Interview with vocalist Mad Joe Black | By Hutch | Photos by Kyle Bergfors
Seventeen years ago, guardians of the Pennsylvania hardcore scene teamed up to create a side project without definition. As Pennsylvania bands like Krutch, Out To Win, Living Proof, and No Retreat faded, Wisdom In Chains found themselves growing stronger. Strengthened by unique music, honest lyrics, and crushing live sets, Wisdom In Chains established themselves as a top-tier band. Five full-lengths in, July 20 blessed fans with the band’s strongest material in years: Nothing in Nature Respects Weakness, out on Fast Break! Records.
Vocalist Jotham Oliver, better known as Mad Joe Black, pens lyrics that are gritty and descriptive. While there are past brash outings—like “SxE Dad” from 2009’s Everything You Know or “Nazi Head Stomp” from their 2002 self-titled debut—recently, each lyrical journey encapsulates more depth. Mad Joe’s lyrics expose vulnerability and a purity of heart, a valid striving to be a better human. His past, his parents, his youth, his missteps, his kids, his dog, his labor, and his most important attribute, his heart, are all fertile soil for harvesting challenging lyrics. In past songs like “No Smiles in the Ghetto” and “My Promise” from 2007’s Class War, “Spit It Back” from 2011’s Pocono Ghosts EP, “My Friend” from 2012’s The Missing Links, and “Resonate” from 2015’s The God Rhythm, the author of the words is appreciative, outspoken, and concerned. His voice illustrates strong advice with the title of Wisdom In Chains’ new album: Nothing in Nature Respects Weakness.
“Nothing is going to pity you. Ever. It’s a false security,” Mad Joe divulges. “You got to take responsibility for your life, your actions. If there is something you are failing at over and over, you’re the only one who can fix it.” He repeats the title with emphasis: “Nothing in Nature Respects Weakness.” The words launch a stark silence. “If there is somewhere where you feel weak, you are the one who has to make yourself stronger,” he asserts. “No one else. Pity and sympathy are like an anchor. Even though they feel like a cushion, I prefer things that are more motivational to things that are comforting. If I’m failing over and over, I have to take accountability.”
Mad Joe despises stagnation. Even when someone’s soothing alleviates stress, Mad Joe feels that allayment does not help solve problems. His work ethic shines through in each aspect of his demeanor.
“Like, a massage makes your muscles feel better, but heavy, rigorous exercise makes them stronger,” he continues. “One feels good; one feels awful. But which one is better for you? The one that feels awful. When you are done fixing it, you are strong, and you can handle a lot of weight, and you can run long distances. You see the results, and you feel better because you fixed it. You didn’t just sit there getting massages the whole time.”
The first two songs on the new record, “Life Lessons” and “Already Dead,” set a dark tone. Mad Joe concedes the harsh tone of the lyrics, recalling, “Yeah, I didn’t realize that but [saw it when] I stepped back. It wasn’t intentional. It was written over a long winter, residue of being stuck in the house. It was miserable outside, and there was a residue from that in my lyrics. I’m not intentionally trying to bring anyone down,” he laughs. “People can see there is a silver lining.”
This is Wisdom In Chains’ constant message: life is harsh, but when you fight and strive, there is hope.
“Already Dead” is highlighted by a bold, heavy chorus riff and a familiar voice on verse two: the intensely emotive Matt Henson of Noi!se. Nothing in Nature Respects Weakness holds a few more surprises. Expanding on their family vibe, guest appearances are stacked on this go ’round. “Someday”—from a split 7” with Madball earlier this year—boasts Freddy Madball.
“Slow Drown” features Davin Bernard, whose gruff vocals command attention. “I was a big fan of hers,” Mad Joe explains. “Her band, Kingdom, they toured like monsters in the early 2000s, all over the world. I admire when bands go 100 percent all in on the tour life. Kingdom was a cool band. I have so much respect for Davin and her bandmates.” Now, Bernard is in Eaten Alive out of Philly. “I wanted her specifically on that song,” Mad Joe adds. “I could hear her on that track. To me, that was a perfect fit.”
The song is debilitating, wrought with a sullen tone. Desperate and depressing lyrics of personal trials are spat, with Mad Joe actually singing. Bernard punches in with a caustic vocal track herself. “How long is too long? / I always want to be alone” echoes the haunting refrain. The music is heavy with a metallic breakdown. A wandering guitar line and a slight groove hit as they descend into the “quiet conquest of my soul.” Mad Joe continues with vivid descriptions of a treacherous ocean and a losing battle fought for air from the surface. It’s a tough listen but invigorating to those who relate.
Additional songs see Wisdom In Chains expand their boundaries. “Better Than I Was” explores a slower groove; “Ultimatum” and “Heart of a Champion” are fast, punky tracks spanning one minute each, extolling self-reliance. Even in Oi!, few bands reflect the working-class life and ethos as Wisdom In Chains do. “Palisade Cliffs” is tough and heavy, charging with swelling gang choruses.
The most interesting story and song on Nothing in Nature Respects Weakness is “The Boy and the Cave.” A true parable, Mad Joe elicits vivid visions of a fleeing boy. His descriptive writing paints a taut tale. Mad Joe and guitarist Richie Krutch go back and forth vocally. “You would think you’re listening to a fairy tale,” Mad Joe offers, but it’s an actual story. The three voices represent the narrator, the boy, and an “otherworldly,” ominous being in the cave. “I wanted them to have three distinct voices,” Mad Joe explains. “At first, I sang all three and just was EQing them differently, but it ended up way better with Richie. He did a really good job.” The lyric “You can’t outrun your shadow / And you can’t escape your name” is a hard line about inheriting more than genetic qualities. “There’s a lot of layers that people are going to have to dig through on quite a few songs on this album,” Mad Joe says.
