The Cover Story

Jesus Piece: “Our music calls to something dark in people. It pulls out that primal side”

Jesus Piece’s Aaron Heard only truly understood hardcore once he’d thrown himself headlong into its visceral, violent live arena. In the aftermath of their soul-shuddering set at Outbreak, he explains how the focus and ferocity that accompanied new album …So Unknown is taking that cathartic carnage to another level.

Jesus Piece: “Our music calls to something dark in people. It pulls out that primal side”
Sam Law
Nicole Mago

When was the last time you felt unequivocally alive? Not just awake. Not just breathing. Not just swimming against the deluge of grinding drudgery and fleeting dreaminess that is so increasingly overwhelming in the post-pandemic landscape. For the 10,000-odd punters who’ve waived their safety to cram into Manchester’s Depot Mayfield on the last Saturday in June, the answer to that question is measured in milliseconds: blood surging and adrenaline spiked in a storm of swung fists, hurtling bodies and rattling sonic declaration.

“Outbreak Festival!” roars Aaron Heard as a manic congregation flail around him and tumble headlong from the barricade-free main stage. “Drink it up! This is about living your whole life exactly as you want to. Fuck what anyone tells you. Fuck the bullshit. Let’s get loose!”

It feels like a defining moment for the Jesus Piece frontman and his unrelenting band. England’s premier hardcore gathering has attained mythic status in recent years, and the Philadelphian mob erupt with enough molten metallic fervour to steal the show: jagged cuts like Curse Of The Serpent and Oppressor exploding on impact. Even more than the torrent of rage and wrath, it's about the fizzing, lightning-bolt bond they form with the audience.

“I wouldn’t say that we’re ultra-violent people,” Aaron tugs at his tight-wound beard in the aching aftermath. “But musically, and in our live show? Hell yeah. You’re not gonna get much more than what we’re putting out there anywhere else. Everybody has their demons. Everybody has their problems. But we make sure to put them where it counts: into this music, into this feeling, into this aggression. It’s the fans at our shows who bring the really crazy shit, though. We just set the stage. Our music calls to something dark in people. It pulls out that primal side. We played recently at Brooklyn Steel [pictured throughout], and it had to be stopped because they were blowing fire in the crowd. The venue were like, ‘Yo, we’ve never had to shut a show down in the middle of someone’s set before, but we can’t have a dude in here blowing flames.’ I was like, ‘Honestly, that just makes sense…’”

Aaron’s air of disbelief is accompanied by more than a hint of pride. In hardcore, chaos is currency and there are precious few outfits able to command those kinds of riches.

By his own admission, the frontman wasn’t “the biggest music head” growing up. The handful of favourite CDs kept on hard rotation – 50 Cent’s pumping Get Rich or Die Tryin', Nas’ seminal debut Illmatic, Wu-Tang Clan classic Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) – solidified a foundational love of hip-hop (the ‘Jesus Piece’ name is a reference to the chunky religious jewellery worn within the scene) built around brutality, from Fiddy’s very real bullet wounds to Wu-Tang’s love of outlandish kung fu cinema. Punk rock landed on his radar via the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater soundtrack and a boarder buddy who loaded an early MP3 player with must-hear heroes like Pennywise. Initially, Aaron wanted to be a guitarist, even getting a BC Rich Bich from his mum for Christmas, but seeing the carnage wielded by hardcore vocalists first-hand confirmed the release he was seeking lay at the end of a mic.

“It wasn’t until I went to a show, saw it live and felt the energy present in the room, that I knew this was for me. It was almost an instantaneous understanding. It was the heaviness, the dissonance, the chaos that drew me in. I think it’s like an ADHD-brain thing. I already feel so chaotic that when you put me in a chaotic situation it feels normal. I can think about all the crazy shit that’s going on. Being in a wild setting like that gives my brain some ease.”

