Mental spark – an interview with PILLÄRS

PILLARS live by Ed Battes
Founded in 2015, Celveland, Ohio’s PILLÄRS could be name many things, as they fit into many categories indluging thrash, hardcore, sludge, doom, noise, metal, etc., but boring isn’t one of them. They released debut demo cassette via Tall Tee Tapes in late 2015 and since then, have continued to sharpen their sound through increasingly aggressive and visceral live shows. In our interview below, the band’s vocalist/guitarist Zach G. talks about his closest neighbourhood in Celeveland, tells the story of PILLÄRS and discusses independent art spaces, and the need to put DIY punk ethic to practice in a meaningful way.

PILLÄRS are playing with GENOCIDE PACT from Washington, D.C. and CRINGE on January 27th and with WITHERED and IMMORTAL BIRD on Feberuary 26th. Both shows will take place in Cleveland. The band will be going on tour in March! Stay tuned for more details on that soon!

Photo by Ed Battes

Hey there Zach! Thanks for taking some time with IDIOTEQ! How are you? How’s Cleveland? Congratulations on winning the NBA and UFC heavyweight championships, haha. Are you into sports?

Hey man, obviously we have a little more to talk about with this question now that the first game of the world series is going to be the same night as the Cavaliers opening night, hoisting that national championship banner! Given our history I honestly thought I might have to wait a lifetime for that one…

Quite frankly things are crazy right now, both for me and it seems for Cleveland generally. I have these periods of procrastination and then bursts of frantic energy where I try to get everything done…I know it’s not healthy, but I think I’ve convinced myself that I work best under pressure to the point where it’s just normal for me. Trying to work on that because I don’t want to get burned out. I’ll let you know how that goes.

As for Cleveland?…man. Cleveland in the fall is probably my favorite time of year. I’m more a fan of cooler weather but weather that’s not truly cold; jacket/hoodie weather I guess you could say. It’s been a crazy summer that it seems everyone is still trying to ride out for as long as possible before we get hit with what everyone is saying is going to be a terrible winter. There is such an amazing extended family of weirdos in this town, especially in the music scene, and this past year in particular it seems like a lot of new and exciting things got off the ground. New zines, new places to play, of course new bands. And of course all this in addition to some bands that have been around for a bit that are really starting to push out in a bigger way and carry the flag to other cities. Some troubled times too, of course; we have had some tension here given our hosting the RNC and our police dept. under Federal observation for brutality. Also very concerned about the huge spike in heroin overdoses here. So in the end we just have to look out for each other.

Thanks for all the sports kudos – I thought this was a music zine!…no worries though, I can hold a decent conversation about sports. I didn’t used to be very much into them, although I played soccer pretty regularly since I was a little kid up through high school and played some intramural football in high school and college. I think the older I got, the more I got into sports actually, because I’m a history fan and also a sucker for traditions and ritual. I went to Ohio State for college, and let me tell you, if you are a music fan, watch and listen to the Ohio State Marching Band enter the stadium sometime before a football game. Those kids, especially the drum line, sound like they are marching into battle. It puts your hair on end. Same thing reading up the history. I love Yogi Berra quotes. I think Jesse Owens is an inspiration. If the browns go 0-16 this year I will officially be switching my allegiance to the Oakland Raiders, because from everything I’ve heard Oakland is like the Cleveland of the west coast, or at least it was described to me recently as a dive bar kinda town, and that’s basically how I describe Cleveland. Maybe that’s changed with how fast gentrification has spread out there, which I think is a shame and pretty disgusting, frankly. Cities need some grit. Too much polish and you get a plastic, sterile place that’s no fun and overrun by douchebags.

Haha, great! Thanks for the amazing introduction to Cleveland. I read that last part ‘too much Polish’ and I was confused for a second, but I guess that actually too much Poles can be a problem, too ;) By the way, are there a lot of countrymen in Cleveland? Do you know some Polish fellas over there across the pond?

