“It’s catharsis in musical form”: The empathy, emotion, and euphoria behind Jeromes Dream’s ‘The Gray In Between’

“It’s catharsis in musical form”: The empathy, emotion, and euphoria behind Jeromes Dream’s ‘The Gray In Between’

- By Ramon Gonzales

Vocalist/bassist Jeff Smith and drummer Erik Ratensperger revisit the emotionally taxing two years that reignited the creative spark for a band that was gone for nearly two decades.

Formed in 1997 in Connecticut, Jeromes Dream were always the outcasts of the punk scene.

Fresh out of high school at a time when emo bands like the Get Up Kids were pushing out beautifully melodic songs channelling stories of crushes and break-ups, and the likes of Converge were dominating the hardcore scene with blistering breakdowns and aggressive vocals, the trio found themselves swimming in the murky waters between.

Too heavy for emo, and too fucked up for hardcore, Jeromes Dream became a vital band within the screamo scene. Defined by its frenzied sonic tendencies and its brutally intense yet almost comically short songs, the trio established their own style across splits with screamo legends Usurp Synapse and Orchid, before the release of their 2000 debut album, Seeing Means More Than Safety.

With vocalist/bassist Jeff Smith performing live without a microphone, his anguished screams echoing through the rooms of the New Haven house shows in which they made their name, Jeromes Dream were celebrated by fans for their distinct sound and performance style. However, just a year after their debut, the trio delivered the deeply polarising, Presents. Melding mathcore and post-hardcore influences into their already eclectic sound, it saw a swift departure from their previous efforts, and just a month after its release – the band parted ways.

Spending 17 years in hibernation, in 2018 the trio – then completed by guitarist Nick Antonopolous and drummer Erik Ratensperger – announced their return. Embraced by new generations of fans who had discovered their music in their absence, a hero’s welcome awaited. Packing out their diaries with tours alongside Loma Prieta and Touché Amoré, putting out an untitled third LP as well as a reissue of ‘Presents’, and scheduling in a trip over to Europe, Jeromes Dream were hitting the ground running. But then, 2020 rolled around.

With lives halted by the pandemic, everything changed. Now living in the Bay Area with wives, kids, and various ‘real life’ responsibilities to handle, things are very different to how they once were, but 26 years from their formation - Jeromes Dream are gearing up for a restart. As they introduce Loma Prieta’s Sean Leary on guitar and part ways with their founding guitarist, the newly forged trio are heading into a new chapter, marked by the release of their fourth album, The Gray In Between. To celebrate its release, KNOTFEST sat down with Jeff and Erik to talk about the band’s past, present, and future.


After the reunion in 2018 and the comeback album in 2019, it seemed as though things were really ramping up for Jeromes Dream. You had a trip over to Europe booked, everyone was hyped for the new songs, and then as we went into 2020… things fell apart.

Erik Ratensperger - Upon our return, we did so much touring leading up to the pandemic, but then the rug was pulled out from under us. We had more touring scheduled, we were going to return to Europe, we were going to play Roadburn Festival in the Netherlands, and ironically we also had dates booked in Russia for April 2020. It was a weird feeling because we had catapulted ourselves forward, and then suddenly it just stopped.

It took a minute to process what was happening because, like everyone else, we were just at a standstill. There were a few months leading into the summer of 2020 where everyone was waiting to see how things would develop, and that sense of not knowing continued for almost a year, so it was an unfortunate derailment.

However, in July 2020, I moved up to San Francisco to be closer to the guys. It was a weird time to relocate, but I knew that it would bring us closer to picking up where we had left off in early 2020. Once everyone had their vaccines and was more comfortable getting out into the world, we started getting into our rehearsal space and playing to get away from the world. We holed up in that windowless room and started writing, and that became our weekly routine for months on end.

Especially when the pandemic first hit, it seems as though for creatives it went one way or the other. Either the freedom of time pushed them to throw themselves into their work, or they felt their creativity and inspiration almost stunted and struggled to work. Which way did you find yourself falling initially after the creative buzz that came with the reunion?

Erik Ratensperger - Personally, I felt directionless. I felt uninspired. I felt unmotivated, and low key depressed. When you're coming off of such a trajectory and have gotten so used to being in a high intensity mode whilst travelling and meeting tonnes of people, when it all goes quiet it’s so jarring. It took me a minute to get back into that headspace, and it was really hard.

When we slowly inched our way back to it, it became this natural weekly thing. It became a thing that we could look forward to. It was a time for the three of us to get in a room together and forget about the chaos out in the world. We were fully immersed in our own creative space, and it became easier as the weeks and months went on.

