XxEmoLivesxX: An Interview with Mineral and a Live Review, Too
By Corey Beasley | 11 September 2014
An Interview with Mineral’s Chris Simpson
Austin’s Mineral became a legend in certain circles after the band’s breakup in 1997. In a way, the band crystallizes a certain time and aesthetic in mid-‘90s guitar rock—emo, okay, but emo done with breakneck, stop-start dynamics overlaid with intricate latticework of brittle, beautiful guitar heroics, anchored by a drummer (Gabriel Riley) who pounds his kit like he’s giving Chris Carrabba a well-deserved concussion. With lyrics exploring relationships (duh) and questions of faith (not-so-duh), Mineral paved the way for a legion of bands to come, though most fans never got a chance to see them play. Now, the band has reunited for a world tour, and Arena Rock Recording Co. and Xtra Mile have teamed up to reissue both of Mineral’s LPs, The Power of Failing (1996) and EndSerenading (1998), with extra tracks and unreleased material, along with Mineral—1994-1998, a double-CD compilation of both records and other material. Corey caught up with singer/guitarist Chris Simpson to talk about the reunion, guitars, and whether or not any hardcore bros ever threatened Simpson for talking about church.
CMG: How long have the reunion plans been in the works?
Chris Simpson (CS): We’ve been rehearsing since about Feb, but we didn’t announce the shows until April or May. We didn’t know, once we started rehearsing, what it would develop into. We were just sort of getting into the room together to see how it would sound and figure out what we wanted to do with it.
CMG: Why now?
CS: Jim Atkins from Jimmy Eat World called in Jan asking if we might be interested in just doing a one-off show. He was trying to plan a show with them and a bunch of other bands we used to play with back in the day. He asked if we were interested, and I said, “Well…I don’t really know, actually, but I’ll certainly reach out to the guys and talk about it,” so we got together and decided we thought it would be at least worth getting together and seeing if we thought we could make it happen. That show never really ended up happening, and we were already getting it up and running, so we thought we’d go ahead and see if there was interest in doing a tour.
CMG: What were rehearsals like? You hadn’t played these songs in a decade-and-a-half—did they come back to the band quickly? Was it strange at all to hear the music coming out of your practice space after so long?
CS: It definitely felt strange hearing it and playing it—some of it came more quickly than I would’ve imagined, but other stuff became very challenging to get back on top of. A lot of the stuff from the second record was never played live, but a lot of the first record—even though it was 17 years ago—still has some sort of muscle memory, because we’d played those songs so long.
Sorry, I was responding to a child. [Laughs] So, yeah, some of the later songs were much harder to re-learn, since we hadn’t really played them outside of writing them in the practice space and recording them for the record.
CMG: How is the world different for a small, independent band in 2014 as opposed to the same type of band in the late ‘90s?
CS: I’d say in most ways, you know? The internet wasn’t even really being used to propagate music when Mineral was around. We had a website toward the end, but it wasn’t like you had to have a website. There weren’t really cell phones, or not everybody had them, you didn’t tour with them or GPS devices or social media on tour.
CMG: How do you feel most people came to the band’s music in those days? Touring, word-of-mouth?
CS: Yeah, at the time it was definitely from touring and word-of-mouth. There was a big DIY network set up that we stumbled into through meeting bands like Christie Front Drive and Boy’s Life more of the crank! bands and Caulfield Records. It was really an impressive network, considering there weren’t any of those outlets we just spoke of that there are now, online. Bands that knew each other and helped each other out, and record distros and record shops.
CMG: Yeah, I remember for me at the time, it was about the label—once I discovered a band on a label like crank!, I’d think, oh, okay, here’s a label I can explore and discover music that way.
CS: It’s a different world, for sure. There are just so many more ways to network with people, which is great.
CMG: How was the band’s posthumous reception for you and the guys—did you have a sense of the way Mineral’s popularity increased, really, after you’d broken up?
CS: I think we had some sense over the years—certainly the records were still selling enough for us to know new people were discovering the band. None of us really had a sense what the reception would be. I think we’ve definitely been surprised by the response and the success, if I can say that. We just had our first show last night, a little warm-up show in Austin. It went really well—a lot of people showed up and crammed themselves into not a lot of space.
CMG: Was it a young crowd, or did it seem mixed in age?
