Interview with Greg Bennick: of Trial and Between Earth & Sky By Dave William

Jan 07, 2013

Being part of a subculture that allows one to tie specific, life-altering moments to tangible things (a song, an album, etc.) is truly an incredible privilege. I’m sure many can recall the moment that a lyric or interview first raised some of life’s big questions—about death, religion, injustice—and the realization that music can help show you just how big life is.

I’ve been repeatedly and deeply moved by many bands and records throughout my punk rock time—Catharsis, Left For Dead, Buried Inside, and Propagandhi immediately come to mind—but I can think of no band, and specifically no lyricist/vocalist, who’s had as profound an impact as thought-provoking hardcore torchbearers Trial and charismatic frontman Greg Bennick.

Trial, whose output includes only a small handful of records (culminating in 1999’s incredible Are These Our Lives?), introduced a wealth of passion and sincerity, coupled with jarring, pensive subject matter, that the hardcore scene had not previously seen on a visible level. Featuring Bennick on vocals, the band existed in its original incarnation from 1995-2000.

Bennick’s post-Trial projects are numerous, including a career as a professional keynote speaker; humanitarian activism with organizations like his own One Hundred for Haiti; and producing films, such as the award-winning Flight from Death. He has also recently recorded and released an album with his newest musical endeavor, Between Earth & Sky, entitled Of Roots and Wings.

Greg and I communicated shortly after his recent return from a pair of spoken word tours across the United States.

interview by Dave Williams

Dave: Let’s talk about Trial’s recent trip overseas and what the impetus was for the extensive “reunion tour.”

Greg: Before I get into the tour itself, I need to say that it was not a reunion, to use that exact word. After Brian Redman, our beloved bassist, died in a moped accident in 2009, we all agreed, both amongst ourselves and with his family, that we’d never do a reunion without Brian. So these shows were Trial shows, but were celebrations more than anything else—celebrations of the band, the ideas, and of Brian and his life well-lived. Okay. All that said: the tour in Europe was incredible. We played twenty-nine shows in thirty days, from the U.K. all the way to Moscow and everywhere in between. The shows ranged from forty people in Munich, Germany to 450 people in St. Petersburg, Russia, and each had a unique dynamic all its own. I wrote fifty pages of notes and will be writing extensively about the tour soon. To play in Ukraine and Russia was a dream come true for me. I’d set that as a goal for the band early on and to actually be there was just unbelievable. The response was tremendous.

Dave: In my experience, touring Europe has been an incredible, quite humbling experience. There’s a level of appreciation shown for bands that is certainly above the North American norm.

Greg: Touring in Europe is totally unlike touring in America. In the U.S.A., you’re on your own. The show is provided for, meaning that you don’t have to provide your own venue or gear, but beyond that, it’s anything goes in terms of a place to stay, food, et cetera. In Europe, touring doesn’t always—but often—can mean that you have the show, food for that night, a place to sleep, and possibly even breakfast the next day. Of course, it’s not a guarantee, but even the possibility of this makes touring there more fun.
Dave: Unless I’m mistaken, Trial had been to Europe once before during its original run. Was there a noticeable difference in reaction and connection now that your records and words have had a decade to really sink in?

Greg: You’re right. We were there in the late ‘90s. The decade since Are These Our Lives? came out has had a huge impact. But a number of additional things worked in Trial’s favor over the years, not just time: we had three critical actual reunion shows in 2005 in Seattle, London, and Budapest that were not only very well supported, but well documented, too. And then we were very fortunate to be included on the Burning Fight lineup in 2009 and to have Matt Miller take that epic photo of the band. That got people’s interest amplified. And then to have Panic Records re-release the LP was helpful too, because people finally could get a version with an insert and lyrics. I didn’t expect the strength of the response we got in Europe this time around but was really thankful for it regardless. The interview questions I got from all over the continent were amazing as well, and I could tell that listeners had had a lot of time for the words to sink in.
Dave: Burning Fight definitely seemed to reinvigorate a lot of interest in the wonderful moment in time that was the late ‘90s/early ‘00s hardcore scene, and certainly had a more celebrated release than any number of oral histories of its kind. What do you think it was about this book, and the communities it highlights, that warranted this kind of response?

Greg: Burning Fight was an epic project, and Brian Peterson, its author, just nailed it in terms of what he’d set out to do, which was to more or less document the ‘90s hardcore scene. I say “more or less” because there’s no way to completely document a time and place and social experience. You’ll just never cover every angle, every perspective, every possible opinion. Brian’s an unassuming guy. He’s not a jerk. He doesn’t have an ego about himself. He just wanted to write a book about the music he loves. I think any critique of Brian’s book on the grounds that it forgot this band or that topic is missing the point entirely about what the book set out to do, which was capture the essence of the time. That it did very well. And I think its thoroughness and the care that went into its writing really came through in the finished work.

