Jesus Piece: “When I’m onstage, it’s a total purge of all the sh*t I’ve been holding onto”

Aaron Heard has learned to funnel his stresses into Jesus Piece. It’s part of what makes them one of the most exciting bands on the planet right now. We meet the man bringing rage back to hardcore, and find out how it all helped turned his life around…

Jesus Piece: “When I’m onstage, it’s a total purge of all the sh*t I’ve been holding onto”
David McLaughlin
Kayla Menze, Nicole Mago

There’s a running joke online about how men will literally do anything to avoid going to therapy. Dress up as a bat to fight costumed villains by night… instead of going to therapy. Travel the world in a sleigh gifting presents to strangers… instead of going to therapy. Sit in the bathroom to poop for three hours… well, you get the picture.

The format pokes fun at the fragility of modern masculinity, parodying the lengths some men go to rather than processing or dealing with their emotions healthily. Attend most hardcore shows and you’ll see the meme play out before your eyes.

“I was one of those dudes!” Aaron Heard says, thankfully seeing the funny side. Right now, we’re joining him in Osaka, Japan, where Jesus Piece are on tour for an impressive third time in eight years, currently showcasing their beastly new record, …So Unknown.

“It’s probably not the best form of therapy, but it helps,” he reasons. “I stomach a lot of stuff and shelve my emotions, just like most shitty dudes. I compartmentalise things I should probably just talk about, but [before joining the band] I was not talking about any of it. When I’m onstage, it’s a total purge of all the shit I’ve been holding onto.”

Tonight, performing in his “favourite place in the world”, Aaron will once again reach inside to exorcise yet more demons. To get there, he needs to go deep. So deep, in fact, that he probably won’t remember much of what happens afterwards. That comes with the territory and is something of a source of amusement for his Jesus Piece buddies, drummer Luis Aponte and guitarists John DiStefano and David Updike.

“My band makes fun of me for this, but I’ve always been an all-in person,” he explains of the experience. “I step out there and I don’t even think about it. I just try to blow everything into it and it’s like a blackout moment. I know my words and how to make it happen, but in that moment, I tap into something. There’s almost this total turn-off of the frontal cortex as I deep-dive into what’s happening. A big part of that is the sonics and the chaos. It gets to feeling like my head isn’t chaotic anymore. It feels like I’m exactly where I need to be.”

Despite living with the condition for 31 years, it’s only in the past couple that the vocalist has officially been diagnosed with ADHD. By submitting to the musical maelstrom of the extreme kind his band make by default, it helps bring the Philly native a sense of normality and peace previously unknown. Or rather, “Things feel a little more normal.”

Sometimes Aaron will watch videos of his band’s performances back and barely recognise the figure frantically screaming and flailing around. More than anything, though, he finds it all kind of funny.

“I don’t want to be in this piece coming off like I’m Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or some shit,” he’s keen to stress. “But onstage with Jesus Piece is very cathartic. It’s like a 35-minute-long tantrum. Watching things back, I feel a little crazy. Like, ‘Damn, I was really wilding out!’ As far as mental health goes, this has been my thing over the years. This is where I’ve found a home for that. There has been a lot of angst and negativity [built up] in my body. This is the one place I can go to neutralise those things, to help me operate day-to-day.”

Growing up, Aaron knew of no such respite. As the youngest of four “crazy-ass” boys, life could be pretty tough in the Heard household. For years, his brothers nicknamed him Batboy, on account of losing two teeth after being unceremoniously thrust into the corner of his bunk bed courtesy of an Irish Whip. While his father served much of his 23 years behind bars throughout Aaron’s childhood, his mother did the best she could to raise her sons well.

“I was a weird kid,” he reflects. “I was timid and soft-spoken, but at the same time I was a little shithead. Me and all my friends were always doing stupid shit, trying to get into trouble, like throwing rocks and eggs at houses – anything we could do to get by, have fun and fight boredom. I knew that I was doing bad shit, but I didn’t care.”

Due to his undiagnosed neurodivergence, school was understandably challenging. He could ace tests and soak up knowledge, but applying himself to homework just wasn’t going to happen. Not when there was fun stuff to do instead, like skateboarding. It was through that he’d inadvertently discover breadcrumbs that would lead him down a path nobody could have ever seen coming.

