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Of Musical Tastes and Middle-Agedness: A Conversation with Joey Cape

Posted by Steve Bourdeau on Wednesday, July 10, 2013 at 12:58 PM (PST)

I spent some time with Joey Cape at the Amnesia Rockfest in Montébello, Québec, this past June. We talked middle agedness, music in general, Joey’s many projects and, of course, the upcoming Lagwagon album.  Check out the whole interview here.

Photos and words: Steve Bourdeau

I woke up in my tent that Saturday morning after precious few hours of sleep with a major headache and a faint memory of having set up a time and place to meet with Joey Cape, the prolific singer and songwriter behind  Lagwagon, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, Bad Astronaut, Bad Loud, Scorpios, and diverse solo projects—The Caper(!): iconic figure of today’s punk scene, frontman for over twenty years of the one punk band that has its own goddamn holiday, and the one music artist I revere and lionize over all others.

Day one of the 2013 Amnesia Rockfest in usually idyllic, now chaotically besieged Montebello, Québec, had taken its toll and so I crawled out of my sleeping bag, gathered my muddled thoughts, and decided on the best course of action to get some caffeine in my stalled nervous system as quickly as possible. The air all over the village was tainted with the smell of warm beer, mud, and poutine grease. Had he said before or after his noon-scheduled set? Had I, in my drunken dazedness, even mentioned my name? He’d spoken of the terrace on the roof of the hotel, I recalled, but were we meeting there or in the lobby? Though a half-liter of coffee eventually restored some of the particulars, one important question remained: would he remember what the words ‘dying scene’ he’d hastily and somewhat tipsily scribbled in his hand at 1AM the previous night meant this morning?

Lagwagon were scheduled to open that day on the main stage, so I trudged on to the festival grounds about an hour before the gates opened. As I got near the back of the main stage, walking slowly through the bustle and commotion of staffers and roadies, I saw Joey and the rest of the band—I saw Chris Flippin first, to be truthful, from about a hundred yards away—standing next to their minivan. I waved and walked over. “Steve, we’ve been moved!” he told me briskly with a wide grin, as soon as he recognized me. It seemed Marilyn Manson and Alice Cooper were having a bit of a swordfight over the business of the soundchecks and so the main stage would not be ready for another couple of hours. “I could not be happier about this,” Joey continued, “We’re going to play on the smaller stage at 7h. In the punk zone! Where Black Flag and The Adolescents… and Screeching Weasel are playing. Bunch of our friends you know?” The good news for me was that Joey suddenly had some unforeseen spare time on his hands. We walked back to the hotel and sat on a quiet terrace with some shade and a nice view of the festival grounds. He looked genuinely happy, relieved even, about this turn of events. The main stage made him feel like a really small fish in a gigantic pond, he told a buddy from another band also lounging on the terrace. He felt much more comfortable on a smaller stage, where he’d be closer to the crowd and the energy would be better. He was, of course, absolutely right about this, as their frenetic set later proved.

*

Dying Scene (Steve): So how has the Rockfest been treating you so far?

Joey Cape: I seriously love this festival and it gets better every year. We’ve played a lot of festivals around the world for many years and this is one of the most beautiful settings I’ve seen, and it’s also in Québec which, I’ve made clear before with my pandering to Montréal—laughs—is a place I hold near and dear to my heart. I’ve made so many good friends here, and it’s harder to make lifelong friends as you get older. You have old friends, and they become like family after a while but…

I guess you end up meeting a lot of people but most of these don’t lead to meaningful friendships…

You make acquaintances, sure, but in Québec in the last ten years I’ve had a number of relationships that turned into lasting friendships. People that I’d like to meet my daughter, you know?

[At this point the conversation goes astray on the topic of kids—mine more than his—for a while.]

Alright, back to the interview. Let me try to focus here…

So hard to do.

Tell me about it! I’m too much of a talker to be a good interviewer.

Look, I’ve been doing interviews for over twenty years and I’m telling you: I much prefer when an interview is more like a discussion because, first of all, you get something interesting out of that. If you ask people questions and it’s all very programmed and there’s no give and take, what you end up with is stock answers. I can’t really help it. I try to phrase it in an honest and natural way, but ultimately there is an answer living in my mind for all these questions. Rather, if we’re having a discussion, like now, you’ll end up with something that has definitely more depth and is more interesting to read, I think.

