Based in Vancouver, B.C., Anchoress are a band who have formulated a unique sound rooted in melodic hardcore and post-hardcore. If I were to describe their distinguishing features, it’d be their reflectiveness and unmatched ability to warm the heart – there’s a perfect combination of fighting spirit and wit going on. Their most recent record, a full-length album called Anchoress is Ruining My Life, was released in 2016 and can be found free on Bandcamp; they also have other albums and singles available on the platform. I talked to Anchoress; singer, Rob Hoover, about a variety of topics, ranging from the band’s ethos to to challenges that they face as a modern-day independent band. —Claire
Claire: Your last album, Anchoress is Ruining My Life, showed a marked stylistic shift: it’s less abrasive, more controlled, than prior releases. For instance, T.E.P.F.K.A.L., released just 5 months before, is noticeably more fiery. How would you describe the process that led to the distinct style of Anchoress is Ruining My Life?
Rob: Yeah, absolutely. It was very intentional on our part that we wanted something a lot more precise when we were working on this record. Our previous record Crime & Compass was written and recorded very quickly to fit into a timetable with a tour we had planned, and as a result it felt kind of hectic and we made some choices for expedience sake that we felt made parts of that album suffer.
So we wanted to do something very different with the next release. We wrote and recorded the songs that became TEPFKAL and AIRML over 4-5 sessions over the course of a year. So we would go in with 2-3 songs and record them, and then sit and ruminate with them for a few months until the next session when we would adjust and tweak away while also working on the next set. The songs that appeared on TEPFKAL were actually recorded in this period, but they felt out of place with the other songs that ended up on AIRML — but we still loved them and they also felt like a nice bridge from our previous material into the new stuff so we released them as an EP in advance of the full length.
Some themes feature prominently on Anchoress is Ruining My Life: gentrification, the path to self-actualization, economic and political struggles in the city. They’re frequently addressed with wit, biting humour, and a cautious dose of optimism. What motivated this thematic focus on the album? And how does the approach to lyrics-writing compare to that taken on past records?
I think I’ve always tried to do something different with each song I wrote, as much to keep my own interest in the material as anything else. But as this band has progressed, each member individually and collectively has gotten a better idea of who we are as a band, and for me, that comes down a lot to the lyrics that I write to represent us. I wince now looking back at some of the lyrics on the first record. It’s like looking at your high school poetry notebook, you know?
So yeah, with the songs on AIRML that ultimately meant writing about topics that I see and think about on a daily basis, like my love/hate relationship with social media or the ever-increasing economic disparity in this city. Things like that aren’t necessarily the easiest to write hooks on, so I find I lean on the use of different perspectives as a way to access that line between the personal and the political in an effective manner, and often that means injecting some wit into a scenario so as to not alienate the audience. Also, it’s important to me to include that optimism, because without it, what’s the point? Who would I be helping by being just another bitter white dude shouting angrily into a microphone?
Speaking of social media, I wanted to talk about “Live, On the Air” in particular, since it’s a fascinating critique on the social media age. Though its commentary is ostensibly about using social media as an individual, it could be relevant to the relationship between a band and their fans as well. How has the advent of social media affected you as a band, particularly in relation to its effects on independent bands?
Yeah, I wasn’t writing that one with the band’s social media in mind, but it definitely has a connection. I think we struggle a lot as a band on social media because none of us really likes using it like that. Like, we just want to be a band that writes and performs music, but these days, that isn’t enough. You have to be present on social media, and to do that well you have create an image or have a marketable style that will bring in likes or followers. You have to embrace the band as a business. That’s not something all of us are entirely comfortable with. Compounding the innate difficulty of a built social media presence is Facebook acting as a gatekeeper now for people’s attention, where they charge us money per post to actually be seen by anyone, including the people that have already elected to like and follow us. We can look at the statistics of the number of people who actually see our unpaid posts on Facebook, and it’s maybe a couple dozen. But if we throw enough money down, we can be seen by 60,000… which is a scenario that – again, as a band – we’re not entirely comfortable with. So basically we just don’t use Facebook as a band now other than for maybe show invites from our personal accounts. So we’re looking for alternatives just like, I assume, everyone else is.
Taking a step back to songwriting, are there any non-musical inspirations that factor into songwriting? For instance, have there been any writings/authors that have influenced your perspectives? Are there other hobbies that have fed into music-making?
I feel like almost all of my lyrical inspiration comes from outside of music. The dudes with the instruments would likely have a different answer, but for me, like I said before, I try and approach every new song with a different goal or purpose. For example, I had been wanting to write about the Cascadian independence movement for a long time, but I could never figure out a way to make that work without sounding like a lecture. So it became sort of like a theoretical world-building where I imagined a set of scenarios wherein the Cascadian state actually succeeded in being created.
The song “Fir” (named so for the Douglas Fir tree on the Cascadian flag) is written from the perspective of a resident of Cascadia reflecting on its creation. I wrote “Fir” around the time I was reading a book called American Nations by Colin Woodard. It’s about the different regional cultures in North America, and I probably took a healthy amount of influence from that.
I’ve worked as a bartender for many years now and though it doesn’t often directly influence my writing, I do get to talk to a wildly diverse set of people which is always a benefit. The only song that’s come directly out of that though is “Your Career Is Over”, which was written in reaction to a guest I once had who just seemed like the absolute epitome of the upper class of Vancouver who at best ignore the lower class and at worst actively despise them. This particular person was truly upset about a shelter being built in her neighbourhood because “Now I have to look at them” and she joked that “Gregor should just throw them all in the ocean.” [Editor’s note: Gregor Robertson is Vancouver’s mayor and has been in his position since 2008.]
