Friday, February 20, 2015

Interview with Jeremy Smith from Modern Problems (ex-Dead Hearts, The Control, etc).

I first heard about Modern Problems late last year when Stuck in the Past mentioned them. While there's often a tendency for youth-crew type stuff to sound very cookie cutter, the vocals of frontman Jeremy Smith really set them apart for me with his impassioned style. Imagine really fast, energetic hardcore punk ala Better Than A Thousand with melodic vocals that are sort of akin to Zoli from Ignite, that's kinda what MP makes me think about. 

Anyway, after a little poking around I realized that Jeremy has been around forever; having played in less well known 90's acts like Halfmast and No Reason as well as bigger bands like the mighty Dead Hearts (he's also played in The Control and Old Ghosts).  

At any rate, I knew I had to reach out and learn a little bit more about his history, and Jeremy did an awesome job of breaking it down with great candor and fascinating detail. A perfect example of someone who is truly a lifer and has seen pretty much every trend come and go. 

Read on, and make sure you check out Modern Problems, I truly think it's Jeremy's finest work yet.

So you've obviously got quite an extensive history in the core....take us back to the beginning. How did you get exposed to punk and hardcore, and who were some of the first bands that resonated with you?

Well, my first love was Heavy Metal, back when I was younger my uncle lived upstairs from us and would on occasion watch me, so I was exposed to Iron Maiden, Judas priest, Black Sabbath, Venom, Devo and the Ramones through him around ’83. I remember doing my cursive homework for elementary school in 3rd grade listening to a tape of “Shout at the Devil” by Motley Crue I started to ask for and buy my own music around ‘85/ 86: Twisted Sister, Quiet Riot, Maiden… But I also liked Weird Al a lot. 

In 1986 a guy I knew named Todd Peck played me “Master of Puppets” by Metallica and my path towards more underground music started; albeit pretty slow. In ’87 I heard “Nevermind the Bollocks” and swiped my uncle’s copies of The Ramones “Rocket To Russia” and “To Mega Therion” by Celtic Frost, I also got into some of the college/ alternative rock that was popular at the time. That winter I also started my first terrible band: Recycled Body Parts.

By ’88 I was firmly planted in trash metal: Slayer, Kreator, Anthrax that kind of stuff a new kid we called “Malachi” moved into my neighborhood from the other side of town and had a cousin who was really into Death and Thrash metal and was dialed into the local scene because he hung out with Malevolent Creation. Malachi got me into a lot more aggressive death metal stuff (I called it “super thrash” at the time) and more importantly introduced me to crossover. 

In March of ’89 I saw Metallica and was blown away, people slag that band a lot now, and with good reason, they’ve lost sight of what made them so vital and important in the 80’s; but back then, they were at the top of their game. I really loved the energy they brought and with stuff like COC and DRI and Nuclear Assault I was getting an energy that Thrash Metal ALMOST had, but not quite. At some point I recognized that it came from punk and hardcore.

There was a kid named Blake Roggow who lived down the street from us who was really involved with shows and was pen pals with a few of the NYHC/ Revelation guys. It’s funny because on one end of the block I grew up lived the guitar player of Malevolent Creation and his parents and on the other was this guy Blake, whom because of I met Quicksand and on his front lawn in 1990, which made me want to hear their band. At least I remember it being Quicksand, I also remember meeting Outspoken, who knows? Because I was a mulleted hesher dude some of the hardcore kids would fuck with me when I first came around… 

Anyway, to digress a few months before that, Malachi and I went to Blake’s house; he had a room in his parent’s basement and played us the “Where the Wild Things Are” NYHC comp, it didn’t really strike a chord with me until I heard Sheer Terror, specifically the line “Sticks and stone will break my bones, but cancer will probably kill me.” Remember I liked Weird Al a lot then too and that type of humor in an aggressive song resonated with me.

