Rank Your Records: Touché Amoré's Jeremy Bolm
In advance of the band's fifth album, 'Lament,' the frontman plays favorites with their previous work.
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Rank Your Records is a series in which I talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference. The last edition featured Planes Mistaken For Stars’ Gared O’Donnell, whose rapid recovery I’ve been crossing my fingers for. Before that was Deathwish Inc. founder Tre McCarthy who picked ten favorite releases from the label. Here they all are.
It’s not easy following up a record like Touché Amoré’s Stage Four. On the Los Angeles hardcore band’s 2016 album, frontman Jeremy Bolm was heartbreakingly candid about the pain that came with losing his mother to cancer. It’s been four years since the Stage Four’s release and it feels like traces of the album’s grief are still reverberating.
Now, Touché Amoré is finally ready to make their much anticipated return with their fifth album, Lament. “It’s the longest we’ve taken between records, and it was far and away the most we’ve given to a record, emotionally and time-wise,” Bolm says.
Lament sees the band continuing to evolve well beyond their scrappy screamo roots which had them ripping through structure-less 90-second songs on their 2009 debut ...To the Beat of a Dead Horse. They now wield a deep bag on sonic tricks that add depth and intricacy, exploring territories that are not only unique to their sound, but to the genre of hardcore.
A few days before Lament’s release, I sat down with Bolm (from a responsible distance!) and asked him to play favorites with Touché Amoré’s previous albums. Here’s his order...
I guess something has to be at the bottom, but I am surprised to see this one so low.
Jeremy Bolm: I’ll be honest that when Pitchfork put up the review and we got an 8.0, I was genuinely shocked by it. Because I went into this record so ill prepared. I wrote most of it in the studio because I had such severe writer’s block. I felt like I wasn’t saying anything worth a damn. I was fighting myself so hard. What we ended up with was a bunch of songs that we don’t really play live. I think a good barometer for how a band feels about a record is how many songs they play off that record live. Since Stage Four, if we’re being generous, we’ll play two songs off this record, maybe three.
Are you just not confident in the material?
There are a few issues with the record for me, personally. Everyone in the band has different feelings and I’m not speaking for them. I had to re-record all the vocals on the record. It was our first record with Brad Wood and he had the idea of me singing the entire record with an SM58, a handheld mic. I had expressed that I never felt our records captured how I sound live. So he had me use the mic I use live. It was run through this head that he bought off some funeral director. It was this vintage, weird thing. I was like, “This is up my alley, let’s do it.”
Did you move around a lot too?
I wasn’t going ham and running around, but it was nice to feel like I was in my comfort zone. Then we started getting mixes of the record and I was not clear at all. I was starting to panic about it. So I went back to Brad, who feels guilty to this day about it, and he had me do it again. I sang it all in like two days. But what I suffered from on this record is that I didn't have time to feel out the spaces for the vocal patterns. But then once we started playing them live, I was like, “Fuck, why didn’t I sing it this way instead?”
They weren’t road-tested.
Exactly. There are certain songs that our audience will ask why we never play them. So, we’ll go into a tour and try it out. But we play these songs and it feels bad. We also had some issues with the mixing and the mastering. It will always drive me crazy that the bass drum is almost non-existent. You can tell it’s there, but I like a record that has a thumpy bass drum. So I look at Is Survived By as a tough but necessary learning experience.
It’s funny that you cite your third record as a learning experience. Usually by then you’ve worked out the kinks.
And especially because that was us going to a masterful producer. He had done a lot of records that were incredibly important to us—Far, mewithoutYou, Sunny Day Real Estate, Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair, Codeine. It all felt so right. We had the best time with him. I look at the recording experience very favorably because working with Brad was a joy.
You released an anniversary box set for this record last year and I’m wondering what it was like going through all that old material.
We still play so much of this material live that it didn’t feel like putting on this old pair of jeans where it felt weird. These songs are so primitive that we could play them with our eyes closed. The reason I would put Dead Horse above Is Survived By is not because of the songs. It’s because of the innocence of it. There was nothing to lose. We did the record in a couple days with our friend down the street from us. Also, we genuinely recorded the record for posterity because we didn’t think we were going to be a band. Our drummer had quit and we thought the band was broken up. But we had the songs and our friend would record them for nothing. I feel like the record cost... $200? Maybe $250? So, for us, it’s like, “Let’s just pay the money and get these songs recorded.” Geoff Rickly was down to sing on it, Jeff Eaton from Modern Life Is War was down to sing on it. And it was just us doing it for us. Jeff from Modern Life Is War was the one who was like, “Yo, don’t break up. Just get another drummer.” That idea seemed so crazy to us, the idea that we could get another drummer. [Former drummer] Jeremy Zsupnik had such swagger and style that he felt irreplaceable.
