ATP! Interview: Kurt Ballou (Converge)
Alter The Press! caught up with Kurt this summer to discuss the new album, self-sufficiency and the evolution of Converge - the high school band that never broke up.
Alter The Press: You've just come from playing Resurrection and Off festivals in Spain and Poland, respectively. How did those go for you?
Kurt: Resurrection was really good. It was in a really beautiful kind of isolated area. It was a fun show and we played well. It was the first show we'd played in quite a long time, though. We actually didn't even have a chance to practise before we started this tour, so it was a little nerve racking, but we had a little hotel room unplugged jam before the set and we got through it okay. Off was neat. It wasn't really a big festival. It was sort of like a Sunday in the park, put a blanket out on the grass and have a picnic kind of festival. We were the only sort of heavy band on the bill, but there was some really interesting music there and a lot of bands I hadn't heard of that I watched and really enjoyed. Mazzy Star played, which was neat because they're a band I really liked a lot in my high school days. Even now - I still listen to them once in a while. But I'd never seen them before so it was cool to finally see them. That's one of my favourite things about playing festivals. Some festivals are more all-round heavy, aggressive music kind of deals, which is cool, but others that we play are more general; you'll see Converge, Die Antwoord, Prince and Motorhead or whatever on the same bill, so you get this wide array of music that you wouldn't otherwise see, and I really enjoy that. The Converge sets at festivals aren't really true Converge shows, you know? We're much more of a club band where there's no barricade between the audience and the band and we can all participate - there's that feeling of togetherness rather than there being an "audience" and "entertainer" divide.
ATP: Can you describe the direction you've taken with "All We Love We Leave Behind"?
Kurt: I think it's a logical progression for Converge. It still sounds like Converge, we're still using the same vocabulary that we've used on the last few records and it's still the same writing team, so it's not totally out of left field, but we do push ourselves towards doing something different. One thing that we always try to do is make sure that each song has its own personality, because a lot of bands that are our contemporaries tend to write songs that are all in the same key with riffs and parts that might be interchangeable from song to song, so we really try to make sure each song is its own entity. In comparison, our last album was more of a long, flowing piece of work, where as this record is really just a bunch of self-contained songs. It's more like a collection of singles. I wouldn't say that there are no stand-out songs, because at least I like to think that they're all stand-out, but every song is apart from the others. It's a set of strong Converge songs, each of which is different to the previous. I know the thing that differentiates it from the previous albums is that we didn't collaborate with any of our friends or any other artists. All the production, the playing, the songwriting, the artwork and everything involved with the creative process for this record was done by the band.
ATP: When you approach a new record, do you make a conscious effort to do something different?
Kurt: We're never really very premeditated about that, we just want to follow our inspiration. When we start writing together, I'll bring in some ideas and we'll just go where the inspiration takes us rather than trying to marry ourselves to the idea of where we should be going. There's not this idea that the songs already exist, we're just not finding them. So, we just go where the song tells us to go, and because it's all filtering through the same minds that created the other Converge albums - even things that at that first listen might not feel like Converge - it becomes a Converge song by the time we get done flushing it out.
ATP: Converge have been together for 20 years now and you and Jacob [Bannon, vocals] have been involved from the very beginning. Looking back on that, how do you feel like you've developed as a band?
Kurt: I feel like Converge wasn't really Converge until Nate [Newton, bassist] and Ben [Koller, drums] joined. I've said this before, but when most people start bands, they'll start in high school - that's like their first band and they're still learning how to play, then that band will stick around for a couple of years and then they break up, then they start their next band in University and that'll be a little better but it's still not quite there, then by the time they start their third or fourth band then - if they're still playing music - they're on the path they really want to be on, playing with people they want to play with. Converge is a high school band that never broke up. Jake was 14 when we started and I was 17. Jake had actually been playing with some of the original guys even before that under a different name, since he was 12 or 13 or something. So the first ten years of Converge is you hearing that development that usually occurs under different band names, it just happens to be under the moniker of Converge. We were just trying to find our sound, learning how to play, trying to find the right people to play with. Nate joining was a big step because then I finally had another songwriter in the band. Before Nate I was the only songwriter and I didn't really have anybody else to act as my checks and balances, so any idea I had just ended up being used because no one was there to say "dude, that sucks" or "let's do this differently" or something like that. Nate and I are good at helping push each other towards getting the most out of each other. Then Ben came in we finally had someone with the ability and the vocabulary to actually bring our ideas to life and make them better. That's what's great about playing in a band where you have a true musical collaboration and you respect each other - you respect the other players and you have trust in them, and if you have that, then the collaboration between those people is always going to make your ideas better. Even though I write most of the music, I need to play with those guys to make the songs better. I couldn't do what I do without them.
