Monday, June 30, 2014

Interview with Steve Muczynski of Hollow Earth

When I moved back to Detroit from Grand Rapids in 2002, the first 4 or 5 years I would just go to shows pretty much by myself. I knew a few people here and there, but nobody that I was real tight with or considered a good friend. Around 2006/07, I met Steve at a show  and shortly thereafter had a shitty drum tryout for the band he was in at that time; and while I didn’t make that band for obvious reasons, we became pretty tight friends. Eventually he invited me to start a new band with him, and in many ways he is the reason I’ve met a lot of people and gotten so active in punk and hardcore since then.
His band Hollow Earth is on my short list of the very best bands playing music today. Heavy as hell, but also able to harness deep emotion and present powerful ideas. Their debut e.p. “We Are Not Humanity” blew the doors off and saw the band trailblaze the country, playing around 100 shows in their first year. Some people dropped out after all that, and there was some re-tooling, but the band is back with a new LP entitled “Silent Graves” which will be unleashed this Fall via Panic Records. Needless to say the new record is jaw-dropping; building and expanding upon the sound from WANH, adding more introspective elements to their biting critique of our culture.
What’s always struck me about Steve is how passionate he is. This is not a person who does things half-way; when he commits to something he throws the full measure of his being into it. I consider myself lucky to call him one of my closest friends.
Read on.
Alright so for those not in the know, talk a little bit about the changes that have gone on within the band line-up wise over the course of the past year or so and how the chemistry is at the moment.
Well, I'm Steve Muczynski and I sing. Mike Moynihan plays guitar and we are the remaining original members. For the first year (2012) we had a fairly consistent touring line-up with a few exceptions here and there, but the core seemed to remain intact. Year two welcomed a new drummer, Mike Walsh (who is still with us) but we lost a guitarist and our rotating well of bass players dried up. 
At that point it was decided we would lay off the touring for a while. We did a few scattered shows and weekends in 2013 as a four piece with a fill-in bassist. We gave the four piece thing a solid effort but in the end decided a second guitar player was essential. 
We ended up jamming with Sean Reed sometime in December of 2013 I do believe and he was an instant fit. However, the bass player situation still proved to be a little tricky, so we decided to record the album as a four piece with Mr. Mike Moynihan handling the bass duties in addition to his guitar parts. Shortly before we went in to record it was decided that our friend Tom Collelo from Long Island would be handling the touring bass duties... and thus far, with one tour under our belts I think the chemistry with this line-up is excellent, both on and off "stage" (for lack of a better term).
Speaking of that brand new LP, you did it this Winter with Andy at Bricktop Recording in Chicago and it’s coming out this Fall on Panic. Talk about the creative and recording processes this time were they similar and different from the first EP?
The creative process was entirely different this time around. When we formed as a band and began writing for what would end up being our first record (“We Are Not Humanity”), 3 of the 5 of us lived in the same house. Mike and our first drummer Aaron Goodrich would jam as much as they could. At the time Mike was (and still is) a riff factory, but full songs weren't really his thing. He relied on bouncing ideas off of Aaron and forming song skeletons that way....and when the rest of the band came over for practice we would flesh it out and make changes, etc.
This time around we didn't have the luxury of a live-in drummer, and as a matter of fact, when writing for the LP began we didn't even know if we had a drummer at all! We had just gotten home from tour, realized we had been a band for over a year and still only had 6 songs. That was the spark Mike needed to overcome his inability to sit down and write a full song. He downloaded some sorta drum programming software and just started doin' the damn thing! Literally, that's how the album came to be. While it was uncertain as to who was actually going to be in this band, Mike was just crankin’ out the tunes! So once we finally solidified things and started practicing regularly again, it was mostly just a matter of learning the songs....naturally we made some tweaks here and there as we saw fit, but for the most part the songs were already in the arsenal, just waiting to be brought to life.
In my opinion the “We Are Not Humanity” writing process was a bit more organic and felt very familiar to me based on all my past experiences playing in bands, but given the utter instability we went through for the better part of a year we weren't given much of a choice. Luckily it just worked out to where we all loved the songs Mike had written and it felt like a natural progression for Hollow Earth. Going forward I do hope this line-up remains stable and we can experiment with a more collaborative effort and see what comes of that.

