Interview: Steve Austin (Today is the Day, LAE)
Steve Austin has been making aural nightmares with Today is the Day since the early 1990s. In that time, the bands' sound has careened from AmRep noise rock, to incorporating elements of death and grind, then straightforward rock riffing, and finally arriving at a combination of all of these with their tenth LP, Animal Mother. Through all of the musical and personnel changes (Austin changes the line up of the band with almost every album, and remains the sole founding member and leader), the trademark harsh vocals, lurching time changes, schizophrenic chord progressions, and misanthropic lyrics remain the same, just altered slightly to fit Austin's current tastes and moods. In addition to helming his own band, Austin recently lent vocals to Break the Clasp, the long-delayed full length debut of Montreal’s LAE. He has had a major role in the recording industry as a producer as well, well known for his work on early Lamb of God and Converge albums. Austin also owns/operates SuperNova Records, allowing him to be almost completely self sustained as an artist.
Today is the Day is the sound of a man raging at the world, flailing and punching, then stumbling and falling, only to get back up to scream again. It is not entertainment for pleasure’s sake, and it resembles a psychotic breakdown more than a sequence of musical notes. Austin has a reputation for being extremely honest, blunt, and approachable, so I decided to meet up with him in Oakland, California, at the beginning of his fall tour with Eyehategod to ask him some questions about the new album, family, and his work with LAE. Austin has clearly not lost any of the intensity and focus that make Today is the Day such a powerful experience.
This interview was conducted before we heard the sad news that Steve was involved in a serious van crash on the eve of Today Is the Day's tour and canceled their dates. Steve and his merch man, Trevor, were on the way to New York to meet up with current TITD drummer Jeffrey Lohrber when their van was struck and sent flying down the interstate. Steve and Trevor sustained non-life-threatening injuries which will nonetheless take some time to heal, but their van, their merch and their gear took a hit and the upcoming tour has been cancelled. Click through for a statement from Steve about the crash. We wish Steve and Trevor a speedy recovery..
You just joined up with Eyehategod, Iron Reagan, and Power Trip for a tour. How have things changed on the road since you started over 20 years ago?
Obviously things have gotten a lot easier with things like GPS and cell phones and whatnot, those were just starting out or weren't even around when we began playing in the early 1990s. The internet makes things a lot easier nowadays as compared to the old days as far as travelling and communication. Other than that, a lot of it is the same. Setting up, playing the show, getting the music out there, and getting in the van and going on to the next show.
How has the tour been going so far for you?
It's been going real well. We're super excited to be on tour with these bands. It's only been a week so far but it's been going really really good.
The material on your new album Animal Mother references the death of your mother, and the effect that had on you. Was this album cathartic for you to make?
Absolutely, in a waking you up kind of way. All of a sudden too, because I haven't really been around too many people that have died, at least not for a long time. When it happened, it put into motion this whole reawakening of mortality and the passage of time, and it really made me want to put out and do the best that I could do, because you never know, this could be the last time we ever do this again as a band.
What significance does the Robert Frost quote in the liner notes have?
It came from a spy movie, and honestly the name escapes me right now, maybe The Manchurian Candidate? I know it had Charles Bronson in it. [Note- the movie was 1977's Telefon, indeed starring Charles Bronson]. The concept was basically that there was this guy that could be triggered to do whatever he was trained to do by using that particular phrase. With a lot of things that have gone on in the United States in the past few years, especially with mass shooters, it seems a lot of these people are on some type of psychotropic medications, and fit a certain demographic. The whole thing just seems unusual to me. There's a lot of displeasure in our government on this album too. Things are in a crumbling state right now, the government doesn't trust the people, and the people don't trust the government. Meanwhile, there's bizarre things that happen that seem to be staged, like Manchurian Candidate stuff where someone is trained for a few months and they end up doing it. So yeah, the quote refers to a trigger phrase used to set someone off.
Were you raised in a musical family? Did you have any formal music training?
I wouldn't say formal, I took piano lessons for about a year or so as a kid. Both my parents played instruments, guitar and piano, so I was always around people playing music since I was a small child. My Dad played in a band, in the 1950s, and they played Hank Williams Sr type stuff, so yeah it was supportive in that aspect growing up.
How has being a parent yourself changed the way you look at and interact with the world?
