From an outsider's perspective, hardcore music scenes and the behavior of the people in that scene are frequently associated with the individuals who act aggressively, pick fights, and get rowdy without respecting other people's space, and while there are people who are intentionally violent and have negative attitudes, the hardcore community is about so much more than that when you look at it from a broader perspective. Richmond straight edge is no exception.
Before conducting this interview, I had a basic understanding of what it means to live a straight edge lifestyle in 2017, and what I learned forms the core of the identity of Break Away. In addition to a living without consuming drugs and alcohol, being straight edge is about holding yourself and those around you accountable for making a promise to live a standard outside mainstream society. I can totally relate to that mindset as a vegan, which is a lifestyle many people also consider to be extreme as it steps outside the status quo. Like the many straight edge punk and hardcore bands before them, the members of Break Away have no problems living life on their own terms, and their new record Cross My Heart, which released to the public on August 4, 2017, captures that spirit of personal growth and the ambition to be your best self.
Since forming the band, vocalist Ace Stallings developed a strong work ethic and passion for continuing the legacy of Richmond's straight edge hardcore scene worldwide. By forming friendships with members of other bands and booking shows, he gained perspectives on how to best take his passions and channel them into a positive outlet. I went deep with Stallings about the band's new record and how they hope to strengthen the current state of hardcore in America.
I cross my heart, it's a promise they intend to keep.
When you started the band, how did all the members end up coming together?
Break Away started in 2010, and in one year, we went through 11 different member changes. I feel like most bands would have done something different, but I was really committed to making this band happen. Only Legan, our guitar player, and I are original members. He was in a band called Hate-0-4 in the 90s. He was in Cast Aside and Dead Serious. He had a pretty long track record previous. We were originally a four piece, and he got added on as our second guitar player. Our first show was in September 2010, so we will be at that seven-year mark officially next month. We had the same lineup from 2011 to 2014, and then it changed to the guys we have now for the past three years.
Of the original members, one of them moved away before we were supposed to record. I still see him at shows, and he's a Break Away fan so it's nothing weird. Another guy who was in the band was feeling weird about hardcore and being straight edge, so he amicably left the band at the time, but I feel like he probably has a lot of negative things to say about the genre and straight edge now. The other person wasn't necessarily good enough as a musician. It was nothing personal, but there were just inconsistencies and little things like that. The other guys left due to other issues that arose like when some guys just didn't mesh with us. Another guy loved being in the band -- his name is Craig, and he does Edgewood Records now -- but he also moved away to California for a while and couldn't fly home. There was never anything super serious that went down or a dramatic falling out with anybody; it just didn't work at the time with those guys.
Can you tell me about how hardcore music has been influential in your life and how that influence led you to start Break Away?
I got into punk first, and when I started getting into hardcore, I was getting into fights with local hardcore kids as a teenager. Then -- I don't know if it was conscious or subconscious -- I started having the mentality that I could do whatever I wanted. A lot of the people I would get in fights with ended up dropping out of the genre, and I ended up staying. The first hardcore show I went to, I remember that I didn't really like it, and I thought all the bands sounded really bad (laughs). It was Direct Control, who is great. Now I love them. There was also a band called Are You Fucking Serious!? and Agent Orange, and I remember my mom said I had to be home by 9 p.m., so I didn't get to see Agent Orange, but I watched Direct Control. Since I was into punk, I thought, "This sucks! It's too fast," but I grew into it and now really like it.
As I got older, a lot of the people I got in fights with when I was younger all sold out and broke their straight edge, and honestly, I started Break Away because I was mad at them for doing that 180. The demo and our first record were pretty much all about how I didn't like that behavior. Over time, that became irrelevant to me and the band's subject matter changed. So I started the band as a means to spite them, and it developed into something I'm passionate about.
Can you tell me more about how you made that shift from being "hate edge" to your current perspective on hardcore music and the associated lifestyles of the members in the community?
I've always been straight edge, and I was angry that these people had used their position in hardcore to have a problem with someone like me and then years later completely change their whole story. Even though the lyrics are really aggressive, I don't fault anybody for not being straight edge. That's never been my thing. I feel like if someone is then isn't anymore, I think logically that can be a step back for some people. There are plenty of people though where it's not a step back.
For example, I know this one dude who was always wound up and really angry, and years down the road, he started smoking weed, which I think benefitted him but he's a rare case. I've also seen the opposite of that where it doesn't benefit people way more times than it does, but if someone wants to chill and do whatever they want to do, I don't have any issues with that. I was more concerned with watching people hold themselves at an elite level and within a year become the person they were looking down upon. In essence, that is thematically how Break Away started when I was 21, and now it's about way more.
What would you say your band is about now?
