By Jake McCune
I met Joe Axler at Cafe Pettirosso to talk about his band Theories, their new album, and life in general. We grabbed a seat and started chatting.
Seattle Passive Aggressive: One thing that I was going to talk about first was that y’all just got back from a tour recently, how did that go?
Joe Axler: It was incredible…the tour was Theories opening and then main support was switching off day to day between Ringworm and Black Breath, then Goatwhore was the headliner. It was a little over six weeks as that package…we had two dates to ourselves and then one date with Ringworm alone and then Black Breath and Goatwhore jumped on, so it started in San Antonio and it ended in Atlanta. After Atlanta there was four more shows on the way home as just us and Black Breath.
SPA: Do you find it funny when a write up of your band will say, “feat. members of Skarp, Samothrace, Book of Black Earth” and really they’re just referring to you?
JOE: I mean, every band that I’ve played in the members have all been in bands (that) I think, at least to me, and to the Seattle scene they’re like bands that have been staples for a while. Yeah I mean reviews like that.
SPA: It’s mostly just the little parenthetical next to a band name.
JOE: Yeah, as corny as that stuff is, it definitely helps bands out when they’re first starting out. You know just [as] a point of reference.
SPA: A big part of getting into music for me was going on myspace and looking at a band’s favorite other bands or whatever.
JOE: I mean…you know it’s 2015 and there’s a million bands out there in every genre. I feel like the little corny things like “ex members” or “members of” or like “for fans of” [and] that kind of stuff that you look at and some people find it corny, some people discover bands that way. So I think there’s nothing wrong with that.
SPA: It’s fandom, I mean that’s what I kind of dig about metal, and this is getting a little more broad, but it’s like any other culture of fanatics. You see a lot of the same cultural patterns across “geek” culture and metal culture.
JOE: It’s not going to help a band sell records, but it could help a relatively new and unknown band get noticed by people because they liked members of other bands.
SPA: Has that been helpful for Theories? Because y’all are just now putting out an album, having been around for a while. Do you feel like there was an awareness of the band outside the northwest before that?
JOE: It’s definitely hard to get noticed with as many bands as there are right now. I feel like the ‘ex-members’ thing was helpful in the beginning, you know, helping us get shows or get tours and everything. It stopped being used for a while because we were touring so much, but with signing to Metal Blade they used it in their original press release which, you know, it’s a whole new fan base so it’s helpful as well.
SPA: And you’ve been a band for four years?
JOE: That’s right, yeah before [the album] we had a split seven inch with WAKE from Calgary, it came out about a year ago and before that we kind of, we did like 8 or 9 tours off of a four song demo that we put out. We put the demo out, we sold it at shows for like 4 or 5 bucks. I feel like we’re still technically a new band considering we just put out our first record, but this was our twelfth tour, ya know?
SPA: Was it intentional to wait so long on recording the album?
JOE: Yes, it was definitely intentional.
SPA: Obviously you had those songs written for a while.
JOE: We did this band backwards, in the sense of the way you’re supposed to do bands. We started the band with the intention getting together, writing some music and then hitting the road as soon as we had a full set. The intention of this band was putting recording on the back burner and hitting the road.
SPA: What started that conversation amongst you guys, of wanting to do that?
JOE: At that time I was doing Samothrace, Book of Black Earth and Skarp, and none of those three bands were actively touring at the time. I mean, I’ve been touring for 15 years and I feel like that’s where I’m most comfortable. And in 2010 I took almost a year off of touring, and I was like, you know, “I’ll take a year to relax,” which was….relaxing I guess? I saved some money but I started losing it [after a while], I feel most comfortable out on the road. So I talked with the original guitar player, and Kusha and Rick were the four original members and we were all like “yeah, let’s just write some shit and then go hit the road,” which is what we did. So technically it’s backwards, but I mean we’re all old enough that we don’t have stars in our eyes. We’re old enough to know that music, not just the genre we play, but music in general, you’re not gonna make it big, you’re not gonna make it famous, you’re not gonna make money, that’s not how it goes. The most you can hope for is releasing records that people enjoy and touring, and like touring is basically the most you get out of it, it’s the best part.
SPA: There’s an honesty there that I think that really lends itself to the work. One of the reasons I think the record y’all did stands out is that the songs feel worked on. I don’t listen to a ton of grind and I don’t claim to be terribly versed in it, but the stuff that stands out to me constantly is the stuff feels very thought out.
