Troy Hewitt: vocal, piano
Lars Snow: bass, lead guitar on intro to A Terminated History Of
Steve Bartholomew: guitars
A Terminated History Of
Tourniquets and Nightshade
Versus Inertia is a four-piece music group best described as progressive rock. Currently serving lengthy sentences in the Washington State Reformatory, all four band members originally hail from the Seattle area.
All VI songs are written and arranged by Steve Bartholomew and Troy Hewitt, who also handle production and audio engineering for the band. Guitarist and lyricist Steve Bartholomew is also a contributing writer for MinutesBeforeSix.com.
While both Hewitt and Clamor have recorded and performed (separately) with various acts in the freeworld, Snow and Bartholomew taught themselves to play music while perched on the edge of a steel bunk (also quite separately).
Formed in 2013, Versus Inertia rose out of the ashes of two other music efforts in the Washington State Reformatory. Members Snow, Clamor, and Bartholomew had been playing together for nearly three years in injury-metal band Check the Backseat. Described by big-yard blogger Harshmellow as “groove-splattered and grim, [Backseat’s] songs gurgle with reflux-inducing rhythms that seem more bombast than blast.” Check the Backseat’s overall vibe was heralded as being “approachable, but with some effort—you know, like a gang of agro panhandlers.”
Prison music pundit, Richard “Dickipedia” Badrapp, praised Backseat as “blackened grind-stank. Definite European influences, at least in how loud they are. Solid-state riffs, mostly, and I think their drummer dislocated my brainstem. I’d give ‘em four stars, if they’d just play one goddamn Metallica cover.”
Meanwhile, Hewitt was involved in Escape Tunnel, a post nu-thrash, slegdecore duo consisting of two guitars and Hewitt’s vocals painstakingly arranged over the throb of electronic gristle. Escape Tunnel immediately gained more notoriety that critical acclaim—especially from prison officials—due in part to controversy surrounding the connotations of the band name.
Regarding the craft of songwriting, founding member Heckyl (ex-Alibi Curious, Blunt Force Drama) said, “Our contempt for turnkeys [antiquated euphemism for prison guards] is so pure and complete that we refuse to even play in a musical key. I believe harmony is for sell-outs. I’m way too edgy for shit like that.”
Conjuring a bleak chugscape tightly interwoven with Tourette-worthy skirmishes, Escape Tunnel evoked the narrow-eyed verve of a frontal assault committed with glowsticks. Upon previewing a Tunnel release, antisocial media phenom T. Ruthless tweeted “Congrats to your riffs for being old enough to buy beer! Sounds like Prong finally got a real singer. #Rammstaind.”
In the winter of 2013, prison administration announced that a correctional industries infomercial would be filmed in the chapel, under the auspices of TEDx. In between the featured talks, selected prisoners would be allowed to sing and/or dance (in the manner specifically authorized by the Ministry of Entertainment) for the amusement of the Department’s cohort of guests. Members of both bands ached to play for their families, friends and free people in general, even if only on YouTube.
But a strategic decision had to be made. The subsonic hyper-pummeling of tunnel could likely result in seizures, or at least incontinence in more conservative audience members. And the glottal squelch of Old Yeller, front man for Backseat, had more than once been mistaken by prison guards for the vocalizing of clumsy violence. (His working lyrics were rumored to be articles torn from medical journals, but this could be neither confirmed nor disproved simply by listening to recordings.)
Looking back on the tumultuous period prior to TEDx, Bartholomew said:
“We knew our sound wouldn’t fit in, as it was. They don’t call it DEDx, after all. I already knew Troy, and had huge respect for his chops. [Reference to Hewitt’s musical talent, not his prodigious sideburns.] More importantly, I dug him as a person. In here that’s rarer than bacon. I knew I had to work with this guy, and that neither of us was entirely happy with how our bands sounded. So I asked him if he wanted to collaborate on something different.”
Versus Inertia immediately began the process of creating music in what has become their signature style. Drawing on classical, jazz, folk and metal, songwriters Hewitt and Bartholomew commenced their ongoing genre-splicing research. Tapestries of diverse rhythmic textures and harmonic schemes provide scenery for lyrical themes exploring the emotional subtexts of their circumstance.
As the newly formed band centered itself around the tension and interplay between guitar and piano, Snow picked up the bass (as well as filling in on lead guitar for the intro to A Terminated History Of), firmly anchoring the compositions. When asked about the overall shift between bands, instruments and genres, Snow commented:
“After spending countless minutes (at least five per day) mastering the guitar, I was at first dispirited at the idea of embracing the lackluster stylings of the bass. All that hard work would be for nothing. Then it occurred to me that now I would have more time to sleep.”
Due to arbitrary enforcement of prison policy minutiae, Versus Inertia were ultimately banned from TEDx. If anything, being blacklisted only fuelled their drive to create, unrestricted by puppetry regulations.
