Last Chance for a Slow Dance
CoC chats with Ryan Primack of Poison the Well
by: Jackie Smit
I know what some of you are thinking: what the fuck is a Poison the Well feature doing besmirching the hallowed pages of CoC? To be perfectly honest, I shared a similar sentiment about their new record, _Versions_, even appearing in my mailbox last year; until I actually listened to it, that is. A far-cry from the insipid snivelling of the mallcore geeks, to these ears it bristles with the same free-wheeling musical attitude that solidified Fugazi's legend as one of the most subversive, staunchly original names of their day. Speaking to Poison the Well's first lieutenant, Ryan Primack, it's almost fitting that during the course of our conversation he should share his love for the Washington renegades. But early on, it turns out that the work of a certain renowned Italian composer played a fairly large role in the record's exotic slant as well.

Ryan Primack: The process of writing _Versions_ was really weird, because it was very interrupted and in fact, the first song that I completed for the record was "Riverside", which when I listened to it, sounded to me like it could quite easily have been an Ennio Morricone rip-off. After I had done that track, we went out on tour and we tried out a few more song ideas -- none of which made it to the record -- and then we came back off that, my father passed away, and I ended up taking off about eight months. I was just a complete mess at the time. When I started getting back into the swing of things, I found that I was really seeing things very differently and I was definitely seeing music in a whole different way as well. I just wanted to write punishing songs; not necessarily heavy, but just songs that would take people time to get through. I wanted to deliberately contract melodic and chord structures, so that they kind of fit in, but kind of don't at the same time. That was sort of the whole goal and it led me to shy away from simply using guitars and basically using everything I could to create more tension and more atmosphere.

CoC: Punishing is definitely a word that comes to mind when you listen to _Versions_, even on the record's more demure moments like "You Will Not Be Welcomed". You just mentioned your father passing away, so how much more personal was writing _Versions_?

RP: Oh, this was undoubtedly the most personal thing I have ever done. It's the most of me that I have ever put into anything. Even during the recording process, it was just me, Chris [Hornbrook, drums] and Jeff [Moreira, vocals], so everything fell to me apart from drums and singing. So _Versions_ really became something of a personal obsession for me and it was both positive and negative. The latter came really through my dad passing, but also having to fight a label because I refused to have someone tell me that I have to write songs that sound like another band because that's what's hot right now. So between all of that, it really brow-beat me, and I think it also made me become very self-critical and really hard on myself which in turn had its own effect on the way that the songs came out.

CoC: At which point did you realise that the relationship with your previous label, Atlantic, wasn't working?

RP: About five minutes in.

CoC: <laughs>

RP: About five minutes into doing our second record, I knew that it wasn't going to work out. We'd gone and recorded a bunch of songs and when they heard it, they just seemed really confused and they actually asked us what they were meant to do with it. They constantly tried pushing us to write songs that were catchier and they kept saying that if we change in such and such a way, we'd be huge. And we all tried to communicate back to them that none of us care about that, but it didn't work. To be fair, in Europe everyone seemed to be on our side. Our problem was with the US label. Eventually it got to the point where I was going to a friend of mine who has his own studio and making demos that were intentionally unlistenable. I would do a song, then play it through headphones and stick a microphone in there, then max out all the levels so that it just came out as a garbled mess. I wanted them to get rid of us, and I tried everything I could for that to happen, which it eventually did after a year and a half.

CoC: Amidst all of this, you also had Derek Miller exit the band, who's been credited as a major contributor on past records. How big of a void did he leave?

RP: At the time, I didn't really notice, because I was so enveloped in what I was doing with _Versions_. I definitely think that the reason why our music went into a much darker direction is because he wasn't there. He was responsible for all the more uplifting stuff, while I was the guy who likes to make music that's dark and negative and frustrating. <laughs> I didn't want this record to sound like the last one.

CoC: Was there bad blood when he moved on?

RP: No, not at all. He lives a mile away from me, and I hang out with him all the time. He was in the band for about six or seven years and at that point it becomes more like family than anything else and you get to the point where you basically would rather have someone leave and you can remain friends, then have them stay and you have to hate them. So, that's what happened.

CoC: This band has had a significant number of line-up changes though.

RP: Oh yeah. We're on our thirteenth bass player!

CoC: Does it feel a little like "This Is Spinal Tap" to you?

RP: <laughs> One of our bass players did actually spontaneously combust.

CoC: Is stability within the band an issue for any of you guys at all, or do you feel that as long as the nucleus of yourself, Jeff and Chris is in place, the others either fit in or they don't?

