Outside a Heart: An Interview With For Against’s Jeff Runnings

From the moment of conception, Nebraska’s For Against have always been one of the most delicate of treasures. An anomaly during their time, the band has always looked towards Europe for their influences, and their records were always tremendous affairs, each a healthy dose of 4AD’s dream pop and Factory’s manic energy mixed in with a dash of jangle pop, all unified by a heavenly tenor vocal.

The spirit, energy, and passion displayed in For Against’s work remains unparalleled to date. For the uninitiated, the band’s first three records on Independent Project Records (1987’s Echelons, 1988’s December, and 1990’s early recordings release In the Marshes) are absolutely essential listening, a brief snapshot into the underground American post-punk scene that remain both singular and timeless. While painfully obscure to most, the band always retained a deep cult following, championed by collectors, fellow musicians, and DJs, and worshiped by the likes of independent magazines like Jack Rabid’s The Big Takeover. Essentially, for those in the know, For Against were gods, and few bands from the era can claim such lasting influence and boast such a tremendous catalogue of albums, each one as good as the last. The band’s cult following remains as strong as ever, aided in part by several reissue campaigns on Captured Tracks and Saint Marie, bringing the band’s first six albums back into print and making them available for a new legion of listeners.

With that in mind, the band have recently announced a vinyl reissue of 2002’s underrated Coalesced, one of the band’s finest moments. The new reissue, lovingly pressed by Cercle Social records, features re-imagined artwork and an altered track listing, focusing more on the overall vinyl presentation of the album. As such, it serves as the definitive statement of the record. 600 copies will be pressed and shipped out later this year, with one of the color variants already sold out.

In the meantime, we had the chance to check in with vocalist/bassist Jeff Runnings for a quick chat about that era of For Against’s career, the bubbling musical undercurrent at the time, and any future plans for the band’s catalogue. Thanks for taking the time chat with us, Jeff!

Runnings in 2001

Coalesced has always been one of my favorite For Against records. Can you tell us a bit about writing and recording the album?

Well there was quite a bit of time between Shelf Life and Coalesced; five years I believe…but we persevered, we’d go to Paul’s house and rehearse on a regular basis, as we were under pressure to write and record the Coalesced songs ASAP because Mave was moving to Virginia with his future wife. During this time I went back to university and spent 1999-2003 there, got a degree and started grad studies but devoted time to the band too, hoping someone might be interested in releasing what would become Coalesced.

Mike Mogis, who produced and engineered the record, was big in the Saddle Creek scene. While your songs have always felt more European, did you feel any connection or appreciation for that movement?

We knew we’d be in a better studio this time, and for me, that made a huge difference, although I wouldn’t say working with Mike Mogis again was something I was looking forward to. I don’t see him with a halo, nor would he want me to; plus I was super disappointed with Shelf Life‘s final mix. Just terrible. It sounds so SMALL. I didn’t have any respect for Mike, which made recording a chore I never enjoyed, whereas two albums back, making Mason’s California Lunchroom with Tom Ware was a glorious time, we had a blast, and the sound is much better for it.

What Mike did on Coalesced tho, was a better job overall. I think he knew we had a fine clutch of songs. I wasn’t surprised he had gotten a lot better at recording. He went through the motions and did what an engineer/mixer/producer does, but he knew us and the sound we were pursuing, much more so after doing Shelf Life with him, thus he had a more precise way of approaching the record, the business of capturing it, and this time he excelled. A fantastic way for that lineup of the band to exit. I’ll always be grateful that Mike got such a dynamite sound on that record. You can listen to songs really REALLY loud on that record and not be put off. He knew just how to EQ it.

We felt quite removed from the Saddle Creek scene, from every scene really, being without a label after Dave Allen (Gang of Four, Shriekback) and World Domination Records folded, I’m certain he lost his funding source so the label didn’t flourish the way it might have… I think he was signing Alison’s Halo (or desperately wanted to) when the shit hit the fan.

