Narratives in hardcore music are quite rare. Think about how many albums in the scene have been about one specific storyline. Defeater isn't just a band of musicians, they're setting themselves up to be literary artists of the scene. With their latest release, Empty Days and Sleepless Nights, the band's brand of hardcore is leading them at the forefront of the scene. During their last show at SXSW this year, I took a minute to talk about the band's novel of a project and their approach to the whole thing.
First thing, can you give kind of a gist of what has happened in the story so far for people who don't know the back story of Defeater and the two previous records. Just a quick synopsis of Travels and Lost Ground...
Derek Archambault: Travels is kind of a story of a loner who was the younger brother of the story. [It's about] kind of what happens when you run away from everything and constantly trying to find yourself. The violence aspect is a whole different part of the story. [It's about] what happens when you run away from home and are traveling - obviously the title of the record. Lost Ground is the story of a man he meets while in New York City. Well, he doesn't actually meet him, he just sees him playing on a sidewalk. It kind of gives him new hope to try and change his life around. Lost Ground is [that guy's] story about why he's in New York, why he's on the street and homeless and why he's playing guitar and feeling like he's at his wit's end and just praying for death pretty much. Then the new one is the story of the older brother from Travels and how he stayed home to fix all the mistakes and cares for his mother after the little brother takes off after killing their father and leaves them with nothing. He just manned up and took responsibility and got a job and fell in love and drank a lot and lost his wife. There's also another meeting of the two characters from Travels at the end of the record. It's the same thing we did with the end of Lost Ground where the characters meet.
I feel like this whole thing is giant Canterbury Tales type narrative with all these people connected in some way but with a different story relative to the whole. In the end, are they going to eventually all meet back up?
Archambault: They're all going to have a party in hell and watch Slayer.
How much of it is written so far?
Archambault: We talk about it all the time while we're touring. Even now, we'll be hanging out and it'll come up and be like, "What are we going to do with this [character]?" and spend time with that. I technically write the lyrics, but it's a whole band effort in coming up with ideas on how to tie everything in instrumentally and lyrically we'd be lost.
Jay Maas: I think it's cool. It's been going so well already with what's transpired with an overall outline formed. Then we can let Derek lose. When Andy [Reitz] and I are doing song compositions, we're not doing it blindly. We know when this is going to happen and when this is going to happen. When Derek inks the individual emotions, we can give the background and outline. It's cool to have those talks years before hand to really have those themes and sequence of events in your mind and be on the same page.
Archambault: We do change things up while we're writing. Jay and I just go crazy while writing and make split decisions while writing.
Maas: Derek and I totally share that total revisionist mentality. Chris [Wrenn] is like dragging me down the street going "Give me that fuckin' record!" [Laughs]
Is it the music that takes that long or is it how it sinks up with the lyrics that has to be perfect? If the story changes slightly, does that mean the music has to as well?
Maas: It's both.
Archambault: I'd say 50/50.
Maas: I mean, if it's like "Oh, Derek's doing this," then I might add things to my composition or take things out. If [he] kills it on this one line, I might leave room for him to do his thing...Or he's building up things with his voice, so I need to come back in and add weird dissonant things in the background.
Archambault: With "White Oak Doors," that was the last song we did and we just kept building on it and kept building on it just to make it as good as possible. Then Jay came up with the background noises to make it sound like a train is coming.
At what point did you guys decide to end that song abruptly?
Archambault: I had the idea...
Maas: Yeah he said we should just stop it and I was like, "Dude, what should happen is we're in the middle of a word and it should be 'goodbye.'" The master levels were peaking and it was getting wild and it was just dead, gone. No effect. No trail. Just broken.
Archambault: It just kind of solidified the story. If you read the lyrics and know the story you know why it ends abruptly.
So what was the decision to do all the acoustic tracks afterward?
Archambault: Originally we were going to do them before. We were going to start it with the acoustic stuff and throw another curve ball.
Do you feel it's more capturing when you come in heavy with the "Dear God..." part?
Archambault: Yeah. Exactly. It takes you back to Travels on that fourth song ["Forgiver Forgetter"]. It's constantly referencing that first record. We wanted to have that be the theme the whole time.
