Interview: Jeromes Dream and ‘Gray’ Remind Us What ‘Hardcore’ Really Means

It’s tough to strike gold with a comeback album. It’s even tougher to strike gold with the album after that.

Lo and behold, Jeromes Dream achieved the seemingly impossible with The Gray in Between (Iodine), the recently released successor to their reunion record, which was simply called LP. In retrospect, it looks like the 2019 album—the first by Jeromes Dream in 18 years—was a warm-up for The Gray in Between.

Vocalist/bassist Jeff Smith and drummer Erik Ratensperger sound younger and hungrier than when they originally played in the late ‘90s. (Also in the fold is new guitarist Sean Leary, who replaced co-founder Nick Antonopoulos.) Excelling equally in songwriting and production, The Gray in Between already deserves to be included in album-of-the-year conversations.

We caught up with Smith and Ratensperger ahead of their much-anticipated performance at Oblivion Access in Austin over the weekend. They played nice and touched all the bases for us in a freewheeling conversation that equally entertaining and insightful.

Hey guys. Before we dive into the new record, I’m curious about that supposedly three-hour phone call you shared before deciding to reunite. What did you discuss?

Erik: Ah, the phone call. So, the first iteration of the band was together from ’97 to 2001. From 2001 to 2017, there was very sporadic communication. Jeff and I kept in touch more than the both of us kept in touch with Nick.

Fast forward to 2017, which was marking the 20th anniversary of our having started this band. I said, “Jeff, what do you think about tracking down Nick an … getting on a phone call (and waxing) nostalgic for an hour about what we had done when we were kids?” So, we got on the phone together for the first time in many years, and one thing led to another. In our (phone) conversation, that’s where my wheels started turning about what it would be like to maybe get back in a room together after so long and to see what would happen.

At the time, I was living in Los Angeles; Jeff was living in San Francisco, and Nick was still in Connecticut—where we grew up. We were dispersed, so the idea of actually getting in the room was kind of a pipe dream. But after the phone call, because I’m kind of insane, I [thought to myself], “I’m going to manifest this; I’m going to make it happen.”

Before everyone knew it, we were planning to make a new record. Subsequently, we ended up playing, like, 60 shows or something in one year. It was a wild, sort of extreme way to come back. But that’s how we’ve always operated as a band. And so when we did do it, I think we realized that (playing in a band together) was such an important part of our lives as kids. And we realized that as adults, it is almost just as important—if not more important now—to tap back into the basic principles of creativity and punk rock. (They) always serve as a platform to be fully immersed in something at its truest form of expression.

Jeff: You touch(ed) on family… I left my job in education. After seven years, I had to leave it. And I had to leave my family. I didn’t really know what that would be like. My son was 3 and a half when we first started touring (for the reunion) in 2019. It was tough, being away from him and my wife, and it’s hard for her to take care of him on her own and do all the stuff that she needs to do and work. So there were a lot of challenges (to re-forming). But we adapted because, like Erik said, (Jeromes Dream coming back is) really, really important. It’s baked into our DNA. It’s who we are. So we gotta do it.

Isn’t it strange how you can get much older and say, “I really would still enjoy doing some of the things I did in my youth. It wasn’t just child’s play. It was really important to me, and I want to maintain it through my whole life.”

Erik: Totally. When you’re young, and you’re exposed to certain things—whether it’s skateboard culture, graffiti culture, punk rock, hardcore… When you’re 15 years old, you’re absorbing everything around you. And when you’re surrounded by like-minded kids or kids who are into similar things, it builds the world around you. And because you’re so young, it’s incredibly formative.

When we tapped back into that frame of mind, after living a lifetime, it was a nice surprise to feel that all the stuff that happened when we were kids, there’s still such a relevance to it. And having such a deep history and unique experiences shared together, as friends and as a band, to carry that through your life and to still have that in your 40s, with the same people…

Nick, who played guitar on all of our older stuff, he’s no longer playing with us. That revealed (Jeromes Dream was able to) change, evolve. Sometimes people have to go other ways, which is fine; you have to have acceptance of that.

But Jeff and I, we’ve always been very rooted in (the band). We’ve always shared the appreciation together. When we were kids, we would sit in a room for hours just listening to records on repeat. Jeff would discover something, like, “Dude, you gotta listen to this.” The Appleseed Cast, Piebald, maybe some bands that no one has heard of. These were moments in our discovery of music that kind of blew the lid off what we thought we could create and what we could do with it.

Some bands are getting back together just because they need the paycheck. They’re not growing their sound so much; they just gotta play shows to pay the bills. Your reunion story sounds like the polar opposite.

Erik: We were quick to be judged upon our return. And some people were like, “Oh, fuck, these guys? It’s a cash grab.” It’s like, “Are you fucking kidding me? This is, like, hardcore.” If we wanted to make money, if that was the sole motivator, we wouldn’t be playing punk rock music. We would try to be session guys for Katy Perry or someone. But that’s not what this is about. This is about this is about art. This is about creativity. This is about collaboration with friends. That’s where our principles are rooted.

