BALACLAVA’S CINDERELLA STORY
The first time I saw Balaclava was at Nara Sushi. I was there to see someone else, and didn’t know Balaclava at all. I distinctly remember my first impression of them: “Holy balls, these guys listen to a lot of Isis!” That was probably 5 years ago.
In the intervening years they have gotten tighter, more brutal, and all-around better, and now, all of a sudden, their latest record (and very first official full-length) has been released as a CD on Southern Lord Records, as well as on vinyl from Forcefield/Cosmic Debris. Southern Lord is a very well-known label from Los Angeles, responsible for releases from The Accused, Black Breath, Weedeater and Wolves in the Throne Room, among many others. I’ll come right out and say it: a lot of other local bands are jealous.
Richmond is teeming with tight, brutal, amazing metal and hardcore bands. Most of them enjoy a few blistering years of house shows and a few self-released CDs before dashing themselves to bits on the shoals of chronic alcoholism, graduating and moving away, or getting married and settling down. So far, Balaclava haven’t succumbed to any of that, but still–why them? There is no larger-than-life Tony Foresta/Dave Brockie-like frontman anywhere in sight. They’re not strongly connected with the rest of RVA’s so-called rock “royalty.” They don’t tour much, and there’s not an ounce of relentless self-promotion in the band. I had to get to the bottom of this seeming Cinderella story.
Thanks to allergies (don’t ask; long story), my video of the interview has mysteriously disappeared, so since I only have the audio recording, I no longer know who said what. But the story goes like this. The four members (Pete Rozsa on bass and vocals, Dan Finn on guitar and vocals, Dan Sanchez on guitar and vocals, all from NOVA, and Joe Dillon from Florida on drums) have been together in one way or another since 2005, after basically growing up together, “if not in the same band, then playing next to each other at shows and such, since we were all like 13, 14.”
“We decided to record a full-length, having only played a handful of shows at that point,” they told me. “We put it out as a CD, and then took a couple songs from that and put them on a tape, and that all came out around .” The Shame EP came out in 2009 on Forcefield. That was their last release until their brand new album, which was recorded by Tim Gault, of Hampton Roads band Moutheater, at Double-0 studio in Hampton. The whole studio is built inside of a storage unit, outside of town and away from prying neighbors and cops. “We actually recorded the album in two different parts; the first half of it we recorded about a year ago,” they explained. “And then when we finished writing some other things that made sense to go along with it, we went back and recorded the other half of it.” “[Tim] did a lot of work to make them sound similar.”
“You guys have matured quite a lot,” I tell them, harking back to the first time I saw them. “And then lately you are really developing a whole new brutality. Is this a deliberate thing? Is there a 5-year plan, musically?”
“No, I think we just have a mishmash of influences that have taken a different shape and form as we’ve gone along. All of us kind of share in the songwriting, so we never really know what we’re gonna get, but at the end of the day every song we write still sounds like a Balaclava song. I really like the songs that are on this record, and I think it’s more of our own take on whatever it is that’s influencing us, so it’s probably a little less transparent.”
In my role as WRIR spokesperson I have to ask about the radio-friendliness of the new material, and everyone with small children will be relieved to know there is only one instance of the word “shit” on the album. “Not that I think anybody would be able to understand it anyway [laughs].” Seriously, though, when you are writing songs, do you ever consider whether it can get played on the radio? “That has never even occurred to us,” they unanimously agree. “Usually when I’m writing, the most I’m thinking about is ‘Oh, god, I have to get this done in a week, because we’re recording.”
So just what is the story behind them getting signed to this very respected label? It sounds like the metal version of being “discovered” by a Hollywood talent scout while pulling sodas at the local malt shoppe! “Um, yeah, we just got an e-mail from Greg [Anderson, Southern Lord owner and former guitarist in Sunn O))) and Goatsnake, among others] saying he’d listened to ‘This City’ on MySpace. Apparently, he was buying records from Robotic Empire [formerly RVA-based label] and the page had the little ‘If you like this’ bar with a link to [the Shame EP]. He asked, ‘Is [‘This City’] on your 7 inch?’ And I said no, that we were putting it out [on vinyl only] on Cosmic Debris/Forcefield in a couple of months. ‘Here’s the [mp3], though, and the rest of them because I think it’s awesome that you found us.’ Two nights later he emailed us and said, ‘The songs you sent are fucking awesome, do you want to get on the phone?'”
The CD is out now in a limited release of one thousand. “What [Anderson] wanted to do was branch out a little bit, put out some stuff from lesser-known bands and catering more to punk and hardcore. He’s been putting out limited runs of CDs from several bands recently. We kind of fit into that role. He was saying he’s personally more excited about music now than he has been since he was 17 or 18 and trading tapes. He’s gotten really into how the internet is facilitating music. We were one of the beneficiaries of that.”
Did you know who Southern Lord was before you heard from Greg? “Yeah, I had just woken up and was reading the email. Then I scrolled down, and it said Greg Anderson of Southern Lord Recordings, and I was like ‘What the fuck! [laughs] Is that REAL?!’ I was pretty confident it was [Human Smoke bassist] Will Glavin pulling a prank. I kept making him send me more and more evidence.” But here it is, the CD really exists, and so obviously this is legit! “Unless Will got REALLY elaborate!” [laughter] “It’s just bizarre… you’re able to pre-order the CD on Amazon and stuff.”
