Reach The Sky
I interviewed Ian and Bob from Reach The Sky at the end of August in 2001 at the Che and we talked for about 45 minutes. Saying that they're two of the nicest guys I've had the pleasure of meeting in hardcore punk would be an understatement.
Please state your name and the instrument you play so I can transcribe this later.
Ian: I'm Ian and I do the vocals.
Bob: Bob and I am the percussionist.
Fancy name for drummer.
Since I know you're from Boston and Red Sox fans, do you think Martinez is ever going to get his no-hitter?
Ian: I hope so, especially after being on the DL for two months. Hopefully he comes back. We're hoping he just throws strikes. His first game back, he got shelled.
Bob: There's always hope.
So I haven't really seen much press about you.
Ian: Ahhh! We've done a few records.
I know. So you've done two full-lengths and some 7" singles but, and maybe it's because I'm on the West Coast and you're from the East Coast, I've never really seen any articles about you or interviews with you so I don't know how you got started or anything like that. Could you start by talking about the band's history?
Ian: Yeah. We started in 1997. Chris, the guitar player, and I started the band with a bunch of different guys. We've kept a really active schedule in terms of touring and recording, like you just listed a bunch of records that we put out. We had a lot of people come and go. We've been pretty lucky for the last two and a half years or so. Bob is in the band playing drums and Brendan plays bass so we've had a solid lineup for about two years. We put the two full-lengths out on Victory, two demos, 7 inches, splits, comps, all this stuff. We've been to Europe twice. We've been all over the United States five or six times. Canada. Everywhere. We've just been a very active band. We've played close to 500 shows in our time. We're just always at it.
Ian: Yeah. This is our second van. We just realized today that we've put 45,000 miles on it since February and we still have to get back to Boston.
So there's at least another 3,000 there if you drive it straight across.
Ian: Yeah, exactly, and we have to go to Seattle first.
So there's 1,500 to Seattle.
Ian: Yeah and then we have a couple more clicks on the odometer before we get home. We're just always out there. We're on Victory Records. To answer the press part, we've been out here on a couple of high profile tours, we came out with the Misfits once and the Dropkick Murphys the last time around so we have done Skratch or whatever, there has been some press, but I think that opens another can of worms inasmuch as I think that a band like us, constantly going out there, we've never really been able to fall into one type of scene or type of fanzine or area because we've been on the road with metal bands, hardcore bands, everything, so we've just kind of had our hands in all sorts of the pieces maybe. Maybe that's why you don't see all the same press when you're looking at the same general area.
True, but it's cool when a band goes out with bands that play different styles. Isn't that how people get exposed to different bands? I initially heard about you guys from Brad and Shawn from Grade.
Bob: Oh, okay.
Bob: That's the mindset behind it.
Ian: Yeah, we hope. We hope that works but I don't think it always does. In some cases, I think there's such a loyalty factor, especially in punk rock, where kids, and to a degree, I do still, as a fan of music, you want to find a band on the way up and stay with it and hold it and it's yours and then you're pissed off when everybody else likes it. For us, as I said, we've been versatile in the bands we've played with and the tours we've been on. Sometimes it works and sometimes it hasn't, but one of my intrinsic rewards for being in this band is that I'm able to go out there and we can play with All Out War, which was the first time we played San Diego, and then come back with the Misfits or Dropkick Murphys. We've been here before, we were here in February with Bane. That part of the reward is great for me personally, but let's assume there are people in San Diego who love this band and loved us on the demo, it's a different thing. We were here playing the big rock clubs and then we come here.
Yeah, you played Cane's last time, right?
Ian: Worst place on Earth, but you go there and it's different from here and it's hard for people to totally get you when you're everywhere, to a degree, unless they put that all aside.
Right, but it also seems like certain clubs have a certain scene, like a lot of the Epitaph bands play Cane's, a lot of Equal Vision bands play here. It's more of a hardcore or straight-edge scene up here so it seems like the bands that usually play a club may draw a crowd that may not necessarily be into what you're doing.
