Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Damnation Alley interview with Vocalist: John Torn. February 23, 2010.

Vista: Hey John. First things first, give us the boring, typical fanzine answer: Who's in the band & who does what?

John: Hello. Dave plays guitar, Rian plays bass, Josh plays drums, and I do the vocals.

Vista: Give us a history of Damnation Alley? Ex-members, year started, what has been released so far & what's still available, etc.?

John: I had the idea for the band a long time ago, but we actually got started in 2008.  We had a bunch of lineup changes for the first year or so… Dave and Josh were in it at the beginning, Rian came along a little over a year ago.  Former members: Chris Kyea, Ben Belcher, Mike Robbins, Chris Roberts, Ben Wessels, Andy Naylor… I think that's it.We did a demo in 2008 that was good for what it was, but looking back it's definitely not our best material.  We don't play those songs anymore.  Then we did a demo in 2009.  As far as availability, if anyone wants any of that, they can just email us and I'll send them mp3's or mail them a disc.  Then we did Sheep In Wolves' Clothing, that got delayed a lot because of all our member changes at the time.  It was originally intended to be a 7", but one thing after another happened and we just released it as a CD instead.  That's available from us, at shows or on the internet.

Vista: What's going on with the Albany Hardcore scene these days? I know that back in the day {entire 1990's}, Albany had a pretty amazing, tight scene. Kids and bands were not only really good & diverse, everyone seemed to lookout and respect one another. I'm wondering, what bands are worth checking out, where are shows taking place & what's the over-all scene like up there? Also, is anyone up there doing any fanzines or are they a dead-issue! Ha!

John: Yeah,Albany was exactly as you describe back in the 1990's. I'm very proud and fortunate to have been a part of it. Albany has had some ups and downs over the past several years (as most places do), but as far as 2010: it's not at its worst, but it's definitely not at its healthiest. A lot of younger kids don't even know their own local bands, because the huge shows that would expose bands to younger kids are all package tours with little-to-no room for local openers, which has been a problem for most of the country for a few years now.  As far as which shows draw, there are exceptions to the rule, but the shows you would expect to pack a room get maybe 100 kids at most.  Unfortunately, the bands that really pack rooms at the moment are pop punk and fake hardcore bands.  Hopefully this is a passing thing.  I feel that, at the moment, not many younger kids really know what's up with what hardcore is about, so you have younger kids either playing wannabe toughguy garbage or wannabe radio rock (both calling themselves punk or hardcore), and then most of the legitimate hardcore bands are in their twenties or older. Who's going to promote to high school kids all day and get them to start coming to shows?  But I mean without looking like a creepy toucher? We need some new ideas, maybe hand out flyers outside of the pop punk shows, etc. It's the responsibility of all of us to try and raise attendance at shows, get some new people into hardcore, because if there's no one at the shows, eventually there will be no shows. There are always DIY venue hookups coming and going, always basement shows up here. But as far as steady venues go, right now we have Valentine's (as always), The Landing Zone, Northern Lights (for the huge shows), and actually Mike from Brick By Brick has been booking shows at Bogies for the past year and an half.  Definitely awesome to have shows at Bogies again. As far as bands, definitely check out BORN LOW (ex-One King Down and The Promise), COUGHING FIT, DEVIANT LOANERS, and if you want some metal, you should check out THE FINAL SLEEP, ARMOR COLUMN, and BURNING HUMAN (they got back together a few years ago). There's a disappointing void of zines up here, which I think is the case everywhere, unfortunately.  Maybe there's some internet zines that I don't know about, that would be awesome.  As far as the internet vs. printed zines, I like holding a zine in my hand but there's something to be said for saving trees, etc.  Our bass player Rian does a zine called Hoptic Times which has sections about hardcore and other stuff also.  That zine is always a good read.

Vista: Tell us about Damnation Alley. Where are you guys pulling influence from musically? Also, where did you come up with the name, Damnation Alley? Does it have any meaning to the band or is it just a bad-ass name!?

John: I took the name from a pretty awful movie called Damnation Alley, which takes place post-nuclear apocalypse, in which the only surviving outpost of society is Albany, NY. We don't really set out for any particular style or sound when we write, but I think the influences that show through in some of our songs include Starkweather, Bad Brains, Slayer, Metallica (pre-1990 obviously), Dissolve, Acme, Coalesce, Overcast, Burnt By The Sun, Integrity, and about a thousand 90's hardcore and 80's thrash bands.

