West Coast Hip Hop over grooved out, crunchy Hardcore riffs?! HOLY FUCK, the 16 year old me was in love with Downset from the moment I heard the opening bass line under Rey Anthony Oropeza’s solo vocal intro to “Anger.” You know EXACTLY what I’m talking about, or else you wouldn’t be reading this interview right now. But it was way more than just a soundtrack of teenage bedroom moshing that inspired me. Along with their one-time contemporary (and only true competition at the time) Rage Against The Machine, the words were as powerful, if not more so, than the delivery of the music.
And get it fucking right: This was not, and is not, Nu-Metal. This is Hip Hop – Hardcore. Both styles come with a message, born and bred on the streets from first-hand experience. It was only a matter of time until merged to form something new altogether. Yeah stuff got broken, but this wasn’t “Break Stuff.” The music is heavy on distortion and groove, but the emotional testimony portrayed in the lyrics wasn’t a catch phrase or something to be ignored. It inspired thought. It meant something. And that’s why it mattered back then, and still matters today.
Featuring Rey, guitarist Brian Ares Schwager, bassist (and one of the coolest dudes I ever met as a kid) James Morris, and drummer Chris Hamilton, the Los Angeles 4-piece will be dropping their latest album, One Blood, this very Summer and playing a small handful of previously announced shows. I caught up with Brian over the phone to discuss the run, including a massive appearance at Philly’s This is Hardcore, the new One Blood album, the second version of the group we briefly heard about last year, and Downset’s praiseworthy attempts to continue instilling an educational platform within a now heavily commercialized genre.
G- Brian, it’s been a long time, man. Downset was one of my very first Hardcore shows ever and it’s great to have you guys back. What the fuck is up, man?
B- What’s up, man and what’s up Live High Five! We’re coming with One Blood in 2014 and taking it straight back to the roots of Downset. It’s just a pure mix of Hardcore and Hip Hop and we’re very excited about this record. This record took us app. 8 years to really dial in and realize who we are, what we were about, and what we needed to bring back to all of our fans, and we deeply appreciate all of the support over the last 23 years, just to give them what they think Downset really is and bring it to them this time.
G- That’s excellent. And you said this is the first record in a very long time, but it also took a very long time. You guys were putting it together for about 8 years, man. Tell us about what has been going on in that time, man? A lot has happened since the last record.
B- You know, we came off a tour with Korn and Snoop Dogg, and our last attempt, with Universal, we were going a little different route, touching into more Hip Hop. Some people really dug it, but some people wanted more Hardcore. We were just doing what we were doing, and we got back to L.A. after all that and we just wanted to look at our career, look at where the band was at, and we took a lot of time, just to come back to L.A. for a minute, and become friends. The most important thing to me that happened on this album outside of the music and everything, is the friendship that me and Rey have created between the 2 of us. We look eye to eye and we know that we’re doing this for the right reasons, the same reasons that we began. James jumped back onboard and he’s doing it for those same reasons, and we filled the band we Chris Hamilton, who did our drums on Check Your People. Everybody is on the same page. It’s a very unified movement, and it has a lot to do with calling the album One Blood.
One Blood is the combination. Whether you listen to Hip Hop, or Hardcore, or Metal, or punk Rock, all of those genres of people have listened to Downset over the past 2 decades, and we created One Blood as a listener. It doesn’t matter if you go home and listen to your Hip Hop or your Hardcore. When you come to our show, we’re combining the music and turning it into a One Blood experience; We’re all the same here. Whether you’re a Hip Hop head, or a Metalhead, or this guy is Straight Edge Hardcore, today you’re one with each other, and you can have a good time. That is what One Blood is about.
G- Dude! Awesome! That’s what I was hoping to hear, because I love all those styles, and I think the scenes in the past have always been polarized. Your hip Hop kids, and your Hardcore kids, and your SXE kids… It’s tough for a lot of these scenes to come together sometimes, and Downset is a very strong testament to all of these different influences coming together and merging to create something new that everyone can related to. And that’s why I love it!
Another thing is, like I mentioned earlier with Rey’s lyrics, you guys wouldn’t be playing in this band if you didn’t share many of these feelings like he writes down.
B- Yeah for sure.
G- The band, given the highly socio-political nature of your lyrics in the past, has a lot to say, and a lot of things have changed in the past 8 years. I mean, I didn’t even know what email was in 1994 and 1995, but now I have 6 of them. Can we assume that the music and lyrics continue this forward progression, and are you tackling any new subject with One Blood?
