Rank Your Records: Converge's Jacob Bannon Reflects on the Seminal Hardcore Band's Eight Albums
The legendary frontman looks back on the band's 27-year history, from their peerless beginnings to becoming the powerhouse they are today.
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.
In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Jacob Bannon's favourite Converge record is the one you haven't heard yet. When the legendary hardcore vocalist called me up to rank his band's previous albums, he'd just finished recording the final vocal tracks on the band's forthcoming ninth full-length. And when I say he'd just finished it, I mean he was quite literally stepping out of the studio while calling me.
"I'm pretty content with what we just created," said Bannon, keeping the details on the new album scant, but stating that it feels like another step in the band's ongoing evolution. It should come as no surprise to anyone who follows the band that Bannon is always looking forward. He's spent nearly 30 years fronting Converge, one of the most influential and innovative bands to blur the lines between hardcore, metal, punk, and many of the subcategories within those genres. But during that time, he's found success in other areas. From the visual art that adorns album covers and fine art galleries – as well as his new book, Dunedevil – to running the longstanding, pace-setting hardcore label Deathwish Inc., Bannon's always got his eye on something new. Oh, and did I mention that this year he put out two records with his other band, Wear Your Wounds? Because he did that too.
"I'm at the point in my own creative process where I try to make things the best they can be," he said, before going back to being self-effacing, "I know I'm not the best singer. I know I'm not the best screamer. I don't care. It's about the emotion. It's about being the best representation of what I can do." It's this mixture of modesty, honesty, and self-awareness that coats all of Bannon's answers. He knows that, technically speaking, he may not be the best singer in the world, but he's turned those limitations into assets. "There's tons of scar tissue and damage that's been done to me that makes my voice sound the way I do, and I can't apologise for that or change it."
By now, it's clear that Bannon is always progressing, striving to find new ways to express himself in whatever given medium he's focused on at the moment. And that's why, when he ranks the Converge catalog, he does it in chronological order. "The most recent music we are making is always our sharpest and most accurate representation of our collective character," he says of Converge, and that's exactly why whatever he finished recording on that day we talked would likely be his top choice. But on that afternoon, we looked backward, exploring Converge's discography and discussing how he views them now. Or at least how he did in that precise moment.
8. Halo in a Haystack (1994)
Noisey: For a lot of hardcore bands, their first or second record is the one people tend to go back to the most, and they can end up overshadowing what comes next. That's not really the case for Converge.
Jacob Bannon: No, but that also has a lot to do with the age we were when we were creating those songs. We were literally kids. We were just barely teenagers, trying to navigate creative waters. And that's a really rare place. Not in terms of age, but in terms of documentation. A lot of bands are young when they start, they can be 20-year-olds or whatever, but we were recording those songs when we were anywhere between 15 and 18. We weren't out of high school yet when we were doing that. I think we had good intentions, and we definitely had a lot of emotion in those songs, but we were still trying to figure out what we were. We were trying to figure out how we worked together.
And also, you gotta remember, your first band that you start, you generally just start with the people in your town when you're a kid. This is before your social and creative circles start to broaden. I didn't even have a driver's license until I was like 21 years old. It wasn't like we had the ability to go out of our cities and towns to go meet people. So you just kind of played with the people around you. And with that said, that's how we found our original drummer and original bass player. We had a love for skateboarding and BMX and punk and hardcore and metal, so you just kind of play with those people.
To me, it reminds me of that time, that primordial time where we were just trying to figure out what we're going to be. Because you also have to remember, too, it was a young time in terms of heavy music. Basic genres existed. You had metal bands, you had death metal bands, you had thrash metal bands, but even death metal, it was a new thing then. Or a new-ish thing. Now, people look at that time and see it as a golden era of that genre. But hardcore wasn't metallic hardcore as we know it today. Metalcore, that didn't even exist. The good cop/bad cop style, singing-and-screaming stuff barely existed at the time.
Every new record that was coming out basically started a new sub-genre.
