New York’s Uniform are among Dumpsters and band vehicles in a darkened alley, the loading area of Chicago’s iconic music venue the Metro.
They’ve just opened a night of their package tour with Drab Majesty and Deafheaven. Across the street at Wrigley Field, Foo Fighters are performing for over 40,000 people; the sound of their anthemic choruses and Dave Grohl’s impassioned vocals waft over the baseball stadium walls, adding occasional distraction – and a hint of absurdity – to the evening. Foo Fighters are one of the most commercially successful bands of this century whose roots are in hardcore and punk culture. It’s the same breeding ground where Uniform come from but, without knocking the Foos, the contrasts between the two groups seem like night and day right about now. Though the fans at Wrigely are likely having the best night of their summer, it feels like that they’ve missed out on something truly special across the street.
Uniform was formed in 2013 by longtime friends and seasoned musicians Ben Greenberg (The Men) and Michael Berdan (York Factory Complaint). Working as a duo, they developed an onslaught of blistering metallic guitar licks with a backbone of unforgiving drum-machine – a punk fury that powered their 2015 debut, Perfect World, and its torrential follow up, 2017’s Wake in Fright (both released on Sacred Bones). Their grim, evocative atmospheres and piercing showmanship have captivated a growing number of listeners, including David Lynch who plucked two of the band’s songs (‘Habit’ and ‘Tabloid’) for last year’s Twin Peaks: The Return. Heavy experimental duo The Body are fans, too, and the groups released a collaborative record, Mental Wounds Not Healing, in June.
On Uniform’s third full-length, The Long Walk, the duo has reformatted and have brought Greg Fox, whose talent and versatility has made him one of the most in-demand drummers in underground music today, along for the ride. (Mike Sharp of the Impalers and Sungod is filling in on this tour due to scheduling conflicts). Taking its name from the title of Stephen King’s 1979 novella, The Long Walk, the album explores charting your own path in the face of capitalist society and finding faith and community within religious tenets that are often used as a tools of oppression. It’s not feel good music — because our world is hardly a feel-good place — but through its primal emotion, ecstatic noise and pummeling riffs, it seeks to forge connection with its listeners, inspire dialog and provide a sense of catharsis just the same.
While Foo Fighters play on, Berdan and Greenberg talk about their new record, how live drums have impacted their approach in the studio and on stage and how sometimes the angriest-sounding music can contain kindness and compassion at its core.
When you first came together for Uniform, you wanted to see what you could do with this really narrow musical palate. At what point did you decide that it was time to get out of that box?
Ben Greenberg: Getting a drummer was in the background the whole time. It just wasn’t feasible, and we wanted to see what we could do within the drum machine thing. But my first time instrument was drums, so I always had that in mind when we were writing together. We had to be in a place where we were ready to make a bunch of changes at once in order to do this one thing. It was a slow build on the back burner and kind of a secret to make it happen.
New York has a lot of amazing drummers, and to me, Greg Fox is one of the most amazing when it comes to experimental rock music. How did you end up working with him?
Greenberg: He and I grew up together; we played in a band together when we were 17. We initially talked to Greg about doing a tour after we recorded this record but the plan was to record with a different drummer. That guy got food poisoning on the first day of the session. He called me at 7:30 in the morning, and he just couldn’t make it. I called Greg, who is so busy, but he just happened to have the next four days free in New York right between two tours. He fucking killed it and he hadn’t heard any of [the new material] yet.
Was there a difference in putting this together versus previous records? You did this in just days, right?
Michael Berdan: Ben and I typically shoot beats and riffs off each other, then it would go into this computer and we’d take upwards of years piecing together what we considered to be a definitive document. For this we had a set amount of time in the studio to achieve our goal. We’re very fortunate to have gotten to do it with Greg. He’s one of the few people where you can describe an idea and sight unseen, sound unheard, he can just do it.
How did having a live drummer in the studio change how you approached the electronic components?
Greenberg: I had to redesign the entire way my guitar setup worked. In the past, we had drum tracks, and bass synth tracks, and now we have zero tracks. So we had to figure out a way to get a bass synth to happen off of my guitar playing in addition to the guitar sound, which took a lot of trial and error. We eventually got it to the point where it could just be Greg and I in the room playing together. Similarly, with the drums, when it’s just a drum machine, we worked out a system with drum triggers so that it could be acoustic drum sounds and electric.
“The thing that I love about the tenants of most world religions is that, at the core, there seems to be this idea of radical passion and radical kindness.” – Michael Berdan
Did you have to go back through your previous material and rework it for a live setting?
Greenberg: We pulled a couple songs from Wake in Fright for this tour, but on a technical level, because of the way we designed it, it translated directly to the stage. We were able to take the entire set up, put it on a stage, and just do it. So far, it’s working, which is really cool, and validating because you never know what you’re gonna end up with.
