Profile: Cleveland, Ohio’s dirty trio… PILLARS!

band photo

On the label Tall Tee Tapes hailing from Cleveland, Ohio Pillars is not your standard power trio. Influenced by the roots of metal as well as the noisier stuff, they produce a blend of upbeat, inspiring music for you to bop your head, dance to or just flat out enjoy. You can check out their beyond promising demo here. So here’s your chance to get to know an up and coming band that will certainly be making waves in the near future.

How did you first get into playing music and have you achieved the level of success that you always hoped to achieve?

Zach: My dad is an immigrant kid and grew up in NYC in the late 60s. His band got signed to Capitol Records and did one record but it didn’t go anywhere so they broke up and he moved on. My mom was also big into music, but more folk and classical. She did tour Europe in the early 70s with her college choir and did a record in Germany in the early 70s.  So my parents were really big on music and they started taking me to piano lessons when I was 3 or 4 years old. I was in school band growing up too, playing trumpet, but we moved around a few times and I ended up in Rust Belt Ohio at a school that didn’t really have a band program so I felt a little left out. I was kind of a loner growing up, didn’t have a lot of friends, got picked on a bunch at this new school, so I gravitated towards bands like Black Sabbath, Soundgarden, and some 80s hardcore punk, particularly Dead Kennedys, which got me into guitar.

As for “success”: I don’t look to music to pay my bills, if that’s what you mean. I have a day job that I enjoy, but music for me has been more about stress relief and getting out any negativity in a constructive way, if that makes sense. But I’ve had the opportunity to play shows with some of my musical heroes and make a lot of really great friends in the process. So if that counts as success, then yeah I’m successful.

Beth: My dad played guitar with his friends and always looked like he was having a lot of fun. My mom wasn’t nearly as into music as he was, and  I grew up on his record collection (lots of classic rock, garage, old country, folk and bluegrass) . I took piano lessons for a little bit and started playing guitar in 8th grade I think because I had a crush on a guy who played guitar but also because I wanted to learn it for myself too. My dad let me use all his gear which is amazing now that I think about it, letting me haul his ‘57 Gretsch to community college in junior year for actual lessons.

I didn’t have a lot of friends but getting into music really changed that. I really came late to the party as far as underground stuff goes, but I stayed a lot longer, I guess. I grew up in a very blue-collar suburb where we were into classic rock, grunge, hardcore punk, and whatever we found at the public library or heard on college radio.  I played in some lousy punk bands with classmates in high school, played at picking parties with my dad and his bluegrass friends, but the band thing never really clicked until this one.

I had pretty much given up on ever being in a band because nothing ever really worked out in my teens and 20s and I was starting to wonder if I was too old, until this past year when Zach hit me up to play bass even though we’d never met in real life and he’d never heard me play, but we clicked instantly. We’ve played some shows, put out a demo, and it’s almost a year later and  I still have a lot of fun, and I guess that’s more success than I’ve ever dreamed of. I’ve always had really low expectations and that’s served me well!

Slit: I’ve been surrounded by music since the day I was born.  My mom’s side of the family was always playing psychedelic/classic rock around the house so I just grew very accustomed.  One of my favorite things they would play was Jethro Tull so naturally I started playing the flute when I was like 9.  I started playing in bands when I was 12 and I haven’t stopped since.  I have no goals in the music game other than to play as much of it as possible before I croak.

 

What’s the most you have ever debased yourself to get Pillars onto a show with a band you love or into a magazine, blog or the like? If there isn’t a great story from this particular band, since you all have been playing music for a while, any debasing, embarrassing story will do.

Slit:  What does debased mean?

Zach: [To Slit] Remember all the times when you got naked at shows?…So I can’t answer this question without bringing up the band I was in before Pillars, which was called Red Sun. I started that band in Warren/Youngstown Ohio when I was 14 with my best friend and we went from like weird proggy punk rock into sludge and doom over the 11 years we were a band. So I mean, for what it’s worth, Red Sun kept plugging away and eventually got some notoriety as a good live band. So when that band ended and I wanted to keep on the heavy trajectory with Pillars, I already had all those contacts developed. Every show so far we’ve played, from Seawitch and our friends from Baltimore Admiral Browning or Lo-Pan from Columbus to some of musical heroes like Acid King, Jucifer, and Eyehategod, has always been at the request of the band / venue / promoter. Which is why I love living in the Rust Belt, there aren’t 500 bands you’re “competing” against: it’s more of a messy, dysfunctional, incestuous, drunk and drug-fueled family, at least the parts where I find myself most nights.