Now, especially with the new record, Break Away is about the dichotomy of being a person who approaches things with extreme passion and aggression or coming at something from an intellectual standpoint and sits back to consider things from an intrinsic or almost passive perspective. I got into the genre by fighting people, and that was a part of it for me. Now that I'm 28, as someone who considers himself to be an educated person that reads a lot about philosophy and thinks about the analysis of things, I understand that not everything needs to be approached with an aggressive attitude but some things do. I feel like in the world sometimes people are too passive and sometimes too aggressive.
There's a song called "Cold Wave, Snow Beach" on the record, and it's about approaching life in certain situations with both kinds of mindsets. Having a balance between the two is huge. So now the music is much more philosophical compared to years previous when it was much more straight forward and aggressive.
Since you released your debut album Face Aggression in February 2015, how do you feel your band has developed as musicians individually and as a collective?
Everybody is a better player at what they're doing, even after two years. As a group, we really have improved the mechanics of working with one another, and we have a better sense about how one guy might feel about something. Also, I think it's helped getting to know your bandmates' schedules and how you can tour, things like that. Our appreciationsof different typesof hardcore has also grown as a group to a wider scope, and we know what we want to do.
When Face Aggression came out, we had never done an LP, and it was the first piece of music that lineup of Break Away wrote together. This time, we were more goal oriented. In addition to playing better together and putting on a better show, we know where we want to go.
What are your goals as a band you want to achieve?
In the short term, we really want to go to Japan. We went to Europe last year for the first time, and we really want to do that again too. Conceptually, aside from Down to Nothing, there aren't really a lot of big name straight edge bands any more. Mindset broke up last year, and Foundation broke up last year as well. There's also good punk bands that have good music, but I don't think they necessarily have the same reach as those hardcore bands. There's a vacuum there, and we want to fill that void.
We want to be a force sending out a message to younger people who can latch on to that message and use it as a tool to grow and create.
As a straight edge hardcore band, I think the title of your new album fits so well. Can you speak to what inspired the title and how it relates to the overall themes of your lyrical content?
There are many levels to it. The song "Cross My Heart" was written by Dewey. I don't know specifically what it's about, but it has a lot to do with his previous failed relationships and how going forward he wasn't going to make the same mistakes. That's what I picked up from it. It's the only song on the record that I didn't write lyrically.
From a straight edge perspective, the song is about making promises to yourself, and when we played this song live before this record came out, I've said that. Being straight edge is about making a promise to yourself, but it's also about making a promise to your friends, people you care about, and endeavors you're involved in.
There's an interview on the Edgeland podcast with Jason Mazzola, who used to sing for Count Me Out, and he's featured on "Cross My Heart," which is awesome because they were one of the first notable Richmond straight edge bands. In the interview, he talks about how at the time, DC was the closest city with a strong hardcore community, and now Richmond has become a destination for touring bands and the scene has its own identity. I think that's largely due to Down to Nothing, and I'm hoping that we can continue that legacy.
Also, all of our record titles are lines from our previous record. The first record, For Life, was a song on our demo. The next record, The Few That Remain, was a song from the demo. Face Aggression came from a song on The Few That Remain, and Cross My Heart is the first line of "Right / Wrong," which is the second song on Face Aggression. That started out as an accident at first, and then we decided to do it on every record.
Saturday, August 12 will be your official record release show for Cross My Heart at Strange Matter. What are you most looking forward to about it?
The show is full of friends of ours. I book big shows every so often like helping out with United Blood, and there's not really bands on it that are huge. It's not like we're hopping on a reunion show and piggybacking on the draw of a much bigger band. It's not about that. The show is about friends and the Richmond hardcore community, which is really important to me, and it's all very grassroots, nothing flashy. Originally, I wanted to put just straight edge bands on it, but Day By Day is a good band and friends of ours. They wanted to come up, and we were like, why not? Kids love them, and we just want to show what's current. If Break Away doesn't become a big name in straight edge hardcore, I'm confident that one of the bands on the show will fill that void.
In addition to the show in Richmond, you guys are heading out on a mini tour with True Love and Trail of Lies, whom I know you're really close with. How have your relationships with both bands developed over time?
I don't know if those two bands know each other yet, and we're kind of in the middle between them. When I first heard True Love, I didn't really like them that much actually. They were on the same label as us, then someone suggested I listen to them like the band Carry On, who I loved, and when I listened closer, I could pick up on that. The more I listened to it, the more I liked it. We played Detroit on the Face Aggression tour in 2015 having never been there before, and those guys were kind of like us and were playing a similar style of straight edge hardcore. We saw eye-to-eye with them on a lot of things and ended up becoming friends that way.
