Converge: 'The Best Way To Learn Is Just Start Doing It'

UG scribe Carlos Ramirez recently talked to Ballou about his origins, unconventional style and which guitarists are getting his attention lately.

Converge: 'The Best Way To Learn Is Just Start Doing It'
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No bands have contributed to every facet of the hardcore and metal scene more than Converge. The Massachusetts combo's impact isn't just limited to the musical side of things. Vocalist Jacob Bannon's graphical influence can be seen in everything from album covers to band merchandise. On top of running his own design business, Bannon also is the founder of the underground's premier record imprint, Deathwish Inc. Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou is also a force to be reckoned with. His songwriting and unorthodox guitar styling have helped push beyond the nearsightedness of hardcore. In the past few years, Ballou's been a sought after producer working out of his Godcity recording studios in Salem, MA. Recent outings from Disfear, Genghis Tron and Coliseum are proof that his work lives up to the critical raves it often garners. Ultimate-Guitar scribe Carlos Ramirez recently talked to Ballou about his origins, unconventional style and which guitarists are getting his attention lately. Ultimate-Guitar: When a lot of musicians around our age picked up the guitar for the first time, the influence came almost exclusively from metal bands. Was that true for you too? Kurt Ballou: Yeah. My first few attempts at playing were in thrash bands. I learned to play guitar by listening to Slayer, Suicidal Tendencies, and Metallica and trying to figure out their songs by ear. Before I played guitar, I was a fairly proficient saxophonist, so I had a classical and jazz background. I also started getting into punk around the same time. So I got some technique from metal, some attitude and sense of community from punk, and some sophistication from jazz. If so, what influenced you more, was there a certain guitarist you really got into? Or was it more about specific bands at that point? I don't think I've ever been a super-fan of anyone person. I'm too self-centered for that. But just to throw a few names out there, Mike Clark and Rocky George of Suicidal Tendencies, Jeff Hanneman of Slayer, Tonie Joy of Universal Order of Armageddon, Tom Capone of Beyond and Quicksand, Gavin Van Vlack of Burn, Keith Huckins of Rorschach, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats, Greg Ginn of Black Flag, Guy Picciotto and Ian MacKaye of Fugazi, Alex Dunham of Hoover and Regulator Watts, Eddie Van Halen, and Dr. Know of the Bad Brains (as well as many others) have all been pretty important to me. It seems as though young guitarists now show up for their first gig with thousands of dollars in brand new equipment. When you first started getting guitar and amp set-ups, were you properly educating yourself on the gear or did you just want to have what your heroes were playing? I was moderately educated about gear, but not particularly concerned about having what other people had. I was bad at emulating their songs and styles, so I figured I'd also be bad at emulating their sounds. Aside from picks, cables, and strings, I never bought anything new until I had been playing guitar for about 10 years. I never had any money, so I just bought used stuff whose value had already depreciated. Tinkering runs in my family, so I would take apart whatever guitar I had and rewire it or sand it down, refinish it. I would even swap necks around or build bodies and put different necks on them. I still own 4 amps that cost me less than $300. I toured on them and still use them regularly. I remember recording this guy one time that had a Bogner. He said he didn't love the tone, so I had him use one of my Traynors. After the record was finished he was commenting on how much he loved the guitar tone. I asked him if that's the tone you like, why did you buy a Bogner? Because I couldn't afford a Vintage amp. That Traynor cost me $99. Whaaa?!?!
"Don't feel like you need lessons to do anything. If you have drive and passion, just do it."
