Sunday, November 3, 2013

Interview with Anthony and Chris from Divider

Chris Tzompanakis is a guy I “met” a long time ago, while he was running an awesome little label called One Day Savior Records. Perhaps best known for his time as the vocalist of Skycamefalling, ODS saw him put out beautifully packaged records from bands that covered a wide spectrum of punk, hardcore, indie, and metal. A few years ago I heard he was going to be fronting a band again, and I instantly got pretty stoked, figuring it would rule. Fast forward a year or so from that point and I got to hear some of the recordings, which completely confirmed my high hopes. Shortly thereafter my best buds in Hollow Earth did an East Coast run where they got to share the stage together…rave reviews of their live show were all I heard for weeks after they got home.  

That summer they did a Midwest run and after ten plus years of communicating with Chris via email, I finally got to meet him in person. He was just as nice as I’d assumed he would be, and Divider was even more massive-sounding than I’d ever imagined, blowing the power out twice within a mere four or five songs.

Needless to say, I consider Divider to be one of the most criminally underrated bands currently making music; truly a diamond in the rough. Melodic without being pretty, crushingly heavy without the embarrassing nu-metal tendencies (cough Xibalba cough), slow and brooding without falling into Nuer-Isis territory, a hardcore band that doesn’t rely for a second on breakdowns, they cannot be pigeonholed; other than to say that they are a bad-ass, insanely loud band.

Anyway, all that underrated, diamond in the rough stuff should be coming to an end early next year when the band will release their new LP via Glory Kid Records, which is already my most-anticipated release of 2014.

For this interview I broke it up into two parts, part one with their guitarist Anthony, who I’ve been getting to know over the past couple years as well, and part two with Chris.

So I'm semi-familiar with Chris's background in the scene via Skycamefalling and One Day Savior, but how did you get involved in punk and hardcore?

I would say my dad was indirectly responsible for me getting into alternative music. When I was around 13 years old, I came home with some dumb Marilyn Manson cd or something. My pops wasn’t mad when he saw it, but he sat me down and explained to me how there are people in boardrooms that are trained to separate my money from my wallet with music like that. I was looking for something else that meant a little more after that. For me though, my first love was Sonic Youth.  That was heavy music for me.  I think I snaked my sisters’ copy of “Dirty” and I was hooked.  I would sit in my garage and try to figure out how they were making some of those sounds. Then the search for new bands started, met people, and then I started playing.

Damn, your dad sounds like a total bad ass! What sort of sounds were you exposed to as a kid and how does your fam feel now about the type of stuff you are playing?

I had a pretty lucky childhood when it came to my family and music.  My mom saw The Beatles at Shea Stadium and Hendrix play the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock.  My dad saw Led Zeppelin and met Jim Morrison at a bar in New York.  So there were plenty of stories.  That music at that period of time was sparked by what was going on in the world.  

There was a war going on and you could have been plucked from your home and sent to fight via the draft. When Hendrix played the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock, he imitated sounds of war within the song. My dad showed me "Ohio" by CSNY and explained how college students were shot and killed by the National Guard.  So at a young age, they showed me how there is a lot more to music than some idiot with colored contact lenses jerking off on a guitar. I don't think we will ever see music like that ever again. 

I came from a very supportive family.  Creativity was encouraged.  So I think my mom is pretty proud of the fact that there is something that I still love like when I was 18.  I think my pops would have probably learned how to play guitar so we could have jammed together or something.

Talk a little bit about the history of the band. Your first LP, "At Twilight" is sonically pretty far removed from where the band is now, and was followed by a 4 year silence (at least in terms of released output). I know there was some re-tooling of the line-up during that period...was the sonic shift an intentional move or just sort of the natural result of new people coming into the fold?

We started playing in 2006.  We wrote an EP pretty quickly and got the chance to record it with someone that we all looked up to.  As soon as we had copies in our hands, we went on tour.  The usual band member shifts happened, but we were still able to play a decent amount, and it was awesome. After some pretty awesome shows and wild tours, a series of unfortunate events took place.  More member shifts.  People quit while on tour.  Had to go to court for the dumbest shit.  So all the fun kind of got sucked out of playing.  We all went our separate ways. 

