Wesley Eisold Of American Nightmare Talks Legacy, Mental Health And Stripped Back Hardcore
Today American Nightmare released their first album in 15 years. It’s self titled, it’s stripped back, it’s brilliant and it’s out everywhere - if you scroll down a bit you’ll come across it, and we advise you to give it a listen. To celebrate the release, as well as the release of their new video (also embedded within this article) and the announcement earlier this week of their European tour, we’re sharing a candid interview with the band’s vocalist and lyricist, Wesley Eisold, which appeared in Kerrang! Magazine a week or so ago. Enjoy.
“My dad was in the Navy, so [growing up] I was moving every couple of years. I was always the new kid, but I was also always the new kid who was missing a hand, so I had this whole other side to the awkward teen years,” says American Nightmare’s vocalist and lyricist Wesley Eisold, on the phone to Kerrang! from his home in Los Angeles. “If you grow up that way you already feel alienated, and if you’re interested in skateboarding and punk rock and you find hardcore, that seems like home for the alienated.”
Bands like Code Orange and Turnstile continue to back that argument up today. But in the late ‘90s, hardcore felt less like a refuge for the outsider and more like a secret club for people with a highly specific set of interests. In what could be seen as a reaction against the complex and peculiar metallic hardcore that had happened in the ‘90s, a harkening back to Youth Crew – a late ‘80s style of hardcore out of New York, typified by bands like Youth Of Today, Bold and Gorilla Biscuits – had become popular again.
The Youth Crew revival was wilfully straightforward, both musically and thematically. Bands like In My Eyes, Floorpunch and Bane played fast, featured gang vocals and included huge mosh parts in their songs, and they all sang about three things: vegetarianism, straight edge and scene unity. Noble causes – and some great bands – but ultimately, this back to basics and highly codified approach put the scene in danger of becoming hackneyed, retro, and neutered by its own self-referentialism. Hardcore was on the brink of going the way of mod culture.
Ironically, American Nightmare – the band that arguably saved hardcore from itself – kind of looked like mods when they first appeared on the scene in 2000. In the late ‘90s, they frequented a clubnight in Boston run by one Gibby Clarke of the punk bands Panic and The Trouble, who was a huge fan of British indie music. “All this stuff is as important or unimportant as you want to make it,” says Wesley, but his passion for British bands like The Smiths and Joy Division seems absolutely key to what American Nightmare became.
American Nightmare’s new, self-titled album.
American Nightmare, today made up of Wesley, bassist Josh Holden, guitarist Brian Masek and drummer Alex Garcia-Rivera (as well as touring guitarist Jim Carroll), didn’t deviate from the Youth Crew sound, particularly. They played viciously fast, stripped back traditional hardcore, that featured the elements of the genre that were instrumental in creating the sense of belonging so important to the scene: gang vocals, breakdowns, singalongs, and call and response parts. But Wesley’s stroke of genius was to dispense entirely with the thematic tropes that plagued the genre, to sing about his own fucked up, personal shit with a poetic wit and nuance inspired by the likes of Morrissey, Ian Curtis and Jarvis Cocker.
In doing so, he unshackled hardcore from its obsessions and offered up its most important element – the sense of belonging it offers to outsiders, weirdos, and the uniquely creative.
“We were alienated from our little microcosm of a subgenre,” remembers Wes. “But as a result, people from other types of music were able to relate to [what we were doing], and it took on a life of its own.”
The release of American Nightmare’s 2001 album Background Music sent shockwaves through the scene and beyond. The old guard accused the band of polluting the genre with non-hardcore ideals.
“There were bands who broke our records on stage because they heard we went to a nightclub,” Wes tells us, but criticism didn’t bother him. “You learn pretty quickly that backlash comes with the territory. It’s pretty balanced, the more criticism you get, the more praise you get. It never did anything but propel me to prove people wrong, or to be better, work harder, or just keep going.”
While revivalists wanted to take the scene back to the rigidity of 1988, American Nightmare seemed to bring in a crowd truer to the dawn of hardcore’s origins, when it was a magnet for brilliant creativity and new ideas.
Of course, these powerful lyrics, at times nihilistic – on the brink of self destructive, even – weren’t just the result of nights out listening to post-punk at a niche indie club. Wesley’s words came from a very real place.
“Being in American Nightmare and getting to say these things that I had pent up for the entirety of my life kept me alive,” he recalls. “That’s why a lot of people connected with the band so intensely. It was a voice not just for me but for other people who had similar feelings.”
American Nightmare’s new video for Flowers Under Siege
Being born without a left hand and spending a childhood moving every two years can’t have made life straightforward, but depression can come out of nowhere. Wesley spent his years on the road with American Nightmare masking his struggles with mental health.
“[The band] would play shows that were like 25 minutes long, and the rest of the time you would just hang out with friends drinking and you’d kind of feel bad in the middle of the night, and then you would start the day over. It was a mundane process that lasted for four years,” he says. “I was extremely depressed.”
