Drumcorps Interview: Falling Forward

By Lorenzo Nobili for Darkroom Magazine.
Original English version.
Italian version is here.

Photo by James Brindle

Let’s start from the beginning. You were born and raised in suburban Massachusetts, playing drums in several bands and helping friends organize events. Can you tell us what the music scene you grew up in was like and how much has it influenced your past and present musical production?

Hardcore music in the middle of Massachusetts was a very unique time, one I look upon fondly, and which shapes pretty much everything I do. In short: We were living in a cultural desert. There was no internet, everything independent was word of mouth, and you did what you loved with no compromises and no apologies. The American Dream is a myth, we reject consumer culture, and we’re going to create our own space. This might mean VFW halls, gymnasiums, handmade flyers, matinee shows at noon on a Sunday. Everyone helped each other, it was all good, just do it. There was an oppressive mainstream of thought running through all aspects of life out there, and we were a reaction to it. However, unlike the caustic punk opposition of the past, this little movement wasn’t seeking to offend or shock — simply to EXIST. We don’t care AT ALL what you do out there. This is our space, we’re gonna do our thing, and we matter, to us. We’re creating our own meaning, here.

That to me is the essence of American hardcore, it’s an independent spirit combined with positive action. The ideas set down during those times, they continue. You do what you can, what you must. In essence that’s what I still do, even as the specific sounds change.

Our guitarist would drive up, in a sea of corporate rock and strip malls and highways and money worship, in a gigantic old boat of a car plastered in homemade photocopied stickers, and we’re off, rumbling around suburbia playing Cast Iron Hike tapes on the way to the show. That was the vibe.

An all-ages venue called the Espresso Bar in Worcester Massachusetts was the center of a lot of great things in the area, and you could find solid lineups there constantly. You look back at some old flyers from those days and it’s awe-inspiring. “Wow — ALL OF THOSE great bands were playing at the same venue over a month span?!” Unreal.

It was a special, inspired time. There wasn’t any established infrastructure or commercial potential in the slightest — we did it because we needed it. It was a social thing, a bubbling up of the collective unconscious into a sound that surprised everyone. I’m convinced that this music is a vital continuation of American roots music, as honest as folk & funk & gospel & soul & jazz and rock & roll. It comes from a very real set of socioeconomic conditions. It happened organically, and still resonates.

This mentality is something I carry with me to this day. You just do things. Make it true to who you are, and don’t worry about whatever people around you say. As long as it’s right for you, it’s right. As the man Walter Schreifels says: “you don’t gotta prove it to anyone.”

Make the music available for people, find some like-minded folks, and you’ve got some friends and a crowd and a good show, and we’re all down together in this thing. That’s my mentality, and I take it into everything I do.

If you’re new to this stuff, I really recommend the Vice documentary on hardcore in New York City. Things were a bit different where I grew up, but a lot of what happened in New York resonated everywhere and set the tone.

Which bands and genres did you fall in love with during this period?

Converge, Cave In, Cast Iron Hike, Bane, Damnation A.D. Sam Black Church, fortydaysrain, Driven, Snapcase are some immediate names that come to mind. On a different spectrum, I also discovered Nine Inch Nails at this time, having seen their absolutely amazing Downward Spiral stadium tour. They’ve continued to evolve and inspire, and I’m still a mega fan. I was very fortunate to see some absolutely transcendent shows, brilliant moments. Nine Inch Nails in a stadium, Cave In & Damnation A.D. in a gymnasium — Converge everywhere.

After this period you left to reach New York and start making electronic music. What kind of genres and artists in this music field you particularly esteem and how much of their influence can we find in your music?

At the time I got very into a mix of electronica records from Berlin labels Morr Music & City Centre Offices, Ragga Jungle from the US & Canada, and classic ambient albums like Brian Eno’s ambient series. All of these I discovered on vinyl and built up a little collection over a few years of visiting local shops. Nowadays I still love those things, but you can add Drum & Bass to the list — the weirder techy neurofunk stuff like Billain, Phace, Mefjus, and Current Value.

What was your first experience with electronic and why did you decide to choose it as your way of musical expression?

I’ve been making electronic music since about age 13. My high school music teacher, who is a great man, recognized my enthusiasm and graciously allowed me to use the school’s MIDI lab during lunch period. Every day for several years, I’d sneak out of the cafeteria into the music room, wolf down a sandwich in 2 minutes, and spend the remaining 18 minutes sequencing notes on the Macintosh & Yamaha DX7. At the end of a few years, I had four or five songs written. The setup was spartan, but the promise of electronic music was truly inspiring. I sensed the potential immediately. You can make anything! The only limits are your imagination. Go!

