Rediscovered Steel – Drowningman’s ‘Busy Signal at the Suicide Hotline’
The tides where changing in hardcore in the late ’90s — a new sound was emerging, one of chaos with metal in its veins. This change in hardcore is where bands like Cave In, Coalesce, Botch and Dillinger Escape Plan forced themselves into existence and led many hardcore kids to dump their basketball jerseys and Jnco parachute shorts for more fitting clothes, and, in some cases, grab the pomade.
One band ushering in the change was Vermont’s Drowningman, who took the scene by the neck with their 1998 full-length, ‘Busy Signal at the Suicide Hotline,’ and a live show that could only be described as pure mayhem mixed with the unpredictability of screamer Simon Brody’s outburst. ‘Busy Signal at the Suicide Hotline’ housed what became the band’s quintessential sound, and it was the last release Drowningman did on the then-young Hydra Head Records.
Noisecreep caught up with Simon Brody, who is now in school to be a lawyer, and talked about this groundbreaking record, the rumor of it being re-released and of course we got behind what was myth and what was fact over the band’s unforgettable live performances.
Is ‘Busy Signal at the Suicide Hotline’ still being reissued by Hydra Head?
That’s the story. From what I know they are hoping to find some live footage from that era to do an enhanced DVD with. There are also rare tracks they plan on including (the original version of ‘My First Restraining Order’ from the Dillinger split, a track from the ‘Metal Is a Tough Business’ comp on Tortuga) and our [Black Sabbath] cover (‘Faeries Wear Boots’) which was never officially released. I have been too busy and no longer live in Vermont and have been unable to track down any live footage, so it’s pretty much in limbo because of that.
After ‘Busy Signal at the Suicide Hotline,’ Drowningman went to Revelation Records. What prompted the move to a different label?
Mark Thompson started to work [at Hydra Head Records]. He is a dirty filthy long-hair with little to no redeeming qualities what-so-ever. That isn’t entirely true. Hmmm, how do I want to historically reconstruct those events?
Well, after ‘Busy Signal at the Suicide Hotline,’ we recorded two more songs with Steve Evetts at Trax East in [New Jersey]. Easily my favorite producer to work with, he mixed ‘Busy Signal.’ That lineup broke up. Javin and I were the only ones left and decided to get new people. There was a re-building period where we wrote the stuff that ended up being on ‘How They Light Cigarettes in Prison.’ During that time, I think there was a lack of confidence that we would continue on; it resulted in our strongest line-up.
Daryl left to do Cancer Conspiracy, and Dave and Todd moved to the West Coast. Matt Roy, who had been in Non Compos Mentis, joined; as did Zach Martin. Zach is doing film soundtracks and does a band called Carrigan. I really liked what he brought to the band, and on listening to the stuff he did after Drowningman, I would say he was one of the most talented people I’ve ever played with. He’s on some next level-type s—. I think when we finished ‘Cigarettes,’ we were really happy with it but felt with the more melodic direction and three fifths new people in the band (Joe V. had been added on drums), we felt sort of separated from what was going on at Hydra Head, who were throwing a lot behind Cave In and Botch and I think were mostly waiting to see what we did.
In the meantime we started talking to friends of ours at Revelation and Equal Vision. Jason Upright had worked at WRUV, the college radio station in Burlington, Vt. and was now doing A&R at Rev. In hindsight, it ended up being problematic at Rev at times. Jason left there right before we released our first Rev LP. I don’t think we really considered the fact that Hydra Head had just brought Mark Thompson on and really helped that label grow even if he is a borderline feral, unhygienic scumbag. I think the label change did get people’s attention. Jason told me that record shipped and sold more than any previous Rev EP.
Drowningman toured a lot. What was the most memorable tour?
Hands down, the tour right when ‘Cigarettes’ was released with the Dillinger Escape Plan. I mean there are a lot of reasons: It was our first full U.S. tour. Our best lineup, and we weren’t jaded by touring life which happened fairly quickly. But mostly it boils down to Jeff Wood. We got to spend every day with Jeff Wood.
I saw Drowingman at a show in Erie, Pa. I lived over two hours away, in a different state, but I found out about the show via a flyer being handed to me. Shows were all word of mouth and people drove distances for shows. Now it’s different, shows are localized and the internet moves music rather than shows. How was touring back then?
Yeah, back then there was a different protocol. People paid for music and there was no MySpace. Not that I’m against downloading music. I mourn the death of good packaging. I think that’s one of the things we missed about Hydra Head. Back then, bands played locally and then regionally and eventually nationally, then internationally. Now bands through MySpace and that interweb can get their s— out quickly, go to the mall and buy some cool clothes and be on tour the next week. There was no MTV coverage or huge summer package tours. We suffered for our art, bro.
I do remember that Erie show. I used to get panic attacks sometimes from taking that Ripped Fuel energy supplement s—. After we played, I was sitting down trying to chill out and get my s— together because I had been pounding coffee. Just as I was coming through it, Dillinger’s set ended because some girl had a seizure from the lights. When I looked up, paramedics were taking a body out on a stretcher. She was alive, which I did not know at the time. Needless to say, I had a brief visit to the ‘bad place.’