Good, I’m happy you’re not annoyed by that, hmmm, absence of format. So here’s another question to bring us off topic again: some music that you like and that fans of Lagwagon would not expect you to.

[He sits back on his chair, scratches his head, sighs and ponders the question a bit… ]

For example, we talked about The National earlier. Do you like their new album (Trouble Will Find Me)?

I love that band, and yea, I liked the new album, but I still preferred their Boxer and Alligator records. But I mean there are so many bands I like that could surprise people. I like The Shins, I like Elliot Smith, I like The Flaming Lips, hell, I kinda like Bruno Mars man! I just like music, and I’ve never been one of those guys who thinks you’re not supposed to like something because it’s famous. It’s all good.

So then, is there something you don’t listen to? Some music you have no taste for? I, for instance, don’t like Jazz. I don’t know why but I just don’t…

Exactly!

Exactly what?

Jazz. It’s not that I don’t appreciate it. I can hear the musicianship and I get the art of it, but it simply doesn’t speak to me. I try not to say negative things about any kind of art because I’ve always understood that taste is accountable and some things just aren’t for you. But yea, Jazz, and actually Hip Hop. I’ve enjoyed a handful of Hip Hop acts throughout my life—I was really into Public Enemy at some point, and I still enjoy the ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back’ record. I listened to a bit of NWA for a while I think, and even earlier stuff. So it seems like I’m contradicting myself, but the truth is, if I’m going to put a record on I’m never going to put a Jazz or Hip Hop record. Still, I have the Ken Burns Jazz documentary on DVD and I have the CDs, so I really made an effort. And it’s the same with blues: it just doesn’t speak to me the way, say, Classical music once did.

Really? Stevie Ray Vaughan? The sound of his guitar?

He’s an amazing guitar player but it doesn’t speak to me. Jimmy Hendrix spoke to me a bit more in terms of guitar playing.

[Here, predictably, the interview veers off course again, riding on the one sure-fire topic to distract a musician and a music critic: musical tastes. But undeterred, I rein us back and hone in on Joey Cape the songwriter, whose songs I have both on a ‘Happy Punk’ playlist (a vague appellation at best, and yes, I have an ‘Angry Punk’ playlist as well), which features bands like NOFX, D4, Strung Out, The Lawrence Arms, and Hot Water Music, and—amazingly enough—on a ‘Mellow Indie/Folk’ playlist with the likes of Xavier Rudd, Sufjan Stevens, Iron and Wine, Kurt Vile, and some old Elliot Smith for just measure.]

Do you feel like most fans of Lagwagon became fans of the folkier singer/songwriter material you do nowadays?

If I had to guess I’d say it’s about fifteen percent of Lagwagon fans that have embraced the singer/songwriter stuff that I do. Maybe it’s more, I mean, a lot of the people that come to my acoustic shows are fans of Lagwagon and they like the songs so they don’t mind hearing them in that way, but there’s definitely some people who don’t want to hear that, they just want to hear the loud stuff, and that’s fine.

It’s fortunate for me that this is not the only thing that I do, because when I started doing acoustic shows I had a built-in fan-base already and people that would show up…

And fans getting older, moving into different genres…

Sure! For me it’s different because I grew up listening to Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel. I was a huge Beatles fan and I liked all sorts of music that had acoustic guitar in it when I was a kid. So for me there’s no change: I always wrote everything on an acoustic guitar anyway, I demoed everything on an acoustic guitar, and basically there were many acoustic versions of every Lagwagon song, so it was a natural progression to finally take that to a stage and make records.

…and it’s odd how these songs work so well, both as acoustic songs and once they get the Lagwagon ‘treatment.’

Yea, it’s really just a kind of format. So if I bring something to the band, as opposed to doing it in an acoustic setting with a couple of friends of mine, it’s going to sound like whoever ends up playing it. The only thing that doesn’t change is my voice, but of course I sing a little differently when I sing with Lagwagon than when I’m doing an acoustic song—laughs a bit.  At the end of the day, whoever plays it last formats it.

