I’ve been saving this one for awhile, mostly because I’ve tried and failed to come up with a fitting introduction after a half-dozen or so attempts. Bottom line, if you don’t like this band, there’s a strong possibility that you’re a complete asshole with terrible taste in everything. Many thanks to Josh for putting up with my long-winded bullshit questions.
When I first got my hands on RADIATION BLACKBODY vinyl, I was immediately struck by the artwork, which brought to mind flipping through issues of Re/Search and seems to fit your music so incredibly well for reasons I can’t really articulate, but I often find myself staring at the cover of “Falling…” while listening to the record, which isn’t something I often do with albums. I can almost imagine you and Joel playing next to some primitive computer that’s decoding the music into glyphs and patterns. I feel like there’s almost a defiant element to, it, too – unlike the majority of grindcore/HC album covers (not that RBB comfortably fits into either genre), it’s not artwork designed to goad your average dullard into buying it. There’s something intimidating about it that almost says, “This is probably gonna be too fucking alien for your weak-ass brain to assimilate; move along.” Or maybe I’m reading way too much into – or misinterpreting – all of this. How intentional is your approach to the artwork and the overall aesthetic?
I love old Re/Search, I found the first three tabloid issues at a comic book store in Bangor, ME when I was 19. They were only a dollar or two each! Those, along with the Burroughs/ Gyson/ TG, JG Ballard, and Industrial Culture Handbook issues were a pretty huge influence on me. It’s boring to hear an old man prattle on about how things pre-internet were more difficult to access, but it is accurate. I wouldn’t go back to that time, but I do know the lack of immediate availability meant that I treasured these items more than I probably would now. These were items that were pored over for years, digested, and discussed with the few other people I would run into who also knew them. They were like giant catalogs of ideas (along with the AMOK journals), links to obscure shit to track down.
I think the aesthetic influence from Re/Search and EXIT, Apocalypse Culture, etc., is that at first glance the designs are just stark black and white, direct or assaulting artwork, coupled with brief, factual information. Of course, most of that shit had layers of meaning that may take some time to extract (especially if you’re slow like me). So it’s attention-grabbing or shocking, but also has some subtlety in its meaning. Concepts disguised or buried, intriguing. I connect it to Pettibon as well, a jarring image juxtaposed with an evocative line of text, that can at first appear disconnected and unsettling, but actually fits. The interaction of the text and image together elicits more than the two individually.
With the record artwork, I try to begin with something clinical and mathematical, sharp lines, derived through repetition, until I find something interesting. Then process it and degrade it, make the various objects and titles interact in a way that creates tension. It’s similar to how I think of the music. And to only convey the least information necessary. I don’t want extraneous words or lyrics or platforms or anything beyond what the music and artwork are. Not that it’s all without intent, but I would prefer to leave that up to anyone to figure out on their own, if they choose. I really hate to be ‘instructed’ by bands (or movies or novels or most anyone), and assume most other people hate that too. And if you don’t want to think about it, you don’t have to. You can just blast the record and dance around or whatever people do when they listen.
This hits on something that I find kind of interesting and disheartening – why so few grind or HC bands seem interested in cultivating a distinctive, personal visual aesthetic. From experience, I know that’s often attributable to having to compromise on something that 4 or 5 members of a band can all agree upon, rather than (as you mentioned with Black Flag & Pettibon) entrusting one person to guide the visual component of a band’s presentation. Did you and Joel have conversations about how you’d approach this with RBB, or was it something that you naturally took the lead on? Was it refreshing to have the freedom to take the lead on the artwork (presumably) without having to reach a consensus among several bandmates?
I think of Rudimentary Peni or Voïvod or Crass as having really strong, immediately identifiable, cohesive design across all the records. I love those covers and knowing instantly what it is when you see it. Of course that comes from a single person doing all the covers. But then I also think of the ongoing mental illness of branding; generating some kind of marketable, projected identity that’s not necessarily accurate. Like bands cashing in on Pushead-style designs in the early ’00s, using that as a signifier, or upside-down crosses or pizza or unprintable characters. “Psychological methods to sell should be destroyed.” You know Nick Blinko meant every tiny line he drew on those RP covers, he wasn’t playing dress-up. I remember in Anodyne, Adam at Escape Artist designed a logo for us, one I liked. Then we used it on every record, tshirt, patch, and sticker, and when I thought it was time to use something else it became an issue. We weren’t Coca-Cola, we were a shitty hardcore band, it didn’t matter if we used a different logo. There’s nothing to lose, and I don’t want to be bound to something useless.