What mistakes, if any, do you think you made early on? Was taking, or not taking lessons a huge factor later on? My biggest mistake was not going to enough shows. I was too focused on myself and my own music early on and I wish I had a broader range of experience. I feel like I was in my late 20's before I was doing anything I could be proud of. Had I been a little more cultured, I think I might have been doing something good earlier in life. Lessons are cool, but I think they should just be used when you hit a plateau, not as a crutch. I've found that often times, young people who take lessons don't learn to develop their ear or their own style. I feel like with anything in life, the best way to learn is just start doing it. Don't feel like you need lessons to do anything. If you have drive and passion, just do it. Compared to your later work, the early Converge material was a far more streamlined version of punkish hardcore. On your second album, Petitioning the Empty Sky, the band started throwing a few stylistic curve balls. But When Forever Comes Crashing is where a lot of people say you truly found what went on to become the "Converge sound." How fair is this assessment? I wouldn't agree with that. Our earliest 7 in 1991 was pretty straight forward hardcore, but I feel that everything between that and Jane Doe was needlessly complex. Starting at Jane Doe, the arrangements become much more traditional. The music is still abrasive and inaccessible, but the arrangements have verses and choruses and hooks. Starting with Jane Doe, we rarely have more than a few riffs per song, but the earlier stuff would have 10-20 riffs per song, and lots of multi-part harmonies. Why do you think Jane Doe struck a nerve with so many people when it came out? Did you expect the kind of reaction it received when you finished mastering it? No. I don't think a lot about the audience while writing and recording. I knew I liked Jane Doe once I heard the final master, but I never expected the kind of reaction it got because it's such an inaccessible record. Touring in Converge and being on bills with two or three other heavy bands must take a toll on you guys. What kind of music do you guys listen to in the van to break things up when you're out on the road? True. Also recording mostly heavy bands all day, everyday I'm not on tour takes its toll. Consequently, I'm not particularly interested in new heavy music unless it's REALLY good. We all have our own taste and typically just listen to our own iPods. When we're listening together, it's usually some classic rock like Zeppelin or Mountain or some form of talk radio or spoken word. Much has been made about your guitar rig/set-up. In the Jane Doe era, did you start noticing a lot of other musicians asking you about it? How secretive/protective are you of your "tricks of the trade?" I think people make too big of a deal out of gear. I've never heard anyone sound like Eddie Van Halen because they played out of a 5150. Gear is great, and I love to geek out, but these things are all just tools. If you are driven to create, you will find a way to create with whatever you have on hand. I won't let a lack of tools or know-how stops me from expressing myself. As far as being secretive about gear, I've got nothing to hide. I use a lot of midrange in my sound and not a lot of low end. I favor a cutting and articulate tone. I've found EMG pickups and maple guitar bodies to be good at that. My current setup is a couple of custom First Act guitars with EMG 89's, some boss pedals not doing a whole lot, a Bad Cat Lynx, a Bad Cat Black Cat, and a couple Emperor 6x12 cabinets. I am moderately secretive about my tunings. I feel like I've come up with some tunings that help me sound less like other people and I'd like to keep it that way. I can say this, though, every Converge tab and Youtube video I've seen is completely wrong. Everything is way over simplified and played in straight power chord form, when in reality, I'm using a lot of single notes with drones, or weird voicings I made up.
"I'm not particularly interested in new heavy music unless it's REALLY good."
Everyone from Queen to Genesis was utilizing some sort of guitar tapping technique all the way back to the early seventies. But people like Keith Huckins (Rorschach) and Steve Procopio (Human Remains) really expanded on it within the realms of underground metal and hardcore in the early nineties. Can you talk about how you came to your unorthodox style of tapping? Is it unorthodox? I dunno. I suppose it probably stems from the fact that I'd rather be a drummer than a guitarist. I sometimes tap out drum beats on the neck, doing a kick/snare or snare/hat pattern between my two hands. I also remember seeing some innovative jazz guys like Stanley Jordan and Tuck Andres when I was young. I was pretty amazed at how they sounded like a whole band all by themselves. They were slapping out a drum pattern while playing a bass line and comping chords on top. Pretty incredible! In the last few years, you've become the one of the most sought after producers in the hardcore and underground metal scenes. How often do your clients ask you to get them the "Converge guitar sound?" At this point, most of the people I work with are established enough and free thinking enough to look for something that works within the context of their own songs rather than mimicking someone else's sound. What is a common mistake you see young guitarists making? Thinking that not having the right tools or education is preventing them from creating. I also see a lot of people putting career goals ahead of musical goals. Practically no one earns a living for very long, if at all, doing music. And if you try to tailor your music to what is marketable and profitable, it's almost guaranteed that you will fail. Just make what is satisfying for you to play and hear. If it's good and other people like it, then maybe you can take it further. If not, just enjoy the process. Which current guitarists are out there doing something fresh and exciting to you? Mick Barr, Eddie Van Halen, Juan Montoya, Duane Dennison, Hamilton Jordan, Evan Patterson, Buzz Osborne, Brent Hines, and Justin Foley. Interview by Carlos Ramirez Photos by Jason Zucco Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2008

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    paulinnc
    I'm really amazed to see that Converge is still around. I grew up in the same town as all of those guys and remember seeing them when they were a shitty highschool punk band. It is very cool that they have stuck with it and really made something out of it. I can think back and remember seeing these guys playing gigs at AHS.
    imnobedhead
    farhan_zul wrote: yeah...converge is different than emo shithead..