We are so grateful that we’ve been welcomed with open arms upon our return, especially having made this record (The Gray in Between). The response so far—and it’s only been out for a week—has been incredibly overwhelming. We had no idea that it was going to do what it’s doing. It means a lot to us because we just made the thing that we felt like we need to make, and now it’s being reflected back by other people in music, like yourself.

How gratifying was it to get an album crowdfunded?

Erik: It was a wild. For one, no other punk band really had done that. We fulfilled the goal in 48 hours or something. That was a signal to us that people actually still gave a shit. But of course, there were, there are, people who judged it and were like, “Oh, they’re raising all this money.” It’s like, “Well, we’re putting out an album; we’re pressing a record ourselves. We’re printing our own merch. We’re fulfilling orders. We’re trying to go on tour.” It’s incredible how quick people are to try and tear you down for doing something.

But that quickly dissipated when we started touring. That shut people up, because they saw that we were for real. We weren’t just taking the money, making an album, and then disappearing for another 20 years. We made an album (LP), used that as a springboard to get on the road, played the shit out of our music—and then the pandemic hit.

The Gray in Between seems to have a bit of a different sound than some of your earlier work—more bottom-heaviness and but also an immediacy that wasn’t on LP so much. Was Sean responsible for the change in your sound?

Erik: I think it’s a combination of things. Making this record during the pandemic infused a feeling of immediacy and urgency. There was also a sense of isolation in making it because we were in a very unknown world at the time. All we wanted to do was just get in a room and play music. And that’s what we did: We got in a rehearsal space once, sometimes twice a week. That organically ended up becoming writing sessions, (and) we started making new music.

Initially, Sean was joining to accompany Nick. But the band ended up just being myself, Jeff, and Sean. With that, and the three of us being in the Bay Area, the fact that we were playing every single week together… that infused into what became the songs. This collaborative intention, and this new chapter, and making it during a very volatile and unpredictable time, contributed to the overall feel and urgency of the record.

Jeff: If you read (the lyrics,) you can see that I’ve gone through some stuff and other people are going through some stuff, and I’m interpreting what that might be like for them. Hard as it was for me to go to that headspace, it was completely necessary. (Like) Erik, I needed to have some kind of outlet to let the feelings, thoughts and anxieties I was having come out. I would spend a couple hours every day in that headspace. I’d bring my kid to school, and I’d come home, and then I would just be in that darkness. That was pretty challenging—but super cathartic.

Erik: (The Gray in Between) really started to take shape (after) we had a few songs in the bag. In the past, Jeff has written kind of in an esoteric nature. His lyrics are both personal but also reflective of the world at large. We’ve never really had that before in this band.

Which aspect of being a band is most effective as an anxiety reducer? The writing stage? Completing an album? Playing live? Or are they all equally effective?

Erik: For me, it’s the execution of playing. It’s stressful in the writing phase but nice when all of that work is done. And then you can immerse yourself in a thing that you made. Especially as a drummer, I love the physical action of beating the shit out of my drums.

Jeff: For me, the writing is the part I look forward to—the routine of being in the space with (my bandmates) gives me something to look forward to during the week, between the day-to-day, the fam, and the job.

Erik, I’ve seen you mention “the shape of the sound” of Jeromes Dream. How do you feel like your music has changed shape this time around?

Erik: (The Gray in Between) has this nuanced merging of chaotic energy and chaotic expression applied to mindfulness and intentionality towards the craft of songwriting. I would come up with these blueprints and show ’em to Jeff and Sean, and they’d be like, “OK, that’s cool.” And then we would put the meat on the bones.

One thing that is different between The Gray in Between and previous albums was this real mindfulness (toward) songwriting. The result of applying that to this type of band was pretty satisfying. We put (our sound) to an architecture of songwriting that made it a little more receivable by people who might not be familiar with hardcore or screamo or whatever. I’m not saying we wrote pop songs, ‘cause these are anything but fucking pop songs, but the songwriting definitely had more intentionality behind it than ever before.

In closing, do you think your sense of humility is responsible at least in part for how well things are going for you?

Erik: Yes. Having humility in general is always an important thing, but I think it’s more important than ever to remind yourself that you’re not the only one on this planet, and your way isn’t the only way. And that you need to be grateful for what you got, who you have around you, and what you’re able to do. ‘Cause there’s a lot of people who fucking don’t even have clean water. People are getting bombed, and people are getting shot, and people don’t have a roof over their head. The list goes on. 

We certainly don’t take this for granted. We don’t take talking to awesome people like you for granted. We don’t take our abilities to keep doing this in our 40s for granted. We don’t take the fact that people are listening or people are going to shows for granted.

Photo courtesy of Jeromes Dream

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