CS: It was a mixed crowd—you know, a lot of our friends were there. A lot of the people who continue to discover Mineral are younger, so it seems to somehow find its way down to the next generation. It’s like a reverse Menudo or something.
CMG: Can we talk guitar sound? The guitar tone in The Power of Failing has to be one of my favorites of all time—you manage this sound that’s alternatingly bright and brittle, with those satisfyingly ugly moments of feedback and crunch on a track like “Slower.” How did you and Scott come to that sound?
CS: At the time, early on, you don’t really know what’s good. You don’t take time to figure out what a good sound is. In retrospect, I think some of the guitar sounds on that record are really bad, but I like them. [Laughs] I think a lot of it was just a natural process of using whatever gear you have when you start before you really figure out, oh this would be a good amp to have or this pedal. Before you do any of that, you’re just excited to play music, so you plug into whatever you have. Scott [McCarver, Mineral guitarist] was always more interested in feedback and such, and I was much more interested in the prettier, clean sound, but my clean tones were also very brittle and strummed. That’s just the way we played off of one another, I think.
CMG: It’s a very different sound from the more polished, ethereal vibe of EndSerenading. Failing is a guitar hero record to me, where Serenading seems to leave those high-necked leads and distorted bursts behind for a more manicured sound. I remember loving both in the late ‘90s but feeling almost like they were made by different bands. Do you have a sense of the evolution of the sound?
CS: Yeah, by that point we had a little more experience in knowing what sounds we were interested in getting. So there was a lot more thought put into what amps and guitars we were using. And I think just the style of our playing was changing. We were much more interested in doing something that wasn’t as reliant on quiet-loud dynamics. There are more levels on EndSerenading, songs that evolved or progressed more gradually in different directions or dynamically.
CMG: EndSerenading put the undertones of Christian faith and ethics in a more central place in your lyrics, though they were present in Failing, too. That was always a huge part of the band’s appeal to me as a young dude exploring questions of faith and doubt, but it’s a plainly risky endeavor for a band involved even remotely in any offshoot of punk rock or DIY, independent music. Did you ever feel any resistance from audiences or critics to that element of Mineral’s music?
CS: No, I never did. I was definitely self-conscious about it. I remember, with both records, that aspect of what I was writing about—I was aware that it stood out a bit in the scene and the type of bands we were playing with. I was actually surprised more people wouldn’t talk about it at the time, but I was happy about that. [Laughs] I was definitely concerned with how it might be taken.
CMG: Do you have Mineral songs you feel particularly attached to or proud of, fifteen or twenty years down the line?
CS: I’ve been surprised how many of them, really, in relearning them I feel proud of in a way I haven’t over the last seventeen years. I think the “February/M.D.”[(1996)] 7-inch is, for whatever reason, is my favorite Mineral piece. It really resonates with me. I think it’s kind of a perfect scenic turnout on the way between first and second records. I really connect with those songs and love them, and I’m happy to be playing with them. I’ve been surprised how many of the songs feel very relevant, and how I’ve been able to connect with the emotions seventeen years later.
CMG: Mineral’s music is cemented in an emocore or late ‘90s indie rock narrative by now, and it continues to reach and connect with fans who weren’t around when the two records were initially released. That’s no small feat for a band releasing music on a small label like crank! in the nascent days of the Internet. What’s Mineral’s legacy in 2014?
CS: I don’t think about it much, but I think we’re proud of whatever the band’s legacy is. I’d just say that we’re proud of the work we’ve done in the band and our time together, and that it’s connected with people and continues to resonate with people. It’s something really special, and we’re very excited about the opportunity to connect and reconnect with people, especially those who weren’t around the first time around. Believe it or not, there weren’t that many people around then. [Laughs] It’s just very exciting.
