Mark sits down with the legendary political post-hardcore band
One of the most forward-thinking and diverse bands in punk rock and post-hardcore, Delaware’s Boysetsfire have had a hell of a run considering their 19-year lifespan. We spoke to vocalist Nathan Gray and guitarists Josh Latshaw and Chad Istvan about performing live, their new album, the band’s complex diversity, and Nathan’s Satanic side-project I Am Heresy.
Reuniting a couple of years ago after a split in 2007, Boysetsfire have bounced back with their fifth album, countless shows and festival performances, and a resurgence in popularity that, according to frontman Nathan Gray, was completely unprecedented: “I’m actually a little shocked that it’s worked out so well. I’m 41 years old, you just don’t expect to do something at 41 and have people all over the world give a shit.” The sales of their new album say otherwise; While A Nation Sleeps… landed at number 22 on the German album list, for instance, and guitarist Josh Latshaw’s shock at physical sales outstripping downloads shows a continued strength in the hardcore fanbase (no pun intended). Their shows are also just as intense and engaging as pre-breakup as well, as our report of their London date can attest, and the positive atmosphere every night, says Josh, is something the band will take away with them when they return home.
Nathan Gray himself, as has been said before, is a man of duality. He is perfectly capable of being a ferocious and vitriolic frontman onstage, and yet amiable and down-to-earth in person. Exploring his history with music reveals a surprising influence: “It started out as me listening to musicals that my parents had. West Side Story and Man of La Mancha, to be specific,” which explains his emotional stage performances. Remarkably, both his screams and cleans are in perfect shape after all these years. When asked about his secret, he laughed and said “I do absolutely nothing” except pop a couple of Advil and keep some common sense. “I’ve noticed that I won’t blow my voice out at shows, it’s if I go out, get drunk and act like an idiot. So I try not to do that, and it works out very well!”
[quote-symbol symbol1]It was very cathartic to give these songs new meaning
The diversity within the band is a topic that comes up time and again, and nowhere does this come through more than on their studio material. However, this time round While A Nation Sleeps… has an underlying current going through it: the tracks are peppered with quotes from the world-famous and oft-cited 1940 movie The Great Dictator, featuring Charlie Chaplin. The idea sprang from a suggestion by video director Ruben Kempter, who created the “Bled Dry” lyric video (viewable here). The band, struck by the quote used at the beginning, subsequently checked out the movie. Josh exclaims, “It’s actually saying what we’ve been thinking for 20 years! It amazed me how applicable it still is.”
The other themes running through the record are that of revisitation and catharsis. Several of the songs are taken from old demos and previous bands, and as Josh rightly points out, “we wanted to get some songs that we felt deserved another shot at the title, so to speak.” Chad can be thanked for finding the rarities, as the man has “this really bizarre collection of everything we’ve ever done. Ever. He’ll bring out shit that I don’t remember us playing.”
Nathan candidly explains the catharsis aspect: “When we parted ways with our drummer Matt, this was our cathartic album to break away from a lot of bullshit that I feel he brought to the band. That was one of the reasons why we broke up in the first place, and why when we got back together, I was very skeptical. A lot of those songs were songs that I feel he bullied out. So it was very cathartic to give these songs new meaning and for these songs to hit so hard for people, because he was the one that was like “these songs suck, fuck ‘em”. How amazing is it that, once you get rid of an issue that you feel is destroying what you’re doing, you bring out these songs that that person said was horrible, and they just hit like gangbusters!”
And gangbusters they are, in particular “Altar Of God”, a diatribe against organized religion that follows on “almost as a part 2” to the emotional “With Cold Eyes” from their previous album The Misery Index, a track that stems from Nathan’s traumatic experiences in a stifling religious environment as a child. His views match the rest of the band’s: “If you want to believe something, that’s great, but I don’t give a fuck about your church, your ministry and so on.”
That’s not to say the band focus on one lyrical topic, just that “Altar Of God” is the most brutally honest and direct of the bunch. Reasons for why they avoid being vocal about lyrical meanings vary: Josh’s more humorous (“I fell in love with this one song, and it meant something to me. I read an interview about it, and the guy says ‘Oh that? That’s about my dog.’”), Nathan’s more inspiring (“I try to be a bit vague with explanations because I want it to mean something to people individually”). Josh sums up the overall intention succinctly. “People are smart, they can figure it out.”
