Hailing from upstate NY, Celtic rockers 1916 are an explosive concoction of the modern Irish Punk movement with an original mix of psychobilly which gives 1916 a sound that stands apart from other bands of the genre.
Starting as an acoustic duo in 2006, singer Billy Herring and original drummer Steve LaDue played the traditional Irish ballads of the Dubliners and Wolfe Tones in the local pubs in and around their home-town of Rochester, NY. They decided to call themselves 1916 to get people interested in Irish history. In 2010 they took the music to a new level with the addition of electric guitars, traditional instruments, and a full drum set. Within a few months of trying their new sound, 1916 were opening for the likes of the Dropkick Murphys, 21 Pilots, and New Politics, among other national acts.
On St. Patrick’s Day of 2012, 1916 released their first studio album, A Drop of the Pure, to rave reviews. That same year, 1916 became the first band from Rochester, NY to get their own Pandora station with the addition of their music to the Pandora genome project. With their music now reaching a global audience, the boys would soon gain fans all over the world.
The following year, 1916 released their sophomore album, Stand Up & Fight. This new album, featuring a collection of covers and originals, had a more polished sound than the raw punk feel of A Drop of the Pure. This new full length album also featured more traditional Irish instruments to give the new LP a fun and full sound.
As the band continued to evolve, they kept touring and playing as many shows as possible. With bigger audiences came a larger fan base for 1916 to interact with. The band has always enjoyed hanging out with the crowd both pre- and post- shows.
In November of 2014, the guys went back into the studio to begin recording their third album, Last Call for Heroes. Released in December of 2015, Last Call for Heroes was met with great enthusiasm from critics. Named one of the “best punk albums of 2016,” both home and abroad, the new album appeared to have given the band the momentum they needed to move forward.
Mandolin player Jon Kane joined the band in early 2016, just before the boys hit the road to join Flogging Molly on their Salty Dog Cruise. After a whirlwind spring of touring through the Bahamas and Europe, Jon was just what the band needed as he brought his energetic and fun stage persona into the fold.
The sound had certainly become streamlined and unique, but it wasn’t until 2017 that upright bassist Ryan Hurley would join 1916 to give the band the final integral piece that gives the music its psychobilly flavor. Ryan quickly found a new home in 1916 and the band now finds itself on the edge of yet another amazing year of recording and touring.
In 2019, the band welcomed the thundering drums of Tony Presutti to take over behind the kit. Soon after that, 1916 further expanded their sound by the addition of accordion player Sam Sarratori to the crew!
Bad Cop Bad Cop has done angry. The band’s 2017 full-length, Warriors, was recorded in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. The Los Angeles quartet’s new full-length, The Ride (Fat Wreck Chords, June 19th), shows what happens when you come out the other side of that anger.
“It’s not that I am just stoked or blind to suffering,” says singer-guitarist Jennie Cotterill. “I think anger is a legitimate and understandable reaction to injustice and wrongdoing. It’s just that for myself, I am trying to move past ‘reaction’ into productive ‘response.’”
The message BCBC is sending this time around is less about wagging your finger at others, or giving the middle one to the Man, than it is about self-love and acceptance. As Cotterill puts it, “Love is a more powerful truth than anger.” That positivity fuels many of The Ride’s tracks: “Originators,” “Simple Girl,” “Community,” “I Choose,” “Perpetual Motion Machine,” and “The Mirage” exude confidence, gratitude, and compassion. In 2020, such things qualify as contrarian.
“These are political statements—self-love is a huge fucking statement,” affirms singer-guitarist Stacey Dee. “Self-love means putting a fix on the problems at home before trying to fix everything in the world. It’s asking people to find it in themselves to create the life that they really want to have so they’re not in turmoil, so they’re not in a place of stress and sickness.”
Dee speaks from experience. In 2018 she was hospitalized twice for different ailments, then discovered she had stage one breast cancer at the end of the year. Fortunately it was highly treatable, but the experience was life-altering. Dee captures it with brutal frankness on “Breastless,” whose bright melodies belie the struggle described in the lyrics.
“Certain Kind of Monster” and “Pursuit of Liberty”—both written and sung by bassist Linh Le—are blistering repudiations of the current administration’s treatment of immigrants.
The former is an imagined conversation with an ICE agent, and the latter juxtaposes her family’s immigration to the U.S. from Vietnam in 1975 to current events, something she’s never explored musically.
The perspective behind The Ride lends it an undeniable maturity, without losing its power. Recorded throughout much of 2018 and 2019 by Johnny Carey and Fat Mike of production team the D-Composers, the album boasts all of the elements of BCBC’s sound: big guitars, lock-step bass and drums (the latter by powerhouse drummer Myra Gallarza), intricate vocal harmonies, and plenty of attitude.
It’s just that this time, the attitude is encouraging, not raging. Nowhere is that more apparent than lilting album closer “Sing With Me.” Built around acoustic guitar, piano, and Cotterill’s voice, it’s an exhortation to “sing with me / or sing your own song / I don’t mind, just as long as you find / a voice.”
Dee adds, “If people are listening to our songs and they’re going to sing along to them, they’re going to start owning some of those words. And in owning some of those words that gives them some strength and power going forward. That’s really the biggest gift that I could give to anybody.” “Stronger in every way” aptly describes Bad Cop Bad Cop in 2020. The anger may have taken a back seat on The Ride, but what’s taken its place is even more powerful.
Caitlin Edwards of Chicago ska-punk band Bumsy and the Moochers has released her debut solo album Pluto Party. It’s a super fun record with a variety of sounds ranging from bouncy 90’s pop-punk to goofy acoustic indie rock ballads. Listen to the 10-song album below and buy it on Bandcamp.
The Real McKenzies are celebrating thirty years as a band with a brand new album, Songs of the Highlands, Songs of the Sea (Fat Wreck Chords). The album itself was preceded by the release of the single “Leave Her Johnny”, a traditional 19th-century sea shanty that has been performed by many folk acts over the […]
The Real McKenzies are celebrating thirty years as a band with a brand new album, Songs of the Highlands, Songs of the Sea (Fat Wreck Chords). The album itself was preceded by the release of the single “Leave Her Johnny”, a traditional 19th-century sea shanty that has been performed by many folk acts over the years, and a fitting example of what the album has in store.
Songs of the Highlands, Songs of the Sea is an album of 12 traditional shanties and folk tunes; the title really gives it away in that some are songs of the Scottish Highlands, and others are songs of sea fairing and the sailor’s life.
Time-honoured Scottish drums and bagpipes open the album, with distorted guitars soon joining in, setting out the classic Real McKenzies sound of Gaelic punk rock with a strong traditional folk feel. Foot stomping, fist pumping, hey! shouting, “Scotland the Brave” is one of the unofficial national anthems of Scotland and is as good an opener as you’d expect. I know if I were Paul McKenzie I would open every live show like this!
“A Red, Red Rose”, a poem by the famed Robert Burns, is one of several songs on this album penned by the legendary lyricist and voice of the true Scotsman; “Ye Jacobites By Name” and the stomping “My Heart is in the Highlands” are also penned by his hand. The expected Real McKenzies sound continues on through “The Green Hills of Tyrol” and the lead single “Leave Her Johnny” and “My Heart’s in the Highlands”.
These songs are legendary for a reason and were written to be performed. I can well imagine a live show, unexpectedly finding myself in the pit, singing my heart out for Scotland in much the same way I sing for Ireland with the Dropkick Murphys. It is important that these folk songs remain as folk songs; that is, songs for the people, to be performed by and for the people, interpreted as needed for the time and audience. While nationalism and pride in your home are often negative traits, these songs remind us that we can be proud without it being at the expense of others.
At this point, the album takes a step down for me. We’re halfway through, I’m fired up, I’m ready to rock and next we have “Sloop John B” performed with acoustic guitar. It’s perfectly good, but I don’t see what it offers above or beyond every other version (Beach Boys excepted). There’s nothing wrong with it, and perhaps those with more polished taste will appreciate the darker feel than the Californian Pop version, but I keep waiting for the electric guitars to kick in with a big fast chorus in the style of so many 90s punk covers. Maybe it would sit better, grouped with other slower songs?
“Drunken Sailor”, picks up where it should be going for me: fast, mean, the way a shanty should be delivered, with the pounding drums and distorted guitars, and shouted lyrics and the cold sea wind rattling the windows, fogged with the breath of a crowd of drunk sailors.
“The Bonnie Ship The Diamond” takes a more traditional folky sound, which is to be expected for the band, but isn’t really to my taste. The Real McKenzies have always felt more like a folk band that listen to punk rather than a punk band that listen to folk, and in that is the uniqueness of their sound. I fear I lean more toward the punk than the folk, so perhaps it is lost on me.
“Dead Mans Chest” caught me out, opening with the riff of “American Jesus” by Bad Religion, complete with pick slide into the first verse. It’s an interesting take on both songs, but the familiarity of the Bad Religion classic takes away from the familiar “yo hoho and a bottle of rum” lyrics for me. I honestly wondered if they had chucked in a Bad Religion cover, and although it is a classic in this scene, it’s not what most would consider a traditional anthem!
“Swansea Town” is sung by Brenna Red from the Last Gang, and it takes the song in a similar direction to “The Bonnie Ship The Diamond”, with winsome melodies and a feeling of sadness that carries the words through the song.
Closing track “Blow the Man Down” is another traditional shanty sounds like it was a lot of fun to record, but I’m not sure where its place on this album really is. Much as with “Sloop John B”, it is a faithful performance, but it doesn’t feel like the Real McKenzies have really made it their own in any way, and in part that sums up this album. In places it is a Real McKenzies album that just happens to be traditional songs rather than originals, but in part it is also the Real McKenzies playing some traditional songs in a traditional way. I am almost certain these songs would be incredible live, and since they are on tour in Europe from January 2023, I shall make the effort to get out and see them and confirm my suspicions!
In 2001, I moved to the Northern English city of Leeds, in part because of the live music venue, The Cockpit. This small venue put on all my favourite bands of the time, and had a long history of putting on great live music. I worked in another venue in the city on weekends, so […]
In 2001, I moved to the Northern English city of Leeds, in part because of the live music venue, The Cockpit. This small venue put on all my favourite bands of the time, and had a long history of putting on great live music. I worked in another venue in the city on weekends, so Tuesday night was my big night out, and Tuesday nights were Slam Dunk at The Cockpit. A solid mix of ska punk, pop punk, emo, rock, metal and whatever else alternative kids were listening to in the early 2000’s.
So here I am, 21 years later. The Cockpit has long since shut down and whilst the Slam Dunk Club Night plays on at its new home, the Key Club, it’s the festival that I am at today. Now held across two cities with more than 50 bands, across five stages, things have really grown from that two room sweaty Tuesday night under a railway arch.
