Interview || The One With Jeffrey Eaton from Modern Life Is War

After a two-year absence, Modern Life Is War returned to Europe for a brief string of shows and we caught up with vocalist Jeffrey Eaton on a sunny but breezy afternoon halfway through the tour. Follow us as Jeff details the idea behind their latest work, the "Tribulation Worksongs" volumes, discusses the views of the band on various subjects and describes in depth how the music that he likes changed his life.

© Dearohwell Photography

U: Let's start with the very obvious and well-expected questions. You recently announced the release of the "Tribulation Worksongs" volumes, a series of singles instead of an LP. How did the idea come about?
Jeffrey Eaton: Part of it was practical. We kinda take our sweet time writing songs, we're not a band that writes a ton of [material] and sometimes that process takes a while for us. We wanted to be active but we didn't want to go out and play the same set and not have anything new. The LP is years old now at this point so we wanted to get that moving again and we thought it would be more exciting to do singles. Our plan is to release two a year for the next three years. We are working on six volumes total. The second volume is already recorded and it will come out later this year. We have our recording session booked to do the two that will come out next year, we have that booked for January. It's also nice to be able to take my time with my writing and be current to some things, at some degree... It just feels a little more present. Every few months we're gonna have a couple of new songs out and when we go play shows, we'll have some new songs to play, I'll have new lyrics to write, so it's gonna keep as really active in a nice, steady way over the next few years.

U: What does "Tribulation Worksongs" mean to you?
J.E.: The word "tribulation" essentially means struggle, it means going through a difficult time. I think that can mean personally and a little bit politically, in a sense of our country right now, and the world at large, even someone within the band, you know? You always hope to get to a point where things are smooth sailing, and you get past all the difficulties, and you conquer the things that have been fighting against you and everything just kinda opens up but with this project. It's like an acknowledgement that there's always gonna be struggle and there's always gonna be things that are fighting against you. This is a series that acknowledges [those] struggles in our personal lives and in our world as a whole. The "worksongs" aspect... We don't see [the songs] as demos but we're not really attempting to make polished songs or recording either; we're basically coming out with raw ideas, making songs out of them and going and recording them. We want the layouts and the artwork to be very stark and just focus on the music and the lyrics. You can actually see the record and the whole design is essentially the song title and the lyrics. Just a very direct, straightforward record that has to do with struggle.

U: Everything about the layout of those singles is handmade. It's one thing reading about it, but only after watching the video it all came into perspective. What was the idea behind the evolution aspect of the artwork?
J.E.: (laughs) I think it's a little confrontational. In this first series [Volume 1 & 2], I wrote a couple of songs that deal with gun violence and specifically mass shootings that we seem to deal with every few months in the States. Jake [Banon of Deathwish Inc.] came up with the idea for the evolution lineup ending with a modern man holding an assault riffle. I think it's pretty striking and really fit in with me writing about those mass shootings

U: It's very simplistic but has a very strong message behind it, which I absolutely loved. You guys also shot a video for "Feels Like End Times", your first video ever, right?
J.E.: Ever, yeah (laughs)

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U: How was the experience and how did it come about?
J.E.: It was really fun! We were gonna do a video for every one of these singles that we do so every time a single comes out, we're gonna have a video, which is a new thing for us. Our friend, Bo Becker, who is from our hometown, produced the video and did all the editing. The concept was mine, even though it was a fairly simple one, with the worms writhing around and the high contrast, black and red imagery, all close-ups, no wide band shots... Kinda getting away from a traditional music video. I wanted to make it feel like a flyer, a Xerox flyer was what I had in mind. It was a fun experience making it; Bo did a really great job. It was made in his basement and in John's [Eich, guitar] basement, we spent almost no money on it and we got it done in one day. [Bo] spent a lot of time editing it, of course, but we did it like we do most things, you know? We did it around home and we did it on a small budget with our friends.

