Jesus Piece Rise Again
Aaron Heard and Luis Aponte on the ultra-heavy Philly hardcore band's long-awaited ...So Unknown
It’s two hours before doors and the parking lot of San Diego’s preeminent metal club has turned into a makeshift gym. This is hardly a surprise on a night where Brick By Brick is hosting the World War Tour; all five bands on the bill, from SoundCloud rap opener Trippp Jones to headliner Show Me The Body, play aggro, yoked-up music that requires a great deal of physical stamina and varying amounts of shirtlessness. As I approach the venue, I see Jesus Piece frontman Aaron Heard steadying himself with one hand on the bumper of a tour van, the other doing dumbbell rows with a kettlebell. This part is surprising because dumbbell rows are not an exercise that provides a brief jolt of preshow adrenaline or builds the sort of muscle that pops on Hate5Six videos. Most people skip “back day” – there’s some degree of brute strength involved, but it requires a deep commitment to proper mechanics, precision and discipline. The same can be said of …So Unknown, an album that delivers the most focused ass-kicking you’re likely to receive in 2023.
Not that anyone familiar with the Philadelphia quintet would expect Jesus Piece to fuck around on their second album. Their debut Only Self was an instant classic of hardcore that typically gets hyphenated with some act of physical violence – “beatdown,” “slam,” and so forth. It was also Stereogum’s top hardcore album of the year, but that was in 2018. I don’t think we need to recap everything that transformed hardcore in the five years since; all you need to know is that Soul Glo and Knocked Loose are playing Coachella this weekend.
But even beyond the bottle-up-and-explode impact of the pandemic and Glow On, both Heard and drummer Luis Aponte have expanded Jesus Piece’s horizons; Heard joined metalgaze institution Nothing as a bassist, while Aponte was recruited by Charli XCX for her Saturday Night Live performance. If this seems like an outrageous miscasting for a metal/hardcore drummer, consider Aponte’s multi-hyphenate hustle as an electronic musician (LU2K) and fashion model for the NYC menswear band Noah.
Though the video for lead single “An Offering To The Night” looks like it could have appeared on either Headbanger’s Ball, TRL, Yo! MTV Raps, or even Amp — notice the Aphex Twin hat that pops up during the Life Is Peachy-style breakdown — …So Unknown doesn’t strike me as a Glow On-style crossover event. It’s certainly more melodic than Only Self, in addition to being more rangy, more technical, more nü-metal, just more in general. Still, what stands out most of all is Heard’s focus on, well, focus itself. “I was very scattered, a legitimate wild man for a lot of years,” Heard shares as we take refuge within the Jesus Piece tour van while Scowl soundchecks.
Even putting Jesus Piece’s ambitions aside, Heard’s priorities have been clarified by fatherhood. “I lack certain points of focus chemically, so I have to overcompensate and cut shit out, do my part to make sure I’m staying on the straight and narrow and we’re all doing the best we can.” Heard doesn’t want to dwell on what he’s cutting out, so much as what where his attention can be directed. Just take a look at the song titles: “In Constraints,” “Tunnel Vision,” “Fear Of Failure.”
Not that you should take the latter as evidence that Jesus Piece are lacking in confidence, even as they’re in the midst of what might end up being a generational tour. Both Scowl and Zulu are weeks away from releasing some of hardcore’s defining works of the year, and even the new material is going off in an abnormally cramped room. Brick By Brick estimates its capacity at 200-400; when the World World Tour heads to Santa Ana, Los Angeles and Berkeley within the next week, the venues will fit at least three times that. Though the mutual admiration between the bands on the World War Tour is apparent to anyone in attendance — they’re often sharing the stage together as collaborators or just fans — nothing obscures Heard’s tunnel vision when it’s time for Jesus Piece to wreck shit. “I’m not worried about what Scowl or Zulu is doing, as soon as we pop up, I know exactly what the fuck is happening.”
To put in perspective how long it’s been since the debut, people who were in their early teens for Only Self are going to college now.