    Converge are actually emo in the most traditional sense of the word.
    imnobedhead
    SL!!! wrote: imnobedhead wrote: farhan_zul wrote: yeah...converge is different than emo shithead.. Converge are actually emo in the most traditional sense of the word. ehhhh...not really... their sound isn't really introspective, although their lyrics maybe could be... in the truest sense of the word you would have to go back to Fugazi or something..
    Read the lyrics to any Converge song and listen to Swing Kids, Heroin or Rites of Spring and tell if you still think that Converge isn't one of the closest things to the natural progression of Emo that exists today.
    +}-136-{+
    I agree with Kurt's statements on developing your own individual style, and etc. But that might be because I don't really know how to play anything on guitar except a few chords, and I only have a crappy acoustic I "picked up" from the local church. Now I use it to play doom riffs. Or at least, I try to use it. xD. Anyways, good to see people are paying respect to Converge, they're an incredible band.
    Jericho114
    That vintage amp part was pretty funny. Otherwise very inspiring article for people learning guitar without taking lessons.
    FlyingVManiac
    Hamilton Jordan in his comment on guitarists made me smile, he's an amazing player, i pretty much agree with all the other players he named, although i would add Ben Weinman
    Spankey
    ad a sdfibsgi : its because your like mastodon ^
    I think I would still be pissed off if somebody in Mastodon spit on me...not this pissed off though.
    Slaytanic1986
    This is a nice surprise to see! Converge has been my favourite band for 6 years, and theres no sign of that fading any time soon!
    SL!!!
    imnobedhead wrote: farhan_zul wrote: yeah...converge is different than emo shithead.. Converge are actually emo in the most traditional sense of the word.
    ehhhh...not really... their sound isn't really introspective, although their lyrics maybe could be... in the truest sense of the word you would have to go back to Fugazi or something..
    lalalama2
    velcrozombie wrote: Good interview. I really like the 3 Converge records that I've heard. Live with Mastodon was a different story; the music was tight, but the singer was a prima donna because of a few mic problems, and he sounded terrible - like he was shouting one syllable over and over: "FAAA!!! FAAA FAAA FAAA!!!" Maybe it was a bad night?
    Same thing happened when i saw them in ct maybe theyre just not that great live?
    b r y a n
    I've never, ever heard of this guy or his band, but that was a very interesting article. I think i like him.
    thereverendsoup
    I could see Converge being called "emo" in the loosest sense of the word. They definitely remind me just a little bit of stuff like Orchid or pg.99 (in fact, I think Kurt recorded some of Orchid's records). But they also sound a hell of a lot more "metal" than either of those bands.
    Ali-b912
    The Spoon wrote: Might check em out, but this guy has a hitler mustache.
    charlie chaplin had it first
    beedopbo
    paengkee wrote: if the badcats were his recording amps in No Heroes, id have to agree. the record lost a bit of edginess compared to jane doe and even you fail me (pre no heroes, i thought you fail me was too streamlined vs jane doe). i certainly miss the face ripping upper-middy tone of the jane doe era. i coudldnt say much live though. i have yet to be fortunate enough to see them live. haha
    i've seen them live at least seven times, all at different time periods, and they were way too loud when he was using the v-4/jmp setup. you could barely hear ben, it was pretty ridiculous. however, when you've got a killer sound, you don't **** with it. any good guitarist knows that. i suppose the trick is knowing when you've got a killer sound, and knowing when it can be improved upon. the evolution to badcat from ampeg and marshall, however, is not an improvement. he sounded markedly better before. kurt himself has said in other interviews that the only reason he switched was because that ampeg/marshall rig was too loud. however, there are ways of making your rig quieter without buying lower wattage amps, for instance, pulling tubes to lower an amp's wattage, or using smaller speaker cabinets. instead, now he uses two 30-watt amps with 6x12 cabinets?? seems pretty ridiculous if you ask me. espcially since the older rig was far superior. i think his degredation in sound also might have something to do with his switch from emg 81 pickups to emg 89.
