[ there's no place like home ]
by Craig Young

If you passed Alex Newport on a street, his mild-mannered demeanor would never lead you to guess the sonic tyrant he is onstage. A slight man with a beguiling grin, Newport is quiet, keeps mostly to himself, and is always polite. It's only when you catch him make a comment in passing about something that's piqued his interest, or further corner him on a topic he's passionate about, do you catch a glimmer of the fiery personality underneath. Quick-witted and always on mark, he doesn't hold back his opinions. After having spent numerous years slugging it out as both a musician and as an engineer and producer, he knows the business both inside and out, and those wishing to gain some useful insight into its mechanisms would do well to heed his counsel.

As a musician, Newport is probably best known for Fudge Tunnel, a band he founded in 1988 with bassist Dave Riley and drummer Adrian Parkin. Based in Nottingham, England, their peculiar brand of incredibly heavy, distortion-drenched metal quickly gained attention, both good and bad. The cover of their 1991 album Hate Songs in E Minor depicted a decapitated body, and initial pressings of it were seized by authorities and charged as "offensive." In 1994 Newport hooked up with ex-Sepultura/Soulfly singer Max Cavalera and recorded Point Blank under the moniker Nailbomb. That album led to two shows in the Netherlands, one of which was at the Dynamo Open Air Festival in front of a crowd of 120,000, and was subsequently released in 1995 as Proud to Commit Commercial Suicide. Newport would go on to record one final album with Fudge Tunnel, 1995's The Complicated Futility of Ignorance, before disbanding the group and moving to the States.

Towards the end of Fudge Tunnel, Newport concentrated on working behind the recording console instead of in front of it, and through the mid-to-late '90s recorded such bands as The Melvins, At the Drive-In, and the Mars Volta, to name but a few. A consummate professional, Newport's skills as an engineer and producer are very much in demand from bands big and small, and listening to records he's worked on it quickly becomes obvious why.

After moving to San Francisco, Newport decided to form a new band, Theory of Ruin. Hooking up with drummer Ches Smith and bassist Ian Billet, they played sporadically through 1999 and released a 7-inch on Elastic Records. Billet left due to medical reasons, and after an intermediate hiatus Newport found a permanent replacement in the form of David Link. Last fall the band released their first full length, Counter-Culture Nosebleed. Listening to the album it becomes immediately obvious that it is the culmination of Newport's work as both musician and producer. Heavy yet impeccably tight, moving from moments of avant-jazz to a wall of guitar fury, the album deftly showcases Newport's ability to eloquently capture on tape what is in his head.

Preparing to begin a three-week west coast tour with Theory of Ruin, I caught up with Newport at his home in San Francisco in early March to talk with him about his band, his career as an engineer/producer, and what the future holds for a very unique and talented person. Kind thanks to Alex for his time and, as always, thanks for the great music.

[ david link, alex newport, ches smith - photo by jean-michael aubert ]
photo by jean-michael aubert

How have things been? What are you currently working on?

Alex Newport: I was just working with this band from Tokyo called Polysics, who came out [to San Francisco] for ten days. They're on Sony in Japan, but no one's heard of them over here. It was interesting, I talked with the band over e-mail and then we agreed to do the session and I was like, "Cool, I'm going to Tokyo," and they replied, "Nah...we'll come out there." And I was trying to explain to them that they'd have to rent equipment, book a hotel for their stay, etc. I guess going to a studio in Japan is ridiculously expensive. Even a really basic studio is like $3,000 a day. So for them to come over and rent equipment, stay in a hotel for ten days, on top of the cost of the flight, was still cheaper than flying one person over to Japan for the session.

It's crazy how the math figures that way. What does the band sound like?

Alex: They sound a lot like Devo -- a punk rock Devo. Very quirky but a lot heavier. They're really good, and It's cool because I've had their CDs for a long time and I've always like them. A friend of mine has a mutual friend in the band. One day I was talking to him about the band and asking him to have his friend e-mail me as a joke, figuring that working with them was never going to happen. Two weeks later I got an e-mail from the band saying, "Yeah, sure. Let's do it."

Had they been to the States before?

Alex: They did a tour about two years ago where they did five shows in the States, including, I think, South by Southwest. They're English is about as good as my Japanese.

Did they have someone along to act as a translator?

Alex: They did. They're A&R guy came over and pretty much translated everything for them. It was very interesting.

How have things been besides that?

Alex: Besides that, things have been really good but completely fucking crazy. I was in Los Angeles through a lot of the winter. The big thing right now has been finding time for: A) my band, and B) my girlfriend.

Those always seem to be the two issues, don't they?

Alex: Yup. My girlfriend just moved here from New York, and the day after she moved here I went to Los Angeles for three weeks. And by some amazing foul-up on my part I forgot to tell her that I was going to LA.

[Laughs] Erk... whoops! Note on the fridge for her to find in the morning: "Gone to LA -- back in three weeks. Love ya!"

Alex: Yeah. I was like, "Can you give me a ride to the airport today?"

"Why? Where are you going?"

"I'm going to LA for three weeks. Didn't I tell you...?"