Dave: I agree that Brian did a great job. The book manages to paint a fairly detailed picture of the complex microcosm that era of punk rock and hardcore embodied. It really managed to highlight the almost tribal affiliations—be they political, sexual, spiritual, nutritional—of the time. I’m hard-pressed to think of an artistic community in which so many contrary philosophies coexisted and overlapped. It was certainly conducive to self-discovery.

Greg: I know that on a personal level, when I was first contacted by Brian and he told me what he was going to do, I said to myself, “Good luck dude,” and thought that once he got into the immensity of the project, I’d likely not hear from him again. Two years after that initial interview, when he called back for a follow-up, I was beyond impressed. I did what I could to support him because I realized how dedicated he really was. I loved that he picked a few main topics to focus on in terms of the issue-related aspects of the scene, and I thought his choice of bands was diverse and thorough, as well. People got really excited about the book and the subsequent show in Chicago, and for good reason.

Dave: On the subject of that era, how did Trial come to be affiliated with the interesting and infamous CrimethInc. family? Catharsis, Inside Front, and others represented—and do to this day, really—some of the most passionate, opinionated, and proactive elements of the hardcore community.

Greg: We were approached by the mysterious and elusive Brian D. in 1995 about CrimethInc. putting out our first record. At the time, CrimethInc. was more of a concept than the beast of epic political wizardry it’s since become. We connected with the concept, for sure, and I was reading some of the same things—Nietzsche, the situationists—so we were all in line and it was a good match. I ended up becoming really good friends with Brian and we spent a lot of time talking about ideas and theories and life in general. I loved Catharsis and Zegota and all the other CrimethInc. bands.

Dave: Was the CrimethInc. “lifestyle” something you really identified with?

Greg: I’ve always been politically independent and of the opinion that government and politicians would just as soon discard us as anything else, if it meant votes and power. So, the idea of reclaiming our lives for ourselves was always a sweetly romantic reality for me. We had a couple guys in the band—one member and a roadie—who took the idea to the limit one morning in Ohio and got arrested for shoplifting breakfast for us all (food should be free, right?) and we bailed them out so that the tour could continue. To this day, I love the CrimethInc. propaganda, the books, and the fact that in a scene of people who forget that they too have powerful voices, CrimethInc. has continued to have its ideas be heard.

Dave: So, if you don’t mind my asking, what was it that led to Trial’s disbanding?

Greg: Ah yes… a book of woe could be written about all of this, but to spare your readers the boredom they’d experience reading it all, I’ll just say that Trial broke up because we, at the time, were a dysfunctional relationship on the verge of explosion. You’ve been in bad relationships? If you have, you understand. You reach a point where you’ve tried everything, and still your partner comes home drunk and treats you like you don’t matter, and finally, in a moment, you smile at the level of the soul and say, “I’m worth more than this” and walk away with your heart intact. Trial went down like that. We were fighting over the stupidest things, unable to see eye to eye on the important things, and eventually we pushed one another too far and it fell apart. I’m really glad Timm (McIntosh) and I get along as well as we do today, because back then it was very different. We were like brothers at war.

Dave: What did you do between then and Between Earth And Sky’s formation?

Greg: Between Earth And Sky formed within weeks of that. And it was more of an idea at the time. Sean, Happy, Blair Calibaba (who recorded Trial), and I were the best of friends and Between Earth And Sky came together out of a sole desire and goal to someday release a record as a band and be able to say that we’d created this with our best friends.

Dave: I’m not sure when it came out exactly, but Between Earth And Sky released an eponymous demo track some time ago. What was the delay between that and the recording and release of the Of Roots and Wings EP?

Greg: It took a few years for us to come together and bridge the gap between our two countries—they’re all Canadian—and in our personal lives to record the self-titled song for the Power of Ten compilation on Excursion Records. We were so happy with that track and the response was great.

But then all hell broke loose in our personal lives. One member was suicidal. One lost a parent. We didn’t have a full-time drummer, and the part-time ones kept having breakups and/or children. And I developed an addiction to dating women with whom I was incompatible, but was unable to get myself out of those destructive yet occasionally hopeful situations. So I felt like my soul was in a blender for a few years. We were all a mess of healing and hurting for long while.

And that leads us to a year or so ago when we recorded the EP. All of our tragedies dissipated long enough to record a few of the songs we had—we have about eighteen songs in total in demo form. I love that the Of Roots and Wings EP exists. That was always the dream, and now it’s come true. Now we just need to keep death, pain, manipulation, and insecurity at bay long enough to craft and record a full-length for Refuse Records in 2013.
Dave: Will the LP continue along the same philosophical path as Of Roots and Wings?

