Published Sep 09, 2011The latest sonically punishing musical experiment from San Diego noise wunderkind Justin Pearson (Swing Kids, Head Wound City, the Locust), Retox is a seriously bare bones explosion of early screamo and '90s hardcore. Following a lengthy diversion into synth-filled blastbeat territory with the Locust, Pearson, along with fellow Locust Gabe Serbian, has put together a group with more spiritually in common with early Daughters or their own Holy Molar. Their first full-length, Ugly Animals, has just been released by Mike Patton's Ipecac Recordings, and we caught up with Pearson to discuss the album's construction.
At one point did you decide you wanted to record Ugly Animals using tape? These days, recording analog has to be such a conscious decision.
To be honest, it wasn't something we set out to do. The album was recorded on our own budget, so I think we would have opted for the cheapest way to execute it. Our friend Manny [Nieto] offered us his time, and he does record digitally, but he was set on doing it all analog. We just had to pay for the tapes. It's the luck of the draw working with a producer, and fortunately we paired up with someone who was on the same page as us. He understood the dynamic of the band, and aesthetic of the band, and ultimately, the sound that we should try to achieve. The first recording we did was digital, and you can kind of tell. It didn't have the same organic feel.
I know the last Thermals record was recorded and mastered to tape, so if you got the vinyl, you were actually getting something that was 100 percent analog. Do you think that's too niche, or do you think bands will continue to do stuff like that?
Technology is advancing, and there's an ability to record albums digitally that are up to par with analog recordings. A lot of it is the fact that it's cheaper. You can execute the recording faster with digital means. You can cheat. I think some bands are up to the challenge of analog because you can't cheat. That's the beauty of it. Especially for me, it was strange because I haven't been the sole singer of a band since Swing Kids. In the Locust, it was split between three people. I didn't have to do as many vocals. Even in All Leather, we recorded digitally, so you could get where you needed to get faster. To be the only singer and record analog was a challenge. To try to deliver all the vocals as precisely and accurately as you can is intense. There were two days of me just singing for eight hours straight. I don't think human beings should do that. I thought my head was going to explode. It was cool to have that challenge. It gave me confidence in what I do. I was impressed with myself, because it was brutal to do that.
Beyond the physical rigours of being the sole vocalist in a band, there's also having all the lyrical duties laid at your feet. Was it freeing to be able to write with only yourself and your own voice in mind?
I've become so accustomed to writing with other Locusts. I'd write something and have a hook I'd want sung by someone else. And I'm used to playing bass with effects, which makes me want to alter the sound of vocals for one part of a song. I would ask Mike [Crain, guitarist] to sing one line, and he wouldn't. I thought his vocals would be a nice contrast to mine, and serve a purpose, but it is nice to be the only person to write. With the Locust, I would always have to have the other guys in consideration. Not that I don't have everyone in consideration in most projects. But if I'm writing lyrics for the Locust, and someone else will have to sing them, a lot of it has to do with placement and style. It's easier being the only vocalist and lyricist. It was kind of a relief, I suppose.
You've mentioned a few other projects that you've been a part of. It's interesting to be at the place where you are as artists, because you have a substantial back catalogue. Are you aware of the weight of expectations that the audience brings to a new project you're a part of?
No. To me, it's a constant progression. I don't want to compare things to works that have been done in the past. I feel like there's an evolution to it, so I don't think it's an issue for me. As for an audience, I guess that doesn't really matter to me either. I don't take that in to consideration. I don't really have a concern with what the reaction will be. It's for ourselves first and foremost.
There's a really interesting line in the current Retox bio that refers to the counter-culture as being "lost in a sea of pointlessness." I was hoping you could elaborate on that.
