Engineer, producer and guitarist of pioneering hardcore band Converge, Kurt Ballou’s stolid phone manner is unnerving at first. Hearsay is at the forefront of my mind as we begin our interview – word on the street is he can be a tough nut to crack. Quickly it becomes clear he does not suffer fools, nor does he waste time masking his disinterest in frivolous topics. After a few false starts and failed attempts at starting up conversation, it isn’t until we shed the formalities that Ballou eases up.
Having founded Converge with singer Jacob Bannon in 1990, Ballou is a man of many commitments, having also founded Massachusetts based God City Studios. His years on both sides of the control room affords him a multi-faceted view of what works best in the studio and also within the band.
"I think it would be hard for me to be self-aware of how recording other bands influences my role in Converge,” he says. "It’s great practise for when I’m wearing my engineering hat, and it’s inspiring being around other musicians that have great ideas and watching how they approach things. As I’ve become involved with more and more albums, the overall body of work is what’s become really important to me, not specific little decisions that get made along the way.
"An analogy, which I think is true for bands that haven’t made a lot of records, is that people take great ownership over their own ideas, fighting to get them through. They aren’t always able to see if their ideas are objectively the best thing for the song. This is one of the best things about recording bands all the time - I’ve been able to largely drop that in my own band. I’m a lot more collaborative and trusting of my band mates. Sometimes being particular actually matters, and other times it doesn’t. I think I’ve become a lot better at identifying what’s what when it comes to that sort of thing. Being able to identify what’s best for the song, even if it’s not my preference. Also, accepting if I don’t get my way – we’ve done so many songs, so many albums and will continue to do so. I will have the opportunity to explore them eventually.”
It’s possible that this is one part of the key to the metalcore four-piece's success - with nine albums spanning 27 years, the band still manages to shatter its own status quo. Their latest release, The Dusk In Us, contains a heavy dose of familiarity but is unmistakably Converge.
"There’s a lot to be upset about now, more than ever,” Ballou says. “We’ve always been good at harnessing whatever circumstances we’re in and using it to our advantage. Whether that’s using our personal lives that have caused inspiration for songwriting, or changes in the political climate, we capitalise on it. I think we’re good at being malleable to different circumstances and learning to harness whatever adversity there is and turning that into some sort of positive creative outlet."
You would think that Ballou's experience as an engineer and producer would mean that his fingerprints are all over the new album, but in fact he says that the opposite is true.
“In the case of this record, it was really hands off in the engineering process; there’s nothing fancy in the production of the record," says Ballou. "It’s pretty much just recording a band playing instruments. To me, Converge is a live band and that’s important to us. It feels more like Converge when the production process mirrors that, or mirrors where we came from as people growing up in the hardcore scene.”
It's been five years since the release of the band's last album, All We Love We Leave Behind, during which time the individual members have been busy not only with music but in growing their families. That same five years has also seen troubling social and political changes in the US, all of which has had an affect on the contents of the new album.
"We’ve all had children, several children in some cases, since our last album," says Ballou of the circumstances that influenced The Dusk In Us. "Going through that process makes you a lot more in tune with what kind of world you’ve brought this child into and what they will inherit when I’m gone. There’s a lot of fear and anxiety about whether or not our children will be able to grow up safe, happy and be treated with kindness. Becoming a parent causes you to reflect on your own childhood. We don’t discuss lyrics a lot with Jacob, but from reading them it seems to be a repeated lyrical theme in this album."
The Dusk In Us is available now via Epitaph/Deathwish Inc.
(Photo: David Robinson)