In The Studio With Defeater
One of the most ambitious bands in modern hardcore - or any genre, for that matter - the Boston-based Defeater are currently working on their second full-length. We caught up with them in the studio to get the full story on where they're going next
In a world where bands fire out music as and when they write a couple of new songs - just because they can - it's refreshing to delve into the world of Defeater.
On first listen they sound like a hardcore band, because that's what they are. A very good hardcore band, sure, but that's it. And then, after a few more spins of their 'Travels' album or 'Lost Ground' EP, it hits - they're storytellers, weaving tales of characters from another time and place around the discordant, thrillingly rich violence of the music. From even before they recorded a single note the band knew how many albums and EPs they'd be writing, what the songs would say on each collection and what would happen to the people mentioned; every single aspect of what makes Defeater who they are has been agonised over and planned to ensure it's as powerful as possible.
Now, we're not saying this is the only valid way to write music, but it sure is fascinating to peer into a method that's as removed from the genre's traditions as possible. Granted, the best hardcore has always prided itself on hiding complexity behind in-your-face sonics but rarely does a band spend this long on creating a body of work such as this. Rock Sound sat down with guitarist / songwriter / producer Jay Maas while he was recording in Wakefield, Massachusetts to talk about the problems involved in making a masterpiece.
How’s recording coming along?
“The record has been very different for us in terms of writing. Right now we’re rewriting the second verse’s drum dynamics for what is probably going to be the opening song. The songs are all done and we’ve got roughs of everything, so I know all the nuances, but as I’m the engineer and songwriter I get to be really picky, so right now I’m just punishing my drummer by making him play loads of crazy ideas that are really hard.
Is that level of detail always something you’ve achieved with Defeater or something you’ve wanted to achieve?
“We’ve always done it. We didn’t know we were going to have any success with ‘Travels’, so every record is more pressure to be the best possible band we can be. We want to push ourselves musically but not to the point where we’re showing off to the detriment of the song. As an older guy in the scene there’s no reason for me to listen to most bands unless they do something that makes me want to, and I feel like I’m giving everyone a reason for people to listen to us.
That’s setting yourself the task of not quite reinventing the wheel but giving it a new paint-job.
“But what’s the point otherwise? I could be finished already, if I wanted to be, but we’re spending two months on this record because we don’t know if, say, a kick-drum pattern doesn’t work until we put it down, put a bunch of scratch guitars over the top and start to really arrange. Most of the people who do great work are revisionists, I think – we always think we could do better. I have a vision of the place I want the record to be in my mind and I’m constantly revising and pushing people until we get closer and closer.”
So how do you stop yourself going back to what you’ve already done?
“You just know, man. It’s instinct. It needs to stand up – if I go back and listen to it and I’m still excited then it stays.
Has your work with other bands [Maas has worked as a producer for the likes of Bane and Carpathian] in a recording capacity served as a rehearsal for Defeater?
“That’s one way to look at it. My primary objective in anything I do, musical or not, is to do the best job I can do. For a band who comes in and has enough money for 10 days – doing my job means handing them something at the end of that time they’re really happy with. What makes a record great are the ideas, the musicians and the performances – I’m not naming names, but a band can come in and I’ll make a kick-drum sound good sonically but it’s not a record I want to listen to.”
Is the way you’ve put together songs on this record different than you’ve done so in the past?
“Yes. I feel like people are going to be upset when they find this out, but normally I get in a room with my drummer and we stare at each other and fight and argue and make noise, but however long we take on that it never stops the process of refinement. So this time we cut to the chase and Andy gave me an idea and I played something over it and so on, building up to the top of that pyramid. This record was written without either of us playing loud music in the same room.”
It seems you love the process of creating music as much as playing it.
“All my friends will tell you the same thing – right now is when I’m at my most excited and my most stressed. I get up earlier because I love this part. Touring is cool and I think it’s pretty neat to see people come out and get inspired, but my favourite time is right now. I’m such a workaholic, I love to sit around and create.”
Has taking the reins on this record been something you’ve wanted to do for a while?
“Every record, I’ve thought I’m where I am right now. And I’m hoping that on the next record where I am then is more than where I am now.”
You’ve said previously this whole band is story-boarded out and you know what’s coming afterwards. Does that mean you’re exercising a lot of restraint in doing things step-by-step?
“Right. It’s a unique process because we know how many records we’re going to do. We also know what our last record is going to be.”
So many bands wouldn’t put this thought into a body of work – are you trying to be an alternative to most current music?
“My whole life I’ve been going against the grain. Not just in the musical sense but through school – I built a recording studio as my career because I worked 17-hour days until it worked. The same thing with Defeater, I try to say what we’re going to do and I know it’s ambitious but I’ll keep working until it’s done. I don’t think about what anyone else is doing and I’m compelled by a very small fraction of music that comes out in the world and I think like most people I filter through the shit, which there’s a lot of.”