Jacob Bannon on the accessibility of Converge's music: "We're not made for first-level listeners"

Converge (due tonight at the Marquis Theater with Git Some and Glass Hits) is one of the most influential of the what some might call post-hardcore or metalcore acts still going. Formed in the early '90s in Salem, Massachusetts, Converge fused a musical precision with the articulation of a cathartic outrage that couldn't be contained by traditional punk and was too far outside the boundaries of acceptable emotional expressions for most metal.

The band's 2001 album, Jane Doe, proved epochal for a loose movement of groups that mixed aggressive sounds with socially conscious messages grounded in concrete, personal experiences. Rather than just using thrash riffs in the context of more frenetic music, Converge has challenged itself with each release to expand its horizons as a band. And the group's eruptive live show reputation hasn't exactly faltered. We recently had the opportunity to speak with Converge's frontman Jacob Bannon about why he graduated high school early, and a host of other subjects from anime to the perils of the fake interview.

Westword: On the History section of your website, it says you graduated from high school early. What made you want to graduate early?

Jacob Bannon: My genuine dislike for it. No, I really didn't enjoy going to school and never did. As opposed to dropping out -- my brother got kicked out and then later dropped out -- I did not want to do that and decided that I would be a more bright individual and finish, and then go to college, but do everything as quickly as possible. I was not interested in staying there and being miserable.

I approached my assistant principal at the time and told him that I was done. He said, "That's fine." They had a program to get me out of school early. I met those requirements, and I was done, and I started working at that point in my life. A couple of months later, I went to college. It was maybe a third of the way through my senior year. I was young, as well, and I also graduated from college relatively early at 21. It all worked out for me.

Your history also says you worked odd jobs until you went to college. What kinds of jobs did you work, and was going to college always your plan, or was it tempting, in some ways, to keep working odd jobs?

No, I went to art school, and I was just kind of working on the side for a variety of record labels I was friends with at the time. And working for bands. Odd jobs, when I was going to school: unloaded trucks, building furniture, ran stock rooms for furniture places -- stuff like that. [I was] just working my way through school and living in a fairly expensive city that's not exactly friendly to kids that are having to go to work and go to school at the same time.

It was a little difficult to do that. I enjoyed it, it was character-building and it was fun. But it was just a really busy four years working. Working 30 to 36 hours a week and going to school full time is a demanding thing, like having two full-time jobs. It also prepared me for my life of multi-tasking, which I continue to do. I enjoy forward movement, I enjoy working at that pace. I'm always doing multiple things. It's just kind of something I thrive in, I think.

The first Converge album came out about the same time you started college. Was it much of a balancing act on your part between your studies and being in a serious band?

It came out before, actually. The first Converge album, I released with money I earned from working at a nursing home kitchen, washing dishes and mopping floors and stuff. That was one of the things I did right when I got out of high school. I did that for a while. It was a nice character-building job being the only Caucasian in the kitchen.

It was fun to experience reverse racism, which I think everybody in the world should experience, to realize how unfair the world is, at times, for other people that aren't necessarily Caucasian and not necessarily lower middle class, you know. But, yeah, I took the money I made doing that and put out our first 12-inch.

We were kind of part time at that point. We weren't moving at the rate we do now. Punk rock was a different kind of animal at that time. There were shows like every two months. But at the time our touring was relegated to vacations, summers and things like that. I could only take a leave of absence for only so much time from my job. Kurt [Ballou] was going to college at the time for Biomedical Engineering. We were pretty busy, so we did the band when we could. Usually tours would be two or three week runs in the summer. That was pretty common for most hardcore bands and punk rock bands at the time.

You taught at the Art Institute of Boston after you graduated. What did you teach, and what did you try to convey to your students that they might not have learned from another instructor?

I just sort of fell into it. I taught Principles of Illustration and Design. It was basically a continuing education course for high school kids that were coming into college, to prep for college and art school, and also, people over forty trying to get into the design world and the typographical world later in life. It was fun. As to what I brought to the table at that point, I have no idea. You'd have to ask them. I taught what I was supposed to, got paid a meager wage, appreciated the experience but I couldn't afford to do it at that point. I had to do my own thing to make ends meet.

Supermachiner is named for Giant Robot Toys from Japan in the 1970s. How did you becoming exposed to that sort of thing, and what about it continued to appeal to you into adulthood?

Growing up, we had on television here Starblazers, Force Five -- like that. A lot of people of, I guess, my generation who are probably in our mid-to-late thirties, that was the equivalent of their cartoon experience, at least the ones that had taste. The other ones were just watching bullshit.

On the Overall Advice section of your website, I think you do give people some good advice on life in general. Is that all stuff you always knew? What was the catalyst for the idea of learning to be poor but dedicated?

Oh, being an artist, you know? Maybe not being an artist so much as just doing what you love. I know people that are self-employed that work incredibly hard and have lean years and have great years. But you have to endure through hardship to get anything in life. It's sort of general stuff that a newer generation of kids don't necessarily understand or comprehend right away.

