Exclusive Interview: BLEAK

Bleak art by Bobby Gorham

Syracuse, NY’s Bleak are set to release their debut full-length, We Deserve Our Failures, shortly through Hex Records. The album takes their violently heavy, despondent sound to a darker, more aggressive level and captures the chaotic, visceral fury that encompasses their brand of sludge-infused metallic hardcore. In this recent American Aftermath interview, the members of Bleak discuss We Deserve Our Failures, the band’s inception, their eluding sound and more.

You’ve all been involved in Syracuse’s metal/hardcore/punk scene in various bands before Bleak. How did the band come together?
Nick [drums]: We were all in a spot where our respective bands had either broken up or gone on hiatus. Mine and Matt’s old band Blood Money had just split up, TJ’s bands were on hiatus and our original vocalist Mike didn’t have anything going on. TJ and I had been in a band called Cowards so we decided to all get together and start writing. It was originally going to be more of a studio thing, the plan was to not play many shows at all. But once we got started we knew that we could do a lot more with it. After Mike left we were searching for a new vocalist, but after just one practice with Skot, we knew he would be the guy.
Skot [vocals]: I joined the band after they had been together for about a year. I saw their Facebook post about needing a vocalist, tried out, nailed it and went out on a weekend tour with them. I must not have done that bad and I’m still around.

We Deserve Our Failures is your debut full-length. How are you feeling about how the album turned out?
Skot: Very proud. I got to really let loose and do a lot of really cool things vocally that I’m excited for people to hear. The record does a great job of conveying to the listener the intensity and aggression that are a big part of our live shows.
Nick: Great! We worked with Doug White at Watchmen Studios in Lockport, NY and he knew exactly what we were going for. Working with him was insanely easy. He used to record a ton of early hardcore/metal releases, especially Syracuse bands, so it was really cool being in the same studio that a lot of albums I grew up listening to were recorded at. Plus he’s done a bunch of the Brutal Truth albums and that’s just awesome.
Matt [bass]: I am very happy with the record, and I have listened to it multiple times a day since we got the master copy. Doug did a great job capturing the chaos that is Bleak. The record sounds like a live show – as it should.

What was the writing process like for this release?
TJ [guitar]: The writing process is mostly myself writing the material in my head over the course of many weeks in sporadic flashes here and there until I have a firm grip of each instrument’s parts in the song. Once that is done I bring it to the rest of the band and from there some tweaking will occur until it is just right. After that we just practice the song over and over again, relentlessly until it becomes muscle memory, and then Skot throws his vocals on top of it to complete the song. Even though vocals are one fourth or sometimes one fifth of a song’s instrumentation, sonically it is more like one half, or at least the tool that changes the song from an ocean of parts to a single wave.
Skot: We’ve been playing some of the songs, like “Handicapper General” and “Century of Youth” for a while. We never recorded them so they were always kind of amorphous for me. I would always be trying out different patterns and pitches at practice and on tours. It gave me the chance to present to the band and to try things with people at shows and get their reactions and use that to help write the songs. Other songs like “Deficit” and “Starvation Plague” are pretty new to me so it was hard for me to commit to parts before recording. I think though that those songs capture a different kind of performance that is more like frayed nerves sparking frantically than the contrasting coldly calculated viciousness that I was able to develop with the other songs.
Nick: TJ basically has a whole library of songs and riffs stored in his head. He’d come to practice every day with something new to work on and then we’d just flesh it out around those ideas. Hell, TJ even comes up with new stuff on the road. I’ll see him sitting at the back of the venue looking very focused and concentrated and I know he’s coming up with some new riff or song. All of the vocal patterns/lyrics are Skot.

The album follows the band’s recent split and 2014 EP. How do you feel the band has evolved? How does this new material differ?
Nick: It’s still an expansion of what we were doing then, we’ve just become more focused in our writing. There’s still the heavy, chaotic stuff we did on the EP, but with some more of the kind of stuff we were writing with “Princip” off the split. We’ve just tried to explore more of the kind of stuff we’ve been working on and trying new things.
Skot: Two of the songs on the EP were songs the guys had being playing with their previous singer Mike for a while before I was involved. I based what I was doing on some recordings I had of them playing “Bridge Burner” and “Simple” with Mike and used mostly his lyrics. So with this record it’s more representative of my styles and influences. The songs I wrote on the EP were knee-jerk reactions to the music, whereas the songs on the album were things I had time to sit with and work on for longer.
Matt: I would like to think that we are simply getting better at being Bleak. That is what TJ always says the best bands do.

What was the recording process like for We Deserve Our Failures?
Skot: Doug White at Watchmen Studios in Buffalo is a professional and an amazing person to have on the other side of the glass. He wasn’t afraid to say, “Let’s try that part again” or “I’m not sure what you’re trying there, but it sucks so let’s try something else.” He had the perfect balance between his input and direction, and still letting me do my thing. The history of that place and Doug’s career was an inspiration in and of itself.
TJ: Easy and straight forward. Doug White works at your pace and was just laying it down. We essentially recorded everything in three days and mixed and mastered the fourth. Everyone knew exactly what we were going for, so there was no experimentation or second-guessing; no flare or post-production glitter.
Nick: It was easy and to the point. The whole thing was tracked, mixed and mastered in four days. Doug was so on point with everything that there was none of that back and forth second-guessing that can happen in the studio. He heard our previous releases, knew our influences, watched live footage of us, so he knew exactly what we were going for. The best part was actually talking about hardcore history and old bands I hadn’t thought of in so long.

