Photo Credit: Jonathan Velazquez
Erik Ratensperger has lived two lives as a drummer.
In Jeromes Dream, he played unhinged hardcore, surrounded by a ring of raging punks who didn’t give a shit about anything but the energy, the catharsis and the fury of the music. In The Virgins, a disco indie four piece, he played Letterman and soundtracked Gossip Girl with bandmates that looked as though they’d been pulled directly out of a Dior campaign. The Virgins came closer to mainstream success than Jeromes Dream by any normal metric, but Ratensperger, cut from sweaty, tattered punk cloth, always felt something was missing.
“I wouldn’t want any musician to limit themselves to who they play with and what kind of music they play, but with punk, it comes down to philosophy and values,” Ratensperger explained. “The Virgins didn’t really share the same values I had as a punk.”
To understand Ratensperger as a drummer, you have to understand the culture he came up in. In the late ‘90s, punks flocked to VFW halls and grimy, likely asbestos-ridden basements across America to watch bands perform. Jeromes Dream rose out of this culture as a direct product of the DIY ethos. It was in the New Haven scene that Ratensperger, bassist/vocalist Jeff Smith and guitarist Nick Antonopoulos found one another and came together through shared values.
These three punks were driven entirely by their desire to make music for the sake of making music.
The Virgins were poised to achieve pop stardom. Ratensperger left after only a couple of years, and the band has since faded into obscurity. Jeromes Dream never had any grand ambitions, but they’ve had a lasting impact as one of the original emoviolence bands. Their music is still as authentic and impressive as it was over two decades ago.
2017 marked the 20th anniversary of the inception of Jeromes Dream. Having not spoken in ages, the three got on a call. Their conversation surpassed three hours, and by the end of it, Ratensperger was already at work trying to figure out how they could all get in a room together. One thing led to another, and in 2018, the band officially announced their reformation.
The DIY ethos was still alive and well when they returned. Through a crowdfunding campaign, they were able to book a reunion tour with screamo disciples Touché Amoré, Soul Glo and Loma Prieta, make new merch, repress their 10” and release their first album in 18 years titled LP.
“We were so humbled and overwhelmed by how much the community contributed to making this happen,” Ratensperger said. “Suddenly, we thought we can actually maybe do this for real.”
24 years since their formation, Jeromes Dream is still driven by the same punk vision; the band members are the same kids they were back then, just with a few grey hairs.
The very fact that Ratensperger agreed to this interview proves this. I’m just some kid with a blog. I couldn’t promise him exposure in writing this piece. The only thing I have to offer is my appreciation, interest and love of Jeromes Dream. For Ratensperger, that’s more than enough.
Ratensperger, along with drummers like Jeff Salane of Orchid and Greg Drudy of Saetia, helped expand punk drumming. While, stylistically, these players were quite different, the common thread between them was they diverged from the tradition of straight 4/4 rhythm. Emoviolence drumming can be characterized by rapid, dynamic transitions between unusual time signatures and syncopations, the aggressive accenting of guitar riffs with cymbal hits and spastic snare comping.
Band history and discography:
Famously, Smith would perform without a microphone and compete with the other instruments to be heard. His harrowing shrieks that sounded like his vocal cords were tearing apart would lend emoviolence its more common name, “screamo.” Jeromes Dream’s early splits and 2000 debut album Seeing Means More Than Safety are now considered definitive works of the genre.
With the band’s 2001 follow-up album, Presents, they went in a different direction, coordinating their playing in such a way that they became a monolithic, “cohesive unit.” Smith replaced his shrieks with distorted megaphone shouts. Their departure from the unrelenting cacophony they’d become known for was highly polarizing, and hardcore fans struggled to identify with their new sound. To the band, as with everything they released, the evolution felt natural: “We didn’t talk about changing the sound. It’s just what came out next.” Shortly after releasing Presents, Jeromes Dream broke up.
Now, again an active band, Loma Prieta’s Sean Leary joined as second guitarist earlier this year.
Interview with Erik Ratensperger
Who were your influences when you started playing drums, and what players inspired your playing in JD?
