Known for their searing live performances and examining the darker aspects of human nature in their style and lyrics, metallic hardcore misanthropes Pristina have taken misery to the next level with their latest release, Hopeless*Godless. While topics like addiction and emotional devastation have certainly been influences for primary songwriter Brendan K. Duff in the past, especially 2010's The Drought (Ov Salt & Sorrow), this latest effort plumbs new depths. The lyrics and vocals are nothing short of anguished, and are supported by drums that reach to capture every manifestation of physical misery — from laboured breathing to an irregular heartbeat — and guitars that seethe with rage one minute and wail the next. It is a demanding, draining record that requires a kind of vulnerability only rarely conjured in aggressive music. Even the production, handled entirely by the members of the band, has a skin-to-skin intimacy that is rarely matched. Vocalist and bassist Brendan K. Duff, who has already referred to the inspiration for Hopeless*Godless as "the darkest period of my life," was incredibly candid about the demons that he faced and eventually exorcised through the creation of this record.
Pristina has been quite quiet lately. After becoming know for an aggressive touring schedule and an extremely dynamic live show, the band effectively dropped off the face of the earth. What has the last two years been like for Pristina and has it changed the identity of the band at all?
A lot. It changed the direction of the band, it changed a lot of things. Well, like you said, the last record came out, and everything was going really well, and basically — I feel weird — well, fuck it. My wife ended up leaving me out of nowhere, and that was the beginning. I thought I was happily married, and then one day I wasn't anymore. I got kicked out, I didn't have a home, I was living in a motel, I started feeling so bad about myself. She blamed it all on me, but later I found she was leaving me for someone else, but she never talked about that, she put it all on me. And me, as a somewhat sensitive human, I totally blamed myself for it and started hating myself for it, and ended up falling off the wagon. I had a problem with heroin, an I got so depressed that I didn't care anymore, so said "fuck it," and started using again. The whole last album, The Drought (Ov Salt & Sorrow) was about using and getting through, and I wanted it to be a success story, but no. I ended up getting so low that I didn't care any more. I had a near fatal overdose, and almost died on my couch.
This is all in the span of about two years, things went from bad to worse. At first the band was still going, and we'd still play shows, but I was in no condition to tour, I was in no condition to do anything. Luckily the band are really supportive, they're good dudes, and we're all really close friends. They saw what was happening to me and they stood by it. Even though Pristina is my vision, it's not like it's the Brendan Duff Experience, I need the other guys.
You've always had a static line-up, especially over the past few years, and it's clear there is a very solid core to this band. It is good they were able to stick by you during this time.
They are great. They stayed when I was about as low as you could get. After the overdose, I started having a lot of health problems from it. I got pneumonia, and the flu several times, my system was so weak. I don't know exactly what happened, but that dragged me down too, being sick all the time on top of hating yourself. Huh. You know, I wasn't going to say literally what happened, and then I did.
Are you comfortable with all of this appearing in the interview?
I'm not sure yet, I'll think about it.
You can always get in touch later and let me know. I completely understand if you don't want to share everything, as someone who has gone through a divorce and very dark times afterwards.
Yeah, we'll figure that out. I guess you can relate then. I don't know what it is about a divorce as opposed to a break-up, but it's two different worlds.
I agree, it is a different level of loss. I think part of it is the fucking paperwork. There is something about the paperwork that is a special kind of bureaucratic hell, filling out forms that say you hate me.
Yeah, it was definitely the catalyst for me. Getting divorced was the worst thing. Heartbreak is bad anyway, but divorce is a whole other level that I hadn't experienced before, and that set it all off. It's hard to really put someone's complete downfall into words, but basically, for two years I spiralled completely out of control. My drug problem was out of control again, I am one of those people who do so much that I overdose pretty regularly, I'm just a weird person like that, I always need to see if I'll live through this thing. I'm no stranger to overdosing, which is ridiculous to say, but this one was particularly bad. I was basically dead, and made it through it, and if I didn't wake up. I also know that if I didn't wake up, I wouldn't have been found for a day or two.
That's always a horrible thought. I am always afraid I'll die and be eaten by my cats.
Yeah, exactly. I'm now that guy, that's how I'm remembered. So yeah, the band took a back seat to my personal hell. We were still active, we still practiced when I could get there, we did play shows. In the past couple of years, we played 15, maybe 20 shows and that's it. I was just in no shape to do anything. So it all came to a head after the overdose, and I ended up going to rehab in California, and that was what completely changed my life. That was the greatest thing that I have ever done.
The first time you quit using, you just quit on your own, right? You just went cold turkey and wrote through the withdrawal?
Yes, and that was fucking awful. Basically that is the wrong way to do it. It can work for some people and I thought it worked for me, but as soon as the first roadblock hit me, I failed. I wasn't as strong as I thought I was. So when I went to rehab — and that wasn't my idea, I was basically dragged there — it ended up being the most positive experience of my entire life. But I didn't have an awakening, like I found god and all that shit. In fact, I struggled [with] the twelve-step program that I am sure works for a lot of people and I am sure is a wonderful program, but I only got to about step three, because after that you can't progress without finding a higher power. I don't have that.
Is that where the album title Hopeless*Godless comes from? The idea that, through the 12-step addition narrative, if you can't find a higher power you are somehow unsalvageable?