I get asked that question a lot so I just wanted to put it out there and put it in as simple terms as possible for anyone to understand. I usually get, "I'm in a band. How long should I do it for until I give up and do something else?" or "I'm an artist, how do I make it?" You're making it if you enjoy doing it, that's it. There's probably some spectacular artists that are baristas that you'd never know, or that pump gas, you know what I mean? It doesn't matter as long as you love what you're doing.

Why do you feel that collaborative learning is important, and how has it benefited you greatly of late as an artist learning from others?

Learning from other peoples' creative process, artistic process. It's just one of those things. You see people working at a different pace, whether it be faster or slower or just completely different from what you experience normally. It helps shape how you do things. You might learn from it in the sense that you go, "I don't want to do that. I don't want to work at that pace again." But sometimes you do pick up something useful and that's a positive tip.

You've toured extensively. What do you feel were the most important things you learned as a touring performer that you think other people should know that they haven't learned or what they should learn before they go out on the road?

They should learn to be grateful for it and appreciate the ability to travel. Do you know how many people there are that don't get to travel and see and experience stuff in this world? They just don't. They're stuck in the city or town they grew up in, and that's it. That's their life. I personally feel really lucky to be able to go do stuff. But I don't see myself as any different from my friends that don't. I just get to. So I'm just fortunately to be able to do that stuff.

December 5th was the thirty year anniversary of the album Damaged. Was that album and Black Flag an influence on what you've done in any way?

Oh definitely. Any early punk and hardcore, especially the work ethic that I personally have and that I know, collectively, my band members have, is something that's inspired by people like early Black Flag members and bands that went out and had to really fight to get paid and fight for respect. They truly had to put their heart and soul into things.

A lot of people misconstrue what our band is. A lot of people think our band has more in common with, I guess, contemporary metallic hardcore or things that are more commercially viable. The thing is, we're not. We're incredibly abrasive. We're not made for first level listeners to get our music.

I always think it's hysterical like if I ever stumble upon some comments about our band that are like, "Yeah, they play too fast and I can't understand what the guy is saying. He's just screaming." Hey, you clearly have no experience with death metal and aggressive punk rock and hardcore that was emotive and isn't necessarily meant to be that.

We don't have soaring, melodious choruses and hooks like that. We come from a way different place, a way more extreme place. I think we have more in common with a straight death metal or a grind band. I guess I'm just saying that just in terms for people to understand what we are other than the more poplar bands to which some people equate us.

It's just weird to me. They truly don't understand what we are. Some of them eventually grow to. But we come from a different world. That world, for us, is inspired by those early bands like the Black Flags and Rorschachs of the world and the Born Againsts of the world -- bands that just sort of go against the grain, not because it's fun to, but it's because our tastes and our artistic drives demand it.

I read an interview that made me laugh from a blog I think is called Lolhead. It was supposedly done early this year. There's a lot of silly stuff asked of you and you, if it indeed was you, give them some pretty interesting answers. Do you remember this interview?

I don't. Is it a real interview?

I'm not sure, so I thought I'd verify that with you.

There's a few fake ones out there.

It mentioned being in a hotel room and eating crunch berries.

Oh, that one's fake. People think it's entertaining to make fake interviews of people. In a way I think it is funny. But the strange thing is, for me, is that I'm not a dark, mysterious person. I have dark moments, and I think my art and music is pretty human, and if that happens to come across as dark or complex, it is what it is.

I'm a very approachable person. I'm a very accessible person. I'm a very accessible person in various forms. People email me every day asking me questions about stuff. People call. I try to actively post on message boards and use social networking where people have an interest in what we do so they can ask questions and be engaged in a very personal way.

So I think that sort of thing would probably be more interesting and funny for an artist that puts up a lot of walls and wants to be perceived a certain way. But I don't. If somebody asks me a question about a collectible record, I'll answer it, you know? I don't come up with some bullshit, overly poetic statement. I just answer questions and communicate with people.

Here's the thing. Making music and art is a very selfish thing. I've said that before. You make it to express yourself, you make it to get something out of you creatively -- to kind of put yourself into something. Once you're done with it and you offer it to an audience and you make it public, I think they can interpret it; they can do whatever they want with it. But it's out there in the public, so if they want to talk to me about a song I wrote ten years ago, I'll talk to them about it if it affects them in some way.

Because, number one: I appreciate the fact that they even give a shit. Number two: I feel you owe it to your audience to just be connected to them. And to engage them in conversation. I'm not going to just say, "I don't know. Listen to the record." I may not be able to give them the answer that they wanted to hear but I will definitely talk to and communicate with people. I try to answer as many emails and comments as I can. So I just try to make myself accessible.

It's funny when people try to make up crap, but it's boring because it's not like I'm a mysterious guy. People think Danzig is mysterious because he lives in a black house in L.A. with a gate, so nobody can go to it. He's probably not that mysterious. He probably has his good days and his bad days.

People think it's hilarious to take a picture of him buying kitty litter. I guess it's funny, but he's got a cat. What do you expect him to do? I pick up dog shit three times a day. I don't care. I've got a dog. That's my life. I accept that. Do you expect Danzig to have someone to usher in his kitty litter? Like secretly at night? No! Fuckin' guy has to clean his kitty box of shit.

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.