Originally written by Ian Chainey
Activator‘s eponymous full-length debut stews in its anthemic qualities. Every song empowers through catharsis. Its tracks are packed with “I”s, “you”s, “me”s, “we”s. It’s the kind of stuff meant to get you through leg day or to be hollered while speeding down the highway. It’s winningly every-man in its epiphanies. Of course, its riffitude also strikes a thunderous chord. “Left Unsaid” clears the dust before launching into one of those world-ending dun-duns. “Interlope” punishes existence with a Crowbar prying open its rib cage. These highlights are sandwiched in gratifying thrash ’em up gallops and mean-mugging metalcore before metalcore became, you know, metalcore. So, for a certain style of ‘head and punk, consider this a warning: The stereo takeover will soon be in effect.
First off, thanks so much for talking with us. We really appreciate it. Now, let’s get right down to it: Catch us up. How’d Activator get to where you guys are today?
Thanks for having us on your site. I just want to say I’ve been looking through the site and reading the reviews, etc. and I really like how thoroughly you go through the albums and really get to understand what you’re listening to. It’s really great to get any kind of attention from Last Rites, so thank you. To answer the question, I’m not really sure where we are today, but what I can say, is that we are definitely further than where we were before. I think that comes from guys being in a band that really believe in each other and the material. There’s so much more that goes into being in a band than just making music. You have to find people that are driven and not afraid of being stagnant at times. There’s such a bigger picture involved, at least there can be. There are a lot of people that will give up the minute it doesn’t look like what they expected. I have the utmost faith in these dudes because we’ve been through so much bullshit together and we know it doesn’t take away from the goal, which is to make songs we like to play. It takes a lot of faith and confidence in each other and in the music you make to deal with some of the shit we’ve had to deal with.
One thing I’m quite impressed by is, in an age when a time machine seems to sub for substance, you’ve taken a sound that’s obviously important to you and crafted a throwback that’s not a tribute, if that makes sense. Activator can stand on its own two legs without assistance and often does so while running counter-clockwise in the pit. It feels tried and true, but it’s also new. You’ve achieved a neat balance. So, what is the composition process like? I kind of get the feeling you’ve road-tested these songs into the shape they’re in today and found your voice along the way. Am I close? Any tips to up and comers out there?
Thanks man, you’ve pretty much nailed what we’re trying to do better than any of us ever could. None of us are really young dudes. We came up in a metal and hardcore era where you kind of really had to know how to play your instrument, at least most of the time. There was no reliance on down-tuning and all these other things to be heavy. Not trying to shit on the new era, but a lot of the bands from back then developed their skills by enjoying various forms of music and incorporating it into their sound, which is what we like to do. You don’t want to end up being a shitty version of the bands you listen to all the time. Jared (guitar) is heavily schooled in all things shred; all types of Swedish metal, thrash, etc.. He, like every serious guitarist, grabs his guitar the minute he walks in, turns on the TV and fucks around with it all night until he comes up with something. Then he plays it for us and we all add something to it.
All of my riffs usually start out in my head as beats. I obsess over them for days and there’s different ones in my head that come and go, but there’s the one I can’t forget and that’s the one I bring to Jared. From there we tweak and fine tune the music until it sounds right and then I have to write the lyrics, which is a whole other process in itself. It starts with walking around the streets of NYC with the music in my headphones. By the time the pen hits the paper it usually just writes itself. Then I hate it and do it all over again until I don’t. As far as tips for the up-and-comers go, I think encouraging everyone to write their parts is a good start. Not to mention contributing to the writing if they have good ideas. That’s a HUGE “if.” Some people are great role players but not so great at songwriting. Use your discretion.
Savior: There are three things I really love about this song. My intro scream is based on what Prince did in “The Beautiful Ones” and “Darling Nikki”. I feel like a lot of bands have the same vocals and the same scream and there’s like three basic ones and I can’t do any of them. I guess it sorta worked out for me because I have my own voice and more importantly I can do Prince-like screams. Then there’s the intro. When I first heard it I imagined walking into a fight with an ax, or a bat depending on how you want that fantasy to end, but it sounded really strong and I love hearing it every time. Third is what Jared is doing in the chorus, his fingering is killing it right there.
Tramp Stamp: I love “Tramp Stamp”, it was TOTALLY different when we first started it, not to mention like 5 minutes long. I pretty much convinced Jared to mute that riff and drop it to half-time and cut it there. It’s like 57 seconds long. Starts out almost blasty and goes into a real heavy dance part without actually being a “dance part”. Statement made. Sunny (drums) kills this shit, not to mention there’s no double-bass on the record.
Bedside Manor: Definitely one of the tougher songs for me to do because there’s too many fucking words. My fault. This is Jared’s baby and he wrote it as Nordic-swashbuckler heavy as he could. Once again Willie (bass), Sunny and Jared are murdering this shit. I love the part in the bridge where the backing vocals are, I felt like I really hit the mark I wanted. The solo is pretty awesome too. “Tell me just how long can your future last / when you’re stuck in the past / and I know where you been.”
Sexy For Breakfast: This one is my baby, I already mentioned in a few other interviews how this was inspired by Tegan and Sara so I won’t go into that. The chorus riff was sorta inspired by STP‘s “Wicked Garden”, I like the bounce of that riff. “99 Luftballoons” and Van Halen‘s “Why Can’t This Be Love” have the same sorta bounce to it. That middle part goes to Willie who found a way to add a bass part that was interesting and allowed the solo to work. I love the end though. Jared and Sunny brought that in there, super Slayer-type shit. “When the ends justify the means and the means justify the whys/wise”. It’s a pretty interesting song with lots of different elements. I think it’s kind of my definition of what Activator as a band is.
Shackle: One of my favorite things about “Shackle” is how we used to always have to talk Willie into playing it because he thought it sounded too happy. I personally think that’s the strong point. It’s a battle song that’s sort of about being strong enough to take yourself out of a dangerous situation. Sort of. The fact that it sounds upbeat doesn’t take away from its impending doom. It’s a really hard song to sing because, once again, I wrote too many fucking words but people love it and that makes it easier to avoid passing out while we play it.
Savior (Reprise): This was a surprise to me. I had no idea Jared was gonna do this but when I heard it I was pretty happy it was on the album. It’s easy to assume that this doesn’t belong on the album or slows down the pace but you have to keep in mind that this album is a story and that comes in at the second half of the story, or the beginning of side 2 of the record if you wanna keep it simple.
Interlope: The shit Jared is playing in the beginning of this song is kinda bananas and the way Willie and Sunny accommodate it is pretty fucking nuts. Definitely doom-inspired and the slowest we play on the album, but I think it’s pretty epic. I like when it speeds up the most. “There a good chance that none of us will walk away / how the hell could I tell you no” are the lyrics that stick with me on this. It was the last thing a guy I knew when I was younger told me when he tried to convince me to help him rob a crack house.
Blessings: Very Bad Brains-feel on this one. I really like the riffs on this one but I gotta be honest I’m definitely the weak link on this song, at least in my eyes. I really like the way the intro riff goes into the verse riff. You really have to understand the “one” to make that work.
Suffer Leader: This song was named after a conversation I had with poet/Warhol factory member Taylor Mead about a scathing remark Vonnegut made about George Bush. I actually can’t believe we managed to play it faster than it is on our original EP. Crazy. Break down that riff at the end note for note.
Unfortunate Lovely: Pretty fitting end to the story. I always consider the intro to be a funeral march of some sort. I love the music in the chorus of this, pretty nice work. I like the line, “and the better times are wearing even thinner than a straight line“, but I really love how brutal it gets at the end of this song. People seem to really like the “what were you thinking?” part, so that’s always fun to do. After recording it Jared added a solo that I thought really complimented the fade out, sort of like getting away with murder which is kinda how the song ends.
OK, I think I may have pulled my arm outta socket patting myself on the back. Next question.
I don’t really know the state of the scene. It appears to be around but I’m not really sure if we’re allowed to be part of it. We have tried to connect with promoters and other bands but a lot of times it seems like we don’t get their attention. I think it just takes time and the album is fairly new so we’ll just have to wait for them catch on. Here’s a “juicy tour story”: we did SXSW in like ’07 or ’08 and we were told there would be a backline at our stage. There wasn’t. All of the fucking hipster bitch bands we played with (I can really only remember Hong Kong Blood Opera being one of them) wouldn’t let us use their shit. Luckily that band How’s Your News was playing after us and let us use their equipment. Then we got to see them live which was pretty awesome. My favorite thing about that show was that there was a Korean rock band that was REAAAAALLLY popular with young Korean girls playing before us (fuck those dudes too, btw) so the place was filled to capacity with young Korean girls and their parents. When we finally went on the first song we played was “Tramp Stamp”. When I saw the look of disgust and shock on the faces of those girls and their parents I knew we were on the right track. I’ll never forget that show.
I definitely wanted to gauge your other art interests without resorting to a desert island set-up. (I hope the island has an outlet or else the jukebox is pretty useless.) Maybe three wise monkeys, then? Give me an album, a movie/book, and a phrase/aphorism that’s been burrowing inside your brain lately. No holds barred.
I’ve recently purchased the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s rendition of Wagner’s “Ride Of The Valkyries” and Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique”. The drama of this shit is amazing. Parts of it are huge and heavy, but I really like how moody and argumentative it can sound. While I was on tour with EL-P I downloaded a book by a blogger named Byron Crawford called Mindset Of A Champion. Pretty awesome book. He wrote another one called Infinite Crab Meats, I’m reading that now. But I gotta finish that because he has a new one called Nas Lost: A Tribute To The Little Homie, I’m sure it won’t disappoint. The thought of seeing 12 Years A Slave is on my mind but I’m not really ready to deal with that just yet.
Are you out East? Go support these solid dudes by catching ’em on December 14 at Hank’s Saloon in Brooklyn. Good people.