Great Falls have been around for well over a decade, making consistently excellent, consistently horrible music. Much like precursors Playing Enemy and Kiss It Goodbye the band deal in a tangled, difficult, psychotic brand of brutality that defies easy categorisation, falling somewhere between noise-rock and metallic post-hardcore.
Their latest release, ‘Objects Without Pain’, is their most powerful release yet: vicious, sad, brutal and yet undeniably artful. It’s one of my favourite releases this year, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Bassist Shane Mehling and guitarist/vocalist Demian Johnston were good enough to answer some questions about the album, how their approach has changed, aging out and the sadness and fear that drives the creation of this sort of music.
Okay, so let’s start with the obvious one: tell us about ‘Objects Without Pain’. What went into it, and made it the way it is?
Shane: After ‘A Sense of Rest’I’m not sure exactly what we had in mind, because it took a while for songs to start really coming together. The majority of it was written during the pandemic with our old drummer but we hit a lot of roadblocks and there were a lot of disagreements over the direction, some small and some pretty big. As Demian and I started to get a better idea of the record and how big we wanted to make it, things fell apart with our drummer and we immediately were able to get Nick [Parks, also of Gaytheist] to come up and help us finish the songs and, with his drumming, get the sound we were really hoping for.
Was there anything you were particularly looking to do differently this time around, or any past mistakes that you were looking to avoid?
Shane: After ‘A Sense Of Rest’ we felt really good about “We Speak in Lowercase,” which is the longest song by far on the album. That comes about halfway through the record and this time we wanted to move something like that to the front. It felt like a challenge to put something pretty significant at the beginning, and which wouldn’t immediately clue people in to what kind of record it was. A lot of what we did was try to take some bigger swings on this and risk people finding it boring or too pretentious. And we really wanted to make room for Nick’s drumming because it’s such an integral part of the songs.
‘A Sense Of Rest’ wasn’t exactly a chilled out album, but it feels like the tension has been ramped through the roof with ‘Objects Without Pain’. What would you say has changed for you personally / musically between releases, and why do you think the new album sounds so… challenging?
Shane: I think it goes back to trying to take bigger swings and just keep pushing forward until we feel like we’ve really bitten off more than we can chew. During the process it definitely felt that way with this one. Now we have to figure out for the next record how much more we want to push ourselves and risk failing.
This is your first LP with Nickolis Parks – what’s the story there, and what do you think he’s brought to the table?
Shane: We’ve known him for 20 years but he lives practically in Portland, which is about three hours from our practice space. We needed a drummer for a fill-in, and we were asking a lot of him: come in and pretty much rewrite all the drums on the songs we had, and then write new drums to all these other songs, which with the LP and extras was 13 songs total. He could really only make it up about twice a month, and Demian and I practice four times that, so we didn’t expect him to pick it up so quickly. Only after a few practices we asked him to be in the band.
As for what he’s brought, he’s incredibly talented and plays the exact drum beats we want, but it’s really the immediacy he plays with; I feel like he made us play more aggressively on this one just to keep up.
The record is really immediate and hits at a gut-level. When I listen to those riffs, the words I think of are ‘clumpy’ and ‘scrunched’, but at the same time there’s a lot of deftness at play – the playthroughs on Instagram and the photos that show strings of effects pedals give me a bit of a headache. How do you achieve this balance, between writing music that’s satisfyingly tricksy but also hits like a brick to the skull?
Demian: I don’t really know how to play guitar in any normal sense. I started playing because it was fun but I wasn’t very interested in learning techniques or even learning how to play other bands’ songs. I just wanted to play and make weird stuff happen. We spend a bunch of time just trying to make a new thing happen within our own personal musical vocabulary. I think because we are very collaborative with our writing process we end up with something that is very much a group effort.
Shane: I think this has always been what we’re striving for and you never know if you’ll really nail it down. We tend to get overly critical about riffs that, if they’re played clean, aren’t necessarily that heavy. We try to keep guitars from staying too low for too long because we think it hurts dynamics, and we’re always trying to use bass as a counterweight, playing something at least slightly different, so then when we really want something to land we can match up.
