Rock My World caught up with Hell is For Heroes frontman Justin Schlosberg ahead of his debut solo EP release due out in May. The UK rockers who rose to prominence in the early 00’s have been a bit sporadic in terms of touring in recent years, but last year featured at Download and a full UK tour.
We talk about musicianship, the industry and the state of the media and what led him back into the studio after such a long time away from music.
Mike: Hi Justin, how’s it going?”
Justin: “Pretty good.”
Mike: “Good stuff. Since the bands long “hiatus” period, (excluding the anniversary tours and a download appearance) what have you been up to? Aside from the solo EP, I hear you have a few books out?
Justin: “Yeah, so, I guess after the band was sort of grinding to a halt, largely due to endless touring taking its toll on mental and physical health, I realised that I didn’t really have much on my CV to get a foot in the door of any job.
So, I ended up going back to school to do my Masters and my PhD and really just got into researching and writing about issues to do with media power.
Particularly with media ownership and gatekeeping power and propaganda and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since really. I written a couple of books on it. It does draw on some of the themes and issues that I was conscious of and active on during the band but other than that it’s a bit of a different world and I didn’t really have much, you know other than, as you mentioned, a couple of tours that we’ve done as the band since, I haven’t really had any designs on getting back into music really. I never really saw myself as a musician actually, as such, more as a kind of performer really.
But, sort of accidentally, I got some songs started popping into my head and I felt like I needed to get them out.”
Mike: “Haha, that’s kind of jumped over my next question, which was what got you back into the studio again? I guess you kind of covered that one.
Justin: “It’s also just a change of life, isn’t it? Things have kind of happened that just change your perspective on things and, you know, I’ve also felt a lot like I’ve become embroiled in politics in my day job and, you know, it’s such a time of toxic, combative politics that it’s easy to sort of forget the things that really are important. And I’ve got two little kids and, in a way, writing these songs, recording these songs it was kind of an escape, an escape back to reality if that makes sense. Escape from the very illusory world of politics and careers and the rat race, particularly it is so easy to get seduced by and caught up in in London.”
Mike: “I completely understand where you’re coming from there and I’m sure a lot of the readers will as well, and especially when we start looking at the, like you said, combative nature of politics and then we get into how social media rewards the most extreme opinions etc. and we could end up down that rabbit hole and talking about that for days I’m sure. But, obviously we’re primarily a music publication, but if you want to give your books a quick plug though I’m sure there will be more than one or two of the readers that would be interested in them especially in today’s climate.”
Justin: “I have no need. I’m sure if someone is really interested I’m sure they can find them. [Laughter]”
Mike: “Fair enough, fair enough. Obviously, the pseudonym August Spies has got a little bit of a political connotation to it, is your recent work what led you to choose that name?”
Justin: “Not really, kind of like the name Hell is for Heroes, I was just attracted to it because it’s a cool sounding name. But, as it happens, the historical figure of August Spies was an interesting guy, had an interesting life, particularly the end of his life when he was executed for his part in the Mayday riots and married his wife while he was on death row. I guess I kind of imagined some sort of tragic love story along those lines. But yeah, there is nothing really especially political about the songs.”
Mike: “Yeah, so it’s the tragic love story element that has more of an appeal?”
Justin: “Yeah, I think so. I have always been kind of interested in tragic romance, black romantic comedy, that kind of stuff in films, you know, films like Leaving Las Vegas. To a certain extent that resonates with me musically as well increasingly. Obviously, I’m also influenced by artists like Johnny Cash, Kat Power, Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, all of that slightly dark, bitter and twisted, love songs.”
Mike: “Now, in the context of the new single off the debut EP, that list makes a fair bit more sense than it would to people who have only heard the old Hell is for Heroes stuff. That’s a lot more of an aggressive, post-hardcore style of vocal, which is guess what you are known for. Is this the sort of music you’ve always wanted to make? Or do you think your tastes have matured as you’ve gotten older?”
Justin: “It certainly feels more age appropriate. They are definitely the kind of songs that I could imagine myself comfortably singing for many years to come. I’m definitely not pushing my range or stretching myself vocally in any way. But, it’s funny you should say that because one of the songs was actually, at least the bare bones of it, written when I was, I think I must have been about 18 or 19 just after I left school. I never did anything with it and it just sort of came back to me in a different form.
So yeah, on the one hand I definitely think my time jumping of stages and amplifiers and drum kits is limited. Although, I was amazed, at how natural and easy it felt getting back into those shows on the bands tour last year.
But yeah, the thing is that I’m not interested in is recreating things for the sake of it. So, just because we had a small measure of success with that particular sound as band at that particular time doesn’t in any way provide any kind of motivation or inspiration to do it again. I think it’s just…to me it’s just songwriting wouldn’t be a meaningful exercise unless it kind of reflected where I am and the things that matter to me and, you know, all of that is different when you’re 41 compared to when you’re 21, you know?”