In 1990 I went to Death Metal and Trash shows at VFW halls and at a club called the Skyroom and on occasion a hardcore band would open those shows. I was more than interested, the bands I had heard, the cool people I met that summer on Blake’s front lawn hanging out and… Zero Tolerance, the quintessential Buffalo hardcore band. They almost sounded like a thrash band. Malachi and I were told if we liked Sacred Reich we would love the ZT 1990 demo and boy were they right. I heard of straight edge for the first time, bought the NYHC comps and I bought “Break Down the Walls” on cassette at a store called Cavages at the mall. 

January of ’91 I went to my first stacked bill: AF, SOIA, Biohazard and Zero Tolerance, then a couple of months later I went to see Quicksand and started to really get into being straight edge and hardcore, though I still went to Death Metal shows too. The first “real” band I was in started playing shows in ’91 too; Childish Intent, we called ourselves “goofcore.”

The hardcore bands I really liked in 1991 were local bands ZT, Snapcase (how about that first demo, eh?) Manic Depression, Discontent, Slugfest and Against All Hope, and Baphomet (though they were a death metal band). Bigger bands I loved were like YOT, SOIA, Judge, Quicksand, Sheer Terror, Shelter, Leeway, Killing Time, Operation Ivy, Murphy’s Law, Lawnmower Deth, UC, Insted, Integrity, Outface, No For an Answer, Token Entry, Naked Raygun…anything I heard pretty much, I absorbed it all…I remember hating Dag Nasty at first because I got “Field Day” and it sucked, same with “Wasted Youth”; I didn’t know that their most recent LP’s weren’t the ones everyone talked about! By 1992 I was going to 2-3 shows a month and started going out of town occasionally to see bands. By ’93 I was going out of town like every weekend to see more and more shows, that’s also when I joined Halfmast…

God damn dude, that is all so sick, haha. So for me I first really started getting into things in like 96/97 and by that time all the NYHC bands you referenced, and even the stuff coming out of upstate NY like Snapcase, Vogel's bands and obviously EXC already had almost pseudo legendary status, at least for shmucks like me in the Midwest. At the time did you have any sense of how special all that stuff was, or since you basically grew up with it did it seem pretty routine?

I don't know, by like, 93-94 I was starting to get really into the first wave of American Hardcore stuff: SSD, The FU's all the more obscure (at the time) DC stuff... I thought that stuff was really special. The bands I saw in the early 90's were great and I thought they were/are awesome, but I don't think I perceived any as "legendary," really is something legendary when it's the current happening thing? I recognized that some bands were light years ahead of others live, for sure. Take for instance a band like 108, they were devastating live. I recognized that some bands were just on another level live or with aesthetic (like Unbroken) but it's easier to look back and say that something was special than realizing it at the exact moment it's happening.

I remember the summer of 94; I booked Unbroken and Undertow in Buffalo and all the vinyl copies of “Life. Love. Regret.” got shipped to my parent's house. I brought the huge box to the show to give to them and Eric Allen asked me if I had opened it to check them out. I told him, "No, it wasn't addressed to me" and he whipped out a switchblade, cut open the box and handed me the first copy he pulled out. I like Unbroken a lot and they, like Undertow, were never guys who acted "too cool for school" like some other bands at the time. 

That holds a lot of weight with me, to this day. In '09 when they did a reunion show together in Seattle, I flew out to see the show. To think that I was handed the first copy of LLR, a total classic and essential 90's HC record blows some people's minds, and that Rob sent me a test press of it (which I gave to Jay from Harms Way in the late 90's because I owed him $100). Nowadays people revere that record, at that time I thought it was a cool record put out by guys that were cool. Now it's like a must have classic. Am I rambling? Haha!

HOLY.FUCKING.SHIT.  Yeah, that just blew my mind....we can probably just end this thing right there, haha.

You mentioned Halfmast, and after that I know you did No Reason. Talk a little bit about those projects and the highlights of playing in those bands.

I joined Halfmast in late summer/early fall of 1993. They were a band that originally had a guy from Baphomet, then two other super heavy metal guys on guitar. When I heard the first Halfmast demo, I was surprised HOW MUCH it sounded like Slugfest, they were looking for a second guitar player because one of the metal dudes quit, so I joined up, immediately offering suggestions on how to make the songs what I perceived as "better" and showing them stuff I had written. I also was adamant about playing fast songs, something that had really grown out of style in HC at the time, in favor of mosh. The other heavy metal guy quit after my first practice and my 15 year old brother came onboard to play second guitar, making the band a complete SXE line up.