Maas: I agree. The original idea was to have the acoustic stuff with Derek singing to be the first disc and that was going to be the birth of the older brother up until the moment the younger brother kills the father on the lyrics of the heavy record. Derek [and Jake Woodruff] wrote these songs and really spearheaded the acoustic element. Now you have these other looks at the same moment and I think it's really neat.
So you feel it's better to have those tracks come behind?
Archambault: Yeah, I think it came out better.
I feel like the production on this record is a lot cleaner too. Was that something you guys were aiming for too?
Archambault: That's all Jay.
Maas: I went fucking insane with this record. It is cleaner....
Well, I say cleaner, but I should also add it sounds tighter than the last two records...
Maas: What I wanted more than anything was 100% natural sounds on this record. So no autotune, no triggers, no anything. That was awesome because I pulled it off. I was stoked. I got a telecaster so that probably did something. It's brighter. As I kept making things brighter, it ended up...I mean I went nuts making this record. Of all the masterings that were made, I went to Bridge 9 six times with the CD and said "This is the final one." Then I just kept showing up and they were like, "Another one?"
Why was that so important to you? Was it backing the buzz and following the band had?
Maas: I do that for all the bands I record if I have the time and budget. I'll call Bridge 9 and ask them if they sent it out yet. I'm a perfectionist. I want it to be as good as possible. The only thing I like doing is working. I want it to be as good as possible. That's it.
Is there a possibility that later records will be too polished? Finding yourself overproducing in anyway?
Maas: I don't think so. I want it to sound as natural as possible.
Archambault: I don't think stylistically we'll ever get that way...
Maas: You'll never hear any gimmicks or weird shit like that. It's not us. It'll be like these are the drum beats, these are the guitar parts, we are musicians. We take our time and do the best job we can.
Where does the story go next? Can we expect a release next year? Will we see more short stories like EPs from the project? Does it come to a point where a characters story may just be an EP or it may be a full length?
Archambault: That's kind of how we were. For Lost Ground, we didn't want to put out something as soon as possible, we were just itching to play new songs. We toured on Travels for a year and a half. We could only go so far with it, and we got antsy and wrote an EP.
Maas: I think we just wanted to create...
Archambault: I think EPs are definitely in our future. It's rare for me to sit through a whole record, like a full-length. I'd much rather get what we have to say if it's in six songs, if it's in twenty minutes, if it's in fifteen minutes, just any part of the story we can add to to make it as good as possible.
Would you guys have rather released the acoustic tracks as an EP, or do you like how it came out better as one piece?
Archambault: Yeah, it ties together. It's not a different point of view, but it's another way to look at the same topics and moments. "But Breathing" is pretty much "Blessed Burden" but from a different perspective and have it not be so harsh and abrasive. Maybe it's for the people who don't like so much of our heavy stuff, maybe they like the acoustic stuff and that's fucking rad. Maybe it'll turn different people onto different things. I think if we did it separately, I don't think it would have worked so well.
Maas: It would be like, "Oh Defeater put out this acoustic thing, that's cute." The way I feel about Defeater is, Derek has an aggressive voice on the heavy stuff, but straight up, we're musicians to make music. We're fans of all genres. We just saw Felix Culpa and my jaw was just [dropped]. I'm obsessed with that band. It went from really really pretty to really really heavy. That's what we like, that's what we want.
Do you think that's what sets you apart from the rest?
Maas: We hope so.
There are a lot of great hardcore records out now, but this seems more in the vein of Felix or The Dear Hunter where there's an actual story behind and flow...
Archambault: We want everything to be a soundscape as opposed to just songs...
Do you think that's why there's a lot of recognition with this record?
Archambault: We're just stoked this is happening to us.
Maas: Last year when we went to Europe, the shows were so good that I told the band, "If this is as good as it gets, I feel so good. I feel so accomplished." I'm here with all these people, all my friends, playing in front of these kids. We can see how high it goes, but we set out to make a good product that's honest. We're honest. Once we put out that product, if it does good, wonderful. I like being around like-minded and honest people.