Interview: Pig Destroyer’s J.R. Hayes
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Pig Destroyer has almost inconceivably received mainstream attention despite a sound and subject matter that should send effete souls cowering. At the center are two singular talents: Scott Hull, who has written some of the most memorable metal riffs of the new century, and J.R. Hayes, who has done the same with lyrics. Hayes has shown not just a willingness but a passion to crawl around the darkest recesses of the human imagination. With each new album, he’s delivered a dispatch from the breaking point.
On Book Burner--Pig Destroyer’s first album in five years--he marries his personal lyrics with his interest in the political and cultural, creating narratives that read like a status report from the end times. The good news is that Hayes was close to a happy ending when he talked to IO: marrying his longtime girlfriend. The equally good news is that Book Burner is the same incendiary grindcore that fans expect; a more compact record than Phantom Limb but propelled by the same fierce creative spirit. Hayes talked to us about Book Burner, driving a Zamboni, and his dark places. He says he sometimes feels like the last man on Earth.
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There’s an old video of you playing at CBGB’s. The microphone broke and you then scream over the music. Do you remember that show?
This might be the first time someone has asked me this in an interview. But a lot of fans have seen it and so it comes up. First, we were playing at CBGBs and you just don’t forget that. I got to do it a couple of times and was always stoked. That show sticks out for me even though it was a really early one. We haven’t played that many shows so I’m sure I remember all of them. I still want to know how my mic disintegrated. Was it struck down by the hand of the almighty? I've never seen a mic break into four pieces.
(When that happens) you could stand there and look awkward or run off like a pussy or you could keep screaming. Anything can happen and you should be prepared. Sometimes we play and the drums might fall over. I pretty much throw out my voice at every show whether the mic works or not. It kind of hurts me because I always go 100 percent on the first show and the second or third show I don’t have my range. So you are just fucking yourself, basically.
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Pig Destroyer - "Forgotten Child" (Live)
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How did you start writing?
I owe Scott [Hull] a lot. I didn’t read a lot when I was younger; it was mostly comic books. I met Scott and he turned me on to [Charles] Bukowski, William Burroughs, and Sam Shepard. Scott got me started. Once I read Bukowski I realized someone was writing poetry that didn’t suck. Then I discovered [Charles] Baudelaire and the Poe stuff I read when I was younger. I have Scott to thank.
What were your early lyrics like?
Back then I considered myself straight edge. I didn’t smoke, do drugs or drink. I was teaching tae kwon do and was super political. I was almost considered an anarchist back in those days. All the early lyrics were very political. Explosions In Ward 6 [Pig Destroyer’s first release] has political songs.
When did you decide to abandon straight edge?
I was extremely angry and overly emotional all the time. I feel bad for people who had to deal with me. I needed an escape from my own head. Other people might feel like that’s weakness. It did help me discover a new perspective, a third person perspective. It was very important intellectually for me to let go so I could go on and behave like a mature human being.
What did you experiment with?
Oh, man. I don’t want to make it seems like I’m glorifying it. But psychedelics, basically everything. I’ve done a lot of stupid shit. When you get into your 30s you realize you can’t be insane for three or four days at a stretch. Your body won’t tolerate it. You have to rein it in a little or you aren’t going to end up in a good place.
Was Discordance Axis a big influence on early Pig Destroyer?
Actually, there was more of an Anal Cunt influence. It was vocals, bass and guitar. Assück had something similar going on without a bass. For years, the lack of a bass player in the band really seemed to be an issue. Now you have these powerviolence bands with no bass and everyone is a little more cavalier.
What experiences drew you in a different direction around Prowler In The Yard?
It was an intense time for me. I was young and didn’t know shit about love or girls. You think you do but I didn’t. I don’t want to cry a river here but I was upset with how I was treated by someone and it took over my writing. I can’t compartmentalize things like “I’m going to do political lyrics.” If I’m feeling it it’s going to come out. That record came from a real place and I still go back to that place when I play that record. A lot of the stuff on Terrifyer carries the same emotions.
Did it ever cross your mind what might happen if that girl heard the record?
What crosses your mind is, what if my Mom heard this album? (Laughs) What would she think? When you put yourself out there you are going to hear about it, especially on the Internet. But if you are worried about hearing about it you are in the wrong business.
