Interview: Jeremy ChatelainPosted 05/30/2011 02:17PM by Decoy Staff as Interview
Jeremy Chatelain is something of a cult hero in hardcore/post-harcore/indie circles because who else played in seminal bands like Helmet, Iceburn and Jets To Brazil? What made him an even more prized interviewee for Attila Timár was that he provided the haunting vocals and lyrics to one of the most memorable post-hardcore records ever made by a certain band called Handsome. Find out what it was like working with Page Hamilton and Terry Date and why the Handsome record was an entire life experience for Jeremy.
Let’s start with a few questions about your beginnings as a musician. You played guitar in Salt Lake City’s hardcore straight edge band Insight. Was it your first band? How did you start playing music? What were your first inspirations?
I really started playing music after a few failed piano lessons. Somehow I convinced my parents to buy me an electric guitar after I gave up on the piano. Once I had a guitar and a few lessons under my belt, I started a band with the other punks from my neighborhood.
My first band was called “Past Tense”. We were a group of 14 and 15 year-olds trying to emulate 1980’s punk rock and Dischord bands. It was a fantastic time and sparked my interest to play in a band. As Past Tense began to burn out and interests within the band changed, me and Mark (the singer of Past Tense and Insight) conceived a new band and found some talented people who shared our musical tastes. In 1987, Insight was born! We were the first straight-edge hardcore band in Utah.
Coming up was Iceburn, was it your next band? You provided vocals in this alt. jazzcore-post-hardcore band, so I am wondering what kind of vocals these were?
Insight broke up due to conflict in the band and 4 of us left to form Iceburn. We wanted a fresh, heavy and dark sounding band. I think we were all beginning to be more deeply interested in music at that point. I was trying to actually add melody and sing in the band. I thought that a major problem with hardcore bands at the time was bad singers, and I wanted to remedy that with Iceburn. I sang on the first 7” that was released on Victory in 1990. I quit the band before their first full-length release was unleashed on the world.
What made you leave Iceburn?
I left Iceburn to travel and pursue college. Everybody in the band was really young and headed in all kinds of different musical directions, as we were 19 and 20 years old. College and careers were starting to happen for all of us. This was around 1990.
When did you leave Salt Lake City and how was Handsome formed?
I left Salt Lake City in October of 1994. I had been touring as a roadie with Into Another from New York City and made up my mind that I wanted to move to the city. I heard rumors of a band called Handsome that needed a singer. I arrived in Brooklyn and got settled into a job and apartment. It was 2 months later that I met the legendary Pete Hines, Cro-Mags / Murphy’s Law drummer, at a party. He told me first hand about Handsome and their plight of spoiled singers. I went to an audition with the band and I got the gig. We started working right away. That band had a wicked work ethic.
Were you actually friends with the other band members (Tom Capone guitarist, ex-Quicksand; Pete Mengede guitarist, ex-Helmet; Eddie Nappi bassist and Pete Hines drummer)? How did you get the record deal with Epic?
I didn’t know anyone in the band before I joined. After we had played a few shows around the city, Peter Mengede told me that he thought we’d get signed before the year was up (1995). We worked really hard on a collection of songs, played a lot of shows, schmoozed with a lot of industry types, and sure enough, we were signed in the fall of 1995. The record deal was actually signed in the back room of CBGB.
To me, the Handsome record is the best post-hardcore record ever made. I think what really made the difference was that compared to (especially with early) Quicksand focusing more on a unique atmosphere, Handsome wrote real songs while also creating a very powerful atmosphere, and compared to Helmet, Handsome had a real singer who could deliver more memorable vocal lines than Page Hamilton.
That’s cool, thanks! We worked hard to include interesting melody and arrangement in the songs. It was really a group effort, which was difficult at times, but seemed to work for us as we were developing our own sound. I think we were an amalgam of a few different styles that were around at that time. Eddie Nappi (bassist) used to say that his dream band would sound like The Beatles meets The Bad Brains. We were, in some strange way, trying to achieve that. The Handsome record really reminds me of New York City in 1995.
Who were the main songwriters in Handsome? How did the creative process go?
We all contributed musical ideas. I wrote the lyrics. Peter, Tom or Eddie would bring riffs to rehearsal and we’d hash them out all together. Each member of the group added their touch to the mix.
Did you have all the songs before going to the studio?
