Consider two musical extremes.
First, consider the extreme of hardcore punk, particularly where it meets the extreme of heavy metal. That absurdly loud, fast, and technical fringe where you might find a grindcore band like Pig Destroyer, or metalcore bands like Botch and Converge.
Then consider breakcore, an underground scene that took the hectic speeds and manic complexity of drum & bass, but kicked both elements up to impossible proportions.
So what happens when you combine those two musical extremes? When you take two genres noted for being fast, loud, and impossibly intricate, and merge them?
That question was answered in 2006, when a producer named Drumcorps produced an album named Grist. If you’re wondering what I mean by “answered,” take a listen to a track from that record:
On that track, you’re hearing samples taken from the 1999 song “To Our Friends in the Great White North” by Botch, a band known for its contribution to metalcore. Botch’s music is also sometimes filed under mathcore, a genre that weds extreme metal to the complexity of math rock. On this track, Drumcorps has taken snippets of Botch’s loud and precise sounds and has set them to mutant Amen breaks.
Drumcorps is the moniker of Aaron Spectre, who graciously entertained my questions about Grist via email for this piece. According to a previous interview he did for Japan’s Breakcore Guidebook, Spectre grew up in Massachusetts. Despite his maximalist music, his youth sounds tranquil:
“I was a quiet kid, and always pretty content to play alone and use my imagination. A stick can be a spaceship, an entire story can emerge from a caterpillar on a leaf. Later my brother came along and we’d play ball or frisbee or video games. But that ability to be still and alone for long amounts of time gives a kind of peace that I carry with me.”
After getting a portable tape player from his parents, he sated himself on Michael Jackson and Don McLean records, before being struck dumb by grunge. He still considers Alice in Chains’ Dirt the heaviest record in existence.
After awhile someone played him some thrash, and he ended up discovering Sepultura, teaching himself to drum by playing along to those records. (What a way to learn!)
There was no scene in his hometown, but in high school he became engrossed in the hardcore shows happening in nearby towns, attending all-ages shows and buying records at merch tables. Those small concerts were important in his growing affinity for underground music:
“To me, hardcore is a vital form of folk music, people’s music. It’s just a natural reaction to life in the USA, it’s something that you just have to do and you don’t necessarily realize why. It made sense right away, and seeing it in its natural habitat was a great gift. You go to the show, bounce around and go a bit berserk, and when it’s all over you go home feeling physically exhausted but also re-energized in a spiritual way.”
In parallel, Spectre was developing an interest in electronic music. The first instrument he learned to play was the piano, and he used these skills while toying with a MIDI sequencer on his father’s computer. His high school music teacher allowed him to use the school’s MIDI lab on his lunch hour, offering him brief opportunities to experiment with full equipment:
“I’d spend all day imagining what I was going to do, planning it out. Then the moment would arrive, I’d inhale a sandwich in 2 minutes and use the remaining 18 minutes to write music. I did this every day, for the whole year, using notation software on the black & white Mac Classic and a Yamaha DX7 & TG33. At that rate I’d have a few songs done every year.”
His true immersion into the electronic music scene would come later, while living in San Francisco. It was there, in 2001, that he discovered breakcore at an “outlaw warehouse party.”
Spectre tells me about the magic of that SF scene. “It was the first time I’d been fortunate to see a homegrown electronic music culture existing in the United States, in its natural habitat, on a bigger scale. I’d seen smaller scenes before, but this was another thing – something beyond a few dedicated folks – an actual community forming in a place, a world unto itself. By ‘natural habitat,’ I mean that all sorts of socioeconomic factors combine, and something just emerges. It has to happen, there’s a real need driving it …
“And so in SF, we had a bunch of absolute weirdos living in communal warehouses, building sound systems, forming crews, buying up old diesel school buses and converting them to veggie oil, making mixtapes for each other, bopping around the Bay Area in ancient cars, fishing through a pile of tapes in the glove compartment while crossing the bridge, building their own little self-contained scene, and finding wild stuff like ‘breakcore.’ Huh? What is this? Well, once you hear it, you KNOW. It was a spirit, a freedom of the time, and everyone in contact with it knew it was a special thing. Some folks were loosely basing a lot of their ethos on the UK’s Spiral Tribe, but making it their own. Music is the anchor, but the roots of this thing have to do with many other pieces of life.”
He talks about the anything-goes mentality of that San Francisco scene, which put young people together who were in it for the experience, not any financial incentive. “In reality it was a bunch of kids in a warehouse who neither knew better not cared to know, the wisdom and idealism of youth, the drive to actually do something with whatever you have on hand. This meant Christmas lights everywhere, homemade decorations, a righteous booming soundsystem, freeform and great music. There was absolutely no financial gain possible, so you get none of the icky stuff which appears later, just a bunch of people who are in it for the vibe, and perhaps something greater, perhaps the only thing there ever really is.
“The events happen when folks become a little more punky ravey and get some turntables, and oh was it special. Still is. The first was run by the S.P.A.Z. (semi-permanent autonomous zone) and 5lowershop crews, and there have been several more over the years, in different warehouses. Outdoor locations too. The feeling is like when you’re a little kid and it’s your birthday – everything is special – and you get that sense of wonderment and fun in your life, when things are at their best.”