JOE: We’re technically not a grind band, if you ever speak to like, a grind aficionado.
SPA: I see ‘death grind’ thrown around a lot.
JOE: Yeah it’s just labels; every single style of music gets a label. I feel like a lot of the time labels are made up by the band or maybe their management at their label.
SPA: I think it’s another part of the culture too.
JOE: It’s a lot of trying to find a new genre to write up just so it sounds interesting and new so kids will buy something, it’s all marketing. But we can’t call ourselves a grind band because, true grind fans will be like “you’re not a grind band because of ‘this, this and this’”.
SPA: Would you not feel comfortable using the label?
JOE: I don’t really care. I mean, if they don’t have one things to talk shit about, people will find another thing to talk shit about, so if they wanna, if their main focus is talking shit about the fact that we’re not a grind band, cool. There could be way worse things, but I mean our songs are-I think they’re, uh, I’m blanking on words right now. Versatile.
JOE: A majority of it is blast beats, and I love grindcore and I love playing blast beats. So yeah, I say grind a lot because it’s just a fun word to say, but I think I’m getting completely off [topic].
SPA: That’s fine; I mean genre in general is such a silly thing in metal.
JOE: Yeah, like, we’re fast, slow at times, heavy and loud. That’s it.
SPA: I understand you do most of the business for your bands, is that right?
JOE: The dudes in Theories do a lot of work as well. I take care of as much as I can, and those dudes take care of as much as they can as well.
SPA: So it’s more democratic?
JOE: Yeah, I mean everyone’s got their say in everything, if one person has a problem with something I’ll do it. Theories especially, out of all the bands I’ve done, all the members carry their weight really well, like they work their asses off. I’m not saying other people in other bands don’t carry their weight, some of them don’t, (jokingly) they know who they are, but yeah I feel like in Theories as a whole everyone busts their ass and does a bunch of things for the band.
SPA: When Theories is talking to the press, is that always just you?
JOE: We split up interviews, I feel like everyone in Theories is well spoken. I’ve been in other bands where some people don’t want to do interviews because they just don’t like doing them. But Theories splits them up. We’ll do them in pairs or one at time for a couple reasons. One: because I think everyone should have a voice, obviously, and Two: because, you know, usually a lot of times in bands one person will be the voice for the band. Which is good if that’s how they want to do it, but I feel like, especially when you’re doing the album cycle, and you’re doing a ton of interviews and you have one person answering…a lot of publicists will ask the same questions…so it’s just the same answer over and over, there’s really no point in reading more than once or two interviews for the bands.
SPA: It’s weird for interviewing too because as a writer you want to ask background questions, so you end up asking a lot of the same things.
JOE: Yeah there’s like the statement questions, but I feel like if every person in the band is answering there might be- you know, if you’re asking a question that there’s just one answer for that’s cool, but maybe if four different people are answering it in different interviews you’ll get the same answer but it might be said in a different way or it might branch off to a different answer. It’s just more interesting reading four different people, in my opinion.
SPA: Speaking of album cycles, you all put out the album this year as well, how has that been?
JOE: Yeah in March, it’s been received really well.
SPA: Especially that in conjunction with the tour, how are you guys overall received across different regions? Were there spots that you would have felt better about?
JOE: For the record, I’d say like, 95% of the reviews I saw were incredible. Which, I didn’t really know what to expect, I honestly don’t really care. If people don’t like it, fuck em. Like, it’s not for everyone, if people like it that’s great. But the reviews were mostly way better than I expected, which was real cool.
SPA: Does that have any real conscious effect on the band at all?
JOE: I don’t know, I mean, I feel like you could get great reviews or shitty reviews, it doesn’t matter. I feel like people make their own opinions, but the reception on tour went really well. [Especially] given that we’re playing these shows with four touring bands.
SPA: Often first, right?
JOE: Always first. Maybe like, a third of the tour there would be a local or two [ahead of us] but a majority of the time we’re playing before 9-o’clock. So say it’s a show where there are four hundred people there, we play to about a hundred of them. But for the hundred people that were there- it went really well. We sold a lot of merch, I feel like we were received well. There were a good handful of shows where kids were there for us, which is great.
SPA: Did you guys break even?
