Ghostlimb frontman, Vitriol Records founder, and history professor Justin Smith opens up about double lives and his band's new record, 'Difficult Loves.'
If you've been following Ghostlimb's career trajectory over the past ten years, then you might know frontman Justin Smith is a full-time university history professor (and if you're a new student in his class doing a Google search, you probably just learned something new). Smith has tried to keep his musical and academic personas separate to avoid awkward questioning from outsiders (try explaining to your more buttoned-up coworkers why you'd tour the world for no money, and see how smoothly that conversation goes over), but keeping his penchant for both history and brutal grind hasn't been easy—especially when publications like LA Weekly dub him "the Heavy Metal Professor."
While historical inspiration has been the core of Smith and the SoCal grindcore outfit's creative vision for the past decade, their forthcoming full-length Difficult Loves aims as much for the heart as it does the head, this time around borrowing influences from literary fiction in addition to historical fare. Noisey caught up with Smith briefly to discuss the record, due out on Feb. 5 via his own Vitriol Records.
Noisey: I understand the title for Difficult Loves is borrowed from a novel by the author Italo Calvino. Can you dig a little deeper into what that title means to you personally, and how his work impacted your writing on this record?
Justin Smith: Normally, a lot of our stuff tends to be either objectively historical or political. This time, I was trying to shift from that stuff that might be more sterile and more objectively academic into something that was more emotionally driven, or captured a feeling instead of a topical issue as directly as possible.
I've been really focusing over the last couple of years, when I have time, on reading fiction. Italo Calvino was a writer who was writing in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. His work is really simplistically written, and the book, Difficult Loves, is all about normal people and the weird, stupid things that happen to everyone. Everyone has these things about growing up or these things about their lives. Everyone has an analog of the same types of things that happened to them.
The "difficult loves" thing is dual because in the song, it's about growing up and how youth itself could be treated like a kid you grew up with who always got you arrested. It's this thing that everyone has to deal with. [Laughs] Also, doing music this long, you have to love doing it. If you're legit and committed, it's going to be hard and in the long run it's going to be rough. So, it's about youth and all those things that dictate what kind of adult you end up becoming.
Ghostlimb has been active for going on ten years now, and it's interesting that you mention the difficulty of remaining committed to something for an extended length of time. Do you feel that since you also run Vitriol Records and you're able to produce your own work, that having all the control over how your creative output is released that maybe makes that easier in some senses? Or, does it ever get exhausting trying to balance the creative and the business side?
I may not have done Gorlock and Ghostlimb and Dangers this long. Once you have so much invested—and I don't just mean money, when you have this much time invested—you're that much more involved. I'm more involved now in music and playing than I was when I was 17, which is usually the prime era for people, and I'm 33 now.
Also, I realize usually people who don't play music that are our age just don't give a shit about music anymore, because there's nothing that keeps them involved and there's nothing new. I would say that is definitely a key in remaining involved. But oftentimes, it's harder because you're involved in every aspect. There's not someone that you hand the record off to after you record it and it just comes out at some point.
I probably wouldn't have it any other way though. Through Graf Orlock and Ghostlimb, we've always done what we wanted and we do it in our own time. It's worked out somehow [laughs]. If we were less involved, I definitely think it would have become boring. If we didn't book the tours and didn't know the people that were doing this stuff it would become so isolated that it wouldn't really matter anymore.
As heavy as this record is, it's arguably the most melodic release that Ghostlimb has put out. Was it a conscious decision to incorporate more melody this time around?
I don't know. After we record one record, we start writing more songs. We're never not writing music, and I think this time around, it's just a natural outcome of the way that we all play together, and we've been playing together for a really long time. I have to try to make myself not write melodically, so in some ways, we were removing barriers. Before sometimes we'd say, "Oh, that's too melodic" and we wouldn't do it.
This time around, the record actually started with the title track three years ago with this French band Birds In Row. There were going to be two long songs on each side, one from each band. It was a struggle to write a song that was longer, that had an arc to it, instead of just a minute and a half pissed off hardcore song. That maybe set the tone for the rest of the record, which was whatever we felt like playing regardless of whatever genre it might fall into. So, we may have been more liberated in the way that we want to write music and it just came out more melodic. But in the end, with the way it was recorded, it's fucking heavy.
At this point in Ghostlimb's time putting out records, and your catalog getting as deep as it is now, where do you see Difficult Loves fitting into the evolution of the band from a creative and a conceptual standpoint?
This is the third LP we've done with Alex Mcleod, who's been the drummer since 2010. It was supposed to be a trilogy of records, and this would have been the third, but we just ended up doing something different. Once he joined this band—he used to play drums in Dangers—he fit perfectly into how what me and Neal [Sharma, bass] always wanted this band to sound.
Our 2011 record, Infrastructure, was really melodic, and 2012's Confluence was darker. I think Difficult Loves is a good balance between those because the songs are a little bit longer and they aren't so rushed, so I feel like they have a lot more breathing room. That's what I wanted to go for; make them more song-oriented instead of just 45 seconds of screaming and then moving on; that's really constricted. It's the direction I'm really stoked on. This is probably the most happy I've ever been after we finish a record.
Being a history professor, it's clear how your passion for history has informed the music you create with Ghostlimb. But, I've also read that your musical endeavors are something you tend not to share with students too much, unless they happen to be at a show and recognize you.
Usually it's all Googled, but yeah [laughs].
Is there any reason why you keep that separation?
I've been teaching now for eight years, and at first I was very, like … I didn't want to talk about it. Now, I'm a little more comfortable with it. With Ghostlimb, I think it fits in. The last couple semesters, people have asked me about it out of the blue. Then they'd actually look into it and ask me about something related to Alexander The Great on one of the records, and I was super stoked.
People that are normal, that aren't into music, they see something like Graf Orlock or a Ghostlimb show and when in its a vacuum, it doesn't make any sense to them. It's weird and it would take a lot of explaining about the DIY thing. They see a video of you playing in the Philippines, but there's a 100 people there, and it's weird to them. I always try to keep those things separate, so I don't have to explain anything to anyone.
As it goes along, I've become more comfortable with it. I think that in some ways, students are more interested because they know you're not just some loser dad that's a 70-year-old professor, and that you just disappear into old history papers. They're more prone to listen to you and it adds a little more weight when they know you do other things outside that are interesting. So, that's kind of a benefit. When they actually start looking into some of the ideas too and ask me about them, then that's always really exciting and I like that. But, it's not something where at the beginning of a semester, you can say, "Okay, I'm in these punk bands. Check 'em out." [laughs]
It goes one way or the other, but people do get interested. I think a lot of people just randomly find it too because they see your name on a schedule and then they'll Google you, and all this stuff pops up that's super confusing to them. [laughs]
It'd be a funny reality show, I'll tell you that.