Trekking through Eastern Asia with Chicago doom masters Disrotted.
A couple weeks ago I had a free Friday and stopped at a nearby brewery to, as one does, have a beer at Noon mere seconds after the place opens their doors. The first thing I see is the manager, Pato Thornycroft, wearing this shirt. We got to talking about local breweries, beer and music, where he mentioned he had recently completed a tour of Korea and Japan photographing a number of different doom, grind and noise bands at each show. I mumbled something about writing for a blog with “toilet” in its name, and miraculously I wasn’t asked to close my tab and get the hell out.
Pato’s striking black & white images capture the visual grime and filth of live performances where artists pump out cochlea-punishing decibels at paces alternating between tectonic sludge and rapid detonations. Some of these artists hail from nearby, and others have come from the other side of the world. I reached out to Pato recently via email and he was kind enough to answer some questions about his experience.
How did you get your start in live music photography?
I had been studying film and photography for a few years, but I had never really tried shooting concerts until Richard Bellia‘s exhibition came through Chicago. After seeing his work on display and the massive range of bands that he has shot and seen, it pushed me in music photography direction. After a year or so of studying, I borrowed a camera with a fast lens, saved maybe a hundred bucks, and jumped in a van with a band from Chicago for a week going down to Austin, Texas. I got my first taste of tour life, which is eating grossly cheap if at all, sleeping on floors of venues and friend’s apartments, constantly being exhausted, and generally treating your body like trash. I ran out of money on the second or third day and didn’t eat for most of the tour after that. That was almost ten years ago, and the photos all sucked, except for maybe one or two. Those shots are what sort of defined my style for me. It allowed me to get my feet wet and figure out how I wanted to approach the whole practice.
How long have you known and been working with the guys in Disrotted?
Six years ago Dean Costello (guitarist) and I were working and living together for a while in DeKalb, IL when he was writing his parts for Harpoon‘s Deception Among Birds. Spent a lot of time getting really fucked up and watching Planet Earth with Gas playing at deafening volumes instead of the commentary, playing hockey, and crawling home from the bar next door. It was a harsh friendship withdrawal when I graduated college and moved back home to tend to some family needs and Dean moved to Chicago. We hadn’t been able to hang out for a few years and Dean was trying really hard to get me to tour with him. First he offered for a quick trip down state, I had schedule conflicts, then he offered for a few state tour through the south, and again I could make the time. Finally he sort of jokingly asked if I could go to Japan with them for their tour last year. I think it sort of surprised him when I said I could do that one. I met Adam Jennings (vocals) and John Finaldi (drums) one or two days before flying out, not really knowing anything about each other, but now after two foreign tours, we are close as brothers.
Do you tour with other Chicago-area bands, or foreign bands visiting the US?
It is the sad reality that unless you have a lot of time to dedicate to photography and are continuously seeking out work, you don’t make a lot of money, so I have a day job of running a brewery/taproom in the North Suburbs of Chicago, so I wont be able to tour for a while. The nice thing about living in Chicago is you don’t always have to tour to do a lot of concert photo work. So many shows come through here constantly, it is almost every single day that there is something worth taking a night off to go shoot. That being said, we were campaigning really hard with Ryo Yamada to bring his band Guevnna to America for a tour, if they come through I’m definitely going to try to hit as many shows as possible with these dudes. Their “Disco Doom” band is amazing, and their whole crew is very photogenic, I’m really hoping they are able to come through America.
I imagine there’s more than enough work to go around while touring internationally – in addition to photographing everything, do you have to do anything else to help the tour function each day?
Yeah absolutely, I have pretty good management skills from running the brewery, I’m a pretty level headed decision maker, and very punctual, no matter how drunk or exhausted I can get. They put me in charge of navigating Japan, getting to and from the venues via Tokyo’s incredibly reliant train system. Every day I carried my camera bag, clothes bag, and the merch bag on me all at once, which ended up weighing around 90 pounds. They kept offering to help, but I wanted those dudes to stay fresh for each show. I didn’t want anyone being exhausted, because if they played a bummer show, I would get bummer shots. I would also handle the band money, run their merch table, try to find vegan/vegetarian food for Dean and John, as it’s really tough being vegetarian in Japan.
What are some of the challenges of having to photograph these bands each night? Do you ever find yourself without a light source or running low on battery power? Also, do you have specific goals for composition, atmosphere, etc. when shooting?
A long time ago I was researching photography theory, and I can’t remember who said it, but I came along a quote that stated “using a flash is as rude as bringing a gun to the opera.” Obviously, the music I’m shooting these days is not the opera, but we have always agree that disturbing a live concert with a blast of light is annoying to the performer and the crowd as well. With Disrotted however, they love playing in extreme-low light conditions (against my recommendation). Dean even will turn of lights during other shows just because that’s how he prefers it, which makes me want to punch him in the face, but it ultimately makes me work harder, become more patient, and when a great image comes out of that its much more rewarding.
I really love working with negative space and isolating the subject on stage, and always in black and white. Nothing digital will really replicate the great looks that monochrome film creates, but I still feel like working in black and white will always have a more classic feel. I’m not afraid of grit and grain from pushing the limits of my camera, but I always strive for a more quality image.
