Monday, March 28, 2016

Interview with Demian Johnston from Great Falls (Ex-Playing Enemy, Nineironspitfire, Kiss it Goodbye, Undertow)

Demian Johnston obviously has a very long history in the realms of punk, hardcore, metal, noise-rock, whatever. While I was a little too young and on the wrong coast to fully appreciate Undertow and Kiss it Goodbye, I was lucky enough to catch Playing Enemy in probably 2001 or 2002 and have kept tabs on his musical endeavors since.

By taking the noise-drenched hardcore foundation he himself helped lay in the late 90's and fusing onto it a lifetime's worth of song-writing prowess and emotional despair, his most recent band, Great Falls, is arguably his most visceral yet. Their new record "The Fever Shed" was released late last year on DIY stalwart Init Records, and it is simply crushing.

I wanted to learn a little bit more about Demian's history and the inspiration behind the record. What transpired is below.

So obviously you've got quite a long history in music.....take us back to the beginning.  What were your early years like coming up as a kid and how did you happen upon punk, hardcore, etc.?

Well, in Junior High I started getting into skateboarding and since that’s a time in your life that you are also finding your identity, I also got into the culture of skateboarding. I would grab every issue of Thrasher and look at what band shirts dudes were wearing or what bands were on the Skate Rock compilations.

Skate Rock Vol. 7 was particularly awesome to me. That one had Insted, Brotherhood, Underdog and a few other rad hardcore bands that at the time blew me away. I was also listening to a lot of Metallica, Slayer, and various other thrashy metal bands. Oh yeah, and I was also really into the Smiths. I think basically whatever my friend’s big brothers and sisters were into I was also into. I would basically ask them to make me tapes of whatever they were listening to.

I grew up in a town called Bothell that is about 40 miles north of Seattle. It’s big and when I was a kid it was mainly trees and farms. Skating was hard to come by and punk shows were harder but there were a few and I went to as many of those as I could. After that I would try to make it into Seattle to skate and go to shows.

Around that time I got into straight edge as well. Drinking kinda scared me and I grew up with some examples of what drug addiction can do to you so I was happy to have what I thought was a positive environment. I was playing bass as well at that time and started playing with friends.

What were some of the first bands you were in? Did you do anything prior to Undertow or was that your first project?  How did those bands/that band contribute to that process of discovering/creating your identity?

My first real band, aside from jamming in the basement of my friend’s house on the main riff from “Sweet Leaf” over and over, was a band called Saidchild. It was made up of some ex-members from Undertow; Seth Linstrum and Joel DeGraff, and we were a sort of post-hardcore Morrissey-worship band. I guess it was somewhere between Quicksand and whatever was happening in Seattle rock in the early 90’s.

We had some good songs at the end when we started heading into this Rites of Spring direction but we never recorded those. We did one 7" on Overkill Records. It's out there somewhere. I have no idea how it aged. Around the time I was in Saidchild I also joined Undertow. That created some strife between the ex and current members of Undertow. That and being in two bands definitely helped me learn to collaborate and also manage different personalities. It was a full time job.

Obviously there was a lot happening in Seattle in terms of punk and hardcore as well as the emerging grunge bands who wound up getting huge. For me as a dumb 15 year old kid in the Midwest I didn't know enough to draw or identify those distinctions yet (my first show was a Quicksand/Seaweed gig, I knew nothing about GB, YOT or any of those hc connections, haha), but as someone who group up in the area, were there clear dividing lines between these bands or was it more like "hey, there's a lot of young pissed off kids who are grabbing instruments"?

Well, back in the 90’s there weren't nearly as many genres as there seems to be now. We had shows and there would be a couple hardcore bands, a pop punk band, a crusty band or two and maybe something you might call grunge. It was a small scene. You knew who was straight edge and who was a crust punk or whatever. It had those tribal barriers but there was a lot of bleed over. I think it really helped. We got a lot of musical perspectives at that time. I guess we were all pretty pissed off kids but we had a group of older people that brought some perspective and gave us some respect for what came before. Musically there is a lot of culture here and it evolves very quickly so it behooves one here to pay attention and listen an open mind.

So Undertow is obviously a band that is regarded quite highly as one of the groups that helped lay the template for early 90's hardcore. When you think back on that project, what are some of your favorite memories, and what would you say are the biggest things you've taken from that experience both as a musician and as a person in general?

I guess I learned to grow up in that band. I was 17 when we went on our first US tour. I learned a whole lot about living with people and managing personalities. It was amazing to see the country over those 5–6 weeks and meet a million new people every day. I think the connections to other people was the most important thing I experienced by far.

After Undertow you started Nineironspitfire, followed by a stint in Kiss if Goodbye, then Playing Enemy, and now Great Falls. While it’s probably somewhat unfair to lump them all together, all those bands, while still rooted in hardcore, have gone in an increasingly much noisier, chaotic, less structured direction. I'm curious what set you off on that path.

I think in Undertow I was just stoked that we were playing fast and screaming but it started to bore me a little. I think being a bass player and not just listening to hardcore my world slowly expanded. I got into Jesus Lizard after seeing them in 1993-94 and then I discovered Amphetamine Reptile and Touch & GO records and from song of those I discovered Craw and everything changed.

