing nothing. Not sure.

Two final questions....You've contributed to quite a massive body of work with your various bands over the years....if it's possible, what would you say is the release you are most proud of or best exemplifies your vision of punk, hardcore, and d.i.y.?

It would be tough to choose one release. It's hard to say because each release was done at a different time of my life and was relevant to how I felt and what I wanted to achieve at that time. Off the top of my head the ones that pretty much express where I was at the moment, whether they be musically or lyrically are: You and I - 7" The Assistant - Song from the 3 way split with Takaru and This Ship Will Sink. This Ship Will Sink - S/T In First Person - “Lost Between Hands Held Tight”, Black Kites – “Songs Written While Things Were Changing”, Capacities - Everything we've done so far.

Lastly, you don't strike me as the kind of guy who would think about your "legacy" so to speak, but I'm kind of curious to hear what you want it to be; what you hope people would remember about your contributions over the years.

I didn't really think about it much until recently when I said something like "one day years from now someone will mistakenly click on an mp3 and hear my voice screaming...I take comfort in that". I'm not so much curious about what people would remember about me, but more interested in the fact that music, as a form of documentation, allows you to live on in some way after you're gone. Sort of a documentation that you once existed.

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