Spectre moved to Berlin with his girlfriend in 2003, an experience that changed him significantly. In his Breakcore Guidebook interview, he describes the strange feeling of being in Berlin in Winter, not yet knowing how to speak German, how this “destroys every image you have of yourself which isn’t built in reality, and was instead a product of culture / advertising / other peoples’ thoughts.” He also mentioned arriving at a “truth about the world,” a “moment of shining clarity.” It was from that truth that Grist emerged.
I wanted to know what he meant when he spoke about uncovering this great truth. He indulged me: “As concisely as possible, industrial capitalism is a death march, we’re all playing our part in it, and no one is in charge. We follow the path of previous generations like lemmings to the abyss, the edges of which we are already starting to see, and which will become increasingly visible for the rest of our lives, the next generation, and anyone who may be left after that.
“Most people are good, and they want to help! But this isn’t good for the thing. To get us to cooperate with mass extinction, we must be forced, coerced, and propagandized. And so we are all sitting in our separate bubbles. We wake up each morning in half-truths, put our shoulders to the wheel, and advance a suicidal system which benefits the few, to the eventual destruction of all. It’s bonkers! It’s way beyond ideology. It’s not just labor versus capital… It’s capitalism versus all life on earth. I’m sorry, but that’s it. Obvious to most, but if there’s anyone left who doesn’t know this yet, they will know soon. “
These revelations came to Spectre during a period of relentless touring. When he describes those experiences, they almost sounds like a process of depersonalization. “You step into lots of different peoples’ bubbles, and you really feel what it’s like to be them, for a day. You eat their food, ride the bus together, watch their TV, sleep on their couch and feel what their blankets are like. You hear what they value and what they dream about doing. You meet their families and see where they grew up.
“I must clarify that this style of touring was very, very grassroots, and only barely possible. Super low budget, maximum grueling hours, every method of transport, every ridiculously long ride, sleeping everywhere you can, hauling lots of heavy gear, because I’m ridiculous and insist on playing guitar and using lots of MIDI controllers. There’s lots of half-sleepy daydreaming out the window, gazing at the woods and rolling fields and smokestacks out there, loading docks, cement factories, suburban stores, city centers. And then you arrive, and there are a host of people and things to learn and then, the show. It’s on. A flurry of activity, and then maybe a little sleep and then back into the moving tube / on the road again. I went absolutely everywhere. Each city contains many memories and a host of people whose lives we shared for a day or so. I used to keep all the flyers up at home, but I took them all down, because it started driving me crazy, everything reminds me of people and I wonder how they are doing.
“One day your mind integrates all this experience you’ve had into these words that make sense. At the time, it’s a mess.”
Shortly before Grist came out, Spectre released a handful of EPs. One was 2005’s Rmx or Die 10-inch, which included several extreme metal samples, including a breakcore reworking of a track by metalcore band Botch. Spectre considers this record a proof of Grist‘s concept. “I wanted to see if it could work,” he says. “The fastest way was to sample entire tunes and rework them, as you do in DJ culture, for the dancefloor or the geek enthusiast. You rework what you love, present it to people in a different way. So as the folk troubadour sings someone else’s song…. the producer makes a mashup. I’ve also always wanted to make hardcore punk electronic music since forever, so it was good time try both things and see what’s possible.”
That single was the second record out on Kriss Records, an imprint dedicated to “big fat mash-up madness.” Spectre explains that Kriss was seemingly the only label interested in this idea of combining heavy guitar music with breakneck electronic production, so he sent them a demo. But that record didn’t sell well at the time. “I actually ended up buying the backstock from the label guy after a few months, because he wanted to get rid of it,” Spectre tells me.
Around then Spectre also put out the “Amen, Punk” single, credited to his full name, not Drumcorps. This record includes a jungle remix of Bad Brains’ seminal hardcore anthem, “Pay to Cum.” Bad Brains were a band that started off playing hardcore, but shifted to reggae over the course of their career, many records combining both sounds.
Spectre sees Bad Brains as connected with electronic music, conceptually. “Bad Brains is the bridge, the key, spiritually, between the hardcore punk and the reggae worlds, rock & roll, and by extension jungle and drum & bass,” Spectre says. “It’s the Rosetta Stone of the vibe, if you will. These scenes we work in, we’re all branches from the same tree. [The “Amen, Punk” single] came from a desire to let people in our little subculture know about roots and originators, lest we forget.”
Though these mashups started off using samples exclusively, they paved the way for Spectre to add his own instrumentation to the mix. “On the technical side, I discovered that when you do mashups of something incredibly dense and fast, and you add amen drums into the mix… things get unbalanced. To get back to the good sound, you need to add other things as well. Some bass here, some more guitar there… and pretty soon you’re playing most of it yourself! So… oddly this remix mashup work started me on the path of learning how to make everything 100%, which is what I’m doing nowadays.”