As far as debasing, I guess I’ve always had kind of a fuck you attitude for scene politics / pecking order. I truly don’t give a shit whether 10 people or 100 people show up to a show, because I play music to get negative shit off my mind, not to get a paycheck or get laid.  ALL THAT SAID, Red Sun went to some interesting lengths to get noticed when we first started, because honestly the area we grew up in was pretty desolate and we were young and dumb. One time when I was I think 17 or 18 we got suckered into being the “entertainment” for a C-level wanna be UFC schtick that was hosted at the local “Golf Dome” in Girard, Ohio. It was so fucked up. We got “all-access” passes, which included a spot at the fighters press conference held in the lobby of a Motel 6; a paid-for room in the same motel, and free limo service for the night. You have to understand, living in the part of the country we were living, at 17-18 years old this is fucking incredible. Anyway we played the same 6 songs in between each fight and got heckled to the point where the redneck audience members were just yelling ‘Freebird’ over every song. So afterwards, we went back to the hotel and called up all our friends, and trashed the place. Later that night, high as fuck on I don’t even remember what, I convinced my straight-edge, ex-Hare Krishna buddy to go to a strip club with me in the limo. Of course, this is Youngstown, Ohio so they definitely did not ask for IDs. We proceed to try and actually have meaningful conversations with the girls dancing, including asking them what their favorite hardcore band was, and whether or not they would ever want to date us outside of work. Meanwhile I heard from my drummer later that while we were in the club he had ordered the limo to take him through Wendy’s drive thru at 3 AM.

Beth: I really can’t follow up that one. None of my old bands ever made it out of the living room but I was part of a failed DIY show that never happened at a friend’s elementary school’s gym senior year. My first experience onstage involved wearing a purple and orange dinosaur costume. It was community theater. I was 7 years old and that VHS tape is probably somewhere in my parents’ basement. I thought I was so cool because someone backstage dyed my hair all bright red and glittery.

 

There is always a lot of chatter about being a female making extreme music in such a polarizing scene. I want to hone in a bit further and just ask what it’s like to have to spend so much time with a band full of men? 

Beth: I never had as many female friends who were into what I was into so it’s not all that weird. When I was in bands with all girls it never lasted that long to begin with. We were never really into the same things and I didn’t like playing Bikini Kill covers, to be honest. I started playing bass in my teens because I realized pretty quickly that being a female bassist was WAY less threatening than being a guitarist but I’ve really come to embrace bass as an instrument that’s fun and comfortable for me. I play with a lot of pedals and get to write all my own basslines and having that freedom to experiment with sounds is really wonderful. I’ve had a lot of fun playing with these guys and never felt like I was ever being condescended to, and we’ve all got a weird sense of humor to some extent which is something that doesn’t always happen.

Honestly, I’ve found in the stoner/doom/whatever scene, as much as there is one here, I’ve hardly dealt with hardly any “what are you doing here” or “you probably can’t play” or “you need to look a certain way.”  If anything it’s more “oh that’s cool you’re into this too.” Honestly, I’ve deal with more sexist attitudes from indie rock dudes who wanted bandmates who looked cute and never had any ideas of their own, and weren’t always crazy about my heavier tendencies. It’s never really felt polarizing, but this is doom and stoner metal we’re talking about.  No one expects anyone in this genre to look good anyway.

Slit: Having Beth in the band is awesome.  She’s an amazing bassist and a totally great person/friend.

Zach: I guess a music scene, just like anything else, is as polarizing as people make it. I’ve been surrounded by strong female musicians and strong females generally who don’t take any shit or conversely, ask for special treatment either. Some of heaviest bands of all time: Electric Wizard, Bolt Thrower, Jucifer, Acid King, have all have women in major roles writing and playing ripping music. I don’t care whether you’re black, white, male, female, somewhere in between, gay, straight,  green with three heads: if you rip on your instrument, you rip. End of story. Beth is a great musician and a close friend who crushes on her instrument and has a great voice. Period. Gender is irrelevant to how our band functions.

As for any controversy over lyrics or imagery that might be considered sexist or whatever, I guess all I can say is, if a band is all about worshipping darkness or some kind of satanic trip, and they make that very obvious, and you go to that show, um, well, you get what you pay for right? Or do people really honestly think that Lucifer everlasting doink of doinkastan would be about the UN Charter for Human Rights? People should use your heads. And if they don’t like what a certain band is about, then start your own band or don’t go to a certain show.

It seems that now everyone has a passion for some cause and that those people are very open about displaying their passions. This is probably a very, very good (and progressive) thing socially. What are some of the most important issues (social/political/humorous/etc.) for you and how do you insert those issues into your music?