Cleveland is a big city for those of Central and Eastern European heritage; a lot of people’s grandparents and great-grandparents emigrated to Cleveland for work in our factories from what we call ‘the old country.’ I myself am Ukrainian and my grandfather was born in Lviv in 1905, which I believe was a part of Poland when he was born. The bass player for PILLARS, Beth Piwkowski, is Polish. Dyngus day is a fairly big holiday here in Cleveland and we just had a large Polish festival at a cathedral in the neighborhood where I work, in a historic district called Warszawa. The whole neighborhood is actually called ’Slavic Village’ because it was settled by so many Eastern Europeans. Most of the folks I work with have a mix of ancestry, whether it be Slovenian, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Ukrainian, etc. and some can still speak their native languages in addition to English. There is also a great deli there called Seven Roses, which is all traditional Polish cooking. The woman who runs the place is a Polish immigrant, and many people consider her food to be the most authentic Polish cuisine in Cleveland. Whenever I go there I have at least two plates. So yes, I have some Polish friends and there are a lot of Polish pride around town. Good beer too!

Wow, how awesome is that? Maybe I should take my wife and kid and move there to join the good lady and serve you some traditional cuisine of my homeland?
Beer-wise, we’re in the middle of huge craft beer revolution here in Poland. There are literally hundreds of craft pubs, beer festivals and many new beer-related happenings and businesses that have made our market a one hell of an adventure for a beer-lover. I wonder what Polish brands made it to Cleveland, but I guess that paradoxically the good beer you mentioned may be a product of big breweries that can afford major exporting, but started to lose market share to smaller breweries, which move ahead of the giants of the beer market. I myself am one, so sorry for jabbering, haha.

Ok, so let’s learn a bit more about PILLARS. How did you get involved in hardcore scene in the first place? Please tell us a bit about your background and what led you to start PILLARS.

The only two Polish brands I’ve seen here are Tyskie and Okocim, but I’m sure there are others. We could go on and on about beer I’m sure…

So about PILLARS and hardcore…this is a big question!

First off, my background and ‘hardcore’:

I grew up kind of on the outskirts of Cleveland in an area called the Mahoning Valley. There are two major towns in the Valley, Warren and Youngstown. I grew up in Warren, but there was a larger scene in Youngstown, and of course, for big shows everyone travelled up to Cleveland. Everywhere around me was heavy industry that was no longer operating: steel mills were closed or closing, and many people were out of work. And as a young person growing up in this environment I had a lot of anger and frustration, but I knew that I needed to put that into something positive or else I would end up like some of the people I knew who were winding up in jail, on heroin or becoming alcoholics at a very young age.

I had started playing guitar when I was 11, mostly classic rock and ‘77 punk. I think the first two songs I ever learned on guitar were the Animals’ version of House of the Rising Sun and Blitzkrieg Bop. I was frustrated because I was not very much a fan of the ‘pop-punk’ that was very popular when I was growing up. Those bands as far as I knew, like GREEN DAY and BLINK-182, were from sunny California and their music didn’t really speak to me or my surroundings. Anyway, by the time I was 14, I had just entered high school and I was ready to start a band. I found some other kids at my school, but right away we were just playing really kind of lame rock-sounding songs that didn’t go anywhere.

After a few months, I met up with a kid during winter break from school who played drums very well who would become a life-long friend of mine. He had an older friend who introduced the both of us to what I would call ‘real’ hardcore. I think the first song I heard was ‘Pay to Cum’ by the BAD BRAINS. Absolutely blew me away. From there I got really into those great bands from the 1980s: BLACK FLAG, MINOR THREAT, VOID, MDC, DIE KREUZEN, FLIPPER, DEAD KENNEDYS. I hope every kid has that experience of finding music like that.

What hooked me right from the start, maybe even more than the music, was the DIY attitude: that we, even as kids, could create our own community and make our own rules, or not have any rules, and live our own lives without marching to someone else’s orders. That spirit of total freedom was something that I took very seriously and still believe in today. I think the DIY ethic and attitude is what separates music for me: there are bands that have that certain DIY spirit and attitude and those that are just inside the traditional industry system, or what is left of it, being handled by some record label to make money. The freedom to experiment and express yourself I think has always been more of an influence to me rather than to just write something catchy or that some company can sell.

Another thing that I discovered was that this DIY attitude was not just limited to bands who played fast or was limited to a particular style. Some other big early inspirations for me were people like Steve Albini and many of the bands he recorded as well as the slower, heavier music that seemed also to have this DIY approach: ST. VITUS, THE MELVINS, and what I guess some people refer to as ’stoner metal.’ Personally I prefer to use words like ‘doom’ or ‘sludge’ to describe that music because ’stoner metal’ is just a really dumb way to describe a style of music. But anyway, my new drummer and I started playing together and tried to combine all these various influences around us.

