We inducted melodic punkers Avail’s classic Over the James into our Hall of Fame in our July issue. You can grab a copy of the issue here to read all about the making of this landmark rough-and-ragged hardcore record, but today we’re giving you a little extra to go along with that.
Because we’re chronic over-workers here at Decibel HQ, we got a lot more out of the members of Avail at the time of Over the James—vocalist Tim Barry, guitarist Joe Banks, bassist Justin “Gwomper” Burdick, drummer Erik Larson and cheerleader Beau Beau Butler—and now you’re getting (most of) the rest of our conversations with the band members, in an attempt to get even further into the minds of the men behind this most HOF-worthy album.
What do you recall about the time leading up to Over the James?
JOE BANKS: The first song on the record, “Deepwood,” has got this guitar intro thing, it’s a simple little thing, but I had just purchased a Roland Boss drum machine to just mess around with. I remember sitting there, and I was messing around with the drum machine and a bass. That’s what actually I wrote the little intro lick on—a bass. I remember coming into practice and going, “Yeah, I got this little thing.” Then it was, “Okay, let’s switch it over to guitar,” and it was just easy after that.
What do you recall about the actual recording of the album?
JUSTIN BURDICK: When I look back and hear some of the stuff I was doing then, I’m like, okay, a lot of that stuff, Chuck [McCauley], the original bass player, really helped me out; he showed me a lot of stuff. Tim is a real big part of the bass lines you hear, those Rites of Spring kind of emo… he really loved to grab the bass and go, “Hey, man, no, no, like this.” Like for “Cross Tie,” for example, that started out a little different and then somehow we embraced the slow groove of it, and we found that pocket.
Tell me about how Gwomper entered the picture.
TIM BARRY: We all grew up together; he was kind of the youngest of the crew. It wasn’t like he was a new member in Avail; we all kind of hung out together. People who have been in the band all knew each other very, very, very well. It’s not like recruited musicians. We didn’t send out and get Jason Newsted, you know what I’m saying? To use a metal reference [laughs]… a former metal reference. Gwomper spent a lot of time doing his own thing; we all lived in this sort of group house that 14 of us lived in. He was in and out of town; I remember him hitchhiking across the country back and forth working agriculture and other stuff. I remember when he got in the band, we had a bass player that we knew was going to quit. We were over in Europe and it was pretty obvious that he was going to quit. Just before we went to Europe I was walking down to the corner store to get a newspaper and a pack of cigarettes and whatever I was eating for breakfast back then, probably a Snickers bar and a Pepsi, and there was a guy sitting in the laundromat in the corner with a trash bag full of clothes and his head down, and I looked in and it was Gwomper. He was homeless once again and had somehow gotten into Richmond. I was like, “Holy shit!” and he said, “I knew if I hung around long enough I’d bump into you.” So I took him back to the house and we basically gave him a nylon-string classical guitar and said, “Learn all the Avail songs.” We left for Europe for five weeks. He played guitar; he was not a bass player. But to us the most important thing was the camaraderie and long history and knowing a person. So we came back from Europe. The bass player that was in the band temporarily quit and Gwomper replaced him. Then we jumped in and started working out the songs for Over the James. It was interesting: it’s almost better to have players you can mould. And I don’t say that intentionally, because Gwomper’s a fantastic player no matter what but he had to learn to play the bass in Avail, so he’s the perfect Avail bass player. He understands it intimately, how to play it. Playing punk bass or rock bass in this kind of way is very different than metal or country or bluegrass. It’s a fatiguing, repetitive motion; it’s not natural [laughs]. I always say with finger-picking the guitar, when I do it, if it hurts my hands, I’m doing it wrong. This kind of bass playing is like, if it doesn’t hurt your arm and wrist, you’re doing it wrong.
BURDICK: Yeah, that was quite a story. I was living in North Carolina, and I was saving up money to go to Colorado for the winter, and I lost a lot of money, at the post office. So instead of going to Colorado for the winter, I went back to Richmond, my stomping grounds, and a friend of mine gave me a ride back and dropped me off at the corner of Lombardy and Floyd and I ran into Tim within a couple minutes. He was like, “Where are you staying? What are you doing?” I was like, “I don’t know.” He’s like, “Man, we’re leaving for Europe tomorrow; come over for dinner tonight.” They were touring with Citizen Fish over in Europe and doing a seven-week run with them in the States, and he was worried about his dog, and his dog loved me, so he was like, “Hey man, stay at this house, and take care of my dog, please; you’re good, you’ll get back on your feet here.” In the middle of that tour, they came home and were like, “Hey, this bass player, he’s not going to work out and you should probably practice these songs and get ready to go on the next tour that we do.” And that’s how it started. I grew up with the guys in high school, so it was a no-brainer for them. I’ve played with them since I was 15 years old, so I knew all their dirty little secrets. It was an easy thing, and I’m such a traveler—I love traveling, so I wasn’t going to complain about going on tour.