How has having live drums affected your performance?
Berdan: We’ve gotten used to being able to move around without live drums, but I always feel like I’m trying to fill in space, and in some ways overcompensate for the lack of a third physical presence on stage. There’s something propelling about having live drums. It feels natural.
Greenberg: All I have to do now is play the guitar, and that’s the most amazing feeling in the world. When we first started, we didn’t even have tracks. We literally had a drum machine MIDI’d to a synth and I was changing patterns on the drum machine by hand in the middle of songs — like six to ten times in a song. That was a real balancing act, so this is very freeing.
On all of your records, there are two competing things in the lyrics: the personal internal and existential crises and this macro picture of the world falling apart. The new record has threads about reconnecting with religion and community. Did restructuring the band with the natural element of live drums impact your approach to lyrics?
Berdan: I’ve been in this process of slowly accepting and reconnecting to organized world religion, specifically Catholicism. I’ve had a very hard time resolving issues with it that I find to be inhumane or not compassionate. The thing that I love about the tenants of most world religions is that, at the core, there seems to be this idea of radical passion and radical kindness. But governmental structures tend to take away from those more human elements, like anti-LGBT stuff, anti-choice issues, anti-women’s issues, let alone all the weird, repressive sex things that later come out in these very ugly ways. This was all coming to a head as we started writing this record, like, “Yeah, I’m gonna start going to church again.”
I started talking to people about what I got out of it, and all the problems I have with it. At the same time, I started going through all these weird things regarding my place in my job, in my place of employment, my place as a 30-something-year-old man living in New York, and the advantages and disadvantages that I implicitly have in being a white dude. I shouldn’t say disadvantages; they’re all advantages. I was feeling, in a very real way, that I was existing in this time and space that was no longer spiritually functional to me. I didn’t want to live my life tethered to capitalist ideas the way that I had been. I started looking at things in my life, and in my family, and in the people around me, and these preconceived notions of success. From an early age, many of us have been taught to acquire.
“Everybody’s confused and terrified, so the only thing that helps is being able to talk about it.” – Ben Greenberg
Get the job, get the house…
Berdan: Right. Get the job, get the house, and in order to do that, go to school, become successful, get these things that you can hang on a wall. I’ve never wanted any of it. And I’ve always felt at a disadvantage because I didn’t want to go to school. I never connected with it and I never wanted to. I’ve had nine-to-five jobs for a very long time, but I’ve always felt trapped by them. There’s no end game other than being able to say that you own property, and to create more unsustainable life in the form of other human beings, who you’ll teach the same things.
As we were making this record, I started to realize that I didn’t have to live that way anymore. It’s a constant struggle in my head: living in capitalism and trying to resolve issues I have with financial security, security within the musical world, and the creative world. And what I feel like my parents always wanted for me, and what I feel like society wanted for me.
The topics of capitalism and religious beliefs are really playing out these days in everyday conversations. You’ve got the Fred Rogers version of religion, and on the polar opposite end of the spectrum, there’s the Mike Pence version. It seems like you’re trying to reconcile the institutional side with the humanist side. So how do you do that on the record? People who aren’t familiar with Uniform, or this kind of music, might say it sounds totally hateful, or totally nihilistic but it’s more complex than that.
Berdan: I don’t think anything we’ve done has been particularly nihilistic. But it’s funny, because that’s something that’s come up. There’s often a pretty fine line between nihilism and trying to accept other people and the world as it is. It’s a hard thing to resolve; making ugly music about ugly things but still trying to be a good, compassionate human being. And trying to spell out the fact that with kindness, there can be frustration, there can be angst and there can be anger.
Greenberg: Kindness can only come from a place of understanding. We strive to be a reflection of the world around us and how it affects us on a personal level. The way we express ourselves, we hope, does that in a way that’s relatable on a fundamental level.
Do you feel that your audience is getting that message on some level?
Berdan: People often come up to us after the set, and after a short period of time, they’ll say, “We figured you guys would be jerks, or angry.” We try to be personable, though it’s pretty easy to be personable when you’re not a total jerk. What we’re trying to put out there isn’t anger so much as confusion. That’s something that people can relate to on a fairly primal level.
Greenberg: Everybody’s confused and terrified, so the only thing that helps is being able to talk about it.
Sometimes just getting it out there can give you that relief, or that break, because you’ve already exorcised the demons.
Greenberg: That’s what playing this music is for us: it’s getting it out.
Berdan: It’s far more about personal release than about bludgeoning the audience. It’s catharsis, it’s trying to let go of something that is constantly wiggling in our heads and our hearts.
Greenberg: That’s where the bludgeoning comes in. The world is bludgeoning us, and we’re just trying to cope.