Conquer Divide – Burning Brightly

Tuesday, 3rd October 2023

It’s a busy Friday evening in Manhattan. After some hit-or-miss texting on both our ends between myself and vocalist Kiarely Castillo, we finally meet up in the front of the Palladium Times Square, so she can bring me through the labyrinth that is the venue’s inner corridors to their dressing room. A few quick hellos and we are off and running for a chat that also includes bassist/screamer Janel Duarte. The pair are full of smiles, but there’s also a tinge of sullen vibes as they reflect on their tour with Electric Callboy on its final day.

“Things have been great! This tour has been so much fun! We get along with everyone really well, which is nice. We are very, very sad that this is the last day. I think we’ve all cried a couple of times today,” laughs Castillo as she now looks ahead, “but I am really looking forward to the Icon shows because when this tour was announced, it sold out quickly before we were even on it, so I’m pretty excited that for the Icon shows, some of our fans were able to see us specifically and buy tickets. This tour has been great for getting us new fans, and I think Icon will do that too but will also include our existing fans as well.”

At the time of publishing, the band is now on tour with Illinois rock act Icon for Hire, as well as Georgia’s The Funeral Portrait. “I’m super stoked for us to tour with The Funeral Portrait again,” adds Duarte. “We toured with them back in like 2015, so that’s going to be super sick to see those fellas.”

Alongside that lengthy gap, there’s an equally long timespan between Conquer Divide’s two releases, with their self-titled first album also releasing in 2015. After some touring, the band all but vanished for a bit, only to resurface in 2020 with the single, “Chemicals.” But Castillo confidently says that they never intended to stay away forever. “We had to take a little break for some personal reasons within the band. But we knew in our heads that we were not done forever. To everyone else, it may have seemed like we were finished. We definitely had some times where we questioned if we would come back, even though we wanted to. So we spent a lot of that time writing.”

“Chemicals” came out of nowhere, but it wasn’t the only song the band released to lead up to their sophomore effort in Slow Burn. A few timely cover songs, as well as other singles such as “Messy” and “Atonement,” which helped prep the band and earned them some new followers along the way. “It’s been giving us more chances to reach people,” admits Castillo. “We released ‘Chemicals,’ and people would be like, “oh I hadn’t heard of you before.” Then we released “Atonement,” and there were other people saying, “I just found out about you.” Doing them separately and spreading them out definitely helped in getting our name out there.” Duarte adds, “It’s kind of like, fishing. You are just casting your net out there waiting for something to something to bite. An album is like 10 of those lines.” Giggling erupts as Castillo suddenly realizes, “[The album is] like a net!”

The covers released in the interim, “Bad Guy,” and “Bad Habits,” helped the band reach a wider audience than just their own fans, which further enhanced their pre-album net. “Everyone was covering ‘Bad Guy!’ When we were talking about doing it, it was like everyone is doing it so it might get lost in the sauce, but on the other hand, everyone is Googling ‘Bad Guy covers’ so it might help as well. Same with ‘Bad Habits,’ notes Castillo. The timing wasn’t as solid for their cover of “Bad Habits,” as Duarte admits. “We did that cover and then Bring Me the Horizon did it with Ed Sheeran I think a few months later.”

Castillo jokingly states that the band’s next cover should be “Bad to the Bone,” fitting with the ‘bad’ theme, which then inspires Duarte to take it a step further, suggesting  “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga. “I mean, we might as well. I feel like ‘Bad Guy’ really speaks to the little ones. When we see people with kiddos in the audience, they always tell us that their child, ‘loves your cover of Bad Guy! They just love the ending!’ So something about that cover, the kids, they just love it! It’s really interesting to see what fans we get [from covers].

The thought of children made me think of my own, and their personal reactions to hearing both covers for the first time, in which an audible groan was emitted at their onset, but the band was able to win them over by the end. “A lot of people, when ‘Bad Guy’ came out, were saying that they wished the ending was longer, like they just wanted it to be that [heavier] ending bit. I agree,” Castillo continues, “I like that I’m on a lot of the song, but I do wish it was a little heavier.” This idea spurns Duarte to start growling the ending bit of the track, and then stating, “We should have just done that twice and that’s it – over and over again. Just a breakdown for 3 minutes and done!”

This causes more laughter to burst from the three of us, leading things further down the rabbit hole of future cover songs. Duarte suggests perhaps a cover of a Hillary Duff track, and Castillo excitedly grins at the prospect of it, inciting Duarte to begin growling the lyrics to “Come Clean.” “Let the rain fall down” bellows Duarte, as Castillo starts to imagine other possibilities and offers up Spice Girls as an option so that they could, “do some choreography.” Duarte takes things a step further, slyly goading Castillo directly, “we could do the Demi Lovato rock song but actually make it rock, like you were saying.”

