We were able to speak to Derek (vocalist) of Defeater, during their first stint of the UK, earlier this month, on the Bridge Nine UK Tour in Newcastle. During our 40-minute chat, I think we probably covered just about everything you need to know about one of hardcore’s most promising acts or, in my completely biased opinion, the best band in hardcore today.
Faye: Can you say your name and what you do in the band?
Derek: My name’s Derek and I sing in Defeater.
F: Can you tell us a bit of history about Defeater?
D: Well, we haven’t together as Defeater for very long, just shy of a year at this point, but the rest of the guys in the band were in a band called Sluts, worst name ever.
F: Why the name Sluts?
D: There’s a line in a Give Up The Ghost song, Love American, “In the world of sluts we keep the wet dream alive” and instead of picking something like, ‘Keeping The Wet Dream Alive’, they chose ‘Sluts’ out of that line… They did that for about four years and worked their asses off, they snuck on to Warped Tour for two summers and sold Sluts CDs and made friends with tons of people around the country, did tours, played shitty basement shows, and they did that for almost three years, I guess. Then Mike, who now plays bass, used to sing, then he went to Hawaii spur of the moment, and played their last show, they didn’t know it was their last show, though. He moved to Hawaii and they had a whole record written instrumentally, but they didn’t have a singer or any lyrics or anything. I met Jay, the year prior, at a studio doing a one-off recording session with my friends because they wanted me to sing for their band but that never worked out. He then came into my record store once, we exchanged numbers, and then he called me out-of-the-blue, then I wrote all the lyrics for Travels and we put it out.
F: Cool, so it’s your first time in the UK, how are you finding it?
D: The first time with this band is absolutely amazing, it’s the best tour I’ve ever been on, Polar Bear Club and Ruiner are the nicest fucking guys in the world. I know like everyone always says that, but I’m being completely sincere about it. We just got off a tour with Energy in the States and they turned into some of our best friends too, and the fact that we’re all on the same label, it’s just incredible. Everyone in the UK has been so nice to us, the riders and everything is incredible. Getting fed every night and getting drinks for free and stuff, it’s so much different than in the States, because in the States you’re lucky if there’s even a venue that you’ve booked. I’m sure that kind of stuff can happen here still but it seems on a much lesser scale. Every thing’s been incredible here.
F: How has the reception been towards Defeater? Have people been familiar with you?
D: Yeah, the first night was in Kingston at The Peel, it was a great crowd, there was a bunch of people up front that were singing along, and it’s the most flattering thing in the world, being so far away from home. People were telling us that they had bought the record right went it came out on Topshelf, even before Bridge Nine, just because they saw an advertisement online or someone compared us to Verse or Modern Life Is War or something like that, and they took a chance on it. Someone last night was like, “It’s been my favourite record since September.” and you’re like, “Wow, thank you.” It’s amazing, we were nobody, we played one show before the record was released and it wasn’t even the full line-up, it was our old bass player, we had a fill-in drummer because Andy was on Warped Tour and all this crazy stuff. The reception has been incredible, just last night in Glasgow, it was the most sing-a-longs I think we’ve had on any tour, like there’s 25 people singing along, pulling for the microphone, and that’s just the best feeling in the world. Kids here, they still seem to care about music for the right reasons and it’s not so much a fashion show as it is back home. When people were singing along last night and other nights on tour, you can tell that things sink in a little bit differently here. I met a kid named Mike last night that has some of our lyrics tattooed on the back of his leg, from The Blues, “The blues he carried are dead and buried” because his friend just passed away and they both love Robert Johnson. It’s just the most flattering thing that people over here aren’t just singing and coming up to you saying “Good set.”, they’re drenched in sweat and they just feel it, I don’t know how else to say it without sounding cheesy.
F: Your full-length debut, Travels, is a concept album, can you give us a brief synopsis of the story?