How does their original label boss, Tim Harwich, feel about it? “He’s excited about it!” “He’s super-stoked.” Tim Harwich, by the way, is just the most awesome dude. Purely dedicated to his label, he works his crappy day jobs at pizza and burger places around town. “Yeah, I got a free burger from him the other day.” “That’s the definition of success!” [laughter]
In spite of not having played millions of shows, they do have a handful of fun gig stories, such as the All-Star show at the [now-defunct house show venue] Bone Zone. “JK [Kassalow, local soundman/Caves Caverns guitarist] ended up recording that, and I remember at the time thinking ‘Aw, man, this is so awesome,’ but then going back to listen to the recording, as the set went on we got more and more out of tune.” [laughter] “It was so hot,” says Pete. “I couldn’t see ANYthing and I was getting electrocuted the whole time. There was sweat burning my eyes, and by the end of it we were all half-naked, soaking wet. Somebody had a cooler with beers and had ice in it–we were dunking our heads in just to stay alive.” That night they got some guitars stolen. From the Bone Zone?! “Well, we got drunk and left them on top of a car. My bad.”
“I think the most fun shows we ever do are in some weird city where we didn’t think it was going to be very good at all and all of a sudden a bunch of kids came out.” “Chicago was probably my favorite show. There’s this kind of Hispanic punk house where I think it was rare that, us not being native Spanish-speakers, our band got to play, but we got a show set up.” “It’s because [Dan’s] last name is Sanchez,” I said jokingly. “That’s exactly what it was! We got out of the van, and they said ‘Which one of you is Sanchez?’ We got there and they told us we were going to play last, which, coming from Richmond we thought was a terrible idea. Here, if you have the out-of-town guys play last, everybody’s gone. But they said, ‘No, don’t worry about it, it’ll be fine.’ It turned out to be that house’s last show and it was great. We don’t usually get kids moshing and slamdancing and stuff, but they were going nuts. It was packed and people were crowdsurfing. I broke my amp that night. I was headbanging and I bashed the back of my head on my input jack. Luckily it was the last 30 seconds of our last song.”
As far as touring, though, Balaclava aren’t all that seasoned yet. “That was last summer, and it was our first legitimate tour. We were out for about 3 weeks. In comparison to a lot of bands, we probably don’t spend that much time on the road. We purchased a van a year and a half ago, finally. We tend to do just little trips here and there. We’d like to make it to the West Coast.”
So how do they define success? “I’ve tried to keep my expectations modest from the beginning. As long as I could look back and say we had a good body of music that I was proud of, and say that we had some fun times, met some interesting people and played some cool shows, that’s enough for me,” says Dan. Wise beyond their years, these kids are.
Before the interview, I asked on Facebook if anyone had any questions for Balaclava. Someone jokingly suggested that I ask about the Southeast Asian futures market, and, amusingly, that’s the one question that gets a response out of the previously silent drummer. “Well, we need to figure out what China’s going to do with the Yuan before we assess how the market’s going to be. Also the dollar needs to stabilize,” Joe says, prompting uproarious laughter from everyone. Somebody mutters “universal currency.” They tried that with the Euro; it’s not working out so well. “That’s because Greece and Spain don’t wanna be responsible. They refuse to enforce their own tax laws. Either tax or [don’t] tax, but you need to enforce it, because your budget [is] based on expected tax revenue. They can’t do that, because they don’t collect them!” Anecdotally, I can confirm this–I was in Greece on tour and everybody hated the government. Nobody wanted to pay taxes. When you went to get a sandwich or whatever, they would tell you verbally how much that sandwich was going to cost–say $5. Then they would make out a ticket for $2: the amount they told the government they were getting from you. Simple, but effective, and it went on everywhere.
But back to Richmond. Here I am, a (transplanted) Richmonder, writing at the behest of a magazine named RVA, about a Richmond band who….frankly, are not very enamoured of their home town! Pete muses, “First of all, we get received a lot better outside of Richmond than we do in Richmond, and secondly, outside of the United States we get received a lot better than inside the United States. Maybe the fact is that we’ve just played Richmond too much. We don’t really write new material that often.” “And we wanna play Richmond, so we just keep doing it. Maybe we’ve run our course here.”
This last statement is doubtful; a week or so after this interview I went to see Balaclava with Cough at Strange Matter. Cough had just returned from Australia, and Balaclava had just finished a mini-tour of the Northeast. The first thing I noticed, having not seen the band in a while, is that Dan Finn’s rig is way taller than he is; so far so good. The second thing I noticed was how insanely loud they were, and the third thing I noticed was that nobody left. In fact, they had a respectable cadre of headbangers right up front. Overall, it was a tour-de-force of chops, power and volume. Afterwards, I overheard a couple of people talking about how much they liked Balaclava’s set (and how insanely loud it was).
In light of people recently agitating for change, with Occupy Richmond and the Folk Festival and First Friday and whatnot, do Balaclava have any thoughts about local government, or how things could get better? “I think you need to somehow connect the things you were just saying. If you could somehow merge the art scene that does seem to be subsidized by the city, that they deem a cultural thing that attracts people from outside, with the more underground, I don’t wanna say DIY culture, but the type of music scene that C.A.P.S. is going after right now. If we could find some way to make those two things make sense together, the city [could] see that as an asset rather then a detriment.”
To wrap it up, what would you like the RVA readers to know about your band? “Come out and party with us! We’re into loud, heavy shit, and if you are too, we wanna have fun.”
Words by Greta Brinkman
Images by Fred Pessaro