Ian: Right. That's our mindset. This is where we come from. We're hardcore kids. We were nervous as hell the first time we came here. We were like, "These kids are going to hate us, we haven't really played a place like this in this area." We didn't know what to expect and it was unbelievable. It was amazing. The big rock clubs are the worst. It's fun, I guess, but this is where we're at and this is what we'd rather be doing, playing in front of these kids, and that's why we're here today. Hopefully that translates. I think, knowing who we are and knowing how we approach the live part of our band, I think that comes off and I think people will recognize it. We're not going to be up there like a bunch of grumps going, "Look at this place! Why are we playing here?" We're probably more excited to play here than anywhere else.
And you can actually talk with the people who come to the show. When I started going to shows, it was unusual if the singer didn't put the mike down to the crowd so they could sing along. It seems like a lot of that got lost.
Ian: A lot of the times we talk, and I've tried this in the bigger areas too and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, I try to explain or hint to people that my impression is that it's all just an energy thing. A band can have the most choreographed moves on stage and jump around and do everything ...
Bob: But the crowd is the show.
Ian: Yeah, if the crowd does nothing, then that's a shitty show, but it's the energy of kids who are there, that's what I feed off of. The music does one thing and the guys in the band do one thing but if the kids are into it then it takes it to the next level so I just try to encourage that interaction so it isn't just me up there totally drenched in sweat, it's everybody and that's the whole release. At least, that's what it was when I first got into music, much less being in a band that does this shit all the time.
Right. Now, when I asked you guys about doing an interview, you asked if I had a recorder. It sounded like you've had some interview mishaps.
Ian: It's more that kids will come up, like "I'd love to interview you for x, y and z." A Web site, a fanzine, whatever and I'm like, "Okay, that's cool," and then they either don't have a recorder or they're writing it down which is fine because you have to admire the passion that they want to do it and whether or not they have all the high-tech things is secondary, but it's more like preparation. We're really sarcastic.
Bob: Sometimes out of 10 questions, only 2 involve the band.
Ian: Yeah. A lot of people just interview to interview, especially with Web zines and stuff, you get the same thing. I'm not knocking it because it all serves its purpose, but you get a little ... I wouldn't say jaded, but we're sarcastic people anyway, we're from Boston and we've got a chip on our shoulders anyway, so we just act a little more harsh like that, but we're just kidding around.
So I'll be totally honest with you guys - I've only heard the albums. I haven't heard the EPs or 7" singles, but the new album sounds a lot thicker to me. It has a richer sound. Is this something that you've been working on?
Ian: Well, I think it's definitely there. First and foremost, we were better prepared. We wrote better songs, took more time doing it, had a better idea of who we are as people, who we are as musicians, we had another year and half's solid touring under our belt in between the two records so we had a better idea of where we wanted to go, we had more confidence in our abilities to take a chance, to write something a little more pop, maybe add something that's not straight-forward hardcore, add different things. That confidence came after the first record and being able to play shows with hardcore bands in addition to playing shows with ska bands and pop punkers and having it still work and having people still get it. This time, we took all those pieces and I think we really tried to lay it all out that way with the extra time. None of us were under the gun. The first time around, I was freaking out, like, "Writing a full-length record, I can't believe it, all this, too much, too much, too much." This time, we knew what we were going in for, learned from all of our mistakes - in theory, learned from all of our mistakes - and came out with it and I think it's like a first draft and a second draft. The first time around, we wrote a really safe record. The second time around, I think we have more of an identifiable sound now, and other people can make the judgment better than I. With the second record, it's more like, when you hear Reach The Sky, this is what you're going to get. You aren't going to get this type of song, this really traditional hardcore song or this poppier song. You're going to get this mixture of both and this is who we are.
Bob: That being first and foremost, progressing as a band, Brian McTernan progresses as he records.
He's done a lot of work since the first full-length.
Ian: He did our demo, he's recorded everything we've ever done. He grows and he learns so much more and he has so many skills. He just has such an innate ability anyway and he gets so much more out of us. We're all really comfortable with him. He's been a friend of mine for years but these guys are more comfortable with him now and he can yell, "That sucks! You're not playing drums anymore, you're not playing guitar anymore!" He throws us out of the studio all the time because he's on it. He knows what he wants to get out of it and that's everything that we've done and we've done with it and his abilities that he's blessed us with.
