American Heritage Interview with Adam Norden: “We’re Just Letting Ourselves be Whatever the Fuck We Are.”
According to that great purveyor of all interwebular knowledge whose name I don’t even need to mention because you all know it, it’s at least 12 hours in a car to get from Gainesville, Georgia, to Chicago, Illinois. Taking into account that that’s the trip drummer Mike Duffy had to make every time he wanted to show up to band practice, it’s kind of understandable why it’s taken American Heritage six years to issue Sedentary, the follow up to their 2005 Translation Loss debut, Millenarian.
Not only that, but the then-three members of the band — Duffy and guitarists Scott Shellhammer and Adam Norden — also had to deal with the issue of a bassist. As in, they didn’t have one. Most bands would either hit up Craigslist or go without, but perhaps in an effort to contradict the album’s title, American Heritage decided to call upon a host of players, from Bill Kelliher of Mastodon to Sanford Parker, who also recorded the bulk of the record.
So on top of their drummer’s hellacious commute, they wound up with the task of chasing down a bass player for each track on Sedentary, while also recruiting Erik Bocek to fill the role full-time. Oh, and Norden — who also handles vocals — completely reinvented the way he sings, moving from gruff hardcore growls to a semi-melodic cleaner approach, still rooted in shouting, but infinitely more decipherable than on the last album.
Come to think of it, maybe six years between releases isn’t that bad. I’d go on about the record, but you can read the review here if you’re so inclined. Better to get right to the Q&A with Norden, since there was a lot to talk about, including the lyrical thematics at play on the songs and the roots of the band’s choice of Sedentary as the album’s title, the sonic changes American Heritage has undergone in the last six years, the process of rounding up all those bassists and much more.
Complete Q&A is after the jump. Please enjoy.
Well, that was kind of Scott’s idea. We didn’t have a bass player. The guy on our last record, we booted him out a little while after that record, and then we were just playing without a bass player. We were like, “Fuck it,” because we just didn’t have time to find somebody and train somebody and everything. We just went ahead with our business, as if everything was normal, but then when it came time to actually start writing songs, playing out again, we were like, “Wow, we really need a bass player.” Making the record, we just thought of people that could play bass on the record, and we thought of quite a few different people. And then we were like, “Fuck it, let’s just ask them all.” We made a big list and gave people songs, and everybody was real stoked to do it, and eventually we got it done. It worked out.
Was it a pain in the ass?
(Laughs) With some people there was a lot of… It got down to the wire. Some people, we had to prod them, “Come on, dude, get it done,” this and that, and we didn’t know if they were gonna get it done or not, because these are people all over the country, or overseas or whatever (laughs). We had no way of knowing what they’d actually done versus what they’d told us, but everybody got their shit in on time. The last stuff we did was actually all in town. We did about four tracks at the local studio here with some people from Chicago.
That’s the song with Sanford, I guess, and a couple others?
Sanford did his at his studio, and we tracked some bass at our buddy’s place. More like a basement studio, actually.
And what the timeline on bringing Erik in on bass? When did he come on board?
Ah fuck… Exactly I couldn’t tell you, but it was definitely during the recording of the record. I think it was probably about… (laughs) I’m the wrong person to ask. I would say it was smack-dab in the middle of the recording process, so probably about a year and a half ago.
Was there any thought to scrapping the idea and letting him play on the tracks?
We’d already gone down the record. We’d already gotten tracks from people and everything, and he was still learning the songs and stuff, so no. It was this cool idea and we wanted to do it. It was going to give every song a different flavor, at least in the bass department. After we started getting tracks, it seemed like a really good idea, actually.
It just seems like it would be really, really hard to get everyone on the same page and to get the stuff in when you needed it.
(Laughs) It was. The people we asked were people that make music all the time. A lot of the people we asked are in touring bands, and they’re just used to spitting shit out all the time and getting things done. Most of the people. The busiest people were the people that got their shit in right away, ironically. Because they had access to a studio, and they were doing some other projects, and they just whipped it out. But yeah, generally speaking, we got real nervous towards the end. I think we did a reassignment or two, but it was a lot better rate of return than we thought we’d get, to be honest. I mean, once again, Scott was kind of in charge of it, so he had to stress out the most about it (laughs). I was like, “Hey man, all those bass tracks in?” “Ugh!” and I was like, “Okay, I hope it goes alright.” He was on the internet harassing people here and there, but like I said, it really wasn’t that bad, because we had some really good people on there. None of them are flakes.
What amazes me most about it in listening is, like you said, you do have a different sound on every track, but it still sounds like an album, too. It’s coherent.
Yeah. That’s lucky, I guess. We didn’t know how it would turn out. I’m a bass player, so I know all about the troubles recording bass and trying to find a decent bass tone that doesn’t step all over everything and this and that. We just didn’t know what it would turn out like, because if you have something that’s all tinny, trebly crapola, there’s just no way to suck the low end out of it. Or something that’s complete mud – we’ve got some tracks that are pretty muddy, but they ended up working. We ended up getting everything we needed from everybody, and I was surprised. Then Sanford, obviously he knows what he’s fuckin’ doing. He was able to position every different bass tone within the mix so you could hear it and everything was sitting right. He’s a good mixer.