JOE: Um, kind of. I mean, we came home with some money; we had some van mishaps that cost us a lot more than I thought it was going to.
SPA: What happened there?
JOE: Weird problems that we couldn’t quite figure out, there were problems with us burning oil really bad…
SPA: Were you all stranded at any time?
JOE: Never stranded, we put [a chunk of money] into van repairs and then we had to put at least a quart or two of oil in per drive, which costs us like 10-20 bucks. We had a tire blow out, where luckily we had a good spare and it took us about an hour to get the new tire on. We had a jack that kept falling over and dropped the van three times. So we finally get this new tire on and we start driving, we’re about a mile away when we hear this other noise, and we get out and the muffler fell off. It was just dragging behind us. So we were going to miss that show, it was in somewhere in North Carolina, but the rest of the tour package, who are all awesome dudes, set it up so Ringworm played first. So we got there [and then] they helped us load on stage.
SPA: When that’s happening, are the other bands generally on the road with you?
JOE: I mean, everyone travels separately. There’s not much caravanning, but the fact that they set it up and that no one on the tour had crazy egos [was great]. Like, Ringworm was cool enough to play before us, and Ringworm have been around like 20-something years. It was just really cool to do that.
SPA: One of the things I wanted to talk about regarding the album was the artwork. Who did that/what was that whole process? It’s definitely a bit atypical for a death/grind release. It’s dark but it’s very non-threatening for an extreme band.
JOE: Derek Noble. He’s like a world renowned tattoo artist; he did this whole sleeve (on Joe’s arm). He actually works up the street [from Cafe Pettirosso]; he owns this tattoo shop called Dark Age. I met him a while ago; he lived in Bellingham and would come out to metal shows when I was doing ‘Skarp’ and ‘Book of Black Earth.’ That last ‘Book of Black Earth’ album, he did that cover as well. Everything we’ve done except music, like the name ‘Theories,’ the logo, the artwork and stuff we kind of try to keep it so you can’t really figure out what the band’s going to sound like, ya know?
SPA: I like that, I was going to ask about other aesthetic choices.
JOE: We didn’t want to have like some “brutal” metal name or some like, illegible logo. With the artwork, the album’s called Regression and it’s about…everything falling apart and having to start over and kind of about like, nature taking over. And so, the idea was originally to have a city with like trees and plants and shit, a lot of overgrowth.
SPA: A post-apocalypse.
JOE: And we gave the idea to Derek and [the album cover] is what he came up with and we loved it.
SPA: Just the lone house, it’s very stark. With the regression theme, is that a sentiment shared by all of you, or is that more dictated by lyrical content?
JOE: The theme and the politics behind the record is a whole bands, the lyrics were all Rick.
SPA: What stirred the theme of regression up in you all?
JOE: It’s basically just about the downfall of the world. When we started the band, the name ‘Theories’ came from…everyone in the band was really big into conspiracy Theories and stuff. Not like foil hats kind of shit, but you know it’s just fun to read about and it’s crazy shit and it makes you uneasy. It went from that into basically like- I mean we, again, it’s 2015 and we’re fucked. Like, where we’re at now [as a species], I don’t feel like it’s our generation’s fault, we’re not helping…
SPA: I feel very similarly, actually, in terms of things feeling too late…
JOE: It’s way too late. I don’t feel like any positive change can happen with the world right now. We’re fucked and everything’s going to fall apart completely before anything can start happening.
SPA: It seems more and more that global capitalism kinda just won, you know?
JOE: Oh, everything…from our issues with class systems and capitalism, I mean, even just to nature. It used to be an issue with landfills, now it’s an issue with how much garbage we’re dumping into…these islands in the middle of the [ocean]. Everything from the way we think, money, the class systems we’re in and nature, like, you’re done dude. I don’t feel like there’s anything that can repair where we’re at now. It’s kinda gotta be another one of those situations where everything fails and falls apart and then hopefully the next generation can start over.
SPA: Is that a pretty big driving force in terms of the whole band? Being committed to the life that you’re living in terms of touring, in terms of music, do you think that idea of ‘no hope left’ is behind that?
JOE: I think we use it as a good thing…I mean, along the lines of what we were saying earlier, we’re old enough to know that we’re not gonna become rock stars and we’re not going to make anything from music. All that leaves you is making the music you want for yourself and touring and having fun.
SPA: Kind of shedding off those layers of what you’re told you should be or do.