The echo of family—back to “No Smiles in the Ghetto”—is a persistent imprint on Wisdom In Chains’ songs. “In many ways, I am still learning lessons,” Mad Joe shares. “Some of these things that I was taught or I grew up with are very painful still. I’m 41 years old, but it still hurts, the things I have to deal with internally. ‘The Boy and the Cave’ is about [how] you can’t run away from internal pain. You can’t run away from it. And it sucks, but you have to turn around and face it. It’s the only way. The boy ends up just running and running away and rips himself to pieces—through prickers, branches, etc. The boy physically is breaking his body to shreds. The answer is to turn around and face where you came from, but he doesn’t hear that. The end of the song wraps it up. The point of the song is in the last couple lines—that the boy refused to accept this truth.”
The sounds recorded on Nothing in Nature Respects Weakness show Wisdom In Chains’ dedication and resilience. Being working guys, Mad Joe and company took their time and recorded “over a couple months,” he says. “We did it in bits and pieces: drum tracks, waited a little bit, bass, guitar tracks. We split it up, so it wasn’t overwhelming. This record was pretty easy.” This album also sees the band return to Mountainside Studio in Tobyhanna, Pennsylvania to work with Richard Rescigno, “which is where we have recorded, I would say, 95 percent of everything I have ever recorded since I started making music in 1993,” Mad Joe says. “[Rescigno] is just an old friend at this point. We have a really good friendship with him, and he is very knowledgeable on the boards. He gives you exactly what you want.”
“Since the beginning, since the early days of our bands when we were making demos on tapes, we have never really worked with a producer,” he continues. “We’ll bounce ideas off of people. The closest we got was on The God Rhythm. Freddy [Madball] was very influential. We ran things by him to hear his ideas. I don’t know if we are too stubborn to accept a producer’s final word or if we’re just confident enough that we can put out a quality product on our own. We just did this ourselves—you know, majority rules. Everything goes through a vote in the band. I got overruled plenty of times. Everyone gets overruled by the majority. We been working together long enough to realize you can’t get hurt feelings. Everyone wants the best record. Nothing’s personal. At the end of the day, I am really happy with it. It’s a win.”
While Wisdom In Chains are a hardcore band, they never avoid culling from different sounds. On The Missing Links’ track “Top of the World,” the band featured a rap from Boston-based Special Teamz and La Coka Nostra member Slaine. There are variations from punk to metallic stuff to subtler atmospheric intros—we’ll get to “Halfway There”—to Motörhead, Misfits, and Ramones covers. They cast a wide net. “We never felt like we were in a category or we couldn’t do a certain thing,” Mad Joe says. “We never had restraints on us. People know us as that. It turns certain people off when they hear something they don’t like initially and that defines us [for them]. They think, ‘Oh, that’s a punk band or a metal band,’ instead of realizing we have many different influences. It’s nice to know that when someone has a wild idea, it’s gonna get its chance.”
Case in point, the final track on Nothing in Nature Respects Weakness, “Halfway There.” The final guest vocals appear courtesy of Angel Buckley on a very orchestrated track. Slow and layered with a simmering rock tone, the song delves into extreme sorrow and solitude while still emitting a ray of hope—“halfway there” is seen as progress. “It is a straight-up Ozzy Osbourne, Lita Ford rock ballad,” Mad Joe laughs, referencing the duo’s duet on 1988’s “Close My Eyes Forever.” “If we had a specific sound that we had to stick to, that song never gets made. It’s too much of a risk. But for us, we were like, ‘Let’s try to make this work.’”
“On that track is our friend is Angelique. She is a soul singer, an actual singer,” he adds. “I wanted to do a song with her. She wanted to do a song with us. It needed to be a song that showed her actual talent. I didn’t want her to be singing on a punk rock song. That would be too loud. It needed to be something to showcase her talent. It was a perfect recipe.”
Truth is heavy. Nothing in Nature Respects Weakness has a whole lot of truth, and it’s heavy in riffs and subject matter. The album bursts with vibrant sincerity and features actual songs with varied impulses and timing. Songs like “Truce” and “Duck Down Stay Down” could get any crowd into a frenzied pit, but others take cues from rock and metal while still remaining devoted to a hardcore ethos in spirit.
The cover art is also striking. The artist, Chris “Jonesy” Jones, works at Rising Wave Tattoo Studio in Scranton, and he first collaborated with the band on The God Rhythm. He is “an old friend from when I first started going to shows—a talented artist,” Mad Joe adds.
July 17 saw the premiere of the “Already Dead” music video. Mad Joe roils with energy while talking about wrapping it up two weeks prior. “There is a lot of clever editing but not a lot of editing,” he explains. “There are a lot of long, continuous shots. We got a lot of cameos in it. It came out really good.” Explaining his passion and excitement for the medium, he adds, “The whole time we’re filming, I’m thinking that I am performing—potentially—to a limitless audience. This is available to the entire Earth, if they have a computer. I am trying to appeal to a wide audience.”
“It feels like when you’re performing to a big festival crowd in Europe,” he says. “It’s another level than a hardcore show, like playing 20 shows in one show based on the amount of people. Recording a video is crazy, because billions of people have access if you can get it in their hands. It is mind-boggling. It has a different vibe when you think about where this can go.” The other aspect is not only the amount of people the video can reach but its potential to reach people all over the globe. That is the imprint of hardcore, or any subculture: the unity, from Siberia to Indonesia to the tip of Chile. “Maybe, one day, we’ll figure out how to actually get it seen by billions of people,” Mad Joe laughs. “I enjoy the challenge.”
Wisdom In Chains excited hardcore fiends at This Is Hardcore on July 28, then kicked off their European tour in August.