The lineup covers a wide range of punk and alternative music, but because I’m old and stuck in my ways, I’m mostly staying at the Dickies stage, which is the main stage this year, hosting The Suicide Machines, The Bronx, Hot Water Music, The Vandals, Streetlight Manifesto, Pennywise, The Interrupters, The Dropkick Murphy’s and headliners Sum 41.
I’d originally bought tickets on the basis that Rancid were headlining, but they pulled out for undisclosed reasons. Then support from the Mighty Mighty Bosstones collapsed along with the band. Things were looking bleak, and I actually looked into selling my ticket, only to have two of my close friends and original Slam Dunk allies to buy tickets, so it was to be a big day out for us old guys.
The venue for the festival is Temple Newsam House. For further personal historic links, this was the site of the first music festival I ever went to (V98), and a big part of my musical taste was formed in these park lands. The benefit of this location for me is that it is close to home, the downside is that it still takes an hour and a half to get in, as traffic is not well managed and everything is already getting expensive (£10 to park in a field, £10 for a bus), I’d planned to ride my bike to the event, but for three of us, that didn’t make much sense.
Inside the arena, the stages are far enough apart that there is little noise mix from bands and practicalities like bars, toilets and food concessions are plentiful, the addition of a separate “real ale” bar was a pleasant surprise, and I managed to spend an impressive amount in this tent after and before every band. The tent also provides some welcome shade from the unexpected sun that I was totally unprepared for!
So, on to the music…
Hot Water Music, a band that I’ve discovered backwards through Chuck Ragan’s solo work, come out impassioned and full of energy, although the crowd are a little flat with it being an early set. Despite this we get a solid effort from the band, though possibly things are held back a little by a lack of catchy hooks and sing along choruses in the songs performed. Finishing with “Trusty Chords” gets the crowd interested from hearing a song they know. Whether they know the song from Epitaph‘s Punk-o-Rama compilation, or it’s just a favourite is hard to say, but in a pre-internet world, compilations from Independent punk labels are how a lot of us discovered new bands, especially those that didn’t tour the small northern venues like the Cockpit!
A quick trip to the bar revealed the sound of Punk Rock Factory carrying on the wind from the Rock Sound Stage. I was familiar with the band from their Youtube videos of punked up, harmonized pop covers, and as a father of small children, I found myself singing along to “Let It Go”, whilst appropriately stood at a urinal. If I have to play Disney songs on long journeys, then at least they can have crushing guitars as well, and hopefully, like some kind of gateway drug, this leads my kids down the path of home made tattoos and living in a van (or some other punk cliché).
The Vandals took to the stage with a not too reassuring “We’ll do our best”, and whilst I appreciate their honesty and openness, first song “Café 405”, is out of time and out of tune.
Three songs in, things are starting to tighten up, “People That Are Going To Hell” gets people moving a little, but on the whole, the crowd remain static. “And Now We Dance” raises the energy, “The New You” keeps it going, but there’s just not enough there to hold the attention of the majority of the crowd. My friends desert me to hit the real ale bar, I hate myself for giving up on the mighty Vandals, but cold beer and the Cancer Bats on the Jagermeister stage lure me away. I’m not massively familiar with the Cancer Bats, but the wall of noise, that I could feel through the ground and see vibrating through my pint has led me to listen to more of their back catalogue.
I had a dream the night before Slam Dunk that I took all my family to see Streetlight Manifesto, but instead of their usual set list, they played a really challenging, four hour Jazz set, stopping only to enjoy a sit down meal, where they served soup from tea pots. I was trying desperately to convince my family that really, they’re a great band, whilst simultaneously enjoying the weird spectacle.
Fortunately, there’s no Jazz today as Streetlight Manifesto, a later addition to the bill, take to the stage. There’s a clear sense of excitement in the crowd as the eight piece tear through classic hits “We Will Fall Together” and “The Three Of Us” along with lesser known tracks with a level of energy normally reserved for headline shows. The crowd sings along, dances, moshes; it’s a perfect blend of everything you want on a summers day. The only slight letdown is Tomas Kalnoky shouting “this is the big finish!” and then promptly not playing “Keasbey Nights.” I get the reasons, and I support them in letting go of a song that doesn’t really represent the band, but for many in the crowd it’s the song they came to hear and there’s visible confusion as the band leave the stage, though encores aren’t really a thing at 16:30 on a festival stage are they?
I last saw Pennywise in 1999. So its been a while. Late last year I read Jim Lindberg’s book “Punk Rock Dad,” which renewed my interest in the band, so I’m excited to see this set, and if the number of Pennywise T-shirts I’m seeing are anything to go by, so are the crowd.
From the get go, the band are on full attack. There’s no sign of age in the band and the crowd are loving it. Covers of AC/DC’s “TNT” and “Breed” by Nirvana continues the energy. Early songs “Pennywise” and “Society” lead to Lindberg lamenting to having been “doing this for thirty years,” but it’s not slowing them down.
The crowd holds middle fingers aloft for “Fuck Authority,” and whilst it feels cheesy, a load of middle aged men swearing at the sky, its kind of cathartic, and hey, it’s a great song! Who doesn’t enjoy feeling like an angry teenager (teenagers maybe?).
A cover of “Stand By Me,” which closed 1992 album Wild Card/ A Word From The ‘Wise surprised me, as I was certain it was Lagwagon, so I learned something important today if nothing else.
Set closer “Bro-Hymn” has exactly the effect you’d expect. Huge “wooahs” from the crowd, that epic bass riff and impassioned singing along. Obviously it’s a great song, but I think it hits harder now, after the last few years and I think everyone can take some strength from this song and apply it to someone they’ve lost.
The Interrupters carry a strange position in my mind. I love their songs, they’re great live, but there’s just something not quite right. Something doesn’t sit right with me, and I hate myself for being so negative, but its all a bit too clean cut for me. Like it’s the soundtrack to Disney film where some hopelessly good looking, talented young people form a ska punk band and take over the world with a weird crusty mentor behind them (Called Tim?).
Opener “Take Back the Power” feels stronger than normal. Maybe its that they’re more established, or maybe my cynicism is fading? Either way I enjoy it for what it is, well polished, perfectly-performed ska pop-punk.
Ignoring a weird segue about how they all used to bathe together… “She got arrested” gets a great crowd sing along, and is probably my favourite of their songs, not least as it was my introduction to the band back in 2017 and a great example of the quality story telling in the lyrics of some of their songs.
A cover medley of “Keep ‘Em Separated”/ “Linoleum”/ “Ruby Soho” gets the crowd going before surprise high point for me, a cover of Bad Religion‘s “Sorrow,” which goes down well with the crowd (For reference Bad Religion played Slam Dunk in 2019, as did the Interrupters).
The band finishes with “She’s Kerosene,” keeping the party going, the crowd moving and generally capturing the moment nicely. People are drunk, its sunny, the people want to dance and the Interrupters deliver.
The Dropkick Murphys take to a stage with a full length riser, done out to look like a stone wall, but there is a notable absence. Al Barr, it is announced, has stayed home to care for his sick mother. Ken Casey steps up for lead vocal duties and the evening begins with the sound of bagpipes on the cool evening breeze.
“State of Massachusetts” gets the kind of crowd reaction you’d expect from a classic pop hit or a song about Yorkshire, such passion for such a challenging subject is strange, but hey, it’s a great song and the drunk, bouncy, dancey crowd are loving it.
“Barroom Hero” is introduced as the first song the band ever wrote, which is a bit of trivia I didn’t know, but I remember it from way back in the 90s, so I guess that makes sense. The crowd offer weak “Oi! Oi! Oi!” effort which is a disappointment, maybe the crowd aren’t as au fait with shouting Oi! as I’d like? Though I accept my drive to shout “Oi!” is probably higher than most.
The slip up begins with the instruction to sing along to the 1937 hit “I’ve Still Got Ninety-Nine” by the Monroe Brothers, which although an undeniably good song, probably isn’t too familiar to the crowd today. On the upside, we’re promised an acoustic album in September, which is one to look out for. Whether it’s new material or reimagined classics has not been confirmed, but hopefully there will be an associated tour.
“Rose Tattoo” brings the sing along from the crowd, but lacks the momentum to get the crowd moving. This is exacerbated by the big screen showing bored, static faces in the crowd for the first time. Fortunately, “I’m Shipping Up To Boston” brings the party back before the end of the set. I’ve never seen such passion for a missing wooden leg, as the crowd goes nuts, with crowd surfers from all directions riding above the waves of the crowd. All parties appear to have legs intact, so that’s good.
Headliners Sum-41 were a bit of a quandary for me. The first album was an important soundtrack to my late teens/ early 20s and I saw them play in Leeds twice in 2002, but I haven’t listened to their music since Does This Look Infected from the same year.
A bit of pre-show research suggested they have had seven further releases, including 2019s Order In Decline, but in the spirit of openness, I’ve not felt inspired to check these out.
The band come out to a stage with blood-soaked Marshall speaker cabinets, a giant skull, jets of fire and “Motivation” from the first album, All Killer, No Filler. More people than I expected are really into it, though competition with Deaf Havana and the Nova Twins is limited and the other stages have closed.
The stage is set for a night of big rock and I’d like to say I invested more effort into rediscovering Sum 41, but too much sun, too much beer and a designated driver who wanted to beat the traffic meant we made an early exit.
American Thrills grabbed my attention about a year ago thanks to one of those pesky Instagram ads that everyone seems to despise. For once, I’m thankful one of those scrolled across my screen because it introduced me to another New England punk band to obsess over (and another possible candidate for my upper-arm collection of […]
American Thrills grabbed my attention about a year ago thanks to one of those pesky Instagram ads that everyone seems to despise. For once, I’m thankful one of those scrolled across my screen because it introduced me to another New England punk band to obsess over (and another possible candidate for my upper-arm collection of New England punk tattoos).
It was their Discount Casket EP that gave me a little taste of what these guys had to offer. The only problem was I was left craving more, something a full-length could only satisfy. Luckily, my cravings were satisfied after a relatively short wait, and when I say satisfied, I mean that these dudes released a fuckin’ ripper.
Their recent release Parted Ways hints at the familiar Northeast sounds of the Gaslight Anthem and the Menzingers (who coincidentally were competitors of the same time slot during Fest 20) that many have compared AT to, yet they play their own unique brand of punk rock that I was glad to see added to the always reputable Wiretap Records lineup, one I can always count on the turn out stellar under-the-radar artists.
It was truly a pleasure to shoot the shit with 50% of one of my recent favorite Limp Bizkit-loving bands. These dudes have put out two EPs and a full-length that are truly worth checking out. Parted Ways is linked below, followed by the awesome chat I had with Jamie and Jeff. Cheers!
