"I Would Like To Keep My Heart Open And My Suspicions Low"

Modern Life Is War vocalist Jeffrey Eaton talks politics, punk and the power of communication…

"I Would Like To Keep My Heart Open And My Suspicions Low"

Hailing from Marshalltown, Iowa, in the American Midwest is just one of the ways in which Modern Life Is War are not like other hardcore bands.

Another is the fact they made a good – no, great – comeback album, 2013’s Fever Hunting, which evolved their compelling mix of white-hot rage and cathartic compassion. After a couple of transatlantic tours that reminded us why they were so vital, Modern Life Is War were gone again, with many fearing the burnout that caused them to initially call it quits in 2008 had taken an inextricable toll.

Not the case, thankfully. This month they re-emerged with two new songs, forming the first volume of their now ongoing Tribulation Worksongs series. So we caught up with vocalist Jeffrey Eaton and talked politics, the future and why he won’t mind if it rains on him during their UK tour this summer.

Where have you guys been?
Really it’s a matter of the years going by very quickly (laughs). We’re busy with jobs, relationships and other things we work on creatively outside the band. This last year it hit us hard, though. We needed to get going again. We didn’t have a specific vision in mind for a full-length, so we came up with the idea of releasing these singles.

What do you make of the world in 2018?
We’re living in a tumultuous time. It’s political, it’s economic and in some ways it’s a crisis of spirituality and identity. We’re all grasping for some truth that’s eluding us. Our leadership in the U.S. has something to do with that. I’m not a political person in the sense that I can name all of the ramifications of the decisions that are made by politicians, but I do consider myself receptive to how people are affected by those in power. Our band has been speaking about those kinds of problems since our very first release in 2002 [another single, their self-titled seven-inch]. The way things are speeding up and getting more intense, we want to communicate with people at this time. We want people to be able to come to our show and relieve some of the stress and the tension they have in their lives. In essence, that’s what our band is about.  

What inspired the A-side of your new single, Feels Like End Times?
I saw graffiti on a wall in Missouri that said 'God wrath on rich hypocrites'. 'Hypocrites' was misspelled… and it looked like it had been written in blood! It was a fairly shocking thing to see written on a wall. It stuck in my mind and I took a picture of it. It kept running through my head. I kept wondering who would write that and what would be going through their mind. What kind of a state is their life in? I sat down with that as cornerstone and wrote the rest of lyrics more or less in one sitting. When John [Paul Eich, guitar] wrote the riff, I was like, 'That’s it!' It didn’t take long after that.

Dead Ramones, live at Chain Reaction 2015, courtesy of Reel Negative

Your home state of Iowa swung from Obama to Trump in 2016 U.S. election. What changes have you noticed? 
On one hand, nothing’s changed with anyone. The hatred and racial prejudice that some people are expressing was lurking beneath the surface. Those people were emboldened by people who are perceived as legitimate people in power or people who have become very successful espousing those types of views. I think you can go deeper and say that something lies beneath their hatred and intolerance, though. It doesn’t have to do with another person: it has to do with things they need in their lives that they’re not getting. I think a big one is dignity. A lot of people in this country are living without dignity. There are members of the working class who used to have jobs that were secure and provided a great living for their families. We don’t have trust anymore. We know that our government and large employers don’t have our backs. We know we’re on our own.

Do people direct their anger the wrong way?
The inherent competition that comes with our capitalist system makes us competitive with each other. So now, not only do we not trust the people who are in power, we don’t trust each other, because once we become uncomfortable about whether or not we’re going to be able to survive, we start looking at each other suspiciously. We want to get one over on somebody else to protect our own hide or our own family. Just like I don’t think anyone is born evil, I don’t think anyone is born racist. I think we come to these things as defence mechanisms for dealing with problems in our own lives. I realise these things are nothing new, but we need voices now. I don’t think mine is the loudest or the most intelligent, but I am a voice of compassion and of relative tolerance and intelligence. So if we can play a couple shows, kick out a couple records and be a force of good, that’s important to us. Otherwise, in our lives, the people in this band don’t feel like we have that influence any other way.  

