Reporting by Dying Scene Staff Members, MerGold, Jay Stone, Rae, and Nasty Nate Dying Scene staffers are fans of “The Beautiful Game,” and we are not alone. Some of your favorite punk musicians from all over the United States and internationally discuss the game they love and what they are looking forward to as World […]
Reporting by Dying Scene Staff Members, MerGold, Jay Stone, Rae, and Nasty Nate
Dying Scene staffers are fans of “The Beautiful Game,” and we are not alone. Some of your favorite punk musicians from all over the United States and internationally discuss the game they love and what they are looking forward to as World Cup 2022 kicks in to action in Doha, Qatar. The selection of Qatar as the host nation the subject of FIFA itself, has been rife with controversy from the get-go. Some of the musicians don’t mince words about these issues. Indeed, many of us are also torn over the question of whether to watch the World Cup or not in light of the deserved criticisms. That’s for each of us to decide as individuals. However, in response to our questions about the World Cup and the sport in general, here are the answers from the participating musicians. Also, for newbies to the sport or those needing a refresher course here is a guide from The Athletic for World Cup 2022 viewing.
Jake Burns of Stiff Little Fingers is a living legend. Burns, now living in Chicago, is unafraid to be blunt when expressing his views, whether in song or any other form. Here, he tackles the elephant in the stadium straight on.
DS: What are you most looking forward to in the World Cup?
JB: “Nothing. Seriously. I cannot ever remember NOT caring about the World Cup since I was transfixed by the great Brazil team of 1970. I was 12 years old and marvelled at the mercurial Jairzinho, the only player to score in every round. The selection of venues for the last two World Cups stinks to high heaven. (See the great Netflix documentary “FIFA Uncovered”.) However, there was some footballing merit on the tournament being awarded to Russia last time around. This time, there is none. To move the tournament from its usual summer schedule to the winter just to facilitate it being played in the desert is only one reason to ignore this travesty, perhaps the least salient reason in fact.”
DS: Which team(s) are you rooting for and which teams do you think are going to be there are the end fighting for the trophy and will win that trophy?
JB: “I spent the longest period of my life living in England and, obviously I’m most familiar with those players so, insomuch as I will be rooting for anyone, that’s who I will be pulling for. It’s also great to see Wales there after a huge absence. As a fairly recently minted American citizen, I also hope the U.S. do well. As to who will win it? Brazil. Not a particularly brave call on my part, but I think the temperatures will suit them more than any of the European teams. And, IF they play to their full potential, I honestly think England can make it all the way to the final.”
DS: Do you have a favorite team(s))/player(s) in the English Premiere League, United States Major League Soccer or any other leagues around the world?
JB: “Newcastle United. A team that for decades was mired in unfulfilled potential. As a one club city, Newcastle has long been one of the many “sleeping giants” of English football. A recent takeover by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, for which read “Saudi Arabia” (honestly that “PIF” stuff is fooling no-one), has led to renewed investment both in staff and facilities that might, finally, see the Toon realize their vast potential…albeit at the cost of a considerable part of their soul.”
DS: How did you become a fan of the team if not from the area?
JB: “I lived in Newcastle for about sixteen years. As I said, it’s a one club city and if you don’t follow the Toon, then you don’t talk to anyone, at all, about anything!”
DS: Did you ever play football/soccer yourself?
JB: “Every kid in Britain or Ireland at one point fancied themselves a footballer, but as my eyesight was rubbish from an early age, I always sucked at it. So, no.”
DS: What are you most looking forward to in the World Cup?
MP: “The Qatar thing is sketchy I’m not saying I’m looking forward to drama but there’s gonna be drama. I’m ACTUALLY looking forward to seeing the US back in the mix. The collapse in qualifying last time was brutal.”
DS: Which teams do you think are going to be there are the end fighting for the trophy and will win that trophy?
MP: “I want interesting things to happen, go underdogs! Often the further in your go the more boring and predictable the teams get. An Argentina Spain style final would be lame. Snore…“
DS: Do you have a favorite team(s))/player(s) in the English Premiere League, United States Major League Soccer or any other leagues around the world? How did you become a fan of the team if not from the area?
MP: “I’m a Declan Rice, West Ham guy. I definitely got into West Ham via the punk scene. I got to see them at Upton Park years ago when they were down v Rotherham. I think West Ham’s biggest name that year was Marlon Harewood so I can say “I saw Marlon Harewood live!” Lol
The Chicago Fire once had a THRIVING supporters scene that was heavily influenced by the punk rocks. Years of failure and overt front office hostility eventually chased it away. It still exists but isn’t welcome anymore by the organization.“
DS: Did you ever play football/soccer yourself?
MP: I grew up in a blue collar suburb of LA in the 70s and soccer wasn’t really available to us, you had to move to a fancier neighborhood for that, it was all baseball and football near me. I did play bar league for the Delilah’s team for a couple years back in the early 2000s. It was hilarious, a bunch of hungover punk rock types up against folks who had played in college, were fit and hydrated. We had the most tattoos of any other team and eventually even won a couple games.“
DS: Favorite Football related punk songs?
MP: “Obviously my favorite punk soccer song is the Chicago Fire goal song Deal’s Gone Bad recorded back in 2002. They used it for like 15 years and it was always a trip to hear myself on ESPN.
In all seriousness I think my fave punk soccer song isn’t really explicitly about soccer but it captures the spirit of the whole scene and the vibe that makes it so exciting – “If the Kids are United” by Sham 69.”
Vee Sonnets presently performs with Park in the Crombies and formerly with him in DGB. He also leads The Sonnets.
DS: What are you most looking forward to in the World Cup?
VS: “All of it.“
DS: Which team(s) are you rooting for and which teams do you think are going to be there are the end fighting for the trophy and will win that trophy?
VS: “I’m rooting for my team Ecuador but it’s looking like Qatar is gonna run away with it.” [DS note: Ecuador beat Qatar in the opening match of the 2022 World Cup]
DS: Do you have a favorite team(s))/player(s) in the English Premiere League, United States Major League Soccer or any other leagues around the world?
VS: “Tough one but I am rooting for [Lionel Messi. He deserves to win one.
DS: How did you become a fan of the team if not from the area?
DS: Did you ever play football/soccer yourself?
VS: “Yes. H.S. and pick up games throughout my life.”
DS: How did you become a fan of the team if not from that area?
JS: “For Manchester United, it was all Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez. He came up in Mexico and played for Chivas, who are from the town my Dad and uncles grew up in. So Chivas and Mexican International Soccer was the first sports teams I was exposed to as a kid and just never stopped following them from then on. Oddly enough, out of all teams mentioned,Manchester United is definitely the team I care and pay attention to (and suffer with) the most.”
DS: Did you ever play football/soccer yourself?
JS: “I play 1 to 2 times a week with an adult league team or pick-up soccer with friends (our pick-up group has been doing it for 15 years!)”
“I’m part of an adult club team still called Green Valley Football Club.”
Singer-Songwriter Sam Russo is as hardcore soccer supporter so he’ll be keeping his eyes on the matches. Russo will also be on the lookout for commentary by his Red Scare Industries boss Tobias Jeg.
DS: What are you most looking forward to in the World Cup?
SR: “The thing I’m looking forward to most about the World Cup is watching England win the World Cup. Also, Jeg on Twitter defending the refs.”
DS: Which team(s) are you rooting for and which teams do you think are going to be there are the end fighting for the trophy and will win that trophy?
SR: “I’m rooting for England, and I’m pretty sure Germany will be hanging in there at the end as usual. I follow all the Italy games because my family is Italian, and I always root for Mexico, too.” [DS note: for the second consecutive time Italy failed to qualify for the World Cup.]
DS: Do you have a favorite team(s)/player(s) in the English Premiere League, United States Major League Soccer or any other leagues around the world?
SR: “I support Ipswich Town – the Tractor Boys. My favourite player in the Premier League is a guy called Robin Koch. Great punk name.”
DS: How did you become a fan of the team if not from that area?
SR: “I became a Tractor Boy when I was a kid because Ipswich were the only team we could afford to go watch play. Me, my brothers and my Dad used to go to every home game. We had awesome seats because nobody went. It was great!”
DS: Did you ever play football/soccer yourself?
SR: “I play 5-a-side with a group I’ve been playing with for over ten years! It’s the highlight of my week and I love those bellends.“
Sam Russo says about the photo he included with his answers:
“Yeah! This is me and my team from an 11-a-side match before the pandemic – WE ARE THE SMSC! On yer touch! Shoutout to the excellent humans I play with, they always support my music and we have a bloody good time on a Friday!”
Ryan Packer of Slapshot, is a massive Chelsea F.C. supporter (as are my cousins; I am a long-time supporter of the current EPL-leading Arsenal FC.). So naturally, he, along with Jake Burns, was one of the first people I solicited for this piece. I recalled the photo I shot of him in his Chelsea kit as he worked producing a Boston punk rock weekend several years ago.
DS: What are you most looking forward to in the World Cup?
RP: “I would obviously like to see the US make a round or two. That’s all we can hope for with that squad.”
DS: Which team(s) are you rooting for and which teams do you think are going to be there are the end fighting for the trophy and will win that trophy?
RP: “The last two cups I was lucky enough to be in Europe. I have some great memories of Belgium advancing. Maybe they can put a couple of wins together.”
[on what is one of the best aspects of the World Cup] “That’s what’s great about the tournament it can go a million different ways.”
DS: Do you have a favorite team(s)/player(s) in the English Premiere League, United States Major League Soccer or any other leagues around the world?
Pedro Aida, of Fire Sale, does not have a particular bar or spot on his couch from where he’ll be watching the matches. But he still plans to watch as many as he can.
DS: What are you most looking forward to in the World Cup?
PA: “I’ll be on tour in Europe for most of it with The Iron Roses and I’m looking forward to the experience of watching some of those matches in that environment. All but one of the countries we’re performing in is in the World Cup. Additionally we have some time off so I’ll be in Paris for the semis and London for the final. It would be a dream if France or England were in those matches.”
DS: Which team(s) are you rooting for? Which teams do you think are going to be there are the end fighting for the trophy?
PA: “Since my home country of Peru missed out in the playoff I’ll be pulling for the Yanks. My final four bracket is Argentina, Germany, France, and Croatia with Argentina winning the cup.“
DS: Do you have a favorite team(s))/player(s) in the English Premier League, Major League Soccer or any other leagues around the world?
PA: “Fulham FC from the Prem. Tim Ream is my guy, excellent defender and will be holding down the backline in Qatar for the US. I’ve forgiven him for being a former [NY] Red Bull (barf).”
“The team I’ve been watching and supporting since I was a teenager is D.C United (VAMOS UNITED). Grew up watching Ben Olsen play and then coach for DC. Named my first born Olsen.”
DS: How did you become a fan of the team if not from that area?
PA: “I’ve been a casual Fulham supporter for about 20 years since they brought in Brian McBride and are known for bringing in Americans well before it was common to see Yanks in European football.“
DS: Did you ever play football/soccer yourself?
PA: “Played as a kid and through high school (rec). Didn’t really play regularly throughout my 20’s. In my 30’s I dove back into it pretty seriously in adult rec leagues here in Richmond. I’ve been taking it easy this past year with touring and stuff ramping up, I can’t risk getting injured.”
Dying Scene’s Nate Kernell has curated a special playlist for the World Cup. Check it out here and let us know what tunes should be added! Also, stay tuned for more installments of (World) Cup The Punx!
2020 was going to be a big year for The Flatliners. After touring far and wide in support of their 2017 full-length Inviting Light, the band took most of 2019 off from playing live. Had things gone according to plan, 2020 would have found Canada’s finest foursome writing and recording a new record and touring […]
2020 was going to be a big year for The Flatliners. After touring far and wide in support of their 2017 full-length Inviting Light, the band took most of 2019 off from playing live. Had things gone according to plan, 2020 would have found Canada’s finest foursome writing and recording a new record and touring heavily in support of the 10th anniversary of their album Cavalcade, an album that made even jaded old punks like me change my opinion on the Flats from being “a pretty cool young band” to “Oh damn, this band rules!” Wouldn’t you know it, 2020 had other plans for the Flats – and for all of us, obviously. Their self-imposed downtime of 2019 obviously bled into the global pandemic-imposed downtime of 2020 (and 2021 if we’re being honest) and coincided with some of the most widespread times of social unrest in probably half a century.
