Orb Weaver – Exclusive interview with Eric Smith of End You

Above: Eric Smith is the creative force behind End You.

Eric Smith made his name in the US hardcore scene as the screamer and guitarist for The Catalyst. That was when he lived in Richmond, Virginia, and before he made the inexplicable decision to relocate to Philadelphia in 2015. He needed a fresh start. A close relationship came to an end and left him broken. Richmond seemed like a cold place once his friendships unravelled.

It was a lonely time in the first few months living in Philadelphia with no networks or family relatives to call upon. But Smith knew he needed to continue writing lyrics and documenting his time of social isolation. This was before Covid-19 coerced us all into quarantine. He could have formed a new band, but he wanted to write something for himself and with no expectations or deadlines from others.

This year saw the release of his debut record under the End You moniker, and it was worth the wait. You’ll know what we mean when you listen to Aimless Dread. The last few years of reorienting himself in a new city and forging a new life explode from the speakers like cluster bombs. Screamo, hardcore, metal, noise rock and grunge come together in a smorgasbord of distortion and vitriolic intensity, yet Smith is also adept at writing a chorus. Some songs change key at critical moments, while others keep you in a stranglehold from the first to the last note. This is an album of cathartic rage and emotional introspection that speaks from the heart.

We talked to Smith about the experience of writing his debut solo record. It’s a conversation that digs into the deeper meaning of his songs. Aimless Dread is not a manifesto for the future or an instruction how to live a better life, but it pulsates with candour. It documents the social anxiety and psychological decline in the life of one man, living in troubled times, who retained a sense of humour during the most isolated period of his existence.

Let’s start with the idea you had in mind when writing Aimless Dread. Your Bandcamp page says the music ‘tells a story common to a generation that watched thousands of people die on live television while still teenagers – the creeping realisation that perhaps nothing good will ever happen again.’ What do you mean by this, and how does this relate to listeners outside of the United States of America?

Well, the quote here is a reference to 9/11. I guess I hadn’t considered how uniquely American this perspective would seem, though that seems obvious now. But for a lot of us who came of age in that particular time and place, the lasting effect of this event, tragic as it was, is a sort of generalised, malignant cynicism. Even in those fleeting moments of comfort and joy we all seem to be waiting for the other shoe to drop. Grief and failure loom like shadows around every corner. And while – I’m paraphrasing Matt from Majority Rule here – it can be sometimes impossible to completely separate the personal from the political, it would be a mistake to think of Aimless Dread as some sort of political statement. It’s about as personal as it gets.

I didn’t really set out to do this, but this record ended up telling the story of a year of my life. In reality, this was about eighteen months, but let’s call it a year. A pretty fucked up year. It was a year in which I had a long relationship come to a shrieking halt. Had old friends grow up and grow away. Left my hometown and everything I knew and loved behind. Started over from scratch in a new place where I knew exactly nothing and almost no one. Watched a quasi-fascist gameshow clown get elected president and a bunch of out-and-out fascists come riding along in the clown car. In the middle of all of this, I buried my father as well. It was a time that I just generally felt rudderless and lost and alone. Because I was.

This was the middle of 2015 to the beginning of 2017. I didn’t always handle it well, but it wasn’t all shit either. I did my best. Whatever it is to anyone else, this record is the most honest I have ever been either with or about myself.

Your voice is vitriolic yet quite clear in its phonation. How did you train your vocals to get to that level of muscular hardcore screaming?

I’ve been surprised how well-received the vocals have been so far. I wasn’t super confident going in. I hadn’t stepped into a vocal booth for like eight years. But I knew what I wanted it to sound like and I spent a lot of time driving around South Philly at night screaming along with the rough mixes to prepare. Probably alienated the fuck out of all my neighbours in the process. Sorry guys.

I’d tracked vocals for a couple of full-length albums in the past. It had always felt kind of rushed. We either had a hard deadline or a tight budget or both. In this case I had neither. There was no tour, no record label. No one was expecting a goddamn thing. If shit started feeling bad, sounding bad, Steve and I would simply walk away and come back fresh a few days later.

If I’m supposed to be giving advice to the young screamers out there, other than just “take your time with it,” I’d say a few things – be yourself. Grow into and become comfortable with your own voice. Also, the oomph comes from your belly and diaphragm. Don’t blow out your throat. Belt that shit out! And maybe take an aspirin beforehand.

People in the US hardcore scene know you as the singer and guitarist of The Catalyst. What did you do different this time round when writing for a solo project?

Different? Not much. But, also, kind of everything? It’s a little hard to explain. Some of this material is so old that it was written for the old band. A primitive version of ‘Old Haunt’ was the last song The Catalyst wrote before we hung up our hats. But some of the End You material is stuff I had been sitting on for a while because it felt kind of out of our wheelhouse. ‘Copstomp’ was one of those songs – then again, that’s the one where I had Michael (bassist) come in and record part of it because I accidentally wrote one of his basslines into the song.

