I was naively hoping for a watershed moment when I asked Brock Stephens to meet in person.
Stephens plays guitar in Lincoln hardcore band Bent Life, and Bent Life is having a good year. In fact, Bent Life has been having a good four and a half years since Sept. 25, 2010. That day, Stephens says, the band released its first demo, played its first show and kicked off its first tour.
Since then, the band has spent at least a fourth of every year on the road, including tours in Europe, slowly and persistently building a following to the point where Bent Life could safely be called one of Nebraska’s most popular, hardest-working acts.
Earlier this year, the band announced it would release its debut full-length on Bridge 9 Records as well as tour dates in Japan. Bridge 9 is also home to War on Women, Strike Anywhere, Lemuria and more. It’s big news for Bent Life and I wanted to write a feature story on the relationship.
It would be the first time Hear Nebraska ever wrote a full feature on Bent Life — coverage of the band so far including photo essays and news updates. And I knew that might be a problem. To our knowledge, no one from Bent Life has ever reached out directly to Hear Nebraska with concert, tour or band-related news, but we did interview Stephens in 2011 for the second Nebraska Hardcore Showcase.
So it’s not that we have ignored Bent Life for five years, but it is indicative of some unhealthy tendencies in our editorial coverage.
We aim to cover all original Nebraska music, regardless of genre. But we simply don’t catch everything that’s going on. The genres and venues that pop up more often in our coverage are usually the ones with whom we have relationships, who email us when they have something they’d like to see covered. That communication is important to helping us do our work.
Ideally, we’d have these kinds of relationships in every corner of Nebraska music. It’s something we’re always working on, and we’re always seeking contributors to help us do it better.
We’re aware that Nebraska’s hardcore, metal, jazz, electronic, classical and hip-hop scenes are often under-represented on our digital pages. For that, some people don’t like that Hear Nebraska bills itself as inclusive of all Nebraska music while appearing to favor certain genres. Stephens is one.
So he agreed to an email interview and I sent off some questions about the band and signing to Bridge 9. You can read the full transcript further below, but it was clear Stephens wanted to use the interview as an opportunity to, in his words, “shed light on the things I dislike about Hear Nebraska and hopefully open up a dialog [sic] about it even if I come out looking like an asshole for it.”
I love working for Hear Nebraska, I love the work that I get to do and I think supplemental roles in the arts (curating, organizing, running sound, writing, etc.) are important, so I take my role and criticism of Hear Nebraska seriously. I want us to do our job extremely well. So in my conversation with Stephens, I offered to write another story — a story about criticizing Hear Nebraska and two people seeing each other’s side of things. I imagined grabbing a beer together and laughing at our unusual circumstances, maybe we’d even develop a begrudging respect that would blossom into friendship. I watch too many movies.
This is where I thought we might have a watershed moment. My conversation with Stephens was not the first time I’ve heard similar issues about Hear Nebraska editorial, and it won’t be the last, but rarely is it done in such an open and direct way. I’m not often afforded the opportunity to engage back.
Maybe we could meet in person and make some meaningful progress here, I thought.
But Stephens told me he is neither interested in building bridges nor in being an ambassador for those people that would see Hear Nebraska do its job better. He said our options were this e-mail interview run in its entirety or nothing at all. Which is too bad, because I don’t believe his thoughts on Hear Nebraska are wrong.
The problem is that we need help. While, officially, I support all original Nebraska music equally, I obviously have my own personal preferences and have a more connected presence in communities that reflect those tastes. This is true for every person who has ever been and ever will be affiliated with any arts journalism organization.
We don’t know everything, we can’t catch everything. We want to be told what’s going on and we want people to whom it matters to help us cover it. If you want to cover something — whether it be hardcore, hip-hop, metal or classic rock — tell us. Seriously. Five people plus a handful of consistent contributors will not know about every show. We will not see every relevant Facebook post. We do check our email though: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the interest of transparency and hopefully fostering the dialogue Stephens began, and as per his request, we’ve published our email transcript in-full below.
Dutiful coverage is important to us and it’s clearly important to Stephens judging by the week’s worth of emails we exchanged, the fact that he saw fit to bring it up in the first place. And I’m sure it’s important to a lot of other people too.
That watershed moment will probably never happen, but this conversation is productive if we learn about even one more band coming to town, one more album release than we would have otherwise.
Email us when you think something merits coverage.
Bent Life’s next show is at The Hideout in Omaha on May 11 with Terror (Los Angeles), Purgatory and Live and Obey. It’s $10 advance, $12 day of show. RSVP here.
Before the full transcript, here are some highlights from my interview with Stephens:
On writing music with the band:
“Writing music with Bent Life is terrible. Almost one of the worst experiences of my life. It takes a lot of time and by the end of it all I don’t want to see the other guys for a couple weeks.”
