Fired Up

BY Bradley Zorgdrager Published Mar 17, 2014

At 23 years of age, many people are getting tied down with commitments: children, careers, bills and responsibilities. However, 23 years in, Cleveland's Ringworm have found the opposite to be true, as they've cut ties with long-time home, Victory Records, in favour of Relapse. This new partnership will result in Hammer of the Witch — an album that, for all intents and purposes, sticks close to the traditional Ringworm sound — but one the band anticipate will bring them bigger opportunities. With a name like Human Furnace, Ringworm's vocalist better be steaming pissed, and he is on record. Beyond that, he remains very humble and even compassionate, as he talks to Exclaim! about the band's accomplishments, storied past, promising future and even how to treat others. Here's a hint; if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all — or at least keep it on record. Or you could just watch a horror movie to blow off some steam.

At the A389 Bash, you said, "We've finally been emancipated from the big Victory Records."

What specifically brought about your animosity towards that label?
Well, I've always thought... well above all, we signed a contract, so you have to fulfill it and that's what we did. But I never made it too much of a secret that we weren't really happy there. I mean, when we signed in 2001, the bands on that label were way more in tune with what we were doing: what Ringworm were doing. You still had All Out War, you had Hoods, you had… I can't even think, but a lot of bands that were more in our vein of music. It almost seemed like instantaneously, once we signed, all those bands were gone or not playing anymore. And then the label kind of took a turn for… they had a different menu, a different agenda for what they were trying to push. The more they tried to do that, the more we felt out of place there and the more we felt that they were out of touch with where we needed to be, I guess, promoted to or the type of audience that needs to hear us. I always thought that either they were unwilling or not able to find that audience that we really needed.

The thing that maybe brought up disdain between us and them is that I just never thought they even tried. To me, it seems pretty easy to promote Ringworm because we've been around forever, so everyone knows the name, whether you like us or not. And they never really made an effort to try to push us in the right direction. And there was really no communication there with us; I mean, we only spoke with one guy down there, who's a good guy, but you know we only talked with one guy every so often. There's no excitement there; there was no nothing. So getting off that label, we kind of felt energized. And especially signing with Relapse, who's been nothing but great to us so far. I mean, they're all awesome guys; I've met and partied and hung out with pretty much every one of them, the whole staff there. They come out to shows; they work their distro booth. I've met them, I can call them on the phone, and they're really excited about us being there and vice versa. It's been nice, having a label that seems to give a shit about you.

That actually was pretty much my next question; I was going to ask you how Relapse has been. You guys put out the Bleed EP with them, so that was pretty much your first experience with it. How did that go?
It was great! One thing that we definitely liked about them, for years — we're older dudes, but we still enjoy our stuff coming out on vinyl. I just think it's such a great format. It's not always the most convenient format to listen to music, but it's still one of the coolest. You can do cool artwork, the packaging, and a good record sounds better than any CD, if you ask me; if you have a nice record player and a good needle, it sounds great. That's one thing that really drew us to them, that they really like to do interesting stuff and really cool packaging for their vinyl, and they're really into that. Whereas Victory, we tried for years to try to get them to put out our records on vinyl. And eventually they did and they look ok, but not nearly anything by the way of like how Relapse or even A389 does their vinyl; they make it really cool and they're really excited about it and they're really promoting us really well.

So yeah, Relapse have been great to us. They're really easy to work with. They're really open to new ideas because I always think up crazy shit that we could do, and they're like, "Really? Well let's try to do that." They're really open to new ideas, and honestly they show a little faith in us: sometimes they're willing to spend a little money to do something cool, take a chance on us. So we're excited to be working with them. Plus just being on Relapse is exposing us to a whole new market of people that probably would never have listened to us. Bands like Ringworm, anyone that would like it or listens to this style of music would never think, well I'm going to look for a new band that's kind of cool, it's heavy, it's kind of metal, blah, blah, blah, they would never think to search out Victory Records to see what new Victory bands are out there that they would like. Whereas, they might go to Relapse and be like, yeah, I'm going to check out this new record that Relapse is putting out. You know, Relapse has a reputation for putting out good, heavy, metallic type stuff, so that's a whole new market for us, which we're really happy to kind of be exposed to.