Upon completion of the Hour Mercurial, Hewitt said:
"Honestly, when Steve and I started writing music, I questioned whether two people with such different musical backgrounds could mesh creatively. He brings these metal sensibilities that are worlds apart from my background in jazz and blues. Turns out the counter-culture spirit of our respective genres is what matters, and what works, especially in here. Prison is geared toward discouraging us from accomplishing anything. When you listen to these songs, I hope you hear a grin and a middle finger raised toward that.”
Currently in the prison leg of their North American tour, Versus Inertia has thus far headlined several live shows, all in the same venue (they’re seeking new tour management), and all to enthusiastic reviews. In April of 2015, they were finally able to play the visiting room, for family, friends and freepeople in general.
Musical Notes from Steve Bartholomew:
The reason you may not be familiar with much music created in prison is because the odds are stacked so highly against the process that it rarely occurs. Prisoner bands, if they exist at all, are typically geared toward cover songs, either played with an angry, garage sort of gusto, or stretched into a droopy torpor. The range of songs covered varies about as much as the menu. You can count on an over baked Free Bird; some butchered War Pigs, maybe a side of creamed Korn. (I’ve never heard anyone cover The Police.)
In Washington State and a few others, prisoners are allowed to own a personal instrument—a guitar, bass or keyboard. And in a few prisons such as this one, small music rooms still exist, programs supported not by tax dollars, but rather by fees and funds paid into by prisoners. In an environment where time is our sole and seemingly renewable resource, you might think that a large number of prisoners would make use of the opportunity to learn an instrument. Or that the musicians who come to prison would use this expanse of time to stack up new music like chordwood. But that isn't the case.
Of the 760 prisoners in this institution, about 40 take part in the music program. Of those 40, at least 25 believe that street cred as a gangsta rapper is predicated upon a prison sentence and knowing at least two dozen words that rhyme with snitch. Of the dozen or so who play actual instruments, only four, my band, get along well enough to play together for any length of time. The others clique and clack, recombining in rotating lineups that often last about as long as a mosh pit at a Dave Matthew's concert. Two or more dissonant personalities clashing in a small practice room can drown out a 60-watt amp, no problem.
We named our band Versus Inertia partially because we have defied all likelihood just by existing as long as we have. We persist and achieve what we do because before we are bandmates, we are friends.
Being the only band in this prison entitles us to no special treatment, no rock-star considerations. We are allotted two and a half hours per week to practice. No more and no less than the two white-ish kids who "borrow" Bieber's beats, over which they spit romance rhymes to their imaginary girlfriends. A 2-Pack of nutty Eminems.
Each week, we meet in the music room and try to make a few pieces of equipment sound decades newer than they are. When you listen to a recording of a professionally made song (one involving actual instruments, not dubstep, EDM or rap), know that the musicians involved played that song hundreds of times before going into the studio, where all they have to think about is playing it well. In the free world, time constraints are measured in days and weeks, not minutes. This is a luxury I can only imagine in an abstract way.
In a free world studio the band is assisted by sound engineers, instrument techs, production engineers, people who have mastered, well, the art of mastering. This album was recorded with mismatched vocal mics that were cheap a long time ago, and mixed by Troy and me on a bottom-shelf 16-track machine about the size and heft of your computer keyboard, if you have one of those flimsy ones. The ideal piece of audio gear for your precocious niece who wants to be the next Taylor Swift.
We are not prohibited per se from recording and releasing our music, but neither are we allowed any permanent media—CD, tape, etc. Nor are we allowed to send any of those things out were we to somehow obtain them. So you see, for demo versions of these five songs to be available for you to hear is nothing short of prison magic. We apologize in advance for the fidelity of the recording. Consider any background noise the sound of perseverance.
We chose Upheaval as the first song on the album because it is as mercurial a song as we are a band. I liked the idea of that piano melody being the first thing heard. It isn't what one expects to hear coming from an imprisoned band, or so people keep telling me. The narrative takes place both in the dynamics of the song, and lyrically. It could mean more than one thing, but to me it is simply about not becoming a product of your environment, a term I take issue with (some would say because of my environment). Although the girl in the song does not make the most positive choices in response to her plight, neither does she succumb to inertia.
Sometimes collaboration takes on a larger scope than simply two guys in a room. A year and a half ago a close friend told me about another friend of hers who was on death row in another state. He'd asked her to jot down some candid thoughts so he could combine them with his own into a poem. She did, and their joint effort became Seeing Red, the poem. When the state murdered him a few months later, I asked if I could rework that poem into a song. I did not intend Seeing Red to glorify him or what he'd done, but rather to honor whatever qualities my friend clearly saw in the man he'd become, and the relationship she'd formed with that person.