JOE: Yeah, I believe we all think the same way on this one. All you can do with the life that you have is live it. Live to whatever standards you think you should live by, be happy and treat people properly. Once you shed the fact that, you know, you’re not gonna make an impact, then you just get to do what you want, live your life, be happy, treat other people well, and fuck everything else.
SPA: Is it nice to be the first band and then be able to chill out for the rest of the night? Is that like primo touring almost?
JOE: Yes. I dig it. [Because] as a first band a lot of times, when there’s no locals, you get there [and] you set up on stage, you actually get a sound check, and then your stuff is already set up. So basically when it’s your time you get up and play, and come off and then you have the whole rest of the show to watch other bands and hang out with friends. I’ve done a bunch of touring with other bands I’ve been in where, you know, you’re headlining. Which is great, it’s nice to headline, you play to a full crowd and make a little bit more money, but you also have basically the stress of the whole show, like you don’t get to kinda cut loose until it’s your turn to play. And then by the time you’re done playing the crowd clears out, you’re still loading off the stage so you don’t really get much hang time.
SPA: And I’m sure everyone else has been drinking for the rest of the night.
JOE: Yeah, everyone’s blacked out or headed home and you’re still sitting there waiting to be done.
SPA: Have you guys gone over to Europe as Theories?
JOE: Not yet.
SPA: Any plans?
JOE: Yes. Well, nothing set right now. We’ve talked with Avocado Booking out there about working with them. [There is] a band called Implore from Germany, who’re an incredible grindcore band. Right before I met up with you I went home and checked my mail and they sent me a shirt and some records and stuff, but they were talking about doing some dates with us out there which I’d love to because I think that band is really good. Check out Implore from Germany. But yeah, I mean this is our twelfth tour, it was our first tour out of the States proper, and we had nine or ten shows in Canada.
SPA: Was it your longest?
JOE: This is the longest tour we’ve done, but I mean obviously we’re not going to stop touring the states. At this point I think we’re trying to think outside of the box and go do some new areas.
SPA: You’ve been over to Europe with a few other bands already right?
JOE: Yeah Samothrace and Skarp have both been out there, I love touring Europe.
SPA: It looks sweet; I’ve wanted to go to Roadburn for a while now.
JOE: So, the woman that came with us on this last tour, Marissa, she came and did merch for us and helped us with everything. We met because the year that Samothrace played Roadburn, she worked for Roadburn and she put us up in her place. So we stayed friends. She hit me up two months before we started this tour like “Hey, I’m coming to the US and I wanna travel as much as possible. Maybe I’ll see you out on the road,” and I was like “do you want to come with us?” So it worked out perfectly, she was awesome.
SPA: Is it nice to have a non-band member with you on tour?
JOE: Yes, it’s always nice to have another person. It’s just nice to have someone with new stories, ya know? And just to have another person with you helping you out. She was a kick ass merch girl and definitely held it together for us.
SPA: And what about the tour you have coming up with Gehenna?
JOE: It’s Theories and Gehenna; it’s a Gehenna reunion tour. They just recorded an EP and a full length, they’re getting back together full time, but it’s the two of us for 15 days. [Also] for a couple of the shows Landmine Marathon will be with us, I think in Portland and Seattle. It all kind of started around, a festival in OC called ‘Punk’s Not Dead’ festival, and we were playing that and Gehenna were playing that. The line-up is killer: THOU, WEEKEND NACHOS, CATHARSIS is on it which is fucking incredible, ACxDC, there’s a bunch of good bands on it.
[NOTE: Punks Not Dead has since been cancelled, but Theories and Gehenna will be playing make-up shows in the area along with other bands from the fest]
I saw that they were on it and we’re on it so I hit up [Gehenna] to see if they wanted to tour together and they were like “fuck yeah, let’s do it,” so it happened. For every bigger tour package we do like this Goatwhore one we just did, we like to offset it with a smaller DIY tour because that’s where we’re all from, that’s where we’re most comfortable playing, in warehouses and basements, so we kind of make a point to every time we do a bigger package tour to make the next tour a smaller DIY one.
SPA: I’d imagine they’re very different experiences.