Actually, you're doing very well at reading into my next question. I was going to say that because you read in another interview you said that you think the metal crowd will embrace you more and Relapse could kind of be a gateway to that world, so…
Yeah, absolutely! I mean, the way I look at it is we've grown up in the hardcore scene and I have a lot of respect for it and, we grew up there, you know? That's where we kind of cut our teeth and stuff like that. But anyone that's in the hardcore scene will tell you the exact same thing; hardcore fans can be the most single-minded and almost, sometimes, ignorant type of crowd. When we play, most of the time people are just waiting for the breakdown. They stand around and stare at you, and they wait for the breakdown. Or they won't like your band because of your politics, or there aren't not enough girls that come to your show, or you're just not the cool flavour of the month. There's so much drama and soap opera that can be involved in the hardcore scene that it gets kind of ridiculous sometimes. You don't really see too many heavy metal message boards where there's so much drama on it and so much bullshit, you know?

Whereas the metal crowd will take you at face value. If they like it, if it's heavy, if they can thrash to it, or if they can bang their heads or swing some fists around, they're cool with it. They don't really look too much into it. I'm sure there's still that element in any genre, but as far as the metal stuff goes, they don't care whether you're a hardcore band. They just know that it was fast and thrashy and cool, and they dig it, so that's the kind of open-mindedness that we're looking forward to. Not to diss hardcore because, like I said, that's where we came up in, but again anyone that's really into that scene knows just as well as I do how drama filled it can be for no reason. They sometimes judge bands on the wrong categories; they just judge it on scene points and if they're cool, or if they're hip and cool, as opposed to whether the band's just good or not.

Obviously you're still a hardcore band, but Ringworm have always been heavily thrash-influenced, even throughout the whole thrash revival that's happened over the past half-decade. But you guys never seemed to take off on the waves of that revival…
Right, that whole retro thrash revival, I mean, that's cool. I'm 42 and the rest of us are pretty much in our 40s, we grew up on the stuff that those bands are trying to emulate. I used to go see those bands when it was really happening. Sometimes it's kind of funny to see bands that are really trying to capture that essence, and there's a whole new group of kids that, they'll go out and they'll buy their Reeboks with the tongue sticking out and wear the jean vest and the hat flipped up. And that's cool; whatever floats your boat, but sometimes it kind of seems like you're wearing your thrash metal Halloween costume.

But there is a lot of talent in that scene and the riffs are good and a lot of it's good. There are a lot of good bands, like Toxic Holocaust, Municipal Waste of course, Power Trip, you know, there are a lot of bands that are on that tip right now, but they're all quality bands and that's good. But as far as us, we've always integrated that type of stuff. We haven't come right out… you know those bands come right out of the box saying, "We're going to be a thrash metal band, kind of like the '80s; that's what we're going to do." We've never really done that. We just kind of came out and played what we played, and maybe tried to add as much metal influence as we could at any given time. Believe me, the first Ringworm record would have sounded like Slayer if we were talented enough to play it, but we weren't. We were young kids and we were in the hardcore scene, but we're all thrash metal heads, so the talent level wasn't really there because we were just so young.

Your next step is obviously unleashing Hammer of the Witch upon the world. Can you just tell us a little about that record?
Yeah, I don't know, it's hard for me to judge our records. I like it, but then again I like everything that we've done. We don't really put our stamp on anything if we don't like it. I've heard different opinions from different people. Some people say this is a very metal record, but then I've heard some people say this is a true and pure hardcore record, which I don't necessarily agree with. But the opinions are kind of all over the map, which is kind of a good thing. It's what we've always done. We've kind of rode the fence between metal and hardcore for really long. So when people ask me what kind of band I'm in, out of just pure necessity, I'll just say we're a crossover band. Some people get that, but some people are like, "You don't sound like crossover bands these days." Crossover bands these days are maybe that new revival of thrash metal, and they'll be like, "Oh, like D.R.I. and stuff," but like well yeah, but no. We're a little different type of crossover action going on. But it's a good record. I think it's really heavy; it's brutal; it's fast; it's pissed off, just like what you'd come to expect from us if you'd heard us before. And we're pretty excited about it, I don't know. The record's been done for quite a while, so we've been kind of sitting on this thing, so we're about ready to let other people hear this. Yeah, we're pretty excited about it. I don't really know what else I can say about it.