I didn’t really have any direct influences. It was more so the environment I came up in. In my neighborhood, several kids actually had drum kits in their basement. Any time I sat behind a kit, I felt a connection to it as an instrument. I think at the time, when I was so young, I didn’t really have any drummer influences, but growing up, I listened to a weird combination of Anthrax, and Metallica, paired with the Beastie Boys, De La Soul. That’s an interesting combination when you’re already drawn to something percussive or beat-centric.
I guess that’s the inspiration, less particular drummers and more the sonic combination of old hip hop and thrash.
I’ve always considered your playing (pre-Presents) definitive emoviolence drumming. Obviously, other drummers contributed, but can you talk about some of the experimentation going on — that ‘90s stylistic divergence from typical punk?
It’s hard to say how it all started… It just kind of happened.
At the time chaotic hardcore was becoming a thing, we were finding bands like Pg. 99, Joshua Fit For Battle, Neil Perry, Love Lost But Not Forgotten, and countless others popping up, and we were brushing elbows with the likes of Orchid, Reversal of Man and Saetia… With all these known bands, in how they became recognized as bands of that era, we were all just kind of doing what we knew. It wasn’t definitive.
I think it was just the particular time, how we were all consuming music and where we were coming across it. We couldn’t just go on Spotify and do a quick deep dive of 20 hardcore bands and be like, “Okay, that’s a whole genre right there.” I remember we used to sit in Jeff’s basement apartment and listen to LPs back to back, absorbing music the old school way. That definitely had an influence on how we wrote and played.
The three of us as a band listened to all different types of music, a lot of which wasn’t heavy. Some stuff was on the more avant garde side: Hurl, Don Cab and 1.6 Band. It was a weird melding of that with bands like Bloodlet, Deadguy and other traditional hardcore stuff. Orchid was doing their own thing before we even met them, and they had their influences as well.
What was your relationship with Jeff Salane like?
Jeff was a friend of mine, but he was also a couple years older than me. I kind of looked at him as my older drummer brother. I always admired how fucking unhinged he was when he played, how hard he hit, how fast he played. Honestly, I think we fed off each other because we played so many shows together; there was this camaraderie.
I think what made the friendship so meaningful was that our bands appreciated what one another was bringing to the table. We’d watch Orchid and be like “Man, these guys are on something else.” They were really pushing the envelope of hardcore. I remember when we played each other the songs we were going to put on the skull split, just sharing what we were going to put out together.
How could we possibly think this music was going to sustain over this many years?
You mentioned Saetia. Were you friends with Greg Drudy?
Yeah, as drummers, we were always friendly with each other. The story that I’ll never forget about him was when he was drumming for another band that had recently put out their own EP, just a CD of a few songs. JD played a show with Saetia in Pittsburgh, and Greg gave me the EP and was like, “I’m playing in this other band. It’s called Interpol.” It’s funny to look back on that now and think this punk running Level Plane Records was in a band that went on to be so famous.
I was always enamored by other drummers, especially when I was younger seeing other kids do it their way – the way they played and interacted with their bandmates. Everyone had their own style. And everyone did things that you wouldn’t even think of doing.
How has the hardcore landscape changed since the ‘90s?
Touring was super analog back then. We had the internet a little bit, but booking tours was much more difficult than it is now. Somehow it would work. We bought a station wagon for $350, made it across the country and back, played all these different shows and met all these different kids. We always had a floor to sleep on, a basement to play in… We played a kitchen at one point. The stories are endless. There’s so much history to all of this, not just JD, the whole of these bands from that particular era of punk.
It felt a lot different back then in terms of how people connected and how communities were formed. Returning to it now, it kind of blows my mind because it’s so much more scalable now that an artist’s entire catalogue can live on Spotify. People have much easier access to music. It used to just live on vinyl, so you either came across it digging through a milk crate distro at a show, or you’d catch a band you had no idea about and become obsessed with them.
Something I’ve always noticed about JD is that it feels as though every instrument really understands their place. No one is ever stepping on each other’s toes, so to speak. Is that something that’s intentional in your approach to songwriting?
We aim to work as a cohesive unit. I’ve always approached drumming, not in a mechanical way, but I try to do less as a part of the whole. I try not to fill every single space with a hit if I can help it. Our music is written in such a way that every instrument has its place; everyone is kind of talking to and working off one another. That became really apparent when we recorded Presents. At the time we made that record, we clicked into this awareness that we might not have had during Seeing Means More Than Safety.