And so was the environment in which the Flatliners, somewhat secretly, finally got to work on crafting a new full-length album. The resulting album, New Ruin, marked not only a return to Fat Wreck Chords as a label home after a one-album stay on Rise Records for InvitingLight, but a return to a more frantic and aggressive sound that was a calling card of some of the band’s earlier work. It is, quite simply, some of the best and most pointed and most vital music of their collective career.
Oh by the way, that aforementioned career just eclipsed the twenty-year mark. That fact is, frankly, mind-boggling not only because the band has consisted of the same foursome – Chris Cresswell on vocals and guitar, Scott Brigham on guitar, John Darbey on bass and Paul Ramirez on drums – for its entire duration, but also when you consider that the band’s members are all in their mid-thirties. I know, right?
We caught up with the Flatliners’ inimitable frontman Chris Cresswell just prior to his heading abroad for a few shows with his other band – a little project called Hot Water Music – to talk about the last couple of years in the Flats’ camp, the writing of what turned out to be some of their angriest work to date, and the ability to simultaneously celebrate both the new album and the comfortable, confident place that the band finds itself at two decades into their collective career. Coming off of the longest break of their career seems to have left the band recharged and laser-focused on what’s to come.
Read our full Q & A with the always affable Cresswell down below. Oh, and check out New Ruin if you haven’t already. Here’s our review of the album, which is out now on Fat Wreck Chords and Dine Alone!
(Believe it or not, the following has been condensed for content/clarity reasons.)
Dying Scene (Jay Stone): So how’s it going?
Chris Cresswell: Good man! Just actually enjoying ten days of home time between tours. It’s been a wild, wild year. I’ve barely been here, I feel like I’m more riff than person this year. (*both laugh*) But in a good way. It’s nice to be back to it. I’ve had a couple little chunks of time at home lately, which is good, man. Necessary. Fill the tank up, you know?
Congratulations on twenty years (of The Flatliners as a band)! It was officially twenty years, what, last week?
Yeah, (September) 14th.
That is wild.
It doesn’t feel like it’s been that long, you know? It’s strange to think that it’s twenty officially now. Last year we were planning all the stuff we were doing this year, anticipating the 20th, and we were just like “how the fuck does this make sense?!”
When you can measure the span in multiple decades, it kinda does weird things to your brain.
I went to a show for the first time in a while this weekend. I saw Face To Face, and we were doing the math, Scott (Shiflett) and I, while we talking, and I realized it’s been 25 years since I’ve known those guys and that we’ve been friendly. Like…I have people in this scene that I’ve been friends with for a quarter of a century…
A few days before the band turned 20, Scott (Brigham) and I realized that we’ve been friends for thirty years. We met the first day of kindergarten, and in Ontario at least, the first day of school is always right after Labor Day. So, we were like “well, we met in ‘92,” so we looked up Labor Day of ‘92 and double-checked it with the school district calendar and we were like “damn, officially thirty years!” So it’s been a big year, for a lot of reasons. Those are two of the big reasons in my life anyway. It’s been a lot of reflection, but it’s good too, because it’s positive reflection that can propel us forward. As much as we’ve been celebrating the twentieth anniversary of The Flats, it’s nice for us to also have a new record out to celebrate the present and take us into the future. It’s not all just pure nostalgia train. And that stuff is cool, I have no problem with that. It’s a powerful drug! But I’m just glad there’s both things happening.
You talked about reflection, and we’re coming out of a time where we were all sort of forced to stay home for however long any of us chose to stay home for…did this period of reflection on twenty years sneak up on you after not really being able to do anything but reflect for a while?
Certain elements of it did, for sure. As much planning and scheming as you can do as a band, everything still comes down to the wire. Everything needed to be done yesterday (*both laugh*) and that’s kind of the nature of the music business at large, as well. But to be honest, that downtime of those couple years, we were pretty well prepared and organized in terms of getting to work and making sure that things were ready for when they needed to be ready. Knowing when we wanted to put the record out – inevitably that got pushed to the summer, but we wanted it out earlier than that – but that kind of always happens anyway, pandemic or major vinyl delays aside – so that was okay. 2021 was pretty well organized and planned. The lamest way I could put it I guess is that we executed everything in a pretty timely manner, which was cool. Because we had 2020 to basically, like, forget we were in a band.
How much stuff did you guys have to cancel in 2020?
A lot, really. A lot! Because we had basically taken 2019 off.
Yeah, back in like spring of 2018, we were like, “well, by the end of this year, we will have gone everywhere we could go on Inviting Light, let’s do something we’ve never done before and take a break.” It was weird to talk about it at first, and then we were all behind the idea, because we all needed it. We had never done that, and it was just years and years and years of solid, heavy touring. 2019 we played two Flats shows, officially, and then we played like a private party with friends and family, and then we did like a Smashing Pumpkins cover set at a different show…which was cool! It was fun! So the idea was that we’d come back and do the Cavalcade 10th-anniversary tour pretty much everywhere, and then we would make a record at the end of 2020 and hit the road in 2021 with a new record, and we’d hit all those places again that we had just hit with the Cavalcade shows. And then all of that took a shit! (*both laugh*)
We canceled a lot. There was a lot of stuff that wasn’t announced. I think there were only two tours that were announced that we had to cancel – I think the UK and Europe one was in the spring of 2020, maybe late April? And then we had a West Coast run in May or June that was announced. But we had shit booked for the whole year. The first month was basically like, who knows what the hell is happening…at first it was postpone everything, then forget that, cancel everything and just figure out how we’re all going to survive and if there’s a way the band can help with that. I mean, we all have lives outside of the band too, which is why taking the break was nice in 2019 and onward. It ended up being I think what everyone needed. Because I know myself and I know that if the pandemic hadn’t happened, I would have been on tour that entire time. I needed that, and I needed for it to be that everyone was home from touring! (*both laugh*)
And I don’t mean that as a competitive thing, it’s just that knowing that this is what I do, and this is what makes me feel most like myself…especially after a year off from The Flats at least – Hot Water was busy but Flats had the year off… I was kinda ready to hit it pretty hard again. But in the end, I was very thankful to have that extra time off. The first few months, we were just chilling and not doing much and kind of enjoying some downtime as best you could. As strange as it was and as many horrifying things that were happening in the world, it was comforting to be home for the first time in forever. And then the writing really started late summer, early fall or 2020. Once that started, it was just like laser focus on that.
Was that the timeline anyway? If you wanted to put out an album in 2021, would you have been writing in the last part of 2020 anyway?
I think we probably would have tried to put a lot more ideas together in the first half of 2020 – or at least spring and early summer while we were touring. We don’t write a lot on the road, but at least if we had ideas we could share them that way and start to compile the list of ideas, and then finetune them when we got home from tour. The idea was to record a record like fall – end of the year in…I guess 2020.
It’s all a blur. (*both laugh*)
Yeah! And it doesn’t matter that it didn’t happen that way, because the way it went down for us is the only way that everyone else knows about. It was nice to have that extra time and to write a lot…
Did you write a lot more for New Ruin than for previous records?
A bit more. We always are in the habit of writing more than we need. For most records, we end up with about twenty songs kinda ready to go. Some of them are always inevitably not as strong as others. For this record, we wrote…I think the final count when I was sending the guys all these ideas I had was like twenty-five or -six. Something like that. Some were fully worked out, some were not, but then we just kinda whittled it down to what we put on the record.
Did you go into it with a direction, either sonically or lyrically, that you wanted to focus on this time?
I didn’t set out to do that, but very quickly with what I was writing about and how the songs kinda felt energy-wise, it seemed like there was a pretty clear vision. Well, there was a pretty clear thesis statement which was “People suck (*both laugh*)…and the world is fucking crumbling all around us.” From there, the benefit of having all this downtime is that I had a lot of time to think about how I personally wanted to bring these ideas even to the rest of the guys, and then us as a band, what we could do together to solidify that even further and go into the studio with a really clear vision sonically and thematically. I had a really clear vision at that point lyrically. And then even not just that stuff, but how we wanted to roll out the record, what we wanted to do with videos… Lucky for us we were working with Fat (Wreck Chords) again obviously, who we fucking love – there’s a reason we’ve gone back, because they’re just family. And with Dine Alone in Canada, it’s great. The whole team is strong.It was the strongest and clearest vision I think I’ve ever had and that the band’s ever had going into something. For sure.
Did it sorta snowball on you, the idea, especially thematically, start as the snowball at the top of the hill or whatever they say and then just pick up steam once you realized there was obviously plenty of subject matter to choose from…because it seems a little more focused than just saying that “people suck”…it seems like a really focused and direct record.
That’s true, that’s true. I’m trying to think of the first few songs I sent to the guys…oh man, I could probably tell you…(*pulls out phone*)…One of the first songs I sent to the guys was “Rat King,” and that was a song where I was like “racism sucks and white people are THE WORST! (*both laugh*) So I’m going to write a song about that.” Maybe that’s a shock to people that that’s what that song is about, but it is! (*laughs*) I never really know what a song’s about until the lyrics start coming. Sorry, I don’t mean to do this during the interview but I feel like it would be cool to know (continues scrolling through phone)
Do you hate actually talking about what the songs are about? Because I know some songwriters don’t want to spoil that thing where “once I write it, it’s not mine, it’s yours” – but sometimes I like to know how the sausage is made.
For sure. And I think with other records I’ve been like “Well, just listen to the song because it feels like it should be pretty obvious.” And that’s I think because on previous records, a lot of it was that I’m a product of my environment and I’m writing about what I know. During all those years of making most of those records, pretty much from The Great Awake up until Inviting Light, a lot of it was on the road, really heavy touring years, and I’m writing about that. I’m writing about what that does to me, what I’ve seen that do to other people, how that feels. And it’s not always negative stuff, but it’s that experience. But this one, having done a lot of the writing at home and seeing and reading and learning about how fucked pretty much everything was around all of us for so many reasons, but all of them really at the end of the day being at the hand of human beings, I don’t mind talking about it because I made a decision to write more about what was going on in the world around me rather than my view of the world.
So, here we go…the first three songs that I sent to the guys were “Rat King,” “It’ll Hurt” and another song that we didn’t record. “Rat King” was one of the first ones that was out there, and it’s a very angry and pointed song about a particular thing and particular people. I think from there – well, “It’ll Hurt” is maybe more like a bit of the older lyrical style that I’ve done over the years. So it was cool to have both of those things kind of running alongside each other, those themes of like how I feel in general and how the world is making me feel right now. At some point, I decided to go down that one path of “let’s just talk about the world and what’s happening right now.” And I’m no expert on any of these subjects, these are just my opinions, you know? (*both laugh*) But if someone out there is reading that “Rat King” is an antiracist song and they’re shocked by that, that’s kind of troubling. And if they don’t like that, we don’t want you to listen to that song. We don’t want you to listen to our band (*both laugh*) if you’re not an antiracist person, you know?
Seriously, it floors me every time that stuff like that comes up from whatever artist, from Woody Guthrie to Springsteen to Jason Isbell or whoever, when people are like “shut up and stick to playing music” it’s like…boy, you have REALLY not been paying attention at all, have you?
No, and like, my God, how many people have learned about how to use their voice through music, you know? It’s a cultural wave that hits people in different ways, but it hits people! It’s similarly confusing when I meet someone who, hen we’re talking and the topic of music comes up and I say “oh what kind of music do you like?” and they say “oh, I don’t really like music.” I think “oh, I don’t trust you at all!” (*both laugh*)
And I know that’s subjective because, I mean, music is my entire life, but really, you can’t even tell me like what music you like? And when you hear it, it makes you feel a certain way? I don’t know…
That’s weird. It’s like people who say they don’t like dogs or whatever. Or cats, I guess, although unlike you I’m an anticat guy.