Things with the band became increasingly complicated, too. In 2003, after threats of legal action from a similarly named band from Philadelphia, the band had to change their name to Give Up The Ghost, and as the band got bigger, they became less and less comfortable with the situations they found themselves in. “We had exhausted the band, mentally, physically, emotionally,” the vocalist offers. “We were at a point where we were like, ‘Okay, what are we going to do?’ We could’ve just kept doing the same thing and signed to a label and go on Warped Tour, but that was not interesting to us at all. It’s not who I am, it’s not who I like, and it’s not what I want to do.”
“I just walked away,” he explains of the burnout. “I had a breakdown. I just couldn’t do it, I was exhausted.”
On the eve of a European tour in support of their second album Down Til They’re Underground in 2004, Wesley called it quits. “I said, I can’t do this anymore I have to go take care of myself or I’m going to do something bad.” And with that, American Nightmare was over.
After the band ended, he threw himself into other projects. He formed Some Girls, a grindcore band featuring members of The Locust, The Plot To Blow Up The Eiffel Tower and Unbroken, they did some EPs on Deathwish and Epitaph before splitting. He moved from Boston to Philadelphia and opened a performance space and bookshop that focused on underground literature. He grew Heartworm Press, his publishing house that releases rare works, poetry and photography books by counterculture luminaries, as well as limited edition LPs.
American Nightmare - The World Is Blue
Perhaps most notably, he formed Cold Cave, a hugely successful going concern that spans darkwave, noise and electronic that often produces near-perfect moments of synthpop, not a million miles from the output of New Order or Depeche Mode. Through Cold Cave he has worked with experimental musicians like Prurient, Genesis P-Orridge and Boyd Rice, as well techno artist Black Asteroid and fashion designer Rick Owens.
The legend and influence of American Nightmare continued to grow in the band’s absence, though. Maybe they gained a few new fans due to an accidental co-sign by Pete Wentz (in 2007, it emerged that Fall Out Boy had “borrowed” some American Nightmare lyrics for a few songs, resulting in an out-of-court settlement and Wesley receiving a credit in the liner notes of both the multi-platinum selling From Under The Cork Tree and Infinity On High). Or maybe they’re just a really important band.
Around 2011, American Nightmare started getting calls about playing shows again, and the time seemed right, so they went for it. The first shows were explosive and joyous – Ryan Gosling was rumoured to have attended an early one – and a new generation of kids, perhaps catching their powerful, cathartic performances on YouTube, were turning up to them. This wasn’t an exercise in nostalgia, the band were once again an exciting going concern, and buoyed by their reception, in 2017 the band decided they wanted to do a new album.
“No-one needs to do the band for any sort of gain, except an actual, personal interest in contributing to the name of the band American Nightmare,” Wesley asserts, firmly. “We’ve already got whatever bullshit glory that people might think comes with reuniting. We don’t expect this to be something to keep happening forever, but we just wanted to make this addendum to what the band is and was, and what we felt was never completed.”
To protect American Nightmare’s legacy, the band made some conscious decisions before recording again. “We really wanted to not have any outside influence and we wanted to make sure that we stripped the band down to the most primitive, minimal version of itself,” he says.
American Nightmare live, by Mike Irizarry
“We wanted to have it be pretty stripped down punk hardcore. We wanted to have room for the vocals to say things clearly. We wanted to deliver it with the venom and violence of the first two seven inches and we wanted to make sure we recorded it ourselves, to keep it really private until it was done.
“We wanted to make a record that covered the spectrum of punk and hardcore that was influential to us,” he continues. “There are old Boston, DC and NY sounds on the records. It is a loose end we wanted to tie up, and as a result of that it’s turned into this new life for the band that we’re really proud of.”
There’s a greater purpose behind recording new music too.
“I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve been contacted by family members of people who’ve liked the music I’ve been a part of, who have actually taken their own lives,” Wesley reveals, sounding somewhat shaken. “That was a big part of making this record. I wanted to contribute something for my own sanity and for the sanity of anyone else who might care to listen.”
Well over a decade on from American Nightmare’s original albums, and personally in a very different headspace – Wesley became a father not long ago and is now settled in Los Angeles with his partner Amy Lee (not that one) – what has he learned in that time?
“No matter what changes I have in my life, I am still not comfortable in my own skin,” he confesses. “Nothing’s going to change that. If you are a young kid that is into punk and hardcore, maybe you don’t feel as at home in the world as other people do, but this world will never be a cool world if the outsiders don’t make it cooler.”
American Nightmare’s self titled album came out today, and they are doing a six date European tour this Spring.
Dates are as follows:
April 28 London, The Underworld
April 29 Brighton, The Haunt
April 30 Antwerp, Kayka
May 1 Eindhoven, Dynamo
May 2 Cologne, Gebaude 9
May 3 Berlin, Bi Nuu
Tickets available HERE
Here’s what to expect at an AN live show:
The hardcore heroes have announced a tour to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their Year one compilation.
This Vulgar Display Of Power-themed T-shirt from Pantera will get the message across to those struggling with the concept of social distancing.