B- I’ll get into the subject matter a little, but no one can ever do it or explain it like he can. I’ll touch base on my favorite songs.
B- “Why We Can’t Wait.” (That song) is more on the Hardcore tip, for people that thought we might have lost the edge, we’re going to bring it back. (It’s) the hardest, heaviest Downset song of all time. Musically, it’s just devastating; A devastation of a circle pit for stadiums.
Lyrically, it’s about global warming. The way Rey can touch subjects such as global awareness, and he does all of his topics in a very unique, caring, and intellectual way… I’ve always appreciated the way Rey writes his lyrics. I think when people here this, it’s a very politically stated song about realizing what the Earth does for us, and what we need to do for it so that we don’t do something we’ll take for granted.
G- Right on. Do you think this will be the first single?
B- No, this isn’t the single. This is the devastation song.
The “One Blood” song is going to be our single. And we have songs like “Without,” which will be a follow up single, and “Passion” is the third choice, and I’ll talk about both those songs real quick.
“Without” is a song that is lyrically showing the dedication toward the project and how we’d never sell out. We did this the way we know how to do it, and we did it the way we should do it this whole time. We never sold nothing out; We’re just being ourselves. We definitely stretch in different directions, like all artists, but this song brings in that Hip Hop/Hardcore/Metal combination of verses and choruses, and it’s really cool.
Another song that is very cool, and may be the best Downset ever made in its own way, is “Passion.” The lyrics Ray wrote… Is it passion, or fashion? Are you doing this because of the time, or because this is what you really are? That song is especially for the Hardcore kids, too. The lyrics are monumental. The music moves from Zeppelin type beats and melodic breaks, doing the Downset way that we want it done, into Hip Hop and some extremely Hardcore progressions, and back to what Rey is saying. It’s a very unique song.
So, I think, for the listeners, this album is very good, man. I’m really proud of it. I produced this record, and I also played guitar on it, and it’s something I really proud of. We made a Downset record for Downset fans and to show what we’re capable of doing in the year 2014.
G- Nice, and you just walked right into my next question. You are the producer and performer on this record, and this was done over 3 studios. The recording process wasn’t just in one spot, so I wanted to ask you about that, and the overall effect of being both the performer and producer. Tell us a bit about your experience running the board.
B- Alright. Well, with the 3 studios, the drums were done in 2006. Me and Rey were working on the songs and we demo’ed basic structure of these songs. While demoing, Ray did something we’d never done before. He actually wrote all the lyrics. At this point, that was pretty amazing because we usually heard the lyrics for the first time, the verses, the bridges, the breakdowns. Usually Rey, for all the other records, went in the studio and dropped lyrics, and here we go. (laughing) So this was a different approach because we demoed it out and it was just a jam.
We were going through issues with different band members at the time, that’s why it took a long time. At that point, Chris Lee was going to continue to be the drummer, but it didn’t work out. He ended up moving to Chicago and it just didn’t work out for different reasons. And Rico Villasenor was playing the bass, but James finally came back and said ‘I want to do this…’
So, 2006 and 2007, we were demoing songs and we had a pretty cool demo together, and that took care of (inaudible.) What was left on the finally recording that you’re going to hear, there were some vocals that were not replaceable, so they’re the final version. We went back this last year, I had all this stuff and everything was recorded really well. Like some of the yells were so passionate, how we not let people hear it? It wasn’t about sound quality; It was about real feelings, the real emotion of dropping songs.
Then we went to the East Coast for the drums, and Chris Hamilton did drums over there with the sound engineer he is used to working with, and then we took it back to the West Coast and we finished working on the bass, the guitar, the vocals, and the final everything, you know? The final album arrangement. And we just took out time and had fun being friends. That was the most important thing. It was hard engineering this record, and I’m sitting there with those guys not thinking about it like a guitar playing, but looking at it like an engineer.
Overall all, the best experience to come out of this, is that we’re all friends. The vibe when we’re in the room… We shot a video for ‘One Blood” with our friends and closest homies from LA, and almost everybody showed up for this video down at S.I.R., and the next day I got calls from 10-12 of my best buds and the best thing about this was just the vibe that we got. It was such a good vibe, and everybody was up and giving hugs… It was just such a reunion of friends. It was one of those nights… it was really cool, man.
G- Love it.
So, with the talk of reunions and friends and all of that, and if it’s not something you don’t want to talk about we don’t have to, but there was another Downset going on last year….
B- I’ll say it like this: You can’t stop somebody from stealing your car.
