Sunday, October 7, 2012

Evolved as One: When Grinders Go it Alone

In a nation of nearly 5 million souls, it's mathematically unlikely that Papirmollen is the only grind fiend calling Norway home, but you wouldn't guess that from his music. The Parlamentarisk Sodomi/PSUDOKU multi-instrumentalist prefers to operate solo. Think of it as a form of quality control.
"Bands with more than one person can have a bigger chance of low-quality results because of mass suggestion,  misunderstandings and contagious diseases," he said. "The members make each other believe they are creating beautiful  masterpieces when it truly is godforsaken stupid vomit music. When you're alone, you have a unique awareness of the  fact that roughly everything you make is tragic, unlistenable, no-quality shit, forevermore. You dislike most of your music so much that you wouldn't even play it to your worst enemy or their friends and loved ones, or anyone else. The  rest of the music you release."
The popular conception of the one man band probably involves some tortured black metal misanthrope whose Nietzschean soul shrivels at the thought of contact with the untermenschen. But the last decade has seen a boom in solo grind projects. Driven by necessity, aided by technology and pursing a single-minded musical focus, solo musicians are holding their own with full bands and pushing grindcore further into the uncharted edges of the map. Along with Papirmollen's outfits, Gigantic Brain, Body Hammer, Standing on a Floor of Bodies, Jesus of Nazareth, Liberteer, Exploding Meth Lab and Wadge have all filtered grindcore through one man's idiosyncratic vision.

I'm a Loner, Dottie, a Rebel.

Starting a one man band is not necessarily indicative of someone who failed the "works and plays well with others" portion of their kindergarten experience. For many of them, a solo project lets them dabble
in artistic impulses that wouldn't fit with their regular bands.
Ryan Page said Body Hammer, the one man creepy electro-grind outlet that occupies any free time left over from neo-violence band Robocop, started as a solo operation out of necessity. He never intended for it to be a one man project, but he was never able to find collaborators that shared his unique vision.
"At the time I started I had tried a variety of bands with other people, and in every case it was a complete failure," he said. "The total ubiquity of the internet has changed this in recent years, but around 2001 through 2007, in rural New Hampshire and then Maine, it was nearly impossible to find dedicated musicians interested in making the kind of music I care about."
However, some stereotypes exist for a reason. Serial solo grinder Mason repeatedly drifted in and out of Enemy Soil's transit before striking out on his own with Exploding Meth Lab and Lysergic Rites of Sadopriest.
"It took me many years to figure out that I am really fucking terrible in a band situation," Mason said. "I don’t enjoy playing live, I hate crowds, I lose interest in things very easily, and I don't think I'm capable of the sort of sustained enthusiasm or ego investment required to weather the shittier aspects of being in a band. Plus, I’m almost 40, I have a wife, a kid, a job I enjoy and I have zero interest in spending another minute of my life in a van with a bunch of smelly-ass dudes."
Mason said it was that experience in Enemy Soil-- watching ringleader Richard Johnson's insane work ethic and play-anywhere enthusiasm--that led him to strike out on his own.
"My motivations for playing music have always been pretty selfish; it’s really just for my own entertainment," Mason said. "I generally just get a stupid idea in my head and I like seeing if I can pull it off.  In my experience, trying to do that in band context just complicates things unnecessarily. One of the things I dislike most about being in a band is that everyone sort of needs to be equally invested for it to really work."
Working alone gives Mason the freedom to write and record at his leisure without the formality of bandmates screaming for new material or trying to schedule rehearsals. Instead, he can sit down to create as the inspiration strikes him.
"Being in a band with a bunch of dudes who are driven by that urge to play anytime, anywhere, regardless of circumstances , just to be doing it– for me, being in that situation is way more isolating than recording crap alone in my house," Mason said. "So to answer your question, doing solo stuff allows me to avoid turning something I do for fun into an obligation. This way, I’m not putting myself in a position to disappoint or frustrate friends who take it more seriously than I do.  I've already done that too many times."

Now the World is Gone I'm Just One.