(Editor’s note: The following has been edited and condensed for clarity’s sakebecause a good chunk of this interview was just three guys shooting the shit.)
Dying Scene (Nathan Kernell NastyNate): Hey, it’s great to talk with you guys. I’ve followed you guys for quite a bit, I think right before Discount Casket came out. So yeah, I wanted to get started and talk to you guys obviously about the new record. Starting off, was this just like a collection of songs that you guys kind of built up and you’re just like ‘okay now we’ve got enough for a record’ or did you sit down with the end goal of like ‘let’s write enough stuff to release a full-length’?
Jamie Otfinoski: You know we wanted to write a full-length, but we did it kind of segmentally, we would do like chunks of songs and it was just a process. We would have demos we’d start to work on, then we’d jump to something else, then like come back to it. But ultimately the end goal was like ‘let’s put out a fuckin’ full length’. Because from my perspective, a lot of bands today do like single after single after single, and I get that because there’s like a method to the madness with like Spotify and all that shit, but at the end of the day like the bands I’m really into, like I’m into a record. I want a whole fuckin’ record and listen to a band to really get the vibe of the band.
Right, I get that. With you guys, you kind of released a single at a time leading up to the record, right, then you put out the whole thing?
Jamie: Yeah we did like four or five singles then we dropped like the last four songs all at once. And once again, that’s the whole thing with the internet, like Spotify and trying to build buzz, they want you to do singles. But ultimately we wanted to roll them into some sort of full-length so people could like sit down and check out our band with a little more than just like one song here and there.
So that was kind of a different approach from these previous eps you released?
Jamie: Yeah, you know we really wanted to, like we did two EPs, we’re like ‘we really wanna go all in and do a full-length’. And the guys at Wiretap were down to work with us on it which was totally rad and it made it that much more awesome. But we wanted to do something full and cohesive where we could do vinyl and finally put out like our first full-length record.
So what was the songwriting approach on this? Do you guys have one main songwriter or is it more of a team effort, what’s that look like?
Jamie: So Kurt, our vocalist/ guitarist, he kind of like, I wanna say he takes some of the reins. We always have a group text going and Kurt will like come up with a chunk of a song and go like ‘hey, check out this chorus?’. And then what we’ll do is we’ll get together and practice and we’ll kind of just like start playing it and rolling until we’re like ‘oh, that’s cool, what’s a cool verse to follow’ or vice versa. It’s like a collective approach, but somebody’s always bringing stuff to the table. Same thing with Paul, the other guitarist, he’ll have like a cool riff, he’ll lay it down and then we’ll turn that riff into a song. So it’s collective, but the two guitarists are kind of bringing the big chunks to practices.
So is there kind of a theme with this new record?
Jamie: You know, we’re like a bunch of old salty dudes that kind of like hate our hometown…
Jeff Wielk: I wouldn’t say hate…
Jamie: We don’t hate it, but you know, we don’t love it either. You know the record’s about like getting older, losing friends, losing family, you know just being disheartened by the people we kind of grew up with who maybe ended up turning out to be maybe not who we thought they would be. It’s just a theme of like get the hell out of our hometown, you know we’re old and salty.
Are you guys born and raised up there [in Connecticut]?
Jamie: Born and raised, yeah.
Jeff: Yeah all of us, we’re from the same hometown originally.
Jamie: You know up here in the North, we talk crap about our community, but ultimately, Connecticut’s not a bad place to grow up, kind of expensive I guess. But outside of that, it’s good people, it’s what we’re used to.
Jeff: We definitely could’ve grown up somewhere worse. New England’s got some great music.
Jamie: That’s the one thing about Connecticut too is like, the tours they come and they play in New York and then they skip Connecticut and play Boston. So we’re like right in the middle, you gotta either drive to New York or Boston to see the shows, nobody wants to play Connecticut.
So yeah, I wanted to talk now about specific tracks here. My favorite track off the record was “Ivy League Swing,” and I wanted to talk about what the songwriting for that looked like, the meaning behind it, some of its background.
Jeff: Paul, uh, wrote that initial riff in the beginning after the song starts with singing. And that first riff, that was like the first thing to come out for that song.
Jamie: That was one that Paul brought to the table and was like ‘I have this really cool guitar riff, let’s make it into a song’. We heard it and we were jazzed up on it and just kind of melded its way into that tune.
So this is more of a ‘me’ question, something I’m always curious about. What’s your guys’ songwriting look like, like how does it work; do you guys come up with like riffs first and then lyrics later, or I know some guys start with lyrics and then kind of build the song around it. It’s something I’ve always struggled with, how to kind of progress through writing a song.
Jamie: It goes both ways; sometimes Kurt will come to the table with like some lyrics over a little riff or a chorus and then we’ll expand on it, where other times, like that song “Ivy League Swing,” Paul actually came with a riff. He’s the guitarist, he doesn’t put the vocals over it, so Kurt kind of took the riff, changed it a little bit, and was able to make it into a song, put lyrics over it. Yeah it actually goes both ways with us, but I’d say for the most part, like 75% of the time, Kurt will have like some part of the song that has some sort of vocal guitar part together and we’ll just build off of it.
Jeff: Yeah like the main hook or whatever…
Yeah like I said, I’ve kind of heard it both ways and I’m always curious with everybody I talk to, I like asking that.
Jeff: Yeah I think it’s mostly instrumental. I’m 90% sure that Kurt kind of comes up with the lyrics afterwards.
So yeah “Ivy League Swing,” that’s my favorite track off the record. What about you guys, you guys have a favorite?
Jeff: Yeah, “Interpretation.” It’s just so different from what we normally do you know. Little bit different of a time signature, I don’t know. I’m like a mid-2000s emo-core kind of guy you know *laughs*
Jamie: I like “Sinking,” when we play live, it just starts off like fast and it’s got an interesting beat to it. It’s a quick little ripper. I like those songs live, they’re just fun to play because there’s so much energy.
You guys had that album release show the other night, what, at Stonebridge? Yeah how was that?
Jamie: Yeah a good old place in our hometown.
Jeff: It’s like a towny bar…
Yeah how was the reception there?
Jamie: It was awesome. Yeah we sold the place out, maybe like 150, 170 people. It was a blast. Andy from Hot Rod Circuit came out and he did an acoustic set. Split Coils played, which is Jay also from Hot Rod Circuit, they’re incredible. And this newer Connecticut band called Shortwave was just fuckin’ awesome. I mean it was really a great time seeing you know all the friends and just having all our buddies come out to see us play our hometown, it was just an awesome thing to be a part of.
Awesome, yeah. So I wanted to talk about Fest 20 a little bit. I was down there and it was actually my first Fest, wasn’t a bad Fest to start out on for my first one I guess.
Jeff: Yeah probably the best one yet.
How was your guys’ show down there?
Jeff: It was awesome, yeah. Super sick.
Jamie: The only downside was our set was right when the Menzingers were playing, which is like tough competition there. But all our buddies came out, we had a good showing, I mean it was fun. I like the smaller venues at Fest. Like I go to the big venues, like I go to Bo Diddley and I watch these bands, but I love seeing bands at like these smaller venues, like Loosey’s, and, where’d we play this year…
Jeff: Palomino, it was awesome.
Jamie: You like pack it out with a hundred people in there and it’s just awesome.
Yeah I think my favorite show from the entire thing was the Dopamines over at the Wooly. That was insane. Do you guys have a favorite set from Fest?
Jeff: This Fest I made it a point, I never even went to Bo Diddley. I never made it there this year. I made it a point to see like not big bands you know. So yeah, my favorite set, there’s this band, I wanna say they’re from Atlanta, and they’re called Seagulls. Dude that band was literally insane. And another set, they’re called You Vandal, they’re from Gainesville, their set was sick. They also did an AFI cover set.
Yeah I kind of agree with what you guys were saying about the smaller venue vibe, it kind of got overwhelming. Like here in Nashville, any of the punk shows, they’re all real intimate, not a lot of people there usually, they’re never sold out. So going to like Bo Diddley it’s a little overwhelming, like I’m seeing Avail but I’m all the way in the fuckin’ back, you know. But seeing like Dopamines, that’s more of what I’m used to. It was cool seeing these bands in these smaller venues that I’ve kind of idolized forever.
So then circling back to Wiretap, how’d you guys get on there, can you walk me through that a little bit?
Jamie: So you know, I’ve always liked a lot of the bands on there, like I’ve had a vinyl from like Spanish Love Songs and all these bands that I’ve followed and looked up to. And some newer bands too are on the label, American Television, some like kind of local guys that are just awesome. So we hit up Rob, we sent him something, we sent him like “Discount Casket” and he was like ‘hey, this is really cool, I wanna put this on …’ he does like a bimonthly charity comp towards like a good cause. He put that on one of his comps. And we were like ‘ oh cool, we’ll keep in touch.’ So then as we started kind of sitting down and putting tracks together for the full-length, we just hit him up again and we’re like ‘hey, we’re thinking about putting out a record, we’re gonna put it out hopefully before Fest. Are you interested?’. But Rob was really like gung-ho and down for it and got us rolling really early on. He was just a great guy to work with, I mean Wiretap has put out so many great releases and he’s so involved with like the scene and a lot of great charity efforts; he’s just overall a great dude in so many ways. So we’re happy to work with him and we’re lucky that we get the chance to put out a record with him.
Yeah I can’t remember when I realized you guys were on Wiretap, but I was happy to see you guys on there because they always have a real solid lineup, everybody on Wiretap I always love.
Jamie: Yeah it’s great.
So you mentioned the Menzingers down at Fest and your guys’ set times clashing, and when I first started listening to you guys, I immediately started getting Gaslight Anthem and Menzingers vibes. I think it was with Punk Rock Theory that they talked about sounding like GA also. But coming from your point of view, what are your guys influences?
Jamie: We get a lot of the Gaslight Anthem, I don’t know, maybe Kurt’s vocals and kind of in that vein. You know, we were in like old school pop-punk bands in the early 2000s, you know we grew up on bands like Hot Rod Circuit, the Get-Up Kids, and kind of like that genre of bands. But more recently, I’ve personally listened to a lot of the Gaslight Anthem, the Menzingers, they all kind of fall into the mix too. So I like to think we’re somewhere in between like those bands and that original scene with all the like emo punky bands. Some sort of blend of the two, I hope, maybe.
So what about a tour, do you guys have anything planned coming up for promoting the record?
Jamie: We’re trying to get something together for the Spring. We have a show coming up, but we’re gonna kind of lay low for the Winter and the holidays. We have a show coming up in January with Teenage Halloween, one of the local bands up here. Awesome if you don’t know those guys, they’re from Jersey actually, incredible. And then we’re trying to get something together for the Spring, we’re talking to some of our buddies around here to do a few dates, but we’re just trying to get everything together, we don’t have anything set in stone quite yet.
