Interviews

Jeremy D. Smith (Halfmast, Plagued With Rage, No Reason, The Control, Dead Hearts, Modern Problems)

Jeremy D. Smith was an integral part of the Buffalo, NY hardcore scene throughout the '90s. As a guitarist, Jeremy has been in such bands as Halfmast, Plagued With Rage, and Dead Hearts, and more recently, he handled lead vocal duties in the melodic hardcore outfit, Modern Problems.

Currently living on the other side of the country in Saint Helena, CA, Jeremy recently took some time out of his busy work/family schedule to talk about his life in music.

As I always do, I like to start these things off with finding out a bit about the interviewee’s childhood. 

I was born and raised in North Tonawanda, NY, which is a suburb located right in between Buffalo and Niagara Falls. We lived in a duplex in the burbs from second to 8th grade, until my parents bought a house the next street over, so I lived in the same neighborhood nearly the entire time I was growing up. It was very suburban, with the houses all looking the same and evenly spaced, I think it was OK, very average; average house, average upbringing, average grades, average looks with two parents working full-time.

Were your parents artistically inclined?

Art? Not really. My dad played in a cover band on the weekends called Midnight Fire. My mother has always listened to whatever the popular music was at the time; my dad is pretty firmly planted in what is mostly called “classic rock.”

SEE ALSO: 2017 interview with Pete Reilly (Mouthpiece, The Eulogy).

What kind of music did you gravitate towards as a young kid? Did you have older friends/family helping mold your tastes?

When I was a kid, I was really into metal like, out of the gate. But I also liked goofy stuff as well. I had an uncle, Jimmy, who lived upstairs from us (before we moved to that duplex) and he would jam Maiden, Priest, Sabbath, Venom, and my other uncle, Dave, listened to some of that stuff but also Devo, the Ramones, Sex Pistols. They both loved Jethro Tull. The first two bands I really “latched on” to were Iron Maiden, after seeing live footage in '82 and Twisted Sister in '85, after getting Stay Hungry for Christmas. A friend played me Master of Puppets in '86, and after that, it was all over. By late '87 I had borrowed (and never returned) my uncle’s copies of Rocket to Russia, End of the Century, To Mega Therion, Never Mind the Bollocks and started buying my own records. For a time, my uncle Dave lived with us in a spare bedroom in our duplex and took me to a record store for my 14th birthday, telling me to pick out any record I wanted. I chose the gatefold of Iron Maiden’s Live After Death,  also, three days before my 15th birthday, he took me to see Metallica on the Damaged Justice tour. Those guys really set the foundation for my like, uhh… “musical journey.” 

How did you become aware of the straight edge hardcore movement, and why did it appeal to you?

In late '89, early '90, a kid who lived down the block from me, knowing I was some dork into thrash metal and some punk and crossover, introduced me to hardcore via the New York Hardcore: Where the Wild Things Are compilation. He was straight edge (at the time) and it started there, also, around that time, I started hanging out with kids I had known in elementary school, but since we went to different junior high schools, we didn’t reconnect until we were in some of the same classes in 10th grade ('89-'90). Some of those guys were straight edge and into like the early Revelation Records bands, 7 Seconds, and skate rock stuff. I also still hung out with my “metal” friends, though eventually we all congealed into a big friendship circle, at first it was like, hang out with these three dudes Friday, these other four dudes on Saturday, ya know? I’d go to hardcore shows with one group of guys and thrash/death metal shows with another. I was caught in between for a while until we all just started hanging out together. But before that, some of the metal dudes I knew liked to go into the woods and party, or at this dude’s house who wasn’t really into the stuff we were, but had two sisters and whose parents were never around. I swear it was like he had like no supervision and a house at his disposal at 16.