D: Yeah, it gets pretty involved, but, basically, this unnamed kid is born in the mid-40s, right after World War Two, in an unnamed Jersey coastal town, it’s like a shipyard town. His father is an abusive alcoholic, his mother turns into a junkie, and he grows up with a very antagonising, aggressive older brother. Through his adolescence, he gets bullied by his older brother, his mother takes him to a junk house to score and she sleeps with the drug dealer, and he hears in the hallway, so all these things are scarring this kid growing up, his dad is constantly beating up the mother. Then he’s like 17 and wakes up to them fighting again, and he snaps, and calls his father out and they get in a fist fight and ends up killing him with the bottle of Jack Daniels, that he’s always been drinking. He then runs away from home and goes to New York City, wandering around for years, ends up turning into an alcoholic, and turns into everything that he hated, so he hates himself. Then he meets this homeless guy, who’s playing on a street corner and kind of opens his eyes, changing his outlook on life to a more positive one, and walks away from that thinking that he’s going to change his life and become a better man. He goes Upstate and gets a job at a farm, and the farm owner is trying to give him advice, like to get his act together, but that he can only tell him so much and that he has to do things on his own. When he finally leaves the farm, he’s trying to travel back home and fix everything with his mother, he hitchhikes back to New Jersey and when he finally gets there, he finds out that his mother is dead and the older brother has been sitting, waiting for him there. His brother walks him along the same train tracks he made him play chicken as a kid, holding a gun to his head the whole time, and is like “This is how I’m going to get revenge on you for killing our father.” and then the kid in the story freaks out as a train is coming to hit him, so he overpowers his older brother and throws him in front of the train. So now he’s killed his father and his brother, and his mother is dead, and he doesn’t know what to do. His mother was a very religious person, which I forgot to mention first, but she’s praying throughout the record and he’s never believed in any of that stuff, so he finally goes to the Church that his mother used to go to, to try to make peace with her God. He goes in and tells the preacher what happened, the preacher just looks at him and says, “God won’t forgive you, it’s a moral sin, you killed people and took their lives.” He feels at this points he’s tried to do everything he can in this life and he goes up to the Church tower and carves his name in the bell and then jumps off, taking his own life. Wicked long story for eleven songs. [laughs]
F: Does it reflect any personal experiences or is it purely fictional?
D: Some of the animosity within the family structure is definitely very personal for both me and the guitarist, which we kind of based that around. It’s been made to seem like it’s inspired by Jay’s life or in my life or whatever, but I wrote a fictional story because we wanted to do something different. I know that sounds really pretentious, but when I started trying out for the band we had a month to write and record it, and on the first day Jay was like, “I want to write a story.” and that was it. There’s a couple lines here and there reflect personal stuff, but everything else I just either modelled it after the era or I modelled after artists that I love, there’s a lot of references to Bob Dylan throughout the record and Robert Johnson, the train dodge is very reminiscent of Stand By Me, which is one of my favourite movies and even more-so the book The Body by Stephen King. There’s a lot of things tied into the record, that are not personal at all, I mean, I haven’t killed anybody, I love my mother and father. [laughs]
F: What’s with the random, acoustic, Bright Eyes-y ditty at the end of Prophet In Plain Clothes?
D: [laughs] Jay and I were talking in his studio is in his basement and I don’t remember who brought it up first, but just the idea of having the homeless person being able to actually say something, like not just within the context of the song, because the character shows up right at the very end when Sean from Verse does his guest vocal and that’s the character. I had a side project that I’ve been doing for four/five years. I don’t do anything with it any more, I haven’t played a show in two years, even three, maybe. I had a bunch of songs that would fit really well with this, that the homeless guy would play, and I played that first riff, and Jay was like, “Yeah, it sounds like something a homeless guy would be playing on the side of the road.” Originally, we were going to put a bunch of street noise in, like record it on the street in Boston, but we just didn’t have time, since we had to do it in literally a month. We started it on March 31st and ended on April 30th, and had to master it the next day. We just wanted it to stick out and jump at people because, I think without it on the record, the record would be totally different. I think it’s very integral to the story because you’re actually hearing the song that changed the character’s life.
F: You’ve been playing the acoustic part of Prophet In Plain Clothes at the beginning of your set here, have people been like, “What the fuck?!”
D: We played the Academy in Birmingham and I’m pretty sure people thought I was just some random guy off the street, because I wasn’t hanging out in the venue and we played first, and I came in from the back and started playing it in the crowd and I don’t think people knew what was going on. Last night, with all the kids that were there, singing along with us, that was a great reception. At home, it’s definitely been weird at times, but at some show, the whole crowd is singing along and, again, that’s the most flattering thing, since it’s 100% something that I created, so it’s so flattering hearing people sing back. I don’t really know how else to describe it, it’s just amazing and flattering.
