Artist Interview/Album Review: Jeromes Dream — ‘The Gray in Between’

There’s something to be said about the kind of music that you can’t quite understand or verbally grasp upon first listen, but nevertheless feel emotionally affected by. Sometimes it’s the urgency behind what’s being expressed that gets us going, and other times it’s the way that a song can seemingly gather enough momentum to expel all the things that get caught within us. It’s the sort of thing that makes you understand how powerful music really is when a certain level of honesty is exposed. San Francisco based screamo trio Jeromes Dream fearlessly tread through unrelenting anxieties and fears for their fourth album The Gray in Between as a means of absolute catharsis. Available May 5th through Iodine Recordings, the new album proves to be their heaviest and most passionately fueled body of work yet.

In the late ’90s through the early 2000s, Jeromes Dream left an indelible mark on the screamo / powerviolence scene that would go on to inspire countless bands over the years. When they released their first album Seeing Means More Than Safety in 2000, it was a genre-defining album that was unique, heavy, and more unhinged than any other music coming out of the scene at the time. In the following year, they released the polarizing math rock / post-hardcore record Presents almost in defiance of the punk scene they stemmed from. Shortly after, they abruptly broke up when drummer Erik Ratensperger suddenly made the announcement to the band and fans during what would be one of their last shows. It would be years before Ratensperger reached out to bassist/vocalist Jeff Smith to re-establish their friendship and eventually reunite Jeromes Dream. “In 2017, we decided to get on the phone together since the year marked 20 years since we started the band originally in 1997. It was the first time we spoke as a band. We did a lot of reminiscing, but we also talked about what it could be like if we were to get in a room together again. After reflecting on the phone call, I thought why not try to make that happen and see where it leads us,” Ratensperger shares. 

Their new album The Gray in Between, which features Ratensperger on drums, Smith on bass and vocals, and Sean Leary of Loma Prieta on guitar, sounds like what would have been the next step after Seeing Means More Than Safety in that it’s just as vehement, if not more so, than their debut. This is likely in part due to bringing Leary into the writing process, making it the first album they have written without original guitarist Nick Antonopulous. In doing so, Jeromes Dream have reignited the same passion they began with, channeling a more powerful atmosphere of desolation that has come with years of experience and topping it off with a profound sense of forbearance resulting in the best album of their career.

Seeing Means More Than Safety was a raw catharsis — The Gray In Between is very much the same, but our confidence in songwriting and execution has evolved. We’re drawing from the same emotions, but are inspired by another 20+ years of experience. We wrote and recorded this record during the pandemic. It’s also the first record we made without Nick, who is no longer playing in the band. But it’s also our first record with Sean on guitar. And it is the first time myself, Jeff, and Sean have lived in the same city. I moved to SF in July, 2020 solely because these guys were here — and we knew we had work to do,” Ratensperger says of the album. 

The album begins with the particularly moving “Conversations: In Time, on Mute.” It’s a pummeling introduction of guitar noise and feedback that falls into a steady cadence, chugging along as if sonically mustering the last bit of strength in order to overcome the oncoming despair. The lyrics “We make the masks that keep us inside / So when you scream the world can’t hear you / We build thick walls that keep us inside / So when you scream the world can’t hear you” depict an internal emotional landscape that is never outwardly revealed. Themes of isolation, anxiety, and fear are explored throughout the album and take on reflective states of rumination that are powered by Smith’s matured vocals that approach a new level of anguish. 

 “As Erik mentioned, we are pulling from a lot of the same emotions from when we were kids, only with twenty plus years of additional experience. Over the years I’ve been able to examine and confront a lot of what I was carrying when I was young. This isn’t to say that I am no longer affected by the difficulties I faced as a young person, but that I can understand what I am feeling and why a lot of the time. Today I carry an enhanced version of the anxiety and sadness I did back then given the insanity of the world over the last twenty years. And to add to it, I have to raise my own young person in the chaos and darkness of the world. All of this is channeled through our music and to say I absolutely need this as an outlet is an understatement,” Smith expresses.

Masters of leaning into their sonic compulsions, Jeromes Dream began with no desire to emulate what any other band around them were doing. Instead, they always turned inward and relied on each other’s instincts to create something that felt true to themselves. It’s something that they still continue practicing today in their writing process. “We didn’t see to any outside influence intentionally. I wasn’t even listening to any heavy music at the time. This stuff just comes from within, to be honest. We’re just pulling from what we know and feel. From a writing standpoint, I would just make iphone recordings at home of guitar ideas, and text them to Jeff and Sean, and if they were into them, we’d work on it at rehearsal and form songs together. We didn’t try anything new specifically — we just wanted to make sure the recording felt true to how we sound live, and capture the energy and urgency we felt at the time of making them,” Ratensperger says of the process.