So how do we get from high school kids playing in their first band to now? Without turning this into a novel, it basically goes like this: my drummer and I both moved to Columbus (Ohio’s capitol city) for college, and continued to play in the band we had started, RED SUN. As we grew older, we started to establish our own sound which evolved from what I would call ‘psychedelic punk’ to a heavy, aggressive style that started to draw people’s attention around 2008/2009. However, after college, I moved to Cleveland while he stayed in Columbus with our bass player at the time, who had also become his roommate. Unfortunately, as with many things, our ideas about music changed, and those differences were only amplified by the distance.

Although we tried to keep it going, by 2014, RED SUN had effectively broken up, which was a shame because we were right in the middle of tracking demos for a new record. I was pretty depressed, actually. RED SUN had been my musical life since I was 14 and now it was over. But during my years back in Cleveland I was exposed to so much amazing music. There was once again this grit and sense of post-industrial decay that reminded me of growing up in the Valley, but something else that was inspiring to me: where growing up there was a sense of mourning and loss at the surroundings, in Cleveland that same decay was celebrated by people as a kind of defiant toughness in the face of dire circumstances.

After RED SUN broke up, I was around Cleveland as a freelance guitarist with just about any band that would take me. While I enjoyed playing in those bands, and I love the friendships that came out of those bands, I was also missing something. After reviewing those half-tracked RED SUN demos, plus some notes about song ideas that had gone stale, I decided that I needed to pick up where I left off and keep pushing in the direction I had wanted to go. I had an idea for something that was much more direct, heavier, more aggressive, and more cohesive than anything I had done previously. And that is PILLARS.


Who joined you in this new endeavour?

So as with every band, there is a story behind everyone getting together. My initial idea was to find a drummer that could play on the riffs I was already working on, which is no small feat in a place like Cleveland because most if not all good drummers are already in at least 2-3 bands. I found a young guy, John, through a mutual friend of ours when we were working on a short-lived project. We agreed to start jamming together at his apartment inside an old warehouse, which was basically a hallway below where he slept.

After we had played together a few times it was sounding ok, and so I started looking around for other musicians. I had an idea with PILLARS to see if a female musician would be interested in being a part of the band in some capacity, not only because I think there are some incredibly talented women out there with a lot to say that are not being taken seriously, but also that some of my primary influences for this band, including ELECTRIC WIZARD and BOLT THROWER, had very prominent female musicians. There was a female disc jockey at the local college radio station WCSB, Beth Piwkowski, that had a morning heavy rock show, and it turned out we both lived in the same neighborhood of Cleveland and were even members of the same neighborhood online group. So I just asked her point blank, considering the kind of music she was already playing on her show and obviously a fan of, if she played an instrument and would be interested in joining our next practice. To my surprise she got back to me very quickly and played bass and guitar. So we all got together and it seemed pretty obvious that we were all on the same page musically and aesthetically and that she had a lot of really good ideas for the band. So we moved into a real practice space and that was that.

Now recently John had some other obligations that unfortunately has prevented him from staying with the band, but we are very fortunate to now have arguably one of the best drummers in the Cleveland scene right now, Mike Burrows, as his replacement. We are sharing him with our friends ALL DINOSAURS, who are themselves a fantastic band in Cleveland that everyone reading this should discover, if they haven’t already. We are very, very lucky to be in such good company.

Did you have a specific goal you were trying to achieve? Play a one hell of extreme music and make PILLARS a substitute for working out at the gym? Save the world with your lyrics? Personally, what purpose does this project serve?

This is a very deep question. Although at the outset, I would say that I definitely go to the gym to play in this band, not as a substitute: our live performances are very physical, and our equipment is all quite large and heavy hahaha.

But truly I don’t know if PILLARS serves any kind of purpose aside from the purely self-expressive motivations of the individuals who play in this band. I do feel, as I think I mentioned earlier, as though there was unfinished creative business when my former band ended and so maybe for me personally PILLARS is a chance to keep traveling along that path and exploring an artistic creativity that enables me to say all those things I cannot put into normal words. I know it is an outlet as well for darker thoughts and observations, perhaps as therapy if that makes sense. The world today and particularly my country seems be going a bit insane at the moment, and it is something that we talk about constantly as a band. We all have our own thoughts, and I won’t speak for anyone else, but I do know we all share a deep frustration with things as they are and seem to be going. But ultimately I believe that self-expression is its own purpose, and we use this band to express ourselves.