Troy and I forgo structural formulas in our songwriting, but we're not above taking a page from the greats. There is a style of classical folk that came out of Southern Italy in the Romantic Period, called the tarantella. Written in 6/8 time and played at a lively tempo, tarantellas were said to be anti-venom for a spider bite, provided you could dance at speed for the entire song. Maybe the idea was that you'd sweat out the poison. I imagine it only worked for tarantula bites, which aren’t lethal anyway, hence the name. We took the tarantella form, supercharged it, dropped and chopped it, dipped it in metallic paint. What emerged was A Terminated History Of.
Sometimes a song nearly writes itself. The isolation of prison is more than physical removal, it is the banishment of your voice from the ongoing conversation, be it the one among your own family or the larger swath of society from which you were ejected. Reckoning your own absence and how that affects the few lives that matter most to you is no small thing. I didn't set out to write a song that was part confessional, part apology when I wrote Second Hand. It just happened that way. Works that come from such a deep and personal place can be the most difficult to maintain a critical viewing distance from. Before we played Second Hand for our families and friends in the visiting room, Troy said a few words about how the message sometimes transcends the messenger. He said this because although I wrote it to my sons, he sings it to his wife, who was ten feet away. We both got a little wobbly on the first couple of chords.
Successful songwriting has many measures. Some gauge it by downloads, number of likes or Billboard rankings. We gauge success simply by the range of feeling we've managed to convey within a song. The greatest enemy of good music is insincerity, which means that the emotive palette we have to choose from is what we live: sorrow, frustration, fury, and the determination to push through. Just as brushstrokes speak of the painter, so do our life experiences bleed through our music. Of these songs, nowhere is that more apparent than in Tourniquets and Nightshade.
Not every song needs to travel the dark rooms of a troubled heart. But some do. I don't know of a steeper arc than what occurs when love blackens into misery fueled by rejection, that sense of abandonment you rage against because it takes up your entire skull and shrieks against everything you thought you knew or had learned of that person. The harmonic structure of Tourniquets reflects that descent—it comes in as a music box, but leaves as a locomotive.
Whatever distinctiveness our music has is owing to the mystique of collaboration. When two songwriters with similar musical tastes and backgrounds work in tandem, what often emerges is the sort of thing that would have occurred to either one alone. I can tell immediately when I’m listening to, say, a metal band that only listens to metal. Every riff sounds refried, the transitions clichéd.
What some find unsettling in our music is the unexpected nature of the groove, the level of contrast present between our separate approaches to the same harmonic field. No one creates in a vacuum—in essence, we are what we hear, or read, or see. Troy and I have been musically socialized so differently that we wouldn't much care to trade playlists. But that is the basis of hybrid vigor. His influences include Tom Waits, Dave Brubeck, Lennon and McCartney, and James Brown. Mine include Galder (Old Man's Child, Dimmu Borgir), Mikael Akerfeldt (Opeth, Storm Corrosion), Sorceron (Abigail Williams), and Beethoven. (Obviously, my first dates have gone more smoothly when I didn't pick the music.)
Troy is a better musician than I am, and vastly more experienced, but in the practice room we are equal factors in what becomes a product, a multiple of what either of us could have conceived of on our own. What emerges is a matter of point and counterpoint, opposing musical sensibilities somehow finding consonance in equity. Guitar versus piano, or both tonally intertwined, hemispheres of a third mind that is neither, but more than either individually.
Although I write the lyrics (self-avowed word nerd that I am), Troy creates entirely the vocal melodies. Thankfully he handles all the vocal duties as well. Because, like Mr. Z, I too have 99 problems. Except that for me, pitch is one.
"Begin at the beginning," the King said, gravely, "and go on till you come to the end; then stop." —Lewis Carroll.
Arranging music is an art form all its own, an alchemy of technical considerations and emotional content—balancing head with heart. To write a song is to risk overwhelming odds of failure—for every song that is accepted as "good," five bajillion have been written that were not. And nobody really understands why certain songs stick. It isn't lyrical substance, because we all know that Jenny's number is 867-5309. It isn't technical prowess, because we have immortalized Louie Louie. And so as a songwriter, you constantly ask yourself not only whether this riff, this song, is good enough, but whether it will stick. It is easy to feel forgotten in prison. And so, as songwriters we are motivated not by commercial promise so much as having our music simply be remembered.
The key to successful collaboration is knowing your partner's strengths well enough to let go. This seemingly simple act takes a conscious effort—especially in this environment, where no matter how non-egocentric you consider yourself, being overruled equates to weakness, one of prison’s deadly sins. But in creating music of any worth, you have to know when to disappear, to abandon your ego for the sake of letting something larger come through. It becomes a matter of trying ideas without attachment to them, being willing to admit that someone else's idea is better for the song than your own, this time. Getting out of the way is the easiest, and most difficult part of the process.
