Interview by Phil Freeman
Defeatist were one of my favorite grindcore bands of recent years. I say “were” because they’ve announced that their final show will take place on December 17 of this year. I didn’t see this coming; this was not meant to be an exit interview.
The group originally formed in 2005: guitarist Aaron Nichols, formerly of death-grind outfit Kalibas, was invited to join bassist Joshua Scott and drummer Joel Stallings, both formerly of noise-rockers Anodyne. They released two 7″ EPs, Thanatonic State and In Praise of False Hope, as well as Mechanisms of Sanctimonious Filth, a split with Canadian band Kursk, in 2007. These were all collected on their first CD, Sharp Blade Sinks Deep Into Dull Minds, which the awesome Willowtip label put out in 2009. A year later, Defeatist made its full-length debut with Sixth Extinction, also on Willowtip. The album did little or nothing to expand their sound, which is bare-bones grindcore: blasting drums that sound like they’re being pummeled to bits, rumbling and distorted bass, and Nichols’s table-saw guitar, which does battle with his barking, hoarse, enraged and totally indecipherable vocals. They also put four tracks on a three-way split LP with ASRA and Triac that year.
Though it’s extremely unsubtle at first glance—they’re not one of those bands that throw bursts of jazz guitar or hip-hop beats in to spice things up—there’s a certain ineffable factor that makes Defeatist‘s music superior to that of just about any currently active grind band. I think it’s just the raw wall-of-rage aspect. Nichols makes no effort to be understood, vocally, and the band offers almost no concessions to melody. They just hit you with one awesome riff after another. That’s still true on their final release, the LP (also available as a name-your-price digital download from their Bandcamp page) Tyranny of Decay. They’re experimenting a little bit rhythmically, and playing some songs that are marginally slower than before, but it’s still grindcore, Nichols is still making zero effort to be understood, and it’s still awesome.
Interview after the jump.
Is Defeatist the first grind band you’ve been a part of?
Well, I guess straight grindcore, ’cause Kalibas was more death metal, I think. I think for those guys, it’s definitely the most metal thing they’ve done.
What made you think this was what you wanted to do next after Kalibas?
Well, for me, Kalibas was pretty technical and I had to work pretty hard to get all that stuff down, and I really just wanted to simplify things, to make it a little easier, and I think our schedules just worked out. Those guys called me up and asked, Do you wanna work on a grindcore project, just as a side thing? That’s how it started. So I’m not quite sure what they were thinking, but our schedules just seemed to work out that way.
A lot of grindcore bands seem to be made up of older dudes. What is the appeal of grind for the aging metalhead?
Well, that’s kind of the life cycle, you know what I mean? Just as far as, we’re all around the same age, so I think those influences from the late ’80s, early ’90s period stuff, just because we were around to hear all that, that stuff became important. None of us really wanted to go softer…I don’t know, I’ve never really thought about it before. I’ve always loved that old Earache shit, and I think I was just looking to do something that wasn’t so difficult to play, or you had to work so hard to get to. And at the time—and this was like seven years ago, too—at the time, there didn’t really seem to be that many grindcore bands. Like just, straight, traditional grind. As opposed to the last couple of years, where it seems like there’s a lot of bands popping up lately.
I’m gonna turn 40 in December, and I feel like as a listener, this stuff works for me more lately. I keep going back to Brutal Truth and Discordance Axis and whatnot.
I’m only a year older than you, so…yeah, I totally miss that shit. I’m pretty nostalgic about those years, just ’cause—I mean, I’ve been going to shows forever, but that was a pretty exciting time to go see bands. So yeah, I guess maybe it’s the nostalgia factor. Plus that shit is just so powerful, you know? It’s really weird, it seems like a lot of those bands are coming back. Like Brutal Truth is back, and that sound is coming back.
Your new record, Tyranny of Decay, has longer songs than Sixth Extinction, but the music hasn’t gotten any more melodic or intricate. How do you manage to expand the group’s sonic palette without moving too far out of your generally established zone?
It’s hard, definitely, because there’s a lot of stuff that we come up with that I don’t think fits into what we’re doing, and I definitely want to keep the focus on what the original intent was, which was just to be a straight-up grindcore band, and not really try to push into—at least for this project, I definitely don’t want to go progressive, or have singing, cause we would lose the original intent of what the band was supposed to be. So I’ve definitely dropped a lot of shit, but there’s also—I mean, we’re pushing little by little, especially on this record. There’s definitely some new tempos and some new rhythms that we haven’t done before. Some fit, some don’t, I don’t know how successful it was, but we’re always trying to do something new, riff by riff. Just a new way to come into a riff, or a new way to go out of it, or just trying to add something just a little bit, small increments like that that’s gonna keep the focus.
