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.
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?
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?!?!
What mistakes, if any, do you think you made early on? Was taking, or not taking lessons a huge factor later on?
|"Don't feel like you need lessons to do anything. If you have drive and passion, just do it."|
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.
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?
|"I'm not particularly interested in new heavy music unless it's REALLY good."|
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