Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Interview with Stephen Wisniewski from braidedveins

While I am mostly unfamiliar with their members previous bands (I saw Spit at one of my first shows back in the day, and my friend Chris put out a record for Kid Brother Collective once), I immediately was intrigued when I heard about the formation of braidedveins, a Flint post-hardcore band who also feature ex-members of The Swellers and Empty Orchestra. So about 6 months ago when I was hooking up a distro trade with Save Your Generations Records, I knew I needed to get my hands on a copy of their debut album "Future/Forever".

I was instantly impressed by the song-writing, you could tell these guys had all been around the block a time or two, and those 7 songs have been in pretty consistent rotation ever since. With a sound that's akin to At The Drive In if they placed a little more emphasis on power rather than swagger, the guys in BV definitely have something special going on.

Over the weekend I decided to touch base with them, and was really stoked when singer/lyricist Stephen Wisniewski promptly got back with me and said he was happy to provide some insight into the band. Their brand new self-titled LP will be out in the next month or so, and I have a feeling you'll be hearing a lot more about them in the months and years to come.

Probably my favorite thing about doing interviews is hearing about people's backgrounds, especially how they got into underground music. So with that said, talk a little bit about your childhood/adolescence, and how you stumbled upon punk/indie rock/hardcore/whatever.

Well, I know that everyone in braidedveins has a pretty radically different story about this -- we range in age from 27 to 38, and even though we all come from the Flint area, I know we have a real variety of musical experiences growing up. Jonathan played in The Swellers since he was literally a kid, and I first met Brandon 20 years ago when he was playing in a straight-edge hardcore band.
For me, I grew up with a dad who immigrated from Poland when he was a kid, and so even though he was definitely Americanized, he also had a very peculiar sense of how he consumed popular culture, especially when it came to music. So on long car rides with my family as a kid, I never got the typical experience of pop radio or classic rock or whatever -- it would literally be a polka followed by show tunes, followed by Motown, followed by Dolly Parton. So I think early on, I had the sense that anything could go together, and nothing was "weird."

So I think my own path to punk came through that sensibility, and it actually came first through hip hop. I went to Catholic elementary school, and then switched to public school for sixth grade, and a couple of my first friends there would give me dubbed cassettes of hip hop albums that were coming out at the time -- Public Enemy's "It Takes a Nation of Millions...;" Ice Cube's first album; The DOC's "No One Can Do it Better;" stuff like that. So that was the first time that I was emotionally connecting to music on my own, and kind of choosing what I was going to like -- and I’m still a huge hip hop fan, and that definitely influences my writing in BV. But it was still based on music that I felt was oppositional in some way -- aesthetically, politically, whatever. and that was an easy transition to being interested in punk and indie music over the next several years.
When Nirvana and the whole "punk moment" of 1991 hit, I was actually part of a group of people who were in early high school, but who had been skateboarding and listening to non-mainstream music for a while already, and who got made fun of and beat up because of it, so it was a weird time. Because we liked a lot of the bands that were getting popular, but at the same time, it felt really fucked up to see jocks that hated us going to see Rage Against the Machine or whatever. So while those were formative years in terms of hearing new music, it also drove me to find the edges of underground music and search out more unusual stuff and ultimately really broaden what it meant to be "punk." I liked Minor Threat fine, but I was really into Tom Waits and Billy Bragg and PJ Harvey. They were REALLY punk to me.

I know your collective resume is fairly deep, how did you personally go from being a fan/listener to picking up your instrument and starting to create? What were some of your early musical projects, and what were some of the key lessons you learned early on?

I think we all jumped into making music pretty early in our lives -- we all probably started or joined bands at 14 or 15 years old, just because it seemed so possible. We were excited about stuff we were listening to, and we had a small group of weirdo friends somewhere who were too, so we just did it. And by the time we could get a ride or drive ourselves, we were lucky enough to have a place where shows were actually happening in Flint (whether at the Local 432 or elsewhere), and shows we could actually PLAY. So a lot of our musical development happened in basements or on stage, actually playing in bands.
I had bands in middle and high school that were obviously a mess, just trying to figure out how to play songs and make things work. My first "real" band was called May/June, and we were a weird folk/punk/singer-songwriter-y band that played a lot in Michigan, and we were mostly just the band that didn't seem to fit on any show. We had an accordion and a lap steel guitar. Then I was in a band called Lingua Franca that was very minimalist art-punk -- lots of atmospheric performance-based stuff, like Nick Cave doing musical theater.