A couple years later I saw Merzbow and Massonna when they toured around 1995 and that blew my mind. Everything after that that wasn’t completely fucked in some way just seemed saccharine to me. As time has gone by I am more interested in some of the hardcore that I listened to when I was younger but it’s more out of nostalgia now. I still look for the next fucked up thing.

You and Shane have been holding it down together for a solid 15 years now. Talk a little bit about how you guys met and what's kept you together for all these years now.

When Playing Enemy started we had a hard time keeping bass players around. First Andrew Gormley and I had Ashli State from Guilt, Ink & Dagger playing for us. We all lived together but she had to move home. After that we had run of people: Bill Quinby (Harkonen), Ryan Fredericksen (These Arms Are Snakes), Morgan Henderson (Blood Brothers)… but then Thom Rusnak moved back to Seattle and he joined up. So it was basically Kiss it Goodbye without the member of Kiss it Goodbye that everyone liked. Heh.

Tom lasted for a while but he had a business and wasn’t able to tour and just wasn’t that into it. We did one west coast tour with Creation is Crucifixion and then Thom quit. We decided to scour the internet and we had put a call out. We knew Shane from the Relapse message board and he was one of two guys that flew to Seattle to try out. We had a tour with Converge booked and we needed someone. Shane ended up playing in a way that fit with us best and that was where it started. We needed up having similar senses of humor and we found it really easy to communicate musically so I think that is why we have stuck together so well. He is also my best friend so it makes going to practice a lot of fun.

I feel like I often read stuff where bands talk about their creative process and they say stuff like "the songs just sort of wrote themselves", which I always kind of find hard to believe, haha. Having worked together with someone for so long, is the chemistry so strong that at times the creativity really just flows like that, or is it like "fuck, we've been doing this shit together for so long, how do we pull something new and exciting out of ourselves”?

It really is all about communication. I think music affects us in similar ways and we can almost sense where we think things are going before they happen. It’s like we are expert dance partners. There are still some cool ideas that we come up with on our own but in many ways we really share a brain.

So "The Fever Shed" is a nasty, beautiful beast of a record. How would you characterize your collective headspace as you were writing and recording, and what if anything, were you hoping to achieve that was distinct from your previous material?

Well, lyrically I pull from my frustrations with my relationship. It’s not all literal or specific to me in every case but I pull from a lot of what I am experiencing. “Accidents Grotesque” was also about that so I had to build on it for “The Fever Shed”. So I guess “The Fever Shed” is sort of a “keeping up with Demian and his shitty life” type of record.

I read in that American Aftermath interview that a lot of the material on this record revolves around depression and related issues. It seems like most of your projects have definitely grappled with the darker or at least more desperate side of life. I'm curious if you'd say you feel as though your music helps you push through some of that stuff, or if the intent is more just to capture those experiences and emotions as they are.

I guess I’m just trying to take something negative and hurtful and turn it into something somewhat positive. Even if what comes from it is not really positive I think the act of creating is very beneficial to me. I am constantly making things. Whether it’s a record, print or some other sort of expression. I think, like a shark, I need to keep moving or I will drown.

In addition to Great Falls you run the label Dead Accents, teach in the visual arts field, and have a family. As a person who is also juggling family, work and a desire to keep my feet somewhere in creative spaces, I'm always curious to hear how people balance their various pursuits while at the same time hold everything together. How would you say you manage to walk that tightrope?

I barely do. I am probably moving away from Dead Accents after this KTL live cassette series is done. I am going to try to focus on family and letterpress. Music is always there so that isn’t going anywhere but every minute I am doing something is a minute I am not doing some other thing. I just need to focus. That said I have a hard time keeping myself focused so I am probably going to continue doing a little here and there until I die a frustrated and unsuccessful dilettante.

You're pushing three decades in this thing...what would you say have been the most profound changes you've noticed for the good or the bad with respect to the independent music community, and finally, what would you say keeps drawing you back in and inspiring you after all this time?

Well, I would say that technology is a big change. It’s not really for the better in all places though. Cities are becoming jam-packed with “highly skilled workers” for the tech industries and that is pushing artists and musicians out of city centers. It’s not like they are all moving together though so it seems like there are fewer bands forming. Fewer shows and fewer tours. In some ways it’s not as necessary since with a bandcamp page and some decent shares and up votes you can get your music "out there" but I don’t know if that’s enough for everyone. I do like that I can use my phone to record a live set, upload it to my laptop and tweak it until it sounds pretty good and then burn a cd-r, make a tape or upload it to a site where it can exist in a way. Something like that couldn’t have happened a decade ago, let alone 25 years ago.

There are good and bad things that come with the changes. I think in general it’s all sort of turning to shit but the little pearls packed into that shit are pretty beautiful. I think the only thing that keeps me doing this is that I can’t imagine doing anything else. I also actively hate and am repulsed by what I consider to be the other option. I’m not going to become some guy who decorates his desk with Legos (although I love Legos) and drinks only locally-sourced craft beer and artisan pretzels at the new Spam bar that used to be a noise record store. I think that is the saddest shit I can imagine.

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