Anyway, like all those guys wanted to do was drink or smoke and I just wanted to listen to music and maybe get a little attention from his sisters. I realized that drinking and smoking wasn’t my thing. There was no traumatic experience with it, I just didn’t like how it made me feel and how others were acting/ reacting to it, so I stopped all together.  My friend Bob was the first to tell me I had “gone straight edge.” I wasn’t a full on positive type youth kid, but after 10 months or so, I started calling myself straight edge. My senior year of high school, I bought a varsity jacket with straight edge embroidered on it. I think what appeals to me the most about straight edge, to this day, is that staying away from intoxicants, your mind is truly your own, your thought process, your triumphs and failures are truly yours and you can own that. I like feeling that my decision making isn’t marred by the influence of an outside substance. 

When and what was the first underground show you went to?

I don’t think the Metallica show I mentioned or like Ozzy counts, so I think Overkill/Baphomet in spring of 1990. I went to a Cannibal Corpse show with my friend Jeff somewhere around there, too.

What was the local scene like when you were first getting into underground music?

Exciting. Buffalo was the hub of death metal in 1990 with Cannibal Corpse, Malevolent Creation (their guitar player was my neighborhood’s paperboy when I was young), and Baphomet all releasing or getting ready to release records at that time. Plus, we had Zero Tolerance, an amazingly good live band, whose 1990 demo and 1991’s Fuel the Fire release are incredible. Snapcase came out with their awesome demo in '91. Grotesque Infection, Immortal Terror/Eternal Torment, Discontent, Against All Hope, and Slugfest were all great live bands you could see on any given week when I was first going to shows 90-92. 

Image: Richard Shiner

Tell me about Childish Intent. 

Oh boy, OK, this is going way back. In '89, after seeing Metallica, I decided that I had to start a band. So, my friends and I tried to start one called “Prime Evil” that name lasted about a month, we were a bunch of goofy misfits and I wanted a name that reflected that, so I came up with “Childish Intent.” We played our first show in December '91 and our last in October '92. We released two demos and probably played around a dozen shows. We called ourselves “goof core” but instead of like, blending our influences, we would like have “hardcore song” followed by “death metal songs.” Looking back, that’s a little weird.

SEE ALSO: 2017 interview with Steven Andrew Miller (Unbroken, Julia, Kill Holiday, Crushed on You, Distant Beds).

The first band you played in that I was a fan of was Halfmast, in the early ‘90s. 

The thing is, Halfmast was a very different band early on; they initially had one of the guys from Baphomet playing guitar, and when I joined they had already put a demo out. I kind of thought it was a huge Slugfest rip-off, but by the time I talked to Bill and Nick about joining the band, it had grown on me and they still had one of their two guitar players, so he could show me the stuff they hadn’t recorded. At the first practice, I was learning their set with the remaining “metal guy guitar player” who was immediately put off by my suggestion and Nick’s support of writing “fast parts.” Next time we got together, metal guy had quit. My 15-year-old brother came aboard on second guitar and we began writing new songs/reworking existing songs and riffs. That’s when the band was officially a straight edge band, after my brother joined. We were all really pumped on late '80s hardcore and wanted to try and keep that sound going. 

When we did join up in ‘93, that sounds was all but forgotten, moshy metal was becoming the norm and I didn’t want to really play that and I couldn’t if I wanted to anyway, I can’t play metal, really. We played a show in Syracuse once where we covered the entire first side of the first Chain of Strength 7”. Not one person there knew the songs. I think that Chain, Insted, Youth of Today, and No For An Answer were the biggest influences on us when I first joined and after all the metal had gone out of the band. 

How much touring did Halfmast do? What are some of the shows you played with that band that stand out?

I want to say we played a lot of shows. We did many weekend warrior trips, as well as three East Coast/Midwest tours: Summer ’94, '95, and '96, though we broke up in the middle of the one in '96 after we had done some Mid-Atlantic, Southern, and Midwest shows. We played Chicago like every three months from the time I joined until we broke up. Being in the band was always a struggle for some reason. It took us a long time to become a “good” band and when we got there, we broke up, so a lot of people saw a really inconsistent band on tour. 