My main band after that was Empty Orchestra, which was country-tinged singer-songwriter-y indie rock. We did a lot of touring nationally and released a couple albums. We’re still technically together, but on hiatus right now.
I think some of the key lessons that I learned early on were that you shouldn't be afraid to be weird or different -- almost all of my previous bands were completely out of place on any show we played, but that can be a huge advantage, and get you remembered. There are obvious consequences too, but almost any band I’ve ever really loved has been trying to do something new or unusual, even if it's with familiar elements.

I think that coming from the Flint scene, another lesson that everyone in BV relates to is a really fierce independence and loyalty. Flint isn't "cool" to most people -- we might seem scary or sad or deserted or whatever to the outside world, but we all grew up in probably the most supportive and unique music scenes I’ve ever heard of. And that sense of literally doing it ourselves has really shaped how we approach our music.

I know the Flint Local 432 has been probably the centerpiece of Flint's DIY scene for quite some time, and it has undergone many changes in terms of location and such....what are some of your fondest memories from playing/attending shows there, and what would you say makes the Local stand out from other venues across the state/country?
I think the first time I ever met BV guitarist Brandon was at the first or second show ever put on at the original 432 location -- he was playing in a straight-edge hardcore band called Spit. My high school band played on of those first few weekends at the original location as well.

I guess I don't have specific "fondest memories" of the Local, but rather I just have a cumulative sense of what it's meant to me and a lot of my friends. Basically anyone that I’m close to today comes from connecting through music at the Local….all of my bandmates in BV. Our great friend and amazing record engineer Marc Hudson, who did our new full-length (as well as records for Against Me, Saves the Day, and on and on) was in one of the first bands I saw at the Local, and I’m still star struck by him. It was this amazing environment for fusing together people who had similar interests and passions. You got to be in a place where you could see people you liked on a regular basis, and do important things together.  I think that's the story with young music scenes anywhere, but the Local was a place that put really diverse bands on stage together and didn't just shut down after three months -- it's something that's multi-generational and that's huge. That makes it REALLY unique in the context of all-ages spaces anywhere. everybody in the Flint scene has stories about people slightly older than they were that turned them on to important music and taught them something new about how to book a show or make a flyer or just how to be in a band.
You’re right; it's definitely changed in lots of ways over the years. It's way more "legit" now, and is part of a really fast-changing downtown, but I hope that it's still serving those same kinds of purposes for young kids now as it did for me.

I did a little poking around and read that BV actually started as a release for you while in the midst of completing your PHD work. I'm curious what took you down the path of academia and to what extent your art connects with the writing and research you've done over the years.
Yeah, that's true -- when we started BV, it was really self-consciously a side project for everyone. Jonathan was still doing The Swellers, I was still doing Empty Orchestra, plus I was in the last year of writing and defending my doctoral dissertation. So we had the idea to do this band, but I just said, "I don't want any real responsibility, all I want to do is write words and scream them", which was a pretty big change for me, since I've never really screamed in a band before, and I've always played a guitar and sung.  So having the freedom to just approach the music as a relative outsider and just be concerned with the words and vocals was a great way to challenge myself as well as to get out all the pent-up energy of sitting at a computer writing for 10-12 hours a day. It was also really weird at first.  Our first few shows, I didn't know what to do with my hands, and I still was figuring out how to use my voice.  It's really fun now, though, being able to perform and inhabit space in a completely different way than I ever have in a band before.

The origin story of getting my PhD is actually pretty boring -- I was in a position where my GRE scores (graduate school qualification exams) that I had taken years before were going to expire, and I knew I never wanted to take that test again, so I just applied to a few programs that I was interested in, and the University of Michigan ended up recruiting and funding me.
I wasn't even really interested in being a professional academic, I just knew I was interested in the experience. It's a really, really intense amount of work, and I was also doing Empty Orchestra basically full-time and touring whenever I could, so you can see how I might have wanted an outlet by the time BV started.

