Harm’s Way grew out of Chicago’s dynamic hardcore community in the mid-00s, gradually delving deep into metallic terrain with an icy, industrialized aggression that nodded at bands like Godflesh and Celtic Frost while still bearing the stamp of its roots. After a number of releases, including the pulverizing Isolation LP on Closed Casket Activities in 2011, the four-piece signed to Deathwish where it unleashed the Blinded EP in 2013, further cementing its reputation as a heavy band on the rise.
On March 10, Harm’s Way will release its latest LP, Rust. Recorded with Andy Nelson (Weekend Nachos) at Bricktop Recordings, mixed by Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou (High on Fire, Kvelertak) at GodCity Studios, and mastered by Brad Boatright (Nails, Old Man Gloom) at Audiosiege, the album finds Harm’s Way at its tightest and most muscular (you can’t talk Harms Way without talking muscles, or so the blogosphere’s fixation on frontman James Pligge’s physique would have you believe), carefully stripping away any extraneous noise or atmospherics to give way to pure, molten brutality. The music’s considerable heft is heightened by Pliggue’s lyrics that mix introspective gloom with world-weary struggle, loss, and death, and helped provide inspiration for the ambitious, multi-piece album art designed by E. Aaron Ross.
To coincide with the release of its most aggressive record to date, Harm’s Way has embarked on an equally aggressive tour cycle that stretches across Southeast Asia, Australia, and North America, before crossing the Atlantic where the band will joins labelmates Converge, Trap Them, and Young And In The Way for Deathwish Fest Europe. I caught up with drummer Chris Mills (who is a social worker by day) as Harm’s Way was preparing to leave town to learn more about the painstaking process behind the new record, finding catharsis through heavy music, and the band members’ evolving, but constant balancing act.
Listen to a new song, "Law of the Land," below…
Noisey: Over the years your sound has changed. How did you get to where you are now, in terms of the stylistic evolution of the band?
Mills: When the band started we were more of a fast hardcore / powerviolence band. We were all in a band called Few and the Proud at the time and we decided to do Harm's Way as a side project because we wanted to see James sing for a band and we wanted to play 30-second fast powerviolence songs in the vein of Infest and Crossed Out. The band wasn't necessarily a serious thing, it was something to have fun with. The more and more we kept playing with one another and the more records we put out, the more serious the band became. It’s always evolving based on what we're involved in at the moment and what we are listening to. That's apparent in the sound, but we've matured as individuals as the sound of the band has matured.
It's always interesting to speak with musicians who were born and raised here in Chicago. What do you think makes the Chicago hardcore community unique?
Hardcore in Chicago definitely has its niches from more heavy, beatdown hardcore to fast punk. We came to hardcore from punk… It wasn't until later on that we started getting into heavier hardcore and metal. Hardcore in Chicago is pretty diverse and that's something we all experienced growing up, going to killer shows, and Punch in the Face and Repos shows. It was good to be exposed to a diverse range of hardcore and punk in the city… As I get older, I see more divisions within punk and hardcore in Chicago. You don't have as much intermeshing. You can kind of see that with Harm's Way's fanbase. When we started we were playing to a completely different crowd and as we've pushed more outside the boundaries and boxes of hardcore, our fanbase has changed.
Tell me a little about how you pieced the new record together.
Lyrics are primarily from James, our singer. The music is a collaborative process where someone will bring a skeleton of a song and we'll all sit down together and jam it, and each of us contributes in some way, shape, or form to the songwriting process. Rust is probably our most collaborative record yet. We spent a lot of time writing new songs, demoing new songs, revisiting the songs, and rehashing the songs. We tried to really think out this record, more so than any record we've done in the past. We were really mindful of how the songs came together and the presentation.
