My first listen to Uniform’s Ghosthouse EP hit me hard. In fact, I was only two minutes into the first track – a juddering, jackhammer pulsation of drum machine, serrated riff and feral vocal snarl – when I sent over a request for an interview. The band’s new material demonstrates what happens when energy levels overload their physical constraints: guitars start to lunge of the frame, adopting a distortion that resembles ripping fabric, while voices and samples bulge out of the gaps. Perhaps I reacted so quickly to Uniform because I was worried their music wouldn’t be here for long. Where’s the line between threatening to sonically self-destruct and actually doing it?
In a few days, the New York duo of vocalist Michael Berdan (ex-Drunkdriver, York Factory Complaint) and guitarist/producer Ben Greenberg (ex-The Men, Hubble) will be following up October’s Ghosthouse EP with their new album, Wake In Fright. Naturally it’s a relentless record, but diverse in terms of the manner of its assault. Tracks like “Bootlicker” are founded on thrash riffs that chew at my face, “The Lost” reads like a dilapidated industrial dance track, while “Habit” threads feedback and hiss through a perversely jovial drum machine swing. The more I listen, the more I start to identify the intricacies to their bludgeon. It’s a ferocious record but a thoroughly tactical one. Below, Michael and I discuss the new material, meeting the demands of their music and returning to the breath.
I was only two minutes into my first listen of Ghosthouse when I initially asked about an interview with you guys. The impact was instant. Was there an intention to cultivate a harsher, more direct sound with this new material?
We didn’t initially set out to make a harder record; we set out to make a broader record. In the past, we used just a guitar, a drum machine and a bass synth. That was our entire set up. We also wrote very quickly in the past; we’d finish a song in a week, record it and that would be that. Ben is also an engineer so it’s pretty easy for us to do things by ourselves.
We wanted to take our time with this. We used a lot ProTools plugs and a lot of samples to change the palette, and in the process we were able to become harsher. It’s a clearer record than those in the past. We want to be constantly evolving, so the next record might be much harsher than this or very soft. I think this was just what we had in us for the moment.
Were you concerned about being able to retain the same sense of urgency to your music while using a more methodical approach to composition?
Absolutely, and it turned out to be a very valid concern. We amassed a large amount of music and we had to edit down like crazy. We spent a lot of time with individual tracks, but we made so many songs. In the end we stuck with the things that we absolutely believe in and now they’re still speaking to us. We worked on improving those and cutting out the dead weight. Three quarters of this record is editing, which was nice – it’s not like the record is the first seven songs that you write. In this case, it’s a mish-mash of 20 songs that we went through and frankensteined into different pieces or abandoned entirely. The ones that came the most naturally seemed to come together the quickest. I think we benefited from it this time around.
You’re having two releases come out in quick succession. Is that because you had so much material to work with? Or did you have two separate ideas that you wanted to push out into the open?
None of it was B-side type stuff. We wrote everything on Ghosthouse after the majority of Wake In Fright was done. We just wanted to have something out before the end of 2016, so Sacred Bones agreed to do this 12 inch. “Ghosthouse” was probably the last or second-to-last song that we wrote in the Wake In Fright batch of songs. We’d written “Waiting Period” last March or April, and then we got the idea to throw on a cover of “Symphony Of The Universe”. We hadn’t worked out cover at all and then we had room for an extra track. We wanted to only put out tracks that we truly believed in, and this seemed to work out really well.
People seem to really enjoy the Sabbath cover. The reception to that sort of thing isn’t always kind.
We’re lucky. It was a risky proposition. I’ve had some people who I love dearly say to me, “this is missing Bill Ward, which means that it’s missing a lot”. I can’t argue with them. All I can say is that we’re not trying one-up a Black Sabbath song – we’re just trying to honour it. I hope that we do. A lot of people seem to like it. We’ll get the cross eye occasionally. It’s okay – I think we did the song as much justice as we could.
You mentioned bringing in samples for this record, and I understand that much of the “percussion” consists of explosions, ricochets and other such sounds. How was the process of bringing those into the music?
