Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Interview with Stephen Bucklin from Mere Phantoms

I first came into contact with Stephen after my good friends in Hollow Earth began working with him. They were having some issues in the drummer slot, so he was helping them as they worked on the early stages of what came to be their LP "Silent Graves". Shortly thereafter he came through Detroit with his band Mere Phantoms and I got to meet him in person. I was impressed by his genuine warmth and enthusiasm. Last year he booked my band in Pittsburgh while we were out on a little weekend run, and it was again awesome to see him.

In the time I have known him his band Mere Phantoms has grown from a more straight forward crusty hardcore band to a multi-faceted beast that incorporates hardcore, grind, metal, sludge, noise, and power electronics. This culmination has reared itself in the form of their soon-to-be-released one-sided LP entitled "Famine For a Slow Death", which should be surfacing at some point in the next couple months via Anthems of the Undesirable. A truly colossal work, I firmly believe this record will turn many heads. 

I've been going back and forth with Stephen the last couple months about the band, their politics, his work as an environmental educator, and the interconnections between all those things. Stephen is truly a pleasure to talk to, and a gem of a human being. 

Read on. 

So you guys recently announced the release details for your upcoming one-sided LP "Famine For A Slow Death", a batch of songs which undeniably pushes your sound forward in every possible way. What was the writing process like this time around and at what point did you decide to enlist the services of Nyodene D to help flesh things out?

First off, I want to thank you for the kind words and for taking the time to interview me and Mere Phantoms for your blog! The writing process for this album has been unusual for a few reasons. The songs were written and fine-tuned over the course of two years. Two of these tracks have appeared on previous releases, but are significantly different this time around. We spent a lot of time revisiting songs and analyzing them and rewriting them until they felt right. Most of these songs are what we have been playing live for the past two years so we have really invested a lot of time into getting them just right and I think the work we put into them shows.

We first met Aaron of Nyodene D when he moved to Erie, where I'm from. He was new to the town and found out about Mere Phantoms and our politics and reached out to us and we all started hanging out and quickly became really good friends. Cody and I had talked about incorporating elements of electronics and noise into Mere Phantoms from the beginning because we are big fans of bands like Neurosis and Sonic Youth. After seeing Aaron perform live and considering our vision for the band, we talked with him about joining Mere Phantoms to complement our music on recording and perform with us when he could. So we started practicing together and played a handful of shows together while he and I were both living in Erie. He has since moved to Cleveland and I have moved to Pittsburgh along with Cody and that has made practicing and performing together live a bit more challenging, but we are planning to hit the road with him for a weekend or two following the release of "Famine..."

I know the recording process was completed with Dave from Blood Red/Hounds of Hate and you guys took a long time in terms of getting everything just right. How was the experience overall?

Recording with Dave overall couldn't have been better. We had been wanting to record with him for a while after being impressed by some of his other work. On top of that, his studio is only a few blocks away from where we practice so it just made a lot of sense. He is an incredibly nice person and an absolute pleasure to work with. I think he did a great job of capturing our sound and not over-polishing it. Part of the reason it took so long to record was that Aaron rewrote a lot of his material and had to fit everything to the album as compared to the more fluid live setting we were used to. I think the time he took to really nail his parts on the album paid off.

So you briefly alluded to the band’s politics...I'm curious if you could talk a little but about your own personal politics and some of the factors that have come to shape your perspective on things.

I want to start by saying that my personal politics today are not what they will be next year and maybe not even tomorrow. The one thing I've realized is the importance of growth which can only truly happen when you don't entirely close your mind off to alternate perspectives or ideas. I think the things that have had the most impact on my political development are politically charged hardcore/punk/metal bands, reading a lot of books, and surrounding myself with intelligent and passionate people.

My politics are largely based on environmentalism because that has been something important in my life as far back as I can remember. In the 4th grade I can recall telling people that if I could vote, I would vote for Al Gore because I thought he would do something about global warming. My views became radicalized as I continued to learn about the expansive and never-ending onslaught against our planet, and I started to branch out politically. I think hardcore music played a big role in that. My senior year of high school I became straight edge and this eventually got me into some bands that had a more radical/political message. I think Verse, Trial, and Earth Crisis all played a big part in my "political awakening" of sorts.

Around this time, I started to make a lot of connections between the animal industries, environmental destruction, and climate change and thus became vegetarian. I started to read a lot more and a few books had huge impacts on me. I read "Eating Animals" by Jonathan Safran Foer and immediately stopped eating eggs and began transitioning to veganism. I followed that up with a series of books by Derrick Jensen (“Endgame”, “A Language Older Than Words”) that connected a lot of dots for me. The ideology of anarcho-primitivism became really appealing to me because I felt it was the only solution to environmental destruction. Reading Jensen helped strengthen my analysis of capitalism and brought me to the conclusion that the root of all issues our society faces (poverty, sexism, racism, war, environmental destruction, homophobia, wage slavery, so on and so on) is indeed capitalism.

