Kurt Ballou: “High School Was Like It Is In ’80s Movies. There Was A Line Between Popular Kids And Freaks, And I Fell On The Side Of The Freaks”
Kurt Ballou is quite a private individual. So much so that even the address of his recording studio GodCity isn’t disclosed to the public on its official website, lest he attracts unwarranted attention.
“If I could go back to 1994 and give myself one piece of advice it would be to use a stage name,” he tells us. “I am a private person, I value my anonymity, and a lot of artists I have at my studio also value their anonymity. I don’t mind that I have a recognisable name and face, but my private life is really important to me.”
And Kurt’s name is one that’s well known to fans of heavy music as one quarter of genre-defining Massachusetts hardcore icons Converge. Forming in 1990, Kurt has played guitar on all nine of the band’s studio albums, and been involved in the production since 1998’s When Forever Comes Crashing – overseeing everything since 2006’s No Heroes.
Kurt admits it’s “tricky wearing all the hats”, but underlines the importance of respecting everyone’s opinion in a creative environment. It is perhaps this relationship and shared understanding that has contributed to Converge’s longevity – last year marking a quarter-century since their debut album.
And how does that make him feel? “It makes me feel old,” Kurt laughs in response. But he’s never one to get nostalgic, preferring instead to always look forward.
“I recognise that Converge have a lot of albums now, and I think that everything we’ve done since [2001 album] Jane Doe has been really good. But it’s always a challenge to make a new album that’s both up to the quality of the albums that came before, and also gives the listener something new and not self-indulgent.”
It’s the words ‘Jane Doe’ that have become synonymous with Converge and the wider hardcore scene; the album’s artwork perennially emblazoned on T-shirts, patched jackets and even skin. It became Converge’s calling card and is one of the best hardcore albums ever made.
“That was a life-changing record for me,” he admits. “Pretty much everything in my life since then has been influenced by the changes that happened to our band as a result of doing that record.”
How did you first get into heavy music?
“It’s probably not an uncommon answer to this question – at least for people in my age range – but skateboarding. When I was growing up in the ’80s, I didn’t have MTV, so my window to the outside world was Thrasher magazine. It was available in every small town in America. They covered skateboarding, but it’s also a culture magazine. It was the Jackass or the YouTube of the day – things that were not normal, straightforward America. I wasn’t interested in team sports, but skateboarding and BMX appealed to me because of the idea of repurposing one’s surroundings. I always looked at the world through an engineer’s eyes, like, ‘What can I make out of this?’ Skateboarders were all about that. The general skater attitude of, ‘Go big or go home,’ and that aggressive but not jocky attitude really spoke to me.”
You grew up playing different instruments in your school jazz band and orchestra. How did that influence you when you were making your own music?
“I was going to jazz shows before I was going to hardcore shows. While I can’t say I was super immersed in that culture, that music was always an influence. A lot of the early Converge stuff I would straight-up rip-off from things I heard in jazz compositions, then I’d make them sound like metallic hardcore (laughs).”
What was the Massachusetts hardcore scene like when you were first dipping your toe in?
“It was in transition. Hardcore in general was, from an urban thing to a more suburban kind of thing. As a result of that, there was a lot of culture clash. Consequently, shows were often violent. I’ve always felt like hardcore has been intentionally exclusionary at times. I don’t necessarily agree with that, but it definitely was then. It wasn’t exclusionary to income brackets or ethnic backgrounds, but it demanded that the people involved invested themselves in it. It was a ‘no posers’ kind of exclusion. A lot of the kids were hyper-vigilant about keeping the ‘tourists’ out – they didn’t want the scene to grow, they were happy with how it was, because that was their space to be who they were. My generation of suburban kids came along and it took a while for things to level out. It was a pretty rough scene, but there was an intensity to it that was different to anything else. I was hooked as soon as I started going to shows.”
Were you welcomed into that community?
“I don’t feel like there was a hierarchy that had to approve my application to join (laughs). I just kept going to shows and people were generally pretty kind to me and welcoming. I think elitism is a word you could use, but it’s more like the people that were involved in hardcore at the time had felt ostracised by a lot of things in their life, and they found something that was theirs, so they were protective of it. There was a lot of transitioning going on in music in that period.”
In what ways?
“In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, record labels didn’t know what was going on and were signing all sorts of weird stuff. That’s how Nirvana happened, and all the grunge stuff. High school was very much like it is in ’80s movies. There was a distinct line between the popular kids and the freaks. And I fell on the side of the freaks. Metallica had released the One video, and not too long after there was Smells Like Teen Spirit, so suddenly the popular kids were wearing Vans and my world exploded, I didn’t know who my friends were anymore. That transition to what we thought of as counter-culture appearing in the mainstream was an enormous cultural shift.”
Do you consider Converge pioneers of blurring the lines between metal and hardcore?
“I consider our generation to be pioneers among the second generation of that. As long as punk has been around, punk and metal have taken turns reinvigorating each other. That was definitely something that my generation did. We took a lot of the thrash stuff on MTV and the hardcore we found through Thrasher, and we started forming a hybrid of those sounds, but there were a ton of bands that did it before us, like The Accüsed, and lots of weirdo metal bands like Voivod and Rorschach, who were hugely influential on us. People draw parallels between us and Cave In or Dillinger Escape Plan or Botch, but it was all happening at the same time amongst a lot of different people in a lot of different cities. Converge gets more credit than we’re honestly due because we’re the one band from that era that never broke up. But we’re not solely responsible for pioneering anything.”
