Interview with Al Burian & Jessica Hopper
Photo: Megan Holmes
Originally appeared in Swimmer’s Ear Magazine #14
Ed. Note: Not to be confused with the current electropop band by the same name, this Challenger was a side project of Milemarker’s Al Burian and Dave Laney. They released their only full-length, “Give People What They Want In Lethal Doses”, via Jade Tree in February 2004 and an EP, “When Friends Turn Against You”, via Day After Records later that year. Jessica Hopper, famed music writer and critic, was Challenger’s publicist and played bass for the band around the time of their U.S. & Japan tours.
How did Challenger start?
The band started sort of spontaneously. Dave Laney was working on recording some fast punk songs on his own, and it was pretty natural for me to add a guitar track or a bass track here and there. Eventually, we were collaborating on a project which seemed like it was different enough from Milemarker to warrant being its own thing. We made a demo, sent the recording to Jade Tree, they liked it, so it all took off pretty easily, without having to think it through too much.
What bands/music influenced the way Challenger would sound?
Dave was listening to a lot of 80’s SST stuff, and a lot of early hardcore, Agent Orange, Bad Brains. He came up with a lot of basic song structures and then I’d usually try to come up with something to add that went in the opposite direction of wherever he was going. We’d throw ideas back and forth until we felt like we’d gotten to where the songs had a weird quality of their own, not to say it’s uncategorizable music, it’s pretty clearly “upbeat punk rock”, but hopefully it’s not specifically derivative of anything in particular.
How long did it take to write and record Give People What They Want In Lethal Doses?
We wrote the songs over spring and summer of 2003, got Remis (the drummer on the record) playing with us in early summer, recorded in August 2003. We recorded in Lincoln, Nebraska, at Presto! Recording Studio, which was a great experience. The recording took a little over two weeks.
How do the sounds of Challenger and Milemarker compare, and do you think fans of Milemarker will automatically enjoy Challenger?
Milemarker tries to confound expectations, so when we have the sense that people have us pigeon-holed as one thing we try to shift towards something else. I think of Milemarker as a pretty experimental, open-ended band. Challenger has the opposite approach, in a way, it’s very structured and oriented toward working in the three minute rock song format. I really don’t know whether people who like Milemarker will “automatically” like Challenger. To me, they sound pretty different, but I’ve had other people say, yeah, it’s you and Dave, just playing a little faster. So I don’t know. I guess we’ll see.
For some reason, whenever I hear the song “Input the Output”, it reminds me of skateboarding in the mid 90’s. Is there any song that when you hear it, it reminds you of a certain period in your life?
Sure, of course. I think a neat thing about records is the idea of it in a literal sense as a “record,” meaning that it encapsulates some period of time for you. You connect to angry music at times when you feel angry, or a love song at some time when you’re in love, and then later on you’ve got this soundtrack to how you felt. Sometimes you’ll hear stuff you used to listen to and think, “Man this music is insane, I can’t believe this spoke to me, I was really pissed,” and sometimes you’ll feel like “I still relate to this exactly, I haven’t changed too much,” and that’s a cool feeling, because it gives your life continuity. I wasn’t skating in the mid 90’s, but I take your association as a compliment, because I imagine (or, I guess, hope) you mean that the song reminds you of the energy of those times, and makes you feel still connected to that part of yourself. I think it’s really cool when music can do that.
I can easily relate to he song “Unemployment”, because I have been unemployed for the last 5 months. Was this song written from personal experiences of being unemployed?
I have been unemployed or marginally employed for most of my adult life, though I would never try to pass myself off as some kind of blue-collar poster-child or unlucky working stiff. I’m basically a slacker, I have made the conscious choice to pursue the things that have meaning for me and give me happiness over financial security, steady job, etc. The song, on a personal level, is about realizing the repercussions of that decision: I don’t have a trust fund or a rich family to fall back on, so deciding to engage in “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (that’s the American dream, right?) essentially means deciding to be poor. On a broader level, I hope people can relate to it (statistically, it should have an audience of millions who can relate) more generally, just the sentiment that everyone deserves to be happy doing what they do, to not only have work, but have work which means something to them.
The title of your full-length is Give People What They Want In Lethal Doses. What do you want people to get out of this album?
It’s not an overtly political album, but the general theme is excess and people’s obsession with instant gratification. We were hoping the record would “give people what they want” on first impression, that it would be musically accessible and deal with themes that are easy to relate to, almost clichés. But that on further listens, you might get more of the “lethal dose” aspect, for instance, realize that a song which might on the surface seem about a relationship is actually about the way we relate in a broader sense, about people’s unhealthy reaction to loneliness, or the destruction of intimacy when people objectify each other. A lot of the songs deal with drugs and substance abuse as well, not trying to make a moral yes/no statement, but more thinking about how easy it is to substitute the quick fix for real feelings. Living in a country where 8% of the population consumes 25% of the resources of the world, and then suffers from obesity, illness, and body image disorders, we have to ask ourselves, are we really happy getting whatever we want whenever we want it?
