Interview: Justin Smith (Graf Orlock, Ghostlimb)
Blow The Scene is excited to present a new interview with guitarist/vocalist Justin Smith of LA’s Graf Orlock and Ghostlimb. Smith also heads underground label Vitriol Records while maintaining a position of Professor of History which lead LA Weekly to dub him “The Heavy Metal Professor” in its People 2013 issue. We touch base on all of Smith’s current projects as well as the daily trials of balancing such a large and diverse plate of endeavors.
Known and loved for pilfering sounds and concepts from Hollywood action flicks like Aliens and Point Break, the grinding, thrashing, hardcore enigma Graf Orlock advances to the next level on a new and third full-length Crime Traveler, basing the album on a film the band wrote themselves about a Canadian assassin who travels back in time to rewrite history in Canada’s favor. Adding to the awesome is Graf Orlock‘s tradition of insane art and design – Crime Traveler‘s layout takes the form of an actual newspaper, while past releases have come packaged in cardstock boomboxes, backpacks, and LPs featuring pop-up aliens.
Dead serious in comparison, Ghostlimb finds its inspiration in historical events and works of literature. New and fifth overall album Difficult Loves references Ancient Greece, California droughts, Italo Calvino, and Bertolt Brecht, over music that straddles the line between world-weary post-hardcore and full-throttle grind – “where Napalm Death and Hot Water Music meet,” as a recent headline on MetalSucks put it.
Without further ado, let’s hear from the Metal Prof in his own words..
BTS: Justin- You are known as an uniquely prolific member of the music community splitting your time between various musical endeavors including Graf Orlock, Ghostlimb, owner of Vitriol Records, and full-time Professor to name but a few. The stresses of time management immediately come to mind when I think about everything on your plate. How do you manage to organize your time in a way that allows you accomplish so much without loosing it in the process? What tools of the trade do you use to keep everything organized an on point? B/c apart from the quantity of the art you are involved with- It’s obvious the quality is a major factor.
Justin Smith: I would say the only way to do this stuff in any regard is to try to balance having some semblance of stability with being able to tour and play. We have always been limited by the school year, whether being students or working, so in many ways it limits the amount I can do down to a cumulative quarter of the year, not counting long weekends, etc. I think most things can work if you are willing to be a little insane and busy, but in a varied way, and willing to commit to things that don’t always have immediate payoffs. I am glad that the bands were never ones that toured for nine months a year, crashing after a year or two. The balance allows for some longevity, and also a chance to get away from each other before a crazed murder suicide plot develops. The label is an extension of being in a band. Even though there have been 20 bands or so I have released on the label, as long as you aim to be legit and fair, it works like a band should. Of course, that is not counting operating at a miserable deficit all the way through.
BTS: We’ve known engineer/producer Jack Shirley (Deafheaven, Beau Navire) for some time and love a lot of the recording work he’s involved with. What does the recording process look like for Ghostlimb vs Graf Orlock? Do you all track together live or break up the instrumentation? Metronome? Does each band (Graf & Ghostlimb) have a vastly different approach to recording apart from the obvious stylistic differences? And if you can expound on those differences in approaches please…
Justin Smith: Ghostlimb has recorded the last 4 releases with Jack, as far back as 2009. Gorlock has done a couple recordings with him, like Doombox in 2012, and the new Dangers release we also just recorded the week after the new Ghostlimb record. As far as it stands, recording live and all together is always the way to go. It is the most comfortable and will be the tightest, which feels more real (unless of course you are using studio magic). We have never recorded to a click or metronome and prefer to do it the good old fashioned way; live to tape. Gorlock is a little more difficult because there have really always been two of us recording most of the material, so the initial stuff is done live and together, and I go back to do the second guitar, bass, vocals (with Karl, the other singer), and samples. That one is more of an annoyance, I prefer doing it in one go because I generally hate recording, but Jack and I have a lot of experience recording together and it and works the way it should. He has progressed exponentially over the years and his recordings are killer.
BTS: Have your college students started to put together who you are and your involvement with the music community? I remember at Pitt we had specific Profs in the Jazz department everybody wanted to sign up for classes early. Are you seeing more students taking interest in your History courses b/c of you involvement in the music scene?
Justin Smith: Some kids that go to shows occasionally recognize me and you meet people over the years that have a preference for you for whatever godawful reason, but it is hard to say. I assume most of the students are not exposed to hardcore unless they outwardly appear that way, which I guess is kind of crappy on my part, but it is surprising sometimes. It is awesome when people can see that they (teaching and playing music) are not such different lives but rather different approaches to discussing ideas. This is particular in the case of Ghostlimb which is history-heavy, but also in the case of Gorlock where the medium itself and the appropriation of movies IS the message. I tend to keep these things on the down low but I think it is a useful entrance into discussions about totally unrelated ideas and contrary to reason, it seems people trust you more if in your free time you scream a lot and punch people. Still working out the logic on this one.