F: I’ve heard there’s a new EP in the works…
D: Yeah, when we get back, we’re going to start the writing process, the guys have done some instrumental demos. Just listening back, the songs are definitely going to keep evolving and we leave for tour at the beginning of July, and we’re gone for three weeks, then we’re back and we’re just going to finish writing, and record at Jay’s studio again, trying to put it out this year. Bridge Nine has so many releases that they’re fitting in for the end of the year that I don’t know if it’ll actually happen, if it does it’ll be amazing. But, yeah, a new EP and it’s going to be another extension of the storyline.
F: So, it’s going to be another concept record?
D: Yeah, everything that Defeater does is going to be within this realm. I don’t want to give a lot away I guess, but I’ve got a lot up here. [laughs]
F: What made you decide to put out an EP, instead of another full-length?
D: Just because we’ve just put out a full-length, but there’s still going to be a lot of music. We’re definitely going to be putting a lot of time and effort and concept into what we put out, so it’s going to be a lot less rushed, and it’s going to be a more intricate piece of work. It won’t be like a three-song EP, it’ll probably be five songs, maybe a little bit more, a mini-album. We’d be pushing ourselves too much right away, we’ve been touring a lot so we haven’t been able to really practice or write in a controlled environment. Also, with the way I want to do the story, and the way that me and Jay have talked about doing the story, this will work out a lot better right now for an EP.
F: You get a lot of comparisons to Modern Life is War, do you think that’s fair? Were you fans?
D: Yeah, I think that’s fair, when Jay first called me about joining, I just got to work at the bank, and he called out-of-the-blue, and I asked, “What does it sound like?” and Jay was like, “It kinda sounds like if 108 and Rise Against kind of played together.” and I was like, “Man, I don’t know, if I like the sound of that…” and he was like, “Just check it out, check it out!” I got him to send me some tracks and my first text message to him was “This sounds nothing like 108 or Rise Against, what are you talking about?!” I guess with the Modern Life Is War comparisons, it’s the way I sing, and lyrically, it’s a bit dark, everyone says that I look like Jeff Eaton, that doesn’t help. [laughs] The whole thing is flattering, from My Love. My Way to Midnight In America that band was flawless to me, but Witness is definitely my favourite record of theirs. I think if we were to be compared to a band in hardcore that is exactly, and personally, what I’d want. The fact that it happens all the time is just so flattering, because the band was incredible, absolutely incredible.
F: I’ve heard a lot of people call Defeater “the new face of modern hardcore” with the demise of bands like Have Heart, Verse, Modern Life Is War, etc. how does that make you feel?
D: Again, really flattering, but kinda scary, just because they logged in some long years on the road and I know that we have it in us, to get up to where they were at as far as hard work and wanting to put out the best releases as possible. Songs To Scream At The Sun and Aggression are flawless and incredible. Musically and lyrically and everything about those two records is just perfect, and it’s something I want to strive to be as good as, but the prospect of being ‘big’ or ‘the new face’ or something , that’s not why I want to do it. Sean is one of the best front men I’ve ever seen and Pat is one of the best front men I’ve ever seen, and the bands are incredible, the drumming, incredible guitarists, they had the perfect formula. I mean, Have Heart’s not done yet, but at the end of their careers they had or have the best formula to be the best band in their genre, their stage presence, everything, it’s all incredible. We just want to keep working hard and proving that we’re not just some flash-in-the-pan band. We got to play one of Verse’s last shows and we got thrown on a couple Have Heart shows on that Energy tour and they’re friends of ours, so it’s been a privilege to play with them in their golden years, because they’re just killing it now, it’s ridiculous. Have Heart shows in the States are huge and they deserve it so much, because they toured on The Things We Carry for like three years and kept building fans, and making a name for themselves, and the fact that they put out a record that sounds nothing like The Things We Carry people responded so much. Songs To Scream At The Sun, I think, is a beautiful record. But to answer the question, it’s very flattering to be called that by anybody, it’s just kinda scary, some big shoes to fill.
F: With all these bands breaking-up, have there been any that you’ve been particularly bummed out about breaking-up?