It was also a different approach for that in how we wrote. Because I write most of the music, I think as a drummer, I approach everything, including guitar, as a percussive instrument. I’ve always looked at the drums as a vehicle to help drive an idea… the idea being the cohesive unit of a JD song. As opposed to guitars going off one way and bass going off another, it’s always been a synchronized effort.
Apart from rehearsing, do you practice drums much?
I play drums, but I don’t really define myself as a drummer. I don’t practice the way a lot of other players practice their instrument. I don’t practice paradiddles or anything, and I rarely play at home. I have a drum pad but don’t really use it. It goes back to that singularity. When I go to that rehearsal space with Jeff and Sean (and hopefully soon, Nick again), we practice as a unit.
Presents marked a dramatic change in JD’s sound. First, I’m wondering if you had to adapt your playing to Jeff switching his vocal style, and, second, can you explain how that change irked the hardcore guys?
- No, not at all. It was an organic transition from how we were playing before Presents, and when we actually wrote the record, it was with a collective mindset. We wrote it in my bedroom in Amherst, Massachusetts, where I’d later moved. Jeff and Nick would drive up. I lived in this house called The Rock House, and I shared it with Will from Orchid and our friend Tim who played in a band called Wolves. We’d bring all the equipment in my bedroom and rehearse for hours.
- With Presents, we deliberately pivoted. It was almost like we knew we were going to alienate people, and we didn’t care at the time. We really wanted to double down on the fact that there are no rules in punk rock. Presents is a perfect example of that. It’s not a fuck you to any particular person. We just felt so cynical and had a fuck-you attitude toward everything.
When people listen to a band, they come to expect a certain sound and particular style. When that band deviates from that, it kind of disrupts the listening experience and affects the person who has a relationship with that music. It’s like, “What’s this shit!?”
Presents is a cynical, heavy record, but it’s also very tongue-in-cheek, obnoxious and, at some points, cringe-worthy. With a lot of people, it went over their head.
I have no regrets about it.
You played in The Virgins after JD. What was that change like for you?
The whole thing was a real shift. This friend of mine was friends with them, and he was like, “This band has rehearsed like 30 drummers, and they just can’t find anyone. You should meet them.” I hadn’t played in a while, but I thought to myself, “I’ll just meet them and see how it feels.”
I always felt kind of like an observer, like I was looking in on this whole other thing… But I really appreciated the experience of playing in that band because I was able to see a different side of music through that particular lens.
As a punk, stepping into this situation where this band had a deal with a major label, and there was all this hype around them, it was a completely different vibe. I just thought, as a musician, I wanted to try something different. And it was different.
For one, it was the first time I ever played to a metronome…
You’d never even recorded to a click before?
I don’t play to a click in JD now, and JD has never recorded to a click. When I played in The Virgins, I would show up one to two hours early to rehearsal and practice alone to a metronome. While, at the time, I hated it and felt it was limiting, I eventually grew to appreciate it. Two or three years of playing to a click track ingrained a sense of continuity in me. It was kind of a nice torture to go through. I think, at the end of the day, it definitely made me a better drummer.
As drummers, we understand the importance of time. You’re an excellent timekeeper, but listening to JD, you seem to play with a precision that isn’t as much about tempo consistency as it is about locking in with one another.
I think the songs are just so ingrained in us as three people playing them, with the way we play them and with what that music is.
[Regarding] your point about the instruments having their place and working together…, it’s because of that mutual understanding of where everything is supposed to live, that when we play together in a live setting, it just seems to gel in a way that I’ve never had with other people I’ve played with.
Back then, in our first iteration, we might not have been the most competent musicians — we’re still not — but we could be spilling all over the place. I think after a while, you just click into this thing. I can’t really describe it.
I’m interested in hearing more about The Virgins. It almost sounds like you were a session drummer from your description. That musical interaction doesn’t really require bandmates to share a connection with one another. With JD, your connection is the foundation of your band, integral to making your music.
