You can’t keep a well oiled machine down! 16volt front man Eric Powell speaks with ReGen on the band’s third wave, living in The Negative Space, and breaking out into an angry and productive future.
An InterView with Eric Powell of 16volt
By Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)
Never a band to stay dead and buried for very long, 16volt remains one of the industrial/rock scene’s most eminent and dynamic musical entities. Having made its initial impact in the ’90s with such albums as LetDownCrush and SuperCoolNothing, and then returning after an extended quiet in 2007 with FullBlackHabit and continuing to ride a second wave of success with albums like American Porn Songs and reissues of the back catalog, 16volt virtually defined the subgenre of industrial music often referred to as machine/rock and coldwave. In 2014, 16volt entered into another hiatus, with front man Eric Powell delving into a more traditional band format with the excellent Black December album the following year – but even with this momentary excursion, the machines could not be deactivated, leading ultimately to 16volt’s resurrection and marking the band’s third wave with the release of 2016’s The Negative Space, the band’s most experimental album yet. The year also saw the band return to the stage with a new lineup that included bassist Steve Hickey, drummer Kyle Cunningham, and Adoration Destroyed’s Erik Gustafson on guitar, reinstating 16volt’s place as one of the scene’s loudest, most powerful live acts making appearances at such revered festivals as Terminus and, for the third time, ColdWaves in Chicago. Eric Powell now speaks with ReGen Magazine on the current state of 16volt, dropping a few hints about the band’s future endeavors in the studio and on the stage, discussing the tumultuous circumstances behind the writing and recording of The Negative Space, the pitfalls of the music industry, and touring in the digital age, proving once and for all that you can’t keep a well oiled machine down.
16volt is back, having released The Negative Space in 2016 and performing at Terminus and ColdWaves, and while you’ve said that 16volt has never really broken up, the band does seem to appear/disappear in waves – you had a run in the ’90s, then returned in 2007 with FullBlackHabit and ran for some years, and now the band is back for a third wave.
: It’s kind of a question that I really have to ask myself. 16volt has always been the main drive in my life, and I’ve focused everything I have toward 16volt, and I’ve struggled with that over the years pretty publicly – getting my head into different things… like, for example, when we were signed to Mercury/Polygram and SlipDisc and being really career driven and losing my way with things. I kind of grew up, so to speak, with 16volt at my side. Doing it for so long, I’ve made a lot of mistakes and I’ve learned a lot of lessons, and I continue to do that. I’m not saying that I’m a famous guy or anything like that, but I’ve kind of done it publicly and gone through that shit; I’ve never been one to try to hide in celebrity secrecy or any of that bullshit. I’ve always been a pretty real person and pretty laid back, but with that kind of transparency, sometimes people see through it and question what’s going on and what we’re doing. It’s been a rough ride, but it’s been an awesome ride that has kind of gone all over the place.
I think for us, when we switched over and started doing Black December, we really kind of wanted to do something different. We’d been in that 16volt mode for so long, and even though I’d taken some breaks, it was still kind of there. I’d tried to walk away from it a couple of times, and have some epiphanies and some come to Jesus moments, and realized, ‘How can you walk away from yourself?’ I kind of realized that no matter what, it’s always going to be a part of my life and it’s not something I can turn away from or stop doing. So I tried to refocus and go through that Black December phase, and I had some tumultuous times with that, switched the lineup around a bit and started doing 16volt stuff again. We came into doing The Negative Space
with the guy who produced Black December…
Marc Jordan, right?
: Right, Marc Jordan, and he’s an excellent producer… really creative, an amazing songwriter, and I think for us, that was just sort of a given and a natural way to go. I wouldn’t say that I wouldn’t do it that way again, but I think at this point, the one thing I’ve learned from all of this is that the only way I can do this right for myself and for my fans is to do it myself – go back to D.I.Y. and ‘fuck the world!’ At the end of the day, the record we just did, The Negative Space
is a great record and there are moments on that record that are amazing, but on the whole, I don’t rank it among our strongest… collectively. I think there are songs on there that are standout, amazing songs to me, and there are moments that are a summation of all of the things I’ve learned, but I think on the whole, I’m ready to get onto the next chapter, realign things, and see where we go from here.
