By Rich Hobson
Despite its links to hardcore’s primordial roots in 70s punk – and a prolific output, thanks to a number of hardcore-friendly labels and venues – London has never really established a dominant breakout presence in British hardcore. Firmly refuting the once-popular narrative that for a band to chase their dreams they’d need to take a (semi) permanent trip down the M6, many acts prefer to stick to a patchwork of regional scenes, seeing London as more a place to play than to thrive. But what do you do when you’re from London? The same thing Londoners have done since the Victorian era – take a trip to Brighton, of course.
“London was a great place when we were young,” explains Jack Barber, drummer of hardcore progressives Rough Hands. “There were loads of hardcore shows, but that was when we were kids.”
Though initially founded in London, these days the band is split; brothers Jack and Tom Barber still live in London, while the rest of the band are located down south in Brighton. “I’m working class – born and bred here – but I’ll never own a house here,” Barber says. “It’s a city of the super-rich and that’s a reason we’re more drawn to Brighton. It’s got a great scene; I’ve spent more time travelling down to see shows than at home, to be honest.”
From Washington D.C. to New York, L.A. to Birmingham, hardcore has always been shaped by cities, affecting everything from lyrical content to day-to-day logistics. But Rough Hands aren’t your average hardcore band. Not only do they buck this city-oriented trend, casting themselves out to a seaside town, but sonically they twist the tried-and-tested throat-shredding howls and chunky riffs of hardcore into something entirely different and unique – and that’s just on past material. The band’s upcoming EP Moral Terror takes this a step further, everything from its lyrical content to the visual aesthetic suggesting a subversion of the hardcore staple. Where the band’s eponymous debut showed a graffiti-covered building surrounded by overgrown greenery, Moral Terror is an amorphous grey shape, resembling a screenshot of a Windows Media Player visualisation.
“Early on the covers were a reflection of who we were as people,” explains vocalist Alex Dench. “Now it’s much more abstract – more concerned with what’s in our heads than what’s around us.”
Similarly, the lyrics and song titles all share a common theme, exploring different aspects of the human brain. ‘Neuroplasticity’ refers to the changes in an individual’s brain throughout their life. ‘Sertraline Smile’ refers to the eponymous anti-depressant. ‘Anodyne’ – a painkilling drug. And so on. At a glance, this could be seen as linked in to the prevalent conversations currently being held about mental health (particularly in relation to the alternative music scene). But in truth, the record goes deeper than even that.
“Mental health definitely had something to do with it, but it’s more about the brain and cognitive function,” explains Barber. “That was the mindset – mental health is a symptom of the brain. All of the songs go deep into that theme, cognitive function and how we think.”
“Lyrically, we’ve always been thinking along those lines,” Dench adds. “They’re my perspective on what I’m hearing, seeing and feeling on a daily basis – that is cognitive function.”
In turn, the complexity of their lyrical themes has given way to a need for creating something fresh and exciting. Across each track, the band offer a sense of sonic fluidity, the ominous swing of ‘Sertraline Smile’ giving way to blast-beat like sonics on ‘Anodyne’, which in turn drifts into the peaceful ‘Symptoms of Regression’. Across five tracks, the band manage to check in everywhere from prog metal to noise rock, balancing it with the passionate execution of hardcore. EP opener ‘Neuroplasticity’ signals this with an almost electronica-imbued riff, the band incorporating what they have termed “a Transformers tone”.
“We’ve always been interested in pedals,” Barber says. “We were in a room last year at an all-day practice in Rock Bottom Studios and Dex (McPake, guitarist) pushed something and got that BRAWWR sound. It was a total accident!”
“We put ourselves in a position where that accident could happen though,” Dench is quick to add. “We went looking for it, sitting every night playing with Dex’s pedals.”
With its distinctive industrial ring, this riff sounds out more akin to something you’d hear on a Ministry record than anything in the Every Time I Die or Gallows discographies.
“We just want to write music that’s interesting,” says Dench. “The straight-up hardcore stuff; some people do it really well, some people do it fucking terribly. We always intended to do more than that, looking at other genres for inspiration than just looking at what’s trendy right now.”
“We’re all massive Pink Floyd fans,” adds Barber. “We were asking why we can’t write music like that. Pink Floyd and Deftones – they’re the two bands that are outside of that straight-up hardcore mindset, into more melodic and interesting things.”