See that’s the thing though, people have an opinion about which animals they prefer. But when people are like “oh, I don’t really like animals…”
That means you’re a sociopath.
“What, you don’t like joy?” (*both laugh*) But really, it was nice to have that time to sit and think about how much I hate the fucking world! (*both laugh*)
Right, but then, as a songwriter, I don’t want to say that’s an awesome responsibility because that’s probably overstating things, but does that seem like it’s a big responsibility, to say “I want to actually talk about this shit in a way that makes sense to me and hopefully to people who have been following and listening to me for twenty years? Because that’s a lot to take on. We had nothing but time to pay attention. It wasn’t just that things sucked for a long time – and probably stll do – but we had all the time in the world to focus on how much it sucked. We had to focus on how racist this little country to the south of yours is …
Hey man, mine too! Mine is no angel. People like to think it is, but we have got a dark history.
Well and some of that came out during the two years of hte pandemic, with all of the news about the indiginous kids at the Catholic boarding schools. It’s an overwhelming responsibility to be able to put some of that shit into words in a way that makes sense, no?
I think that there is definitely a responsibility there. It’s a choice I made to write about this kind of stuff. I’m no authority on the subject, but I know how it makes me feel. At the end of the day, that’s always what I’ve done, it was just different subject matter. Now having all this time to sit in those uncomfortable moments and let those pieces of information – those horrifying pieces of information – the thing you just mentioned about the residential schools in Canada, for instance, let that bounce around in your brain for a while and see how that makes you feel. It’s not going to make you feel good because it’s a terrible thing, to say the very least. It’s a horrifying thing that happened. It is an absolute privilege of mine, and I know that to be true, to just be able to be the guy to sit there and write a song about it instead of being somebody who lived through it, you know what I mean? I understand that there’s a difference, but I’m trying to put my opinion out there in a song in a way where maybe, like we said earlier, it can hit someone in a way that it allows them to think about an issue a little differently.
Or, really at my age now, I’m 35, and I’ve been able to write music for a long time and express the way I feel for a long time, but I feel like at this age – maybe for some people it’s a little earlier or a little later – I feel like I’m part of my community. I feel like I’m a responsible person adding to a community. I’m not trying to take anything away from it, I’m trying to add to it, but not trying to take up too much space or time or air either. That’s very tricky to do in music and in art and this type of thing, but at the same time, there are so many people with maybe a dwindling but a still-existing attention span to hear your ideas, you know what I mean? That’s how I started to think about it and feel about it as well. I’m just trying to add to my musical community with something positive. Essentially, having the conversation about these issues, or at least putting my side of the story out there – and my side of the story is that human beings are the fucking worst and we could do so much fucking better (*both laugh*) better to ourselves, to each other, to the planet, all these things. It was all hitting me so hard because I had time to sit around and think about it. Otherwise man, I’d be on tour, I’d be in a fucking bubble, I’d be living a tunnel vision life like I always was. Not every song on the record, but a lot of the songs on the record are about these particular issues…they’re not new issues, they’re things that I’ve now been able to try my best to compute this kind of information and put it out there. That’s why that record is so angry, because it was not an easy time for anyone!
Did that inspire the sound of the record too? It’s sort of interesting to listen to the last two records back-to-back. The first song on Inviting Light…”Mammals” starts with that sort of slow build. It becomes an uptempo song obviously, but to contrast that opening with “Performative Hours” which punches you in the face right from the beginning and the album doesn’t really let up from there. Was that a conscious choice too, with the heavy subject matter, to put that heavy music behind it as well?
Yeah. Some songs, the lyrics come first even in little fragments, sometimes it’s the music…well, it’s hard to say really which happens more than the other. But if the lyrics came first or at least I knew what I wanted to write about, I knew that the energy of the song had to match that, and vice versa. Because I was already in that mindset of being just pissed off, a lot of the music was very angry, so I knew that the lyrics had to match that. To be honest, once we had a good pile of songs to listen through – the ideas were still being worked on, but once we had a handful of songs where we were like “whoa, this is angry,”…the guys were like “whoa, you’re pretty angry.” (*both laugh*) Like “why not, of course I am, how could I not be?” (*laughs*) I think at that point we were like “well, let’s just make a record that’s going to punch people in the fucking face” like you said. Once the consensus was to open the record with “Performative Hours,” which was an idea that came up early on, we were like “oh yah, this is perfect!” We were able to build off that so well. Musically I think it takes twists and turns throughout the record, but once we chose the songs that we wanted to put on the record, we were like “damn, this is pretty relentless actually.” And that’s what we wanted to do, and I’m so happy with it. And it was the most fun that I’ve ever had making a Flats record, which is funny because it’s the angriest record we’ve ever made by far! (*both laugh*)
And it’s also really guitar-heavy! I mean obviously the Flats have been a guitar band, that’s always sort of been at the front and center, but it’s really riff-heavy this time. I think I texted you when I first heard it that, like, I had plans – my wife and my daughter went out of town for a weekend, and I think I got your album and Jerry sent me the new Mercy Union record on the same day, and they are both really good, guitar-heavy albums and there are so many riffs that I just like “fuck having plans, I just want to play guitar and figure out riffs tonight!” (*both laugh*)
I love that!
But that seems like a bit of a stylistic difference too. Does that come from sitting around the house for a couple years and just playing guitar, or did they come when you started writing with the guys?
A bit of both. It’s always a mixed bag. Each record turns out to be a response to the previous record. I think on Inviting Light, we were trying to build – it turns out – a bit of a different vibe and a different style. We were so close to it that we didn’t really realize what we were doing fully, but I can say that I knew when we were writing the record that we wanted to let a lot of those Inviting Light songs breathe. There were more subtleties, and we’d talk a lot about that it was just as important to know when not to play as it was to know when to play. With this record, we were just like “no, let’s just hit ‘em with everything!” (*both laugh*) Each record becomes an exercise in these things, which is really cool, and we’re lucky that the four of us in the band have gotten to do this together over all these years now. We discover more of ourselves each time we write a song together or make a record together. Part of what we discovered on this record is that we just wanted to fucking rock, dude! (*both laugh*) I know it’s so stupid to put it that way, but it’s real! The energy and the theme of the record and how angry the material ended up being, we’re like “well, we’re going to make this record sound as insane as we can, as powerful as we can.” Sonically that was the vision going into it, that we wanted to make it sound big. Not like something we couldn’t replicate live, because that’s always a bummer, but something that we could just hit people with. Because then when we play these songs live, we are going to feel the power of these songs and we’re going to bring it even harder. Especially after a couple years of not being able to play at all together, let alone go on tour, there’s this newfound excitement. Like, I’ve gotta relax a little bit on stage.
I was just going to ask that.
I’m ready to like kick a hole through the stage every night because I’m just like “I’m fucking back!!” It feels really good.
And then you get three songs in and you’ve got to take a knee. You’re in your mid-thirties now, man…
My first show back was a Hot Water show, and it was at Furnace Fest in Alabama in 2021. I was terrified before the show, I was nervous, I was anxious, I thought I was going to forget everything. And the first note we hit, I was like “ oh fuck yes!” and I was literally stomping so hard on the stage. I think Chuck sang the first three songs and I was like “I gotta chill! I’m like winded and I’ve gotta sing in nine minutes.” (*both laugh*) And it’s the same with the Flats now, man. When we got together to really dig through these ideas as a band after almost a year of sending ideas back and forth, this was now late Summer 2021…the four of us hadn’t been in the same room in almost two years! It was the longest it had ever been. It was amazing and it was emotional and I remember like a week after that when we went to go record, after doing like a week of (pre-production), we did like a “have a good show” thing before we were recording and we kinda all went “fuck, man, this feels powerful.” There was an energy to it, man, and it sounds kinda cheesy but it’s true. It had been so long at that point since we had done anything together, and we kinda knew what we had to. Not in an arrogant way, I hope it doesn’t come across that way because I hate that shit, but there was a confidence in what we were building together and what we wrote and were going into record. Knowing what we wanted to do helped us feel so confident that we were like “fuck, this is going to be awesome.” We’ve never really operated that way before, we’re kinda like “well, I hope people like it!” With this one, that’s still the case, but I think that all of those things – the time away from each other, the time away from this, the time away from the band and being able to do our quote-unquote thing – it just kinda solidified the love for it and the power in it to us, you know?
Well because that could go the other way, right? You could take two years off and just not really be in it anymore or just get to a place where you think you’ve done everything you wanted to do in music or with the band and then be on to the next thing.
And I respect that too, man. It totally depends on the person. I’ve got a lot of friends actually who made that decision since everything that’s happened the last few years, and I respect that. The four of us, like I said, each have lives outside of the band and things have changed. Touring nowadays, we can only operate in a certain way. That’s cool though, because it keeps it special and it keeps, maybe, that feeling that we’ve discovered when making this record and now celebrating twenty years and everything WITH the new record, it keeps that energy and that excitement alive, instead of “hey, let’s go on tour for ten months straight…” (*both laugh*) Fuck that, man, oh my god.
Is this the first time you’ve written a full album without playing any of the material out before? Like, would you workshop things on the road before?
We’d show each other ideas but we wouldn’t jam a lot on tour. We did that a little bit on Cavalcade, and we just felt like we were annoying the people that were working at the club. Because we were soundchecking, and in that era we weren’t headlining the show so if we were opening the show, we might get a thirty-minute soundcheck if we got one at all. The fucking bartender and the venue staff do not need to hear us working through the same 16 bars of an idea over and over again (*both laugh*). We started to do it offstage. Jamming and putting it together as a cohesive thing always happened at home.
Once the songs are fully fleshed out, though, are there songs that would actually make their way into the live set before anyone heard them? Because now everyone’s had a chance to get to know the album for a while before you can hit the road.
I think we’ve always been a little bit protective of playing new stuff before it’s out, and I don’t know why really.
I feel like that’s a YouTube thing.
Yeah, because people videotape shows and put the whole thing up on YouTube now, so if you have a song that you’re sort of woodshedding, why play it in front of people because then everyone knows what it is, and then maybe you don’t even like that song or maybe it takes a turn in the writing process, but now you’re sorta stuck with the way it sounded that one night in Detroit in June or whatever.
Totally. We actually did this very recently with “Rat King” for the music video, but that was the first time we had done that in, I don’t even remember. It was a long time. It could have been for Cavalcade or something, because we recorded a big chunk of Cavalcade one year, then we went on tour for like nine months or something, and we finished (recording) almost a year later. So I’m sure in that era of Cavalcade being like half done or three-quarters of the way done, we were probably playing a couple of those songs live. But, for “Rat King” we did a video shoot in Toronto and part of it was a show we played. We ended up doing this last-minute show at our friend’s bar, Hard Luck, and it was like a week’s notice. No one knew why we were doing it. We had a Midwest tour coming up and we were like “fuck it, let’s play a show in Toronto, and we can film it. We’ll let everyone know we’re making a video, so if you don’t want to be in the video, go to the back, if you want to be in the video come to the front! (*both laugh*) We’re just going to play this one song that you’ve never heard before, and that was kind of exciting. That was the first time we had done that in a while and it was cool. But aside from that…I think “Performative Hours” was already out at that point, maybe “Souvenir” was already out or was about to come out. People knew there was going to be a record, so it wasn’t a huge surprise to play a new song. I think that’s maybe why, because in the past we haven’t wanted to do that because it kinda spoils the surprise. We like to record records kind of in secret. We don’t typically post stuff from the studio
I was just thinking that, yeah. I was looking back at the Flats Instagram account and I did notice that you didn’t post teaser things or whatever from the studio, it was like, all of a sudden here’s the cover art and the first single!