It's kind of vague. The whole idea of the bio was this frustrating thing we had to do. You have to explain yourself to someone who doesn't get it. I still think we kind of tricked everyone by making it obscure, but the point of that was that, there is this sea of pointlessness, of irrelevant art. Including ourselves. There's a shift in how humanity sees the world, and since music is a reflection of the world we all live in, you have this mindset of, "I'm just going to download this album on some torrent site, I'm going to watch this on YouTube, and I'm going to stay home, and I don't really care about art." This runs from Cattle Decapitation to Lady Gaga. People just don't care.
It's an interesting time for music as an art form. That's something you experience on several levels, being in bands and also running a label. Does it affect how you approach the label?
For sure. It's not an industry anymore. It's brought it down to a different level. At least for me, there's elements of activism in it. It's challenging people's mindset, people's ideals. It's not just "This is an industry, we're going to sell this many units and make this much money." That's out the window, so for us, it's a questions of what we can accomplish that doesn't pertain to monetary value. If we have monetary success, that's great, and if we don't, well, it's a good thing we have day jobs.
On the subject of labels, Ipecac is a label you've worked with in the past, and I'm wondering what your relationship is like on this record.
It's really nice to work with the people at Ipecac. They're really on cue, and it's just a great family to align ourselves with. It's been great so far, and I'm excited to see how things go once the album is released.
Can you tell me a bit about the "Bastard on Father's Day" video? It's a very appropriate marriage of those visuals and that song. Where did the idea come from?
The director that we worked with went back and forth with us about the lyrical content. It's weird because it's written with metaphors, so it's a little hard to explain. There's two sets of meanings to it, so that was the first challenge. We didn't even really know the director. It was a friend of a friend, so it was strange to align ourselves with someone we didn't know on a personal level. It worked out awesome because he's a great dude, and very in to pushing it. Ironically, when he gave us the first edit, we were like, "Oh dude, you've got to tame this thing." It was a little offensive and brutal at that point. This is the second version, which is a little more subtle. It's just showing the negativity of aspects of human nature, and it's pretty relevant. It's open to interpretation, and I don't want to spell it out for people. I hope people can listen to the lyrics and see what they can get from it. There's this term "sleeping Jesus," which is a heroin addict, but I don't even think that's the point of the story. It's a weird play on words, because it actually ties in to Jesus. It comes back to that idea of the negative things about humanity, and the things people don't want to address or see. It's weird to have someone put that to visual.
It's interesting that it had to be toned down, because —
Oh man, it was fucked up when we first got it. It was bad. We were going to get in trouble.
And what's so disturbing is what you don't see, what's implied.
I agree. I think it's much more effective. I just want people to think, and that's the whole point. It comes back to that whole sea of pointlessness. There's so much music that's just there, and you don't have to think about it. I was always drawn to music where you had to go, "What the hell is that? What are they saying?" I remember being five or six and hearing "Mr. Roboto" by Styx. I was drawn in, and it got me to think at an early age. I will ponder that video for the rest of my life. That stuck with me when I was a child, and that's what I want. If people are like, "What the hell are they saying?" or even, "That sucks, it's garbage," then great.
You have a history of having a strong visual component with your music, so how much of a leap of faith is it to work with someone you don't know for an explicitly visual interpretation of your music?
It's like working with a record label or a promoter or a booking agent. There was this person that was recommended to us, and we had email conversations going back and forth, and some point, it just clicked. This guy was totally out there and we knew he would do an awesome job. At the same time, us, the four people in Retox, do not have the ability to make this video with our own hands. We need to seek out assistance. There was the whole discussion that, if we don't like it, we don't have to use it. That's also challenging to the director, as well. We're working with no budget, too. It's weird, because we're almost doing a video for every song. Some are taking longer, but at some point, we will have made videos for just about every song on the album with no video budget whatsoever. I think that's interesting. I was impressed that that guy did that video for free. And who are those people who look like they're cracked out of their minds, who acted in that and subjected themselves to that for nothing? In that sense, it's pretty awesome, as well.
For some people making videos is their passion, acting is their passion. I guess some people are willing to work for very little reward.
Same with the band they did the video for [laughs].