ATP: As the main songwriter, do you have a typical writing process?
Kurt: I've classically been the musical director in the band. Most of the ideas will start with me and most of them will end with me, but that's not true across the board, of course. There are songs that Nate has written totally on his own, there are songs that'll start with a drum beat that I'll try to fit notes around. We try not to be married to having a specific writing process for every song. Each song ends up coming about in different ways, which I like, because I think that's one of several tools we use to not have every song sounding the same.
ATP: What would you say are the main positives of producing your own music? Are there any downsides to it?
Kurt: The downside is that you lack objectivity and you tend to over-think things. I know I over-think things, but the positive is that no one else is going to know what my band should sound like better than I do and no one else is going to care about what my band sounds like more than I do. No one is going to put as much work into it as I will, and that was sort of the turning point when I started handling all the Converge production; when my ability level got to the point where, even if there were other engineers that were better than me, the fact that I cared more and would put more effort into it started to overshadow my shortcomings as an engineer.
ATP: As a band, Converge are a totally self-sufficient organism. How influential are DIY ethics on your musical output?
Kurt: Music is a creative outlet, so the more control you have over your own music the more it is a representation of what and who you are. The more that you do for your band, not only in terms of the record and the artwork and designing t-shirts, but also booking shows, driving your band, fixing your van, building guitars, you know? It's not DIY for the sake of DIY or for some allegiance to some DIY god, it's just the idea that the more of yourself you put into the creation and distribution of your own music, the more ownership you take over it and the more important it becomes to you. It becomes your whole life: a representation of who you are and how you present yourself to the world. Even the people that we work with outside of the band are all close friends of ours - former roadies, guys from bands we toured with, stuff like that, so when we don't do things internally we always try to keep a closed economy and have our peers doing tasks for us that maybe we can't do ourselves.
ATP: As someone who is constantly creating music, do you find that it's hard to switch off?
Kurt: It's hard, I haven't actually been listening to a lot lately. With being on tour and recording other bands, I'm been concentrating on music for 10-12 hours per day so it's hard to put on music where I can tune-out and just enjoy it, but I do, like when I'm driving I'll put on music, usually on shuffle mode. I definitely don't listen to much aggressive music outside of my work life, unless I'm listening to a band a deciding whether to record them. Even lately, when I'm driving, I just listen to science shows and stuff on NPR. I try to educate my mind when I can!
ATP: Converge have a live DVD out soon. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
Kurt: It's still in the works. We're not really sure when it's going to be released, but it's a mix of live footage and interviews and stuff like that. We've got a backlog of maybe ten years of decent sets. There's some really special ones from Japan. It should be better put together than our previous DVD… It'll definitely be better than going to YouTube and looking up Converge videos, you know? It'll be edited down sort of like a "Greatest Hits".
ATP: Looking back on such a long and consistent career, is there an album that you've worked on - either as a musician or a producer - that you feel most proud of?
Kurt: It's tough to play favorites for me. I don't have a best friend or a favorite food or a favorite movie or anything like that. To me it's more about the process of feeling less like I need to continue to create. The product isn't what I'm proud of, I'm proud of the fact that I get to do this continuously, but I am pretty proud of the last four Converge albums. I think starting from "Jane Doe", I'm pretty proud of everything we've done. That album was definitely a turning point, that's the first Converge record that I was really proud of, but I'm equally as proud if not more so of everything we've done since then, but I'm mostly just proud that I get to continue to do it. I would like to be able to diversify the music that I produce in terms of bands that I'm recording as well as my own personal creative output, but it's difficult to leave something that I'm good at behind to do something that I'm not as good at. I'm hoping that in the future some time will free up and I'll be able to explore some other outlets.
ATP: Is there anybody you're currently working with that you're stoked about?
Kurt: The next thing I'll be doing when I'm back from tour is producing on the new Kvelertak album. They're a band from Norway. I recorded their last album and it turned out to be a good record for them. They're doing really well. I've heard demo's for the new one and I think it's going to be even better, so I'm excited about that.
"All We Love We Leave Behind" is out now via Epitaph/Deathwish.