Exactly. The album is a direct reflection of all that. In fact, the song "The Immoralist" in the album is about this. At the beginning of the song I talk about my problems, and then at the end we play a passage from Revelation 13, a grim passage in the book of Revelation. That is what this song ends up being about, failing because I can't find god. I didn't get the full rehab experience because to become a Twelve Step Psycho, you have to find your god, and I don't have that. And some of the people there let me know that they thought I was wasting my time and money being in rehab because I haven't found my god, and without my god I can't achieve my twelve steps.
But the experience of rehab was still a positive one?
Very much so. I just ignored them and took what I could out of the experience, which was largely through the people I met there, and build a support network. Despite this it was the most positive thing I have ever done. I did a lot of soul-searching there, and by the time I left, my life wasn't completely fine again, but I was a changed man. And while I was gone, my band is so cool, they built us a recording studio to surprise me. So when I got home, we started again.
You were able to pick up where you left off?
Not exactly, because my experiences had changed me, so they also ended up changing our style and direction for this album. We had a bunch of stuff ready to go that was more in the vein of The Drought, and I just didn't have it in me. I needed to get this record out, which is a very depressing, cold record, though thematically it is about the same thing. It is a journey through the dipshit singer of Pristina's personal hell.
I think Hopeless*Godless does it in a very different way, though. You were able to distance yourself more with The Drought and make more cerebral choices, whereas this album feels like an exorcism.
I think that's exactly right.
It's also a much more intimate record. In the past it seems you were able to rationalize the experiences more, where this time you couldn't.
Exactly. For The Drought, I was kind of looking back at it, but for Hopeless*Godless I was still living it.
I think that intimacy is very powerful for the listener, and must be for you too. Does it make you nervous that this record is now out in the world, and do you feel any trepidation about playing it live?
I have no problem telling you that I'm scared to death. I'd never admit it, but in the practice room I'm second guessing myself all the time, like "dudes, does this album suck?" I know that once you expose yourself emotionally you leave yourself open for attack, and it's going to hurt more is some fucking person reviewing the record takes a stab at it, because this one was like tearing my ribcage open, like, "look." So yeah, I am a little worried. All my lyrics are personal, I'm not a great wordsmith, I just do what I do. All my stuff is going to be personal, but this — I'm not even on the other side yet of my complete emotional breakdown.
The record comes across as something that was very much written in the middle of things, so it makes sense that the process of writing and releasing it is very much a part of what you are still going through.
I am on the other side as far as that things are better now. I haven't really gotten it all together yet, but I am sort of a functional human again.
What made you decide to handle all of the recording and production yourselves?
We went really lo-fi with this one because we did it ourselves. I didn't want anybody touching this album except members of the band. I didn't want to go to a producer, I didn't want to go to a studio, I didn't feel comfortable with anyone doing it but us. We went for a really cold feel. We recorded it all analog, and actually got a reel-to-reel player, and dumped it into Pro-Tools from there. But I wanted it to sound really cold, really sad and unpleasant to listen to. That really is what the whole album is about. I don't know if it is successfully translated that way. We aren't huge recording geniuses or anything, we're just guys in the band with our hands on the album. Every single part of this album came from the band. It is our vision, not one other person touched it. And I think that's cool, I don't know if anyone else will.
So you felt the need to have additional control over the record. Whereas last time you worked with Steve Austin of Today is the Day and had a variety of guest vocalists, this time you decided that it would only be the three of you writing, recording, mixing and mastering. Did this also contribute to your feelings of nervousness around releasing it?
So Path Less Travelled is handling the digital release, but you are releasing a CD version independently as well?
Yes. I was excited that Path Less Travelled wanted to work with us again. What we are going to do is press a very limited amount, probably 500 at the most, of handmade CDs as well. I didn't want to go big this time. For the last album we had a bunch of vinyl, we had the CDs, we had all kinds of shit. This time, we want to keep it really simple. Releasing it digitally, people can hear it if they want, and if they come to our shows, they can buy a CD. One of our strong suits has always been live performance, and it has been one of the things that sucked the most about being out of the game the past couple of years. We've always been told our live performance is where you really see what we're about, and we haven't really done anything. Even the few shows we've played in the last couple of years haven't had any magic in them. So we really want to get back out there and do that again, so we wanted to have physical CDs so when people see us now, they can buy one if they want. If not, well they've already downloaded it for free online.
Do you feel pressure to get out and perform again as soon as possible?
If it were up to me, I would still be curled up in a ball on the floor. But we're not a big band where people are going to wait around, they need to be reminded that we're out there. So if we're going to do a record, especially considering the place I am in emotionally, it's going to be this. This is what we have to offer, and fuck you if you don't want to hear it. We're playing it at you, the audience, not for you. But I'm looking forward to getting it all out there, especially live. Recording the record is one this, but live is the emotional release. I certainly felt some release when I was doing the vocals for the record, of course, but live, in front of an audience, is a completely different experience.
It sounds like this was the album that you had to make as well, it was less a conscious choice than an absolute necessity.
Yes. This album is like Pristina shedding skin. We had to get this out of us. It's like a raw nerve. I don't know what is going to happen in the future, but this is what had to happen now, so we could get through it.
Considering that rawness, how comfortable are you with the places where this interview has gone?
You know, I think I am happy to let the chips fall where they might. I already said it. It might make sense to people who have wondered about us, who were following the band and who noticed that we were very active and there was all this great press about us, and then suddenly we disappeared.
It is an incredible narrative, which is a terrible thing to say about someone's real life and pain, but for someone listening to the album from outside of it all, that context can be invaluable. Especially with an album as raw as this, that context is important.
I agree. You can't really have good art without pain.