Yeah we did. We had rehearsed those songs for a year before we recorded the album. When we were in the studio there were a few minor changes that were made by Terry and the band, but we were really tight and ready before we went in.
How was it working with Terry Date? Was he Epic’s choice or your idea? Did you like any of the records he had been working on?
Terry was great, though he was pretty burned out when he came to work with us as he had been tracking a Pantera record in Texas for 2 months immediately before we met up. He had some interesting vocal techniques in the studio (he let me hold the mic and run around the room while we were recording), and he was a great and supportive coach through the process, which was great for me in particular as I was pretty green. Epic, Michael Goldstone (our A&R guy) and the band decided on Terry together. We were all fans of The Deftones, Soundgarden and Fishbone, so it was a pretty easy choice.
Which songs stood out as particularly strong ones to you?
I always liked “Ride Down”, “Quiet Liar” and “Going To Panic”.
To me, "Quiet Liar" is probably the highlight of the record: it starts like the most moving song that R.E.M. had never written and then it takes the listener to the absolute heights of painful self-reflection. Still, it does not come across as depressing, more like strengthening, and similarly to the whole record, it sounds like part of a healing process.
Thanks! Looking back, it seems like I was writing about moving away from Utah and all of the confusion that followed. The song really builds into a great heavy crescendo, which always felt really cool to sing and play live.
Were you satisfied with the record? What were your expectations for it?
I’m proud of it. It’s interesting to look back on that record as it’s not only music to me but also an entire life experience. The Handsome record was hard to make, the band had a lot of disagreements over the process, and my vocal parts were under a lot of scrutiny. I remember feeling pretty isolated from the rest of the guys while we were at the studio. All of this stuff shows up in the music in different ways. It’s a pretty heavy vibe.
Is it true that Epic tried to market it in a mistaken way, by highlighting your punk-hardcore roots?
The label took the whole ex-band marketing thing to new heights. We were marketed like a hardcore super-group. I think we felt a little like we didn’t have an identity at the time, like we were just ex-members of these other bands. At the time hardcore was not as big as it is today, so those bands (besides Helmet) were not enough to boost our career. And then our management and label sent the band on a bunch of tours that I felt were really wrong for us. They started to panic about record sales really early in the process and consequently there were a lot of bad last minute decisions made for us. The experience started to spoil pretty quickly.
You made one clip for "Needles". Do you consider it a successful attempt to show Handsome’s world? Was it given fair airplay on MTV and if not, how come the record company person responsible for this is still alive? [Laughs]
I think the video represented some aspect of our band. We were all into the gritty black and white look of New York City. The video was written and produced by Ken Schles who also shot the photos on the record cover. I think it aired on M2 a few times. I’m not sure what the deal was; I wasn’t really in touch with the marketing department at Epic. But, no, nothing big came from the video.
I have read there were some b-sides ("Closer" and "Spill"), on what were they released?
There’s a European double-disc version of the CD. The second CD contains the songs “Closer” and “Spill”. I never knew it existed until my friend Matt from Italy gave me the CD while I was on a Jets To Brazil tour. It was surprising as I don’t remember giving the label permission to release those songs, and I had never seen that version of the CD while I was in the band.
How were the tours going, what did you think of your touring partners?
Some of the tours were great and some were hellish! I’m not sure why we toured with The Descendents and Guttermouth. Their crowd really disliked us. But our tours with Silverchair and the Deftones were amazing. Those crowds responded to our music. We also toured with Corrosion of Conformity, Mercury Rev, Orange 9mm and The Unsane.
Can you recall the point when you actually got convinced that Handsome was not going to work out?
I was in Europe with the band and I was spending most of my days alone walking around and thinking about our situation. Our processes seemed to be getting less creative, we weren’t getting along, we were confused and burnt out, the label didn’t quite understand who we were as a band and I had heard that they were going to take away our living stipend if we didn’t start writing another record. Our record had not even been out for a year at that point. I was really disappointed and needed a musical change.
You must be aware that Handsome has a cult following in the post-hardcore scene. Can you see any chance for a reunion sometime?
I’d be up for it! I’m not sure it would ever happen. I haven’t spoken to a few of those guys since we were in the band together. Peter lives in Australia! Pete and I live in the same city, and I see him quite often. We like to talk about the band sometimes. It was a great bonding experience. It was short lived for sure.
JETS TO BRAZIL
So what made you give up the mic and grab a bass guitar to play in Jets to Brazil?