Speaking of touring, ever since I've met you I feel like your appetite for touring has been more voracious and single-minded than anyone I've ever known. Since then you've obviously had multiple opportunities to do so, both in the US and all around the world. Why is the draw of the road so compelling to you and what would you say has been your best touring experience thus far?
My first touring experience was playing bass with Shai Hulud in 2010. We did 2 1/2 weeks in the States immediately followed by 3 weeks in Europe! Prior to that I had spent the previous 7 to 8 years starting and being in bands that I hoped would someday see the open road. So needless to say, I had always imagined doing a handful of poorly self-booked tours filled with missing shows and broken down vans before getting to play in Europe! And not only that, getting to play in Europe with one of my long-time favorite hardcore bands?! Strange how that cookie crumbled. 

My original stint in Hulud lasted a year and took me to corners of the world I never imagined I'd see! It also confirmed that touring was as great as I'd hoped it'd be. Even though I was just a fill-in, there were moments when I had no choice but to feel like I was part of the band. When we were in Southeast Asia, a place SH had never been, kids were soooo appreciative to have us in their country. And given the language barrier, there was no way to aptly explain my fill-in status when someone handed me a copy of “That Within Blood Ill-Tempered” and a what the hell, ya sign it! You take a hundred different photos with kids that are psyched! For those nights, I was in the band....hell, I even got tagged as Matt Fletcher on Facebook a few times!

As much as I loved playing those Hulud songs, I couldn't help but think how awesome it would be to experience something like that with a band/songs that I had a hand in creating. Doing that year with Hulud made me realize I wasn't ready to give up on that idea. Hollow Earth is the band I've been trying to start since I was 18....and now that HE is a reality instead of a pipe dream, I would say that the prospect of travelling abroad to play music is certainly high on the list of things that keep the draw of the road so compelling.

I'd have to say the most rewarding experience thus far has been returning to places we've played before and having people come see us again. We are extremely lucky to have made friends in different areas of the country and it certainly helps keep the wind in our sails. If there are 20 kids at a show that aren't in any of the other bands playing that night, it's a good night for Hollow Earth! If we know a handful of those kids by name it makes the night that much more meaningful. Once in a while someone might even be spotted singing along....doesn't happen often, but when it does it feels pretty damn good!

Touring in the US certainly has its pitfalls, but it sure beats waiting tables 5 or 6 days a week! With HE we make it a priority to have fun on the road and take in as much as possible. Whether that's doing a 9 hour drive overnight so we can kayak on the Colorado River before our show, or swimming when it's entirely too cold just to say we did it! Organizing Ultimate Frisbee games, obnoxiously singing karaoke, jumping off of rocks into water....these types of things are generally high on our priority list. For if we solely relied on the shows, there's a good chance we'd be defeated by now. Plus, we have found ways to make our endeavors fairly while we're not making any money individually we at least don't have to drain our bank accounts to stay afloat.

Maybe I didn't pay enough attention in school, or maybe the fault lies in the Catholic curriculum I was subjected to….or hell, maybe both! Regardless, the more I read the more my world-view was blown wide open. It all seemed so revolutionary to me, which is why I knew before I even finished the damn thing that these ideas must be put to song. Apparently I knew little to nothing about the existence of mankind on this planet prior to reading that damn book, haha!
Going back to "We Are Not Humanity", the lyrical focus was primarily inspired by the writings of Daniel Quinn. I'm curious how you discovered Quinn and what about his work spoke to you so deeply.

DQ was first brought to my attention by a close friend of mine on a long day hike through a state park in NY. We were just talking about life and the workings of the world, etc. when something sparked him to give me a strong recommendation to read both "Ishmael" and "The Story of B." I wrote it down in a notebook. Shortly after that I came to learn that How We Are (a band I was heavily into at the time) had a healthy dose of “Ishmael”-inspired material on their full length, “To Teach a Hundred”. Then my roommate at the time started reading it. Then in the liner notes to Die Young's "Graven Images" there was a DQ quote. So I went from having never heard of the guy to suddenly having a multitude of reasons to investigate his work. However, I procrastinate with the best of ' those novels remained on my suggested reading list for quite some time before I actually followed through.