Our bass player shared with me the tallies from our last tour’s t-shirt sales that he had recently found in a box. We sold 14 shirts in North Carolina then 0-2 shirt on every other night of that tour, including 0 in our own hometown; we must’ve been good in North Carolina [laughs]. I actually have some pictures from our Milwaukee show on that last tour and they look like it was a good show for us, probably because all of our friends from Chicago came out, because we played there the day before; it was a really weird show with the Iceburn Collective. Our shows in Buffalo were hit or miss, like, we never seemed to carry momentum to the next show. Not to say we didn’t have good shows, we did, it was just spotty.

Yeah, it's strange how that could happen sometimes. You're definitely not the first person I know who has told me about their band being much bigger in random cities.

Every show we ever played in Chicago was great, from the get-go, even the weird one we played with the Iceburn Collective had its charm. I always loved playing with Mouthpiece and Ignite; we played with them a bunch even though it was pretty obvious they weren’t too keen on the band. Strife we’re unstoppable back then, we played with a lot of great Buffalo bands: Despair, Slugfest, and bands people have forgotten about like Slowpoke and XeverlastX. We played a show In Chicago that all of the pictures from the Deny Their Vision layout are from, I think that is the most stand out show for me, it really felt like we were on to something then, it was six months after the Status cassette (our best stuff) had come out and we were getting ready to record Deny… three weeks later; that show was when we were at the top of our game. Mostly, for three years though, we played to blank stares. I think had we stuck around another year, things might have swung our way. No Reason, my band right after, got to reap those rewards, I think. We played an impromptu reunion at a No Reason show that was really good, it was nice to have positive closure on the band.

During the same time you were in Halfmast, you also played in Plagued With Rage. What inspired you guys to start the latter band? Was it tough juggling both bands?

Plagued With Rage was my brother, cousin, and Jay from Halfmast’s band, they were all younger than me and were friends from high school. They were originally called FSU and released one demo under that name but after learning about the crew up in New England, changed their name. Jay likes to jump around, so the songs would be really sloppy, and they wanted a more “grounded” guitar player, so they asked Nick, who sung for Halfmast, to play guitar, but then found out he couldn’t really handle what they were doing, and they asked me. They were young guys who wanted to play energetic hardcore, I never really had to juggle the band much, as I was in and out of the band throughout their existence, I would quit and come back, mainly because I was jealous that they had such great shows and the band I poured all my energy into (Halfmast) was tanking. I remember going to see them at one show after I had quit like for the fourth time and they were so fucking awesome, I finally “got it” and asked to join back up. I was in the band, wrote some of the music and lyrics, but it was never really “my” band, if you know what I mean?  

That Plagued With Rage EP was the shit! How do you feel about that material now? 

They were a better band than Halfmast for a time, but like Halfmast, I wish the recordings were better and we were a little more patient with getting things done in the studio. I’m always shocked with how loud we mixed the vocals.

SEE ALSO: 5 Metal Albums That Deserve Reissue Treatment, by Trevor Strnad (The Black Dahlia Murder)

This was all happening in the mid-‘90s. What was the Buffalo hardcore scene like back then in your estimation?

There was a lull I think from '93-'95 for bands that weren’t established, but I think from like late '95-'99 or so things were really, really good. Shows were consistently great and many of the local hardcore bands were doing records on cool labels are touring. That was like a two and a half year period were everyone got a long and really supported each other’s band, I’m glad I was around and a part of that.

During that period you played in the band No Reason, alongside some familiar names. 

No Reason was born out of the ashes of Halfmast and Plagued with Rage. My brother, who was in Halfmast from '93-'94 and Plagued With Rage sang, Eric Ellman, who was Halfmast’s last drummer played guitar, Eric’s brother, Blake, played drums and my cousin Abe, who was also in Plagued With Rage played bass on our first demo, but moved out of state before our first show, which switched eric to bass. I had even asked Farside from Halfmast to play bass so eric could stay on guitar, but he scoffed at some of the riffs I showed him and passed.

