Why Vanishing Life went back to their punk roots for their debut album

Walter Schreifels discusses his latest band, Vanishing Life

It’s time to stop calling anything with members of more than one other band in it a supergroup. Alright, Hollywood Vampires are an exception to the rule, but more often than not, these bands are just like-minded musicians wanting to do something a little different. As is the case with Vanishing Life.

Comprising …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead bassist Autry Fulbright II and drummer Jamie Miller, Rise Against guitarist Zach Blair and Gorilla Biscuits/Quicksand/Rival Schools legend Walter Schreifels behind the mic, Vanishing Life brew an angular concoction of straight-up, bullshit-free post-hardcore with a bullish edge and existential lyrics. Influences seep in from its members’ respective projects alongside everything from Black Flag to Angel Olsen, Wire to The Damned – and it’s fantastic. We spoke to Schreifels and peeled back the layers surrounding the band’s debut LP, Surveillance.

The idea for the band came through a chance meeting at Groezrock Festival 2013 and evolved through emails. Coming from a DIY, hardcore background, was that detachment weird for you?

Walter: “It’s not so unusual to be hanging out with your friends when someone says something funny and you say, ‘Oh, dude, that’ll be our band name.’ Then you make this whole concept of what the band is, what you’d wear, what you’d do, and you kinda laugh about it but it never happens. This was just a good group of people and we kinda got psyched on doing something together, but to be honest I didn’t think it’d go past that fun conversation. But once the emails started coming in and they had demos attached to them, I thought of it as a challenge to do something really cool and to just do something. A lot of the time you say you’re gonna do something and you don’t, so this time I just thought, ‘Screw it, I’m gonna step through the window and see what becomes of it.’”

Coming from your musical background, does the term ‘supergroup’ get your goat?

“It’s kind of a lazy way to talk about it, yeah. We’re not thinking, “Let’s form a supergroup with your superpowers and my superpowers COMBINED!” We’re just guys who hang out. I’ve toured with Trail of Dead and I’ve known Zach for many years from the festival circuit, but more like acquaintances. It was really just a lark. In this modern time, with the way music is in my field, you’ve gotta keep putting things out and challenging yourself because it’s not like some old school thing where you’re on a major label, you make an album every three years then tour the cycle. Everyone’s an independent operator and they’ve gotta challenge themselves creatively and that’s how I looked at this. The fact that these guys are in popular bands is good in the way that maybe more people might pay attention to it, but calling it a supergroup is almost another way of saying you shouldn’t take it too seriously. I don’t really care because the music is good.”

Vanishing Life recorded their first seven-inch in two days. How did that gestate into a full-length?

“Initially, Geoff Rickly from Thursday was supposed to be one of the band’s singers – there were supposed to be multiple singers but I was the only one who actually put anything down on the songs! Geoff stepped in later because he had a label and he wanted us to put out a single and make an album. Immediately we had a runway built for us to keep moving forward; it’s like when the universe presents a certain path to you and we all just decided to walk along it into the full-length.”

So how did the music on Surveillance come to fruition from there?

“Primarily, most of the music came from Jamie. He made these really awesome, simple demos that allowed the band to colour in the music; the style wasn’t pushing one way or another, the guitar was distorted and that’s as much character as it had. That gave us room to bring it to life. I presented a few songs when were able to get together because I’m really not good at making demos. I wrote Realist, Thinking Weightless and Pretty Ruined, and Zach did demos for Painter and Big Other. Autry was the guy who kept it flowing. There was no dead weight and we’re playing in a blueprint that’s within a language we all understood, and that language is punk rock.”

Was the album recorded in a similar way to the seven-inch, then?

“Yeah, and it was really refreshing for me. Again, in this day and age, people record on their computers at home, they’re manipulating everything and they’re going over it beat by beat to make sure everything’s perfect and to its maximum effect. We didn’t have that option. For all of us to get a week together for this record was as much as we had; I don’t think I’ve ever recorded an album this way, even in my early days. We were in there for seven days and we came out with a full album. I had half the lyrics written going into it, so every night after the session I’d go to my cheap hotel room nearby and write lyrics for the next songs. There was a spontaneity to it that kinda stressed me out at the time, because I’m always thinking, “Argh, I could do it better!” Being under that pressure, that it had to be done that week, had an effect on how the record came out and I love that.”

Lyrically, Surveillance is pretty heavy.

“I set the blueprint with the original couple of songs and just expanded on that. The name Vanishing Life evokes stuff like extinction and environmentalism, and the title Surveillance suggests that we’re on some sort of pivot on the evolutionary scale, like how much of what we do is recorded and documented and how weird it is looking outward and into other people’s lives, and how the whole geopolitical aspect of the world is figuring into that. It’s pretty astounding. I’m trying to take a peek at that stuff from a humanist point of view, but at the same time, there’s all this paranoia and manipulation and our own narcissism that’s really been given pace in the past ten years, so where do you find your humanity? You can move to the woods and check out and there’s different means. How do you find love when you have Tinder? Not that I’m on Tinder, but it’s fascinating. Every song taps into that paranoia and existential questioning, but also has a sort of relief moment where it’s like, “Everything’s all right. I love you, baby. It’s gonna be OK.” I wanted to have those little respites and there’s humour in there too. I also remember going to the Stasi museum in Berlin just before recording this album and just being knocked out by how East Germany really had the surveillance state down; they were cutting-edge in a lot of ways.”

What’s that dashing wolf doing on the album cover?

“I can’t remember the photographer’s name, but an old friend of mine from Switzerland, Thomas Rütti did the album design and he got the photograph from his fine art photographer friend. I was just captivated by the stark image of this wolf, this endangered animal, kinda confronting the glow of a computer screen. It’s a strong image when you think of it in any deeper way than, ‘It’s a wolf.’ Its curiosity juxtaposes the danger of the wolf, because it’s a fierce animal but it’s not in a fierce pose, and that struck me. Vanishing Life sums up all these environmental issues, so this animal on the front is endangered yet so beautiful and fierce, and it approaches this light with a curiosity that could ultimately be its undoing. Maybe I’m looking too much into it, but it looks really cool.”

You even took the mic for several Gorilla Biscuits shows and had a lovely time. Does Vanishing Life give you the same rush?

“Oh, for sure. It’s cool that you’ve mentioned that because it was definitely one of my inspirations for this. Gorilla Biscuits is too dangerous for me – too many fully grown men jumping on you – but the idea of being a frontperson and having the freedom and thrill to run around… I didn’t want to do another band where I’m singing and playing guitar. Having played music for so long, if I want to invest in something creatively, it has to be in a realm where I’m not comfortable. Although I did play guitar on the record – I couldn’t let that go! – the idea of performing without the guitar, not taking the guitar to the airport, having my hands free on stage and all that stuff makes it a new experience for me. I get off on that fresh insight.”

Vanishing Life’s Surveillance will be released on November 25. The band are on tour throughout November.

Metal Hammer Quiz: Supergroups

Alec Chillingworth

Alec is a longtime contributor with first-class BA Honours in English with Creative Writing, and has worked for Metal Hammer since 2014. Over the years, he's written for Noisey, Stereoboard, uDiscoverMusic, and the good ship Hammer, interviewing major bands like Slipknot, Rammstein, and Tenacious D (plus some black metal bands your cool uncle might know). He's read Ulysses thrice, and it got worse each time.