Yeah, and it wasn't hyper-commercialised. Metalcore has more in common with hook-y pop songs now, in the way the songs are edited and overly-processed and Auto-Tuned and things like that. When we were doing things that were kind of tortured and emotional – or at least we thought they were – we were trying to emulate the bands that we liked, like Born Against and Moss Icon and Universal Order Of Armageddon, or bands like Heroin and Mohinder, things that were kind of unhinged and unpredictable. The singer's voice cracked and you left it there, because you didn't have the ability to go back and punch things in or edit them out. That all came later. You just recorded a record in a day or two and you were done. The rawness of that time, it just was what it was.
There really weren't contemporaries around us doing what we were doing. The closest thing that we had were bands like Overcast, who we were friends with and remain friends with now. They were doing something that was more metal-oriented than us. We just had different influences.
At that time, Converge really didn't fit in with what was going on in hardcore. Was that frustrating or did you see it as an asset?
For us, that's how we still view our band. We're pretty aware of what's happening out in the rest of the aggressive music world. We know we're a different kind of an animal. We never tried to specifically emulate a style. Even when we were a five-piece and Aaron Dalbec [of Bane] was in our band, Aaron was more of a straightedge hardcore guy. He liked a lot more of the melodic stuff that was happening back then. He wasn't listening to Drive Like Jehu at the time. He wasn't listening to some of the noise-rock bands that Kurt [Ballou, Converge guitarist] and I were starting to get into, or the DC stuff that we were obsessed with. So you had a player that was playing the same songs but was coming from an entirely different viewpoint on those songs. And you almost hear that in the songs. They don't sound like anything, because we were all coming from so many different places.
7. Petitioning the Empty Sky (1996)
This one's interesting because it's a hodgepodge of different recordings and still has a lot of different styles but it starts to feel like the band's sound is coming together a bit.
We were still kids, but we were a little more than that at that point. I remember writing "The Saddest Day" in Kurt's sort-of dorm room apartment that he had at Boston University. I remember he had a huge bathroom, this weird bathroom/bedroom thing, and I remember him showing me some of the basic riff ideas he had for that. I think we were starting to get comfortable in just being what we were.
As far as it becoming an album, we were just thinking in seven-inches. We were just writing some songs and saying, "Hey, let's record 'em." We didn't think in terms of albums, much less crafting one. It was just not really in our wheelhouse yet. Actually, Equal Vision, when we signed with them, they brought up the idea of taking all the scattered EPs and trying to turn them into a collection record of sorts. And that's basically what you have that people know as a full-length now.
When I hear it, I still hear fragmented sessions and stuff like that, but I have positive memories of recording all those things. I remember recording the vocals for the Petitioning the Empty Sky seven-inch with Brian McTernan at like one or two in the morning at his old studio in Watertown, Mass, and that was one of the first times I felt really content in what I captured. It was hectic and unhinged, and those wild sounds and voices I wanted to create I'd actually been able to. It takes a while to get there, you know? I just remember being really content riding my bike home from that session thinking we'd created something that was special, at least to me. I didn't really think in terms of how it would impact other people or if people would enjoy it or relate to what we were trying to make. And I still don't, in a lot of ways. But I felt comfortable with those songs.
And some of those songs, like "The Saddest Day," are still in your live sets every now and again. Even if it was early in the band's career, they still seem to garner a pretty positive reaction.
It's interesting. We've been a band for quite a long time, and every day that passes, the songs get older. To me, the Jane Doe album is quite old as well. We did that album in 2001, and that's going on 16 years, which is a significant amount of time. I mean, I feel really fortunate that people have related to what our band does and the art that we make together. There are so many bands and sounds and things that people can listen to and take in, and the fact that people have given us – this sort-of noisy, hardcore band – some time in their lives and related to the emotion or music, it's hugely positive to us. It always has been and it always will be. I always feel really grateful for that.
