By Christopher Nosnibor
The release of the latest album by The Icarus Line is prefaced by an angry statement from founder member and front man Joe Cardamone that first appeared at The Quietus before subsequently appearing on the band’s blog. To begin with, the initial description sounds more like a particularly brutal threat than a sales pitch:
“It distills The Icarus Line’s past, present and future into 8 tracks and 45 minutes of profoundly uncompromised rock & roll hurtling from the malevolent glower of opener ‘Dark Circles,’ to the slow, corrosive ooze of ‘Marathon Man,’ to the savage explosion of ‘Dead Body,’ to the Sabbath-plays-Funkadelic writhe of ‘Rat’s Ass.’”
He’s just warming up, though: “Rock’n’roll has been turned into this, like, Mötley Crüe charade, a parade of fucking dicks. It’s the 80s again. It’s crazy how everything I love has been driven back into the underground. That’s where we came from, and that’s where we’ve ended up, and anything else good is back down there too.”
The statement continues: “In previous years I’ve put out records that have been too long, because I’ve been working on them for like four fuckin’ years, and I’ve imagined it’s probably the last one I’ll ever do, so I just put everything on there. But at this point in my life, I don’t really give a fuck anymore. I know I’m gonna make records for as long as I’m alive, so I’m not as precious any more, I don’t care. This thing only exists so we can be happy and do something that matters to us, and to the people who need this as much as we do.”
I was relieved to find Joe a lot more affable, and even upbeat, when I spoke to him. I also consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to speak with him. You see, not only is Joe Cardamone an angry man, but he’s also a very busy man. Not only is he keeping himself occupied with promoting the fifth Icarus Line album, but is in the middle of some production jobs too. He can’t speak publicly about some of them, but he’s buzzed to be in the studio with Pink Mountaintops, one of the offshoots of Black Mountain led by Stephen McBean. First and foremost, though, we’re here to talk about his own latest output, Slave Vows.
I tell him I’ve been giving it some attention and volunteer that it’s, well, pretty intense.
‘Yeah. It’s a heavy record,’ he concurs in a nonchalant drawl.
He’s not wrong. Slave Vows has eight tracks and a duration of some 43 minutes. The first track alone is a sprawling 11 minutes of squalling feedback, clanging treble-heavy guitars, crashing drums and droning dissonance. Accessible or easy on the ear it isn’t. But then, it isn’t supposed to be. It’s the sonic equivalent of throwing down the gauntlet. It’s the sound of rebellion and of not giving a fuck about commercialism or the mainstream. Much of the music on the album errs toward the mid-tempo area, or slower.
The new album also feels very different from any of its predecessors. How did it come about, and what was the creative process for it?
I guess for this one we kind of, we wrote everything after being on tour, so we immediately came home and started writing. The process was extremely rapid compared to our previous records. I’d say within two weeks we had the record written. There was previous material that was available, but I scrapped everything – not because I wasn’t happy with it but I wanted to make something that was immediate. So we scrapped everything that had been laying around and kinda put that away and just wrote it right there on the spot and then recorded it pretty quick, too, probably about two weeks, three weeks to record.
That’s quick by any standards. I’m moved to ask if the pace of progress was fuelled by ire. After all, as Joe’s statement that accompanies the album’s release makes explicit, he’s pretty pissed off with the state of things, especially the state of contemporary music. I ask him if he could perhaps expand on that, and say how he feel things are different now in comparison to when the band started out.
I think, y’know, underground music is good. Underground music always has its gems. And it probably always will. But as far as mainstream and anything even approaching mainstream – as far as a level where musicians could earn a living playing rock ‘n’ roll, for lack of a better term – I think that has been thinned out over the last decade. I really think everything since Kurt Cobain blew his head off, it’s all been downhill from there.
Why do you think that is though? Is it the bands is it the media is it…?
I think, honesty, this might seem a little bit naïve but I attribute it a lot to the fact that most large labels have decided to not invest in anything that could be unstable or anything that’s a gamble.
I think that’s largely true. If you look back at the late 70s when punk was exploding, major labels like EMI and Virgin were snapping up punk bands. But then look at what else came out of that… we’re not just talking about obvious money-spinners like the Sex Pistols, but riskier bands like The Adverts, X-Ray Spex and 999 were also signed by major labels like Polydor. But then, The Icarus Line spent a period on Virgin subsidiary V2. How did that sit with you? I ask.
