Interview: Defeater

Having interviewed Defeater twice before, there’s one thing that I’ve learned: you’re in for one lengthy chat, and this interview was certainly no different, as I caught up with frontman Derek Archambault ahead of their recent headline show in London, where we got talking in-depth about the release of Empty Days and Sleepless Nights, the story behind ‘The Wave’,  and a ton more in this 4,500+ word mammoth.

Faye: So, how are you today?
Derek: I’m well, I’m a lot better than I was when I woke up. I slept in the van last night and I forgot to take my sleeping bag out, so I slept in 30F weather, so it was fucking freezing, but I’m good. We had a great meal here, some garlic tofu.

Faye: I last interviewed you in April last year, what has Defeater been up to since then?
Derek: We got home from that tour and then we took the whole summer off, and then Andy was gone with Green Vans for Warped Tour and then he came back, and Jay and him started thinking about the record and what we wanted to do with it. Andy was just recording drums at Jay’s studio and then Jay would kind of edit it down. We started the real recording process and then Jay had to go to Australia for a recording thing with Marty from Carpathian. We did a tour around the Fest and that was really, really awesome, it was with All Teeth, Living With Lions and Make Do and Mend, so that was just a fucking blast. It was cool touring with friends’ bands that have a lot of hype about them right now – we love them, so seeing all the amazing reactions they were getting was really awesome. Then we came home and I did lyrics and recorded, and then we started thinking of ideas for the layout and we came up with the idea to do the book with Chris – it’s not a full book, it’s just lyrics and pictures and explanations from my friend Michael who does photography. After we finished the record, it was kind of a waiting game to do this tour and then when we get home from this, we play our record release show and then we flight down to South By South West and do a few shows in Austin, Texas and from there we do Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii, so it’s been a crazy few months, with all the crazy stuff going on with our personal lives and Jay having to record bands all over the country, and Andy doing Green Vans all over the country, me and my ex-fiancé breaking up and Mike’s always gone with Make Do and Mend, so it’s been a wild six months, but we’re all doing really, really well for the first time in the band, everybody is happy and healthy. A lot of the time when we’re away, someone just got dumped or someone was having family issues back home, but we’re at the most mentally stable place we’ve ever been, so that’s really great. Mike and I both met these amazing girls that we just fell for, totally unexpected. Just out of nowhere, these two girls walk into our lives, like I’ve been fucking up for the last five years and I meet someone who gets me, so that’s nice, and Jay’s getting married, so, yeah, that’s what we’ve been doing – touring, getting married, writing a new record. The responses so far have been really, really nice, like we played the Netherlands last night and kids knew lyrics to new songs that just got leaked the night before and that’s fucking wild. Like the first time you and I did an interview, like all the comparisons that you made, saying that kids are eventually going to see us in the same light as our friends’ bands, I was like, ‘Nah, that’s not going to happen, we’re just a bunch of nerds from Massachusetts that got lucky for a little while.’ But to actually be touring this much and having the response that we’ve gotten from the new record is, again, just so mind-blowing. We just try to make something that we would love, like back in our teenage years, and it’s crazy that we’ve gotten this far. It’s just wild that we can tour the way we do.

Faye: It seems like you’re becoming the figureheads of melodic hardcore, since it’s not as popular as it once was, with the New York-sound being the ‘in’ thing now.
Derek: I definitely think that style of hardcore has a place in contemporary hardcore, like that band Born Low from the Albany area, I think they do it better than almost anybody, I fucking love that band and I really don’t listen to much heavy music, but if someone puts it on, I’m fucking stoked. I mean, hardcore’s always gone in cycles, there’s the DC stuff, the Californian stuff and the Boston stuff and then you get the New York boom of the really tough stuff, then bands spring up all over the place that are a little bit different, like Modern Life Is War in the turn of the 2000s, and I think we’re just an extension of that. We pull our influences from the music that got us into it in the first place, even like Deadguy that was on Victory in the 90s, that’s rad, they’re legit, it’s dudes making music what they want to make and that’s what we want to do. Being compared to Verse and Have Heart still though is amazing, because those bands to me are completely untouchable – perfect from start to finish, never put out a bad record, it’s fucking nuts.

