Friday, October 9, 2015

Interview with AJ Worrell (Sincerity Fest, Path to Misery, Vegan Metal-Core Bible, First Blood)

The first time I heard anything about AJ Worrell was when my good friend Steve was filling in on bass for Shai Hulud back in 2010 and he told me about a show they played in Pittsburgh. He was like “Dude, we played with this crazy-ass band called Path to Misery who was so sick, their singer AJ was straight up smashing tables in the middle of their set!”. Holy shit, I figured this was somebody I should be paying attention to, haha.

Fast forward a little bit and I came to find out that AJ is the organizer behind Sincerity Fest, a long-running event in the Pittsburgh area that typically features an awesome line-up that is completely free, as well as the archivist behind the vegan metal-core bible, a literal gold mine of all things chugga chugga.

Anyway, I wanted to check in with AJ about the fest, and all his other various activities and contributions.

Sincerity Fest is tomorrow in Pittsburgh and features a very sick line-up this year including  Down In It, Eternal Sleep, Shai Hulud, and many more.

I'm always super interested in hearing about people's background and their introduction to hardcore and punk, so that said, talk a little bit about your family, your upbringing, and the path that led you to underground music.

First off, thanks for the interview. I typically give abbreviated answers for interviews because I assume no one really wants to hear what I have to say (or the interview is just pointless) but I've been to your site before and see that you put a lot of time into your questions so I don't want to undersell them. I'm just going to try really hard to remind myself that if anyone is by chance reading this as opposed to scrolling on by; they must care about me for some reason. I digress.

I had an overall great childhood. There was a lot of time and love put into me by my family as a whole, and especially my mother and grandparents. I could go on for hours about all of the great things they did for me but that would not lead us to the answer as to how I got involved in hardcore.

My biological father was a physically abusive drug addict/alcoholic (one in the same) who did things that I don't care to speak about in a public forum. Fortunately my mother spent every ounce of energy in her soul to ensure he never had any type of custody rights for me, but I still had to grow up with the constant threat of him abducting me or harming her or my grandparents.

Obviously situations like this carve a bit of hatred into your heart. I remember being like 10 or whatever age it is that you start to conceptualize things like revenge and realizing that my purpose in life was to grow up and kill this guy for some of the things he did to my family and I.

Unfortunately he took care of himself before I got old enough to carry out my plans. In his death, however, my hatred for him transitioned to a hatred for all of the things he embodied. I saw it in some of the police officers in my town ... the church members ... and unfortunately, even some of my friends at the time.  As a 12/13 year old this translated to engulfing myself in Metallica and Slayer records and being mischievous around the neighborhood. While I am eternally grateful to have found those things at that point in my life, it never left me feeling truly fulfilled. That hatred I was speaking of earlier was still burning me up.

It wasn't until I stumbled upon Earth Crisis and Hatebreed (and their live shows) that I felt a genuine connection to anything musically. Like I said, the metal I had been jamming was sonically fulfilling to me but, at the end of the day, they were still just glorifying a lot of the shit I despised about people and society. So, to hear other people speaking out against the same injustices they either experienced firsthand or saw around them was very enticing to me.

Pittsburgh is always thought of as a really gritty, working class would you say coming up in Pittsburgh has shaped your social and political consciousness, as well as how you relate to music and art?

The area definitely has a very “Fuck Yinz” attitude which (as with most things in life) is both a blessing and a curse. It's kinda hard to explain if you're not familiar with the area but the general mentality in this area is being proud of who you are and what you do for work and essentially giving the absolute slightest shit about what anyone has to think or say about you. You will very rarely find a person in this city who is looking to impress anyone. If you do I can almost guarantee you that they moved here in the past two years and will be gone as soon as a new city is deemed to be "the next Portland".

You'd never know it but the literal meanest and heaviest and most legitimate bands are from Pittsburgh. The reason I say you'd never know it is because the vast majority of bands from Pittsburgh don't care enough to bother promoting themselves. You could ask most prominent musicians in this city if they have a band and the majority of them would tell you, "no". I'm sure it sounds insane to most tourists but there is a sense of pride in shooting yourself in the foot around here. I can speak first hand on the subject. I love knowing how sick Path To Misery (and almost every heavy band from Pittsburgh) is and that only genuine music fans like yourself take the time to both find out and appreciate it. I suppose it’s how we weed out the invertebrates.

The downside to all of this is obviously the fact that all bands break up before their peak and never fully realize their potential because that same pride that kept us from promoting ourselves also forced us to choose our manual labor jobs over pursuing the bands anything further than a weekend tour or EP.

Some of the new generation of bands like Code Orange and Eternal Sleep are obviously making some waves right now and presumably that is going to change the way younger bands from the area perceive "how to do it" in this area. It will be interesting to see where things go from here. I will forever be a fan of "the Pittsburgh way" personally.

