If you asked someone to pick a central figure who’s been critical in shaping the sound of hardcore punk and metal in this current millennium, it’s likely that Massachusetts native Kurt Ballou is the first name that comes to mind. As guitarist, multi-instrumentalist and go-to record producer/enginer, Ballou’s musical repertoire is as prolific as it is downright intimidating.
Along with Converge vocalist Jacob Bannon, Ballou has performed on every release across the band’s highly-influential 27-year history. In addition, Ballou has also performed as a session/guest musician for acts like Cave In, Curl Up and Die, Old Man Gloom, Animosity, Coliseum, Genghis Tron, Verse, Torche and Trap Them. And through his work at his own GodCity Studio, Ballou is known for engineering, mixing and producing records for a diverse group of artists such as Isis, American Nightmare, The Hope Conspiracy, Modern Life Is War, Blacklisted, Disfear, Black Breath, Kvelertak, Nails, High on Fire, Code Orange, Every Time I Die, Harm’s Way, Four Year Strong, Russian Circles, Gatecreeper, The Dillinger Escape Plan, Darkest Hour and many (emphasis: many) more.
With a short timeslot spliced into Ballou’s understandably busy schedule, we talk about studio gaps, band dynamics, and the writing and release of Converge’s ninth studio LP, ‘The Dusk In Us’.
To start off Kurt, the period between your last record, 2012’s ‘All We Love We Leave Behind,’ and the new record ‘The Dusk In Us,’ was the one of the longest studio gaps in Converge’s close to thirty year history as a band. What was the reasoning behind taking such an extended gap, and when did the ideas that eventually became ‘The Dusk In Us’ start to germinate?
I think that we were writing for most of that time, but, you know, we have high standards. We don’t record music unless we’re all happy with what material we have, we’re excited about the material, and we’re proud of it. We’re not the type of band – we’re not a ‘career’ band – that has some kind of need to release an album every 18 months, or two years, or whatever, like some other bands might do. For us, we release new music when we have a collection of songs that we’re excited about and ready to record. And you know, this time around, it took five years before we were in a situation where we felt like we were ready to record.
And I know that as time marches on, people’s lives get more complicated, and they’re not able to devote the same amount of time to the band as we had when we were younger. So, I think that might have slowed us down a little bit. But it was really about waiting until we had the right inspiration and a collection of songs, to make the best album that we could make.
That makes perfect sense. As individuals, you’re all quite busy with other projects and creative pursuits outside of Converge, alongside your own personal lives as you mentioned just now. How frequently do you guys get together to jam, or catch up? Is there a regular interval, or is it just when things line-up between schedules?
Yeah, it’s kind of random (laughs). You know, because everyone’s schedules are complicated, it’s hard to make time. I’d say there’s times where we go several months without getting together. There’s other times where we’ll get together a few times in a single month.
Our drummer [Ben Koller] doesn’t live near us anymore; actually, over the course of this record, he lived in various parts of the country. So, getting together to write can be kind of challenging. But he’s been committed to making time to come out, and practice and stuff. But typically, we’ll get together for a few days at a time, once or twice a month, as we’re getting close to when we think we’re getting ready to record. To make sure all the songs are well rehearsed, fine-tuned and ready to go.
Speaking of ‘The Dusk In Us,’ Jacob [Bannon, lead vocalist] was quoted in a recent interview as saying that the new record was “very powerful” and a “progression of something [the band] did previously.” As the primary producer for most of the band’s discography, what your major focus this time around for the material on ‘The Dusk In Us’?
I wouldn’t say it was any different to your previous records. Just trying to make the best we could make, with the material that we had. Working with the inspiration that we had at that moment in time. Following my instincts, with what I was hearing in the room and through the speakers. Using that to inform decisions—but you know, being in the moment.