So, Saddle Creek—the Faint were doing Danse Macabre at the same time we were doing Coalesced, same studio— and I had no idea who they were, they knew who we were, it was awkward but funny. Todd’s great, and when the Faint are ON, fucking look out. They’re the real deal. They’re not terribly consistent, but when they’re great (“I Disappear,” “Forever Growing Centipedes,” all of the horribly overlooked Egowerk album), they are exceptional. I’m quite ambivalent about Bright Eyes, I can listen to them and point out all the fascinating writing and performances going on (Fevers and Mirrors is an astonishingly accomplished record), but I NEVER EVER listen to Bright Eyes. Never. Not my thing, anything coming close to folk always has me running the opposite direction. It has to have a depraved, druggy, tear-stained mascara torn skirt vibe to it, like Mazzy Star, for me to be the least bit interested. Gimme THAT any day. Otherwise I generally despise folk music. And the ‘punk’ bands on Saddle Creek did zero for me, although they made plenty of money for the label. Again, just not my cup of tea. I’ll always be an Anglophile.

So I’m afraid we felt no kinship, we were adrift in our own sea, with only a handful of American bands sharing the same sentiments and sounds.

Can you speak a bit about the altered tracklisting for Coalesced? Is the new running order how you’ve always envisioned the record?

With the track sequencing, we were working in CD format so the album plays more like a ‘whole’, and we thought what we came up with was strong. Looking back, maybe it wasn’t. We should have opened the album with the title track, but by this time we were all growing tired and weary of it all. Trying to get an album done before Mave (aka guitarist Steven Hinrichs) is off to the coast was taxing, so I got lazy and didn’t give enough attention to the record. Or the artwork. I’ve always thought of Coalesced as being a rainy record, not a cornfield record. But I lost interest simply by being too busy with school. I didn’t have the luxury of time to take an interest, and it’s not a bad cover, but Mave’s re-imagined artwork is the ‘dark at 6pm’, hazy street lights, rainy autumnal album I feel it to be. His artwork nails the way I feel the record to be visually. Wet streets reflecting “A myriad of lights”… and I love the juxtaposition of a monochrome-ish outer with a rich lush saturated inner. He hit it outta the park for me on a personal level which is such an honor when you know some of that album is the best writing ever for me, I’m stupid proud of “Fuel.” And Shelf Life‘s lyrics are another favorite. Gets harder to come up with good shit six albums in! No one wants to sing shit lyrics over and over playing live, they have to be good to have the song matter, and hopefully matter to Mave and Paul, I think they do. These two guys were the perfect lineup who can successfully navigate the balance between being friends and being in a band, plus they both were A+ players. Paul’s snare rolls would startle me ‘live’, and Mave’s guitar playing is impossibly perfect.

Having the opportunity to present Coalesced on vinyl meant we had to work within the parameters that vinyl imposes, a side 1 and side 2, which I adore, so naturally I’m mad for it now that it’s presented with two sides…I love the way it flows now, and the way the sides play individually. It was so great that Toby was into the idea of a ‘reimagined’ version when he approached me about putting it out, and he encouraged creativity and thinking outside the box, which is exactly what we needed.

2002 was an interesting time in music, right in the thick of the post-punk revival movement here in the states. As a huge music lover, were there any bands from that era that spoke to you, or were a particular inspiration for the band?

2002…I was at university and working at a record store…honestly, I wasn’t crazy about some of the post punk revival stuff from that time…I remember liking the first Interpol album, especially the opening track “Untitled”…I’d put it on ‘repeat’ and play it ten times…it was so unlike anything else Matador was releasing at the time so it was a breath of fresh air…also loved Calla and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs…but my heart was still firmly stuck in the UK scene, post-britpop, although pickings were a bit slim (but Manic Street Preachers always seemed to come through for me no matter what).

I’d say the last time I got really excited about an era would have been around 2010, when all the Captured Tracks glory bands were turning out wondrous records, Slumberland were releasing great post-punk by Weekend and Wax Idols, and I’ll forever be addicted to Dum Dum Girls…there was great stuff coming out every month it seemed.