The band broke up in 1996. I think, looking back, we eventually came into our own with the "Status" cassette I self-released the summer of '95. The first two demos are ok, but the first 2 Halfmast records could have been a lot better. The Status tape got us hooked up with Ambassador Records, which was an imprint of sorts of Revelation run by Ryan Hoffman (Chain of Strength) and Frosty's little brother. It got delayed and delayed and came out a couple months after we broke up. 20 years later we could still put together a complete straight edge line up, but really, who wants to see Halfmast?

A couple months after Halfmast's break up my brother Chris, the last drummer of Halfmast Eric Ellman, his brother Blake, my cousin Abe and I started No Reason. This was really the first time I had a majority of the control in a band. I was writing the majority of the music and all of the lyrics for my brother to sing. No Reason ended up being fairly popular, from the get go in Buffalo. Immigrant Sun was Sean Malinson and this guy Pat Knight. Sean lived in Ithaca at the time and Pat went to the University of Buffalo and saw our first show. People were genuinely excited about No Reason and Pat convinced Sean that doing a Left for Dead/ No Reason split 7” was a good idea (Sean hadn't seen us at that point). Before it could all come together, LFD broke up, so it just became a 7” for us.

Halfmast and No Reason always had good Chicago shows. The majority of the people we met out there, I am still friends with to this day. I mean there were good shows and bad show and lots of other interesting tour stories, but really the highlight is that we met like mind people who shared ideals and attitudes and that made a lasting impression on me. It was a more innocent time, we went on the road with absolutely nothing and came back with even less, we felt a need to get out there and let the songs we wrote be heard and to release the energy we had built up inside us. That what I admire still about bands today; there no reward monetarily for touring, but the reward to the heart and mind is priceless.

I still have the No Reason 7" and I've gotta say Immigrant Sun was definitely one of my favorite labels back then...diverse roster, amazing layouts, and while I never met him Sean always seemed like a super nice guy. How did you hook up with him for that record and do you know if he's still involved at all with anything punk/hc related?

Immigrant Sun's roster was really diverse: Hourglass, Morning Again, Saves the Day, Sarin, Cable Car Theory... The only bands I liked that they released besides us were Morning Again and Hourglass and we were still a million miles away from the style they played. Saves the Day acoustic EP? I mean, what the fuck is that to a guy like me who thrives on energy and essence more than weird pseudo folk emo stuff? 

Still, Sean and Pat were awesome to us and I genuinely feel bad, to this day, about how bad the LP turned out and that we broke up shortly after the CD version came out. The 7” and second demo we're really, really great but the LP recording just kills it for me. I still keep in contact with Pat, we just talked about the old NJ band American Standard this week online, but I lost track of Sean when he worked for EVR. I think we're friends on Facebook, but he's not a big social media guy.

So after No Reason I know Dead Hearts came along. Talk about that band's origins and goals. At that point you'd been doing music for a decade or so. What was the same and what was different in terms of how you approached things?

Before Dead Hearts and after No Reason (1999-2003), I was in a band called The Control; we did 4 records and toured a lot. Aside from Buffalo, Minneapolis and Syracuse, we largely went unnoticed even with all the road work we did. We released a 10” on +/- records, a 7” on Reflections and a 7” and LP on the punk label Go-Kart. We were somewhere in between Government Issue, Born Against, Die Kruezen, and Naked Raygun, I guess. Never really clicked, though we got to play with a lot of incredible bands. I did a short lived satanic metal band called Darkpath with my brother immediately after The Control, we did a demo and played one show and that was that.