From here I began to explore different schools of feminism, particularly ecofeminism, which also helped bring me to the conclusion that all of our struggles for liberation are interlinked. In the past few years, I've read a series of books by Daniel Quinn which helped expand on my views in the sense of what has caused our version of humanity to fail and what can we do to create an alternate, sustainable human existence. I've also become more prone to socialist ideology through my discussion with friends and activists in Pittsburgh. I've become somewhat involved in a few political organizations in Pittsburgh (ANSWER Coalition and the Party for Socialism and Liberation) and started attending rallies and protests last year and being involved in that has only continued my personal political growth.

The lyrics to "Famine..." seem to revolve around capitalism's exploitation and disregard for both Earth and worker. For me the most striking line on the record is "Our heads grow quieter everyday as the clandestine wars rage on." I was wondering if you could expand upon the lyrical themes as a whole and that line in particular.

The lyrical themes as a whole definitely do revolve around capitalism's exploitation and disregard for both Earth and "worker". Each song has a more specific focus and I could provide an analysis of each one, but our record will come with a zine that will do a much better job than I can do in a short summary. The album is about the isolation and emptiness created by our individualistic society and the ceaseless desire for more, the crushing despair created by the overwhelming power and destruction of corporations and the US's imperialist wars, and the stark contrast between the prosperity and bounty surrounding us and the multifarious famines we as "workers" experience and witness every day.

That line in particular is in reference to the US's use of drones in its imperialist conquest. Our heads grow quieter literally because we do not hear the incessant hum of drones flying overhead, and figuratively because the mainstream media does not inform us as readily about such occurrences. Our government no longer seeks consent from the people before engaging in acts of war. Drone strikes hardly make the headlines and it is clear that ultimately those in power wish to keep the public unaware and uninformed, bringing their operations ever closer to being clandestine warfare.

So to take things from the theoretical to the more practical, I know you have spent the last few years working with kids at an environmental education center. Talk a little bit about your experiences there, what have been some of the most powerful moments working with young people?

So I currently work as an environmental educator at a botanical garden and an environmental center. My experiences have ranged from teaching summer camps mostly based on crafts and games for pre-school children to leading high school and middle school classes in park restoration work (like planting trees) and collecting data on forests and streams to evaluate their health. Although my work is relatively varied, it all has one purpose: to connect people to their surroundings.

I've had so many powerful moments as a teacher in this environment and I think that is largely the result of both nature being awe-inspiring in its intricacy and beauty and young minds being great tools for seeking truth and knowledge. Some of the moments are seemingly insignificant but simultaneously profound. As an environmental center in a city park, we teach mostly urban youth. I've been fortunate to have a part in getting students, some as old as middle school or high school, to step into a stream, to hike through the woods, and to experience other aspects of the outdoors for the first time in their lives. These experiences are so vital to connecting people to their environment and getting them to become responsible stewards of our shared resources.

My most powerful moment to this day came during a middle school program I developed about making sustainable food choices. I went over how eating food that came from far away, was heavily packaged, or was higher on the food chain (in other words, animal products) contributed to higher greenhouse gas emissions. At one point during my short lecture before we played a game and designed posters with "low impact" meals on them, I asked the students "Why should we care about our impact on the environment?" They all answered with some rendition of "This is the only planet we have and it is our duty to take care of it and preserve it for future generations". Hearing young people say something that took me until much later in life to figure out filled me with an overwhelming sense of hope for the future of humanity. On top of that, by the end of the program, all of the meals that the students came up with were vegan and I didn't use the words vegetarian or vegan at all, which I was personally very proud of.

I'm curious about the juxtaposition of your work as an environmental educator in which you are exposing people to the beauty and serenity of nature, with your work in MP, where the music you’re creating is incredibly chaotic, oppressive, almost industrial sounding at times. The two things are almost polar opposites, and yet I know the motivation for doing both comes from a similar place. Do you have to enter a different headspace so to speak for each thing or do you see them as overlapping or being a natural extension of each other?

That's something I've never really thought about before. To me, doing both seems very natural. I don't consciously prepare myself to act a certain way in either situation, but there are obviously some pretty stark contrasts between each environment in how I act and what I say. The people I work with or who only know me outside of the punk community are always pretty shocked when they find out I'm in a band that sounds the way we do because I am generally a cheerful person. I guess they have a hard time seeing someone who smiles all the time and hangs out with kids talking about plants and bugs hanging out with a bunch of punks and screaming about smashing the capitalist state. But your analysis of the motivation behind both coming from the same place is correct; they are both deeply rooted in a profound love of all life.

