Interview: Justin Smith of Graf Orlock on 20 Years as a Band

Whether you’re involved in the grind scene or not, there is a pretty fair chance you’ve heard the name Graf Orlock before. Over their 20 years as a group, they’ve played in nearly 40 countries, created some of the wildest physical media packaging possible, generated a subgenre titled “cinemagrind” with their movie sample and script-based lyrical composition, and held an uncompromising vision and seriousness about their music and subject matter.

On June 23, they’re releasing their final EP, End Credits, through their own Vitriol Records. It’s a no-holds-barred grind masterclass with five absolutely crushing tracks featuring samples from Dredd, Waterworld, Snowpiercer, Children of Men, and Mad Max. After it releases, the band has a few farewell shows planned and then the end of Graf Orlock as we know it is coming. We here at New Noise had the immense pleasure of talking to Justin Smith, their guitarist/vocalist/label head/generally awesome person, about the past of the band, the decision to call it off, and the future of life beyond it.

Just a fair warning, the interview is lengthy. Justin’s a great conversationalist and 20 years offers a lot of stuff to talk about. You can find pre-orders for the final EP, End Credits, digitally here and physically here, as well as at the bottom of the article.

So, let’s start by reminiscing. Looking back on the past 20 years of this band, what do you think Graf Orlock has done for you as a creative and an individual?

Well, I mean, it wasn’t the first band I was in or the last I suppose. The drummer and I had been playing together for a while beforehand. The dynamic of the band is different, I think, than people think it is because there is a tendency to think it is a gimmick or a joke but really it is so ingrained into what the band became. The movie thing, at first, wasn’t the idea but it became the idea. At a distance, it’s easier for people to say, “Oh, they’re alright for a joke band” but then when they see us they find out that we’re absolutely not a joke band. We’re incredibly serious about the thing people think is a joke.

To actually answer your question: The band started at the very end of 2003, but we had played in another band together. At the time, several months before that, we had broken up a band that was more of like a Swedish melodic style right before everyone got into that so we kind of shit the bed on that. But, really, we wanted to do something that really had no parameters and was anti-melodic so it was very brutal and that’s what it started as.

Eventually, my need as I guess a creator, which I don’t really like to call myself that, or a creative person, led me to start one of the other bands I’m still in a year or two later, which is more melodic, so Graf Orlock didn’t have to do that. Graf Orlock offered a lot of art and creativity in the image that goes with this stuff, shirts that are funny, anything that we wanted to do there were no parameters. Anything that we wanted to do was the band, and in that way, it was incredibly freeing.

With the samples that you use and the way you use them, Graf Orlock have been in a league of their own. When people think of sample-based music, especially when it comes to media samples, you see a lot of joke bands like xSPONGExCOREx and the like, but yours remains hefty, very conscious of the world around it, and extremely serious. How do you feel the samples lend their hand to that, and how did you manage to balance that approach for so long?

At the time, there were bands who always used samples. I remember when we started, people would always try to compare us to Killwhitneydead, and then other people would say we’re trying to rip off Pig Destroyer, but the thing that was funny about it was that the lyrics always came from the scripts of the movies, but they were twisted in a way that made them actually about something. That was the interesting part for me, because if you don’t take something far enough, then it’s just a gimmick, but if you go all the way, then it becomes something different. It becomes so involved that it has to be serious because there’s so much effort put into it.

For instance, my favorite example to share is that we have a song from our record in 2006, and we used the movie Red Dawn and took samples from that. It was written by John Millus, who wrote and directed the Conan The Barbarian movie and is a crazy right-wing gun nut guy, but if you take that stuff that’s said in this stupid Reaganite timeline with fear of the Soviet Union and all the crazy shit that was going on around the first PG-13 movie in 1984, and you take it and twist it, it becomes a critique of capitalism instead of the other way around.