A lot of it is field recordings and samples from action movies: gunshots, bombs going off, car crashes…this is really more Ben’s department, but a lot of it is percussive. A machine gun can work as well as 16th notes, and you can layer a bomb over a kick drum. That’s largely what we did; we used these samples to accentuate the drum machine percussion.
I’m particularly drawn to the way you “labour the point”. I regularly find myself compelled by music that hammers home an idea to the point where it’s either mind-numbingly boring or incredibly hypnotic, and there’s a certain unease over which way it’s going to go. What do you find interesting about this sort of repetition?
We’ve always been really into songs that are propelled by lots of repetition, partially from our love of techno, house and electronica. You’ll have these tracks that go on forever, and there will just be a subtle moment of change here or there. It conveys a great amount of emotion through it. Outside of that, you have the obvious doom and noise rock bands that’ll hammer away at it too. It’s Swans’ M.O. and always has been. A lot of what Godflesh do is based around that simple repetition. We like bludgeoning a point home, and fortunately enough it’s proving to be somewhat effective – at least for us at the moment. There are more changes on this record than there were on the previous one, but we like to keep it simple in that department.
For some reason, Wake In Fright feels more persistent than Perfect World. Perhaps it’s something to do with that greater clarity; the sounds become more jagged and make a deeper incision in my head.
I mean, that would be great. The little harsh grating notes definitely come through a lot more on this. You know, the high end is concentrated a lot on this album, but so is the low – we made it a point to put significantly more bass on this record than on the last one. I think we pretty much have four bass synths going at all times, and a lot of them are just layer upon layer of repeating the same thing.
So how does this work live? Do you have cue up the drums and synthesisers as a backing track and do the guitar and vocals live?
Ben does a lot of gain staging and controls the mix from a little box we keep on the stage. We have a small sampler, a small pre-amp and some pedals and we plug in direct. Our whole setup fits in a carry-on. Mostly, Ben concentrates on playing guitar and I concentrate on singing. Or whatever the fuck you call what I do. [laughs] I do something. I’m not sure how to describe it positively. But yeah – Ben will even out the mix on the fly, but generally we’re more concerned with the physical performance than elsewise. The sampler takes care of most of what we do.
I guess you’re able to become a more physical performer when you know most of the sound is taken care of, right?
Is there something liberating about being a two-piece and having so much stage to play with?
Oh, so much. Everything about being a two-piece has proven to be easier. We’ve both been in bands with many people, and it’s harder to make decisions when you have to consult with five people instead of just your friend. It’s easier for us to travel and it’s easier for us to physically play. Like I say, we have one carry-on bag and a guitar and that’s our entire setup. We don’t use amps. It does mean that we both feel responsible to fill the physical space of a stage more than we would if there was a drummer and amps behind us. Otherwise it gets quite boring; it’s almost aesthetically revolting to have these two people standing there with nothing in front of them.
We try to play as hard as we can at all times just to fill the space, but also it’s just what the music demands. It’s intentionally aggressive music and it calls for an aggressive performance. If we were just standing there, I don’t think we’d feel it or get as much out of it. In effect we would be lying, which we don’t want to do. We want to play honestly. This music means a lot to us, and the fact that anybody wants to listen to us – let alone come out and see us – means a tremendous degree. We don’t want to cheapen it for anyone. At the same time it’s deeply personal music, and even if no one listened we’d still be doing it.
I’ve always found there to be a certain theatrical sensation to moving around on stage, but doing so often creates a feedback loop where the energy of the music informs the performance and vice versa.
It’s absolutely a part of it. It’s like dancing when you hear a great DJ play a fantastic track at the right moment. The physical release is very much a part of the songs themselves. We’re trying to just follow the music as the music dictates, and if we didn’t feel it we wouldn’t do it.
You mentioned the fact that this music is very personal. I read in another interview that you perceive York Factory Complaint to convey your idea of the world at large, whereas Uniform is your idea of yourself.
