Interview: Mike Olender (Burnt by the Sun)
Most bands don't know when to quit. Some call it a day too early. Such is the case with metal iconoclasts Burnt by the Sun. Heart of Darkness (Relapse, 2009; reviewed here) serves as a fitting finale for the forward-thinking group. Vocalist Mike Olender discussed the inspiration behind their final work, why it's Burnt by the Sun's final chapter, his hardcore punk history, and bringing sociopolitical consciousness to metal.
- Casey Boland
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Why is Heart of Darkness the final Burnt by the Sun record?
It came to a point where we realized that we couldn't do the band the way we used to do it. The fact that we even did this record was a stretch for us. A few years ago, Dave [Witte, drummer] and I left the band, and John [Adubato, guitarist] and Ted [Patterson, bassist] didn't believe the band was over and decided to continue it on and hope that Dave and I would join back up and be willing to do another record and go on the road. They hooked up with a couple of the guys from Premonitions of War and kept writing. They wound up writing a new song that drew Dave and I back ["Goliath"].
We thought it was pretty awesome. We had signed with Relapse for three records and we figured we had this opportunity to do another record and would regret not doing it. So we got our act together and decided what we wanted to aim for conceptually and just started writing and over the course of a few years wrote it. When we got into the studio, we were all really amped on the record and how it was coming out. There was a lot of chat amongst us about whether or not this was indeed going to be a last record or whether there was a possibility of us writing another one. Now we're at the point where we just realized that we probably had a real gift handed to us by getting back and writing a record that we love and that people seem to like a lot and ending on that note.
So you did reconsider ending the band?
Yeah, [when we were] in the studio and it's sounding awesome and we're all in love with the material. Ted can be a very animated and convincing fellow when he wants to be, and he's trying to get us all caught up into it: "Yeah man, we should do another record!" In my mind, I had been thinking, no way man, I'm going to have a kid. That's going to be my priority. I really don't see myself doing anything, certainly not for a long, long time. There were a couple of moments there where I was thinking, well, maybe after six months or so, after the baby's here, maybe I'll want to go out and play. Who knows, down the road, whether we're going to wind up playing again and doing some more stuff, I really don't know. But right now things look like they've gone as far as they're going to go, at least as far as records go.
It seemed like at a certain point in time, you guys were a full-time band. Was there a reason you decided not to pursue the band at that level?
We were as full-time as we could be. We're older, especially Dave and Ted. We're all a bit older than our peers out there playing this kind of music. By the time we first got started, most of us were pretty well situated in terms of our work. John was just in the process of getting married. He had his first kid within the first year. Ted, the same thing about a year or so later. Me, I was taking my work pretty seriously, too.
We tried to make it work as well as we could. We'd get offered tours and take whatever tours we could. I don't think we ever went out for more than three weeks at a time. But we made the best use possible out of the weekends. And we would go out every single weekend, especially when the first full-length came out, Soundtrack to the Personal Revolution. I remember that year just being insane because literally every single weekend for months and months were three-day weekends. In the Northeast corridor you can hit a lot of areas in a weekend. Then we'd be getting home [at] 5 'o clock in the morning on Monday and going back to work, just really grinding it out. In that sense, we were about as full-time as we could be, but we all still had our careers. But we were able to support our records pretty well.
Did you personally have a desire to do it more, to do the long tours and do the band more as a career?
Personally, there was a time when I was interested in that. When Dave and John first approached me about starting this band with them, I had a lot of flexibility in my life, and all options were really open to me — certainly for the first year or so. That definitely was a temptation. I was playing in Nora at the time, and they came up to a Nora show and pulled me aside afterwards and basically pitched this idea to me that "we're doing this and we really want you to sing." It was me and the alternative if I wasn't interested was Tim Singer from Kiss It Goodbye and Deadguy. I think that would've been an awesome band because I love Tim Singer. It would definitely been interesting to see how that worked out.
As the first couple of years rolled along, the idea of going away for months at a time wasn't really something that I wanted to do nor was I able to do. And I think the same thing with some of the other guys, too, just in terms of being able to take off for a month or two at a time or longer. It really wasn't feasible. Previously, when I was in Endeavor, we had a couple years where we toured a lot in the summer. I think the longest we ever went out was nine weeks. We toured the U.S. and we toured Europe back to back. At that time I was probably 21 or 22 with a lot of flexibility in my life. You get a little older and things change.