It’s similar to the way that we wanted the record to sonically and musically be, that kind of relentless slap in the face. We wanted to just be like “WE’RE BACK! SURPRISE!” And also, you never know how long after you finish tracking a record, how long the entire process will take. Like for instance, we’re talking today, the 26th of September, and the last day of tracking in the studio for New Ruin was October 3rd of last year. So we finished almost exactly a year ago. Then our friend Dave did some piano tracks at his home studio after that, and then mixing we took our time with. Because we like to take our time with this stuff. That shouldn’t be a surprise to any Flats fan at this point (*both laugh*). So I think part of me and my approach to it which I think trickles down to the guys – only because I’m the most neurotic with this shit, more than Scott, Paul or John – is that, if we put it out that we’re in the studio, people get excited hopefully, and then like a year later the album comes out? I feel like you kinda lose the excitement. You’d lose it on me at least. If it’s a band I like pulling that move, I’ll have completely forgot that I saw that picture or watched that video by the time the record comes out. So we like to be a little secretive about it. It’s fun! There’s not a lot of mystery left in the world, so if we can create a little bit, it’s fun for us!
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.
Dave Masud is a multi-instrumentalist from Reno, Nevada. You may have heard of his amazing band Vampirates before, but this time he’s striking out alone with his solo album False Island. This ripper of an album comes in at just about 12 minutes long. Opening with the chugging freight train of a track, “Meh”, which […]
Dave Masud is a multi-instrumentalist from Reno, Nevada. You may have heard of his amazing band Vampirates before, but this time he’s striking out alone with his solo album False Island.
This ripper of an album comes in at just about 12 minutes long. Opening with the chugging freight train of a track, “Meh”, which perfectly captures the ire that comes with looking upon a punk past filled with self-destruction, “Looking back I can’t believe that I survived this kid.”
I was immediately pulled into the emotion of this album. Dave Masud’s gritty baritone featured in the track “Jenni’s Song” and contrasting screams in “November” make this short 7 song journey feel more full than some albums double the length.
I had to reach out and ask Dave some questions about what went into making this album.
Dying Scene (DS): What was the catalyst behind this solo album?
Dave Masud (DM): I’ve been a multi-instrumentalist since I was a kid and it’s always been a dream of mine to do an album where I play all of the parts. When quarantine came around I had time to teach myself enough home recording basics to finally get this thing going.
DS: Please explain the dramatic switch to harp during the album, I love it.
DM: I got a wild hair to learn the harp last year so I found a teacher and have been taking lessons since. On the album, it represents a transition from a time of major loss and deep grief to starting new chapters and finding (or at least seeking) peace. Since tracking it I’ve grown as a player, but I wanted the song to be a sort of stamp in time.
DS: How did you approach the songwriting for this album?
DM: I wrote the songs during quarantine and while navigating my mom’s rapidly declining health, and my brother’s eventual suicide. I was massively depressed and was drinking more than I ever have in my life. I’d stay up all night learning how to use the recording software and tracking parts until sunrise every day. I took some time off and came back at it sober and wrote the words after my mom and brother passed.
DS: What themes and emotions drove the naming around the tracks and the album itself?
DM: False Island is a play on one of my all-time favorite bands, who also happen to be from Reno, Fall Silent. It also took on meaning given the circumstances in which it was written. Isolated with everyone just out of reach. Some of the song titles are based on the lyrics while some are based on what and when was happening when I wrote them.
DS: How did recording all the instruments and everything at Pus Cavern go for this solo venture?
DM: It was a blast doing everything, but also pretty exhausting. Studio time is pricey and I didn’t have the luxury of taking a break while someone else tracked their parts. Luckily Joe Johnston is an absolute magician and a pleasure to work with. I also got production assistance from Chris Fox and Jesse Williams.
DS: Is there anything you want to say about this album as people listen?
DM: It’s short and sweet like me. I started writing the next one and maybe it will be taller.
I love any creator going out of their comfort zone to explore their pure creativity without putting any expectations to it. I think Dave Masud put together a collection of songs that provide a solid emotional timestamp that I’m so glad he decided to share with the world.
So, go give the album a spin on his Bandcamp Page and keep an eye out for that next album. And Since we’re claiming Harps as punk instruments now, what other instruments should we include?
Deanna Belos’ nom de plume et scène is Sincere Engineer, but sincere is also a great way to describe the human behind the guitar and voice. I recently did a photo shoot with the multi-hyphenate Midwesterner (singer, songwriter, guitar player and fun provider) as we rode Chicago’s Red and Green Lines, and took over parts […]
Deanna Belos’ nom de plume et scène is Sincere Engineer, but sincere is also a great way to describe the human behind the guitar and voice.
I recently did a photo shoot with the multi-hyphenate Midwesterner (singer, songwriter, guitar player and fun provider) as we rode Chicago’s Red and Green Lines, and took over parts of some CTA train platforms post-Riot Fest. This happened just days before Sincere Engineer embarked on a European tour. We later followed up with an interview in which she describes, among other things, the experience of being on stage, her creative process, and fun. That last word serves as a sort of mission statement for the Chicago native.
Deanna Belos starting playing the guitar at age 12. Her foray into music was due to the work of those who stood out to her when she was just a kid. She tells me,
“The bands I watched while I was growing up inspired me a lot.”
Belos soon discovered her favorite band, the Lawrence Arms, by way of Alkaline Trio, which she also loves. Belos is proudly from the Windy City and this is reflected through her affection for the hometown punk scene and the musicians borne out of it. So many of those who inspired her have become good friends, including the lead singers of the aforementioned bands.
The year 2022 saw Sincere Engineer promoted to one of the Riot Fest main stages. She looks as comfortable on it as she does on smaller stages in smaller venues. Her band, composed of guitarist Kyle Geib, bass player Nick Arvanitis, and Adam Beck on drums, also seems right at home on the expansive stage.
I asked her how conscious she is of the crowd and her surroundings as she performs. Belos tells me,
“I’m usually amped by the time we get on stage. But leading up to it I’m always nervous and pacing.”
Her strategy for relieving that case of nervousness?
“I always try to look at the crowd and make sure everyone’s having fun…” adding, “but I always try to look straight ahead and focus on playing.”
There was no doubt the Riot Fest crowd was having fun as evidenced by how many partook in a Corndog Circle Pit [Video by Pray AFK]. This particular circle pit was an homage to the opening track, “Corn Dog Sonnet No. 7” off of Sincere Engineer’s debut album Rhombithian. Belos joyfully relates her reaction when she noticed it happening,
“I was able to see it from the stage, yes! It was super cool. I almost teared up at it. A fan started a Facebook event to coordinate the corn dog pit and it kinda took off from there.”
“Corn Dog Sonnet No. 7” is an infectious tune but it also showcases her signature “Raw, Lonely Punk.” I am not quoting Belos there but rather a certain late legendary, comedian whose visage is inked on her leg.
It was in 2017, after Belos replied to a user called @braverygravy “Lol, maybe @NormMacDonald will listen to it.” The one-time Saturday Night Live cast member and comedy icon tweeted back: “I have. What’s not to love. Raw, Lonely Punk.”
To this day, Belos uses a screenshot of that interaction as her Facebook cover image.
It’s not hard to see why her songs and especially “Corn Dog Sonnet No. 7” hits so many, famous or not, in the heart so strongly, and somewhat painfully:
“What am I supposed to do now? What am I supposed to do now? When you’re still not around And you’re all I think about“
When it comes to writing songs, it’s a melding of creative methods which works best for Belos.
“I continually write lyrics just in a document, but typically I’ll play guitar and just riff til something comes to me. If nothing comes to me I’ll use some previously written lyrics and try to puzzle them together to make a song.”
Belos’ humor is often in the form of self-deprecation, and she seems about as humble as any musician I’ve met. When pressed to list some of the qualities which help make her a great musician, this is about as boastful as she gets:
“I think I can write a relatable song and that helps!“
As to other parts of the life of a working professional musician, Belos returns to the same three-letter word so important to her.
“Favorite [part] is watching people have fun at our shows.”
With every favorite of that life, there are challenges as well.
“Hardest…touring probably. It’s fun and rewarding but it’s a hard endurance test haha.”
When it comes to Chicago venues at the top of her list, she has two.
“Metro is my favorite venue to play in Chicago! And Empty Bottle is my favorite to see a show at.”
Belos is grateful for the experiences she has had as Sincere Engineer.
“We have been so fortunate to get to play with some of our favorite bands. Playing Metro with Alkaline Trio was surreal. Riot Fest too. Hometown shows are always the most fun.”
But she is also keenly aware that not all shows are equally great. She maintains a pretty positive outlook even after such shows.
“I try not to beat myself up too much about it, but make sure to try harder next time.”
Belos, asked which musicians inspire her, returns again to two of her long-time faves with whom she is now friends.
While it seems, from her current success and increasing stardom as Sincere Engineer, that it must have been a foregone conclusion Belos would become a professional musician. However, she once considered going into the medical field. “Overbite” from Rhombithian describes how she disabused herself of that notion.
“I wanna give up I wanna give up I don’t wanna try no more I wanna stop all these pathetic attempts and saving this shipwreck Swim right out the door Before it sinks with a fraction of what’s left of my dignity I swept so many failed tests under carpets Deep down I knew this is not what I wanted (not what I wanted)”
Sincere Engineer’s fan base is growing exponentially and no doubt many members of it are glad Belos abandoned attempts to place the initials D.D.S. after her name.
There is one part her life Belos did felt harder to abandon.
“I was an animal care technician for laboratory animals. It was a tough decision and I’m still getting used to it. It still makes me nervous!”
Returning to the subject of the tour from which Sincere Engineer just returned, Belos happily indicates, it was a success and tells me
“The tour went really well! It was super fun to visit and play in a bunch of new places.”
“It started in Ireland and ended in Germany. There were stops in England, Scotland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Austria along the way.”
Such a whirlwind tour left little time for anything more than playing a set at one venue and traveling to the next city or town to perform there. She informs me,
“We did get a little time to sightsee. Not a ton. We went to the Guinness Factory in Ireland, saw the Berlin Wall stuff in Germany. The rest was mostly just doing stuff around the venues we played at.”
On this particular tour, someone especially close to Belos’ heart stepped in to help her out when one of the band members sadly had to stay back in the States. Per Belos,
“My drummer Adam [Beck] couldn’t do the tour because of work. It was nice having Jeremy [Hansen, her long-time boyfriend] there and made me feel less homesick, and he’s such a great drummer and it was an honor to play with him. He played in the band Tricky Dick in the ’90’s.”
Belos was not the only member of the band thankful Hansen could help out. Kyle Geib describes him this way,
“Jeremy was such a great candidate to step in on the European tour! We all love Jeremy.”
For Hansen, it was a blast as well. He tells me,
“It was lovely! Lots of fun. Shows were good. Hangs were good. Got to do some sightseeing. Doing it together was special.”
That’s the thing about Sincere Engineer. While it may be described as a solo project, Belos’ love and admiration for her friends, who double as her band members, is obvious, as is their love for her. This all adds up to…you guessed it…fun.
Belos now has a little breathing room to just kick back and relax at home. After an exciting and seemingly exhausting year, hopefully Belos will be able to enjoy the holidays with family and friends. Once 2023 hits though, she will be back onstage. First up, headlining at Bottom Lounge on January 14. Belos reports there are a couple of other events already inked on her 2023 calendar.
“And we’re doing Slam Dunk in the UK again and SBAM festival in Austria next May/June!”
Should be fun.
In what little time off from Sincere Engineer-related activities, Deanna Belos lists her favorite activities as “Bike riding, kayaking, plants.”
Please see below for images from my recent photoshoot with Deanna Belos, on September 23, 2022, and from her set at Riot Fest on September 16, 2022 in Chicago IL.
The fourth album can be a bit of a curious point on a band’s timeline. The dreaded “sophomore slump” has long been in the rearview, and generally by the time the fourth album roles around, a band is at or around the decade mark in their career. It can be a time of transition; a […]
The fourth album can be a bit of a curious point on a band’s timeline. The dreaded “sophomore slump” has long been in the rearview, and generally by the time the fourth album roles around, a band is at or around the decade mark in their career. It can be a time of transition; a time to build off some old influences and also to incorporate new feelings and directions out of a desire to keep from getting stale or repetitive. Sometimes, the results can be ground-breaking, at least sonically if not always commercially or critically. Ignorance Is Bliss by Face To Face, for example. Darkness On The Edge Of Town. No Code. Sandinista!. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Life Won’t Wait. Question The Answers. ZOSO, or however that translate without the ability to add runes to the text here. So on and so forth.