Suddenly, we found ourselves in this really amazing creative headspace. We weren’t playing any shows, we weren't doing anything. We were very isolated but when we were in the room together working, that was the one time during those uncertain months where we had a structure. We had a schedule, and it was our own. It wasn't dictated by anything happening in the outside world, we created it for ourselves. That was a really helpful thing to bring me out of that funk.

Especially after the comeback record and the expectations that were placed upon you with that, did it feel like there was less pressure on you to create when it was just the three of you meeting up once a week and exploring whatever came to you naturally?

Erik Ratensperger - It did, because there was a lot of pressure for that first album upon our return. We hadn't played at all for almost 18 years, and we did that record in an unconventional way by running a crowdfunding campaign. We wanted to gauge interest before we recorded anything, just to see if anyone was even interested in hearing new work from us. It ended up being overwhelmingly successful, and we realised that there was something here. We felt like we needed to try our absolute best to honour that, and in retrospect we realised that it was super ambitious to do what we had in our minds. It was hard to execute because we were in three different places in the country, and we hadn't been in that frame of mind as Jeromes Dream for so long.

We made the record, and people seemed to appreciate it, but we always felt that it wasn't representative of what we’d set out to do. The silver lining of this pandemic was this new chapter in the band. After touring tons leading up to the pandemic and having all of the experiences that we had in 2019, we were able to pocket that energy and apply it to the work that we made in that room. It was less pressure, and it was nice to know that we were just working behind closed doors. That was a big component of what we came up with, because we were able to be fully immersed. It was nice to not worry about any upcoming dates or the scheduling of anything, every week we’d just get into the space and work. Even if we were playing one song over and over again, it became the time to write music. We weren't practising old stuff; we were just writing. For me, it was the most enjoyable period of creating songs for this band.


How cathartic was it to work together towards a real end goal like that, especially when the world outside was seemingly becoming darker and more chaotic by the minute?

Jeff Smith - Erik and I talked about this a lot. We ride to practice together because we both live in San Francisco and we practice in Oakland, so we're often sitting in traffic whilst crossing the bridge and we’ll sit and talk about our days. We've got all this regular stuff going on, wife, kids, girlfriend, jobs, and getting into the room together with Sean and each other is a real release from all the pent-up bullshit of every day. It's something to look forward to. It's that north star.

During the pandemic, everybody was on top of everybody at home, and there wasn’t really any break from one another. Getting into the room together and being able to do that was incredible. It was total catharsis.

Erik Ratensperger - That's the thing with this band, there’s always been a focal point of catharsis. That’s what this band is for us. It’s catharsis in musical form. We've always seen Jeromes Dream as a platform for expression. We’re communicating through music, but it’s a literal catharsis. Upon our return, Jeff and I realised just how much we needed it back in our lives. That’s why, at this point, we are treating it the way we are treating it. It's a really exciting new chapter, and with this new album it feels as though we’re turning a page. Doing this within a pandemic, at a time of uncertainty and real-world chaos, this was the one anchor that we had as human beings and as creative people. We're so grateful to have this thing.

Jeff Smith - And each other. It's not just about music, it's about friendship, too.

That’s something that historically has always defined Jeromes Dream, and that cohesion, chemistry and collaboration that exists between the three of you has driven the sound forward. On ‘The Gray In Between’ you’ve parted ways with Nick and introduced Sean into the fold, so how did that affect the dynamics?

Erik Ratensperger - The progression was natural. Sean was someone who we had met upon our return because Jeromes Dream had done some touring with his band, Loma Prieta. On that tour, we became fast friends. There's a real alignment and kinship between our bands, but Sean is his own thing. He harnesses this type of stuff as much as we do, so the inclusion of him within our little world was very seamless. When we started rehearsing with him, it felt so natural and so frictionless. There was no questioning if it was going to work, or whether it was a temporary thing. It was a perfect fit, and we knew he was exactly what we'd been missing.

It was a seamless transition, but truth be told Sean joining the band was initially to complement our friend Nick, who is no longer playing with us. We have remained a three-piece because Nick has gone his own way, which is fine. We've carried on into this new realm with Sean and the dynamic was established immediately. It's an interesting evolution for the band, because when it was me, Jeff and Nick, there was that emphasis on the friendship and the collaboration between the three of us. Initially, whilst adding Sean into the mix was so natural, Jeff and I took a minute to process the reality that Nick was no longer in that dynamic.

The band has continued on though, and it's becoming something else. It's rooted in the same values and it's pulling from the same things in terms of what we're creating, but we’re starting a new chapter with Sean.

