Interview with guitarist Will Killingsworth | By Ben Sailer
Whether you were stockpiling canned food in preparation for Y2K or dancing your ass off to Prince, 1999 was a hell of a year. Twenty years later, End Of The Century looks back at some of the most iconic albums to drop right before the new millennium…
When Orchid released Chaos Is Me in 1999, “screamo” was far from the—widely misused—household term it is now.
In fact, when the Amherst, Massachusetts, four-piece—at the time comprised of vocalist Jayson Green, guitarist Will Killingsworth, bassist Brad Wallace, and drummer Jeffrey Salane—entered GodCity Studio to record with Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou, they had little idea that they were about to do anything other than make a hardcore record.
However, that record’s blend of genre-defying energy and noise would later become recognized as a cornerstone of screamo’s development, alongside Pageninetynine’s Document 8 and Saetia’s A Retrospective from 2001 and Portraits Of Past’s self-titled debut from 1996, among others. Today, they’ve become so synonymous with the genre’s roots that a live photo of the band features prominently on the Wikipedia entry for “screamo”—the closest thing to objective fact that you’re likely to find on the matter.
It’s fitting, then, that Orchid would reissue Chaos Is Me earlier this year via Ebullition Records, the influential label that first released the album back in the late ’90s. To celebrate its 20th anniversary, Killingsworth takes a moment to talk about the record’s legacy, how the reissue came together, and much more.
It’s interesting how, from an audience, fan, or even journalist’s perspective, certain bands or records will become known as being influential or important, sometimes in ways that don’t become evident until it’s in retrospect. But for the creator who made that record, that was just a time in your life, you know? You were just playing music, and maybe the perspective is different.
So, how do you feel about the about the legacy of Chaos Is Me and how the mythos around it has just grown over time since it came out?
Ultimately, I’m glad people listen to it and like it still. Anytime you make a record or something, you don’t know how it’s going to go or if anyone will hear it or if anyone will still be listening to it in a couple of years or anything like that. So, it’s cool that people continue to identify with that record. As to why it’s that record or our band, it’s hard to know why, from my perspective. [Laughs] There’s a lot of good bands, and there’s plenty of other things out there.
It’s interesting that, for whatever reason, that one continues being picked up by people or listened to or influencing people—from what I can tell, at least. [Laughs] I don’t dwell too much on the mythos.
What do you remember the scene being like in Amherst around 1999 when that record came out and the band were playing shows?
The Western Mass scene has kind of grown, at least in my experience. It was pretty limited at the time, because all of us were in college. Most of us were living on campus at a small college we were at, so we might have had blinders on a bit to what was going on, but there wasn’t that much in terms of things that we were into, like shows happening or bands playing.
So, myself and the guys I was in the band with booked a show or two a year, maybe, at the college. But there wasn’t that much going on, and certainly, the shows weren’t that well-attended. It was harder to get information out then, in a different way than it’s hard now, where you’re combating the sea of everything else to try to get information out. Before, it was just hard to get someone to even be aware that something was maybe happening. I mean, the scene here around that time was pretty small and pretty insular. There were, like, a couple of local bands that we were friends with or played shows with, but that was about it.
That was at Hampshire University, correct?
Yeah, Hampshire College. Jay, Brad, and I went to Hampshire.
I did a little bit of reading on Hampshire, and it has a reputation for being a forward-thinking, pretty progressive, against-the-grain type institution of higher learning.
Yeah. I felt like it was a college for people who didn’t really want to go to college but felt like they should go to college. They were interested in the idea of college. [Laughs]
So, if the local scene in Amherst wasn’t much of an influence because there just wasn’t much going on, do you feel that being in that type of creative educational atmosphere may have shaped the direction the band took in some ways?
I’m sure to an extent. The people we were interacting with at the school—we were all broadening our horizons, whether in terms of ways of thinking or music, etc. So, it definitely played a role. It’s hard to really quantify exactly how much, but I’m sure that it was impacting us. We had friends who were at the school and also played music, but it wasn’t really the same kind of music we were playing—and that probably played a role too.
You mentioned there were a couple local bands you would play with. Who were some of the influences you were listening to around that time?
That’s a good question. They were pretty varied during that time. We were all into different things that we had sort of gotten into punk through, and then it was a mishmash of what came together that we were all into. I remember making Jay, the singer, a mixtape that was pretty ridiculously diverse of terms of things I thought were cool that could be influences on the band or whatnot. Some of them were probably absurd. Brad, who played bass, and I were more into powerviolence and grind stuff but also heavier things, and Jay had come from more of, like, a Connecticut hardcore, more like a posi hardcore mosh style.