There are a lot of different elements and styles that converge in Bleak. How do you describe the band’s sound?
Skot: I love this question. One of the really cool things about Bleak is that since we never impose any labels on the music ourselves people are left to their own devices to come up with ways to describe us. People comb through the huge dragnet of all of our influences coming together in these songs and coming to us saying, “You sound like this band!” or putting these sub-genre haikus together for us that are completely different from one person to the next. We get called a hardcore band, a sludge band, death metal, so many. One guy said we sound like Botch and another says, “For fans of Cattle Decapitation.” One of the flyers for our upcoming tour lists us as a blackened death metal band. It’s great!
Matt: The thing I like most about our band is that we can fit comfortably on pretty much any “extreme music” bill. When I book tours, I often purposely book us on shows featuring different genres of heavy music. It’s not uncommon for Bleak to play a death metal show Friday, a noise/experimental show Saturday and a straight forward hardcore/punk show on Sunday. This is because Bleak has so many varied influences, but at the same time, it’s all coming from TJ and the rest of us – it’s all Bleak. People often hear their own tastes/influences when they hear a band that they really connect with. When something, especially art or music, has great meaning to a person, it becomes more than the literal meaning; it becomes something very personal. We’ve been called a hardcore band, a sludge band and everything in between. At the end of the day it’s all punk, it’s all rock’n’roll. When someone tells me we sound like something that I would have never even considered comparing us to, I take it as a compliment.

There’s an extremely aggressive, deprecating vibe to the music. What are you influenced by?
Nick: The biggest influences are Neurosis and Tom Waits. Outside of that, it’s bands like Eyehategod, Crowbar, Coalesce, Turmoil, etc.
TJ: Coalesce, Neurosis, Eyehategod, Dragbody, Burnt by the Sun, Bloodlet, Turmoil, All Else Failed, Disembodied, Overcast, and Type O Negative.
Matt: The negativity that Bleak conjures is all about catharsis – all four of us need it. We all have some of the same, and also some varied, influences. We often say that Bleak‘s biggest influence is Tom Waits. Bands like the Melvins and Unsane really shaped my playing style and what I listen to, as far as tone and songwriting goes. Rosetta and Damiera (now Hidden Hospitals) really influenced and inspired me. Those bands have incredible work ethic; I learned a lot from following and booking bands like that.
Skot: Cannibal Corpse and all the old school metalcore I listened to as a kid. Life and music. Being in a band, touring and playing all the time is still way cheaper than a therapist.

Lyrically, is there a specific theme behind the album? Why the title We Deserve Our Failures?
Skot: It’s not a concept album, but each song is structured in its own way to be a concept in itself. Some of the songs are about stories, others are diatribes. “Eternal Silent Darkness” is just trying to be as depressive as possible. We made this big list of titles, mostly lyric fragments, and went through one by one until we got to that line and TJ and I looked at each other and said, “Yup.” The album title is the title because it’s true. For some people there isn’t much that they can do about their failures, but for a lot of us there is so much that we can do, but choose not to or pretend that we can’t. As a whole I think we do deserve our failures.

You’re heading out on your first national tour. What can people expect from your live performance?
Skot: Intense Volume Worship. Bring earplugs so when we come back you’ll still be able to hear, and wear boots because I will be very excited and I will probably step on your feet.
Nick: It’s going to be a lot of stuff off the new album as well as some stuff off of our EP and split. We’re also going to be testing out some new stuff from an upcoming EP.
Matt: Bleak is pure emotional output, it is catharsis. I do not think any of us would be able to function day to day without Bleak, I know I couldn’t. I get myself all worked up before we play. We practice pretty rigorously, all our songs become muscle memory before we play them live. I am not thinking about hitting the correct notes when we’re is playing a set – I am thinking about the reasons that I need the band. Playing a set is a tolling experience for me, both emotionally and physically; if it is not the same for the audience, we don’t deserve to be there playing. Bleak is more than a band, it is a way of getting by; Bleak is a way to be okay. I want people to understand that we NEED to be doing this band. I want our live show to be punishing and damn near hard to sit through.

Thanks for the interview! Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Nick: Just to check out some great bands we’ve had the pleasure of meeting and becoming friends with: Sovereign, Ides, Sangharsha, Ohne-Ka & the Burning River, OLDBONES, Sunflo’er, Dialysis, Sunrot, Plague Mask, Hindsight… to name a few.
Matt: If anyone reading this is in a band (or wants to start a band) and wants to tour, just know that you can. If you really want it, if you’re actually willing to set aside or even give up your luxuries, you can just go out and do it. There is a general sense among many bands we meet that doing what we are doing is impossible; it’s not. It just won’t be easy, and a lot of it will not be fun, but I promise, you can do it. Go on the Internet and just ask people to book your band. Nine out of ten of them will say, “No,” but do not stop trying. Start a band, book shows so that you can see the bands you want to see come to your town, book shows as favors to other bands. Just fucking do it. I have made some of the best friends that I have in my life through booking Bleak tours. Bleak would be nothing without the people who have supported us. We would be nothing without HEX Records, Blasphemour Records, Gorham Brothers Music, and The Black Arts Studio…. to name a few.

We Deserve Our Failures is out soon via Hex Records. Check out the track “Death by 1000 Cuts,” which is streaming over at Exclaim! and catch Bleak on their US tour (dates below).

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