Hardcore aficionados rejoiced when word was received that Boston hardcore unit American Nightmare would put new music back into the world. There was much rejoicing to be had: AN—frontman Wes Eisold, guitarist Brian Masek, bassist Josh Holden and drummer Alex Garcia-Rivera along with touring guitarist Jim Carroll (Suicide File)—had resumed playing in 2010 after a six-year hiatus. Last year, they announced they had signed with Rise Records to record new music, as well as being able to regain the use of their original name, having wrested it from the bar band laying claim to it. With the release of American Nightmare tomorrow, the band still are at the top of their game, distilling the essence of hardcore’s assorted breeds and strains, while continuing to stamp their own character on top of it.
Jason Pettigrew spoke with Eisold to discuss AN’s nine-song, 20-minute valentine to hardcore; his journey within the genre; how he’s able to flip the switch between pit-mania and the electronic vistas of his other band Cold Cave, as well as the depression that he powers through regularly. Cred police may take this opportunity to fuck off now: It doesn’t get much more real than American Nightmare…
Is there a sense of cognitive dissonance permeating your audience regarding the heavily electronic Cold Cave vs. AN’s hardcore fury?
There are a lot of American Nightmare fans at Cold Cave shows. There’s a lot of crossover, and I think a big part of that is when AN were playing shows, I was wearing Bauhaus, Sisters Of Mercy, Joy Division and New Order shirts. That music was always represented in American Nightmare; not necessarily in the music, but that aesthetic was part of the band. For me to make music [in Cold Cave] that influenced me before wasn’t much of a surprise.
Do you have to viciously compartmentalize things so the projects don’t suffer creatively?
That’s exactly right, and it’s something that I’ve never had to do or that I am any good at. If I have an idea, I want to do it that second; I want to get it done. If I want to go somewhere, I want to go there today; I don’t want to wait or plan or anything. Compartmentalizing and managing the emotional aspects of both of them and trying to take it easy.
Wes, you don’t take anything “easy.”
[Deep exhale.] Yeah. I know. [Laughs.]
American Nightmare reunited to do shows. That proved there was chemistry, and it was totally worth doing. But what were the discussions like regarding making new music and the creation of this album?
This album is following five years or so of “reunion.” When we first got back together, making an album wasn’t a priority. It was mentioned here and there, but it wasn’t the first thing on our list to do. One of the reasons was getting comfortable with the music again and seeing how we felt around each other. We were also still living in the uncertainty of the name. It wasn’t until about a year-and-a-half ago that we got back the rights to the name American Nightmare. Every show we were playing then, we either used two names or just hoped nothing would happen. We hired someone to monitor it, and then one day it became available again. Then we decided it would be a good time to do a record.
Going back to Give Up The Ghost or American Nothing was never an option, then.
In my mind, that represents the end of the band: Getting fucked over and having to change the name and then having to pick something that doesn’t necessarily fit the identity of the band we knew it as. The name American Nightmare represents the beginning of the band to me and why I wanted to play this music. It represented the violence that was the first year or two of the band, an emotional outrage. Give Up The Ghost felt a bit more subdued to me—more of that 2000-2002 era. American Nightmare just feels timeless.
Were there conscientious decisions on how this new record would take shape? Were there fears and second-guessing? Was there a degree of what I’ll call “legacy protecting?”
We weren’t really worried about making a mistake. It’s not like I wanted to recreate something that hadn’t been a part of my life for so long. Whereas AN are still very a much a part of my life, through the different bands I do and tour with, and the people I meet afterward. [Those listeners] are still around: We’ve grown in this way together. I didn’t think I’d make a record that didn’t appeal to those people.
The only conscious decision was to take the band to its bare bones and make this primitive record. We didn’t want to make a record where we just going for it like, “Here’s one song that could be on the radio.” More like, “This is why I like this music. These are my influences. This is what this band sounds like to me then and to me now. How do we strip all the excess away and make this primitive hardcore punk record that is exciting, rewarding and emotionally fulfilling to us?” I think that’s the reason we just have the logo and the name of the band on the cover. There’s no excess to it: The minimalism of it was fully planned. We wanted it to be hard, without a lot of guitar tracks or with a lot of vocal tracks or a lot of overdubs. We just wanted to make a record.
The first thing I got on the first listen was that the LP feels like a love letter to hardcore, encapsulating everything from 1976 to 2016—New York, L.A., D.C., Boston, U.K.—with even a nod to Detroit proto-punk like MC5. It doesn’t feel like moshing down memory lane though. It feels more concerned with velocity than hard-guy posturing. The h-word still malleable in perception.