It’s been several years since that encounter, and I still think about it often because that attitude is still shocking to me. I feel like I shouldn’t be shocked about the attitude itself – because I feel like it’s more common than I expect – but more about how comfortable she was saying those things loudly in public.
I was thinking about the album title itself: it’s ambiguous in terms of whose life exactly is being ruined. I’m wondering: is it applicable to anyone? Or is it a more particular reference to how the band is affecting its members?
It’s sort of a cheeky name. It’s basically saying that being in this – or any – band sort of forces you to put the rest of your life second if you want it to succeed. It’s hard to have a career job when you need to take weeks’ or months’ worth of time away every year to write, record, and tour, so you work the jobs you can find that you may not be super happy with, and then you spend all the money you do make on gear, a van, renting a jam space, studio time, gas for the van while you’re on the road, merch, merch, merch, a weird themed-room motel far outside Regina because no one came to the show so there’s no floor to crash on, and Katy Perry is in town, so all the accommodation in the city has been booked up for months, whatever fast food is closest to the highway exit with the gas station, more merch, fixing the van because it has a weird battery issue, et cetera — but it’s all worth it because you love the music.
But yeah, sometimes on the bad days you question whether it’s worth it and you feel like your passion project might be ruining your life, but on the good days, it’s the best feeling in the world and you wouldn’t give it up for anything. So I think that feeling is applicable to anyone with a passion project that requires a high investment of time and labour and money where the physical returns might not ever meet what you’ve put into it.
That said, it’s also just kind of funny and it’s become like a jumping off point for a million jokes about how X is ruining my Y.
That brings me to my next question: “Closing Up Zhop” touches at the importance of music to community and personal identity, whilst “Over / Under” tells a poignant story of making art amidst a lack of resources. What sort of challenges have Anchoress overcome as a band, and what keeps you going in tough times?
I mean, I think that sort of depends on how you look at a challenge, because it’s changed as we’ve progressed as a band and as the music scene has changed in this city and globally. I think the most pressing one for us in the Vancouver scene is building a community with a network of venues that can hold punk (and other alternative genre) shows. It seems like the number of credible venues is constantly shrinking with the Cobalt being shut down most recently and The Media Club becoming a chain restaurant. I wrote “Closing Up Zhop” about the Zoo Zhop shutting down to represent all of the great venues no longer with us. It’s hard to build a strong community when there is no consistent place to gather.
One of the great challenges that we face, as a band from the Canadian West Coast, is going literally anywhere else. To tour the rest of Canada means incredibly long drives and crossing a mountain range or two that kind of disqualifies touring for a good part of the year. To tour the States, which we’ve done a few times, means getting across the border with work permits that take months and months to acquire, and in the current climate in the U.S., it’s dicey in general considering we have a member from Mexico. Considering that, even touring while Obama was in office, it felt a little tense going through ICE checkpoints on the highway in Arizona.
But with all that, there’s always the interpersonal relationships of a group of people working in close quarters for years at a time. Sometimes those relationships can get strained, and I think with that considered and knowing the life expectancy of any touring band of our level, I would consider just still being around a success. We’re basically family at this point. We love each other and we love the music that making. As far as I personally am concerned, this band is one of the most important and consistent parts of my life and I really don’t know what I would do without it.
When performing live, what sort of emotions do you hope to elicit from the audience? From personal experience, I think there’s a sense of perseverance and warmth that comes through the energy.
Live, I just want people to have a good time. I know with some bands it’s like, “EVERYBODY MOVE! CIRCLE PIT CIRCLE PIT NOW NOW NOW!” and that kind of thing has never felt natural to me, but if people want to dance and jump and headbang, I support that 100%. I hope I give off more of like a softly-triumphant vibe, I guess, or something along those lines. Just, like, have fun and be safe! Do I sound like a mom right now?
[laughs] I think that’s a really wholesome vibe, and it fits in well with the encouraging feel that I get from the lyrics. Are there any songs that you particularly enjoy playing live? I suspect that “Fir” and its catchy-as-hell chant is a fan favourite.
I don’t think we’ve played a show without “Fir” in it for a long time. I think we each have our favourites but I really like “Over / Under”, “Icaro”, “Guitarzan”, “Dear Home”… honestly, I could probably list half our discography.
At your last show, you previewed two new, and as of yet unreleased, songs. What can we expect from the direction that you’re currently taking?
It’s hard to say right now because both of those new songs have very different vibes. Right now we’re just jamming and seeing what comes. We’ve tentatively booked some studio time for the fall so we should have a better idea by then!
That’s excellent to hear, I really look forward to any future releases that you guys have got coming up. As a closer, are there any local bands that you’d like to give a shout-out to? And finally, do you have any words for Sputnikmusic readers?
I always have trouble with questions like this because there’s a lot of great bands right now and I don’t want anyone to feel left out. But I think No Liars from Victoria – who we just played with – are really good and really tight live. I think it’s really cool that Daggermouth are back together and playing shows again — they make me feel young again.
Sputnikmusic readers: Thank you so much for being interested in our band and letting us share our music with you! If you’d like, come out to a show and say hi. We really like that.
Our next show is Saturday, June 2 at SBC with ’68 (ex-The Chariot, ex-Norma Jean) along with Vultures from Victoria and Bastian from Vancouver.
Hat-tip to Claire and many thanks to Rob for his time!