Vista: Lyrically, what are some topics you cover? I know from listening to your CD, you guys are actually a band that has something very different to say than the usual shit that is passed off as Hardcore these days {decade}! Give us some thoughts, lyrically. 

John: Thanks John, that means a lot coming from you. I'm trying to keep the songs on each release (excluding the early demos, which were whatever songs we had at the time) thematically related to each other. Sheep In Wolves' Clothing is basically about fake hardcore kids. To simplify each of those songs on that CD:
Careerist - people who say they're playing hardcore, but really have nothing to say and just play in bands to "get famous"
Titan - people who talk about all the grand things they're going to do, instead of ever doing anything for themselves
Everyone Is Full of Shit - people who swear that they're your friends, but really they're just waiting to take advantage
Dear Stupid Idiots - all the hardcore kids who, somehow over the last few years, forgot that coke is a TERRIBLE idea.  And heroin.  That's a really bad idea, too.  I'm the only straight edge kid in Damnation Alley, but no one in the band does that hard drug shit. The next batch of songs that we've been playing is less introspective as far as "the hardcore scene," and is more about growing up and societal pressures, to be kind of vague about it, I guess.  The lyrics are started for a full length after we record those songs, but I don't really want to go into what that's going to be about at this point.  I'm excited about that, though.

Vista: I know you did a song with Rob, from One King Down/Most Precious Blood. How did that come about & how was it working with him on lyrics, as well as in the recording studio?

John: Rob has been one of my best friends for a long time now, and we've been talking about collaborating on one thing or another for years.  The lyrics to "Titan" weren't done yet, and I was toying with the idea of inviting him to be a part of the song, and then randomly he mentioned he would be in town visiting family the same weekend we were recording, so it seemed like the right thing to do.  The writing process was very exhausting and a completely new thing for both of us; that is, collaborating on lyrics so closely with someone. I don't think I could have done it with someone who's not such a close friend. I drove down to Philadelphia, where he lives now. We agreed on a topic and started from scratch on the lyrics, sitting in his living room with a practice recording of the song on repeat for hours, writing down concepts and lines, comparing notes with each other, etc. Once we reached the point where the song was about 90% where we wanted it, we started tweaking each other's lines, deciding who would sing which sections, etc.  The studio was a lot of fun.  It's actually not the first time I've been involved in a recording situation with Rob.  I love working with him, always a lot of fun. He and I have very different ways that we go about recording vocals.

Vista: What was your first introduction to the Hardcore scene? How old were you & what bands were you first drawn to? First show ever attended?

John: Oh man. Some of this might come across as corny or whatever, but I don't care; there's no other way to phrase some of this. I always knew there were "metal" or "punk" bands in the area,from seeing Stigmata, Substance, Withstand, and Flat Broke grafitti all over the neighbourhood when I was a young kid. Then in 1995, when I was fourteen, I made some friends who actually went to shows, and they'd always have demos playing whenever I'd hang out with them.  The first hardcore CD I ever bought was Doughnuts "Age of the Circle."  But they were from Sweden and ultimately never ended up coming back to the states, so hardcore was still kind of an abstract concept for me.  But, over the next couple of months, these friends of mine copied the One King Down "Jawbreaker" demo for me, which I must have listened to a billion times.  Finally it clicked with me that I could just go see this band play practically whenever, so I found out when their shows were and picked one at random haha. I definitely picked right, because it was Starkweather, One King Down, and Human Remains at QE2 (September, 1995). I think I was among maybe ten people in the room who actually seemed to enjoy Human Remains. When One King Down started - and there is no way for me to explain this without sounding ridiculous to anyone who hasn't gone through the same thing - I felt like I was on a different fucking planet or something. These older girls had taken me under their wing and shown me a relatively safe spot to hang out right by the stage, which basically meant that people were constantly jumping off the railing and flying right over my head. It was a room full of people dancing VIOLENTLY, but not a single one of them was out to hurt anyone. If anyone fell, they were immediately picked up. It was like everyone was saving everyone from everyone, in return for putting everyone at risk. I don't know where that kind of solidarity exists outside of a real hardcore show. Everything I saw during those six or seven songs blew my fourteen-year-old mind, kids screaming the lyrics louder than the singer, piles of people singing the words while other people jumped off of them… the lyrics, the music, everything going on around me, got me so pumped.  I simultaneously feared for my life, and yet had this indescribable feeling of safety and comfort. After the OKD set, I picked up my copy of Vista #1, and then Starkweather played.  That was actually the first time I had ever even heard
Starkweather.  Holy shit, that's a whole other story.
So, I went to see One King Down, and got hooked on Human Remains and Starkweather, and that was how it was for a bit: go to see Section 8, get hooked on Dissolve, etc. Anyway, after that show, I knew I had crossed the point of no return. My life has been wildly different and better than it would have been if I had never found hardcore. Sorry if that answer made your printer run out of ink. Ha!