"Forget all about that macho shit, and learn how to play guitar."—John Mellencamp
|Steve plays an Ibanez Iron Label, tuned to a B standard or drop A tuning|
Prison ls nothing if not crowded solitude. When faced with an endless chain of unwanted interactions, the obvious choice in defense mechanisms for most of us is detachment. A free-floating apathy that saturates the spirit, a semi-courteous indifference deadening your ability to care about what happens to another human being.
Connecting with one another in here is a matter of risk, of weighing the desire to be less alone with the pitfalls of vulnerability. Disengaging from the free world lets time slip over us more easily, and given long enough it can become difficult to remember how to connect meaningfully with another person. It’s no wonder that so many of us withdraw in pursuit of the gods of apathy, hunched into vague shapes dimly backlit by the blue flicker of tiny screens.
Prison is anathema to creativity. The combination of social isolation and ironclad uniformity deny the mind its elan vital: novel stimuli and experiences. Eventually, imagination calcifies, withering down to the size of a scheme engine. With no detectable horizon, perception takes on a tunnel vision quality, making inconsequential social sleights swell into veiled threats. The laughable hierarchy of nobody-ness becomes the only way humanity is classified. There ceases to be a "larger picture," a perspective info which events can be placed. After a while, your circle of interest shrinks to the size of your skin, your goals completely localized, circumscribed.
But music is the antithesis to the prison condition. In creating it, we as musicians have to communicate with one another on multiple levels, coordinating our thinking and movements. We have to cooperate and learn to anticipate the creative instinct of another. We have to set distant, overarching goals and plan accordingly toward reaching them.
You may not catch us tossing around words like empathy in the band room, but we care deeply about one another’s state of mind. We have to. My bandmates mental stances are as much a part of the collective experience and resulting sound as my own.
In creating an album in here, and having it escape, we are able to keep our environment in perspective. The daily shenanigans taking place around us matter only as much as they should. We grant the workings of prison a temporary importance only because we're trapped inside them. For now.
Above all, creating music intended for the free world requires that we engage with that world, at least mentally. A good writer writes to an audience, a good musician plays to the room. You are our room. Just as you can get an idea of our emotional state by listening to our music, we try to imagine yours in creating it. Becoming a citizen really comes down to caring about the enjoyment of others. For people like us, music is more than a fun diversion. It's one of the ways we connect with you. By listening to us, you allow that to happen.
For that, Lars, Clamor, Troy and I thank you.
Your support, comments, questions and critiques are welcome, and greatly appreciated. Feedback is fuel. Please expect replies to occur on our unfortunate time scale. We celebrate the freedom to share our songs with whoever may be interested in hearing music created in prison, or with anyone who just wants to rock out.
lyrics by S. Bartholomew
music by S. Bartholomew and T. Hewitt
the child as mother to the woman
her own eyes naked in the dark
a battered atlas their tablecloth
bourbon stain marks the road from here
she reads aloud castoff pages
free inside her head to disappear
crayon lipstick she tries on alone
broken toys came with broken bones
in her one world
the sky ignores her
she rises through the clouds
if dreams are gods
then gods are dead, she said
trailers, passing trucks their furniture
orbiting but would not turn
eyes watch for her sometime passage
boys outside howling at the moon
she floats just above the fear
love they say swells us all out here
desert cold possessed of no echo
cries recede, no one knows
in her one world
she burns them to the ground
if flames are gods
then gods take your soul, she said
lyrics by S. Bartholomew
music by S. Bartholomew and T. Hewitt
stickman among stones
steelies used as marbles
cracks like spider webs
kill me, you can’t break me
tattooed beneath my skin
the words live for me
stained but not of glass
kill me, you can’t break me
flying on now
one way out to see
watching a dollar moon
drown my shadow far too soon
blue knives stare through me
a muddied life cut free
stickman among stones
sun dying long behind me
taste of blue revelation
easier done than said
paper cut salvation
five to six and I’m seeing red
words and music by S. Bartholomew and T. Hewitt
when it’s over
mark this upon my stone
I never meant to make you
walk these fields alone
there is no loneliness
loneliness like yours
gone these winters
calling out in the dark
nothing changes, none the same
silence your one remark
there is no sorrow
sorrow like yours
what I once wept for
longing to be known
I never meant to make you
walk these fields alone
There is no permanence
permanence at all
Tourniquets and Nightshade
words and wusic by S. Bartholomew and T. Hewitt
then came the winding down
beneath the glass the air is tiny
your smile fading, caging me
half-seen a precise torture
open mouth a fish hook sweetly
if I could bruise your mind
warm your heart with napalm
could you admire cruelty?
“dividing suits the soul,” you told me
sell me my own death
curing this mortal distance
one kiss to eat my flesh
turning in my tourniquet
all will fade days to nightshade
Monroe Correctional Center
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777