Walter Schreifels of Vanishing Life on Trump, ‘Surveillance,’ and His Evolving Voice

Punk icon Walter Schreifels is known for his work with Vanishing Life, Quicksand, Gorilla Biscuits, Dead Heavens and more

walter schreifels interview vanishing life

Photo by Cecilia Alejandra

Note: You can read our 2016 Walter Schreifels interview below – and you can also listen to our new 2017 interview with Walter on the Culture Creature podcast.

Vanishing Life are Walter Schreifels (Gorilla Biscuits, Quicksand, Dead Heavens, and more), Zach Blair (Rise Against), Autry Fulbright II (…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead) and Jamie Miller (Bad Religion, …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead). The band’s debut album, Surveillance, is available now via Dine Alone records. The adrenalized album finds Schreifels and company exploring straight-ahead rock hooks and punishing post-hardcore riffs.

Vanishing Life played its first New York show on Sunday, November 13th (just five days after President Trump’s election). Shortly after the band’s set, Schreifels sat down with Culture Creature to discuss the themes of Surveillance, his reaction to President-elect Trump, Vanishing Life’s place in his musical lineage, and more.

Dan Redding: During your performance, you told the crowd you’d been feeling overwhelmed. What was your experience like of the last week? How have you been managing?

Walter Schreifels: I mean, I’m okay. It was just a shock, I had to switch gears, I didn’t think [Trump] was gonna win. You know, fuck. It’s still hard to digest the idea of things being kinda off the rails. We’ll see, but I have to be optimistic and hope for the best situation, you know? I’m more afraid of Donald Trump’s little henchmen than I am of Donald Trump, to be honest. But you know, we’ll see what comes, and I wanna stay optimistic.

Yeah – I feel like not even so much henchmen, but the culture that he has created and his platform-

I think with his rhetoric, he’s kind of… Manners matter. Language matters. I think he kind of made it okay for people to let their manners down, let their kinda dark sides come out, made it more acceptable. I don’t think that that means that that wasn’t there anyway….

But I think the people that voted for Donald Trump – that doesn’t make ‘em racist, or even stupid. People got different realities, and different priorities, and live in different places. I don’t think everybody that voted for Donald Trump is racist or stupid.

“Manners matter. Language matters.”

Living in New York, it’s a pretty strong contrast to the way people think here and the way I was brought up. It seems so contrary to the strengths of our community here. You know, I’ve got an eight year-old daughter; I think misogyny and all that kind of stuff exists anyway. People are just more open about it right now. Which you could say is bad – and that they have power is obviously bad – but I think in the big arc of things, I just have faith that people in America are bigger than that, cooler than that, more intelligent than that. More enlightened. And they’re gonna see their interests, you know. Someone like Bernie Sanders really saw the middle ground, and it’s a shame that he didn’t get a shot. But there’s a lot of powers that be that like the system as it is, and wanna keep makin’ money off of it. Long story short, I’m trying to stay optimistic.

That’s good to hear, and I think we need voices like that. What have you been turning to to stay hopeful, to stay optimistic?

I just feel in my heart that young people that are comin’ up don’t think like these old fucks. And I think that people that voted for Donald Trump for good reasons – thinking that he’s gonna shake things up, and he’s gonna look after them – they’re gonna see what they get for that. There’s no magic bullet for their problems. I tell ya, it’s gonna take a lot of intellect, and I don’t see there being a lot of intellect in the new administration comin’ in. That doesn’t mean that the people that voted for him are stupid, it just means that they live in a different place than me, grew up different than me, have different fears. I really blame the media for all the division in this country – and not in a right wing way, blaming the media – but in an actual humanistic way. People are being manipulated every which way, for control. It’s just outta hand. That’s really what Surveillance is about, it speaks directly to that, without knowing Donald Trump was coming. All the lyrics are about that.

Was Surveillance directly inspired by reading the news or watching the news during the process of writing the album?

Just stuff I’m thinking about. Just thinking about the human condition – because I’m in it. I live in this age. I’m on Instagram, and I’m being fed garbage all the time, and I know it’s bad for me, but I eat it anyway. How do I maintain my humanity? How do I set an example for my daughter? How do I keep my soul clean in this really confusing, fucked up, manipulative world? I was thinking about those kind of things when I was writing the lyrics for Surveillance. At that time, Donald Trump was not really an issue.

walter schreifels interview

Photo: Jonathan Weiner

I read that Surveillance was partially inspired by a visit you took to the Stasi museum. Can you describe the Stasi museum?

Stasi is the East German secret police. In East Germany, it was a hyper-paranoid state. They were monitoring all the citizens for disloyalty, and they were blackmailing everybody. It was a hyper-paranoid state. They basically innovated a lot of the same shit that is going on in the United States and around the world on a larger scale. In the United States, we’re relatively free, we can do what we want, the big powers that be don’t really give a fuck if we protest in front of Donald Trump’s hotel – they don’t care.

He complained about it on Twitter.

Yeah – he doesn’t even need to do that, he doesn’t know that yet.

Okay, so you went to the Stasi museum, was that while you were writing Surveillance?

I guess it more made me think of how to tie – maybe I had already recorded the record at that point – how to tie all the different themes together. That’s where Surveillance came to my mind. What’s the commonality in all these? It’s about surveillance. Obviously the surveillance state that we live in. Every Instagram post, every tweet, every photo, thing you say, place you go, you’re under surveillance. On the one hand, you’re a subject, and you’re also doing it yourself. You’re viewing in on other people.