Slit: I usually think about how much I love my mom when I’m drumming.

Beth:  I don’t write most of the lyrics but I’ve definitely got a lot rattling around in my brain all the time. I’ve been taking history classes for fun and a lot of my work involves archiving local history so I follow a lot of local and international issues and realize more and more how much interplay there is. I’m thankful that I’ve got bandmates I can rant and ponder with who don’t mind my weird bleeding-heart spiritual tendencies. As far music goes though, this is mostly a therapeutic/creative outlet thing for me. I’ll be having a week that’s really grinding me down but then I remember that there is band practice and life is so much better.

Zach: Yeah. Early on I learned that music is a really personal experience for a lot of people. I mean, I play a certain riff or combination of notes and I could be thinking about one particular thing, and people hearing that at a show or on a recording could have a totally different image pop into their heads. Most of the lyrics I’m writing lately are really incredibly personal because I just got out of a really difficult time in my life, and so I’m just going to let those songs speak for themselves. I will say that I don’t really couch a lot of metaphors or try and play guess what I’m writing about. If I say in a song “stop drinking yourself to death” it’s pretty obvious what I’m talking about. That being said, I don’t really use music as a soapbox for my personal belief system: it’s a rock show, not a political rally, and I kind of like it that way, even if a particular song may stray into deep issues or current events. I mean, I’ve written a lot of songs about the end of the world because it’s a common theme in heavy music and sounds great over loud riffs, but I’ve also written songs about spaceships and sasquatch. I guess the most important issue for me is for people to be themselves and be creative. Nobody was born to just work and then die.

 

What, or who, got you into metal and how old were you? Do you play any instruments or are all your efforts poured directly into your vocal performances?

Beth: My dad got me into Sabbath and stuff like Blue Cheer when I was about 15 but those records were always around. I remember being creeped out by Alice in Chains’ ‘Dirt’ when I was 9 and my friend’s weird skateboarding older brother’s friends were listening to it on a boombox in the front yard. I didn’t get into metal until my late teens, but it was in tandem with a lot of punk and other things in between. My coworker got me back on the doom train over the past few years, and filled in a lot of my musical gaps over morning coffee. Doing college radio has made me an insane musical omnivore.

I was told I couldn’t sing when I was a kid by someone so I just played for years, until I “got thrown under the bus” one Sunday morning. Going to a very integrated church where my musicians came from very different musical traditions and had a lot of classical training was some serious schooling on learning how to play and sing at the same time and play completely different rhythms. It really made me a better musician.

Slit: My grandpa played Slayer for me one time and I was like “fuck……” I got heavily into it.  So I went to this place that sold CDs and asked for something that sounded like Slayer.  They gave me a Cryptic Slaughter CD (the dumb hippie working there probably had no idea who they even were but just saw it in the “Thrash” section).  Blah blah blah… I became hooked.

Zach: So like I said above, my Dad grew up in old NYC in the 60s and 70s, before it became a fucking high price strip mall.  So I started raiding his record collection at an early age for the classic 70s hard rock. I actually started off as a hardcore punk kid, so I think the natural bridge to “metal” from that would be thrash, and for me the band that I think nailed it was Slayer for sure. I remember I was like 13 or 14 and saw a cassette copy of South of Heaven for .50 cents at a flea market in Niles, Ohio and having my jaw hit the floor from the first track to the last. And people said that was one of their “slow” records…after I made peace with the fact that I just don’t have the chops to be anywhere close to even stand in the same building as the great ones, I settle for playing mediocre guitar at high volume.

 

What’s the stickiest you have ever been?

Slit: A few years ago one of my old bands played “Michigan Grind Fest” and my buddy Eric poured a bunch of this low-grade fake blood on me while playing and it was really sticky.  It got in my eyes and straight up dyed them red.  It was kinda fricked

Beth: When we used to practice in the hallway of  Slit’s old apartment at some warehouse in the hood last summer when this whole thing first started. When I was learning our fast songs, my bass would just get kind of gooey and all out of tune from how humid it was. I was thinking the whole time “I’ve never played d-beat-level fast before and I am so disgusting right now.”

Zach: First tour I booked I made the awesome decision to go South in the middle of August. In a van with no A/C.

 

What advice do you have for aspiring music critics and outlets out there? How can we all better serve the genre in the eyes of a hard-working band?

Beth: We all know that not every album is great and we can’t just pretend that they are. As a listener and a musician, I’d like to not hear cheerleading all the time, I guess. There’s always room for improvement and growth and I really believe in constructive criticism even if it stings a little bit. I was honestly kind of glad to read a review of our demo where someone noticed that my bass was a little out of tune because that meant he actually listened to it!