Joel came up with the image for the first RBB cover, and his designs on the Grueling Sentence records are excellent. I think subsequent RBB designs fell to me because I was constantly generating images, sending them to Joel, and he liked them. It’s infinitely easier when I only have to deal with one other person. Especially because we are in alignment aesthetically, for the most part. I think we have a certain division of labor between visual design and recording, and we defer to each other on those respective planes.
The goal is to create designs and music that don’t look or sound like anyone else. Obviously we don’t make any of this in a vacuum, so our influences (negative and positive) reveal themselves and the goal is not achieved, but this is what we’re striving for. Ultimately, along with everyone else, we are just adding more noise and detritus to our garbage world. But I don’t know any other way to make existence bearable. So eat my shit, earth.
RBB has a way of crafting songs that, although extremely complex and nuanced, doesn’t allow complexity to become the sole focus of what you’re doing. There’s something very ‘organic’ sounding about all of it, for lack of a less hacky word. How does your writing process work? How much do you guys do individually vs. writing together? Is there much in the way of improvisation involved?
This will be painfully boring. From my side, the writing process is similar to the artwork process. Constantly repeating an interesting pattern or figure until it’s corrupted and hideous. Sometimes I’ll write riffs at home, other times I’m just mindlessly playing between songs at practice until Joel says, ‘That was cool, play it again,’ and we start developing it into something. Or Joel will write a riff in between practices and teach it to me. Then we (d)evolve from there. Once the basic structure is established, we decide to either expand existing parts, or change notes, or think, ‘It would be cool to have a blast (or whatever) part here.’
The songs continue to shift as we practice them. Sometimes a progression will suddenly sound too rock-n-roll or otherwise off and we’ll change the notes. Sometimes a part is weak or uninteresting, or needs the timing improved. Sometimes a song needs another part. Sometimes Joel wants to change the drums and that changes how I hear and play the riff. We’ve played songs live that we’ve gone back and changed, but once a song is recorded, that’s how it remains.
You and Joel have been playing together since Anodyne. After so many years of playing together (and now scaled down to bass and drums) is it a challenge to maintain a sense of vitality/’freshness’ when it comes to writing/performing?
We started playing together in Anodyne late summer 2000. Two people in a band is the perfect amount for what I want to do. It also means there’s only a single person I need to talk to, discuss and compromise and make schedules with, and take up space in the songs and practice space. We each have our own separate sonic world that we don’t need to share. The down side is that it also means there’s only two people to drive and pay for things.
Any lack of freshness or vitality is only ever in the practice space, briefly, if I hit a writing block. I tend of default to the same structure of patterns, which can be frustrating, but eventually either Joel figures something out or some alien thought will creep in and we can get started again. Playing live is always exciting, especially given how infrequently we play these days.
Dopey question, but I have to ask what kind of gear you’re using, as you have a monstrous bass sound. Is that something you’ve spent a good amount of time working on?
It was Joel who suggested I split the signal through both my bass amp and a guitar stack. For low-end, I currently I use a Gallien-Kruger 800RB that I got in the mid-’90s and have had repaired many times. Usually on tour, under miserably desperate circumstances. I had a GK 400RB in the first real band I played it, but accidentally set it on fire at the third (or so) show I played because I was too stupid to match the resistance.
I have an Ampeg 8×10″ SVT cab. Until recently it was the same one I’ve had since the ’90s, also smashed and rebuilt and destroyed over the years. Sending giant square waves through the speakers is a terrible idea, so I’ve replaced more cones (at $70+ apiece) than I would like to think about. For awhile there was a family of roaches living in it, but that’s NYC, right? In October I got a new one from a really nice guy Buffalo. I also have a Mesa 400+ that sounds great, but I haven’t been using it lately.
For the guitar side I have a Peavey 6505 running through two Mesa 4×12″s that I got from Aaron. I have one of the ’80s Japanese Jazz Bass Specials, before they became the Duff McKagan model. I need another one as I keep smashing the electronics out of it. I split the signal using one of those Boss tuners. The bass side also runs through a Boss DS-1 that was modified by a guy in South Brooklyn, and a Sonic Maximizer in the effects loop.
What attracted you to playing bass? Are you someone who looks (or has looked) to bass players for inspiration? Can you share some of those names, if so?
I was always a half-assed guitar player, it was my first instrument as a teenager. I had people try to persuade me to play bass as generally everyone wants to be a guitar wizard and thinks they need some talentless fool to back them up. At some point I had a friend/ roommate who was starting a band and they were cycling through bass players, unable to find anyone they liked. They decided I was easy enough to get along with (huh?), knew the basics, and had similar-enough taste in music, so why not just teach me what to do. The music was pretty simple, and I just learned to play bass that way. I continued playing bass because I enjoy it and I’m much better at it than guitar. Standing in front of an 8×10″ with giant waves enveloping and smashing has always been a great feeling.