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Pig Destroyer - " Jennifer/Cheerleader Corpses"
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What do you think about the attention people pay to your lyrics?
I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t like it, but I’m very wary because I don’t want to take my foot off the pedal. I think my biggest fear is going into cruise control. Music has to have passion and intensity and inspiration or you shouldn’t make it. So I try not to pay too much attention to the talk but I do sometimes.
Are you surprised that what you write resonates with people?
Emotions are an intangible thing. If I write something and there’s emotion people will pick up on that. Maybe they’ll find it disgusting or revolting. That will happen. But if you put emotion into something that will resonate. So, that doesn’t surprise me. There are a lot of lost souls out there. Punk and metal draws them and I know I’m not the only one. Grindcore is definitely a universal language.
When you hear Scott’s riffs do you automatically think about how words can fit?
When he writes the riffs he already has an idea where I’m going to sing. We don’t always agree but that’s a taste thing. When I first hear a track I just listen to it and try to feel the rhythm and where he is going and try to understand the song. Then I can start putting some words on it and start following his lead. He doesn’t write songs without purpose. He always has a specific arrangement in mind and certain riffs will repeat in different ways. If you listen a bunch of times you see where he is leading. Sometimes he brings a slow riff back in a song and finds ways to change it around.
Where did the decision come from to package Book Burner with a short story?
A lot of people asked why I didn’t do a story with Phantom Limb. But I was so focused on the lyrics. This story happened very quickly. I wrote it in like a week and a half. It was so long I didn’t think it would be good to include it. When Relapse approached us about the deluxe editions I was like ‘I have this story’ and it kind of made sense. Once we got the artwork together it definitely made sense.
What’s the story about?
It’s fiction about a guy who grew up as a Christian and in early adulthood decides he didn’t want to be a Christian. He becomes a biology teacher. Then the U.S. descends into a theocracy and becomes very fascist. Everyone converts and he’s like ‘fuck it.’ He abandons his wife and society and lives in the woods like a crazy person. I don’t want to say any more. But I’m really excited. I thought we might have gone overboard but once I saw the artwork I got excited.
Do you keep a journal?
I don’t keep dates. Sometimes, I start in the back. Sometimes, I write upside down. They’re a giant mess- like the inside of your head. There doesn’t seem to be order but I understand what’s going on. Other people might think I’m a serial killer.
Sort of like the scrawling on the wall in the movie Seven?
Yeah (laughs). I don’t know why I do things the way I do. I don’t think of the process too much. It’s kind of a mystery. Sometimes you sit down with nothing and just go for it for three or four pages.
Do you draw from current events or television?
I don’t have a television. We have something to watch DVDs but outside of the occasional football game I try not to watch it. Commercials kill me more and more as I get older. I’ve spent a lot of time studying philosophy and theology and reading a lot of books about moral behavior. Whatever goes in is going to come out. A lot of my inspiration comes from science books, reading about cosmology and parallel dimensions and black holes. There’s a lot of stuff written as character sketches. This time there is a little less about how my love life might suck.
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Pig Destroyer live, Club Quattro, Tokyo, 23/08/12
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What have you been doing in the five years since the last record?
Blake [Harrison, effects] and I would get together and make noise and drink beers. Personally, it was a pretty crazy time. First, I got laid off. I went to work on a farm and then I started driving a Zamboni machine at an ice rink at night. Then I met a wonderful girl I’m going to marry in a few days. That was a good thing. But we (the band) were having rough times. When they started to creep in they bummed everyone out.
What was it like working on a farm?
It was awesome. I kind of wish I still worked there. I needed more money so I got another (construction) job with my brother. The people who own the farm own a local pie shop. We were picking berries and asparagus and everything you could imagine. Then you would drive a tractor. It’s nice--if you like to work! I did both of those jobs at the same time for a year and a half. I liked both of them but together they were overwhelming. I had no time for my girlfriend, no time to be creative. I eventually quit the ice rink.
When you were working the ice rink at night did it ever feel like that ice rink scene in Dawn Of The Dead?
My shift would end and I’d be walking out at 12:30 or 1 in the morning. All of the adults have left. You are driving around the ice nice and slow. It definitely had last man on earth feelings. But I’ve always had those feelings no matter what I’m doing.