Did it feel like something special was happening at the time? “If you think about the name Converge, and that things are converging into something new, that is how we felt. We didn’t really feel like we fit in with the late-‘80s hardcore scene, but we also didn’t fit in with straightforward metal, and it didn’t feel like there was an existing community where we felt we fit in, either. So we made our own. When people are driven to make something, if there’s nobody there helping them, they either do it themselves or they stop. A big part of the reason why the business end of Converge is done internally – Jake [Bannon, vocalist] co-releases our music, he designs the merch and graphics, I do the recording, our booking agent in the U.S. was one of our first roadies – is that it allowed us to maintain artistic control, but the real reason was that nobody else cared, and if we didn’t do it ourselves nobody would do it for us.”
When Jane Doe was released in 2001, it felt like the wider world was still preoccupied with nu-metal, which was the opposite of what you guys were doing.
“I don’t entirely agree with that. It depends on the age of the listener. Nu-metal is, for most people involved in underground music, a stepping-stone for somebody born between 1980 to ‘85. By the time nu-metal became popular in the U.S., I’d been playing in Converge for 10 years, so that music was completely irrelevant and totally corny to me. I wasn’t interested in it. But there was a changing of the tide in music journalism happening. There were more people in my age group and my demographic coming along and writing about music. People were finding community on the internet rather than local geography, so there was a lot of awareness and knowledge about records and bands that wasn’t happening before.”
Did you feel the knock-on effect of that?
“The fact that weirdo people were finding each other through the internet made that whole scene feel bigger and more unified, and record labels caught on, too. At the time, people knew who Neurosis and Melvins were, but a band like Converge or Botch were still pretty underground, it was just really fortunate that we put out Jane Doe, Dillinger put out Calculating Infinity, Cave In put out Jupiter, and at the same time, the infrastructure for those bands to tour and be seen by larger audiences was falling into place. Had Jane Doe come out five years prior or five years later, it wouldn’t have made the same impact.
“To me, nu-metal is completely irrelevant to the type of music that we do, it’s a different demographic and a different level of artistry that I think doesn’t apply to the music we do, but maybe it is relevant in that a lot of people who like my band were coming of age around that time period and graduated from the ‘entry level’ music. Not to knock that music, but I do think that is entry level for aggressive music. Just like Jane’s Addiction was for me, and that’s not knocking them either, it was accessible to me when I was 13. When Rage Against The Machine came out, that was like, ‘Oh, the singer from Inside Out has a new band!’ I was already pretty deep into the culture by the time rap-rock got popular. I was looking at it from that music snob, eye-rolling perspective (laughs).”
As well as a musician, you’re a world- renowned producer, working with the likes of High On Fire, Full Of Hell and Nails in recent years. What qualities do those bands share that drew you to them?
“They’re all people from my community. My big strength in recording over the years is that I have so much experience as a band member, so I understand the struggles that bands go through, the interpersonal dynamics of being in a band, and I understand what that community is supposed to feel like in a live setting. I can wear my diplomat hat when interacting with band members, which is a real strength in the studio. As well as capturing sounds, I know what this music feels like live, and I know what it feels like to fans. It gives me a real advantage in making records that feel as exciting as live shows.”
You spend a lot of your time working with new and exciting bands. What is the next sound of the underground?
“Everything’s happening simultaneously now. I don’t feel like there are waves of things happening in the way that they used to. There used to be a style that was prevalent for a period of time which would be replaced by another style. Like, in commercial ‘independent’ music there was grunge, then alt.rock, then ska, then nu-metal. You had three or four years of one style, before it was replaced. With communities based online and more genre-focused than geography-focused, there’s a scene for everything these days. One thing I am seeing, is that it’s not as much of a white boy’s club in underground music now, which is awesome. I’m glad that things look more diverse, at least at the shows we’re playing. In terms of stylistic changes, I’m not sure. I’m just along for the ride. If a band is making music that feels honest, exciting and relevant to me, then I’m into it. I’m not concerned about trends.”
Do you think we’ll see a time when rock music is the biggest thing in the world again?
“It’s funny to think there are not big rock bands now. I mean, bands like Train and Maroon 5 play the instruments (laughs). In the pop music world I have to give them respect for playing instruments, but it’s weird to have to think in those terms. I don’t know much about the indie stuff with bands like The Lumineers. We played a festival last year with Judas Priest and Slayer, and I was thinking about what will replace those bands when they’re gone. There’s the Foo Fighters, but there’s no stadium-sized rock bands at the moment.
“Things are cyclical. At some point people might want something that’s more human, and rock music could come back. I definitely think about it as a person who is associated with creating a physical product, whether that’s vinyl or CDs or pedals. We keep making the physical stuff, but the market for people listening to it is getting smaller. It’s true with how bands market themselves to people now – they have to try to sell more stuff to a smaller audience. When I was a kid, bands would be happy selling one or two CDs to a million people, but now they have a smaller audience, so they’re trying to hawk more stuff. I hope there’s still a market for the records I make and I think there will be. Heavy metal has definitely proven the critics wrong time and time again. Rock’n’roll will be back.”
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