Modern Life Is War has occasionally touched on social and political issues but you never fully became a political band. Was that intentional? Is it something that might change in the future?
J.E.: (exhales, choosing his words) I've always tried to [avoid] taking a hard political stance on any specific issues. There's a couple of reasons for that. It's naturally how I am. I do have lots of opinions, lots of strong feelings but I'm not an expert on global politics, I don't pretend to know what's going on behind closed doors in the white house, I don't understand global economics, it's not my strong suit. My strong suit is people; understanding people, working people, and how the decisions made maybe affect our lives. To me, being overly political means taking a very strong stance on specific issues. I feel that our strength as a band -or maybe my strength as an individual- is relating to people on a personal, heart-to-heart level and gaining some understanding in that way, maybe even opening up people's minds a little bit to new ideas but not repelling them because my views are different than theirs. They might not know what my views are -there's definitely a lot of hints, but I don't come out right and say that I have a political agenda with the band so yes, I would say that it was kinda intentional but also naturally just how I think.

U: How important is it to be on a label like Deathwish that isn't afraid of taking risks and doesn't push you to release an album every other year?
J.E.: Really, really amazing! We don't have a record contract at all. Every time we want to do something, we go to them and we make an agreement on how it's going to go down. This project in general was a very challenging one for them. They don't stand to make really any money on it. There's almost no financial gain to put out six 7" made by hand in limited qualities... It's what we wanted to do and I had a vision for it and they just got behind it right away. I would have understood if they would have said no, so I'm just thankful. They demand nothing of us and they support us as a band unconditionally, and I think this is very important. I would hate to work with someone who is pushing us to do -we're too stubborn to be pushed to do anything- so I guess we have the perfect label for us.

U: Goethe believed that none are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe that they are free, a quote that remains relevant even 200 years after its inception and is open to interpretation. What is freedom for you? How do you interpret it? And finally, do you think that humanity will change its ways?
J.E.: Freedom is something I'm always trying to work out. I think feelings of freedom in a way come from community. I think that, as humans, we're kinda built to be part of a small community where we depend on people and other people are depending on us, where we know those people personally and we know their families and their lives. There's a bastardized idea of what freedom is in the US, we've made it into ultra individualism where you pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, and you make your own living, and you have your own home, and you drive your own car, and you take care of yourself, buy your own health insurance. Every single thing must be done by you. The more independent that you are about it, makes you a more respectable person and I think one thing that we've really lost in the process of urbanization, industrialization and technology is that we're getting further and further away from each other. Certainly when I was younger I did interpret freedom in a more of an American sense; living on my own, doing my own thing and being my own individual. As I get older, I find that being an individual is important to an extent but I think that being part of a community and having people that depend on you and that you can depend on is maybe the most important thing. Now, that's the part of it that we can control. As far as what our national governments are gonna do, what militaries around the world are gonna do, how economic policies are gonna shuffle down, how different policies are going to affect different classes or races of people, is very overwhelming for me to think about. I believe that everyone has their own way -or I guess I should say "strengths"- of creating a positive change in the world. For me, personally, going back to talking about what these records are about or if we're a political band or not, my strength is language and humanity, it's not politics. Freedom is a tricky think but I think it's got to do with community more so than American ideas of individualism.

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U: If you were a member of the Spice Girls, what would be your Spice name?
J.E. Punky Spice. That was quick (laughs)

U: (laughs) It was! If you could have a one-minute phone conversation with a younger you, what age would you call and what would you tell yourself?
J.E.: (long pause) I'd probably choose 18. I'd talk to my 18-year-old self and I would tell that person to focus on being kind, being patient and creating the things that you want to create. In my youth, and a lot of people in their youth, you get very caught up in your self image and things you want to accomplish, certainly in love and romance, dealing with expectations that are put on you, maybe by your parents or other people... For me, creating and producing creative work are the most important things. If I do [those], then I don't think I will have spent my time vain.

