Converge: Kurt Ballou’s Second Nature
The hardcore guitar hero and producer discusses the band's new LP, The Dusk in Us—as well as his new GodCity instrument and pedal outfit.
“It took a long time for me to even identify as a guitar player,” says Kurt Ballou. “For me, it’s so much more about doing what it takes to get the song across.” An unexpected statement from the mouth of a player as influential—not to mention athletic—as Converge’s axeman and producer. However, it’s certainly one that underlines the all-for-one, hardcore-punk ethos that’s fueled the band’s 25-year career. There’s some humble irony in his statement, too, considering Ballou’s personal business cards literally double as a PCB (printed circuit board) for a build-your-own distortion pedal which he helped design. Ballou and Converge bassist, Nate Newton, also recently unveiled a YouTube channel specifically for gear reviews called“demovids.”
From seminal albums like Jane Doe and You Fail Me to evolved late-career masterworks like All We Love We Leave Behind, Converge’s approach has always been fearless. The band’s music showed that the metal-tinged hardcore concept has space for abstraction, textural intrigue, and emotional depth. “None of us are really afraid of taking risks musically at this point,” says Newton. “We’re just doing what we want to do and writing the records we want to hear.” This approach keeps Converge from falling prey to the stagnancy that plagues so many of its peers. While the Boston-bred, metallic-hardcore band’s sound is undeniably a sum of its parts—reliant as much on Newton’s substantially punishing bass work, drummer Ben Koller’s imaginative and dexterous drumming, and frontman Jacob Bannon’s poetic sensibilities and inimitable mixture of pained barks and post-punk-informed monologues—there’s no minimizing the importance Ballou’s guitar plays within that recipe.
Armed with a singular approach to the instrument that flexes with shades of Greg Ginn’s simplicity and aggression, Slayer-informed dissonance and calisthenics, a lethal rhythmic sense, and textured, effects-heavy ambience, Ballou’s unique style boils down his disparate influences to reach far beyond the typical palette of tones and ideas heavy metal and hardcore players often rely upon. Throughout Converge’s discography, Ballou has displayed what’s possible for heavy players who seek something beyond bludgeoning riffs—though there’s no shortage of those within his oeuvre, either. Ballou’s avant-garde sense of phrasing, use of oddball tunings, and penchant for unexpected equipment (like Rickenbackers fitted with EMGs and vintage Marshall 8x10 cabs) have made the man a revolutionary player amid a sea of guitarists chugging away in dropped tunings through Peavey 5150s. And all of this is to say nothing of the staggering number of credits Ballou has earned as a taste-making producer and engineer at his GodCity Studio, shaping the records of countless cutting-edge artists that run the gamut of genres from High on Fire to Chelsea Wolfe.
With their ninth studio release, The Dusk in Us, Converge has issued yet another statement of its potency as an increasingly artistically minded, viscerally intense, and dynamic band. Tracked and produced by Ballou at GodCity, much of the guitar on The Dusk in Us was performed on custom guitars the restless Renaissance man has been building under the GodCity Instruments moniker, with tones further tweaked by prototype pedals he’s been tinkering with for the past year. PG sought an audience with Ballou during the first leg of the band’s current tour to get inside his head and discuss the mountains of gear used on the new album, talk about his new venture as a guitar and pedal manufacturer, and to glean some pearls of wisdom from a player and producer who has quietly helped reshape the heavy music landscape of the past two decades.
On their 9th studio album, The Dusk in Us, Converge didn’t work independently at all. Everything was worked out collaboratively as a team in GodCity Studio.
What’s the story with your guitar and pedal company, GodCity Instruments? I see a lot of new gear on your social media. Have you decided to expand into full production any time soon?
GCI is a labor of love and it’s something that I’m passionate about, but it’s also something that I presently consider my hobby. I’ve come to find out that trying to manufacture something in the United States requires a lot of time and effort and money, and I would essentially need to stop my recording business if I wanted to really dive into making GCI what I want it to be. I’m continuing to prototype things and learn and develop partnerships with people, but there is not presently a rollout plan for any kind of full-scale manufacturing.
That said, I’m learning a ton, and I feel like I understand completely what I want from a guitar perspective these days. For my taste, it’s still a 25.5” scale. I find that for people that tune a bit lower than standard, like myself, the longer scale length adds a lot of tuning stability to the guitar. I’m not trying to make a guitar for everybody. I’m trying to make a guitar for me that other people might also like.