You can’t really get Jesus Piece until you’ve lost yourself in that pit. When pressed to define what hardcore means to him, Aaron points to its spirit and value system. “Stand by your ideas. Don’t let anybody step on you. Hardcore is power. If you are someone who identifies with this scene, you have the self-awareness and empowerment to say, ‘Yo! This is what I do! These are my ideas!’ and to be uncompromising in that.” Affirmative sloganeering on record is meaningless, though, he says, without the context of the live show. “The records are cool – I hope that people listen to them forever – but they need to come see us play!”

“Stand by your ideas. Don’t let anybody step on you”

Aaron explains what hardcore means to him

More and more, they’ve have been doing just that. An influx of younger, more diverse fans wanting to be part of “something real, something vital” since lockdown has only upped the energy. “Nowadays, I don’t even know who our ‘demographic’ is,” Aaron smiles. “And I’m okay with that. There’s nothing cooler than some dude who’s 40 or 50 saying, ‘I don’t go to shows anymore, but that was insane!’ standing next to a high-schooler going, ‘I didn’t expect any of this!’ Kids are here to lose their minds – and we’re here to facilitate that.”

The intersection between the scene’s concrete past and its flourishing future raises questions, though. Where is the tipping point when healthy catharsis becomes macho cliché? Do you lose something when stepping onto the kind of grander stages where fans aren’t welcomes to cartwheel through the rhythm section? Could it prevent cross-pollination with other subcultures where people are less happy to be smacked in the face?

“I wouldn’t say the violence is integral,” Aaron turns the idea over in his head. “Earlier on, I would’ve been bummed if no-one was moshing because I was feeding off the energy of the crowd. But the more that you play festivals and bigger shows, the more you get used to people not moshing. You begin to understand that it should be you throwing the energy out there, not just taking it. At the same time, the best shows I’ve ever been to were the ones where I felt the most scared. Ultimately, this is an adrenaline chase. There’s nothing better, for me, than a nice scary experience. But that’s not the only thing making this good. It’s like ice-hockey: fighting is dope, but it can still be a sick game if that doesn’t happen!”

Running into him offstage, Aaron is damn near unrecognisable. With his bright, intelligent eyes behind circular tortoiseshell spectacles, and a blue and white striped rugby jersey from JP's own NOAH collab draped over the wiry frame fans are more accustomed to seeing shirtless, he introduces K! to his 13-year-old dog Keena and welcomes us into the impressively tidy third floor of his home. To the uninitiated, he could as easily be a stylish young professional or sensitive scholar as the voice behind one of heavy music’s most incendiary bands. It’s pivotal context for understanding how life away from Jesus Piece has shaped their drive and direction: not by softening anything, but rather sharpening the serrated edge to unleash maximum chaos.

“It’s really all about how we have changed as people,” Aaron nods. Looking back, the COVID cancellation of a planned U.S. mega-tour with Code Orange, Show Me The Body and Machine Girl – all of whom performed at Outbreak this weekend – and the long silence that followed turned out to be “a good thing”: an opportunity to take stock and spend time with family.

“We’ve all grown up considerably since we left off. Hindsight is always 20/20, and getting that little bit of time to sit down and think about what could be better has really sharpened our mentality. It was just a matter of trying to understand the band as an entity: what we are; who we are; how that ties into what we’re doing. Talking about priorities. Thinking about how to execute. We wanted to push forward in a way that showcases each of us as people [guitarists David Updike and John DiStefano, superstar drummer Luis Aponte complete Jesus Piece’s stacked roster] as well as this one entity that is Jesus Piece. It’s about how we grow it into a bit of a culture rather than just being ‘the Philly hardcore band’. That plan started with writing a new record. So we got to it…”

2018’s punishing debut Only Self was a staggering record, but one which very much emanated from the underground, dropping on Southern Lord and making waves without the weight of expectation. Five years on, its follow-up was always going to be a more challenging undertaking. Milestones that have long since dropped into the rearview all built to this moment. Signing to Sony subsidiary Century Media. Seeing producer Randy LeBoeuf’s basement studio flooded by Hurricane Ida in summer 2021. Retreating to a log cabin the New Jersey woods to complete vocals. Finally unleashing the beast this past April.

