- You get three free chances to see these dudes this week. Don't blow it.
Jason Byers speaks softly in conversation, as if he's saving every last bellow for the stage. Seated on the patio of the Garage -- a new Ohio City hang, where a dirt bike hovers above the door and Slayer blasts through the speakers -- the Disengage frontman seems understandably distracted, ducking eye contact as if it came with a fee. But when the subject turns to the setbacks that have dogged his band, Byers's voice begins to climb higher and higher, aping the dark, inky skyscrapers tattooed upon his wrists. Finally, he fixes us with the kind of glare normally reserved for a kid caught violating curfew.
"We've had so many ups and downs in the past four years," the sinewy former hockey player says. "Three of us said, 'Fuck it.' One of us said, 'Oh, no!'"
The lone dissenter would be former guitarist Mike Callahan, who left the band in 2001, when Disengage's difficulties began in earnest. Having just dropped its bruising sophomore LP, Obsessions Become Phobias, on the esteemed underground rock label Man's Ruin (run by notorious poster artist Frank Kozik), Disengage seemed primed to break out on a national level. But Man's Ruin, which overextended itself by dropping dozens of records each year, unexpectedly folded shortly after the release of Obsessions, leaving the album, and the band, in limbo.
Disengage was soon courted by several major labels, and guitarist Jacob Cox replaced Callahan, who had bolted for L.A. rockers Earshot.
"While we're dealing with different labels for like two years, there was always somebody like, 'Oh, we totally love it,'" Cox recalls. "Almost every month for two years, there was somebody there, tossing a carrot in front of us." But despite a deluge of showcase gigs and meetings with various overeager A&R types, the band never landed the deal it was looking for.
"Everybody talked about a hit," says drummer Jonathan Morgan, the band's sparkplug, he of the Rocky Balboa arms. "'I'm hearing good songs, but I'm not hearing a hit.' There was a lot of dealing with people, like labels and managers in and out. It was like there was this revolving door of people, and it was always people that on some level believed in us, but the shit never actually came to fruition; we never accomplished anything. We're sitting here with some of the best songs we've ever written, and no one's heard them outside of our shows. We knew we could do so much more if we just got off our asses and did it ourselves, did it our way."
But that meant raising the funds to track an album. And with the exception of an advance they got for signing with Tokyo-based Daymare Records for Japanese distribution of their forthcoming album, they were broke.
"Then it came down to who's got enough credit to get a loan, so we can record this record? And how many loans can we get?" says Sean Bilovecky, Disengage's tall, rangy bassist, who sports the wingspan of an NBA forward and an "I Love Drug Rock" button pinned to his dark denim jacket. "We had the Japan advance to pay for half of it, but we had to come up with the rest on our own. I was the only one who found out that I had good enough credit to get a loan. And Jon's fiancée, soon-to-be-wife, had good credit too. The day before we had to pay Bill [Korecky, the album's acclaimed producer] for the first time, we got the money. We didn't even tell Bill," he adds with a chuckle. "He'll probably find out by reading this."
All this tension is palpable on Application for an Afterlife, the fierce, dramatic disc that resulted from the sessions. Whereas Obsessions was a raw roundhouse of a record, so heavy that it could have been chipped from granite, Application balances its bombast with breadth. Byers sings as much as he shouts, sounding like Nick Cave with a neck tattoo on "Cover the Globe," while Cox, a more angular, inventive guitarist than Callahan was, wraps spidery riffs around the power chords. Ball-fisted workups like "Pharmacyland" and "Death Threat" could knock a rhino on its side, but they're offset by the moody, disconsolate "Fever Dreams" and the haunting album-closer "Left Without a Voice," whose ending sounds like a funeral march.
"On Obsessions, we were all kind of locked into this mindset, where we're just going to play this hard-rock record and that's all we're going to do," Bilovecky explains. "This time, we were just like whatever kind of song we want to write, we're just going to write it. It's all going to be Disengage, whatever we want to do. And then, while we were beginning to think that, our live show really came into its own and kind of exploded into what it is now. I think that gave us the confidence to really believe that we can do whatever we want to do and still be Disengage."
Upon completing Afterlife, the band finally found the deal it was looking for with Fractured Transmitter, the new label run by former Mushroomhead singer Jason Popson.
"We had a couple other labels who were talking to us about this record; Popson's was one of them," Bilovecky says. "We played a show at [Scene Pavilion], I think it was (216) and Clutch; I remember being down in front, we were still undecided, and we're walking around looking at Popson singing, and we're like, 'Why would we have anybody else put out this record but that guy up there, who's screaming his head off right now and who believes in it so much? Why are we going to let some guy we don't know in L.A. or New York put out this record, when we can have that guy put it out?'"
To celebrate the release of the album, the band is throwing three free shows on consecutive nights at the Grog Shop, Peabody's, and the Hi-Fi Club. Such workloads are the norm for the Disengage bandmates, who recently drove 6,000 miles for a pair of shows in California on the farewell tour by West Coast punks Face to Face, playing in front of sold-out crowds of 1,500 in Hollywood and 800 in Anaheim. After the hardship of the past several years, their resolve may finally be paying off.
"It was kind of liberating in a way, because for a while it was like we were constantly waiting for what was around the corner, constantly like 'Okay, this is coming, this is coming,'" Morgan says. "But we just have to do stuff on our own, because we realized that we're pretty much the only ones that are going to make us happen."