Interview with Burn Guitarist Gavin Van Vlack

Burn has always been a staple in New York hardcore, propelling the genre and scene to a whole new level previously unimagined. The band is set to release their debut full-length album, Do or Die, this Friday via Deathwish Records.

photo by JC Photo & Media

Burn has always been a staple in New York hardcore, propelling the genre and scene to a whole new level previously unimagined. The band is set to release their debut full-length album, Do or Die, this Friday via Deathwish Records. I had the chance to speak to the band’s founding member and guitarist Gavin Van Vlack. The band, also led by frontman, Chaka Malik, are known for their dynamic and explosive fusion of hardcore and various genres. In the interview, Gavin discusses the band’s history leading up to the present. He also talks AFROPUNK 2017 and confronts the separating boundaries placed on music genres and scenes.

SR: Going back to the late 80’s, can you tell me about how Burn got started and emerged in the New York hardcore scene?

GVV: I played guitar a band playing guitar called Absolution. And I knew Chaka from being in bands, hardcore, graffiti and skateboarding. We use to go to hardcore shows, and on the dance floor, Chaka was one of those guys who was so explosive, you could feel his presence. It was very emotive, which I think shows how it fits into his stage presence to this day. But yeah, he had a very individualistic expression about how he went about things. And so we were really good friends and he asked if I wanted to start a band. I said, “Yeah Sure.” And I remember talking to Chaka about what sort of band. I wanted to play with guys who didn’t just want to play straight up hardcore. I mean, I love hardcore in all it’s manifestations. But I’m not a fan of playing stuff that’s already been done. I don’t think I could just play fundamental hardcore. That would be very difficult for me. I love the basics and all the fundamentals of hardcore, but I just have a different expression of it.

I had sort of this weird upbringing, where my mom always played different types of music, and the same with Chaka. And our bass player was also a very exploratory musician. So we had that in common. When we started out, we would listen to the 3/4 drum groups and we were learning our chops from those guys. So we all started out with different points of views and everyone was doing something different.

SR: You mentioned that you didn’t want to play just standard hardcore. Listening to you guys, you have a little bit of a progressive sound. Now I know around that time, you had bands like Shelter and after that you had Quicksand. Would you say that right around the late 80’s there was a shift in Hardcore? You had many bands embracing metal. But what about bands embracing more of a progressive sound?

GVV: Well I like to think of progressive as something different. I wouldn’t consider us a progressive band. I find myself embracing more blues and industrial. But when I think of progressive, I think of people trying to open new doors. I’m not trying to open new doors, I’m just trying to get sounds that I hear in my fuckin’ head out. I didn’t want to be in a band that sounded like the Cro-Mags or Sick Of It All. That’s already been done.

SR: Who would you say some of your influences are outside of hardcore?

GVV: I would say Howlin’ Wolf, because back in the fifties in the blues scene, it was all about cadillacs. But Howlin’ Wolf would say “just give me my money and I’ll keep my pick up truck.” Not to mention, he was just a badass dude. I mean, pre-gangster gangster days he was the baddest dude you could imagine. He was known for going to gigs and saying to other musicians, “you’re playing with me.” He would just take band members. We look at gangster rap today, but back in those days in the blues scene there were guns and knives. You had blacks killing each other back then and the police weren’t doing anything about it. It was extremely fucked up. But back then, blues culture and jazz culture was just so dynamic.

I also admire Jeff Beck. He was someone who could play any note out of key and play it at the right time. Different sounds like classical and jazz can translate into other genres. Even more contemporary bands like Dillinger Escape Plan and many similar bands all came from influences that were outside of hardcore. I mean now there are is a lot of stuff coming out about what bands are hardcore and what bands are not hardcore. In my opinion, who cares. Music is music. But if you want to talk about influences, anything can be an influence. Day to day news can be an influence. But personally, I like Delta blues, hard bop jazz, early British industrial punk like Killing Joke and Discharge, as well as older Cali punk like Adolescents and X.

photo by Adam Malik

SR: Around 92, you guys broke up. Was that official?