AARON HEARD: It’s been a half decade since [Only Self] and collectively, we’re like damn…we’re getting old. That has come up every day, we meet kids and they’re like, “I’ve been listening to you since middle school.” What? I’m a dad now and you’re not that far off from my kid.
LUIS APONTE: Even [with other bands] on this tour — “Seeing you in this area, it was a big show for us and now we’re on this together.”
HEARD: Kat who sings for Scowl, said, “Your show got me into this.” It was one of the first she went to, she met Malachai [Greene, Scowl guitarist] at that show. When we were doing it, we were just busting our ass so hard that we weren’t necessarily thinking about the longterm effects of what we were doing. But it’s very cool to see it coming around.
APONTE: I still don’t fully understand it.
Was there a similar gateway band for you growing up?
HEARD: I didn’t start getting into it until I was in late high school. I wasn’t into heavy music, I was into some punk stuff, Tony Hawk: Pro Skater shit. It took a little bit to find shit that was going on around town and linking with the community. But when it did, I’d watch bands like Agitator, Mother Mercy, the classic Philadelphia shit like that.
Compared to the Only Self shows, is the energy the same or are there more dads in the audience?
HEARD: To an extent, the dads to us are way less old and Santa Claus-esque, they’re just dudes like us.
APONTE: I feel like I saw more dads before, I see more kids now. That’s the weird part of this tour, we’re seeing more kids than we’ve ever seen before. Before this, it was younger kids, but our peers were there. Now it’s a new wave of kids.
HEARD: Five years is two generations of hardcore kids.
Thinking back on the big Code Orange tour that was supposed to happen in April 2020, I’ve talked to a lot of hardcore bands who had a plan mapped out prior to the pandemic and to completely pivot. What was the conversation for Jesus Piece like at the time?
HEARD: We never really had a plan. We dropped that record Only Self, and even before then, we’ve been “go where we can go.” We never waited for anyone to elevate us, we just hit the fucking bricks. By the time [the pandemic] happened, if anything, we needed a little break.
APONTE: Everyone thought they had a plan. But for us, it was a much-needed break because I think we were going super fucking hard but not figuring shit out on the way. So that break allowed us to spend time and think about how we wanted to prioritize shit. And also, it gave us time to write.
HEARD: Our plan came during quarantine.
APONTE: It’s a new start for us because we feel more unified than ever.
HEARD: I second that.
APONTE: We know where we’re going as opposed to being aimless.
Was there a point where things were feeling aimless before?
HEARD: To be honest, a bunch.
APONTE: It happens to everyone.
HEARD: It’s the existential crisis of the 20s, I think. What the fuck am I doing with myself?
APONTE: Even the older bands are going to feel that – not every tour is amazing, not every show is amazing and not every album is what you thought it would be, it’s about how you bounce back and how you recover and learn from that.
After touring individually with Nothing and Charli XCX, was there anything specific that you applied to Jesus Piece?
HEARD: Discipline. From the outside looking in, Nothing looks like a very undisciplined band. They run a tight ship and, not for nothing, I needed that. Coming into the game as just a vocalist, there’s a lot of shitty ego that’s involved, and I had to defeat that when I started playing bass. Now I’m just the bass guy. I take a backseat, I learn the role, and I do what I need to be doing. I come back to this band, raw seasoned, and everything goes much smoother.
Were there points where you had to remind yourself, “I’m the bassist, I can’t be doing Jesus Piece moves”?
HEARD: Absolutely! It’s like muscle memory, as soon as I’m on the road, I switch onto wild-man mode, and I gotta dial that shit back. Playing bass is one of those things where I’m like, “This is not my band. I gotta chill the fuck out.”
Both of those artists operate in genres that have, generally speaking, a greater reach than hardcore. How did it shape the ambitions of what Jesus Piece can or can’t do with …So Unknown?