What do you talk about lyrically on it?
Lyrically, I just approach it like I do every other record that I've ever done. I just sing from personal experience: things that happened to me, how I feel about things, how I view the world and other people. Every record, I use a lot of imagery, I use a lot of metaphors in the songs, and at other times I like to be brutally honest and blunt with the lyrics. That's never really changed. Primarily, I think about the same things I always have. I mean, everyone's life changes for the good, for the worst, and it varies; life is life. I still primarily sing about the same things, and even though I try to keep it, in a way, like mysterious — I like to keep it kind of vague so the listener can kind of find their own meanings in the song; I don't like to spell it out for them, you know? Plus it makes the song, I think, more interesting. I guess I'm an artistic dude, that's what I do, so I like to get artistic with the words as much as I can, as much as my limited range would allow me to do. I use a lot of occult imagery and aesthetics such as that, but it's another Ringworm record and it's just more of me venting and being pissed off about whatever it is I'm pissed off about, I guess.

Is there a specific meaning behind the title of the record?
The title — like I said, every song means something to me personally — it's not like I'm going out and burning witches. Like every other song, there's metaphors that are embedded in there and there's meanings behind everything, but the title of the album and the song in particular kind of came about when the cover art was done. I curated an art show here in Cleveland called "Life and Death in Black and White," and it was pretty much an all-star list of some of the best black pen and ink illustrators from around the country and from Europe. The cover of the album was my piece for the show. That was maybe about a year and a half ago. When I was finishing my piece for the show, we were also trying to put some ideas together for the new record and I knew I kind of wanted to use that artwork for something else. So that artwork kind of definitely influenced the title in particular, and it's such a bold image that I thought, "Well, if this is going to be on the cover, then it might as well be the name of the album," because it's pretty in your face and really bold. That kind of influenced the title of the album and the song in particular. The album as a whole is not really a concept record, if you want to say that, but the artwork definitely influenced the album, per se.

Now we've touched on the present, the recent past and the future, and I just want to jump to the past for a little bit.
Sure! Whatever you want to do.

So Ringworm broke up two decades ago, and essentially remained dormant for half a decade. How do you anticipate the next five years will compare to that?
Well, you know, the reason we broke up in the first place is because just — there were a few different reasons — but I mean, we didn't really have the money or continue. Frank had another opportunity, to join Integrity, and they were doing really well, so you can't really fault the guy for doing that when we didn't have gear, we didn't have a van, we didn't have money, we didn't have nothing. I can see making decisions like that, so we broke up from late '94 to '98. Then when we got back together, we played a show and it was awesome, and we kind of looked each other like, "Why did we quit doing this? We should just keep doing it." So we did, and we haven't stopped since then.

As far as the future goes, we signed to Relapse for two records, so technically we owe them another record. So I can't see it ending with this one, but over the past couple years, things have been more or less better for us. Our visibility is out there; shows, for the most part, are better; we're getting a lot more attention, I guess. People are getting into it; people are starting to get it. It only took 25 years, and maybe more people are starting to get it. It's just like anything else. We're all in our early 40s and stuff, so obviously there'll come a time when, for me if I can't perform at the same intensity level that the music demands, that the lyrics demand, that's when I know it's time to move on to something else. That's eventually going to happen to everybody because, unless you're Mick Jagger or something, but you're not going to see me up there when I'm 75 screaming my ass off. Well who knows, but there will be a time when it's time to maybe move on to something else.

But as of right now, the fire still is burning quite brightly, so we're all pretty poised and ready to keep going, so there's really no end in sight for us. You've got to have the foresight to look into it and be like, eventually there will be a time when it's time to put it to rest. But right now, we're still writing great material; we're still performing at 100 percent, at the top of our game. I think that just comes with experience. We know what we're doing. Right now, it's pretty fun. You know, it's still difficult to do this because of finances, and as you get older, you get more real life responsibilities: jobs, responsibilities, kids, the whole bit, and there's not a lot of money to be made in doing this, really. I mean, we're not Metallica. We're not one of those high-end bands that pulls in a lot of money, so we're basically breaking even for the most part. Hopefully that'll change because that makes it so much easier, and you can do it more when you can go out and do a tour for a month and come home with enough money to pay your bills. Right now that's kind of what we're doing, which keeps us on the road. There's really no end in sight for us right now. We're still pretty motivated and we're still having fun, so as long as those keys are still there, then I can't see an end to it anytime soon.