York Factory more exists as a commentary on the greater outside world: economic and social strata, and this whole heady idea of living under an illusion. Uniform is largely based around my personal insecurities, and therefore it has to do with human experiences of individuals that are close to me and those I can relate to. It has little if anything to do with politics or a commentary on the disintegration of the West or whatever. It’s about being a human being in existential dread and playing that out in different ways. It has to do with how I, and the people I’m close to, process our fears and anxieties and how we act on them; not so much what the source of what those fears and anxieties are. Really, they can come from anything. I’m a very high-strung individual, and easy things will send me into a dread spiral. As opposed to talking about how I’m afraid of being crushed capitalism or that war is going to break out, it’s more about what that fear actually means and how it feels, and what I do about that fear. That’s what Uniform is more about.
And do you write about that because it’s what compels you when you put pen to paper, or does pondering these subjects have a personal utility? Both, perhaps?
It’s a bit of both. The novelists I’ve always been attracted to have been the drug-leaning authors like Hubert Selby Jr or Jerry Stahl. A lot of the people I hang out with are of a similar ilk. When I’ve written in journals in the past, I’ve very rarely written something like “dear diary, this is what happened today”. It’s always been about trying to describe a feeling, and trying to see what brought me to that feeling and what I’m going to do about it. When I look at a lot of the novelists or short story writers I respect, that seems to be what they do a lot of the time. My writing tends to be fairly non-linear. It’s just what comes out.
That’s something I’ve been trying to confront myself recently, in terms of understanding and processing my own emotional response to the circumstances of my life. I understand you’re into meditation as well?
Absolutely. It’s of paramount importance to me. I start my days with 10-20 minutes worth of guided meditation and spot meditations throughout the day. It’s really basic stuff: feeling my feet on the floor, or feeling my back in the chair, or breathing exercises…just to get grounded. That kind of stuff keeps me in the moment as opposed to projecting hours, days, weeks, months, years into the future. Or dwelling on the past. If I’m here at the moment, I’m okay. If I’m living in a different time then I’m not. If I’m here, I can also be useful; I can talk to the people around me who identify with similar feelings and share my experience with them. If I’m dwelling on the future or the past, I’m just a basket case.
How easy did you find the process of getting into it?
It’s been a struggle for fucking years. I’ve tried different things, like meditating through exercise or gruelling forms of yoga. Beating myself into enlightenment. [laughs] It didn’t work. It’s gotten to the point where my meditation practice is very simple, and sometimes I’m more present in it than others. I don’t flog myself for thinking too much. Sometimes that calm doesn’t come and that’s okay. The moment always has to be okay, which is a beautiful thing – even at my darkest and my fucking worst I can always get back to a breath. Even if it’s just for a couple of seconds, that’s fine. I find that to be tremendously important. Go easy on yourself with that kind of thing. There’s no right or wrong way to do it. Fuck, a month from now I could decide I want to try something else to benefit my spiritual practice. I might take up Kung Fu again – I used to be really into that for a short period of time. That was fucking great. But yeah, meditation is beautiful. No one can tell you what meditation is either. It’s all yours. I need it, man. [laughs]
I wanted to ask you about the role of vocals within Uniform. It definitely seems to cut through a bit more on the new material…
It’s up there more.
How do you feel about that? I know you used to ask for it to be buried in the mix.
Yeah, and I still often feel that way. As long as my voice is being used in service of the music. We all want it to sit like another instrument, and if all the instruments are more present then the voice needs to be more present too. Much to my chagrin. But you know, I’m comfortable with it. Sometimes. [laughs] I grew up playing in punk and hardcore bands, and I’m a terrible “musician”. I’m okay with programming a sequencer or a drum machine. I technically know how to play guitar too, but if you were to hand me it…I’d map out a riff, but I get so nervous and so tense that I can’t follow anything. My one way to play music was through fucking yelling. I always felt like I had a terrible voice, but I didn’t think it’d necessarily matter. In the end I just wanted to feel some kind of spiritual exorcism; I wanted to get out of this thing that had been weighing me down. Whatever I wanted to say, I wanted to say it. That’s still how I feel. If I compare my voice to other vocalists, I will immediately fall into a fucking depression. I think that it serves its purpose here, and I’m glad that it’s a bit more present on this record than on others. On the next record I might have it all the way down to compensate for it being all the way up this time.