But to answer your question specifically, I think that my art is completely inextricable from my academic interests.  My doctorate is in American Culture, and that includes a really extensive background in history, cultural and political theory, etc. -- all of that has absolutely made its way into my thinking about my own cultural production.  How could it not?  And to be honest, I think that playing in bands for so long has made me a better academic.  It has allowed me to think in unconventional ways, and intellectually improvise, and it's definitely made me a more interesting writer.  So I see both of those pursuits as complementary.   
So in terms of what you're doing now outside of being a musician; are you teaching, writing, doing research?
I did a lot of teaching in graduate school, but it was never something that I was interested in doing long-term. Honestly, I've been lazier than I want to be with continuing my academic writing -- a dissertation is basically a full-length book that you write under really intense pressure and scrutiny, and then literally have to defend, so I wanted to step outside of that for a while after I finished.  I'm finally working on doing a couple publishable articles, and then hopefully turning my dissertation project into an actual book.  I'm also trying to do shorter-form blogging on stuff related to my research, but in a more immediate way, related to current events.  But I'm terrible at blogging, so we'll see.

The lyrical focus of both records center around various critiques of capitalism and it's ugly consequences. I'm wondering if you could elaborate a bit more on those lyrical themes.....you mentioned being drawn early on to all things "oppositional" which is obviously pretty natural for most punk kids, but also coming from Flint I'm sure you've seen a lot of first-hand economic devastation.   
I think that my lyrics in any band I've been in have always been "political" to some extent, even if it's not super overt.  With BV though, there was a moment when we were writing our first batch of songs that really defined an aesthetic direction -- I had found a few records at the thrift store that were basically motivational seminars for businessmen in the early 1960s. They were all explaining to these businessmen how they could mold themselves into better salesmen, managers, whatever. But the language and tone of these things were amazing -- they were evangelical; describing in almost spiritual terms how they could purify their souls to be better servants to American capitalism.

We all stood around and listened to these after practice one day, and just decided that we needed to use these as samples on the record we were writing.  But then we ended up creating this whole concept and narrative around the feel of these records -- we imagined that there was a corporation that rewarded capitalist success with new medical technology that could extend human life indefinitely, but it was only for those rich enough to afford it.  And so we just ran with that idea, and it gave us a conceptual focus that we needed to really dig into the stuff we were writing.  Not in a strict, "follow the concept of the album, song-by-song" kind of way, but in kind of a flexible, point-of-view sense.  I ended up writing most of the lyrics of the first EP around the idea of someone left out of that process, forced to feel their body dying and watching things collapse around them.  The new album is an extension of that, writing around the next phases -- labor and resource shortages, medical catastrophe, cannibalism, etc.

So all of these things I'm writing about lyrically are just thought experiments about the existing logics of capitalism, and on a physical and emotional level, how capitalism FEELS. The ideas of who has value, who deserves to live or die, and how we understand our own lives and bodies are already embedded within the logics of capitalism, and my project in BV so far has been to try to put some poetry to that. That's probably another useful combination of playing in bands for years and also having an academic background in Marxist theory.
Some of it may have to do with being from Flint -- my dissertation actually focuses on the cultural politics of the Rust Belt -- but I like to think that it's not so specific as that.  I'm interested in larger systems, and how they interact with human experience and cultural expression.

So Nick Diener recorded the first record and this time you went with Marc. What did he add to the process, and how was it a different experience this time around?
Yeah the first EP was recorded by Nick Diener at his studio and mixed by our good friend Mark Michalik in Chicago. We did that basically because obviously we were close to Nick through Jonathan, and Nick had just set up his studio by that point and wanted a project to break the space and equipment in. We were all really pleased with how that went -- Nick and Mark both did a great job and helped us kind of craft a sound that we still didn't really completely understand ourselves.

For the full-length, we were interested in working with Marc first because he's such a great friend of ours. Like I've said, I've known him for almost 20 years, and he's always been someone that I've respected and looked up to.  I know that's a similar story for Brandon and Marc as well, and Jonathan had recently gotten close with Marc through doing the final Swellers record together. Marc and I also worked together on the last Empty Orchestra record, as well as tons of previous recording projects.
Mostly though, he's just such a fucking amazing producer. We are all so completely comfortable putting ourselves in his hands and trusting that the final product will be exactly what we want.  And by the time we were ready to record a full-length, we actually knew what we wanted to do, for the most part.  We had spent time actually demoing all of the songs beforehand, and we had a sense of what the arc of the album would be.  We had probably a year of playing live and actually focusing on writing this collection of songs as an experience, so we were excited to have Marc's help in actually articulating it.