RP: Somewhat like that, but it's more a case of trial and error. Sometimes you tell someone that you want him to join the band and then suddenly after the excitement wears off, he realises that he has to play 230 shows a year. Then he realises that he doesn't even like being on tour, or he decides that he doesn't want to make music his life, or he feels that if he has to tour with one the other guys, he doesn't want to tour. You know what I mean? You get both sides of the coin, and it's not the easiest of lifestyles. I think it's only really okay for people who are comfortable with feeling disconnected, and free of everyday comforts. You have to be really malleable to make that situation work.

CoC: How do you cope with it?

RP: I just wake up every morning and remind myself that I'm in the fortunate position to do what I love for a living. Most people don't have that luxury, and that's enough for me.

CoC: Let's get back to the situation with Atlantic Records. One of the things that as a journalist I've been noticing a lot lately is that there are more and more bands being given deals and pushed by labels who previously they would have had security escort the premises and, rightly or wrongly, I credit a lot of that to outlets like MySpace. Do you think sites like these are showing up how out of touch the labels have been with what fans actually want?

RP: Definitely. I mean, I think the labels have been out of touch with what fans want for the last twenty years. I love tools like MySpace, because for a musician like me, it eliminates the need for favours from others, because in this industry that usually means that they've got their hand in your pocket. It keeps things on an even keel, and it brings music back to a grassroots level. Then again, it also creates an environment where a lot of really shit bands can get huge.

CoC: Are you thinking of anyone in particular?

RP: <laughs> You know who I'm talking about. People discover trends, they notice a gimmick is selling, they want to be a rock star and they start a band. I can't think of a more horrible reason to get into music.

CoC: Do you think that this new digital age of music is going to destroy the traditional record label?

RP: Let me tell you something, record companies are going to be obsolete in five years. I mean, already you're having labels telling bands that they're going to be taking a cut of their touring revenue. That never happened before. So it's going to become a bit like the middle class, which doesn't exist anymore. You're going to have one thing or the other. It's going to turn into an industry where if you're a pop band trying to appeal to as many people as possible by whatever means possible, then you'll have major labels to take care of that. Everything else will be done by either a band or people who are organizers. That middle of the road thing will just disappear and I'm okay with that personally. Let people who are most concerned with commerce, deal with people who are most concerned with commerce. There's nothing wrong with people who want to do things that way. It's just not my way, that's all.

CoC: You recorded _Versions_ in Sweden, which obviously took you out of your comfort zone entirely. Was that a conscious decision to do that?

RP: Yeah, we could have hired the same guys and had them come to us, but we decided that the further away we were from everything, the better the record would turn out.

CoC: What made Ferret Records the right place for Poison the Well, after the fiasco with Atlantic?

RP: I've known the guys that have run that label for almost ten years and I just wanted to work with someone who wouldn't mess with anything I was doing musically. So it was an obvious decision, because it was the most honest label I could think of.

CoC: Along with Every Time I Die, you are very often bunched in quite unfairly with bands like The Devil Wears Prada and every other mallcore turd going. Do you feel like that's a hindrance to the progress of this band, or is it something that bothers you personally?

RP: I don't give a shit either way. I never pay attention to any of it. I don't read press about us. I don't read reviews. I don't care. As long as I can wake up and stand on my own two feet and know that I didn't do anything just to make a buck and that every piece of music I put out there is something that comes from the heart, then I don't really care what anyone else has to say about it. I think that's the point of being in a hardcore or a punk rock band. The reason this music is awesome is because it's honest.

CoC: Do you still see Poison the Well as a hardcore band despite the changes to your style?

RP: Absolutely, and we'll be a hardcore band until we're not a band any longer. That's how we run our band and that's how we run our lives. We still thinks about things like ticket prices, keeping our merch affordable and we try our best to make sure that everything we do is honest.

CoC: With what you've just said and considering all the experimentation on the new record, I actually see Poison the Well as following in the footsteps of a band like Fugazi.

RP: Well, Fugazi and Ian McKaye are my heroes. <laughs> I can only hope that I do anything that even comes close to anything that band has ever done. I just appreciate their playing and their attitude toward music.

CoC: What's your favourite Fugazi album?

RP: Honestly? _The Argument_. I know it's not the popular answer, but that's definitely my favourite. I love everything, but when I heard _The Argument_ for the first time, I just thought it was so eloquent and so raw and so energetic.

CoC: So what does the future hold for Poison the Well?

RP: After this final tour, we're going to take a couple of weeks off, and I'm going to start mapping out the ideas I have for our next record. We're due to go to Canada with Killswitch Engage and The End. Then we're home again and we'll start writing. The plan is to have the next record out in early spring of next year, but who knows? There are so many things that could happen in the meantime.

CoC: Anything you want to add?

RP: Thanks for taking the time to care about little old us. I really appreciate it.

(article submitted 5/7/2008)

9/3/2009 J Smit 7.5 Poison the Well - The Tropic Rot
3/25/2007 J Smit 8 Poison the Well - Versions
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