Did those experiences make their way on Book Burner?
I couldn’t pull out a concrete example of one. But anything I’ve experienced like work or going to the hospital gets in there eventually. When I start writing lyrics none of the lines in the first version might be in the last version. There’s a transformation that takes place. I rarely write something and it’s done. It’s a process that goes on a long time. Even some of the lyrics that are really short I work on for four or five years before they are right. There are a few (on the album) I still wouldn’t mind picking at.
What songs on Book Burner took a long time?
“Baltimore Strangler” took a long time to get right. There was a period when it wasn’t making the cut because I didn’t think I could get it together. But the lines will come if you are patient. “Eve” also took a long time because it was like I couldn’t find the right lyrics. I arranged three or four different lyrics on that track before I found ones that fit. But those (songs) ultimately are the ones that are satisfying.
How did you meet your future wife?
Through a mutual friend about seven years ago. We were friends before we got together. It’s weird because anyone that reads my lyrics must think I don’t do well in that department. But (the relationship) is the easiest thing in the world. I didn’t think people had good, healthy relationships. You do see people who get together and it gives you hope. But I didn’t know it could happen.
Are you able to still access that place from your earlier records?
That’s what the new album is the test of. I’ve been pretty happy relationship-wise during the writing of the record. I have someone who loves me but that doesn’t mean my personal problems wash away. I’m still neurotic, crazy, ADD, can’t stop thinking, overly emotional. It doesn’t drop away overnight like old clothes.
Katherine Katz (Agoraphobic Nosebleed and ex-Salome) mentioned in an interview a while ago that you taught her to make lyrics as tight as possible.
If there’s a line that doesn’t need to be there it’s going to go. Lyrics are about how they look. I can tell just by looking at them on paper if they are right. It’s just a feeling. My brain always obsesses over what’s missing or if something needs to be taken out. She [Kat] sings the fourth song ("Eve") and then she sings the song where we trade vocals ("The Bug"). I’ve always loved her vocals. I’ve known her for a long time, even before Salome. She killed it on Agorapocalypse. I told her back then “I’m going to write a song for you on the next record,” because it had to happen. And she killed it. She did that song in one take.
Is she working on any new music?
She’s up to her eyeballs in books right now but definitely wants to do music. She’ll probably be on the next Agoraphobic Nosebleed. And she’s going to come to Baltimore and do some vocals with Pig Destroyer.
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Pig Destroyer - "Loathesome" (live)
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What’s up with Blake bringing the band saw on stage? I saw him do that at a show with Repulsion in New York in 2009.
He loves making mayhem. That’s why we brought him in the band. There are a lot of things he does--tons of things people aren’t even aware of. When we brought him in it was more trying to help between songs and create atmosphere. As we’ve gone on we’ve tried to get him more into the actual music but he definitely stepped up on this album. I’m hoping the noise on the next album is even more in the sound.
I’m sure people are confused that we didn’t get a second guitar or a bass player. But Blake is integral and I wouldn’t want to do the band without him. He’s great to have around. A lot of the reason he’s not even more integral to the sound isn’t his fault. Scott writes the songs.
What do you think about the mainstream attention to Pig Destroyer?
I think Scott just writes badass grindcore riffs. If you don’t know him it’s hard to explain but he’s one of the most driven people I’ve ever met. So it doesn’t surprise me that we’re successful because he kind of wills it. I’m glad I can contribute in my own way.
Do you ever wish you could make a living off the band?
No. It’s already my passion. I’m still thinking creatively as I’m swinging a hammer. When I did tae kwon do as a teenager it was the greatest thing that ever happened. I became an instructor and taught for a long time. Then, it became overwhelming. It became a job. Once it became a job I lost my love for it. I wish I could go back and do it again but my love for it is gone. If I had to rely on the band for my bills I’d have to think about it differently. We’ve always done exactly what we’ve wanted to do. I couldn’t ask for any more. Fuck money. Who could ask for more than creative independence?
Get in touch with Pig Destroyer: http://www.facebook.com/TheRealPigDestroyer
BUY BOOK BURNER
Book Burner will be released by Relapse Records on October 22 in the US
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