Mike: “That makes total sense and I think that you’re right, I mean it would come across in the music that it wasn’t really you if you were sort of just forcing it. I think that most people would probably agree with that. That said, does that mean that the fourth album is never going to happen?”
Justin: “Oh right, oh with the band? No because the same thing applies, you know, if we as the band can get together and start writing music that’s exciting and that feel right for who we are at this stage of life then, and just feels like we are pushing ourselves in some way and we’re not doing it for the sake of it and we’re not doing it in any kind of contrived way, then for sure. I’ve no doubt we will make another record. But for all those things to come together it’s quite a tricky thing.”
Mike: “Yeah, and I guess everyone else also has things going on.”
Justin: “Yeah. And there is absolutely no guarantees. We were never a particularly prolific songwriting band. In fact, we were extraordinarily slow and lazy and I think that part of the reason why the records do matter to some people or mean something to some people is precisely because we didn’t just make those songs for the sake of it or because we had a record deal or because we wanted a record deal. There was something a bit more to it than that and that’s the kind of thing that stands the test of time.”
Mike: “Oh yeah, there is no doubting that Hell is for Heroes still has a bit of a cult status amongst people in their early 30s that were around at that time. I don’t think is going to change and that does, like you said, say a lot about the songs. That they are still looked back at fondly and people will still play them every now and again. I think that you’re right. And it will be interesting to see if you guys do ever find the time to get together and make something that fits now that you’re a bit older, then it would be really interesting to see what came from that.
The new EP, like we’ve discussed, is obviously a very different sound, but obviously the guys that knew you back from Hell is for Heroes will also be a lot older now as well… Do you think the change in sound will capture the interest of some of the old fans?”
Justin: “Are you asking me if I think this EP will capture the interest of some of the old Hell is for Heroes fans?”
Mike: “Yeah, because I mean of course, again people are getting older and their tastes will probably have matured in many cases as well.”
Justin: “Yeah. I think there are two things really. One thing, as you say, we’ve grown up with a lot of our fans. Although, we were always surprised about the range of age groups that used to come to our shows. A lot of them were just our age, and so I think to a certain extent, yeah, we’re still, both with this EP and anything new that we do with the band [Hell is for Heroes], will still be kind of speaking to that audience. But the other thing is I don’t think people are as genre committed, or exclusively genre committed, as sometimes marketing bosses in the music industry assume they are.”
Mike: “I’m with you there, definitely.”
Justin: “I think that particularly with music that is kind of broadly alternative or not part of the mainstream, I think that people who are instinctively drawn to that kind of music do have quite eclectic tastes by nature.
Most of the people I know, most of my friends, they’ll listen to a mix. They may listen to some f**king dirty hardcore, noisy rock and also some kind of folksy stuff, they may listen to someone like Willie Nelson. People can shift actually pretty easily between genres that are sometimes radically different in sound.
And so I don’t at all, even if I was kind of chasing a fan base, which I’m not, I would never do it on the basis of, “oh I need to kind of sound like what we sounded like as a band or what other artists sound like now”, I just think that’s the wrong starting point for doing music. Because, you know, in your early 20s being in a band is the be all and end all of your life and because it’s not the be all and end all of my life now, there is a certain kind of creative freedom that comes from that and so it feels like I’m doing it more for the right reasons. If that makes sense.”
Mike: “Yeah, it’s a labor of love rather than something that needs to come out for the sake of someone else.”
Justin: “Yeah, for sure. Obviously it is kind of ego driven, not least because it is written, recorded, produced, and everything else pretty much by me. But…”
Mike: “I don’t think that’s bad thing. Show me a musician that says they have no ego and that’s not part of the drive whatsoever and I’ll show you a liar.”
Justin: “[chuckle] Yeah, I think that’s true. I think it’s better to acknowledge it than pretend otherwise.”
Mike: “Exactly, I think that’s totally fair. So, if you had to sum it up, because obviously you know I’ve personally only heard the lead single, how would you describe the rest of the tracks on the EP?”
Justin: “Love anthems for embattled souls. There is something about it that is a kind of meditative to me and, in that sense, hard to put words on it.”
Mike: “That’s a nice strapline.”
Justin: “But listen, honestly, if I’m honest they are quite poppy. They’re songs that kind of have irritating melodies that kind of stuck in my head for far too long and it’s not music rocket science, it’s pretty much just simple two note chords or three chord progressions on piano, and tried to keep the words pretty simple as well. Even more simple than the band. It feels a lot like back to basics. Bare bones stuff. If that makes sense.”
Mike: “Yeah I can see that. So, what was it like being back in the studio after such a long time out?”
Justin: “Surprisingly good actually. It was a very positive experience. I’ve always found it…with the band I found it generally quite boring, I mean, I remember this sort of joke that used to have with Tom, the guitarist from my band, when we were doing a record in LA, we had block booked it for like three months or something silly and it was just endless days of tracking drums and just listening to the…hearing the same thing, the same bass drum over and over again. We used to just like wonder around from room to room just for the sake of trying to kill time. But this was completely different obviously, for a lot of reasons. There is something really nice about, I think, about just being in a space that is all about making music. It’s different from doing it in your bedroom. I know that’s kind of where a lot of records get made these days but I think being in that space and working with people, sharing ideas is the thing that, certainly people like me, need to actually do a record instead of just thinking about it and talking about it.”