Jeff, the drummer, was more into emo. I’m not really sure how to define it, but like the ’90s more aggressive emo stuff, you know what I mean? Stuff that was coming out with a Dischord influence. So, somehow, that was all sort of coming together. We were friends at school because we were into punk, hardcore, underground music, but when we met up, it wasn’t like we had a lot of common influences musically. Although, I think I always think of Brad as the guy, who when I first saw him, I was like, “Who’s this guy in the Crossed Out shirt? I have to talk to him at some point.” [Laughs]
I think something that was evident with Orchid right away is you can tell there’s a lot of different influences coming from a lot of different areas. It’s definitely within the hardcore realm, but what I see Orchid getting placed with a lot is the screamo tag, which seems like something that came along a little bit later, maybe in retrospect.
I don’t know when I first heard the word, but it was more recent than 20 years ago, that’s for sure. [Laughs]
When the record came out, how did people try to categorize you? Where did people try to place Orchid at the time?
Uh, well, it’s kind of funny, because initially—I’d been doing a label for a few years before we started Orchid, so I had contacts with different people who were in bands or did other labels. So, when we toured and whatnot, I had these people who I could reach out to. No one else, besides [people] where they were specifically from, really had anyone who they could reach out to in general, you know, somewhere five states away or something, where they could book a show. But my label was, like, almost all grind stuff at that time, so it was like we were playing almost exclusively grind or crust punk shows for the first, I would say, couple of tours—which was fine. To me, I wasn’t like, “We’re out of place,” or “This is weird,” or something.
But it was interesting sort of watching—you know, as we met more people, met more bands, we started playing more emo or, eventually, what would be known as screamo kind of shows, not even by our own doing but just by the natural order of events. That was just kind of interesting. So, I guess people started categorizing or figuring out what we were doing before we really knew what we were doing even.
Yeah, we played lots of, kind of in some ways, like looking back, somewhat funnily diverse lineups. Although, I’d also prefer a diverse lineup to every band sounding the same at a show. So, it wasn’t really a bad thing.
When you were first getting together to jam and write those songs, do you remember much from that process or what kinds of conversations you were having around direction or influences? Or did you just let it come naturally, just make a lot of noise and do what felt good?
I would say, in large part, it was a matter of what came naturally, in terms of who was in the band and their own sort of natural inclination. We definitely got lucky with what people’s tastes were and what their personal direction was. Most of the songs I would write on guitar, I don’t know if they were necessarily 100 percent done before we’d practice them, but they were at least 90 percent done before I would show it to everyone.
I’m sure there was some discussion about the drums and how they should work or something, but I feel like Jeff, he had a pretty interesting approach in terms of how he thought things should be accented or played. We would have to jam on a riff for a bit, and when he got something that he thought was cool, you know, I would say nine times or more out of 10, we also thought it was cool. So, what he was doing was definitely adding to what I was creating, for sure, and I feel like Jay was a natural vocalist and still is a natural vocalist. Anytime he had lyric ideas or concept ideas, whether or not I fully understood them at the time, I was like, “That sounds cool.” You know, certainly cooler than any ideas I had to bring to the table.
I think sometimes before a practice, Brad, the bass player, and I would get together and go over the riffs and make sure everything made sense or see, if I played it for him, if he thought something didn’t work or something like that, you know? We definitely had some one-on-one practices like that, but for the most part, it wasn’t too difficult, which was kind of nice in retrospect, kind of surprising. Like, we worked at the songs, but I’ve worked harder at songs. [Laughs]
So, when you recorded Chaos Is Me, it was with Kurt Ballou at GodCity?
What was it like working with Kurt back then? Because that would have been the early days of GodCity, I believe.
Yep. He was in his second space then, although I think his first space was, like, someone’s basement. I could be wrong about that, but I believe it was some sort of a setup like that. Then, we recorded in the space before where he is now. It was kind of in an industrial, kind of like warehouse-y back area.
But it was cool. Kurt, at that point, was recording the Converge stuff and, like, Cave In and Piebald and those kinds of bands. When we recorded our first 7” recordings we did with Steve Austin, we had originally gotten in touch with Kurt about recording. I think he was on tour or busy or something, but he couldn’t do it and suggested we recorded with Steve. Then, when it came time to record again—which, the next time we recorded was the Combatwoundedveteran split—we hit up Kurt and recorded the songs for that and the Cripple Bastards cover. We liked that experience a lot, so when it came time to do Chaos Is Me, it seemed like the natural thing to do. At that time, he was using a 24-track, one-inch tape machine.
The first guitar track, bass, and drums, those were all done live. That tape machine—I have kind of a similar tape machine now—but it was pretty unforgiving in terms of punching in. You pretty much had to do the whole song again if you wanted to redo something. All those initial takes are live, and then, I would just overdub two guitar performances on top of that, which are, again, like all the way through the song. I think the vocals are pretty much straight through the song in one shot too—maybe there was a punch-in or two, but I remember Jay pretty much doing it and getting it done quickly. The record was done in two days. I want to say it was, like, 18 or 20 hours total of studio time from start to finish with the mix. It was pretty quick.