Needle Contaminated Pork
The biggest difficulty was keeping the photos fresh, I was mentally exhausted of trying to make a new photograph of the same band that generally are pretty consistent in how they look and act on stage. For the last two nights in Korea I was ready to throw my camera against the wall. It’s a good thing feeling ultimately though. It makes you mess around with the camera more, exposure lengths, multiple exposures, different lenses (I usually shoot prime, but brought two different variable lenses this tour), messing with long exposures and changing focal length mid zoom (pretty cliche but I had never tried it before), different angles and perspectives. I really appreciated the challenge.
Your tour diary describes some pretty amazing experiences – what was your favorite memory from this most recent outing?
Adam is a big wrestling dude, I haven’t really paid any attention since the old ECW days, but he bought us all tickets to Wrestle Kingdom and saw Kazuchika Okada vs Kenny Omega match. That sort of revitalized my appreciation for professional wrestling, and that match was just as brutal as some of the heavy shows. A lot of the moves that WWE banned years ago are still legal in Japan, and its amazing that some of those dudes didn’t die.
Beyond that just being in Japan and soaking in their culture is the best. It’s like you are dropped on a different planet. Their temples, and specifically their graveyards, are so visually impressive, I spent a solid 24 hours just hitting temples in and around Tokyo.
Other than Disrotted, which band had the most impressive live performance?
Everything was so good, its impossible to pick one, but Su19b was a favorite from the Japanese scene. They were the only band that were giving Disrotted a run for the money on the decibel readings, they seamlessly flow from machine gun paced powerviolence to a super slow doom, and I’m pretty sure Ryohei is the greatest drummer I have ever seen in my lifetime.
The best Korean band was Gonguri, they played this gut hollowing deep stoner doom, it made my insides rattle. Listening to them actually hurt a little bit, and that’s a big compliment to those dudes. Definitely the best foreign band we saw was Octopoule: a one man act, playing the drums with pre-recorded mathy-guitar, bass and vocals being projected on an interactive screen. It was so precise and amazing, not only experiencing the show was a trip, but imagining the effort and time put into filming, editing, timing, practice, I can’t even begin to imagine how many hours that dude worked on that project.
When we spoke in person, you mentioned that Japanese metal fans take their love of the genre very seriously. How do the crowds at shows out there compare to crowds out here?
In Chicago in the winter, you pretty much have to bribe people to come out to a show. They’ll complain that they have too much to do, or the weather sucks, or they don’t want to spend any money. In Japan, they just go. No complaints, no whining, they just make it to the show. Makato from Funeral Moth made it to three or four shows, Ryo switched his entire schedule around to see Disrotted in Tokyo, Naru from Obliteration Records even showed up to the Winters in Osaka show.
As far as the general crowds are, I did notice they were pretty tame, even for the rowdier punk shows that we saw. It’s not that they are not really enthusiastic about it, I just think it takes more to get a Japanese crowd really worked up. I have heard otherwise from other musicians. The Korean crowds on the other hand were almost always rowdy. It was pretty hilarious watching the crowd try to find a way to get a mosh pit going during the Disrotted set. They were playing so slow and it confused the hell out of them.
Best things you ate and drank?
Ryokucha Hai is my favorite drink. Period. I miss it everyday. It’s just green tea and Sochu, but it’s dirt cheap and gets you drunk fast. Thrash Zone had the best craft beers, we were served by the owner and the master brewer, who also happened to be in some pretty pulverizing punk bands back in the day. As far as food, we ate a lot of amazing stuff this time around, last year we pretty much lived off of Onigiri from Seven Eleven every day, but this year we had really great stuff. Lightly fried pig skin had this amazing elastic texture, but was still fatty and salty. Century Egg (which I think is Chinese but we still ate a lot of it) is this black gelatinous, translucent, fermented egg, looks terrifying, but is delicious.
It wasn’t just the food that was awesome, but sort of the family dinners after shows, where all the bands would hang out and have a meal together, talk about cultural differences, favorite bands, or just get really drunk together. In Korea we had almost forty people out to dinner together, with groups of four around a big gas fed burner, they would bring by a huge pot of broth and it had some hunk of beef bone, sometimes knuckles and spine, and as it would simmer you could suck the fat right out of the vertebrae, that was incredible. Everyone going out together after the show was a great practice altogether that I wish we could do in America more often.
Any more tours or photography projects lined up?
Unfortunately, I gotta take a break from touring for a little bit to save some cash and work at the brewery until the end of summer. Hopefully, with this interview some bands might hit me up when my time frees up. I also live with two of the dudes from Like Rats and Belonger, so I might annoy them to shoot some of their shows. I’m always going to hop in the van with Disrotted as much as I can, just because our styles work together and I love the challenge of the pitch black situation.
Besides that I am starting some studio projects that will be vastly different from my live concert photography. I’m trying to do a portraiture project that is music related, I kinda want to keep it secret while it formulates, but a new style of stuff is in the works.