    paengkee
    beedopbo wrote: kurt needs to start using marshalls again instead of using that badcat bullshit and compensating for the loss in volume with huge oversized cabinets. his new rig sounds like a pile of shit.
    if the badcats were his recording amps in No Heroes, id have to agree. the record lost a bit of edginess compared to jane doe and even you fail me (pre no heroes, i thought you fail me was too streamlined vs jane doe). i certainly miss the face ripping upper-middy tone of the jane doe era. i coudldnt say much live though. i have yet to be fortunate enough to see them live. haha
    Alexinc
    ShredGodsUnite wrote: Ben has always been pushing the envelope for hardcore guitarists. I'm glad U-G has paid him respect like this.
    ?? Ben is the drummer. You sure know how to pay respects.
    speedmetal777
    I can say this, though, every Converge tab and Youtube video Ive seen is completely wrong. Everything is way over simplified and played in straight power chord form, when in reality, Im using a lot of single notes with drones, or weird voicings I made up.
    Haha, that's a slap in the face to every single UG user who tries to tab that s**t out.
    paengkee
    Heavens_To_Hell wrote: Correct me if I'm wrong but isn't Justin Foley the drummer for KSE? Or is there another guitarist called Justin Foley?
    i think hes talking about justin foley the guitarist for the austerity program.
    eddie0gre wrote: Converge is not even close to being emo. people have the most ****ed up ideas of what bands fall under what genres especially when it comes to metal. The same goes for the profound misunderstanding that people have about screamo. Just because there's screaming in music doesn't make it screamo. It always pisses me off when some ****ing dude-bro that probably listens to Puddle of Mud and Saliva or some other mindless dribble tries to call a metal band screamo. Also, it's important to understand that Converge, being an experimental band, is most likely not going to appeal to everyone. But if you have a brain, you'd realize that being accepted isn't the point. They're not making music for you and I they're making music that they think sounds good and that's why it's original and kicks ass. Also, i don't really like Mastadon's music but my band used to practice in the same practice space building as them in Atlanta and their drummer ****ing rules.
    the albums halo in a haystack and caring and killing (basically a remastered HiaH) sound close to the early and mid 90s hardcore "emo" sound. he did say one of his influences was tonie joy of Universal order of armageddon. tonie joy was also the guitarist for Moss Icon: a band many purists would properly call emo. but from the albums when forever comes crashing and petitioning the empty sky, onward, they sort of solidified into one of the best amalgamations of metal and hardcore. (though imo theyre more of the latter). just my 2 cents.
    Heavens_To_Hell
    Correct me if I'm wrong but isn't Justin Foley the drummer for KSE? Or is there another guitarist called Justin Foley?
    eddie0gre
    Converge is not even close to being emo. people have the most ****ed up ideas of what bands fall under what genres especially when it comes to metal. The same goes for the profound misunderstanding that people have about screamo. Just because there's screaming in music doesn't make it screamo. It always pisses me off when some ****ing dude-bro that probably listens to Puddle of Mud and Saliva or some other mindless dribble tries to call a metal band screamo. Also, it's important to understand that Converge, being an experimental band, is most likely not going to appeal to everyone. But if you have a brain, you'd realize that being accepted isn't the point. They're not making music for you and I they're making music that they think sounds good and that's why it's original and kicks ass. Also, i don't really like Mastadon's music but my band used to practice in the same practice space building as them in Atlanta and their drummer ****ing rules.
    SL!!!
    imnobedhead wrote: SL!!! wrote: imnobedhead wrote: farhan_zul wrote: yeah...converge is different than emo shithead.. Converge are actually emo in the most traditional sense of the word. ehhhh...not really... their sound isn't really introspective, although their lyrics maybe could be... in the truest sense of the word you would have to go back to Fugazi or something.. Read the lyrics to any Converge song and listen to Swing Kids, Heroin or Rites of Spring and tell if you still think that Converge isn't one of the closest things to the natural progression of Emo that exists today.