As far as those songs specifically? I think there are some really cool moments. I actually think there are some really cool moments in the Unloved and Weeded Out sessions that were recorded prior to that as well, which we collected and turned into a studio album of sorts. Songs started to come together and be less part-y. Not "party," in like a festivity, but "part-y" in like multiple parts. A lot of that has to do with learning how to craft songs. When we were younger, we wouldn't really think about transitions all that much. We'd write a riff and be like, "That's a great riff! And here's another great riff that's in the same key and just about the same time signature, let's see if they can work together." We'd just kind of crammed stuff together. We call that train-style songwriting. You see that a lot in bands even now. Bands stick a part to a part to a part. Sometimes it just becomes really fragmented. We've taken a lot of time and care in not doing that over the last 15-or-so years. Our songs may be hyper and kind of crazy sometimes, but they don't necessarily have that fragmented aspect. It happens from time to time, but back then it was really common. I hear that in those songs, but I also hear us starting to shed some of that. Especially with the Unloved and Weeded Out stuff, where things felt more fully realised when we finally set down to record them.
6. When Forever Comes Crashing (1998)
When we were first discussing your rankings, you said that this feels like the first proper Converge album. Why does it feel that way to you?
When we were writing it, we were label-less. We couldn't get a label to pay attention to us. And we didn't necessarily want to either, but back then, it was not the playing field that is now. Labels are a great resource, and they do important things, but you can also exist pretty independently at this point. Back then you could, but there were some significant hurdles in terms of getting your record heard by people and getting it into stores and things like that. And we wanted that. We wanted to be able to tour, and we wanted to be able to just get out there, and we felt we needed a label to do that. Steve Reddy [Equal Vision owner] saw us play a show in Western Massachusetts, which is a pretty different world from where we're from, it's more related to Connecticut than where we live, and he said he'd never heard anything like it or saw anything like it. He said he saw all these nerds with glasses just killing each other on stage, and that he'd never seen something that aggressive come out of a band that didn't necessarily look that aggressive. He was used to the traditional New York hardcore mentality and presentation, which was altogether different from what we were. It's a bit more stereotypical and macho. Not one-dimensional, but you can identify it quite quickly. We were just a different animal.
Back then, when he did sign us, that was the record we were hoping to make. The Petitioning release was a nice added bonus to them but, for us, the first proper album was When Forever Comes Crashing. It felt like we were making a record. We didn't feel pressure to write things, but it was more of a cohesive effort to record something like that. It felt a lot different. A whole lot different.
You mentioned people coming to see you at shows and there being some cognitive dissonance between what they were seeing and what they were hearing. That seems to spill over into the album's artwork, which looks way more like a grindcore record that'd be coming out on Earache. How important was it to have a visual sense that felt unique to Converge and not just like another hardcore record?
That's always been a huge part of what we have done. We are fans of bands that have cohesive aesthetics. Even though they may evolve and mutate, we just wanted them to be solid all the way through. And now, I design a lot of the stuff and do a lot of art for our band, but we still work with a lot of outside artists and illustrators as well. But it still has a cohesive presentation. It never feels like the band is trying to reinvent itself or anything like that. A lot of bands will have a logo change or something like that, and I think a lot of that is that some bands are never quite content in the fact that what they started was good. Maybe their first few logos were good. My intention has always been to have evolving logos, I guess. Not in the Metallica sense, where you just start chopping off pieces and doing whatever with it, but just to have different-but-related aesthetics that carry throughout the band. The Petitioning record doesn't look like the Jane record, but you can kind of see the path to get from one to the other. I'm in the middle of doing visuals for our new music, and it feels like a continuation of the previous one. I want a band to tell a visual story. I don't want to see a band just go through the motions and be like, "Okay, that looks like the same thing as before." I can see how someone can look at our stuff and see that, but I hope to push things a bit from record to record.