APONTE: Between being in the world of fashion and electronic music and seeing how DJs run things, getting to work with some of the biggest artists in any capacity helped me look at the limitations of what we can and can’t do. Now that I was able to be in those areas, we can go any way and I’ll have a really good context on how we can handle ourselves. It’s not “what we can’t do,” but more… should we be taking these things? Should we be handling ourselves this way? You gotta understand, I always prefer quality over quantity, so do we have to take every tour? No. Do we have to say yes to every single thing? It gave me a way of planning things in a different way.
HEARD: It feels more tangible in the long run once you get a taste of that shit. It becomes real. A lot of people in our scene, we play to a glass ceiling, you hit a point where… alright, what do we do now? But to understand what’s going on in the general music world and see what we can be capable of if we take it seriously, we needed that outlook so that we can push past what we know.
APONTE: That even goes into fruition with us being involved in whatever other things, like videos. Me personally working for a fashion brand, I got to work on a lot of shoots, and when we were directing our videos, we were very hands-on.
Does that include the fisheye lens camera for the “An Offering To The Night” video?
HEARD: That Hype Williams feel, that was important to us. We grew up watching that shit, some of the first [videos] that stuck with me — Busta, Missy, dropping on TRL, everyone’s at their TV watching. Me and my brother are like…YOOO!
APONTE: It’s important for us to do everything that we can speak on and it doesn’t necessarily have to align with “classic metal”…there’s no faking that shit.
Similarly, the collaboration with Noah feels very in line with where hardcore can go in 2023.
APONTE: With Noah, it’s just working with friends. They actually approached me about it, I really don’t like to mix my music with my work. But they were super enthusiastic about it and i was like, “Fuck it.”
HEARD: That’s the smarter way to go about it, no one likes a guy who’s like I’M IN A BAND.
APONTE: In that world, it’s extremely separate from what I do. A lot of people where I live don’t know I play drums unless I talk about it. I prefer that.
Besides the projects you’ve worked on directly, what else has happened since Only Self that gave you a sense of how far you could take Jesus Piece?
HEARD: Turnstile breaking barriers, I think it’s a given.
APONTE: Turnstile, but a lot of other things too. They’re an example of that, but people are excited about hearing bands again. I’m grateful for that, I think people are more open to hearing mixtures of sound.
HEARD: People are more excited to be out and be involved.
APONTE: Two to three years of sitting on your ass…
HEARD: All you’re gonna do is look at videos of everyone losing their fucking mind. Well, I want to lose my fucking mind too!
APONTE: There needs to be some sort of documentary about the science of the after-pandemic, how people were feeling.
Not gonna lie, I watched the This Is Hardcore 2019 video before coming here and got a little worried about how the crowd killing might go in this venue. I was here a few weeks ago to see Callous Daoboys and someone literally got their head busted open in the middle of the set, they didn’t even bother cleaning up the blood.
APONTE: It’s always been there. I know with us, people see the This Is Hardcore videos and whatever and get really nervous because they think it’s just people kicking each other’s ass. But if you watch, kids are really excited, they’re up front and singing along, stage diving. That’s what you’ll see tonight.
HEARD: They’re circle pitting dude, the world is healing!
APONTE: I can speak for all of us that we prefer that. I don’t really care about seeing some six-foot dude kicking other people’s ass. If that’s their thing, I’m down. I like watching that too, but playing in the band, I prefer to see kids up front singing our lyrics that [Aaron] spends time writing and us…I don’t want to be this mindless…not that there’s anything wrong with that.
HEARD: Not for nothing, I don’t want to sing to no one in front of me. I get hard moshing, it has its place, but give me at least four rows of kids going apeshit back there.
A lot of the lyrics on …So Unknown speak to a desire for focus and simplicity. How has that manifested in the time since you’ve written the album?
HEARD: It’s a matter of singling in a lot of priorities and making sure I’m allotting my time — not only physical energy, but mental energy — to things that matter. Instead of worrying about all the other bullshit I worry about 24/7, the ADHD in my brain spiraling all the time. But if I can quiet it enough and just go, “Look, I got one fucking path, this is the best that I can do,” all of us do the best that we can do so we can have the best set that we can have for our families and our lives. That is “Tunnel Vision,” that’s “The Beast,” that’s what it’s about.