From our first practice, I think we all sensed that No Reason was a good band and I remember, we had released a demo before our first show and I asked my brother if we should make shirts for it. He was like “let’s see how our first show goes before we make shirts.” Well, our second show had shirts, with an awesome pic from our first show of people singing along. We had catchy, energetic hardcore songs that were fast, but with a contemporary edge, we chose good covers, Project X, Minor Threat, we even played “Mother” by Danzig at a show. Everyone sung along. 

No Reason at the Mercury Theater, Buffalo, NY, 1997. (Photo: MArk X Miller)

No Reason had a big following in the Buffalo area.

We had a huge mailing list and made post cards with all of our upcoming shows on them and sent them out. It was crazy how many people liked that band in Buffalo. We also carried the momentum that Halfmast had in Chicago and had good shows there, too. Our ’98 summer tour was a disaster. On paper it looked great, but like out of the first week of shows, three got cancelled, one had one person at it, another, the headliner (Kid Dynamite) cancelled, killing the show, and yet another, the venue had no idea there was a show booked. The back end of the tour was loaded with some shows with Bane and Shai Hulud, but we were so broke, we decided to cut our losses after Indianapolis and Chicago. We broke up like 2-3 local shows and four months later after an argument at practice between me and Blake. I love our 7” and second demo, but the LP should have been better, again, we needed to be more patient but rushed my brother’s vocal takes in the studio. The first song on that LP though, “Paper Hero,” named after a Robotech episode, is one of my favorite songs I’ve written, however.

One band you were in that was a bit more punk than hardcore-sounding was The Control. Well, I guess that’s my take on it, at least. 

That was the intention, strip out everything and do a band that was like early '80s as much as possible. You know, hardcore punk. We wanted to be in-your-face as far as the energy went. Things were up and down with The Control but we had some absolutely insane live shows and Kevin, the singer, for as mellow as a person as he is, when he has a mic in his hand, holy shit, what a great, great front man. The biggest disservice that band did to itself was thinking we could go on without him after he quit. We were around for four years and played a lot of shows, our third drummer sent me a list of all the shows he played with the band (he keeps such lists for some reason) and he played 105 shows with the band. It was cool that we played hardcore shows, and like, street punk shows. One show we’d be playing with Suicide File or the Nerve Agents and the next with A Global Threat or the Forgotten, that was cool.

The Control was around from 1999 to 2003, and then you played in The Dark Path for about a year, but I don't know anything about that project.

Jerid from No Time Left/Gas Chamber and my brother came out with us on the last tour The Control did. They were there when our new singer wasn’t really working out and I expressed to them how I really wanted to do a band like Danzig/Samhain and they were into it. I think I was getting really burnt out on playing fast and wanted to play some chilled-out satanic rock and roll. We worked hard on a demo, recorded five songs, wrote another two, played one show and broke up. It was pretty cool. My brother sung, Jerid played lead guitar, and Blake from No Reason played drums. Jay, who was later in Lemuria, played bass. We never made any merch and just did that demo, though we did make these awesome inverted cross banners that we draped over our cabinets and bass drum head.

Dead Hearts was your next adventure, and of everything you’ve done to date, I guess that one might be your most recognizable band. Not only were you guys prolific, you also signed to one of the most influential record labels of that time, Ferret.

Dead Hearts was a god damned whirlwind; everything happened so fast for that band, it was insane. We recorded our first five songs and played a show. We sold 350 of those demos fairly quickly and labels started asking us to do an EP: Martyr, Live Wire, and State of Mind Recordings were the contenders, all with us being a band for only a couple of months. We played our first show in August 2004 and started playing out of town with two months. I remember that we went with State of Mind to do our first EP because they could have the CD version out by the time we left for our East Coast run tour that started the day after Christmas in 2004. 