Fast forward 2 years, we started playing again and wrote another EP.  We played a bunch, but then our singer left to play in a rock band.  I’ll never forget our drummer Vic saying “I know this guy that wants to try out” I was totally spent at that point and figured whatever.  I found out later that Vic’s friend was this guy Chris that sang in some band called Skycamefalling. He really needed to try out.

As far as the sound, I think I knew that this band would evolve as long as it was around.  I never liked the idea of writing the same song 12 different ways.  That shit obviously gets boring and reeks of laziness. So we never sat down and consciously decided to change. When I listen to “At Twilight” though, it still sounds like me.  We usually write a song based on ideas that I bring to everyone that are eventually morphed into full songs as a band.  In a way, the songs write themselves.  I feel like your gut instinct is usually right. What comes naturally is what you subconsciously decide is right.  When you start to try and force things to create a certain feel, that feel is fake.  So I just think the songs grew as we grew.  The songs on “At Twilight” represent who we were and how we felt at that point in time.  Fast forward seven years and we are not the same people in the same situations, so I feel that whatever we are creating now is just an indication of who we are now.

So that guy you "all looked up to" for the early e.p. was Kurt Ballou. When my band recorded with Jay Maas a couple years ago he had some hilarious stories about how brutal Kurt can be in the studio both from recording with him and from being someone he trades tips and gear with. How nervous were you as a young band going with a semi-legendary dude (at least in our circles) and how did that experience compare with working at Studio 4 and recording at your home set up?

We had to email Kurt a demo of one of our songs before he would say yes or no.  I remember hearing back from him and getting the go ahead.  That was a pretty special moment for me. We were pretty young, but we had our shit dialed when we got there.  We booked seven days but finished in five. I was nervous as fuck when I met him. It almost didn't happen though. Our van started acting funny about 50 miles away from Salem. It was sputtering like crazy. We had to do 30 mph for that last 50 miles.  

As for his temperament, I wouldn't say that he was brutal, but he was definitely direct. There was a singing part where he said "That sounds like Staind... don't do that." We had a drum fill before the song "At Twilight" and he said "That fill is way too funky for this. We need to address that." My guitar wasn't set up 100% properly, so he grabbed it and went upstairs. All I heard was a saw and a hammer going and he came back down with it and said "That should be better now". It was awesome recording with him though. His studio is beautiful. The quality of his equipment is so amazing, and he knows how to use it.

It was hard to imagine recording with someone else. At least until we met Will and started tracking at Studio 4. The experiences are totally different. I was almost in shock the whole time when we were recording with Kurt. Will is like our buddy that just so happens to be amazing at what he does while having this level of experience and know how that rivals people that have been producing/engineering for three times as long.  

As for my stuff, Kurt originally gave me the advice "It's better to have a couple really awesome pieces of recording gear as opposed to a lot of mediocre pieces".  Will also encouraged me to track the vocals for our record.  So it's hard not to take the advice from two people you really admire.

When you guys played Detroit a couple summers ago you were already well into work on the new that point I remember you guys telling me there had already been some push and pull about the direction of your new material. Just over a year later the record is done, musically at least. What did the writing process look like, and was there anything you wanted to do differently from the past couple 7 inches and the Colony split?

I was writing these huge, layered songs at that point.  Keep in mind we are one guitar and one bass player. In my head, these songs sounded so good, but for us to pull them off, we would need at least two other guitar players. I would say we have tossed maybe 15 songs during this process. After all that, our drummer Vic and I would go to the studio and just play. Anything that didn’t sound good with just the two of us was tossed.  We would record ourselves playing for 20 minutes and listen to whatever was there. It had to be interesting with one guitar and drums, otherwise it was too much.  So everything was stripped down to its bare bones.  

The process was definitely different for this record compared to anything else we have done in the past. Vic was a big part in writing some of these songs.  It was way more of a collective effort. For me, that was really awesome. It put me in a space that I didn’t feel 100% comfortable in, but I had to trust the other people that I have been playing with for years. I think the end result of us coming together to write a record is better than anything I could have done all on my own.

