Attack in Black

In Between Days

BY Sam SutherlandPublished Jul 23, 2007

On a Thursday night in Hamilton, Ontario, about an hour outside of their hometown of Welland, Attack in Black unceremoniously strap on their guitars to begin their opening slot for the Weakerthans. Having spent most of their early career playing eight-band hardcore shows and opening for the likes of Death by Stereo and Every Time I Die, here, the band’s music seems like a perfect fit — aggressively honest, passionate and vulnerable. In front of a sold-out all-ages crowd, their performance is mesmerising, an inwardly-focused blend of punk, folk, and Crazy Horse rock’n’roll. The reception is mostly positive, in that "politely waiting it out for the headliners” kind of way. Attack in Black charge ahead to crossed arms and a few bobbing heads.

In one week, the band will go from opening for pioneering indie rockers Built to Spill to screamo superstars Billy Talent. Having spent their teenaged music career in legion halls populated by youth crew-influenced hardcore and haircut-inspired metalcore, Attack in Black began their life within that same musical culture, and while still steeped in the aggressive sonic aesthetic and work ethic of their punk past, the band’s sound has taken a left turn toward Twice Removed and the Springsteen discography in the last two years. They have yet to prove themselves to a more mature audience, who see the band as more aligned with Alexisonfire than Joel Plaskett; younger crowds, while occasionally supportive due to ringing endorsements from other screamo stars, haven’t quite connected with the band’s all-ages-punk meets grown-up-rock sound. "I don’t know what’s going to happen, or who we’re going to end up catering to,” says singer and guitarist Daniel Romano. "If anyone.”

Formed from the ashes of two popular Welland-area hardcore bands, Attack in Black began their life as a straight-up melodic-hardcore outfit. Already established within Welland’s close-knit hardcore scene, AIB had an audience right out of the gates. "We had very small, local hipster status because we had been in bands that had played so much in our area,” says Dan Romano. "This particular band didn’t have to suffer — we’ve all ‘paid our dues,’ or whatever. When we started, people were already interested. Not a lot, but a few in our little city.”

Originally comprised of Daniel Romano, guitarist Spencer Burton, Dan’s younger brother Ian, and bassist Oldie WhathisnameTK, the band produced one EP for Grimsby, ON imprint Skate Ahead Records. Shortly after its release in 2004, Oldie WhathisnameTK quit, replaced by another Welland-area hardcore-junior vet, Ian Kehoe. "There was a point where the other bass player was still in the band, and I was coming over to help Dan write songs,” Kehoe says. Immediately, Kehoe and Dan’s songwriting partnership began taking the band in new directions.

Shortly after Kehoe joined, AIB headed out on a tour to Victoria, BC and back; having booked the tour through established connections from old bands, Attack In Black got their first taste of outsider status, sticking out like a rock’n’roll thumb at the same hardcore shows where their old bands had thrived. "We ended up playing with bands that — I’ll say it — were really, really terrible, ” Kehoe says. "We played an eight-band hardcore show in Calgary, which was packed, and we were the only band that no one watched.”

The band didn’t connect musically, but the trip brought home other touring realities quite harshly. "Our van started burning oil so much that every 40 minutes we’d have to pull into a gas station, and while one person went inside to pay for gas, we’d pull the van up as close to the gas station as we could and kick containers of oil under the van while someone inside the van grabbed them and tossed them inside,” Romano says. "We would steal six or seven containers of oil every chance we got.”

When they got home, new songs continued to pour out of the new partnership, and performances honed their sharp musical attack. It didn’t take long for a former St. Catherines punk promoter to take notice. Joel Carriere, whose work managing Alexisonfire and Bedouin Soundclash has elevated his music biz status, had just founded Dine Alone Records, home to Alexis, Moneen and City and Colour; he offered to put out their next EP. "We signed with Joel and Dine Alone early, when we were vulnerable,” jokes Dan Romano. "But if we had waited until later we still would have done it. We grew up with Joel. When he was like, ‘I like your band,’ we were just like, ‘We’ll do anything! We don’t know what we’re doing and if you’re going to help us out, cool.’”

"We haven’t even signed a contract yet,” adds Kehoe. "It’s all in good faith. We plan on royally, royally fucking him.”

Eager to capture their evolving sound, the band enlisted Canadian rock vet Ian Blurton (C’Mon, Change of Heart) to produce their second EP. Widows brought out the best of their burgeoning rock’n’roll, and heads started to turn amongst fans, critics, and increasingly, other bands.

