Glassjaw Guides Us Through The Apocalyptic 'Material Control'
Around the turn of the millennium, hardcore had to reckon with its weirdness — and the weirdness of — becoming a viable and commercial force. At The Drive-In played the Late Show with David Letterman, Thursday's "Understanding In A Car Crash" was in regular rotation on MTV2 and The Blood Brothers' absolutely manic ... Burn, Piano Island, Burn was produced, by nü-metal diviner Ross Robinson, for a major label. At the time, this iteration of hardcore felt like a direct response to the bonehead rock of the late '90s (think Powerman 5000, Limp Bizkit); heavy music that stressed the dichotomy of melody and chaos — often with vocals alternating between a sing and scream and riffs twinkling and ravaging in turn. Turns out, it was just the mainstream catching up to the hard work and experimentation of the underground, as usual.
"I think that we sound different," Glassjaw vocalist Daryl Palumbo tells NPR. "I think we always sounded different. Music has gotten so heavy and large and cacophonous that, I think, we do heavy in a different way."
Palumbo ain't wrong on that last point. Where other post-hardcore bands of the era were taking notes from the instrumental excess of '70s prog-rock and the angular insanity of Drive Like Jehu, Glassjaw went for the oblong jugular of Faith No More and taking inspiration from fellow hometown heroes who never got much due outside Long Island, N.Y.
Material Control is a massive work, far heavier than anything in Glassjaw's catalog. That is due, in large part, to having produced the album themselves — "the record finally sounds like the band we heard in our heads" — and pushing its distorted, rumbling bass to the foreground. In addition to playing bass and writing the drum parts, Justin Beck's guitar work, in particular, has evolved into something more textural. It also doesn't hurt that The Dillinger Escape Plan's Billy Rymer absolutely destroys those drums.
After a soundcheck in Portland, Ore., I spoke with Daryl Palumbo and Justin Beck on the phone about Material Control, bringing back an old member who has been a "background Glassjaw guru from afar," a guest feature from Mind Over Matter vocalist George Reynolds, and how the band's most apocalyptic-sounding song to date is really just about being a family man.
1. "New White Extremity"
Justin Beck: The band can throttle between zero to ten in our personal dynamic space and this is one of those songs, kind of the median and kind of like the holistic voice of Glassjaw, if you had to surmise that within three-to-four minutes.
Daryl Palumbo: There's two songs on the record that are super Glassjaw-esque. I mean, to me, the songs that might sound a little bit more Glassjaw may be a little different than what somebody who might buy the record would think, but I think that there's two. It hits all the Glassjaw cylinders. It's a really jarring, sort-of groovy New York post-hardcore beginning. And even if it didn't sound the most like Glassjaw, it's just a great opener.
Beck: When composing songs, the guitar has always been more of a color. The bass and the drums have always been the meat and potatoes. But originally the bass had to kind of share the headspace with all the other parties involved, so in this situation...
Palumbo: It really shines. You really hear it.
Beck: We've always had beef when you hear bands and the bass is more of a frequency filler than an instrument. We've always been like, "s***, everybody is neglecting the best part." It commands so much control. It really adds texture and it adds a level of anxiety.
Beck: When we were doing Worship And Tribute [the band's second album, released in 2002], the label was like, "Yo, we need Chris Lord-Alge [engineer who's worked on records by Prince, My Chemical Romance and Tina Turner] to mix this s***. This is your f****** hit." We're like, "All right, crazy guys, we're cool with Alge mixing it. Whatever you guys want, spend the money."
We walk in a room and I'm like, "Yo, gotta bring that bass up, man, bring the bass up." He kind of just moves his hand just to shut me the f*** up. I'm like, "Yo, you gotta bring that bass up because that whole riff is the bass." He goes, "Listen here, kid, let me guess: you're the f****** bassist," and I go, "Actually, d***head, I'm the f****** guitarist." [Laughs.]
Palumbo: The last thing [major labels] want to hear is the very Cro-Magnon sort of s***, with the bass just super-ultra distorted. It's almost as loud as the vocals. Those were the things that kind of got me and Justin turned onto this avant-garde, New York hardcore thing.
