Defeater : A Rebirth – Interview with Jake Woodruff & Mike Poulin

Defeater - Paris (Nov 2015) © Emma Forni //

Defeater – Paris (Nov 2015) © Emma Forni //

A new Defeater tour is imminent and it’s an occasion for us to review and update you on their current situation in the musical landscape. Mainly because 2015 has marked the band’s rebirth after a hectic year of uncertainty, where things started becoming blurry.

 A few months ago, we sat down with guitarist Jake Woodruff, joined later by bass player Mike Poulin and reviewed the highlights of their career, as well as what’s in the oven for the band. While the subject of Jay Mass’ departure has remained unmentioned – maybe because it was too fresh at the time, we learnt quite a few interesting facts about Defeater and shared some ideas with the guys.

So here we are, in one of the busy dressing rooms of the venue, where the Never Say Die! Tour was held that day. It’s November 25th and 6 bands and their crews are occupying the location. That makes a lot of noise and movement, but we don’t mind. Jake is an interesting character, maybe a little bit reserved and shy at first, but having a more chilled and outgoing Mike joining him moments later, helped everything going smoother, and the pair started being extremely talkative at some point…Not that we complain! We started randomly chatting while setting up, reflecting on the context of that one particular show and the return in the French capital city of a band people in France don’t get to see as much as others, and the topic of the past year -or so- in the Defeater camp, came up.

© Mariam B. //
© Mariam B. //

“It was really a dark time”, observes Jake, while readjusting on the couch. “We were down […] and it really felt like it was over”. Of course, we now know that things eventually brightened up and Defeater returned with a new strong record, ‘Abandoned’, the 4th full-length of their career. It’s funny to think that “the band was just supposed to be for fun”, at the time when ‘Lost Grounds’ (2009, EP) was recorded. “Just do like one or two tours and call it a day. You know, have a lot of fun, see the East Coast a couple of times…”, recalls the guitarist. Obviously their time wasn’t quite over yet, and all stars have aligned when they needed it the most (not really, but we’ll dig more into that later.) We are now able to enjoy some more Defeater in our lives. 

With their new album ‘Abandoned’, Defeater once again has the power to make you disconnect from reality. Most of all, Defeater questions all sort of things in one’s mind, often using fictional characters and widely getting hold of their personal experiences.
The record establishes a troubled atmosphere, exploring the lands of faith, doubts and sins, but also pain for a consistent part. If you’ve been a regular follower of Defeater, you’d certainly noticed how much their records always follow a specific storyline, and how all of them are undoubtedly linked. ‘Abandoned’ is no exception and brings out yet another character to the saga. Though their identity remains unclear at the beginning, Defeater drops a few hints that should point out the right direction, with lyrical references to older songs. 

“Originally there was a trajectory saying how we’ll do this or that character, then the band’s going to break up. But we’ve strayed from that and I think that as long as we want to keep writing we’ll do it. It’s a framework that’s given us enough freedom to do a bunch of different things within that. It still gives us a structure to build off from.”

I think [Derek] has done a really good job with keeping the timelines pretty concise and focused, but still telling enough about each character. So I feel like he does each character justice with each new record and gives enough new information while still retelling the same events through different lens. There’s undeniably a few more obvious characters to write records about but I don’t have any personal regrets.”

After four painful records, the Bostonians are visibly not taking it to the brighter side, using their art – ability to express themselves through music – as a catharsis exploring, balancing between relatable truth and fiction. The limit between the two is never too clear and Defeater makes a point in using their own experiences to feed their characters’ stories. Therefore, we can see in the in-depth contemplation of the dark alleys of uncontrolled pain. It comes as sort of an echo to lead singer Derek Archambault’s struggle with his health in the past year and after all; writing music actually heals wounds. “I think, with everything creative you’re always trying to outdo yourself, that’s kind of the point […] So each new record is trying to be the best Defeater album – whatever that means. And this time that meant making it noisier and darker to mirror the darker subject matter. I mean not that any of them are very light but…”

In fact, storytelling is one of the main points in hardcore music – in Defeater’s especially – and we wondered where this idea originated. It turns out somehow; this made things click within the whole band, while the project wasn’t even supposed to last, when Bridge 9 Records (their label at the time) requested a follow up EP to ‘Travels’ (2008 debut album); storytelling in full Defeater fashion cemented the project and ‘Lost Ground’ was born. “There were some talks about not doing that but I’m really glad that’s what we decided in the end.”
 And rightfully so! To Jake, this is one of the things that threw him in this band, when he joined in the first place. “When we came to do ‘Lost Grounds’, that’s when things started to take off and when we started touring more.”