It sounds like he's a fifth member of the band.
Ian: Of course.
Ian: He's really invested in all of his bands, but I think even he would tell you that he's a little more invested in us because ... I wouldn't say that we rely on him more, but we're very open to a lot of his suggestions, whereas I think a lot of other bands will use his critique and want to do it their way. I think he's more like what a producer is supposed to be. When Metallica writes a record with Bob Rock, he doesn't just press play and say "Do another take," he's involved in the songwriting, he's involved with all the stuff. Brian isn't writing the stuff for us, but he's in there with us. We get there and we work together on it.
So he suggests things like using a C chord instead of a G chord.
Ian: Yeah, mostly because he'll be like, "Ian can't sing to that so bring it down." That kind of shit.
Write it in his range.
Ian: Yeah, right. Exactly.
The new album does seem a lot more melodic than the first one, especially "A Year And A Smile." It's really poppy.
Ian: And those are the chances we want to take. There are poppier elements to the first record but they're buried. They're not buried, but the focus isn't on them as much as here. We took melody and poppy parts and hooks and made them the focus and wrote songs around that. Last time, if that shit showed up, then it showed up. Plus, the last record was fast, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang and a lot of stuff didn't come through. Here, the songs are better paced, everything is better. Even on our demo, a lot of my friends were like, "Whoa, what the hell is this record you guys wrote? What are you trying to do?" Even on the first demo we had, it was just straight pop hardcore songs, hardcore songs with a pop mentality to them, so it's not totally foreign for us to do that but I just think that this time around on a much broader scale with the second record, with 15,000 or so that the first one sold, where there's a much bigger audience already, people notice it more but it's always been something we've had and always been something that we flirted with. This time, it's a strong point of ours and so we wrote songs with that in mind.
Even so, I think it's hard to call any of your music straight-forward. You don't write about what most people might consider typical hardcore themes. You write about loss and feeling lonely and alienated and disaffected. It doesn't seem like it's about unity and brotherhood as much as it is about feeling fucked up, like when you sang "I am not so strong to be untouched by any of this / I am not so strong to be untouched by your bitterness." So much of hardcore seems to focus more on the tough guy aspects while you're expressing feelings.
Ian: Well, that's who we are. We have a very honest approach to the band. There are no real frills to anything that we've done. I wouldn't say this is a catharsis. I wouldn't use this as my counseling sessions but, by the same token, if I'm going to get up here and turn my entire life around and dedicate my life to this band and make the sacrifices that I've made, whatever I'm singing about has to be meaningful to me and that's been our approach. We've never really written songs about hardcore. I write songs that are about personal experiences that are written so that they're easily interpreted by other people. You'd be surprised at how many people say to me that all these songs are about girls, but they aren't, but if that's what it means to you then that's perfect. That means you've identified them with some experience in your life and that's what it means to you and I will never tell you different. The songs mean X to me and Y to someone else and that's perfect. That's just us. That was what we were going to get across and we've just been open in terms of that lyrical approach.
So you take your personal experiences and generalize them so that people can relate your songs to their own experiences.
Ian: Yeah, exactly. The meaning is different for every person. It's not high-brow art. I'm not trying to be grandiose or anything, but by the same token, it's not so blatant that they could be cliched lyrics. At least, I hope not.
Well, I'd be hard-pressed to identify anything in punk or hardcore as high art besides maybe Elliott or Thursday.
Ian: Right, right.
So what comes first, the music or the lyrics? And how does it work? Is it a collaborative effort?
Bob: Mostly, it's guitar written first. Then it gets tossed around so much when we go in. We have a lot of parts. We put it together ...
Ian: Brian McTernan just called.
Bob: Speak of the devil. It could change ...
Ian: It changes when he gets involved.
Bob: It could change in a snap when we get down there, not totally like off the map, but if there's one riff, like you said about the first record, it might be that one part and if it's just there, it's there and we just turn around and focus on that.
So do you hash it out in your practice space or do you use demo tapes or something else?
Ian: We just bang it out and keep going and keep going until we come up with it.
Bob: I record everything we do on a little tape recorder.