I did mostly in my home studio and I did book some studio time for the louder stuff, and I think we’re going to go back to doing things that way – it works out better for us and it works out better for our fans. It’s a more pure process for 16volt.
I find that interesting, because it is an experimental record for 16volt in that there are moments of quiet and introspection; there’s a song with female vocals taking the lead, and there’s a Johnny Cash cover, and I felt that the band was at a phase of not having to adhere to a formula, could dare to do things differently.
In fact, a reader had left a comment in our ReView stating that while the album deserved the rating we gave it, it lacked power. This reader apparently liked different things about it than we did, so it is certainly a polarizing record.
: Oh, for sure! We’ve had comments in every aspect, but that’s an interesting thing to talk about it being powerful – powerful in what sense? If you take a song like ‘The Greatest Worst Thing Ever,’ to me, that is one of the most powerful things we’ve ever done because of the emotional transparency on it. That song is just raw fucking honesty, and I don’t want to get pretentious on it, but it is a form of art and that’s all you can do is completely express yourself openly and honestly, which is what we did. People have been asking us if we’re going to go on tour, where are we at? Working with Marc, we’ve started to kind of slip into that old Hollywood shit again, and for whatever reason, that just does not suit me. We’ve had some opportunities come up and things that are looking pretty stellar, and at the end of the day, we’ve made the choice not to pursue that and to just keep doing whatever it is that I’ve created.
The music video for ‘The Electric Pope’ was certainly something different for 16volt. You haven’t done very many of them, and this video was rather balls-to-the-wall. How did that video come about?
Powell: That video is an interesting story, and not to make any excuses, but that video was not driven by me. I was very, ‘We have to do a video, and this is the song that is resonating with labels right now,’ so I gave up some creative control and got into more of a passive collaboration you could say. I actually wanted to do a different song; I wanted to do ‘The Internal Paramour,’ but given the people we were working with at the time, we sort of followed business decisions rather than artistic ones. At the end of all of that, I came around to feeling, ‘Goddamn it! I should’ve known better!’ And that’s especially since we haven’t done much video stuff. It was a super fun video to make, don’t get me wrong, and we had a blast making it, but if I look at it not objectively but personally, I don’t feel like it’s a representation of 16volt.
As much as I did enjoy it, I did think it was somewhat unexpected with the Mad Max/Lord of the Flies sensibility, but I equated that to the mentality of the album as a whole with the band taking chances.
: We certainly did that, and I’m not backpedalling on those decisions. But The Negative Space
is a record that was made during a really hard time for me. I was dealing with some serious life issues at that point – I’d just come through a pretty nasty divorce, had a really rough breakup with someone, having issues with my kids, got laid off from my job over the holiday and couldn’t get a job for three months, and I lost my place and was literally homeless for two or three months, all in the middle of making The Negative Space
. Within all of that, I had to let go of control in some ways because I felt like I couldn’t deal with finishing the album when I had to figure out how to eat. So I let other people drive it, and The Negative Space
is a complete collaboration between me and Marc, and we definitely took chances, and I dove in headfirst and I gave myself to the process. But now, when people ask me what I’m going to do now, I’m feeling like I’m ready to just dive back into making another record. We had some pretty lofty goals with our IndieGoGo campaign, and we’re still fulfilling stuff off of that, which has been a struggle because we made a good chunk of money that got spent really quickly to make those things happen. For instance, the vinyl edition of the album that we’re manufacturing right now… Steve Hickey and I paid for that out-of-pocket. All that money that we raised was gone and put into making this, and thankfully, our fans have been awesome and super patient as we try to make good on our promises.
