Interview with guitarist Gareth Smith | By Hutch
Formed in 1997, Victims have been a staple in the worldwide hardcore scene ever since.
Consistently putting out records of political and social rebellion, these Swedes mastered the vibe and assault of classic d-beat punk in the vein of Discharge, Disfear, Tragedy, and From Ashes Rise, with whom they released a monumental split LP in 2003 via Havoc Records. The music on their following two albums, 2004’s …In Blood and 2006’s Divide and Conquer, also on Havoc, were crusty charged punk.
However, as they evolved—especially on their last two albums, 2011’s A Dissident and 2016’s Sirens, both on Tankcrimes—they have adapted and added more atmosphere and mood to the music. Metallic miasma envelops each track’s sludgy riffs. The lyrics’ messages condemning the world’s ills are filtered through tear gas clouds.
Victims returned on June 28 with The Horse and Sparrow Theory, now with a well-earned slot on Relapse Records’ roster.
The Horse and Sparrow Theory harnesses the frustration and vindication felt by Victims when peering upon the world’s weighted economic landscape. Vitriol-soaked lyrics shone through an astute lens are placed amid a chaotic, caustic musical foundation. Again, atmosphere rivals the riffs for the spotlight. The album is an experience, not simply a collection of eight tracks.
Obviously, Victims have had 22 years of writing to hone their message and sonic treachery, but with producer Karl Daniel Lidén—who has worked with the likes of Katatonia, Bloodbath, and Craft—and Relapse behind them, the execution is elevated.
Guitarist Gareth Smith agrees, “Yeah, KD has worked with a lot of metal bands, but he has a long and varied history. How I know KD is originally as the drummer in the great stoner rock band Dozer, but the records that KD produced that really turned us on to him, as far as thinking of him as a producer for Victims, was his work with the great Swedish minimalistic band Switchblade. The atmosphere that exists on the albums he made with them was exactly what we were looking for on this album, and I’m glad to say that’s exactly what we got. Then, that he was a pleasure to work with was also a very important element for us. He’s very easygoing, very hardworking, and not afraid to tell you his opinion—and, of course, a great studio technician.”
Smith is also genuinely humbled by the opportunity to have Relapse Records backing Victims’ new material.
“It feels good! It kinda came as a bit of a surprise,” he states. “We have always worked with great labels in the past, and we usually take it on a record-by-record basis. We aren’t that interested in looking for a big contract over many records; we just want to work with people we respect who we feel we can trust. Jon [Lindqvist], our other guitarist, worked with Relapse with Nasum, and a couple of the guys have been into Victims since way back, so it felt very relaxed starting up with Relapse. They seem super psyched about the record, so we don’t feel any pressure.”
Tension boils beneath the surface of The Horse and Sparrow Theory as taut chords and feedback signal a foreboding impact—not unlike the demonic threat of climate change. Relapse afforded Victims the time and the chance to delve into the proper environment to formulate a stunningly sullen and seismic album.
“Well, of course, Relapse are a big label as far as our particular subculture goes,” Smith responds, “and they’ve traditionally released a lot of grind and metal stuff. Although, they have released our good friends Disfear and other punk stuff, but I think being with them will open up Victims to a bit of a different crowd. Then, of course, they have a whole other power of distribution than a lot of DIY labels we’ve worked with. But yeah, when I was a younger kid, I went through a phase of buying up Relapse albums. Most of us did, so it feels pretty fucking cool to have a Victims album with that Relapse logo on the back of it.”
Inserted in the middle of The Horse and Sparrow Theory is a jarring track, “We Fail,” which features a sample from speaker Brigadier General Stephen A. Cheney taken from an episode of The Swedish Institute of Internal Affairs’ “The UI Podcast” entitled “The Climate Change and Security – Nexus.” Chilling facts are spoken over a dust storm of stinging and sobering tones. Here, the impact of the States’ current administration denying climate change and retracting any legislative progress the country has made is felt.
“Well, for about the first six months of Trump’s presidency, I woke up every morning and morbidly read the news on my phone,” Smith admits. “[I’d] just kind of lay in bed reading The New York Times on my phone, panicking. I mean, I have a young daughter, so I panic about everything I guess, but I remember that, along with Brexit and the huge wave of right-wing populism in Europe and around the world, just leaving me fucking terrified. Then, I just kind of had to turn it off. Of course, the U.S. has been the dominating force in the world since the end of World War II, and your government has been doing a lot of fucked-up shit in many parts of the world in the name of spreading ‘democracy’—although, the U.S. government certainly isn’t alone in that—but the moment that really felt like we are heading into something very fucking scary was when Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris [Agreement]. It was like he was clearly stating, ‘I’m rich, I’m old and gonna die soon, and I don’t give a fuck what happens to the future generations of poor [people]. My kids will be OK.’”