It’s very voyeuristic.

Yeah, we live in a voyeuristic culture. I think we’re in a pivot of evolution.

[laughter] Downward or upward?

Uh, I don’t judge things good or bad. I wouldn’t want to think it’s bad because this is my time to be alive. I gotta think about: if it’s bad, how can my life be good? How can I surround myself in a good environment with good people, and what can I do to push that?

“In every one of the songs, there’s paranoia and anxiety, but there’s always love…. I’m about love.”

For me, one place that I take solace – and I’m sure the same is true for you – is music. And this is a place where the hardcore scene and the punk scene are a place of supporting oppressed populations and people of different backgrounds performing together onstage. This room right here is supposed to be a safe place….

We got music. We got art. We got friendship. We got love. In every one of the songs, there’s paranoia and anxiety, but there’s always love. Balancing between aggressiveness and love. I’m about love.

I want to ask a question about your voice. I think you have almost a trademark way of phrasing your syllables…. I always notice the way you place phrases over a song –

I was influenced by hip hop. I grew up in New York in the eighties. When I was in junior high school, hip hop is all you heard. When I was going to hardcore shows, we were all about Public Enemy, BDP, Eric B., that was our music. When we were doing hardcore, that came into it. There’s a rhythmic side of what I do.

Now, I’m always trying to carry along the things that I think still suit me, but also expand and pitch from different angles.

That style of singing that we discussed – was that something that you discovered, or was that just how songs came out for you as a vocalist?

I guess when I was writing for Gorilla Biscuits – if you listen to it, it’s all super rhythmic. And wordy. I’ve been trying to get less wordy and more sing-y over time. With Vanishing Life, I’m singing in a different way, too. In some ways, it harkens back to the more aggressive side of me. But I think I have a nice voice, I sing good.

A lot of writers have talked about the Vanishing Life album as a sort of a return to your hardcore roots or aggressive roots – is that how it feels to you?

In some ways, I see that. It’s by design, in a way, to get people to listen to something else. As soon as you hear, ‘Oh, it’s aggressive,’ maybe you’d give it a chance. But underneath that is a lot more – I’m a different guy. I’m an evolving person. The stuff that I’m saying is different, but I’m still the same person. I’m still a Gorilla Biscuit. I’m still a Youth of Today. I’m still a Quicksand man, you know? That all comes along with it.

Tell me the hardest part and the most fun part about performing without a guitar, just as a vocalist?

It’s awesome to leave the stage and not have to worry about equipment. It’s awesome to go to the airport and not have a guitar. It’s awesome to watch the other guys set up and break down. The rest of it, I’m finding my way. I don’t really know yet.

What about onstage though? How is that different?

I think it’s cool! It’s only my third show [with Vanishing Life]. I could see it getting good. I think if people know the music, and can give me more back, then I can run with it. Right now, people don’t really know it. So I’m really having to draw from my own inspiration and let my self-consciousness go. Which is a challenge.

That sounds liberating!

Yeah, I like that! I wouldn’t be doing this band to do the same thing – I don’t really wanna sing and play guitar. I do a band called Dead Heavens which is fucking awesome, and chill, and I love it. It’s so natural to me. And doing this is a little harder. But I made it easy in the regard that I don’t have to play guitar.

You still perform a lot of music that you wrote when you were very young. How does your relationship change with Gorilla Biscuits material or Quicksand material over time?

It’s more about the friendships, and the experience is always just so much more chill – there’s not the same pressures on it. We’re performing at festivals, so it’s awesome vacations with my friends. It’s very rare for people to be able to stay in touch with their friends from high school. I’m super blessed to have those relationships, and play the music. The songs all inform what I do now. I’m not an artist that got successful and stayed with one project. But I still get to play my catalogue. I don’t wanna be cut off from my work, and that allows me to maintain that familiarity so I can draw from it. [Vanishing Life] is inspired by Gorilla Biscuits; it’s inspired by Dead Heavens.

You have so many fuckin’ bands!

There’s different chemistry, different people, different energies. I’m bringing what I bring to it, and I’m trying to push it forward or let it be, and that’s my trip. I’m always me. That’s the thread.

What’s one musical skill you don’t have that you wish you did?

Piano. I wish I could play piano. In a recording studio, I can do shit with it – and I have done some cool things. But it doesn’t come naturally to me. Of all the things I wanna learn, I don’t have the interest in learning that right now. I got enough shit going on.

If you could go back in time and see one concert, which one would you choose?

I’d like to see The Beatles at the Cavern Club…. The Cavern Club is where they first started in Liverpool. The Star Club in Hamburg, I’d like to see them there, too…. When they were hard and they wore leather jackets and they were rockin’.

If you were in a band with Walter Schreifels instead of being Walter Schreifels, what would annoy you most about him?

I dunno – I think he’s pretty cool.

[laughter] Fair enough!

I would probably be like, ‘I don’t really find him annoying at all. I kinda like him.’

Fair enough. Any chance of a new Quicksand album?

I would love to do it, we’re just trying to figure out – I’m so busy, Sergio is in Deftones. I would expect it when you least expect it.

I like that. In other words, I can expect it! [laughter]

I’m not making any promises. When we play these festival shows like we played this summer, we record our rehearsals and we jam. So we have some cool jams. Whether they develop into something more than that – you know, we’ll see.

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