That’s my favorite thing to do; even with some of the funny shirts, we would take the plot of a movie and twist it so it was a little bit different. So like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, where Kali kills Short Round and Indiana Jones instead of the other way around. The samples would be the stuff that we thought was funny, but also, with the lyrics, we would make we would balance it out in a direction where we actually have an idea about something.

With writing in cinematic cues like that, I was always curious, what was the writing process like for that? Did one person usually come forward with an idea for twisting quotes, or did you all work on it together? For both music and lyrics.

All the songs were always written by the drummer and I, and for the most part, except for a couple extra people here and there on a couple records, we played everything on the records too,. I would do vocals and there was another singer, and then in 2008, the other singer became Kyle, who’s been in the band since.

For a while, we would just talk about it and come up with stuff we wanted to use. There’d be different times on different records where we would try to switch it up a little bit because Adam, the drummer, lived outside of LA for more than 10 years so we had limited time to write stuff. One record that we did in 2019 we just met in North Carolina because our friend had a studio in Greensboro, and we just spent a week snowed in in January and wrote and recorded a record together.

Other times, I’ll come up with riffs or he’ll have a part, but the ideas are usually more about what the releases are about or what the design is to find out what was the stupidest thing we could do and still make it work like the Doombox or a backpack record. It’s all part of the parcel with it. There was never any one thing independent from the other ideas.

So, thinking about it that way, do you have any favorite samples or movies from your backcatalog that you just really love?

Yes, for sure. There’s a couple here. There was one record in 2016 that was supposed to be the script of what we were writing when we got kicked out of film school that’s called Crimetraveler. Half the samples we made up and had people record, well we actually made up all of them, but half of them were related to real events or related to movies, it was almost like a weird fan fiction.

On it, there’s one song called “Difficult Decisions in the Yutani Mess Hall” which is like an alien space movie song, but it’s our sample. It’s funny because it carries on the legacy of being violently anti-cop even talking about space marines in the future.

I like the Red Dawn one (“Tactical Destruction”). The Falling Down song [“Not Economically Viable”]. The Jurassic Park sample that we always play when we end sets is really funny. Those are the main ones basically. A lot of Arnold or Alien stuff tend to be my favorite ones.

My offhand favorite sample is in a really old song called “Skynet” which has Arnold from T2 where he just hangs up the phone and says, “Your foster parents are dead.”

Those are all great choices. Do you have any favorite memories from the history of the band you’d like to share not involved in the writing process?

Absolutely, we’ve done so much stupid shit. We’ve done Halloween shows where we’re all dressed up as T2 characters. We’ve done one where we were all the ex-presidents from Point Break. That’s also one of my favorite quotes, the ones from Point Break (“50 Year Storm”).

We just play in crazy places sometimes. The band has played in almost 40 countries, so playing in a villa in Indonesia, or a boat in Serbia, there are just memories of all these insane spots. The scenes are actually kind of similar to here, just in a different place. We played in a brothel in Cambodia.

I remember in 2017 we also played in Vietnam, which I had really wanted to do for a long time, and we even have a song about Vietnam that we specifically played on that tour, and the next day on the local Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon hardcore message board, the guy who ran the show said, “Last night, Graf Orlock bombed Saigon” and I was like, fuck. Things like that that come up later on in weird places always stick with me.

If you stick around long enough, you end up meeting or playing with lots of bands you liked and end up working with people and end up weaseling in and doing things that are cool as well.

That’s pretty much all I have thinking about the past, so now for the present. How does it feel gearing up for the release of End Credits and the subsequent resolution of Graf Orlock as we know it?

Probably pretty good. Well, I don’t know how the other people in the band feel to be honest. Between Adam and I, I looked in a book the other day because I have a book with a list of every show I’ve ever played, and we’ve played 600 shows or something like that over time. For me, I’ve played every single show that Graf Orlock has ever played, and I run the label. For me it is all day every day forever. 