    I just said the lyrics were. Did you not read what i said? haha. I'm just saying, genres are about the sound; they describe the music, and so i don't think they could fit under there. Also i agree with eddi0gre, i DO like Mastodon's music though.
    beedopbo
    kurt needs to start using marshalls again instead of using that badcat bullshit and compensating for the loss in volume with huge oversized cabinets. his new rig sounds like a pile of shit.
    Raw.Power
    Converge. Amazing. Lessons. For Squares. You can learn anything you want to know from friends or the internet. Its better than hanging out with some stranger who wants you to play things his way.
    [x]Huffy[x]
    +}-136-{+ wrote: I agree with Kurt's statements on developing your own individual style, and etc. But that might be because I don't really know how to play anything on guitar except a few chords, and I only have a crappy acoustic I "picked up" from the local church. Now I use it to play doom riffs. Or at least, I try to use it. xD. Anyways, good to see people are paying respect to Converge, they're an incredible band.
    Acoustic doom... you're on to something there, my dear man.. Also: Converge = awesome.
    SL!!!
    I just decided that Kurt Ballou is like the Jimi Hendrix of the punk/hardcore/metal scene. Hahaha.
    velcrozombie
    Good interview. I really like the 3 Converge records that I've heard. Live with Mastodon was a different story; the music was tight, but the singer was a prima donna because of a few mic problems, and he sounded terrible - like he was shouting one syllable over and over: "FAAA!!! FAAA FAAA FAAA!!!" Maybe it was a bad night?
    IlikeTheSKA
    I was surprised to see this. Kurt is a really great guitarist. And not to mention, Converge is probably my all time favorite band. Can't wait to see them April 1st. I just wish they'd play Long Island like they used to.
    xConverge
    my xbox live gamertag, and name on UG is named after them...so i think that gives a pretty good idea of how much i like them very awesome interview anyways
    ShredGodsUnite
    Ben has always been pushing the envelope for hardcore guitarists. I'm glad U-G has paid him respect like this.
    mattgab1
    Indeed, it was good to see him give a nod toward the Melvin's guitarist. I also agree with him about lessons: only use them if you're stuck. The only reason I would ever use them at this point would be, perhaps, to learn a guitar style outside of what I usually play or listen (for example, blues). Otherwise, I can pick up advice about technique from books or videos on the internet for little or no charge.
    Spankey
    I saw this band open for mastodon. GoD, i have this urge to just beat the shit out of the singer from Converge. I was in the front row and he spit right in my ****ing eye. I was so pissed, Mostly because I didn't like the band. Mastodon was great though.
    eltravo
    velcrozombie wrote: Good interview. I really like the 3 Converge records that I've heard. Live with Mastodon was a different story; the music was tight, but the singer was a prima donna because of a few mic problems, and he sounded terrible - like he was shouting one syllable over and over: "FAAA!!! FAAA FAAA FAAA!!!" Maybe it was a bad night?
    definatley a bad night, I saw them a y dumpy little place in Oakland in november, and I think I crapped myself like 5 times haha.
    velcrozombie
    thereverendsoup wrote: velcrozombie wrote: Good interview. I really like the 3 Converge records that I've heard. Live with Mastodon was a different story; the music was tight, but the singer was a prima donna because of a few mic problems, and he sounded terrible - like he was shouting one syllable over and over: "FAAA!!! FAAA FAAA FAAA!!!" Maybe it was a bad night? I doubt he was being a prima donna. Actually, last time I saw Mastodon, they refused to finish their set because the PA THEY BROUGHT kept shorting out. When I saw Converge a couple years back (also with Mastodon), Jacob stopped the set only once, to break up a fight between a security guard and some kid. But yeah. Converge is one of my favorite bands right now. No Heroes was a ****ing incredible record.
    That's a real shame about Mastodon's behavior. They're probably my favorite band in the world right now. The night I seen them, they were great...professional and yet also very funny. However, during Converge's set, Jacob stopped songs on 5 or 6 separate occasions (which really takes the momentum out of a 45 minute set) and repeatedly said: "I'm sorry guys...I don't know if we can keep playing." The couple of friends I was with and I couldn't understand why he wouldn't just use a regular mic until the fixed the problem with the wireless (I'll allow that it's possible we were misinterpreting what was going on, but we did have a very good view so I don't think we were). For all I know, nothing like this has ever happened at a Converge show before or since - which is why I said it could have been one of those nights.