Your sound is already massive as it is so I almost can't imagine you guys adding another member, but given your instincts to write more textured stuff this last go around as well as how successful you feel the more collaborative approach was, can you see yourselves potentially adding a second guitar player at any point or do you think you'll remain a 4 piece moving forward?

No, I don't think we will ever do that. It's not necessary. I already mimic the two guitar player sound by cutting out amps and doing the quiet/loud thing within our songs, but I also feel that if a song doesn't sound right with just one guitar, then adding another over it won't make it great. I am speaking about our band explicitly. The song writing process with one guitar is so much easier too. If we are working on an idea and it sucks, we know right away. Sometimes it's easy to get lost in a riff with a bunch of fluff over it. With one guitar, if the riff sucks, it is so evident.

Also, I think the collaborative approach worked because of the familiarity between Vic and me. We have been playing together for years now. We know each others’ strengths and limitations. Because of that we worked pretty well together on these songs. I feel like it's easy to fuck up that creative flow by bringing in another element.  Who knows though? We started out as a two guitar player tech band and now I hold out chords in the same amount of time that we used to play seven different riffs. I had this idea a while back of us doing a split with another band that was comprised of all of us but played these spacey kind of songs I had written a few years ago. Maybe there could be two guitar players on that.

I am probably the least knowledgeable person about gear in all of North America, but I've noticed you seem to have quite the thing for the work of the Electric Guitar Company. Why have they become the axe of choice for you and what do they bring to the table that other guitars don't?  

I take a lot of pride in the way my guitar sounds.  Years of trial and error have brought me to a point where I am as close to completely happy as I will ever get, as far as the amps/cabs go at least.  My girlfriend first sparked my interest in aluminum guitars.  She has an old Kramer bass with an aluminum neck.  It is such a sick bass.  So I started looking at some companies that make all aluminum guitars.  I ended up talking to the owner of Electrical Guitar Company for a bit about guitars and their process.  We spoke back and forth for about a month before anything was set in stone.  I gave him the specs on the guitar I wanted, and they started building it.  The necks are solid aluminum, so they are able to make them extremely thin while keeping the structural integrity intact. The body is also made of aluminum, but it is hollow.  There are two pieces that are bolted together to form it.  The neck extends through the body, and they mount the pickups to that section of the neck that is inside the body.  By doing that, the guitar resonates unlike any other guitar I have played.  The feedback is beautiful.  They are hands down the easiest guitars to play. After I received the guitar, I started selling most of my wood guitars to get another one. EGC is going to turn into an enormous company in the next few years, and their guitars definitely represent that.  
You've done the last couple releases, as well as the new LP in Philadelphia at Studio 4 with Will Yip. I keep hearing incredible things about the dude and just read a cool feature on him today that Blow the Scene did; he definitely seems like a great guy to work with. What was the studio experience like with him this time around? Were there any new tricks that either he or you guys had up your sleeves?

So I was introduced to Will from a mutual friend.  He recorded and mixed the songs we did for the Colony split and our White 7 inch.  For this LP, it was our 4th time recording with him.  We were there two other times to record songs that we never used for anything.  Will is the best.  It is so easy to record with him. 

The hardest decision we had to make was what to have for lunch each day.  Maybe it’s because we have a rapport with him now, but we go in and take care of business.  We recorded guitar, bass, and drums in four days.  The only way we were able to do that was because of his efficiency.  We tracked all the music with him, but we are in the process of tracking the vocals on Long Island with my stuff.  Logistically and financially, it makes more sense to do the vocals on our own time. 

For this record, we brought five amps and three cabinets of our own while using a few different amp/cabs that are at Studio 4.  The guitar tracks consist of an Acoustic 450 through an Acoustic 405 cabinet, a 73 Orange OR120 through a HIWATT cabinet, a White Electric Amp through an old Marshall cabinet, the Orange through another Marshall cabinet, and an old Vox 2x12.  For the bass we used an Ampeg fliptop with an 18 inch speaker and a VHT guitar amp to make it sound disgusting.  We used their drums which is a setup of old Ludwig’s and some other stuff.  The tonal possibilities are almost endless when playing these setups in their live room.  That is one of the keys to that huge sound.  Their live room is perfect.  The way it was built and mic’d creates this enormous sound that cannot be recreated digitally.  The other key is the console.  They have a vintage Neve console.  If you have seen the flick that Dave Grohl put together about Sound City, it’s the same console but with more tracks and an expanded EQ I believe.  

