INTERVIEW BY JOE FITZPATRICK
PHOTOS BY NOORANN MATTIES
Founded on September 12, 2012 following the breakup of the Fairfax-based emo band STUDYING, vocalists TJ Whitehead and Chris Morgan, drummer John Crogan, and guitarist Ted Gordon started the band, which came to be known as KAORU NAGISA. The rest of the lineup, which includes vocalist Rebecca Lam, guitarist DJ Condon, and bassist Erich Brumback, was filled in by members of other emo and screamo bands from the Northern Virginia and Richmond music scenes. Though not all the members live in the same city, their passion for screamo and creating music together pushes them through. With a total of seven members, they are more like a small community with their own shared interests and ways of communicating. I sat down with Gordon, Morgan, Lam, and Brumback in Gordon’s Annandale townhome, while Crogan and Condon joined us from their home in Richmond broadcast over FaceTime on Gordon’s iPad.
What is “screamo” to you, individually or as a band?
DJ: Screamo means the world to me (laughs), and screamo is the music that basically got me into playing music, going on tour, and being in bands that I actually enjoyed.
Ted: I would say that screamo is interesting because obviously it’s a word that gets used to describe a lot of different things. I just call everything punk music, and I know not everybody will agree with that. But anything that carries on from the early rebellious attitudes and styles of American hardcore bands, like BLACK FLAG and whatnot, MINOR THREAT, and bands that I listened to in high school that meant a lot to me, that’s punk to me. Screamo means so many different things, so I use it to help describe the kind of music that we do, but it’s not always a very evocative phrase. … It doesn’t really work, so I just say “punk music.” It’s loud and aggressive.
Chris: Screamo, to me, means an outlet for emotions, and I don’t feel like I can do that in a lot of other genres of music. I just feel like it’s a lot more genuine.
DJ: There’s no restraints with screamo music. There’s so many different kinds, and so many different mixes of it that it’s honestly to me one of the most creative styles of heavy music today because you can play any style of other music into it.
Why do you feel like other genres have restraints to expressing your emotions that screamo music does not?
DJ: In a lot of other types of music, you hear people talking about the main few bands that are that genre of music, and a lot of people feel like they need to make bands that sound exactly like those bands. I’m not saying that I don’t take influence from other bands, but I for sure draw influences from every style of music that I have ever enjoyed. I put that into music I make today.
Ted: I definitely think every genre has it’s constraints and themes it returns to. I say punk as an umbrage for everything because it’s easy to understand and easy to translate to people. But what I think “screamo” is are the bands that I started listening to in my late teens, like PG. 99, CITY OF CATERPILLAR, and MAJORITY RULE, and even European bands … that I really, really love. To me, there is something about a good scream song, especially one that carries on with tremendous dynamics that other genres don’t encapsulate it in terms of sheer emotion. To me, there are no songs that take you to really good highs and really good lows the way a good screamo song does.
Originally, you started the band with three vocalists, and it’s always a different mix of who’s doing it. What’s that like having multiple vocalists, and what’s the reasoning behind it?
Rebecca: Having three vocalists is cool, I think, because not many bands have more than two vocalists. So it is very cool to have a few voices, but it’s also chaotic sometimes, as you can tell. There’s enough vocals to fill the room for whatever type of music.
Chris: I think it also ties in with the live performance in that when you are playing a show, especially a screamo show, you want to have a lot of energy and get the audience involved, and having three standalone vocalists really contributes to that in that there are three “cannonballs” going in different directions into the crowd and getting everyone involved.
Ted: Just to clarify, we have always had the same three vocalists from the beginning, but we do have other people [participate]. At this point a lot of people know the words so they’ll chip in, which is one of the unique things about what we do. Because we have seven people, we can do without sometimes one and even two members and have people fill in. We can have a friend who knows bass parts fill in, or a friend who knows vocal parts fill in. So we have had other people do vocals, but the vocal ensemble from the beginning has always been Rebecca, Chris, and TJ. That kind of happened by accident. I don’t think we meant it to be that way when we started.
