Interview: John Galm – Bad Heaven Ltd.
Posted: by The Editor
John Galm is best known as the former lead vocalist of, the canonical emo band, Snowing. These days, however, he’s the lead vocalist of Bad Heaven Ltd., an indie rock group featuring ex-members of Snowing and The World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die. At the end of last week he released the best album of his career, titled Strength. It’s an album about being young, dumb, and broke, as Kahlid, the poet laureate of my generation eloquently put it. I got the chance to speak with Galm a bit about the record and the expectations that come with being the torchbearer for an entire genre.
Coming from two very acclaimed bands, Snowing and Street Smart Cyclist, do you ever feel pressured to live up to their material when you write for Bad Heaven?
John Galm: No, not really. I definitely felt that pressure before, maybe a couple of years ago. I was never really good at making the standard emo-sounding songs, like with the crazy riffs – I was just surrounded with the right people who knew how to do that. So making music that sounded like Snowing or Street Smart, post those bands, I knew I couldn’t do that without extra help. There was definitely a time when I felt I had to make music in that vein in order to have some sort of audience. There was – especially after Snowing broke up – a lot of insecurity about not knowing where music fit into my life, where I was supposed to go with it. But all that’s kinda gone now. [laughs] I got older, started just making music I want to make and like listening to. The two Bad Heaven records were made out of curiosity and things that sounded cool in my head. I don’t feel that anymore. I’m so many years removed from the emo scene at this point that I don’t really know what’s going on and I don’t listen to it.
Would you say, then, that Bad Heaven is more along the lines of the styles of music you listen to these days? I’d say it’s more of a folk or even slowcore sound than emo.
It’s funny, ‘cause a couple years ago, when I was starting this, I was really inspired by Sparklehorse and Elliott Smith and people would say, “Wow, this sounds like slowcore.” I was like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” [laughs] I didn’t hear BedHead til, like, a couple years ago now. I was a little behind on all that. I can see why I get lumped in there. I love Low, so that makes sense to me. I really am just a big fan of slower ‘90s indie rock, which is basically slowcore. [laughs] But I don’t go out of my way to be, like, “Shit, this song isn’t slowcore enough.” [laughs] I remember years ago I was writing music, trying to explore different sounds in a post-Snowing world, I was playing lots of songs for my friend, who said everything was really calm and slow. I guess it’s just in my nature – and I know it doesn’t seem like it given how Snowing was – but to be very quiet and reserved when I pick up a guitar.
It’s always cool for me to hear someone who can go from a band like Snowing to one like Bad Heaven, almost completely opposite sounds.
Yeah, it always strikes me as odd when you hear a band who’s kept the same sound their whole career. There’s certain bands who will put out a new record and it just sounds like the same thing they’ve been doing since 1997, and I just don’t understand how you do that. As I get older, my tastes change and my ideas change and the things I work on just naturally change. I know people actively have that “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” kinda thing, but I just don’t understand. What I’ve found is when I play music, when I’m happiest with something is when I’m the most passionate about what I’m doing. I’d much rather work on something that excites me rather than something that, like, “This is gonna get played.” I mean, I’ve done it, I know. I’ve made these mistakes before.
It seems like “100,” even though it’s about having a shitty landlord and living in a shitty apartment, is sorta about more than just having a shitty landlord and living in a shitty apartment. Am I reading too much into it, or is that about correct?
Yeah, and I think that speaks to the whole record. When I was writing this record, I had a lot of images in my head from when I was in college. I went to a state school in Pennsylvania kinda in the middle of nowhere and was sorta isolated and not very friendly to anyone who wasn’t just a normal person. I felt like an alien there. I had so much trouble finding friends or meeting anyone who made me feel comfortable with who I am. It was a bad and really uncomfortable four years. For some reason when I was making this record I felt like I never dealt with the sadness – and I don’t wanna say trauma ‘cause it sounds more extreme than it was – that that space made me feel, which was very desolate and alone and isolated. And at that time I was very broke and my family was dealing with the death of my father, so for the first time we were pretty broke. It was a really scary time. And it was a really lonely time. So that landlord line – and “100” as a whole – I lived in shithole apartments filled with black mold that are uncomfortable and not yours, and landlords are the fuckin’ worst, as everyone knows. The song itself just speaks to the general mood of just being young and ill-prepared for life and the struggles of being broke, young and desperate. It’s less just a one-off about a shitty landlord.
I feel like that’s something a lot of people can relate to. I’m in college right now and I definitely find a lot of this is pretty true to my current experiences.
I don’t know if we’re technically out of the recession – I think we are – but I know that it’s still hard for a lot of people to make do. Even though I have a full-time job now I’m basically saddled where I am because of healthcare costs, and I’m not saving a dime. Even month I’m paying just as much in student loan debt as I am in rent so as much as I’m not as buried as I was, I’m still buried in this millennial debt spiral.
Would you say those are the themes of the record as a whole? I know you said “Strength” the song is about being young and not really knowing your place in the world, and that seems to be the case for “100” as well. Is that the arc of the record?
Yeah, like I said, when I was writing this, in my head I kept picturing the town I was in college in. I remember being there and feeling this complete desperation and unease with the world and not having what I needed to feel safe – financially, housing, or even like relationship stability, however you wanna phrase that. Then when you’re young part of you feels invincible and I remember being 19 and thinking I had everything figured out, thinking, “I know exactly what this year’s gonna be, I’m gonna do all this cool stuff, I’ve got the world at my fingertips,” and I knew nothing. I was a fuckin’ idiot. That’s another part of the record – you think you’ve got everything figured out when you’re young but you don’t and so when it hits you it really hurts. Growing up isn’t good but it’s necessary. “Strength” is about being young and stupid and thinking things are good and will continue to be good, when realistically they’re not, and it’s just gonna hit you again.
There’s a song that stood out to me as a bit more upbeat musically and more positive lyrically, the song “Cross.”
Right, and the other thing about this record is that, in remembering those lonely and desperate times in college, I kept picturing myself having had just one friend to sit with and to be there with me and deal with it together. A lot of the songs, the narrator is singing to someone, and it’s really the same person. It’s about friendship and having someone in a world that’s cruel and unforgiving who can get through it with you. So “Cross,” it’s a song about having another person. It is a positive song, and there’s a couple others on the record, but people can figure those out on their own. Even “100,” that’s really about waiting for that person to get back, not wanting to be alone anymore. It’s a record about having that person, really.
How do you feel the John from the era of Street Smart Cyclist or Snowing would feel if he listened to Strength?
I don’t know if he would’ve gotten it. [laughs] I had some pretty suspect tastes for a little bit. There’s this thing that’s happened to me over the past couple years where I stopped writing about what was immediately happening to me – like Street Smart, Snowing, a lot of it was just about my day to day problems and it got problematic after a while ‘cause I was very sick and listening back, it feels almost irresponsible to be singing about some of the things I was, so I more or less had to find a new way to write. With the first Bad Heaven record, I found myself exploring a lot of times or ideas in my life that I had to processes, but never gave myself time to process. A lot of Strength is about those times. I was a junior in college when we started Snowing and a freshman or sophomore I guess in Street Smart and that’s what I’m writing about in Strength. So maybe musically I wouldn’t have gotten it, but I think lyrically and thematically it would’ve resonated with me. I like it a lot now.
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