It does seem like a lot of fans realize now that when a band that has been around for as long as 16volt has been has to resort to a crowdfunding campaign, that’s just the truth of the industry and that artists don’t have the industry to fall back on anymore.
: Oh, not at all. I started off in 1989 in recording engineering school, and that was my backup plan that I had to go do in order to do music, so I’ve always had a super snobby viewpoint when it comes to recording. The idea of recording an album in your bedroom was ridiculous to me. But that being said, you have
to these days, and it has been a hang up of mine and my recording process that that’s how I still think about making a record… booking studio time and such. That’s just how I think about it, and like you said, in today’s world, that’s not as feasible anymore unless you can do something like a crowdfunding campaign, and we did and it worked great. I spent more time in the studio on The Negative Space
than on any other record except for SuperCoolNothing
, and I think from an audiophile and recording, technical standpoint, it’s fucking phenomenal. But at the end of the day, you download an MP3 and can you really tell the difference? Maybe 5% of the population can…
Oh, I always call bullshit when anybody says, ‘Oh, my ears can hear the difference immediately.’ Oh, really? No, your sound system can!
Powell: (Laughter) Right! I can tell the difference when I’m in mastering and listening through $10,000 fucking speakers in 96K, but if you play me the MP3 on fresh ears, I won’t be able to tell you the difference. I can A/B and tell you the difference, but I can’t freshly pick it.
So, who is in the band now? When you performed at ColdWaves, you had Steve Hickey, Erik Gustafson, and Kyle Cunningham in the band. Is that still the case moving forward?
: Erik’s been playing live with us, and on the last few shows, Steve White of PIG and KMFDM came back to play with us again. For me, it becomes a geographic challenge. I love playing with Erik, but it gets really tricky when we play one-off shows and fly-in dates, and it gets very expensive. Every time we do a fly-in show, we have to get there a couple of days early to rehearse, so for a single show, we end up staying for two or three days, or maybe even four, and it just gets really expensive.
Steve Hickey was our guitar and bass tech for years, so when Mike Peoples left, the question arose as to who would play bass, and it was like, ‘Well, duh!’ Steve’s a phenomenal musician and a cool dude, very smart, so it just made sense. He’s been with us for a year or two now, and it’s been really cool; Steve is definitely in 16volt and not going anywhere until he decides to leave. I would imagine I could have Steve White when it’s geographically feasible, but other than that, I don’t really need anybody. (Laughter)
You’d mentioned that you’d been going through some personal turmoil during The Negative Space; what is inspiring you now with the new music you’re writing, and where do you think the next album might go thematically in terms of your emotions or mindset?
Powell: I feel like The Negative Space was mourning, and the next step in the process is anger…
Which we all love from 16volt.
Powell: (Laughter) Yeah, we’re good at that, so we might as well do it.
I have to ask since industrial/rock and machine/rock always seems to have at least some lyrical grounding in politics… so, what are your thoughts on the current situation after the election?
Powell: To be honest, I don’t really know. I don’t really pay attention to any of it. I’m friends with a lot of people, and I try to be cool with everybody, and I don’t really have any problems with anybody, nor do I know anybody who really has any problems with each other. I don’t pay attention to any of that.
Thank goodness. (Laughter) Earlier, you’d mentioned that the business came into play with The Negative Space, and you’d had brushes with the industry before. Now, it does seem like a lot of today’s alternative/rock and metal bands are starting to use machine elements, programming, etc. more often. What are your thoughts on the way that technology is evolving and how it’s affecting people’s outlook on music?
