Interview: Self Defense Family

NYC based post-hardcore group discuss their acclaimed new LP Heaven Is Earth

Interview: Self Defense Family It’s hard to capture in words exactly what it feels like when a new record strikes from out of the blue, in that just the right way. There are literally dozens of synonyms for ecstasy but after listening (repeatedly) to Heaven Is Earth from Self Defense Family, I have auditioned each as a description of the sensation in my gut and none seem to fit though. They all seemed utterly pale.

I reviewed the record a couple of weeks ago. Usually that’s the end of the journey. Rare are the review copies that make regular rotation. This is a sad fact of life right now. Then Heaven Is Earth cropped up again though. And again. I played it in the car, in the backyard, and in the living room. Addiction led to compulsion to explore the staggeringly prolific band, their sound, their genesis and future a little further. A record so bleak, so desperate and yet undeniably catchy deserves infinite looks, right?

I had a chance to ask Self Defense Family member Benjamin Tate a few questions about what makes this record tick.

Bearded: Explain the name, Self-Defense Family:

Benjamin: Well, for starters, it is a much better name than End of a Year. The "family" part of the name made sense as it was changed at the same time as all the peripheral members were incorporated into the group and the band structure became more fluid. The Self Defense Family is actually the name of a prison gang, but that wasn't a primary factor. We will likely change it again in the next year or so.

On Heaven Is Earth I detect countless influences, Television, PIL, David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Joy Division, et al.... Talk about who you guys love listening to, and what found its way onto the album.

I think one of the things that makes our band fun is that we all have fairly different palettes and relatively few common reference points. I think we decided that Tom Petty, Hatebreed, The Clash, and the Grateful Dead were the only acts we all agreed upon.

Your ears are correct though. There is definitely a lot of post-punk influence in Heaven is Earth. I had been spending an awful lot of time with Magazine, Wire, and Television (always, really) leading up to recording. A few of us were vibing Killing Joke and Modern English as well. As it was a summer time recording, our normal band mode is to only listen to reggae while driving. Despite all having an interest in reggae, this record is the first time that influence has made it into the songs. Alan's bass line in the opening track lends the song a bit of a dub feel. I suppose we have Phyllis Dillon, Burning Spear, and Hugh Mundell to thank for that.

This is a hard record to pin down. Did you have any trepidation at all about going all in on an album that is so hard to classify?

Nope. Honestly, this feels like one of our more cohesive works to me. This LP will be one of probably seven releases this year that all have a pretty different feel. I think that is one of the benefits of releasing a wild amount of material is that each new release doesn't necessarily have to redefine our sound. Also, although probably not the best for sales figures, if someone is going to dislike this album because it is hard to fit into a genre label then we will happily extricate that listener from our fan base.

Some might call this a bleak record. What would you call it?

Bleak works. I would also accept "depressing", "painful", or "a total bummer."

Going into a studio with a batch of new material, how much control do you have over the overall feeling?

It is not often our way to go into a studio with new material. Rather, the content is written in studio. This started more out of necessity as we all live in different cities (and even countries) but has evolved into being a core part of our "songwriting" mode.

This batch was actually given the most pre-writing we have done in years. That translated into two four-hour sessions in Mary's basement practice space in Philly, without a drummer, on the night before we recorded to come up with song outlines.

The overall feeling is sort of dictated by the studio, the engineer, and what is going on in Patrick's personal life at the time. All four engineers were amazing so I guess upon further consideration the answer is "none" seeing as the songs still turned out, as you described them, "bleak."

I’m going to say that “Basic Skills” is basically my new favorite song, ever. Tell me specifically about that track, where the inspiration came from, and your process in making it.

This was actually the first song we recorded for the record. “God City” was day one of the four-day recording pilgrimage and we thought it would be easiest to start with the song that seemed like it needed the least work from its inception (in the basement the night before). I borrowed the weird open C tuning that made my riffs possible from a later Sonic Youth record. The stringed instruments were the most concrete on that one going in so it became the song we jammed out while Kurt got sounds from us. We try to do just about all of our recording live. Kurt did a masterful job of getting us to sound crisp and clear despite drums, guitar, and bass all being recorded together in a small room. This is maybe one of my favorite lyrical performances we have ever gotten out of Patrick. Truthfully, I was getting Indian food with Tre from Deathwish while he recorded the vocals.

There is such lyrical menace underneath the whole album. How do you pen the words to your songs?

Patrick loves a challenge. He has definitely embraced our day-of recording style. Though we did have rough recordings of song ideas, he didn't hear any of the songs until we were tracking them. His normal style is to sit on the couch behind the engineer as we are tracking while engaging in some combination of petting dogs, lurking on Instagram, asking the engineer distracting personal questions, reading comic book nerd infighting, and baiting his current and former partners into text arguments. Somehow as we finish tracking a song he just has lyrics for the songs. I have stopped questioning it.

Upon finishing the tracking for the songs, we usually break for food with the engineer and then the next few hours are spent watching Patrick bouncing mostly/all the way naked in front of a music stand that holds up his laptop in the live room, weirdly barking into a microphone.

The lyrical content of our band is often based on the current happenings in his personal and romantic life. The last few years have been trying on him and we have definitely reaped the benefits. The rest of us have all felt conflicted at times for acknowledging that our band's lyrics are better when Patrick is in a bad mental state.

What comes next for Self-Defense Family?

Touring wise we will be headed to Australia at the end of August, then the west coast of America in December. Like I mentioned before, there are probably five more EP releases scheduled for the second half of this year and we are talking about doing another LP this fall.

Heaven Is Earth is out now through Deathwish Inc