The increase in scope and ambition was instantly apparent. Cover art by Paris trailblazer Lazygawd – built around an airbrushed aesthetic with black angels representing “sadness or loathing or anger” – broadcast sensitivity, and a need to be leaders, not followers. “I’m over the same kind of imagery and art style that every kind of metal band uses,” Aaron sighs. “It’s boring.” Peeling those images back and hitting ‘play’ reveals sonic progress, incorporating elements of industrial, atmospheric and death metal. “We’ve been making heavy music for so long, and we’re going to continue making heavy music, but how else can we make it?”

While the title …So Unknown alludes to a sort of existential uncertainty (“We didn’t know what was going on in the world. We didn’t know what was going on with us. We didn’t know what was going on with the band. We didn’t know what was going on with our sound. None of it. We just knew that we had to be a better version of ourselves…”) the content is testament to heightened focus. Song titles like In Constraints, Tunnel Vision and Fear Of Failure speak for themselves, but what’s been held back is perhaps even more telling.

“I’ve always been a very emotional person,” Aaron explains. “Doing this for as long as I have and having it be this main focus of my life – writing about miserable shit, wearing my heart on my sleeve, maybe sometimes just saying too much – opens up a door to my personal life for people, sometimes. They want to talk to me about what’s going on with them. That’s awesome, but it can fuck with me, too: bringing up these old feelings, reliving certain traumas as fodder for songs. It takes a toll. So I wanted to take a different approach this time and write some songs that don’t necessarily make me feel terrible.”

“We’ve found an outlet for our feelings and our aggression”

Hear Aaron on the cathartic power of hardcore

Where, previously, the isolation, rampant racism, righteous rage and socio-political upheaval of the last few years would have been writ large, here they’re held at bay. “It was incredibly hard not not to pour all of that in,” Aaron says. “I’ve already written about how I feel about the American government and the police. If they start doing some different shit, maybe I’ll have some new lyrics about it. I’m not a one-trick pony – and I don’t want to be!”

It’s an approach that means the personal moments connect with much more feeling when they do drop. The ferocious Gates Of Horn, for instance – named after the gates of horn and ivory from classical Greek literature, used to differentiate between dreams grounded in fantasy and reality – deals with anxiety nightmares during lockdown. “Over quarantine, I wasn’t right. My head was fucked up by being isolated like that and not knowing whether I had a career or not. I wrote about that so I didn’t need to think about it anymore.”

The outstanding Silver Lining, meanwhile, is a sort-of love song to Aaron’s three-year-old son Leo, whose birth was the primary catalyst for getting serious with the band.

“Has fatherhood changed me?” he laughs. “Hell yeah. JP was always about having fun fucking around on the road. I need to be way more selective with things now. Every moment counts. Every move needs to be calculated. That kind of killer instinct is good for the band. And yeah, it gave me a different perspective in terms of content of the songs, in a sense. I was like, ‘He’s gonna grow up and read this! I can’t be writing insane shit!’ I dialled it back a bit and tried not to write about dying anymore – at least by my own hand!”

Aaron isn’t the type to hit the road after destroying Outbreak. Instead, he can be spotted ducking side-stage or milling through the mangle all weekend, ravenously soaking up the broad spectrum of modern hardcore. Jesus Piece may exist at its most abrasive, vitriolic end, but the genre’s expansion and diversification only feeds into the qualities they hold dear.

“It’s awesome,” he smiles. “Hardcore is a music that’s built on like three drum beats and some powerchords. You’ve got to spice that up to stand out. Music is gonna evolve because people are evolving. And I think this is a very loveable music if you give it a chance. So, to see that people are giving it a chance? That’s great. For years and years, we’ve seen incredible musicians be overlooked while terrible bands, who’re way past their prime, get pushed to the front. To see this insane interest in newer, younger bands is amazing. There will be people out there who’ll get pissed off about [me saying] that, but even if hardcore gets bigger there can still be small shows happening and you can still have your own small scene. I’m just all for new people wanting to come and experience what we do.”