It’s a strange litmus scale, yet it works incredibly well for the band, juxtaposing droning melodies and howling breakdowns to create a fascinating soundscape. Whether or not it precludes the band from being strictly hardcore is an entirely different matter; after all, hardcore isn’t exactly known for its stylistically progressive tendencies.
“I don’t think we fit in with hardcore, sonically,” Dench admits.
“We’ve always come into this with the mindset that we’re going into this playing what we like,” Barber adds. “We’d love to see people that like our band and check out other bands like us, but we never thought about doing stuff that people would like – we just did what worked for us. As for ethics and how we run ourselves, we’ve always been influenced by hardcore and DIY – it’s where we get the basis of what we do, what we learned when we were young.”
“Rough Hands is a hardcore band in that sense, no matter what kind of record we put out,” finishes Dench.
These hardcore roots are also evident in how the band have built themselves up over the years. Facing a wave of initial disinterest as they tried to secure funding for their first releases, they set up their own DIY collective, Illegal Activity. Though they have since managed to court a veritable who’s who of independent labels, they still operate Illegal Activity to help other fledgling bands in the Brighton scene.
“Illegal Activity was basically started by me to release the first Rough Hands EP, because nobody wanted to help us with the money,” explains Barber. “Eventually, we went on a split with Holy Roar and Day By Day Records in Germany on the first two EPs – they were the first two Illegal Activity releases. Then the Brighton punk scene exploded; things started to kick off and we did tapes for all of the bands – Soul Crusade, Gutter Knife, Never – and they’re all doing amazing. It came from us wanting to document what’s happening in Brighton, basically.”
Over the past seven years, Rough Hands has grown from something its members did to pass the time (“we were a joke for the first two or three years”, admits Barber) into something truly exciting and passion-inspiring. On each release, the band have built their craft, starting out with two Holy Roar distributed EPs (Rough Hands and Nothing’s Changed respectively), before releasing their debut album via (Brighton-based independent label) Dog Knights Productions. “We’ve got a huge respect for Darren; he put our debut album out when nobody really wanted to,” says Dench.
For Moral Terror, Rough Hands have teamed up with Venn Records (one-time home to Nervus, Youth Man and Higher Power, among others), continuing their journey into ever-more adventurous realms. But, as they stride boldly towards the future, it seems there’s one spectre they still can’t shake – one that has blighted hardcore from the very beginning and directly influenced their decision to release a new EP, rather than go for another full-length.
“We could sugar-coat it, but ultimately it’s funds,” Dench says sadly. “It’s not cheap – we’re all full-time workers, and we don’t want to settle for crap. We spend a lot of money to get things as good as possible. If someone could fund us to do a record… bring it on!”
“We’d write full-lengths forever!” exclaims Barber.
It might seem like a sad outlook for music in 2018, that a band so talented and exciting as Rough Hands still struggle to secure funding for full-length records, but Barber also explains that the band’s position within the hardcore scene has afforded them many opportunities that might otherwise have eluded them.
“On our first Europe tour, every show was well-sold and people were willing to feed us and get us beers – we couldn’t believe it! ” he exclaims. “You wouldn’t be able to do that if you weren’t in a hardcore band – none of our friends in indie bands have got anything like that, they can’t do it. there are bands that have managed to survive in the underground for 30/40 years now. It might have developments, but everyone adapts and changes to meet the challenges, just like with us.”
Progression has been a key element in what Rough Hands do right from the very beginning, but while they might have one eye always cast firmly towards the future, they also acknowledge the important role their predecessors play.
“I was 18 when we went on tour with Cro-Mags and Judge,” Barber says. “It was such a vital thing, chatting to AJ Novello about the crazy shit they did, or looking over and thinking ‘that’s John Joseph!’. We learned there was a level to be met and that’s where we needed to be. Watching them every night set a level of professionalism. We didn’t need to be like our peers, we needed to be like Cro-Mags – that’s the level. For the record, Cro-Mags are everything we would want to be.”
In picking out one of hardcore’s most respected and pivotal acts, Rough Hands are setting the bar exceptionally high. And yet, as their output thus far already proves, they have what it takes to make a name for themselves alongside the cream of British music currently making waves in the alternative sphere. Marmozets, Creeper, Nervus, IDLES – all have earned immense attention and buzz in the past eighteen months. With Moral Terror, Rough Hands submit their own entry to join these illustrious ranks, not just marking another great release from a UK band, but a massive leap forward for British hardcore in its entirety.