Zach: Don’t be afraid to call someone on their bullshit. The music press is guilty of the same thing as the art press:  some dude’s dirty piss-stained underwear crumpled in a corner isn’t some bold new “statement”. It’s dirty fucking undies, I don’t give a shit what kind of post-structuralist nonsense language you try and wrap it in. And maybe that’s ok. But just call it what it is, without the hyperbole.

The other thing I would say is that the music press, if it exists, needs to really start paying attention to the larger historical context and be the storytellers of particular scenes and movements, from a heritage perspective. We’re at a point now where it’s conceivable to have third generation punks, for example.  This isn’t necessarily a youthful movement of blind rebellion anymore when you have people in their 50s and 60s still playing these outsider forms of music. I think it’s obvious that what has been established is a new kind of musical tradition or legacy and heritage that goes along with it, and the music press has a role in being guides and historians of this new cultural legacy for the next generations, not just critics or cheerleaders for their favorite things.

 

Pillars is a rockin’ band living in the hip-rockin’ Cleveland, Ohio, home of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. What’s the music scene like there? How do you think your music fits in? What’s the hipster quotient around there? Do you think you will one day be enshrined in the Hall of Fame?

Slit:  I like it here.  Our music fits in pretty okay but Cleveland is mostly overrun by goofy little cute punk bands (it’s fun).  Don’t even get me started on the hipsters… We WILL have our own shrine in the rock hall.  GUARANTEED.

Zach: I’m not going to be able to answer the first part of this question without writing a whole book, so I’ll just say growing up in the Mahoning Valley, Cleveland was always the big rough city for us small town punks, or at least for me. Piling in some beater car with some other kids and driving up 422 for a show and passing the steel mills on I-77 with flames shooting out of the stacks at night was always kind of a symbol of what the music in this city did for me. Once I moved up here and got into the thick of it directly, I was just blown away by the diversity and intensity of it. Across multiple genres. I don’t think the city’s jazz or blues scenes get the credit they deserve, because I’ve seen like 60-70 year old men with grandkids up there shredding harder on a resonator guitar than most wanna be rock stars do with a floyd rose van halen ripoff. Cleveland is a working class town, and I just think of punk as working class rock n roll. Long rich history of punk rock in Cleveland and Northeast Ohio generally. And I think as the times have gotten more dire up here, there is a natural tendency to get more aggressive, maybe a bit slower, more pounding. I think of sludge or stoner music as being more connected to DIY hardcore/punk than to metal, especially as uber-technical playing has really taken over the metal scene. I will tell you that you have to go hard in Cleveland; don’t just phone it in and expect people to swoon over what you’re doing. This is kind of an anti-hype town, from what I’ve seen. It really doesn’t matter how many times Maximum RocknRoll or Pitchfork has written your band love letters in their reviews section. If you suck or have some kind of bullshit attitude about how awesome you think you are, people in this town will straight up tell you. And they probably won’t be nice about it either.

As for the hipsters? I dunno. I think the big problem that people have with “hipsters” is that there’s this perception of inauthenticity: that somehow, if you pay $200 to look like a 1930s train engineer and pay $80 for a hand-whittled cooking spoon that somehow entitles you to be part of a struggle that you never really had to go through. I think that’s the root of it: entitlement that’s not really earned. There aren’t many at any of the places I hang out, but I hear reports from my sources that they are congregating around an area of Cleveland called “Hingetown”, which is a fake neighborhood invented by these two trust fund types who bought up some real estate. At the end of the day Cleveland has  a 3rd world infant mortality rate, lead in the water, and trigger happy cops. I don’t think the ‘hipsters’ are the number one concern at this point up here.

You really want to go there with the Rock Hall? As far as I can tell, a bunch of record execs from the fair cities of New York and Los Angeles got together to congratulate themselves on how much cocaine they’ve been able to buy off the backs of the artists on their rosters and set up a little club. I never knew Madonna was a ‘veteran rocker’, according to the hallowed bean counters of 5th Avenue who, every so often, decide us peasants here in flyover country get to have a real live induction ceremony (like, OMG! Green Day! WOW!) before they pack up their overpriced escorts and private jets back to the Big Apple…The fact that wankers like Green Day got inducted into the Rock Hall while Lemmy was dying of cancer I think tells you all you need to know about the “rock” hall. And it’s only because I have a friend who works in their youth outreach program that I’m not advocating we burn it to the ground. But if it sank into Lake Erie after hours when she wasn’t at work, there are definitely a lot of folks here who wouldn’t be mad about it.