: That’s an interesting question, and I think it really depends on which school you came from. I have heard a lot of the bands like that and I completely agree with you; they approach their songs like a rock or metal band, and then when they’re in production and working with a producer, they throw in some electronics to give the music some more movement and surprising moments or whatever. I think bands from our corner of the third world tend to do it the opposite way; we write from the electronic standpoint first, and then the guitar and rock elements come in to add flavor rather than be the recipe. I think that’s the distinction, if that makes sense. I’ve listened to some bands floating around, even in the ’90s that I’d hear and think, ‘Dude, they’re just ripping off industrial/rock bands – we were doing this 10 years ago!’ (Laughter) But labels can’t tell the difference, and the labels that are left still feel that way. ‘Well, there’s this band 16volt, and that’s an industrial band that uses rock elements’… as opposed to these rock bands that use industrial elements, and to them, that’s different. I don’t know. It’s a weird thing, and I think for me, I really try to distance myself from the business angle as much as possible.
Anybody who is a critic is just someone who can’t do it themselves; you want to fucking tell me how to do my shit or if it’s good or not, that’s your choice because I put it out there, but am I going to let that drive or affect me? No. And I’m talking more about the label and A&R guys who are in the music business and it’s their choices to make or break a band financially. The way that they come about making those decisions is just ludicrous. Sometimes it’s not even necessarily that calculated; it could even just be the case of a producer listening to one thing and saying to the band, ‘Hey, you guys kind of sound close to this, so why don’t we borrow from that?’ Everybody borrows from everybody – nobody does anything 100% original. If you go into the studio and start off fresh with a producer or anybody who knows even a little bit about what you’re doing, the first thing he’s going to ask you is what you like, what you sound like, how you want the record to sound or feel, and they’ll say, ‘Well, let’s listen to some other bands like that.’ It’s pretty much an obvious thing that most producers have a pretty good palate for different styles of music and they tend to be a little bit more musically focused rather than business focused, and they have a little bit more of an open mind and as opposed to an A&R person who is very focused on rock
and probably isn’t listening to a whole bunch of different shit. Producers borrow and steal from everybody. Shit, we’ve
gotten comparisons to other bands.
Didn’t Tommy Lee’s Methods of Mayhem cover a 16volt song?
Powell: Yeah, he covered ‘I Fail Truth’ for a whole tour and at OzzFest, had it as their closing song – it was the best and most rowdy song in the set – and never gave us any credit at all. (Laughter) Well, except for maybe a Facebook post somewhere, like, ‘Hey, this band’s pretty rad, dude!’ So, that’s pretty lame and kind of pisses me off.
He may have also had a gag order from the label or someone telling him it was bad business to not try to sell the song as his own.
Powell: That’s likely too, sure.
What are your thoughts on the new generation of industrial and machine/rock musicians?
Powell: I think it’s the same as it always was; there are some great ones, and there are some bad ones. There are definitely some standouts now, like KANGA who is going nuts right now, which is awesome. She’s an artist with good people around her, and she released a great record, so that’s super cool.
Well, let me rephrase the question – coming from this kind of music, what are your thoughts on how the style has developed and how this newer generation is progressing it or helping it to evolve or trying things that you hadn’t thought of or weren’t able to?
: You know, I’m not really sure I’m qualified to answer that question. I don’t necessarily see progression, and that could be my own fault for sure. I don’t go to shows all the time, and I’m pretty naïve and oblivious to almost every band out there right now. I guess I kind of live in my own little world. There are definitely some bands that stick out to me that I’ve heard, but I can’t say that I hear any real progress or anything that really blows me away. For me, the progress is coming from more of the old school guys; like Marc from Cubanate or Bryan Black… I mean, look at what he’s done and how he’s progressed. But that’s probably my perspective coming from the world I come from, and that’s probably not relevant to what’s actually happening.
I think it is.
Powell: Well, maybe… but through my own little window, that’s who I look at. It depends on how you measure it, if I have to have a philosophical answer. I think in a lot of ways, we’re seeing regression instead of progression, because we’re seeing touring fall apart. If you look at a band like Fear Factory, that band goes out on tour with a full crew because they needed that for the huge rigs they had, and it’s gotten down to being so high tech and it’s all on one rack, using digital amps instead of the big stacks, so all you really hear are the drums. And that’s not me talking down on Fear Factory whatsoever, and maybe that is progress, but I don’t know.