Love comes in a multitude of forms and can spur people to a multitude of actions, some more peaceful and some more violent. We live in a time and place where we experience beauty and temporary moments of serenity while simultaneously experiencing and witnessing the oppressive and chaotic realities of capitalism. Mere Phantoms is obviously sonically a representation more of the latter, but I do see a lot of overlap between the band and my profession as well. Both have a focus on making connections with people and educating them or encouraging dialogue.

With Mere Phantoms, we strive to give information through our lyrics, our zines, and in what we say at our shows. We always encourage dialogue and often spend time after our set talking to people who are interested in discussing political matters. Education is truly the key to making our societies more just and our world a better place. My work as an environmental educator and the music I make in Mere Phantoms are both a natural extension of each other and overlapping in the sense that they are two ways of channeling my desire to change the world through education.

Pittsburgh seems to be a real hotbed of awesome stuff these days, and you guys have been able to play with some super sick bands the last couple years. What makes Pittsburgh special and what have been some personal highlights for you in terms of shows you've been able to be a part of?

Pittsburgh is really a unique city. It fulfills the role of both "metropolis" and "small town" in a strange way. It has some of the perks and infrastructure of a big city while still maintaining a lot of green space and some of the small town home-y feeling. What makes Pittsburgh really special to me though is the abundance of activism and radical political discussion. Perhaps my vision on this is a little skewed after living in a town with essentially no radical political activity, but to me, there's a very high level of class-consciousness in Pittsburgh right now. As the steel industry collapsed, the middle class did with it. Now young professionals are flocking to the city due to a lower cost of living. Some of the wealthiest neighborhoods are next to some that are experiencing extreme poverty. Those who have little to lose are quick to fight back to protect what they have as they face the perils of gentrification, racist police terror, and the other ills of our current economic and political system. This leads to a lot of political organizing.

As far as the punk/hardcore/DIY community, Pittsburgh has a ton of really hard working people booking shows, a pretty good variety of venues, a bunch of people who record bands, and a thriving group of young people creating awesome bands. That seems like a pretty good recipe for a healthy "scene" to me. Clearly no place is perfect and there's always room to be more inclusive but other than that, Pittsburgh is pretty great. We have gotten to play a bunch of sick shows since moving down here! Some of the best and most memorable shows we've played in Pittsburgh to me have taken place at The Sickhouse. That house and the people who live there are wonderful, and house shows have a vibe that I am fond of. 

We also got to open for Thou & The Body's stop here, which completely redefined heavy music for me. Playing with Yautja was also sick and their drummer blows my mind and plays in too many bands that I like. Another show we played recently that has stuck with me was with Torch Runner. Not only does that band absolutely kill it live, but they are very up-front about their politics and this lent to a pretty intimate set when they played here. I am always looking forward to what's to come though. We have a show coming up at the end of July with Thou and False which is going to be sick!

To wrap things up, I know "Famine...." Has been recorded for quite some time and should hopefully be out this Fall at some point.....what's on the docket in terms of possible tours, new jams, etc.? What sort of shape or direction do you see the band heading in going forward?

It has been recorded for far too long. We actually just received the test presses though! Hopefully the wait for the release isn't much longer. We are working on putting together the zine and getting the insert together. Once that's all done I think we will have the records together pretty quickly! So keep your eyes peeled.

As far as tours, unfortunately nothing extensive is in our immediate plan due to work and other complications. We are in the process of booking two weekends of shows in August and we intend to have records with us for those. We will certainly hit the road in the future the moment an opportunity is available.

We have quite a few new jams in the works! We actually had five songs for a 7" written and decided they weren't really the direction we wanted to take the band. We've reworked one of them and started writing a few more. They all take the black metal elements of "Famine..." and refine them to an icy sharpness, while also plunging into heavier and more chaotic realms without totally severing our roots to hardcore. We also recently performed a few shows with entirely different material written with guitar, synths, and auxiliary percussion due to an injury I had which kept me from playing drums for two months. We may come back to that at some point down the road because it was a lot of fun and challenged us in different ways.

Our main goal with this band is to challenge ourselves intellectually and musically and our songs will continue to reflect this I hope. It may take us a while to write new songs and get them recorded, but I can guarantee we will always be pushing ourselves and striving to bring new things to the table.

Burst Your Eardrums: https://merephantoms.bandcamp.com/
Anthems of the Undesirable: http://theundesirable.net/ 

1 comment:

  1. Great band and awesome article! Thanks for bringing this to the masses Scobie!