Interview with Great Reversals drummer Eric Scobie and vocalist Aaron Whitfield
By Hutch | Photo by Dan Gonyea
As odd as it may sound, it is refreshing to hear heavy, angry hardcore that isn’t tough guy and doesn’t allow the music to stray too far into melodic territory. Michigan’s Great Reversals wear their unabashed influences on their sleeves, but those influences are unique in hardcore, therefore giving the band room to create their own signature sound. Drawing from Trial, Bane, and others like Indecision, Unbroken, Damnation A.D., Coalition, and Turmoil, Great Reversals reignite that metallic, passionate hardcore that often gets lost today’s landscape, where sweeping, grandiose melodic hardcore reigns supreme. Though they’re all great in their own right, tough guy will always be recycled, thrashy to grind is still big, and old school 81 style or 88 youth crew will always be repeatedly revived, while this style falls by the wayside. Man, it’s good to hear it.
Drummer Eric Scobie echoes these observations. “When we started, the idea was just to play pretty standard ‘90s influenced hardcore, which is certainly reflected on our demo,” he explains. “From there, we’ve tried to incorporate more melody and even the slightest post-rock influences into our stuff. I’d say it’s a mixture of intentionality and inevitability.”
Great Reversals’ Mere Mortals—released May 9 via State Of Mind Recordings, Bitter Melody Records, and Hydrogen Man Records—is heavy, but played by musicians who craft songs that utilize dynamic approaches while staying brutal. The harsh guitars, crashing into varied tempos of drums, are then mixed with declarative basslines full an incendiary brand of metallic hardcore. But again, Great Reversals still bring in ideas of their own. “Colosseum” starts with a fierce tight and fast riff, calling on Trial and One King Down, but quickly establishes its own identity. The breakdown halfway through “Gutted” is a monster. Contrasting that, the mid album instrumental, “The Stairwell,” is a broad melodic piece with an unsettling foundation.
Scobie continues, “I think we all feel that so much of hardcore is incredibly derivative and paint by the numbers, so we’ve always wanted to try to put our own stamp on things. Don’t get me wrong, our influences will be pretty obvious to most people, but rather than just be a carbon copy, we’ve tried to add some new wrinkles here and there to make it our own. At the same time, we all appreciate a fairly broad spectrum of music, so it’s inevitable that different influences will creep in.”
Vocalist Aaron Whitfield conveys fiery lyrics that harvest some painful observations. His take on ‘90s hardcore reflects the super personal and emotional lyrics of their forebears, but Whitfield isn’t rehashing old clichés, he is quickly defining his own new voice. “As Great Reversals were coming together, a few of us were already in our mid-to-late 20s and had grown up in the ‘90s hardcore scene,” he says. “So, the sound—and the fact that it seemed there was a renewed desire for that sound—was a natural fit. In terms of our aesthetic, we’ve always tried to write and portray exactly who we are. None of us grew up the hard way, so to speak. So, embracing an aggressive sound with the reality that such a sound doesn’t necessarily reflect the ways we live or who we are as individuals has always been an interesting dichotomy.”
“In our six years playing shows, I’ve done one mosh-call, and boy, did it feel goofy!” he continues. “That’s just not our thing. I’d rather present an idea or a recent event reflection for a few awkwardly quiet moments in our set. But, we’ve all had struggles and know how heavy life can feel at times. Bands like Hopesfall or Taken, with their gut-wrenching crescendos and heartstring-tugging melodies, have also resonated with us. Naturally, as we tackle lyrical content that reflects the heaviest moments in our lives, our sound has shifted a bit with those themes.”
On Mere Mortals, Whitfield pushed himself to explore different perspectives and approaches in his lyrics. “Mere Mortals has a different intention lyrically than previous releases,” he explains. “In the past, I’ve tended toward broader spectrum sorts of questions, utilizing in many songs the word “we,” almost as though I was trying to be a voice for all or ask questions that I think apply to all people. This time around, I tried to zero in on specific experiences—either mine, or fictionalized accounts from the perspectives of those whom I’ve crossed paths with that I thought worthy to write about—all in first person.”
On the song “Swallowing Sand,” listeners can hear Whitfield explain the process of dismantling his own perspective when analyzing how outside forces impact him. The song then turns into a conversation, with Whitfield pleading with his antagonist. Of the album as a whole, Whitfield reveals, “It’s a personal lesson in empathy, which is something that I think can slip away a bit with aging. In the past few years, I’ve made a concerted effort to give more benefit of the doubt to people, something that my zealous 20s tried to squelch. Compassion has changed for me with time. I’d like to think that some of the perspectives in these songs are a bit of my certainly older and slightly wiser attempt at compassion toward the inner workings of others.”