Music had always been around, however, particularly that of Philly’s own soul chanteuse Jill Scott and English R&B duo Floetry, while hip-hop dominated his brothers’ stereo. Like so many others of a certain age, Aaron’s intro to the alternative came via the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater videogame soundtrack, and an interest in punk eventually sprouted as a result. Metal didn’t come into the picture until much later, although he does recall seeing a Metallica album secreted away in one brother’s room, a source of some surprise given the piss-taking he’d endured from his siblings as a result of his own tastes.

“My brothers weren’t stoked about me liking rock music,” he admits. “They still talk a little shit about it from time to time. But I had to branch out to try to be my own person. I knew other kids who liked it because we were all skateboarding together, so there were always people putting new music in my face. I remember some of my school friends loved Rancid, but back then that may as well have been black metal to me – it sounded so crazy. Eventually, I fell into listening to local bands and seeing peers play shows. I became hyper-fixated on that, wondering how I could do it, too.”

There was one problem with that…

“I knew it was weird and not normal for a black teenager, so I kept it to myself for a while,” he admits, sadly, recalling how he had to wait until everyone was out if he wanted to practice singing at home. “I didn’t want to be judged by the people who loved me, or feel like an outsider, even though I am. Now I just don’t give a fuck.”

Although he refuses to be drawn on which band he was listening to, Aaron does know the exact moment he finally discovered the power of his voice.

“I was driving around in a shitty Ford Focus, my first car, screaming along when it clicked,” he remembers. “I don’t really like to give anyone credit for that, but let’s just say I had my eureka moment. It wasn’t until I found that outlet that I’d found my sense of self. After that, I loved doing it and it was the only thing I cared about for years and years.”

In the time since and the many miles of distance travelled in between, Aaron has come a long way on a personal level, too.

“There wasn’t much to go off of,” he confesses. “I didn’t have aspirations and when you have no path in life shit can go south pretty quickly. This is what I’ve found for myself.”

Now a father to three-year-old son Leo, he’s determined to make the most of the opportunities before him and to be the example he never had in life.

“The biggest part of being a father is to confront all the things that I feel I may have failed, or where I feel people have failed me, to make sure that I don’t do that to my son.”

Some dudes will literally get onstage in front of strangers and scream to the point of blackout every night... instead of going to therapy. And hey, that’s perfectly fine.

“If I didn’t have Jesus Piece, I’d probably be in jail, to be honest with you,” Aaron sombrely surmises. “[Before] I was fighting a lot, acting like a fucking crazy person, drinking my head off and I just didn’t really have a positive outlet for life. I didn’t have somewhere to sort out my emotions or have much emotional intelligence, so I was lashing out at people who didn’t deserve it and being a shithead. It took a while for me to treat people a lot better.”

If you weren’t familiar with his band, their music and the all-out assault of their live performances, you might find that portrait difficult to comprehend. It’s certainly at odds with the image of the bespectacled gent who jovially twirls his beard before K! today. Watch or listen to Jesus Piece for even a moment, however, and it becomes somewhat easier to believe. This is visceral, real, lived-experience trauma played out on wax and relived onstage night after night.

You can see it for yourself when Jesus Piece are on tour. When he returns home from the road, Aaron goes right back to just being a dad and a regular guy who works in a record store, and picks up shifts in bars and Ubers now and then to make ends meet. Music this confrontational doesn’t make rich men of many, after all. There are no five-year plans or promises made to anyone. Still, that’s preferable to the way things might have worked out, had they not worked out at all.

It’s not overstating the case to say that Jesus Piece has not only saved Aaron Heard’s life but given it purpose beyond anything he ever had any reason to imagine.

“It gave me something to look forward to at a point in my life when I didn’t care about anything,” he admits. “I didn’t want to be doing anything. I really didn’t want to be here. To find a purpose in music, and to find a purpose in heavy metal is awesome. It’s a blessing, really.”

And should he ever find himself losing grip on the gift of that purpose, a bit of brotherly love will no doubt put him right.

“I love my brother Kenneth dearly, so I invited him out to a show once,” Aaron recalls, illustrating how much has changed – yet in another sense how little has changed. “We went out to the bar to grab a drink together, but the entire time people kept talking to me and he was like, ‘Yo, I just thought you were a fucking weirdo, but people really care about you, huh?’ Oh, gee, thanks motherfucker, that’s real nice. My brothers don’t pull any punches. To them, I’m still that weird-ass little brother. That’s how it’s always going to be.”

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