At the tender age of thirty-four, Justin Fullam has settled down in New Jersey’s MorrisCounty, started a family, and secured himself a good, old-fashioned desk job. He’s also the manic preacher at the helm of Killed By The Bull, a slow-boiling punk band finally starting to turn heads after spending some time under the radar. Justin’s Biafra-shouted lyrics are, by turns, introspective and accusatory. His stage presence, supported by a solid rhythm section and schizophrenic twangy-yet-driving guitar sound, is unabashed and totally fucking crazy. Five years and a few cast changes behind them, Killed By The Bull has settled into a solid lineup and released their newest record and first full length Failing Is Fun on Koi Records. Here, among other things, Justin talks about what’s behind their new album, helping out with rising independent punk zine Define the Meaning, and what new horror movies he’s been watching.
Joe: You first played with Killed By The Bull’s ex-drummer Bill McVeigh in The Judas Factor. What inspired you to move on from that band’s down-tempo hardcore to the jangly, country punk sound of the early Killed By The Bull releases?
Justin: Bill and I just started jamming on some new stuff and that’s what naturally came out. The Judas Factor was already a band when I joined and the sound was already somewhat established as more of a hardcore band. People already knew who Rob Fish was from his past bands (108, Ressurection) so I went with that flow, which was the heavier, Black Flag-influenced hardcore. In Killed By The Bull, we started from scratch and our sound comes from a wide range of influences, from some of the same kinds of bands that The Judas Factor was into along with other great stuff like The Descendents, Meat Puppets, Dead Kennedys, Elliott Smith, Joy Division, and others. The list goes on and on, but, yeah, this is what just came out. Nothing was really planned. I didn’t even know I’d end up singing for the band in the very beginning!
Joe: How did you end up singing? Before bringing on Cherch, you handled guitar alongside vocals.
Justin: We originally figured we’d find someone who would sing. When we couldn’t get someone who wanted to do it, I decided to just sing on the three songs that we had already recorded and then I just stuck with it. Yeah, we were a three piece for a while before Paul joined the band. I didn’t really like singing and playing guitar at the same time because I had a really strong urge to move more and get lost in the singing. I just couldn’t stand still and do both. Plus, I knew we could write faster songs and put on a better live show if we were a four piece. I feel like we became the real Killed By The Bull once Paul joined.
Joe: I never saw you play as a three piece, but I’m sure your presence as a band has improved. Where did you find that spastic stage energy?
Justin: [laughing] I think it found me! It’s always been there. Sometimes I get nervous before we play because I wonder what I’m going to put my body through. I’m really into energy and letting the music take me over. And as far as influences goes in that department, I’m really into Ian Curtis, Jello Biafra, Lux Interior, Glenn Danzig, Thom Yorke, y’know… people who really become the music. I’m sure I got some of my stage mannerisms from them, too. I’m really up there showing my dedication. I know I’m not the greatest singer in the world, but, then again, neither was Henry Rollins, and he’s another one of the great frontmen in punk rock. I got my energy from seeing people like that and understanding where it all comes from. How could I not let our music move me with it? I want to look like the music, if that makes sense.
Joe: You’re currently supporting your first full-length Failing Is Fun, which has gotten some great reviews from Punknews, Verbicide, and others. It still has a bit of that jangly sound, but it definitely has a harder edge. What was the writing process like?
Justin: Yeah, I’m definitely happy that we’re getting good reviews, which hopefully means that people are starting to appreciate the music! It makes me feel a little less ugly, I’d say. The writing process was generally the same as it has always been, except for the fact that the songs we wrote for this release were a little faster and harder because the theme of this record was to go in the direction of being more desperate and urgent, as if it was being treated as our last chance to make a record, to the point where it can be treated as if we’re saying “Fuck it, this is our last straw. We don’t have anything to lose anymore, as if we ever did in the first place.” That’s also why the album cover is an ugly shit-brown and the guy has a smirk on his face. It’s about being honest with yourself and letting your inner voices and feelings out, knowing that it can be embarrassing and, well, a failed effort at reaching out to others. So this is why the harder edge is there. It goes with the theme and the lyrical content. But it’s funny because I myself as a person am certainly not hard [laughs].
Joe:Why the desperation?
Justin: I think it’s because we work regular jobs and have a lot of other responsibilities in life so our time to practice, write, and record is always limited. We don’t have much money, so we only had a few days to record the new album. There’s no time for over-thinking what we do and we have to make the most of our time with it. I think it’s a blessing in disguise, though.
Joe: A lot of your lyrics seem to convey the alienation and depression created by those same responsibilities that eat away at time and bind us to the “day-in, day-out” of modern life. I’m especially into the title tracks on Failing Is Fun and the Return of the Spell 7”. Can you give some background on the content of those tunes?
Justin: Thanks! Yeah, you’re right on with those songs and what they’re about. Like many other people, I have a history of depression and addiction. I went away and got help for a while and then I entered a program where I eventually decided to stop all of my treatment, including meds, and learn where a lot of my issues came from and what these “diseases” are about. So I went back into the regular work world where I often think I don’t belong. I get dizzy spells and bad anxiety but I try and train myself mentally to manage it well so I can work a job to make money to survive and also to use it as fuel to achieve my real goals in life. I sympathize with people who suffer from the same kind of stuff that I do, but I refuse to consider myself a victim of it. I appreciate all of the good things in my life, but it’s impossible for this feeling of alienation and depression that you mentioned to not shine through in all of its pathetic, stinking glory [laughs]. But I’m also laughing at myself at the same time, at my own weaknesses. “Failing Is Fun” is a celebration of ourselves with our warts and all, and “Return of the Spell” is that bad energy they call depression, which I’m constantly moving to keep away from me as much as possible.