Faye: I think you’ve kind of moved past the Modern Life Is War rip-off comparisons now, people just recognise you as Defeater now.
Derek: Yeah, I mean, I could see that at first, because song structure-wise, I don’t know what Jay, Andy, Mike and Gus were trying to do, but sometimes that stuff happens subconsciously and I’ll listen to Witness and My Life. My Way. and be like, “Oh, fuck! Did we rip that off?” We were hanging out with Harm last night and he assured us, “No, you’re not a rip off of my band, I swear to God.” [laughs] I know we’re not reinventing the wheel or anything, but we’re still trying to do something a little bit different, as much as we can. You get so saturated in the genre, you never know where you’re pulling influences from.

Faye: In my last couple of interviews with you, you said that your past two records were pretty rushed, but it seems like with this one, Empty Days and Sleepless Nights, you took more time with it.
Derek: Yeah, the whole process from Andy coming home from Warped Tour and Jay sitting down in the studio and writing off each other, took a lot longer and was definitely more thought out. Like every time, I tell you I did those lyrics in a month or a week,. I kind of did the same thing this time, after when all the music was written, I was just at Jay’s house like every day and my girlfriend would come drive up from Connecticut for a few days and I’d be in the studio for 10-hours a day, trying to bust stuff out and get creative, and come up with a story as we were doing it, but it was definitely more thought-out this time. Jake and I wrote the acoustic stuff together in one night, which was a lot easier than what we thought it was going to be, but we recorded that stuff in September and ended up recording the heavy stuff in November, so it was a little longer and more tedious than the last few records – with the vocals though, I’ll just wait to the very last minute.

Faye: Does the story carry on from the last two records?
Derek: Yeah, this one’s about the older brother from Travels and, again, it starts and ends at two of the focal points from Travels, which is what Lost Ground did, where it ends with meeting another character from Travels. Everything’s just one big puzzle, if you can figure it out, that’s rad, if you like our band enough to figure out who’s who. It’s not just words on paper, it’s more of a story that’s what we’re trying to get at. Mike put it really well in another interview, saying when you hear Travels, the older brother is just some fucking dickhead and you see him as some asshole who beats the shit out of his own brother, and this record definitely de-demonises him, you see the world from his perspective and why he’s so spiteful towards his little brother and resenting him for killing his father, and then he stays at home and works a blue-collar shit job to make ends meet. He falls in love, gets married and then his wife gets killed, and you just kind of see how everybody’s life can fall apart at any time. Every record, we just try to convey that life isn’t a fairytale at all. You think you meet someone who’s going to be there forever, but they’re not, and supporting your family, but getting nothing out of it. Not that any of us have killed anybody, but it’s kind of an elaborate way of putting it, that life can just fall apart at any time. The story ties in and the acoustic songs are just another way of showing the older brother’s story and that he’s not just a shit-bag that had nothing to say, because he’s a legitimate warm-hearted guy.

Faye: The acoustic song I Don’t Mind seems really personal, like it’s a song from your own personal experiences and perspective, and not-so much from the story.
Derek: To be totally fair, I don’t know, it’s tough to talk about, I wrote that after me and my ex fiancé broke up and it was in the time of my life when I was drunk from when I woke up and drunk from the time I went to bed. I was fucked up. We were writing the record and it mirrors my life a lot. I don’t know, it’s weird; it’s tough to talk about. It is a metaphor, but I feel like an asshole because I’m dating someone who I met through the band, like through a mutual friend, we met at a show and all that stuff had been written and recorded, and I hate having to put her through the song knowing that I wrote a song about my life in a different time, when I got dumped by my fiancé. It is personal, but it does tie in with the storyline. Every record has in its own way, like reflected our lives, not, again, like we’ve ever killed anybody, but there’s things about Jay, there’s things about Mikey, there’s things about me that we’ll be going through and I’ll just weave into the story. Like Lost Ground is about my grampy, to a point. The acoustic stuff, I don’t know, it’s just weird to talk about. It’s personal, but it’s not personal at the same time, like I can remove myself from it, where I know I’m just singing about a character, but I also did it at a time where I wasn’t, but now I’m past that point in my life and life goes on. We all grow up and we all meet those people that surprise you and turn out to be more important than you think they actually could be.

