While they might not be a household name — unless you grew up in a particularly metal-friendly household, that is — you could easily make the argument that Converge is one of the most influential bands to come out of Massachusetts in the last couple of decades. The band, formed in Salem in 1990, has continually confounded, and surpassed, expectations with its heady mix of metal, hardcore, and punk, on releases like the 2001 standout, “Jane Doe,” and its most recent LP, “All We Love We Leave Behind.”
The band’s frontman, Jacob Bannon, has also proved to be something of a trendsetter as a businessman. Deathwish Inc., the record label he founded in 2000 with partner Tre McCarthy, has become established as a home for challenging metal and hardcore releases from bands like the recently widely lauded Deafheaven, Touché Amoré, and dozens of others over the years. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Converge and Kentucky’s grindcore favorites Trap Them will headline two sold-out nights at the Middle East Downstairs, featuring bands from the label’s roster, both past and present.
It’s the first Deathwish-centric showcase since one the label threw in 2002 at the now-defunct venue the Hideaway in Cambridge. In part, the lengthy layoff between fests was just a matter of scheduling logistics, Bannon says. “It’s something that we’ve been wanting to do for a long time. You try to get every band you can, that you’re affiliated with, to get on the same schedule, which is obviously hard to make happen.” For some of the bands, like Charlotte’s Young and in the Way, it will be a one-off appearance. For others, like Belgium’s Oathbreaker and Salt Lake City’s Cult Leader, the dates will launch extensive lengthy tours.
“This was definitely a challenge,” Bannon says. “A lot of bands, at least in our music world, tend to tour Europe in the summer, since there a lot of festivals there in the summer.. . . In the US it doesn’t really culturally apply. Kids out there will camp out and see bands for seven days, watch random techno bands, then black metal bands, then, like, I don’t know, Prince on day three. It’s really varied and unique. A lot of bands from the States in the punk world tend to get invited to those things, so it was a challenge to make sure people are around. But we’re really happy with what we got.”
Do things feel much different today than back around the time of that earlier show?
Somewhat, Bannon confirms. “We were definitely selling a lot of records, and were working with bands at the time that were relevant to the aggressive music community. Things haven’t changed in that regard. It wasn’t like we were a local label at that point. But I think people have started to pay a little more attention to the aggressive music world. They’re realizing it cross-pollinates with other genres and other things going on in the creative world. It’s a little more respected than it was back then.”
At least some of that is due to Bannon and company’s efforts. Now 37, he’s been releasing records since he was a teen. He put out the first Converge split with a friend: “It was kind of how things were done at the time. There weren’t labels out there to help a lot of us.” (Converge now often splits responsibilities for its own releases with the indie label Epitaph.)
Having a small mix of people in New England all focused on the same goals was key, he says. “We were pretty self sufficient. Sonically, musically, we might not all be the same, but we come from the same background — bands like the Dropkicks, Shadows Fall, Killswitch Engage, Unearth, and ourselves. We’re all musically from different corners of the — I guess I call it aggressive music, kind of punk and hardcore — but we’ve always done it on our own terms. The audiences and support slowly came, but it didn’t really matter; we were doing it because we loved it.”
At the time they founded the label, McCarthy had been tour-managing bands, and Bannon was handling artwork and packaging for indie labels. A lot of his clients didn’t know how to deal with manufacturers, or printers; having a bachelor’s degree in design, he often offered to help. “It snowballed into what we do.”
The label began in Salem, but once they outgrew Bannon’s bedroom, then his basement, then the space Deathwish originally shared with Bridge 9 Records, they moved to an old mill building in Beverly. In the intervening years, they’ve branched out into sub-labels, including Secret Voice from Jeremy Bolm of Touché Amoré.
“As we started growing, we had a lot of friends we were releasing records for who didn’t have resources or time,” Bannon explains. “We said, hey, we trust your vision, we trust what you want to do. We don’t want to take it from you; why don’t you build your own brand and label, and we’ll manufacture and distribute it for you? It’s all friendly. It all helps everybody. We don’t need ‘Deathwish’ on the back of every record. We just want to do things to improve the community and get more music out there.”
One thing that has changed is the way fans interact with and pay for music, of course.
“My generation was probably the last generation that went to shows specifically to search out records,” Bannon says. “We couldn’t immediately listen to a record. You could sit with it, a record would live with you for a week before you moved on to the next one, and you paid significant money. I’d save up 10 to 20 bucks and budget that and try to buy some records. Now, people complain about a $10 premium Spotify account, where you can listen to everything forever,” he jokes.
The punk community still appreciates music on a deeper level than most casual listeners in other genres, much like the hip-hop world does, he says. “We started a label in a dark period, pretty much at the worst possible time, when Napster was born,” Bannon says. “We saw the aging dinosaur for how things used to work, and we came in with a different model and mindset.”
But the shrinking record economy hasn’t affected the label prohibitively. “You see a lot of labels freaking out talking about the way things were,” he says. “They get irritated if people don’t buy records like they used to. But if you offer a quality item with a lot effort behind they will buy it. There’s still life in it for sure.”
Almost 25 years later, Deathwish is still figuring out how to live on.
Luke O’Neil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.