Are there any live memories that stand out from that era?

Live shows for us were usually a non-event. Why, I cannot say. Maybe because we got on stage and played without the flash and glam associated with rock and roll… By then I was bitter about not getting any attention from a major, especially since we had truly great “representation” throughout this time—our manager could make things happen (whoda thought The Dentists would end up on a major label in America?) but he couldn’t make it happen for us, hard as he tried. He would fly us to NYC for shows, try to get industry people stirred up, he is a Godsend of a guy, treated us like royalty.

Steven “Mave” Hinrichs, 2001.

Has all the interest in the band’s back catalogue over the years been a catalyst for any new For Against material? How about any solo material?

As far as new For Against/solo material, there is none, although there are more archive recordings coming. There’s also an unfinished second solo album that I am ambivalent about. It’s a bit too honest and naked, which I used to love when other bands/artists “expose” themselves in that way, show their vulnerabilities, but not myself. And now everyone in indieland with a guitar bares their soul and it’s gotten incredibly tedious and tired. And I’m too self-conscious and easily offended. People who leveled criticism at Primitives and Smalls simply didn’t “get it”. A close friend of mine called the album “deceptive” and he was absolutely on point. It’s incredibly deceptive, and the best thing I’ve done as a musician. But not as a songwriter. Mave and Paul brought out my best songwriting.

As someone who’s worked in various record stores over the years, how do you feel about the state of vinyl in 2021?

The state of vinyl in 2021? Never in my life would I have imagined such a resurgence. I remember being so mad in the 90s when all my favorite bands were only available on CD, and getting import vinyl was more difficult than ever before. Now vinyl is absolutely everywhere, I mean, it’s at Walmart now, isn’t it! Buy some Band-aids and a Metallica album. Surreal!

What albums are currently getting under your skin at the moment?

New records under my skin? There are none. I’m a creature of habit, I cherish nostalgia because it’s easy to manipulate into something either tragical or magical. I listen to mostly stuff from 30-40 years ago, the records of my youth. You simply don’t hear new bands making records like Chairs Missing or Crocodiles. It isn’t happening. The last album I bought was Black Midi I think, and it’s total crap. I do however have a soft spot for all things Canadian, the holy trinity of Alvvays, Preoccupations, and FRIGS are all in heavy rotation. I’ve grown quite fond of Soft Kill too. “Frankie” makes me cry, and very few songs do that. When Preoccupations are “on”, they’re my favorite band in the world. Songs like “Disarray,” “Monotony,” and “Anxiety,” they speak to me in a way no other band can. Simply brilliant. No one comes close. Same with FRIGS—not terribly consistent, but when they’re good, they’re golden. Alvvays, meanwhile, spit out diamonds at every turn. They’re ALWAYS great.

Is there anything else in the works for For Against that you can tell us about?

Bruce Licher (Independent Project Records, Savage Republic, Scenic) and Jeffrey Clark (Shiva Burlesque) recently revisited the cassette tape I sent Bruce in 1985…the first fifteen songs we had written, before we wrote both “Autocrat” and “It’s a Lie,” and then recorded the 45rpm in April of ’85. Independent Project Records want to do an expanded letter-pressed version of Echelons as a double album, with some of these first recordings comprising the second record.  There are also songs from the two-track ‘live to tape’ studio session we did between Echelons and December, stuff no one’s heard, so that might be included too.  That’s where the song for the new “Source” IPR comp CD came from.

It’s so cool to see IPR up and running again, I know Bruce is very excited about it.

For Against- Coalesced
1. Coalesced
2. Outside A Heart
3. Shelflife
4. Medication
5. Fuel
6. So Long
7. Love You

Pre-order here

Visit For Against on Instagram
Visit Independent Project Records on Bandcamp

Frank Deserto

Bassist of The Harrow, curator/writer at Cherry Red Records, and blogger at Systems of Romance.

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