But I love doing acoustic stuff. When you play in a band like Lagwagon, automatically you have certain limitations with the keys to the song, and the way you sing—because it has to be in a key that resonates well at a higher volume—but when you play an acoustic song you can move the capo anywhere you want on the neck, and I can sing the song at a really comfortable level because I can either play the song very quietly, or I can bash it a little bit. There’s more dynamic in some ways in the acoustic format and it’s a really beautiful thing for someone who’s had to, for most of his life, adhere to the rules of the loud rock band.

When I first started playing acoustic shows, I remember I was really scared and a good friend of mine who’d been doing this a long time said to me: ‘Just remember this: for the first time tonight, you’re gonna be able to do whatever you want dynamically in the song and in the moment. You don’t have to sync up with a bunch of people, you can take it anywhere you want to go.’ I thought wow! It’s so empowering to think of it that way, and it’s the truest thing someone ever said to me about playing an acoustic song.

You wrote the song ‘Falling Apart’ almost ten years ago, and though I wouldn’t want to quote the lyrics to the guy who wrote them, you do mention something about not being on stage when you’re fifty. Can I ask how old you are?

Yea—laughs—I get asked that a lot lately. I’m nearly forty seven, so I have three years left. I think when I was twenty I said I wouldn’t be on stage when I was thirty, and when I was in my thirties I said when I turn forty is probably when I’ll get a real job, and then you just discover that it really doesn’t matter and you can keep doing this as long as your body allows you to. It is kind of a joke, really, to say a thing like that in a song anyway.

The funny thing about ‘Falling Apart’ is that I didn’t write all the lyrics to that song, it was more of a collaborative effort. This happens every once in a while: we’re in the studio, nearly all the lyrics are written, we’re tracking, the drums are done and we’re working on the guitars, and it’s almost time for me to start doing vocals and I go: ‘Fuck, there’s this one song I have no lyrics for!’ When we were getting to the point when I was going to do vocals, this song was called ‘Christmas,’ or ‘Fuck it, it’s Christmas,’ or something like that, and it was a kind of x-rated song saying: ‘Hey it’s Christmas, let’s fuck shit up!’ It was really funny, but I wasn’t feeling it because the song has such a cheerful vibe to it, and the lyrics weren’t coming out of me, so I turned to the guys and asked them to help me write the song real quick. One of the guys said let’s write a song about getting old and being shitty and feeling like crap every day when we wake up and how fucked up we are. That’s a great idea, we said. I mean, it’s an obvious idea, but it works. Everyone started yelling lines, and it literally came together in five minutes. There are so many moments like that when you’re in a band that you wish someone had been filming this because we just had one of those great moments of humour but then you forget about it because you’re braindead and old. So yea, that was one of those good moments.

And then you get the question…

Yea, then you get the question, but to be fair I think that was one of my lines: I’ll never be Ozzy, on stage when I’m fifty…

Did you ever feel, at any point in your career, that punk rock was something you were going to grow out of?

I never felt that way about that. I could say that I felt I would grow out of aspects of what we do. Hindsight is twenty twenty, but when you’re younger you have all kinds of ideas that don’t turn out to be true, but I never thought I would grow out of listening to punk rock or enjoying punk rock because I listened to punk at such an early age and it meant so much to me.

I think music is an exception to those kinds of rules of evolution and maturity. I think with music it’s the opposite: once you love something it never really leaves you. In fact, as you get older what you learn to do is be braver and say: I don’t have to be cool at all. I don’t have to subscribe to any kind of plan or ideology; I can actually just be brave and love the art that I love. You evolve to a place where you don’t really care what anybody thinks. And you really don’t care, it’s not an act. One thing that’s great about getting old in a scene like this is that I have all these peers I’ve known for thirty years now, and when we sit down together and talk, I’m not ashamed to say stuff like: ‘You know, I actually like Kelly Clarkson, man, she’s got some good songs!’