D: Yeah, all those, Have Heart, Verse, Modern Life Is War, they were just at the cusp of breaking into a new fan base or getting to like, not the biggest point they could, but like there’s always more people that would have got into their records and who knows what record they might have put out next, it could have expanded their fan base by tenfold. I’ve always wanted to tour with Verse, we were going to do a Verse/Soul Control/Defeater tour this summer and it would have been a ton of fun, everybody is friends. It’s really sad about Last Lights not being able to play any more as well, Dom was a fucking genius and we got to play our second show with them, and it was incredible.
F: Did you know Dominic well?
D: No, I can’t say I did or anyone in that band, just that second show we played, I just sat and talked to Dom for like an hour about The Clash, he was wearing a shirt that he made, that said “He who fucks nuns will later join the Church.” and I complimented him for wearing it and just got talking about our bands and The Clash and stuff. Like everybody says, he was just the nicest person you were ever going to meet and he knew just how to be a gentleman. He was one of the best front men I’ve ever seen, he was so natural with it, it was ridiculous, like he had complete control of the crowd, and it’s just a fucking shame because that band would have been huge, they would have kept going and just exploded beyond New England, beyond the States. I know tons of people that have come up to us on this tour in the UK and all they’ve been listening to lately is Last Lights, it’s fair, they’re incredible, the lyrics are just mind-blowing, but, yeah, those bands.
F: You recently signed to Bridge Nine, how did that come about?
D: The second we had put the record out on Topshelf, we had been getting offers, well, not offers, being talked to by labels and the fact that Seth [Topshelf Records owner] works at Bridge Nine and Jay has recorded a couple of records for them. Jay’s a really personal businessman and he would slyly mention Defeater to Karl [Bridge Nine label manager] and stuff like that, and Karl was like, “I’ve heard of that, I think it’s great.” Then a couple weeks after the record came out, there was some talk with some other labels and Karl heard about it because Seth mentioned it to him, and he was like, “Nah, that’s not happening, Defeater is meant for Bridge Nine.”, so it was like, “Ok…” [laughs] He didn’t have to say anything more than that, I was 100% sold. The contract is amazing and they take care of us, they bought the plane tickets for us to get here and there’s a lot of labels out there that don’t even want to help you try get on a tour. I don’t want to mention names, but I have friends bands on bigger labels and they come home from a tour and I’m like, “So, how was it? Was it great?!” and they’re like, “Yeah, yeah, it was fun, but I don’t know when we’re gonna go out again…” I think that because the record industry is in a huge flux right now and no one really knows what’s going on and record stores are closing everywhere, I think that Bridge Nine is probably, and I am bias because I love them, but I think that they’re among the only labels that’s really trying to stay ahead of the game. Making sure that they have a great roster, making sure they have great people working at the label, who really care about the music industry, and care about the bands that are on the label. Everybody’s just working as a huge team and it’s great, they just take care of us, I couldn’t ask for anything more from a label, so far it’s been absolutely amazing.
F: If you could sign one band to Bridge Nine, who would you pick?
D: It already happened! I was with my really good friend, Eric, who plays drums in Strike Anywhere and when we went to Richmond, in January, me, Eric and Mike went out to a bar, and we were just talking. I asked him when their new record was coming out and he was like, “Oh, I don’t know, Fat Wreck was just a one-time deal.” so I was like, “Alright, I’m going to put in a word for you at Bridge Nine.” So, I got back to the house where we were staying and I was like, “Jay, text Karl right now and tell him that Strike Anywhere is available.” and the response from Karl was like, “Meh, I don’t know, that last record wasn’t that good…” [laughs] I can’t get enough of it, but, again, I’m bias, I love those dudes, Thomas is a sweetheart, Garth and the two Matts are incredible. But I had no idea of the signing, nobody told me, and they day we were driving down to the Verse show, me and my girlfriend were in the back of Jay’s car and then somebody upfront was like, “Oh, yeah, so Strike Anywhere are getting announced today.” And I’m like, “What?! What are you talking about?! I tried to do that in January!” But that band, I can’t say enough but good things about them, they’ve also worked their asses off to get where they are and they’re still not huge, but they have diehard fans. I know so many people with Strike Anywhere tattoos and so many people around the world that have flown to different countries to go see them, because they weren’t hitting their country on a tour or something like that. That band’s incredible, I love them so much, so, yeah, that’d be the one band and it just happened. [laughs] Luck of the draw, I guess, and Soul Control too, I was so happy for them too, they’re such nice guys, great, great band.