And so here we find The Interrupters. The widely beloved LA-based ska punk band are back with In The Wild, due out August 5th on Hellcat Records. Recorded during the forced doldrums that were the shutdown of the last couple of years, the album finds the band (which surpassed the decade mark during said shutdown) building on the high-energy, rock-steady core that they’ve built over the course of three records and hundreds of shows, revealing a work that is their most varied, most introspective, and, subsequently, their best effort to date.
We caught up with the band’s air-tight rhythm section, sensational twin brothers Jesse (drums) and Justin (bass) Bivona to talk about the album’s recording and its personal nature. While much of the process for In The Wild was similar to the band’s previous output, there were a few marked differences that shaped the direction of what was to come. As Jesse explains the fourth album cycle, “one of our little press points about this record and relating it to the previous records is that the first album is kind of like a first date, where you just talk about surface-level things, nothing too crazy. Second album, you start to let them know a little more about you. Third album, you’re kinda getting into the nitty-gritty. Fourth album, all the baggage is out, the drama is revealed, all the secrets are out.”
The secrets are indeed out in more ways than one on In The Wild. It is by far the band’s most personal album to date, and it’s their most sonically diverse album to date, and both of those things are by design. Thinking back to the early days of the band, specifically around the recording of the band’s self-titled 2014 debut record, Jesse describes that the band was “just trying to keep it simple. We weren’t trying to reinvent anything, we were just trying to be a straight-ahead ska-punk band.” The more cohesive the band god, the more layered and textured the sound became, and the more outside influences began to creep in. While still very much an Interrupters record, In The Wild showcases sounds that include traditional reggae and rock steady and 2-tone and 80s punk rock and ‘50s doo-wop. The album closes with “Alien,” which centers around Aimee’s soaring, heartfelt vocals and is, as Jesse points out, “the first Interrupters song with no guitar on it!”
The seeds of In The Wild were initially sown in the early days of the pandemic shut down two years ago. The very early days. In fact, quite literally, the first day. The band had taken a few weeks off after wrapping a lengthy touring cycle for their 2017 album Fight The Good Fight – an album that continued the band’s launch into a higher stratosphere based in part on the crossover success of the single “She’s Kerosene” – in February, and was planning to return to Tim Armstrong’s studio in early March to begin work on album four. That plan was foiled just as it was beginning. “Day one of us going into the studio,” explains bass player Justin Bivona, “was that day where the NBA was canceling, and Tom Hanks had Covid…” After a few ‘wait and see’ days, recording plans – and, frankly, most of real life – got put on pause indefinitely, and the band retreated to what they affectionately refer to as The Compound; Justin and Jesse live in one house while the twins’ bandmates and, more importantly, older brother and sister-in-law Kevin and Aimee, live in the house next door. The two houses share a driveway and, more importantly, a garage, the latter of which would come in handy in a pandemic shutdown.
After some time spent doing what the rest of us did – binge-watching TV shows and movies, going for walks, and reflecting on their lives-to-date. As Justin tells it, that process “Aimee got to do a lot of looking back on her past and realized there was a lot of stuff she hadn’t written songs about.” And so even though the band had plenty of material they were going to work on in the studio at the beginning of 2020, writing eventually continued.
So, too, did recording, though the band didn’t have to go far. “At some point during (quarantine),” explains Justin, “Kevin was like “we need to do this record at our house, in our garage.” It’s a tiny 10×20 room that we would practice in, but it wasn’t treated, there wasn’t any studio equipment. So we spent maybe a month building things. Me and Jesse with power tools building racks to put gear in and tabletops and stuff. Pretty much “tiny housing” the studio to make every part of it work.”
This created the freedom to work together at their own pace. There’s no need to reserve studio time or book an engineer when you can do it all, effectively, in your collective backyard. That moved Kevin, the elder statesman of the Bivona brothers, officially into the producer’s seat. Tim Armstrong, who both oversees Hellcat Records and executive produced the first three Interrupters records, “told (Kevin) to just grab the reins and take off” says Justin, with Jesse quick to point out that their big brother has “always kinda been the shadow producer of everything in a sense.”
And while it may seem daunting to have your bandmate – and older brother, steering the ship, the timeline and the setting and their relationship made for a smooth, collaborative effort. “If we’re working on something and it’s not working,” explains Jesse, “all four of us can be like ‘well, what if we try this, or what if we try this,’…there are no bad ideas until you try (something and realize it’s bad.” “It was just us as a cohesive band, the four of us, working out songs and writing songs, and it really informed the process,” adds Justin. “It was the best thing we’ve ever done.”
The more that writing and recording continued, the more that the direction of the album revealed itself. “Aimee realized that the record was pretty much her life story,” says Jesse, adding “so the songs that didn’t fit with that theme we pushed aside and focused on the ones that told her story the way she wanted to tell it.” Because the lyrics bare so much of Aimee’s past, the task of recording vocals involved being in the right headspace to tackle some of the memories that were evoked. “Doing on the property,” reveals Justin, “it allowed Aimee the freedom to record vocals whenever she felt emotionally connected enough to a song” to power through it, a freedom that proved vital as it is apparent on first listen that Aimee dug deep lyrically, reflecting on some of the messier parts other upbringing and past relationships and grief and loss and trauma and mental health struggles that she has worked on over the years.
The added time and convenience of the recording process allowed the band to work through multiple versions of songs, in order to make sure that the emotion of the music matched the emotion of the lyrics. “There are a couple songs on this record where they were recorded one way and pretty much done,” explains Justin, “but then it wasn’t just fitting in with the rest of it when we would get back there. I think specifically “Love Never Dies” had a totally different feel, it was more of a rock/reggae Clash-y song. And it was dope, but it wasn’t fitting in with everything.” Jesse elaborates: “(Kevin) said “Jesse, play a one drop” so I played this one drop, and then he said “Justin, play this bass line” (*mimics bassline*). And then he said “okay, watch” and he just started skanking, and then he started singing this melody the way that it is now, and we played that for like four bars and just stopped. We were like “yeah, that’s it! Now we’re on to something!”
The result is one of the more straight-forward reggae songs in the Interrupters’ catalog to date. It also features a guest appearance from The Skints, the UK reggae punk band who recently wrapped a successful run opening a bunch of US shows for The Interrupters and Flogging Molly. The Skints are just one of an impressive handful of guest starts that found their collective way onto In The Wild; Tim Armstrong lends his vocal talents to a track, as per usual, but so too do Rhoda from The Bodysnatchers and Alex and Greg from third-wave ska legends Hepcat. The latter recording session occurred at Armstrong’s studio once the initial Covid waves had subsided and society started to open up again. As Jesse tells it, “it was a magical session to be a part of.” Justin explains “Greg and Alex came in and…we wanted them on the song (“Burdens”), but we didn’t really have the part. We went in with them and showed them the song and within a minute the two of them are sitting there writing the parts and figuring it out together. It was so cool to see because they’re literally our favorite ska band.”
It was yet another moment in a decade-long journey that has found the foursome feeling eternally grateful for the opportunities they’ve been presented; playing with longtime idols like Rancid and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Joan Jett and Green Day, playing legendary venues, getting introduced by RuPaul on the Jimmy Kimmel show (as was the case the night before we spoke). Case-in-point: the three Bivona brothers served as the backing band for The Specials during a fundraiser event in Los Angeles back in February, a mind-blowing moment that got overshadowed by the fact that a mini Operation Ivy reunion brokeout pre-set as Jesse Michaels and Tim Armstrong joined for a cover of the Op Ivy classic “Sound System,” an event that damn near broke the punk rock internet. The gravity of those situations is not lost on the band, by any stretch. “The moment that starts getting old is the moment that you’ve gotta start packing it in and figuring out what 9-to-5 (job) you want,” says Jesse.
Keep scrolling to read our full Q&A with the Bivona twins, Jesse and Justin. Pre-orders for In The Wild are still available here. And check out the full list of upcoming Interrupters tour dates, including their European run and leg 2 of the US dates with Flogging Molly, right here.
(*Editor’s note: The text below has been slightly edited and condensed for content and clarity.*)
JS: First and foremost, congratulations on another successful appearance on Kimmel!
Justin: Thank you!
JS: So this is probably then the second coolest thing you’ve done this week…
Justin: For real though, it is good to see your face!
JS: Is that the third time now on Kimmel?
Jesse: Nope, two! Four years ago we did “She’s Kerosene.”
Justin: Almost four years ago to the day. It was like July 26th.
JS: Man, how time has flown. The Kimmel show seems like it’s a cool one to do because the audience is right there, versus some of the other late-night shows where they’re sitting back and you’re kinda playing to the cameras as much as anything. That seems like a cool one.
Jesse: Yeah, they make it seem like it’s an indoor club show,
Justin: Which is really cool.
Jesse: It’s really cool. And the whole staff and crew there is excellent. They’re very nice. We had a GOOD time yesterday.
JS: And you got to hang with RuPaul, that’s pretty cool!
Justin: He’s super nice too!
Jesse: So nice!
Justin: An old punk rocker and a big ska fan too!
JS: I had no idea!
Jesse: Yeah, he played in a punk band in like the early 80s.
Justin: He loved The Selecter and The Specials.
JS: So then he’s totally going to dig your music, especially the new album!
Justin: He gave us the best soundbite! He just said “It’s time for some ska music, bitches!”
Jesse: We were on stage and just looked at each other like “WHOA!” (*all laugh*)
JS: Does that stuff ever get old? And I know I probably know the answer to that question, and actually I think I’ve asked Kevin and Aimee that sort of stuff before, but playing in massive crowds, playing in places like Fenway Park, playing for RuPaul on the Kimmel show…does that stuff ever get old?
JS: I feel like I knew that was the answer…
Jesse: The moment that starts getting old is the moment that you’ve gotta start packing it in and figuring out what 9-to-5 you want.
JS: When I started doing this Zoom interview thing during the early days of Covid, it was really to sort of check in with people. I was used to doing more phone interviews and then I’d type them up and write a story, but A) the website crashed so there was no publish things anymore for a while, but I liked the idea of actually chatting with people when they were in quarantine and we were in quarantine and you could see each other and stay connected. We’ve been in this weird situation for so long now that music that came out of quarantine is coming out commercially. That’s sort of the long way of getting into In The Wild, which is a really, really, really great album and I know I say that about each one that you guys put out, but the bar just keeps getting raised. So let’s talk about that process. When during lockdown did you realize “well, we’re not going to be out on the road for a while, and we’re not going to be able to go into a studio for a while, so fuck it, let’s do it ourselves”?
Justin: Here’s the thing. We finished the Fight The Good Fight album cycle tour in February of 2020. We ended in the UK with two amazing shows in London. The plan was to finish that and go home. Kev and Aimee were going to start writing for a couple weeks, and then we were going to go into the studio in March. Day, like, one of us going into the studio to record, was that day where like the NBA is canceling and Tom Hanks has Covid.
JS: Right! That’s when we really knew the world was ending!
Justin: Yeah! So we were going to go back in the next day, but everything started getting canceled, so we put the weekend on hold and then the next week on hold, and then the month, and everything just got shelved. So we were sitting at home, and couldn’t really do what our plan was. But it was nice at the same time, because we had just kept rolling for ⅞ years. There was no break. So we finally got to sit back and wait a little bit. We did the live record to give something to the fans during the break, and with that we did the documentary, This Is My Family, and put it all together as like a cohesive concert film. Kinda while we were doing that, we got to reflect on our past and Aimee got to do a lot of looking back on her past and realized there was a lot of stuff she hadn’t written songs about. At some point in the middle of that, Kevin was like “we need to do this record at our house, in our garage.” It’s a tiny 10×20 room that we would practice in, but it wasn’t treated, there wasn’t any studio equipment. So we spent maybe a month building things. Me and Jesse with power tools building racks to put gear in and tabletops and stuff. Pretty much “tiny housing” the studio to make every part of it work. And then they had some songs and we would just get in there the four of us with Kevin producing and work out these songs. It was a fun process because there were no outside distractions, there was no one else we had to worry about, it was just us as a cohesive band, the four of us, working out songs, writing songs, and it kind of really informed the process. It was the best thing we’ve ever done.