Faye: The first time I interviewed you, you weren’t that keen on your acoustic stuff, but has the positive response to the acoustic part in Prophet In Plain Clothes gave you a bit of confidence?
Derek: A little bit, but I still don’t do anything with it. I’ve played one acoustic show. It’s something that I want to do, but I just never take the time and sit down with my guitar and actually play, I’m just lazy, I think. And again, the lyrical content, writing a song about when I was in a different place in my life, I don’t want to play it out of respect of myself or other people involved. It’s hard when you write a song that’s so personal at the time and then you look back on it, and you’re like, “Well, that was a lie.”

Faye: Is that why you prefer concept albums, so you don’t directly relate to those feelings every night?
Derek: Yeah, and I know that people don’t ‘get it’ like why we write the way that we do, and that’s fine, we would all rather make art the way we do than do anything else. Nothing against any of our friends bands, but if I was writing about day-to-day shit, then we’d just be like any other band and we’d be lucky to get to where we are now, if I was just singing about just being sad or break ups or friends and my family, it’s the same thing as any other hardcore band. Again, I’m not saying anything bad about it, I’ve related to that since I first got into hardcore and punk rock, that’s what you identity with, because that same person you idolize is singing about the same shit that you go through every day and we still try to do that, but try to put it in a story and it’s not to try to be different, but it was the easiest way for me to do that, if that makes any sense.

Faye: This 64-page booklet that you get with the CD, what’s the deal with that?
Derek: We were doing the layout and Michael had a bunch of pictures, and we had such an amazing photographer, my friend Steve, he does scratchboard art, and Jay started talking about doing something a little bit bigger than a normal CD, and we decided to just go for it and make some tangible art that you could hold in your hands, so you could relate the pictures to the story. Jake and I are huge literary nerds and kind of bringing out a book is always what we’ve wanted to do, we’ve always wanted to be writers. I don’t know, we just wanted to have one more little piece in Defeater’s history where we took a little chance and did something that not a lot of people get to do in their lives, but it ties the story in more. I read back on it and I kind of hate the way I wrote the narrative, it’s a little bit repetitive and it’s not as cohesive as I’d like, but I also did it at my old apartment where I was still living with my fucking ex-fiance and I had to do it in a day. It’s not as good as I’d like it to be, but we just wanted to make something else pretty and another piece of art that we could put. Like Steve, who does the scratchboard stuff, he did a hoodie for us and he’s my tattoo artists too, so we kind of just wanted that everyone who’s had a hand in our artwork from the get-go had something in this book, because they’re the people who got us to where we’re at now. Like the front cover is one of the most beautiful pictures to me and it’s a fucking dilapidated house, but the way Michael saw it was just perfect for us.

Faye: Is that why the CD’s £15 on this tour? That’s pretty expensive for a CD here.
Derek: I know, I’m sorry. It ended up costing us more to bring over than what it has to break even, so, yeah, I feel like an asshole, like we got to Europe and it was 20-fucking-euros for an LP, it’s insane, but there’s two records, you get the booklet and everything. We were walking through the airport in Frankfurt and we were walking through customs and they were like, “What are all those boxes?” and we were like, “Nothing…” and they were like, “Do you have papers for them?” and we were like, “Erm, no…” They let us go, but just the amount of weight of stuff that we had to bring over and it turns out we’re selling them a lot less than what we should be to make money. I don’t know, the kids that have spent their money on them, I’m so grateful for because they can just get them on the Internet for free and I’d much rather kids get it on the Internet for free anyways, because they can and even if just half the kids who downloaded it come to a show, then we end up having an amazing night and kids are singing along and we’re all ecstatic and maybe they buy a t-shirt, it’s fucking rad. It’s not the nineties anymore where you had to wait for a CD or an LP to come out, you can burn things, you can put it up on Tumblr. I’d much rather kids enjoy what we create, we’re not concerned about making money, just thank you for being in the same room as us at a show, thank you for liking our band and liking us enough to come out.