A flustered but amused Castillo fires back, “Yeah, like I was saying…behind closed doors,” as she gets thrown in front of the metaphorical bus. Laughter continues to be the theme of the day, and Castillo admits to being a huge fan of Lovato, graciously deciding to fill me in on their former inside joke. “Demi Lovato has just been rereleasing her music as rock versions, but I feel like some of them haven’t been changed enough. I think that she should really lean into the metal a little bit more. I think that she absolutely could do it, but I want her to really go all the way with it.” Though she immediately begins to second-guess her feelings, stating “but also, I don’t want her to do it at all because some people tell me I sound like Demi Lovato, and there can’t be two of us in the scene!”

More jovial laughter emanates from the room as the two continue to banter about this, as Duarte urges “get [Lovato] outta here!” and Castillo playfully proclaiming, “I’m gatekeeping!” Only to then admit, “but that would be cool for a cover.” Duarte suggests that they could do the song, but just ‘metalcore it up.’ But Castillo circles back to the original suggestion. “I’m still voting Hillary Duff.” Duarte seconds the motion but leaves things more open ended. “Me too – we have many things to think about after this interview, and discuss in the van,” as yet more laughter causes us to pause again.

Mostly jumping back into serious interview mode, we begin to discuss the band’s second album, Slow Burn, which had just come out the week prior to this show. There’s a large amount of diversity in the tracks, which is a major strength of the release, but does it have any themes tying it altogether? “I feel like each song has different themes, so it’s hard – could they correlate,” asks Duarte. Castillo jests that “a lot of the songs say the word, ‘down.’” She continues, “But no, I don’t think there’s one overall theme. I feel like there are a lot of fire metaphors throughout the album, which is how we went with Slow Burn [as the title], but it wasn’t intentional. It just kind of happened. I don’t know that there is one big theme. I’ve been saying lately that our band theme is ‘the best of both worlds.’ Because we have some cleans and some heavies. I feel like that could be the theme of Slow Burn.”

Duarte suggests that, “A lot of the songs do feel like we are triumphing over things. Like, ‘Afterthought,’ ‘System Failure,’ or ‘Gatekeeper.’ I feel like half of it is very triumphant anthems and the other half is like, heartache. Not even heartache, we do pretty tough subjects like abuse in relationships. I just feel like there’s a lot of different themes. So there’s a lot of themes – but like half is triumphant and half is emotional.”

To adequately compare the band’s growth between albums, Castillo preps her best emo-whiny voice to describe the first album. “Wah, you hurt my feelings and I’m mad at you!” But she says that Slow Burn is more like, “‘Fuck you dude, I ain’t taking your shit!’ And that vibe, which I think is really cool.” She then makes comparisons to Hayley Williams (of Paramore) and her solo output. “She did one album called Petals for Armor, which I felt was very opposite of what we did. It’s very emotional and like, ‘Fuck you, you betrayed me’ and then when she did the second one, Flowers for Vases, it was like, ‘This sucks, and actually I’m not mad anymore I’m just kinda sad,’ I think ours is like, ‘Fuck you, you hurt my feelings!’ and now it’s like, ‘I’m not sad anymore, I’m just angry!’”

Duarte agrees, adding that “maybe with the first album, maybe we were just angsty, like “eh, you made us upset,” causing Castillo to return to her earlier emo-voice and declare, “You stabbed me in the back, and it hurted!” Not to be outdone, Duarte instantly fires back in her own emo-imitation to up the stakes, “Yeah, it hurted, and and we are all mad at you so fuck off,” which again causes laughter to fill the room.

After we all compose ourselves, she continues, “But with this one, I feel like we are like, ‘actually our feelings do get hurt sometimes’ with songs like “OnlyGirl” and “The Invisible.” I feel like we are finally showing like, ‘Ok, fine. We do get emotional sometimes. But it’s not always angry.’ I feel like “The Invisible” is almost out of character, well not out of character but it’s an emotional song, compared to a song like, “Sink Your Teeth Into This” from the first album. It’s like, “We have hearts…and anger problems.”

Discussions now lead into the boost that they have gotten in recent years through sources like Octane. Both are in agreement that it has been a nice help for the act. “We have some help with the label to get radio play, and also, Caity Babs has been so supportive of us. Shannon Gunz, Jose Mangin – all of them, they support us a lot. It’s cool when you see Octane post something on Facebook or Twitter and it’s so sick to see comments like, ‘Yeah, Conquer Divide!’ and we’ll know that’s how they heard of us is through Octane, and not the other way around. For me, I know what Octane is, and also, my band was on Octane. I think that’s how it is for other people. People will say, “I had never heard of you guys, but then I heard you on Octane!”

That sort of push can help to move mountains for an act, which is unfortunate in that none of the newest album singles have been given the Octane treatment yet. “I’m hoping that they will. I’m hoping that we have a continuously positive reaction to the second album and that it doesn’t flop [laughs] and that will get us more Octane play for sure. I think when we were getting a lot of Octane play, you could see our Spotify streams just go up. It also helped when we did the collaboration with Electric Callboy [“Fuckboi”].” Castillo pleads, “Octane, please take us!”