ERIK LARSON: He came in the band pretty much after we came back from a Europe tour. He had been housesitting and the bass player we had at the time, who I refer to as He Who Shall Not Be Named, quit the band. He wanted to go to school, wanted to get married, all these other things, and that ended kind of badly for that dude in the long run. But, you know, Gwomp was there, Gwomp’s an old Reston [Virginia] dude, and so it was just kinda like, “Hey, man, you wanna come be in the band?” He was like, “Well, I’ve never played bass before but I play guitar.” We were like, “Sure, come on.” But it worked out. It was always in family kinda thing. I was kinda the outsider because I wasn’t from Reston, but I had known those dudes, or met them at very least, since 1989.
BANKS: Our old bass player left the band. Gwomper had lived in a house with us at one point, he was in Richmond, so the bass player leaves, we know we need to find somebody, and Gwomper we knew could play guitar. So, I don’t recall any specific conversations about [getting him in the band], except I know that it was just “whatever we do, we’re getting somebody we know.” We’re not looking around, any recommendations from friends, we’re going with somebody we already know. We figured that Gwomper could… we were going to put a bass in his hands and it was either going to work or it wasn’t. And within a short amount of time, he got himself up to speed as far as the difference in moving your fingers around on a bass compared to a guitar. It worked out well and it was an interesting time period with him kinda learning how to play bass at the same time as having just joined the band and writing a record and playing shows, all this stuff hitting him at one time, and he did a really great job.
What was it like after the album came out? I remember at hardcore shows at the time there would be Avail records in every single distro, every single time. But then it seemed like you were maybe starting to play bigger shows and Avail was getting a bit bigger.
BARRY: I don’t think that we saw a really quick transition with the turnout at our shows. Our shows grew over many years slowly. It would be maybe a few times through each city that we’d have to step up the capacity by 100. I do think that that record maybe showed the different subgenres that you’re mentioning, showed them that we could fit in many of them. Frail, Policy of 3, hardcore… if you saw us play in the northeast, the show would be sold out with 550 people and people would be windmilling and doing crazy stage dives. If you saw us maybe in San Diego, it’d be people dressed in black with their arms closed and shaggy heads and into leftist politics. At some point, it was probably around Over the James, all those crowds really came together at shows and realized it could all work out together. It was a really, really, interesting time period for music because of the explosion of Nirvana in the earlier part of the ’90s, followed by Green Day and The Offspring, and all of those kind of things. Then we’d have peers like Rancid, who we’d play with in a little town north of San Francisco, it’d be Avail/Rancid, and there’s 90 people. And then it wasn’t a year later that Rancid was the biggest and greatest and most well-respected real punk band—not MTV-glossed-over but real punk band—of the era. So we watched people really explode overnight, like within the month, packing 2,000-cap clubs, so, no, I didn’t see us change overnight.
BURDICK: It felt like we were definitely not going downhill, you know? Things were looking up. We were doing different things and touring with different bands. I must say that as soon as I was in the band, the first thing I can remember is we were getting an offer to go to Australia from Lagwagon. And to tell you the truth, I wasn’t the biggest fan of that west coast pop-punk sound, at all. And I had no idea that some of the guys in the band were some of my old punk heroes; I just didn’t know. I didn’t know anything about the band. I had heard one song on some comp, but the idea of going to Australia, I was the first one to raise my hand and go, “I vote yes; for sure let’s go, I don’t care if we make a dime, let’s do this.” So that was my first touring memory besides the US tour I had done. So that was magic. I kinda stepped into it pretty good. It just seemed like we were going in the right direction. And I think that we were so determined… I don’t think we were ever determined to make a lot of money, I think we were just determined to prove to everybody that, fuck you, this is how you do it. And the people we looked up to, they had shown us how to do that. So it was nothing new. We were just trying to keep it rad, keep it good. And not rip off anybody along the way. I think that that’s really a testament to Avail, is I don’t think you can find anybody who says we didn’t do them right. I think that’s one of the most important things. Honestly, when you look back on all of it, you can at least say we were honest and trustworthy with everyone we ever did anything with. We might not have gotten along with everybody [laughs], but that’s a different story. But the integrity of what we did and how we didn’t want to fuck people over to survive… [that] was our kind of mantra. I don’t know if you’ve heard that expression said to you so far, but that was a thing that I remember. And that’s where our voting… we all have our own vote, and we would vote with our conscience. And that might not make you money, but at least when you’re talking to somebody when you’re Mr. Irrelevant and you look back on it all and somebody says, “Hey man, you play music,” and you go, “Nah, not anymore, I dunno, I don’t play anymore,” you can at least say, “Yeah, but I had a good run” and not be bragging or anything like that. I can honestly say that I’ve missed it because it’s what I know how to do, but I learned how to not have to do it, and I learned how to walk away from it and be happy with life otherwise. Because it’s hard when that’s what you do all the time, all year long; it takes it out of you. At least it takes it out of some other folks in the band. I was always ready to go and just commit to whatever.
