Abandonment Issues: Defeater pushes hardcore’s boundaries

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Defeater
photo: Nick DiNatale

Those who know Defeater already know what kind of a band they are: original, honest, musically and lyrically challenging, and spilling over with integrity. Abandoned, the Massachusetts hardcore quintet’s fourth album (and first on new label Epitaph Records) and a continuation of the band’s ongoing narrative about a troubled family—this time with a twist that many fans of the group’s chilling narratives didn’t expect—is a wholehearted continuation of the band’s impassioned brand of melodic hardcore. Substream recently caught up with vocalist Derek Archambault and guitarists Jay Maas and Jake Woodruff while the band toured Russia to discuss the latest chapter in the band’s ongoing story. [Since the time of this interview, Maas has parted ways with Defeater. —ed]

Is it safe to say that Abandoned is a musical continuation of Letters Home?
JAY MAAS: Yeah, totally. We can’t help but sound like Defeater, because it’s us and it’s what we know how to do. We have a general aesthetic and vision in mind, based around the character that we’ve chosen to write about at any given point, so while we’ll tailor the songs and the sound to the vibe of that character, ultimately it’s us and it’s going to sound like us.

A lot people were expecting the new album to be about the mother of the fictional family that you write about, but you threw us a curveball with the preacher character. Was that something you decided to do early on?
DEREK ARCHAMBAULT: We started talking about doing a record about this character probably in 2009. It started as just an idea for an EP, born out of a late-night conversation while on tour, but it eventually developed into an LP, and the twists and turns that I put in the story are things I’ve been sitting on since we started talking about doing the record in the first place.

In some ways Defeater is too hardcore for the emo kids, and not hardcore enough for the tough-guy hardcore scene. You’ve always balanced your sound.
MAAS: I would totally agree. Jake and I share a lot of musical tastes; we like a lot of the same types of hardcore bands, but we also like a ton of indie rock and more melodic stuff, so that definitely shines through, particularly on the new record where we took it further into dark, eerie, post-rockdom sometimes. The rest of the guys probably like hardcore more than Jake and I do, but when we started the band we set out that we didn’t want to be a “hardcore” band. We have an acoustic song right in the middle of the first record we ever did. It’s nice because we can just write whatever we want, and I find that to be really exciting because I don’t have to ever say, “Now it should go into a two-step.” We don’t have to do that.
JAKE WOODRUFF: The dark subject matter of this record gave us more of a chance than the last records to explore this noisier, eerier side of Defeater, and we all had a lot of fun doing that.

I get the sense that you guys are perfectionists when you are recording?
MAAS: Perfection is a subjective term when it comes to recording or anything else. There’s mechanical perfection, which is perfectly on time, but that doesn’t really make a perfect artistic product. I know I have a vision in mind for what I want the record to sound like, and these guys would probably confirm that I torture myself trying to get it there. But sometimes that means that guitars can sound loose; they should sound exciting. There are couple of songs on Abandoned where I just picked up the guitar and played the songs from beginning to end, and that’s just the guitar track. And with Joey [Longobardi], a lot of the drums went in one or two takes. At this point in the band, we are pretty aware of what we want the final product to feel and be like, so it’s easier to steer your ship there if you already know where you’re going.

What are some of the artists that you were inspired by over the years, and especially when you went in to record this album?
ARCHAMBAULT: We all pull from such different things that there can’t just be a list of bands. And it’s not just music that influences these records; there’s literature, films… there’s bits of my actual family history here. As for bands that we all find common ground with, it’s a pretty long list and definitely not anything that we ever sit down and say, “Oh, we want to sound like this band.” The things that happen most naturally are the things that end up on the records. And the musical influence that’s gotten us into bands in the first place is still on these records. Growing up in the mid-to-late ’90s in the New England punk scene, there were a million bands that brought us here. And I don’t think we’re the first band to tow that line, like you said, too hardcore for the emo kids, and vice versa. Especially in New England when we were growing up and going to hardcore shows, we had bands like Converge and Bane and so many bands that were doing what we do now, and they set a template for us.

How do you feel that you’ve progressed on this new album?
WOODRUFF: With every record, each person gets better at knowing their role in the band and knowing the strengths of the other people. So we just get to go further in the direction of whatever our particular job is in the band, while also being able to suggest things for the other dudes to do, and that comes across as a more cohesive, and in this case, a noisier, angrier record.
ARCHAMBAULT: With this one, especially with all of us being involved from the start, the last two records just feel more like a band. And because we don’t get together and practice all of the time, we hardly get to see each other outside of touring because we all live all over the place now, but these last two records we’ve taken the opportunity to bounce ideas and suggestions off each other. And we let our strengths—and weaknesses—take over and shine.
WOODRUFF: There were more than a few times recording Abandoned that either me or Jay wouldn’t know what to do for the next part, but we’d have an idea for what the other person could play. There was one part where Jay said, “Just go in there with a reverb pedal and start messing around,” and I totally didn’t hear it at all until I started playing along to the song.

What does it mean to be in this band, and how does it affect your lives?
ARCHAMBAULT: Not to sound ridiculous, but, this band is our life at this point. When we are playing live, or when we are writing or recording, we’re just five friends having a lot of fun doing it, but at the same time it’s incredibly cathartic and we get to be in places like Moscow, Russia, where we are right now, and living out our childhood dreams. This band is exactly what I think all of us wanted to do, right when we were picking up instruments for the first time, and we’re able to create the music that we actually really want to create, and we’re able to tour the world with our friends. We’ve met so many amazing people and we get to play our hearts out every night and connect with the same kinds of kids that we were at their age. This is our life.

How did writing Abandoned change you?
ARCHAMBAULT: I don’t think it’s really changed anything for me.
WOODRUFF: This was just a chance to top what we did last time for Letters Home.
MAAS: Yeah, I think everyone in the band would probably agree that we always try to outdo ourselves, in one way or another. Like, not saying that we’re fucking cool guys or anything, but, yeah, make it different, make it that much more… Defeater.
ARCHAMBAULT: Don’t print that. [Laughs.] S

A version of this piece was published in Substream #47.