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Ben Greenberg of Uniform: Interview

Uniform have just released their ferocious new long player, Shame. In the wake of the album being released, we had the chance to speak to guitarist and studio wizard, Ben Greenberg, amongst the tooting horns and reversing trucks of New York. We discuss many things including the new album, Woodstock, the value of music videos, working with Johann Johansson and who we should be listening to out of New York.

Uniform

How are you?

I’m exhausted! I’m just getting my shit together! I was mixing until 2/2,30am. I couldn’t sleep until like 5. But it’s always been worse!

The scene of our conversation; NYC, 10am, 18/9/20. Photo: Ben Greenberg

How is New York City today?

Today in New York, it’s breezy, getting chilly and it’s bright. It’s nice. I like it.

Shame is out there now, in the public domain. How does it feel when an album comes out into the world that you have created?

Relief. Some anticipation. A little stress. You hope it goes well. I’ve put out a lot of records at this point; I’ve seen it go a lot of different ways. You always hope that people will understand what you’re up to, what you’re putting down, where you’re coming from, especially. Also, that your music can be some sort of help. Obviously, it’s a little different than usual. Normally we’d be on the road doing all these physical things to make sure the release goes well. In the absence of being able to do that it feels pretty odd, I gotta say.

It’s impossible to ignore the circumstances of the world. A lot of bands have put albums back and deferred releases but there’s only so far that can go isn’t there? You just have to get on with it in the end right?

Absolutely. It’s probably the most important time to be releasing music. People who listen to music and need music use it as a source of comfort and peace. The listening audience needs music right now. So many people turn to music for comfort. If they’re sad, scared or in pain…that’s when the headphones go on you know?

Shame is seemingly a deeply personal album; it’s evident in the titles of the songs and the title of album itself. Do you feel you have to have those connections with the songs? Does it make it easier when you have that primal connection with the song?

Yeah, y’know; I think there needs to be a strong emotional grounding for music to work in the first place. I think that that is the primary function of music for humans. It’s a communal, emotional way of communicating. You can always tell when there is no substance in the music. Music that’s based in rock and rll at this point in history, there’s so much pastiche and there is so much posturing that post modern usage of imagery instead of sincere representation . It’s crazy to me that theres been an entire generation that’s been mostly raised on disingenuous rock music. I hope that this is something that changes. Music can save lives y’know?

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Ben Greenberg of Uniform

Defintely!

Life In Remission is a monster of a song. The intensity of the track and maelstrom of the closing section is really something. You must get a really cathartic kick out of making something like that?

Absolutely. That’s the kind of space you can get lost in. That’s always been our goal in the music that we create. We want it to be an overwhelming force.

It is overwhelming at times, but overwhelmingly good. It’s really something. I first came across Unifrom on your first split with The Body. It’s bludgeoning. It’s a different kind of emotion.

Absolutely. Some of us need a little more to get where we’re going! You know what I mean?!

The video to Life In Remission is also really something special. It’s very bleak and stark. The same can be said for Dispatches From The Gutter. How much of the visual vision comes from you guys?

Jacqueline Castels directed the Dispatches video. Andreas Cortez directed the Life In Remission video. They both just completely knocked it out the park. They both showed up all guns blazing. They totally got the music and where the band was coming from. The fundamentals of the imagery that they both brought to the table…y’know…Jacqueline brought fire and explosive imagery to the table which was exactly our point for how the record sounded to me when we were making it. Andreas brought this suffocating, drowning imagery to the table which is like the other half of it. You can get lost in fire and you can get lost in ice. It’s literally both halves of our sensory experience of the world and they both covered it with such energy and vigour. They’re both really impressive artists.

Visuals have always been important. MTV was huge in the 80’s and 90’s. In some ways, the visuals superseded the song to get noticed.

Yeah

Now with YouTube it’s just as vital for artists everywhere.

