Be Well’s Brian McTernan talks powerful debut LP, influences & more (Q&A + new video)
Back in the '90s, Brian McTernan used to front the hardcore band Battery, until he turned his full-time focus towards producing and engineering and went on to helm some of the greatest punk, hardcore, emo, and post-hardcore albums of the last two and a half decades, including Converge's Petitioning the Empty Sky, Cave In's Jupiter, The Movielife's This Time Next Year, Fairweather's If They Move... Kill Them, Strike Anywhere's Change Is A Sound, Hot Water Music's Caution, Thrice's The Artist in the Ambulance, Circa Survive's Juturna, and so many others. He's still an active producer/engineer (this year alone, he worked on the new records by Strike Anywhere, Sharptooth, Dave Smalley's band Don't Sleep, and more), but he also finally returned to singing and writing songs after nearly 20 years of not doing so with his new band Be Well, whose debut album The Weight and The Cost is out Friday (8/21) on Equal Vision (pre-order).
Be Well finds Brian joined by Fairweather members Peter Tsouras (guitar) and Shane Johnson (drums), Darkest Hour's Mike Schleibaum (guitar), and Bane/Converge's Aaron Dalbec (bass), all of whom have played in bands Brian has worked with over the years, so it's no surprise that they've got a whole lot of chemistry. The members all come from various walks of punk rock life, but for Be Well, they've honed in on the kind of emotional, melodic hardcore that hits you in the gut and lends itself to cathartic singalongs (Brian cites such bands as Gorilla Biscuits, 7 Seconds, Turning Point, Rites of Spring, Embrace, and Farside as influences, to give you an idea of what to expect).
The Weight and The Cost is full of kick-ass melodic hardcore songs that nail the balance between unfiltered aggression and good hooks, and Brian drives them home with the kind of confessional, vulnerable lyrical content that's so raw and real that it could only come straight from the heart. "A lot of things that have haunted me started out harmless, but keeping them pushed down let them fester and grow until they felt scary and unmanageable," Brian tells us. "Writing this record helped me realize how far I let things slip." In these songs, Brian looks back on his life and the mental health struggles he's faced for years, and he also speaks directly to his daughter and hopes she doesn't have to go through life facing the same struggles he faced. "One day I’ll be better, I hope that you never feel as lost as I do today," he belts on the climactic album closer "Confessional." It's perhaps the most goosebump-inducing moment on an album that's full of them.
The Weight and The Cost
comes out tomorrow (update: is out now, stream below), and the band just released a new video for "Magic," which splices together footage of Be Well performing an empty room (and donning Quicksand and Black Flag tees), Brian spray-painting the song's lyrics on a wall, and shots of Brian and Aaron's children and family friends. Check it out and read on for our Q&A with Brian...
You mentioned in a recent interview that you hadn't played or written music of your own for nearly 20 years before this project. Can you talk a little about what sparked your return to writing/performing, and how the transition back to fronting a band has been? Any rust to shake off, or was it like riding a bike?
I had been writing and collaborating with bands in the studio, but when Battery wrote a new song in 2017 it was the first time I had written anything just for myself in twenty years. It reminded me how much of an emotional outlet that it had been when I was younger and how much I loved having something to pour myself into. The guys in the band have all been in my universe for so long, that it has all felt really natural.
As someone who's spent the last two decades as a prolific producer, how does getting in the studio as a producer compare to getting in as the vocalist/songwriter? And how did the skills and experiences you've gained as producer inform the making of this album, if at all?
I had a hard time with the adjustment at first. When we started recording the vocals, I was so caught up in the technical aspects of the sound that my actual vocal performances ended up feeling uninspired. It took me a while to find an approach that allowed me to let myself go and focus on the emotion of the words and performance. It was really just my parts that required that shift- once they were done, I was able to approach making the rest of the record the same way I would with any other band I was producing.
Recent single "Confessional" and its video both have very powerful, vulnerable messages that touch on fatherhood and mental health. Can you discuss what went into tackling such emotional material, and any of the other themes you explore on this album?
I am a high school dropout from a very troubled home, and I have gone on to have more success than I could have ever dreamed of. Despite the success, depression has been a constant undercurrent in my existence that’s made it hard to be connected to the world, and to feel good about myself. It’s a part of me that I never really shared, even with the people I am closest to. Now as a father, all I want is for my daughter to be comfortable with whoever she is. I never want her to feel that she needs to hide things that are integral to her being from the world. A lot of things that have haunted me started out harmless, but keeping them pushed down let them fester and grow until they felt scary and unmanageable. Writing this record helped me realize how far I let things slip. It has made me reexamine my life and pushed me to open about things that I was afraid of. Having this music exist in the world and realizing that a lot of things I was afraid to even say out loud are actually totally relatable to so many people, and that has made me feel a lot less isolated.
Be Well's lineup includes musicians who all fall somewhere under the punk or hardcore umbrellas, but you've all played noticeably different versions of it on it over the years, and even Be Well sounds noticeably different than the other bands you've all been involved in. What were some artists, albums, or songs that collectively influenced the making of this album?
Turning Point - "Thursday"
Frightened Rabbit - "Swim Until You Can’t See Land"
7 Seconds - "Put These Words To Music"
Rites Of Spring - "For Want Of"
Pedro The Lion - "Bad Things To Such Good People"
Inside Out - "Redemption"
Farside - "I Hope You're Unhappy"
Gorilla Biscuits - "New Direction"
The Cure - "Plainsong"
Embrace - "The Dance Of Days"
As someone who's been involved with punk and hardcore for decades, what do punk and hardcore mean to you at this point in your life? What values do you still carry over from your days as a young punk into your current adult life?
I love punk and hardcore now more than ever. It has given me a sense of community throughout my life, and an outlet when I have needed it the most. To this day, nothing makes my heart beat faster than putting on a Minor Threat record. Hardcore raised me, in the sense that it gave me a moral compass and exposed me to thoughts and ideas that I never would have been exposed to otherwise. The DIY ethic has given me grit and perseverance, and the lyrics in the records have given me a lens through which I still experience the world.
I'm sure everyone is asking this lately, but it's got to be weird to be releasing an album at a time where you can't go on tour in support of it. How has this affected Be Well, and do you have any plans for livestreams or other virtual ways of performing?
My favorite part about performing is the intimacy and connection and I really don’t like being on camera. With that said, I think it’s important for us to be able to perform and have people experience the songs in a looser live-type environment. We are working trying to find a way to do something virtual that feels special.
Before the pandemic started, you had shows planned with both The Movielife and H2O. Besides those two bands, what are some bands you'd most love to tour with when this finally ends?
I really hope the H2O and Movielife shows end up getting rescheduled, because we were so excited about them. I love getting to play with bands that I have worked with in the studio, because most of them have never seen me perform. I’ve known and worked with a lot of these guys super closely for over 20 years, so getting to share a different side of myself with them through Be Well is really cool.
Again, you've been doing this a long time. So to rewind a few decades, what was the band or album or live show that made you say "this is what I want to do with my life"?
It would be hard to pick a record or show, but I think that The Safari Club in DC, where all of the hardcore shows were when I was a kid, is what really hooked me. The people that I met, the bands that I saw play, the opportunity to play my first show with Sick Of It All when I was in eighth grade, all led me to believe that I could do this with my life.
Anything else you'd like to add about the album, or anything else you'd like listeners to know going into it?
We are so stoked for the record to be out in the world!!! It’s an emotionally heavy album, but it’s also catchy, high energy, and fun to listen to. I don’t think you need to struggle with mental health issues to find things that are relatable. We can’t wait to be able to play, travel, and meet new people soon!