You released two CDs on Willowtip, but the new one is digital and vinyl-only, and you’re releasing it yourselves. Why?
I think we always wanted to do the releases ourselves, but when we were trying to do Sixth Extinction, we were just broke, and Willowtip—[Jason] Tipton’s been our friend for a long time, and he was willing to help out just because we couldn’t find a studio we could afford to record at. So he helped us out, and then when this one came up, I asked him if he wanted to do it, and he was kind of hemming and hawing and I was too. I don’t think we sold too many records on Willowtip, and we had the money to record it and put it out ourselves, so that’s just the way it went. The real problem is, I’m not a salesman. I have a really hard time going out and asking people, Hey, do you want to put out a record for my band? It just sounds so corny that I would rather just do it myself at this point. We had no commitment, it was a handshake deal with Willowtip, plus there’s a whole thing with distribution, once the record’s made you might have to wait six months before it comes out. I wanted to get it out right away, and I wanted to make sure it was on vinyl this time, and it was just like, I’d already put out a couple of other records, so I knew what the process was, and I knew how quick we could do it, so it was just easier to do it on our own.
Even though you’re a trio, you go pretty far afield with the guitar while the rhythm section is holding it down. Tell me about your approach to guitar playing and how it works within the context of Defeatist.
I don’t know. It seems pretty simple to me. I just write riffs at home and bring ‘em in for those guys, and basically Joel and I will keep cycling through the riff until we get a couple of different rhythms that we like. And, I mean, it’s kinda cheating because my preference is to use less riffs and do more things over it. Like, if you’re gonna use a riff twice, use a couple of different beats under it. So Riff A will have a blast beat under it, and if we go back to it later, we’ll try to use a different rhythm, just so it doesn’t sound the same or have too much repetition. Basically, just so that we don’t get bored with it, you know?
Joel’s drum sound is very interesting—it’s loose and rattley, almost like the kit is on the brink of falling apart. Tell me about him and his playing, and how you work with him and the bassist.
Well, to me Joel’s more machine-like. He’s definitely a numbers guy. He’s more of a math kind of drummer, to me. He can count anything out, the kid’s a total machine. And to me he sounds very exact, so maybe I have a different interpretation than you do. [The sound is] because he’s hitting so hard that he sounds like he’s destroying the fucking thing. He’s a hard hitter, man, a really hard hitter. Even all the blasts, he’s hitting everything as hard as he possibly can, which is great. I mean, he’s one of the best drummers I’ve ever played with. I never really thought about it. I guess I don’t think about this band too much. We’ve just kind of always done our thing. The way we work is basically going over shit over and over again until we’ve gotten it into the back of our brains so we don’t have to consciously think about it any more—it’s all muscle memory. So yeah, I guess…I don’t know, I’m not answering your questions very well, I’m sorry.
It’s cool—I’m coming from a jazz perspective where people can talk for fifteen minutes about technique, so it’s not you, it’s me.
Yeah, this band is kind of the antithesis of that. There is no technique, it’s just hitting everything as hard as we can and as loud as we can. Maybe not as fast as we can, but getting everything as tight as we can.
Do you guys record all in one room, live?
No. I think we did for the first session we did, for all the stuff that went on the seven-inches. But the last two recordings, it’s usually Joel and Josh in the main room and I’ll stay in the control room, just so that I can hear what’s going on. But as far as the takes go, those are all pretty much live.
Your vocals are largely indecipherable, and they’re kind of buried in the mix. How important is it to you that people pay attention to your lyrics?
Not important at all. Totally don’t care. For me, it’s all about accentuating the riffs and the music, the different parts. I don’t even like vocals where you can hear what the words are; all the bands that I listen to, or that I like, the lyrics are usually completely indecipherable. And song by song, there’s no subject line that like I don’t have one song about this particular subject or this political stance or anything—all the songs run along the same theme. And to me that’s not really important at all. It’s just like another instrument or whatever.
The songs on your albums blend together seamlessly, so each record is a 20-25 minute continuous blast. Is it important to you to maintain that kind of headlong momentum?
Yeah, and we try to do that in the live set too. We try to cut down breaks between songs as close as we can. If we could physically do it, there wouldn’t be any breaks at all. All the breaks between songs you hear on the record would be the same length of time live, too. It’s just that it’s not really possible.
That’s something that bugs me about grind shows sometimes, is when a band’s songs are like 40 seconds long but there’s a minute-long break between them.
Yeah, and the energy’s completely gone. One of the best bands I saw, that really pulled it off, was when Unholy Grave was here a few years ago. They would finish a song and the guy was already clicking into the next song before they finished the last note. It was fucking amazing. And that’s exactly how we want to do it, is just play for 20 minutes and don’t let the energy fall out of it before you’re done.