There’s an email from your old guitarist Tyson [White] in the box set where he mentioned saying “I fucking hate this band.” What was the story behind that?
I don’t know that I remember the specifics but it was very clear that Tyson wasn’t built for touring. I do love Tyson and we’re still good friends. Some people are built for being in a band and some people aren’t. It’s a lot of sharing space and being a team player. And I just don’t think it worked with who he was as a person. We’d ask things of him, whether it was doing shows or whatever, and a lot of times it was like pulling teeth. He would do shows playing cross-legged on the ground. Really making us feel like we asked him to pass the bar exam or something. He stayed in the band longer than Zsupnik did. If you look at the credits on any of those records, he didn’t want to be credited as the drummer on the band. He didn’t want to be a member of the band. That’s how much he didn’t want to be in Touché, because our seven-inches ended up in Hot Topic.
That was the sticking point for him?
Yeah. We knew it was other things, particularly he and I’s relationship. We just didn’t get along, and that’s fine. But it wasn’t fun and unfortunately we don’t have a relationship. I haven’t seen him since he left the band.
What were your influences then?
A lot of the obvious: A meeting ground between pg.99 and American Nightmare. And obviously Saetia, Orchid, Majority Rule.
How have your influences changed since then?
Throughout the years, I think everybody let their core influences shine through. When we were first writing, we were writing to be a screamo hardcore band. And then once we felt confident... like, Clayton [Stevens]’s favorite band is Sonic Youth, so we brought some of that influence in. One of Nick [Steinhardt]’s favorite bands growing us was AFI. So there’s some of that guitar stuff in Parting the Sea. Once you’ve done the punk and hardcore angst record, you should start to feel more confident in exposing your influences.
But there are a lot of bands who try to evolve beyond that and fail miserably, mainly because they’re not as deep as they think they are. I’ve seen so many hardcore bands discover Interpol and think they’re good enough to pull it off but actually aren’t.
Totally. Every time we branch out to something that feels unattainable, we know how to pull ourselves back and do it the way our band would do that. Know your limitations. Let’s pull from that, but let’s not be that.
You said earlier that the excitement on Dead Horse came from having nothing to lose. Obviously, the fear of the sophomore slump is real. Did your mindset change between those two records?
I remember being really nervous about the follow-up, for that reason. We felt like we were on top of the world in a lot of ways. A few labels were wanting to put out our record, between Deathwish, Equal Vision, and Bridge Nine all being interested. We couldn’t believe it. We went with Deathwish and I remember everyone expecting us to have Jake Bannon do our artwork and then go record with Kurt Ballou. We love all the stuff that Deathwish does, but we wanted to stand on our own and say, “No, Nick is gonna still do our artwork, and we want to record with this other guy because it’s interesting.”
We drove out to Eudora, in the middle of nowhere, to record with Ed Rose because he did the Casket Lottery records. We recorded that record live in four days and then he mixed it on the fifth day. We were so green with everything. To have Ed Rose, who’d done Coalesce, Get Up Kids, Casket Lottery, all that stuff, tell us to do it live, we were gonna listen to him. It was a nervous experience but I remember feeling excited we were there. There was nothing in that town to distract us. It’s a Mexican/Chinese food restaurant, a little cafe, and the post office. That’s all of Eudora.
This record makes a lot of sense to me as a sophomore release. Thematically, a lot of it is about disappointing people—either new fans you’re picking up or the people in your life affected by being increasingly on the road.
Yeah, it’s the obvious life-on-the-road record for a band that’s new to being on the road most of the year. It was getting used to that new lifestyle and the effect it was having on the people in my life, romantically and family-wise. This was also around the time when people who followed the band were getting intense with me about mental health stuff and how those records have helped them. I was having a really hard time knowing how to digest it and how to respond to it.
Have you gotten better about it?
Certainly not. There’s a song on [Lament]—that “I’ll Be Your Host” song—that is specifically about this. It got worse after Stage Four. It went from “you’re helping me with my depression” to “you’re helping me deal with death.”
This record is obviously about your mother’s passing and I’m wondering what it’s like to have to relive those memories on stage every night.