Some people that are a little more detached from it might think it’s a cool thing to do every now and then but, for me, the band is at its core a live band and if we’re not going to play live terribly much then the world does not need a studio cienmagrind band. The band in its best articulation is live so, for me, maybe it’s OK. 

And, actually, four or five days before the 20th anniversary of the first show will be the last show so that was part of the idea. We’re gonna play some shows in LA, maybe some shows in the Bay, one show in New York in September, and then the last final show will be in December here and it’s gonna be hopefully like a Nakatomi Christmas party which will be sick.

I’m stoked about the new record, though. Seven-inch records are kinda hard these days, but pre-orders have been going really well and we recorded it live so it sounds really brutal and I like that. I’m glad that we aren’t just going out on a shitty note.

And that actually brings me to my next point. What a bang to go out on. End Credits is easily some of your best work and the live sound translates really well. It’s honestly an honor to get to receive it, regardless of the circumstances knowing it’s the end of the band.

Something interesting with it, though, is that all the songs predate COVID in their writing, but still feeling incredibly prescient to what was going to happen in the world with their apocalyptic theme. How does it feel to look at those lyrics in the present day?

We always wanted to do a Children of Men song because it’s one of my top ten favorite movies ever. Dredd we had talked about since the time it came out. It’s a funny way to talk about shitty urban theory and resource acquisition in specifically California but also the rest of the country. On top of that, we always wanted to do a Waterworld song and never did it. I have a sticker that Adam made a long time ago that says “DRY LAND IS A MYTH” and it’s like eight inches big, and people ask me about it all the time because it’s maybe confusing to them.

The stuff that we recorded in 2019, and then when the lyrics came a little bit later, it all made sense for the end. Then with the End Credits title and the burnt script image, it just went together thematically. I went back and listened to it when I did another interview last week. I’m stoked on those songs. I think they’re brutal. It’s also funny because I just jammed with one of my buddies who’s playing one of the shows, and it was the first time I had played the first song on the EP outside of recording, the Dredd one (“Mega City Blues”), and I played it, and it so much fun to play. That’s the thing, the songs are so fun to play and cathartically brutal.

I know you said that it’s more of an everyday workload for you, so would you say that was most of what brought about the decision that this would be time for the screen to cut to black and roll names?

The 20-year thing is more of the thought process. It’s especially because I still play a lot of shows, but one of the other bands I play with recently has been opening for a lot of older bands. Like, we opened for Subhumans the other day, and I think, like, “Oh, we can keep playing,” but this music is much more physical. That’s the only way to do it. So if there’s a point where we can’t do that, I would much rather have a conscious intentional ending instead of being like “oh, we just don’t play anymore.”

And in the coming year, if we’re just minimized to where we just do one tour overseas or one East Coast or West Coast every year, like last June doing a 10-day tour in Mexico, or doing Europe in 2019. I also get all the emails about the booking, so seeing any offers come through and knowing that it’s harder now because we’re located all across the country, so after a while, it gets a little bit less cool. Adam does all the art, and I run the label. He’s a graphic designer and comes up with the crazy layout and concepts for stuff, and I put it out and mail it out and together we make things happen.

I guess intentionality is the point. I wanted to say this is the end, and this is how we’re gonna do it and make it like a party and then be on our way.

What does the end of Graf Orlock mean for Vitriol then? Anything?

Well, it is the flagship band, if you will. We had done records with Level Plane before it disappeared. And the reason I started the label was because Level Plane disappeared. In summer 2009, Graf Orlock and my other band Ghostlimb were going to be doing 42 days in Europe, and we couldn’t go without records, but Level Plane had folded, but we had to have records for this thing, so I made them and that’s one and two. And now, the stuff that’s about to come out, End Credits, is 61, and the other stuff gets us to 63.