I’m interested in how you approach ‘space’ as a band. The record frequently feels worryingly airless, but you also know when to drop away and let the horror sink in…
Shane: I think that we are only now really coming to terms with how, as you say, challenging or overwhelming our music can be. We have never really thought like that, and finally we are starting to try to balance that out with more breaths and giving people a chance to ebb and flow. This is why almost every song has an intro or an outro – we just want to make sure we’re not consistently beating people up. We’re not a brutal death metal or grind band. We love listening to unrelenting extreme music but that is not what we want to do.
Do you feel like your work with Hemingway has influenced how Great Falls deals with space, ambience or background crackle?
Demian: I think when Playing Enemy broke up, Shane and I needed a little time getting away from traditional song structures to really explore and experiment with sound. We had been in a pretty rigid band and I think it ended up stifling us creatively. Hemingway offered us some new perspectives on what shows could be like and sound like. After a while though we started sneaking in some more traditional songs, got a drum machine and before you know it we changed our name to Great Falls. Shortly after that we added a real drummer and started working on what would become this band. In retrospect I wouldn’t change anything from the Hemingway time.
The record sounds like hell on Earth, so how was it writing, practicing and recording these songs? Is it as dour, miserable and intense as the music, or do you shrug all that off and return to goofing around and in-jokes?
Shane: I would say 99% of writing and practicing is either very boring, “Can you move that note there instead?” kind of talk or goofing around. Demian and I love to just hang out so while we obviously spend a lot of time working on songs it’s really just two guys in a room trying to make each other laugh. And when Nick comes up that vibe is exactly the same.
This feels like a brutal question, but is the story of separation that the album tells for real or an invention?
Demian: The lyrics definitely come from a very honest place but I am still with my wife and have been for years. We have had some periods of time where things aren’t going well, and we’ve spent some time apart before, but I definitely write what I know. Most of the lyrics are sort of explorations of my feelings. So while it may not be literal as far as my day to day reality goes it is certainly real in that these are all fears, frustrations and insecurities that I am expressing with my lyrics. I don’t love writing lyrics, and I like singing them even less but I do find the whole process to be pretty helpful. I think if I held these ideas in I would be very unhappy and a very unpleasant person to be around.
I’ve always really enjoyed Demian’s art, and the book that you’ve created to accompany the record looks great. What was the motivation there, and how do you feel this sort of artisanal approach chimes with what you’re doing as a band?
Demian: We love to make stuff. I have some skills I don’t mind using so we decided to make something that could accompany the record. Each drawing is a sort of reference to the songs on the album. It started as some loose sketches and then it just became this mess of a book and I am really proud of it. My wife got me into a Risograph printing class recently and I fell in love so we decided to make risograph printed pages but we definitely wanted to mix in some letterpress printing techniques as well. As that is something I have been doing and teaching for a long while. We are finishing up the construction on the books now and I keep telling Shane that I won’t do something like this again but I am pretty sure that’s a lie.
A lot of bands are going nuts with the kind of merch they’re selling these days, I guess because selling music via Spotify doesn’t make them jack shit and they need to pay for food. Does the care and attention you put into the art book, or this year’s lathe-cut record slot in with this at all? It feels like the time and work you put in on these things can’t really generate the same ROI as mass-printing beer koozies or underpants…
Shane: I think the lathe EP for ‘Funny What Survives’ probably had the best ROI on anything we’ve done in 20+ years, but also we only made 50 and at least ten of those we gave away to friends so no, I would estimate we almost always end up a little poorer. The point of this band is to do what we think is cool while losing as little money as possible.
Neurot feels like a great fit for you guys, both in terms of the other acts on the label and in terms of general artistic and aesthetic approach. How did the deal come about, and how has it been?
Shane: It was totally thanks to Scott Evans, whose band Kowloon Walled City is on Neurot. He gave the record to Steve and that was really all it took, much to our surprise. And it’s been absolutely great. “Validating” is probably the word that comes to mind most often.
Having worked with a bunch of different labels over the years, do you feel like you might’ve found a ‘home’ now?
Shane: Well, we have worked with so many labels that it’s hard to think of a label as home. Since Demian and I started playing together we’ve never put a full-length out on the same label. And we also wouldn’t want to assume that Neurot will have the appetite for another record with us. But we certainly aren’t out looking for something else.