Your best-known record, Witness, was re-released for its 10th anniversary in 2015. It sounds like a warning from history about all of these things.
I have pretty distinct memories of times from 2002 to 2006 of people mocking our band’s name as being over-dramatic and saying things like, 'Things aren’t so bad' and 'Why are you complaining?' It’s not satisfying for things to feel like they’re coming true in the sense that I never imagined. I wish we were creating a world where I could say, 'You know what? You guys were right: the things I said were ridiculous. We’ve evolved and they’re no longer relevant…' (Laughs) It’s gone the other way and that’s sad, but I guess if anything it justifies the existence of our band. I’m like, this is something we know how to do, so let’s go out and do it. We’re not going to do it every day of our lives and we don’t want to be stars, we just want to be in the mix and hopefully give some people some kind of comfort or inspiration.

The band initially broke up in 2008, citing burnout. Is staying in the zone you need to in order to make the music that you do exhausting for long periods?
Yeah, making a living in a band is stressful and the lifestyle is just shitty. What I mean by that is that is it’s inauthentic. You’re interacting most days of the year with fans and that’s a strange thing. You might get an inflated ego. People are delivering you food, waiting on you and being in a different city every day means you lack a sense of community. I never really found contentment or happiness living that lifestyle. Also, with our sound, we’re not going to be in the charts. And we don’t want to make the kind of music that is for the charts. 

That said, unlike a lot of hardcore bands, you don’t shy away from production values…
As much as we do identify as a hardcore punk band, we want the guitar to sound like a guitar and not like a compressed studio creation. For the same reason we’re not intentionally lo-fi. That works for some bands but we don’t feel like that kind of production would be a good thing for us. Also, as harsh as the sound of my voice can be, I want people who are accustomed to this kind of music to understand what I’m saying. I want people to be able to sing along with me. This is what we genuinely sound like and we want to represent that. That’s definitely one of our priorities, you could say. 

Modern Life Is War, Feels Like End Times

What’s the best album you’ve heard this year?
Maybe it seems corny because we’ve been on tour with them, but the new Culture Abuse record. They’re such a different band to what we are – in almost every way – but we feel a great kinship with them. They’re going in a direction that’s a bit more poppy and polished, but it suits them. I’m excited to play that record when I ride around on my skateboard this summer and I hope to see them get to the point where they can play big, huge shows – and give us an opening slot! It’d be nice to see ‘one of us’ make it (laughs).

Speaking of touring, what do you associate with playing the UK?
I’ve made a few lifelong friends in the UK that I’ll be seeing at these shows, we have a UK-based tattoo artist who’s done a lot of our designs for our merchandise on this tour called Tom Chippendale – people should look him up – and I’m excited about the bands we’re playing with. One of the bands we’re playing with, Svalbard, just put out a record that’s really good. They have a great frontwoman and there’s always going to be women in attendance, so it’s good to have females involved to show it’s open and possible. They’re a great band with or without that, but it’s another nice element to playing these shows. There are a lot of people in the UK who understand our band on a very personal level. So to be among a lot of people who understand what we’re about and what kind of people we are makes the shows electric. It’s the place I want to be. Our last couple UK runs have been sort of limited, so to do a few shows is a good thing. We haven’t played Brighton in a long time and that show’s going to be packed, it’s going to be wild!  

Not to mention our fantastic weather…
I’m in the desert right now and it’s 110 degrees, so if it’s drizzling and I have to wear my jacket I’m going to be over the moon. I can’t wait.

To go back to where we came in, does getting out into the world help stop people directing their anger at the wrong targets?
Absolutely. Suspicion of other people comes from distancing yourself from them – not only different cultures, but also different economic classes. It’s easy to be suspicious of rich people if you’re struggling in life and you don’t interact with people who are more affluent than you. If you break down some barriers and spend time with people and communicate in a way that’s open, I think you find we all want the same things out of life. We need to communicate and be around each other as much as possible. I would like to keep my heart open and my suspicions at a complete low. If that is naive or making myself vulnerable, it’s a chance I’m willing to take. I’d rather live that way than treat people like shit because I fear them.  

Finally, when’s the next single coming out?
Tribulation Worksongs Volume 2 will be out in September. My goal right now is to make something visual for both songs on it. I’m even more excited for Volume 2. I wish we could’ve put both volumes out at the same time, but we’re pacing ourselves. We’re gonna stay on pace for a couple years…

Words: Alistair Lawrence 

Tribulation Worksongs Vol. 1 is out now on Deathwish Inc.. Check it out on the stream below. Modern Life Is War start their UK tour on 25 June in Brighton. More dates and info here.

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