Photo by Fred Pessaro
When Hydra Head Records announced that they wouldn’t release any new albums after the end of 2012, a whole roster of artists suddenly found themselves without a home. The label’s decision shouldn’t have been much of a surprise—anyone that pays the slightest bit of attention to the music industry knows it’s been struggling to sell its wares in the age of streaming services and torrent sites, and Hydra Head specialized in the particularly non-lucrative niche of cerebral art-driven hardcore and metal. Among the roster’s budget-cut bands was the aptly named Austerity Program. On paper, the band was a tough sell even back in thriving fiscal year of 2003—the year Hydra Head released their debut EP, Terra Nova. Was there ever a market for Austerity Program’s marriage of caustic punk nihilism with the left-brain tactics of drum machine-propelled precision, mathematical riffage, and a decidedly no-frills design aesthetic? This was a band without a reputation to precede them, a band without a gimmick. But given the actual sound they produced, there certainly should have been an audience for it—the riffs punctured like a nail gun, the grinding bass tone could make David Sims weep, and the overall aura of restrained violence made their more overtly threatening musical peers seem like cartoonish blowhards in comparison. Terra Nova was a beast—if the New York duo had just managed to play more than a couple of shows a year they could have culled a substantial fanbase from across the industrial, pigfuck, and noise-metal scenes. I felt fortunate that they were willing to play a few dates with my band, Russian Circles, back in 2008. On top of the rare privilege of witnessing those songs in a live environment, it was confirmation that they were indeed real live human beings and not just some sinister mechanized glitch in the Hydra Head factory.
Austerity Program never lived by the deluding promise of fame and fortune, and consequently they never spent months out of the year touring in their station wagon and sleeping on punk house floors. Guitarist/vocalist Justin Foley works for a labor union. Bassist Thad Calabrese teaches public administration and policy at NYU. Both men have families. Between home life and careers, band operations get relegated to the midnight hours. In the decade following Terra Nova, they only released one LP, a seven-inch, and an additional EP. Everything the band does seems to be an exercise in discipline, and the belt has been tightened an extra notch for their new LP, Beyond Calculation. Released via their self-owned label, Controlled Burn Records, the album finds Foley and Calabrese streamlining their sound even further, trimming down the protracted build-ups and negative space of Terra Nova and the Black Madonna LP into concise parcels of tightly wound maliciousness. With Beyond Calculation due out June 17, it seemed like an opportune time to corner Foley and Calabrese and attempt to untangle the dichotomy between the band’s pragmatic operations and vitriolic output.
For years, I assumed the name "Austerity Program" referred to your operating budget—like Minutemen's whole "jam econo" slogan. Then the Backsliders & Apostates Will Burn EP came out and you had this 20-minute 4-song record where all the riffs are based on one note, and it struck me that maybe the name was a reference to employing a kind of musical frugality. But now, after getting to know you guys, I assume "Austerity Program" is your way of acknowledging that your career choices both required backgrounds in finance and economics. Am I getting warmer or am I still way off base?
Calabrese: I can actually remember picking the band name. We had played together in college using such awesome names as "The Negative Ten Commandments" and "Polonium.” Following college, Justin moved to Connecticut for a couple years and we played sporadically under the name "Seraphim." In 1997, Justin moved back to New York and we decided it was time to come up with a new name for the group to reflect a new beginning, a new experience, and to actively break with the past.
I remember us each coming up with a few names. "The Austerity Program" was one of them. At this point in our lives, I wouldn't say we had backgrounds in anything related to economics, finance, or money. At least I didn't. I probably couldn't even tell what the field of "economics" included. I remember talking on the phone with Justin—and this was 1997 so the phone was attached to the wall with a cord—and we both agreed on "The Austerity Program." My recollection is that we found it amusing that we were a two-piece band—shades of austere there, I suppose—but we played with just a God-awful amount of equipment. The name, as such, always just seemed to me to be poking fun at ourselves.
Because of our subsequent career choices and interests, it seems almost contrived that the name of the band is "The Austerity Program" and people who know me generally chuckle because I teach public and nonprofit financial management. But the name was chosen in the spring of 1997; I didn’t start my graduate studies in financial management until fall 1998. The band name completely predates my interest and subsequent career in a field that is tangentially related to "austerity programs." In 1997, I couldn't really even tell you what an austerity program was. I suppose in some respects we chose the correct band name and we grew into it.
This is probably a good time for some snarky joke about how your work in nonprofit financial management will come in handy now that you're starting your own record label. I realize that the decision to go it alone was, in many ways, made for you by the demise of Hydra Head Records, but I was curious if you viewed the self-release of Beyond Calculation as a way of rectifying your business-oriented issues with the music industry, or if it was simply a reaction to losing your primary investors.
Foley: Hydra Head was great for a number of reasons. They handled a bunch of things that we preferred not to deal with, including distribution, some marketing and the final stages of production. I liked having friends do the stuff I really wanted to avoid—things that seemed so far from the creative side of making music.
I have a lot of, as you say, issues with the music industry. I spent my formative years learning to hate most parts of corporate music while finding profound personal inspiration in the best parts of the independent musical community. This is all still true. Being in a band and running a label offers us the chance to walk as we talk. It means that we participate in that musical community. And I'm really, personally, interested in seeing if the label—and, frankly, the band—can be sustainable. It's not just about being a critical observer; it's operating in a way that carries out the things we think are important. And what's most important is being respectful of people who like your music.