Vista: Have any of you guys been in any other bands prior to Damnation Alley? I know that you were in a prior band, but let us know?

John: Dave and Rian are both in a band called Infidels, Dave is also in Marijuana Mountain, Josh is in a band called The Girls of Porn (like the Mr. Bungle song), I recently started playing bass in a band called Heal These Wounds…as far as previous bands, Josh was in Unrestrained in Portland, Host and Parasite and a bunch of other Albany bands, Rian was in Less Talk, and I've been in a bunch of bands over the years but the one anyone might recognize is Recon, which was a straight edge band I played bass in until the original singer quit. I wasn't in the band when Alex AKA Little Sneakers was the singer, I just want to make that clear.  That kid said so much dumb shit on stage about how he was so straight edge or whatever, and then later got arrested for growing weed, what a joke. He encouraged kids to be violent against each other at shows, too… fuck that. All those other guys are still really good friends of mine, though.

Vista: Speak a little bit on behalf of the other guys in the band...Who are some of their influences, musically?

John: I asked around and this is what I got:
"Metallica. Classic hardcore...Cro-Mags, Killing Time and the like. Queen. Converge. And Pantera of course." "Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Bad Brainz, and Meatloaf." "Wham."

Vista: What are some goals for the band? I hate using that word, "goals" but I'm not clever enough to come up with a more intelligent phrase! Ha! But, what are some goals or achievements you guys are striving towards, if any?

John: We definitely have some specific goals and achievements we'd like to meet. First one, that we've accomplished already, was to last an entire tour without having to get the van towed to a mechanic at any point.  That was a first for most of us, actually. Another achievement we've met is having people sing along to our lyrics, which is pretty awesome. I hope to see more of that, too. Goals/achievements that we still need to meet: have music of ours pressed onto vinyl, write and record a full-length, tour the full US, tour Europe, tour somewhere in the Pacific (I mean Japan or Australia, not like underwater), and then do all of those things again and again.

Vista: What are your thoughts on the current Hardcore scene? You came up in the 90's & it sure seemed like the scene, as a whole...Had a hell of a lot more to "say"? Maybe at one time it got a little bit annoying or preachy, but at times...It sure seems like thoughts & different ideas aren't in the forefront & nothing is outside ANYONE'S comfort-zone. Thoughts?

