Interview: Nathen Maxwell (The Bunny Gang/Flogging Molly) on “Thrive,” balancing two projects, and “what is punk rock?”

Nathen Maxwell is in a pretty good place.

While no doubt better recognized for the job he’s had for effectively half his life (bass player of Flogging Molly, of course), things are finally ramping back up in the Maxwell-led Bunny Gang camp. The band put out an album in 2009 (White Rabbit, SideOneDummy Records), toured a bit, wrote and recorded a follow-up album entitled Thrive in 2012 and then…well…the waiting game began.

Two years, several band members and a new record label (Hardline Entertainment) later and Thrive is set to finally see the light of day. With obvious Clash-influeced reggae-dub-punk influences, the album centers on a “one love” vibe that was inspired at least in part by the documentary with which it shares a name (more here). And yet, it’s not ALL peace and love, as the album points continuously to the circular nature of war profiteering and the conflicts that, hopefully, won’t be our demise.

We caught up with Nathen a week prior to the September 23rd release of Thrive to talk about the holdups behind the album’s release, the balancing his Flogging Molly and Bunny Gang sides, and answering the all-important question: “what is punk rock?”. We also spent some time discussing the controversial documentary that gave Thrive its name, and whether or not it gets hard to keep up the “one love” mantra in an ongoing war cycle. Check out our chat below.

Dying Scene (Jay Stone): This album (Thrive), as I understand it, was recorded a couple of years ago at this point, is that accurate?

Nathen Maxwell: Yeah it is, man. Time flies! It was recorded in 2002. Wait, no…2012! (*both laugh*)

Ha! That would be like Chinese Democracy!

No kidding, right?!

Was the holdup Flogging Molly related stuff? Was it label related stuff? Or was it just that these things take time sometimes?

You know, kind of all of the above. The natural balancing act of Flogging Molly’s schedule and having the Bunny Gang does create a conflict. And Flogging Molly recently made a major change as far as the business team that we’ve been working with, that kind of put the Bunny Gang project on hold. During that time, I actually reformed the band, which took a little bit more time as well. So yeah, I’m just kinda looking at it like’s it’s coming out when it’s meant to be coming out. But there are definitely things in life that held it back.

Did the lineup get retooled after you recorded the album or is the lineup of the Bunny Gang now the one that’s on the album?

Actually, the lineup changed after the album was recorded in 2012.

Does that make you, in hindsight, almost make you want to do another one right away?

You’re absolutely right! That’s exactly how I feel! I mean, I’m so proud of this record and I’m so excited to get it to the people that it needs to get to. It’s getting lots of great reviews. But you’re absolutely right. I’m always creating new music and I’m pretty much close to being ready to jump in the studio to record a new record with the new band! (*both laugh*) But I guess that’s life and that’s music. It’s an ongoing process.

And I suppose that’s probably a good problem to have for a musician and a songwriter in particular. To have almost too much stuff going on creatively, almost like the opposite of writer’s block, right?

Yeah, I guess! But I guess too much can be just that; too much! You want to strike that balance and I’m still learning how to do that.

Were all of the songs that are on Thrive written specifically for this album, or were they culled from a greater body of stuff that you’d been putting together after the first Bunny Gang album?

A little bit of both, you know? I save all of the songs I write over the years. I write, I don’t really premeditate a direction or a message or a style, I just write what comes out, what’s authentic. And I hold on to it; I have stacks and stacks of papers and hours of recordings. When The Bunny Gang formed as a band, we were going out there and playing live, so some of these old songs I’ve been thinking about, songs like “Thrive” for example: I started that song about ten years ago.

Wow!

And it just didn’t seem right at the time. It didn’t really fit with Flogging Molly, it didn’t really fit with the first Original Bunny Gang record I did, but then when I started playing with the band and touring, songs like that just sorta seemed to really make sense, and I wanted to start reapproaching those songs. And at the same time, there were brand new songs that were written for the record. They just came up while we were touring live, for example, or some new inspiration. Like “We Are The Ones,” we wrote that song riding down to the studio in El Paso from Denver!

Oh wow!

Yeah, so that’s fresh. The closing track, “Canoe Dub,” was a live jam that we just kinda started one day, I think in San Jose. We were at soundcheck and the guys started playing this dub jam, I started playing melodica on it, and that evolved out of that. We liked it, and we started opening our sets with it and we ended up closing the album with it. So it’s a mix of some older inspiration with some brand new stuff.