Also related to the release, the first record was released on Save Your Generation, whereas this time you guys are handling the release DIY. How'd you guys decide on that as opposed to shopping it around and having somebody else take it?
Doing the EP with Tony at Save Your Generation was just a lucky case of our timelines working together, and Tony being super supportive. We were a brand new band that basically no one had heard of yet, but Tony was ready to take on a project at the time, and he was really excited about the record, so it all just worked out.

With the LP, we actually did send it around for some people to hear, but "shopping" a record is a really weird process -- we got a great response from people, but money is always an issue; release timelines are always an issue; and so on and so on.
The bottom line is that we'd love to work with another label if it made sense for everyone, and hopefully we'll get the chance to with something later on.  Basically though, for this record, we were just really impatient to get it out and heard by people, and our DIY reflexes kicked in.  I think we're all really satisfied by having total control over everything about this record right now, because we all still kind of can't believe it exists at all, and we're all really proud of it.

You talked a little bit earlier about how your dad had a very particular way of filtering American culture; how has he (and the rest of your family) responded over the years, first to your life in music, and second as someone whose academic pursuits have been so focused on dissecting culture?

I've taken a lot of unusual and probably uncomfortable paths for them as I was growing up, but I think that even when my parents didn't understand what I was doing, they were always supportive and trusted me. That's probably not super punk, but I've always appreciated it.

Given that you mentioned your work in Marxist theory and the anti-capitalist tenor of your lyrics in BV, I feel like I'd be remiss if I didn't ask about your thoughts on Senator Sanders. Do you see his White House bid as a moment of particular significance for working people/the left/whatever, or do you see it eventually fizzling and becoming just another blip on the radar to be swallowed up by the status quo?

I'm actually kind of ambivalent about it right now. Like, I definitely support a lot of his positions as a practical matter, and I think that even if somebody can't present a perfect revolutionary answer, it's still important that a lot of what he's proposing would significantly improve and save the lives of a lot of disenfranchised people.  And it's incredible that we're having at least some discussions right now about capitalism -- actually NAMING it, and discussing issues in those terms.  I actually really like him as a politician, and I think the excitement on the left for him is totally justified.  And fuck "electable."

But at the same time, I think that meaningful structural change can't possibly come from one person in the position he's aiming for.  And I don't just mean because of the fights he's bound to get from legislators, but because I think that real change will come from a mass of people not only considering that universal health care might be a great idea (which IT IS), but from a broader questioning of some of the basic assumptions of how we think and live. Like I said about the lyrical themes, capitalism isn't only about breaking up the biggest banks -- it has literally structured our understanding of value and merit; how we understand our own bodies and those around us; how we organize ourselves into communities; how we imagine the limits of what is possible and impossible.  But in the realm of electoral politics right now, I think that even if we're having discussions in terms of capitalism, it mostly comes down to how we might administer capitalism in slightly less deadly and vicious ways. Which is a great start, but again, I’m ultimately more interested in how to think about and affect broader structural change.

Lastly, what's next after the record drops? Are you guys in a position to be able to do any extensive touring, or will it be mostly some weekend warrior type runs here and there?

We have several members that have actual jobs and stuff, so we probably won't be doing an extensive tour any time soon.  But we knew that from the beginning, and this project wasn't really built for that. Jonathan and I are really the only people in BV that are interested in full-time touring, and we're going to do other things in addition to BV that will satisfy that part of our musical lives.  I hate the "weekend warrior" term though, because I think it implies that something isn't "serious."  We're deadly serious. And I've done a LOT of extensive touring myself, and anyone else who has knows that it doesn't always make sense or pay off anyway.

So I think the best answer is that we're going to do as much as we can possibly do, and we're going to try to make the shows we can play really count.  We'll be doing a few short regional runs of shows to support the vinyl release, and we'll try to pick and choose stuff that seems cool and exciting to us -- support slots, festivals, basements, whatever. We're always open to offers and ideas, and would love to travel if it makes sense for us.

One of the cool things about this band is that I think that the fact that we can't play live shows every night for months on end is that when we DO play, it's always exciting for us, and I think that sense of a live show being a "special" thing rather than a routine comes through on stage. The way our live show is structured, I don't think we'd survive a really long tour anyway -- we start playing; we have zero breaks in the set; we play as hard and fast as we can for 18-24 minutes, and then we stop playing and collapse.


Pre-Order the New LP: http://braidedveins.storenvy.com/

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