“We take writing our songs very seriously and refuse to settle on even the smallest parts. Which may sound funny since we play caveman music, but it’s true. Every second gets ultra critiqued and we go through a ton of drafts before the song is finally done. It always works or for the best but it’s exhausting at times.”
On switching drummers:
“Aaron Broveak is one of the best musicians in Nebraska so having him on drums now just opened up a whole new world of writing. The songs are just a step up. With a good drummer we can finally write how we’ve been wanting to and it’s going well.”
photo by JP Davis
On Nebraska’s hardcore scene:
“Nebraska has a great hardcore / punk / metal / noise scene. Our particular style just isn’t too in right now. Which is fine. I was saying people here don’t have an ego. What’s cool about Nebraska is no matter what style of heavy music you play, everyone else who plays in any sort of heavy band is at your show. Or they’re also playing your show. It’s a diverse scene. And it’s one of the only scenes that don’t have loser crust punks running rampant which is awesome. My only real qualm with it is having no DIY all ages venue, and going along with that a lack of young kids actively in bands and at shows. I was going to shows as a young teenager. I don’t see that anymore. The youngest people I see at shows now are maybe 20-21. I think the Internet has made it so you can be exposed to and be into so many things it’s harder to get younger kids into one thing they’ll stick with. Which is also fine because I’m not some dick baby boomer crying about kids and their technology. If that’s how it is, so be it. But if you’re in a cool punk band and you’re still in high school, hit me up, I want to put your band on shows.”
* * *
Full Interview Below:
Jacob Zlomke: You guys are headed to Japan in July. Have you been out of the country before? How’d you set it up? What kind of expectations do you have? Why Japan?
Brock Stephens: I was hesitant to do this interview because my friend was asked to do an interview with a Hear Nebraska intern and he ended up getting no interview, just scabies. But here we go! Yeah, we were all over Europe / UK last summer for a month. I’ve noticed HN has missed a lot of our tours as well as many other bands from Nebraska who tour regularly. No expectations really, we just like to tour and play hardcore shows wherever people will have us. We plan to eventually tour most of the world. Japan is next on the list.
JZ: Your release with Bridge 9 will be the band’s first full-length, right? Can you tell me about the writing and recording process? Where and with whom did you record it? How’d you get connected with Bridge 9? What does being on that label mean for you?
BS: It will be our first full length record. Writing music with Bent Life is terrible. Almost one of the worst experiences of my life. It takes a lot of time and by the end of it all I don’t want to see the other guys for a couple weeks. We haven’t recorded the record yet. We’re going into the studio in Los Angeles this September. It’ll be out shortly after. So far being on Bridge 9 has been cool. They treat us very well and actually seem to care about our band unlike our old label, 6131 Records. Worst label ran by the worst people. It also means a lot of Omaha people over 30 who stopped going to shows 5-10 years ago suddenly think we’re friends and they want to tell us how stoked they are even though they’ve never come out to any of our shows. Fuck all of you dinosaurs. Go cry about the old days in front of where Ranch Bowl used to be. It’s OVER. Find a new show.
JZ: Because I don’t think HN has ever done anything in-depth on Bent Life, I’m interested in including some general background info too. How long has Bent Life been playing together? Was there a point where there was a conscious decision to start touring hard and taking that end of things pretty seriously? When was your first large tour? Have you been booking all the tours yourselves?
BS: Yeah HN only seems to cover 5-6 bands from Omaha and Lincoln. I’m glad you’re finally stepping outside of your comfort zone (aka the Omaha Entertainment Awards voting list) How many articles can be written about Josh Hoyer and the Shadowboxers anyway? There are a lot of non indie / folk / crap bands in Omaha and Lincoln doing awesome things. Take a look around. We are approaching 5 years of being a band. September 25th, 2010 was our first show, the day our demo came out, the first Nebraska Hardcore Showcase, and the first show of our first tour. We hit the ground running touring and haven’t stopped since. That’s why it’s wild it took HN so long to notice we’ve been touring a 4th of the year, every year we’ve been a band. I booked all of our tours for the first few years but we have a friend who does all of that leg work for us now. Allows me time to sit back and count my millions while taking in the breathtaking view of all of my land. I’m just kidding, I live in a duplex in one of the worst American cities, Lincoln.
JZ: You guys are probably one of the most popular bands from Nebraska right now. Where have you found your best audiences? Plus, the national hardcore scene seems very tight-knit. Has that been to your benefit at all?