I know some of you guys also used to play in the Fairfax-based emo band STUDYING. Was the breakup of that band part of the reason why you formed KAORU NAGISA?
Ted: The whole reason we started was because STUDYING was breaking up, and I asked TJ if he wanted to be in a band with me because he was moving to Indiana. I knew I wanted to be in a band with TJ and with Eric, and then I asked John if he wanted to play drums because he is like “the drummer.” I think I’ve only ever been in a band with John as the drummer since I’ve been doing music for a long time now.
John: Naw man. I wasn’t in JAHAN.
Ted: That’s true; he wasn’t in JAHAN, my first screamo band. Then TJ said, “What about Rebecca?” and DJ said, “What about Chris?” So it started to feel like something I was cool with. … It ended up being a heavier band with three vocalists, which wasn’t something we set out to do. I just kind of happened. It;s kind of like our aesthetic.
You touched on it a little bit with TJ moving to Indiana, but I heard a rumor that the reason you started this band was to force some members to stay in touch after they moved to different states. Can you tell me about how your band got started?
Erich: STUDYING was breaking up, and STUDYING was a band that we have a lot of members from, like TJ, John, Chris …
Ted: And me.
Erich: And Ted. They were all looking for something new. So I think part of it was one ending begets something new. And SOLOMON [SOLOMON] broke up, which was Ted’s old band.
Ted: I was just trying to write new stuff and continue the same style. I think it is true that we did start the band so TJ would be forced to do something with us. He would have to come down to the area. I remember when we did our first EP, TJ hadn’t been at any practices or anything because he had been living in Indiana. So we would just send music and stuff. We did a whole bunch of demos. We would listen to them, and come back and rewrite. I remember when we came down to record for that, and that was a big event because he hadn’t been back in the area in a while.
Does your name come from a Japanese anime? What is its significance to your band?
Erich: Yes it does. It comes from Neon Genesis Evangelion, and I think we ended up picking that name because it was one thing that everyone in the band had in common.
Ted: Except for Chris (laughs).
Erich: Except for Chris, everyone in this band had a love for that series. The other name we were thinking about was long.
Ted: We were trying to find common ground, and we were just talking about stuff that we liked. We all liked Neon Genesis so one of the original names that we all agreed on for five minutes until somebody pushed against it was “Kawuro Nagisa died for your sins,” and then it was going to be the Japanese text. When the show was around, it was some kind of marketing technique they did.
John: It was a bumper sticker.
Ted: Right it was a bumper sticker, but we decided to cut it down to KAORU NAGISA.
Your band used to be called “Kaworu Nagisa,” but about a year ago, you changed the spelling of it. Can you explain why that decision was made?
Ted: In most English translations there is a “W,” but we took out the “W” because I don’t know why. I remember that was Rebecca’s suggestion, but I don’t know why we did it. It works though.
Chris: I think we agreed it was more aesthetically pleasing without the “W” (laughs).
Who writes your lyrics? Is it a group effort, or is only one member responsible for them?
Ted: When we started the band, I had a very specific sci-fi aesthetic but not really science fiction in an of itself. One of the things that I really like about science fiction is its nature of being allegorical. One that I really enjoy is J.G. Ballard, an English author that writes a lot of short stories that are set in dystopian futures. They have a lot of “What ifs,” like what if the world was a giant city laid out grid-by-grid, and no one ever knew what flight was. Stuff like that. So I was like, what if we tried to be similarly allegorical and use sci-fi as strong imagery. I ended up writing the first EP’s lyrics, and I was cautious about it because I knew that I wouldn’t be doing any of the vocals. I was always sending them edits to make sure the lyrics were good, and eventually everyone just rolled with it. They picked the parts that they liked, and everyone took it from there. Pretty much after that first one, I have been hands off for lyrics.
Chris: For the split we did, we have three songs so I thought it would be appropriate for each one of the vocalists to write about the main theme of what each song would be. So when the songs were in, I decided to pick one and then delegate the rest of the songs to the other two [vocalists]. So I just kept going with the sci-fi theme, and I wrote about some movie that I had seen called Doomsday Book.