Grist, a maximalist, numbingly complex work, was a feat of sound engineering. It involved Spectre rummaging through his CD collection to search out little samples from here and there. I ask Spectre just how many samples went into it, but he isn’t sure. “Oh, I have no idea. There’s a gigantic folder. I would say WhoSampled has got about 50% of the sources. When you sample little pieces of feedback, drum hits, etc., that becomes impossible to find, and for me too. It’s lost to time, it’s on a backup somewhere far away. Maybe the algorithms will improve drastically in the next few years, and they will be able to provide a complete list! The extended list goes deep, but the sources are confined to a relatively small number of bands. After doing this stuff a while, I realized that whatever you sample, you are promoting, so I keep it to my favorites mostly.”
I wondered to Spectre what it was like embarking on a project of this scope. “The first few days were like any other,” he recalls. “There’s rarely a plan. On the best days, I just go for what I’m feeling, and see what happens. Later after you’ve done a few tunes, you figure out that a theme is emerging, and it might be good to collect everything into a full album, a.k.a. a definitive statement. At that point, you follow the general plan and finish it, while still being open to unexpected new developments.”
Grist was made possible by Jason Forrest, who ran the Cock Rock Disco label, which co-released the album with Ad Noiseam. Forrest encouraged Spectre to convert his project into a full album.
From a technical standpoint, it was meticulous work. “It was just a lot of time sampling things, slicing it all up in Ableton. Not much external gear, just sampling. From vinyl as well. My computer didn’t like it one bit. Grist was really labor intensive, many tracks, many edits. It was the first Macintosh tower G5, the cheese grater, the one that sounds like a jumbo jet taking off under your desk!”
The entirety of Grist was produced in an apartment Spectre shared with his girlfriend. Spectre would work in the bedroom while his girlfriend did her work in a designated area in the kitchen. To optimize the experience, he fashioned his workspace to be as pleasant as possible. “When the music is heavy, everything else has gotta be cozy, is my general way. Heavy music is exhausting, and you need a place of peace and rest, to focus and do what needs to be done.” He surrounded himself with plants, stuffed animals, blankets, and items collected from travel.
Their apartment was located in the hip Friedrichshain district of Berlin, on what Spectre suspects must be “one of the most crazy streets in existence.” As he worked with his noisy music, their apartment was surrounded by noise on all sides. “Sometimes our downstairs neighbor would be screaming every obscenity in German, at full volume, watching football,” he recollects. “This could strike at absolutely any hour of the day or night, 4 am or 9 am or 5 pm. There’s always a game happening somewhere. The sound of clinking glass bottles rolling in the streets. The pool table ‘break!’ sound from a bar nearby. Barking dogs. Punks and Nazis fighting each other. Police patrols and that diesel van in low gear slowly creeping sound.” All this noise, combined with the outrageous whir of his computer fan, necessitated Grist‘s maximalist bombast. This was no environment for ambient music.
As he composed his blistering breakcore inside, the sights outside would sometimes synchronize with the audio. Just outside his bedroom window, there was “an armada of trash and discarded mattresses, chairs, couches,” some of which would end up on fire in the middle of the night.
And yet: “The other side of the house, the courtyard, was the polar opposite,” he says. “Bunny rabbits and cats free roaming, catching sunbeams in harmony, kids playing in the sandbox, flowers growing, barbecues and laughter. Nearby, good friends and epic nights of DJing and good tunes. Oh dear lord. I simultaneously miss the place dearly, and never want to go back again. Anyone who has lived there will understand this.”
Listening to Grist‘s dense tracks, it’s obvious that it was the product of serious time and energy. And yet even that understates the case. Grist‘s production process was so grueling that Spectre earned a repetitive strain injury from mouse-clicking so much. It took so long that it was sequentially released in two vinyl EP editions (the Live and Regret EP and the Grist EP). When combined, those two EPs became the Grist album.
Spectre sees Grist as grounded in a central idea. “Grist is a concept record, to give an actual soundtrack to this feeling of fractured humanity by technology. Make it actually sound that way! We’re being spiritually sliced up by modern life? How about literally slice up the samples? Take the screaming sounds from 1,384,892 different bands and splice them all together, play one person’s sound against another’s — maybe this would be a good way to hear it, and understand.
“You see, my favorite punky music at its core is a reaction to this techno-dehumanizing society, a way back to goodness, a critical eye, and at its best, hope for the future. Let’s see what happens. Dark versus light is actually a bit too simplistic for my liking. I think of it more functional. We got all this crazy tech now, but are still carrying values from pre-tech times, and millions of years of instinct. What are we gonna do? What do we want? What’s a good thing to keep, what’s good to discard? Toss all these broken up pieces in the air, let them fall to the ground, and see what we can build. We’d better sort it out, right now. Certain ones like true love and curiosity are worth saving, certain other ones like tribal division can go, in my opinion.
“Maybe it’s not all that different from the past, and the big questions just rage on, in slightly different forms.”
Thanks to Aaron Spectre for the interview. His latest release is The Quickening, released under his own name, and available on Bandcamp.