Ballou won’t reveal Converge’s special tuning: He sees it as a fun challenge for fans to figure out on their own. “One of the strings is G#. That’s the most I’ll give up,” he says. Photo by David Robinson
Any standout spots on the album that were played on that instrument?
I’m pretty sure the song “Arkhipov Calm” has that guitar on it. I actually ended up tracking most of the record with my trusty old First Act Sheena with an EMG Hetfield pickup in it. That thing’s just a tank and it still plays like buttah! That one has a 25.5” scale, but is 1 ¾” wide at the nut, which gives a little extra space on the fretboard, which is really helpful for me with my big mitts. It’s also got super low action and has a 3-piece maple neck, which makes it very stiff in a good way, so the tuning stability is really great, which I need for recording especially.
I really love the Brutalist Jr. distortion pedal business card PCB idea. Could you explain the origins of that project?
I went to NAMM maybe five years ago, and everyone was handing out business cards. I came up with the idea of putting a pedal on a business card because I thought it would help me stand out. I didn’t know which pedal yet, but Nick Williams from Dunwich Amps—who has been a key person helping me with the Brutalist project—suggested a stripped-down version of the Brutalist pedal on a business card. He designed the initial layout of the circuit board and sorted the business card. I’d been modding pedals, but I wasn’t doing any of my own circuit design and I didn’t yet understand any of the design tools. This Brutalist Jr. thing actually sent me down that path: I learned how to use some electrical CAD stuff since then and have designed around 20 pedals since we’ve started this.
The Brutalist Jr. PCB is based on the original Providence Stampede SDT-1 pedal. I picked it up the first time I toured Japan, which was in support of Jane Doe. I try to get musical souvenirs when I can, and I went to some music stores in Japan and tried out the SDT-1. I was using a Boss Metal Zone at the time, more as a volume boost and bass cut with the EQ set flat, which is how I typically run drives. I bought the Providence pedal and fell in love with its sound. It ended up getting used a lot on You Fail Me and No Heroes, and I continued to tour with it.
While it’s a great-sounding pedal, it wasn’t without issues: It’s really big, the switches on it were unreliable, and it runs off of 100 volts, so if I went to Europe, I had to bring a transformer with me. They eventually released a compact version that ran on nine volts, but it just didn’t have the sound anymore. So, I set about trying to clone the thing, which I didn’t have any experience with. I worked with a bunch of friends that were better at electronics than I am in trying to figure out what made that pedal great, what could be improved, what could be discarded, and what had to remain in order to capture that sound. We eventually ended up with a perfect clone. Then I set about improving it. We made one that’s even more full-featured than the original SDT-1, known as the Brutalist, and the Brutalist Jr. (the business card PCB) is a scaled-down version of that. It runs on nine volts and it definitely has the sound, but it’s got less features. There are a lot of mods you can do to it and I’ve listed some ideas on my site. It’s been great to see people get creative with it.
It’s been a super-fun hobby for me. I hope it inspires other people to do the same! I think it has. I see people post their positive experiences with the business card PCB project. I’m happy to have maybe inspired people to build something. I initially made a hundred of them and thought I’d just keep them in my wallet and give ’em to people if I meet them, but I posted a photo of it on my Instagram and people just went bananas. I had all of these people that were upset that they couldn’t get one, so I asked the people at Deathwish records if they’d be willing to sell them. They’re cheap and it just covers the expense of making them, and I had to pay Nick to develop it, so that’s covered in the cost of the board.
Has the songwriting process changed for Converge at all this deep into the years?
It’s still the same thing—just getting together and riffing. We still try to follow whatever inspiration happens to be there and try to make the best songs we can with the material and ideas we have. I know a lot of bands that’ve gotten older and have more complicated lives have moved towards working more independently from each other and do a lot of digital demos and stuff like that. But we’ve actually gone the opposite route and gotten more collaborative, where we don’t work on the music much independently at all.
I think that shines through on the record, especially on things like the rhythmic complexity of a song like “Murk & Marrow.”
The heavy part at the end of that song is actually the same rhythm as the body of the song, just slowed. It’s actually in 13/8 and that’s a Ben [Koller, drums] thing. Ben got into 13/8 time when he started deciphering the theme song from The Terminator. He got really obsessed with it because it’s an ongoing rhythmic theme throughout the movie. So, that song is heavily influenced by The Terminator.
Sometimes I’ll have a riff that I don’t really think has a very interesting rhythm. Ben will have a wacky beat and I’ll tap into the riff bank and find a way to play some harmonic ideas in a rhythm that works with a drum idea that Ben has. That song was one of those.
Could you explain what’s going on with the spooky guitar drone in the left speaker of that song?
It’s a loop. The majority of what you hear on the record with that loop is just a room mic that was recording the first practice when we started writing that song. I tried to re-record it when we tracked the song, but couldn’t get it quite there. It’s just me playing a bunch of notes into an Akai Headrush, and looping the notes and overdubbing over the top. It’s a whole bunch of different notes played and tremolo picked in different rhythms to create this kind of harmonic wash. There’s either an EarthQuaker Devices Dispatch Master or Avalanche Run—something that does both reverb and delay at once—on it, too.
Who has been influential to your guitar playing?
It took a long time for me to even identify as a guitar player. I always felt like a saxophonist that plays guitar or something. For me, it’s so much more about doing what it takes to get the song across: Some of that is wearing my guitar hat, some of that is wearing my engineer hat, some of that’s wearing my producer hat, sometimes it’s wearing my glockenspiel hat or backing vocal hat… whatever it happens to be! That’s my primary concern. I don’t know that “guitar player” is actually a big part of my self-identity. If you took it away from me, it would be hard for me to cope, but I don’t think it’s really a big part of how I see myself.
As far as influences go, at least for this album, it’s been people I’ve been recording. Not necessarily biting somebody’s style—I’ve stolen a little bit from Matt Pike—but aside from that, I don’t really have the emotional capacity to consume music for pleasure right now. I’m working so much and so intently in my studio that there’s not a lot of mental space left for pleasure listening, but the bands I work with certainly influence my playing.