GVV: Yep! We suck at being broken up, don’t we.

SR: You ended up getting back together about a decade later.

GVV: Yeah we failed at being a broken up band. We got to a certain point in time where I wanted to get away from things that were happening in the scene. I wasn’t just going to take a break. No! I walked away from it. I left the band because of “youthful foolishness.” I had wanted to work on other music and felt that I had to burn down what I was doing to start something new.

And then the second time we got back together, Black N’ Blue reached out to us. At that point there were a lot of bands getting back together. And a lot of these bands were just playing their classics. I didn’t want to do that, so I said, “We’re not going to do this unless we write new material. Unless we can do this properly.” So we got back together with the original lineup. We had Manny Carrero on bass and Durijah Lang on Drums. And that lineup carried for a while, but Durijah got some other offers that were really good. Then Manny was basically taking care of his nephew and basically said “I can’t do this anymore.” He had to take on the role of a dad and that really was a bum out because I fuckin’ loved Manny. But out of that we got Tyler Krupsky and Abbas Muhammad who are just a really talented musicians. And the lineup has just worked so well.

SR: Do Or Die will be Burn’s first full length record right?

GVV: I remember saying “why can’t we just do EPs for the rest of our career?” But when we started working with Deathwish, Jake says, “Listen! You have to do an album” because of the European promoters. You can’t really get what you’re worth off of a catalogue of EPs as far as booking shows and being able to make money in that manner.

We can’t fool ourselves here. In order to keep the art going, we have to be business men about it. We have to bring in a certain amount of money because rent needs to be paid. Food bills need to be payed. Gas needs to be paid. I know there are a lot of kids out there who are like “Oh why don’t you just do it and play for five dollars?” That’s fine when you’re 15 years old and you live with your parents. But I’m a 49 year old guy and I have a few businesses that I run. And the thing is- the businesses that I run, those are things I like to do. I don’t work for anybody else. I’m self employed. I run a Muay Thai gym. I’ve got real estate that I own. And then I’ve got this business on Burn. I would call it a business because my business is making sure I have happy employees.

There are things that are needed on a daily basis. I don’t care if you’re Anthrax or Agnostic Front. In order to keep things going, you have to commit. We’re not trying to rob anybody. And it’s weird because there are a lot of people talking about “oh you’re charging too much money.” But it’s a business and I’m not afraid to say that. We’re not a multinational company. We’re a small independent business. I’m a firm believer of people supporting live art.

SR: Who did you work with on the new record? What was that process like?

GVV: We recorded at GodCity Studios. It’s owned by Kurt Ballou of Converge. He is what I would call and Earthshaker. He has changed the Paradigm of heavy music and he is very humble and pragmatic about his approach to engineering and production. He has become very adept at transferring ideas into sound in a very beautiful and artistic way.

SR: Burn’s lyrics have always been politically and spiritually driven. Can we expect that on Do Or Die?

GVV: Yeah! Chaka’s lyrics and my lyrics are both very introspective. We kind of write on a global sense. Purely like “this is my carrying spirit. This is my problem in the common dilemma. This is a common issue.” This is an overall theme that I know other people have experienced. And I think it makes it easier for people to relate in that sense.

SR: How would say that the songs and lyrics relate to the current era that we’re living in now?

GVV: All art is subjective and all art is theft. So you could take the lyrics to a song I wrote in 1988 called “New Morality” and you could cut and paste it to modern times. So “New Morality,” I wrote music and lyrics to. You can’t look at it as “what’s happening now that did not influence the lyrics?” We don’t try to make a point of “oh this is what’s going on exactly right now.” There’s a big kind of history repeating itself. And I think that gets pointed out quite a bit.

But like I said, all art is subjective. So it really depends on how the individual hears it. You’ll hear it differently depending upon what you’re feeling. You could hear a song one day and be in this great mood. Then you could have your soul ripped out the next day and say “oh I’ve never heard this song in this manner before. And so like I said, all art is subjective.

SR: Recently, you guys played AFROPUNK with a very diverse lineup of bands. How did you end up getting that gig?