Tom, the vocalist of Trail of Lies, is the bassist of Naysayer. On the first Break Away tour in 2011, which was a three-day weekend trip, he came with us, and I didn't know him. He was a friend of someone else in the band at the time, and since then, I've become good friends with him. JD is a guitarist in Trail of Lies, and he was in another band called Tolerate that we did a weekend with at some point in time. We met those guys along the way playing in Syracuse and stuff. Tom actually started Trail of Lies years ago, but since Naysayer was so busy they didn't really do too much. Then he brought it back, and they've been blowing up. I'm really happy for them.
I know that in addition to releasing this album, your recently self-published a book. Can you tell us what that's about and where people can purchase it?
I just sold out of the second order of 100 copies yesterday so I'm currently out of stock, but I will have more copies in September. They will be available at mourningsongs.bigcartel.com. I majored in English, but I didn't do anything with it. I'm currently working in sales, and last year, I got frustrated with myself for not pursuing anything in that field. I initially wanted to be a teacher, but that didn't work out. I had always been writing, and I made a commitment to do a book no matter what.
Honestly, it involved a lot of what I learned from hardcore, including having a good work ethic and making things happen even if there's not a clear line of sight. You have to make that path for yourself, and that's how the book got published.
I talked to a publisher, one of which is still down to do a print of it, but they've never done novels, just photo books. I may end up working with them, but it was taking too long for my very short level of patience so I decided I would figure out how to do it on my own. I'm also planning to write another book eventually.
Writing a book like this is very similar to making a demo for a band. You write it, and maybe people will like it but you don't really know what you're doing. That's kind of where this is, but I've gotten some good feedback on it. It's definitely been a learning process. The book itself is composed of a series of short stories that are all based in the same universe and are barely connected to each other. Most of the stories are fictional versions of people I've met through touring and playing shows. One story is about a rave in Hell, and another story is about two vampires having a conversation over coffee. There's also a story about a kid who lives in a small Pennsylvania town. Thematically it's about how darkness and evil rests just below the surface of everything.
Do you know yet what you want to write the second book about?
I have two ideas. One idea revolves around a phenomenon called the Blue Whale Challenge that originated in Russia, and the participants are committing suicide over this challenge that someone gives them online. There are 50 tasks you're challenged to do, and some of them are simple like listening to a song or watching a video, but they build up to jumping off a building. I want to write a book about the person who invented it or if it was a sentient virus to curb the population. That one might be more difficult to do, so I might have to wait until I do another book because there will be many levels to it.
As for the other idea, I used to live in a home that had lots of house shows from August 2011 -- when I was just out of college and didn't have anywhere to live so I was sleeping on a couch at this place -- to April 2012, and I met a lot of the friends I have now. Even though it wasn't a time, it was the craziest time period of my life, and it ended with detectives coming to the house every week until we had to move out. I'd like to compartmentalize a lot of the events that happened in that time period. I think it would be entertaining. If I can find some overarching theme or lesson to attach to it, I think that will probably be the next one.
After this tour, what's next for Break Away?
We don't have any plans for September, but in October, we're going to be playing Edge Day in Boston. We're going with a band we haven't met yet called Cutting Through. They're playing the festival as well, and through our label React! Records, they asked if we could also do some dates around it in DC, Boston, and a show in Richmond too that I haven't booked yet but will.
My friend Jared, who plays in Down to Nothing and Trapped Under Ice, is going to help us with Japan stuff. Japan is different than Europe though. In Europe, we could hit up a company and tell them we want to book a tour there, and most of the time they will set it up for you. In Japan, you kind of have to be invited. It has to be lucrative enough to have you over there in order for the booking agents and show promoters to facilitate this, and just the cost to get there and back is very expensive. We're going to look into it, and if it doesn't work out, we'll lock in a Europe tour for 2018 and maybe some U.S. dates. This band Broken Teeth came through here recently, and they're really big in Europe, so if we could set up something with them that would be beneficial.
I think we're going to do a show in Atlanta in December. It's not a fest, just a show. We usually plan at most six months in advance. We usually take it as it comes.
If people want to support your band, where can they find your music and merch?
We are on all the music streaming service providers, including Apple Music and Spotify. I kind of doubt we're on Tidal, but I also don't know anyone who uses it. You can also stream and download Cross My Heart on the React! Records Bandcamp. If you want to support the band directly, you can purchase merch at breakawayxxx.bigcartel.com. You can also pickup merch from the React! store on Deathwish. We currently don't have any merch in stock on our Bigcartel, but we will soon.
What's your life motto, or the best piece of advice you ever received?
The best advice I ever got was from my father, and I believe that everything I've done with Break Away and my book came as a result of this trite, corny phrase that I hated hearing him tell me when was younger. I realize now that after hearing him tell it to me so many times that I started to live my life this way. He said, "If it's to be, it's up to me."