[ counter-culture nosebleed ]
[ give a listen! ] "Asleep at the Wheel" MP3

So I was really surprised -- unexpectedly but happily surprised -- to finally get a copy of Counter-Culture Nosebleed. When I saw you last in San Francisco in 2001 it sounded like Theory of Ruin had quietly died for all intents and purposes. So my big question for you is what transpired between the 7-inch you released on Elastic Records in 1999 and this recent full-length?

Alex: Umm...a whole lot happened. But in a nutshell: our new bass player is what transpired.

I believe you previously told me that your previous bass player, Ian Billet, was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome, correct?

Alex: Yup. But there were some musical differences going on between us as well. I really liked playing with Ian, but the problem was he was more noise oriented and not really song oriented. He had no desire to write "songs," and that was what I felt was really needed to pull the whole noise thing of ours together. And Ches [Smith, drums] is not one to write four-minute long songs. So we were kind of looking for a bass player to pull it all together and give us a more solid direction. We went almost a year without a bass player. It was ridiculous. We auditioned so many people and nobody got what we were trying to do at all.

I remember talking to you back then and getting the sense that you were pretty frustrated with what was going on.

Alex: Yeah... I was ready to give up back then.

How then did you come across your current bassist, David Link?

Alex: David used to play in a band called San Geronimo and I recorded an EP with them. We got along really well, and I guess because he was in San Geronimo it didn't really occur to me to ask him to join my band because I was looking for somebody that didn't have a band already.

Ches and I finally agreed that we would find someone who would at least record the songs we had because we just wanted to get some songs recorded, so we ended up playing with David. The first practice we had everything started instantly working out. He had some great ideas about what we were doing, and I said, "Okay, but you have to join the band."

When did you start recording the album in earnest, then?

Alex: It would've been January 2002. Wait, it got mixed last January, and it came out last September. Needless to say, we're already due for another one -- which I think we're going to be writing soon.

Do you feel that you have a pretty solid line up with the band now?

Alex: Yes.

As such, do you think you'll be focusing on putting the band more to the forefront of your attentions alongside the work you do as a producer and engineer?

Alex: I'm trying to, but it's just so difficult. It's not only me. Everybody in the band is busy with other things, too, so it's really difficult. What we're doing at this point is booking stuff far ahead. It's the only way we can make sure everybody can do it.

Do you have a long term agenda for the band, or at least an idea of where you'd like to see things end up?

Alex: We're just trying to do as much as possible -- that's all. That's our only goal. We're limited by many things in how much we can do, but we're definitely trying to do as much as we can. We did a three-week tour back in November. We will have done another tour this March, and we're hoping to do a nationwide tour in the future, but probably not off of this album. It will probably be off the next album.

[ alex newport - photo by craig young ]
photo by craig young

How has the response been to Counter-Culture Nosebleed and also to your recent tour dates?

Alex: Great so far. We had a nine out of ten review in Alternative Press, and everyone who heard it seemed to be into it. But there's been a lot of people, like the old Fudge Tunnel and Nailbomb fans. Also, we're on a label, Escape Artist, that has predominantly hardcore and metal bands. They send CDs out for review to a lot of metal magazines and a lot of them just don't get it. Which to me is perfect. I love it! I think it's great!

We're at the point where we're trying to remove ourselves from that scene entirely at this point. The problem we have is that there isn't really anything that we "fit" on, you know? I had the same exact problem with Fudge Tunnel. We were too heavy for punk, but we were too punk for metal. We just don't fit, and it's really hard to get involved with the right people who understand us.

It seems to me that people don't get the punchline in your music. They're trying too hard to judge it against what they have in their stereo.

Alex: Exactly. We played with High on Fire in San Francisco -- which I have to say we'll be the last time we ever play with a metal band.

[Laughs] Why is that?

Alex: Because we're not a metal band, and people just do not get that.

We did an interview with the immensely talented Justin Broadrick right before he disbanded Godflesh (RIP). In that interview with Broadrick discussed his work with one of his numerous musical outlets, Techno Animal, and he mentioned that the scene Techno Animal was involved in was so much better than with Godflesh, because Godflesh's crusty-metal-doom-punk fans expectations of the band musically we're so rigid, so black and white, that if you deviated from it in the slightest they didn't get the joke and made you suffer because of it.

Alex: It was funny, when we played with High on Fire Matt [Pike, vocalist/guitarist] came up to me after the show and said, "I know that what you guys are doing is cool, and I know that I'm supposed to get it, but I don't get it." And I said, "That's great! I'm really happy that you don't get it." Because I think that if he "got it" we'd probably be doing something wrong.

One of the things I noticed about Counter-Culture Nosebleed is that your vocals are a lot more melodic than I think people familiar with your past work might expect. Is this a natural progression of your singing, or were you looking for a different way to apply your vocals to the music?

Alex: I'm just trying to do something different with it. It's very easy to play loud guitar and drums and shout a lot. That style has been done a hell of a lot, and I'm one of the main perpetrators responsible for beating it to death. I was really just trying to find a way to make it sound different somehow. The music got heavy and loud and I was just trying to find some way to offset that. At first I thought to try that with the bass guitar, but then it occurred to me that I could do that with the vocals, so we tried to make an effort to do something different in that regards.

[ david link - photo by scott kinkade ]
photo by scott kinkade

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