I find pre-meditation, in any kind of creative pursuit, to be toxic to getting an inspired result. So, I’ve learned over time to not have too many pre-conceived ideas or strategies for what I want something to be. I’ll never be able to conform to that. If I want to make a record that sounds a certain way or a certain type of song, I prefer to just follow what’s happening in the room at the time, and just make it the best that it can be. I find that that’s usually the most exciting, most immediate, and most inspired creative output that we can make.
With the four of you functioning as the artistic core of Converge for close to twenty years, is there a level of trust between you all, that helps to foster that kind of spontaneity in the studio? Letting each member indulge and harness their own creativity, pursuing those little ‘in the moment’ tangents as they see fit?
Yeah absolutely. We’re all really close, and we understand each other: what makes each of us tick; what each other’s abilities and tastes are. We’re really trusting in each other.
You know, sometimes I record bands in my studio that don’t trust each other. There might be one band member who’s steering the ship, or one member who feels like if they don’t micro-manage what another member does, then it will ruin the record. We’re definitely not like it, and I’m probably the worst one like that (laughs). But only because I have so much experience in the studio, that I know what will record well and what won’t. Knowing the difference between being spontaneous and sounding spontaneous.
In general, we’re pretty free with each other about what it is that we do. And we generally agree on things eventually, even if we have a dispute in the moment. But we’re also very trusting of each other, so any disputes we might have, we know that our end goal is the same, even if the path we want to take to get there is different.
With ‘The Dusk In Us’ nearing release this November, how do you feel the new record stands apart from the rest of the Converge’s catalogue?
I guess it’s a new one? It has a different title, and it has new songs on it? (Laughs). I mean, honestly: we’re a band; we make records; it’s what we do. We’ll never duplicate an existing record. Even if we desired to, I don’t think we’d able to do it. It’s a different year, and our lives are different. The state of the world is different, and that gives us different inspirations. As we morph as people, the way that we interpret that and turn that in to music will evolve as well.
I don’t think the ‘intent’ of the record is really any different. We’re working with the same group of people, and essentially the same musical vocabulary. We’re just trying to create new music that excites us, which is the same that it’s always been.
Now to wrap up before the end of our slot today, I’ve got a few ‘desert island’ questions for you, Kurt.
(Laughs.) Ok, sure. Fire away!
What’s your favourite record of all time, and why?
I have no idea… I really don’t know (laughs). I record bands in my studio for ten hours every day, so I don’t really have a lot of time, or… emotional capacity to consume other music beyond what I’m intently studying every day.
I think the Chelsea Wolfe album that I recorded earlier this year [the entrancing and borderline-Lynchian, ‘Hiss Spun’] is really important to me. And I don’t mean that to be self-servicing, it’s just that at this current point in my life, the only music that I’m investing myself in is the music that I’m involved in creatively. So, I’ll choose that one as my favourite record right now.
That’s a great choice. Next question: what’s your favourite piece of gear in your studio, and why?
Well, right now, I’m really into my Marshall JMP guitar amp, which I’ve had for over twenty years. But I’ve recently had a friend, a brilliant amp tech Scot DeBockler [S&K Pedals], he re-tubed it with these old stock, Philips 6CA7 power tubes, and it has become the greatest guitar amp in the universe (laughs).
I used it a lot in the ‘Jane Doe’/‘You Fail Me’-era of the band and didn’t use it so much for a while, but it’s recently become my ‘first call’ amp again. So, going back to an old friend has been cool.
Awesome. Last question for you: If you could pick a dream show for Converge to play a show, who else is on the line-up and why?
Yeah, I don’t know… That’s so hard (laughs). I don’t really perform well with these ‘top whatever’ list questions. These are definitely more suited to Nate [Newton, bassist] or someone like that.
(Laughs.) Well, I did put you on the spot, so that’s fair enough. Thanks for your time today Kurt, and best of luck with the new record!
No problem at all! I appreciate it. Thank you so much.
Converge’s ninth studio album ‘The Dusk In Us’ is due for release via Epitaph/Deathwish Inc. on November 3rd. Digital and physical copies are available for pre-order here.