On Mere Mortals, Great Reversals worked in the studio with Andy Nelson and Brad Boatright, two of the strongest stamps of quality in heavy music. What they extract from bands is consistently impressive. The band’s last recording session, for the Natural Burial 7” and their split 7” with Sunlight Ascending, was also helmed by Nelson. Scobie admits, “The recording process can be very stressful and awkward, especially sometimes when things are not going well or you’re struggling to really nail a part.” He notes that Nelson’s prior experience with Great Reversals helped ease those stressors. “He definitely understood the kind of sound we wanted to achieve,” Scobie says. “We already had some rapport with him. It was nice to enter the process this time with a certain level of comfort with Andy. He totally knows his shit and has an awesome setup. You know the sound will be top-notch. At the same time, he’s just really hilarious and down to earth. The last session, we just spent three days; this time, we were there for six. We felt like we had time to really get things right.”
Whitfield felt that stress more acutely due to having to write lyrics at the last minute. “While much of the music, or versions of it, had been done for quite some time, I was scrambling a bit at the end lyrically,” he reveals. However, his final products flow with the songs perfectly, perhaps because they were gestating as the songs took form, a symbiotic complement. “I managed to have everything written before entering the studio,” he says. “I laid the words to several of the songs in the studio, whispering cadences with headphones on in the hours before everyone awoke.” Whitfield also praises Nelson, adding, “The one thing I’ve learned is that you really have to be a music nerd to be able to do what he does. He knows the language, technique, and how to translate our befuddled, uneducated requests.”
Michigan has long been a source of negative news reports. Detroit’s mass exodus was unprecedented, and the governing entities deliberate poisoning of Flint residents has appalled a discouraged country. Scobie was honest about his thoughts on these neighboring counties. “Thankfully, we have been lucky enough to not be dealing with the recent tragedy in Flint, which is absolutely heartbreaking and completely unbelievable,” he says. “We all live in the suburbs of Detroit, and the region as a whole is, in many ways, a study in contrasts, with a lot of racial and economic segregation.”
“I spent almost a decade teaching at the public schools in Detroit,” he continues, “and, for the last six years, have been teaching in a small suburb called Novi. The differences between the school systems are just so vast. Students and teachers in Detroit Public, for the most part, lack even basic resources. Whereas the district I’m in now has stuff I would have never even dreamed of back when I was in the city. Because of that, I think issues of inequality are often at the forefront of my mind. More broadly, I think the situations in Flint and Detroit illustrate that those in power often see people as disposable or not worthy of attention, particularly if they are poor, Black, or Brown. Even more broadly, I think living in this area reinforces the notion that life is so fragile. It’s important to be humble and try to take care of the people around you.”
That aspect of Scobie’s life sheds some light on many of the components of Great Reversal’s music. His compassion and frustration forge a confrontational and aggressive sound that balances with the band’s desperate and intense subject matter.
The Detroit hardcore scene has a reputation for extremes as well. Whether it is the metal influence, diets, political views, or extreme violence, the scene is legendary. Continuing from the godfathers of misanthropy, Negative Approach, bands such as xTYRANTx, Walls Of Jericho, Earthmover, and the embodiment of Detroit, Cold As Life, prove that the Motor City is often callous and fierce. Donning the “Detroit Hardcore” label can garner instant reverence in the “Murder Mitten,” but Great Reversals stay true to themselves by simply using “Michigan Hardcore” as their title. Scobie elaborates, “It’s kind of funny, because a lot of bands call themselves ‘Detroit Hardcore,’ I think to somehow attach themselves to this tough image Detroit has. The simple fact is that 90 percent of the bands that use that label are kids from the suburbs.”
He continues, “In terms of the punk and hardcore scene, it’s weird, because there are a lot of different pockets here that often seem to coexist separately. I guess we’ve tried to carve out our own little niche of friends and bands that have a similar understanding of punk and hardcore. The cool part about that is, sonically, there’s a lot of diversity. In terms of a common sense of ethics, that’s there. I think we’d all agree that the best thing happening in Detroit’s DIY scene at the moment is this space called The Sanctuary. It is run by our friend, Maxxwell Lange. He is a dude who arrived here a few years ago from Iowa on some ‘if you build it, they will come’ type shit. He has basically put the scene here on his back. The guy works fucking tirelessly and is an inspiration to pretty much everybody.”
After listening to Mere Mortals repeatedly, especially elder hardcore fans will likely find it refreshing to hear something so honest and emotional while still being harsh and vicious. There is no profound posturing, no soundscapes of open strings meant to elevate. Yet, there is actual songwriting here that goes beyond a few chords. Thought and passion fuel this band with a purpose. The foundation of bands like Trial, Bane, One King Down, and Strife, bands who shook the 1990s’ definition of hardcore, come across as nostalgic but new in 2016. Great Reversals can make it angry and heavy with being tough guy generic.
“Well, ideally, our listeners might take away the sense that something old can sound new,” Whitfield says of Great Reversals reverent approach, “that sentiments as old as humanity itself can still carry weight and register in hearts, that doing something for sheer pleasure has value in and of itself, because we do this for ourselves. As long as we’re still friends and are still inclined to bang our heads to riffs we think are sweet, I don’t see why we wouldn’t keep writing them.”