At this time I was also playing drums in those hardcore bands outside of school, which was very satisfying and visceral, but it lacked the diverse sonic palette you can get with electronics. Almost from the beginning, I was obsessed with bringing sonic diversity into heavy, realtime, visceral music.

After New York, Berlin. Was the electronic scene of this city a kind of more efficient springboard for your music then the Big Apple?

Yes. Berlin gave me the opportunity to turn my creative experience into an actual career. New York is filled with great people, and it was a fantastic learning experience, but the economics of surviving there as an actual full-time musician were quite difficult. Berlin gave me the chance, and I’ll always look upon the city fondly.

Photo by James Brindle

There was an oppressive mainstream of thought running through all aspects of life out there, and we were a reaction to it. However, unlike the caustic punk opposition of the past, this little movement wasn’t seeking to offend or shock — simply to EXIST. That to me is the essence of American hardcore, it’s an independent spirit combined with positive action.

Starting from 2005 your first records came out with the name of Aaron Spectre on them. I’ve found a tag that describes your music of the period as “Raggacore”. Do you think it can fit?

Sure. Some of my earlier work is heavily influenced by the wave of Ragga Jungle which was bubbling up at the time. I’ve done my fair share of dancehall & reggae sampling. Even there though, it seems I’ve subsciously and consciously tried to steer things toward the visceral. A Japanese label gave me the opportunity to do a vinyl, and the result was “Amen, Punk” which merges jungle, reggae, and punk rock.

More influences that we can hear also come from genres like jungle, drum ‘n bass and hardcore. Do you think that these genres, mostly bounded to the 80’s and 90’s, can be considered still vital today?

Jungle is roots music to me, like reggae, like jazz, like rock & roll. It’s as alive and vital today as ever. People keep adding their own influences, and it all continues. Culture is always fluid. As ours is an era of digital chaos, folks are searching for foundations more than ever. Things come from a place and a time. Context and history matters. Seek it out and be rewarded with culture and a sense of oneness, and that’s really one of the best rewards of art and music in general — connection with something timeless.

When a new sound comes along, a lot of people rush into it and make radical experiments which are inspiring and cutting-edge, but those same folks often abandon their creations just as quickly when the next thing comes along. There’s a temptation then to timestamp the genre with the year of that boom, relegate it to nostalgia, and say that the genre is “over”. Looking long-term though, we see that often that burst is just the first stage.

Later, often years after the buzz has moved on, you often rediscover there’s been a handful of core devotees who have remained, and who have been refining a genre into maturity all those years, almost in secret. It comes back around, and all old is new again, but it’s different from how it was before. Things get classy, and definite aesthetics emerge. That’s culture and artistic movements in general, and I love to watch it all unfold. So yes, I find past and present a constant source of inspiration. Roots music has real gravitas to me — it’s satisfying on a deep level.

How will you explain the breakcore genre to a neophyte?

Breakcore is audio collage art at hyper-speed.

How will you define your style? Or do you prefer to not be recluse in only one genre, as I deduce from your productions?

I make what I love, make it the best it can be, and put it out into the world. That’s it. Where it fits is for someone else to decide. I prefer to be open and blissfully naive about genre rules, as it lets me feel free. There are so many excellent ideas going on in this world, why limit yourself? Would you eat pizza every single meal for the rest of your life? I love a good pizza… but really now. Variety is the spice of life.

That said, it is good to focus on specific disciplines and develop your skills. Learn the rules, stay free in your mind, and know when and why to break them. It gives you power.

For the purpose of discussing ideas like a decent human being, you do have to pick a name at some point, just so people know vaguely what you’re talking about, but I think of genres as a convenience of communication rather than a set of rules.

After these brief, but excellent works, 2006 sees the issue of the first full-length album in behalf of your new music creature Drumcorps, “Grist” (if we exclude the 10” “Remix Or Die” in 2005). Can you tell us what this alter-ego means to you and how your relationship with the label Ad Noiseam was born?

Drumcorps is simply a focused outlet along certain style lines. I’m inspired by a lot of different vibes, and to put forth a cohesive piece of work, you need to group things together.

