“This album really became my diary." - John McAleer, Vices.
Last Wednesday night, the always honest vocalist for Vices, John McAleer, spoke with me over the phone late into the night about the band’s upcoming third record, ‘Now That I Have Seen I Am Responsible’. At its heart, this new album is still the Vices many know and love. Except that now, the band's heavy and emotional elements have been dialled right up to 11, and it's their darkest work to date in terms of thematic intent too. Oh, and 'Now That I Have Seen I Am Responsible' is by far, their most sonically polished record, and it's easy to see that working with producer Jay Mass really brought out the best in them, especially McAleer.
So, for our mammoth March Aussie Feature, I go balls deep with McAleer about the album's most important songs and their meanings, working under Mass, what helped to father and guide this album's core message, and how a huge weight will be lifted from his shoulders once it's released this week.
On Friday, March 17th, the dark, cathartic, and surprisingly heavy record that Vices slaved away over for a year will make its case known to the world. This album is the final result of the Sydney band’s musical tastes evolving into heavier territories, as well as the difficult times and personal struggles that frontman John McAleer experienced during the album's creation process.
“We’ve all been listening to slightly heavier music over the past year; more beatdown music, more fight music. We’ve also never had Jai [bassist] write with us before, and he’s one of those freaks who can play drums, guitars, and bass. For instance, the newest song that we just released, ‘Hell’, was all written by Jai and he writes differently than how Calum [Waldegrave, guitar] and Jake [Forrest, guitar] tend to do.”
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“Emotionally, life got crazy, as it often does. This album became my diary because everything for me happened right in the middle of writing it. And I think that’s really cool – it’s everything I have thought about and felt for the last year and a half. Back then, the whole theme of the album changed right then and there. The album that everybody is about to get is not the record we originally set out to write.”
As for what happened to McAleer, we'll get to that shortly. But as for the album's original theme, it was a solely political-based work and had none of the deeply personal, emotional influence of the vocalist. After all, the band has already done “two albums of all my insecurities and everything that I’ve struggled with” as McAleer puts it, and they wanted to instead write about all of the craziness they were seeing going on in the world.
Which is fair enough – there’s no shortage of topics or issues to cover in today’s world.
[caption id="attachment_1090301" align="aligncenter" width="650"] In a nutshell, 'Now That I Have Seen I Am Responsible' is short, fast, loud, angry, dark and heavy. It's good stuff, basically![/caption]
As for the album’s title, ‘Now That I Have Seen I Am Responsible’, it came when the record was a solely external, political piece. At its core meaning, the album is about rectifying one's own ignorance - intentional or not - and then combating those issues as best as they can.
“With songs like ‘Species’ [a very militant vegan song] and ‘Hell’ [which is about organised religion] a point is presented and then it challenges you with “What are you doing about this?” states John. “Something has to shift here. Whether its ‘Species’ that’s talking about animal rights, health and what’s viable for the planet, or whether its 'Hell' and religious extremism, something has to change for things to improve.”
With one of the album's most poignant tracks, ‘Hell’, the band saw some backlash to it, such as this comment on Facebook from one Karl Bolle saying, “That moment when you sound exactly like the proselytes you're presumably bashing.” Or this from one a Mr David Browne, chiming in that “I'll take Jesus over this sort of arrogance any day. You lost me.” Well, there's the door, buddy.
These comments are rather amusing as, over the past couple years, the band has had some big spiritual shift happening within. But to John - someone who underwent said faith and spiritual changes between their debut and their most excellent 'We'll Make It Through This' - he thinks that comments like that show some people really jumped the gun on the song and missed what it was actually about.
“When we released that song, some people thought that it was your typical religion bashing, and honestly, I don’t care so much what you believe just how it impacts the world. And I’m not saying I have an answer; we just need to shift how we behave around these issues. That’s also where the album’s title came from – you’re seeing all of this happening and what are you going to do about it as you’re now responsible.”
In McAleer's eyes, if you're not a part of the solution, you're part of the problem.
As you may have gathered by now, this album’s title is a call to action to ensure that we look out for our fellow humans – whether it be societal constructs impoverishing them or their personal relationships faltering and fracturing – to lend a hand and ask for help. For we are all responsible for one another, and as hardcore bands for decades now have preached, we are all one big community. Even more so, it’s to ensure that you’re responsible for your own life and what happens in it. This is something the Vices frontman knows all too much about and this is where that previously mentioned change in the album's theme and direction occurred.
For out of all the personal, diary-like songs that the singer has detailed and invested into this new record, none is more potent than the third track, 'Alone', a song about his devasting divorce. “In my lyrics, I'm always the bad guy, and you know, I played a huge part in the collapse of my own life. I’m not the only person who has been through a divorce and I’m not the only person who's lost a family”, he openly admits. “There wasn’t a big transgression like cheating or abuse, the thing just… collapsed."