We did three recording sessions very quickly then Reflections Records in the Netherlands, who had done a record for The Control, wanted to release an EP for us, based on the strength of the initial eight-song EP and that third recording session. We continued to do weekend shows and recorded the No Love, No Hope EP. Those songs garnered interest from Victory and further interest from Ferret, who had been talking to us since the demo, but kept their distance. 

So how did Ferret Music finally come around?

We played at CBGB’s with Bane, our friends in With Honor and Comeback Kid, and the show was incredibly packed. This dude Rich Hall hooked us up with that show and I am eternally grateful for that because at that show, Rick from Ferret came out and it was great. Our set from that night eventually became a 7”. Two months later, after talking to Victory and Ferret, we just liked the Ferret guys more. A friend I had grown up with, Andy, has a band called Every Time I Die and they were on the label at the time and had great things to say, we had just played a show at a classic venue and guys from the label came out. It felt right. They understood that we had a record still coming out on Reflections and had were about to leave on a six-week tour of the US and that we’d need time to write an LP. So, literally the day we started that tour in the spring of 2005, we signed the contract.

The Bitter Verses album came out in 2006. Did you guys do a lot of touring in support of the record? 

I think we did. We went on tour with Sick of it All a week after it came out, which was cool. The record took a little time for it to “catch on” in Buffalo, but the first place kids sung along to songs on Bitter Verses was in London, Ontario, three weeks after it came out. It was like, awesome to experience that. We did two full US tours and a European tour to support that record, plus that three week tour with SOIA and other odds and ends.

Why did Dead Hearts break up in 2008?

Our second drummer, Josh, quit right after our European tour, so we started off 2008 looking for a drummer. Our first drummer, Rich, filled in for a big one off show we played in Orlando, FL, but wasn’t interested/didn’t have the time to join the band again. We had recorded four new songs right before the Euro tour and were in the middle of writing Ghosts, the follow up to Bitter Verses. That really set our momentum back. We were over a year out from our record and it was hard to get bigger support tours without a new record, also, things at Ferret were starting to shift. State of Mind, who had done of first EP, had committed to releasing the Live at CBGB's record, so we could have a new release to tour on, but it got delayed and delayed.

We got a new drummer, but he was from Vermont and although a nice guy at his core, he wasn’t one of us. His view of the world and his upbringing were very different than they rest of us Western New York guys. Also, when we went out on tour with him, it was his first time on the road, so he was like “going for it,” but not in the way that we did. He was like a kid in a candy store with girls at shows and where we stayed and stuff, I dunno, he just didn’t mesh with us on a personal level, so it added a stressor that wasn’t in the van before. 

Yeah, touring can tell you a lot about a person.

If you remember, the summer of 2008 was brutal for gas prices. During the initial year after Bitter Verses, we might get paid between $100-$400 per gig in the US, but by the summer of 2008, nearly two years since we’d had a record out, the norm was $100 or less, that’s not to say we didn’t have some good shows were we made out well, it just wasn’t as consistent as it had been and certainly not as much as we would be paid in Europe. So gas was $4 a gallon throughout the US, and we were playing on a tour we had booked before that big jump in gas prices and losing our shirts, big time. This was particularly hard on our singer Derek, who was having a hard time with navigating the waters of losing his ass on the road with a wife at home and losing the income that would come with working his day job.

Also, the music industry changed, we had signed a solid three record contract with Ferret in 2005 and now it was 2008 and the landscape was very different. They asked to renegotiate the contract as, on their end, what was contracted financially for our sophomore release was no longer realistic or we had the option to walk away free and clear. We decided to walk away from Ferret and pursue other labels. Very quickly we got some offers, some were really bad, like budgets for recording that were 80% lower than what we had used to record Bitter Verses. It was all so confusing and depressing, but we got a decent offer from Eulogy and those guys seemed like they were really into what we were doing, we went back and forth with the contract while out on the road and once it was finalized and ready to sign, I think Derek just cracked. Literally the day we got the finalized contract, he quit. None of us were angry about it, though, disappointed, sure, but I’m positive it was a very difficult decision to make. We had so much in the pipeline too, another leg of a US tour, 11 songs written or near completion for our LP with recording at Silver Bullet Studios in CT, another Europen tour with our friends in the Carrier and a proposed South American tour. I know the stress I was under at the time and I can’t imagine how Derek felt. We’re all still friends and reunited for two benefit shows in 2012 that were fucking great.