Ian: The other thing we do, lyrically, I'll have stuff written but it has to be something that fits. There are a lot of topics I try to tackle that don't fit so lyrics come last. Then there's another change if I come up with a pattern or idea and then we have to change it or add another part, all that shit comes later on, but yeah, it's very collaborative even though it may start with one person. Nothing goes out unless everybody is fully behind it.
How do you figure out what goes where, how do you figure out the parts?
Ian: We're a hardcore band. It's like one, two, one, two, three. Verse, chorus and then break, unless the song doesn't need it or we have a catchy part. On this new record, there are songs that have three verses. That's never happened before for us. We've always kept them at 1:45, two minutes max, just bang bang bang. This time around, we changed things up and added bridges or whatever and that just comes with, I wouldn't say maturation because it's not like we're writing Radiohead songs, but we're a little more familiar with what we want to do and taking a few more chances.
Not only that but you have more experience behind you and, I imagine, can do more musically.
Ian: And we see what works for other bands and why not rip other people off? What the fuck?
So one of the things that really grabbed me about Reach The Sky is that the lyrics don't seem like typical hardcore songs. The main thing I got from it is that it seems to be about relationships with people - not necessarily romantic relationships but about friends and the people in your lives. If the songs pointed any fingers, they seemed to be pointing a finger at the person who was singing the song, like you were saying that you had to change yourself if you want your life to be better. It wasn't like the songs blamed anyone, but a lot of the topics seemed to be about relationships that had changed for whatever reason.
Ian: Actually, that's funny. I had never thought of it that way, but it's very true that the songs are kind of written where it's like I'm saying to myself that X, Y and Z have to change because of something else. That's actually never been pointed out to me and that's actually kind of true, how I come across. There are some songs that are more like lashing out, but it wouldn't be the whole song. I guess it's more of my own psychosis and that's how that comes together and that's how those songs come out that way.
Well, the music seems to go back to the spirit of hardcore and the sense of accountability both in terms of your own accountability and the accountability of others in the scene, like picking people up when somebody goes down in the pit, which is a very simple example, but it points to being there for each other when something goes wrong.
Ian: A lot of what gives me confidence to write the songs, the lyrics I do, aside from being confident in myself, and there are topics that I've tried to tackle that just don't work, but bands like Suicidal Tendencies and Sheer Terror and, as a newer example, like Blood For Blood, where it's pure, raw emotion and it's ugly and the music is aggressive and hard and a lot more tough sounding than we are, the lyrics are that genuine and that beautiful in the sense that they're so open, like when Suicidal Tendencies are screaming about love and stuff like that that's reserved for some bubblegum pop song and this is some crazy tough dude letting you feel it like that. Sheer Terror, like the Swingin' Utters now, that whole downtrodden, kind of beaten up thing, I think I try to have a little more positive spin on things but by the same token, it's still a raw nerve that's being exposed.
Blood For Blood? I haven't heard of them.
Ian: They're a Boston band on Victory that a lot of people dismiss as just a run of the mill tough guy band when I don't think that they're like that at all. It's some of the most genuine and sincere, like raw and honest hardcore that I think has ever been put out, that has ever been recorded. Their lyrics follow suit.
I have to ask - how has being from Boston affected you musically? There's a shitload of history there.
Ian: Yeah, it raises the bar. The history and the legacy of the bands before you and then the current bands as well, it's got that part of it. The second part of it is that I'd be lying to you if I said that being from Boston didn't help us immensely when we first started. Our first shows, we were playing in front of 500 people because in Boston, that's what the shows bring. I really think it's the barometer of hardcore. All the bands that come out of there make a mark at some point. Not every single band is the greatest or biggest, but if you take an average kid and ask them about their 10 favorite bands in hardcore punk, it's the Dropkick Murphys or Bane or Converge.
In My Eyes.
Ian: Yeah, all those bands and they're always in there. Being a part of that, sometimes you get crowded behind it, sometimes you find your own niche, sometimes you just ride the wave with them so it helps out. The band Stretch Arm Strong, they're from Columbia, South Carolina, and Chris is always giving me a hard time, like "You're from Boston!" because they're from South Carolina and it hasn't hurt them musically but in terms of getting out there, everything is that much farther to get to and drive to.