Aside from that collaboration, something that has always defined Jeromes Dream has been its intensely personal songwriting. Jeff, it feels as though you expel a lot of your emotion into this music, so how did that play out on ‘The Gray In Between’? Was this album process an opportunity to delve into and explore the feelings of the last couple of years?

Jeff Smith - We wrote all of the music first, and then Erik and I worked together on how lyrics would sit within the songs. We treat it as a percussive thing, another instrument. When we figure out where things are going to lay, then I go in and write. It's like another layer of a puzzle that I have to figure out, and I start to hear phrases around what I'm thinking. I would go for a run and these thoughts would pop into my head when I was running. Sometimes they were totally mundane and boring, but other times they weren’t.

Honestly, I had to go to this dark place for a couple of weeks and just sit in it. It's really challenging to do, and I’ve already told Erik that for the next record I'd prefer if we worked together on two or three songs at a time instead of a whole album. It's a really difficult place to go. Some of the material is very personal, and some of the material is more me trying to imagine personal things for other people. I tried to think about situations that are happening around the world on a micro scale and imagine life for different families being affected by certain things.

A lot of what this record is, to me, is about trying to maintain through chaos. Everybody's up against it all the time, and I'm trying to have as much empathy for everybody whether they've done me wrong, I've done them wrong, or the world has done them wrong. There's just a lot of empathy coming through on these songs, and I want people to remember to have empathy. We can all point our fingers at each other and be mad all the time, or we can just try to see things from different perspectives and love each other, regardless of what happens in the world. Everything on this record comes back to that place, regardless of what the actual songs are about.

In terms of writing from different perspectives, one song that really jumps out is ‘Stretched Invisible From London’ which is about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. What inspired you to delve into that?

Jeff Smith - The day that I started writing that song I was sitting on my couch. The TV was on in the background, and CNN was reporting the news from over there. I just stopped what I was doing and started watching it. I was like, ‘Man, I’m trying to go to this place and be artistic whilst all of these people go through this insanity?’. It’s so needless, and I imagined what it would be like if I was sitting there trying to do what I was doing. I would continue to do it; it would just alter things significantly because I'd be worried about bombs falling on my head and the safety of my friends and family. I wanted to recognise how artists in Ukraine must have felt.

It’s a terrible thing that’s happening, for all Ukrainian people, and all Russian people too. I think a lot about how terrible it is for the Ukrainian people, and for all the young Russian people who have to go and fight when they probably don't really want to. It's fucked up for everyone involved.

That's where I initially pulled the song from, but you can equate it to everything. In the US, we have political infighting all the time. People are mad all the time, and whilst there may not be bombs around us 24/7, it’s a political warzone. Despite that, here we are, and we’re just trying to create the art that we love to create and need to create. We’re trying to help ourselves get through it all and hopefully it will make some other people happy too. Art is necessary to heal all these ills that happen in the world.


That song echoes a lot of those ideas of empathy and understanding that make up this album, and it seems as though now is a really important time to be having these conversations. Especially with the events of the last few years, a lot of the world has adopted a very black and white way of thinking, so what messages are you hoping to get across with ‘The Gray In Between’?

Jeff Smith - The way that I would describe society on a global scale is punitive. If someone does something and it isn’t the way the world wanted it, they have to pay for it. But people fuck up all the time, people make mistakes, and it's never black and white. Perceptions become black and white, but actions are never black and white, and I want people to stop and think about that. I'm guilty of it, too. If I’m out driving and someone cuts me off, I’ll be like, ‘What the fuck?’, but then I stop for a moment. Maybe they couldn't see, or maybe they're having a hard time. It’s important to be compassionate.

My son is seven years old, and I bring him to school every morning. There are these two little girls, one is in his class, and the other is a grade or two ahead. At the beginning of the school year, their mom was diagnosed with cancer, and she was gone by Thanksgiving. For these two little girls and their dad, there was suddenly this hole. One morning, I was standing there with a couple of the other parents whilst the kids were lined up for assembly. I looked over and I saw the youngest girl crying. She had tears running down her chin, and it just broke my heart. I’m trapped in my day-to-day life, and everybody's got everything going on all the time, but you’ve got to stop and see what's going on with other people too. It’s never just black and white, there's always some grey. Everywhere I look, I have to stop and remember what other people are going through. I’m hoping that this record can remind people to do that too.

Talking about these ideas of new perspectives, growth, and maturity, how does it feel to be reintegrating within the scene now? Back when Jeromes Dream first appeared it seemed as though it was quite difficult for you to find your home within that, but have now things changed now that a couple of decades have passed and you’ve grown as people?