Dead Hearts performing a reunion set in 2012. (Photo: MArk X Miller)

You did stints in a band called Reason, and then another called Old Ghosts, from 2009 to 2012. After that you sang in Modern Problems. Mike from Not Like You Records sent me a copy of the Foolish Times album and I really dug it. To me, it has a certain Uniform Choice/Unity type of vibe to it. How tough was it to go from guitar to leading a band?

I don’t know if it was tough, per se, for me it was a confidence thing. I had sung in a band called XnevermoreX in like 94 that was me and Halfmast guys playing more militant harder and faster hardcore, but I think my voice sucks on that. I had written the lyrics to all the No Reason songs, most of The Control songs and all of the Dead Hearts lyrics except two lines that Tom changed on the spot in the studio. I had written a bunch of songs that I wanted to have that singy SoCal hardcore vibe, like Unity and Uniform Choice, but I didn’t want some pop-punk cheeseball singing the songs and was afraid that it would just sound wrong with a “talk shouter” kind of youth crew vocalist. So I thought “I’m going to try this” and I did it myself. Trust me; no one was more shocked than I that it turned out good. 

What’s the status of Modern Problems today?

The band broke up two years ago. Our original guitar player quit and our drummer moved over to guitar as it was easier for us to find a straight edge drummer than it was a guitar player who was interested. A few days after we recorded the In Your Eyes EP our guitar player quit, and that was that. He’s a weird, yet cool dude, but I’m literally twice his age, I mean, who wants to be in a band with their dad, ya know? We played four shows, three in Buffalo and one in DC. With only four shows, we still managed to do three cassettes, a 7” a 12” and two 7” compilations, so that’s pretty cool. I moved to the West Coast shortly after and now live in the Bay Area, so that band isn’t coming back. I jammed with some dudes last month, but I think that might have fizzled out.

Modern Problems performing in 2015. (Photo: MArk X Miller)

Outside of music, what else is keeping you busy these days? 

I’m married with three kids and have a good career in higher education administration that’s pretty cool. I go to shows, though being that this isn’t the hardcore scene I grew up in, people have no idea what to think of this old, loud fat guy, and mostly they look at me like I’m a cop. Lately I’ve been going to a lot of death metal shows, which is awesome, too.

Since I know you’re a fellow thrash metalhead, if you had to pick one underrated band from the scene’s classic era, who would it be and why?

I really love the Wrathchild America LP, Climbin’ the Walls. The thing is, I know [blasphemy!] it’s a bad record, it’s like a cross between sleazy hard rock like Guns N' Roses and Skid Row, and like major label thrash metal, but I love it; the production, and the songs. There’s two songs—“No Deposit, No Return” and “Candy from a Madman”—where the lyrics are so laughable, but seriously, I’ve listened to that record regularly for 28 years and I don’t know anyone else who likes that record. Those guys are so much talent and they just misdirected it into obvious pandering to be a big band, but the record was delayed like a year and by that time, I think their window of opportunity had closed. 

Also, In November of 1989, I conspired with my uncle to take me to see Wrathchild America with Testament and Annihilator. I was 15 and also had seen Metallica and Ozzy earlier in the year and figured my parents had loosened the reigns a little. My uncle showed up to take me to the show, and I still remember him sitting at my parent's kitchen table when my mother brought the axe down and grounded me so I couldn't go. That probably solidified my love of the album right there—the band I never saw.

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Head to Bandcamp to check out more music from Modern Problems, No Reason, The Control, and Halfmast. Jeremy also has a blog called I Like Music, Sometimes that you might dig.

Tagged: dead hearts, halfmast, modern problems, plagued with rage

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