I’m sorry you went to the bad place at that Erie, Pa. show. Drowningman was always known for a crazy live show. I recent caught up with friend, and he was telling me about seeing you guys in Indiana and told me about you yelling at some heckler or something. And you guys wouldn’t play another song until the heckler licked the bass player’s chest. Is this a real story or one of those show fables that developed over time?
No, that was real. I don’t know what used to come over me. That was a more mild account. I remember playing in Buffalo once and the police came down with the intention of arresting me if I “did what I had done the time before.” I don’t quite recall it, but apparently a traumatized kid reported it to their mom, who in turn talked to the cops. I mean this wasn’t an every night type thing … more a ‘when the mood strikes’ type thing. I’m mostly an adult now; working and just finished my first year of law school. But I still have the scars on the bridge of my nose, forehead and some nice ones in hiding out in my hairline to remind me of my s—ty behavior.
‘Busy Signal at the Suicide Hotline’ came out amidst an era when a whole new breed of heavy and hardcore bands like yourself were gaining more exposure and influence in the scene. Was it an exciting time?
It really was. As I said, back in the late ’90s bands had to work a little harder to get out there. I mean, I remember playing a show in Providence, [R.I.] with Cave In and Dillinger to like 10 people in ’98 or ’99. A few years later, that show would have sold out. Actually, Cave In was really popular then, so maybe it was the weather.
Back then, fests happened a few times a year and they weren’t the mad house they are now. No Redbull sponsorships; it was more grassroots and had a stronger sense of community. Botch, Jesuit, Dillinger, Cable, Coalesce, Boysetsfire, Isis, Converge, all those bands were in some way related to that scene. This pre-dates ‘scenester’ being a disparaging word, and it was only 10 years ago.
What were the expectations for the band when ‘Busy Signal at the Suicide Hotline’ came out?
I don’t think we really had many at that time. I remember that Aaron from Hydra Head really didn’t expect it, we were the last band Hydra Head signed on a demo and I don’t think he knew what we were capable of. Since that lineup dissipated so quickly after the release, we never really toured on it. I don’t even know that we thought touring was something we would do. I think people’s reaction to that record was what kept Javin and I moving forward
Looking back on ‘Busy Signal at the Suicide Hotline’ after all these years, how do you feel about it? How do you feel about it compared to the other records?
I think it was a huge ‘growing up’ for the band. We recorded it at the same studio we had done our demos at. We had always been active in the mixing and recording process and realized somewhere along the way that we were going to need it mixed by someone that knew what they were doing. We took it to Steve Evetts at Trax East and he worked magic on it. I like certain songs from different records for different reasons. I do know that overall I would say that ‘Cigarettes’ and ‘Still Loves You’ are my favorites. I tend to like the EPs the best. That last record, ‘Don’t Push Us When We’re Hot,’ is my least favorite. I do not and will never consider that an actual Drowningman record, the songs were much better than they sound. Most assed-out mixing and mastering ever, this side of black metal.
Back then everything was about physical copies and buying vinyls and CDs at shows. Do you feel fans today are losing out on the focus of digital?
I think it’s a mixture. Maybe the demand isn’t there or the consumer demand is concentrated on one-stop shopping at Hot Topic. I think the early-to-mid ’90s saw a lot of packaging which labels put a lot of effort into. Bands would include song explanations in the lyric sheets sometimes. I don’t know the idea of ‘art’ had been replaced by a ‘commodity.’ I mean that sounds like a pretty typical complaint, but the whole punk/hardcore thing has been pretty neutered at this point.
You recently started a blog where you talk about Drowningman, life and poker. What made you start writing about all this?
Oh that started over a year ago, after I had a near-death experience flying in a plane trying to land in a super bad thunderstorm and eventually had to be re-routed. I was going to try to get all artsy and sensitive. Then I started law school, so I haven’t had the time. I have posted a few things on there. The Scheme demo, which was a band I was in with some people from ‘Busy Signal’-era Drowningman, along with people from Lifetime and Redemption 87, a more rock-type thing. I plan to do a lot more updates, especially if I do get involved in any musical projects.
What kind of law are you studying to practice?
I am still a bit undecided. My first semester, I was most interested in international environmental law. There was a brief moment where I was really excited about animal defense law (prosecuting people that abuse animals). I don’t think it’s a really large area of the law, but I am for sure going to make sure to take classes in the area so I can do that paid or unpaid. Intellectual property and contract law and helping bands not get f—ed over seems like something I would be interested in, and I know a bit about the mechanics of that situation. But I don’t really know if I want to be helping people beat the last breath out of rock and roll.
Ultimately, my grades and my professors seem to be saying that criminal law would be my best choice. I guess I have a natural aptitude for criminal behavior, or at least understanding it. We’ll see. I’m not interested in making a lot of those moral choices. I wouldn’t want to defend a rapist or prosecute someone for a bag of weed. Who knows.