[Material Control] is a win because the record finally sounds like the band we heard in our heads, which is not that far from some bands that we enjoyed when we were younger.
Palumbo: That's the oldest song on the record. Actually, everything on the record, for the most part, is super new. That song, in particular, was probably written in 1998.
I distinctly remember wanting it to sound hyper-visual. I actually think that that song is specifically about somebody I was in a relationship with, probably in my last year of high school. That's how ridiculous and old it is. I'm not talking about being violent towards that person. I think at that point when I wrote those lyrics I was absolutely a virgin. So the word "lover" is immediately crossed out because that wasn't true; I wasn't a lover and I definitely wasn't even a man, yet. It references something I had done to this particular person. I am saying it as if I put the knife there and that's not me being violent, per se, it's that I've I stabbed this person in the back. When I say, "I love you in the stall," I'm actually referring to dealing with going through a period of real intense guilt and just being very sick almost dying in a bathroom stall because of how sick I made myself over what I had done. Well, of course, as any narcissistic asshole frontman would, he'd be about talking about himself in a situation like that. It's not very complicated, but it sounds far more complicated than it is.
Beck: We had certain adjectives that the two of us would discuss about the record: post-apocalyptic and urgent.
[For] the drum part, I recorded me playing at a studio in Manhattan. There was a kit set up and I just started f****** wailing on the kit and I thought, "Oh man, we got to use this beat one day." We sat on the beat forever.
I'd say this song was written prior to us cognitively going into a record. It didn't have its place, because it was just so heavy for Glassjaw. As an icebreaker to a new venture, it seemed very harsh. When we kind of dug it out of the shoebox and put it in the context of all these other songs it started to find its place within the mix and help bring some dynamic to the record.
Palumbo: For as visceral and also as f****** frightening and apocalyptic as it sounds, and as apocalyptic as even the word "Golgotha" may even sound, it's actually kind of about being a family man. It's about watching the American family man and kind of wrapping my head around it, and understanding my dad as the family man, a lot of the stuff that he went through and comparing it to where me and Justin are at this point in our lives.
I always looked at my father like he bears the cross for a lot of things. He went through his stations of the cross, in my eyes. Lyrically, it's kind of like Michael Douglas in Falling Down meets National Lampoon's Vacation. It might take away from the seriousness of it, but with Glassjaw, I think it's deep as you could possibly read into anything. It's also not that deep.
5. "Pretty Hell"
Palumbo: We love dub music. We listen to everything. I think more than Glassjaw executing dub, I would say there's dub production value and dub sonics that are a huge part of what we do. Vocally, definitely for me, whether it's audible or whether you can pick it out or not. Bass-wise, that goes without saying. A lot of times that bass does kind of occupy that same space that it does on a Mad Professor record. I always think we've we've hit sweet spots with bass lines when it does hit this sort of earlier Massive Attack sort of thing.
Beck: You're sitting on that bounce the whole track, and the whole record just keeps you bouncing. Structurally, we're always playing on that dotted third, where there's always a constant counter-rhythm that keeps the listener rolling, you know.
6. "Bastille Day"
Beck: The two of us have always been the contributors to Glassjaw and the only other real contributor was this guy Ariel Telford, who is a brilliant young man from an awkward town in Long Island. He became Hare Krishna and ended up moving to India and has been there ever since.
Right out of college, he was like, "Yo, I went to the sickest place in the world." He went to this one temple and the temple chants 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. They have a rolling group of people to come in so the chant never dies. It's been happening for like decades and decades and decades.
Palumbo: I never heard this f****** story. This is amazing. Oh, I love this!
Beck: He was so intrigued by it and, years later, he ended up taking over as the steward of this place. To him, that was the pinnacle of musicality because, in the Hare Krisha movement, it really is a perpetual jam.
When we were recording Coloring Book, he was kind of schooling us on Indian music: You have a beat, a rhythm and then the lead. It became a self-conscious guide not to overindulge and not abuse the gift of multi-track and editing — just really leave these simple things be. I digress, but Ariel was kind of this background Glassjaw guru from afar, even in the lack of his presence.