JS: So there was stuff written to be recorded back in March of 2020 when you first got off the road?
Jesse: Actually the one day that we did spend at the studio, we were working on the instrumental for “As We Live.” That was the only thing we recorded at Tim’s studio before everything got shut down.
Justin: I think they had “Alien” kind of on the docket, and “The Hard Way” was in there also.
Jesse: Yeah, they had done a few weeks of writing so there was a batch of songs. A lot of those songs got shelved because they didn’t fit the whole record idea. Once Kevin and Aimee started writing a lot, Aimee realized that the record was pretty much her life story. So the songs that didn’t fit with that theme we pushed aside and focused on the ones that told her story the way she wanted to tell it. We’re stoked on how the whole thing came out.
JS: How far into that writing process did the real direction of the album start to take shape, or at least when did she tell you that that was the direction that the album was going to go? And did that involve sit-down conversations…like, I know you’ve been family for a long time but that maybe there’s some shit she was going to sing about that’s a little…
Jesse: No, I think it happened kind of naturally, and it wasn’t until we had like
Both: Eighteen songs
Jesse: …that we were working on that it was like, okay, this batch is all very cohesive. I feel like we’re saying that word a lot? (*all laugh*)
Justin: It was a theme, you know?
Jesse: Yeah, and these other ones, they’re good, but they distract from the message we’re trying to send here and the themes we’re trying to talk about.
Justin: Yeah, once it was like, there’s all these songs (*gestures*) it was easy to look at the board and say, “well, these fourteen (go together).”
Jesse: And there was even a time where we weren’t completely…where we didn’t have like the last three figured out, and we dug up an old one, and once Aimee looked at it, it was like “actually, if I just rewrite these verses, this could fit.” That was “Worst For Me,” which was a sleeper favorite of mine. That song rips.
JS: That song is great, yeah!
Jesse: But it was on the back burner for months! It was just like, we recorded it and then we just forgot about it.
Justin: That was the other great thing about the process. We had so much time just sitting at home that they would finish a song and live with it for six months, then come back to it and say “oh, this song needs a bridge.” Then they would just write a bridge and it would bring the whole thing together. We’ve never really had the opportunity to sit and live with something and then come back to it and fix it. Usually in the studio, it’s like record it, it’s done…
Jesse: Go on tour, it’ll come out when you’re on tour. The most time we’ve ever had off in this band was maybe two months, right before Fight The Good Fight came out. And that wasn’t really time off, that was us preparing for the album cycle and the release and all that. So to be forced to sit on our hands during the pandemic, it helped a lot.
JS: What did you do otherwise to keep creative, musically or otherwise, to keep from getting into those doldrums when it seemed like the world was never going to open up and that sort of thing?
Jesse: You know, that’s a good question. We did what everybody did…binge-watched a lot of TV…
Justin: We did get to a point after the first few months where it was like, “okay, we’ve gotta go outside.”
JS: Touch grass.
Justin: Going to the beach, or going on hikes.
Jesse: Going on bike rides.
Justin: And we had a small quarantine bubble of friends that we trusted to come over, or we’d go over there. But other than that, it was a lot of TV…
Jesse: A lot of movies.
JS: Were you still playing music, even if it wasn’t Interrupters stuff, or did you just like put it away?
Jesse: It was always there. Our back room is always set up so we could always go back there and jam, but there was definitely a time…
Justin: There was definitely a three-month period where I didn’t touch a bass. (*all laugh*)
Jesse: Yeah, I was the same with drums.
JS: Is that the longest you’ve ever gone, since you started playing?
Justin: For sure.
JS: Was it interesting working with…I know you’ve worked with Tim (Armstrong) executive producing before but this is the first one where it was listed that Kevin was the producer of (the album). Does that change the dynamic when not only one of the four of you is producing it, but he’s also your brother and your band member? Does that impact the dynamic in the studio or have you been doing it with each other for so long now that you just know how it works?
Justin: Yeah, exactly. We’ve been doing this our whole life. We’ve always looked to Kevin for answers when we have questions about what we’re doing.
Jesse: He’s always kinda been the kind of shadow producer of everything, in a sense.
Justin: Yeah, so Tim gave him full rein…told him to just grab the reins and take off with it.
Jesse: The other thing about the way we work is we try everyone’s ideas, so we could be in the studio and it wouldn’t be like him saying “no, this is how it’s going to be, we have to do it this way.” If we’re working on something and it’s not working, all four of us can be like “well, what if we try this, or what if we try this.” And he’ll say “okay, let’s try it.” There’s no bad ideas until you try it and realize it’s bad, you know? It was very good. And we have such a great relationship and we’re very good at communicating, so there wasn’t any headbutting. It was very fun and very easy.
Justin: And again, doing it on the property, it allowed Aimee the freedom to record vocals whenever she felt emotionally connected enough to a song to sing the vocals.
JS: Especially on an album like this, that’s crucial.
Justin: Yeah! When you have studio time, you know you’ve got to be in there at 5pm and be there til 11pm.
Jesse: We’ve gotta bang out all these songs
Justin: And you’ve got to record these (specific things). That’s almost like a 9 to 5. This way, it was like, if we went back there and she was like “ah I don’t want to sing that right now, let me sing this one.” And also, if she got her second wind at 2am, she could just hop back there and record.
JS: Do you guys live close enough where it’s like “hey, it’s 2am but we’ve got an idea…”
Justin: We call it The Compound. In California technical terms, it’s a multi-family housing property, there’s one driveway, there’s two houses and a garage that we share, and a backyard. They live in the front house and we live here, so we’re right next to each other.
JS: It’s like being on tour while you’re at home!
Justin: I know, but with that being said, when we come home from tour sometimes, we don’t see each other for a whole week. (*all laugh*)
JS: Obviously it’s still early because this album’s not even out yet, but does that inspire you to kinda work that way going forward, now that you know that you can make an album like that in your little garage studio?
Jesse: Yeah I think so.
Justin: I think so, I mean…
Jesse: We haven’t really started thinking about the next one yet, but it is easy to just naturally fall into that. If we have to do a song for something, we can just hop back there and do it. So when we have something (to work on), it’s like “when do you want to work on that?” “I don’t know, tomorrow?” So we just hop back there and do it.
JS: How did the writing process work? Were there times when all four of you were writing together, or do Kevin and Aimee come up with the stem of the song and then you guys work on your rhythm parts? And does that ever change the direction of a song? Like if they start writing and a song has a certain feel, do they give you the freedom to say “hey, we think there’s a different feel that might go better with this song?” Because there are a lot of different feels on this album, and we’ll talk about that in a few minutes, but…
Justin: They would definitely have…it could be anything from the core idea of the song to an entirely fledged out song already, knowing how it should feel and what it should sound like. But, there are a couple songs on this record where they were recorded one way and pretty much done, but then it wasn’t just fitting in with the rest of it when we would get back there. I think specifically “Love Never Dies” had a totally different feel, it was more of a rock/reggae Clash-y song. And it was dope, but it wasn’t fitting in with everything.
Jesse: It didn’t age well.
Justin: It didn’t age well. So when we got back there with the four of us, we said “What do we do with this?” And Kevin said “what if did it more like a roots thing?”
Jesse: Yeah, he said “Jesse, play a one drop” so I played this one drop, and then he said “Justin, play this bass line” (*mimics bassline*). And then he said “okay, watch” and he just started skanking, and then he started singing this melody the way that it is now, and we played that for like four bars and just stopped. We were like “yeah, that’s it! Now we’re on to something!”
Justin: And then we finished it and we were like “dude, we gotta get The Skints on this one.”
Jesse: We built up this track, sent it to The Skints, and they sent us back a whole bunch of stuff that we kept. They’re fantastic.
JS: I was going to ask if all the guests got recorded in studio with you too. Obviously they didn’t if The Skints recorded their own stuff. People haven’t heard the album yet but obviously, Tim’s on a song because Tim’s gonna be on a song. Rhoda from Bodysnatchers, Alex and Greg from Hepcat, obviously Billy Kottage, the fifth Interrupter. Shoutout to Billy Kottage, the pride of Dover, New Hampshire.
(*Justin adjusts camera, revealing Billy Kottage sitting on the couch in the corner!)
Both: He’s right there!
JS: That’s awesome! I don’t think we’ve ever met in person, but Billy and I are both from the State of New Hampshire, so I always think that’s awesome.
Justin: When he comes out here, he pretty much lives with us.
JS: That’s great. There aren’t many of us in New Hampshire, the scene wasn’t very big, so when someone from the Granite State is cool and does cool things, I love it. So shoutout to Billy Kottage. So yeah, did they all record with you?
Jesse: It was all different. The Skints did it on their own in England, Rhoda recorded her vocals on her own at her place back in England.
Justin: (For) Hepcat, we actually went into Tim’s studio for a day.
Jesse: Which was great!
Justin: Greg and Alex came in and it was just one of the most fun days. That’s the thing, we went in to have them record on the song not knowing…Kevin didn’t really know what to have them do. We wanted them on the song, but he didn’t really have the part or anything. But we went in with them and showed them the song, and within like a minute, the two of them are sitting there going…
Both: “ooooh oooh” (*harmonizing*)
Justin: Like writing the parts, figuring it out together, it was so cool to see because they’re literally our favorite ska band.
Jesse: It was a magical session to be a part of. They were sitting there laughing…
Justin: ..having a good time…
Jesse: …singing all the right notes. It was awesome. We did that at Tim’s studio. Tim also did his vocals at his studio. That was later in the process, where things were a little more comfortable, where we could actually travel to a studio and not worry about everything. And then also, we had a guest vocalist on “Alien.” It’s this guy named Arnold, who is a friend of Tim’s and a friend of Brett Gurewitz’s. When we were working on that song, I think it was Tim’s idea, he was like “Arnold’s voice would sound great on this,” and we were like “let’s give it a shot!” So we had Arnold come in and he sang all those background vocals, and he’s got this emotionally delicate approach to his vocals that just lifted that song to another level.
JS: That song is something else…
Jesse: First Interrupters song with no guitar.
JS: Right! That’s actually a thing I wanted to ask about. There’s so many different directions! Obviously you’ve always played on a lot of different influences, but I feel like with this album, you go deeper into the reggae thing, into the 2-Tone thing, and then “Alien” which is unlike anything else in the Interrupters catalog. What made you take the freedom to just kinda go with that. Is that stuff that’s always kinda been in the arsenal but maybe you didn’t want to go too deep on the first few records, but now that everyone’s along for the ride it’s like, “well, let’s push that.”
Jesse: Maybe a little bit of that, but also, it is more that the songs were telling us how we should play them, so to speak. So the way that that song was written, there was never really another way to approach it. That song went through a lot of different versions – not crazy different versions but it was layered up with heavy guitars at one point…
Justin: It was kind of like The Beatles’ “Oh Darling” at one point, where it was like rocking…
Jesse: There were heavier drums on it at one point. It went through a bunch of stages.
Justin: But the emotion wasn’t there. Aimee fought really hard to bring it back to what it should be.
Jesse: What served the song better.
Justin: And that involved one day just pulling it up and being like “take the guitar off, take that off, take that off”…it got down to literally just the drum beat and the string arrangement.
Jesse: Even cutting a whole outro and just being like “no, the song should end right there.”
Justin: And then also with “My Heart,” which is also kind of a different…
Jesse: That “doo-woppy” 50s feel.