“It’s pretty much the inspiration for the concept of our new album in a nutshell,” he continues. “When I came across Stephen’s lecture, I was out walking my dog in the woods, just listening to the podcast. It struck an incredible, poignant message from a totally different perspective from where I’m coming from, military [and] defensive, but nonetheless, completely interlinked. I knew from the second I heard it I wanted to use it on ‘We Fail.’”
With this wave of right-wing and nationalistic ideologies and legislation comes a frightening assault on change—specifically, an assault on attempts to harness new alternative energy sources. The rollbacks of regulation on corporations and industry will impact this delicate Earth beyond repair. With The Horse and Sparrow Theory, Victims are using their voice to impress the urgency of these situations upon listeners. Climate change seems to be at the base of each of society’s decisions now across the spectrum—industrial, political, etc.—and it needs to be.
“What I see, which I guess is at least some cause for hope,” Smith comments, “is that thanks to people like [Swedish activist] Greta Thunberg and [U.S. Representative] Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Al Gore before them, climate change is, at last, firmly on the political agenda, even if it is been fiercely fought by the corporate greed of the Conservative Right. I think the real changes will only arrive, though, through capitalist means. Green energy will only become truly dominant when corporations and lobbyists see that fossil fuels simply can’t compete financially with renewables. I just hope it isn’t too late by then. It could well be.”
Smith addresses Sweden’s view on climate change, which delivers some hope, noting, “To be fair, Sweden is one of the greenest countries on the planet. In fact, I think it’s the fourth greenest. The population as a whole is very climate-aware, as is the government. That’s not to say it couldn’t be better and that the government doesn’t bend to corporate will—and we have far-right populists here too who are taking the denial route and gaining a lot of support. Although, that’s probably more based on their anti-immigration policies, to be honest.”
“As far as most Swedes go—of which we, ourselves, are included—there is a kind of cognitive dissonance connected to our lifestyles,” he confesses. “We are very climate-aware. We take many personal initiatives like recycling, biking to work, and eating non-animal-[source] foods. Our electricity is over 50 percent non-fossil-sourced—but we are a small, progressive nation at the far north of Europe with a cold climate, and we do a lot of traveling on airplanes to other countries for business and leisure purposes, which plays on the conscience of a lot of people. But hey, at least we have an actual term for it here: ‘Flight Shame.’ I guess that concept doesn’t even exist in a lot of places. So, maybe that’s a start.”
Cynicism is becoming harder to distinguish from simply being realistic. The evidence and predictions of climate change’s impact are damning and scary. Victims scream and create foreboding tracks in order to vent and warn.
Smith reacts to thoughts of hope among greedy and selfish humans by saying, “Well, that is the basis of what we’re talking about on the album. We, in privileged Western societies, are too greedy, too selfish to sacrifice the luxurious lifestyles we lead. The quality of life in Sweden, for example, has made huge jumps just over a generation or two. At the start of the 20th century, Sweden was one of the poorest countries in Europe. Two generations later, we have amongst the highest standard of living in the world. People don’t want to give that shit up, even if they are terrified of what the changing climate will do to the planet that our kids and grandkids are going to inherit from us. It’s still almost too abstract to even get your head around and, so, easier to pretend it isn’t happening. That won’t be possible for much longer, though.”
“I’m an optimist, though,” he clarifies. “I think we are going to turn things around. Unfortunately, I think it will have to get quite a lot worse before we are forced—truly forced—into changing things.”
Breaking down The Horse and Sparrow Theory’s title, Smith dismantles the ignorant claims that have propelled U.S. economics since Reagan first spouted the erroneous theory’s attributes.
“It’s a metaphor for an economic theory based on trickle-down economics,” he explains. “It’s based on a class structure, where the richest are given free rein to consume and plunder with very little tax limitations—the thought being that the rich consuming goods that the poor produce will stimulate the lower rungs of society.”
“The thought being,” Smith elaborates, “that the horse being allowed to eat all the oats it wants will do so at such a rate that some of those oats won’t have time to digest and will be excreted whole, leaving oats for the sparrows to pick from. The only problem being the sparrows still have to sift through the horse’s shit to feed themselves. That’s pretty much how I see global class society functioning today.”
Photo by Mia Moellberg