For a band like ours to be able to track our stupid songs through a piece of history like that is beyond words.  I am forever grateful to Will for being such a good dude and opening up that studio to bands like ours.  Will is mixing and mastering this record, so to say that I am excited to hear the final product would be a gargantuan understatement.

Alright Chris, so take us down memory did you fall into punk and hardcore? What were some of your first shows, first bands you fell in love with, first records you got your hands on?

My father's record collection was probably where I first started to discover bands like Black Sabbath, Santana, the Beatles, etc. and I listened to those mostly when I was growing up. When I was about 12 or 13 a group of friends would all hang out after school. Some of us would skate, some would cause trouble but whatever it was that we were doing, we always had a cassette playing on a boom box. It started off being metal and then alternative and then gradually progressed to punk and hardcore. We heard about bands through magazines like Thrasher and skate videos mostly. We would go to local record stores to see if they had any of it. Sometimes we got lucky and we'd find a Minor Threat 12" or Dead Milkmen 12"s, other times we had to go to the city to get what we wanted. Eventually we started hearing about local shows and some of the venues which happened to be a few towns over from us. Most of the bands we were exposed to were local Long Island bands like Mind Over Matter, Neglect, Silent Majority, etc. Through local distro's, zines and friends, I began to find get into bands like Lincoln, Indian Summer, Inkwell, Frail and other bands of that style.

I honestly kind of missed the boat on Skycamefalling....saw you guys in Chicago once, but it was One Day Savior when I really came to admire your early work. You had such a solid run and built up an incredibly diverse roster, both sonically and philosophically. When you think back on ODS, what are you most proud of? Was there anything left on the shelf that you wish you would've released at the end that got passed on due to circumstances? 

First, thank you for the kind words. The label was, for the most part, something I enjoyed doing and I look back on it with incredibly fond memories. My taste has always been diverse and I think that led to some very confused listeners. I looked up to labels like Immigrant Sun, Art Monk Construction and Watermark so I did my best to copy a lot of what they were doing. The music always sounded different, which is what I loved about those labels. I bought their records because it came out on their label and I never really knew what the sound would be when you pressed play.

I remember the first 7" I ever released, the split between Incision and Ignorance Never Settles, and the day those showed up to my door. Assembling them was probably one of the happiest moments I can remember. Just the fact that two bands let me release their music and it would one day end up in the hands of people who discovered new music the very same way that I did. In the end, I saw it winding down, so there were a few vinyl releases that I had to pass on after having agreed to release them which was a bit of a bummer.

Speaking of labels, Divider released a somewhat delay-plagued 3 way split LP with Bone Dance and Plebeian Grandstand which was quickly followed by two d.i.y. releases, a split 7" with Colony and then your own 3-song 7". When we chatted a couple summers ago you expressed being pretty content with going the d.i.y. route...what eventually led to the partnership with Glory Kid for the release of the new LP?

It’s always just been easier for us to control our own records and do things at our own pace. The split LP was agreed on before I was in the band and there were certainly delay's on the band's part with respect to recording. It’s not that we weren't grateful because after all this is someone who was willing to spend their hard earned money to release music for a band. After that one release and the headaches and delays which accompanied it, it made more sense for us to do things on our own. Given the fact of where we are in our lives and with this band, for us to be able to decide what to do and when, seemed the most appropriate. Glory Kid seemed to be on the same page with all of that and he understands our current situation surrounding our personal lives, timelines, etc. He has been more than patient throughout this project and it’s greatly appreciated.

The lyrics to "A-Tune" sort of seem like a critique of media with lines like "the act of us all on our knees, it echoes from our homes, from our children, from our nine to non-stop of tuning in". Just curious if you could flesh this out a little more. It seems to me that while the media currently still serves to pacify to a large extent, the advent of social media also presents unprecedented opportunities for social movements to flourish. Do you see these tendencies, and if so, which do you see as more prevalent?