Beth: I’m not much of a scenester, but there’s a lot of different stuff going on to the point where I’m not even always out in the middle of it. It’s pretty easy to have a day job and be in a band at the same time here, and a lot of people do that. There’s some great bands and quality people, and small venues that book good shows. The Lottery League thing we do here every three years is kind of amazing. Everyone hangs out at the big show where we all perform what we’ve been working on in one-off bands with people we’ve never worked with before and end up doing things musically that are so much different than their regular gig.

I really love the weird industrial wasteland clash of high and low cultures, which I think is the common denominator of a lot of the music and culture here. The old Gilded Age legacy means that there’s a great orchestra and a free art museum around the corner from an amazing old cemetery with murals done by Tiffany, and that’s where I usually take visitors instead of to the Rock Hall, which is just kind of a really expensive tourist trap and like the Hard Rock Cafe but without any food. I do enjoy reading the angry comments on Cleveland.com whenever nominations are announced because people get really mad that someone in New York doesn’t like their favorite 70’s prog band as much as they do. It’s really entertaining.

I’d rather take people to the Parkview for blues renditions of Social Distortion and the Impressions or Curbside for a bunch of retired factory workers playing old country music instead, or one of the ethnic festivals where there’s great folk music from any number of countries. There are several community orchestras that play free concerts at old churches around the city and I like that everyone seems to show up at those. I got to watch two goth chicks who’d just played Beethoven at an old church in Slavic Village perform Slayer and Vivaldi  on electric violins for a crowd of Polish grandmas in lawn chairs at a worker’s hall across the street once. There was a fog machine and glowsticks and a bathtub full of cheap beer and these senior citizens were clapping just as hard for Vivaldi as they were “South of Heaven”  and “Cemetery Gates!”

My theory on hipsters is that it’s usually  people you either don’t like or don’t know. I do find all the foodie culture and paying Chicago prices for a Cleveland apartment in a trendy neighborhood kind of ridiculous and feel like every “arts district” looks the same. I think more people are into instagramming their food and beer than going out for live music and that’s sad, and there is a pretension creeping in that bothers me because it’s so foreign to what I love about this city.

I read these clickbait pieces about the city’s comeback but it only seems to be a few neighborhoods with overpriced food and Stuff White People Like and all I can think of is the lead paint in our apartment buildings and the lack of opportunity for a lot of people and police who get away with sexting rape victims and shooting a 12-year-old kid outside the rec center in my neighborhood. Sometimes the cheerleading seems like wishful thinking or a “let them eat cake” kind of obliviousness, and I tend to avoid those people and people who are really into having a “personal brand’ than having any kind of personality.. That being said, I love it here anyway, I just try to see it for what it is and try not to judge people too harshly, and hang out and create with the people that aren’t like that.

 

Finally, when you’re not listening to, writing or playing metal, what are some of you favorite albums to listen to currently?

Slit: Netjajev SS “Destroy All Planets”, Rupture “Baser Apes”, Sepultura “Schizophrenia”, One Life Crew “American Justice”, Passenger Of Shit “Shit Is Harder Than Penis”, The Deadbeats “Kill The Hippies”, Autopsy “Fiend For Blood”, MF Grimm “Scars & Memories”, Naked City “Torture Garden”…

Beth: All things Kristin Hersh, especially that 50 Foot Wave “Power & Light” EP. She’s kind of my musical heroine for being able to play beautiful delicate things and go full rage too. Shrinebuilder, Fugazi, Bad Brains, and old Sepultura is currently on rotation in the car. Jawbox for the songwriting and Kim Coletta’s amazing basslines. Arvo Part’s choral work never ceases to get me every time. Mark Lanegan, Neil Young, things that came out on Dischord, SST, Man’s Ruin, Amphetamine Reptile, and Sub Pop back when it was all Mudhoney and none of the vanilla folk that the kids are into. It’s all over the place for me.

Zach: Well, while we did this interview we listened to the 4 Dollar Ohio Kings comp LP, Teeth of the Hydra “Greenland”, and Mahavishnu Orchestra “Birds of Fire”. Also recently a lot of Nihilist and Bolt Thrower, and Norse / Slavic black metal folk interpretations like Wardruna and Drudkh. Also oddly enough a lot of Eastern Orthodox choral music when I’m at work. There’s a type of vocal range called basso profondo that I’m really digging lately, super deep bass notes, that figures pretty prominently into Eastern Orthodox music. Think Al Cisneros / Om but from like the 1300s.

Thanks to everyone in Pillars for their time (but mostly Beth for organizing)! Be sure to check out their band here. You can also follow Beth on Twitter for her rational, well thought out musings on society.

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