"You have to think, we see a ton of bands,” says Sparta front-man Jim Ward from his home in El Paso, Texas. "And sometimes you think something’s awesome just because they’re better than the last band. But they’re actually awesome.” Having toured Canada together, the bond between them blossomed during their performance at the Give It A Name Fest in the UK, where Ward found that the band sounded "just as good in an arena as a tiny pub.”

"There’s a humility to them that I identify with,” he continues. "There’s a goal of writing a great song — not selling a million records, but just writing a great song. It’s rare when you find a young band that good and sure of what they do.” Weakerthans front-man John Samson shares Ward’s high opinion. "They are invigorating and great,” he says. "[They’ve got] that sense of strictly-ordered abandon that so few can manage.”

It was on the road that Attack In Black wrote most of what would become their debut full-length, Marriage, solely on Romano and Burton’s acoustic guitars with Kehoe’s words. "When we got back home with all these songs, we were rubbing our hand together,” says Kehoe. "The whole way, we were just like, ‘Let’s get back!’ We had all this stuff we were sitting on.” Hoping to capture the same balls-out energy of their EP, the band returned to Chemical Sound in Toronto with Ian Blurton for a two-week session. High hopes would be deflated almost as soon as recording finished.

"Making a full-length record was really intimidating,” says Dan Romano. "We were really nervous about it. When we did the EP, we were really happy with everything. With the full-length, the process was just so intimidating. It took a lot out of us, mentally.” The first day was described on their blog as "nothing short of bliss,” and after two weeks, they presented their record to the label. Dine Alone didn’t share their enthusiasm.

"The night Joel told us to re-record it, we were like, ‘No! It’s good!’” says Dan. "We got really upset at first because we were proud of it. I mean, these are our songs.” Dine Alone were insistent that the results weren’t up to snuff, and Dan Weston, a local producer whose limited credits include the abrasive tech-metal of Rosesdead and the poppy emo-punk of Cain and Abel, was brought on board.

Tension in the band nearly reached a breaking point. "I started to agree that the recording seemed really weird, that it didn’t represent us as I though we sounded,” says Ian Romano. "Me and Dan, at least, were fighting a lot. It got to the point where we were arguing so much that I got too frustrated with what was going on and kind of… punched him in the face while he was driving, and then got out of the van. While it was moving.”

When heads cooled, they decided that redoing it was the best option. Within a day, studio time was booked and the next night the band was back in the studio, this time digitally, separately and behind a shoe factory, all just a week before leaving on another cross-Canada tour.

"On Monday we tracked bass and drums, and Spencer and I spent the week before tour from seven in the evening to six in the morning recording everything else,” says Dan.

"The bottom line is I’m way happier with the way it came out,” says Kehoe. "I genuinely think it sounds better.” It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what went wrong the first time. "I was always worried or intimated that Blurton didn’t like us as people, or even as a band, and he didn’t really want to be there,” Dan says. "He’s awesome and he’s a friend of ours, but I really think we were just scared.”

That Marriage is the result of such a botched process is astounding; it’s a blast of passionate noise-making, with all the vulnerable energy of the Widows EP matched by stronger songwriting. Songs like "Northern Towns” sound effortlessly catchy, while "Footprints” flawlessly melds Neil Young and Texas is the Reason. The textures added by the odd saxophone or three-part-harmony give it an E-Street Band kick that transcends the barroom punk rock at its core.

"Neil Young and the Band probably had a lot to do with this record,” says Dan. That sets of a string of inter-band conversation about the brilliance of The Band, Joel Plaskett’s Down at the Khyber, and Queen’s A Night at the Opera. Turns out, Attack In Black are not just voracious listeners, but readers as well; a question about literary influences spawns a flurry of talk about Walt Whitman and Charles Bukowski.

"When I first read Henry Miller, I equated Tropic of Cancer to [Refused’s] The Shape of Punk to Come,” says Kehoe. "I just thought it was the literary equivalent.” Attack in Black’s unique sonic and lyrical influences seem to come as much from e. e. cummings as the Descendents. "There are a lot of ‘borrowed’ melodies and ideas on the record,” Kehoe continues. "Let’s say you listen to ‘Chimes and Churchbells’ and right before you listen to ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’ by Bruce Springsteen. Or you’re listening to the chorus in ‘The Love Between You and I,’ and right before you’re listening to the Ramones’ ‘Here Today, Gone Tomorrow.’ If you were reading Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch by Henry Miller, you might realise that the idea of ‘Young Leaves’ is something from that book.”