A year later I was 30 and my girlfriend (now ex-wife) had gotten me an acoustic guitar for Christmas, so I was playing around the house more. I hadn’t really thought about starting a new band, I was 30- who wants to see an old man playing hardcore? That was my mind set at first. One day I was walking up the stairs of our place to the rear bedroom we used as the “computer room” (it was 2004) and the riff I had been tooling around with for a few minutes struck me and I said the words “so say it with me, ‘forever and a day;’ some promises tears can’t wipe away.” And I loved how it sounded. I then wrote the music and lyrics to “Bright Lights, Burnt City”. I actually finished that one before I finished Forever, the song I had previously mentioned. 

I was really into those songs and I knew I had to start a band. I had met this dude Paul through a mutual friend of ours named Erin, he played in a band called The Alleged briefly and after hearing their demo and how he played guitar, I felt like our “style” of playing would really be compatible. I went over his place and showed him what I had- “Bright Lights” and “Forever” and he had a song written too, musically, which I thought was incredible and I started working on the lyrics straight away (it became “Dear Jane Letter” off the first record/ demo). We got Richie the drummer of The Alleged and Derek and Tom from Can I Say (who I had asked to join at their last show) and right away there was chemistry in the room, the creative process and with the songs. I imagine it was like how it feels to be on a championship team in sports… You feel it in the air, the magic was very tangible and we were all very psyched.

The demo came out and I ended up making 350 cds on my old computer. We sold every one VERY quickly and labels started getting in touch- we had only played a few shows. Initially from that demo we had Martyr, Stillborn, Live Wire and a few others get in touch inquiring to a record. Steve Martyr came across as really aggressive in trying to lock us down, and I really liked how excited Live Wire was, but no one’s release schedule was conducive to getting out our record by our winter tour to FL and back. Our first show was in June or July and here it was August/September and I wanted to know who could do it the fastest and best. Only State of Mind said they could pull it off, so we went with them. We had a bunch of boxes of CDs in hand (remember those?) and left on our first tour down the east coast the day after Christmas to play This is for You Fest. 

The response we got was really, really great. We sold like 75 CDs at the show and nearly every shirt we had. Luckily the State of Mind guys were there and we were able to get more- we still had a week of tour left at that point. We met a lot of bands that were just starting to gain traction that we played a lot of shows/ toured with over the next few years: Another Breath, Ruiner, This is Hell, and one of my favorite bands Marathon. Things were growing and crazy.

Obviously after the record with State of Mind you guys signed with Ferret which at that time was one of the biggest labels going in punk and hardcore. I'm curious how much changed in terms of more "industry" type stuff, booking agents, media contacts. Did that sort of thing have much of an impact on the band and if so do you think it was beneficial or not so much?

At some point, I know I felt like we could be a full time band and by the time we recorded our “No Love, No Hope” ep, Ferret and Victory were emailing and calling. Clint at Victory was asking if we would be interested in “Flying out to Chicago to play for Tony” but our friends in Every Time I Die were really saying great things about how Ferret treated them. Victory would write emails saying “You guys would appeal to the Rise Against and Comeback Kid crowds” whereas Rick at Ferret would email me and ask me how I was doing and we would talk about music and stuff. Rick came out and saw us play at CBGB’s with Bane and two months later, we signed to Ferret. To me it was all about the approach and I was also worried we’d get screwed by Victory.

Looking back, I think we mostly made good choices with the information we had at the time, Ferret changed in between the time we recorded our LP and it’s release, they went from being an imprint of Sony/Red to Warner Independent Music group and after a few months they started talking about CD sales and the changing face of the music industry and stuff. We weren’t guys who could or would be willing to make the transition to playing rockstar. We were a bunch of moody dudes from Buffalo. Sure, I think we wanted to be a “big” band, but I don’t think we fully wanted to “play the game.” We never had a manager; a booking agent, yes, but never a manager. I always enjoyed doing interviews and stuff though. As you can see from my lengthy replies, I love to talk about myself! Ha!

Anyway, 2 years after our LP on Ferret, they told us we could renegotiate our contract or walk, scot-free. We chose to walk and started seeking out other labels. Our booking agent was pushing for Stillborn for some reason, but Eulogy was willing to give us exactly what we were looking for (which wasn’t much). I think we asked for $3k to record and that’s about it aside from promotion/ distribution and things along those lines. However, our singer quit the day we got the finalized contract in the band’s email. 