BS: Nebraska is probably our worst audience honestly, but it’s getting better every show which has been cool. We just want to be loved like we love you, Nebraska. We’ll play Duffys or the Zoo Bar every weekend if that will help. Just kidding, that sounds like the worst time. The only thing I hate more than London Calling by The Clash is Lincoln Calling or Lincoln Exposed. Nebraska is our home, but our brand of hardcore hasn’t been popular here for a while but it seems like people are coming around to it. Our best shows are usually anywhere else in the midwest. Hardcore is great. For the most part there aren’t many egos or pay to play bullshit shows like I see here constantly. It’s just people who like hardcore playing hardcore, booking shows, going to shows, and helping bands get to the next show. It’s all I know. Also a side note, Pete Ricketts eats crickets. What are you hiding you bald bastard? Show us the crickets, Ricketts!
PS. Our next show is Monday, May 11th @ The Hideout with Terror (Los Angeles Hardcore Legends) and locals Purgatory and Live And Obey. All ages. 6:00pm. $10 advance / $12 day of show.
* * *
JZ: Hey again. Thanks for taking the time to reply. I’ll address some of your HN comments before I include some follow-up questions.
I appreciate your willingness to chat with me despite your reservations, which I certainly understand.
I’m sorry about your friend’s missed interview. We have three crops of volunteer interns every semester and our process for keeping them accountable and on task is ever-evolving. It sucks that our small size means things sometimes fall through the cracks.
I think HN is most at fault here for, like you said, largely missing most of what Bent Life and other hardcore bands have been up to these last few years. Not saying this to warm you up to me, but Bent Life really is (from our perspective) an ideal Neb. band — hard-working, building a following, constantly touring, etc. It really is our bad for missing the boat on it for so long. But you and I are here now, so I hope that counts for something.
Once we write about a musician and develop a relationship with them, it gets easier to write about them again because they’ll reach out to us with news. Without tips, we miss stuff. I can see how, from the outside, that looks like over-covering.
But really, the feedback means a lot to me. I want to do a good job. Maybe you could shoot me a quick e-mail with Bent Life developments so we’re not missing so much? Or even point me toward some other acts you feel like we should be paying more attention to.
For now, let’s knock this article out. Here are some follow-up questions.
* * *
BS: I’ll be honest with you Jacob, nothing against you personally, but I deeply dislike your publication. I appreciate you taking my sarcasm lightly and responding with pretty cool answers. The only reason I agreed to do this interview was the shed light on the things I dislike about Hear Nebraska and hopefully open up a dialog about it even if I come out looking like an asshole for it. These are sentiments a lot of people feel. I think your hearts are in the right place. Andrew was very cool to me when he was first getting this going, but in my eyes, it’s gotten far off track and condensed down to focusing on one sect of Nebraska music under the guise of being all about Nebraska. So I’ll continue the interview and chill out a bit, but if my answers aren’t going to be posted in full I’m going to have to be done with this.
Here are my answers to your follow up questions:
JZ: In regards to international touring, how do you go about making connections and finding shows in a new country?
BS: We either contact people to book tours for us or a “booking agent” just contacts us about bringing us over and then we hammer out the details. It’s pretty chill on our end, it’s mostly putting your trust into someone you don’t know and hoping when you fly thousands of miles away from home that it all works out.
JZ: Why is the writing process with Bent Life so taxing?
BS: We take writing our songs very seriously and refuse to settle on even the smallest parts. Which may sound funny since we play caveman music, but it’s true. Every second gets ultra critiqued and we go through a ton of drafts before the song is finally done. It always works or for the best but it’s exhausting at times. I’ve had more fun. But I’ve also had less fun.
JZ: When I listen to “Full Skull” and “Cheat Death,” “Cheat Death” really seems to emphasize more unison between guitar and drum parts compared to the tracks on Full Skull. The effect is that the track sounds almost more pop-inspired, which I realize is a weird thing to say about HC music. And even “Cheat Death” is two years old at this point. So what’s the feel for the new tracks? Do you guys have an approach in mind or do you get together and see what comes out? How do they compare to what’s been previously released?
BS: Honesty our last drummer sucked and was a terrible person. So in retrospect we kind of had to dumb down our songs on “Full Skull.” The drumming on it is just awful. Aaron Broveak is one of the best musicians in Nebraska so having him on drums now just opened up a whole new world of writing. The songs are just a step up. With a good drummer we can finally write how we’ve been wanting to and it’s going well.
JZ: What’s the studio in LA? Who is recording you?
BS: I can’t really comment on this yet because it’s not all completely hashed out and I don’t want to end up looking like a moron.
JZ: Without trying to dig up dirt, what your bad experiences with 6131? Or, what makes a label good vs. bad?
BS: When a label tells a member of a band on their label that they “aren’t a priority” they’re a bad label. Or when they won’t send you records for multiple month long tours. 6131 was cool then they abandoned putting out good records for putting out bad ones. They are however about to release “Jaded Love” by The Beautiful Ones which is one of the best most unique hardcore records in the last decade.
JZ: So I’m covering all my bases, what other bands do you all play in? I know you also play in Powerslop, but what am I missing?