Spend a minute on Google and you’ll find dozens of think-pieces on why this influx of new blood has taken place. The crossover with art and fashion has dragged the scene away from bunker-dwelling meatheads, they’ll say, and into a cool new light. The visibility of new faces (Outbreak 2023 features surely the most ethnically diverse line-up for a heavy festival in the UK, ever) has had a snowball effect, picking up new sounds and fans as it gathers momentum. For Aaron, it comes back to finding an energy you can’t get anywhere else.

“Lock people in a house for two years and they build up a lot of kinetic energy. They’re sitting at home, unable to go anywhere because the whole world has shut down, sending each other videos of people going apeshit bonkers jumping off things and into each other. It created this want, for lack of a better word, to feel alive. People want that invigorated feeling. They want that dopamine. And they’re going to get it at our shows, or Turnstile’s shows, or Knocked Loose’s. They step into that room for the first time and feel that same feeling we felt. Then they tell all their friends who tell all their friends, and here we are.”

Playing on bigger and bigger stages affords bigger opportunities, too. Of the Jesus Piece collective, Luis has the most obviously ostentatious side-hustles: drumming for pop superstar Charli XCX, modelling for fashion brand NOAH, performing as electronic alter-ego LU2K. Aaron – who put in a spell on bass for NOTHING himself – stresses that the openness to develop is key to JP’s forward direction.

“I want my brothers to grow. I want everybody to be the best version of themselves. Maybe that’s the dad in me,” a momentary switch to his best fatherly voice, “but I’m just so proud of everybody. I want people to be themselves, to take credit for what they do and what they’ve done. Luis is a very hard-working person and I want to give him props for that. He built that for himself. And I want JP to help with that if we can. Likewise, I’d like to think that anything I do would have the support of my friends.”

“I don’t give a f*ck what anyone else is doing. I want Jesus Piece to be its own thing”

Listen to Aaron talk about Jesus Piece not becoming “a clone” in the scene

Ultimately, the opinions of those friends are all that matters when it comes to where Jesus Piece go from here. Foremost, hardcore will always be at their hearts, and delivering max power to roomfuls of fans will always be the benchmark. As much as Aaron grew up with those great rap records, he stresses that he’s very much a “metal guy” now. And even as trends rise and fall more spectacularly than ever, they’ll hold their course.

“It’s crazy, but I really don’t give a fuck what anyone else is doing,” he shrugs. “I know that’s such a [clichéd] thing to say, but I really don’t care. I want what Jesus Piece is doing to be Jesus Piece’s thing. I don’t want outside pressures. I don’t want us to have to look and compare ourselves to somebody else. You do that kind of shit and, before you know it, you’re starting to compromise. You can’t try to copy what someone else is getting success from. That’s how you fuck yourself, because that’s how you become a clone. All of us in this band are such stubborn fucks. We all have very different interests, ideas and backgrounds. We butt heads about this shit 24/7. The outcome will always be its own thing.”

So how long and winding is the road ahead? Where might the appetite for experimentation take them? And is there any question of dialling back the ferocity in the name of longevity?

“I’m open to see where it goes,” Aaron smiles, easily. “Maybe I can learn a new skill-set. Maybe I can grow as an artist by introducing different things to the music. I don’t think I’ll ever lose that hardcore spirit. Will I still be as animated onstage at like 50 years old? My back already hurts, man. But I don’t see us becoming some ‘soft’ band by any means. Fuck that. I got into this to make the heaviest shit that I could possibly make and, although we’re experimenting, I think that we’re still doing a good job of it. So let’s take it to the moon!”

…So Unknown is out now via Century Media

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