Definitely. All the [scenes] you named were super-influential to us starting the band. Growing up, you kind of mine backward: Me personally, I was into [records on labels such as] SST, Sub Pop, Dischord and Touch And Go and then finding out other bands those [labels’ artists] were in. We wanted to incorporate all those influences. It’s like looking at those punk history books and seeing a flier that was like Die Kreuzen, Swans and Sonic Youth all on the same bill. I’d want this record to fit with that show. If I hear [our record], I can hear aspects of SS Decontrol, early Swans and Husker Dü even. Brian [Masek] and I would sit around and listen to this music and talked about why we liked it. We’d notice things like listening to a Bauhaus record and realizing that a drum part was kind of like a Youth Of Today breakdown—that’s why we like stuff like this.
This far into history, hardcore is folk music with teeth and decibels. It’s a genre where youth can discover both community and a sense of self-discovery. A lot of hardcore today feels like tough guys playing detuned guitars in front of dual-wave rectifier amps and behind Boss pedals. How do you contextualize a genre that has been seemingly chasing its tail for maybe two decades?
One of the major reasons that AN are able to exist still is because at the heart of this band, there is still this emotion and sentiment…The lyrical sentiment of American Nightmare is dealing with lifelong problems like depression. It’s always urgent, and it’s always at the front of my mind. It’s been like that all of my life; it comes in waves, but it’s always there. For me, it’s not necessarily having to re-familiarize myself with [hardcore]—which I care so much about but in other ways, I couldn’t care less about. Here’s the way I deal, here’s the way I write, here’s the way I present it, and I think this is the best way to present it at this point in time. Because the theme is such a real one and such a part of me, there isn’t any outside influence over that.
When you live with severe depression or mania, nothing else really changes that, from a healthy relationship or success or money or whatever is popular in the world at the time. I was going to make this record regardless of anything else. I wanted to make a record that sounded a certain way and make a record that I wanted to listen to at different points in my life.
[Laughs.] Everything you were saying about detuning and Boss pedals, I can’t even go there because that stuff is so far from my radar. It was then, and it is now, and I don’t have anything in common with that, really. I never did. I felt like an outsider in hardcore now, like one when I started American Nightmare, and these days, I’d be more likely to buy a new Wire album than some new band’s album. That’s just the kind of music fan that I am. I check out new bands all the time, but the people who do it for me are the ones who made a lifelong lasting impression at a time in my life when I really needed them. And I think in some ways, American Nightmare are that band to a lot of people.
You said being motivated by dealing with depression was an aesthetic fuel for you. Would you be willing to elaborate on that?
Sure. I want to clarify that I’m not inspired by it—it’s a total curse. My heart totally goes out to anyone who has a severe lifelong battle. It’s going to be a total war you will be at for your entire life. I don’t know the outcome of it. I don’t know how a lot of people deal with it.
The root of it that ties into the heart of American Nightmare for me is that lifelong feeling of growing up like an outsider—like no one understood me or I was insignificant or inadequate. I think growing up with a handicap and having to move every two years and being “the new kid” and going through the same brutal torment that is youth over and over and over definitely hardened me and left me with some scar tissue that I have to constantly shed. By the time I was able to sing in a band—which was AN—I just exploded and had all this stuff I didn’t know I was feeling. It exploded to the point where nobody even around me knew—including people I was in the band with at the time.
I kind of use this idea of love as my muse that I still turn to at times. But for me, AN were never about this idea of unrequited young love. It was about inadequacy through the voice of confused, lonely youth. Although that aspect isn’t relevant to my current life, the feeling of inadequacy and the scars of that just don’t go away. It’s something I have to deal with, and that is why when I do a show, it’s never going to be beneficial or cathartic for me. It isn’t always, but often it is. More important than that is when I see it has some kind of positive effect on people who are feeling something negative. That’s more than enough reason to do it also. I don’t need a revelation; I’m pretty steady in my ways in what I’m dealing with.
In the past three or four years, I’ve gotten a bunch of emails from people who had friends who had an American Nightmare tattoo who took his life. The families will reach out to me, and the friends will reach out to me. It’s heartbreaking and a tough position to be in. I did an interview the other day where the writer said, “2003 I was hospitalized for depression. I brought one record with me, and it was the American Nightmare record.” There are so many people out there who are touched by somebody’s music. Anybody who finds solace in something that I make is more than enough reason for me to continue doing it. alt