I don’t know. I think there’s so much stuff and other things going on now; there’s a lot of Graf Orlock stuff I have, and those presses don’t disappear. I think the legacy of the connection is always going to be there because it’s the main band that’s always driven the thing. All the bands that I’ve been in are together. Like my other band, Ghostlimb, which is more melodic and about history and politics and stuff. Graf Orlock was like the sledgehammer; Ghostlimb was like the stiletto. It’s just closing one part of one stylistic side of things. Otherwise, I love the band, or I wouldn’t have done it for half of my life, but I don’t want things to drag on forever.

My commentary about the day-to-day stuff. I mail stuff; I do the distro; it’s something I’m never away from, even when I’m messing with non gamstop bookies in my spare time. I don’t have distance from it, which maybe is a good thing in this case so I can objectively and unromantically think about it. If we played once a year, like a fest once or twice a year, I could say, “Yeah I can do this forever” because there’s no real investment of time, but when you’ve never gotten out of that loop, it makes sense to step away from it finally.

So, what are you gonna do with the free time now?

I have no free time. The thing that’s funny is the bass player, Rollie, is in a death metal band called Teeth. I play in a band called Sweat that’s like a rock-style band. I was in this band Dangers for a long time. I’ve been in a bunch of bands, and honestly, Graf Orlock is the band that has played the least most of the time.

The records will still exist, so I’ll still have to mail them out. The idea is that the last couple shows are to have a crazy fire sale and make sure people who didn’t get it could get it. But really I don’t think much will change in my life when it comes to time. This is like a job I don’t get paid for.

Absolutely. Well, my last question has almost nothing to do with the band. What are some of your favorite movies you’ve seen in the past few years?

John Wick. Any dude that gaks, like, 87 people for killing his puppy is good in my book. The only things I really care about are dogs; there’s even one in here.

The Finnish movie Sisu, which I think is actually the same production company as John Wick somehow, but it’s this Finnish commando dude in the early 40s in Finland and he’s chasing the Nazis out of it and it’s just so brutal. He throws a landmine in a guy’s head, doesn’t say anything in the whole movie either it’s sick.

Another one I enjoyed, contrary to some of the mid-era Predator movies, I really liked Prey. It goes back to the 1710s. There are a bunch of movies in the interim between 1 and 2, 2 is pretty sick, 1 is one of the best movies ever made. But then you get into Alien V. Predator, and Predators with Adrien Brody which I didn’t hate, then The Predator the Shane Black movie which is funny because he was in the first Predator. It’s so self-referential that it’s ridiculous at some point, like the later Terminator movies, you know?

But Prey was cool because it took the scene in Predator 2 where Danny Glover goes into the ship and finds all the blunderbuss guns and stuff from the 18th century, it ties that back into it. The Predators come down to take out all these French trapper dudes, and it’s all from the perspective of indigenous people. There’s even a whole version of it that’s in an indigenous language.

I also thought it was really tight because the French fur trappers are the bad guys, besides the Predators of course, but they don’t even bother translating in any version any of the French. They’re so intentionally othered in the movie that there is no translation for them which is very cool and a return to some form and it was nice to focus on a woman as a protagonist.

And what movies are you excited to see come out? Robert Eggers’ Nosferatu I assume?

I gotta think about it. I’ve honestly been more on a horror TV show kick lately, like this show From. I’m halfway through season two right now. I definitely wasn’t a LOST person, which is related, but this is really sick and I hope they don’t fuck it up. They’ve kept it cool and interesting and I’m in episode 6 of the second season.

When I’m just chilling, I watch—obviously—the extended Lord of the Rings movies. I hope that’s a good enough answer.

Thank you to Justin Smith, Graf Orlock, and Vitriol Records for helping us with this interview. You can find preorders for the final EP, End Credits, digitally here and physically here. You’ll also have a few chances to see Graf Orlock later this year, if you haven’t had the chance to see them yet we highly recommend it.

July 22 – Los Angeles, CA @ Slipper Clutch
September 16 – Brooklyn, NY @ Saint Vitus
December 16 – Anaheim, CA @ Chain Reaction

Photo courtesy of Graf Orlock 

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