The thing with the record industry that I think a lot of people fail to realise is that it is a trickle-down economics, probably in the truest sense, so that when people get up in arms about major labels and how that system has fucked them over, but when major labels thrive, they’re able to spend money on projects they know probably won’t make any money. So bands like mine – and there’s a lot of bands like mine, I mean bands like …Trail of the Dead, all kinds of bands that don’t exactly make them shitloads of money, but they’re able to fund those projects for, I dunno, maybe for vanity or whatever the reason. There was money around it. These days, they’re not touching anything without a safe bet. Which is fine. It doesn’t really fuck with my life because I came from doing this myself. We put out our own records, we booked our own tours… for us, we can survive, we know how to navigate the gauntlet. But it doesn’t hurt to have investment opportunities.
Of course not. Even if a band is doing it purely or the art, their main objective is to get their material out there and for it to be heard. Survival relies on connecting with an audience. And touring isn’t cheap either…
Exactly. I think touring is the big one because touring becomes more and more expensive but people aren’t getting paid better fees. They’re actually getting paid worse fees than they did back in the day because since the record industry has sunk to lows… headlining bands, big acts are trying to keep more of their guarantee and pay less to supports so support has to come out of pocket a lot of the time. It’s kind of a shitty situation. But that’s not gonna stop us or anybody else who really wants to do this.
In a way, the good thing about it is that those who do are in it for the right reasons, for the art rather than the glory or to get rich and famous overnight. So there is a positive there…
But The Icarus Line have been the support band, and to some pretty big bands, with tours with Lemonheads, Wolfmother, Primal Scream, A Perfect Circle and, more recently, Killing Joke, The Cult.
Do you find playing to the audiences of big acts, where the punters are there primarily to see the them, as headliners, is a mixed blessing in terms of trading the exposure it gives to a larger audience against playing to people who are likely to be unreceptive? Is it a challenge, or …how do you find that situation?
Well, for us I think it can be good, because we don’t necessarily thrive on a positive reaction. We don’t really need that to have our show. We toured with Killing Joke which was great, they’re great people, they’re great guys, great band, but the crowd there was only there to see Killing Joke. That might be the only band they’ve ever heard of. And they fucking hated us. But for me, when we’re on stage, hate is equal to love for us.
Better to evoke that reaction than none at all: if people are just standing there looking bored then you’re doing something wrong.
Exactly, and we usually get a reaction. No matter where we are.
If you look through history, bands that you get compared to in various ways, bands like The Stooges, they’ve played some very confrontational shows and had some really bad reactions, and that in a sense is part of the legend that makes these bands even now.
Yeah, I think reaction is all you need to put on a good show. I mean, if you look at a group like Suicide opening up for The Cars or something. You can only imagine what the reactions must have been.
Well, there were riots, weren’t there?
So do you prefer studio work or touring? Where do you think you really come into your own?
At this, Joe pauses, there’s an audible intake of breath through his teeth, followed by a slow, deliberate ‘erm.’ ‘Well, studio work is sort of my day job,’ he explains. ‘Y’know, that’s what I do to make a living these days. Producing records and helping people realise their ambitions. So that’s more of a job to me, even though it’s a great job and I love it. But as far as pure enjoyment and something that I live for, it’s playing live because at this point we only do that to be happy. That’s the main motivation for when we play, is to reach some sort of euphoric state between the four or five of us on stage, so I would have to say after all these years, every time we go on stage, I feel lucky that we get to do it one more time. I know it’s some kind of cliché, but that is the honest truth.’
I suppose there’s also that immediacy, that rush and release that you don’t get in the studio because even when you’re working quickly it is that much more laboured and there isn’t the reaction, the interaction with the audience… About the studio though, in particular the production. You’ve been much more hands-on in the studio with this release and Wildlife. How much did you do this time around?
This time I did even more than Wildlife. On Wildlife I had some help from outside, like engineers here and there, I didn’t really know that I was doing technically. I kind of did, but not enough to pull the whole fucker off by myself. And it barely got pulled off. But this time, I knew what I was doing and I knew enough to know I didn’t need to do anything. I set up microphones, we went into the other room and just played, played forever. We didn’t even wear headphones. We had all the amps in one room. In that sense, there was no real production involved besides the initial concept and going out and doing it.
When you stepped into those roles for Wildlife, and onwards to Slave Vows, was that in some way about regaining control after the previous coupe of albums?