B- We’ll leave it at that. You park your car on the street, it doesn’t move for a minute, you can’t stop someone from trying to steal it. We’ll leave it at that.
B- I can talk to those guys, and I’m cool with them, but everyone is gonna look at it different. Let’s just leave it at that.
G- OK, man. There are more important things to talk about.
B- Yeah the difference is this: The world is going to see their videos on Youtube, and hen we show up to This Is Hardcore, it’s going to speak for itself.
G- (laughing) Right on!
B- There’s no delaying the truth. The truth is not a lie. There’s nothing more to say about it. We’d never go to sleep and let Downset end on that note.
G- Cool. Very cool.
And you just brought it up, but This Is Hardcore fest… I don’t think I’ve seen Downset since the late 90’s in Syracuse, and I think the lineup was you guys, Vision Of Disorder, and Earth Crisis, and maybe even Deftones was on that, too. I can’t quite recall.
But since you’ll be on the East Coast and it’s a small run of dates, people want to know what else is in store for the band in 2014 and beyond.
B- That gets more complicated. We’re in talks with a couple big bands that I don’t want to get into because nothing is in writing, but there is talk for the future.
Basically, we’ve got these 7 shows that are happening through August. It becomes a little different because we’re releasing this ourselves. We scrounged between the 4 members of the band to be able to not have a record label and not be dictated by people that tell us we have to go. James has an outstanding job; He a program director for NBC, and he’s done really well for himself. Doing this, we can only appreciate the time that he can’t do it, it’s that he’s not able. His accomplishments in life have to be looked at. He will be showing up at other shows, and we have a lot to think about if we do another tour. I know me and Rey and Chris Hamilton are fully dedicated to figure out how many shows we can do with James, weekend blasts here and there. These big opportunities that are starting to present themselves, it’s ‘How do we deal with this?’
We’re just doing these 7 shows that are announced right now, and we’re gonna continue most definitely, but nothing in our contracts is written in stone.
G- Alright well we’ll be looking out for them for sure.
So to finish up today, obviously Downset has played with… You’ve played shows with Pantera, so that wins. That’s awesome and everyone who hasn’t played with them is jealous…
B- RIP Dimebag Darrell. That is something that I can’t believe happened in my life. You don’t realize what you’re doing sometimes when you’re experiencing it until later…
B- I mean, we’ve played with Pantera, Black Sabbath, Madball, Earth Crisis. And at the same time, we’ve played with Ghostface Killah, BOO-YAH Tribe, The Shapeshifters, and a lot of other Hip Hop artists. The relam of who we’ve gotten down with over the years… And we’ve played with Deftones and Linkin Park and the Used. And then we played with Snoop Dogg.
Because of our combination of Hip Hop and Hardcore, we’re able to choose a set that makes sense.
G- For sure.
B- It’s something we’ve always enjoyed. We like Hip Hop and Hardcore, and that’s the root of this, not one or the other. We don’t want to be a Hip Hop band or a Hardcore band. We’re trying to combine the styles and create our style of music. I don’t know what you want to call it.
We’ve been compared to Rage Against The Machine, but the big difference is that they were a Hip Hop/Funk band, where as Downset is a Hip Hop/Hardcore/Metal band. That’s always been the big difference, and that’s what it’ll continue to be.
G- Right on.
Now just to finish up today, the band is a long runner, man. You’ve been around for a long, long time and you’ve seen the ups and downs and ins and outs, and you’re still doing it. That’s testament to being professional and testament to dedication and devotion to these styles of music.
What I want to know is what advice can you give some of the young, up and coming kids out here who want to do what Downset has done and who want to make it in music, on the road, and as a professional musician?
B- My advice to anybody is just be yourself. There are so many duplicates on this planet. Just be yourself. Don’t worry about what that guy is doing, because that is where mistakes are made.
What separates everybody and creates greatness is a very thin line, and that thin line is when you go to the mirror and look at yourself and you can believe in yourself. That’s all you need. If you’ve got the skills and you’re putting in the hard work, it’s going to come. Believe in yourself to be what you think you should be and how you should present yourself to the public. Everybody is going to appreciate that more than if you’re trying to be somebody else.
G- Perfect. Well that’s what I have for you today, man. I want to say again thank you very much for taking the time to speak with Live High Five today, for the music, and for all the hard work. You’ve put in. I’ve been a fan for decades and look forward to the new jams and albums! Play hard, tour safe, and I’m looking for to the record, man. I can’t wait!
B- Big thanks to Live High Five. Downset One Blood. Peace out!