While creating a musical kingdom all your own will free you up from nosy bandmates who keep trying to push their (obviously inferior) ideas on your pure musical vision, it also means practitioners need supreme confidence in their material. It also means thinking through every aspect of your music. In an ideal band situation, members are there to chip in ideas, edit song structures and collaboratively shape the output. Those who forgo the band experience have to learn to fill in the space that would otherwise be occupied by other bandmates and develop their own quality assurance protocols to weed out the crap.
Operating on his own with Body Hammer has altered Page's writing process. Unlike most other bands, Page said he begins Body Hammer songs begin with the drums and build up from that foundation, layering on riffs and samples and creepy noise.
"I am a moderately competent guitar player, but I will never have the subtle interplay of bass, guitar and drums that I get when working with people who are dedicated to refining how their instrument works in the larger context of a song," he said. "With that said, the simplicity of the basic track (guitars, drums and bass) leaves a considerable amount of room to work on top of that, which is often where the electronics come in."
When he's not backstopping Triac, Jake Cregger does his solo grinding as Jesus of Nazareth. A drummer by training, he said picking up other instruments to round out his solo material was not an option. Instead, he took a page from Ministry and CopShootCop and started sampling and splicing together weird sounds that would serve in lieu of riffs.
"I was still forming what I wanted and I had to learn how to record myself and acquire different sounds at the same time," he said. "This for me was such a great experience because being on my own provided a huge amount of freedom to learn about what I wanted and how to get it. Yes the burden was on me, but I viewed it as an open canvas or a huge free space in which I could run amok. Not in an self serving way, but I was just stepping into new territory and there were no boundaries.  Instead of riffs, I had audio samples which served as small unit sizes (similar to riffs) of material that I used to compose songs. So the idea was simple."
Calling something a "one man band" also conveniently glosses over the myriad other people in the background who help make the music happen but maybe don't see their contributions credited on the album.
While his may be the only name to grace the credits, Cregger said Jesus of Nazareth would not be possible without a bevy of others whose anonymous contributions keep him on track. When he hit a stumbling block or wanted to round Jesus of Nazareth out for live show, Cregger turned to his own stable of IT professionals including longtime friend Mason, drum machine grindfather Richard Johnson and Pig Destroyer's Blake Harrison.
"[P]eople are your finest resource and lot of what I have done as a 'one man band' has been with the help of close friends," Cregger. "Whether learning from their example or asking them for help, other people have been important, even in a one man band. You might know exactly what you want but not have the skill to get there. If you have friends with necessary skills that will tolerate direction, then you are in good shape and that is the position I feel I am in. Not only are my friends cool with me telling or asking them to do things but they will offer their own insight which I value and tell me if what I’m doing is absurd."
But sharing a solo project with others can create its own uncertainties and difficulties, Page said. Unlike band members who have an inkling of the overall musical goal, Page said bouncing Body Hammer ideas off of outsiders is more difficult.
"I will often show tracks in progress to other people, but I am somewhat careful about that, because ultimately I have the greatest familiarity with what I am trying to do, and how it will fit into a larger whole," he said. "It sounds totally arrogant, but it really is impossible to articulate the shape of a record you have in your head to someone else or to convince them that the steps you want to take will make sense once they are assembled. It requires a lot of trust and that's something I've had to get better at."

He's More Machine Now Than Man, Twisted and Evil.

A good chunk of one man grind bands bang out bug-zappered noise of the FX box variety, and practitioners say it's those technological advances that give them the freedom to grind solo. The ubiquity of sampling, programmable drumming and home recording equipment has obliterated barriers that may have once held promising musicians silent.
"The technology – the relative ease of use, the accessibility – is just mind-blowing! I love it," Mason enthused. "But I also feel really, really lucky to have been doing band stuff during a time when you had to go to a studio and pay some dumbass $75 an hour to do a godawful job of recording your demo - it was usually some shithead just biding his time until his horrendous funk metal band got a major label deal or something, who didn't have the vaguest idea of what grindcore was supposed to sound like - but that was kind of fun, too. It was an adventure and made you feel kind of legit, going into a ‘real’ studio. You felt invested in the process, and really doing a decent job, especially since you were blowing weed and burrito money on studio time."
Grindcore, in particular, may benefit from that cybernetic aesthetic, Cregger said, because of its demand for inhuman tempos. Now the technology is available to achieve speeds that are literally inhuman, even if that troubles the drummer somewhat.
"I can't play at a million bpm (and I think music by numbers in this way is pushing music in a bad direction) but computers can and suddenly guitar players have a decent sounding drum kit that can go as fast as they want it to go and then you get the seeds of a solo grind project being planted," he said.
"Drum programming is something that still totally confuses me," Mason said. "I love doing it- it’s actually one of my favorite parts of recording by myself- but I'm acutely aware that I don't know what the fuck I'm doing. I think having to learn what to do with recording, compressors, and drum programming has been the biggest learning curve for me,  I have a real 'path of least resistance' streak; I'll learn the absolute bare minimum I need to know to make something work. If I were smarter, I’d actually take the time and really learn the software, but I tend to treat it as just a glorified Tascam 4-track. And I’m totally fucking lost if something stops working. I’m the retard that’s like, trying to shove a grilled cheese sandwich into a USB port as a sacrifice to the angry Cubase gods or whatever.  'Please don’t delete those sweet-ass goregrind riffs!' "

One is the Loneliest Number.