Specifically about the origins of Drumcorps and the Grist record… Around this time, I’d been living in Berlin as a foreigner for a few years — and the travel rekindled a desire to reconnect with my roots. After years away from it, hardcore felt relevant and very important to me all of a sudden. Something happens when you remove yourself from your home culture & your native language. You can never go back. You’re a world citizen, always at home and never at home. I got out some of my old CDs & records, and started sampling. Drumcorps was born out of this time, with perhaps a sprinkling of the Berlin winter, and a desire to channel these feelings into something creative. At some point I passed a demo CD along to Jason Forrest, and he and Ad Noiseam ended up releasing two Drumcorps records as a joint venture. As of now, my relationship with Ad Noiseam is finished.

Photo by Miriam Vaughan

Culture is always fluid. As ours is an era of digital chaos, folks are searching for foundations more than ever. Things come from a place and a time. Context and history matter. Seek it out and be rewarded with culture and a sense of oneness, and that’s really one of the best rewards that art and music can give — connection with something timeless.

“Grist” is strongly detached from your previous production, and shows a more aggressive and metal influenced aspect of your creativity, mostly translated in a grindcore/death metal way of expression deconstructed by breakcore attacks. Which bands from the metal scene influenced you the most and what is the intrinsic message of such violent and deconstructive album?

The intrinsic message in a lot of my work is a victory of humanity over technology. It’s about the struggle to keep your empathy intact, in a hypercapitalist-techno-world bent on squashing it. Grist is a bit of a concept album that encodes this idea into the very execution of the music, by sampling real human voices and sounds, and using the digital tools to slice them up, but with the goal of keeping the integrity & soul of the originals.

When people use words like “violent / grind / death metal / attacks“ it actually makes me quite sad, because that is not the point at all. People sometimes see this music as just darkness and all-out aggression, but I see it as hardcore. Though metal and hardcore might seem similar to the uninitiated, once you’re in it you realize there’s a massive difference in mentality between the two scenes. It’s night and day. It’s a crucial distinction. This is oversimplifying a bit, and there are people who blend the influences, but it’s definitely a thing. For all its noise, hardcore is all about positive action — turning your energy into a force for good. Those values from the early days, they still burn brightly.

Well, after playing out a lot, I realized that by making aggressive music without discernible lyrics, and moving to Europe, my entire intent got lost in translation, and people started putting their own meanings onto it. That’s fine and natural, it always happens. When you’re just starting out, you’re happy that anyone is listening at all. Later on when things pick up, you actually head out into the world and meet the people who like your music… I discovered that some of them were projecting things onto me that were not me, not at all, as if I’m some master of darkness and nihilism here to eat your soul and burn churches — some silly things — some very serious things. It got a little weird, and I ended up feeling deeply misunderstood. I think it’s a natural consequence of making aggressive music though, people hear the sound and see a guitar and they draw conclusions quickly. I brought it on myself. I’ve learned to be a lot more clear with my imagery now, to make sure it reflects the vibe accurately. Things are turning around in that department.

The bands that speak to me the most are usually from the punk rock & hardcore tradition which continues in the lineage of Bad Brains and Black Flag. Bane, Converge, Cave In, Mutoid Man, Trap Them, NAILS, Animosity, Roots-era Sepultura was a huge one — Doomriders. Newer bands like Code Orange… Deafheaven… older things like Unwound, Botch, Snapcase… Also been getting into more classic NYHC style recently. Rival Schools & Gorilla Biscuits & the recent work of Walter Schreifels is a big influence, though you might not overtly hear it in my tunes. He’s an example of someone who comes from a hardcore background and carries those values, but has branched out to different styles since.

Is it a common thing in your musical area to mix the breakcore schizophrenia with the metal aggressiveness? Are there other projects that are worth the listening? I read that the term “breakcore” is not used to indicate a single musical genre for a lot of people, and that it is expressed in different ways (such as classical music samples in the productions of Venetian Snares for example).

Breakcore is a bit of an anti-genre, in that its essence is collage, and the actual sound can change depending on the sources being sampled. It’s quite diverse.

An excellent recent metal-inspired project is Surachai’s new album “Instinct and Memory”. While I wouldn’t call it breakcore exactly, it’s really really good.

Other music that’s stood out recently: DivTech & Realicide (punk vibes, yes!), and Qebrus is making absolutely mindblowing cyber insanity music. Venetian Snares’ Hungarian album is a classic, I always recommend that one for a first time listener.

