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In Extremis

Cathartic Release: Divider Interviewed
Dean Brown , October 15th, 2014 12:44

The effects of Hurricane Sandy are imprinted deeply on the New York hardcore band's debut album All Barren, comprising songs written both before and after the storm struck their native Long Island. Their singer Chris Tzompanakis gives Dean Brown the backstory

You can't fake emotion in music - it either exists naturally or it doesn't. Divider's first album, All Barren, is a forceful example of a debut that is overflowing with dark emotions: anger, desperation, disgust among others. Created before and in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the raging superstorm that decimated parts of North America in 2012, All Barren summons the totality of pain experienced by its Long Island creators and unleashes it upon the listener through torrents of turbulent post-metal and hardcore.

Aside from the tangible suffering conveyed by the music, All Barren is concise, but dynamically so. There's great variation among the 11 tracks which span a tight 29 minutes, but in the same gasping breath, the music doesn't sacrifice cohesion. From the Isis-esque control of the elements on opener 'Crow Eater', the album moves between straight-for-the-throat D-beat hardcore on the title track, the blackness of the kind of mid-paced songs found on Converge's You Fail Me ('Poisoned Arrows'), and even belligerent noise-rock during 'Viscera'. Culminating with the album's finest moment, 'Silently Marching', Divider open their sound even further and display a keen songwriting prowess in the process. The track begins with a slow-burning section that sees guest singer Tym (ex-Daytrader) add further depth to the atmospheric instrumentation, before swelling to almighty crescendos, with frontman and ex-Skycamefalling vocalist Chris Tzompanakis roaring uncontrollably while caught in the eye of the storm. It's genuinely one of the most breathtaking and gripping recorded moments you'll hear this year.

The Quietus thought it would make sense to discuss the creation of what is a contender for best metal debut of 2014 with Tzompanakis, as well as his own personal experience of Hurricane Sandy.

How did you discover hardcore music?

Chris Tzompanakis: My earliest exposure to music was through my parents' records. My dad had a lot of vinyl so I grew up listening to Black Sabbath, The Beatles, Santana and so on. I also skated when I was younger so naturally I bought Thrasher magazine and watched skate videos, which featured a lot of bands I hadn't heard of. I then sought out those bands through mail order catalogues, local record stores and travelling to the city to purchase records. My first exposure was to bands like Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, Bad Brains, The Dead Milkmen and others, and later I started to hear about local shows happening in my area - in fact only a few towns over from where I grew up - so at age 15 or 16 I began telling my parents I was staying the night at someone's house and I would go to watch bands play at a local venue called The Angle.

That venue was where I first heard bands like Silent Majority, Yuppicide, Neglect, Mind Over Matter and many of the other early Long Island bands who inspired me to start playing music. There was an overwhelming sense of community when I attended shows back then, and I never really felt like I fit in at school where most kids were into sports and other activities. Going to shows and talking with people and listening to political and social conversations and debates that many bands discussed onstage was eye-opening for me. It was only a matter of time before I started playing music with friends. It's hard to believe that nearly 20 years later I'm still doing the same thing!

I was a fan of your former band Skycamefalling back in the day, but it felt as if you, like a lot of the bands around that time, never got your due or went on to fully fulfil your potential. Why do you think that was?

CT: Let me start by saying that Skycamefalling accomplished more than I ever could have imagined. The initial intention was to release a 7" and I would have been thrilled with just having done that! The fact that we were able to tour for so long, work with great labels and meet so many amazing people I never would have met otherwise is beyond what any of us expected. There were a lot of bands at the time playing similar music and by no means have we ever considered ourselves pioneers. We were certainly a product of bands that we all knew and loved and we wore those influences on our sleeves. Some of those bands signed to bigger labels and forged a bigger fan base, which was great considering many of those bands were our friends, so we were happy to see them doing well.