Absolutely, and you can’t replicate that. I played in different bands at different capacities in terms of what we did, but nothing ever compared to my relationship with JD. There’s something about our compatibility that works and allows us to do the thing we do. It’s just one of those things that I can’t really explain, human chemistry. JD is really where my heart is, and I think that’s the same for Jeff and Nick.
[The Virgins] had different ambitions, wrote pop songs. It didn’t always feel natural to me, but I was like, “You know what? I need to be open to this and see what it’s like to play with other people who aren’t necessarily from the punk scene.”
I’d never want to limit myself creatively, and I wouldn’t want any musician to limit themselves to who they play with and what kind of music they play, but with punk, it also comes down to philosophy and values. These other bands that I played with didn’t share the same values I had as a punk when it came to the DIY ethic, inclusivity and the value of community. So, here I was in these different circumstances, and I didn’t relate to it as much.
It made me feel quite isolated and alone, especially when I was touring, compared to being on the road with my best friends and interacting with people who are part of a culture and community that I’m actually invested in.
How is JD tied to your identity?
Well, returning to JD a bit older, I realized how much being a punk, playing this music and having these friendships with these other people who are involved in something that I consider to be really special is a part of my identity, whether it’s fellow drummers or just fellow punks like yourself. It’s all singular to me.
It’s wild to be an active band now having been one of the bands that was in that circle of fellow old punks. When we were kids, that was just what we did. That was just the scene and culture we came up in and were part of.
I’m so grateful that we get to have our second version of it now.
Why don’t you play with a crash anymore?
I actually removed the crash when I was playing in The Virgins. That music didn’t really call for many cymbals. It was more just about holding a beat, like R&B drumming, not really punk drumming. I got used to using my open hi-hats and my crash/ride to accent hits. What I found is that pairing actually provided more attack, in my opinion. You could hit two crashes simultaneously and have more volume, but crash and hats has a more interesting texture for those accents. I’ve always considered myself a bit of a minimalist. I like the simplicity of the bare essentials to make the loudest noise. I play a pared down kit, and I would never use a double kick. For the kind of music JD plays and with my style, I don’t need anything else.
I feel like I can be more creative with less.
Update: Ratensperger now plays with a 20” Zildjian K Hybrid crash/ride in addition to a 21” Zildjian K Hybrid crash/ride.
What can be expected of this upcoming album?
We’re working on some of the heaviest shit we’ve ever written. It’s also some of the most musical stuff we’ve written.
What was it like transitioning back to hardcore after having not played that music for such a long time
When JD got back together after 18 years, the question was, “Do we still have this energy, capacity, capability to get in this headspace, to play this type of music?” It took us a while to find our footing.
JD has always been a platform to fucking “go there” and be as raw as we need to be in the sense of creative and emotional expression. That’s always translated to when we play live. It’s not us just playing a group of songs. We’re literally letting it all go. That’s why the band was always so important to us when we were younger, and since we’ve gotten reacquainted, why it’s important to us now.
How does playing this music as adults compare to playing it as kids?
JD has always been driven by our own personal struggles. What I’m drawing from, using as fuel, is kind of depleting at this point.
Coming back from our last leg of the tour with Daughters in October, 2019, I was wrecked. Not even just physically, but emotionally. I adopted the mentality so deeply of playing this music that I didn’t know how to do it differently. One of the takeaways was that being in that headspace for a prolonged period of time wasn’t good for me as an adult. As much as I love performing, I shouldn’t be soaking myself in all this fucking misery.
While I’m grateful for where I’m at in my life right now, I also still love the fact that I can use JD for catharsis. There’s always a place to draw from emotionally, and unless there isn’t, I always have a reason to play in this band.
As I said, JD has always been a platform… It’s changed as we’ve become older, but I think that approach and what we draw from is much the same.
I had a hard time in 2019 doing that, but I think I can do it now.
Jeromes Dream expects to announce shows some time this year. They’re currently writing new material and plan to release an album in fall, 2022.
Shooting the shit after 18 years: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BB_izIPtbPo
Official band website: https://www.jeromesdreamforever.com
Presents rerelease: https://iodinerecords.com
The Virgins on Letterman: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yCztoFqQmlg
Jeromes Dream IG: instragram.com/jeromesdreamforever
Ratensperger’s IG: instragram.com/premiumfantasy