For decades it was implied that anyone who started a career in music playing hardcore punk was bound to the genre—that’s it, no exceptions. If you ventured out, the “scene” assumed you were pursuing fame, fortune, mainstream acceptance, and all the clich'es associated with selling out. A long-haired Uniform Choice being pelted with coins by angry fans, Brian Baker allegedly having whipped cream pie mushed in his face while watching the Orange County hardcore band, and cover stories in Maximumrocknroll condemning bands that “sold out,” were common acts of protest throughout the '80s and '90s.
Welcome to 2016, where what your first, second, or seventh band sounds like or what genre it is isn’t as precious and taking a check to make art has less of a stink attached to it. Thank God, because if you lived through such a judgmental time, it got stressful figuring out who and what was OK to support. Instead, we exist in a time where hardcore punk is no longer an entry point to making your own music, but simply a style of music to make and one that’s not exclusive to the youth.
So what changed? And why is he idea of hardcore punk being isolated and elite now obsolete? Cold Cave’s Wes Eisold lived through and was active during the shift, and accounts much of it to technology and the newfound accessibility of ideas. “It’s a result of information overload—you don’t have to commit to one thing,” he said. “Jerk of all trades, master of none.”
Eisold’s musical career band began in the Boston-based outfit American Nightmare, at a time when hardcore itself was loosening its bolts and becoming less exclusive. Even so, AN’s sound and delivery wasn’t immediately embraced, as they walked their own line, expanding on the traditional sounds and look of hardcore. During AN, he formed a side band, Some Girls, before pursuing a solo electronic project in 2007 titled Cold Cave.
“Doing Cold Cave didn’t seem like a far reach anymore, but if I had started it right after AN, it would have been hard to pull off technically and it would have seemed like such a departure,” he said, on shifting from insightful hardcore to the somber, minimal synth sounds of Cold Cave. “If I was looking at it from a fan’s perspective, I don’t know if I would have bought it. AN was blind rage, then we toured a lot and I got sick of everything, so I wanted to do something a little more fucked up and see that in Some Girls—it’s a little more druggie and drunken, more chaotic. Coming down from all that, getting a little older, taking in more music, and isolating myself, but still feeling essentially the same 10 years later... that’s what Cold Cave sounds like to me.”
“It’s a very minimal style of music, made with minimal equipment,” Eisold continued. “It’s more about the sentiment.”
Wes as frontman in American Nightmare (later Give Up the Ghost) in 2000.
Cold Cave’s most recent single.
Though separated by roughly a decade, New York hardcore band Burn (formed in 1989) shares some connectivity to American Nightmare and Eisold’s path, as they were influential in pushing where hardcore could go. From their album art choices to song structures, to playing atypical venues where hardcore wasn’t the norm, Burn created their own distinct language. Frontman Chaka Malik eventually formed Orange 9mm, a post-hardcore band that secured a major label contract with Atlantic, as labels in the '90s searched for the next “grunge.”
For Malik, Orange 9mm was a new context to write, perform, and eventually start to twist knobs in the studio. He cites the band’s 1999 release Pretend I’m Human as a time of experimentation with programming and delving into electronic music. After reforming Burn in 2015 with founding member Gavin Van Vlack, Malik also begun a solo electronic career under the moniker Ghost Decibels. Like Eisold, he has two separate vehicles for ideas, with a new Burn EP about to be released on Revelation Records and Ghost Decibels’ live debut looming.
“The Burn thing is more collective and made for a collective vibe,” he said of the differences between the two. “At the shows, people are singing along to the parts they’re supposed to be singing along to—it’s a collective environment. For Ghost Decibels, it’s the opposite; it’s an inner, singular experience—not only for me, but for the listener, it’s designed to be a personal... almost discrete experience.”
Malik performing with Burn at the Roxy this past October from Bobby Hundreds’ blog coverage.
Like Malik, Eisold started to experiment with loops and drum machines in a prior band. The fuzzed out electronic punk of XO Skeletons, while much more abrasive than Cold Cave, provided him with a platform to experiment and drive ideas. The breakthrough to Cold Cave wasn’t in the form of a synthesizer or any piece of musical equipment though, but a machine that was jokingly called “The Tascam 4-track of the early-2000s,” due to its accessibility and the “warm, compressed sound” it produced.
“When that black Macbook came out, I wanted it because it was black and it looked cool,” he said of purchasing his first laptop. “It came with GarageBand and I thought it was easy to use and create music without other people. I got a few things from thrift stores, including an old Casio keyboard and a RAT distortion pedal. I’d run the keyboard through the pedal direct to GarageBand. I’d just make the drums on the computer. I miss the simplicity of that… When you’re working with little knowledge and a limited program, you can manipulate it to get sounds and feelings you want, whereas if you’re using Logic or ProTools, there’s infinite options—it’s hard to satisfy yourself.”
Having self-released a five-song cassette in 2015, Ghost Decibels is the start of Malik’s deep dive into electronic music. He’s a tinkerer, spending hours reading about synthesis, watching videos online about the craft, informing himself—but his process is less tactile. It’s the emotion of the sound that powers his creativity.