Was it an adjustment going from the scene that Endeavor was a part of to Burnt by the Sun?
It was an adjustment for me because I was very rooted in hardcore and very much a part of the hardcore tradition. Metal shows were very different for me. I found that I would approach things from the hardcore angle, and it didn't necessarily always go over well with the crowd. There were shows where the band would say, "Man, you cannot go on and on talking in between songs. You're not gonna win anybody over, nobody cares at all. It's just not a productive use of your time."
At the same time, I think I found a middle ground with the approach that I think wound up being an asset for us. Burnt by the Sun was a metal band in the middle of a really metal scene and a very metal label. Yet we had enough of a root in hardcore and punk that made us stand out a little bit from the other bands. We're not just another Relapse band. Lyrically we have a different approach. Our live show is a little bit different. I think that wound up working for us. But it took a little bit for that to happen, for me to realize that and to find my groove with dealing with different types of crowds and different scenes.
Was that a goal of yours in the beginning of the band, to bring a more political lyrical approach to that scene?
No, not really. I'm not really talking politics, but more of [a] hardcore ethic: the message being as important as the music. I never considered Burnt by the Sun to be a political band like Endeavor was. But there was always enough common ground between all of us politically to have a consistent message. I think the first couple of show
s were a little difficult because I was so used to talking a lot in between songs about politics and current events with Endeavor that when I started doing that with Burnt by the Sun, right off the bat it became apparent to me that I really needed to curb that and find a new way of doing things because it was a different group of people, a different message, and a different scene.
The way it wound up settling for me was to have our message orientation geared towards self-empowerment and the DIY ethic rather than politics. That was something that people related to really well. With Soundtrack to the Personal Revolution, there are a lot of themes in that record, but one of the themes I tried to express onstage a lot in between songs was the idea that people don't need to settle in their lives for things that they're not happy with, that they don't need to have a job that is meaningless to them, that there's always an opportunity to make their lives better. I always tried to appeal to the fact that people were at the shows because they hated their job and going to the show on a Friday night was a release for them. One of the things I always tried to do with my podium as a frontman was to try to let people know that it's great that you're here for the music, but you take the message from this music and use it to inspire you to make your life better and make it something you want it to be. You don't have to hate your job and hate your existence five days a week.
People were responsive to that?
Yeah. I don't remember many occasions when I would say something like that, and the crowd wouldn't stop clapping or start cheering along or giving some kind of affirmation. It was something that was easily relatable. Most people don't like what they do with their lives or wish they could be better or are always looking for the next step or whatever it is. Certainly after or before shows or [in] emails we would get, there was always a very clear sense that people appreciated the message.
from The Perfect Is the Enemy of the Good
Speaking of messages and lyrics, why write an album inspired by Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness?
Man, if I could answer that question in the parameters of an interview, it would be a really productive night. I've been drawn to do a record like this for a long time, ever since I read the book and saw Apocalypse Now, which is loosely based on the book. I thought the themes of the book and of the film were very provocative, and they struck a chord with me. It took a lot of time over the years to appreciate those messages and to dig into them spiritually. Life is all about balance and finding harmony within human nature and within a person's strengths and weaknesses.
I don't even know if the message and what I was trying to get through with the record resonated with people. I don't know if they even get it or appreciate it. But this was probably the only record in my life where I felt I did it solely for myself. Heart of Darkness is the most selfish moment I've ever had with any band I've ever worked with.
Do you think you put more work into the lyrics of this album than the preceding ones?
Absolutely. I think it's due to the fact that with other records there was never a consistent theme or concept established right from the start like we did with this one. Even with the last Burnt by the Sun record — which has all sorts of different themes running through it, touching on ancient history and mysticism [all the way] through to contemporary politics — a lot of what went into that conceptually didn't develop until we were halfway through the writing process.
But Heart of Darkness, the minute I agreed to work on this record, I already knew what I wanted to do. I worked as hard as I could to get everyone on the same page conceptually. We had a lot of going back and forth through emails and conversation talking about the concepts and what was to be explored. We discussed a lot of things visually, and we would find pictures on the Internet and email them back and forth to each other just to have a visual representation of what we were trying to create. That, coupled with really digging into the book Heart of Darkness and reading a lot of articles and analysis of it, and also just spending a lot time myself pondering and thinking about these concepts — I without a doubt poured more into this record lyrically than I ever have on any other record.