Yeah, that’s pretty fast, especially when you consider how much time a band can put into a full-length.
Yeah. We were pretty well-rehearsed, and there weren’t any big ideas to take up a lot of extra time. It was more just trying to get that stuff we had practiced down. I don’t think there was anything too painful about it.
I do remember I had a weird experience with the pointer finger on my left hand that frets the guitar. Normally, after playing guitar a lot, you might get lines or something from the strings, but I remember getting indents, and then I started bleeding out of my finger. I was like, “This is weird. This has never happened before.” It never happened again, which was also odd, but it made me nervous.
The next time we recorded, I was like, “Oh my god, what if my finger starts, like—what if I rupture my finger? Is that a thing that happens?” [Laughs]
It would’ve been a hard way to find out if that’s a thing that happens.
Yeah. I remember the last couple of songs, I had to hold chords a little differently so I wasn’t basically rubbing the strings where I think I somehow made this little, weird pinprick puncture on my finger—which is odd but one of the things I remember. [Laughs]
When it came time to repress the 20th anniversary edition of Chaos Is Me, how did that conversation come about?
I think that, at some point a year ago or maybe a little less, Brad emailed everyone in the band—we have an email thread that occasionally gets up and going again between all of us in the band—and was like, “The 20th anniversary is coming up. I don’t know if we want to do anything.” I think we were kind of all like, “Oh, damn.” No one really thought of anything or wasn’t necessarily sure of what to do. I think he was like, “Should we try to do some sort of box set or something?” I think we were probably all overwhelmed by the idea, like, “That seems cool, but can we really pull this together?” Then, I think we all kind of forgot about it for a couple of months at least.
Then, Kent [McClard] from Ebullition, who put out the record, emailed me and was like, “Hey, the 20th anniversary is coming up. I was going to repress the record. Do you want to do anything cool for it?” I was like, “Maybe we can. It’d be cool to do something.” So, I emailed everyone, and we had some back and forth about what to do. I think, again, it was Brad’s idea to do the foil cover. So, we were debating that for a while, what made the most sense and what was logistically possible on Kent’s end for pressing the record. I think there was maybe a week where it seemed like the original artwork files no longer existed. I don’t know if Kent found them or remade them some way, but somehow, that crisis was averted. [Laughs]
But yeah, it was pretty organic. It took us a while to decide things. I don’t know how long Kent had been sitting on the idea of whether or not we should do something for the 20th anniversary, but definitely, nothing would have happened if he hadn’t sent that email to be like, “Should we do this?” because we all probably would have not known what to do or how to move forward with it.
Now that the rerelease is out there, do you ever hear about younger kids showing an interest in the record? Or do you suspect there might be more interest from older fans who maybe didn’t get a copy the first time around?
In terms of who’s buying the 20th anniversary version?
Yeah, just in general.
That’s a good question. I mean, I guess it’s hard for me to know. I know that Kent has sold, not like a million of them but, you know, at least a decent amount. Someone’s buying them. I know that some of my friends or people I know picked it up. [Some people] seem to pick it up as a second copy, which I’m impressed by their enthusiasm for it, and that’s cool, but I’m not sure. I assume it’s mainly people who didn’t get it before, haven’t come across it in the record store or something, who are buying it, but the record, at least when we were around and years after, I felt like it was pretty commonly available and, certainly, even at the time, Ebullition was still doing mail order, which they don’t really do now. So, I’d be hard-pressed to think that there was someone who really wanted it then but just couldn’t get it, although I think that I also had a friend or someone say that they have lost their copy or maybe had purged a bunch records and sold it at some point but picked this up now or something.
So, yeah, it appeals to a wide variety of the record-buying public, I’m sure. [Laughs]
Is there anything else about Chaos Is Me or about Orchid that you want to share or anything that’s interesting about the record that wasn’t touched on?
Sure. I mean, I think one interesting thing that you brought up at the beginning is viewing these things through hindsight. It’s interesting, you know—at that time or even years after, we wouldn’t have necessarily assumed that we’d be here reissuing the record and talking about it. It’s just interesting what history chooses to remember or not.
I’m trying to think of other interesting details. We did a tour cover, because the regular cover wasn’t ready when we went on tour for the summer that it came out, and we finished up the insert while we were on tour in California. The photo in the insert of us playing is actually from that tour, taken by [graphic artist] Brian [Roettinger] who did Handheld Heart; he took that photo. We just got a bunch of disposable cameras, developed all the film the next day and then, I think the very next day, basically gave the completed insert to Kent, because we were seeing him. I think that’s kind of neat—at least historically, to me, that photo is very much involved in that tour and the release of that record by being actually from the tour.
I think the rest of the layout we did at a Kinko’s in California. I think Jay already had a lot of it prepared, but we definitely finalized [the insert] while on tour.
The limited-edition 20th anniversary reissue of Chaos Is Me is available now.