I wasn’t really interested in doing another band after Dead Hearts at first. Paul, Tom, and our first drummer Richie jumped in the thick right away and started Rust Belt Lights, but I wasn’t too keen on trying to “make it” anymore. Those guys are in their late 20’s early 30’s now. 

Me, I’ll never get into having management, I really think hardcore bands should manage themselves. Booking agents, sure more power to them, but management removes a part of the artist from the decision making process. I wouldn’t want to be pressured into something, I know management is good for networking and things of that nature, but I’m just not interested anymore.

Damn, I totally forgot about The Control somehow, haha. And yeah man, it's so weird what stuff gets popular and what doesn't. Even today there are a lot of bands that I think are so incredible that nobody cares about, and then the bands kids seem to love I think are utter garbage, haha. For DH do you think it was just a time and place thing, all the leg work in your previous bands finally paying off, the songs themselves being better than the stuff you had done before?

I think we were a good band with good songs, but also I think it was a time and place thing.  In the post American Nightmare/ Give up the Ghost world, that melodic rocking/ epic stuff was very “in” from 05-09 or so. Also, I think we were a very good live band, so it was easy for people who had seen us to “get on board” so to speak. The people who like The Control pretty much hated Dead Hearts I think. Though a lot of the lyrical matter was similar, the musical aspect was more pensive and less bombastic as The Control was. We really appealed to a younger crowd.

With regard to the record that would have come out on Eulogy, was it done, are there demos floating around?

At the time we broke up, I think we had 11 songs written for the LP that was going to be called “Ghosts.” I have a CDR of practice tapes somewhere. We did do some pre-production with 4 songs that were finalized- that came out as the “Death in the Family” ep. There are two songs that exist musically, one which I never wrote lyrics to and hated that was written by Tom in Drop D (I hate Drop D) and another called “Anthem of Saints and Sinners.” “Anthem” we actually did play at our second show, but I/we felt like it was the odd man out musically, it was a little TOO Kid Dynamite-y, but the vocals were never recorded.

Alright talk to us about Modern Problems. This is obviously the most melodic project you've been a part of and I believe your first time on vocals. What prompted you to set down the guitar and pick up the mic?

Last year I turned 40 and when I was recovering from surgery, I had a lot of down time. I was listening to a lot of records and I found myself going back to the same 6 records every other day. I thought, man, no one sounds like this anymore, I wish there were more bands like Uniform Choice, Unity, Scream, Minor Threat, 7 Seconds… and I thought, why don’t I write some songs again? I had written two records with Old Ghosts, but it had been two years since I quit that band and they were more like a simplified, heavier Dead Hearts (it was 3 of us from DH in the band).

At first, Modern Problems was just going to be me and Eric Ellman recording 4-5 songs, but our schedules couldn’t sync up and I really believed that the stuff I had written would be good. After Eric couldn’t find the time, I made a couple Facebook posts that I wanted to start a new band and a few weeks later, MP had our first practice. I have sung in some bands prior, but it was 20 years ago and not very well. This style fits whatever type of “singing” voice I have. To me, it’s the style of band I always should have been in, fast and hard hardcore punk, with “sung” vocals. My voice worked so well with the songs I had written I can’t imagine anyone else singing.

As far as MP, I know the demo is being put out by Rich from across the pond on Speedowax and "Foolish Times" just came out on tape via Climbin' Aboard. Talk a little bit about how you hooked up with those two labels as well as the releases themselves.

Rich sent me a message and it was going to be a limited release and seemed cool, so I was down. He releases a lot of stuff, some known, some not, just seems to like to put out the stuff he likes, I like that sentiment. Bo at Climbin’ Aboard is a friend of the band and I feel most comfortable working with people we know, or people who seem to be on the kind of “level” we are.