[For some reason, it’s right then that a few other acquaintances of Joey’s who’d been overhearing our conversation from a nearby table decide to add their voices to the discussion. Seems like Kelly Clarkson’s got some special appeal for them punk rockers, as they all agree that she has a pretty awesome voice and, Joey adds, a really kickass songwriter working for her. "I’d let this guy write songs for Lagwagon for sure," he says, "though I probably wouldn’t keep the lyrics"—which has everyone laughing heartily. The silliness goes on for a couple of minutes as it turns into a group chitchat, with Joey, laid-back and jocular, in the middle of it all. After they leave, we get back to the mock-serious tone of our head to head discussion.]

How aware are you of the important role Lagwagon’s music played in the lives of a lot of middle-aged people like me who grew up listening to it?

I’m very unaware of how our music affects people, and that’s a good thing, I think. To be self-indulgent about art is essential. Thinking too much about what would make people happy or what would have an effect on people is a dangerous road to go down with art in general, as you tend to get influenced by that and it gets you away from the purity of what you do naturally. So I really don’t think about it all, other than when I meet people on tour and they tell me what they think of the music. But they generally say the same things: if they come talk to you it’s because they like what you do, though occasionally in Germany you’ll get a little critique—laughs—that we call the German backhanded compliment. They’ll say something like: “Your first album, Duh, was an amazing album. Your last album is shit, but your first album was great!”

[We both have a good laugh, but I press on:]

Still, Lagwagon’s music was omnipresent in my life from age fourteen to pretty much now, and I always seem to go back to it. That’s got to be meaningful? Or am I reading too much into this?

Yea, I understand what you mean, and I think that it’s true for any band that’s been around a long time: some people grow up listening to your music.

You know, some people like to hop ponds in their life. They say: I’m done with all my friends; I’m done with who I was. Now I’m wearing these clothes. And there are a lot of people like that. But most people I know that are good people, they’re ok with whatever they used to listen to. They find the bravery and maturity to say: yea, I used to have hair like that and listen to that, and that was a cool thing because it’s part of who I am. I think people who live that way, without shame, unless they did bad things that harmed others, are happier people. And I know I’m that way. I’ll always love Descendents. I’ll always love the record ‘Milo Goes to College.’ I can still put the record ‘Road to Ruin’ by The Ramones, which is an album I bought when it came out and I loved it, I can still put it on and hear the first song and go: yep, that’s a good thing right there. It makes me feel good, and I would hope there are people in the world who feel the same way about some early record of ours, sure, but I don’t think about it very much.

So then what aspect of your work as a music artist keeps you going after almost twenty five years? Is it the songwriting, the fans, the shows and the touring lifestyle… The money?

Most definitely the songwriting. The other things I care much less about.

Speaking of writing songs, Dying Scene readers wouldn’t forgive me if I didn’t ask about the new Lagwagon record. Is it happening?

It is!

Do you think all the solo and side project work you’ve been doing since ‘Resolve’ (released in 2005) will influence the sound of the next Lagwagon record?

No, what influences the sound of the record is my band. I write the songs then I take them to my band and they come out at the other end sounding like, well, my band. It’s a natural, unpredictable, and uncalculated process.

So, yea, I’ve been writing a lot lately, and in August we’re going to stop touring and start rehearsing regularly. Right now we’re set to record in June 2014, but it won’t come out then. It’s been already eight years since our last full length, so why not nine? I mean, we’re called LAG-wagon, so we do lag. We do things when we’re ready and when we want to, and I think that gets reflected in the records we make. When you rush an album it sounds like there’s no conviction in it, and if we’re not ready in June, we won’t record. I know it probably really irks a lot of people that like our band that we’ve been taking so long to make a record, but at least we’ll make a record that we’re proud of.

*

We parted ways after that, him towards his hotel bed for a much needed afternoon nap, me out to scavenge for food (a sandwich I pilfered from the bands and staff catering buffet)  and rest (a patch of grass near the waterfront, well away from the action), before Transplants took the stage. We crossed paths again much later that night in the hotel bar. I told him how intense their set had been, and how right he’d been about the better vibe on the smaller stage. At one thirty in the morning,  we went, along with a few others from the Fat Wreck family, to watch from the side of the stage as Rise Against brought the festival to an end with verve and panache.

Good times. Good times. 

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