In general, I think I probably leaned a little further into metal territory than I would have normally. That’s what I grew up on, that’s what I’m comfortable playing. The Catalyst guys all had their own individual vibes they brought to the table when we were writing. That’s part of what made us really dynamic and a hard band to categorize. It felt strange not having their input, not being able to see the unexpected places they would take riffs I had written. But I’d be lying if I said they weren’t a big part of this recording. You can’t play with the same group of dudes for ten years and not internalize their influence, I don’t think.

Eric Smith wants Aimless Dread to blow your ears off.

Some of the songs on Aimless Dread are brutal. How did ‘X’d Out’ turn out compared to the way you envisaged it in your head?

Pretty far off, actually. That one also dates back years – the verse was originally material for a short-lived post-Catalyst project with Michael Backus and two of the boys from the band, Hellbear. Back then it was in a totally different tuning – Drop A – and had a totally different chorus. The goal was just to be as ignorant and violent as possible. The backbone of that riff is only two notes. When it all came together later, I was pretty surprised at how melodic it felt. I thought it would end up being one of the most gruesome tunes on the record. Instead it ended up being the first time in like fifteen years I’ve felt compelled to record a vocal harmony.

Continuing with ‘X’d Out’, the lyrics to this song are fascinating: “I’m so bored with this bullshit/ These fake friendships that only drift and drift/ So forget my love, forget my face/ Burn everything that bears my name.” Who are the words aimed at here?

Well, obviously, I’m not going to name names here. These lyrics date back to my first few months of living in Philadelphia. It’s not easy making new friends at this age. Philadelphians are notoriously wary of newcomers, and I’m not exactly the kind of dude who’s gonna just walk up and introduce himself to strangers anyway. I was working long, late hours in a kitchen by myself, and on slow nights there I’d just be alone with my thoughts. So, I’d reach out to old friends back home.

Is there a way to say “Hey, listen, I’m lonely and miserable, and I could really use a friend” without seeming like a sad, desperate sack of shit? I doubt it. Anyways, I could never be that explicit. I’d keep it vague.

Look, I know that everyone has just as much trauma and bullshit to deal with as I do. That’s life. But when I’d get left on ‘read’, which seemed like it was most of the time, it was frustrating. I felt like an invisible man. Like maybe it would have been better to have never become friends with these people at all than to do so, only to find out later how little it all mattered to them. This is, of course, an overreaction. And I’m not one to hold a grudge anyway. But I wrote it all down in my notebook, and I got a good song out of it.

The track that follows from this is just as intense. ‘Orb Weaver’ sounds like how grunge might have developed in 1989 if it went in more of a hardcore direction. What is the message of this song?

That’s an interesting take. I always thought this one kind of sounded like… Neurosis? Admittedly, I don’t listen to them very often. But I always thought of them as an East Bay hardcore punk band who got bored enough with punk that they started fucking around and created their own genre. Meanwhile, right around the same time, a lot of their peers were becoming MTV stars aping their parents’ Clash and Led Zeppelin records. So, I guess that fits.

So, anyways, the message? The joke answer is “ah, that’s the one where I’m a spider,” and I wish it were really that much fun to talk about. But this song is about being one of the last people in my circle of friends to find out that my relationship was over, and she had moved on to someone else. Trying to piece my ego back together afterwards. Trying to learn how to trust again. This kind of broke my brain for a while. I’m still sort of trying to iron out that particular crease.

It’s clear you’ve tried to ensure the music on Aimless Dread captures a live feel to it even though you built up a library of sampled drum sounds rather than enlist a live drummer. How likely is it that you’ll hit the road with your sound engineer, Steve Roche, on the drum stool when things return to normal?

I mean, most of these drum parts were written the old-fashioned way – I am a drummer and I own a drum kit. I just couldn’t play these parts with the kind of precision and power I thought they deserved. We actually tried – Steve and I recorded early versions of ‘The Call’ and ‘Widowed’ with me playing live drums back in 2018. But anyways, while I was programming the drums, I made sure to follow certain rules: Chief among these is that the drummer only has two arms and two legs. Every groove is physically possible to play – just, you know, by a better drummer than I.

So, yes, absolutely. Yes, the goal is to stitch together a live band to play this material. I haven’t even been able to attend a gig in over a year, let alone play one. But that is the dream. What that will ultimately look like, I have no clue as of now.

This is how Eric feels when his so-called friends fail to return his What’s App messages.

Let’s talk about ‘Copstomp’ – this song pulls no punches. “I’ve died so many times watching your shit-eating grin as you wave to the cameras and rise for the flag in comfort and willful oblivion/ Cover your eyes as the bodies pile up.” The message here seems to be those who are not outraged are somehow complicit in police brutality against innocent black people. Is that correct?

Yes.