If we can put a record out that communicates with an audience that would appreciate it then we have succeeded. But if we have to foist it an audience or rely on working with scummy people or I end up with 250 copies in my basement that will never go anywhere, we didn't succeed. I guess the label allows us to own those successes or failures entirely and recalibrate for the next time.
Going back to Thad's comment about the austere nature of being a two-piece: you're saving costs on not having to pay out a third person in the band. Plus you have the added benefit of not having to deal with a drummer, because we all know that drummers are a difficult breed. But I've always been curious how rock bands operate with drum machines. You're not building music on a grid or around a beat like electronic or hip hop artists. And your music is considerably more complex than Big Black or Godflesh, which would be the two closest reference points I could think of to what you guys are doing. Are you saving yourself from a huge headache or did you inadvertently make things even more difficult by going sans-drummer?
Calabrese: It's neither. We have never played with a drummer in any incarnation of this band. We have always used a drum machine, we have always preferred to use a drum machine, and, most importantly, the drum machine was never a substitute for an actual drummer.
I would not rank saving costs by not having a drummer as a high priority of the band. I have never even once considered it before. I have frequently joked that it would be nice to have another person in the band to help carry equipment up steep staircases. But the financial aspect is not the consideration.
It occurred to me right after I asked that question that it's pretty much exactly the same as all those annoying "why don't you have a singer" questions Russian Circles gets. My bad.
Calabrese: I don't think it's an illegitimate question at all. People frequently assume we don’t have a drummer because we couldn't find one. I assume the same issue happens with you in Russian Circles—people think if you could just find a singer, you would be happy to welcome him or her into the band.
One of my favorite reviews I ever read about us even alluded to the drummer issue. To summarize the review, it read: this band is OK, but has a lot more potential; they should get a real drummer, add a keyboard, and potentially add another guitarist, and they would be incredible. Or read another way: The Austerity Program would be better if they were Isis.
I have come to appreciate the drum machine more—and instrumental bands like Russian Circles and Pelican more—because the mere difference in the band's structure seems to throw people off. If they can get past that, I think they find interesting and good music.
Foley: More entertaining is, of course, the offer to fill the gap. "Yo, let me drum for you guys." For Russian Circles, I'd guess that has an easy response. "Is your name Chelsea Wolfe?" Maybe we should set a similar criterion. "You sure don't look like Britt Walford to me."
This last record uses the drum machine's capabilities more heavily than our previous stuff. For example, a few songs include hard-panned cymbals that choke in increments of 1/32 notes. I don't think you can get a human drummer to do that.
We are particular, though. The sound of a drum machine direct to tape leaves me a little cold. We always take care to include a clear presentation of the ambient sound—piping the drum machine back through our PA and capturing it with ridiculously expensive room mics.
I'd add that a drum machine burning through a 16th note double bass drum blast is totally badass and I don't know why more people don't start their band from that as the foundation.
That's the beauty of what you guys do. Here you have a machine that's capable of doing things that a human can't; why not exploit that? Personally, I have a love/hate fascination with electronic music because the realms of possibility are so much broader than in rock music in terms of what can be accomplished rhythmically and structurally once you remove human limitations, but so much of that potential is squandered on really rudimentary 4/4 dance music. For every Pan Sonic you have a thousand deadmau5 wannabes.
Foley: I like the idea of a band having some parameters in which they operate. There's nothing wrong if a band shifts members, instruments, and focus. But when a band commits itself to a particular way of operating and then really forces itself to develop ideas in that area… I just think it's phenomenal when they can continue to make interesting music that doesn't repeat its past. The realms of possibility that you mention stretch this: are there any parameters? Because if there aren't, then I'm usually left kinda cold as a listener.
We're pretty committed to the instruments we have at hand—me singing and playing guitar through a limited set of effects, Thad playing bass, and the drum machine handling the percussion. If we limit ourselves to these tools then the development we undergo must be a function of our own creative process. It's not because we've now got a keyboard player who downloaded the "Invisible Touch" patch.
I totally feel you on that, though I've never actually found a way to articulate it that well. I remember when Radiohead dropped OK Computer and Kid A and all my music friends just totally lost their shit over it. I was just kinda like, "Yeah, I get it: they're really interesting sounding records. But if I had a major label budget and access to all kinds of toys, I’d get interesting sounds too." I've since grown to foster a better appreciation for those albums, but at the time I saw them as being on par with Rush's Signals, R.E.M.'s Up and U2's Zooropa: records where the band takes the creative shortcut of relying on an instrument with a different timbre to make the band sound "fresh" when the songwriting has grown stale. At the time, I found it more interesting to see how Fugazi, Sonic Youth, Melvins, and Nomeansno were developing their sound out of the same primary tools they'd always used.
Foley: Ha! I was going to drop some examples in there like "You know a rock band is really up the creek when someone goes out and buys something like a Moog Taurus pedal. Kiss of creative death." [Justin knows I bought a Taurus before recording our last album<]< p="">
Aw, man. Not all of us are fortunate enough to have something in our musical arsenal as cool-sounding as your hard-panned cymbals with the super tight choke. Hearing that shit on headphones makes me feel like I just did a bunch of whippits.
Foley: I've never done whippits. If it feels the same as our record, maybe I should start. Seems like a much more straightforward way to get the effect than going through the trouble of all this band stuff.