Fast FWD - What They're Up 2 Now: Jason Berggren of Strongarm

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I started a feature late last year that sort of fell to the wayside. I apologize for slacking on my job. Here is the latest edition of “Fast FWD – What They’re Up 2 Now” with Jason B. of Strongarm. Enjoy!

 

Fast FWD: What They’re Up 2 Now

Strongarm: Jason Berggren

This week’s feature is on the legendary and well loved Florida melodic hardcore band, Strongarm. Their legacy on our music scene stretches back several decades now and they won’t soon be forgotten. For whatever reason, be it the brutality, the melodic influence, or the spiritual connection, fans keep going back time and time again to discover the music of Strongarm.

This week we will be going back in time, through the present, and into the future of all things Strongarm including the discussion on “What They’re Up 2 Now”. So let’s begin.
BrandonIVM: Tell me a little bit of the history behind Strongarm. Where you guys all met? How did you become a band? What were your first shows like? Etc.

Jason B.: First, I want to say thank you for the opportunity to do this. I still get emails from people thanking me for my investment in Strongarm, which always surprises me so many years later. I’m happy to contribute to the scene whenever possible. I’m sure everyone’s account is a little different, but that’s how bands are. Here’s mine.

I used to be in a band (Ikthus) with Chris Carbonell before Strongarm. He played drums and I played guitar. We lost a couple members so I took over vocals and guitar for a spell. I met Chad Neptune at Cornerstone Festival (1992 or 1993) just before that happened and asked him to take over bass when he moved to South Florida.  I soon asked Josh Colbert and Nick Dominguez to play guitar so I could focus on vocals and lyrics. They were in local band called Endure that broke up (the hidden track “Together” on “Advent of a Miracle” is an Endure song). We soon wrote several songs and recorded our demo “These Times That Try Men’s Souls.” The title was based on a newsletter by Thomas Pain, which was Josh’s idea. This lineup continued for some time and is what recorded “Atonement”. By the way, I met Chris at Calvary Chapel Ft. Lauderdale and I believe I met Josh and Nick at shows through Chris or another mutual friend of us all. That’s basically how we came together initially.

Shorty after “Atonement” was released, I asked Chris and Nick to leave. I didn’t handle it great, but felt it had to be done. I recruited Steve to play drums and Bob Franquiz to play guitar. Steve was in a local Tampa band called Pull and became friends through playing shows up there. Bob was in a South Florida band called Amboog-a-Lard and I met him at Calvary Chapel too.

First shows in the beginning were a little rough. We were getting our bearings as musicians and so things were a little sloppy, like all bands. We soon improved which gave a better backing for our open profession of faith. I never played a show with Strongarm that I didn’t make known our purpose and foundation (that we were follower of Jesus) in some form or fashion—no matter where we played or who we played with. We were never given open respect, except by other Christians (after a show or something), for our open profession of faith. On occasion, middle fingers and colorful words got thrown in our direction. And there was one person who threatened to beat me up on several occasions. Fortunately, it never came to that. But mostly people ignored it and we were accepted in the local scene.

BrandonIVM: Your first official (Distributed) album was “Atonement”, released on Tooth & Nail Records in 1995. It featured Jason on vocals and had melody intertwined with a brutal and furious blend of hardcore. For our music scene, it was something fresh and the spiritual content made it all the much more original. How do you guys feel about “Atonement” as a total package and the music you created? Do you think it still stands up to today’s standards?

Jason B: Like any first album there were a few kinks, but, overall, musically and lyrically I feel “Atonement” was/is a strong first album. A few years ago I spoke at Unified Underground. I remember hearing Division in the house mix. Someone came up and commented how well it still fit in with the newer bands. Needless to say, it felt good.

BrandonIVM: What were some of your influences as a band? Favorite artists? If you could pick three bands that the music of Strongarm closely resembled, what would those artists be?

Jason B: Bands I think influenced us were Youth of Today, Sunny Day Real Estate, Burn, Quicksand, Inside Out to name a few. Some of my favorite bands of the time (besides the ones listed above) were Snapcase, Earth Crisis, Strife, Bloodlet, Cro-Mags, Mean Season, Unbroken. Music that we resembled? Sorry I don’t think I can accurately answer that. That’s not a copout. I just don’t know how to answer that.