What about the actual songwriting? How did that go? Who lives in Georgia?
Our drummer, Mike, lives in Georgia. He’s been down there for four or five years, and for the most part, he comes up here maybe once a month, or not even once a month, maybe eight times a year. We’ll practice for three days straight and try to get as much shit written as possible, and throw files back and forth and everyone can think about them, this and that. For the most part, it was like that, then there was a couple times where we went down there for a week and just jammed in his basement. That’s how we did it. Me and Scott, he probably wrote a lot more riffs than I did, to be honest, for this record. But you try to show up prepared with ideas. You have to, actually. When you’ve got a drummer coming in front out of town, you can’t just show up and be like, “Hey, let’s jam this out for an hour,” and they’re like, “Wow, this really sucks. What’re you doing?” You have to have some riffs, you have to have some ideas coming into it. You really can’t just wing it. So that’s how we had to do it. Me and Scott had to write shit and have it at least somewhat ready to be worked on before Mike showed up.
Well, we get together a little bit, me and Scott, but for the most part, we’d do it the three of us, and Scott’d come up with a bunch of riffs, and we’d learn them all, then we’d make preliminary arrangements, then I’d throw my two cents in, and we’ve just always written songs in a collaborative way, but this, with Mike living down south and us not having as much time in the practice space, we’ve had to do a couple of things. We’ve had to, first of all, be more prepared coming to practice, and have not a whole song, but a section of things, a bunch of ideas, have it all ready to go before you even come to practice. And also, we’ve learned to not overthink things. You have to know when something’s good enough and move on and keep creating shit, instead of second-guessing stuff. In the past, when we practiced two or three times a week, we’d put a whole song together, put a whole big thing together, spend a whole month on it, and just throw it all away because we thought it sucked. We don’t do that anymore. Because we don’t have the time to (laughs). We’d never get anything done. And also, we’ve also written a few songs that are a lot simpler and more straightforward too. For those very same reasons, really. Time and “let’s make something.” “Let’s write a song.” So we have a couple songs that were written in like 15 minutes on there, which is totally uncharacteristic, but you know what? Why not? Let’s do anything. As a band, I don’t think we really are trying to make ourselves into something (laughs). We’re just letting ourselves be whatever the fuck we are. We’ve been going that way for quite a while now.
How do you think the sound has changed since Millenarian, or from the start?
Oh god. I don’t even know if I want to go from the start, because that’s… You know, we started out being this really opaque, really challenging instrumental band. And there’s people that like that, and we liked it at the time, and it was cool and it felt like you were really doing something when you put together a song that went so many different directions and that did so much weird shit. I think when we were younger, we liked that kind of stuff. Generally, as I get older, I don’t listen to things like that. That’s not what I’m into anymore. Hasn’t been for some time. I’m more into things that I like to listen to and that’ll paint a picture for you in any sort of way. And I’m not just into metal and punk or anything, I’ll listen to any kind of music and so will the rest of us. Like I said, I don’t think we are trying to stay the same band, as we were on Millenarian or on – well, Bipolar, we couldn’t, because on most of that stuff I played bass and we had a different guitar player. So we couldn’t even be that band if we wanted to be. By circumstance, we’ve had to change. I guess the big voluntary change between Millenarian and this one is pretty much… Well, that’s still involuntary, because with Millenarian, we still had a lot of time to write songs back then, so a lot of those songs have a lot of crazy shit in them. We still do that sort of thing, of course, but we’ve got a lot more straightforward stuff now, and it’s not just because that’s all we can do. We dig that kind of shit too. Everyone likes that shit. Well, not everyone, but you know what I mean. We like that stuff. I think we’ve always been a pretty good live band. We like to go up there and just try to take down the place. And it’s not take it down by making a bunch of cool kicks and stuff, just really shredding, and we usually play our songs live faster than we ever played them before (laughs), and we just always want to be that kind of band that you see and it’s just like, “Holy fuck! Those guys were ripping!” You can do that by playing straightforward shit as well as really crazy shit. That’s the kind of band that I would like to see – a band that can do a bunch of things really well. I’m not saying we can do a bunch of things, but you know what I mean. It’s got some range to it. I think right now, our live set has got a pretty decent range to it, and ultimately, making records is cool and everything, but I think for all of us, we just want to play in front of people. That’s our deal. Playing in front of people is a more visceral and real experience. You get up there and you sweat your fucking balls off. I scream until I’m about to puke, and then you get done and you’re just like, “Holy fuck, I need 17 beers. I don’t want to talk to anybody and everybody wants to talk to me, ugh…” I like it. I like playing live. All of us do.
Does the distance make that harder?