I would never claim that I’m going through that every night. I think most singers or band members, whether they will admit it or not, are often on autopilot. It’s a function. It’s also a good defense mechanism to not connect to it.
But is that healthy? It seems like you’re dissociating.
Oh yeah. But that happens to protect. If I had to go up there every night and meditate on that, I wouldn’t do this. So, that being said, when we go up there, I am on autopilot. But what will get me in the zone of that stuff, as silly as it may sound, is a reaction from someone in the audience. If I can see that someone in the audience is going through something while singing along to it, that brings more out of my performance. Because now I feel like I’m singing for that person.
Like you were saying before, when you write a record about death, which is so universal, I imagine people want to talk to you about that and connect to somebody.
Yeah. A lot. And if it’s not in person, it’s through DMs, it’s through tweets, all of that stuff. There’s such an amount of guilt on myself for hating having those interactions. It’s a really landmine way of feeling, where it’s like... I cannot stand that I have to deal with this—that I have to deal with people continuously bombarding me with the saddest shit I’ve ever heard in my entire life. But I get why they’re doing it. I’d do the same shit in their position. I was a kid, I get it. But I also have 40-year-olds coming to me about this. Death becomes a lot more prominent when you’re older. I remember when I first played the record for [Drug Church singer] Pat Kindlon, he was like, “Well, you just completely dissociated yourself from your young audience. No 17-year-old is gonna be headwalking to this song.” And he was absolutely right. All of a sudden, we were being accepted by old hardcore guys who wouldn’t fuck with us before.
But I just don’t know how to put into words my feelings about it. It’s like, I’m having a good night, I just played a show and had a good time, I’m hanging out with friends I haven’t seen in a while because we’re in fucking Minneapolis, and I’m walking through the venue and on my way someone will pull me aside and tell me their dad just died. It’s a punch in the fucking gut. I panic and don’t know how to respond to that. Do you say thank you? Thank you is clearly not the response. But then you realize that a lot of times, they’re not looking for a response, they just want to share that with you. I don’t think I thought a lot in my youth, talking to singers in bands, about what that does to them. That was the conversation I was willing to have on this new record. It felt good to at least get off my chest.
And the last song on Lament is a reflection on the people in your life who didn’t check in you enough after Stage Four.
How does it feel to know that they’ll all be able to hear that in a couple of days?
Well, the people I’m referencing are very aware of it, because they played on the record and are putting out the record. But I had to write it. And it was uncomfortable. I get anxious about putting this in press because it feels like I’m talking shit about my band. I don’t want to do that. They’ve been there for me in so many different ways. We wrote this record together and I appreciate them with everything. But every year, it was always odd and tough when it would be Halloween and I wouldn’t hear from anybody. I never knew how to take it. It’s a tough thing to build that resentment year after year after year. All these people were very close to me during this. They helped me write a record about it.
Do you feel like you said your piece about it with the song?
Yes. And it was a very intense couple of days in the studio, because I had to explain that to these people.
How’d that go over?
It was not contentious. It was quiet. And then Ross [Robinson, producer] had them stand in the room with me when I sang the last part of the song, which was also pretty emotionally intense. But I’ve had conversations with them and we’ve all grown for it. Everybody has their reasons for not reaching out.
You also are in a band of five dudes. Dudes are famously not good at communicating feelings.
Especially dudes from LA. But in talking about the song going forward, the last thing I want to do is make them look like villains for not doing that. But I knew when I was writing the record, I had to talk about it. Again, it’s not just them. There’s a line where I say, “Some profit off the album but most I just consider friends.” I was letting it bottle up. The only person who really knew how I was feeling was Ashley [Bolm’s fiancée]. My dad doesn’t even reach out. My dad has never talked to me about that experience once.
You wrote this record to honor your mother. What do you think she would make of that?
Oh my god, she would be so excited. She loved being the center of attention. Whenever she came to see us play, I’d be like, “Yo, my mom’s here, give it up for her!” She’d have the whole audience look at her and she’d wave. So, if there’s a world outside of this, I hope she knows that there’s a record about her that’s everybody’s favorite. She’d be so fucking excited. She’d be showing that off to strangers at the supermarket. And the artwork having the house we grew up in, and also the voicemail from her talking at the end of the record, all of those things were… like, I’ll never lose those now.
They’re out in the world thousands of times.
Yeah. Like, if my phone got busted or whatever, I don’t have to stress about losing that voicemail because it’s on a record for eternity. I went back and forth about putting that on there. That was what convinced me, knowing that it’s on that record forever.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.