A couple months ago, I was talking to Jesse Price of SeeYouSpaceCowboy and Letters to Catalonia, and mentioned that I was going to be moving to Austin, TX in July. The very first thing they said to me after that was, “Oh, you have to check out xGnapenstobx.”
Immediately intrigued by their name, a mixture of traditional straight edge syntax and borderline-nonsensical black metal naming conventions, I decided to check out their Bandcamp later that night, and listened to their most recent effort, Release of Pain. The cover art, designed by Jonah Thorne of metallic emoviolence crew Wristmeetrazor, evokes the same color tones and atmosphere as records like Norma Jean’s Bless the Martyr and Kiss the Child, while the band’s logo itself looks like it wouldn’t feel out of place as a sticker on a skate deck accompanied by Brother’s Keeper or Clear. Expecting to hear '90s moshcore worship, with perhaps slightly complex breakdowns, I was taken by complete surprise when I heard the first galloping black metal riff on “Stone Skin of Gargoyles.”
Gnapenstob’s songwriting is steeped in the traditions of both pissed, self-righteous vegan straight edge hardcore and the melancholic self-flagellation of depressive suicidal black metal. Discordant and melodic in equal and exciting measure, the songs hack their ways from beginning to end, always revolving a central musical conceit that keeps it from feeling like they lurch from idea to idea without fully forming any.
The engineering, done by Tim Hayward, is charged with the task of providing enough clarity to do Gnapenstob’s more intricate songs justice while simultaneously sounding cassette-tape-chic enough to fit in with the band’s extremely lo-fi influences. Ultimately, it succeeds, as the record possesses both crunchy precision and an immediate, visceral verisimilitude in its sound.
This authenticity is enhanced by the vocal performance; as much as their songs seem to flail between ignorantly punishing breakdowns and achingly melodic black metal riff runs, the vocals are always game to follow wherever the music goes, sounding at some times unforgiving and savage and at others like an animal desperate to be let out of a cage. No matter what, they’re always filled with an emotive energy that other hardcore bands seem to lack in favor of sounding “tough.” Gnapenstob could give a fuck about sounding tough. They’re unabashedly unafraid to engage in theatricality, and that makes their music all the more thrilling.
I found that theatricality in full effect the first time I saw them live, which was fittingly in a garage with SeeYouSpaceCowboy on the Austin date of their run of shows with Vatican. It being my very first DIY hardcore show in the city of Austin, I had high expectations, and Gnapenstob exceeded every single one with their performance, one imbued with both the confidence and stage presence of veterans along with the energy and recklessness of a young band trying their hardest to impress. I was sold before they even started playing, though, due to the '90s throwback fashion sense of their vocalist, who was decked out in authentic JNCOs, a wallet chain, a youth large Trustkill shirt, and a haircut that deserved the term “fashioncore” more than anything I’d ever seen in my life. Then they played and ripped the room’s collective asshole apart.
After the show, I had a chance to catch up with lead guitarist/songwriter Tristen Brenner, as well as his brother and vocalist/lyricist Bastian. They elaborated on a lot of the band’s ideology and point of view, and touched upon some extremely interesting topics (self-harm, drug addiction, how straight edge and veganism can be used to combat capitalism) in a sensitive and nuanced way. I’m extremely thankful to have taken the time to get to know these cats; pay attention, because they’re headed for big, big things.
So, first of all, thanks to both of you for doing this interview. Before I jump into some of the questions I have, I was wondering if you could give me a bit of the history of the band. I noticed on your Bandcamp that the earlier releases are credited entirely to Tristen, while your latest is credited to a full band. How did we get here?
Tristen Brenner: Of course! So basically, I used to record bedroom metal albums all the time after I dropped out of college (and still occasionally do). During the tail-end of that, a few friends, my brother and I had been talking about starting up a project that basically took the early blackened Underoath sound, and instead of Christian values, apply it to our vegan straight edge ideals. Already having recorded under a black metal moniker (as well as just really liking the name) we figured we’d just transition my project into this full-fledged line up, considering I still do a majority of the instrumental writing.
I'm really glad you immediately brought up the influence of Act of Depression/Cries of the Past-era Underoath, because in my opinion the aesthetic and musical influences of that era of hardcore are one of the first things that people notice when they see your band. When I first saw you live with SeeYouSpaceCowboy and Vatican, I was immediately intrigued in large part due to Bastian's sense of style, JNCOs, youth large Trustkill shirt, and all. Was this commitment to aesthetic a conscious choice or is it just a reflection of how you got into hardcore?
Tristen: [Laughs] I’m gonna let Bastian take this one, but I do wanna add that we just have a lot of fun dressing like the artists we love.
Bastian: [Laughs] So, it’s kind of both. While we got into hardcore from our mom and her ex fiancé through bands like Gorilla Biscuits, AFI, and Hatebreed, I also got majorly into metalcore and deathcore in middle school/early high school so the more scene/fashioncore looks have always been really cool and pleasing to me. But also, yeah I kinda agree that bringing back the fashion goes into genre worship, especially with how niche early 2000s metalcore was.