I vividly remember the day when I finally said enough was enough; I'm going to read that damn book. I went to the store and grabbed a copy before work. We were slow so I started reading didn't take but 30 or 40 pages before I was completely hooked. I can't really pinpoint exactly what it was that spoke so deeply to me. Part of me definitely thinks a lot of it has to do with my education, or lack thereof. I've read several reviews of “Ishmael” in which people say that DQ really isn't presenting any new information, rather offering a mere reiteration of inherent knowledge in his own creative way. But for me, it was all eye-opening and new. 

Related to that, the major criticism I've always heard about Quinn is that while his fundamental critique of modern culture is incisive and in many ways compelling, the question of "Okay, so what now, what do we do with this perspective?" is not necessarily all that clear, particularly since most of his audience consists of people who are deeply ingrained in the culture he is critiquing and since the cultures he idealizes are for the most part a thing of the distant past. 

For hardcore kids, I think a natural reaction is to embrace veganism which is already at least to some extent a part of the subculture, but beyond that what would you say are the major takeaways from Quinn in terms of how we take his ideas and put them into action?

I can certainly vouch for this critique. After having read the entire “Ishmael” trilogy (“Ishmael”, “The Story of B”, “My Ishmael”) I was certainly left with that sinking feeling of... "Well shit, what do I do now, how the hell do I live with this?" I was told that his book, "Beyond Civilization" offered answers, so I read it. I actually read it with a book club and the majority consensus was that it fell short and still left us wondering just what to do with these ideas. 
As you mentioned, the cultures he largely idealizes are of a distant past....well, most of them anyway. There still are thriving tribal cultures (also known as "leavers" in context of the novels) to this very day, which I find fascinating. However, this is not a simple task with simple solutions. It truly is a monumental issue when you think about it in terms of time. Humans have been cultivating "taker" culture for the last ten thousand years. Quinn's underlying argument is that prior to that, humans lived very differently for nearly three million years. But if you think about just how much has changed in those measly ten thousand years, it undoubtedly rules out any sort of tribal revolution. Sure there are small ways here and there to incorporate more of a "leaver" way of living and being, but nothing that even begins to make a dent in the almighty cultural juggernaut that we as a species have ceaselessly promulgated. 
So yeah, unfortunately (but not surprisingly) I do not have a sound answer for you. But lemme quote The Reverend White Devil real quick, "To seek the answers none wish to seek is to bear the cross of unholy truth."

Almost sort of as a continuation of "We Are Not Humanity", the first two songs on the new record come out of the gates painting this dystopian picture where rampant human greed culminates in industrial collapse and shattered economies as the Earth sort of claims revenge on human society. Obviously we see glimpses of that around the world today, but I'm curious when you see these things taking place on the sort of scale you are alluding to, and what evidence you see for this eminent collapse.           

I don't necessarily think I ever see these things taking place on the scale I'm alluding to, which is really fucking scary in my opinion. Because human greed is inherent in our culture it's very easy and almost completely natural to live day-to-day without ever even thinking about it. Our daily lives and the choices we make and the products we consume are essentially inching us toward the inevitable collapse being suggested in these songs you've mentioned. Some people will have lived out their entire lives without ever noticing or questioning it.

You mentioned the second song on the new record, it's called "Black Blood of the Earth" (a title that was lifted from “Big Trouble in Little China”, haha) and it's about our dependency on fossil fuels, arguably the most exploited natural resource on the planet. I happened to catch a TV special on either the Nat Geo or Discovery called, "Aftermath: The World Without Oil." Its intention was to really get you thinking about just how detrimental the absence of oil alone would be to our culture. It was a fascinating watch and I would highly recommend it, by the way. But yeah, it's a perfect example of how greed outweighs all. I truly believe with all the knowledge and technology we have at this point that we could (and should) be far less dependent on fossil fuels than we are. As the lyrics go, "profits above all" - we'd sooner contribute to our imminent collapse in the name of the dollar sign than work toward the preservation of our very way of life.