Rebecca: I think we actually all wrote lyrics that had something to do with Doomsday Book because for the song that I picked, I wrote about being a robot and seeing how the world is from a robot’s point of view.
DJ: Will each of you say the song that you wrote on the split with SWAN OF TUONELA?
John: I named all the songs on Concessive (laughs)
Ted: Yes, that’s true.
Chris: And I named all the songs off of the split.
In November, you guys posted on Facebook that you will be writing two short songs, and you are “still in it to win it.” Can you tell me what they will be about and when you plan to release them?
Ted: We’re really behind in doing it, but it’s gonna happen. I’m just gonna have to force it through and make it happen. I don’t know what the songs are about because I’m not writing the lyrics.
Chris: I do.
Ted: I’ve written one of the songs at the very least. One of them is a split with COMA REGALIA from Indiana. We played with them over summer. … We had some wacky idea for a crazy 3″ record where we do a super short song, but now I think it’s gonna be a 7″
Chris: The idea came from Pat. He proposed a dual 3.5″ that would it side-by-side and be the size of a single 7″.
Ted: It’s still gonna happen, but we still gotta record. The other one is with Pat Bright, who Chris was mentioning. He plays guitar in GAS UP YR HEARSE from Illinois, and we also stayed at their house over the summer and played there. He is putting out a compilation called Swollen Lungs, and I think it’s his second one. We are also doing a very, very short song for that.
Chris: Being “in it to win it” has to do with still being a band. Also, did you wanna know what the songs are about?
Ted: Sure. I don’t even know yet.
Chris: I’m pretty sure that one of the songs is going to be about a short online horror story called The Dionaea House about this sentient house that can change and morph and get people to do its bidding, and it eventually eats them.
Ted: Dionaea House is tight, if anybody hasn’t read it or seen it. I didn’t know it was about that, but that’s really awesome.
Was it made into a short film?
Chris: Actually, TJ just told me that the guy who wrote Dionaea House wrote a screen play for Dionaea House to be made into a film, and then the producers then asked him to write the prequel to The Thing.
Where are you potentially moving to?
Ted: We don’t know yet. I got married a year and a half ago, and my current job is ending. Our lease here is up so we have to find a new place to go to. I don’t know where that will be yet, but I’ve said from the beginning of this project that I have no intention of doing a “break up show” or last show. I think we did it when STUDYING and SOLOMON SOLOMON broke up because people were moving and it sort of felt like it made sense. And I did it with my other band JAHAN too because one of our members was moving to California, but these are all some of my closest friends. Regardless of where I am, I want to keep making music with everybody, even if we are only together once a year. … We’ll just keep going as long as everybody else wants to do it.
Ted: I like how FUGAZI did it. They just went on hiatus, and they can put out a record whenever. Like who knows?
Since you guys have played in screamo bands for so long, and now there are more screamo bands than there have ever been, do you think screamo has a legacy in Virginia, or is it starting to have a legacy?
DJ: PAGE 99.
Erich: When you say screamo having a legacy in Virginia, it made me think of your first question, what screamo means to us individually. I remember being in high school and getting into screamo maybe more so than any other genre because I had been finding out about the legacy that it does have in Virginia. … There was something about what was taking place in Virginia so close to where I lived that it made it more real, or more relevant in a sense, which made me a lot more interested in it immediately. It’s cool that we’ve ended up participating in it. I think it definitely has a legacy in Virginia, and like DJ said, PAGE 99 and all the bands associated with it.
Ted: To me, and I think everyone in the band knows, for me CITY OF CATERPILLAR is the top of the top. I think the fact that there were a lot of bands from here of the highest caliber [with] amazing musicianship, amazing songwriting, and wonderful lyrics, that is enough for me to consider it a legacy. And there’s so much going on now down in Richmond, and to think that any of us had anything to do with it means a lot to me for sure.