It’s interesting because I recently watched Premier Guitar‘s Rig Rundown series on YouTube, and in one episode, they spoke with Meshuggah, and it was all digital – there were three racks with all of the programs and effects on Cubase, there were no amps or stacks, and it was all very streamlined.
: Digital vs. analog… I mean, we’ve taken away analog in the studio. There’s a whole philosophy behind that, because when you digitize analog waveforms, they become squared off and everything becomes percussive to your eardrums. If you think about dropping a rock into a pool, there are smooth transients that go up and down and your ears respond in a flexible, kind of sexy way. But when you go digital, everything is squared off and it can become fatiguing. When I go see a show where the band is running everything purely digital, then everything feels very brittle to me… it just doesn’t feel right.
Has there been any effort to do away with that or approach things differently, perhaps on the next record, or is it all a matter of what is within your means, what is available and/or convenient to you?
: Well, that is definitely a big part of it. When you look at touring, most of the hard work is setting up and tearing down, and it’s expensive to have people on the road with you, and when you’re on a long tour and doing all kinds of shit, the less you have to do, the better. You don’t want to have your load-in/load-out in 100 degree weather affect your performance. I get the convenience part completely. This last year, we pretty much only did fly-in dates, so we stripped down the shit that we’re bringing to those shows – we had little pedal boards and the guitars, everything was on the laptop, and we didn’t have to bring any amps or anything, and… that’s pretty rad actually. (Laughter) Not having to worry about the gear or having to rent a big trailer for all that helps make things a lot more enjoyable… but who knows? I may eat my words about it later. Nowadays, I can even run the app on my phone or whatever. There’s more technology in our phones than there was on the fucking space shuttle!
I’m recording this InterVew on my phone, actually.
Powell: (Laughter) The only thing now is that a lot of people have been asking us when we are going to tour. Touring is really tricky right now. We’ve been talking to an agent, and it’s just exorbitantly expensive and unfortunately, there is not a lot of support right now. That’s why we chose to do only fly-in shows this last year because we didn’t want to blow everything by going out for a month on tour. We wanted to try to sustain it for a bit, and I imagine that’s probably what we’re going to do over the next year is play more fly-in shows and try to hit it more in waves – go out for a few days on the East Coast, come home, play the Midwest a few weeks later, and that sort of thing.
It’s always been true that a band makes more money from touring and merch than it does from releasing records, and that’s been true of us… but then, we always have to spend all the money to put on those tours. (Laughter)
And then people say, ‘I wish they would tour,’ and amid dwindling sales, it seems like people are becoming more fickle about which shows they go to if they go at all. Has that ever been a concern for 16volt?
: Oh yeah! I think our ideal would be to have everybody come to us! (Laughter) You know? If we played a huge show on one day in a small arena, have everybody come to us to see this huge show, and it would be amazing! I’ve talked to a lot of promoters, especially last year when we were arranging those festival dates, and they’ve all said that pretty much across the country, sales are way down on shows. Even here in Portland, we’ve seen two clubs close in the last couple of years, so attendance is way
down, and I think festivals are just kind of where it’s at right now, because I guess it does create more value for people to buy tickets and see a shit ton of bands and make it more of an event. ColdWaves in a way offers us a bit of a fantasy – you play there, you get to feel like you’re a giant rock star, and then you jump in the van to play the next show in the next state or town for only 15 people. I think the reality of it is that most of the audience for our kind of music is… over. I mean, they all have jobs and kids and they’re not spending their parents’ money anymore because they don’t have as much expendable income and they have to make more responsible decisions on how to spend money. When you go on tour, you have to play every day, so Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights are great! But when you have to play on a Tuesday, who the fuck wants to go to a show on a Tuesday night? ‘I have to be at work tomorrow and get up at 6:00am!’ So, I don’t think anybody’s broken the magic combo yet, and I don’t think I’m going to be the guy to figure it out. (Laughter)
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