Faye: You’ve said before that Defeater’s more of a part-time thing, but since you’re so happy with Defeater right now, are you wanting it to become a full-time thing? Or is it hard to balance with Mike being in Make Do and Mend as well?
Derek: It’s pretty much had to balance with everyone, because Mikey has his priorities with Make Do and Mend but he also has them us. Like there’s a Fireworks/Make Do and Mend tour coming up here, which he had to sit out on, so he could do a tour with us and he had to teach a fill-in for that tour. I’m bummed out for him, because I think that tour’s going to be amazing, both bands are fucking amazing, they’re flawless. I definitely slept on Fireworks for a long time because I feel I’m so out-of-the-loop that I don’t pay attention to contemporary bands and we both played a Polar Bear Club release show, and Fireworks played and I was just blown away, contemporary pop-punk/hardcore done like what I used to listen to in high school, and Make Do and Mend has turned into one of my favourite bands. I think it was the second show of our first tour, Make Do and Mend played and we all got in the van to the next show, and we were all like, “Holy shit, that band is going to explode. They’re going to be huge.” Then they all became friends of ours and Mikey ended up joining the band, it’s such a nice tight-knit family, we can depend on each other, not only for Mike to be in both bands, but Mike O’Toole and the Carroll brothers, I know that if I called them in the middle of the night for moral support, they’d be there. They’re just like brothers.

Faye: I saw the two-page spread in Rock Sound about your little clique with Make Do and Mend, La Dispute, Touche Amore and Pianos Become The Teeth that goes by the name of ‘The Wave’, can you tell me about that?
Derek: We were joking around, it was probably about a year-and-a-half ago, maybe two years ago, and this goes back to where we idolize our contemporaries like Verse and Have Heart to a point, like they took hardcore to a point where we didn’t know it could get, and untouchable bands like Terror and Madball, where in 10-years time, people will be like, ‘Remember when we were at that Terror show in 2005?’ People are going to remember those moments forever and we were talking about how we want to make our friends, like our closest friends’ bands, like our tight-knit little family and I think we were on the west coast, and Mike was like, “Let’s call it ‘The Wave’, like ‘catch the wave’!” Then someone ended up running with it and we don’t even know how the bands got lumped together, I mean, we love all those bands. I met Pianos at the last Ruiner show and I felt like such a dick, because I was the last person to meet them and I was fucking wasted, and was like, “I fucking love your band!” But we all really love and respect each other as bands, but we also love All Teeth, Former Thieves, Comadre and all these over bands, the ‘next generation’ of hardcore. Like it’s not some stupid exclusive club, it started as an inside joke that went too far and, all of a sudden, Rock Sound is printing fucking interviews with all of us, it was pretty much like an ad, like ‘listen to these bands, they’re ‘The Wave’. It’s like $9.50 at home, but I made sure that I got one because there was going to be two pictures of Mike Poulin on the same page. [laughs] It’s weird, Mike either looks really pissed off and upset, or high out of his mind, or someone you don’t want to meet in a dark street corner, even though he’s like one of the nicest and kind people you’re ever going to meet, but you’ll see him in a picture and you’re like, “Is he high?! Is he pissed?!” It’s cool to the point where we’d like to do a ‘Wave’ tour, we’ve talked about it, whether it’s the five of us over here or in the States or something, it’d be super fun, because we don’t get sick of each other. It’d be the type of tour where every band would be watching every band each night, because those songs mean so much to us. The last La Dispute full-length, sometimes I can’t even listen to it, because it’s too emotional and too much sometimes, they relate to things you never thought you could, and Make Do and Mend remind you of touring and having a blast, and Touche Amore is my pissed off, angsty, teenage side and Pianos is the band I tried to do 8-years ago and failed miserably at, so it’d be a really fun tour.