LARSON: I don’t feel like a switch went off or anything like that. I definitely feel like it was just a culmination of stuff, with all the miles we had put in during the 4am [Friday, 1996 album] time, and the tours we had done then, and just with this collection of songs, and kinda the commitment that everyone in the band had to really making a go of it. It wasn’t like, “Okay, we don’t know what we’re doing, we’re just going to go.” It was like, “We know what we’re doing and we know how long we’re going to tour and we know what we want in terms of change.” We were definitely trying to not necessarily appeal to a wider audience than we wanted to play bigger shows, so we started doing more package tours that people would recognize and not just shit we were putting together on our own. And I think larger bands were also paying attention to what we were doing. Like you said, those records were starting to become ubiquitous, I’m sure that was annoying to a lot of people [laughs]. We just did what we did, man. It wasn’t like, “We’re going to make it,” it was just more like we want to keep doing this and growing the band.
BANKS: Yeah, everything was getting a little bigger. Everything had gotten bigger. Nothing had gotten ginormous, it sure the hell didn’t turn into Rancid, but, yeah, everything had gotten bigger, and the shows were great.
Does Beau play on the album?
BARRY: Beau does backup vocals. The thing that was confusing when Avail was touring full-time and the thing that’s still confusing to this day and the most frequently asked question is “What the hell does Beau do?” I can tell you that I have no idea but he does everything. I have no idea what Beau does but he does a lot. Beau, he’s a critic, he’s a fifth-part songwriter, he gives advice, he gives you criticisms that hurt your feelings, he gives you advice that’s good, he gets the crowd going completely nuts. He knows what makes a crowd move, he knows what makes a crowd circle pit, he knows what makes a crowd want to do a stage dive or a head walk, and although he doesn’t actually play an instrument, he is a band member. He’s never not been on tour and has never not been in the studio sessions, and he has equal say. He’s also not created; that’s the other thing I like about Avail. In still being active and playing music these days, I can see through your bullshit and ya’ll can see through our bullshit. I think most of the music I enjoy is the shit that happened by accident. Avail is a pretty cool example of that. There was never a day that we said, “Beau, we need a gimmick. Can you grow a goatee and shave your head and get heavily tattooed? Desert the navy and come on tour with us.” There was never that idea. It was so natural. Beau and I have known each other since kindergarten. Avail has many incarnations; in high school I was the drummer for a little bit of time before I started singing. Before that I was a fucking speed metal drummer, a thrash drummer. So bite on that, metalheads [laughs]. In fact, I was born and raised 100-percent fucking metalhead. I’ve seen every of the greatest metal bands in the ’80s that existed from England all the way to Virginia DC, Maryland… Anyway, with that said, when I was the drummer, I didn’t have a great drum set but I played real hard. And Beau would always sit, if there was a drum riser, would always sit next to me or sit on the floor if we were playing in a garage or something. As my drums would fall apart he’d help pick them up. He would mock the crowd while he was doing it. He’s an extrovert; he’s great at it. Eventually I became the singer. Things started rotating around in this weird way and I became the singer. He just kinda got off the drum riser and started coming halfway up the stage, then before you knew it he was doing stage dives and getting the crowd going. Before you know it, we’re on tour and he’s still doing that. Then before you know it, we’re back on tour and people expect Beau to be there. That’s Beau.
Do the songs on Over the James hold up for you?
BEAU BUTLER: Yeah, totally. We just started practicing again like a couple months ago, and I was like, “Fuck, that’s a good song; I forgot how fun that song was.” There’s still things that we hadn’t practiced in 11 years and me and the guitar player are doing silly little moves that only me and him do to each other, like, we did them for years on stage. It’s definitely us. It’s a cool record [laughs].
CONTEXTLESS AND WEEDED OUT:
LARSON: I was listening to Roger Waters’ The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking right before you called and was like, man, this record’s alright, whereas 30 years ago, I’d be like, this is garbage, what is this?
BANKS: So I give you a long-winded answer and pretty much said nothing [laughs]. I tried, I just couldn’t get anywhere with it.