"I’ve spoken to a lot of people about this, and from what I gather, there’s one person in the relationship that just doesn’t see it’s coming, and I was that person. When I look back over everything, I now see where the cracks were in retrospect. I now have to move forward with my life at 27, and I was married at 20. That’s all I’ve ever known for my adult life and I have to figure out. I am now responsible for how my daughter is going to grow up, how the relationship I’ve started since will go, and for the guys in my band and how their relationships are. I need to make sure that they do the right thing, and that my brothers don’t make my mistakes – putting a band and other personal endeavours first. As I don’t want them to go through what happened to me”.
“It’s a horrible thing”, he quietly adds, as his four bandmates – his four best friends – couldn’t really help him as they had never experienced something that difficult in their own lives. But he was able to find some solace in the rising tides and move past it.
“I think about the rough times that I’ve written about and how people have approached and told me how my music helped them when they were alone. So when I was sitting in the empty house that I built for my family, I had no one. I live in a remote area, and it was a very isolating experience. I wish I had a record to help me get through it, and the older, single dads that I talked to who were 12 months down the line from a divorce telling me it would all be okay and… well, it didn’t seem like it would be at the time. But having those older guys and fathers give me help and support was a great thing. If someone is sitting in a shitstorm of life right now, and they can take something out of my own life from this record to help ease their pain, that’ll be worth every bit of it for me. Because for me, once I’ve written it all down and once it’s all out for the world, it’s very therapeutic for me, as it means it’s done and I can now move on."
The cruel irony there is that now, McAleer does have a record for those tough times - ‘Now That I Have Seen I Am Responsible’. Yet a year on from that dark time, the singer has come out of that experience a better man, all with new scars and new experiences. It’s also amidst this rather grim topic of discussion that McAleer chuckles and tells me that, “I’ve now got a bunch of stuff to keep writing records about.”
Right on, thinking positively always helps.
Also in terms of family and adult life, the singer also talks about the impact that having a child has had on him, saying “Having a kid is a very strange thing to go through. People don’t really tell you the truth about it. They give you all of this inspirational bullshit that just isn’t most of the time”, laughs McAleer. “You have to build a relationship with this person that you don’t even know. You have to."
When I ask the vocalist that releasing such personal art into the world, releasing a record such as this, is akin to having a great weight lifted from one's shoulders, he couldn't agree more.
"It really is, man, it really is! People get that release from any number of things, but I get it from writing punk records. There's a lot of pain and scar tissue left, but it really does help."
[caption id="attachment_1090810" align="alignnone" width="760"] The real life source of the album's cover artwork.[/caption]
While this record is, obviously, deeply cathartic for the band, there's one song on it that really stuck out to me, and that was the album's shortest song, '...Suffocate'. This track may just feature the most aggressive lyrics ever penned by Vices, with lines like "I don't believe in Hell, but for you I will" and "Maybe it will bring some peace to know that you are not here".
At first, I thought this was your typical 'Fuck you', hardcore diss song that was about someone that 99% of listeners would never actually meet in real life, and they then could supplement that individual for someone in their own life who they have beef with. Well, that's what I first thought, anyway.
When I was told what the song was actually about, my heart dropped to my feet.
"It's a really fucked up story, man. One of the guys is good friends with a younger local girl, and she had this horrible, horrible thing happen to her where a teacher took advantage of her. It was someone who she thought she could trust and even be there for her as a friend, but he did unspeakable things to her. When we heard about it, we wrote that song about him. Well, there's two songs about it, actually. '...Treachery' is what happened and '...Suffocate' is my opinion on it all, and I'm totally okay with what I said."
It's this part in our phone call where John really speaks up and he holds nothing back.
"There are issues where people try to understand where the culprit came from, and that we should understand them, but for me, no! Fuck them. I have no time for people like that, that person has got to go. I have a daughter myself, man. There is just no room for that kind of behaviour in society and it needs to be cut out like cancer. I'm not a tough guy, I've never been in a real fight. But I do enjoy martial arts and I would do anything that I could to stop that person from taking another breath. I'd do my best to stop him. That's the honest truth. It may not be a politically correct thing to say or the most emotionally mature thing to say, but if someone was doing something like that to my daughter, I'm going to do damage or die trying to whoever did that to her."
"I just think that there are things done that don't give you a second chance. I think if you're doing something to your own life where you're only impacting yourself, that's fine, but if you're doing things that harm other people - especially innocent people - then you gotta go. We should draw a line and say that if you cross this line - if you commit rape, abuse, molestation and the like - then you don't get to come back from that."