You really tried to involve everyone else in the band in all of the lyrical and conceptual matters?
That's the way that Burnt always worked. As soon as I had lyrics, I'd be emailing them to the guys. The message orientation of Burnt was always something we felt very strongly about. With this record, it was an opportunity for us to be more on the same page than we ever have been and to try to create something that we found provocative and exciting and artistic as well as really aggressive at the same time.
Did everyone embrace all of your ideas?
Yeah, the only real disagreement we had about anything was when we were talking about artwork for the record. We were throwing around ideas, and there were a couple of ideas where some of the guys really liked stuff and a couple of us absolutely hated them, and there was a little bit of back and forth. But for the most part, once we saw the artwork for the cover that did wind up going to the record, we immediately connected and said, yeah, that's the cover to the record. It really touched on a lot of elements of the record.
But conceptually and lyrically, there was no disagreement at all. In fact, I got a couple of really touching emails from the guys as I would send the tracks out to them. They would have the demo tracks beforehand, send the songs to me, I'd record them here at home on my studio equipment, then email them the demo track with the lyrics. There were a couple of heartfelt emails where the guys said, "This is awesome." Not what I was doing necessarily, but what we were creating. There was a lot of excitement on the part of all of us.
It seems like so few bands had the real sense of camaraderie that Burnt by the Sun had.
I always wanted to have that in every band that I worked with. But it's difficult. Coming from the hardcore tradition and starting out singing in a band, wanting it to be political and socially provocative with Endeavor in the early '90s, for me the challenge was always getting a band together and keeping it together with members who were all on the same page lyrically. And that was never the case [laughs]. There was always enough of us agreeing on something to keep it together. I never wrote a song that any of us disagreed with. A couple of guys were always like, "Yeah, that's cool, I agree with that. But I'm not nearly as passionate about as you are." With Burnt, though we were never specific politically, we all got excited about the concepts, both with this record and the previous records.
Speaking of Endeavor, how was it playing with them last summer? [Endeavor reunited for one show as a benefit for Rich Cunningham, whose Happy Days Records released records by the likes of Endeavor, Human Remains, Hot Water Music, and Ink & Dagger. Rich succumbed to cancer shortly after the reunion concert.]
Man, it was very weird at first because I hadn't listened to those records in a long time. You pull out the records, you listen to them, and the first thing I'm thinking is, "Oh my god, I sound horrible." [Laughs] I sound like a 12 year-old kid whose voice hasn't changed yet. I was a horrible, horrible vocalist back then. Reading the lyrics, every song is an essay
— I never let any part of the songs breathe, I had to have vocals over every single part [laughs]. So [it was] exhausting just listening to it.
But then you listen to it, and you remember the headspace you were in back then. The Endeavor years were a really difficult time for me. I have a lot of really great memories, but I also have a lot of really painful memories. So for the first couple of weeks it was very bittersweet. I was reconnecting with certain memories that I hadn't thought about in a long time. Then after we had some practices under our belt, it really became very comfortable, and by the night of the show we had a really great time. I'm really glad we were able to do it, and I'm really glad that Rich Cunningham was able to be there to see it. I never thought I'd ever consider doing an Endeavor reunion. When we were asked to do it for Rich, it was a no-brainer. I'm proud we were able to do that.
Do you plan on doing new bands?
I really don't know. The prospect of fatherhood is really a pretty big mind trip for me. I guess everybody grows up with a certain sense of what they're going to be like as a parent. For me, it's probably going to take a while to figure out how all of that is going to fit together. I know one thing, though: I want to make sure I am available for everything that's important to my kids, whether it be the birthdays or the baseball games or the hockey games or whatever it is. That's what my priority is.
And the other issue for me is being inspired to do music and to feel creative in the same way I have in the past. I got a lot out of my system with this last Burnt record, and I realized that recently. Blood Has Been Shed is working on a new record, and I'm working with them on some stuff for the new record. I'm finding that it has been very difficult for me to step up to the plate just because of the fact that I got so much out of my system with the last record, and I'm in a very interesting time in my life right now that's very hopeful. It's hard for me to feel inspired to write in the way that I would need to for something like Blood Has Been Shed or Burnt by the Sun. I'm really not sure what the future holds.
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