Most of my influences are people with really prominent bass sounds, or music that’s heavily bass-oriented. Obvious influences include NoMeansNo, Ruins, Mike Watt, Kira Roessler, Jason from Suppression, Eric and Kenyon from Man is the Bastard, Blacky from Voïvod , Chris Squire from Yes, Shane Embury, both guys from Rorschach. David Wm Sims from The Jesus Lizard was a giant influence. Especially the weird interplay between him and the drummer, shifting accents flipping the riffs around. Learning his basslines when I started playing had a big effect on me. And anyone playing bass with distortion certainly owes a debt to Danny Lilker.
I also have reactionary influences, I will dump riffs or parts that remind me of breakdowns or gross rock-n-roll bullshit, funk, anything groovy or “stoney.” Things I think are stupid or cheap or obvious. People make jokes/ are serious about us sounding like Primus, but these muttonheads have either never heard Primus or never heard us, or are profoundly developmentally disabled.
The biggest influence is playing in bands with other people and trying to figure out what works and why. So Mike Hill and Aaron Nichols were both major influences. Now I mainly try to figure out parts that sound good, are challenging, and I don’t get bored playing. I assume this is most everyone’s approach.
What is the most difficult aspect of being in a two-piece band?
Being a two piece band is great. The only downside is that neither of us have that outgoing overachiever personality, so we do a lot less show-wise than we have in other bands with more stronger, more personable personalities.
To go back to the visual component of RBB, I’m curious if you’re interested in film, and if so, what (kinds of) movies pique your interest?
Horror movies are generally my favorite. Basically anything with gore, sleaze, bad intentions, uncomfortable scenarios, weirdness, vicious cruelty, and negativity. Movies that either completely overwhelm the senses or prompt thinking in novel ways through weird connections. But really, I will watch pretty much anything, I have no taste. I could make a list, but it’s not going to be anything you don’t already know.
Do you read fiction? Are there any particular authors/books you’re enjoying at the moment?
Lately been reading a lot of music biographies, even of people I don’t like (Kim Gordon, Al Jourgensen). I do read a lot of fiction though, Michel Houllebecq and Cormac McCarthy lately top my favorites list. Bleak inescapable/ terminal reality, explicitly described in beautiful language (acknowledging that MH is translated, so not getting first order impact there). My friend Jason recommended a Nabokov short story collection I enjoyed. Recently ran through a few Kobo Abe books that were weird and amazing, especially The Box Man, which I recommend to everyone, probably to their annoyance. Otherwise, I recently finished up some Céline and Mishima novels, and will finally attack William Gass’s The Tunnel once I finish the Harley Flanagan and Replacements books I am currently reading.
How do you feel about the resurgence of the cassette? Do you have any strong preferences in regard to format (vinyl, CD, cassette, digital, etc), when listening to music?
Well, records are a favorite, as aside from radio, that was my introduction to music. I still buy as many as I can afford. I don’t buy CDs or have a CD player, but I guess they are useful for adding songs to my phone. Cassettes are popular these days, and I will buy them if there is no vinyl version. For RBB I am only interested in putting out vinyl, and of course making the files available online. I’m not an elitist trying to prevent easy access to our music.
This is a somewhat lazy excuse for a question, but given that we’re at the tail end of 2016, can you share some of the releases that you especially enjoyed from last year? Were there any glaring disappointments or surprises?
High points include the Vorum LP, Profane Order tape, Prisoner of War LP, Abhomine LP, Sea of Shit 7″ and their split LP with Sick/ Tired, the second Disrotted LP, took a minute but I finally absorbed the Altarage LP, and despite the hype, Blood Incantation was amazing live, even if the LP was not 100%. And not to be a close-talking creep, but I love the Reeking Cross tapes you sent. Thank you.
Not exactly a disappointment, but the new Virus didn’t floor me like the previous ones. Same with the Chaos Echoes demos LP. They’re good, but not as psychically obliterating as that LP. Otherwise I assume most things are going to be dogshit, so it’s always a happy surprise when they are not. I was disappointed that neither of the Sect Pig EPs were released this year, despite early announcement. I think they’re out early 2017.
What is coming up in 2017 for Radiation Blackbody?
We have an LP on Diseased Audio coming out soon. This will be followed by a split 7″ with Sea of Shit on Anthems of the Undesirable. We discussed doing a collaboration with our friend Aerin that hasn’t yet occurred. We hope to work with them this year. We would like to play on the west coast.
RBB on Bandcamp
Get the “Maximum Entropy and the Nearly Black Object” 7″