Justin: She had already had the melody and was singing it and I was like “well, it’s gonna be in 3, and it’s gonna have this rock feel.” Even if we tried to make it in 4 as a ska song or a reggae song, it just wasn’t working. So the way those songs were written informed the styles. And at this point, we’ve kind of realized that no matter what style it is, if it’s me and Jesse and Kevin playing and Aimee singing, it’s going to sound like The Interrupters. Us just believing in ourselves and pushing it forward that way really helped the process.
JS: When there’s an album I’m really excited about, I try to ignore a lot of the singles and just listen to the album all the way through because, I don’t know, I’m in my 40s and that’s the way we did it when we were kids, right? So I listened to it all the way through and I took notes and next to “My Heart” I wrote “whoa, an Interrupters doo-wop song.” It’s very much an Interrupters song still, but it’s got that sort of 50s diner, doo-wop vibe to it. Which I think is awesome, and it’s cool to see elements like feature in the mix but still be an Interrupters track.
Justin: Thank you!
Jesse: Yeah, initially that was one where we were like “let’s just play like The Ramones would play in 3.” So it was real heavy, but it didn’t serve the song well.
Justin: So dial back a little bit.
JS: I think people are going to dig that song.
Jesse: I think that’s my favorite song on the album.
Justin: Specifically behind the scenes with that song, Aimee had a service dog named Daisy for 13 years, who passed away in 2018. It was like her little girl, and it was devastating when she passed away. She wrote that song about her, and not even just the first time but the first few times I heard it, I couldn’t keep it together. I’d cry every time.
Jesse: Yeah, because when we worked it out in the studio, we just had the choruses, singing “my heart keeps beating, my heart keeps beating…” so that pretty much informed the drum beat just being a heartbeat. And then a couple weeks later when they updated the Dropbox with the verses and said “listen to this,” me and Justin were both sitting right here in our living room with our earbuds on and we’re both just like crying. Like, oh my god this is so emotional, because we all lived with Daisy, she was fantastic. She was a German shepherd/wolf, and we all still miss her a lot. That was a heavy one.
JS: Have you been able to play a lot of this stuff live yet, or are you waiting until the album is out?
Jesse: On the Flogging Molly tour we just did, we were only doing “Anything Was Better” and “In The Mirror,” and then when we dropped “Jailbird” we started doing that. The plan is to play as much of it as possible.
Justin: We tried a few of them at soundcheck on occasion.
Jesse: Yeah, we’d always screw around at soundcheck and be like “do you guys know ‘Kiss The Ground,’ let’s try that”
Justin: Or “Raised By Wolves”
Jesse: But we’re in rehearsals next week for a few days to work on stuff for the European tour, because that’s when we’ve gotta do longer sets, but the plan is to try to learn the whole record.
JS: I think people are going to dig a lot of it. I was just curious about if you’d throw a curveball song like that at people before they’ve heard the album to see what the response is. Because I feel like “In The Mirror” is one of those songs that the first time you hear it, you go “yup, that one’s a classic. That’s going to get the crowd whipped up.” Do you know when you’re writing a song like that that it’s going to be “the one.” Like “She’s Kerosene” was like that. The very first verse when I first heard it, I remember going “well, that’s gonna be a big hit.”
Jesse: When we’re working on it in the studio, I think we’re so lost in the process that we don’t give songs that sort of focus, like “that’s going to be the single, this is going to be the hit.” But there was a point when we were doing “She’s Kerosene” that we had Mr. Brett come in and he was listening to stuff and he when he heard “Kerosene,” he had his little notepad and he was just like “hit.” And we all just looked at each other like “Whoa! Really?”
Justin: We thought there was so much more work to be done with that song and when he gave it that check of approval, we were like “alright, we don’t have to do much more to it.” That was cool. But then also for this record, when there was like 18 or 20 songs, “In The Mirror” was a standout, at least for me. I was like “I think that one is really good.” Then as it dwindled down, it was like “In The Mirror” and “Raised By Wolves” as the top two. They’re different enough, one’s ska, one’s sort of heavy rock, and you’re just like these two are the shining examples of the record and what we’re trying to sound like.
Jesse: And “In The Mirror,” Kevin and Aimee wrote that song ten years ago. That was one that wasn’t written specifically for this record. But when they were doing the inventory for the record, Aimee was like “we should dig this one up, this is a great one.” I remember when we were trying to work that one out in the room as a four-piece, I feel like it was a more difficult one to get away from the demo version, because I’ve been listening to that song for ten years. There is a demo recording of it – it’s not even a demo, it’s a full fledged-out different version of it. And having that ingrained in your brain and trying to get away from it and being like “alright, how would The Interrupters do this,” that was an interesting process. There was definitely a day where I was like “that song’s not going to make the record, we have so many other songs.” (*all laugh*) Obviously, I was wrong, that song rips.
Justin: But it’s wild too, because they wrote it ten years ago. From that time, that’s when they wrote “Easy On You,” “Gave You Everything,” and then “In The Mirror” was in that batch.
Jesse: “Love Never Dies” was in that batch.
Justin: Yup, “Love Never Dies.” I think now if we’re recording, it’s like “hey what else wasfrom that time period? What else did you write then? Anything else we can dig up?” There was some gold.
JS: It’s interesting to hear that it’s from that time period. As I was driving around this morning for work, I listened to the first album and this one back-to-back, because they come out on the same day; the new one comes out on the 8th anniversary of the first one, so I thought it would be cool to listen to them back-to-back. And, I loved the first album when it came out, but it is startling how far you guys have progressed as a band in eight years.
JS: And so to listen to them back-to-back, obviously you can kinda see how ended up here, but at the same time, you’ve progressed so far. So it’s really interesting that that song, in particular, is from that batch.
Jesse: So, one of our little press points about this record and relating it to the previous records is that the first album is kind of like a first date, where you just talk about surface-level things, nothing too crazy. Second album, you start to let them know a little more about you. Third album, you’re kinda getting into the nitty-gritty. Fourth album, all the baggage is out, the drama is revealed, all the secrets are out. That is kind of where we are with this. And talking about the recording of the first record, we were just trying to keep it simple. We weren’t trying to reinvent anything, we were just trying to be a straight-ahead ska-punk band.
Justin: We did like twenty-four instrumentals in three days. Some of them didn’t have any lyrics or anything, we just got the music done. The ones that didn’t have any lyrics done, they just wrote to the instrumentals. There was no going back to redo parts, it was just like “this is it, we’re done.”
Jesse: And keep it simple. Like, for me on drums, it was like “don’t do any crazy fills, just keep it straight, keep it steady.”
Justin: Which is wild, because some of my basslines, I play so many notes! Why did they let me do that?!? (*all laugh*)
JS: Yeah, but they work, and as somebody who wanted to be a bass player when he grew up, I like that they let you play all the notes! …. Thanks for doing this. This was fun. I talked to Kevin and Aimee for I think the first three records, so it’s nice to talk to you guys. It’s been a while!
Jesse: Yeah we’re being let off the leash a little bit. (*all laugh*)
JS: Well and that’s good, you should be. It’s fun that you guys have your own language with each other, and I know that that’s talked about in other places, like the documentary. So it’s perfect that you guys ended up as a rhythm section, and you end up doing this. Is that why you ended up as a rhythm section?
Jesse: Yeah, kinda. It kinda happened naturally. I don’t remember if we talked about it in the movie, but Kevin started out as a drummer. We had a drum set in the house because our dad was a producer and worked with his friends. So there was a drum set always in the house and Kevin gravitated toward that at an early age. But then, one day our dad came home with a guitar and a bass. So Kevin grabbed the guitar, and I was already dicking around on the drums, so then the only thing left over was the bass. So then naturally it was like “well, this is your instrument, this is your instrument…” And then we would just jam as little kids. There’s some video in that documentary but there’s a LOT more video when we were like 7 years old and Kevin is like 9 of us just trying to play like Green Day songs and Blink 182 songs
Justin: Sublime songs.
Jesse: Yeah, Sublime songs! Whatever we were hearing on the radio is what we were trying to play. The crazy thing is that we’ve come full circle and we know a lot of the people we were trying to emulate and we’re lucky enough to call them friends.
Justin: Some are like family.
Jesse: Yeah, some are like family now. It’s been a crazy, crazy life that we don’t take for granted.
Justin: They always say don’t meet your idols but...
Jesse: …we’ve never had a bad experience when we’ve met our idols.
Justin: I couldn’t tell you one person that I had looked up to that I met and they ruined it for me. Everyone’s been amazing.
JS: You know what, I’ve got to say almost the same thing. The amount of people that I’ve gotten to know through doing this for…well, The Interrupters started in 2011 and I started with Dying Scene in 2011. You’re one of the bands that came out right when I was getting started with this whole thing so it’s been a fun sort of parallel, but there’s only a small, small handful of people where you go “wow, that guy’s kind of a dick.” Everybody else has been super cool and super rad and supportive of each other. Especially those people that we grew up listening to in the late 80s and the 90s. It’s a pretty good, supportive group.
Justin: It is, it is. Even when we just started out, to tour with Rancid was amazing, but then to go on and get Rhoda from The Bodysnatchers, we get Horace and Lynval and Terry from The Specials love us. It’s just insane. To have that mutual respect and to get it back is just…yeah…it’s mind-blowing.
Jesse: We did a charity show back in February where we were backing The Specials. I was the drummer of The Specials for a night. We did the whole set, like twelve songs. Justin played piano, Kev played guitar.
Justin: You saw that thing where we played with Tim and Jesse Michaels and did the Op Ivy song?
JS: Yeah, yeah. That was amazing.
Justin: That was the same event. That one song with Jesse was amazing but it overshadowed the fact that we played in The Specials! (*all laugh*)
Jesse: It was just mind-blowing.
JS: Yes! Everyone kinda lost it with the Jesse thing but yeah, that’s awesome. Just awesome.
Jesse: And just being able to sit in a room for a week with Terry and Horace; Lynval got sick so he couldn’t come out, but just to sit there and run the songs with them was mind-blowing.
JS: I’m glad this stuff keeps happening to you, because you certainly deserve it.
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!”
Earlier this year, East Bay pop punks Sarchasm announced that after twelve years of releasing nothing but certified bangers, they were calling it quits and we felt personally attacked by this. In that same announcement, they also said that they would be releasing one final album, which we’d like to think they did in an […]
Earlier this year, East Bay pop punks Sarchasm announced that after twelve years of releasing nothing but certified bangers, they were calling it quits and we felt personally attacked by this. In that same announcement, they also said that they would be releasing one final album, which we’d like to think they did in an attempt to help soften the blow. Well, it worked….kinda. Conditional Love is out today and while we’re still not 100% healed from the near pain they’ve inflicted upon us, we do feel slightly better because it’s such an incredible album. We decided that the only thing that could provide the closure we needed to fully remedy our sorrow was to speak with the band themselves. So, we rang up the tremendous trio of Alex (bass/vocals), Stevie (drums/vocals) and Mateo (guitar/vocals) and had them talk us off the ledge.
Dying Scene: How did you decide that Conditional Love would be your final album? Was it an actual decision that you made as a group or was it more of an organic process (obligations to work, family, etc)?
Mateo: It was a mix of both. The decision to end the band and the decision to record one final album came about over a series of conversations in late 2021 and early 2022.
Stevie: Mateo was no longer in a place where he could tour and do as much stuff, and Alex and I wanted to continue actively touring, and it didn’t feel right to keep doing Sarchasm without Mateo.
Alex: I touched on this in a post, but I’ve admired bands like REM who were able to walk away cordially and in a way that felt meaningful. We reached that point, and I’m happy we were able to send it off with something we felt proud of.
DS: I know that you all have been playing since your mid-teens. Are you thinking it’s now time for a little break or will there be other projects you’re going to start either together or individually?
Stevie: Excuse me, I was a tween! (Stevie was 11). Nevertheless, I’m going to continue playing with my band Crush Material, and occasionally I have a solo project called Pool Jock that I’ve been recording an album with Mateo since 2020. One day it will come out I hope! Perhaps in 2023 but we shall see.
Alex: Stevie and I, along with Amy (our second guitarist) and Becket (Mateo’s summer tour stand-in) started a new band called STARTLE!, and Stevie and I are also continuing to be active with 924 Gilman.