BrandonIVM: Your second release with a slightly revamped line up was “The Advent of a Miracle” in 1997. It also served as your final record as a band. Do you feel that this is your more popular album? If not, what album do you feel people most resonate with? What are you favorite songs from this album?

Jason B: Eventually, Bob and I quit. That’s when they asked Nick and Chris to join the band again. Nick went back to guitar while Chris moved from drums to vocals. It’s a great album and why I’d have to say that it is probably the more popular album. My contribution to the album was the lyrics on 5 of the 9 songs (These Times that Try Men’s Souls, Supplication, Measure of Consequence, Advent of a Miracle, Increase). My favorite songs from it are Increase and Advent of a Miracle.

BrandonIVM: Can you name any tour highlights from the past? Bands you most enjoyed playing shows with, festivals, etc.? I personally saw you guys a few times in Capo Beach, CA. back when Jason was on vocals and loved the shows.

Jason B: Perhaps my favorite memory was our Cornerstone 1995 show. There was an old building in the back with dirt floors. It was packed with over 1,000 people and bunch of other Tooth-n-Nail band members piling up and singing along. They had to stop the show because some kid kept jumping in the crowd from the rafters. They had to stop the show again because someone stole a bunch of our merch. They had to stop the show again because some kids got into a fight up front. It was also so hot I was dry heaving while screaming, and it didn’t take long for that to change. The stage was filled with people around the edges but they quickly made a path when they noticed I was running to the side to barf. While doing my business I heard the band continuing the next song. There were so many people they didn’t realize I wasn’t there. I got myself together and jumped back in just in time for my part—all the while lingering chunks of vomit flew out as people sang along. It was pure insanity. I loved it.

Another great show memory was True Tunes Records. They had a club on the second floor. When we played there it was packed from wall to wall way beyond safe capacity. We could literally feel the building moving slightly with all the people in there. It was a little scary but amazing.

Cornerstone was always great to play. We loved playing out because kids weren’t used to seeing you so there was a little more energy. Tampa in particular was always a great show for us.

BrandonIVM: Was there any animosity when you (Jason B.) quit Strongarm? Do you still talk to any of the guys and are you on friendly terms?

Jason B: I quit in late 1995 and soon checked out of the scene to let them do their thing without my presence lingering. I saw the guys here and there and things were cordial. I wasn’t aware of any animosity—until recent years. I wrestled with what to share about this, but it’s now part of the story and will help make sense of answers to other questions you have. Plus, it’s now part of Strongarm’s story (unfortunately). I apologize in advance for the drama.

Early in 2009 I was called by a friend, Joshua Stump, who ran The Anchor Stage at Cornerstone Festival. He asked if I would contact the guys to see if they’d do a reunion. I managed to dig up a number for Chris C. and left several messages but he never called. After that I emailed Chad Neptune who I found on Facebook. He said he wasn’t interested and didn’t think the other guys would be. Joshua Stump was bummed but soon called me back and asked if I’d still do a show if he put a band together to back me up. I said sure but was hesitant to call it a reunion. He recommended calling it a “Stongarm Tribute.” That sounded good. My wife and I decided to make a family trip of it so reserved an RV for our road trip. I wasn’t about to camp at C-stone again if I could help it. I also emailed Chad as a courtesy to keep him informed. He agreed a tribute “sounded about right” since it wasn’t a reunion.

A little while later I got a bizarre email from Josh Colbert. He essentially demanded that I cancel the show in order to ‘preserve the memory of the band’ (or something like that). I’m not even sure what that meant. He also accused me of only doing the show to help promote my book (by the way, I wrote a book that year). This wasn’t true. But even if it was I didn’t understand why he was making this some kind of moral high ground issue. Strongarm was certainly the vehicle for Further Seems Forever initially getting signed and promoted. That never bothered me. I was always happy for them. In fact, I listened to their music and told others about it. He also went on to say that if I insisted on continuing, that I was only allowed to play songs I wrote the music for. Obviously, I thought this was insulting and absurd since I never made such a demand with regard to the lyrics I wrote (which was most of them) when I quit Strongarm. By this time several months had passed and, Cornerstone was only a couple months away and preparations were in motion, and I had planned a big family trip. In light of all that I respectfully declined Josh Colbert’s request. Believe it or not, that wasn’t the end of it.