We spent a lot of time in pre-production phase writing the songs and demoing the songs in our guitar player's house. Finally, eleven months down the line we went to the studio. We probably spent the most time in the studio with this record, maybe nine or ten days, where before we'd spend four to five days. We really took our time and tried to hone in and focus on every layer of every song. All of us have jobs outside of the band so not only were we in the studio, but we were working nine to five and coming to the studio later in the day.
That's a pretty crazy cycle. Do you think it made the record more intense?
The band is pretty cathartic for many of us. It offers a release from our daily lives and rituals. It definitely was stressful and took a lot of hard work, but it was something we looked forward to, even though a lot of those days blended together and there were many nights we didn't sleep as much as we probably should have.
Your day job is in social work. Are you currently working as a social worker or are you still in school?
I finished my Master's degree back in June and I currently work at a couple of different agencies as a social worker and a substance abuse counselor. The band is something I had to balance. We all have to balance it with other aspects of our lives.
There’s a contrast between social work and working towards positive change and then with Harm's Way where the lyrics and music are pretty bleak. In talking about balance, is the band an outlet for a different type of energy for you, or do you find that one world informs the other?
Yeah, it definitely is a "both / and" kind of thing for myself and probably for the rest of us. The band is pretty bleak and pretty dark at times, but that's just the way we see life in general. Things can't always be positive and things aren't always going to go your way. There needs to be a contrast. This "both / and" philosophy needs to be accepted to move closer to peace, so to speak. The band is definitely an outlet when it comes to releasing negative energy and fulfilling needs in my life aside from what social work does for me and the relationships I'm able to develop with my clients and people I work with.
Blinded seems to revolve around a central theme about the mind, vision, and perception. Am I reading into Rust too much to suggest that it follows a central theme as well?
Yeah, there's definitely a theme with Rust where it kind of works around the analogy of rusting and how we all kind of "rust" throughout life, and eventually lose our lives. There are definitely specific themes regarding loss and personal struggle, trying to find your place in the world, trying navigate failure and success, and navigate with what life throws you and the challenges we face on a day-to-day basis.
You've been playing with some of these guys since you were teenagers. How has the relationship changed in playing music with the same people for that long?
We're all really close, we're all best friends. You start to understand each other that way, as far as songwriting and playing with one another is concerned. It's definitely made things easier for us as a band, coming to agreements and taking chances together. Whether it's touring for the next six months, or writing songs that don't necessarily fit with what people know your band is. You grow more comfortable and you grow and mature together. That's something we've definitely done over the years.
We don't consciously say, "We need to write a song that sounds like this," or "We need to have record sound like that." There are so many songs that we scrapped with Rust and so many parts that got scrapped as well. Rust could have come out as a completely different record if we just went with what we wrote up front at that time. We let things come organically and evolve. We spent a lot of time just thinking this stuff through once the groundwork was set for these songs.
Maybe this was unintentional, but the title, Rust, made me think of industrial machinery and these harsh, grimey noises. As a listener, it seemed like a really appropriate title.
That was definitely a secondary acknowledgement. It was kind of cool and kind of unintentional, and it further came to fruition with the album artwork and the visual direction of the record. It was one of those "ah ha!" moments. "This is all making sense now."
Something people will probably recognized that off the bat is that the record cover looks like nothing we've ever done before. Once people unfold the record—it has a die-cut sleeve and a gatefold—they'll find pieces that bring everything together.
Blinded seems like sort of the link between the previous records and this one. Do you feel as if you're ushering in a new era?
It's definitely a step in a different direction for us and it can definitely be seen as a new era for the band, but we like to think that we're always continuing to evolve. It will be interesting to see what happens next.