So back to the lyrics, and I tend to jump around in interviews so I apologize for that ...
Ian: I tend to ramble in interviews.
I tend to look for this, and I'm not sure if it says more about me or about the band, but it seems like your music is cautiously optimistic. It's not all about situations being fucked. For example, in "Stars Lead The Way," you sang, "This fallen star still shines everyday and no, it won't disappear." In "Seems Like Forever," you sang "Save this time, I'm holding on, save this for me." As depressing as it can be, it seems that there's an element of hope, as if you're saying, "Things will get better. There's nothing they can do but get better."
Ian: I think it would almost sound contrived if what I was singing was that despondent in a song. It's really an upbeat, aggressive hardcore song. No, it's not all down-tuned and angry and somber. These songs are upbeat and I think that the lyrics follow suit. Again, I may be negative and kind of bitter about a lot of things but I'm not totally despondent and I think that comes though as well, that there is hope, and I don't think people want to hear that [despondent music]. Maybe they do in a certain realm, but for us, I think it would be very contrived.
Bob: There's always hope.
Not only that, but if you guys wanted to sound like that, wouldn't you have to buy some tight sweaters?
Ian: Yeah, or I'd have to lose a lot of weight.
So it seems to me - based on the music and the lyrics and the topics you address - that your music is rooted in old school East Coast hardcore but that it's also an evolution.
Ian: Well, yeah. The world is so small now. It's not like when I was younger and a California band came through once every six or eight months. Now, we're exposed to bands, like Good Riddance is doing as much as we are which is as much as Agnostic Front is doing which makes it that much smaller and musically, it allows for it. There isn't anybody in Boston that plays songs that sound like Slapshot, you know what I mean?
How could there be?
Ian: Yeah, but I mean, people have moved on. In My Eyes had a West Coast hardcore feel to them as well, just as much as H2O has a West Coast thing, and then you have bands over here, like Over My Dead Body sounds like an East Coast hardcore band and I think it just comes together like that. We're as big of a group of Boston flag-wavers as we possibly could be, but by the same token, it's a more worldly kind of sound and I don't think we've ever been pigeonholed as a typical Boston hardcore band because we're taking steps to write more as who we are and the band we want to sound like.
I noticed on your Web site that you mention the books you read. Are you guys big readers?
Ian: I don't know.
Bob: It passes time.
Ian: This time around was the first time we stopped at a bookstore and I bought a bunch of shit to read.
What did you pick up?
Ian: This book by Frank McCourt who wrote "Angela's Ashes." It's his second book. I haven't read that one yet. The guy who wrote "Leaving Las Vegas," he has another book. That's the first one I read and then I'm finishing up a bunch of short stories by Kafka.
Bob: It's just fun.
Ian: Yeah, it's more for entertainment.
I just ask because it seems like, for a while, punk bands wouldn't really talk about books or literature or non-musical influences that might affect their music or change the way they write songs or they way that they did things. It seems like more punk bands talk about what they're reading now and it seems like the conversations about books are better.
Ian: I think so. I think so too. I think the mentality that to be in a hardcore band you have to live and breathe and die by it 24 hours per day and have it be the only thing that matters to you, we've never really been a part of that because we never allowed that in our personal lives. We're dedicated, we've been on the road since February and we've given our lives up for this, but by the same token, there are a lot more diversions out there. There's a lot more to the world than talking about hardcore records and stuff like that. We're just perfectly good white suburban nerds anyway, you know what I mean? We aren't going to hide the fact that we're all a bunch of geeks.
That actually leads in pretty nicely to the next question - you guys are pretty involved with trying to find missing children, right?