Joe: How about the two closing tracks from the new one: “Let the Sky Glow” and “The Great King”?
Justin: “Let the Sky Glow” is a song about appreciating nature, especially when spring and summer come around. It’s a simple song and that’s the way I wanted it to be. Just painting a little picture and making it an ode to Mother Nature and attempting to sing pretty for her. “The Great King” is about growing up in your younger years and being constantly bullied by someone who is a lot bigger than you. I think that when you deal with stuff like that for a good portion of your childhood, it leads to the social anxiety, having a hard time respecting people and authorities, depression, and having self-worth issues when you get older. It’s another one of those stories. It’s a shame that there are so many people of every age who feel the need to bother other people all of the time and constantly get all up in their shit because they have a boring life themselves.
Joe: What was the scene in New Jersey like when you were a youngster?
Justin: [laughing] Are you trying to say that I’m an old man, now? Man, does time fly! The scene was amazing when I was a youngster, of course! We went to see bands like Bad Religion, Sick Of It All, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Rollins Band, Shelter, and many more at CityGardens in Trenton. We went to CBGB’s in the city and saw Into Another, Sheer Terror, and so many more. Seeing Lifetime in New Brunswick was amazing, and Ari the singer was super nice to me. I actually auditioned to play guitar for them for a tour right before Jersey’s Best Dancers came out when their guitarist quit, but Frank from Snapcase got the job. You can imagine how letdown I was when I got that call from Dan Yemin, especially since I was ready to quit my job to join them! I was nervous when they came to my house for the audition and I remember when Dan pulled a Dead Kennedys CD out of my collection and raved about it. I also loved seeing Ressurection and 108 play. Then I actually got to be in a band with Rob Fish when he started The Judas Factor. So many good times. And starting our own bands and playing shows was fun. The point I’m trying to make here is that here is so much great music out there and in this scene you can interact with the bands and actually become a part of it.
I mean, it was more impressionable for me ‘cause I was younger but, of course, there’s something great going on right now, too. Just like back then, there’s a lot of good stuff and great people and there’s also a lot of bad stuff and tough-guy people who have their shitty bands and do everything that punk was not supposed to be about, in my eyes. But who am I to say, really? Live your life and do your own thing with passion. I also liked watching people I know become successful in this scene. For example, Little Dave from The Judas Factor and I jammed with these dudes Ben and Dimitri over fifteen years ago to start a new hardcore band and we were young and inspired by so many things. And last week I found myself interviewing Ben for Define the Meaning, talking about his band Dillinger Escape Plan and how far he’s gone since back then. I like watching people succeed, especially people from New Jersey. I’m starting to ramble so I’ll stop now! But this question brings me so many good memories. I’ll always be involved with music. The scene will always be important and we have to keep it alive by going to shows, doing zines, putting on shows, making new and exciting music. It has to last forever and I can’t just sit back now and talk about “remember when…” ‘cause there’s always more work to be done.
Joe: How did you get involved with Rajon Tumboken and Karen Mitchell in running Define the Meaning?
Justin: Rajon said that he was planning on starting his own zine and was looking for people to help contribute to it and I told him I was interested. And I’ve been there with him and Karen since day one and I’m still involved. They run it, though. I’m just a fellow music fanatic who contributes a good amount of my time to it and I have fun with it. I love zines, just like this one. I appreciate the work put into it and I know I’m going to come across some great stuff when I pick it up.
Joe: Stepping away from the music for a moment…You and I have talked about horror movies in the past, specifically Children, the film where the little guys get all sadistic and wreak havoc on their parents. See anything worthwhile recently?
Justin: Yeah, that one was a bit unsettling. I recently saw House of the Devil and I really liked it a lot and would strongly recommend it. It took me back to when I used to watch horror movies in the ‘80s because the whole movie had that ‘80s feel. I also like the satanic thing they had going on, which was also a bit of a “scare” back in the ‘80s. Good stuff. I also just saw and liked Infestation, which was a more fun movie that’s good to watch with friends. It had Ray Wise from Twin Peaks in it and his character was really funny. So there’s an eerie, tension-building one and a comedy one for ya.
Joe: We mentioned the jobs and other responsibilities that don’t allow a whole lot of time to be devoted to the band. As an older “punk kid,” what keeps you here?
Justin: I will always be here. And I’m constantly working to make this more prominent in my life. Right now, my next step is to try and get a business going with my wife. She paints, so we want to sell her art along with anything that has to do with music. We have a website in the works right now (http://www.littlepunkpeople.net). Maybe we can open a store someday and have small shows there. We’ll see. But we’re constantly working to contribute as much as we can to this scene. If we can start a small business where we can afford to pay our bills by working for ourselves, then we can tour more and do more art shows and, y’know, reach out more. I always want to be here and I’ll always contribute to it. It’s an endless effort and that’s what I want our life to revolve around. One thing we won’t do is let other people tell us what we’re not capable of. Life is short and we want to make the best of it. And I can’t imagine my life without this music.
Killed By The Bull is Justin Fullam, Cherch, Jeff Stevens, and Paul Klein.