John: I agree with you completely. It seems like 99% of the bands out there today don't have anything to say. I really find it depressing to go to show after show and not hear anyone have ANYTHING to say. Just a bunch of screaming. There are a few exceptions. Bands like Bane and Terror, and of course bands like Sick of It All, and newer bands like Pulling Teeth, are great to see because those bands actually give a shit. Those bands have something to say. But it sucks that bands with something to say are EXCEPTIONS to the rule. EVEN WORSE than bands who have nothing to say are bands who say complete garbage instead of nothing. Some of these younger bands drop all of this, for example, homophobic and sexist bullshit on stage and no one even blinks an eye. We (hardcore) were way beyond that in the 90's, how the fuck have we regressed so much? Everyone acts like "girls don't belong in hardcore, girls can't be straight edge, girls can't be in the pit, girls should just hold their fucking boyfriends' jackets, etc etc etc," and the worst part is I see most girls at shows AGREEING with these sentiments. Disgusting.
I feel bad for kids going to see these bands, that that's all they'll ever know of "hardcore."  When I was growing up as a hardcore kid, I felt like I LEARNED things at a lot of the shows I went to. Yeah, sometimes you just have to have fun, and that's important too.  Having fun is important, and emotional catharsis is also important, both of those things have their place in hardcore for sure, but WAKE THE FUCK UP now and then.  There is NO WAY you can not be pissed about a lot of what is going on around you.  If you want to ignore it all of the time, then you're not hard, and you're not hardcore.  No one has any literature at the merch tables anymore (my fault as much as anyone else's), no one has shit to say, no one wants to rock the boat at all. I do see a lot of "Christian hardcore" bands over these past couple of years saying their message on stage and in their lyrics. I'm not going to use this space to talk about how I think "Christian hardcore" is an oxymoron, but I will say that half those bands don't even believe what they're saying, but there are enough other "Christian hardcore" bands that they're actually gauranteed to sell more shit in some areas of the country just by aligning their bands' image with the religion.  Also, I see a lot of bands pretending to be athiests to jump on ironically similar bandwagons. So there you have it: in the 1990's, almost everyone had something to say, but there were enough bands that were just about having fun or being cathartic, and it was great.  Now, the vast majority of new bands don't have ANYTHING to say, unless it's about religion (which we all learn about outside of hardcore anyway, making the message of these bands redundant in most cases), or about real ignorant bullshit that reverses our evolution as a subculture. Disgusting. There is a small percentage of bands who know what hardcore is actually about, though, and in all fairness, I have seen the pendulum slowly start to come back to where it should be. Not like I'm a fucking saint with my lyrics but at least our songs aren't all about moshing and being wicked tough.

Vista: In your opinion, which fashion trend in hardcore is/was the absolute shittiest? 1. Jenco jeans & chain wallets to the knee? {primarily rich white kids from nice neighborhoods}. 2.Guys in girls pants & eyeliner make-up?{an extension or goth/emo/My Chemical Romance, etc. etc.}. 3. Tattoos on the neck/face? {an extension of the Jim Rose side-show,circus}.  

John: Man, I don't even care. We all looked stupid at one point.  You can tell if someone is going to be a total bag of shit from the look on their face, not from what they're wearing. Plus I wish they still made jeans like that. I wouldn't wear them with a wallet chain though, that's some Dungeon Master bullshit.

Vista: One last question...Best Metal band/album of all time!? Just one, who is it?

John: Starkweather - This Sheltering Night. No bullshit.  They've been my favourite metal band for many years and every record is better than the previous. Their new record makes me want to relearn every instrument I know because I feel like I've been playing them wrong.
Bonus: if you had said hardcore instead of metal, I would have said Dissolve - Dismantle. Some people think Dissolve is a metal band and not a hardcore band, but they obviously haven't read the lyrics.

Vista: John, thanks a lot for taking the time to do this interview. I appreciate it. We known each other for a hell of a long time & it's great to be in touch with you. Best of everything. Tell us what is coming for the Summer/Fall 2010 for Damnation Alley? Also, what's the best way of getting in touch with you guys?

John: No, no, I really appreciate you even putting my band in your zine.  I think it's awesome because your zine is the reason you and I first met, so many years ago, but also because Vista is one of my all-time favourite zines. Maybe it's because I read the first issue about a million times, but also I've always loved the stuff you put in the issues. I guess the internet is good for something now and then, it got us back in touch. As for what's next for the summer, we're recording new stuff very soon, doing a couple quick runs around the East, and working on writing a full-length record.  It's not going to just be a bunch of songs, it's going to be connected.  That will be a challenge but it will be worth it.  As for the autumn, hopefully we can keep playing a lot in the Northeast, and book some touring for the winter, hopefully have the record done sometime in the fall, but we'll see if it's ready.  So, one recording, maybe two, and playing a lot of shows.  Then in 2011 WHO KNOWS!  As for getting in touch, we have an email address, damnationalley518@gmail.com, and we have a page on myspace if people want to hear our songs, that's www.myspace.com/damnationalley518, and we have a page at damnationalley.limitedpressing.com, we're also on facebook and all that other shit, too. Thanks John!!!  So glad you're doing the zine again.  And thank you to anyone who actually read my rants.

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