Like their lyrical aesthetic, their musical mash-up of punk, rock’n’roll and folk also blends naturally. "My parents are both in a folk band together, along with my aunt,” says Dan Romano. "I pretty much got brainwashed into liking it from the time I was born because it was the only thing playing at my house.”

This combination places Marriage even further away from bands with whom they share ages and stages. The youngest member of AIB is 19, the oldest, 24, but it’s not their peers they’ve connected with lately. "When we play shows that are geared towards people who are in their early teens who get brought by their parents, sometimes they’ll approach us and say nice things,” says Kehoe. "But mostly it’s their parents who really understand or are excited about what we’re doing.”

"I’ve never doubted this band, ever. I doubt myself every day, but never this band,” says Spencer Burton. "I think as a whole we’re a lot more courageous than we could ever be by ourselves,” adds Kehoe. He’s right; the band politely ask to be interviewed all together, and the resulting group discussion is far more interesting and involved than any one-on-one interaction could have been. That lack of individual confidence translates to their live show, where music overflows with passion and between-song banter is kept to a minimum.

"I think that comes from playing with bands who are too good at addressing the crowd,” says Kehoe. "I have a tough time lifting my head when we play. There are certain nights where I feel totally comfortable with looking at people in the crowd. Other nights we’ll play to ourselves even if the room is completely full.”

"I think it comes down to presenting ourselves as honestly as we can, even if that means not looking at anyone or not impressing anyone with how cool we are,” adds Dan Romano. "I just want to believe that our music is strong enough that we don’t have to do shit like that.”

They may sometimes be a little awkward on stage, but Attack In Black recognise the value of getting their name — and themselves — out in front of people. But they’ve also used minor musical celebrity to indulge their occasionally wicked senses of humour. From participating in Atticus-branded podcasts where they talked solely about dragons, to Kerrang video interviews where Romano and Burton insisted on being referred to as numbers eight and nine of the Group of Seven, the band’s finest moment (so far) may have been a failed reality show pilot called Ink Pimp. "It sounded so good when they described it,” says Kehoe. "It was like, ‘You guys are going to get whatever tattoos you want! It’s going to be so good! All you have to do is come in and be yourselves! It’s going to be awesome!’ We get there, and they make us walk up to the place — separately — to make sure our walks are right. Then as a group. For 45 minutes.”

"And none of us got tattoos… except for one of us,” says Burton, pointing to an amateur-looking interpretation of the band’s logo on his wrist. "It was supposed to be anything we wanted, from a tribal specialist. Only does tribal. I was like, ‘Okay, can you at least do this really small?’ And he was like, ‘I’d kind of like to do something more tribal, since that’s what I specialise in.’ And he wouldn’t let you call him anything but Ink Pimp.”

They got plenty of interview experience when the Cravefest Music Video Awards used the band to audition dozens of hopeful female "hosts.” "The whole thing was really bizarre,” says Dan. "There were all these people circling around, and all these girls, nervous and gussied up. Someone actually asked us if it was confusing having two Ians in the band. And we were like, ‘Yeah, all the time.’ And they were like, ‘Really, really…’ ‘Yeah, because they look at lot alike [they don’t] and they have the same name. And it’s spelt the same way.’”

"We said that we got our name from a knight from Warwickshire,” says Burton. "And something about dragons. They bought it: ‘Wow, that’s so interesting!’ It was almost hard coming up with so many lies. ‘This time we’ll talk about dragons, and this time we’ll talk about outer space, and this time we’ll talk about ninjas.’ After a while we weren’t even lying or making jokes. We were just staring at them.”

Attack In Black is landing better and more appropriate gigs every day, building an audience for their brand of finely aged punk rock. Warped Tour will "never, ever” be one of them. ("It’s like putting your music in a big pile and setting it on fire in a field,” Dan Romano offers.) It’s just a matter of connecting to fans who prioritise music over fashion. "Maybe it won’t be a lot of people, but there might be a few who notice things in music besides the t-bar chords,” says Dan. "Maybe they’re looking for something else that maybe we offer.”

Latest Coverage