“I spent years only playing acoustic guitars, but I think the stiffness and the synthetic nature of electronic music, almost creates a better background for feeling,” he says. “Your mind is constantly trying to figure out what it is. It’s not an organic sound, so your mind wants to know where it’s going and identifying it. I love experimenting—I don’t even save patches. My intention is focused on the finished thing, so I made a decision to be creative and figure out what some of these machines do.”
Burn live in New York City in 1991.
Ghost Decibels’ latest music video.
Though both see their journeys from traditional guitar, bass, drums, and vocal-based music into solo synth projects as gradual, immersion into the discipline requires learning an entirely new set of tools and skillset. It’s working with machines to create entire worlds of sound, rather than a group of individuals, who bring in variables with every note.
Approaching his tenth year creating music with Cold Cave, Eisold’s process has undergone a reductive process—a refinement of craft and evolution, driven by both process and functionality. A few short years after starting the band, purposely not attaching his name or lineage to the project to avoid expectations based on his prior body of work, Cold Cave secured a contract with Matador Records. Along with the opportunity came the pressure of performing on larger stages, in front of festival crowds—something that Eisold cites as a confusing point in the band’s history. The reaction was simple: strip it all down.
“Everyone in a band has an idea of what their playing should be and you can’t expect someone to literally play exactly what’s on the record, as identical as you can—why bother?,” he said “Are we doing this just to have someone on stage to play exactly what’s on the record, so that someone in the crowd who might exist might like it better? Embracing the minimalism of it makes more sense with what I want to do. Also, it wasn’t sustainable. The music didn’t call for a rock band anymore. I didn’t see the point in dragging this idea around, just to have everyone come back from tour almost broke.”
Now functioning as a duo with his partner Amy Lee and without the backing of a label, Cold Cave’s embracing a lean model, where they can tour and release music at their own pace, as unconventionally as they want. With Lee handling much of the band’s visuals for the live shows, he’s free to focus entirely on making music. Like Malik, he’s been through the cycle of being on a big label, something that once seemed necessary, but just as that black Macbook facilitated a new model, technology has lessened the role of a label in the current landscape of music.
“I don’t know if I was coming up now if I’d put so much [importance] on record labels,” he said. “Growing up when we did, we identified so much with them. We trusted them, we looked for them, and bought records just because they were on that label. I don’t think that would happen now, because all the labels I’m thinking of have embarrassed themselves ten times over. But I guess I still have this seed from 1990 in my head, that this dream still existed—this underground music utopia—but it really doesn’t.”
In fact, we riffed on the idea that the “old model” of signing to a label, wasn’t that dissimilar to getting accepted to college. You wanted to get into a certain school, because of where it could take you—you aspire to “getting” into a big label, because it’s a career path. Well, maybe not.
“The label process [is] exactly like that college analogy,” he said. “You get into the college you wanted and then you have all these student loans and you’re not going to get paid shit forever. And you can’t get a job after it either. What was it worth? Some magazine ad that could have been anyone? The next week it was someone else.”
Both Eisold and Malik’s experiences with creating music, both with bands and solo, have informed where they’ve landed and where their creative impulses will take them. Burn and American Nightmare will be performing on a string of dates this spring, while they each continue to release music when it satisfies them. Perhaps it’s having multiple outlets—to engage in the collaboration and energy exchange of hardcore, and to plunge into sound individually—that’s kept their output sounding vital and spontaneous.
For Malik, the idea of thinking release-to-release is counterintuitive. He just needs to make things and hopefully, they’ll fall into place. “I can’t make art like that,” he said. “ It’s like Jackson Pollock—I start splattering and then see how it makes sense.”
Eisold echoed Malik’s sentiment, while talking about his current process of writing for Cold Cave. There’s an ease to which he talks about making music for the sheer enjoyment of it, whereas his past was marked with more tension. “I’m not that excited about mixing or producing anymore—I don’t think it matters,” he said. “If it’s a good song and it looks cool, that’s what I like.”
Malik continues to define what Ghost Decibels is and talks of the possibility of expanding that to collaborations, specifically with the Brooklyn, NY-based duo Tiers. With another EP in the pipeline, Malik’s entertaining the idea of working with outside producers, but he remains his own driving force, to create a sound that’s “submerged and elegant.”
When talking about that notion of a submerged sound, he spoke of the idea of physically taking Ghost Decibels out of his home and into the world, to find new sounds.
“That’s inspiration—you’re going to create something different,” he said. “I want to go down to the seaside at night and play some synth lines and see what’s there.”
In his New York Hardcore piece for the New Yorker, Kelefa Sanneh questioned if hardcore was ever more than just “a bunch of young men blowing off steam.” Both Eisold and Malik have certainly done that, but the commonality and power of their music is more than frustration: it’s their reflexive process of reaching out by looking in. It’s those bigger ideas that resonate longer and stronger, after that angst fades.
American Nightmare will be playing with Burn for a handful of dates in March: 5/4 (sold out) and 5/5 at Underground Arts in Philly and on 5/6 in Chicago at Double Door. For more ticket info, visit American Nightmare’s Facebook. Burn will be embarking on a 10-date tour in April. Visit Burn’s Facebook for more info.