I’ve been prototyping the pedals like crazy and I’m learning a ton from that process. I’ve got some really amazing-sounding pedal designs now—several of which I used on our new record. However, once you have a design, you need to make it manufacturable, so, I’m refining designs while simultaneously working on making them efficient to manufacture. Unfortunately, it’s something I can’t devote a ton of time to presently and I can’t promise that something’s going to be available when I really don’t know when. But I do love doing it!
You played a black guitar with a bound body at the show in Brooklyn a few weeks back. Could you tell me about that one?
That’s my latest design. I’m calling it the Craftsman, and it’s basically a much more stripped-down version of the very first GCI design I had. I have a manufacturing partner for that one and we’re still working things out, but we’ll hopefully be able to produce those in small batches. The work has been incredible and I love the way it sounds. I’ve pretty much settled on Planet Waves tuners and a particular Graph Tech bridge, and the pickups are probably going to be a new design from Lollar called the dB. I have several prototypes of that guitar made with different woods, so I haven’t yet settled on what wood it will be made of or what the cosmetic accoutrement will be, but that thing really does rule. My philosophy with that guitar is the Malcolm Young Gretsch-style, stripped-and-simple thing, and it’s working out really well for me. I used it a ton on the new album.
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.
Kurt Ballou’s Craftsman guitar is one of his newest prototypes for his company, GodCity Instruments. It has Planet Waves tuners, a Graph Tech bridge, and a newly designed dB humbucker from Lollar.
What it is about Matt Pike’s playing with Sleep and High on Fire that inspires you?
He’s simultaneously super tight and super loose. He’s got this very flowing, wobbly vibe about his vibrato and the way he works the guitar. He’ll use the whole length of the guitar’s neck rather than come up with efficient ways to play things, so he’ll come up with things that look more badass. He’ll do big chord jumps on the same string rather than skip to the next string, and it gives his playing a different, kind of more sliding, sound. So between that, and his vibrato, I really got into Matt’s style.
A lot of the time when a band is tracking guitars in my studio, I have a guitar in my hand. I use it as a communicative tool, but I’m also in the process of learning their riffs: partially out of boredom, partially to educate myself about their songs, and partially to try and pick up a bit of a new style. I think doing that while recording Matt has been very helpful for me.
The mountain of amplifiers you’ve amassed at GodCity is pretty famous at this point. Could you tell us what you used primarily to track guitars on the new Converge record? I noticed you had vintage-style Marshalls onstage again recently.
For the Marshall stuff I’m using live, one of them is actually a new 50-watt plexi reissue: the 1987X, which I really like. I was running an oversized cab that used to be an 8x10 that I converted to a 4x12 in 2002, and I’ve had that along for quite a few tours. The other amp is a mid-’70s JMP 2204 that I’ve had for around 20 years, but I recently put it in a small head shell so it looks better next to that 50-watt Plexi. That JMP was serviced recently by Scot DeBockler of S&K Pedals, and he put some military spec 6CA7 power tubes in it, which brought that amp to a whole new level. It ended up being the primary guitar sound on the new album, and it’s an amp that’s appeared on all of our records. I’ve had a lot of trouble restraining myself with how many amps I record with in the past. I’ll try different setups and before I know it, I’m tracking a million guitar tracks. That gets hard to mix down, and while more tracks can sound bigger, it typically sounds less focused. So I’ve been trying to have the discipline to go for a sound that feels more emotionally intense by having more nuance, and a simpler, less-layered sound usually has more character.
It’s mostly that JMP and an Ampeg V4 in one side, and the JMP and a small combo amp by a company called Sparrows Sons on the other. Those three amps were the main amps that I used on the record, and it’s mostly just two rhythm guitars with occasional overdubs.
I imagine you must have been boosting the V4 with a pedal to get it to sound so mean?
Yeah, so I mostly used three dirt pedals on the record. In most cases, it’s really the sound of the amp, but I like to use a dirt pedal as a bit of an EQ and a boost, regardless of which pedal I’m using. What I used most on this record is a prototype of a GCI pedal called the Riff Child, which is basically a hybrid of a Boss OS-2 and a ZVEX Super Hard On. For the sludgier-sounding songs, I used a GCI pedal called an SBD. It’s based on the Vox Super Beatle Distortion circuit, which is really Vox’s take on a Fuzz Face. Mine has extra EQ controls that I’ve added to the circuit. I really like that pedal for heavy but harmonically rich riffing. It’s a little more smeared sounding than a boost or overdrive, but still pretty articulate. If I needed something between those two, I use a prototype of the Brutalist.
There are some more traditional, even shreddy, guitar solos on this record, like on “Broken by Light.” That athletic lead playing has come out more in recent years and I’m curious if it’s something you had to get comfortable including in Converge’s sound?