With the emphasis on social media nowadays, it’s one challenge that Conquer Divide manages quite well. But with a presence among fans, sometimes it’s important to set boundaries when the time comes. “I feel like we have our Facebook page, then we have our Litposting group. I feel like in the Litposting group, it’s less serious, so I don’t know that we have ever really had to draw any hard boundaries.” Castillo elaborates, “We haven’t really had anyone cross those boundaries before. We have a very banter-y relationship with our fans – in the sense that they will comment something ‘rude’ but we are like, “he’s been our fan for like 10 years” so we will reply back, talking shit or whatever. On our public Facebook page, it does appear to be a lot more professional. But even then, on Twitter, it’s like anything goes. There’s a lot of feet jokes, and about starting our OnlyFeet page.”

Duarte is happy to elaborate on their giggling at this idea, explaining, “It’s like an ongoing inside joke with our fans. They are always posting their feet,” she laughs. “It all started on Twitter from a weird comment in 2015 about feet. Now it’s just feet everywhere! OnlyFeet for life,” which sparks another bout of laughter. Castillo then admits, “So we haven’t really had to draw any boundaries like that, luckily. On tour and at shows, we do sometimes have to just go. It’s hard, but sometimes you really do have to just say no. It’s not because we don’t love our fans – we literally could not do this without our fans. But sometimes, when you are on tour, you don’t have a second alone.”

Adding to this, Duarte emphasizes that they have no crew to help them with live gigs. “We do everything ourselves. We do all the merch, our set up and tear down on stage. We don’t have guitar/drum techs. We have a driver this time around, for once. But otherwise, we don’t really get any time, so when we do get time and there’s fans that won’t let us have a little bit of space, you have to set those boundaries,” concludes Castillo, who then jokingly sighs, “It’s always awkward.”

Despite their solid handling of interacting with the fan base and attempting to have some personal time for themselves, there’s always a portion of the metal crowd, especially online, that seems to live for nothing more than putting down musicians they don’t like, particularly female ones. Something that leaves a group like Conquer Divide at the forefront of an online war of words. “I think at first, it was really annoying – it’s still annoying, don’t get me wrong. But at first it bothered me a lot more than it does now,” Castillo notes. “I’m at a point in my life, now, where I don’t really take people’s shit. So I feel like, if we feel like entertaining it, then we will talk some shit back,” she laughs. “Honestly, we did the reading mean tweets thing, which is always nice, because it feels good to just make fun of people who are assholes.”

“It’s hard, I feel like people say that you shouldn’t read the comments, but I like to,” states Castillo. Duarte agrees with her, adding “Personally, I don’t give a fuck. I really don’t. If you were in person, you wouldn’t say that to my face.” Continuing to escalate the talk, Castillo declares, “You wouldn’t call me fat to my face. I don’t care if anyone thinks I’m fat. Fat is not an insult, and also, I’m hot as fuck! So I don’t care!”

“I just think it’s words on a screen. Like I’m gonna let this word on the screen affect this,” Duarte gestures to her whole body, head to toe as she smiles. “Fuck no!” Castillo takes things one step further in jokingly goading the online community, “I would honestly love it if someone would like, come up with a cooler insult.” Realizing her mistake, she shrugs, “Now someone is going to be like, ‘challenge accepted bitch!’ But come and say it to our face.” She ends with some laughter after admitting, “Then I will cry,” Duarte agrees, but instead lays on some extra thick sarcasm, “I’ll cry – but if you are just gonna put it on a little screen for me to read, I’m just gonna be like, you wrote some good words on that screen, buddy.”

Cheerily urging her bandmate on, Castillo adds in her own flavor of sarcasm while making a big gesture of a keyboard stroke, “You really pressed enter real well. Success!” To that end, Duarte drops a final scorching retort, “I have a life. I don’t need to deal with stupid little comments. I like my life. You have to really dislike your life to take the time to make comments about other people. Or bored, or not have a life.” Playing off of her bandmate, Castillo gets her last word in as well, jesting while championing the band’s success. “We are out here, getting our bags, know what I’m saying? There’s not much money in those bags, but we are gettin’ them!”

Having two back to back tours makes for a busy fall season for any band. Currently, that’s all that is officially confirmed for Conquer Divide. But Castillo is up for whatever comes their way. “I don’t care when we go, I just want to go. We don’t have anything else lined up yet, except hopefully a lot of album sales, then that will help. It’s hard to gauge how we are doing with everything.” Duarte agrees, mentioning, “We haven’t released anything in so long, and I forgot how it feels…and what’s next.”

Finishing up our chat, Castillo brings up an entertaining bit about the band’s recent trip to Blue Ridge Rock Festival. “Apparently, you can’t sell music at Blue Ridge, we could only sell shirts. So we were onstage like, our album released today and you can buy it…anywhere but here, so don’t ask us for it because we don’t have it!” Ending the chat on one more bout of laughter, Duarte declares suddenly, “We should have just sold it out of the back of our van!”

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