Mateo: I plan to continue to make music, and I know this isn’t our last time playing onstage together, even if Sarchasm the band is not continuing. I’m also still active as a recording engineer, which I guess is also a scene-related jam.
DS: What are your biggest takeaways from the past decade+ playing with Sarchasm?
Alex: I think I used to worry I wasn’t doing the right things to make us popular or mesh with the East Bay scene, but the longer we did it the more it felt best to embrace your own oddities and how you operate musically. Make sure you’re doing it for yourself, above everything. Don’t just force yourself to do a thing just because it feels like that’s what you’re supposed to do or what’s expected of you.
DS: Conditional Love sounds like it was produced with a theme of closure in mind. Was that intentional or are we just being extra emo and reading too much into it?
All: It was absolutely intentional. We knew that Conditional Love was going to be a last album in some fashion – whether before a long break between releases or the band’s swansong. Once we made the decision to end the band in 2022, we decided to lean all the way into the album’s theme of endings and new beginnings. We also all graduated college and went through a lot of change since our previous album, so there was closure in a lot of life elements happening around us. But maybe writing an album centered around your band ending is the most emo move.
DS: In 2021 you released They Might Be Covers was a pretty awesome lil album, covering a bunch of fantastic They Might Be Giants tunes. Was that a side effect of ‘Pandemic Boredom’ or was it something you had thought of doing for awhile? How did that group discussion go?
Alex: Shannon from awakebutstillinbed and I were on tour together, and we both realized that we have a deep love and appreciation for the band They Might Be Giants. The original plan was to do a They Might Be Giants cover set with Shannon guesting at Fest 2020, but the pandemic obviously had other plans. It felt like a fun way to collaborate with another musician and friend from the scene. Plus, one of our favorite things as a band to do is play covers, so it was a no-brainer. They Might Be Giants has been one of my biggest musical influences, and I would encourage anyone when given the chance to attempt to do a cover set or something like this with one of your favorite bands. It really makes you appreciate their music on a totally different level. Nothing like the realization that TMBG songs are relentlessly complex to ground you in your abilities!
DS: You describe yourselves as “Anxious indie punk”. Was that the sound you were aiming for when starting the band or is that just how it turned out?
Stevie: We kinda just fell into the label anxious indie punk. For a while we didn’t really feel like we fit into any genre option we’d been provided, particularly pop punk which is what we’ve gotten labeled as most frequently over the years.
Alex: I think we all came from different musical backgrounds. I didn’t find bands like MCR or the Warped Tour acts that other 2010s East Bay groups would have been listening to and instead came into Sarchasm obsessed with new wave acts like Talking Heads and Elvis Costello. Stevie and Mateo each had their own separate tastes from me, and the blending never created something that felt typical to “pop punk” despite our collective Green Day love. Indie punk just made more sense to us with our sound and who we are as people.
DS: You’ve listed Talking Heads, the aforementioned Green Day and Rancid as bands who have influenced the band but what about lesser known/local bands. Any of those smaller bands provide inspiration through the years?
All: Smaller local bands have always provided just as much inspiration to us as the big heads (including the Talking ones), both in a community inspiration sense as well as a musical sense. There are too many to list; so a small sample is: Waterfly Spigot, Pseudo, Local Hero, CAMPY, Under 15 Seconds, The Matches, Jabber, Corrupt Vision, Polkadot, Worriers, Like Roses, Grumpster, the Lookout Records back catalog, the Asian Man Records back catalog…
DS: If you could change/improve one thing about the punk scene, what would it be?
Mateo: Less entitlement. More community focus and involvement.
Stevie: I’d love for punk scenes everywhere to be more welcoming to black and brown folks and marginalized groups more generally.
DS: Stevie, I was reading another interview where you said you had done some time as a “Quaker Bouncer” when you were in PA but there were nowhere near enough deets given in that article. Spill!!
Stevie: Oh wow, what a throwback! I went to a Quaker college in PA called Haverford College for two years, and they had a thing where people could host parties with alcohol on campus so long as they had a “Quaker bouncer” who basically made sure no one got too sick or hurt. I’m pretty sure I did one shift of being a Quaker bouncer and then never did it again, so that’s pretty funny that I had mentioned that in an interview…
DS: Now that you are hanging it up, give us a few bands we can listen to to get our ‘Sarchasm Fix’.
All: Teenage Halloween, Like Roses, Little Low, Grumpster, Sweet Gloom, can we say STARTLE? Is that allowed? Play Mountain Goats on one speaker and Green Day at the same time. That might do it.
DS: And now, the most important question – When will Conditional Love be available on vinyl?????
That we will, comrades. That we will. And we suggest you buy the album as well, dear reader (even if not on vinyl) because it is definitely an AoTY contender. Still don’t believe us? Stream it below and try to tell us we’re wrong!
With a blistering live show, a slew of solid releases, and a growing fan base, Suzi Moon has built quite a bit of momentum since the release of her and her band’s first EP, Call the Shots, in May of 2021. Suzi Moon continued this success with the release of her debut solo record, Dumb […]
With a blistering live show, a slew of solid releases, and a growing fan base, Suzi Moon has built quite a bit of momentum since the release of her and her band’s first EP, Call the Shots, in May of 2021. Suzi Moon continued this success with the release of her debut solo record, Dumb & In Luv, in September of 2022. The 10-track album is full of raw energy, catchy choruses, and personal songwriting that has marked each of Suzi Moon’s releases thus far.
In a recent interview with Dying Scene, Suzi Moon went in-depth on the writing, production, and process of making Dumb & In Luv. She also gave a special spotlight to a couple of the tracks on the record and provided the context of the album within her career.
Upon starting our conversation, Suzi Moon provides insight into the new record coming together and how she feels after its release on September 23rd, 2022.
“I am absolutely over the moon that it’s finally out there,” says Moon. “I’m sure every other musician can relate to me when I say that the process of getting it over the finish line and out there and released, after getting all the work done there’s so much build up to that moment when it finally gets to be a record that’s out there in the world. I’m so proud of it, and I’m happy that people are loving it.”
Suzi references finally getting the project over the finish line, and the artist has been working on this project for a while. All of the songs on the album were written and have been in the works before the release of her first two EPs, Call the Shots and Animal. Moon commented on this aspect of how the album came together.
“All of the songs on Dumb & In Luv were written well before Call the Shots and Animal, and it just kind of worked out that way. Before I decided to do Suzi Moon as a solo project, I was in between bands, but I never stopped writing. I had this batch of songs, and I just felt like I would die if I didn’t get them out of my head.”
While Dumb & In Luv marks Suzi Moon’s debut full-length record, the guitarist/singer already had a substantial career. Before her solo project, Moon played in other bands, notably with her sister in Civet, and her first experience as the front-woman of a band with the Turbulent Hearts. While Dumb & In Luv is far from Moon’s first release, putting out a solo record creates a new level of pressure and pride in the final product.
“There’s nothing to hide behind. If somebody has a problem with a lyric or a song, they’re going to say, ‘It’s Suzi Moon’s fault.’ Not my bassist or the name of the band. There’s nothing to hide behind. But I think I’m not afraid anymore because of all those years of experience playing in Civet when I was a teenager and with my second band, Turbulent Hearts.” Moon says, “I feel pretty unfuckwithable. No one can take away the amount of experience I have, the touring I’ve done. I had very scary moments recording Dumb & in Luv, but it’s impossible to please everybody. You have to be happy with yourself that you did the best you could to bring a song to life.”
This topic turned to talking in-depth about some of the songs on Dumb & in Luv, with one, in particular, being a track that stuck out to Moon as one that was a moment in the album she cited as being an example of a scary moment. That song is “California,” an upbeat and catchy ode to Suzi Moon’s home state.
“California,” the third track on the record, is a bright and anthemic tune that joins a long tradition of songs about the Golden State across a myriad of genres. Moon says that she hesitated to make the track because of the trope of songs about California.
“I did not wake up one day and go, ‘I know what I need; I need a California Song.’ It is overdone, but that also speaks to the magic of California.” She continues: “there is something so unique about that place that continues to inspire people to write about it. I did not set out or intend to write a cheesy California song, but it grew out of my heart anyway.”
The song growing out of her heart is evident, as the song is filled with personal songwriting that separates Suzi Moon’s “California ” from being something that comes off as too familiar. Whether it be a reference to Moon’s first car, a 1974 Cadillac Eldorado that she got because of her love of Mest and their song “Cadillac” when she was a teenager, or the first line of the piece a reference to the same Mest track. Moon writes a song that is both fun and personal, as well as acknowledges the subject matter is well traveled.
“Right out of the gate, I’m kind of taking the piss out of the whole thing. It’s not like I don’t know this is borderline cheesy. But cheesy can be fucking fun sometimes, and that doesn’t make it a less good song.”
This mix of humorous and personal songwriting brings the track together as something meaningful and has a genuine reverence for the source material. This personal touch became even more evident on the next track we discussed, “Money.”
While the themes on the track “Money” are something that many can relate to, not being respected by your employer, etc., the songwriting process was one that Moon describes as very personal.
“When it comes to the song ‘Money,’ that is actually one of the more personal songs on the record, that I did not write with anybody else in mind.” Says Moon, “It’s a true story about a job that I had that fucked me over. Some songs write themselves. It’s the weirdest thing because I don’t have that much of a memory of writing ‘Money’ or how that all spilled out of me. It’s one of my better songs, I think.”
It’s a testament to the writing on the record that Suzi Moon is able to use an autobiographical approach to writing a song about an event from her life and that it may easily resonate with the listener. Moon also describes the influences that went into the song, giving it a stand-out sound on the album.
“I remember wanting to be like Ike and Tina Turner meets the Who in the verses, but the chorus has to be full Sheryl Crow, ending with Randy the band chaos sprinkled with some Stax Records saxophone. That’s what my brain does, but it still comes out as Suzi.”
The song effectively synthesizes these influences while still being uniquely Suzi Moon.
After the in-depth discussion on recording and releasing some of the critical moments on the album, the interview moved toward what comes next for Suzi Moon and her band.
What Comes Next
Moon mentions that despite the success of the new record, she is already working on the band’s next project.
“I am 1000% a workaholic, and I have already started writing. Dumb & in Luv was recorded before the Call the Shots EP, before the Animal EP, recorded before I had the band that I’ve been playing with for a year. Something magical happens when you play with four people for a year. You get this gel and groove going together. Right now, I’m wondering how we capture that?”
Before Moon and her band can figure that out, however, first they will be finishing up a year of touring that includes playing with legends of the punk scene. This includes shows with The Damned, Rebellion Fest in Blackpool England, and, currently, playing shows with The Dead Boys.
With the debut of her first solo record and the band gelling together in the studio and on the road, one thing is sure. Whatever is next for Suzi Moon will be buzzworthy. Dying Scene thanks Suzi Moon for taking the time to talk about her new record, which you can check out on major streaming platforms or order here.
Moon also wanted to thank Mass Giorgini and Davey Warsop for their production work on the album, which was instrumental in developing the sound of Dumb & in Luv.
Today marks the release of NOFX‘s new record Double Album on Fat Wreck Chords. Check it out below, and head over here to buy the album. Like 2021’s Single Album, this LP mostly features reworked versions of songs originally recorded for band’s most recent 7″ of the Month Club. According to Fat Mike, this will not be […]
Like 2021’s Single Album, this LP mostly features reworked versions of songs originally recorded for band’s most recent 7″ of the Month Club. According to Fat Mike, this will not be NOFX’s final album. He says they “have three more records in the can already”. This includes a five-song EP called Half Album, a studio album titled Everybody Else is Insane, and something Fatty refers to as NOFX: A-Z, which will feature “different versions” of old songs with titles that start with each of the 26 letters of the alphabet.
Earlier this year, NOFX revealed their intentions to throw in the towel following a to-be-announced world tour in 2023. Fat Mike claims the legendary punk band will “play every song we’ve written, off of every album” at their last shows. Surely they’ll make good on that promise.