Converge has never been strictly a hardcore band, so I’ve never exactly been afraid of solos. When we write the music, we generally don’t hear the vocals until Jake records them, so there’s a lot of guesswork in terms of the arrangements of the songs when we write them. Once vocals get added, there can be holes that need to be filled with something and vocals aren’t always the answer. In the case of “Broken by Light,” the two solos in that song were not intended to be there from the start, but with the way Jake phrased his vocals, it felt like they needed to be added in those spots.
That said, soloing isn’t something I practice. It’s not something I feel I’m very good at, and I’m pretty locked in the pentatonic box. It’s definitely not a forte of mine, but I do like to get wild. It’s a fun challenge for me.
Do you have any tricks for maintaining an objective ear while tracking your own guitar parts? Any advice on self-editing as both a producer and guitarist?
It’s hard. It’s something that comes with experience, but trusting my bandmates is a really important part of it. I see a lot of bands in my studio that don’t have a great deal of trust in their bandmates, and also they don’t yet know how to let go of the things they think are precious. My bandmates and I disagree about things, but we have the same goals in mind. I trust that even if we’re having a disagreement, we have the same end goal in mind and that it’s not about personal ego, which you have to let go of. I know in my early days of making music, it was the end of the world for me if a musical idea I had wasn’t going to be used, and I’d try and railroad the idea through. Now, having been through the process a lot of times, each little thing is not so precious to me.
The other important technique is knowing when to step back and take some time away from something. When we’re writing songs, we tend to demo every practice because we rehearse in my studio, so we can get decent recordings every time we practice. We can stew on that stuff, and a lot of ideas we thought were amazing at the time turn into things we realize are terrible after sitting on them a bit. You need to learn to fight your impatience. It’s really easy to get excited about finishing an idea and, in the haste to finish it, lose the plot. And the converse is also true: If you overthink an idea and feel like you’re shortchanging it, you can dwell for too long and ruin something cool. Being aware of that is huge. Time away from things and listening back to demos after that time away is a major thing for me. When you’re just listening back to something and not performing it, you’re listening to whether or not it sounds cool, not whether or not it feels cool to play. There are things to play on guitar that are really fun to play that aren’t necessarily good ideas musically, and that can be really distracting.
Are you still using your own tunings, and are you willing to divulge them yet?
Yes, I’m still using my own tunings. I still haven’t seen or heard anyone figure out my main tuning, though I’m sure someone has. I think I want to keep it a secret just because I encourage people to figure it out for themselves. I’m no longer concerned with people ripping us off because they know our tuning. I was at one point, but now I see it more as a challenge to guitar-playing fans of ours. One of the strings is G#. That’s the most I’ll give up.
What’s your advice for players seeking to find their own voice?
A lot of the things about my playing that people consider unique are really just my inability to emulate other sounds well. I’ve certainly tried to emulate things at times, and I do have a diverse musical background, but I’m just not particularly good at decoding things. So, a lot of my own failed, clumsy attempts at emulating my heroes luckily managed to materialize into some pretty cool ideas. This has more to do with my own perseverance and the strength of the people that I’ve been playing with than my own ability.
I think it’s super important to be able to recognize and capitalize on your own weaknesses, and whatever circumstances you’ve found yourself thrown into. I was recently reminded of someone that I recorded who only had two digits on one hand due to a birth defect, but he was this absolutely savage bass player because the two digits that he did have had to be doubly strong to make up for what he didn’t have. So, while he wasn’t great at things like palm muting, he had this incredible strength to his hand that made him a killer bass player with a very unique style. That’s an extreme example, but the point is, you have to take your life experience, your influences, your physical attributes, your economic condition—whether you can afford a bunch of gear or can’t—whatever your circumstances are, you need to get creative with what you’ve got. We see it with bedroom producers all the time now. It used to be that your only option was playing with a band and playing loud. Now you can do it by yourself in your room and use amp-modeling software and drum libraries, and because of those tools and people’s creative uses of those tools, entirely new styles of music are created. People are using what they have at their disposal and that can dramatically influence how you write music. It’s a matter of always changing the way you approach things. That’s how you keep it interesting and evolving. That’s the key for me, at least.
Watch Converge absolutely decimate Brooklyn’s Saint Vitus club in December 2017 in this hour-long performance.
Kurt Ballou demonstrates the S&K VHD pedal on his “demovids” YouTube channel. In this series, Ballou and Converge bassist Nate Newton let us watch while they explore new gear.
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