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By its very nature, grindcore metal is difficult to listen to: Heavily distorted guitars assault listeners with brutal blast beats, high-pitched screams alternate with low growls, and songs rarely last more than a minute or two. Though this holds true of Chicago-based metal duo Plague Bringer, which makes enough noise for a five-piece band, vocalist Josh Rosenthal and guitarist/drum-machine programmer Greg Ratajczak are more interested in creating cohesive albums than cacophony. The A.V. Club spoke to Plague Bringer just before the release of its second album, Life Songs In A Land Of Death, about metal as art, Slurpees, and how to cuss without actually cussing.
A.V. Club: How difficult is it to make heavy music both lyrically and musically interesting?
Josh Rosenthal: I think part of the difficulty overall is that people don’t understand what makes music aggressive or interesting.
AVC: There’s a lack of unpredictability?
JR: I don’t know if it’s still going on, but there’s this whole movement of breakdown bands: They’ll have some melodic riffs here, then have a slow breakdown, and they think the contrast between the two makes something heavy or aggressive. It’s not aggressive if you’re singing about Slurpees and applesauce! There are bands that are singing about things as trite as Slurpees and applesauce. You have to do both. If you’re taking someone to this place musically, you have to take them there lyrically.
AVC: How do you avoid singing about things as predictable in heavy music as backstabbing and Slurpees? Do you scrap a lot of ideas?
JR: Getting stabbed in the back with a Slurpee straw! [Laughs.] The majority of these lyrics I wrote without putting them to the music. Greg would be working on a song for a year before we started putting vocals to it. I just wanted to write pieces that would stand by themselves. There were a lot of things I cut out because they couldn’t fit in a song, even if I was singing straight through. I cut words because Greg was like, “I don’t want you singing ‘cajolery’ in this song.”
Greg Ratajczak: I’ve been inspired by filmmakers in what I do. I’ve been trying to capture and translate that into these songs somehow: “Is this part relevant? How does this part work in relation to telling the story of the song or the album?”
JR: “Do we need this shot? Do we need this angle? Do we need this cutaway?” There was a lot of debating and semantics.
GR: Exactly. I constantly re-worked these songs to my liking for two years. “How can I better say or translate this thought?” It was the same when it came to vocals. “I understand what you’re saying, but is this how you want to say it?” It was hours and hours of us smoking cigarettes and discussing the concept of a paragraph in any given song. “How is this going to translate to someone who’s not in your head?” We have the desire to sit around and discuss this stuff to stupid lengths, and really enjoyed doing so.
AVC: Grindcore isn’t taken seriously a lot of the time.
GR: That bums me out. With metal having a resurgence in the past few years with bands like Mastodon and Lamb Of God, I think people are taking it a little more seriously. The vocals turn a lot of people off. “Why are the vocals so screamy and intense?” Sometimes you have that feeling inside of you where that’s just what you need to do. Screaming and being angry about something doesn’t have to be negative. Just because we’re doing something aggressive doesn’t mean it’s negative. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. This project has been a cathartic experience for Josh and I. It’s helped us through some really dark shit.
AVC: Is the music the cause of any of this dark shit?
GR: You could ask my parents and they’d say yes. [Laughs].
AVC: Metal bands rarely have fewer than three people, and it’s even more unusual for a metal band to record an album in a living room. Why did you record the album this way?
GR: I basically started the band with my shitty, shitty Boss drum machine and my guitar plugged directly into my four-track and through the stereo speakers. I used to do that before Josh was a part of this and before it was a band. I was just writing metal songs because I wanted to. It just kind of stayed that way. If I wanted to do something differently, I’d start a new project. I have the urge to look at a drummer hitting a cymbal, but not for this project.
AVC: Are you going to try and take Plague Bringer to the next level?
GR: We’ve never been a band that’s been much about putting press kits in the mail. With As The Ghosts Collect, we put four press kits in the mail. Two went to magazines, one was to Aquarius Records in California, and one was to [label] Seventh Rule. It’s the same thing with Hewhocorrupts, Inc. We like these guys as people. There was no label-ness about it. Not to minimize Ghosts, but I really feel that this record says something.
AVC: What’s that?
JR: It’s all there. It’s never going to say the same thing to every different individual. To get caught up in that, you start changing the way you make art. Is everyone going to get the exact point of why we made this? What we’re trying to say with this?
GR: I could try to explain, very abstractly, what this means, and it’s just not important. It’s art. Art needs intent—the intent of the artist. It doesn’t have to be spelled out for people. They don’t need a guide. It’s not Photoshop. This music is not negative. It’s not. And there’s not a swear word on this record. We went out of our way to say what we had to say without swearing. It’s too easy to swear. Without saying “fuck you,” it says “fuck you.”