It goes deeper than just the music though. A lot of people settle for mediocrity in their lives as a whole around here. THAT is something I try to avoid. While Pittsburgh will always be my home I am always trying to experience other parts of the world and avoiding the complacency that infiltrates this region. Hardcore has been extremely vital in this.

Talk a little bit more about some of those aforementioned Pittsburgh bands. Who are some of the gems from your city that outsiders should know about or investigate?

I always try to avoid making lists because it is inevitable that I will miss at least half of the bands I wanted to mention. I'll give it a shot though because I'm sitting on an airplane with my iPod in front of me which has a "Pittsburgh" playlist/cheat sheet on it.

The song I currently have on is from a band called Kamikabe. They've been around since 2003 and have more self-released demos and EPs than I can count. They started off sounding very comparable to their metal core peers at the time (The Year Of Our Lord, Nehemiah, Endthisday, etc.) but made a very natural progression over the past decade into an extremely technical death metal band that did a well-received full length on Unique Leader a few years ago.

While they are technically from the next county over we tend to view everyone from southwestern Pennsylvania as part of the same scene. Pittsburgh is surrounded by backwoods in all directions for several hours so everyone tends to fly the same banner.

While I'm on the subject of backwoods I should suggest another band from that area by the name of Egality. Also playing together for a decade these guys have really hit their stride over the past year or so. With their earlier material sounding like a direct descendent of Creation Is Crucifixion (another pivotal band from this area), Egality has turned towards a very black metal style that still possesses the aggression of a hardcore band at its core.

The area I'm speaking of is Westmoreland County: the home of Zao. While I fully understand their newer material potentially going over most people's heads (including my own at times) NO ONE can deny the impact that they had on aggressive music during their heyday. While I'm sure (or at least hope) that anyone reading this is familiar with Zao, the recognition they received is so unbelievably disproportionate to what is deserved.

The irony of it all is that if you talk to any of those guys or watch their DVD (which is great, by the way) any credit thrown their way for revolutionizing heavy music simply gets deflected to other obscure bands from the area like Passover.

I'm already seven paragraphs in and haven't mentioned a single band actually from the city of Pittsburgh. I could legitimately go on for hours but most bands I feel very passionately about have write-ups on my blog ( along with download links so you don't have to just take my word on how sick they are.

I should mention before moving on, however, that a guy named Massa who runs a label called To The Point Records recently released a compilation called Pittsburgh Murda Style which is a pretty relevant snapshot of the state of the scene as it currently stands. The compilation leans more so towards the beatdown side of things but so does this city. The comp is unique because the guy who put it out doesn't even live here; he's just a fan of the area's style. In my experience that's actually a very common occurrence and validates my outlook of preferring a quality of appreciation over any quantity of it.

Give some background on Sincerity Fest.....I've always been impressed by the fact that despite running it as a free event you've been able to consistently put together pretty incredible line-ups every time. How'd that ball get rolling and how has it evolved over time?

Sincerity Fest started in 2007. Whenever Hell Fest shit the bed in 2005 that was kind of the end of the first generation of fests in hardcore. In 2006 This Is Hardcore came to fruition along with Summer Of Hate not long after. Both fests are great and I've been in attendance for my fair share of both but I started Sincerity Fest because I wanted something with a very small-scale, tight knit vibe to it.

I got what I was after because the first year had less than 100 people in attendance haha. I don't want to call it a failure considering what it morphed into today but my wallet would tell you otherwise. I was going to leave it as a one-time event considering it didn't have quite the reception I was expecting but when the next year rolled around I got hit up by almost all of the bands from the first year (almost all out of town bands) encouraging me to book it again and to bring them back.

It definitely took me by surprise as I was under the impression that it was a waste of everyone's time (Turmoil agreed) and, if anything, I was a bit embarrassed by it. To my surprise though I was getting showered with both support and encouragement from mostly everyone involved wanting to see it continue.

I decided to give it another shot and it's gotten better every year since then. In the grand scheme of the fest world it is quite negligible as it only draws about 500 kids (which is impressive by Pittsburgh standards) but I think you can ask anyone who's been involved over the years if they felt as though it has a unique vibe to it that is rare to come by post-2004.

Up until this upcoming year I ran it at a local fire hall and made a conscious effort to keep a very DIY and community-oriented feel to the fest. For better or worse I had to move this year's fest to the larger concert venue in the city (Altar Bar) due to the higher than usual interest expressed from it being booked as a benefit show for a kid who got done wrong recently at a show. We will see how things go on the larger scale.

The thing that prompted me to ask you to do this interview is the statement you posted about the violence that occurred in Philly at TIHC and how that inspired you to re-launch the Fest. Go a little deeper into what you saw, what it says or doesn't say about the current state of hardcore, and how something like Sincerity Fest can serve to impact where we are as a community right now.