Because of that, I wouldn’t say we have any intention of saving anything with the songs we create, or urging people to take or not take some kind of action or to think or feel a certain way. We simply express ourselves and leave it up to the listener to react. Each person is different and unique, and I think the true beauty of music or any art for that matter is when so many people, who may all have totally different reactions, are still all simultaneously experiencing that moment together. I find this approach to be much more meaningful than a musician who uses their craft as a pulpit to preach whatever it is that they believe others should think or feel. Who are they to tell anyone else what to think or how to act? Much more powerful I think if each person who experiences the music, either at a show or listening to a recording, uses their own mind and reacts in their own way. It is like the difference between a people spontaneously getting involved at a concert or jumping up while listening to a song and playing air guitar and having some jackass on stage telling everyone to clap their hands and sing along at the chorus.

Welp I just found my new favorite band. Pillars is nuts!

Film zamieszczony przez użytkownika Wax Mage Records (@waxmagerecords)

I believe the self-expression process you explained has recently resulted in a burst of creative and artistic manifests, especially in the States. Would Trump’s presidency result in revival of punk ethos and, paradoxically, a flood of worthwhile, politically charged records?

So to answer this question, because we are now talking punk and politics, I am going to share some American pop culture wisdom from the television show Portlandia. If you are not familiar, find and watch the episode that guest stars Jello Biafra of the DEAD KENNEDYS. In part of the episode, Biafra wakes up from a coma that he has supposedly been in since the 1980s and walks around modern, 21st Century Portland USA. After stumbling out of the hospital he encounters all the stereotypes of the modern American ‘progressive’: people obsessed with yoga, food, farmers markets, dressing as if they lived in the 1800s, but essentially just the same yuppies. Finally, he encounters a pair of stereotypical punks begging for money on a street corner and yells at them: “How could you let THIS happen?!”

The moral of that story, as I take it, is that rather than sitting on a street corner, people who take the DIY/punk ethic seriously need to put that ethic to practice in a meaningful way if they really do care about what is going on here. That means getting off your ass and doing something with your life that directly challenges the system. That, to me, is the heart and soul of DIY/punk. One of the frustrating things I see is that people are being partisan rather than being radical. The true examples of the DIY/punk ethos were radicals, I believe, not simply campaigners for the Democratic Party. The real punks that I know are not partisans, they are radicals, and they have been having the same attitude towards authority, be it the government or the corporations that are intertwined with it, regardless of whether conservatives or liberals are in power. The difference between a radical, DIY/punk ethic for me and a partisan hack is this: radicals say “power over others is evil and should be limited as much as possible, REGARDLESS of who has it.” Partisans on the other hand will say “power is evil UNLESS I or my party wields it.” The DIY/punk ethos, at least for me, has always been about a radical, as opposed to partisan, identity.

I hope that more music will be created now that is radical as I have just described, like the early hardcore bands did. Bands like the DEAD KENNEDYS, VOID, DIE KREUZEN, BLACK FLAG, MINOR THREAT. What I am afraid will happen, however, is that now, under Trump but unlike under Obama, it will be fashionable to be a rebel once again, and the music will not be viscerally challenging to authority itself, only to who wields it. It’s the difference between wearing an ‘anarchy’ patch on a jacket because you think it looks cool and actually believing that a world, country, or even a city without centralized power or bosses is not only possible, but achievable, and working toward that goal in some way in your life.

That being said, I and everyone else involved in DYI/punk here is deeply troubled by the political situation in my country. I want to emphasize for those who have never been to America and only see our country from the actions of our government that Americans are generally good people, but we need to get out more and experience other cultures. Europe has the great advantage in that, within 4 or 5 hours, one can travel through 5 or 6 countries by train or car, each country with a distinct culture, food, language, etc. In America, sometimes you can drive 4 or 5 hours and still be in the same state, never seeing anything or anyone different than what was in your hometown. I also think our society has been intentionally dumbed down and lied to by those in power in this country for a very long time, in our education, in our media, and in our journalism. And the unfortunate end result of that history of lies and misinformation is a political situation like we are seeing unfolding now.

I hope these events have been a wake up call and there will there be not only radical music, but music which inspires people to constructive action, to get educated, and put what they have learned into practice. Music should be a start, but must not be an end, to our opposition.