This was not an easy song to write. This is not my story to tell. But I won’t just sit here and watch this happen again and again and say fucking nothing. I tried to be very responsible and cautious with my language here. It is not my intention to co-opt or to speak over the communities most directly affected by police violence. The message here is meant to be empathy, and I hope it gets read as such.

But yes, this song is about white America’s reaction to Black Lives Matter. It hasn’t been great. It seems like the only acceptable protest for a lot of these motherfuckers is the one they can simply ignore. I say fuck them and fuck that. Whether you personally had anything to do with it or not is irrelevant, white people have had their thumbs on the scale for hundreds of years, and any attempt, historical or contemporary, to push back against this has been met with unspeakable, horrific violence. Unless you are working to undo and atone for this, you’re guilty too. March or be marched upon. The choice is yours.

What is your favourite song on Aimless Dread and why?

Of course, you realise this is like asking a parent to pick a favourite child. They are, one and all, very special to me in their own ways. Every single one surprised me in some way when I heard it all together for the first time.

If I had it to do again, I’d probably run ‘Alt Delete’ as the lead single. I made a budget ass music video for it back in the fall and posted it all over the place when I was trying to nail down a record label. As such, it was not a good candidate for the “exclusive track premiere” stuff that goes into dropping a record in 2021. If you’ve never heard the record, start there. It’s quick and mean, and it goes hard. It’s track number seven.

You also include two instrumentals on your debut record. The song ‘Solstice’ is close to doom and post-metal in its heaviness. How likely are you to revisit this sound on future records?

I think one of the silliest things a musician can do is to impose some sort of artificial limitations on what is and isn’t your sound. If you have some grand artistic vision as to what your band does and doesn’t sound like, I can respect that. But if it thumps and you feel good playing it, why not put it on the record? I mean, the other instrumental track on this record sounds like Floor covering The Fucking Champs, and I think it gets along with its neighbours just fine. In short: yeah, if I’m working on a song that starts to veer into Cough or Dead Meadow territory, I sure as shit ain’t gonna stop myself.

Which song took the most out of you – physical and emotionally – during the recording process?

I mean, emotionally, this whole recording was extremely cathartic. It felt good to get this shit out of my body. Like purging a toxin. Screaming your guts out is surprisingly therapeutic. The living through it, the introspection, that was the tough part.

But I’ll make an attempt at a serious answer here anyways. I’m gonna go with track two, ‘Old Haunt’. I’ve been dragging that one around for years. As I mentioned earlier, it was originally the very last Catalyst song we ever wrote. It’s gone through dozens, if not hundreds, of rewrites. And the thesis of the song is essentially that trauma and heartache can cause one to fall out of love with a place. The city of Richmond was a huge part of my life and my identity for decades. It was hard to come to terms with the truth that this relationship had ended, probably even harder to actually leave.

Also, physically, that big “tryyyyy again!!!” shriek that brings in the first chorus – that shit nearly knocked me the fuck out. I greyed out for a second. I had to take a knee.

We understand social anxiety and your battles with substance abuse are some of the reasons for the hostile and agoraphobic sound of Aimless Dread. How true is this?

It is true that there are songs about those specific things on the record. In both cases, these are just things that I recognised in myself, did not enjoy about myself, and wanted to try to work on. How much does this have to do with the sound? I don’t know. I mean, I was taken aback a few times in the process of writing and recording this record by how deep down I was drilling with some of this shit, putting myself under a microscope in ways I hadn’t really considered before. The sound, though? The last record I wrote was a sci-fi concept album about a spaceship being infested with self-replicating nanomachines, and that wasn’t far off from this, sonically. I don’t know. Maybe I am just a hostile and agoraphobic person.

Final question: To what extent is Aimless Dread a moment in time during a tumultuous period of your life rather than a defined musical sound that you’ll continue with on future records?

Well, it seems like the world is going to remain a pretty fucking heavy place to be for the foreseeable future. Which might be, you know, brief. There should be plenty to write about, regardless of how I’m doing personally. But, for what it’s worth, I’m feeling a lot better these days. Anyways.

The music? This is just what I sound like. I had an old friend, a guy I’ve known since I was about thirteen. I don’t think he even knew I was working on a record until I put the thing out. He gave it a listen on release day and shot me a text that evening. He says, I’m paraphrasing here, “This is your whole musical upbringing rolled up into a ball, man.” He’s right. He had a front row seat for all of it: the awkward alternateen, the crust punk try-hard, the powerviolence fanboy, the metalcore mosh monster, the art-punk weirdo, the noise-rock gloomlord. It’s all there. I don’t expect that to change, just to press on, ever forward. Where to? Time will tell. But it’s gonna stay heavy.


*** End You released Aimless Dread on 21 May 2021 via Pax Aeternum (Digital) and The Ghost is Clear Records (Cassette). You can read the original SBR review here.