Ian: Our participation is more in the fact that we have an audience, we have a medium - we have the Web site, we have the records - to just put it out there. We aren't doing the work that those people do. We aren't raising the money for those people, we aren't donating our time for them, we're simply bringing it up. We have this outlet, this opportunity to put it on a Web site, to put it inside of a CD that's going to sell 20,000 across the world or whatever. It's going to be everywhere so it will be there for a long time and that's really just an avenue. I used to talk about it occasionally when we played live, but that's not really what the songs are about so it's more like we have an opportunity to put it on there and so we do. There has to be an impact. I mean, look at who you're preaching to. In theory, these are disaffected youth and, just by pure statistics alone, we know somebody has been involved in a situation like that, if not ourselves. You know what's funny is that the first time we ever really got a reaction from it was the first time we played San Diego. Three different people separately came over to me and brought it up, part of their lives or somebody close mentioned it and it was useful that we put it up there and that they could relate and while I appreciate it, it was a bit much because I'm not a martyr for the cause or anything like that and I'm not a counselor. Well, I was a counselor for a few years doing something else, but I'm a just a jerk in a band. We just put it out there because we think it's necessary. So many people put divisive politics and animal rights and that's fine if that's your thing, but this is more like as unique as maybe our lyrics are to our music, this is something that we just do. It's very honest, it's very real, it's who we are and the things we care about. It's there and it simply brings it up. The first time around, it was a lot more like a commercial, a lot more informative. The second time around is a little more of a plea. It's out there. Everybody spends so much time talking about other things but we never really talk about one another and I think it's because it hits so close to home or people, especially Americans, get kind of flustered by having that much compassion for someone else. It's a pick yourself up by your bootstraps kind of land and that doesn't always come across. And if you can't do this at a punk rock show, if you can't do it where the whole idea that music brings so many weirdo people together, if you can't talk about something that's that important, then the arena really isn't there in terms of expressing your views.
Why do you think that is? Why do you think this country has such a hard time giving people a hand up?
Ian: I don't know. We've got welfare and the first thing people want to do is cut programs like that and education. How important is that? It couldn't be any more important, maybe second to health issues and people and our government are trying to take that away from the have-nots. They don't want to cut the frivolous things that benefit them. I don't know why, but it's endemic to the whole country, it's not just Boston or San Diego, it's pretty much everywhere, in Europe too. You go over there and people are moaning about social programs over there as well. There's a girl we know in Germany and she's a friend of a friend, but she's Croatian and in Germany and nobody wants her. The Germans don't want her, she can't go anywhere else, the Croatians won't have her. She's 17 or 18 years old. She can't come to America, she can't get over here, and she doesn't have any documentation or anything like that. She's banished from her homeland for whatever reasons and she's stuck in this limbo in Germany. She gets by and does what she wants, but imagine having that over your head. It's unfathomable to me.
Well, something I've always noticed about punk, at least when it's at its best, is that it's a loose-knit community of outcasts. People who have no one else at least have each other and they all have that common bond of experience.
Ian: I think when you get really down to it, that still stands true. I'm a yuppie nerd. I'm 29, I went to college, I did all that stuff, worked 9 to 5, but I hated it all. I didn't hate it for arbitrary reasons, I just hated working. I kind of enjoyed the security of working a 9 to 5 job, but I was never comfortable and that's not an excuse, like I'm so independent or anything, that's just how it is. I can be just as uncomfortable here with people who I don't know around me, but the fact is that I feel a little more at home in this world, I feel like I have more of a place, so while there's always a fringe element that's just doing it for the time being, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that because, ultimately, your passions - be it for six months or 10 years - are your passions, so people get involved for a little while but I think maybe it's a little more watered down, it's not so wild and aggressive and exclusive as it was when I was younger when you went a show and you were scared shitless because that was all the ne'er do wells over there and that was who was at the show and now you have an element of everybody, but I think maybe that's better. You don't have to fit into this aggressive outcast mold to be involved here. You can still be a functioning member of society but just have your heart and your passions and have your needs, whatever they may be, met here. The fact is, you just fit in better here. If that collection of outcasts still stands true, people come here for a reason and they stay true to it. It's best for their lives.
And if they leave, the things that drew them to it will stay with them.
Ian: Or the reasons that drove them out, you know what I mean? Maybe they got sick of the pettiness or whatever they found here and maybe they avoid that in the rest of their lives, but you take that from jobs, too.
That's very true. That's pretty much all the questions I had for you unless there's anything you'd like to add.
Bob: Check out our record.
Thanks for the talk. I appreciate it.
Ian: I appreciate it. Enjoy your evening at the Che Café.