F: I’ve heard that Andy (drummer) runs an eco-van company for touring bands, could you tell us a bit about that?
D: Yeah, Andy is a genius and learned the ins and outs of this one particular diesel engine. Him and his friend, Anthony, they’ve so far converted three vans to run on waste vegetable oil and it’s taking off, but they’re definitely not making any money off it, sadly. There’s so much that can go wrong with it, like on our first tour, at the end of the year, Andy and Anthony had to fix the van so many times, but they’re sticking with it and it’s for a great cause. I’m vegan and I back it 100% because of the environmental impact that just three vehicles on the road doing that, it saves so many emissions, it’s crazy. I’m vegan for environmental reasons as well, I’m like they’re biggest supporter, I tell everybody about that company, but, yeah, I think all their vans are rent right now and they’re all booked for the summer. Like Bane has used them and I Rise, so many bands from our area. They’re biggest sales were with a band called Stick To Your Guns and I swear to God, they’re using a van every week. [laughs] Andy drives one out and then flies home like once a month at least. They were opening for Every Time I Die in the Bronx, on a tour, and we had a day off, so we went and were hanging out at the show, and all they were doing was talk about how great that company was on stage. They’re really nice guys.
F: Is there a website?
D: Yeah, www.rentgreenvans.com, it doesn’t have rates or anything on, but as far as I know it’s incredibly cheap for what it is. I think you can directly get in touch with Andy or Anthony, and there’s definitely nothing abroad yet, but they really do want to expand the company as much as possible, and just keep converting vans and eventually just have a fleet, and have it be very accessible to everybody in the United States, and then see where they can go from there. They’re really behind the cause and it’s getting to the point now where we’re putting recycling bins in the back of the trailer, because bands on tour don’t think about that stuff. They just pick up a bottle that at home they would normally recycle, but because it’s kind of inconvenient touring, we’re trying to make sure that all the corners are covered. So, yeah, Andy’s a genius for doing that, he took the initiative to do something that so many people have talked about and, yeah, it’s a really good company.
F: So, what are Defeater’s plans for the rest of the year?
D: Beyond the touring in July and recording, I don’t know, we haven’t really thought that far ahead. Supposedly, we’re going to be playing with Polar Bear Club, probably not going to happen… [laughs] We might do some record release stuff with them, I don’t know, we’ll see how it pans out, probably not. We haven’t thought that far ahead, recording and putting out a new EP is definitely what I want to be taking care of before doing anything else. I want to keep the momentum going, so many bands put out a record and tour on it for too long it seems. I think Have Heart is one of the bands that did that successfully, in the last 10-years, and Modern Life didn’t even have a chance because they broke-up less than a year after Midnight In America came out. So, yeah, I think we just need to keep the momentum going, there’s been so much talk of Travels and stuff, that if we sit on that for two more years and don’t do anything, then we’re just going to be another band, and that’s not what I want. I want to keep being as forward-pushing as possible and just keep putting out great records, but in a timely-fashion, because there’s nothing that I like more as a listener than hearing about somebody’s new record. You always want that one new song from them, that’s either gonna break your heart or open your mind or anything, just give you that feeling. I just found out that Frightened Rabbit are putting out a new record and I fucking love that band, and I was like, “Yes! Yes!” so excited, because that’s one of the records that I listened to last year almost every day. I just want to be one of those bands that’s not putting out too much and it ends up being complete shit, but at a nice pace, I guess. I’d love to tour again in September/October in the States, but if we come back here by the end of the year, that would be the best thing ever. We’ve had so much fun here, I’d love to do this twice a year, like a full proper UK tour, that’d be great.
F: Change the record, who should we be listening to?
D: Besides all the ones that I’ve mentioned, including Frightened Rabbit, let’s see. I don’t know who I listen to any more besides like two bands. [laughs] The new Soul Control, even though I’ve already said them, is going to be amazing. If Strike Anywhere put out a new record this year, definitely that. I listen to like the same bands over and over again. Anyone who hasn’t checked out Energy, that band is one of the best bands live, I’d love to see them do more international touring, they’re always doing little East Coast tours with great bands, but they need that little nudge to go to different countries. I don’t know… Just listen to The Clash that’s all I’ve got to say. [laughs]
Defeater’s debut album, Travels, is out now on Bridge Nine Records.
For more on Defeater visit: www.myspace.com/defeater