That’s a really good point. People have been making more and more and more videos for years now. Ever since ‘Internet 2.0’ there’s been this explosion of music videos and it’s all ironically happened at the same time MTV has stopped showing music videos! I was born in ’85 so grew up on MTV in every sense. Nirvana raised me. Nine Inch Nails raised me. All these music videos raised me. Even the live performances that they had on air too. Sharp and I (Mike Sharp – Uniform drummer) were talking the other day about Woodstock ’94 and about how formative that was. To witness that. I was 9 years old. I watched as much of it as I could on TV. My parents wouldn’t let me get the pay-per-view but I had the VHS of it afterwards. That made me want to be in a band.

Woodstock ’94 was Green Day with the mudslinging wasn’t it?

Yes! That was an epic set. Metallica played; they killed it. There were a bunch of really amazing performances that year. I mean there were some less than inspiring performances too…Jackal were first on! There was some amazing shit though. The production values and the eangles that they shot were incredible considering it was shot on the fly.

It’s great to get that immersion isn’t it? We have Glastonbury Festival which is broadcast on the BBC each year. For me, growing up, it was The Prodigy in 1997 that inspired me. The sheer punk ethic of it blew me away. To see that in the mainstream was special.

That band changed a lot for me too. The way they sound and look. They’re a band I continue to go back too over the years as well.

Listening to Shame and specifically opener, Delco; there is a little bit of Keith Flint in the vocals…it reminded me of that snarl he had…

Cool! They’ve always been big for me, but also Public Image Limited (PIL) has always been a touchstone for us since we started this band. We had a plan to add live drums and a bass player since we started and the way I had it in my head was like a later PIL thing. That was how I always heard it manifesting in my head but less fake-happy-cynical music and more like what it is harmonically, rhythmically and sonically. The way those drums feel.

Image Publique S.A.* - Paris Au Printemps (Paris In The Spring) (1980,  Vinyl) | Discogs
Public Image Limited – Paris In The Spring

There’s a live PIL record; Paris In The Spring it’s called. That one always stuck with me. When you make a live record you can’t hide. I mean you can; bands do it all the time…but in this case it was really raw. It was just the four of them and it’s full of freedom. They can really tell a story and bring people along with them. That was where I always hoped we’d get to as a band; almost like 80’s Miles Davis…the way it builds up feeling and having a voice above it that’s inscrutable, demanding and captivating.

How has it been recording with Mike Sharp for the first time as a member of the band?

It’s been amazing. He’s the best. It’s the first time we’ve really had a third band mate.

We added live drums on the last record with the amazing Greg Fox; we’re homies forever! We’ve known each other since we were like 13 years old going to CBGB’s together. He actually showed up last minute. It’s a long story. There was a SNAFU and Greg showed up on same day notice for a three day session. He just happened to be in town and he completely killed it. We went out to tour the record and he came to Europe with us but he’s just busy. He’s a drummer with a lot of bands. That’s his job! We knew he wouldn’t be able to permanently commit. He such a G for stepping in. Mike Sharp can’t always tour with us. Last time we were in Europe we brought Blaze Bateh from a band called Bambara; and whenever touring comes back…we’ll see.

But having Mike be writing with us like a proper third band member throwing ideas around from the beginning is great. He is the perfect person for us. He plays his ass off. He plays every instrument incredibly well. He’s one of those really frustrating people that is just good at everything…and has good taste! He’s the perfect bridge between Michael (Berdan –singer) and I. He’s a conossoiuer of horror films and certain types of literature. I’m more into action movies. Mike Sharp…likes both! That says a lot about who we all are as people.

He’s the perfect foil for you.

Exactly. He bridges the gap. Berdan and I have been doing this for about 6/7 years and we have our odd couple of moments. Sharp is the funniest person too. We’re really lucky that he’s down to do this for real. After we took Greg Fox on tour, we had this big US tour with Deafheaven and Drab Majesty planned but he couldn’t do it so we hit up Sharp. We were both familiar with him from Hatred Surge and Impalers. We met the day before the tour started and got together in a practise room in LA. We played the songs a couple of times and thought…thank god you’re…good!