So Jamie, you’re the surgeon right?
So how do you juggle that with playing shows like that; how do you juggle having enough time with your band and with work because when I hear ‘surgeon’ you kind of think like 80-hour work weeks, crazy work times, no time off.
Jamie: When I was in residency doing all my training stuff, I wouldn’t be able to do what we do now. But now that I’m in private practice, I’m in a good group, I’m on reasonable call schedule. And they’re all supportive of what I do, they think it’s cool. But it is a balancing act with like trying to book shows and playing out around the call schedule. You know all of us are in like our mid-30s to late-30s, so we’re all like career, kids, jobs. So we get out there when we can, just little tours and runs, try to get down to Fest every year. But you know, I don’t see us going out for like a month on the road. We’re kind of weekend warriors at this point.
So a little off-topic, but let’s talk Limp Bizkit here *laughs*.
Jeff: Oh yeah that’s why we’re here!
In your Fest bio, you were called a Limp Bizkit cover band. Give me some background on that.
Jamie: You know *laughs*, we listen to Limp Bizkit. We grew up in the 90s…
Jeff: My first band was a straight-up nu metal band…
Jamie: Dude he was straight up playing Korn covers. You know like people shit all over these bands, we grew up on this stuff and we love this stuff, we embrace this stuff. As much as I like the Gaslight Anthem, I’ll spin a Limp Bizkit record too.
Jeff: Think about this, how many hardcore kids in the late 90s hated Slipknot, but those same hardcore kids now love Slipknot. Yeah I don’t know…
Jamie: With Limp Biskit it’s kind of like a funny thing, but we really like Limp Bizkit and people are just joking around like shitting on it. We listen to Limp Bizkit and we want everyone to know, we’re just trying to put that out there *laughs*.
Right that’s confidence right there *laughs*. Most people are too proud to admit it.
Jeff: Their newest record is fire man.
I’ve heard bits and pieces and it’s not bad. Well that about covers everything I think, I really wanted to hit hard on the new record, hopefully this can help promote it a little bit. We’ve actually been steadily seeing reader numbers rise since the relaunch, especially with that blink-182 thing a while back.
Jamie: Yeah Dying Scene used to be the shit man. Yeah back in the day it was like Absolute Punk, and then Punknews was always there, and then Dying Scene. They were like the three big ones. At least outside of like AP and all that shit I don’t really care about. All the bands I liked were on those sites, that’s where I was checking to find the new stuff. Glad you guys are back.
Yeah I appreciate you guys sitting down with me.
Jamie: Yeah thanks for reaching out and talking with us man, we appreciate it.
At least from a new music perspective, it’s been a bit since we’ve heard from Cory Branan. The criminally-underrated Memphian singer-songwriter-guitar-virtuoso released his last studio record, Adios, on Bloodshot Records back in April 2017. For most artists who’ve found themselves making anything resembling a career in the music industry, the cycle typically goes a little […]
At least from a new music perspective, it’s been a bit since we’ve heard from Cory Branan. The criminally-underrated Memphian singer-songwriter-guitar-virtuoso released his last studio record, Adios, on Bloodshot Records back in April 2017. For most artists who’ve found themselves making anything resembling a career in the music industry, the cycle typically goes a little something like this: write an album, record an album, tour an album, lather, rinse, repeat every couple of years ad infinitum. Branan made it through at least two of three stages on the Adios cycle but then, well, then life got in the way. That’s not to say that he was holed up in Tennessee twiddling his thumbs for the last half-decade; far from it, in fact. It’s just that there was the whole thing about the demise of his former label (Google it…or don’t), the demise of his marriage, the ongoing responsibility of parenting a couple of kids…oh, and there was that whole thing with the plague.
And so fast-forward to the present day and we find Branan awaiting the imminent release of his sixth studio album. It’s called When I Go, I Ghost and it’s due out this Friday (October 14th) on a brand new label (Blue Elan Records) and it’s good. Real good. Overwhelmingly good. And I say that as someone that was familiar with more than half of the record through a combination of live performances and streaming events and digital-only compilations put together during the quarantiniest days of the pandemic. It’s got all of the hallmarks of classic Branan: detailed storytelling filled with his patented razor-sharp, quick-witted evil streak, varied sonic feels and textures that invoke the best parts of 70s (and, I suppose, 90s) album radio, massive, death-defying guitar riffs and a level of musicality that somehow takes more twists and turns than the lyrics they provide the soundscape for. It’s just that the highs are higher and the lows are lower and the textures are…texturier.
When I Go, I Ghost is comprised largely of songs written prior to the Covid pandemic. The years immediately prior to the shutdown found Branan changing up the way he had worked for the first decade-plus of his career. More specifically, he worked himself into the habit of writing increasingly while he was on the road in the years leading up to the plague breakout. It was not, at first, a skill that came naturally. “I would normally write when I got home off the road because I’d be restless,” Branan explains. Having young kids, however, allows a different outlet for that restlessness. “When I had kids, and especially when Clem came along…I’d want to get off the road and just catch up. Like “who’s this kid? He’s a completely different kid than he was when I left three weeks ago!”
Eventually, Branan forced himself to change his routine. “I find that if I get up in the morning, before I start the car, if I just start making connections and looking at things around me and actually seeing, you know, instead of just driving down the road, then I can write.” The new methodology worked well, to the extent that in the lead-up to the pandemic, Branan was especially prolific. “I had a good year…I wrote like fifty songs, which is how I wrote when I first started writing (music). I hadn’t written like that in a long time.”
That prolific tour-based writing period obviously came to a screeching halt along with the rest of the music industry and, frankly, the rest of real life in early 2020 with the dawn of the COVID pandemic. But that doesn’t mean that Branan sat idly by waiting for things to reopen. In addition to hosting a weekly Instagram Live-based chat show called UMM… that found him chatting with songwriting buddies like Brian Fallon and Ben Nichols and Amanda Shires, Branan also put out a series of five B-sides/glorified demos/oddities compilations called Quarantunes: Now That’s What I Call Isolation, taught online guitar lessons (to people like my brother), worked on his drum machine/synth skills, and set up his own home-based recording rig.
Skip ahead a bit and it was time to hit the actual studio with a virtual treasure trove of material to pick from. As mentioned above, Branan had already been playing a handful of the new tracks live, and if you’ve ever caught the Cory Branan live show more than, say, once, you’re no doubt aware that each song continues to take on a life of its own the more it gets played, and it’s probable that you’ve never heard the same song played the same way twice. “You know me,” says Branan, “I’ve gotta keep myself interested on stage, so I tend to take ‘em out and play ‘em.”
And so even if you’ve gotten familiar with a newer song like “Oh, Charlene” or “Pocket Of God,” that doesn’t mean you really know the song until you hear it on When I Go, I Ghost, complete with the full scope of sonic textures and layers of instrumentation. As an aside or an editor’s note or whatever you want to call it, even though you’ve maybe heard his Quarantunes track “Stepping Outside” – a damn-near perfect tune about a literal ghost who is leaving his own funeral – and expected that it would obviously be on an album called When I Go, I Ghost, you’d be wrong. Probably too on-the-nose, but that’s why I don’t pretend I’m a songwriter.
Though he might play most songs live accompanied only by a guitar, they tend to be written with a much larger sound in mind. “Usually as I’m writing, I hear them a certain way, and it’s almost always more fleshed out,” Branan explains, adding in a way that’s both charmingly sweet and hauntingly morbid (which, I guess, sums up a lot of his songwriting), “when I’m dead and gone, I would like for the songs to live on in the form that I hear them in my head.” While getting in the studio might open up a song to added creativity when it comes to instrumentation and overall feel of a song, the song itself already exists, at least in Branan’s brain. “I don’t just want a skeleton, I want all the clothes and the flesh on it, and I want it to be able to tell a story musically, rhythmically, lyrically (when) stripped down to just a guitar and me, then when we take it to the studio it’s just fun.”
While Branan obviously had a lot of personal experience to pull from during the ongoing songwriting process, divorce namely, a cursory listen to When I Go, I Ghost will reveal that, as is par for the course with much of his catalog, many of the songs are not outwardly personal. Some writers have that thing where they’re very clearly writing about their own experiences, but they do so in a way that it’s relatable to the listener. A personal favorite of mine in that area who travels in many of the same circles as Branan is Dave Hause. Branan, for his part, tends to agree. “He derails mystique, you know? Dave’s music is great because it goes outward and it’s useful. “He’s like ‘here’s an example of my thing, but it’s really for all of us; it’s all of our thing.” Branan has a habit of building characters and putting them in sometimes compromising or less-than-desirable positions, almost creating mini four-minute sonic movies. “I’m not a confessional writer,” he states, adding “I think only one song, “That Look I Lost,” deals with (divorce) pretty straight, but even then, I made the music undercut the sadness of the song. I wanted that Motown thing where it’s kind of a triumphant sadness.”
When pushed a little more on the topic, Branan explains somewhat coyly that “I just don’t interest myself very much,” adding “I’m as narcissistic as the next person that stands on the stage with a microphone, but I just don’t find my life or whatever else to be that extraordinary.” Instead of writing confessional-type narratives, Branan is able to turn his experiences into something constructive nonetheless; it’s just in a different form. “I do find that if I make something out of my emotions or construct something out of it and form it…into a shape that’s outside myself, I can pour all of that into it.”
Much of that character-building and storytelling traces its way back a number of years, although not in a typical songwriting way, as the forty-seven-year-old Branan is quick to point out that while he has been playing guitar since he was thirteen, he didn’t write his first song until he was almost twenty-five. Instead, he shouts out one particular teacher who helped pave the way for the raconteur he became. “I had a really great creative writing teacher in high school, Miss Evelyn Sims,” he explains. “I was just fucking off in school and she was like “here, I know you’re not interested in what we’re doing, so here’s some Henry Miller.” She sorta steered me into stuff she knew I’d be interested in.“
Branan hits the road later this week for the first of the When I Go, I Ghost tour, a run that’ll take him pretty much through the end of the year. And strange as it might be to think about on the eve of the release of his first studio album in more than five years, he’s looking forward to the long drives and the time they’ll give him to start crafting new characters and stories to help make sense of the last few years in a new and different way that might be beneficial to people in his own unique way. “I personally use music like that. It’s gotten me through a lot,” he explains. “That’s my highest goal, to have these little things that are useful.“
Pre-order bundles for When I Go, I Ghost in a variety of different options are still available here; get ’em while they’re hot! You can also find the latest on Cory’s tour schedule (including a bunch of solo dates and a run with American Aquarium) right here. Scroll a little further and you can read our full Q&A. Unlike the first time Cory and I spoke for an interview story, I actually didn’t forget to hit “record” this time!