Personally, I move back and forth on this kind of subject matter - of trying to understand the guilty party. Yes, I do think that we should understand where they came from, what impacted their life to lead them to commit such terrible acts, and how we can possibly prevent future instances. But then again... when you're a grown man in a teacher's position - a position of power to many young people - and you takes advantage of and steal the innocence of a 15-year-old girl, then as John puts, "you gotta go".
Because your own childhood and life experiences do not excuse you ruining the childhood of another.
[caption id="attachment_1090812" align="alignnone" width="760"] Vices live, 2016.[/caption]
This discussion of people doing wrong in powerful positions, or at least, in perceived positions of power, leads the singer to open up about his distaste for how rampantly bands and others within the music industry abuse their power.
"It's rampant with bands and in politics, and it's a big thing for me on this record; how stockpiling power is the root of all evil in humans. It's no surprise that a politician is often outed as corrupt, or that a musician or that a lead singer from a band has been harassing girls in real life and online. I'm tired of that story, and I'm fucking sick of seeing it. That's the one thing that I keep seeing, everywhere I go and every tour that I've been on, I see someone from a band doing something that they shouldn't be doing. They know they shouldn't do it, but it makes them feel good and to them, fuck everyone else", says McAleer, with a real hint of disgust to his voice.
He continues. "I would idolise people. When I was younger, it was athletes who were my heroes, and as I got older it was band members that were my heroes. Then all of a sudden, I'm supporting the very bands I grew up listening to and that's when I find out that, well... that false idols do fall [love the Comeback Kid reference]. When I was younger, I believed in bands and what they were saying and singing about. As I got older, I learned that pretty much all of my heroes were not what they made out to be. You know, my current girlfriend, when we started dating, jokingly said to me that "I know what band guys are like" and I told her "Yeah, that's what it's like! I can't name for you a good example of a guy in a band" and that she'll have to trust as that's just not me; that's just not who I am."
As The Wonder Years song, 'Hoodie Weather' goes "growing up means watching all of my heroes turn human in front of me". Sadly, this is all too true in the music industry, and McAleer doesn't have any answers for it. The only thing he can do is take responsibility for himself and ensure that he and Vices as a whole don't end up like that.
Well... that was all fucking cheery, wasn't it? Let's change the tone now.
As for working with producer Jay Mass, it was indeed the right choice for the band, and for John as a vocalist, this was a big deal for him.
"With 'Alone' and it starting with the clean singing, I was just shitting myself. I was about to sing in front of Jay Mass, you know? He was in Defeater, he's made every record that's worth anything these days and he's just a powerhouse of talent. But in order to sing that part, I had to kick everyone out so I could do it just in front of Jay. We hit record and we went through the takes and he gave me some great feedback. I'm not John from Trophy Eyes so I don't nail it first go. He helped me with my notes, my pitch, how much inflection I should use, and it's funny, I wrote all of these songs in my head with singing parts. Some bands will go to Jay with fuck all ideas, but we came to him with most of the record written, both the music and the lyrics. He said to us that he really liked us bringing a near-full album from the start, and Jay is just a freak. He shows up with a laptop and he just gets it done."
I'm also told what the signer thinks is best about Mass and what also makes a great album, saying that "Jay is just really good at knowing what imperfections to keep and what things do need to be perfect. And that's also what makes a really great punk record."
Yet working with the former Defeater guitarist almost didn't happen. Why? The price, of course. "Honestly, I was against working with Jay. He cost three times more than our other option and we could go and tour Europe for all of that money. But I got out-voted, we went and did it, and it was just an amazing opportunity."
But that price was worth it in the end, as Mass truly comes to understand each band and artist that he works with, how their sound works, and how he can help mould their performances into something great. After all, “Vices will always sound like Vices", asserts McAleer.
"If we changed too much of our sound, we’d probably stop doing it. It will always be short, honest music that goes fast, and that’ll never change. That’s all that we ever wanted to do, as Comeback Kid and Miles Away have been doing that music for way longer than we have so we’ll stick to it as well.”
Damn right, learn from the best. And with their third LP, Vices are indeed keeping up with the genre's best; both in terms of who they are as people and as a collective unit, and also with the solid heavy music they produce together. I said this back in 2014, and I'll say it again - "Vices is love. Vices is life." That's equally true now in 2017 as we stand on the cusp of yet another damned good release from one of Australia's best hardcore bands.
You can stream Vices new album here via Hysteria Mag before it's release this Friday, March 17th. Check out the dates and info for the band's two album launch shows here. My review of the 'Now That I Have Seen I Am Responsible' is up now - read it here.
Suss some classic Vices below: