Saturday, March 21, 2015

Interview with Ben Greenberg and Michael Berdan of Uniform

One of the greatest pleasures in being a music fan is discovering where the artist ends and where the person begins. You find this at most hardcore shows. As violent as a show might get, the people behind the music and mosh pit are often kind and welcoming. Why is that? Well, because people are complicated. Have you ever met those people who think that life is only beauty and everything is zen and happiness? First of all, it's total shit. Secondly, it's a one-way ticket to a bottled-up emotional outpour. Ever come across the phrase "it wasn't supposed to go like this" coupled with a beet red face? Negative emotions are like heated up particles - if you trap them in a bottle and keep the heat on, the particles make more and more motion until they eventually destroy their container. Sometimes this requires the heat to reach new watermarks, but, let's get one thing straight: no container is shatterproof.

Ugly, violent music provides an outlet - the act of performing live is an exorcism - and afterwards, some of the negativity within an artist is diffused. If you were to only know Uniform through their show or music, you might mistake their presentation for their life outlooks without ever getting to entirely understand the thoughtful, kind people behind the symbols of the sickle and cross. Let's be clear: neither Ben Greenberg nor Michael Berdan is a stranger to darkness. But though Uniform's lyrics and mood are submerged in mindfully heavy negativity, it informs rather than consumes.

Outside of all things Uniform, Berdan and Ben love pie and considerate conversation. Matter of fact, we were supposed to conduct this interview at one of Williamsburg's premier bakeries The Blue Stove, not far from their houses. Unfortunately, though the shop had pies galore, it did not have a good nook for an interview, so we walked to a nearby coffee shop to discuss their music, playing live, and "chocolatey treats."

Jordan Reyes: So you guys have a record on 12XU coming out, right?

Michael Berdan: Yeah, the record will be out hopefully by the end of May or so.

Ben Greenberg: Yeah, he’s putting it out here and then Luke Younger from Helm is putting it out on Alter overseas.

JR: Luke’s a great dude.

BG: Yeah, they're both good pairings and I’m excited and flattered about the release.

JR: That's cool. It's hard to get distribution abroad.

BG: It’s hard to crack that if you haven’t done it before, but it’s like everything else where it gets easier as you do it.

MB: And both labels are very established in their own circles. It’s nice to be on a label that cares about guitar-based music on one-end and on the other end gets a little more experimental.

JR: Yeah, is there anything by guitar on Alter?

MB: Yeah, the Deas thing even though it doesn’t sound like it. There’s some others sprinkled in there. But they’re both labels that like to take risks and it’s fun to be a part of that.

BG: They’re also both labels that only put out records that they really like. That’s their only barometer for whether they will put something out. There might be a little more drum-machine in our music than what Gerard usually puts out and a little more rock n’ roll in our music than what Luke is putting out, but they’re both really into it, which is cool.

JR: There aren’t enough labels that do that.

BG: That’s true. People tend to settle themselves into one niche or another.

JR: Blogs too.

BG: Yeah.

JR: To get a following sometimes, you have to cater to a group of followers, and I think that's a shame.

BG: Everything seems to have narrowed over the last five to ten years. Everything has gotten more specified to reach a certain crowd into one subtype or sub genre. And that’s across mediums too.

JR: Do you think you guys fall into that or are more expansive?

MB: I hope not. (laughter)

JR: That’s a totally loaded question. (laughter)

MB: No it’s fine. To piggyback on what Ben is saying, things are very niche. “This blog does this thing. This label does this thing. This store does this thing.” But I don’t think “this person does this thing.” I don’t think I know anyone who’s truly a purist where they will only like this one specific thing. “I only like black metal. I only like hard techno. I only like acid.” Well, you’re kind of full of shit. All of these things come from other places. It’s cool to be really into something, but if that’s the be all end all of your identity, cultural or otherwise, it’s pretty fucking boring.

MB: As a band and individuals, I really hope we’re not that easy to pigeonhole. We wanted to be a rock band and we wanted to keep it to the two of us. The more people involved, the more complicated it gets. A drum machine and a bass synth seemed like an easy way to achieve those ends. We’ve gotten more playful with it in some regards and less playful in others. At the end of the day, it’s just a means to an end. We’re still a band with guitars. There are other things to it, but, you know. Fuck it. (Laughter)

BG: And it’s also new. This is our first full-length. We’ve only done one other thing, the 12" single. I think there’s a big jump. It doesn’t sound like a different band between the two records, but I think there’s a change in scope. We’re going to keep figuring out the things we can do with these basics, but expand: that’s what keeps a band interesting. You have to keep changing but still retain the essence. And you also can’t overreach. I think everyone is wary of bands doing that. I also think audiences like to hate on things.

JR: Do you guys have more instruments on the new record?

BG: Same set up. There’s some changes in instrumentation here and there, but by and large it’s the same thing. It’s still in mono.

JR: Do you own a studio? Is that how you can produce and work on so many records?

BG: I’m a freelancer. I used to own a studio down the street, but since that closed, there are about eight different studios in the city where I will work. There’s also a studio upstate that I’m actually going to tomorrow where I’ll be for the next three days and then sometimes I go to Electrical Audio in Chicago.

JR: I’ve never been inside there, but I have a bunch of friends who record there.

BG: Oh it’s the best. I really love all the places I get to work now, but that place is amazing. It’s the kind of place where you walk into a dark room and you reach your hand to the left and you immediately hit a light switch because they know exactly where you will be reaching and where to put things. And you can smoke, which is amazing.

JR: Are you a smoker?

BG: Oh yeah. (laughter). Many studios have a lot of strict rules about that sort of thing, but they designed Electrical Audio to be a smoking studio. The whole ventilation system brings the air to the back of the room away from the gear and it’s great. There are ashtrays next to all the mixing boards.

JR: I used to smoke and it was helpful sometimes for me. I drive a lot. And on the road it was an easy way to stay alert.

BG: It helps you pace yourself.

MB: I miss it terribly. It’s the one thing that I still can’t get out of my head. I very much romanticize smoking. It calms you down when you’re tense and it speeds you up when you’re sluggish and it looks and tastes great. It makes you more attractive and better at everything (laughter) but unfortunately it also over a period of time kills you and it’s not worth it.

JR: Being an addict is tough, but I think if you're wired for addiction, you can use it to your advantage. You’re uninhibited and focused for something and if you turn that scope to something more positive, which I think is possible if something sparks endorphins or serotonin. If you’re geared to be an addict, your body will go out of its way to get that “happiness” plug. It’s why I run so much. It’s one of the few ways for me to get high anymore. Music does it too.

MB: There’s an obsessive discomfort that comes with being a drug addict or a drunk. When you take the booze or drugs away, it doesn’t mean you’re not you anymore. It just means you don’t have the thing that brings you the comfort so you have to deal with it in all these other ways. Running, exercise, and music become of critical importance because they’re the things that keep your awful emotions at bay.

JR: Are awful emotions for you channeled into music?

MB: Largely, yeah. Music helps more than I can really put into words. Besides that, meditation practices, exercise, eating right. It’s a serious thing. If I do these things, I’m okay. If I don’t, I might flip out, get high, and then everyone will hate me again (laughter) because I do terrible things. I’d rather not deal with that. All the bad shit has to go somewhere so I’d rather it be constructive.

JR: What do you talk about it in lyrics, usually?

MB: It depends on the day. A lot of the new record is about getting to a point in your life when you realize you’re in a different place than a lot of your peers, physically, emotionally, or spiritually. You’re still tethered to people with whom you may not have anything in common emotionally and all the roadblocks that brings out. Sometimes it’s the recurring thought “we don’t even get along as people and yet we consider ourselves friends and wind up in these states of conflict.” That might be because of our political ideologies or our spiritual lives are different or you have a bunch of kids and I don’t like kids.

MB: Part of it is about accepting that and part of it is looking at your past and considering the things you once thought to be great ideas that wound up fucking you in the long run and hurting you in the process and realizing that you can never quite atone for that, but you have to find a way to forgive yourself all the same. A lot of it is about accepting the fact that you have existentialist urges and dread. Are you going to take that out on the world? Are you going to take that out on the people you love? Or are you going to accept the fact that we’re living at the end of days and we need to make best use of our time?

MB: And a lot of it is about the fragility of my psyche and knowing that it is going to one day erode and if I’m lucky I’ll die quick, but chances are that I’ll slowly forget everything about who I am and my character. Either my body or my brain will go and if my body goes, I’m fine with that, but if my brain and my spiritual self is to crumble and my identity is to evaporate, I don’t know how I’d deal with that.

MB: So the record is exploring existential dread. Very typical college-level existential dread. (laughter).

JR: I think everyone - well, maybe not everyone - has those thoughts. If I didn’t have my legs, I’d probably shoot myself. If my identity were to crumble, I hope someone would be kind enough to do it for me.

MB: The fact that you’re never really talking to the same person on the day to day and we’re these constantly evolving beasts, sometimes devolving, and changing, in some ways it’s beautiful and in other ways it’s terrifying. I like who I am right now. I don’t like who I was five years ago. I have no guess as to who I am right now.

JR: That’s a terrifying thought.

MB: It fucking sucks! (laughter) That’s what the lyrics are about and where the songs come from. Basic shit that everyone thinks about or that I think that everyone thinks about. I could be entirely fucking wrong. I’m probably wrong.

BG: It’s just you. It’s just you. (laughter)

MB: I haven’t had a unique thought in my entire life.

JR: No one has.

BG: What about the Peanut M & M’s and popcorn?

MB: I stole that.

BG: They’re delicious.

JR: Oh, you mean together?

MB: Yeah.

JR: It might be a unique idea.

MB: It’s not a unique idea - I stole it from somebody, but I don’t know who. I may have popularized it in our shitty little circle, but it’s not my own. Go to a movie, get buttered popcorn, and put Peanut M & M’s in it, mix it up, and you’ve got a chocolatey treat.

JR: Sounds great!

MB: It’s going to make you feel terrible and you’re going to be so happy.

JR: I already feel terrible. (laughter) Ben, do you get some of those same ideas?

BG: I never approached thinking about what lyrics I would write for this band because I knew that I wouldn’t have to worry about it. I write songs all the time in other bands and projects. I certainly relate to Berdan's lyrics. I think we’re on the same page, but I have the pleasure of not having to focus on the words for this, which is nice.

JR: I imagine it’s a weight off your shoulders?

BG: It is in a way.

JR: You write lyrics in other bands?

BG: Yeah, well, I was in the Men for two years and I wrote songs for that band. That was complicated because there were three songwriters for that band. It was me, Mark, and Nick. It’s Mark and Nick’s band - they were the original guys in it. Then it was them and Chris [Hansell] and then it was them and Rich [Samis] and then they had me and it was the five of us for a bit, but before that I was in Pygmy Shrews. I’ve been in bands since I was eleven.

JR: I’ve never been in a band. I don’t know if I work well with people, to be completely honest.

BG: Sharing music with people can be intense, but it’s the sort of thing that gets easier as you get older, I’ve found out. Like we started talking about roles. Now I don’t have to think about lyrics because I’ve got my contribution. Yeah, there’s crossover in certain areas, but getting settled into a routine where you can count on someone else is nice.

MB: You do all the work and I hit myself (laughter).

JR: (to Berdan) You’re a very visceral performer.

BG: Yeah, you’ve gotta be.

MB: You’ve gotta put in the work. I’m not holding a guitar. I don’t have a synth or a drum machine in front of me. I do in other things, but not in this. In this project, Ben handles all the hardware and he’s doing a tremendous amount of work. It’s only fair to the band and the songs that I give it my all. To do a band like this and go half ass is pointless.

BG: That’s the whole spirit.

MB: You look like a clown and you feel like you’ve done disservice to your work. Giving anything less than all of yourself is fucking stupid.

BG: You just have to embody what you’re doing. If we sounded like Mazzy Star it wouldn’t make any sense, but this is just naturally what we do. I’m not head banging at a Hubble show - that would be weird (laughter).

MB: I’m not jumping up and down at a York Factory Complaint show. We do different things in different bands and express different facets of ourselves.

JR: Did you make the sickle and cross of your logo?

MB: (laughs) Uh, no.

BG: Well, you designed it.

MB: I kind of designed it. It’s funny. We couldn’t come up with a band name for a while and Ben suggested getting a logo together. So I figured we should use these conventional symbols of death and oppression - a scythe and a cross. So I sent it to Mark McCoy who drew it and did a great job.

BG: Yeah, he made it look awesome.

MB: We had the logo before we even had the band name. I think the idea was to kind of go more by the image than the word. The word is somewhat meaningless. The image evokes a sensation for me.

BG: I really like how it turned out. So far it looks good on everything we’ve put it on. We just got stickers. Stick it on other band’s gear. Other band’s records.

JR: Other band’s band members? (laughter)

MB: One of the ideas, not to be too critical, would be to even cross out the name. 

JR: What’s even in a name at this point?

MB: It’s awful! Band names are tedious and terrible at this point.

BG: It’s such a bummer of a process. It’s the hardest part of starting a band at this point. I feel like the only interesting names in the English language today come from bands that don’t even speak English.

MB: Hell, I don’t think anyone has had a good band name since Steely Dan, and they’re the worst band in the world.

JR: I don’t mind that band.

MB: They’re fucking terrible.

JR: I should have not said anything (laughter).

MB: It’s fine. They’re a tremendously polarizing band. They’re the cilantro of music. (laughter). But man, I fucking hate cilantro and I fucking hate Steely Dan.

BG: I think they’re more of the cilantro martini of music. (laughter).

MB: However, great band name. Kudos. And that’s cool. If you’ve got a band name that operates on multiple levels like that, it’s great, but so few bands do. It’s really hard. There’s another band called Uniform in Atlanta. Turns out the band members are people with whom we played in our prior bands. I’ve listened to them in passing and they’re really good. They’re a good, fast hardcore band and their imagery seems cool and their themes seem cool. So they’re Uniform Atlanta. We’re Uniform New York.

BG: Yeah, it’s also funny that there’s another band named Uniform. That’s like the whole point! (laughs)

MB: I would like to name our band Acme. Just generic, roadrunner shit.

BG: Or “Unimax,” the tattoo supply place.

JR: Is that where you work?

MB: Yeah. I hadn’t put two and two together that Unimax and Uniform were similar (laughter). I asked my boss one day what Unimax meant and he said “well, uni as in ‘universal’ and ‘max’ as in ‘ultimate’ and just put them together.” I like the idea of a name just being like a fuck you.

BG: It’s not some obscure line of some play. It’s a signifier and it means us. You get us when you see that.

MB: See the name, come to the show, buy the record or don’t. (laughter). It’s totally cool if you don’t want to as well.

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