I think I was a lot more reckless in the old days, prior to having kids. Once you have kids though, you can't be careless, you have to have your shit together and know what's going on. The world does look dark for the kids at this point, and I can only hope it gets better for them.
Do you try to filter the bad stuff from your kids?
No, we keep it pretty real at our house, it's the only way to be. We live out in the country where there's no other people, so pretty much whatever the kids are learning, they're getting it from me and my wife. I think my kids are pretty aware. I've educated them to where their mindset is positive, and they're very very smart.
A large theme in Today is the Day is suicide. Are you trying to bring awareness to the issue, or is it more of a purging of experiences?
I'd say it's both. I'm sure almost every human being on this planet has thought about self-terminating at one point. I know I have plenty of times, and I've gotten real close to it a couple of times. Depression and other illnesses are a real weird thing. Anyone who truly has depression knows that no matter how hard you try to be happy, in certain situations you just can't. It becomes more like a physical feeling rather than just in your head, and sometimes when things get stacked up in life it's pushed me to want to kill myself over things that I love and care about, you know? The band started out in the first place as pure hatred, I wanted to drive everybody the fuck away as far as possible, and my method of doing that was really harsh, painful noise crossed with some pretty complicated music. Then I realized after the first couple records that a lot of the stuff we were saying was reaching people in a very personal way because the stories I heard from people at shows blew my mind. People would come up and tell me their experiences with suicide, or that they've struggled with not doing it, and it just stayed with me. If I didn't hear it all the time I wouldn't really think too much about it, but I hear it enough that it seems almost normal, so to me that means our music can reach people on many different levels. For whatever reason the music has some sort of connection, and that might have to do with the fact that I'm trying to share my personal existence with others, and hopefully they can find something to empower them and help them get to a place of self understanding..
You contribute your production and vocal talents on Break the Clasp, the new album by recently reformed Canadian post-rockers LAE. Is your work with LAE a full time deal, or is it temporary?
I would call it full time in the sense that my ultimate best is being put into them, and I want to see good things happen for them. Marc Lucas Ablasou is the one who started that band, and he is an amazingly talented guitarist and songwriter. When I first heard those guys, it just literally blew my mind. I had gotten demos to record, and the demos were shitty sounding so I couldn't make much out of it. When people record sometimes they make some really good demos where you can hear everything,and sometimes they don't. But I could tell the music was good, and when I got up there to record them, they sound checked a song, and I couldn't believe it. I thought "Holy shit, I feel like I got put in a time machine and sent back to 1970, like it was Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd", you know? So when we got through tracking it and were ready to do the vocals, Marc wasn't as excited about doing vocals as he was guitar, and I told them I'd love to do it. It's cool, because I don't play guitar for them, it's just vocals and I like that, it's a pretty cool thing that I've never gotten to do.
Did you write lyrics for LAE as well, or is that Marc?
I did, yeah, I wrote it and sang it all.
Are the themes similar between LAE and TITD?
It is in a way. A lot of the clean parts in the music sound like older TITD stuff like “Willpower,” but overall LAE has its own sound, and that has to do with Marc, who wrote the actual songs. He writes these epic fucking spacious songs that have all this shit going on sonically, besides guitar. Some of the LAE songs have like 60 tracks of music on them, it's a lot. But overall, it was made during that same period when my Mom passed away, so it's on the dark side. I enjoy doing it a lot.The record comes out at the end of this month [Break the Clasp is now currently available—Ed.], and we may be on the road after the first of the year, so keep your eyes out for that.
Digital technology and the internet have changed how people create art. What advice do you have for people wanting to make music a career in the information age?
The most important thing is that you're making your music, that is number one. You have to get that right before anything else. Graphics and all that do matter a little, but it's the shit that goes in your ears that affects people, and it gives them something to experience or take a journey on. Social media and networking are obviously super important these days, but with the advent of digital recording, ProTools/Logic/etc, a lot of talent is not being cultivated at times because of the ability to just copy and paste. It's like the art of playing music and really trying to perfect it has been compromised a bit by the digital method of making things 'perfect'. So I would say concentrate first and foremost on your music and what you want to play, you're never going to fucking fit in where you want to fit in just because you want to. If you do, then that's great, but there's no way you can do anything better than what you really feel.