Toward the end it began to feel like a job and we had started to get so far away from why we started playing music together in the first place. We all sat down to discuss it one day and we realised that our hearts really were not in the right place and that somewhere along the line we began to lose our way. I attribute a lot of that to being on the road full-time and the need to have some income to eat, pay gas, etc. It mixed that business with something we loved and that took the fun out of it. We decided to end things there and a few other members wanted to continue playing, which ultimately became The Sleeping.

Many years later, the original line-up sat down together and began to discuss the idea of putting together one final show. That line-up never really ended the way we wanted to so it felt right to play one show together again. We practiced, played the reunion and received an offer to play with Harvest, which we could not pass up, so we played a few more shows.

The press release accompanying Divider's debut All Barren names you as "ex-Skycamefalling". Is that right?

CT: Skycamefalling only came together to play those reunion shows, two in 2010 and three in 2013. Originally we had planned to play a reunion show in 2009 but our guitarist injured his hand which forced us to delay the show to the following year. We briefly discussed the idea of writing and recording and we actually recorded the music to 10.21 again in its entirety, however the studio flooded with Hurricane Sandy and all the material was lost. Our interest had been waning because all of us were spread across various states, and once the recordings were gone, we decided it was best to simply leave things as they were.

You played in a couple of different groups before joining Divider in 2011. How did you come to meet the rest of the band?

CT: With the amount of Long Island bands being rather small in number, I had heard Divider's name being kicked around for some time. In 2010 I was at a show where the line-up was stacked with awesome bands and Divider was one of them. I was absolutely floored when they played and talked to their drummer Vic Mouradian after the set. A few months went by when Vic and I ran into each other at an Isis show and we kept in touch. A while later he texted me and asked me if I would be down with coming by a practice and trying out on vocals. I gave the instrumental demo he had sent a few listens and was hesitant to go because the material was not really in my comfort zone from a vocals perspective. After a few more weeks and talking it over with a few people, I decided to give it a shot and we took it from there. That line-up lasted for some time until we returned home from Europe and our bass player left the band, so it took a few months before we connected with Pete Gerontakos. Vic's schedule had been getting hectic with school and work so he recently decided to focus on that and we were lucky enough to replace him with drummer Kevin from Colony. As new members join it seems to add another layer to the band and continued to inspire other members both musically and personally, so in many ways change has been a continual driver.

Were you guys in the process of writing All Barren when Hurricane Sandy hit?

CT: Some of the material had been written just under a year before, while others songs were simply ideas and riffs at the time. We have actually written, recorded and thrown out more material than we've released, so in many ways songs are always there in one form or another just continuing to be broken down and rebuilt.

I heard that your home was completely destroyed by Hurricane Sandy - I'm very sorry to hear that. Can you tell us a bit about the time the storm hit and what it was like experiencing it as it happened?

CT: While many of our neighbours stayed, the mandatory evacuation of our island was enough for me to make the necessary preparations and head off somewhere safe. We evacuated to Connecticut to stay with family and while the storm didn't hit that area hard, we were watching the news and were kept up-to-date by friends who had stayed. That evening during the worst of it, we lost communication with our friends and neighbours and feared for the worst. Later that day I received a text from our neighbour stating that our entire block had been flooded by nearly six feet of water and that our home most likely was unable to withstand the force of the surge.

It took us several days to actually get back to our town and during that time the National Guard had been deployed to enforce a mandatory curfew to prevent some of the looting that had already begun to take place. You were denied entry to the island unless you had a proof of residence and once we were able to drive through the neighbourhood, you could see the utter devastation that the hurricane had caused. In many instances people's entire lives, from photo albums to furniture, were lying in front of their homes, on the curb for the trash.

Were your family and friends hurt?

CT: Fortunately our friends and my family were all okay. We lost a lot of belongings but the majority were things we could always repurchase. I consider us fortunate to be able to say that since many others lost much more than us. It's certainly been a long road and one that has had many ups and downs with lots of dealings with government agencies and insurance companies. The fact is that many organisations are more reactive when it comes to situations such as this and many agencies were only beginning to form months after the storm. No one could have prepared for the devastation that ultimately took place so there have been many months of hearing very little.

