I Like My Music Ugly: A Conversation With JSS From THE BANNER

Hello, everyone! Thank you for joining us on the second to last day of 2014. We have been planning to release this interview for a few weeks, but due to a few technical setbacks it is just now seeing the light of day. The good news is, none of the material discussed is outdated. Hooray!

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There comes a point in the career of every great artist where they learn to love where they are at and stop waking every morning feeling like they must do everything in their power to gain a bit more popularity. It’s impossible to pinpoint when exactly this moment occurs, as I believe it is different for every individual, but in the case of The Banner I think that time might have come during the several years that passed between their two full length albums. Their latest, which just arrived a few weeks back, showcases a band completely comfortable with themselves and their audience. They still push things forward, and in doing so continually challenge their fan base, but you get the sense when you’re listening that the music being created was first made because it is what the members wanted to do. It’s not about breaking out or crossing over. It’s about making something you want to hear, and doing everything in your power to get it right.

Recently, Banner founder and frontman JSS hoped on a Skype call with editor James Shotwell to discuss the new album, as well as the many lessons he has learned working in music over the last decade. You can read highlights from their conversation below.

The Banner’s new album, Greying, is available now through Good Fight Music.

H: Hello Joey, how are you?

J: Just got home from work, actually. I’ve got a handsome young gentleman helping me with chores right now (laughs).

H: That’s great to hear man. It’s also great to know that The Banner have a new album out now.

J: Yea, that is great to hear. Kind of hard to believe it myself.

H: I’ve been listening to the record for the last few weeks, and I’ve been thinking about the fact I was still in college the last time a full length came out. That’s kind of crazy, but it’s so good.

J: It has definitely been a minute.

H: I want to start with the record, especially since that is why we are chatting right now. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it a concept album, but the way the album fades in and out with static leads me to believe some might see it as a single piece of music instead of a collection of songs. Was that your intention, or am I simply reading way too into things?

J: If you play the album on vinyl, the beginning of the first song and the end of the last song play perfectly into one another. It creates a loop, which is both kind of cool and really gimmicky, but it serves a purpose for us.

H: Right before the album begins, in the midst of the first song, there are some audio clips that sound like narration from a movie. Can you shed some light on that?

J: I don’t know specifically what you’re hearing right there, but we did mix in sound clips from a documentary about the Betty Ford Clinic, as well as another mental health hospital, and a few segments from the final interview Johnny Cash gave before he died. We had that song, “The Dying Of the Light,” and I found this interview between Kurt Loder and Cash, which was filmed a few weeks before he died. Everything he said, especially when you consider the fact he died so soon after, fit perfectly with the message I was trying to get across. The hospital bits, and for the life of me I cannot remember the name of the second institution, came from documentaries I would watch for lyrical inspiration. I watched these documentaries over and over again, but nothing was flowing, but after seeing that Cash clip things began to click. I decided to throw as many clips, sounds, and general noise as possible into the track. I’ve always been into making complex and challenging music, which is both a good and bad thing I guess, but I like to put as much material into each track as possible. I like my music ugly. As ugly as possible, in fact. I love flat notes. I love long keys. I love weird chords. Things that make it sound like you might have messed up, I love. That’s where the sound clips and random chaotic shit comes into play.

H: I like that. It does make things together, but it also weaves the album together through the constant sense of chaos. It’s really unique in that way.

J: Thank you.

H: The first track on the album is big and long, so you never really know what to expect. The next few tracks are short and angry, but then you get to “Hold Me Down” and things slow to the point it almost feels like a chant. Is there anything special about that track for you?

J: A song like that is a good example of the kind of music I listen to on my own. When I am home I listen to groups like Have a Nice Life. I love drone music. I love Godflesh, and really any band with long and sad stuff.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a hardcore kid for life. That is what I came up listening to, and to this day I can give almost any hardcore band a bit of my time, but if I am home and can choose what to play there is a lot of other stuff in the mix. I like ignorantly violent and heavy hardcore stuff, as well as industrial stuff. I don’t mean dance music industry, but crazy shit, like someone dragging a chainsaw against a sheet of metal industrial. Dark shit.

So I have all this stuff on rotation and I start to wonder how I can make music like that. How I can make some ‘Joey’ music, if you will. That is what you hear on tracks like that. I’m making what I want, and I give no fucks about what other people may want to hear. I’m going to make sad drone and industrial stuff. That’s what I want to do.