BS: That’s it right now. Bent Life and Powerslop. Working on starting another new band or two. This is my only skill set and I’m pretty bad at this, so I just have to keep plugging away until I can’t anymore.
JZ: Final question, with your comments about the hardcore scene in Nebraska and how it’s lacking for what you’d like to see, what does the ideal HC scene in Nebraska look like? Or what do other places that you enjoy playing have that Lincoln and Omaha don’t? You mention the ego here, care to elaborate on that?
BS: Hardcore is such a vague term. Nebraska has a great hardcore / punk / metal / noise scene. Our particular style just isn’t too in right now. Which is fine. I was saying people here don’t have an ego. What’s cool about Nebraska is no matter what style of heavy music you play, everyone else who plays in any sort of heavy band is at your show. Or they’re also playing your show. It’s a diverse scene. And it’s one of the only scenes that don’t have loser crust punks running rampant which is awesome. My only really qualm with it is having no DIY all ages venue, and going along with that a lack of young kids actively in bands and at shows. I was going to shows as a young teenager. I don’t see that anymore. The youngest people I see at shows now are maybe 20-21. I think the Internet has made it so you can be exposed to and be into so many things it’s harder to get younger kids into one thing they’ll stick with. Which is also fine because I’m not some dick baby boomer crying about kids and their technology. If that’s how it is, so be it. But if you’re in a cool punk band and you’re still in high school, hit me up, I want to put your band on shows.
* * *
JZ: I appreciate your forthrightness, Brock. I think your criticisms are valid and they’re something I take very seriously. They also aren’t anything I haven’t heard before.
So the more I think about, especially with your request that your answers be published in full, the more I think we should re-approach this story. While I think the Bent Life + Bridge 9 stuff is cool and I still want to write about that, I think the other half of the story really is the conversation we’re having now. I know your schedule is packed, but I’d like to get together in person sometime in the next few days (maybe over the weekend?) for an in-person conversation/interview if that’s okay by you. I’d essentially want to continue this conversation, talk some about the landscape of Nebraska music in general and talk about potential solutions. I could also do phone, but I think in-person would be better.
The published story then, would be a frank look at the criticisms levied against HN by some of the people we claim to support through the lens of your and my interaction. I understand your desire to be quoted verbatim and we could still go that route if that’s what you really want. But I think it’d be less interesting, less entertaining to read and less useful. I also think that route has a lot of potential to be really one-sided with the result being that HN detractors and Bent Life supporters will use it to rag on HN and people loyal to HN will just hate you/Bent Life. I know you probably don’t care so much about whether HN readers don’t like your band, but I do.
I think simply publishing this transcript would be dramatic but not so productive. I’d rather give you the space to share your thoughts in a really honest and useful way.
Does that make sense? What are your thoughts?
* * *
BS: No I really have no interest in trying to build some sort of bridge with HN. I’m not some ambassador either. With me it’s this or we can just be done with this whole process.
* * *
JZ: I’m less interested in building a bridge than writing a story that doesn’t suck.
* * *
BS: Listen man, I answered all of your questions. You can print it or not.
* * *
JZ: That previous e-mail probably came off colder than I intended but I think you can get where I’m coming from. I realize I’m not going to make Hear Nebraska a new friend here, but right now I have two halves of different stories.
So in the interest of writing the best story I can, here are some more questions.
-Regarding your criticism of HN that you’ve had for several years now, why did agree to an interview as the channel to voice them instead of reaching out on your own? Maybe your experience is different, but I think HN folks have always been pretty good about productive dialogues.
-I’m still interested in the writing process you’re talking about. This is one of the lamest music journalist questions there is, but how does it work? Each of you writes your own part, then you hammer it into place together? Also, does the perfectionist approach have anything to do with the fact that the forthcoming record is the first full-length? How many hours/days does one song take, for instance?
-You said you’re potentially going to start another band or two. What do you want those to look like? Is it because you also want to play a kind of music that just isn’t in Bent Life’s wheelhouse? Or are you interested in playing as much as possible?
* * *
BS: I’m going to answer the first question and that’s the last question I’m going to answer for you.
I have no interest in starting a dialogue with Hear Nebraska. You’re clearly not changing your formula over there. I agreed to do this interview hoping I could let you and all of your writers know I think you do poor and skewed work. You support a small sect of Nebraska music under the guise of supporting all of Nebraska. Just be honest about that. HN had good intentions when starting and once covered a wide range of bands. Then you sent some interns into the downtown Lincoln bar scene and they never left.
* * *
JZ: Alright, thanks for taking the time on this over the last week. I’ll send whatever this ends up being your way when it’s ready. I’ll also publish your answers in full if that’s still what you want. Just let me know.
* * *
BS: Honestly Jacob just post whatever you want man. Print it. Don’t print it. Up to you.