My girlfriend at the time was living in Brooklyn with a friend of Blake’s. We all went to lunch together and talked about our band situations and made a really casual plan to get together and play some music. Blake had been writing quite a bit and I offered to play bass on the songs. I love playing bass.
Was it your most successful band commercially?
I think so, yes. We experienced success on our own terms. We were able to release records on an independent label and make enough to survive without having other jobs. It felt really honest and real to me.
Jets to Brazil was basically Blake Schwarzenbach’s offspring, right? To what extent could you get involved in the creative process?
Blake wrote the songs and the band (which was only me and Chris Daly at the time) would arrange them. We were all writing parts for our own instruments and really work-shopping the songs for a year before recording anything. At one point I wanted to write a Jets song and the band was gracious enough to let me try it out for a few practices. It didn’t fly. It certainly didn’t sound like a Jets To Brazil song. I think that’s when Cub Country was officially born.
What were the reasons for your breakup?
I moved to North Carolina, Brian moved to Texas and Chris had quit the band. We had stopped talking about our interpersonal band relationships and everyone was feeling overly sensitive about the band. I think it had run its course. We really just disbanded with a whimper and stopped communicating with one another. It was a strange end to such a successful and fun project. It wasn’t until much later that I actually discussed the whole thing with Blake.
You also got to play with the musician who is often considered as the “godfather” of the post-hardcore scene. You played on tours with Helmet, two times. Was it just a job for you, or do you consider this experience as something which is a part of your artistic career?
It’s definitely part of my artistic career. I was really proud to be asked to play bass in Helmet and actually pass the audition. I played with the band for just under 2 years. The line-up that I played with was Johnny Tempesta, Chris Traynor and of course, Page Hamilton. They were really tight musically. It was a fantastic learning experience for me.
Did you stick to Henry Bogdan’s bass lines or did Page Hamilton allow you to stray away a bit sometimes?
I pretty much stuck to the bass lines that were written. Henry was a perfect bassist for that band, I never met him, but I hear he’s a cool guy. They were not too strict about what I was doing, but I thought that the records sounded great as they were and I wanted it to sound like classic Helmet.
What kind of person is Page Hamilton in reality? Is he really the down-to-earth person who seems to come through in interviews or is he more like musical dictator of the band? [Laughs]
He’s a really down-to-earth dictator. How’s that for an answer? He calls the shots, because he IS Helmet. He’s a great, charming and really fun guy to be around. Though, at the time, Chris Traynor was my day-to-day contact on all the songs and tours. Chris is a close friend of mine and a huge musical influence for me as well.
To me, your latest band Cub Country’s music sounds like mellow, delicate sunset music.
I’ve been told it’s the best road trip music. I like that description.
So is it the first band in your life that is really your “child”?
Yeah, it’s all mine. I’ve had a lot of really great collaborators in the last 10 years, but in the end, Cub Country is basically me. I’ve been working on the Cub Country family tree to illustrate everyone that’s been involved in the band and their inter-band connections. It’s a crazy graph. I’ll post it online someday.
You also played with Cache Tolman of Rival Schools? What do you think of the new Rival Schools record?
I’ve known Cache since he was about 12 years old. He’s from Utah as well. I haven’t heard the new Rival Schools record, but the last one was great. I’m a fan of all of those guys and their music.
Did you follow the post-hardcore scene after Handsome? I mean bands like Glassjaw, At the Drive-in, Rival Schools… If yes, what did you think of these?
Not really. I became interested in more of the post rock from Chicago like Tortoise and The Sea and Cake. I also really got into classic rock and country-rock like Neil Young and Wilco. The Kinks are also one of my all-time favorite bands.
If a fire started in your house, which five records would you rescue first?
That’s a tough question. The Misfits Box Set, The Harry Nilsson Collection, The Fleet Foxes “Helplessness Blues”, Neil Young “On The Beach” and Junip “Fields”. Oooooooh maybe Zeppelin or the Beatles too? How’s that? Let’s hope there’s no fire because I’ll get burned trying to rescue records.
Any final thoughts for the readers of Decoy Music?
Thanks for your support! Music is life!
You can get a taste of Cub Country at http://www.myspace.com/cubcountry Unfortunately, Handsome has only a basically defunct myspace page, however, you can listen to 3 of their fantastic songs there, so check it out: http://www.myspace.com/handsometheband