(Editor’s note: The following has been edited and condensed for clarity’s sake. Also I tried to find the eight-year-old story that I wrote around the release of Cory’s The No-Hit Wonder album based on an interview we did at an Irish bar he was playing in New Hampshire, but it seems to be lost to the annals of internet history.)
Dying Scene (Jay Stone): So how are you? It’s good to chat with you again. I have to say congratulations on the new record. I’ve been a fan for a long time obviously and I’ve known probably half the record already, whether through Quarantunes or from seeing you live a few times the last couple of years, and even still, I was floored by how the album came out. It is REALLY good.
Cory Branan: Yeah it was fun! The songs have been around a piece, I had a bunch of other ones too, but this just sort of felt like a batch that was kind of kin to each other. But you know me, as soon as I write them I start playing them, so people know them by the time they come out. I don’t know another way to do it, you know? I’ve gotta keep myself interested on stage, so I tend to take ‘em out and play ‘em.
Yeah, but they tend to find a new life. I think it’s fair to say that if someone has seen you more than twice, not only have you heard a different set but every song doesn’t sound the same every time you do it. You tend to chase them a bit. Like, there’s a couple on this record that I feel like I’ve heard a bunch from Quarantunes – because those were such fun records – maybe “Room 101” and “Angels In The Details” that are such different songs that it took me a bit to recognize them. When you’re writing a song, do you have in your head “okay, I know I’m going to have to play it like this, but ultimately I know what I want it to sound like in a bigger format, or does some of that difference come out of chasing the song while you’re performing?
Usually as I’m writing I hear them a certain way, and it’s almost always more fleshed out. I play solo out of necessity, you know? Fiscal necessity. And so, when I’m dead and gone, I would like for the songs to live on in the form that I sort of hear them in my head. But then again, I go in the studio and I try to stay interested in the music. I’ve heard these songs (*both laugh*). So that one in particular, “Angels In the Details,” I wrote a nice little melody finger-picked on the guitar, and on this record, some of those finger-picking things I gave to other things. There’s a synth part there, there’s strings…to me it’s like, well, I wrote the melody, who gives a shit what instrument it’s on. (*both laugh*) To me, it’s more interesting and engaging in the song if that gets switched over to a synth or this or that. I approach it more as a musician rather than as a ‘singer-songwriter.’ I have ambitions a little bit beyond strumming the old acoustic guitar (*both laugh*).
Don’t get me wrong, some of my favorite things are people standing there delivering stripped-down songs. But that’s how I know I have a song. If I went in and built these songs in layers and layers and stacked stuff on each other and added some lyrics and went out there with an acoustic guitar, I’d be playing and it would be like “oh shit, there’s not a song under here.” (*both laugh*) I don’t just want a skeleton, I want all the clothes and the flesh on it and I want it to be able to tell a story musically, rhythmically, lyrically, stripped down to just a guitar and me, and then it the studio, it’s just fun.
I feel like sometimes it changes the context of the song too. I feel like “Angels In the Details” especially, I (think) I heard it differently because of all the instrumentation. It paints a bit of a different picture when it’s just you and an acoustic guitar. Or even an electric? I feel like you’ve done that one solo on the Telecaster when you’ve played it live.
Yeah, I do ‘em all on different nights on different instruments. I might bring this piano out too this time and just sorta move around. I just have to stay interested in them. They do work their way into new iterations on the road and I find different things about them. Even once they’re done, like, I’m learning all these songs on piano and I’m just like “AWWW! I blew it!” Like “Pocket of God” (*plays riff on keyboard*) it’s like “oh crap!” All I’m doing is the guitar riff in the song and it’s really low, I’ve got the strings accenting it, I’m like “oh man, that would have been such a good little thing on piano, I should have accentuated it.”
See but that sorta changes the image that you have of the narrator in that song too if it’s just you and a guitar versus just you and that little synth riff. Like, I feel like I tend to see a lot of your songs visually because of the way that you build imagery into the song…
…so you start to put together a picture of the guy that’s singing that song, because obviously it’s not you. Or maybe it is…
No, that one’s not me. I’m a piece of shit, but not like that piece of shit (*both laugh*).
And that’s a thing we can get into later – not the being a piece of shit part, but the sort of thing that we do as listeners where we make the narrator of the song the writer of the song, where we don’t do that for, say, filmmakers necessarily –
Or almost any other art.
And it’s sort of unfair that we do that to musicians that we do that.
Unless…so many musicians use that mythos for mystique and stuff. That’s never interested me personally, but some people make whole careers out of that, and their songs being them, that whole thing.
You mean Springsteen? (*both laugh*) I love Bruce Springsteen, I really do, but…
He works in stories, He came to represent things that were bigger than himself, yeah. But he works in stories. But your Joni Mitchell’s and people like that…some people come to expect a confessional…
And some guys, well, not just guys, but some songwriters do that. They are writing their lived experience and sort of explaining it to you in a way you can relate to. I think Dave Hause does that super well. A lot of Dave Hause’s material is about his life, he doesn’t necessarily create a lot of characters, but he’s really good at tapping into that “thing.”
Yeah, and it’s great. He’s good too because he derails mystique, you know? I like it when people write about their life but they make it outward facing to where it’s useful for everybody else. To me that’s a dead end, when you’re writing about your life but you’re only pointing it back at yourself. Dave’s music is great because it goes out and it’s useful. He’s like “here’s an example of my thing, but it’s really for all of us, it’s all of our ‘thing,” you know? I like that. I don’t do that very much personally, but I can appreciate that.
Do you think that’s a…I don’t want to say a “skill” thing because “skill” isn’t the right word to use there…but do you think that’s just a thing that some people do better? Like, they have that “thing” where they can write about personal things that way where some people are better at creating characters and telling stories…
I don’t know, I think it’s just that sometimes you have your natural dispositions, you know? Your inclinations. I haven’t thought about it a whole lot and when I start to think about things like that (*both laugh*) it’s detrimental to creating, I find. I just try to not think. And honestly, for me, I try to not exist. I’ve said it before, but I just don’t interest myself that much, you know? And I’m as narcissistic as the next person that stands on the stage with a microphone, but I just don’t find my life or whatever else to be that extraordinary, you know? But I do find that if I make something out of my emotions or construct something out of it and form it into a shape – into art, really – into a shape that’s outside of myself, I can pour all of that into it, and then it’s in a shape that it’s hard to knock over. It’s something that can be taken and, ideally, used. Because I personally used music like that. It got me through a lot, you know? Five times a week I sing that Petty line “most things I worry about never happen anyway”! I might as well have it tattooed on my forehead. That’s my highest goal, to have these little things that are useful.
When did you realize that that part was a thing that you did particularly well? I think it’s one thing to be a guitar player and to come up as a kid learning how to play guitar and to understand that you’ve been building skills and that you’re a pretty good player. But when did you realize that you could write like that pretty well, and that you could create those sorts of characters and narrative things, did that come from writing music, or did that come from writing in general in school?
Probably writing in general, but I didn’t write a song til I was almost 25, and I’ve played guitar since I was thirteen. But yeah…I had a really great creative writing teacher in high school, Miss Evelyn Sims, she was wonderful. I was just fucking off in school and she was like “here, I know you’re not interested in what we’re doing, (*both laugh*) here’s Henry Miller…” She sorta steered me into stuff she knew I’d be interested in. I loved to read, I’ve always loved poetry. I love the conciseness of poetry, and when I started seeing writers that could do that, your Guy Clarks or your Leonard Cohens, their songs are like Yates poems or something, you know? I always enjoyed that. It might be because I did it relatively late in my youth, so I don’t have a lot of embarrassing solipsistic things. I mean, not that I had my shit straightened out at twenty-five (*both laugh*).
Yeah, you might be in a different place if you wrote songs when you were fifteen. That’s a different trajectory.
Exactly. They would have been much more self-absorbed and much less usable and user-friendly.
I know you sorta got into the habit of writing a lot on the road.
Yeah, I had to sorta train myself to do that, because I never did it at first.
I don’t remember if that’s a thing that we’ve talked about before or if I’ve just seen you talk about it, but was that the last few years before the pandemic that that started? And is that where a lot of these songs came from?
Yeah, absolutely. I have talked about it before, but I used to not write on the road because I’ve mostly toured solo, so it’s just work getting from place to place. I would normally write when I got home off the road because I’d be restless, but when I had kids, and especially when Clem came along – because my daughter from a previous relationship is in Tulsa – when we had Clem, I’d want to get off the road and just catch up. Like “who’s this kid? He’s a completely different kid than he was when I left three weeks ago!” So I had to teach myself to write on the road. I would systematically; I find that if I get up in the morning, before I start the car, if I just start making connections and looking at things around me and actually seeing, you know, instead of just driving down the road. If I start connecting separate things in that mind-frame, then I can write. I had a good year (before the pandemic); I wrote like 50 songs, which is how I wrote when I first started writing. I hadn’t written like that in a long time. That turned out to be good because the plague happened (*both laugh*) and I was too busy learning how to mix and record at home so I could do those Quarantunes records and so I could pay the bills and shit. So fortunately I had a good run! I went in to demo those songs up; I did a batch of like thirty of them and I trickled some of those demos out on those Quarantunes records.
Were those things you were demoing just with your setup or did you go into the studio?
No, that was before I even had my setup. I went in before quarantine to the old Sam Phillips studio with Matt Ross-Spang, before he moved into his own place there.
Oh man, it is world-class. It’s so gorgeous. It’s amazing. I dropped in when Ben and his daughter came in to do that synth record. I dropped in when she was singing on it, and it is so good.
I’m really looking forward to hearing that.
It’s really good! When I did that tour with Ben, we were drunk back at the hotel and he was like “listen to this!” We listened to the whole thing twice. It’s not mixed or anything, but man, it was fun.
It’s interesting that for a guy who rather notoriously says he cannot be harmonized with…although maybe that’s just a matter of not wanting Brian and John C. singing. (*both laugh*)
She sings some in unison a lot too. Their voices are different registers, but man she can really sing. It’s great. It’s so cool, and I’m just so jealous of it. I’ve tried to get Clem to make music with me…like, I’ve got my whole room tricked out, and he likes to dance and stuff, so I’ve got a drum machine and I’ve got all these hue lights set up and I turned it into fun town room and nope…I can’t get him to hang and make music with me. He’s got his own world with Pokemon and tae kwon do now, which is great. But Ben getting to make music with his daughter, I’m just like “oh I am so jealous!” (*both laugh*)
And I wonder if that’s an age thing too.
It probably is. Clem’s too young.
Yeah, and they’re always going to not like what their parents like for a while.
Well, what his dad likes. (*both laugh*) He likes everything his mom likes for now. I’m sure it’ll flip-flop in his teens, but we’ll see.