We have been doing this interview in segments and you sent me this question before I left for a tour of Japan and China with a band I fill in for. Two days after I got over there I was flooded with emails about a bunch of drama concerning the fest that essentially made me want to cancel it all initially.

The last thing I care to do at this point is talk anymore about that aspect of the fest. All I want to convey at this point is the fact that everyone's opinions who are involved were taken into consideration and a compromise was sorted out which was agreeable upon by everyone involved at the end of the day. That is something I am proud of and something that I think speaks a lot about what can be accomplished within certain circles of hardcore.

Obviously you like/support every band on the bill or you would not have booked them, but what bands are you particularly excited for this year, either because they're an old favorite, a band that's returning to the fest, or perhaps someone you've never had before?

Yeah I mean you already said it. If I can't get behind a band, I can't put them on my fest. Every band playing I am super appreciative of and have a great respect for. This year that sentiment rings especially true considering they are all playing as a benefit.  Malice At The Palace is traveling the longest distance and were the main band who took me by surprise at this year's TIHC Fest so I am super excited to see them. I think you're going to be hearing a lot about this band in the next year or two. I'm excited that so many bands from the other side of the state are finally getting involved. I've also always viewed North Carolina as a distant neighbor to the PAHC scene as I see so many similarities between the people and bands so it's great to have so many bands from that area coming up as well. Everyone is sick, basically.

Aside from the change in venue, what other changes can people expect at the fest this year? I know for me I try to make small little improvements and changes from one show that I book to the next, I imagine with a fest there's even more stuff to tweak.

Moving things to Altar Bar is a big step up. While I always enjoyed keeping the fest in a fire hall type environment as a sort of homage to whenever I first started getting involved with shows; it was actually a massive amount of work to pull off a show of this caliber in a setting like that.

I always felt sort of obligated to keep the fest in the area where I grew up and ran my own music venue when I was younger. The area can be a weird, depressing place when you are growing up so I always wanted to give the kids in that area something to do at least once a year to hopefully inspire them to stay distance from a lot of the temptations that come along with small town environments. Unfortunately it seems as though the interest has waned over the past few years from that area so I felt better about moving into the heart of downtown Pittsburgh finally. With so many people traveling for the first time to the fest this year I'm hoping it's the right decision.

Altar Bar is a legit venue that has very graciously donated their facilities for the night to the fest and what it stands for. It is where bands like Hatebreed or whoever would play when they roll through town so it's going to be cool to see it being inhabited by a bunch of hardcore kids for the day.

I of course have to ask about the vegan metal-core bible. When I first discovered it I almost shit myself, haha. What prompted you to start such a massive undertaking, and how did you go about compiling all that material? I noticed it was recently updated with an Abnegation you update it regularly with newer bands who follow a similar style/ethic, or is it pretty much as is aside from periodic additions?

A few years ago the blog scene was great. Everyone had one. You could find the most obscure shit imaginable by typing it into Google with "mediafire" at the end. It was great. My music collection might be the best in the world of its kind (second maybe to Edwin's) and even I managed to find recordings and bands that were new to me.

My blog is one of the few left, however, so I felt the need to pick up the slack and put all of this obscure garbage in one big pile. That should be the headline for my blog now that I typed it out.

But yeah, it's fun. My mentality is "someone's gotta do it". It's funny to be referenced all the time in magazines and articles as the authority on "90’s metal-core". Makes me feel like King Turd on Shit Island.

Maybe it will pay off one day somehow. Who would've ever guessed this sub-genre would have its second run/revitalization period in hardcore?

So you're currently on tour in Asia with First Blood! Is this just a temporary fill-in situation or have you been on the road with them before? How'd you hook up with those dudes and how have the shows been so far?

I've been filling in for First Blood randomly over the past few years. Sometimes on drums, sometimes on bass. They are one of the few active hardcore bands who I feel parallels a lot of my beliefs and reasoning for wanting to play music.

I grew up touring with various bands so I occasionally get the itch to get out on the road every now and again. Typically if I go out for two weeks once a year that seems to satisfy the urge. My band will probably never tour due to a combination of no one wanting to hear it and the members being mostly unable so I am extremely appreciative of First Blood to tolerate me enough to take me across the world with them multiple times.

Playing in Japan is something I've wanted to do for over a decade now as I've been in contact with multiple bands and people over there for years and am very aware of the awesome bands and scenes they have been running for quite a while now. China was kind of a mystery to everyone as only a handful of bands have ever toured over there. It was definitely an experience I wouldn't be able to summarize in a few paragraphs but the highlight was seeing people who have never experienced anything remotely close to hardcore being able to allow themselves to let loose for potentially the first times in their lives based off of some of the reactions I was seeing. Very fulfilling.

Path to Misery
Vegan Metal-Core Bible

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