5. Jane Doe (2001)
This is arguably the band's most iconic record – as evidenced by the full live performance that turned into the Jane Live album. It's a pretty personal record for you…
I think it's important to say that this record isn't more personal than any of the other records. A lot of the narrative that gets put on it is listener emphasis – and I've got no problem with that. Music's subjective, and once you let it go, it's out in the ether, and people can find importance or disregard it however they see fit. But our approach to songwriting, and my approach to lyric writing, has always been writing personal songs and documenting things within my life, either specifically or in a metaphorical way. I did that even on Halo in a Haystack, I did that was when I was a kid. That hasn't changed. I think that the Jane album, you hear more refinement in the approach and in the overall aggression of the record. And it's a cohesive presentation. Whereas the other records are getting there, they're not quite to that point just yet.
When did you start seeing this record connect with people? From what I recall, it didn't seem to be a hit right out of the gate.
I don't think that anything we've ever done has been a hit right out of the gate. We always kind of laugh at it, but I still have the big press pack that was given to me by the company that helped us promote that record. There's hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of reviews, and I would say 60 to 70 percent of them are awful, which is funny. But a lot of the people who were writing those reviews, they never experienced frantic, noisy punk and hardcore music before. Even within the sub-genre that we existed in, we didn't really sound like anybody. There wasn't really a peer that was quite the same. There were bands that had some similarities, like The Dillinger Escape Plan and Botch and early Cave In, but everybody had different strengths and subtle nuances to what they were doing and how they were doing it. None of the people that were reviewing us probably heard Rorschach or Born Against or Starkweather or The Accused before. They didn't know what they were hearing so they were rejecting it from the outset, saying, "What the fuck is this?"
Death metal people were looking at us like, "You don't have long hair and triple-black Skechers on, and the vocals are indecipherable but not low and growly like a monster, it's like a wild animal." And the hardcore guys were looking at us and saying, "This isn't hardcore." It didn't have all the earmarks of contemporary hardcore at the time. And the punk guys were saying the songs were too technical to be considered punk, and it didn't have the sociopolitical stuff, so we weren't a punk band either. We always have gotten that pushback – and we still do, even now. Back then, that was the overall criticism.
I remember turning in the artwork for that album, and it was a long creative process – the entire recording, and the entire creation of all aspects of that album – and I just remember handing it in and Equal Vision going, "What the fuck is this? There isn't a single decipherable lyric, or written anything, aside from the credits." And I said, "That's my intention. I'm trying to create a fine art representation of the emotion that is within the songs. It's a bit frantic, so it has some really kinetic typography that isn't necessarily always legible. I'm not always legible as a vocalist, so I wanted to treat the art that way." And they did not understand it. It took a lot of convincing for them to even allow that package to come out. They didn't want to do it.
They 100-percent didn't want to do it. And that's okay, though. I don't expect everybody to understand, though I'm not saying we're quiet geniuses or anything like that. But when you approach the creative process from an angle where the people responsible for promoting it and getting it out into the world have never seen that before, they just might reject it because they don't understand it. It's speaking a different language.
When we did that record, that was sort of the beginning of me realising that maybe we were too different to be working with that label. In our minds, we were pretty much done with our obligation to that label. Not so much for anything negative but we were going in a different direction. And I don't know if there was somebody who would wholly understand our band just then, but I thought it would come in time. And it did.
And you did find that label in Epitaph, who you've worked with for over a decade. But the lineup of the band shifted, Aaron Dalbec left the band after this record came out.
Aaron's last show with out band was decided on at… well, it was a combination of two shows that we played three weeks apart from one another. We did a show under the name Jane Doe, playing with Isis at The Middle East. We did it pseudo-unannounced, as people really didn't know the name of the record, and we just wanted to play these songs live. It was fun, because we'd never done anything like that before. But when we did that, our morale was sort of affected by the creation of the record. Four of us grew tighter over the creative process, and Aaron was quite busy with a lot of things, including Bane. At that time, Bane was starting to become more of a full-time band, and we realized during the recording of that record that we were just drifting apart. We were becoming more cohesive in terms of playing styles and what we wanted from one another, and he was just not as present as we hoped him to be. That's why we asked him to step down. We had a meeting a week or so later and decided that the last show he would play would be our record release show for Jane Doe.