Another piece of evidence in defense of this proposed imminent collapse comes again from the ideas of Mr. Quinn. The teachings of “Ishmael” go on to suggest that there are certain laws of the universe that are supported by absolute truths, such as the law of gravity and aerodynamics. If you try to fly and do not adhere to both the aforementioned laws, you will eventually plummet to your demise! All species on Earth prior to the agricultural revolution lived according to the Law of Limited Competition, which states: 

You may compete to the full extent of your capabilities, but you may not hunt down competitors or destroy their food or deny them access to food. In other words, you may compete but you may not wage war. 

This is a law we have been living in discordance with for the better part of the last ten thousand years. If you look at our culture as an aircraft, we are in the air; one might even say we are soaring! But are we really in flight? I don't think we are. Rather, we are slowly (ever so slowly) in descent, heading for the inevitable crash. These ideas are outlined in much greater detail and far more eloquently by Quinn himself, so I'd like to highly encourage any and all inquiring minds to read “Ishmael” for themselves!

Being a close friend I've obviously known that probably the biggest thing that's happened in your personal life since the last record was the unwinding of your long-term romantic relationship, and I was very curious how that would manifest itself in the lyrics. Ultimately the duty of delving into that subject matter was handled by Mike, and I think the way he flipped the situation on its head provides a really cool perspective. I'm wondering how that process played itself out and why things worked out that way.                            

I think things worked out that way because push came to shove. For what I believe to be a myriad of reasons, I had a really hard time writing lyrics for the new record. It seems to be something that has been plaguing me in general as I get older, but I'm certain that the unwinding of said relationship certainly is a front runner in this particular instance. On WANH I wrote the bulk/foundation of the lyrics, and as they started coming together I would then take them to Mike for help and suggestions. It was a very healthy collaborative effort, one I had never had the pleasure of participating in until that point. Although that may not be entirely true....with Great Reversals (a band I play in with Mr. Eric Scobie for those who may not know) I get to be in Mike's shoes. Our vocalist brings me a finished lyrical work and I help set it to music and make suggestions and tweaks along the way.

So yeah, this time around Mike patiently waited....and waited....and waited some more for me to bring some lyrics to the table for a repeat collaborative effort. I was stuck though. Call it writer's block, call it what you will....I had nothing! We eventually sat down and outlined what we thought each song could be about based on the tone/mood of the instrumental compositions. So it was decided that the third song on the record (“In the Mouth of Madness”) would touch on the subject matter of my recently ended relationship....and though I was in total agreement and thought it would be therapeutic to do so, I simply had trouble getting started. So Mike, having a fairly thorough understanding of the situation seeing as he lived with me and my former partner for over a year decided to take matters into his own hands.

He decided to write the song from my ex's perspective, which I agree, is a rather interesting way to go about it. I took his initial draft and made a considerable amount of changes where I saw fit. My hope was to portray both empathy and resentment. This is a person I shared a life with for over seven years. Given how messy the unwinding of any lengthy relationship can be, it would've been all too easy to write a song rife with hostility and resentment. What I love about the way it turned out is that it seems to cover the spectrum of emotions that we both experienced during a rather tumultuous six to eight months. For as the title suggests, it certainly was madness!

Another song in which you approach things from an outside perspective is the song that deals with the modern meat industry. For as many animal rights songs as there have been over the years I don't think I've ever seen the subject tackled from that angle. Speak to why you approached it that way, and explain why veganism plays such a critical role in your life.

"World to Come," also known by its working title, "Cave-Out" (due to a rather obvious "lending" of riff-stylings) was the last song we completed lyrically. When we were brainstorming ideas as to what seemed to be a fitting topic lyrically, the idea of doing a vegan song seemed relevant to both Mike and I. And rather than doing a token animal-rights song we threw out the idea of altering the perspective, similar to a song I had written for another band (Tharsis They), a song called "Concentrated Human Feeding Operation" which was simply a role reversal that suggested raising humans for food instead of animals. It really took on a concentration camp vibe and may be one of the more disturbing songs I've ever penned!