A really appreciated surprise for me was listening to your only one full-length in behalf of Aaron Spectre, “Lost Tracks”, that comes an year after your “metal turn” in “Grist”. Here we can find another side of your musical creativity, which pay homage to IDM and ambientronic soundscapes. It is a surprisingly refined and in some ways emotional work, without any violence of some sort. Can you tell us how it was born and what is your opinion on the IDM scene of the last years?

Thank you, that folks listen to the melodic side as well is truly appreciated. I’ve always been a fan of melodic electronics, since early days, and some artists that have been grouped in the IDM category fall into that constellation. The melodic side of what I do was born of the same things, just an appreciation for sonic variety and melody, songs. I love a good tune.

Autechre’s Amber & Tri Repetae albums, and Arovane’s entire catalog, are huge influences. I have no less than 4 copies of Arovane’s “Tides” on vinyl. Berlin’s City Centre Offices label was a giant influence, and perhaps inspired my moving to Berlin in some way. Nowadays I’m heavily inspired by Nils Frahm, A Winged Victory for the Sullen, and the general output of the Erased Tapes label. They’re carrying the torch with subtle electronics, a modern classical approach, and that kind of vibe is essential for me, as vital as breathing. Mary Anne Hobbs’ sunday morning show on the BBC is a good source of inspiration always.

In many instances, “Lost Tracks” remembered me of Boards Of Canada’s kind of sound. Is there any influence of this project in your songs?

Board of Canada are great, and I own several of their records on vinyl. Eno and Arovane are the bigger influences personally, but Boards can be considered a close third.

Let’s talk about your last, big turn as Drumcorps, “Falling Forward”. In my review I’ve defined it as the artistic ripeness of your project, do you agree with this statement?

I agree. It’s taken a long time, but everything has been going in this direction even if it didn’t appear that way at first. This album is a merging of many influences into a single piece of work.

A strong attention to guitar melodies is the first innovation that we can listen in this second full-length (I’m thinking about songs like “Cradle To Grave”, “Open Arms”, “Holy Morning”), thanks to which you go beyond a mere sonic terrorism (that remains anyway in the brief breakcore interludes between the longer tracks), constructing a linear but aggressive album. What pushed you to “put in row” your sound this time?

Spending many years in underground electronic music has left me with a deep respect for the simple and well-crafted song. Electronic genres are often mostly about sound design, which is a bit of their charm. Free yourself from the burden of songwriting and explore sound, or make the dancefloor move. Cool! But… hmm. After lots of that, I felt I was missing something vital.

Well, one beautiful springtime Sunday in Berlin, I bought a Pete Seeger record at the flea market. I came home, dropped the needle on “We Shall Overcome”, and a whole world opened up. Here is a humble man with a guitar, his ideas, and the weight of history, channeling some of the most powerful soul-rocking music on earth. We new Berliners with our machines, what are we doing over here?!

From that day forth, I redoubled my efforts to make simple & powerful music — things that work on a fundamental level. Just a guitar, a chair, and your life. It’s hard as hell. I tried a lot, failed a lot, succeeded a little, and kept working. Eventually that songwriting element made its way into the music which would become Falling Forward. It took many years, but the paradigm shift happened then, in Berlin. I started writing tunes from memory, just an unplugged guitar, no gear. Later, only after the song structure is written, I’ll go to the computer add the weird stuff. Start it simple, and see where that goes.

From those beginnings, I worked hard on making Falling Forward as cohesive as possible, an album that can stand on its own as a linear thing you can listen to from start to finish. There are of course some of the mashup breakcore tunes on there as well. It’s an album of many kinds of tunes, threaded together.

Besides your contribution to the vocals in some tracks, many others were composed with other musicians from the metal scene like Iggor Cavalera from Sepultura, Leo Miller or Mike Justian. Can you tell us where in which occasion did you meet them and how did you agree upon a collaboration together?

I met all three on different occasions — but in all cases it’s come from a mutual respect for each other’s work — and the music that follows has been great because of it. It’s one of the most gratifying things in life — to meet your heroes on equal ground, and to make good work together.

How much important is musical collaboration for you? Does it give more value to your work? Does it remind you of your first years back in Massachusetts?

Collaboration is important as it brings things into the real world. Remixes are also great for this reason, and I love doing them. Massachusetts days were more of a typical “four guys in a practice room” scenario, where you write tunes all at once by group consensus and jamming. The way we work now is a little different, as it’s often done remotely. this is how a lot of bands work now, too.