Yes, absolutely! James from Eighteen Visions was one of the first things I thought of [laughs]. I think a lot of people might have the misconception that the image would distract from the music, but when I think of that specific era of late '90s hardcore, I think of a lot of active political involvement, which puts me in the right frame of mind for what your band stands for. On your Facebook page you've been known for talking about how your vegan straight-edge ideals intersect with anti-colonialism and anti-racism. Would you want to elaborate on that here?
Tristen: Absolutely. So, we grew up down the street from this anarchist bookstore called Monkey Wrench Books, which is still active here in Austin, and them as well as pretty much the entire block of North Loop (circa ‘06) would put on thrash and punk shows at what seemed like every week at the time. (Shoutout OG Parlour, shoutout Sound on Sound, RIP). And we were thrown into a very left-leaning mindset from very early on (Bastian was 8/9 at the time). I was 13 when I went vegetarian due to the politics of the music I was listening to, and of course later became vegan. We used to go to shows and see people passing out pamphlets for whatever cause they had and of course it molded our ideals. It may also help that we grew up punks [and] didn’t really start out from a mall metal scene whatsoever.
Our mom has a Gorilla Biscuits tattoo [laughs]. So, that probably helped to steer our heads away from just the typical jocky “we’re just here to rock and fight” [mentality].
As for how we use our music to contribute to a better cause, it just seemed like when we were writing our first few songs, every new band coming out was screaming about their ex. And though that’s always occasionally fun (I think we have a song or two in a similar vein), from the start we wanted our lyrics to be more political and take a focus back to things that might actually matter to the world or even just our neighborhood. We practice veganism but we’ve always felt that was a very basic foundation for where our ethos lie. Not everything can be remedied by just one selfless act. That’s why we take it deeper and address the straight up colonialism that a lot of even vegan establishments are involved in. It would probably take a few more paragraphs to discuss the radical amount of gentrification Austin, TX faces, but we do our best to combat it. Let’s at least say that.
Damn, thank you so much for that in-depth response! I agree that a lot of that "I'm just here to fuck shit up to the music" ethos ends up damaging the scene more often than not, and I'm always stoked to see bands who go just as hard with their message and morals as they do with their breakdowns. I also noticed that your mentality is far from the 90s school of "fuck addicts and users;" it struck me as particularly compassionate when Bastian warned people at the show of someone selling laced drugs without any sense of judgment. Do you feel that you stand apart from a lot of other people and bands within straight edge in that sense?
Bastian: I would have to say yes, we do stand apart from other edge bands on that aspect for sure. Everyone wants to scream songs about straight edge pride or fuck sellouts, and don’t get me wrong i love those songs as much as the next person, but it’s deeper than that for us. I whole-heartedly believe that the most straight edge thing a person who claims can do is be there as positive support for anyone suffering from addiction. The drug industry is just as much a part of capitalism as anything else, and we see straight edge as another way to fight against capitalism, which means it’s just as crucial to reach out and help provide services for those who are being victimized by opportunists... On the other side of that same coin, it’s also extremely important to understand that some people aren’t fortunate enough to make ends meet with just commercial work and are forced into dealing as a means of survival. It truly all does come back and tie into capitalism.
This is an excellent and smart take that I rarely see, which is a shame. Anti-capitalism and hardcore, especially straight edge hardcore, have just always naturally seemed like they should be partners, but a take this nuanced would probably go over a lot of kids' heads. These are the sort of conversations that need to be had, and I would also say that in addition to capitalism's effects on drug addiction, the way it uses mental health and drug addiction to play against each other is another thing that we all should be doing more to combat.
But I'm getting off track! I did also want to talk about your musical influences, in the sense that you both wear them on your sleeve (describing your genre as "Dallas-era Underoath" and "Depressive Suicidal Edge Metal") as well as seamlessly incorporate them into your music, which stands on its own beyond genre pastiche. What's your songwriting process? How do you go about melding those disparate influences (if they even seem disparate to you)? Most importantly, who did that killer instrumental/ambient interlude on Release of Pain and why did you want to include it?
Tristen: Wow [laughs]. This is very much appreciated! Well, in terms of the actual instrumentation, like I’d said before I’ve spent a good amount of time writing black metal songs for myself over the years, so that style of riffing is pretty second nature for me. In fact it wasn’t even until I started writing for this full-band that I had ever written anything more hardcore-influenced (with breakdowns, power chords, dissonance, and so on), though it was stuff I listened to every day. It’s definitely conscious to incorporate the DSBM elements into our music and it hopefully always will be, because I think that’s just what we sound like! When we started up Bastian was like, “Just play like your old shit but throw in more chugging,” and it works for me. I’m just glad it’s striking notes with anyone else!
It was me that wrote the ambient instrumental track! I’ve released synth work in the past. I have three releases out under the name Apothecarium. I’m a huge ambient and jazz head, and if I’m ever not writing metal/hardcore, I’m working on very very much lighter works. We always wanted to have something like that, something eerie and pretty like the Jhazmyne's Lullaby piano and a lot of the interludes in Cries of the Past. Just basically an homage to the music we love.