H: We touched on this earlier, but it has been a number of years since the last full length album. Are you someone who writes all the time, or do you wait until you have a record to create?

J: I can’t stop writing. I love writing music. Every time I have to do it, I follow through, and once it’s complete I want to do more. It’s like a sickness. I wake up late at night with lyrics in my head, usually plugging them into my phone or writing them down in a notebook. I hope no one ever finds my notebooks or they will think I am some kind of insane person. I make lots of notes, including the kind of instrumentals that would accompany the lyrics. It’s a little crazy.

H: The new album came out on Good Fight Music, which is a label I don’t know a lot about. What is your relationship with the like? I know the old records came out on Ferret, which is no longer a label.

J: Oh, Ferret and Good Fight Music are the same people. Ferret exploded because the guys behind it got kind of screwed. That’s their story to tell. The guys behind Good Fight Music believe in us. We could have put out music elsewhere, but they trust us and we trust them. Also, they get me. When we talk we understand one another. What am I going to do? Put out a record with someone who is 20? I’m an older guy now, and I want to put out music with other grumpy old men.

H: That’s an interesting comment about not wanting to work with someone who is in their early 20s. Do you create music for anyone in particular, or are you creating to keep yourself sane?

J: I think it’s a bit of both. I know the kids who like The Banner, and in most cases they are a little older because they have grown up listening to us. They know what I like because I am always on social networks talking about the things I enjoy. And just to be clear, we don’t have a horde of fans. There is a tight group of people who enjoy The Banner, and many of them have supported us for a while. We’ve gotten to know each other as a result, and when I write I do think about how they will feel about whatever new thing I am working on something new. So I guess I would say I write music for people who already like The Banner. I’m not concerned with creating a breakout track or crossing over to another genre. I want to entertain our fans, our weirdos. Every year we gain a few more, and that’s good enough for me.

H: I like that outlook. A lot of labels and press people will try and make each record out to be the next great album, which leads a lot of artists to think about reaching new heights of popularity, but you’re happy with the people you already have following you. It’s not about constantly growing your fan base, but rather creating stuff your current fan base wants to hear, and I really respect that.

J: To be honest, everything else is relatively easy. The majority of hardcore is three or four huge bands, followed by twenty mid-level bands who are doing the same thing. There is nothing wrong with that, it all sounds the same because that sound is really fucking good. I could do that too, but for better or worse I am a quote/unquote ‘artist’ who wants to make something interesting. I know what they have heard before, so now I will try something new just to be a dick, and I think people who like our band get that I am being a dick just because I can. They know I like to challenge them, and they welcome the challenge. I would rather have these weirdos with Banner tattoos than be popular. Don’t get me wrong, if I wake up tomorrow famous I won’t complain, but I am happy where I am at.

H: I don’t have many more questions, but I am curious about your tour plans in 2015. I saw a date in February, but what else do you have in the books?

J: We’re playing a show with Beatdown Concrete, which might be the last show we play because I fully intend to murder someone at that show. They’re one of my favorite bands of all time and I am not afraid to say it. We’re also playing a show with Suburban Scum, which again will be nuts. Anytime we play in Jersey with Suburban Scum it’s violent madness. Just chaos. Thank god there are places like Starland Ballroom who welcome ridiculous shows like that.

Don’t get me wrong, we have other tour plans as well. We have a few dates with All Out War, which again feels like we’re looking for trouble. We are also going down south and to the west coast. We can’t really do long tours anymore, and we don’t necessarily want to. We don’t like to push our luck.

H: You’re not a baby band anymore. You don’t need to play 300 shows a year.

J: Yea, I’m not going no month-long tour. Fuck that. I’m over six feet tall. Sleeping in a van is hell for me. I know people want to see us, but they have the internet. They can enjoy our music online. We book enough shows that people willing to travel to a nearby city can see us. If not, oh well. That may make me sound like an old asshole or something, but it’s the truth. I don’t want to play shows in front of a bunch of kids who have never heard of us. What am I supposed to do? Push myself even further to try and win over some young punks I don’t care about? Nah, I’m okay.

H: That’s all I have for you. Do you have any final comments or thoughts that you would like to share with our readers?

J: Thanks for buying our music and supporting us. Not for nothing, this is a little weird because we talk to our fans all the time. We are constantly engaged. They don’t have to wait for random opportunities like this, but I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me. Thank you.

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company's podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.