Well yeah, we can’t play that often. We can’t play live that often. Writing this record took so long. We didn’t play a show for over a year, and that sucked. We had to use that time to write music, or the record would have never gotten done. If we had a gig or a set of gigs, we would have had to practice and play everything before we even went out and played, because it’s six weeks in between practices. So yeah, it’s tough, but we’re always surprised at how much we remember. We’ll have a song and record it, and I swear, if I don’t listen to it – not a complete song, but a work-in-progress song – I’ll listen to it and be like, “I don’t remember even doing that. I don’t remember that happening.” It’s so in the weeds. And you go and you’re like, “Oh, yeah, this! Oh yeah!” Somebody figures out a little riff and it comes right back. I guess we’re just used to remembering stuff (laughs). We’re pretty good at remembering our own riffs, I guess. We’ve always had to do that. We’ve always had to remember a lot of shit and a lot of goofy arrangement stuff, too.
There’s a lot of changes in the songs, so I guess you have to really pay attention to what you’re doing.
Yeah, and then sometimes it gets contentious. Somebody insists it goes a certain way, and then there’s a big argument (laughs). “No, it doesn’t!” and sometimes it doesn’t even matter who’s right, you just decide to say “This is it” instead of what it actually was. You listen to the tape and go, “Oh yeah, that’s how it actually went, but that sucks, let’s do this.” There’s a lot of pointless arguing.
What about the vocals? It seems like there was a change in approach for this record.
I think the simplest answer to that is I just spent more time on them. Also, I guess I got a little better. I changed the style, obviously, of how I did vocals, but I used to not spend a lot of time on lyrics, because it was pretty much like I’d play guitar and yell into the microphone, and it was just sort of another instrument. More like an addition to the riff. I just spent more time and I actually wrote lyrics that were somewhat coherent and figured out vocal melodies and things like that. That’s really the big difference. Before, it was more of a [growls] and now it’s more like “Da da da, we’re all gonna die, doo-dee-doo.”
Talk about the lyrics, then. You went from, like you said, using the lyrics as a vehicle to add to the instruments, to having a theme driving the album.
Yeah, there’s kind of a theme. The theme is more in my head than anything else, but some of the ideas that came up, you know, were… Ah god, I’m at a loss to talk intelligently about this. We have different songs about different things. They’re mostly about bad things, because it’s heavy metal, that’s what you do. You sing about things that you don’t want to have happen to you. The title of the record. The idea is there’s two definitions that I’m working with for “sedentary.” One is that of a sedentary civilization, meaning where you don’t have to go out and forage for food and you’re not nomadic anymore, because you produce a surplus of something, you’ve figured out agriculture or you’ve been provided with an abundance of some resource, where you’re able to stay in one spot. Then from that forms a political system to deal with the surplus. The other definition is one of a sedentary lifestyle, which is something that is almost like a goal here. It’s something to aspire to, to be able to sit on your ass and consume things. I guess that’s a really ‘80s way of looking at it, but it’s still the same thing. And as you get older, I think it becomes more and more attractive, too. But really, the songs deal with more of the former definition. There’s “City of God” about the Crusades. Religion is always associated with an empire. The reason they convert people is because people have to believe a certain set of things in order to justify whatever system it is they’re living under. When you make a conquest or something like that, if it’s for wealth or resources or whatever, there would always be a conversion, religious conversion, with that. So just looking at that, basically saying that fundamentalist religion isn’t just a thing of itself, it’s there for a reason. I don’t know. I talk too much. And then “Vessels,” is another song where I kind of go off about the price we all have to pay for living in a sedentary society. I don’t know if it explains it very well, but there’s always the loss of freedom, and there’s always the loss of humanity, and I think we all deal with that in different ways. There’s different forms of rebellion, and there’s different forms of acceptance. It’s sort of about that. But the big difference is the songs are about something. They were before, but I think I just spent more time on them.
It’s obvious you’ve given it thought, and I think your vocals are a big part of what ties the record together, sound-wise.
The shit I like to listen to has the same quality. I’m not really too interested in listening to a big long instrumental record. It depends. There’s a lot of stuff that I would be interested in hearing, but in our genre, you have to be pretty interesting to be instrumental, and give you something not only to grab onto musically, but that’s the whole reason we write lyrics – to make it sound like the song’s about something. It puts images in your mind, and that’s how you form your opinion of what this band is about. You’re just pretty much creating a narrative, or at least allowing people to create one in their heads. Most rock lyrics aren’t about anything. They just sound like they are. But that’s what’s cool about it. You think of all these songs you knew when you were a kid, and you knew some lyrics and then some of the lyrics you got wrong, and it gave you a whole idea about that song. So you have these associations, even these visual associations about this music, and it can be totally wrong or not what the artist intended, and that doesn’t matter at all. You have a strong association with it, and that’s the important thing.
What are the tour plans? Are you guys going to hit the road at all?
We are going to do some touring in the United States of America, probably some weekend stuff first. I don’t know if I want to say that we don’t have any solid plans right now. What I will say is that we are planning on going out for a few weekends at first, and a few longer ones after that. We’d like to tour all the time, but we’ll see. (Laughs) I don’t want to sound too tentative on paper, here. We’re gonna do something, I just don’t know exactly what it is. But like I said, I want to play a lot.
American Heritage, “Sickening Rebellion”
Tags: American Heritage, Chicago, Gainesville, Georgia, Illinois, Translation Loss