There are actually a couple of songs that I know either from the live show or from Quarantunes that I’m surprised weren’t on the record. “Steppin Outside” I think is chief among them. I think that song is brilliant from start to finish. I think the whole perspective of the song and the way that you tell the story, and musically as well, I think it’s perfect. So I’m surprised that song wasn’t on the record. There are others like “Teeny Says” is a cool song, “Me and Your Mom n’Em” is a fun song but I can see where maybe those don’t fit. What went into the math of what made the final eleven?
Well, there’s actually fourteen. There’s three we pulled just because they don’t fit on the vinyl so they’ll come out on the deluxe thing. They’ll just go right up on the internet, it’s not like I’m trying to charge people twice for anything. You know, I never write records that fit sonically, but thematically, they’re all in one way or another dealing with a sort of restlessness and stasis – and I wrote the bulk of them before the plague, you know? But leading up to the old lady and I getting a divorce, that might have informed it a bit. Again, I’m not a confessional writer, I think only one song, “That Look I Lost,” deals with it pretty straight, but even then, I made the music undercut the sadness of the song. I wanted that Motown thing where it’s kind of a triumphant sadness. But in general there’s some things I was dealing with, and some stories just resonated with me. Yeah, that “Steppin’ Outside” song is an okay song. One of these days, I’ll probably do a record with sort of those types of songs; relatively traditional songs with fresher angles. I have some other songs like that. That particular song was just odd man out. There were a lot of those.
Well, when you have fifty songs to choose from…
Well, that was just that batch, I have some old ones laying around too. That batch was all over the place, and I just sort of found the ones that were kin. And the ones that we pulled, I think the record is better with them, but they are reiterations of themes. There’s one that Adam Lazzara sings on and it’s one of the darker ones, but it’s sort of a reiteration of not so much the vitriol of a “When I Leave Here” but it’s sort of a psychotic song, and I was like “well, I’ve already covered that area.” And then the other two, I put “Son Of Mine” on there and I put “Gatlinburg” on there, and we cut them relatively roots. “Gatlingburg” is like a fucking Glen Campbell kind of thing. And “Son of Mine” is like The Beatles doing country music. They were fun, and I think they came out great, but they were pretty jarring.
And I like jarring from song to song, but they were going to have to be placed right on the album, and I found that since I was going to have to pull some for vinyl anyway, I would just do the eleven. And actually, I was going to just do ten but it needed a breather right towards the end, so I put that “Come On If You Wanna Come” on there which is a lighter one. Some of the themes are still there in the verses and stuff like that, but the record itself is like “I’m going out, come on if you wanna come.” It’s a very, very simple tune, and I was just thought the record is very dense, like I tend to do, and it needed a little bit of an opening thing right before it got to the closer.
I’m really curious to listen to it with the three additional songs now. I’ve listened to the eleven-song version more in the last week than I’ve listened to most albums in most weeks, so now I have this image of the album in my head and now it’s going to completely change when the three extra songs get added on.
I like that! (*both laugh*) And I think that most people that form an opinion of the record before the deluxe thing comes out will understand why I chose those songs to hold back.
I tend to be a bit of a brat about that sort of stuff. When people put out B-sides and I think “this is a really great song, why wasn’t this on the record,” but then because I’m not an artist or a musician, I don’t think of the 10,000-foot view of it sometimes and how things actually fit.
That’s how I’ve always done it before. All my previous records, except for The No-Hit Wonder where I was trying to make a thirty-minute record, all the other ones are like an hour long so I’ve always had to take tracks off for the vinyl, where you can’t go over thirty-eight or forty minutes. So I’ve always just taken them off but put them out on the CDs or put them out (digitally) with the initial release. Nowadays you’ve got to fool the algorithm gods, because the record is DOA. Everything is pre-ordered, all the press is right before it comes out, then six months later nobody talks about a record anymore; there’s no longevity. So you see more people putting deluxe things out. Originally I was just going to be like “well, I’ll just put out some of those demos that nobody’s heard, throw some acoustic demos on.” And then I was just like “no, let’s just make a tight thirty-eight or forty-minute record and then add those songs as a deluxe thing to fool our algorithm lords.
When does tour kick-offfor this particular run? Next week, yeah?
I leave the thirteenth and the album comes out the fourteenth. I’ll be out for the rest of the year with little breaks here and there. I take January off and then I think I go back out in February.
What was the longest that you went during the plague without playing in front of people?
All of it until we got that first false “all clear,” so I guess June of last year. I started touring a bit then, and I’ve done like three or four tours almost with like every new strain.
Has it been good getting back out there, and I say that knowing obviously that it’s good because that’s why people do it, but was it nervous at first getting back out?
Nope, it’s great. I love it. I need it. I mean, it’s a fiscal necessity, but I enjoy it. Everything between getting off stage one night and getting back on stage the next night in the next town is a pain in the ass, but those two hours on stage is the only therapy I get. It’s great. Things changed obviously, a lot of clubs didn’t hang on, the road is really competitive because everyone is trying to tour. The paradigm shifts a little bit here and there, but honestly this whole business has changed out from under me three times since I started. I started right around the time of Napster (*both laugh*) so now we’re in the Spotify era and that genie’s not going back in the bottle. It’s not like people are going to say “oh I can have all of those songs for only ten dollars, let me start buying records again!”
I really miscalculated that, because I thought that people would still buy records. People still bought records when the radio was free and when cassette tapes existed.
Everything gets more niche, you know? So you have your fans and they have to, unfortunately, be more supportive. They come to the shows and they buy the records on vinyl even though they maybe have the record digitally already. But it’s great. I’m not hanging sheetrock, so it beats that.
I was reading that interview we did eight years ago and we talked about how it seemed like there are a lot of little clubs that weren’t hanging on so the market was becoming more competitive for the smaller, 90 to 200-capacity clubs, and I thought “boy, if we only knew!”
Yeah! “It’s gonna get a lot worse!” It’s all gonna be LiveNation eventually and all the radio is going to be ClearChannel. But again, music is always going to come from the ground up and the interesting stuff will exist in pockets of isolation and as a reaction to that stuff. It’s not going to stop, it just makes it harder for the average music fan to be exposed to things. It’s like trying to dip a glass in the ocean to get a glass of fresh water, you know? Good luck! It’s just all out there in the thinnest layer of pixels. I mean, I had to search growing up in Mississippi, but I had to search because it literally wasn’t there. Maybe you had a Sam Goody in the mall or some shit, but you’d get subscriptions to the magazines that covered the bands you liked, that sort of thing. I wouldn’t want to be trying to discover new music as a young kid right now. I don’t even know where you’d start, it’s just a bombardment of information.
It’s TikTok, which is weird to say.
Yeah, and it’s sort of a race to the bottom for our attention span. It’s like “look at me! Look at me! Look at me!” And that’s the thing now, people expect you to be an artist, but they also expect you to be a full-time self-promoter. I do the social media things now and then when I want to just put a picture of my kid up now and then or say something stupid on Twitter, but I also don’t want to be promoting myself 24/7. I don’t feel good about that. But I also have a work aesthetic and I have a job, and so I try to balance that with what I’m interested in.
This may be a weird question to ask when the new album isn’t out yet, but as someone who was writing primarily on the road and then had to stop for a couple years, are you looking forward to writing again as well?
Absolutely! Absolutely, yeah. I found that last tour where I wrote a lot, I think that’s a nice balance for me. There are only so many damn audiobooks you can listen to. I’m looking forward to the long drives.
Remember back at the beginning of the pandemic when we all found ourselves with an overwhelming amount of unexpected free time and we told ourselves that we were going to be productive and work on ourselves and maybe pick up a new hobby? River Shook (who still performs as Sarah professionally and uses they/them pronouns) […]
Remember back at the beginning of the pandemic when we all found ourselves with an overwhelming amount of unexpected free time and we told ourselves that we were going to be productive and work on ourselves and maybe pick up a new hobby? River Shook (who still performs as Sarah professionally and uses they/them pronouns) is one of the small percentage of the population who actually made good on those vows. They had been fresh off yet another busy year of touring with their main project, Sarah Shook and the Disarmers, when the world shut down for all intents and purposes. Instead of resting on their laurels or rearranging the pantry 37 times or whatever other mindless pursuits some of us undertook to pass the time, Shook stayed busy writing and recording. But this wasn’t their traditional writing and recording; Sarah Shook and the Disarmers’ most recent full-length, Nightroamer, was released in February of this year on Thirty Tigers but the recording process wrapped right before the world shut down.
Shook has been writing songs for a long time and while most of us are familiar with their work primarily with the Disarmers, there’s always been an “other” pile; songs that were solid and complete and yet didn’t quite fit the Disarmers’ rabble-rousing alt-country mold. A couple of those “other” songs found their way onto Nightroamer, albeit in reworked fashion. “When we went in for our last rehearsal before we went into the studio to record Nightroamer,” Shook explains, “we hammered out arrangements and got them record-ready, and we ended up putting two songs (“I Got This” and “Been Lovin’ You”) on the record that were not intended to be Disarmers songs.”
Initially, Shook’s plan was to turn some more of the “other” tracks into more polished songs. As Shook tells it, that plan changed…and for the better. “I had a few in the works and at some point, I realized that if I changed a couple things and improved my methods in a few different ways, I could hypothetically make an entire album.” In addition to their normal role as guitar player and vocalist, Shook took to programming drums and beats and samples on their new material, with the newfound goal of keeping the material for themselves. “I sort of changed my perspective as far as being a little bit more serious and treating it more like a job instead of just something to pass the time,” Shook explains. “I have a tendency to hyperfocus, so I would wake up in the morning, make coffee, and start working, start building tracks. One of the things that I had the most fun with on that project is how many layers there are on every song. And being able to orchestrate that myself and not being accountable to anyone else, it was just me and my brain and our relationship working together to make this record happen.”
The project quickly picked up steam as Shook realized the extent of their home recording capabilities. “Realizing that (recording quality-sounding audio from their North Carolina home) was an option and knowing that I had maybe $1200 for my entire budget for the album,” Shook expounds, “I told myself that if I did absolutely everything that I could possibly do on my own, and then use all of that money to hire Ian Schreier to mix it and Brent Lambert from Kitchen Mastering to master it.” The latter point meant reuniting with the team that put the finishing touches on the Disarmers’ first two studio albums, Sidelong and Years. It was sort of an ‘if it wasn’t broke, don’t fix it’ decision, and one that they were empowered to make completely on their own. “One of the things that I love most about (this project) is that I’m not accountable to anybody. It’s all me. On one hand, it’s very liberating, and on the other hand, it’s intense, because I had to start a small business, and all of this stuff is new for me.”