 The least we can say, indeed, is that Defeater is definitely a touring band but with such an uncommon “style”. Truth is that it’s not easy for them to find tour bills that 100% fit them. Is it really an issue? Probably not. Their latest European tour as part of the Never Say Die! Tour is a good example for that matter. Oddly enough, this one represented yet another challenge to this already established band that was facing brand new crowds in a line up from a heavier spectrum. Defeater do not really pick their tours according to what would suit them best, and rather see them as opportunities.  

“We’ve been touring for a while so every new opportunity we get is good […] we love playing shows, we all played in other bands too. We are playing a lot of shows all the time and creating is something we all take very seriously and hold very dear. Especially this year, we went to some very crazy places. We went to Israel, Greece and Russia over the Summer and we’ve been to Australia like three times now. Just to be able to see the world because we’re playing in a punk-rock band is something that is pretty wild. Me and Joe unloaded [the gear] at the venue in Bordeaux, France, then we grabbed city bikes and just went off for two hours before we stopped to catch our breath. We were driving around contemplating «Holy shit this city is beautiful! This is amazing!». So all that stuff is something we try to take advantage of and are very thankful for.”  

 “You don’t know what you got until it’s gone”

When music is such an essence to a community of people, one must wonder if touring and meeting the world is an inspiration itself, for bands like Defeater. People who know this band, at least a bit, must have noticed their discretion, which Jake confirms. “I don’t know if we think of the whole ‘meeting the fans’ thing very much. It definitely is crazy to meet people that connect with your music because the creation part of music is such an isolated event.” 

Actually, even when they create music, Defeater are rarely altogether in the same room. However, they collectively admit that being part of a community like this one can be overwhelming, especially when you realize there are people out there you don’t even know personally, ready to back you up in difficult times. It’s not uncommon for music lovers to fund album releases from scratch or even raise money to help out artists in difficult times. The most impressive – recent – example remains the unprecedented support The Ghost Inside received following their terrible bus crash while on tour at the end of 2015. But Defeater also experienced the same kind of support when frontman Derek Archambault needed a hip replacement surgery in 2014 that he’s partly financed, selling new music from his solo project, Alcoa.  

“The fact that they were able to raise money to offset that financial burden is awesome. And for our band, with Derek, there was almost a year where it was a very real possibility that Defeater wouldn’t play shows for a very long time. So the fact that people cared enough to raise that money for Derek was pretty amazing.”

Looking back, Defeater reveal that they genuinely felt like it was the end of their journey together. “I honestly couldn’t believe it. When we first hit the break it really felt dark for us, it was a really dark time. We were down, Derek more than the rest of us even […] it really felt like it was over” recalls Mike.
Even more so “It felt like it was over without the benefit of closure.”, adds Jake. Derek could benefit from the surgery but nothing was so sure. The guys stated “It was a giant question mark we had over our heads: What’s happening? ” 

It’s when they tried to figure out what to do with their lives at the time, that they realized there could be some “hope” which Mike details: “ As the idea sort of formed and Derek was recording these songs and donations were coming in. People were pledging money and buying the songs and everything so it started clearing all the questions from my head. Not only is this what we all want to do but also there’s no question now. I feel like we came back in March (2015) and first order of business was to play as many shows as possible because people were donating from all over the world. You feel like you owe them and you’ve got to make it good on them, not take it for granted.”

Also, as they put it, the whole experience was “empowering ”
 …Just like a rebirth.
“It definitely felt that way”, he confirms. “You don’t know what you got until it’s gone.”

defeater (5 of 7)
© Mariam B. //

This brings us to the topic of considering music as a therapy, especially as we know for fact that Defeater has this cathartic power, as well as an intensity that is deliciously rare. Think of songs like Cowardice, Bastards, Dear Father, or more recently Atonement: they can only affect and move the coldest human.
“That’s why we do it”, states Jake. “Because it connects people in a way that helps them, in very real ways.” But he remains pragmatic and makes a reservation, musing that he’s also seen it in a negative way, “where once you remove that from someone’s life, it can go really badly.” And that’s an aspect that often is overlooked. But in the darkest times everyone’s reactions are different and handling difficult, even scary events isn’t processed the same way universally. 

Now that’s not a subject we like harping on about, for various reasons. Thing is, Defeater happened to be in Europe when the infamous Paris attacks occurred, back in November 2015. The show in the city was maintained and Defeater shared with us their thoughts on how the situation has been approached within the tour. “There’s definitely people on the tour that were afraid of coming.” 

“But the people living here have been dealing with that everyday since it happened. And it happened in their home, to people they know. So to us, it was the least we could do: To sort of contribute and carry on as usual, in our own small way. Especially because one of the attacks happened at a music venue. That is pretty close to home for all of us because you know, it was a 1,500 capacity venue which is the size of some of the shows on this tour.”

