OPEN HAND – interview by eric w. alexy
Suge Knight, convicted felon and Death Row Records founder, has beaten up white guys before. In 1996, he reportedly hung Vanilla Ice’s punk ass out of a high-story hotel window to get some cash.
Justin Isham, vocalist/guitarist for emo/rock hybrid Open Hand, may not be a scrawny rapper – in fact he’s a rather husky surferesque hardcore vet – but he nevertheless still felt Suge’s wrath during his four-year stint as an engineer/digital editor at Death Row Studios.
Amid the expected tales of dog fighting and raucous parties (Isham viewed some “risque” pictures of Death Row employees during an ill-advised rummage through Suge’s desk), Isham says he was generally quite scared for his life while employed at Death Row during the mid-’90s. During his time there, he created the beats for Tupac’s “Me and My Girlfriend” and “Hail Mary,” among others.
“It was an odd place for a white shaved head straight edge kid to work,” comments the Frankfurt, Germany native, adding that “all the stereotypical shit” held true to the label; Suge even had a safe room in his office.
“Suge’s office in the studio was all red including the furniture,” Isham recalls vividly, “except for his desk and then on the floor was this gigantic white Death Row logo that took up almost the entire floor, but the rule was that you couldn’t step on it. To get from the door to his desk you had to maneuver around this logo, which made it just awkward in general to go in there.”
“That guy,” says Isham of the late Tupac Shakur, “no joke, dead as Dillinger, dude.”
And while Isham may be able to put to rest one of gangsta rap’s greatest mysteries – he attended Tupac’s open casket funeral in 1996 – he has yet to master the intricate art of lyric writing. Admittedly, Isham, 28, doesn’t write very good lyrics (though tracks like “The Dream” and “11th Street” would seem to indicate otherwise), making the challenge of composing his latest album, essentially a solo effort, all the more difficult.
“I want the music to shine through,” Isham says, “and the vocals are there just because I know I need them. In general, I wish I wasn’t a singer because I can’t play as much stuff as I want to play. [Lyrics are] just something I throw on there at the last minute because I know they make the songs better.”
Despite Isham’s intentions, he says the band’s previous lyrics were nearly all relationship/girlfriend-inspired. “It was easy to sing about that kind of stuff,” he says of his “love dove lyrics” of old. The new stuff, he says, is more about friends and family. “This time I’m trying to stay away from words I’ve used, I’m trying to be different, but I’m not a lyric writer.”
According to Isham, on “Ojai,” (pronounced “O-Hi”) Open Hand’s forthcoming sophomore full length, listeners can expect a vast departure from the hardcore-tinged emo/indie rock soundscapes found on the band’s previous releases. After all, “The Dream”, the band’s 2003 Trustkill Records debut, comprises the band’s independent EP efforts (2000’s “Evolutions” and 1999’s “Radio Days”.) It also included “6/26,” which was recorded as part of an Ecstasy Records-sponsored demo in 2002.
The new album Isham says is, “Very Black Sabbath-y to very indie rock stuff to maybe a Peter Gabriel/Tears For Fears type of vibe. It goes from death metal to ambient stuff and everything in between.”
Isham feels that “Ojai”, optimistically set for a May release given his “over anal” nature, fits somewhere in the “stoner rock/indie rock” genre. “I think this album is what’s going to be popular in around a year and a half from now,” he says.
After years of toiling in hardcore and death metal bands, Isham formed Open Hand in 1999. Since that time – amid at least two failed record deals, three managers, nearly a dozen member changes and tours with all of the emo/hardcore genre’s heavy hitters – Isham has remained the band’s only constant.
Following the band’s European trek alongside Poison The Well last May (the band’s only tour following the January 2003 release of “The Dream”), both guitarist Sean Woods and bassist Jeffrey Meyer exited the group citing “financial restraints and severe disagreements” in an official statement. (Meyer would later admit it was all the latter). Following their departures, Isham says he and fellow founder, drummer Alex Rodriguez “were just sitting around doing nothing” which eventually prompted Rodriguez to leave Open Hand for the more often touring Saosin (see sidebar).
Holed up in his dinky Los Angeles recording studio (where he also lives), Isham reports that after eight months he may finally have a finished project. “It’s 25 songs, it’s one hour and 17 minutes.” he says, phoning in from his parents’ plush Ventura County, Calif. residence. “It’s an album.”
However, Isham still suspects that it will be some time until the album is actually released. “To anyone I play it for, they think it sounds fine.” he says. “To me it sounds like 25 demos. Now that I’ve heard it a million times, there’s a lot of stuff I’d want to redo.”
Thus, Isham would like a producer to further hone the album (he’s recorded and mixed everything himself to date), or perhaps even to record additional material. Former Metallica bassist Jason Newsted, who has publicly praised the band in the past, as well as Ken Andrews of Failure/Year Of The Rabbit fame, are atop Isham’s producer wish list. Most recently, however, Isham updates that Brian Virtue (Jane’s Addiction, 30 Seconds to Mars) is the leading candidate for the job. “Whoever Josh [Grabelle, Trustkill Records] can afford and wants to be involved… awesome.” he says.