Mike: “Obviously a lot of the readers won’t have had the experience of a large block in the studio, I think the case would be for most, if they have done things, it might be in for a couple of days to do maybe one or two tracks. I know that when you’re in there for a week or more on one track that it can drag, especially when you’re in a large group and you’re waiting to do your bit basically.”
Justin: “Well yeah, that was in the band days and that was in the old days also. You know, where equipment wasn’t as digitised as it is now. Things generally took longer and also record companies just spent stupid amounts of money and wasted stupid amounts of money, particularly in our case, so I don’t that applies so much nowadays.”
Mike: “Do you think it was more interesting doing it solo? Seeing as you don’t have that dead time where your sat there, like you said, just listening to the drums go over and over again while you’ve got nothing to do?”
Justin: “Yeah, it was. It felt a lot more rewarding. When I was in the band I just used to like going on the road and doing shows to be honest with you. But this felt really satisfying because it was just the process of getting an idea out of your head and realising it and that is an incredibly rewarding thing to do. I mean the feeling that at least I got when you listen back to something and it’s pretty much how you kind of envisaged it, with all the detail, with all the nuance of the sound, the bass, the drums, the whole kind of atmosphere of the song, to be able to actually translate that onto a record is a rare privilege. I consider myself very fortunate that I had the opportunity to do that.”
Mike: “Excellent. With the release of the new EP are you planning on doing much in the way of touring with it? I know you’ve got a lot more going on now and years in the van are not of quite as much interest, but yeah, what’s planned?”
Justin: “Yeah, I don’t know man, it’s quite a challenge to sort of…it’s a giant leap to translate something in your head onto a record and then it’s another giant leap to translate something on a record into a live format. Particularly with these kind of songs because there is so much instrumentation. I’ve got violinists, I had a trumpeter on the record, I had…there is kind of a lot to it even though the songs themselves are really pretty stripped down. There are just kind of little bits here and there that make them. And so that makes its pretty challenging. And the other thing is, if I’m honest with you, I think I’ve done enough touring in vans and starting at the bottom, if that makes sense. I think if I was going to do any shows it would probably have to be…everything would have to be right, the right size venue, it would have to be…I would have to have all the musicians, it would have to be awesome for me to really uproot myself in the way that we did with the band. So, that’s quite a hard thing to do, but the way things are going it’s kind of looking increasingly likely.”
Mike: “OK, that’s good to hear. That sounds like it would be excellent, if you’re up my way I’ll make sure to swing by.
One thing that we have asked a few guys in the past, and don’t feel you need to answer this, but what’s the most embarrassing thing that has happened to you when you’ve been on tour?”
Justin: “When I’ve been on tour? God, good question. I really, really f**king relieved that didn’t completely embarrass myself on the last tour. It was one of those tours that could have gone horribly wrong in so many ways. But let me think. In the band, back in the day, we’ve had some shockers. We once did an interview, we were some kind of European festival, and we did an interview for some kind of like French radio station and they were asking us all about our music and who we were and what we were doing and all the rest of it, and we only figured out at the end that they thought we were a completely different band. They had completely mistaken us for some other band that was probably much more successful or certainly much bigger in France at the time. That was embarrassing. But yeah, I could listen, I could be here all night to list all the embarrassing things that happened on tour. I think if you go on tour, as a band or as a musician, you have to have a suitably low-level of self-respect and be prepared for all manner of humiliations because, you know, in a way that’s kind of the fun right, that was what Spinal Tap was all about. If you’re not prepared to be…to have your kind of…to be put in your place and realise that you are not the most important thing in the world then you really shouldn’t be doing it.”
Mike: “I think that makes quite a lot of sense. I think this is the bit where we give you one last chance to plug the EP a little bit and then we’ll play a clip from the title track. When is it out? Where can we buy it?”
Justin: “The first single is out on Spotify and streaming platforms, a track called This is How it Ends. The second single is a track called Accidents Happen and that’s really the closest thing I’ve ever written to a pure love song. I’ve kind of feel most exposed on that song and that’s coming out next week. And then the full EP, which is called Corruption of the Heart, will be out on digital and limited edition coloured vinyl on the 6th May.”
Mike: “Fantastic. It’s been great talking to you Justin. I hope you have a good evening and it was great talking to you Justin, wish you all the best of success with the new EP and, of course, everything else that you’ve got going on, which is quite a lot.”
Justin: “Awesome, thanks so much man, and thanks for having me.”
Mike: “No worries, look forward to seeing you on tour.”
Justin: “Yeah, take it easy buddy.”
Mike: “You too, bye.”
Check out the video for This Is How It Ends, By August Spies (AKA Justin Schlosberg) and links to the merch below