U: What is it about punk rock that keeps people young?
J.E.: It's wild and free and relatively direct. I think someone could criticize it as being dumb and maybe people want to advance themselves in some way by leaving it in the past and getting onto different kinds of music. Certainly I am into lots of kinds of music but I think there's an innocence and a direct communication of punk music that I love and I think, if you can tap into that idea and that attitude, it puts your heart in a place that makes you feel that a lot of things are possible in the world and that they don't have to be overwhelming or complicated. They can be simple, like, your friends and a couple of guitars, and you're in business. The idea that you don't have to be a super advanced musician to be successful in this genre is a very liberating aspect. If you wanted to be a classical music composer, you can't exactly step in and get dirty, you know? (laughs)

U: What is the biggest misconception about Modern Life Is War?
J.E.: (long pause) I don't know... I really feel that, as years go by, we're understood more and more... The people who support us really understand -like, really, really understand- who we are and what we do. I don't read a lot of reviews and I don't really search for criticism. I run across things once in a while but usually it's meaningless people talking shit just to talk shit. That does bother me but I feel grateful for our supporters, because they do understand us fully. I don't know what a major misconception would be and I think it means different things to different people -and that's OK! Maybe some people see us as a political band, maybe others see us as a very emotional band, some people see us as a punk or a hardcore punk band... The thing I'm most proud of is that we're a unique band in this music and hasn't been another band like us. I wouldn't have always said that but at this point I'm confident in saying that we're our own band fully and, although we have influences, there is no one like us.

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U: There have been many bands after you though... I think it's safe to say that you created a genre.
J.E.: Yeah absolutely, but they have their own style, their own approach to it! I think we all take things from the past and let it influence us but, if you create your own thing, at a certain point you have to be given credit for that, and I think, for the most part, a lot of the bands that you're maybe referring to have also earned the right to say that they're also a unique band doing their own thing.

U: The hardest question: 5 albums that changed your life. Go.
J.E.: Oh... Let's start with... Let's see, what should we start with? The start for me was Rancid - "Let's Go". I think Rancid is, as much as they're loved around the world, they're underrated as a lyrical band. Some of the best punk lyrics ever written. And the fact that the're a such a commercially successful and well known band makes people overlook that, but if you look at the lyrics, "Salvation" especially, but really just about every song on this album, there's songs about class struggle, poverty and alienation culturally, and I think they cut to the heart of things a lot. That was my first punk record that changed me, and so that's a very important one.
Manic Street Preachers is one of my favorites of all time although no one that I know seems to share my love for that band but I'll keep spreading the gospel. They have an album called "The Holy Bible", that is to me -I always talk about lyrics when I talk about albums- some of the most powerful lyrics I've ever read, some of the most haunting songs that will stick with me. I almost feel uneasy when listening to that album but sort of comforted in the same time. It's one of the most powerful documents of alienation and poetic beauty that I know of.
The Clash - "London Calling" for its musical variety -pop, rockabilly, dub reggae, there's a lot of rhythms, the vocal style is very wild and creative, they take you around the world and talk about parts of the world that you had never thought about before they spoke of them... Certainly that's an album that's very close to my heart and I hardly go two weeks without listening to it in full, I mean, it's always near my record player.
What else... These aren't my top five of all time, right? Just the five that changed my life. Changed my life... I'll put Patti Smith - "Radio Ethiopia" out there. She's become one of my favorites, her blending of poetry of rock n roll is revolutionary. I think she's an ultimate example of a strong woman and that her talent is completely singular; no one sings like her, no one writes like her and I could just pick any of her albums but I'll choose "Radio Ethiopia" -the opening track, "Asking Angels" sends chills down my spine. Understanding Patti Smith was a turning point for me someway so that's definitely on the list.
Just one to go... I'm missing big ones, I'm gonna be so mad when we finish this interview. Well, it's not an album and I've said it in interviews before, but the record that made me wand to sing in a band was an EP, The Trouble - "Crime & Punishment". I bought the 7" and for whatever reason, things that I'd heard in the realm of punk and hardcore before that I loved and was obsessed with, but I never thought about doing it personally until I heard that record. The songs are so right, so powerful and so angry and so determined. They represent a real breath of hardcore and punk and oi, for lack of a better term. It's still to this day a record that I put on and makes my blood go.

U: What do you want the band's legacy to be?
J.E.: I'd like the band's legacy to be... An honest band that people can truly believe in. I don't feel like music, especially of this kind, should be a competition so I don't care to be the best in that regard; I don't need to feel that I'm the best lyrically or vocally, have the best musicianship or anything like that. I just hope that people can look at us as an honest band that they can believe in and that truly meant something personal in their hearts. [ed: we do, mate, we do.]

© Dearohwell Photography

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