What motivates the band most: sadness, anger or frustration?
Demian: For me it’s definitely sadness, maybe add some fear and anxiety. Between being a parent and a partner I am constantly feeling like I am not enough and I’m ruining the lives of those around me. I realize that every moment is closer to my last and I hate to think I may fill that remaining time with being a fuck up. I am sad about all the things I have missed over the years and disappointed in myself for all my missteps. Generally everyone around me seems fine and I’m not abusive or shitty to people but I feel like I’m just not living up to my own potential. Like I’m somehow failing myself and those around me.
Much as I love hearing Hot New Bands featuring Adorable Young People, I am always heartened when people I deem ‘lifers’ (see also: Oxbow, KEN mode, Kowloon Walled City, etc.) continue to make great, interesting, inspiring music. What keeps you at it, and how is it to be in a band who’ve seen a lot of things (trends; people; sights or experiences that were once thrilling but are now not, etc.) come and go?
Demian: I’m not really sure what else I would be doing to keep me happy. There isn’t really anything else I’d rather be doing. It’s also pretty much all I know. I’ve been doing it for longer than I haven’t and I don’t have any real plans on stopping.
Shane: Demian has said he would quit music if we weren’t playing together. I’m not totally sure that’s true, but I definitely feel the same way. We just like doing this music thing together and so it’s been easy to keep going because we still just want to hang out and play noise. And this 20+ years thing is weird because we don’t really feel like grizzled veterans. We are old and tired, true, but we still feel pretty new at this because we are constantly looking back and seeing mistakes and figuring out how to fix them or just try new approaches. We’re playing with bands in their 20s and aside from our war stories we don’t feel much different from them. We’re not capable of doing six weeks on the road anymore or trying to get opening slots on big tours, but aside from that we share stages with these kids and it feels about the same as it always did.
Do you feel part of whatever scene you occupy, or are you at a distance or removed from it?
Shane: This is always a tricky question because you are right, we have seen a lot of bands come and go and we see guys quit and never play again and then a new batch of people show up and you never know how long they’re gonna last. Usually if they’re really good they don’t last long. And we are older and have families and real jobs and I live about 50 minutes from Seattle so neither of us are going to many shows. But we’re always rooting for the scene and try to play local shows with just local bands. And now with Nick we’re becoming a little part of the Portland scene as well, which we like quite a bit.
Demian: I think because I generally don’t go to shows that I’m not playing I am not really contributing to the scene outside of a bare minimum. I’d like to be a bigger part of it but between being a partner and parent and having a full-time job I just don’t have the extra time to offer. I like our scene and I love the people that come out to shows here but I do feel a little distance from those actually keeping the shows going and the venues open.
For a long time I argued that listening to punk rock and other forms of weird / difficult / horrible music into one’s later years helped maintain a youthful mindset and an open-minded attitude. Lately I’ve been wondering whether this is, in fact, bullshit and more like some sort of deep pathology. Because I haven’t got the money or time to see a therapist, I was wondering what your views on this might be?
Shane: The way you put it sounds way nicer than probably I see it; I tend to think that writing this kind of music is an attempt to stave off that feeling of being older. No offense to many, many musicians I love, but the shift from crazy to more palatable music always seems like an acknowledgment that they can no longer be as intense or impactful with heavy music as they once were. And I think we’re still too scared to admit that to ourselves.
Demian: It’s hard to say. You may be onto something there. I love this stuff and I’m basically a child. A very old child.
How would you say the bands you’ve been in chart / complement / sum up your lives? What, beyond the humans involved, are the common threads that link the likes of Kiss It Goodbye, Playing Enemy and Great Falls?
Demian: I learned to play guitar basically by learning to play what Keith did in Kiss it Goodbye. From there I have taken all those lessons and made what I could out of it. I’d say that’s a very clear connection.
What’s next for Great Falls? What, if anything, do you feel you might have left to do, prove or achieve?
Demian: I’d like to keep making records until it’s not fun any longer.
Shane: We’d like to fit in as much modest touring as possible. And I imagine we’ll just keep writing songs and putting out albums until one of us dies or goes missing.