And yet it seems like there’s still a central theme woven through lyrically. Obviously a lot of the songs sound different musically, but I think lyrically there a couple threads that tie everything together. So it’s interesting to me that it was written over a period of time.

You know what I think it is, Jason? I think that theme is my mindset and what has been my mindset since I was a young man. I have this theme going on in my head, I’m constantly looking at the world around me, trying to educate myself as best I can, trying to make sense of things. The conclusion that I’ve come to, and this was years ago and I guess it’s almost a spiritual conclusion but it’s really to me scientific: it’s that to me, humanity and this earth that we’ve got are one. It’s fragile and, you know, the whole idea of “one love” isn’t a fleeting message, it’s how I view the world. It’s how I try to live my life. And obviously as Americans and as humans, we’re pretty out of whack with that truth.

Right.

So that’s a reoccurring theme and it probably will be until the wars are over, you know what I mean?

Right! And I wanted to ask you that, since a lot of this was written lyrically a few years ago, I wonder what it would sound like if you were writing it in 2014, but it probably wouldn’t be a hell of a lot different, unfortunately.

Well that’s the thing about it. It seems to me the more I understand the state of the world, it seems like this continued war cycle that we’re in doesn’t seem to be a spontaneous development! (*both laugh*) It’s part of an ongoing plan or agenda. Unfortunately, (I started writing the song) “The Reckoning” when George W. hung the “Mission Accomplished” banner. And of course in the weeks and months and years since, nothing has been “accomplished.”

Right.

So sadly, it’s just as relevant today as it was at the moment I started writing it. It sucks to say this, but I fear that it may stay relevant for a long time to come.

Does that take the wind out of your sails a little bit? If you’re writing from a “one love,” and positivity mindset, are there ever days where you just feel like you’re trying to push a boulder up a mountain and it just keeps getting steeper and steeper? Or is that what keeps you focused on still doing it?

Well yeah, both I guess. Pushing that boulder up the mountain is part of what inspires me to write songs. At the same time, I’m not physically pushing a boulder up a mountain. I’m not physically strapping on an AK-47 and desert tan boots and going out killing people. I feel very lucky to be able to express myself through music, and I celebrate that fact. I believe in joy and in having the moments and in celebrating to the best of your ability. So it’s not all “wow, the world’s a fucked up place, everything sucks and I’m so depressed about it.” Those are part of the emotions I go through daily, but I think I’m not alone in that. And I try to reflect on that. When I listen to music, I dance, you know? I love to dance, man! That’s part of the thing. For me, there are some hard truths that I’m trying to figure out and sing about on the albums, but while I’m doing that, I’m also dancing and singing, you know? (*laughs*)

I think a song that does that really well, aside from “The Reckoning,” obviously, is “Beach Coma.” Because it’s a laid back song and there’s almost like this seductive groove and melody going on in the song. And it starts out lyrically about, you know, being on the beach… but then the theme of “The Reckoning” comes back again and it turns. So even though there’s a cool groove to that song, it’s pretty heavy! That we’re waiting on a tidal wave and we’ve got to change mistakes or else we’re headed toward Arizona Bay and that whole concept. The groove shows that you like to dance even though this isn’t danceable stuff that we’re talking about!

Right. You know, it’s funny, I’m listening to you and I think that that really is a reflection of who I am and how I think. I was trying to write a love song (*laughs*) and even in that, the bigger picture thinking comes through. Shit, man.

That sort of struck me from the first time I heard it, because as you say, it starts out like a love song. So I thought, wow, this is sorta cool, maybe outside my normal element. And then the lyrics change, particularly around the choruses, and I said “oh, okay, even though it’s a love song, we’ve got to pay attention to what we’re doing and where we’re headed here folks!”

Yeah! I think that is something I attempt to do when I’m writing. I never like to hit people straight over the head with what I’m exactly trying to say. And sometimes I don’t even know how to get it out. That’s part of, I think, why I choose to write songs with melodies rather than sit there and try to give speeches or something. So a lot of times what I’m attempting to do with a song is two things: make the message a microcosm of an individual love between two people, and also macrocosm when it comes to that one love for the world and humanity and civilization. I find it fun to bounce back and forth between those two sentiments.