I think of Only Self as being this impossibly heavy record. Was there discussion within the band of “how can we make the next one heavier”?
APONTE: I don’t think we were trying to be heavier. Naturally, [guitarists] John [DiStefano] and Dave [Updike], their sound is heavy. But how can we make the songwriting more interesting?
HEARD: The heavy has already been there.
APONTE: That was never our goal because people can think, heavy is just duh duh duh [imitates down-tuned riff].
HEARD: How do we cultivate that feeling of uneasiness that also feels like anger and sadness at the same time?
APONTE: For me, it’s experimenting with different patterns that aren’t necessarily metal. Does it have to be those drums on a fast part? Not saying I’m changing the world, but thinking beyond heavy.
HEARD: A lot of these drum patterns are recycled a lot of times, it really comes down to how this shit is played and expressed. I can speak for myself – watching Luis drum, he’s never played a soft set in his fucking life. There’s nothing worse than seeing a metal drummer playing like he’s hitting drums in his living room. Fuck that, dude. This dude sends it. That really shows through with drumming, with guitar, with vocals. I’m never gonna go out there and do some vocals on some tip-toe shit. I’m trying to blow myself off the earth by the end of the day, passed out in the back of the van. That’s ideal for me. It really comes down to expression and the energy put into it because it’s not the most technical music. But it carries a lot of physical energy.
APONTE: The thing that’s different and heavier than Only Self, people usually watch us [live], and that’s when they have their ah-ha moment, I get it now. The biggest goal with this album is to recreate that on wax. Sonically, it gives you that presence of being there. I really feel like this album was what we were aiming for with Only Self but we didn’t complete that. This is what we’ve been trying to say, this is the second conversation. When we wrote “Tunnel Vision,” that was like… whoa. I never played something so technical. I come from a self-taught kinda background, I never thought I’d be playing technical drumming like that.
I think it’s fair to say that the lyrical content of “Oppressor” has gotten the most emphatic response from crowds in the videos I’ve seen. Are there parts on this album that you’re similarly proud of?
HEARD: [The response to “Oppressor”] is specifically because of the Black message behind the song. Lyrically it’s not profound by any means, but it just resonates. When I was coming up listening to a lot of Harm’s Way, their lyrics were never some fucking essay. They were very simple and meaningful, so I took note of that. With this record, the only lyrical challenge that was weird was writing a positive song about my child. All I know is how to dive into the worst parts of my brain and make that a song. And to sit and try to write things that make me feel nice, I feel like a poser in a sense. But this is about my baby, shut up. I’m pretty proud of all of them, I can’t lie. “The Bond” is maybe the most personal.
APONTE: I think his performance stepped up a lot, I think he has a lot more range.
HEARD: I specifically stepped up my range. When I started doing vocals, I was stuck in a mid-high range, so I didn’t learn how to do lows until a bit later in my career. There was some shitty old head that was like, “That high screaming is corny.” Oh for real? But when I heard this record, it called for more range and the last thing I wanted to do was pull up and not do my fucking job. Pull the bootstraps up, break into some old skills, and I feel like I nailed the mark.
Now that kids are in the picture, has that changed your listening habits?
HEARD: If I’m listening to death metal all the time, I’m gonna be on my spicy mode shit. I just kick back and bump mad ’70s and ’80s soul.
That makes sense in light of the Delfonics cover that Nothing recently did.
HEARD: That’s the vibe, Philly/Motown, kick-back soul shit. That was me growing up, my family bumping records, cleaning, cooking. It’s just getting back to what you know and what makes you comfortable to be the best parent you can be.
APONTE: Full circle.
HEARD: You want to be so different from your peoples that you end up being low-key the same.
…So Unknown is out 4/14 on Century Media.