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Mike McTernan On Battling Stage Fright, Writing Gut-Wrenching Lyrics & 20 Years of Duking It Out In The Trenches
For some, music is nothing but a mundane distraction of background noise. But to others, music can serve as a tool of survival and bring hope to otherwise hopeless situations. In the complex spectrum of human emotion and the fierce struggles that every day reality can bring, one can always find solace in music. One such band that encapsulates this very ideology is Washington, D.C. based Damnation A.D.
Looking back on 20 years of Damnation A.D., an in-depth discussion with front man Mike McTernan reveals his experiences, memories and gratitude for his involvement with the straight edge hardcore band, as well as his personal struggles with depression, anxiety and the role they play in the storytelling of the songs.
With vocals that can best be described metaphorically as a tormented soul in unbearable pain, and backed with the heaviest of guitar riffs and a blasting rhythm section, this unbridled force of nature has gone under the radar for far too long. Quite simply put: they are a phenomenal, energetic, and highly influential cult band and it’s time to address the recognition they truly deserve (and have rightfully earned) in their two decades of harsh existence.
Can you tell me about the formation of the band?
Back in 1990 there was a band called Worlds Collide, who were around for about three years and they just all started going in different directions musically. Ken [Olden] and Hillel [Halloway] wanted to focus a little more on heavier stuff and I was kind of Worlds Collide’s tagalong for the whole time they were a band. Before I ever even knew it, it was a sort of natural thing for me to step in and start singing. I had never sang for a band before so it was one of those things where we didn’t know if I could do it until I actually did and it worked. My brother [Brian McTernan, noted music producer] sang for Battery, which Ken was in also, so I guess they must’ve thought, ‘He probably doesn’t sound too different from Brian.’ So they gave me a shot and Damnation was formed from the ashes of Worlds Collide. We actually recorded our first song on their last tour.
You and guitarist Ken Olden are not only the founding members of Damnation A.D. but the equally as powerful When Tigers Fight. How did you guys first meet?
The D.C. hardcore scene wasn’t too big when I was young so through mutual friends me and Ken met. My brother Brian actually knew him prior to me knowing him. Ken and I had a lot in common and we gravitated to each other and in high school we were inseparable. Without Ken…it would be nothing. I’ll always give him full credit for almost everything Damnation has ever done.
Melancholy, anger and despair seem to be prevalent themes in the lyrics. Sometimes mainstream bands use it as a gimmick but when you listen to a Damnation A.D. album you get the utter truth about battling self-destruction.
I wouldn’t say I never see the good in things, but you know a lot of times I end up getting hurt, whether it’s by my actions or someone else’s or just loneliness in general. There’s a depression or a darkness that has hung over me my whole life, so it’s very natural for me to front it because I’ve always looked at myself as an honest person. I have a hard time pretending to be happy, you know what I mean?
We never intentionally tried to write or play something with a specific style, just whatever came out. And that may be part of the reason why we never really went anywhere as a band, because a lot of the bands who made it…had a style. Everything we did was very unintentional, we all just loved music – Ken, Hillel and Alex, they were musicians. I loved to travel and meet hardcore kids and talk about hardcore all night with people. Musicianship is what drove them, what drove me was going and wanting to meet hardcore kids.
The list of acts that you have shared the stage and studio with is staggering. What are some of your fondest memories looking back on past tours?
When I think of all the bands we’ve toured with in the last 20 years, not to sound egotistical, but we were so lucky to play with some of those bands and you know my fondest memories are never the shows, it’s going to Denny’s at three o’clock in the morning with whoever we’re on tour with. I feel so lucky because I don’t think I’d ever have the opportunity to meet all of these wonderful people if it weren’t for this band.
What are the inspirations behind the lyrics?
I’ve never considered myself a musician. I kind of fell into it because of the circumstances, but I’ve never been able to sit down and write lyrics. So if you’re familiar with my lyrics at all they never really rhyme or piece together that well, and a lot of it comes from my diary. Basically all I’d do is write down whatever I’m thinking and just go through it and try to do my best to put it together to give it all meaning. And I would just give Ken pages and pages of rambling and he would do his best to put this mess together and make it coherent. He would always amaze me because sometimes the words just didn’t fit and they just sounded like the insane ramblings of an insane kid.
Despite your admitted anxiety and stage fright, you still manage to sustain a powerful, captivating and hypnotic charisma with the audience, even under duress. How do you maintain such a natural stage presence?
Why, thank you! I’ve blown out my knees so many times that I always have to do a lot of stretching, put on my knee braces and then I throw up because I’m so deathly afraid of what’s going to happen. But you know what’s weird is after the first line all that goes away.
The only consistent ritual before going out on stage is me just looking for a way to get out. There were a couple occasions where I’m very surprised I even got up on stage because I was so torn between doing the show and ‘I’m going to walk out of this fucking building right now because I can’t do this.’ Whenever I throw up it usually gets a lot worse [laughs]. Now I just kind of trained myself to look face front. So other than the knee braces and the puking, there’s not much to it [laughs].
When you’re playing live, obviously the audience plays a part in it, but I always looked at it as an emotional release. I think it’s because I get so nervous and I get so worked up before we go on stage that I’m never really fully aware of what I’m doing, because I’m on a totally different level.
What does Damnation A.D. symbolize to you?
What it has been for me personally is just a way to voice my feelings and then hopefully offer comfort to people who feel the same. I was bullied all through grade school and high school, but when I would read lyrics to the music I liked I would say, ‘Wow, I’m not alone in feeling like this.’ It was so comforting; that’s really a big part of why I still do music whenever I can. I made it this far; I’m getting up here no matter how many times I’ve felt like I’m at the bottom.
photos by Robby Redcheeks