Can you share more details on a possible, achievable decentralized establishment you mentioned? Are there already such systems working out there? Given the current political structures, it’s almost unimaginable and sounds quite utopian, to be honest.

I think that punk rock has always been in some ways a blueprint for how such an idea may come into being. Of course given our current situation not only in America but all across the world, it must certainly seem utopian and even a bit naive I suppose, but isn’t the purpose of all music and art to trigger some kind of mental spark in our minds? I think the great 80s hardcore band VOID summed up very well what am talking about in the song “My Rules”; it’s a song about wanting autonomy, wanting freedom from a society that wants to ensure conformity. So if that is the goal, what does DIY tell us to? The ethic tells us to do it however we can if we believe in it.

I think the first examples of this on a small scale are punk houses and cooperatives. It may not seem like much, but for many people punk houses or other kinds of communes are the introduction to living out this DIY reality. Whether it serves as an alternative music venue to increasingly corporate and regulated bar culture, or as a kind of affordable living and art space for free thinking people, these kinds of punk houses are often a first step towards building a radical mentality for a lot of people.

The next set of examples I would argue take the concept of a punk house or cooperative and build it to scale. The autonomous neighborhood of Christiania in Copenhagen, the Netherlands immediately comes to my mind. A bit closer to PILLARS here in America is a place called the Trumbullplex, in Detroit. This is a cooperative operating in a warehouse that actually convinced the city to sell additional land to the cooperative instead of selling it to a private developer. We are working on something similar to that right here in the band’s hometown Cleveland, Ohio, and there are several punk houses already operating, as well as some cooperatives. Even if some call it ironic that anarchists in Detroit were able to preserve their autonomy only by purchasing land from the government, it is those ironies which I think we need to make our peace with if we want to build something lasting.

We even have an example of what that something lasting might be: we might have more things like the Mondragon cooperative federation in Basque Spain. They could be considered a multi-national corporation, but because of how they are democratically organized, and the fact that the company is a forceful voice for workers’ rights, you could also say that they are putting the DIY/punk ethos into practice in the business world. Where it goes from there, I don’t know. I don’t have answers for that. I want to reiterate that I don’t think the DIY/punk ethos means building a wall between ourselves and the rest of society. I think it DOES mean and will always mean challenging the larger society, and of course music the most visible (and perhaps the loudest) part of that.


Are there a lot of squats, youth centers or collectives like California’s Bridgetown DIY in your area?

I would say most places with that kind of ethic in mind that I’m aware of are not so formally organized. These aren’t like formal non-profit organizations with a mission statement or anything, or a website; a lot of the places around here are just collections of people who want to live their lives a certain way. Nobody is writing out manifestos or anything, they are just kind of organically developing these things and learning along the way.

In my experience ‘squats’ are not really a thing around here. As part of my day job I deal with real squatters, not just punks trying to party or something; most actual squatters that I know and am familiar with are usually single older men who are otherwise homeless, struggling with a lot of mental health and drug issues.

Of course there are youth centers, but these are mostly athletic and not so much music-focused, although the Broadway School of Music is a fantastic non-profit that is focused mostly on music education to younger people, and ArtHouse Inc., Boys and Girls Club, etc. are also providing some arts education. But these are mainstream orgs. I don’t think you would get much interest in booking a rowdy punk show at any of these places, especially if there is alcohol or drugs involved. Most of the all-ages shows I remember going to were largely in old fraternal organization halls such as Knights of Columbus, Elks, Am Vets, etc.

We have some good DIY spaces around here, but given the recent tragic fire at GhostShip in Oakland and the subsequent city responses all across the country of shutting down other spaces and making artists and punks homeless rather than working with them to address whatever building code issues there may be, I don’t know if folks involved in any current spaces would be comfortable with me broadcasting their operations without their consent, so I’m going to err on the side of caution there, especially after reading an article today about a place getting shut down in Baltimore. But if anyone is interested in the history of Cleveland spaces I would suggest starting with Speak in Tongues, which sadly is no longer around; that space was fairly well-documented.

Alright Zach, thanks so much for your thoughts and lots of interesting insights. Would you like to add anything before we wrap it up?

It’s been great to share some thoughts with you. Sorry to you and everyone reading this if I rambled a little too long, it’s kind of a problem I have been trying to work on. Hope all is well and best to you, your family, and your readers in 2017.

No worries, there’s no such thing as too much rambling on IDIOTEQ, haha! Thanks for your time! Cheers from Warsaw!

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