JOE: They are, I mean it’s all rad but I feel like the DIY scene is a staple that will never die and never leave. With bigger, more mainstream metal, the fanbase is huge but I feel like a lot of people that are a part of that, they might move on or drop out of the scene or whatever. But the DIY scene is always there and it’s always full of good people and it’s always packed. And while some people might “grow up” and move on, there are always new young kids. I feel like it’s a scene where it’s steadfast and people stick with it the longest and it’ll always be there. Like, any city you go to, anywhere, there’s always gonna be like a smaller DIY scene and there’s always going to be house shows and there’s always going to be warehouses, no matter what.
SPA: There’s a universality to it that’s appealing, it’s nice to feel like you’re in on something as a human. In DIY it’s way easier to feel like you’re a part of something than it is in mainstream music.
JOE: Well, it’s more of a community, it’s more community based, and it’s a situation of- you know you go to a 500-600 person bigger metal show, and while there’s a ton of kids there and they’re all music lovers and everything, a lot of them don’t know each other. Like when you go to a house show or a warehouse show or something, they may not all be the best of friends but everyone knows everyone, and everyone’s like- it’s not just a show it’s more of a party, ya know?
SPA: It feels strange to go to a show where I don’t see at least one or two familiar faces.
JOE: Yeah, and I feel like a lot of kids too-it may not be, like show to show [the music] may not be the genre that they’re most into, but they go because it’s a show and that’s what you do with your friends and it’s a community. So even though like out of maybe 100-200 kids half of them are there because they like the genre or the music you’re playing, there’s still a bunch of other people there cause that’s what they do for the night, that’s the party and it’s where you get to see your friends. You know those places, you drive through a city and you can spot a punk house or a punk venue.
SPA: It’s comforting; you realize that there are these places that are equivalents in their respective towns.
JOE: And it’s rad, it’s nice to know that it’s everywhere. You go the middle of nowhere midwest and there’s going to be an underground scene.
SPA: Does being on Metal Blade effect that thinking at all, of participating in DIY? They’re one of the “bigger” metal labels. How did that come about?
JOE: Our booking agent sent them some music, and then when we played MDF we kind of came under the radar with them. I mean, it’s a label, yeah, it’s not exactly the most underground label, and they’re a big label. They’ve been around since ‘82 and they put out some of the best metal records of all time. But you know, they’re there to help us and we’re there to work for them. They put our music out, they distribute it well, they do a really good job. They don’t try to put ideas in our head for the music we play, and they stay out of the music we play. And while they may have ideas of something we can do, they suggest things to us and they’ll help us if they want to, but they understand we’re arguably a grindcore band and we’re going to want to do stuff like go play house shows and do DIY tours. One thing that I don’t like about the underground scene is that there’s definitely a lot of judgment when you do something like sign to a label like Metal Blade. I mean, a lot of music fans don’t understand that just because you sign to a label that’s big, that in no way means you’re making any money. A lot of times it means you’re making less money. I mean, you definitely could make more money putting out your own record, but at the same time, I just turned 35, I’ve been touring for 15 years and I still work my ass off for my bands but at this point I don’t have the time, with trying to live my ‘at home’ life and trying to work as much as I can and tour as much as I can. Basically, I’m okay with someone else releasing our music for me if that means I have more time to write it and tour. We’re definitely not getting checks. If I were to release the records myself, we could stand to make some money.
SPA: It’s seems like much more of a public perception difference than in a difference of how you operate as a band.
JOE: Eh, hopefully not. I keep bringing it up, but it’s 2015 and I feel like people are a lot more in the know now about the way things are, and the fact that like smaller DIY bands will go on bigger labels, and bigger labels started working with smaller bands and this and that. I feel like people are a little more in the know now. They don’t jump to say like “Oh you signed to Relapse, cool where’s your 50,000 check?”
SPA: I don’t think Relapse could afford that.
JOE: No, no one’s making money like that except maybe Slayer or some shit, but I’m sure they’re even hurting now too with how bad record sales are. But yeah, at the end of the day if a label wants to release a record for one of my bands and put that work in so we can spend more time working and saving up and being able to just focus on writing and touring then I’m all for it.
SPA: Is Theories currently writing?
JOE: We are about to start writing again. We took time off to tour, but Lee’s always writing and he has a little set up at home where he can record his riffs. We decided that it’s writing time. I might be taking a little time off because I have some shoulder issues that I may need to address but it’s not like “sit down in the studio and start writing a record start to finish” kinda shit but yeah, we’re definitely going to be writing during our off time.