Bastian: So, for the lyrical approach, I’ve always loved songs that were eloquently worded, which is one reason why Cries of the Past is one of my favorite albums, and I try to emulate that style a lot, especially with the songs we’re currently working on. Another thing that goes into play is my fascination with Catholicism and that sort of imagery.
The way I deliver my vocals is influenced a lot by, yet again, Dallas Taylor, especially with his highs and actual presence when delivering, but I also take a lot of influence from tech death and deathcore vocalists with low guttural vocals and pig squeals because I just think it’s honestly fun and interesting to be very rounded in different techniques.
One of the new songs we’re working on we played at that Vatican/SYSC show and it has a clean part, which I’ve been wanting to do for a while, just because I feel like it definitely adds an emphasis on the emotions conveyed in that song.
That clean part was fantastic! I remember being impressed by it. I also think that something that makes your band stick out is that rather than going with a straightforwardly "tough-guy hardcore" vocal approach, you actually sound tortured, dynamic, and emotive without being screamo, which is the kind of thing that got me into hardcore in the first place so many moons ago (although don't get me wrong, I love screamo as much as I love anything). As far as the ambient stuff goes, not only is that range of influence something cool to see (and also a running theme that I notice with a lot of the best songwriters in hardcore, like Ben Weinman and Jacob Bannon/Kurt Ballou), I also love seeing that stuff peppered into otherwise monstrously heavy albums, since it adds to the flow and allows for variation and depth. I was going to ask if that DSBM influence also crops into your stage presence.
Although what I saw was more standard flailing-around-on-the-floor '90s basement fare, I've been told by people that your shows can include anything from cutting yourselves up onstage to Tristen lighting himself on fire. Are there any particularly interesting stories you have about stuff like that?
Tristen: Let me say, first off, it was Bastian that set himself on fire, not me [laughs]. I’m too worried to have to spend money on another guitar to do that at the moment. There’s video of that somewhere, [it’s] not uploaded yet I don’t think.
Seb: [Laughs] Yeah, the fire was a very interesting stunt I pulled at a show with Foreign Hands, Atonement, and Typecaste (Tourniquet was also supposed to play), but basically I had a bunch of memorabilia from a relationship I had just ended that I was going to set ablaze on stage [including] some love letters, drawings, and a few dead roses. Instead I just ripped them up and threw them everywhere and set myself on fire instead. The cutting stunt was something completely out of left field.
I usually let everyone in the band know what I’m gonna do if I do anything crazy so that way they know if something goes wrong, but with that I was spiraling into a huge depressive episode and snuck in a pack of razor blades and went at my wrist and chest on stage, which was something [that] definitely took inspiration from Kim Karlsson of Lifelover, along with many other frontmen within the black metal scene.
Tristen: Everyone in the band has (or has had) self harm issues, something we definitely deal with to this day. Nothing we would ever want to incite onto someone else, but also if it’s expressed within our art we don’t necessarily view it as having an adverse affect. If you wanna be like us in that aspect, or if you think it’s cool... you’re probably already fucked up a bit.
That was a really thoughtful response, thank you so much. I had heard that it was you, Tristen, sorry about that! And again, I'd like to point out how considerate your addressing of serious issues is here with regards to self-harm. I think that is something that Gnapenstob is very unique in, and one of the biggest reasons I'd consider myself a fan. To further illustrate this, my girlfriend hates hardcore dancing, but at that show even she was impressed by how considerate you two were while doing it, and she didn't feel scared or concerned about getting hit at all (she also said you made it look "slightly less ridiculous," haha).
Tristen: Wow! Yes, I love that [laughs]. We love being violent but only in the sense that everyone around should feel included in this violence. It’s not towards anyone, it’s for everyone. That show was especially mixed and I’m grateful for the fact that it was. We both want to have our fun in the pit, of course, so we’re gonna do our thing, but never at the expense of anyone else. The only people I’ve ever gone out of my way to hurt in a pit is my friends [laughs]. I’ve knocked Bastian out twice, I think. It’s 100% understandable that that’s not everyone’s thing, but from the scene we come from and are influenced by, that’s what you do and we’re honored if we can bring that light to anyone that may be otherwise apprehensive.
Inclusivity is, I think, the lifeblood of hardcore, and I'm happy to see that you stand behind that. I think this takes up all the copy that I'm allowed, but thank you both so much for your eloquent responses and for your time! Are there any closing comments you'd like to share or any bands, local, current, or otherwise, that you'd like to shout out?
Bastian: First off, thank you so much for taking this time for the interview! It really means a lot to have a chance to be vocal and express what this band is about and share stories and processes. I’d like to shout out Jesse, Liam, and SeeYouSpaceCowboy for being so down and becoming some close homies, [we] straight up love seeing and playing with all of them. Shouts to xElegyx for being a huge influence on us starting an edge metal band and being some of the kindest and funniest people I know. Shouts to Alex and Christopher, 512 straightedge, stay true to yourself, think outside of human life and show compassion for the animals and the earth by going vegan and staying vegan.