It's too bad, because I really care about Aaron, and I like him a lot as a person, but our relationship never quite recovered from that. We're still friends, but it's tough. It's an emotional thing to ask somebody to leave, even if you feel it's in your own best interest. And I still feel that it was. It allowed him to truly focus on his passion, which was Bane, it wasn't our band.
Was there a concern about how you'd move forward, given that you were releasing a new album and immediately going from a two-guitar band to just having Kurt handle it all?
We didn't have a choice. We had a tour that we booked that was starting maybe a week after that. We were going out with Playing Enemy, which was our first tour as a four-piece. When we did that tour, we weren't sure what we were going to do. I remember the first time that we did it, it felt thrilling. We felt excited. We played with a two-guitar setup like we do now, as there's ways to technically do it so it doesn't sound empty. We've since mastered that approach as a band, but it was all new to us, and it was exciting. I think we welcomed the challenge, and it breathed new life into our band, just like when Ben [Koller, drummer] joined our band initially.
4. You Fail Me (2004)
This effectively starts the modern era of Converge. From my understanding, this one was kind of quietly delayed.
That wasn't really related to the creative process. Making the music, that was hyper-focused, and the recording of it happened pretty quickly. We were under a bit of a time crunch for a variety of reasons, but the issue that dragged on for so long was a disagreement with Equal Vision. They felt that we were their property as a band and that we did not fulfil our obligation to them. They felt that we owed them another album.
We signed a deal back then for two albums and one option of an album. And mind you, we were kids when we signed that. We were in our early 20s – and that's no excuse, we had a lawyer look at it—but we were just thrilled. The label felt that Petitioning the Empty Sky was not an album, and did not count as a release that was part of our agreement with the label. We felt we'd given them the two albums and the optional third, Petitioning, When Forever, and Jane, and we said we were choosing to move on. And they said, "No you're not. We're holding onto you." I understand their mentality, and I understand their perspective, but we had a different perspective. And citing also what I said earlier, regarding how I felt like they weren't understanding creatively where we were coming from, I felt that it was time to go. And the rest of the guys felt like it was time to go as well.
But we weren't sure where to go or what to do. At the time, Epitaph was known for primarily being a pop punk label. The era of The Offspring and Bad Religion and Rancid, and every band under the sun in that genre. But they were also branching out and diversifying what they were, and they had a lot of respect for our independence and our really unique character. They didn't want to group us in with the newer bands that they were signing at the time, which were bands that looked like Nikki Sixx but sounded like pop punk bands. They knew we were our own thing, and they respect that. And they always have.
3. No Heroes (2006)
Comparatively, where You Fail Me is a bit more ambient and open, this one kind of harkens back to a more extreme sound.
It's more metal, for sure. I think it sort of naturally evolved, and it features some song ideas that carried over from You Fail Me. I think "Bare My Teeth" was one of those songs that had components that were kicking around for a while. But like a lot of bands, we're always kind of writing. We call it the riff bank, which is where the skeletons of ideas end up. I think a few of those ended up on No Heroes.
I also think Kurt, as an engineer, was becoming more confident. That marks the first time that he fully engineered and mixed a Converge record. He went back and remixed and then we remastered You Fail Me, but we also had an outside engineer helping mix that record. We were under a time crunch when we did the You Fail Me record because we had a due date with the label and we had a bunch of plans built around that. And Kurt's studio at the time, his block lost power in the middle of the summer a few times while we were mixing. It was tough, because we'd be two or three songs in and it'd go down and then we'd just have our hands tied. We'd have to come back the next day and start it again.
With No Heroes, Kurt really wanted to fully realise the vision of the songs, and I feel like he did. Creating that record was really fun for me and really fulfilling, and I'm quite happy with what we made.
2. Axe To Fall (2009)
It's interesting that after a really lean, self-sufficient record like No Heroes, Axe To Fall features way more collaborations. Be it with former member Stephen Brodsky or Steve Von Till from Neurosis or all of Genghis Tron, there are a lot more outside hands here. What was the inspiration to bring more people in on this one?
