Ten years and three albums into their career, the only thing that’s managed to slow War On Women down is a deadly international virus – but in true War On Women fashion, even the rona couldn’t stop them. Where most bands have taken a year off, War On Women have served us up their third record, Wonderful Hell.
Of course the band has always seemed to thrive in difficult situations. When most of their peers were long since giving the mysogonistic hellhole that the Warped Tour had become as wide a berth as possible, the band decided to dive in with all ten feet, reasoning that “The fans in Middle America deserve to hear progressive messages as well, and I think that if there are bands that are still calling women b*tches or still saying f*ggot on stage then I think that it’s only fair that the same audience gets to listen to us and hear an alternative.”
And so it is the band delivers Wonderful Hell into a year that lives up to that title (maybe without the “wonderful” part), and thankfully (and unsurprisingly) its a record that lives up to the title. From the opening track Aqua Tofana, named for a 17th century substance created to aid women in poisoning abusive husbands, right through to the epic slow burning closer Demon, the record swings from anger to hopelessness and back again. In a year of bangers, it’s one of the most complete.
We caught up with guitarist Brooks Harlan to talk guitars, J Robins and amp sims.
First off, the new record is killer. Did you guys have any hesitation as far as putting out a new record at a time when it’s not possible to tour behind it?
Thank you! We started rehearsing / pre production for the new songs at the end of 2019 with studio time booked in February and March of 2020. Because of the subject matter, we wanted Wonderful Hell to be out before the presidential election. So, we were really planning ahead. By the time the pandemic shutdown happened, we were 90% done with the record.
In the summer, we did have discussions about whether to push back the release. We were worried about losing momentum without any tours to support it. As the severity of the covid pandemic became known, the timeline for returning to the road again became very uncertain. So, we figured we should just go for it instead of sitting on a record for no reason. I know a lot of bands were in the same boat.
You’ve worked with J Robbins on each of the band’s records – what is it about working with J Robbins that has you coming back each time? You’ve also personally collaborated with him on the recordings as opposed to having him run the sessions in full – what do you feel each of you brings to the table that makes it a good working relationship?
We are very fortunate that J’s studio, Magpie Cage, is located in the same building that I work in (I own and run an amplifier repair and building shop called Big Crunch) and it has the best sounding live room in the area. J is also a very talented and generous engineer. So, an excellent situation to be in.
Over the years, he and I have worked out a way of recording together that takes advantage of each other’s strengths. We usually have a few discussions ahead of time about the direction of the upcoming project and how we see it coming together. J will do the initial studio setup (microphone choices, drum placement, etc.) and I can just concentrate on being the guitar player. When the basic tracks are down, I will take over recording guitar overdubs, vocals and edits. When it comes time to mix, J will set up mixies for all the songs that he is happy with and then I will come in and make some final “artistic” decisions.
It’s a nice way to work. (In my opinion. Hopefully J feels the same way.) It also helps us stretch our recording budget.
As far as the new record sonically, did you have any records in mind as reference points for what you were going for sonically?
I try not to go into a project hoping to “copy” another record’s sound. I used to do that and it always led to disappointment. I’ve learned that your band is always going to sound like your band. With that said – there are records that influenced the approach to this record – I did an interview with BrooklynVegan about it.
Can you run me through some of the gear you used on the new record? Was it your typical live rig or did you use some additional gear just for the record? Do you approach your record tone differently to how you approach a live tone?
For the basic tracks I used the same rig I’ve been playing live: My guitar is a DNG (custom built for me by Kevin Bernsten at Developing Nations Guitars) with an aluminum neck, and a single Golden Age overwound humbucker. My amp is a Big Crunch three knob 50 watt head going through a 2 x 12 custom built cabinet with Celestion Vintage 30 speakers. For pedals, I only use a Big Crunch boost and sometimes a Boss delay.
Trying to get the “live sound” in the studio is tough. You feel the air from the speakers rushing past you on stage that you don’t get sitting in front of stereo speakers. So, I tried different guitar doublings and overdubs to fill out what I thought was lacking in the basic tracks – a VOX AC30 with a Zvex Box Of Rock in front of it, a Big Crunch 15 watt combo with a big muff in front of it and a little Fender battery powered practice amp. I also used a Boss phaser pedal and a Metal Zone pedal in some places.
While mixing I added in some (roll your eyes now) amp simulation plugins to help the definition in some places. I used the DNG, a Gibson SG and a Gibson Hawk for the overdubs.
How do you and the band’s other guitarist Jennifer Vito approach having two guitars in the band, do you feel like you both have defined roles, or does it work on a song by song basis? Do you aim or attempt to have complementing tones in any way?
In general, Jen usually plays the solid foundational parts and I play the more loose “flavor” parts, but it does depend on the section or song. We never sat down and worked on complementary tones. We both play Big Crunch amps, but not identical amps and I’ve always felt they blend nicely together. Jen’s tone is more focused and mine is more spread.
You guys have toured with a wide range of bands over the years – the first time I saw you was with Propagandhi and Rvivr way back in 2014, but even in the last year or two you’ve been on bills with everyone from Cave In to the Smoking Popes. I’m curious if any tour you’ve been on had an effect on you as a guitarist or songwriter, as far as being exposed to another band or player night after night that maybe did things in a way you hadn’t considered.
Whether you want it to or not, you are always influenced in some way by the bands you tour with. Big picture wise, touring with professional, great sounding and playing bands made us get our act in gear fast. We couldn’t suck in front of a crowd waiting to see Propagandhi or Refused. We did a tour with FLAG a few years ago and watching Stephen Egerton play every night was absolutely inspiring. I can’t think of any specific “lick” I stole, but all his playing is in his hands – not his pedals and I try to, in my own way, do the same.
How is the band weathering the entertainment industry shutdown – normally you guys would have been in a touring cycle all year, has the shutdown meant you’ve moved right back into writing mode, are you stuck in limbo, or something else?
We’ve been pushing the new record for the past few weeks, but we haven’t played a show since October 2019 or even rehearsed since February 2020. We are the kind of band that rehearses with a goal – approaching tour, recording a record. There is nothing like that on the horizon. I’ve been transcribing all the new songs with the idea of self publishing them. Dave filmed some drum play through videos that should be coming out soon and Shawna is working on a podcast series that works through the record song by song.
If someone was interested in trying to play some War On Women songs, where would you suggest they start? What’s a fun song to play? What’s your favorite riff or lick that people might dig learning?
Fun starting songs would be Second Wave Goodbye from the S/T record, Silence Is the Gift from Capture the Flag and Milk and Blood from Wonderful Hell.
My favorite songs to play are Predator in Chief and Pleasure and the Beast off of Capture the Flag. Not sure about the new songs yet – we’ve never played them live!
Finally, what are some bands that you think War On Women fans might not be aware of that you think they should check out?
I always encourage people to listen to our Euro sister band Petrol Girls. Black Bra is also a great band that put out a new record this year. I play bass in the J Robbins band and we put out a record last year called Un-Becoming that we’re proud of. I like to promote other Baltimore bands when I can. Some of my favorites are Soul Cannon, Multicult, Quattracenta, Baklavaa, and Outcalls.