Anyway, "World to Come" is written from the perspective of an animal on a factory farm. Trying to imagine and encompass the horrors they endure is absolutely terrifying, especially coupled with the fact that they have absolutely no idea WHY their fate is doomed. I can't speak for Mike, but it's my hope that approaching it this way might make people think twice about just how fucking cruel factory farm operations truly are. It also offers a rather troubling look at the individuals who perform these horrendous tasks. Despite the fact that in most cases these are underprivileged people so desperate for income (likely to provide for their families) that they'll just about do anything, it's nearly impossible for me to imagine desensitizing myself to that degree. This may be because I come from a position of privilege, but I can't deny the desire to see these people suffer the same terror they put these innocent beings through, and the song makes that perfectly clear. That's not to say that I fully endorse direct action against humans in the name of animals. Let's be clear, this is a song and poetic license has been fully exercised!

I see being vegan the same way I see being straightedge; it's something that has become fundamental, almost innate. Confronting the horrors of how animals end up our plates left me with a very simple decision: not to consume it! I'm not of the belief that I'm part of some radical revolutionary movement. It's merely a conscious choice not to indulge in products of utter cruelty and violence in the name convenience and taste. It's such a simple concept to me, yet it baffles most. I don't have the ability to know what I know and simply turn a blind eye. Being vegan has certainly changed my relationship with food in general, mostly for the better....I mean there's always gonna be Oreos, but largely I've learned far more about nutrition since going vegan than I ever cared to learn prior!

If there is a dominant narrative to the lyrical content it would definitely be a full-frontal assault on religion. I know both of your parents are religious to varying degrees and you grew up in Catholic School, but you've been out of that parochial school environment for well over a decade, and I'm fairly certain that your folks realized long ago that whatever religious values they had tried to instill in you were utterly rejected. That said, why would you say that subject matter still looms so large for you?       

I think there's a large part of me that feels like I was duped. I was never given a choice. Instead I was told to swallow the Catholic faith from as early as I can remember. So when I finally pulled back the curtain on my own I was pretty pissed off! I certainly think that's part of it, making up for time lost. The other part is seeing something like "Jesus Camp" or listening to the rantings of some moderate-believer that shapes their relationship with Jesus to serve their own self-indulgent lifestyle which undoubtedly makes me feel the need to spit my rage, haha! Admittedly, religion is an easy target (especially in punk, metal and hardcore) and while I certainly get some sort of sick satisfaction out of screaming sacrilegious verses, I'm also conscious of the fact that it's likely a satisfaction that lives in that adolescent skin that I just can't seem to shed. As a child I can remember being scared by a lot of the imagery that comes along with the bible and thoughts of going to hell, etc., so here I am years later giving the ol' middle finger to all of that shit!

However, as I mentioned in the last question there is certainly a fair amount of poetic license exercised in this regard as well. I like to think I'm a reasonably rational human being. I do understand the positive sides of what religion has to offer, especially the sense of community that seems to thrive in most religious sects. I also should make it known that I respect thorough believers far more than moderate believers. Anyone can enter into an imaginary contract with "god" and continue to live the way they want to under the guise that all is well with man upstairs. If you're gonna believe, commit motherfucker! There's something to be said about someone who truly devotes themselves to a faith and lives according to scripture, etc. Of course a lot of that depends on which faith we're talking about, haha!

On the new record, there is a song called "Beneath the Weight of the Cross" that best offers this full-frontal religious assault you mention, and while it may not be glaringly obvious, I do feel there are a couple lines within that reflect this understanding as to why people choose to believe. "A search for truth in the emptiness, illumination through the abyss. This lantern, a beacon of hope and faith..." Though we go on to essentially say that we reject those ideas, I want it to be known that we understand them and it's not our place to condemn anyone that chooses to believe.

