Harnessing the Power of Misery - How Erik Stenglein of NORTHLESS Found Inspiration for Last Bastion of Cowardice
The Milwaukee-based sludge force of Northless celebrates a special milestone this year. Erik Stenglein's personal project turns 10 in 2017. The decade is quite an accomplishment for Northless. Stenglein and company amassed a discography filled with riveting efforts like 2011's Clandestine Abuse and a 2014 split with Primitive Man amongst much more. This year, however, marks a brand new and utterly captivating album entitled Last Bastion of Cowardice. Each release presents something new and exciting, but there exists a greater urgency—or anger—in Last Bastion of Cowardice. I spoke to Erik about the new album and how his life and the world around him affects Northless and its output.
"I work full time as a social worker and nowadays I work with adults. Before that, I used to work with children and adolescents until about six years ago." He said. "Work is a pretty focused time for me. It’s strange, I work in that building and I don’t leave it very often. I used to work out in the community but now I stay in that building and work very intensely with people." The job of a social worker can be incredibly taxing—both mentally and emotionally. Stenglein described how his full-time job has affected his work in Northless. It started when he first became a social worker many years ago and discovered how eye-opening the job really was.
"When I started doing social work what became apparent was another perspective of life that I had no prior exposure to. When you are in college you get that 'hypothetical everything.'" Erik described. "Mental health was my understudy—I studied psychology—I learned about mental illnesses and how people cope with that. When you get to that part when you are finally working and you go into the field and you are truly with those people you find that what you learned isn’t necessarily bullshit, but it’s not entirely applicable."
The case scenario of "learning something in school and it not applying to the real world" is not something new. Yet, for Erik, he persevered and eventually killed two birds with one stone. He became great at his job and discovered a fruitful well of inspiration for Northless. Stenglein stated, "What happens is, 'I am encountering a problem, what can I do here to address it and help set these people up to manage it better in the future?' When you get a lot of exposure to people who are in miserable situations, it does weigh on you after a while."
"I think, especially doing this long enough, I have gotten to that point where I can separate it out and continue to help people." He continued. "I have my life outside of this and I don’t let work cross over to it and I have that balance down. There are still times where I think about a certain situation and the seriousness of it and I realize how profound it was. You feel bad for people, but I think that misery kind of rubs off." He admitted to struggles with his own occasional depression, something many people often deal with. "I think at times it kind of impacts the music because if you’re having a bad week or encounter some kind of situation, it could exacerbate those own feelings."
While he continues to tackle his own emotions and tirelessly work with the public; Erik uses his music to funnel or guide his thoughts and feelings. "I try my best to take any miserable feelings I have and sublimate it into Northless. It’s basically a catharsis for me and that’s how it has always been. When I started, I knew I wanted it to be more of a personal project and that’s how the songs came out." The work-life balance can be a struggle for anyone. Most of the time, Erik can split his work and home or music life. However, he humorously recalled times where the two did not quite diverge.
"Nick (Elert) is the other guitarist in Northless. He said to me, 'I assume your day is always working on Northless.' I am like, 'No! No! I don’t know why you would think that!' It is one of those things when I was working on the record—every Saturday I was up early and working on demos. Otherwise, I sporadically get an idea. I will have my phone with me at work. If I get an idea in my head, I run to the bathroom and hum a riff idea. Once I am done, I send it to myself and then go home and turn it into a guitar part."
A consequence of music having a strong and cathartic personal tie is the potential for large change as the outside world weighs on its creator. Such is the case for Erik and his malaise towards the world's current state—particularly healthcare. "I think in the way this country is running, especially within the last year, it’s the opposite of how I want it to go." Stenglein proclaimed. "For me, the biggest thing is: in this country, we should have our healthcare covered. We should have universal health care and the treatment we deserve. We should have the basics covered—a safety net for people who cannot provide for themselves. Food, clothing, shelter, and healthcare."
The dramatic shift away from compassion and care for the average American struck a nerve with the Northless frontman. "You can’t focus on the most basic parts of life when those things are disordered. How are you going to get a job when you don’t have somewhere you can stay at night? That’s probably one of the biggest things that makes me angry with this country. That kind of anger has filtered its way down into my music. I’ve never written a song that is purely political, but most of the things have been from how they personally affect me."
His anger is drastically apparent in Last Bastion of Cowardice. The band's newest effort, which arrives tomorrow, ferociously roars with sludge-ridden might. Stenglein and Elert's thick riffs often lurch with a misanthropic groove. John Gleisner and Jerry Hauppa's gritty low-end contributions meanwhile chain Northless' diverse ideas to a consistent metallic tone. They never stray too far from their sludgy and deathly core. Throughout much of the album, there are moments where the Wisconsin band dips their toes in noise or post-rock and hardcore elements, but, again, never quite lose touch with metal. "Godsend" is a sensational example of this. The latter half toys with an underlying guitar melody tucked behind Erik's thunderous voice and Gleisner's towering percussion. Other tracks like "Never Turn Your Back on the Dead" and the title track do this as well.
Another noticeable trend within Last Bastion of Cowardice is an overall thematic and stylistic transition. The first half of the album is tense and rife with extremity. The final few tracks, on the other hand, resemble something much more somber. Some of this is due to a narrative that Stenglein built for the record—something not seen in Northless prior. "The protagonist in this story is a person who experiences life and all the downsides that come with it. He sees some people close to him get hurt badly and resorts to violence. In the end, this person ultimately realizes that violence is futile. If you’re committing violence you’re putting yourself in the same group as the people you are against. Eventually, instead of violence outward—it’s violence inward."
If you listen closely throughout Last Bastion of Cowardice, you can begin to pick many points of this plot out. Whether it is through lyrics or through the music itself. Ultimately, what Northless creates is a dynamic and captivating record that wonderfully captures the misery and strife that accompanies life. This is no easy task of course but musicians like Stenglein are incredibly adept at seizing the tropes of humanity. Over the course of a decade, Stenglein's effort has become more concise—more direct. His focus strengthens and the sonic force he emits grows larger still. The sum of Erik's experiences and ideologies, combined with a very real narrative, makes Northless' newest effort a necessary listen and worthy succession in the band's illustrious discography.
Last Bastion of Cowardice officially arrives tomorrow. Preorder links are as follows: Gilead Media (vinyl), Halo of Flies (vinyl), Hand of Death (tape), and Init Records (CD). Also, follow Northless on Facebook.