Greg: Thematically, yes… same vein as the EP, meaning that it’ll explore the pain of being a human in an often cruel and uncaring world, but it’ll go even deeper into the idea that this cruelty is not the result of other people, but rather just the nature of existence itself. We live, aware of death all along, and then we die, having feared that moment all the while. Not fun, but inevitable. And dealing with that reality is the curse and the foundation of hope as we continue this path of being human.
Dave: Admittedly, I wasn’t terribly familiar with Ernest Becker’s work before discovering that Between Earth And Sky essentially exists as a musical exploration and expression of Becker’s ideas, which also led me to Flight from Death. Clearly, you were and are incredibly inspired by his writings. When did you first come in contact with Becker’s output?

Greg: I first came in contact with Ernest Becker’s work from a college professor of mine who handed me The Denial of Death when I graduated and challenged me to read it. I’m so glad he did because it absolutely changed my life. Becker wrote about how human fear of death on a subconscious level affects our propensity toward violence. He said that we latch on to ideas that make us feel immortal, and that when we encounter people who believe in different immortality ideas, we clash, and that this is a root of violence. I just way oversimplified Becker’s ideas, but that’s the basic idea behind his work. The film Flight from Death, which I co-produced and co-wrote with my friend Patrick, explored those ideas in depth.
Dave: How did Flight from Death come to be, and how has the reaction been to a documentary on such a lofty subject? At this point, it has won numerous awards (including “Best Documentary” seven different times) and has played all over the world.

Greg: Patrick had this idea to make a documentary about Becker’s work, and he wanted to interview me for it because I’d been meeting with world leaders to talk about Becker’s work. I’d met with the president of Guyana, along with a professor friend, to talk about violence and how fear of death plays into violence in his country. We’d flown down to South America for that meeting and then got to work on Flight from Death full bore.

Reaction to the film so far surpassed our expectations that it didn’t quite make sense. We won our first award in 2003… and then we kept winning. Every film festival we entered we won, it seemed. It was a really fun run. We flew all over the world with the film. I showed it in concentration camps in Europe, it screened at the South Pole, and it was onscreen at colleges across America and Canada. The conversations that stemmed from people seeing the film have been so fun too… just deep and really probing of life’s big questions. The film is viewable on currently for free.

Dave: Did you expect the film would strike as deep a chord as it has?

Greg: The theme is universal, but the topic is a hard one to address. People want explosions and action in their movies, not death and dying and philosophy. But audiences have proven my explosions theory wrong. I do wonder how many more people would have seen the film if we’d called it Naked Babes and Hot Dudes rather than a title with the word “death” in it, but that’ll never be known.
Dave: On top of your creative endeavors, you’re certainly in the minority as someone whose actions parallel his or her words. As the founder of the One Hundred for Haiti direct action project (in the wake of the 2010 earthquake), the World Leaders Project, and the Legacy Project, it’s clear that your passion for life extends well beyond the personal and the artistic realms. Where are you at with these projects and what’s next?

Greg: Dude… the next time you interview me, ask me things like, “Do you like noodles?” and “What’s your favorite video game?” These are seriously intense questions! Glad you’re asking them, but intense for sure… and so… I’ll tell you that One Hundred for Haiti  just became a fully-fledged 501(c)3 organization, and, as a nonprofit, we can benefit from getting donations from larger organizations (hopefully) as well as small monthly donations from people like you, readers. We have some great projects going on in Haiti, all focused on empowering people and developing opportunities from within, rather than sending money for handouts all the time. If you look on YouTube for “moto logistics” and One Hundred for Haiti, you can hear about our latest job-creation and fundraising project there.
Dave: How much of this passion—this need to act—how much ties back into the hardcore/punk rock community and what you’ve learned, encountered, and felt coming up through and being a part of it?

Greg: All of it ties back into punk rock and the passion of the scene. I learned about compassion from my family. They were very in tune with the need to be kind to animals and the earth and other people. But it was hardcore and punk and the need of the scene to expand beyond the walls of the show that really inspired me to get out into the world and do something for others rather than just scream about it all the time and have those screams eventually echo into silence.
Dave: How were your spoken word tours this summer and what was the motivation to go out on the road and simply speak? What more do you have planned along those lines?

Greg: The spoken tours this summer were the culmination of a long time dream of mine to be out on the road speaking. I did two tours. The first was themed to the Trial song “Unrestrained,” and was about the resources we have in the hardcore scene that we can use to make change happen in the world: resources that we often overlook. The second tour was inspired by the Trial song “Reflections” and how we have limited time here, and that making the most of every second is essential. The shows were fun, not heavy handed, and yes, I absolutely am planning more tours.

Bailey from State of Mind Touring has been booking me in the U.S.A. and we’ll do the East Coast this winter. Then Avocado in Europe will be booking me for Europe for March 15th to April 15th or so. And then More Than Sounds in St. Petersburg, Russia will be booking me for Russia after the European dates end in mid-April. Can’t wait. I love doing the spoken shows and it’s a totally different-yet-related vibe to when the band plays. I’m going to keep posting news and information on the Words as Weapons site in the next couple months.