Will you be touring in support of the new album?
Yeah, we’re going to tour the US in March-April and hopefully Europe in May-June.
What’s next after the tour, will you be working on a new Milemarker album or taking a break?
We haven’t really planned that far in advance. There has been talk of recording a Milemarker album, and we do have a few new songs, but so far it’s in the abstract stage. For now we’re thinking about the current thing, which is the Challenger record coming out. We try to do things one step at a time.
Both you and Dave are known for your zines, Burn Collector and Media Reader. What do you feel is the importance of zines and what are some zines you think every one should check out?
I work at a store in Chicago that stocks tons of zines and so it is really hard for me to point to any one zine that everyone should read. There’s sort of something for everyone out there, I think. That’s kind of the beauty of it, cheap reproduction technology combined with freedom of press equals increased exchange of ideas, which is more important than ever now. Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, has a new book out, and he devotes a chapter to the importance of “the pamphlet” in the history of the United States. The federalist papers were basically zines. People tend to think of their small exertions as not having much impact, but there are plenty of examples where something very modest has impacted people far out of proportion with its circulation or initial sphere of influence. In some ways, maybe the web has taken over for the printed pamphlet, but I do think there is still something powerful about an actual physical object, the inherent idea that someone cared enough to make X number of physical copies, fold and staple them, get them out into the world to be read and passed on.
How did you get into making zines and what have you learned in the process of making them?
I got into it because I saw people doing it, and it seemed like an easy way to communicate something about yourself to people. I started out making them just to hand out at shows, so that even if you didn’t get a chance to talk to everyone you wanted to, you’d still have some sort of interaction, maybe start a conversation which would continue in correspondence. I’m kind of surprised to find myself still doing it years later, and getting so much response from it. I try not to take it too seriously. People sometimes refer to me as a “writer” but I feel like, hey, I’m just a guy who makes zines. At the same time, I know people who really want nothing more than to be a writer, and spend years getting rejection letters from publishers and literary magazines and becoming embittered by the whole process. This makes me feel kind of guilty, because I feel like I’m enjoying phenomenal success compared to my relatively small effort. I get letters all the time from people who seem to have been effected by something I wrote, and have even been told I’m someone’s “favorite writer” once or twice, which seems totally crazy to me. But, it goes to show, I think, that you have to just get it out there, in whatever format, without worrying about the legitimacy or how it looks on your resumé. With zines, and with bands, I stand by the DIY principle, not as a matter of ideology, but as a matter of a matter of practicality.
For anyone that doesn’t know, what are each of your zines about, and where can we purchase them?
Dave’s Media Reader is a political/cultural criticism magazine that generally consists of articles, interviews and political graphics. Most issues are free. My Burn Collector is a personal zine which is basically me rambling about whatever is going on with me at the time. We both make and contribute to other magazines as well, and our stuff can be found at stickfiguredistro.com. Otherwise, you can get stuff direct or reach our band at challengermusic.com.
How do the fans in Japan compare to the fans in the U.S.?
About the same, marginal familiarity with us.
Did you bring all your gear on the plane?
Guitars. We backlined everything. That’s standard in Japan. Clubs have equipment for the bands to use.
Are there Japanese bands the could be big in the U.S. or any bands that really impressed you?
Nissen non Mondai, three women, from Tokyo, who were really frenetic and primalist. Kind of a kin to Turing Machine or This Heat.
Do you think it would be easier being a band in Japan or the U.S.?
U.S. by a long shot. In Japan, from what I understood, you rent practice space by the hour, use equipment there, or in the club. It’s harder to get around, not many people have cars or drive.
What kinds of things did you do when not playing shows?
Slept in the van, wandered around exhausted and wide-eyed, ate things with squid in them.
For being such a new band, how did you get the chance to go to Japan?
Denali broke up, and that opened up their slot.
Was there anything you learned about Japan during your stay there?
I think to say I learned much about Japan, or its people would be presumptuous, or at least terribly American of me, to feign understanding simply by observation. The things I learned are debatable, other than experiential things, like Sushi in the 7-11 is better than at home in Chicago and it costs about 2 dollars. That people are very hospitable, that we were hosted graciously. That the temples are beautiful and the freeways are epicly frightful.
What kind of experiences did you take away from this trip?
Immense culture shock. I handled Japan the worst out of the whole band, really.