Designating something a "one man band" may be as much a temporal description as it ontological. Case in point, solo grind pioneer Gigantic Brain reunited as a duo this year after a two year hiatus. Whatever the reason for going solo, musicians say the occasional collaborative impulse still needs an outlet.
Somewhere in between Standing on a Floor of Bodies' Teaching Pigs to Sing in 2010 and this year's Sacrilegious & Culturally Deficient, Mike Stitches tossed another corpse on the pile and brought in some lyrical and vocal help. Stitches said his antipathy to writing lyrics goes back to his days in Thousandswilldie, so bringing in Bvnny for the latest Standing on a Floor of Bodies record lightened the load.
"She'll remember words to songs and sing along with them in the car or at shows," Stiches said. "We caught the Death-to-all show in San Francisco and she knew the words to all these Death songs I'd been listening to for almost 20 years (and I still pretty much don't know the words). It's just easier to have someone more focused on that side of the music work on exactly that aspect of the project. Bvnny has known me long enough to understand the direction of the SOAFOB and knows that writing about something unrelated to the main ideas of the band weakens its overall personality. Nobody needs a shitload of songs about one thing, but I think it's better to be at least be about something."
The loss of control was more than an adequate trade for outsourcing the lyrical burden, Stitches said.
"Total control over a project isn't the most important part of working alone," he said. "It's exacting a vision that matters to me most. So, if I can still do that with someone's help, I'd much prefer that over doing something entirely on my own."
Matthew Widener singlehandedly composed, performed and recorded the most ambitious and intricate grindcore album of the year with his one man band Liberteer. Though the anarchist outfit will remain Widener's sole province, he has considered rounding up a band of collaborators to take his revolutionary show on the capitalist road.
"I can’t imagine collaborating with others on writing Liberteer. It would be a different beast. And it would be very hard to find someone who agreed politically, on top of the musicianship requirements," Widener said. "But recruiting a band to help play this live is more and more intriguing to me. Ideally, I wouldn’t even want to play an instrument, just go nuts and scream the lyrics, stomp around and pontificate. Oh, maybe I’ll play the banjo parts, yeah. I doubt I’ll do so in support of this album, but for the next album, I’d say the chances are definitely good. I want some horn players to join me, though."
Though both Jesus of Nazareth and Exploding Meth Lab would both be lumped in the "one man band" category, longtime friends Cregger and Mason not only shared a split with The Seedmouth Collection, but the two bands came together to collaborate on a handful of songs as well.
"Working with Mason on the Seedmouth stuff was very natural," Cregger said. "We share a lot of the same sensibilities and when you find people you are on the same wavelength with then those are the people with which you should obviously collaborate. Nothing is forced and you get [it] and I wouldn’t consider doing that with just anyone.  I hold Mason’s opinions in very high regard and he can tolerate me ranting about stuff I’m into, so I think we really were able to come together with zero conflict. I don’t even recall thinking we knew what it was gonna turn into. We just knew it was a step away from what we had done and we needed it to sound ugly. I’ve known Mason since I was about 15; we speak the same musical language. When you share history, creative language and taste then you are really a fool if you cannot make that work. I think we are both crippled by low self esteem problems so neither of us brought much ego to it and the idea of it as two one man bands working together doesn't even sit right with me."
Like a lot of bands though, Mason said there was a very clear musical driver to the collaboration. In his recollection, it was Cregger who drove the idea and saw the process through.
"Jake and I have been friends for several years, we’ve been in a couple of bands together and I love doing stuff with him because he's no bullshit," Mason said. "He's an amazing drummer. He has a very specific, unique idea of what he wants to accomplish, and I trust his instincts. For that stuff, I think he had a pretty firm idea of what he wanted. I had no problem whatsoever ceding control and just rolling with it, because I'm generally pretty fascinated by people who have such specific, unique ideas and it's really cool to help execute it.  I don’t think I’ve actually ever listened to that stuff, but it was definitely fun to record.  He’s another one of those totally committed dudes who just never stops, which I totally admire."
Mason admits that "self-sabotage" has scuttled more than one band experience for him. Even should he want to bring in collaborators or start a full band, he doesn't see it successfully coming to fruition.
"[I]t's safe to say that there is lots of evidence that I really lack the basic drive essential to being a good bandmate," Mason said. "Whether it’s a band practice, playing a show, being in the studio, whatever, nine times out of ten, I’d rather be at home taking a nap or watching shitty horror movies or something."


Perpetual Strife said...

Amongst your finest work, leaves a lot of names for me to look into; thanks.

Also, Papirmollen's quote was great and is totally what I expected other from the dude.

blasting D said...

yeah that's really a good post, it's good to know more what's behind the music. good effort and really worth it I think.

trevor said...

Wow simply amazing article. I have been doing solo grindcore for a little while ( ) and there is something very special about this type of music that I don't think I would have found playing with other people. not only is the musical vision unclouded, but i have this almost bizarre attachment to a genre that i've never experienced... grind is in everything...

Andrew Childers said...

hey trevor. i've heard your stuff. it's sitting in my hefty to-do pile for the time being. i hope to post something on it in the not too distant future.