Mineral, LIVE! Bowery Ballroom, NYC, 9/5/2014
A band called Into It. Over It. opens for Mineral on the latter’s much-anticipated reunion tour, the first shows Mineral has played in almost twenty years. I hadn’t heard of Into It. Over It. before Mineral’s show at New York’s Bowery Ballroom on September 5th, 2014, and watching them—four dudes in flannel occasionally joined by a keyboardist in black—I thought they, too, must be a reunited band from emo’s heyday in the mid-90s, all chiming guitars, belted choruses, and math-lite riffs. Their music sounded derivative to me, but I thought, “Oh, that’s nice that they got back together, too. I bet some people are out-of-their-minds excited to see these two bands together.” But no, Into It. Over It. is a new band, first album out in 2010, that plays late-‘90s emo like Braid was still around (I know, just—you get the idea). It’s music that does nothing to distinguish itself, but it exists to serve an important function: given teens feelings and to potentially function as a springboard forward or backward to better bands, out of paint-by-numbers emo and toward the bands whose sounds are latent even in an anti-septic group like this one, Fugazi, Jawbreaker, and, yeah, Mineral.
If that sounds like generational griping, it probably is. But then, Mineral was always better than so much of their ilk. As a dude who grew up in a small Southern town, finding a band like Mineral in the nascent days of the internet—downloading a single song for about forty-five minutes—was explosive, and it led, by way of introducing a whole label’s worth of potentially like-minded bands, to an exponential growth in your record collection, most albums bought on spec without hearing a single song, all on the promise of sharing a spirit with a labelmate. A late ‘90s gold rush of sorts, where finding Jets to Brazil would induce a frenzied hunt for everything Jade Tree. But there weren’t many other bands to be found who could match Mineral for hooks, texture, and—yeah—feelings, dude. I came to the band right before they broke up, and I would’ve abandoned any hope of ever seeing them play, if I’d had any hope of finding a way to drive across Virginia to whichever Northeastern city would be hosting them in the first place. When the reunion shows were first announced, I gobbled up a ticket with all the earnestness of a fourteen year-old evangelizing for Clarity.
TL;DR: they delivered. Chris Simpson’s voice sounds as wonderful-terrible as it in 1995, and the band did a remarkable job recreating the intricate guitar work that made EndSerenading so captivating at its best moments—“Unfinished,” played early in the set, reminded me why this band, so much more than Sunny Day Real Estate or Texas Is the Reason or whichever other cornerstone of the scene, was a guitar hero band above all else. In a live setting, Serenading’s songs sound bigger and fuller, given an added puncht that many fans found lacking on record after the knockout dynamics of The Power of Failing. And Failing’s songs slayed: a track like “Slower,” with Scott McCarver wrenching those bursts of squall from his guitar in the bridge, revealed how integral his predilection toward dissonance was to the band’s standout sound. It was thrilling, for instance, to hear Simpson’s voice live for the first time during opener “Lovelettertypewriter,” but the experience didn’t become more than a nostalgic novelty until “Slower,” three songs in, when McCarver’s aggressive counterpoint to his prettier riffs provided the band’s trademark tension onstage.
The crowd, a mix of older and younger fans, yelled requests at the band like they’d been touring for years—dudes, let me tell you, they’re not going to blow it and play “Gloria” five songs into the set. Dynamics, bro! But the energy in the room was palpable, and though you haven’t known pain until you hear a roomful of old white dudes sing along to “Five, Eight & Ten” each in their own key, the sense of joy and release in the crowd felt real and unabashed. And when “Gloria” did come, as the penultimate song in the proper set (obvi) before leading into closer “Parking Lot,” a club full of few hundred adults bounced around and shouted along in unison—partly an effect of nostalgia and teenage-years-revisited, sure, but a potent emotional force in any case, and one as cathartic as any show I’ve seen in my jaded, be-fattened adult life.
The band, for its part, kept relatively quiet between sets, expressing gratitude but otherwise getting on with the show. Simpson hovered near the microphone the entire time, and I still have no idea what the upper half of his face looks like, his hair falling into his eyes in classic emo fashion (he earned it). If you’re seeing Mineral soon, make sure to get a spot where you can see drummer Gabriel Riley. He brought the real stage presence to the show, proving he’s always been Mineral’s secret weapon, with inventive fills and a muscular style that usually kept the band’s songs from limping into 98-pound-weakling territory. He, a goateed middle-aged dude who looks more like an IT manager than an indie rock drummer extraordinaire, abused his kit and sang along, smiling, throughout the whole set. If it was a pleasant surprise to see this unassuming dude rocking out with full abandon—yeah, that was most everyone in the crowd that night. Reunion shows are an uncomfortable order at best, but the thinking can come later. Just go and feel, man.