With comments like, “To make his way to the top he would stab anyone.” former Open Hand bassist Sean “Rosey” Rosenthal could very well be likening Isham to the notoriously cutthroat Suge Knight himself.
Rosenthal, who performed in the band for only a few months in 2002, calls Isham, among other things, a “Bully, very selfish and self-centered.” He says that during a short period of downtime during the band’s 2002 tour alongside Not Waving But Drowning, Isham lied when releasing him from the band. “Justin told me that he didn’t think I was liking the band and the band was going to break up.” Rosenthal says. “Then Alex calls me like an hour later and he’s like “Dude he’s lying to you, we’re leaving for tour in an hour [with another bass player].'”
Isham denies such accusations wholeheartedly, claiming that Rosenthal was never brought in as anything more than a touring/fill-in bassist. “Obviously Rosey’s got it out for me.” Isham defends. “First month of the tour no one’s getting along with that guy. It was just like ‘sorry it’s just not working with you.'”
“So I’d be playing Justin these riffs [that I wrote] and he’d be like ‘oh, that’s awesome, who is that?'” explains Saosin guitarist Beau Burchell, one of four former Open Hand guitarists. “‘Oh it’s some stuff I’m working on [I’d say].’ Then he’s like ‘never mind.’ Total dagger to the heart.”
With exceeding candor Isham admits that he has “become slightly a music dictator a little bit.” However, he firmly denies that he doesn’t allow input from other members. “I don’t write and record on my own out of choice.” he says. “It’s not like the vibe of ‘hey everyone contribute’ isn’t there, just no one ever does.”
Isham further concludes, “In this band, I’m a hard person to deal with because I have such a set [musical] vision for the band.”
As Isham explains, the band’s woes seem to work in a circle of sorts. “Eighty percent of the people who’ve joined the band have come in with the notion that the band is about to make it big. They join the band thinking they’re going to get their bills paid. It’s a rude awakening. All of sudden, there’s no money. We live in the van. I’m 28 and I sleep on the floor with no shower.”
Even worse, Isham says, is that members who quit due to lacking funds subsequently caused the band to miss out on potentially profitable tour ventures, including the recent From Autumn To Ashes/Cave-In jaunt.
After being without full-time band mates since the summer, Isham confirms that he has filled both the guitarist and drummer vacancies with Don Ward, of Social Justice fame, and Paxton Pryor of The Vacations, respectively. Isham performed with both during his stint in hardcore band Hateface during the early ’90s. Pryor, a longtime friend of Isham, actually appeared on the band’s 2000 recording “11th Street” (about four minutes in he can be heard saying “My shit sounds like Failure with Smokey Robinson singing”).
“It’s beyond what I want for the band,” Isham says, “but for the individuals in the band. I want us to make a living. Money’s always a problem. My main aspiration is to be able to play and everyone think it’s good and not have to constantly borrow money.”
Following his initial fallout with Isham last summer, bassist Jeffrey Meyer later committed to assist him on Open Hand’s forthcoming release. However, very recently, Meyer decided to join Orange County rock outfit Adair.
Meyer says he quite frankly just can’t be in a band with Isham. “He’s really hard to get along with.” he says. According to Meyer, while on tour in Europe the two almost came to blows after Isham “..had a vendetta against me the whole tour … and one night I called him out on it.” Meyer adds that Isham is a “genius when it comes to writing music” and “can be a good friend,” but “he’s really difficult to understand. … I guess bipolar you could say.”
Although a huge fan of the band, Justin’s father, famed music video director Wayne Isham, has done little to assist the band financially. The elder Isham did help to land the band a spot in a Coors commercial last March (he also directed their “In Your Eyes” video), but that’s about all they’ve received from Justin’s “well off” father to date.
“Him doing that was the only help he’s ever given us, fortunately or unfortunately,” Isham says. “He loves the band. He supports the fact that I’ve always played music. There’s a certain point in life when I think you can’t go to your parents,” he adds, cutting himself off, “at least you can’t go to them with any kind of dignity.”
If this is the case, then why was the band’s now-defunct message board (their Web site is extinct too; Isham couldn’t pay the bill) so rampant with rumors of Isham’s spoiled-boy antics (not sharing his father’s wealth with band members while on tour, not allowing other members to contribute musical ideas; just generally being an asshole)?
Isham, who doesn’t even have Internet access, heard about the message board from [Trustkill Records owner] Grabelle. “I’d talk to Josh and he’d be like ‘yo dude, your message board is out of control.'”
“If the stuff on there was actually true, we’d be in such better shape right now. The band would probably be much bigger.” Isham says, appearing to remember just how venomous the comments were. “Whatever you want to write, I don’t care. I don’t care what people to think of me as a person … my only concern is the music.”