The Demo 7” rich wanted to rename ‘Step Forward’ which I think is cool, it’s just the demo with a layout that wasn’t made on a smart phone like the OG demo cover was. I’m excited to get some copies. The first song, remixed also appeared on the Reaper Records NYHC compilation 7”

“Foolish Times” we recorded in December of last year. It was our first recording since Jason left the band in October (I actually play guitar on it). I’m having my thyroid out in a couple of weeks and the mass on it has invaded so much of my neck that it partially froze one of my vocal chords, so I was afraid my voice was going to change more and wanted to knock out the new songs I had written. I think the song “Foolish Times” turned out like straight fire. It's like another leg up for the band song writing/ performance wise.

I know you guys posted that a new e.p. is coming soon. Are release details squared yet for that or is it still being worked on? In terms of the songs themselves, I know you've had a switch at the guitar spot...has that changed the sound at all or are you still in the driver's seat as far as writing is concerned?

Our friend Josh, who runs the local punk/ hardcore record shop in Buffalo, Black Dot, asked to release our session from over the summer that was originally intended to be a 7”. Labels seem to be wary about releasing a 7” for a band that can’t really tour, aside from weekends here or there. So like I said, I trust that our friends will represent the band and the integrity of a release correctly. 

The 5 song “Identity” cassette e.p. will be coming out soon. The resurgence of cassettes is strange to me and it’s like my “band journey” or whatever has come full circle, as for as releases are concerned on tape. Yeah, I’m still doing all of the writing, music and lyrics. The ep was recorded with Jason on guitar last year, it’s actually from before the “Foolish Times” e.p. was written. I’m really proud of the songs, actually all of the songs we have. I’d like to do a 12” with “Foolish Times” and “Identity” as one record someday.

So I always like to get perspective from people who have been around a while on the evolution of hardcore and punk....that said, when you look step back and look at things, what have been the most significant changes over time in the scene (be they for the better or for the worse), and what has stayed relatively constant?

Obviously I think what has stayed consistent is youth/ new involvement; well, for the most part. Without new blood coming in, the vitality of hardcore is lost. The hardcore scene just can’t be fully of grumpy old men like me or old out of touch dudes coming back and struggling to stay relevant a million years after they’ve given up on straight edge and in most cases, hardcore. It’s amazing to me when guys rag on hardcore constantly, don’t go to ANY shows, then expect to have a good time at a gig. 

Certainly, I have a family and responsibilities, but I still get out to some shows and check out new bands when I can. I went and saw Hard Stripes, Pure Disgust and New Vision play last month and Hard Stripes really impressed me. Their one guitar player’s “style” was so fucking cool, real punk, yet with concise, hard finesse. I fucking loved it. That new Boston Strangler LP, “FIRE”… I listen to it like every other day. Most guys my age think that like, listening to only the new Sick Of It All record counts as listening to current hardcore… Umm, no, sure Sick of It All are cool, but I think it’s all about that vitality, new approaches to the style and scene that keeps it going.

You mentioned you recently crossed the threshold of your 40' this time the vast majority of people have obviously long sold out and have transitioned from hardcore into indie rock and then well into "mainstream" society or whatever. But here you are, still doing a d.i.y. band, your lyrics seem as "posi" as any 18 year olds, etc. What is it about this music and this sub-culture that keeps you hooked and motivated to contribute even after all this time?

There have been times where I have almost given up hope when it comes to hardcore and punk in the past. In the mid 90’s I think I was prepared to drop out… the style of hardcore I loved was a thing of the past and metal mosh was everywhere, then a new crop of bands came along and got me excited again. That’s always there… life, across the board, is peaks and valleys. I love the energy, the expression and the lack of pretention in hardcore. 

Other scenes don’t appeal to me, that’s not to say I don’t listen to weird bands sometimes, but I dunno, I guess with the 35 years of hardcore out there, it’s kind of like “my story” in a way. I was born in the 70’s and grew up in the 80’s… I understand, at 41, the alienation of those times, the importance of the words that were said and are still being said. 

What can be learned from indie rock? What ideas has indie rock presented to the world that have inspired generations? Without hardcore and punk would youth be interested in living drug free lives or be interested in alternative spiritualism or denial of faith? I don’t think so. Indie rock will help you get through a divorce, but is it going to shape your life? I doubt it.

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