So with the whole you breaking up two decades ago, that also means that The Promise has been out for just over two decades. Outside of obviously you said if you could go back, you'd make it sound like Slayer, what else would you say about that album in 20/20 hindsight?
Well, there's not too much that we can say about it because, besides our demo, that was our first real experience in the studio and none of us really knew what we were doing, and it's really hard. I have a lot of people that say like, "Oh The Promise is the best thing, your best album," and I kind of laugh at that. I mean, that's cool because I'm on it, you know, I appreciate anyone that likes what I do or what the band have done, but I often say if I knew the first thing I was going to do was going to be the best thing, I would have quit then. Have I been just wasting my time for 20 years? I mean, we were so inexperienced in there, the result of that was something special because sometimes when you don't know what you're doing, that's when often you do something… it just comes out… I don't want to say magical because I still have my gripes with the record: like the guitar tone is not nearly as heavy as the demo, and the drums aren't nearly as heavy as the demo, and we're out of tune for pretty much the whole record.

And a lot of that stuff, even like when we did the demo a couple years before, when I went into the studio, I was so green in the studio I didn't realize that you can do like two takes, or do a second vocal take or something, so I pretty much just blasted out the whole record all in one take. You know, one song, one take; I didn't do any backup vocals until later on. When we were done, Bill, our engineer, was like "Do you want to do like a backup vocal take or something?" I'm like, "Can you do that?" So we were still learning when we were in there and I guess we played, musician-wise, the best we all could at the time. There's really nothing I'd change about it. I mean, there's no point in it, thinking like that. But I definitely wish the guitar tone was a little thicker because it doesn't really match up too strongly against the demo, which I think was really heavy, as opposed to the kind of tinny guitar sound that we got. But yeah, whatever, it is what it is, I guess.

What do you think about the whole Cleveland scene and kind of sound and aesthetic that's become associated with bands like you and Integrity?
I guess where maybe most of it stems from is back when both bands were really young. Obviously Integrity came out a couple years before us. The whole scene at that time was so young, hardcore in the early '90s, everything was kind of new. At the time, everything was still really experimental and our age group and our group of peers, we were all into all types of different things. Integrity or Ringworm would play with punk rock bands; we would play with thrash metal bands or death metal bands. So the scene was really eclectic, and there was a lot of variety on almost every bill you could go to. It wasn't all just the same type of hardcore bands. That made it really exciting and it kind of pushed you in your own band. It was hard not to be influenced by outside genres, I guess you could say, because you found appreciation in all of them: even the metal bands, the thrash bands, the early grindcore bands that were from Cleveland. It was a big melting pot, so everyone kind of brought that into their own band, as far as the sound.

Whereas bands like Face Value, they kind of integrated a more rock and roll vibe to their stuff on their second record and stuff like that, or even their first record, we kind of stuck with maybe a bit more of an underground, thrashy, grindcore thing, and Integrity kind of stuck with the Slayer, more like doom, mid-tempo, heavy riff type thing. But all together, all those bands still somehow have all together a Cleveland sound. Plus the weather sucks, and our sports teams suck, and everyone's like just so depressed and shitty here and drinks a lot of booze, so I guess just that gets ingrained in you over the years, to write heavy, depressing, pissed-off music, so maybe that has something to do with it as well.

This is a really random question — Izzi from Homewrecker actually told me to ask you this one. What's your favourite death scene from a horror movie?
Oh, man, that's a good one. Boy, oh, boy! Well, that's really tough, man. Well, there's a scene from an Italian flick, Zombie, where the zombie just pulls this chick right into this big sharpened piece of wood that goes right into her eyeball. That's pretty gnarly. There's actually some newer films that I saw. What is it? The Collection! I don't know if you've seen it. It's a pretty decent movie, but there's a really good scene. It's almost a big, like, wheat shear kind of goes over a crowd and mows them all down in one fell swoop. That's pretty intense.

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