He certainly is! Throughout Shame some of the beats are incredible. The mix of thrash, black and d-beat rhythms. The same could be said of your guitars. There are bits of sludge in there that evoke Crowbar, there’s thrash, there’s black metal riffs. There’s allsorts in there. Where does it all start when you record? Do you have a set plan or do youjust get in a room and let it come organically?

That’s it mainly. Mike Sharp lives in Austin, Texas. So we gather our main ideas on our own to see what comes out then we’ll share them. We’ll discuss how we hear each one and where we see it going. Then we headed to Austin in November 2019 and started throwing ideas at the wall. The music came together really quickly. We were down there for about 4 days and we put all of the songs together and then some in that time. Berdan began sharing the lyrical content and themes of the record with us at that point so that as the songs developed, we knew where they were headed.

You have the electronic element in there as well. Who is the architect behind that?

A lot of that comes from Berdan. He owns a lot of that gear! I deal with lots of different bands in my production duties. Mike Sharp makes a lot of solo music that’s synth based. We all have different points of entry to electronic music. The way we compliment each other is what you’re hearing. We all play to our strengths and come up with parts that we can agree on. When it’s a part im not playing, I try and approach it in a way that I do when I’m producing.

You have quite a credits list yourself haven’t you. On At The Barrier we’ve covered the latest Pharmakon record, and Black Marble. You’ve worked with Randall Dunn this time, who also has a massive credits list.

Randall is a total hero. He moved to New York a few years ago and we became close really quickly. We have a really similar approach.

You seem to have a lot in common.

We certainly do. We’re from different walks of life and there’s a bit of an age gap but I look up to him so much. His process is amazing. Watching him push faders…the fundamentals of engineering…its really amazing seeing what he can achieve just by balancing volume and EQ. That’s how it should be. It’s really old school truth. You ought to be able to get a mix together without overthinking it adnd overdoing it. It should be in the faders, in the tracks, in your hands y’know? We talk about it like it’s a time honoured tradtion, and it is…but most people don’t fuck with it like that. A lot of people are sitting in the box, staring at the laptop, getting notes back and forth from a band, tweaking plugins for days and days. Randall sticks it through the faders and makes it sound like an album, man! That’s an art. 

I guess that fits the raw aesthetic of the band perfectly?

It does, but it’s super relevant for other kinds of music. I’ve worked with Pharmakon as you said, and artists that are even more electronically based, and sample based, music that you think would shine in the box. But you achieve a level of humanity and life when using a mixing desk. People have lost sight of that because technology has made other ways of working available. Computers are useful for some things. Recording for sure. Capturing sound. Editing sound. Beyond that, I think they’re pretty bad at everything.

When working with a producer, and as a producer yourself, how do you find it relinquishing control to someone else?

Well Randall and I have worked together before.

So it’s quite an organic and easy process?

Absolutely.

I talk about this with other bands. There has to be a fundamental level of trust that’s mutually acknowledged and accepted and agreed upon. Without that, there’s kind of no point in getting in the room. There has to be that fundamental layer of, ‘I’m the shit, you’re the shit, we’re the shit together. Let me do my thing. You’re gonna do you’re thing. We’re gonna kill it together.’ That has to be agreed upon otherwise you’ll have people trying to do other people’s jobs and not staying in their lane.

Randall and I have worked togheter a couple of times before. We worked on a couple of Algiers albums and we worked on the score to the movie, Mandy. We’ve actually been in the studio a lot together, and travelled together. We have a sense of each other’s talents. What the go-to’s are and what the instincts are. We were already on the same page. I just hand it to him and go and lie down on the couch! I don’t think I gave him a single note on the whole record. That’s kind of the dream.