The end result of those writing sessions was Mightmare. It’s a new project; stylistically, lyrically, all of the above. It’s elicited labels like “dark pop” or “sludge rock” or “brooding rock” and it’s most definitely loosely defined as ‘indie rock’ and it’s definitely a radical stylistic departure from the Disarmers and especially from River’s prior project, Sarah Shook and the Devil. And so when it came time to find a label to release the Mightmare project on, it meant looking outside the normal alt-country channels. “Kill Rock Stars was my number-one pick,” states Shook rather emphatically. If you’re going to release an indie rock album, there probably aren’t many better options, as the iconic has been home to some iconic records by the likes of Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney and The Decemberists and Mary Lou Lord.
Oh, and of course Elliott Smith, Shook’s own personal introduction to the label. “I was maybe seventeen or eighteen and a coworker at the Wegmans in Geneva, New York loaned me an Elliott Smith CD, and this was, mind you, probably the fourth or fifth CD I ever listened to that wasn’t Christian music,” she notes. Shook’s strict religious upbringing has been covered in depth in other sources (like our chat earlier this year surrounding the release of Nightroamer – check it out here), but suffice it to say that Smith’s voice and lyrics and the label’s logo served as keystone moments in the building of what became their musical foundation. “I remember seeing the Kill Rock Stars logo on the CD or on the back jacket, and that’s a name that just sticks with you. When I gave the CD back to my friend, I thanked him profusely and said “if you have any more material from this person…this is what I want to be listening to!’.”
After some initial back-and-forth, Kill Rock Stars was on board, and the album, entitled Cruel Liars, had a release date of October 14th. Next came the task of booking some record release shows. There’s one small caveat that should be fairly apparent: “I talked to my booking agent Chris Rusk, and I was just like “it’s coming out on October 14th, and we need to do like a two-week tour around it,” and Chris was like “who’s ‘we’…you don’t have a band?!?” It’s here that we remind you that save for a few bass tracks recorded by Aaron Oliva, Shook performed and recorded all of the music on Cruel Liars on their own…meaning there wasn’t exactly a “band” to take on the road. They continue: “I was like “you worry about booking the tour, I’ll worry about putting the band together. I’ve never let you down, I will have something, it’ll be awesome, I’ll make you proud!”
The rounding out of the band that became Mightmare was done during small breaks between Disarmers tour runs. Real small breaks. The first call wasn’t exactly a long-distance one; it was to none other than newer Disarmers guitar player Blake Tallent. Shook’s longtime North Carolina scene veteran friend Ash Lopez joined on bass, and after auditioning some less-than-ideal candidates for drummer, along came Ethan Standard, who was previously unknown to Shook but had played with Tallent in previous projects from time to time. What followed was a crash-course in all things Mightmare as the band prepared to head out on a two-week tour that was not only its first headlining tour, but its first-ever shows.
“Basically, the Disarmers got home from a tour and we had four days of back-to-back rehearsals with Mightmare, and then Mightmare went out for two weeks,” explains Shook. “The four days that we all had rehearsing together, we made minute changes to the arrangements, took crazy notes, and committed stuff to memory. And I’ve got to tell you, I don’t know that I’ve ever felt the anticipation and excitement that I had playing that first Mightmare show…maybe that’s because I’m sober and more present.” Shook, as followers of theirs will know, got sober a few months before the pandemic kicked off, and has been an outspoken advocate of mental health resources like Open Path Collective, in addition to being a tireless champion of LGBTQIA+ causes. While we’ve used genre labels like “indie rock” and “alt-country” and “dark pop” to categorize both Sarah Shook and the Disarmers and Mightmare throughout the course of this story, we’ve got to say that being a queer, non-binary, sober singer/songwriter and champion of mental health causes is about as “punk rock” as it gets.
You can check out Mightmare’s debut, Cruel Liars, below, and keep scrolling to read our full Q&A!
(The following Q&A has been condensed for clarity and content purposes.)
Dying Scene (Jay Stone): So thanks for chatting again! I was looking through my list a little bit ago, and it’s been roughly ten years that I’ve been doing artist interviews, and I think in the 160 or so that I’ve done (editor’s note: the actual number is 188. Yikes.) I think there is only one other time where I’ve interviewed the same person twice in the same calendar year (*both laugh*). And never for two different projects. (Editor’s note: bonus points awarded if you can guess who the other one was. It was in 2016, but that’s all you get for a hint.) So this is cool! We talked at the beginning of the year for the most recent Sarah Shook and the Disarmers album, and now we have Mightmare. I feel like I think I knew at the time that this was coming, but now that people everywhere have gotten to hear it, this is a really cool and different record!
River Shook: Thank you!
And so I have to assume that that was the goal; that stuff that ended up as Mightmare couldn’t be turned into Sarah Shook and the Disarmers songs, right?
Not necessarily. When we went in for our last rehearsal before we went into the studio to record Nightroamer, I think there were twelve songs that we had worked up, essentially. We had hammered out the arrangements for (them) and got them record-ready. We ended up putting two songs on the record that were not intended to be Disarmers songs – intended is not the right word, but they were two songs that kind of just went into the “other” pile, versus songs that are very clearly Disarmers. Those were “I Got This” and “Been Lovin’ You.” It’s interesting; I feel like I’m in this spot where writing songs that aren’t Disarmers songs is nothing new per se, but now that I have this outlet, I’m in a position where I’m learning to sort of assign songs to one project or the other. Which is interesting.
Are there other songs that became Disarmers songs over the years that didn’t necessarily start out as Disarmers songs but that you had to sort of shoehorn into the Disarmers mold? Because I feel like one of the fun things about Mightmare is that you can totally forgo any sort of semblance of a mold, really. You’re not pigeonholed into a style because it’s a brand new thing entirely.
The only song that I would say really fits into that category would be “Been Lovin’ You” and possibly “I Got This” but I guess that’s just an indication that while I was writing all of these songs that to me were very clearly falling under the Disarmers umbrella, I was also writing a ton of other songs that in the pre-Mightmare days, I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do with. But if I wrote a song that I felt was worth saving and worth hanging on to but that wasn’t a good fit for the Disarmers necessarily, I’d make a pretty rudimentary demo of it on my MacBook with Garageband and sort of catalog it that way in case I wanted to come back and reference it, or in case I wanted to try to make it fit within the Disarmers context. But I feel like there’s always been enough material being written to satisfy both projects, so at this point in time, it’s kind of like full circle and I have two outlets and everything has a place!
Do you write differently for them? Or have you started to write differently for them? What was your normal Disarmers writing process? Was it the sort of standard you and an acoustic guitar and see where it goes from there?
No, I’ve never been a disciplined writer, and any time that I have taken up a pen and paper and an instrument with the intention of writing a song, nothing good ever comes out of it. (*both laugh*) Nothing worth keeping anyway. (*both laugh*)
Yeah, I don’t ever have, like, an agenda or a plan when I write a song. I’m kind of just going about my day and I have to be in the right place at the right time. Typically I have to be alone, although since we started touring heavily a few years back (before Covid) I can sort of get songs going even if there are other people around, I just have a different process. But yeah, I go about my day and if the stars align and I’m able to, I sit down with a notebook and a pen and a guitar and typically I’m done with a song within like thirty minutes. There might be some light touching up or changing one or two words, but it’s pretty much the whole thing all at once and it’s the lyrics, the melody, the chord progression and a loose arrangement, and that is what I either take to the Disarmers to start working collaboratively at that point. Everyone has a say and we work out “well let’s do this for the nitro or the outro, or let’s put the solo here instead of here…” All of that stuff is decided together. In Mightmare, I have sort of unlimited time to get all of that stuff together. It’s a different process in terms of the actual logistics of it; I don’t have to go anywhere, I just sit on my couch and do everything myself.
The Mightmare stuff sort of started, if I have read correctly from other places, during Covid, right? Because Nightroamer was essentially finished right before the world shut down. So is Mightmare all stuff that came after you were done writing Nightroamer?
Not necessarily. I had a lot of demos just kind of sitting around and when I actually started making the album, that isn’t even what I thought I was doing at the time. My plan was to sit down and make more polished versions of one or two of the demos I had to make them a little more in the neighborhood of what I was looking for. I had a few in the works and at some point, I realized that if I changed a couple things and improved my methods in a few different ways, I could hypothetically make an entire album. And again, this was in the Covid isolation at the beginning of the pandemic, so realizing that that was an option and knowing that I had maybe $1200 for my entire budget for the album – because I knew I was going to be out of work indefinitely – I told myself that if I did absolutely everything that I could possibly do on my own, and then use all of that money to hire Ian Schreier to mix it and Brent Lambert from Kitchen Mastering to master it…those were the guys that worked on Sidelong and on Years, and I had wanted to work with both of them again on Nightroamer, and it just kind of happened that Pete Anderson was interested (in the latter project) and this was kind of my way to say “I kinda want to get back to this other format, because I feel like if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And I’m really happy with the work that these people do, so it was cool to be able to make that decision for myself, too. One of the things that I love most about Mightmare is that I’m not accountable to anybody. It’s all me. On one hand, it’s very liberating, and on the other hand, it’s intense, because I had to start a small business, and all of this stuff is new for me.
That’s daunting, isn’t it. Because if it sinks or swims…but ESPECIALLY if it sinks…that’s all on you, right?
Yeah! Exactly. And it’s really hard, too, because I feel like most creative people really don’t have a business mindset, we don’t have a capitalist mindset. We’re not like “oh, I have to write this song so it appeals to the most people so I can make the most money.” That’s not what you’re thinking when you’re writing a song. You’re thinking “I need to express myself to kind of A) get something off my chest and B) hopefully be able to look at what I’ve written and be objective about my own situation. There’s so much more meaning in that than in making a quick buck.
Oh but there certainly are people who are in the business for those reasons and who do write music for commercial appeal…not that that music usually appeals to me.
Yeah! And their cars are much nicer than my car too! (*both laugh*)
How long into the process of realizing that you could record not just demos but essentially full songs did you realize that it was going to be a full record right out of the gate?
Once I had the realization that I could tweak a few things and make something that was a quality worthy of being a record, that instantly became the goal. I made the necessary adjustments; I sort of changed my perspective as far as being a little bit more serious and treating it more like a job instead of just something to pass the time, I have a tendency to hyperfocus, so I would wake up in the morning, make coffee, and start working, start building tracks. One of the things that I had the most fun with on that project is how many layers there are on every song. There are SO MANY LAYERS! And being able to orchestrate that myself and not being accountable to anyone else, it was just me and my brain and our relationship working together to make this record happen. It was snap decision after snap decision, and by the time I was done with it; by the time it was ready to take in to get mixed and mastered, I really thought it could actually be something. Kill Rock Stars was my number-one pick. My manager was talking to them but things weren’t really going anywhere. There were a couple other labels that expressed interest that I just didn’t feel were very good fits for the project. And then, at some point, Kill Rock Stars came back and they were like “hey, we know this is done, but if you can wait til next year to put this out, we can make it work.”
