Jesus Piece: From Philly Underdogs to Hardcore Breakouts | Revolver

Jesus Piece: From Philly Underdogs to Hardcore Breakouts

Aaron Heard and his band were virtual unknowns not long ago. Their stunning album 'Only Self' changed that fast.
jesuspiece_credit_angelaowens.jpg, Angela Owens
Jesus Piece, Ortlieb’s Lounge, Philadelphia, 2018
photograph by Angela Owens

"One day, I'm gonna craft my own machete."

That's Jesus Piece's Aaron Heard, reflecting on his emergent obsession with steel weaponry — and by extension, his creative mindset — from the living room of his Philadelphia home one swampy morning in August. The frontman's seated on the couch with a fat blunt and a toasted bagel, watching a 30-minute featurette on Japanese sword-making that he found amid a stoned journey through the depths of YouTube a few weeks back. "I mean … just look at that," he marvels, smoke streaming from his mouth, gesturing to the molten action unfolding onscreen. "Since I was a kid, I've been obsessed with finding out the way things work," he says. "When I'm interested in something, I just go all-in."

Heard may be talking about his fascination with handmade swords and knives, but he could just as well be discussing his passion for underground heavy music, which has taken him to unexpected heights. Just a few hours from now, Heard and his bandmates will be playing their biggest set of the year — a highly anticipated appearance at This Is Hardcore, an annual, three-day festival held at the city's nearby Electric Factory venue that many fans regard as the scene's premiere gathering. The way the 26-year-old frontman sees it, songwriting and bladesmithing are products of the same mentality. "It all comes back to patience, dedication, attention to detail," he explains. "And translating that into something real — something that'll last until after I'm gone."

Such are Heard's transcendent aims with Jesus Piece, and the group is well on its way to establishing its staying power. Formed in 2015, the hardcore band has seemingly gone from virtual unknowns just a year ago to one of the scene's most highly touted young acts. Their debut album, Only Self, released in August by esteemed metal label Southern Lord, is a shocking wake-up cry, fueled by existential angst, depressive agony, deep-seated rage and, above all, defiance in the face of oppression and adversity. As intense and all-consuming as the band appears to be, however, Jesus Piece isn't even Heard's only musical outlet. Earlier this year, he enlisted as bassist for the grunge-gaze outfit Nothing — who, as it so happens, released their new album, Dance on the Blacktop, the same day as Only Self — and he also has his other hardcore band, Hell to Pay, which dropped its Bliss LP in March. Some might refer to this behavior as overachieving; Heard considers it a way to make up for lost time and a lack of control. Starting in high school, he found himself in the grips of crippling depression, intensified by his turbulent home life.

"I was fucking floating around, doing a couch-to-couch type ordeal," the frontman recalls of his teenage years, before revealing that he felt downright paralyzed by the time his 21st birthday finally came around. Had he not found his way back into the Philly punk scene, he may very well have stayed trapped in his own personal "Neuroprison," as Heard frames it on one of Only Self's standout tracks. "Once you get to that low a point, you start to feel like the world's really, really small, that you can't see the brighter things in life," he says somberly. "I spent a lot of time just ruminating, instead of living my life."

At last, after so many years fretting, Heard is ready to fight — and if Jesus Piece's infernal set that afternoon at the Electric Factory serves as any indication, he has plenty of fans ready to fight with him. No sooner does the band — rounded out by guitarists David Updike and John DiStefano, bassist Anthony Marinaro and drummer Luis Aponte — launch into "Neuroprison," than the packed room devolves into anarchy, the adoring crowd-surfers pouring onstage in a tsunami of sweaty limbs and impassioned screams. A hunched-over Heard weathers the storm from center stage, his gut-wrenching screams effortlessly slashing through the din until the song reaches its lurching conclusion. The frontman straightens his body, politely thanks the crowd and grins.

Live onstage is where Jesus Piece first made their name. It was the band's emergent reputation as one of Pennsylvania's most ruthless acts that catapulted them quickly to the forefront of the Philly underground. Jesus Piece shows started attracting fans from the suburbs as well as the city, bringing once-isolated hardcore circles from across the state together in the same mosh pit. "Everyone from up in the northern suburbs never went to the city, nobody from the city went to the burbs," explains Heard. "But when Jesus Piece got going, everyone was coming out to show support from all the areas where we come from."

When the band traveled to Chicago earlier this year to record Only Self with producer Andy Nelson (the former bassist of influential, now-defunct powerviolence band Weekend Nachos), they drove themselves to capture their live ferocity on tape, but also to show new nuance and depth. The 10-track effort sees the band tempering its unbridled rage with densely layered arrangements, dread-laden ambient transitions, esoteric lyrics and industrial-flavored instrumentals.

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Jesus Piece, (from left) Luis Aponte, Aaron Heard, David Updike, John DiStefano and Anthony Marinaro
photograph by Amy Ha

"For me, personally, this is the first time that we've recorded something that's a genuine sonic translation of our band, that aggression we've been trying to put out all along," Heard declares proudly. "I was honestly shocked when I heard this shit: I was like, 'This is insane.'" He laughs, tossing in a humble aside. "Not to toot my own horn or anything."

Needless to say, last year wildly surpassed the quintet's expectations — and Heard readily admits that the band's rapid ascent (which he attributes mostly to intense local support) has yet to fully sink in. "That's one of the first things I tell people about Jesus Piece: That shit came out of nowhere, man," he remarks with awe. "It was literally just everyone coming out at once, spreading the word about our band, and helping us out. They were pushing us as hard as we were pushing ourselves."