Erik Ratensperger - We've never really fit into anything at any point in our existence. When we were younger, we always felt like we were the outcasts. We were part of an underground culture, but it wasn't without resistance or judgement. We often weren’t accepted for what we were as a band, how we sounded, and how we played in the beginning stages, and it took a while to get our footing. A lot of bands probably go through a similar thing, but personally, I feel like that feeling has always stuck with me. I’ve always felt like we’re situated left of centre and not fully in the mould that is expected of a band like us.

It’s all pretty ironic, because my understanding of punk rock is that there aren't supposed to be any rules. Punk rock is supposed to be that green light to be who you are, to create what you create, and to be able to do that without fighting an uphill battle. When we were younger though, we were a part of this group of bands in the late 90s who were doing something different in hardcore. Over time, we found ourselves within a community of other bands that were pushing the envelope sonically, and we eventually found our place, but then we ran out of gas and decided to step down altogether.

When we returned it was different because there was a level of exposure the band had reached over the years. We realised that we were being associated with this particular era of hardcore, and there was this conversation happening around late 90s hardcore, which later became dubbed as screamo, scramz, emoviolence or whatever the fucking labels are. Because of that, upon our return we were welcomed back for the most part. There was some resistance from kids who had this black and white idea that returning bands were only in it to make a quick buck, but we proved ourselves by staying the course, hitting the road, getting in the van, playing night after night, and giving it 100,000%. That's how we've always operated, and we had to remind people that this is who we are. You can get on board with it or not, but either way we're going to be us. We're not going to go out of our way to fit a mould for anybody, because we've always been very true to ourselves and our own creative inclinations. We’ve banded together to withhold that and preserve that. Even though we're older, we have more experience, we see the world through a different lens, and the world itself is vastly different, some things never change. We’re holding ourselves to what we believe is right, as far as our expressive output goes.”

Jeff Smith - In the years between iterations of Jeromes Dream, I did not pay attention to this world at all. Coming back, I had so much to learn, and I was really happy that the world continued on. I didn't even know who Touché Amoré was when we got back together, and I only knew who Loma Prieta was because I was in San Francisco and knew other people that knew them. I met Val at a party when I moved here back in 2004 and he was like, ‘Yeah, I'm starting a band!’ I never thought anything of it until years later when Loma Prieta became something. I’m still finding bands and I’m still learning.”

Erik Ratensperger - It was a very similar thing for me as well. I didn't really keep track of anything, but Loma Preita was one of those bands that I randomly came across on YouTube. I remember seeing it and thinking that what they were doing was really reminiscent of what we did back in the day, so for us to become friends with them years later is very cool. Their music really resonated with me when I first discovered it, and it was funny to learn that Jeff had met their drummer years prior. When Jeromes Dream was returning, it made sense for us to reach out to them and ask them to join us on a tour. We were worried they wouldn’t want to play with us, but they got back to us immediately.

What's cool now is that we have carved out our own space. At this point in the game, we really do feel like we're a part of something, especially because of how much touring we did with so many great bands prior to the pandemic. We really do feel like we're a part of a community and have been accepted into this fabric of music. We're so grateful to have people around us who believe in what we're doing. They're supporting it, and they're bringing us new opportunities to share what we're making. We could never have imagined this back in the day, so it's interesting to be operating at this level, but we still feel like the fucking small fry in the group.”

Looking at where Jeromes Dream is at now, especially with Sean onboard as you continue finding your place in the community, does ‘The Gray In Between’ feel like a new beginning for the band?

Erik Ratensperger – It feels like a new band. We're drawing from similar things to what we've always drawn from, and that comes from the human need to express yourself and to create, but to have Sean in the mix feels like a renewal. It feels like a reset. It feels like a new chapter and having that happen in tandem with the pandemic entering a new phase means we can be excited about lining up tours for the rest of the year.

It feels as though we're at the starting line again, and what's super exciting about this is that we made a record with Sean. This record is the three of us, and ‘The Gray In Between’ is a marker of this new chapter. It all feels really good, and we’re so ready to hit the ground running after this fresh start.

The Gray In Between from Jeromes Dream lands May 5th via Iodine Recordings.

Order the album - HERE

Jeromes Dream begin their spring tour next month with Elizabeth Colour Wheel before making an appearance at Fest 21 this fall in Gainesville,Florida alongside Descendents, Gorilla Biscuits, Thursday, Quicksand, GWAR, Sparta and more. Get a list of tour dates - HERE

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