I was going to ask how the Kill Rock Stars thing came about, because as a child of the 90s, Kill Rock Stars was HUGE obviously. So many legendary bands and legendary albums recorded like all of their work on that label, so I had wanted to hear it anyway obviously, but when I heard that Kill Rock Stars was involved, I went “ooh! This is going to be different (than Disarmers music).”
Yeah! Absolutely! They provided the opportunity to release it the same year, but it wouldn’t have made as much sense to release it with only a couple months of lead time. It needed to have basically a year of preparation to get various ducks into various rows.
Do you remember the first Kill Rock Stars album you had? I was looking back at their discography knowing that this interview was coming up and I was trying to remember where they first came onto my radar, and I think it was Bikini Kill. I know I have like every Sleater-Kinney album too, but I think the first was Bikini Kill. Do you remember what yours was?
Oh yeah it was Elliott Smith!
I’m embarrassed to say but I got into Elliott Smith weirdly late. I don’t know how I sort of missed him when he was, uh, alive…I was definitely more Bikini Kill, Hovercraft, Mary Lou Lord…
I think I was also introduced to him posthumously. I was maybe 17 or 18 and a coworker at the Wegmans in Geneva, New York, he loaned me an Elliott Smith CD, and this was, mind you, probably like the fourth or the fifth CD I ever listened to that wasn’t Christian music, so I was very early into discovering what for everyone else was normal music. But I remember seeing the Kill Rock Stars logo on the CD or on the back jacket, and that’s a name that just sticks with you. When I gave the CD back to my friend, I thanked him profusely and said “if you have any more material from this person…this is what I want to be listening to!” I remember him giving me I think two burned CDs that had a big giant mix of Elliott’s songs, and with that, he gave me an actual newspaper clipping that covered his death, which I actually have to this day. Twenty years later or whatever I still have that. That was a very keystone moment for me.
We have referenced CDs and newspapers in the last few minutes…that’s a sign of dating ourselves. (*both laugh*)
I prefer to think of it as nostalgia! (*both laugh*)
Fair enough! Getting back to the music a little bit, did you have different influences, not so much lyrically but sonically, when it came to writing the material that would end up on the Mightmare project, especially with all of the layering that you were talking about? Was that influenced by things you’d been listening to or was that more a product of just experimenting and seeing what you could do?
I really don’t have influences. From the press that I’ve seen likening Mightmare to other artists or bands or projects, I honestly haven’t recognized any of them.
That’s awesome, actually.
Yeah, I know that it’s very common – pretty much industry standard – to sort of have a reference list. I’ve made records in the past where the producer has asked for a list of reference songs and I’m just like “there is no reference! There’s no reference, this is its own thing entirely!” I don’t want it to sound like us. Especially with the Disarmers having their own distinct sound, we don’t need to try to sound like anybody else! (*both laugh*) I feel like Mightmare has that as well. It has a very distinct personality, and everything is done in service to the song. Every decision that I made for every single track, and every tiny, minute little portion of a melody line or a sample…all of that, the only goal is to make the best decision for what is going to make the song shine the most, for lack of a better way to say that. Everything is to illuminate and emphasize the lyrics and kind of bastion them.
Especially the layering thing…and thinking bigger picture than just your role as a guitar player or a vocalist, but when it came to adding all of those layers and textures and instrumentation yourself, does that stuff get addictive for a while, for lack of a better phrase? Once you learn all of the little tricks that you can do and things that you can add, does that become an addictive thing and make you think “ooh, what else can I do next?!?”
Because I feel like it was a really fun record to make in that regard, especially to make by yourself.
Yeah, absolutely. I think there were one or two songs I had to go back through and choose one or two tracks to omit, even though it fit with what was going on, it was crowding this other more important melody line, or it needed to be removed to give this other part more room to do its own thing. Yeah, if I could make my living sitting in my living room for eight hours a day and never have to talk to another human…(*both laugh*)…I would probably be okay with that!!
So how did the experience go with playing that stuff live. Because once you formulated the album, did you have “the band” in mind, or did you have to go through a list of people to fill out the sound, and then, how did that stuff to you translate into the live show? Getting all of those sounds to come out of a rock band…how did that process go?
Well let me tell you, bud…(*both laugh*)…when I started putting this together and it became clear that I was going to sign with Kill Rock Stars, I talked to my booking agent Chris Rusk, and I was just like “it’s coming out on October 14th, and we need to do like a two-week tour around it,” and Chris was like “who’s ‘we’…you don’t have a band?!? (*both laugh*) What exactly is the lineup? Is it you and one other person with laptops and a light show?”
Yeah, you could totally envision that. I could see that!
Yeah, but that was never what I had my heart set on. I was like “dude, it’s supposed to be indie rock, and it’s supposed to be even more indie rock than the album sounds, and the only reason the album sounds the way it does is that I had to program beats instead of using a live drummer. Otherwise it would have been a totally different animal.” I was like “you worry about booking the tour, I’ll worry about putting the band together. I’ve never let you down, I will have something, it’ll be awesome, I’ll make you proud.”
That is awesome. Talk about punk rock, by the way. (*both laugh*)
And mind you, the Disarmers are incessantly touring this entire time, so I have these tiny, tiny little windows at home where I’m scrambling to find players and trying to audition people. There was one such window where I held some auditions at a local studio, and I had one drummer who was really just kind of weird and talking about God and church a lot. I think he was just trying to get me to be like “hey I’m queer, and if that’s not a good fit for you that’s fine. I’m non-binary, I do a lot of work in the LGBTQ community as far as activism goes,” and as soon as I said that, he was like “yeah, I don’t think this is going to be a good fit.” That was my first time being blatantly discriminated against (*laughs*) but it’s not going to be something that holds me down. I know it’s not like I’m doing anything wrong. But it was just something else in the pile of dead ends that lead up to Mightmare as the band that it is now. The Disarmers were actually on tour with a new-to-us guitarist, Black Tallent, and we’d been out a couple times and I remember talking to the Disarmers drummer Jack Foster and I was just like “dude, I think I’m going to ask Blake if he wants to be Mightmare’s guitar player and I’m so nervous.” He was like “why are you nervous, he’s going to say yes!” And I said “I don’t know why I’m nervous…maybe I’m nervous because he IS going to say yes!” And so I asked him and he said yes and he became the first official member.
Nervous because if he said yes, then it’s like a real official “thing”?
Yes! Yeah! Like, “now I’ve gone and done it!” And then the one good result of the auditions is that my friend Ash Lopez who I’ve known for years and we’ve run in the same circles here in the Carrboro/Chapel Hill area, he auditioned on bass, and I sent him the music and asked him to learn three songs and he showed up and we played the three songs and I was like “do you want to go over any of that again?” and he was like “do you want to go over anything else, I learned everything.” I was like “well, shit, cool!” And then the final audition was Ethan Standard, who I had never met and never played with, but he was a friend of Blake’s and Blake has worked with him on various musical projects. So, basically, the Disarmers got home from a tour, and we had four days of back-to-back rehearsals with Mightmare, and then Mightmare went out for two weeks, and then the Disarmers immediately went out for two weeks. I just got home from all that. We had these four rehearsals and because the Disarmers had been on the road so relentlessly, Blake and I had maybe one or two practices together, and there’s only so much you can do with two guitars and no drums or bass. We accomplished what we could in that respect. Then the four days that we all had rehearsing together, we made minute changes to the arrangements, took crazy notes and committed stuff to memory. And I’ve got to tell you, I don’t know that I’ve ever felt the anticipation and excitement that I had playing that first Mightmare show. I’ve never felt that with another band. And maybe that’s because I’m sober and more present…
I was just going to ask that!
Yeah! Sarah Shook and the Devil was an “I want to get drunk with my friends at a bar and get paid in beer” band. The Disarmers, I kinda got dragged into kicking and screaming. I was afraid of commercial success, I didn’t want any of that stuff. With Mightmare, I get to choose my own idea of success, which is not money. As long as I have enough to pay the bills and pay the people that work for me, Mightmare is what I think I referred to in another interview as my little rebellion from the Disarmers. And that tour was really, really special, and really fucking empowering, especially to go on a two-week run headlining, with no tour history, playing some pretty significant venues. Like, Empty Bottle is an institution. There were definitely some Disarmers fans there that were like “hey, I like this too!” And then there were some new faces who only know us as Mightmare, they don’t even know the Disarmers exist.
That’s pretty amazing at this stage of a project.
Yeah! The whole thing just feels like this continuing roller coaster of discovery and new things, and it’s a pretty great feeling.
Does playing that stuff live influence how you may write going forward as a band, and knowing what the band can do, and do you think that for Mightmare things, you’ll still program things or do you think that it’ll turn into a full band recording thing? Or is that giving away too many secrets about what’s coming down the road? (*both laugh*)
I wish I could tell you. I will say that about a week into the Mightmare tour, I was already like “we have to record this. We have to at least run it through a board and mix it down later. We have to figure out how to capture this. Or, we just have to go into the studio for four days and cut Cruel Liars as it was meant to be.” But I’m not totally sure. I feel like moving forward, Mightmare is a band now, it’s not just me. Much as I do all the songwriting for the Disarmers, I’d probably do all the songwriting for Mightmare and then get into collaborating as the other instruments go. If that’s the case, there might be a point in the not-too-distant future where I have the Disarmers and Mightmare and those bands are live and recording as groups and I still need to do my own little thing over here.
A third project…why not?! (*both laugh*) I’m so used to seeing you in Disarmers mode playing full-body Guild or Loar guitars, but in Mightmare, did I see you playing a weird little Harmony?
Oh yeah! It’s like a 1980s Korean Harmony Rebel. I found it on Craigslist a couple years ago, and this guy was selling it for like 300 bucks, which is nothing! Somebody on this past run was just telling me that during the pandemic guitar nerds went crazy for 1980s Rebels. I don’t know why, but I love that guitar. And yeah, for Disarmers tours, I have two Loar guitars that I take out and for Mightmare I have smaller-body guitars that I can wear hire and sort of closer to my body. Another unexpected thing about Mightmare is I basically had four days to completely change the pedal setup I was using, and also every single song, every single chord is a barre chord in Mightmare. I was having a lot of pain in my hands, because in the Disarmers, there may be like one every couple songs, but it’s not an every single chord of every single song situation. So there are a lot of things that I had to relearn and tweak and figure out how to do better, and having smaller guitars that I can wear higher is a lot easier on my wrist and my hands.
And it looks like an indie rock band! Like, seeing you with those smaller body guitars at first was jarring because you get so used to the big hollow bodies, but the “regular” and weird guitar was like “oh, this really is a totally different band!”
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