After teaming up with Jack Shirley (Deafheaven, Botanist) on their self-titled album in 2019, the band returned to work with Shirley again for the new album. Ratensperger says of their experience, “Jack is so technically proficient, and has an incredibly keen ear, but he is one to allow the band to be who they are and do what they do. I’ve said this before, but it’s like he gives the band a canvas to paint, but it is Jack who stretched that canvas. We love working with him, and he very often brings vegan treats to the studio.”

The third song on the album, “South By Isolation,” sounds reminiscent of later post-hardcore bands like Touché Amoré and Hawak. Balancing between heavy and melodic components, it’s the sound of confrontation and the adrenaline that arises from stumbling to find your way through. Rapid-fire drumming and a single repeating melody rings out as Smith laments over it before shouting, “I’ve got to get away / Just to breathe / I’ve got to get away / and then I’ll know I’m safe to be me” with more clarity and desperation than the rest of the song. The ascending chords that close out the song flourish with the gravity of finding solace within a momentary reprieve emphasized by Ratensperger’s embellishments. 

Halfway through the album, there is a moment of calm with the piano ballad “Cosmos in Season” before it returns to the relentlessly dissonant and sobering back half of the album. Along with “Often Oceans,” it’s the only other song that offers a moment of relief as the band collectively draws their next breath. One of the most intense songs “On Holiday With Infinity” features angular melodies that are met with breakneck drumming that would surely burst your blood vessels upon trying to keep up. Smith’s vocals sound unrestrained as he screeches, “To watch him burn was a thing of beauty / that I’d now like to forget / but I can’t forget as if the only way to rid himself of any lingering despair is to shout as hard as his body will allow.

Two of the most cathartic songs on the album for Smith to write were the opening and closing tracks. “’Conversations’ was the first song I wrote lyrics for and it really captured a lot of what had been simmering beneath the surface for me over the last few years. It was incredible how quickly it came together when I sat down to write. We had written a lot of the music for the record already and when I came in with lyrics and sang it for the first time, it changed the entire mood of the song and the writing process overall for all of us. ‘The Last Water Pearl’ is more of a snapshot of another person’s story and how I imagine it to feel for them. It’s a sad story for all involved and it crushes me every single time we play it. But there is a hopeful tinge to it that I hope comes through when people listen,” Smith shares.

When they first reunited to release their self-titled album in 2019, they teamed up with Iodine Recordings who will also be putting out the new album. “Casey got in touch with us when he resurrected the label a couple years ago. It was so nice to hear from him. He was one of the first people to give JD a chance over 20 years ago by asking us to be on one of his first releases, which was a compilation entitled The Ghost in the Gears. It was a big deal for us to share space with bands like Converge, Cave In, Garrison, amongst many others. We were nobodies, but Casey saw something in what we were doing. In 2021, Casey proposed he do a re-issue of Presents for its 20th anniversary. And now, our newest LP. He’s been a pleasure to collaborate with; he’s incredibly passionate, dedicated, and one of the hardest working people I know, and LOVES doing this,” Ratensperger says of the label founder.

The Gray in Between is anything but an admission of defeat in the face of the harsh realities of our world. As Smith puts it, it’s a reminder of power. Amidst the despairing cries, halting screeches, and jarring dissonance lies something imperceptible to those unwilling to seek it out; a sense of hope and triumph that persists even as it threatens to collapse beneath the paralyzing weight of anxiety and fear. It’s this very act of confronting every feeling that ranges from deep fear and anger to euphoria and tranquility that makes The Gray in Between one of the most unfiltered, powerfully liberating post-hardcore albums of the year and shows exactly why Jeromes Dream are one of the blueprint bands that paved the way for the genre.

“Making art means finding a way to express yourself in your truest form and execute on it. For me personally, this music, this band, and collaboration with my friends is the ultimate creative unlock,” says Ratensperger.

Smith ends the interview with what he hopes listeners take away from the album, “I hope each person can find something to connect to in some way and that this connection generates a visceral positive change in them. It’s important to be grounded and present as you listen the first few times. The entirety of the headspace I was in for the writing of this record was one of acceptance, forgiveness, and rebirth. As ambiguous as that may sound, I hope that people can find their own meaning in the lyrics, music, and artwork.” 

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