Is this sort of songwriting setup where you have sort of the bigger “bill payer” day job of Flogging Molly, and then having The Bunny Gang on the side as sort of a more creative element…is it sort of like the perfect storm situation for you, or do you ever get frustrated about not getting to do more of one or the other, which I suppose could go in either direction.

I don’t think there’s such a thing as perfection. The Bunny Gang is just simply the music that’s really coming out of me; my interpretation of songwriting, my vision. I put this band together.

Right.

Whereas with Flogging Molly, I’m very much a member of a whole where for that whole, really, the visionary and the leader and the guy who began that is Dave King, you know? I would never (*laughs*) want to do anything other than be a part of Flogging Molly and I am really excited that I can express myself outside of that. But it’s never perfect, it’s a balancing act like we hit on a little earlier. Here’s the thing. I love the music and I believe in it. My family understands and they sacrifice so that I’m able to play this music. They know how important it is to me, and I believe that they love it too. I’ve got children, and my oldest daughter was sad that I was leaving on tour. I asked her, “honey, would you like me to try to do something else where I didn’t have to leave on tour?” And as she was crying, she looked at me and she said “no, I wouldn’t want you to do anything else, I love what you do, it’s just hard.” And that’s exactly it.

How old is she?

She’s eleven.

(Paraphrasing – microphone covered due to fire trucks going by) It’s awesome that your kids love it too. That, to me is the best part. My daughter’s in first grade, and I’ve had the album on a bit recently, and she really digs “Sirens Through The City.” She likes to listen to music on repeat in her room as she’s going to bed, and she asked if that could be the song the other day.

I love that about music, how it really fits in so many different contexts. I hear “Sirens Through The City” bumping real loud at a club or at a punk rock show, and your first grader wants to listen to it as a lullaby! That’s great! (*both laugh*)

You’ve mentioned somewhere, probably on the Facebook page, that this album was inspired at least in part by the documentary Thrive. That documentary has had interesting reviews: I’ve seen really, really awesome, positive reviews and I’ve seen also really weird, negative, conspiracy theory-driven sort of reviews. What was the piece about it that inspired you?

Well, when I watched Thrive for the first time, it was talking about a lot of things that I had taken time over the years to educate myself about. So it immediately started registering to me as the truth. This day and age, you’ve got to be guarded with the information that you’re consuming. I try not to be gullible and believe everything I see, but like I said, I started watching it and it immediately started exposing truths that I had already been informed about. It just blew me away the way this documentary was tying all these things together, kind of like the Zeitgeist films did. But with the Zeitgeist films and so many other of these documentaries, you can walk away feeling very uncertain and very fearful. And I find that even though I appreciate information, I reject anything that inspires fear in me. I just think that’s our natural state. And when I watched the Thrive documentary, they’re talking about a lot of the same truths, or what some would call conspiracies, but the major focus was solution-oriented.

I really appreciated the global community aspect, the idea of the autonomy of the individual setting up their own coalitions and groups, and the really hands-on, multidimensional and positive approach to the film. I checked it out a lot and I find it all to be pretty informative and positive. And of course there are naysayers out there. I’d probably call some of those people trolls. I think that any point of view that you find, you’re going to find someone out there who’s going to contradict it. And that’s fine. Some of those people that are contradicting truths might not have a very honest agenda in why they’re trying to bring things down. So I would just suggest to people to that it’s something that has inspired me, it still inspires me, I get the newsletters and keep up on the website. I would recommend that people check it out for themselves. I would be cautious of reading reviews and making opinions off of other peoples’ reviews. If you want to have a genuine opinion or insight on a subject, I would check it out yourself. You might realize that this world isn’t a two-sided story; there’s multiple sides to it all!

And I guess it sounds like the positive part is that it’s not just necessarily fear-mongering or based in conspiracy, but that there is some sort of a bigger point to it, and a more positive, solution-based point to all of it. Which I think a lot of documentary films don’t always have; they want to focus on exploiting the problems but don’t really focus on how we can move forward.

Right. And I remember years ago watching a documentary and Jimi Hendrix was quoted in it. He was talking about how a lot of artists are singing and talking about problems and he wanted to sing about the solutions, you know? That always registered to me as something that’s powerful and that’s worth pursuing. So yeah, I appreciate the solution-oriented nature of Thrive.

I know that I was one of those people that saw a negative review of it first, and we all have our own confirmation biases where we tend to seek out other opinions that validate our own opinion, so the negative reviews area what stuck with me and I never saw the film. Maybe this will get me to free my mind a little bit and go back and watch it.