BTS: How important do you view touring as part of the release cycle for not only your bands but the bands on your label roster?
Justin Smith: I think touring is always important, even if you do it in short spurts hitting different locales more methodically. This has seemed to work for a while, although I would like to get out more than we do with both of the bands. Lately my other band Dangers has been doing the majority of the touring, but with these two new releases that will shift back in the direction of Gorlock and Ghostlimb. It is important because often times recordings don’t convey the immediacy of what you are doing in any way close to what a live set would. For the label, the more people that see a band play and get into them, the more they will want to pick up their record. This makes sense, but as you know life usually gets in the way of a clear schedule of four people for any substantial length of time. That being said, as long as we can get out a couple of times a year I am generally (marginally) happy.
BTS: Vitriol Records has something of a niche set of bands that have released material over the last several years, a few favorites that come to mind are Owen Hart and Comadre. What do you look for in prospective artists you want to work or that want to work with you on the label end?
Justin Smith: For the most part it is people that we have spent time with or have been friends with for a while. This makes things easier in terms of communication, but also more difficult if you’re talking about being a “business” asshole person. Only a few times in 45 releases or so have the bands been people I did not have a relationship with before. I like to try to make it eclectic which is a function of being around and in contact with people hopefully doing different and interesting non-garbage can projects. In a lot of ways it begins more with the relationship than the records, although I like to think a lot of the releases rip. I think the trajectory of the label is also an attempt to record the things going on in varied scenes around the world that aren’t getting much coverage in other places, particularly the U.S. This is probably why a lot of the releases that are not directly related to our own bands tend to be bands from outside of the U.S.
BTS: What do you consider the most import vehicle for getting your music out to mass audience? Being that you own and operate a label in addition to the several bands you play in- I assume hands on music promotion is something you have a lot of experience with?
Justin Smith: That is the best way, but shows seem to be changing. It seems like scenes ebb and flow naturally but it will always be a good way to connect with people. Of course the elephant in the room is the internet which is insanely useful but also in some ways flooded everything with white noise. I’m not saying our bands are good, per se, but that there are a lot of bands out there being pushed online that are definitely not good. That is the nature of the beast, and I am not going to agree with or be into everything, but the accessibility that has made it possible to tour the world as a DIY band also made it possible to be drowned out by a billion facebook basement bands. Talking to people and responding to their questions seem to be the most direct form of communication and if you can tour and get out there, you will be able to get in front of and talk to a lot of them that may or may not care.
BTS: In an ideal world- Where would you like to see your current musical projects and endeavors in 10 years?
Justin Smith: If i’m not looking at the inside of a coffin at that point, i don’t know, it is hard to say. I am not sure a lot of people have asked the quintessential question of whether any hardcore band should be around that long. What will there be to offer in a decade to an entirely new slew of bands that see you as a footnote to a lesser crappy novel? In posterity, I would want people to see our bands and the label as something that pushed forward on its own and allowed us to do the things we wanted to in ways that we believed in, without becoming whining assholes crying into someone else’s teary bible, but that’s just me.
BTS: While Graf Orlock sees a primary lyric base around Hollywood movies, Ghostlimb has a much deeper take on lyrics touching on socio-political issues. As we close out 2015 what are some sociological and/or political happenings that have your attention and/or support?
Justin Smith: This is a weighty question. There are so many divisive issues going on right now not even counting the oncoming election. I try to pay a lot of attention to foreign policy and what is going on right now in central Asia, but our current political system in this country is an abject shitshow. With the new Ghostlimb record the issues that come up are water politics (an eternal California problem), labor issues and organization, and the mess left in the wake of the Cold War. I think the important part is to try (not always successfully I might add), to integrate larger political or social issues with a personal perspective. Why would spouting some party-line rhetoric over music go any further than a sing along? The stuff that really got to me when I was younger were the ideas presented through the lens of personal experience, a single line could change the entire feeling from dogmatism to expressionism. That is the conflict and the test in writing, to try to do that in a way that makes sense but is also not giving away too much, not too direct. This time around I tried to go from the idea of catching a feeling of sorts, while expressing those problems that we feel need to be addressed enough to haphazardly place them over music.
BTS: What should fans of Vitriol Records expect in 2016? Are you adding any new endeavors to your plate for 2016 or more so trying to hone in on everything currently in the works?
Justin Smith: Working on a couple of new releases and planning to do some work with people outside of our normal sphere. I am excited to keep going and push into new directions. With the bands we are pushing to hit Europe and the east coast in some permutation and I am stoked to see where these two new releases will go. Thanks for the time.