Listen To An Exclusive Preview Of The 'Mandy' Soundtrack, Composer Jóhann  Jóhannsson's Final Work
Mandy / Johann Johannsson

How was it working on the score to Mandy?

That was a fucking…that was…wow!

And working with Johann Johansson?

He was a true artist. Super committed. He had a deeply personal connection to his work. And he had his demons, as we all do. Unfortunately, sometimes the demons win. We’ve seen that a lot this year.

He really crossed divides with his work with people like Stephen O’Malley (of Sunn O)))

That was a part of his brilliance. I think that Randall deserves a lot of credit there. Not to speak ill of the dead, but the collaboration is more Randall and Johann collaborating. Panos (Cosmatos – Mandy writer and director) had sought Randall out because Sunn O))) is one of his favourite bands. Sunn O))) is also a huge inspiration on the film musically, but also visually; the costumes, the lighting and the fogged out look.

Working with Randall on that soundtrack was an incredible bonding experience because it was so challenging. It ended up being a shared trauma. We’d passed the previous Algiers album back and forth from a distance to try and save it because the label had forced the band to work with a producer that isn’t really a producer that was in a famous band to try and keep their shit going; the record go totally fucked. When we finally met, we were complimenting each other on the parts we’d worked on and how happy we were.  When we worked on the Mandy score, that experience was very hands on and very intense. Then co-producing the next Algiers record which was also a long extended and intense piece, there was a real bond. It felt natural at that point.

Back to relinquishing control…I’m not just the guy in the band who owns Pro-Tools. There’s always someone that owns Pro-Tools. They’re always the people that have the most mix notes, and asks the most questions, but I actively work in recording studios as an engineer and producer so I’m a bit of a control freak. It took me many years to get comfortable with passing over control. In the same way that I knew we’d end up with a live drummer, I knew I’d end up having to hand off certain parts of the recording process. I kind of knew it would be Randall anyway before it the plan was put into place, but it was a huge load off my shoulders that he did it. He fucking killed it. There is no one else that could have made the record sound the way it does.

Uniform – Shame

Could you tell us a little more about the cover art? Where did the inspiration come from? It’s evocative of  the music, it’s bleak, shrouded in black and white and feels claustrophobic.

The album cover and all of the album art was created by one of our favourite artists and musicians, Heather Gabel, who sings in the band HIDE.

Heather is…where do I even begin? Heather’s the coolest. They’re (HIDE) just a force of nature. Seeing HIDE play is terrifying! They’re all over the place…they’re totally freaky in the coolest possible way. It’s magnetic. I mean this very literally and in a complimentary way…they’re repulsive. I’ve loved their music for so long and their bandmate Seth has been a homie for a really long time.

But Heather’s art is amazing. We all agreed on that really quickly. When we started talking about ideas for the cover, it was a case of ‘obviously Heather’s gonna do it!’ We’re all just huge fans of the style. The way the images are composed gives a really strong visual subject without it being too figurative; the lines are blurred with the abstract in a really amazing way. There’s a great sense of contrast. The base imagery is very much how we saw the world of this album. It’s claustrophobic, as you say, and very internal and interior…there’s a feeling of being trapped and that is central to the record. Heather nailed it completely.

We were really lucky on that front. Sometimes it’s like pulling fucking teeth. Anyone that’s ever made a record will tell you that the art is absolutely the last thing that happens. I’ve seen albums held up six months because they can’t agree on a fucking cover! The one band member who has nothing to say through all of the recording process suddenly has it all to say! Musicians are creative artists that primarily work in non-visual media but have a lot of passionate artistic feelings nonetheless…even if it’s sort of out of their depth. Luckily we’re the absolute opposite! Heather is a complete and total G. I have nothing but respect and awe.

Going back to Mike joining and him being the bridge between Berdan and yourself, it sounds like all the people around you create a perfect storm?