Harms Way World Tour 2015:
Southeast Asia w/ Palm
01/30/15 - Bangkok, Thailand Immortal Bar
01/31/15 - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia @ Alt+HQ
02/01/15 - Kuching, Malaysia @ Appleseed Studio
02/02/15 - Singapore, Singapore @ Aliwal Arts Centre
02/03/15 - Johor Bahru, Malaysia @ Embrace Hall
Australia W/ Legions
02/05/15 – Perth, AUS @ Last Night (18+)
02/06/15 – Adelaide, AUS @ Animal House (AA)
02/07/15 – Melbourne, AUS @ Bendigo Hotel (18+)
02/08/15 – Melbourne, AUS @ Drop Out (AA)
02/10/15 – Wollongong, AUS @ Rad Bar (AA)
02/12/15 – Sydney, AUS @ Hermanns (18+)
02/14/15 – Canberra, AUS @ Magpies (AA)
02/15/15 – Newcastle, AUS @ Cambridge Hotel (18+)
02/17/15 – Grafton, AUS @ 140 (AA)
02/18/15 – Byron Bay, AUS @ YAC (AA)
02/20/15 – Brisbane, AUS @ The Brightside (18+)
02/21/15 – Brisbane, AUS @ 199 (AA)
02/26/15 – Osaka, Japan @ Hokage
02/27/15 – Yokkaichi, Japan @ Club Chaos
02/28/15 – Tokyo Shinjuku, Japan @ Antiknock (w/ Loyal to the Grave)
3/01/15 – Tokyo Shibuya, Japan @ Garret (w/ Loyal to the Grave)
USA w/ Code Orange
03/13 - Columbus, OH @ Skully's Music Diner (w/ Code Orange)
03/14 - New Albany, IN @ New Albany Production House (w/ Code Orange)
03/15 - Springfield, MO @ Outland Ballroom (w/ Code Orange)
03/17 - Houston, TX @ Fitzgerald's (w/ Code Orange)
03/18 - Austin, TX
03/19 - Austin, TX
03/20 - Austin, TX
03/21 - San Antonio, TX @ The Korova (w/ Code Orange)
03/22 - Dallas, TX @ South By So What
03/23 - Pensacola, FL @ The Handlebar (w/ Code Orange)
03/24 - Atlanta, GA @ The Drunken Unicorn (w/ Code Orange)
03/25 - Columbia, SC @ New Brookland Tavern (w/ Code Orange)
03/26 - Raleigh, NC @ Southland Ballroom (w/ Code Orange)
03/27 - Richmond, VA @ United Blood Festival
05/26 - Kingston, UK @ The Fighting Cocks
05/27 - Manchester, UK @ Sound Control
05/28 - Norwich, UK @ Epic Studios
05/29 - Bristol, UK @ Temples Festival: Converge, Trap Them, YAITW, and many more
05/30 - London, UK @ ULU (DW Fest Europe): Converge, Trap Them, YAITW
05/31 - Hasselt, Belgium @ Muziekodroom (DW Fest Europe): Converge, Trap Them, YAITW
06/01 - Paris, France @ Trabendo (DW Fest Europe): Converge, Trap Them, YAITW
06/02 - Geneve, Switzerland @ L’Usine (DW Fest Europe): Converge, Trap Them, YAITW
06/03 - Karlsruhe, Germany @ Substage (DW Fest Europe): Converge, Trap Them, YAITW
06/04 - Berlin, Germany @ SO36 (DW Fest Europe): Converge, Trap Them, YAITW
06/05 - Koln, Germany @ Essigfabrik (DW Fest Europe): Converge, Trap Them, YAITW
06/06 - Querfurt, Germany @ Return To Strength Fest (w/ The Southern Oracle)
06/07 - München, Germany @ Feierwerk (w/ The Southern Oracle)
06/08 - Prague, Czech Republic @ 007 (w/ The Southern Oracle)
06/09 - Budapest, Hungary @ Kvlt (w/ The Southern Oracle)
06/10 - Dresden, Germany @ Chemiefabrik (w/ The Southern Oracle)
06/11 - Hamburg, Germany @ Hafenklang (w/ The Southern Oracle)
06/12 - Copenhagen, Denmark @ Pumpehuset (w/ The Southern Oracle)
06/13 - Osnabruck, Germany @ Bastard Club (w/ The Southern Oracle)