We were like, "Yo, you have to do something on this next record if it ever happens." And he was home for his wedding two years ago. I was like, "Get to my f****** house right now. Bring every instrument you have. Just jam over anything to this BPM." All that instrumentation, minus some assistance on clapping from us, is all Ariel. Our Western sensibility probably f****** it up when we put it all together, but it just segued into the next track.
Palumbo: George [Reynolds] is a very normal gentleman from Long Island. When we were young and started going to punk rock and hardcore shows on Long Island, the biggest, coolest — well, I say big, but I think being the biggest in the beginning it was probably 200 people — [Mind Over Matter was] the best-looking, best-sounding, most relevant, forward-thinking, strange, far-out, psychedelic, avant-garde, noisy New York City-ish weird hardcore that there was. They were like the forerunners of this odd sound, in terms of where we're from.
Beck: They were ushering in this foreign tonality that was left-of-center to hardcore, specifically 12 miles outside of Manhattan. They were also tapping into the Martin Bisi realm.
Palumbo: Martin Bisi was a New York-area producer used to do everything live in this concrete room — I think it was the basement of the studio. He did a Sonic Youth record. He did Cop Shoot Cop, DIE 116, Mind Over Matter. He did a lot of these really violently live-sounding bands, that all came from a hardcore place. But by the time he finished with a lot of these bands, it didn't sound hardcore, it sounded post-apocalyptic.
[Reynolds'] voice was like the most powerful shouting thing I felt like I ever heard in my life. He was definitely, at that point in time, the most charismatic frontman imaginable. You could never imagine somebody that was more down-to-earth, speaking to you from on the stage while being so physically adorable and non-threatening. But to have George sing his style, which I've fully ripped off since I was a little kid, to have him do that with us is an honor. The band that he represented was a band that very much helped define what we are, too.
8. "Bibleland 6"
Palumbo: Look up Bibleland and you will be so sick and blown away. There's a famous roadside attraction in California that was the original Bibleland, a miniature theme park featuring religiosity-themed madness.
As I've gotten older, as someone who raised around the Catholic church, [these beliefs] play a part in your everyday life whether it's you believing it or despising it. I feel like there's a big contradiction in terms of how we treat the sacredness of human life. I think a lot of people are willing to tell us or tell a woman how to treat her body, yet later that child in our society becomes an afterthought. It makes you feel that maybe the "gold in the womb" wasn't as sacred as we thought it was.
Beck: This is probably one of the later songs.
Palumbo: I don't think I even remember the process. We probably threw that together quite quickly. I remember the bridge — the bridge is wild and noisy part that kind of came together spontaneously while tracking, but aside from that, I have a feeling this whole song was probably tracked from front to back over the course of two hours.
I was on a phone conversation with Justin and he had a long few days in a row — talking about not getting any silence or any sleep. But he was just talking and just being very honest with how shot he was, how tired he was — referencing how heaven sent the silence. I think I had a vocal line that I'd just been humming for a while to the chord progression and then immediately just put those lines kind of in it. So, yeah, that's back to the trials and tribulations of the family.
10. "My Conscience Weighs A Ton"
Beck: I think we were teaching Billy [Rymer] all the drums for the record and we were done with all the songs that we had. We just had an old chord structure that was probably from [the 2011 EP] Coloring Book. Originally, it started as a traditional flamenco, or an attempt at flamenco.
The one that we actually were spot-checking was another New York-centric band called Into Another. We were like, "Billy, just playing this f****** beat." There wasn't even music that Billy was playing to.
11. "Material Control"
Palumbo: It just kind of felt like you needed to exhale for a minute and gather your thoughts before you go to that last song. It's different for us to close out [the album] with it being so high energy.
Beck: It's the palette cleanser.
Palumbo: Yeah, it's the ginger, if you will.
12. "Cut And Run"
Beck: It's not a comma, it's not an exclamation point, it's a very solid period. Like, this is done, get the f*** out of here. Want to listen it again? Go for it.
Palumbo: Growing up, I was always fascinated with Anthrax records — those records always had a way of ending. They always had this pattern with how their records would end. They would build up with these six-minute, thrash-metal odysseys about Reagan and Stephen King and Judge Dredd and world peace and the homeless. And then you get to the last song, and Anthrax was always like, "Yes, f*** it."
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