GVV: They had been trying to find a way to get in touch with us. They booked their acts and spoke to Sacha Jenkins and he was like “I’m their manager.” So Britanie Girard from AFROPUNK reached out to us and asked if we’d like to play. And the ironic part about it is, if you watched the AFROPUNK movie, Chaka is in the actual movie. So it was kind of something that we should have done a long time ago. It was a great experience. The bands were great. Everybody was super cool. And I don’t think anyone in the audience had any clue who we were, but they were super receptive. Which is great because those are the people that are into different types of music. And those are the people who don’t know that there are bands like Madball and Sick Of It All. This could be something that opens up a whole new audience. I have to say that on political stance, we need to pull the wagon around the circle and understand that we’re all here for the same reason. I think separating music by scene is so ridiculous. It’s such an 80s mentality. It’s like “Oh you’re a metalhead. You like Metallica. Oh you’re a metalhead or you’re into new wave.” What the fuck ever! You can just be into music. So it was cool because I met  a lot of people I would have never met had we not play that show?

Burn @ AFROPUNK 2017

SR: Now I know that other festivals such as Sound On Sound and Riot Fest have been incorporating hardcore bands with other types of bands. Do you see that as a growing trend?

GVV: Oh sure! Absolutely! And people may not have acknowledged hardcore for a long. But I know that dealing with a lot of athletic companies like Adidas, that there are many people from the hardcore scene that are very high on the corporate ladder. And I also think that a lot of people putting on these festivals come from the underground music scene of the 90’s. So in eventuality, it’s bound to happen. But even in the past year, bands like Inendiary and Jesus Piece, who we will be touring with, have done really well. I think a lot more people are starting to recognize these bands.

SR: Will you be touring or playing any upcoming shows in support of the new record?

GVV: Oh absolutely! We’re touring with Comeback Kid and Jesus Piece this Fall. This upcoming tour will be amazing. Come Back Kid need little introduction. They are an amazing band with a strong background and fan base. Jesus Piece are a terror!! If you have not experience this band, I highly suggest you familiarize yourself with them. They and a handful of other East coast bands like Vien and Show Me The Body  are turning out amazing new sounds.

SR: Is there anything else we should stay tuned for or anything you would like to add?

GVV: I’d have to say, don’t judge music. Listen to it and if you don’t like it, then it’s not for you. I know a lot of people might say “oh this band is shitty or that band sucks.” There are not many shitty bands out there in my opinion, except maybe the ones with racial overtones. But I find that I’m a lot more free by liking different bands and genres.

I love EDM music. I am rhythm junkie and a lot of my ideas are based off of tempos and time signatures. These is an aggression and beauty in this style of music that really resonates to me.

Sergio Vega of Quicksand said to Chaka “Don’t judge Music”. Be open to everything. Like what you like, Love what you Love , but don’t trash other peoples art.

Stream some tracks off Burn’s new album Do Or Die below. You can also see their tour schedule with Comeback Kid and Jesus Piece.

Burn 2017 Tour Schedule
9/29 Rochester, NY @ Bug Jar
10/6 Seattle, WA @ West Seattle American Legion*
10/7 Portland, OR @ Analog Theater*
10/8 Berkeley, CA @ The Cornerstone*
10/9 Los Angeles, CA @ Union*
10/10 Anaheim, CA @ Chain Reaction*
10/11 Mesa, AZ @ The Nile*
10/13 San Antonio, TX @ Paper Tiger*
10/14 Dallas, TX @ Dirty 30*
10/15 Houston, TX @ Walters Downtown*
10/16 Baton Rouge, LA @ Spanish Moon*
10/17 Raleigh, NC @ Kings Barcade*
10/18 Philadelphia, PA @ Black Box*
10/19 Brooklyn, NY @ Brooklyn Bazaar*
10/20 Worcester, MA @ The Raven*
10/21 Poughkeepsie, NY @ The Chance*
10/22 Pittsburgh, PA @ Cattivo*
10/23 Detroit, MI @ El Club*

* – w/ Comeback Kid, Jesus Piece

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