[quote-symbol symbol1]I really hate the term ‘fans’, it weirds me out
The diversity within the band is astounding, even in everyday topics such as recording, to which Nathan responds “I hate recording. Chad loves it, me, it’s fucking brutal. I just like getting up there, mistakes and everything”) or the music they listen to. The names they bounce around are astounding: Bring Me The Horizon with Baroness, Sea Wolf with Chelsea Wolfe, but the biggie is Ghost. When the topic of Ghost‘s new album Infestisassumam arises, Nathan laughs and states “Chad and I violently disagree on this album”. All of this goes someway to explaining the eclectic influences that have emerged in their records: “Chad is fond of saying, ‘if we wrote a great blues song, we wrote a good blues song to go on the record’. I don’t know if you’ll see us doing salsa or anything though!”, jokes Josh. We can but live in hope, gentlemen.
Unlike many other bands, Boysetsfire do not shy away from the ‘heavier’ topics of conversation such as religions and politics. Here a clear split emerges in both sectors: “Josh would probably classify himself as a Christian, Robert is very into Hinduism and I [Nathan] would consider myself a Satanist”. Their political views are similarly mish-mash, summarized in one thoughtful reflection: “How can you not think there are parts to any economic system that resonate in some way?” This carries through into the band’s ethos, to such a point where comments about one sound appropriate for the other. Chad points out, “How can you choose to live in a society and not want to benefit that society and the people that choose to do the same?”. A fair point, and one which Nathan expands on, where he comments “I find that people who are our “fans”, are part of this Boysetsfire family. I really hate that term [“fans”], it weirds me out a little bit. I feel like we go out of our way, after we play we get down and talk to people. I don’t want to feel that separation as much as we can.” This certainly happened after the London concert, further emphasizing how strong this community is, both around the band and in the scene, as sweaty hugs were exchanged.
When posed the question regarding what two or three books they’d place on a reading list for a class they would run in “Boysetsfire 101”, Chad’s response drove home the earlier point of diversity, albeit in a more humorous way: “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig and The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff”.
[quote-symbol symbol1]It’s all symbolism and ritual, and it’s meant to incite people
Nathan’s above-mentioned duality emerges in his side-project I Am Heresy, which formed 2 years ago. I Am Heresy is a Satanic post-hardcore band, and just as personal to him as Boysetsfire, not just because his son Simon plays guitar: “I’ve compiled a group of people who believe in the same thing I do, who are very much a part of that whole LaVeyan Satanist group.” He’s aware that people misunderstand Satanism, and admits that it’s in a way the point of the group. “It’s all symbolism and ritual, and it’s meant to incite people”. He name-checks personal influences such as Abbie Hoffman (co-founder of the 1960s rebellious Youth International Party and author of Steal This Book!) and of course Church Of Satan founder Anton LaVey, because they “just wanted to shake shit up, make people think and react”.
Musically, the writing processes differ widely between the two bands, although both are definitely a lot of fun. With I Am Heresy, it’s “rather easy” because of the Satanic interest which they all hold, whereas Boysetsfire is more of a challenge to find common ground. “It’s a challenge to sit down with this band [Boysetsfire] and us all work on lyrics. It’s cool to be like, ‘how far can we push this before it gets to a certain point and what wall do we hit?’”. The topic of utopia, while discussed in a political context, also applies here. “Utopia works in little communes, but then again the idea of finding what works could be utopia. If you can figure out what works, then that is a utopia.” The energy gained from this utopia is phenomenal, and allows them to “get up onstage and be a force together”.
If you haven’t seen Boysetsfire live so far, and shame on you if so, there are two possible solutions to remedy this: firstly, a DVD of their farewell show in Philadelphia, PA exists for your viewing pleasure. Secondly, there are plans afoot for an EP. Four tracks were recently recorded live in the BBC studio, in a whirlwind return flight from Frankfurt to London (“We didn’t even get to hear it, we were like ‘gotta go!’”). Chad revealed the tracklisting to be as follows: “Release The Dogs, Empire, Never Said and Everything Went Black”, a good blend of the last three albums. Assuming the tracks are deemed good enough quality, Josh comments, the EP will come out on Bridge 9 Records, like their current album.
Having mentioned no specific plans for this incarnation of Boysetsfire, we had to ask whether there was anything left on their bucket list. One resounding answer came back: Saturday Night Live is on all their lists. Josh adds, “what we’ve done has far outstripped what we could have even imagined.” This humbleness, along with the band’s newfound vigor and thoughtful attitude, are some of the most engaging factors of this band. Nathan commented onstage later, “I’m not much of a rockstar”, and that extends to the rest of the band. That can only be a good thing, as it allows the band to focus on the most important aspects to them: the music, and inspiring people through it.