I really hope this comes across as a compliment, but I feel like it’s got this “foghorn” quality to it. Had it been a straight scream with more of a white noise quality to it, you would have been lost in the mix – as it is, your voice drives straight down the middle of the frame. It’s alarming in the best way.
Thank you. I’ve got a silly cackle. I sound somewhere between a witch and an asshole and that’s fine. [laughs]
You’re working with Sacred Bones for these two new releases, which seems like such an amazing label. I consistently enjoy the records they put out. What’s that been like so far?
It’s working out great. Those guys are like the “family” label. Ben played in a band that was on the label for a long time [The Men], and he’s also the engineer of a good chunk of that label’s output. I’ve known all those guys for a very long time and always wanted to work with them. It’s been pretty wonderful getting to work with a label that are close friends first, and secondly this very efficient and respectable record entity. I’ve been having a great time and I think we both have. Hopefully Sacred Bones doesn’t hate us too much, which I don’t think is the case as they’re putting out two of our records [laughs] but I’m very grateful that all those guys wanted to work with us. It means a lot.
And how are you finding that period between having done the thing and not yet released the thing?
It’s odd, man. I’m excited for it to come out but at the same time I fucking dread it. I think of it one way, and if people don’t interpret it the same way or people hate it, or if people pretend to like it and I don’t actually believe that they like it…I make it up to be this much bigger thing than it actually is. Right now I get way too heady.
It’s funny because with records I played on in the past it was like, “I really want you to hear this! I made a cool thing – come check out my stupid human trick! Please tell me I’m good enough!” Now I’m kind of like…well, I want people to hear it just so that I get that over with, but at the same time I kind of…don’t want people to hear it? I go back and forth with a lot of feelings. This period right now is…if I sit with it too much it’s fucking awkward, so I’ve just got to keep my mind off the fact that there’s a goddamn record coming out, and then tours and shit.
Even after the record comes out and during tours, I still have to show up for my regular-ass life. I have a day job I need to be present for; I’m engaged to be married one of these days so I have to show up for my fiancé; I have a family and friends that I have to be around and be part of their lives; I have a dog that I have to walk. I try to concentrate on all of that, as it’s so much more tangible and it’s a very real responsibility. It’s nothing I need to be patted on the back for – it’s just being a basic human. I try to just live my life and address everything that’s outside of the band right now. The band is very much a component of that.
So what have you got planned beyond the release of Wake In Fright? I understand that you’ve got the album release show in February.
Yeah. We’re also going to tour the West Coast in February, playing some shows with King Woman and maybe a show or two with Black Marble. We’ll be in Europe and the UK some time in the late spring, and we’re trying to plan ahead of that at the moment.
It must be nice to be coming into the new year with lots of events already stacked up ahead of you.
It’s really nice. It’s also somewhat disconcerting, because it’s like, “I have to live up to all of this”, as opposed to taking things moment to moment as I like to do. But no, it’s fucking luxury man. I’m 36 years old and I went to the Europe for the first time last year. We’ve always booked our own tours for every other band I’ve ever been in. Now we have booking agents in the States and the EU, which is fucking insane. We have press people doing a wonderful job. It’s not that I forget that it’s so much work, but because I’m not physically doing the work I sometimes forget that it’s going on, you know? It’s like, “oh shit – I have to go several thousand miles away next month”, or “I have to go across a fucking ocean”. That’s awesome, but it becomes a secondary thought sometimes because I didn’t make the phone calls or write the emails. These other people have put their time, energy and spirit into it and done it for us, and I’m very humbled by that. It’s a trip, man. I’m very grateful.