Well yeah, that’s good! That would make me happy! And that’s one of the reasons I named this album Thrive. I love the word, I love the definition of the word. I think the same reason that the documentary named themselves Thrive is that that should be all of our natural state. We should all be thriving; the earth, humanity. And of course, as the creator of Thrive says, when you’re not sure of what a situation is, follow the money and see what’s behind it. And that’s an interesting concept. And once again, if people like the name or the word or the music, that’s what makes me happy. If they want to dig deeper and research some of the subjects that I’m singing about, that’s great too. But that’s not all-important.

Is there a plan to hopefully bring Thrive on the road to the broader masses? I know that’s probably difficult trying to line everything up.

Yeah, we’re rehearsing tonight. We have a few gigs coming up with Authority Zero, we’re playing the Colorado and Kansas City shows. We will start ramping it up, we’re going to be doing a residency here in Denver, and then looking for opportunities to support other bands nationally and internationally. But like I said, this music is always going to be part of who I am and how I see the world and my musical base. So I look forward to singing these songs for the rest of my life. I don’t look at this as a side project or a thing that we’ll do for a moment and then move on. This is basically just an evolution of my musical journey.

It’s interesting, I’ve heard similar things from a few different people in these conversations lately. Maybe it’s just the state of the music business now, but it seems a lot of people are involved with more than one project, so you’re constantly having to separate if this is just a one-off thing or if this is a part of how who this person is. I talked to Jason Cruz lately about both his Howl project which put out an album this year and that Strung Out is putting out a new album this year, and he talked about how there’s no reason he can’t see himself playing the Howl stuff when he’s seventy years old. It’s just part of him, it’s not a side project, it’s part of who he is now. We all sort of mature from the seventeen-year-old punk rock days sometimes.

Exactly! But you keep the fire! That’s the thing: what is punk rock? I’ve had a lot of that, especially releasing the White Rabbit album, my first solo record. Sonically, it was 180 degrees from what a typical punk record would sound like, and I had a lot of blowback from that. I’d play some shows live and drunk guys would be out there screaming “play some punk rock!” And I get that. I get it. I grew up punk rock, I’m a punk rocker and always will be. But what is punk rock? Is it a drum beat? Because if punk rock is a drum beat, I didn’t dedicate my life to that, you know? And you start really distilling “what is it,” what’s the fire in you that made you a punk. And that’s going to have a different answer for everyone, and I think that’s the coolest thing about punk rock. You know, for me it was that line in the Dead Kennedys’ song “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” – “punk ain’t no religious cult / punk is thinking for yourself.” I was like a thirteen year old kid and I heard that and a said “well shit, I’m a punk rocker! That’s exactly who I am!” and I’ve been one ever since!

So for me, thinking for myself is exactly what it means to be punk rock. Reading between the lines, not taking a book for its cover, not turning on the news and whatever team you subscribe to, particularly in the US where it’s “are you a Fox guy or an MSNBC guy?”  You know what I mean? That’s a farce. And to me, what’s punk rock is the ability to see through that and go to alternative sources for information. That’s something that’s very important to me. And talking about it! Even though it may not be popular, talk about it! Talk about the fact that basically the US tax dollars armed and trained and funded this new enemy that the President is asking Congress to support us fighting. That’s clear as day, and it may not be popular to talk about, but that’s the thing about being a punk rocker and doing what you want.

And that part’s cyclical too! It’s not just this group (ISIS or ISIL, depending on who you read), but essentially every group that we end up arming and giving money to, we end up fighting ten years down the road. We haven’t learned!

Yeah! And that’s disgusting, no matter how you slice it. It’s a waste of our resources, it’s a waste of our children’s lives. It’s very hard for people to stand up in a typical conversation and justify this type of action, by not just the Democratic President who’s in now, but the Republican that was before him and the Democrat before that and the Republicans before that! It’s something that I’m very passionate about, especially because over the years of Flogging Molly, I’ve made so many friends that are in the Armed Forces. And being a pacifist doesn’t mean I think any less of the human beings that are stuck in these struggles. It’s a really shitty situation, and it makes me more passionate about getting the truth out there and putting an end to this nonsense! Because I do know and care about human beings that are directly involved.


Add The Bunny Gang to My Radar   Add to My Radar

3 Comments

Leave A Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.