I find particularly interesting tracks like “Choose Again”, a lot influenced, in my opinion, by NIN; the death/thrash metal combo “poisoned” by your glitches composed by “Built For War” and “The Path”; the math rock deconstructions of “Headstrong & Heartfoolish” and above all the finale “My Heart Flies To Where You Are”, which contains a post-rock attitude. Your stimulant and deconstructive breakcore interludes are the glue that keeps everything together. So, what does it mean for you an album like “Falling Forward”? Is it, like I’m thinking, a well done attempt to reunite in only one work all of your major influences so far? Or there’s more?

Falling Forward is the album I’ve been trying to make since age 16, but didn’t know how to do until now. When music comes out of you, it’s not separated neatly by genre, it just is what it is. This new sound is finally coalescing because I’ve been improving on many of the skills necessary to actually execute what I’ve been hearing in my head all these years. There’s a lot to learn, and getting here was a long arc indeed. You gotta know guitar tone, bass guitar tone, mixing, programming, drums, compression, vocal tone, electronics. Any one of these things is a discipline. To do all of them at once takes a lot of dedication, and I’m still getting there. It drives me nuts at times, because there’s so SO much to learn. You follow your own star, I guess.

Thank you for the Nine Inch Nails reference. Trent Reznor and his team are some of my absolute favorite artists, but not just for the music. It’s the idea. For all its wildly advanced electronics, Nine Inch Nails never glamorizes technology — but rather shows it for the frail and constantly breaking thing that it is — and humanity is put to the forefront. Fragility & honesty first, technology second.

Next is the stellar composition — in which you realize that the tunes are built on a solid foundation of counterpoint & melody. You always have a song going on, something which could be played on a piano and still work marvelously.

And so then you have the execution, which is immaculate. Oh man… It’s like unwrapping an onion, so many layers and complexities hidden under the veneer of a verse-chorus-verse tune. Listen on good speakers and it reveals more for you to love, under the surface, each element never detracting from the main message of the tune, but enhancing it. Since the foundation songwriting is in place, the tunes are not reliant on the tech and work in any environment. It’s art, and it’s so well done. The execution is the message, too.

It’s no less than a genre-rocking paradigm shift. I don’t know how many people realized it at the time, but Nine Inch Nails is VERY different from all the other bands people put into the “industrial” bag, very different indeed. You have an emotion and a lot of sonic elements that enhance that emotion dramatically. The sound serves the song. Love that.

Will we find more refined albums like this one in the future of your project? Will you follow this new imprint or will you surprise us again?

Things keep evolving, and there are many new elements in the works, but I think you’ll find that the next Drumcorps album takes the best of Falling Forward and refines it even further.

Photo by Miriam Vaughan

Music is at once personal and public. It’s a moment in time, and a moment outside time. It helps give me context in a fragmented & complex world, connects us with people, and reminds you that things matter. Sometimes a great work can just give you goosebumps, and it feels like the collective unconscious calling from somewhere beyond any of us.

Any tours or albums in the works?

I’m about 75% finished with another Drumcorps album, working hard on that. There’s also a white label vinyl on the way, which is a sequel to “Amen, Punk”, and it’s super good. It’s called “Aaron Spectre — Jungle Boots”, and it’s a powerful union of punk rock & reggae & jungle music. That vibe always seemed like it would be a natural fit, and I’m still quite puzzled why more people haven’t done it yet! So… Made a record. We just got the testpresses in, and they sound absolutely amazing.

To conclude, what does making music mean to you?

Music is at once personal and public. It’s a moment in time, and a moment outside time. It helps give me context in a fragmented & complex world, connects us with people, and reminds you that things matter. Sometimes a great work can just give you goosebumps, and it feels like the collective unconscious calling from somewhere beyond any of us.

I like storytelling, I like big picture ideas about society and humanity and nature… And though it seems counterintuitive, you make the most powerful statements about society by sharing the most personal stories and letting context explain everything. You can see it in someone’s eyes when they understand, and you all feel down together. It’s like when you discover a secret hiding place on the playground as kids, or a great book hidden in the library shelf, containing worlds unto itself. That’s the jam. That’s the best thing, one of the best things on Earth. I’m super grateful when it happens, and that folks continue to listen and support. Thanks for your thoughtful questions.

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