Related to that is a question I often wonder about, since basically 90% of hardcore bands since Chokehold have railed against religion and atheism is sort of the de facto stance within punk and hardcore. If the idea of god is something that you believe is simply fake, why even address it? Why not focus on things that you believe are real? 

I can see the perspective that while you feel it's fictional a majority of people still believe in some form of higher power so maybe there's a sense that you want to push back against that cultural norm, but fundamentally if you think it's all a charade, then why give it any attention at all? I don't believe in the tooth fairy or aliens, therefore I would never write songs about either of those things.

Given just how prevalent religion is in mainstream culture it seems only natural to want and feel the need to deliver some backlash. Not a day goes by where some form of religious-founded belief doesn't manage to rear its head. From the money we carry in our wallets to the conditioned response when someone's everywhere! And while punk, hardcore and metal certainly doesn't provide a voice that reaches the mainstream culture that's responsible for this incessant dose of god-this and god-that, it certainly should be our right to yell and scream about it. If for no other reason feels good! Not to mention, while being atheist may be de facto for a majority, there are always new kids coming up. I know for me it wasn't the ideals that drew me in was the sound. The thinking came much later.

That's not to say that you don't make an excellent point though! The anti-religious stance at this stage of the game may very well be one of the safest cards you can play. And I certainly don't ever want to limit the lyrical content of Hollow Earth (or any other band I'm a part of for that matter) by simply playing safe cards and staying inside the lines of what is deemed acceptable. Given some of my past endeavors (i.e. Trying Times) I think you know that I'm not necessarily afraid of putting a potential target on my head, haha! However, I've found that as I get older I become less inspired and it becomes increasingly difficult to harness that youthful tenacity I once had....that fearless ability to put it all on the line and not think twice about how at any point I could very well trip over my own feet and end up with a mouthful of dirt. I think songs like "Swallowing Knives" and "Monochrome Surroundings" on the new record certainly reflect a growing awareness of my own insecurities. Shit, I'm 31 years old now! Fuck. 

So the record comes out in the Fall on Panic, what do you guys have planned between now and then as well as once it drops?

Yes, fingers crossed that it does indeed come out in the fall. The record is called "Silent Graves" and we are looking to hit the road this Fall in support of it for about a month and a half. Most of it (maybe even all of it) will be with our Canadian pals in Exalt. There will also be a West Coast stint with Run with the Hunted, a band we've been trying to tour with since our inception!! Couldn't be more excited about that!! We also hope to hit Western Canada with those dirty rocker boys in Withdrawal. That's uncharted territory for us, so that should be awesome. I do hope that the record is out in time for all of this touring which is set to begin in late September and last sometime until mid-November. This will be our longest outing yet and it would feel so damn good to have that record with us, but no release date has been slated. We are still waiting on the final touches for the artwork, etc. Here's to hoping!

I know this band is in many ways the culmination of many years of being in bands, honing your craft, etc. You guys have done two bad-ass records now, you've already done a ton of touring, what goals do you have for the band going forward and how far do you hope to be able to take it?

I don't have an exact timeline or checklist going, but a big one that stands out for me is being able to travel abroad and play Hollow Earth songs in other countries. Mr. Aaron Bedard of Bane once told me several years ago something that I've found to be incredibly true: "Hardcore is one of the few genres of music that rewards hard work." So if I have any say in it, I hope that we can keep on touring and releasing music and see what comes our way. We've already been brainstorming a narrative-styled concept for our next release. Mike is always writing....Van Morris is still running....I say we go until the wheels fall off! 

When Hollow Earth comes to an end it'll likely be time for me to hang it up and explore new avenues that don't involve working in a restaurant. In all honesty, that thought scares the shit out of me! But the last thing I want is to look back on HE and think...."Man, if we just would've kept pushing." I want to give everything I have to this band and know that we gave it our all and had a fucking blast doing so, and thus far that's exactly what we've done. I very much look forward to the release of “Silent Graves” and can't wait to see what the future holds for us. 

Steve’s other bands:

Great Reversals:

No comments:

Post a Comment