It can be a bit trying to do everything yourself. Kurt might have a song idea and he'll hear a specific kind of vocal style happening with that, or maybe we'll meet someone on tour that we'll want to do something creative with at some point. We just thought it would be cool to take that basic creative approach and get a bunch of people to work on these songs with us. To our own fault, saying that it was a collaborative record was kind of off. As it was and it wasn't. We recorded all the songs and then knew what parts we wanted other people to do. So there wasn't much in terms of input from other people. I think the only song that had a collaborative feel to it was "Wretched World," where we had Genghis Tron play on that with us, and we actually had all of Genghis Tron on it with us. They were an extremely talented band that was really special, and working with them on a song like that was really fun. Creating something like that, that was really big and more epic than what we had typically done as a band a prior to that.
As far as the other guests, Steve Von Till is brilliant. To call him a friend, and a musical peer now, he's somebody that I've looked up to since I was a teenager. To have him offer to guest on a song was incredible. All the other guest vocalists that were on the record were incredible and added their own unique colour. We just wanted to have fun, and that's what you hear in it.
1. All We Love We Leave Behind (2012)
How do you continually find ways to keep pushing Converge forward and exploring new spaces inside punk, hardcore, metal, or whatever else you're interested in?
Well, life is really complex, right? I don't know about you, but the older I become, it's not brought any more answers or peace to things. My life has evolved in a variety of ways, I've brought a lot of positive things into my life, and I try to live as much of a positive life as possible. But with that said, there's still a lot of darkness. There's still a lot of complex stuff that needs to be worked out. I think everybody can relate to that, not just creative people.
Being in the fortunate position, to be in a heavy band, or an intense, emotional band, I can go and I can do something with that emotion and with that baggage, with all the things that aren't fully resolved in myself. I continue to work through those things within song. For me, it's been such a positive thing to be able to do that, and I think I can say that rings true for a lot of people I know that are in bands. They utilise being in band as their way out. It's my way out, too. Not my way out of my life, but my way out of the darkness that I feel.
I'm 40 now, and my life is vastly different than when I was 20. But, for better or worse, there are a whole lot of issues that are still the same things that I was dealing with when I was 12, or when I was 10. Some of the same emotional weight, some of the stuff that isn't fully resolved. And I get to get through that with song, and I'm really thankful that I have that opportunity.
The reception to this record was incredibly positive, showing that you're still making these kind of touchstones for people even years after something like Jane Doe. Does it feel freeing to know that there are people who will follow Converge as long as the band exists?
Making music is a really selfish thing, and making art is a really selfish thing. Though you are part of a community, and there are people who listen to it and connect with it, I don't really think about that relationship. The only thing I think about when I'm making art – and this is probably a good time to talk about it, as I finished vocals on our album today. It's taken me, I don't know, a couple weeks here and there. But I just finished doing that today, and the only thing that I'm ever concerned with when I'm doing that is capturing the emotion and the intention of my lyrical content. I feel like I'm one with it. I'm not trying to create a heavy song to sound heavy, or a violent song to sound violent. I just try to capture the emotion that's within the written words. It's an honest thing for me when I write. I don't sit there and think, "Hmm. I have to write a song today. What's it gonna be about?" I write when I feel like it, and when we start creating a fully developed song, that's when I start thinking about what pieces I've written that can be retrofitted to work within the emotional place that a song is coming from. I always feel really comfortable with the music we make when it gets to the point to be recorded.
Now, at 40 years old, I like things to be as perfect as they can be. I've been playing in this band for a very long time. I don't just go in and say, "Okay, cool. I went in there and I yelled it, that's close enough." I want it to be – and I'm not saying what I do is perfect, it's far from it. We're all flawed, and that's why we sound the way we do. That's the nuance of a musician and an artist. One of the things that artists try to do is to take themselves out of the art they make, because what you make is never what you intended. You have this vision in your head, and it never exactly ends up being what you want to make. But that's what's special about it. As long as we keep doing things from that mindset, and keep doing things that push that, then I'm happy.
David Anthony is on Twitter.