To be completely honest, I am on the fence with a lot of what is going on when it comes to the media, social networking and data collection. I work in an industry where data collection is looked as less an invasion of privacy and more as a way to tailor the information that is being delivered to you and make it relevant. I am indeed guilt of being one of those individuals that has a hard time turning off from my digital life. Yet through that, I am also cautious around what I post and what side of me is on display. 

The lyrics themselves are about how specific applications that we perceive as private are really just ways for businesses to gain our trust, let our guard down and open ourselves up to a constant stream of advertising which in turn effects what we consider successful or beautiful or even happiness. Someone is always selling us and it’s hard to understand, especially for younger people who have grown up in this environment, what is actually the ideals that we ourselves believe and what are the ones that we have been told to believe. 

It’s frustrating because I often find myself caught between these two worlds, of what I believe I need to be happy and what I actually need. I do believe that the media and the digital era has truly opened up a new world for many us and allowed us to find information and present it in such a way that was not available to us. Connecting people who have similar or even different ideas and allow meaningful dialogue and perhaps promote change. 

On the one hand, I do believe that there are negative aspects which occur with every new means of communication. It’s a cat and mouse game to a degree however for most of us settling somewhere in the middle, I think we are most likely willing to accept the negative portions in exchange for the positive ones. 

The over-arching theme lyrically seems to be a profound sense of hopelessness and desperation. Where does this come from for you? While I think those sorts of emotions certainly fit the mood of Dividers music, you've always struck me as a pretty upbeat guy for the most part. 

I have gone through some shit in the last few years and my outlet has always been writing and music. While I consider myself fairly upbeat in my day to day life, the weight of the issues I have faced in recent years has certainly taken a toll. Fortunately the band and the being able to play shows have given me a place to exercise those demons. There have certainly been those days where I did not think that I or my family could get through some of the challenges and it seems those days where my outlook is at its lowest seem to the ones where I can be the most creative. I do not feel sorry for myself or the things that I have gone through. I look at all of this as a learning experience, a way to better myself and my life. I accept what we have gone through and consider myself very fortunate to be able to put a lot of that behind us and move forward.

The last time we chatted you said we had to talk 90s hardcore, so this is it. What were some of your favorite labels from the mid to late 90s?

The ones I mentioned earlier, Immigrant Sun, Watermark & Art Monk, were favorites of mine in addition to labels like Second Nature, Hydra Head, (early) Doghouse, King of the Monsters and Youth Power. Most of those labels were pretty eclectic in their releases and genres and many of them had pretty incredible packaging as well. I believe you and I chatted about that Jeremin record on KOTM and even some of the early Hydra Head and Immigrant Sun records had amazing packaging. Judging a record by its cover and the effort put into the packaging and artwork was how I discovered many of my favorite bands years ago. 

Imagine you had to curate the equivalent of Burning Fight but instead of getting all the legends that everyone knows like Unbroken, Trial, and 108, it would be smaller bands that have mostly fallen to the dustbin of history. Who plays the fest and why?

I think I might be the only in attendance for this fest. There was a band I loved from Connecticut called In Vain that has virtually gone unnoticed and forgotten about it. I always thought they were way ahead of their time and unfortunately never received the recognition they deserved. Next, Midvale who had a record on Status and another on Ed Walters. The vocalist of that band had such a powerful and emotional voice. I am going to also say New Day Rising, who in my opinion were the pioneers of that sing/scream style and the modern “screamo” sound today. Cable playing only “Variable Speed Drive”, which when I saw them in the late 90s were probably the most intense band I had ever seen. Groundwork, who somehow has fallen through the cracks but yet were largely influential in their day. Acme, which might cost us a lot to fly them over from Europe, but anyone who heard that record won’t argue with my decision on that one. We need a headliner so I am saying Falling Forward, those songs are so raw and they might be the popular band on the list. I can’t deny getting the chills when listening to “Hand Me Down”. I also forgot Creation is Crucifixion, the tech metal band before that tech sound was cool.



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