Steve Kleisath sent a similar email and I responded in the same fashion. But that wasn’t the end of it either. Shortly thereafter, they actually registered the domain www.strongarmreunion.com and the all signed their names (Josh, Nick, Chris, Steve, Chad) to an official statement personally slamming me and the Stongarm Tribute as illegitimate. I took a screen shot of it because I couldn’t believe it. I was never aware of the bitterness and anger they clearly had towards me all these years. I found it to be petty, small, and childish, and it was clearly meant to cause me pain. Until then, I was never aware of any band posting an official page to slam an ex-member like this. Worst of all, this sure didn’t help ‘preserve the memory of Strongarm.’

Let me be clear, I had my good and bad moments in the band, which is why I quit in the first place. I felt I wasn’t living up to the life I was supposed to represent as a follower of Jesus. And to be honest, I felt none of us were. Everyone had their moments, but I never held it against them. We were all kids (so to speak) and wrestling with growing up, and I always kept that context in mind with regard to our interactions while in the band. No one’s perfect. In a way, it was a full circle because it validated some of the other pivotal reasons why I quit so many years ago.

BrandonIVM: Fast FWD. What do you guys all do now for full time jobs? Where are you at spiritually and financially compared to when you were in a touring band?

Jason: After Strongarm, I went to Bible College and got a degree in theology. I got married in 1999. I then spent five years helping Bob (from Strongarm) start a church in Miami, FL (calvarywired.com). Eventually, my wife and I decided to move on. I wanted to start writing and didn’t want to raise our family in South Florida. We relocated to Atlanta and have been there ever since. We have four boys and these days I am a handyman by day (superhandyman.org) and attempt to write when I can. We serve in various areas at our church (North Point Community Church). My wife also homeschools our boys and makes handbags (LisaBee.me) as a hobbie. We live a very modest life. I did finish a book in 2009 called 10 Things I Hate about Christianity: Working Through the Frustrations of Faith. It is a very honest and raw exploration of my faith, much like my lyrics in Strongarm always were.

BrandonIVM: Do you hold the same beliefs on a spiritual level that you had during the heyday of Strongarm? If not, is there a reason why?

Jason B: Yes, I do.

BrandonIVM: You guys probably get asked this question a million times by fans both old and new but is there EVER going to be a Strongarm reunion show and/or album in the future? Maybe celebrating the 20th anniversary of Atonement and Advent of a Miracle? Any chance fans could support you guys through a kickstarter campaign to fund  a new album with a big producer? I know I would totally help contribute to a kickstarter Strongarm campaign if there was one.

Jason B: Due to the events as described above, I’d have to say no. I’m not interested in taking the stage with them. I have, however, done songs with other bands. A couple years ago I wrote lyrics to (and sang) on Venia’s EP I’ve Lost all Faith in Myself. The song was entitled “The Call” and you can listen here: http://jasonberggren.com/listen-up-strongarm-venia-new-song-lyrics-christianity-869. The are broken up now, but it was a lot of fun.

BrandonIVM: Any chance you’ll play a festival and/or show date in the near future? Maybe just show up and surprise everyone? Blow the noob kids away with your explosive music and live show?

Jason B: Last year I did Trials (Strongarm song) with Debtor and The Call with Venia at Stand Together Fest in Nashville, TN. It was a blast. I am always open to that stuff.

BrandonIVM: What do you think about the current state of the music scene at large?

Jason B: Honestly, I’m not really in the scene that much so I can’t say. I go to a show here and there because I’m getting my kids into the heavy stuff. Earlier this year I took them to a Gideon/Chariot/Unearth show. We all had a great time. I do here from time to time from people in the scene that they wish there were spirit-filled bands now like there was ‘back-in-the-day’. I appreciate the sentiment, but that is mainly nostalgia. It wasn’t all that different. Like today, there were good bands and bad ones. Ones that were more sincere and ones that weren’t. There are some amazing spirit-filled bands around today.

BrandonIVM: Do you have any favorite current artists or bands you guys are into?

Jason B: Like I said, there a lot of good bands I like these days. Life In Your Way, Norma Jean, Zao, Sleeping Giant, Chariot, Gideon, Underoath, Plea for Purging (RIP), Advent, For Today, and Venia (RIP) of course.

BrandonIVM: Any old stuff that you still go back to?

Jason B: All of it. All my stuff, new and old, is in a playlist that I constantly listen to. Today I enjoyed some Snapcase, Slayer, and Strife along with Meshuggah, Emmure (I’m sorry but I like them), and Unearth.