We’ve been blessed with a stunning community. It doesn’t always happen with bands; it didn’t happen in the bands I was in when I was growing up. We’ve been blessed with a really amazing team. We put a lot of focus energy into working with people we care about.

It has to be fun doesn’t it?

Absolutely. And it has to be fluid. It has to be a constructive, generative environment. Everyone we work with is the shit. They’re all just down-ass-killers who wanna fuck with cool shit and do a good ass job. They have a work ethic that we really value. It’s something that has been instilled in me from a very early age. You cant expect anything and you have to work really hard.

And I guess that extends to your relationship with Sacred Bones Records? How vital are they to you?

They’re family. I’ve been working with Sacred Bones since they started. The first time we were on a project together was around 2006/2007…the first Pop. 1280 EP. It was real early days for the label. There was The Men, and I was in The Men for many years. It’s really been a family connection. A style connection for about a decade.

I bet the horror junkies in the ranks of the band like being label mates with John Carpenter?!

Oh my god, yeah! Within a couple of years of being in the band we were remixing a John Carpenter song. That’s just such an insane honour. To get to meet people at different times to is awesome. It’s been a really amazing ride. Everyone at Sacred Bones is really awesome. They work their asses off. I don’t think people realise how small their office is! It’s not like teams in a warehouse; it’s like five people that work 24/7 but dong it at a really high level. It’s really impressive and it shows the level of commitment too. We’re talking about music here. It’s so fundamental and the healing force of the universe and in capitalist terms…a real losing battle…so to commit the way they do shows a real point of character.

Aside from John Carpenter, are there any people that are on your wish list to collaborate with?

Man there are so many people! I don’t even know where to start. Something I have been thinking about for a long, long time, because I’ve been a big fan for a long time, I wanna collaborate with Dreamcrusher. They’re a New York based artist, originally from Kansas and I think they’re amazing. I’ve always wanted to do something but haven’t been able to fit it in or have the opportunity to sit down and try and make it happen. They’re one of the most complelling and immediate artists. A little like I was saying with Heather (Gabel); just inscrutable. Everything they lay out is like ‘oh shit, I didn’t see that coming! I hadn’t thought about that in that way before.’ Just a really interesting motherfucker.

I’m also interested in doing a pretty collab someday. I’d like to work with someone like Bing & Ruth or Ellen Arkbro or Kelly Moran. I think we could do something really amazing if we took out all the scary elements and replace them with sheer beauty. I’ve always wanted to do that. I hope that someday we get the opportunity.

In addition to Dreamcrusher, are there any bands out of NYC that we should be looking out for?

Look out for Dreamcrusher! Look out for Weeping Icon! God…so many…listen to Wetware. Listen to Hiro Kone. Listen to the new Drew McDowall album that I produced; that shit is banging fire! It’s half orchestral…it’s insane, it’s beautiful. I think that people should listen to the band Show Me The Body. I think they do but I think more people should listen to them. They’re a really important band.

I think that this is one of the most inspiring times for music. I think that we’re witnessing a moment in history where this collective ego death is happening in the world and people are reckoning with the idea of culture versus pop culture. Everyone needs the culture and the art right now. Everyone needs the comfort and distraction right now; the escape and the respite and everyone needs to feel the connection that they’re not alone right now. Everything is going way beyond imagery now.  

Ooooh…there’s another band…Stuyedeyed. They’re a punk band from here. I don’t know them but they’re fucking cool! I’m going to hit them up cos they’re cool as shit. They’re a band I listen too, and a band I want to be fucking with!

Thank you for chatting to us.

It’s been great chatting to you. Thank you so much.

Many thanks to Ben Greenberg for his time. His passion and fervour for music is evident. Keep your eyes peeled for more coming out of New York from Uniform, the bands Ben mentioned, and the continued stream of goodness from Sacred Bones Records.

Uniform: Website / Bandcamp / Instagram / Facebook / Twitter

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