How did you cope in the aftermath, with rebuilding, etc.?

CT: The rebuilding process was a long one and one that required a lot of time and dedication. In the end, everything worked out for us but many of our neighbours are just beginning the process.

I've spoken to people who've survived natural disasters and they've told me that while you can rebuild houses and re-acquire material things, you never fully recover from the emotional impact of it.

CT: This is actually the second storm in two years that we have gone through, because we were also flooded by Hurricane Irene only nine months prior. At this point, I am just happy to have a place to call our own and to move forward. It's a situation that in many ways has made us stronger but in other ways it has pulled us apart. The stress and the attempts to balance our daily lives, and the fact that at times it never seemed like there was a light at the end of tunnel, has really weighed heavily on us.

How were the other guys in the band affected by Sandy?

CT: Anthony [Fusco, guitars] has family who are located on the same island as I live. Their business was also destroyed as well as damage to their home. All of us have friends who live close who were affected in some way.

It is clear to me from listening to All Barren that all of the shit you guys have gone through has gone into the music. I'm assuming it was a cathartic experience - a way to release all the emotional stress and grief?

CT: This band has always been an outlet for us, and in many ways it's the release from our daily lives. All of us bring that baggage to the table when it comes to the band. Given the situation and how close it hit home for me, writing was my way to escape. It was a way for me to look outside of it and capture the whirlwind of emotions that I felt during that time.

Since I heard your debut I've been comparing it to Celestial-era Isis and Cave In during Until Your Heart Stops in terms of its heaviness and style. Without taking anything away from the originality which exists in your music, would you agree with those comparisons?

CT: We have heard early Isis fairly often but the Cave In comparison would be a new one! I cannot speak for the other band members but many of the Hydra Head artists have had an impact on me, and artists of that ilk such as Isis, Converge, Coalesce, Amenra, Cult of Luna, Rosetta, and so on.

There are great displays of dynamism throughout All Barren.

CT: Anthony is the primary songwriter and we began writing material over the last two years. We had written numerous songs which were recorded and later scrapped, and many of those early ideas morphed into songs that were reworked for the record. Vocally we tried to focus on different elements besides my screams, such as mixing in some cleaner vocals to provide additional texture. While each song works cohesively, they all stand out on their own as being different in some way. That really only occurred to me recently when I went back and listened to the record, just how unique each song really is while still sounding like us.

For me, final track 'Silently Marching' is the clear highlight. The build-up is fantastic and there's plenty of 90s alt rock during the opening passages - Smashing Pumpkins even spring to mind - before it turns tumultuous and leads to this series of crescendos. It's definitely one of the best tracks I've heard this year. How was that song written?

CT: Funnily enough I always thought that song sounded like Smashing Pumpkins! We worked on that song through three different states with guest singer Tym being in Massachusetts, Anthony in New York and me, while I was living in Connecticut. There was little collaboration between Tym and myself, however; Anthony was really the mastermind in terms of pulling it all together. He had ideas on how it should all gel and I will admit that I struggled to see his vision early on. As the track started to take shape, the transition between Tym and myself really struck a chord. While the song is far different than anything else we've written in the past, it adds a distinct element and feel to the record.

Amongst the darkness and anger cast by the music and lyrics, All Barren still feels like a hopeful record.

CT: Absolutely. The truth is that even though this record deals with that personal loss, there was certainly something to gain by it. I don't look at the situation as such that I feel like I was dealt a bad hand or that people should feel bad for me. This situation is one that we went through and I learned from. I learned that I didn't need those material possessions to be happy and that I have a pretty good life all things considered. Many people lost much more than we did and we were able to help others as we were ahead in the process. The fact is there will always be something bad happening and it really all depends on how you handle it. I have been fortunate to be able to move on from that and look at the brighter side of things.

All Barren is out now via Glory Kid Records