BrandonIVM: Do you ever speak to Brandon Ebel or Tooth & Nail Records staff at all any more? What do you think about the label now as it sits today?

Jason B: No. Don’t know much about it except that they have A LOT of product now. Oh yes, and I have never seen a dime of royalties from Strongarm if anyone wants to know how it was.

BrandonIVM: Can you believe it has been almost two decades since Strongarm first released Atonement and probably 20 years since you guys first started playing shows. Time flies. How do you guys feel about the current trend of bands reuniting and going on tour? Gameface is doing it, Braid is doing it, Sunny Day Real Estate did it, Texas is the Reason did it, Knapsack is doing it, and many others. Would you guys ever consider going on tour again?  If so, what bands would you most want to play shows with?

Jason B: I think it can be novel and cool. Mostly it seems like people say they are totally into it but then don’t show up to the shows. So I feel bad for the bands when that happens. A lot of times the new material isn’t as good. That being said, I think Earth Crisis’s new stuff is pretty good. So is the new Shai Halud, although that is not technically a reunion. Overall, if they’re having fun and not embarrassing themselves by becoming a parody of their former selves I say go for it. But I’ll never do it for reasons as stated above.

BrandonIVM: As you know times change yet so many of these Churches we all went to shows at back in the day are still in operation now. Why have so many of these Church buildings shut their doors to Christian rock/metal/punk/hardcore type shows? I know here in Orange County, CA. it’s rare that a Christian hardcore show will ever take place at a big Church like it did back in the day. Why is this happening? Why are Churches closing their doors to youth culture?

Jason B: I don’t know. I’d have to guess that liability may be a reason. Back in the 90’s no one was worried about getting sued if some idiot kid did a stage dive and broke his neck. But I could be wrong. Perhaps there is still a resistance to alternative or underground culture. I just can’t say for sure.

BrandonIVM: How do you feel about “Christian” bands like For Today, Impending Doom, Sleeping Giant, Underoath (RIP), Norma Jean, The Chariot,  The Devil Wears Prada, Oh, Sleeper,  Phinehas, etc. blowing up and playing large gigs across the country since the demise of Strongarm? Do you follow any of those bands? What do you think about their music?

Jason B: I think it’s great. It gives them the opportunity to reach more kids with the message of Jesus. Plus, hopefully they’re not going broke like we always seemed to be. And I like most of the bands you mentioned, as you may have noticed from an earlier answer.

BrandonIVM: What do you think about so many of these youth and their 15 minutes of fame flash in the pan type of pop culture significance? As an artist, how do you want your legacy to be remembered? Do you feel there is a certain sense of realism and DIY ethic that is missing from today’s music market?

Jason B: I know I sound like a geezer on a rocking chair, but fame is fleeting. It doesn’t make you a better person. I’ve always thought artists/musicians in general are kind of like bratty spoiled kids in the way they act. First, they view themselves as part of shaping culture, which can lead to a certain elitism. Second, they receive immediate gratification for their efforts. They get to see the results of their efforts right away. I know this was true for me and it began to bother me (this was one reason I quit Strongarm). Hopefully, what’s remembered is the message of Strongarm.

I think the DIY ethic is there from the bands I’ve interacted with. It’s just a little easier and cheaper today. With technology you can literally record, master, and distribute an album internationally all in a week. And for a lot cheaper and better than when we were doing it. We had to work really hard for just a fraction of the potential exposure and quality. However, it does seem that market is really saturated due to the ease of the whole process. There seems to be way more bands out there than when we were doing it.

BrandonIVM: Moving on a bit here. A few last questions. Some of you guys have families now I am sure and possibly some kids. How do your kids react to the music of Strongarm if they’ve heard it? Will you guys still be the uncool Dads to your children?  If you ever played live again, what do you think your children would say?

Jason B: My kids are still fairly young (my oldest is 11) so they still love it and think I’m somewhat cool. When I played Stand Together Fest my kids LOVED it and sang along. Afterwards, I had dozens of big tattooed guys come up teary-eyed saying it was incredible seeing my kids up there with me. They appreciated that I wasn’t scared to let them love this music. It was very moving for me.

BrandonIVM: That about wraps up this feature for the week. I want to thank you for contributing and for making such powerful and significant music through your time in Strongarm. If there are any last minute prayer requests that us fans can lift up for you, let us know.

Jason B: Take care and God Bless!

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