Faye: Touche Amore and La Dispute are touring here in July, and it’s causing a bit of commotion on the Internet with their £1000 guarantee when it’s only their second time over and it seems that people are still hung up on the Touche Amore drama from their last tour here.
Derek: I mean, it depends on what they’re travelling in and what they’ve had to do for merch. It’s weird how touring it is now than it was a few years ago, like with my old band, I toured over here and our merch and equipment was in a normal van, and we didn’t have to worry about anything – the driver drove us, we loaded in, if we had enough merch to sell, that’s fine, if we don’t, whatever. But now, I feel like everything has to be so much more tightly organised and there’s more kids into this style of music than there ever has been, and 8-years ago, if there were 50 kids at a show, then it was fucking rad and now we’re playing shows like this at the London Underworld, selling it out, that’s insane to me. I don’t get why there’s 500-kids wanting to see our band, I appreciate it, but it’s just weird. For a package to be that amount of money, there’s a lot more time and effort that goes into than you think, and you only realize that when you’re on this side of the spectrum. We pay certain taxes in different countries, we have to pay ferry fees, booking agents, it’s all one full circle, that money’s not going into one person’s pocket. Also, those bands are two of the most humble bands ever. That Touche Amore thing, that was so out of character for them to do that, they don’t ask anything from anybody. They got offers from so many labels to put out their record and turn them into this big hype machine – and they are, they’re fucking huge – and they went with Deathwish, and that’s probably not the biggest label they could have gone with. If they waited out longer, they could have got a major label deal, fucking Thursday and Alkaline Trio turned into major label bands. It’s just weird to think about that whole thing because it’s so out of character for everybody.

Faye: What’s next for Defeater after this tour and the Australian tour?
Derek: After Australia, we do Hawaii for like a week and then we go home, and we do a tour in the States with one of our friends bands in May, and that’s going to be on the east coast to the mid-west and Chicago, and then we’ve got offered another weekend with a band we all used to listen to back when we were younger, so we’ll do that and I think we’ll pretty much be done because Andy has his stuff with Green Vans, I’m sure Jay is going to be super busy in the summer in the recording studio, Make Do and Mend is going to be on the road, I’m going to be absolutely burned out and sleep all day, and then Jake and I are going to try to do an acoustic tour, and I’m sure we can talk about this, with my solo stuff and the Sleepless Nights part of Defeater, and then Jake’s in a band called Dreamtigers and another band called The First Annual, which is Steve and Greg, who’ve played in Guns Up!, so it’s all sad, bastardy, we-all-grew-out-of-our-youth-music. Then that kind of brings us up to October, to do a little Fest tour and hopefully we can bring a bunch of our bands down there.

Faye: Change The Record, who should we be listening to?
Derek: All Teeth, definitely. Living With Lions, they have a new record coming out, one of my fvaourite bands. They’re another band, like Make Do and Mend, we played with them and I had no idea who they were, and the first show, I was hooked. They just do that style of music differently than any other band, they’re not trying to put fucking poppy breakdowns in, they’re just playing legit, 90s-influenced pop-punk and they’re all incredible musicians, and Stu, their new singer, his voice is fucking amazing, like flawless. It’s just incredible what they’ve done as a band. Moving Mountains, Balance and Composure, the last Tigers Jaw record, the new Hostage Calm. My girlfriend lives in Connecticut and that’s like 3-hours away from me, and I went down there for a long weekend and we went to go see Tigers Jaw and Hostage Calm in this university, and Defeater played there a year prior, and it was ok, it was weird, it was outside and it was really cold like today, and there was a barricade with a 15-foot high stage, no interaction with the people, but we went to see them in a small room, half the size and I’ve never seen a crazier reaction for either band, especially Tigers Jaw. It’s so good to see a band that is really far removed from punk and hardcore, playing just beautiful love songs and heartfelt music getting a reaction from the same kids that would go to a fucking Have Heart show. And as always, The Clash, I don’t care about anyone else.

Faye: Is there anything else you want to say?

Derek: Thank you, Faye, as always.

- Faye Turnbull.

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