“If the rowing of this tour had gone differently, who knows? You know what I mean. Unfortunate things like that happen and a lot of the times it’s just a blurb on the news. And you’re sitting in the comfort of your own home and it happened in a far off land. I just couldn’t believe that a music event could be targeted […] We were all sitting around in a different capacity venue, in a different European city going like « Holy shit ! This easily could have been here.» So (whether to play or not) really wasn’t a question. When people started talking about the fact it might not happen we all asked ourselves why. To us that’s one more reason to play.” All in all, the band wondered “why wouldn’t we play this show?” Well, you should know that some of them just went with the idea of renting a car and playing house shows if the tour happened to get cancelled! 

Besides, we didn’t forget to remind the guys that they also owed a show to Paris (after cancelling a date last summer), to which they replied all smiles, that they were definitely coming back regardless. 

© Mariam B. //
© Mariam B. //

After all, Defeater has achieved most of their successes on the road. Therefore, it was clear that playing shows wouldn’t easily be taken off them. Should it be only for the mental performances they share with their listeners, such as in Belgium’s Groezrock festival.

Groezrock [2015] was one of those moments where, I don’t think any of us was prepared for the reaction, especially playing after bands that had such an intense reaction such as Trashtalk and Ceremony.  We were all nervous  -at least I was – to have to play after all those bands […] I fully expected to walk out and look into a half empty tent. And it was not…It was awesome but I think I was even more nervous when I saw how many people there were. That was really fun.” acknowledges Poulin.

Defeater considers themselves fortunate to always be welcome in Europe and to always be able to play awesome shows that they love. “It comes once again to owing something to the people who make all of this possible. This “community”, that is often mentioned in this genre of music. To me, it’s one of the benefits of being part of a community. You know, bands get bigger and this communal feel kind of disperses a bit. Not everyone is as tightly knit as they were when everyone was playing house shows and DIY shows but if you come from a community of people like that and you still contribute to such a community of people then that’s one of the benefits. Now we have the opportunity and Derek has that opportunity to pay that forward and pay back.” Pay back as in playing as many shows as possible, according to the bass player.

However, having their relatives and loved ones actually understand the significance of what they’re doing with their band is an achievement itself. Mike remembers how good it was to record a session at Maida Vale studios, which is one of the greatest steps any musician can do. Maida Vale is an institution and the greatest artists of the past decades have stepped there at some point in their career. This is an experience that Jake describes as “awesome and terrifying” 

“We recorded some songs in the Maida Vale studios, for the BBC. And you know, even the final product and everything aside (…) just that day of going there and getting to be in those rooms and look around was really cool” remembers Mike. “You know, playing in a punk or hardcore band, my parents are so cool and down to earth but there’s not so much of it that they can really relate to. And going home and be like « Yeah! We recorded at the BBC!”  that was something that was a nice little feather in our cap.”

It goes the same way for Jake, with simple things like touring in foreign countries such as Australia. Their first time there happened to be during a holiday, where him and his band mates had to miss celebrations with their families. “I remember mentioning that to my uncle and he said «Oh, Wow!»  So for some reason that made what I was doing legitimate (to) those people as your uncle for example, that has no idea of what you do and thinks you’re his weird nephew.”

Since that time, Defeater made huge steps forward and earned some more recognition in the alternative world, such as being now part of the popular label that is Epitaph, home to some legendary bands, such as Bad Religion and Social Distortion. Starting to talk to Epitaph in the first place was “a big one”, for Defeater“For all of us that was our favorite record label growing up. We’ve caught a bunch of flacks signing to Epitaph but I think a lot of people now don’t understand what it meant in the 90s and early 2000s. If Epitaph pulled out a band I’d bought the record” Mike says.  And it’s true that an important number of bands are now signed to the label; and the guys can’t help cracking a joke about younger people not really knowing what the fuss is all about, apart that they’re on the same label as Falling In Reverse (we’re not judging, but we admit we had a laugh) while for them, this mostly means Alkaline Trio, Converge and Rancid

“All of our first records were Epitaph records.  So walking into that office and seeing…’And Out Comes The Wolves’ from Rancid on the wall – I don’t know if it was platine, silver or gold but – that was the first punk CD I had when I was 12. My neighbour gave it to me or sold it to me for a dollar. And we’re going to have the little « E » at the back of our records!” We feel you, Defeater! This must feel unreal.  

You never really know what tomorrow will bring. Sometimes, you’re in a band -almost – just for fun and a few years later, you find yourself touring the world and securing a deal with your favorite music label. What’s the future holding for Defeater? No one really knows. But there’s one thing we know for sure: The band is back in the old continent to play some shows alongside the mighty Australians in Break Even and the punks in Kids Insane. There are quite a few shows scheduled, starting Thursday, March 10th, so don’t miss out!

Tour dates here :


Words : Roxy G. & Mariam B. 


Defeater at Never Say Die! Festival 2015: 

Photos : Emma Forni.

I have a tendency to seek for new sounds and humbly contribute to its living. I'm a dreamer, I live for today and take the time to appreciate every single thing that life has to offer.

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