In all honesty, it was a means to an end. Personally, I would prefer to never have to touch a microphone or anything while we record. That’s why we did this record live. It wasn’t because, y’know, we’re trying to prove something to ourselves or anyone, it had nothing to do with that really, beyond the fact that I knew the band sounded good live and I didn’t want to fuck around… I just wanted to play. So, producing our records was more out of necessity than any sort of quest to be in command. I’ve had great experiences working with different producers and engineers and learned so much from them. I think that it’s something that’s getting lost today in that there’s not enough money for people to hire out all the time, but I really think that a team really makes a great record a lot the time. Having somebody in the studio with you to have perspective when you can’t is invaluable, and almost always make better records if you make a choice about who you’re in the room with.
All of you releases have been quite different from one another. The new album feels very different from Wildlife, which in turn feels very different from its predecessors. This is hardly surprising: the band have had many lineup changes during their existence, with drummers in particular changing with alarming frequency. I refrain from making the suggestion that there seems to be something of a Spinal Tap thing going on there, but I am curious to know how the lack of stability has affected the band’s forward progress.
Is there a straight trajectory that links all of your output, from Mono through to Slave Vows or do you see them each as individual and different projects – given that the lineup has changed so frequently, do you even consider them to be by the same band or different bands? Is there some sense of continuation?
I see it as a continuation, because I think the attitude and the spirit of all the records is the same. I always feel like we’ve gotten closer each time to what we’ve been trying to do since the beginning. Even though the sound has evolved over 12 years, that’s something that has to happen for a band to continue making music together. So, for me, my voice and the spirit kinda ties it together. The new record, to me, relates more to our early records than anything in long time but also at the same time, it’s a direct descendent of Wildlife as well. It kind of encapsulates everything we’ve done up to this point.
Critical reception has been quite varied to your albums. How do you react to that kind of fickleness?
I don’t really know. It’s nice when someone enjoys the record, and when someone passes on it, it sucks. But obviously, it’s all circus, none of it’s ever meant enough to deter us or to push us in a certain direction, we’re always going to do what we set out to do.
The people that buy the records are the ones that count, ultimately, right?
A lot of reviews, particularly of Penance Soiree and Wildlife seemed to say much the same sort of thing, in focussing on reference points and influences, notably The Stooges, The Birthday Party, The Jesus and Mary Chain and so on. Does that endless referencing of the same bands bother you or is it gratifying to be placed alongside such artists?
I don’t mind it at all, because those bands that we’ve been compared to, they’ve been vanguards and sort of outsiders in their time. I honestly think that as far as rock ‘n’ roll goes, that’s where we’ve been for a long time. We’ve never really been part of the movement or scene… so to be compared to groups like that, it makes sense, y’know? It’s an honour to be compared to bands that we love. That’s how I take it, anyway.
It is a compliment as I see it as well. Those are bands that I really dig, and if I read reviews of a band that draw comparisons to them, I’m likely to think ‘I need to check these guys out.’ And it’s isn’t just about the music: there is that outsider thing that’s a common factor that is integral to their appeal.
Exactly. I don’t think we have even one song on the new record that’s like ‘oh that sounds like a rip-off of The Stooges’ record, any of them, you know what I mean? So if you’re going to compare in a sort of spirited way and attitude, how could you ask for anything more? I’d rather be compared to that that fucking whatever the fuck else is on the radio today.
Well if it’s on the radio then it’s probably going to suck anyway, so you don’t want to be compared to that….. Back to the album, what’s the significance of the title?
I guess it’s a pretty simple title. Slave vows… to me, anyway, I don’t know, a couple of different people have used different interpretations and it’s always kinda weird, it’s like Penance when you give a title to the record and it’s only a vague intention, and let the intention unfold. With this one, I feel like it’s, basically, referencing to pledging allegiance to something with all your heart, even though you have no choice in the matter anyway.
I like that. I know I don’t come across as cool, but I tell him so. It’s probably about time I let Joe get back to work, so I throw him one more question. I see you’re taking the album on tour fairly soon…
Hopefully… yeah. It’s all depending. We tour when we can afford to tour. We don’t make a shitload of money out there and we don’t always break even, especially if we’re support touring we hardly make any money. If we tour on our own we can do alright but we really only tour when we can afford to tour at this point. If we could, we would tour a lot more. So that’s where it is: we have to be very strategic – as I think a lot of people do.
Slave Vows is out on July 16th on Agitated Records