Back in February 2017, Dying Scene got an exclusive scoop from Strung Out frontman Jason Cruz that the California punk legends were working on a new EP titled Black Out The Sky, to follow up their last full length, 2015’s stellar Transmission.Alpha.Delta. While that was noteworthy in and of itself, the noteworthiness was ratcheted up to stratospheric levels by the additional revelation that Black Out The Sky was also going to be the band’s first collection of acoustic songs. Initial word was that we might see the album sometime in summer 2017, but then, news kinda dried up for a while.
Tomorrow, however, the official release of Black Out The Sky is officially upon us. We caught up with the one-and-only Cruz earlier this week to talk about the new album, and what exactly took so long for it to see the light of day. Needless to say it’s been a bit of a tumultuous run for Strung Out; the band officially parted ways with drummer of more than twenty years, Jordan Burns, a couple months ago, and have since brought Runaway Kids’ drummer RJ Shankle in as his replacement. “We had a tough two years, man,” explains Cruz. “There’ve been a lot of moments in the course of our career where we thought we didn’t know how we were going to get through it, but the last couple years were pretty tough. I think that this record is a catharsis to that whole time in all our lives.“
Don’t let the “acoustic album” label fool you; Black Out The Sky is very much a Strung Out record, not just eight stripped down, straight-forward versions of Strung Out songs; the darkness and aggression that have become part of the band’s signature are still very much present. “Strung Out changed its guitar sound and it just happened to sound like this,” says Cruz. There’s also the fact that the band’s last album, Transmission.Alpha.Delta was so loud and intense that Cruz and the remaining band members felt it was time for a change of pace. “If your career’s a song, this is the breakdown before the big chorus (that comes next),” he reasons. “You can’t write another big, huge record right after that. To me, you had to do something like a buffer right in the middle of that to prepare for the next project.”
Strung Out’s guitar players, Rob Ramos and Jake Kiley, and bass player Chris Aiken have long been respected for the fast, aggressive, metal-influence that they bring to the punk rock table; it’s part of what has set Strung Out apart over the years. However, the switch to acoustic on Black Out The Sky puts the focus on the level of musicianship that exists within the band, an appreciation that only grows more intense with subsequent listens. “All three of them are the best guitar players in punk rock, to me,” states Cruz emphatically. “They’re phenomenal. I’m in awe of those guys. I shake when I have to show them an idea.” The added space gave Cruz the room to stretch his voice in some new ways, putting a real focus on the vocals and the lyrics. “What people don’t understand is that singing over loud, heavy metal guitars constrains you. When you take that out of the equation and you can actually hear the timbre of the voice, you have so much more wiggle room. A lot more is discovered in the singer’s voice when everything is a little naked, you know?”
You can check out our full chat down below; brace yourself for the Footloose and Alice In Chains portions of the conversation! Black Out The Sky is due out tomorrow on Fat Wreck Chords, and you can still order it here. Strung Out heads out on the road in support of Pennywise in a couple weeks; check out details here!
Dying Scene (Jay Stone): I think the the last time we talked like this was either just before or just after (Jason Cruz’s side project, Jason Cruz and Howl’s debut album) Good Man’s Ruin came out, three or four years ago now, and during that conversation the idea that instead of playing at people, you were trying to play too them and pull them in, so it’s interesting to have that come up in the context of Strung Out now. I think we also talked about how the Howl project was going to be sort of the antithesis of Strung Out, and now it’s almost come a completely 180 degrees, where this is a Strung Out album that’s almost the antithesis of a Strung Out album.
Jason Cruz: Yeah, it’s interesting too. I was in my daughter’s class the other day volunteering, and the teacher was so gentle and quiet, and I was astounded at how he kept the level of the class at that level. I guess that’s why I brought it up, because you determine the level that you want to perceive the world at or the world to perceive you at; your dialog with the world. You’re in control of that, and people will respond if they like what they’re hearing and believe in what you’re doing, you know? It’s a form of control that you gain when you’ve been doing it for a while, I think.
Did the idea to do this sort of an album – I know that word of this has been around for over a year now, that this was coming down the ‘pike. Did the idea to do this album come sort of inspired by the Howl project, or are they two different tracks entirely?
Yeah, the song I wrote is probably the most aggressive song on the record. I always wanted the two to be separate. This is Strung Out. This is 100% Strung Out. This is me and Chris Aiken in a hotel room jamming and Rob coming up with ideas and Jake coming up with ideas. It’s interesting; Strung Out changed its guitar sound and it just happened to sound like this. Plus, after (2015’s) Transmission… you can’t write another big, huge record right after that. To me, you had to do something like a buffer right in the middle of that to prepare for the next project, you know what I mean?
Oh yeah. And Transmission… is such a big, loud, layered, aggressive album, and one that I love immensely…
So this is the breakdown. If your career’s a song, this is the breakdown before the big chorus
How recently were these songs written after Transmission? I’m assuming that the six new songs here were written for specifically a Strung Out acoustic record rather than for another traditional album…
Yeah, we had a tough two years, man. There’ve been a lot of moments in the course of our career where we thought we didn’t know how we were going to get through it, but the last couple years were pretty tough. I think that this record is a catharsis to that whole time in all our lives. It bonded the four of us, because Jordan didn’t really want anything to do with this. So it brought us close. We had a lot of joy in making it, and that was the best. That was my favorite thing about it.
So the other four of you were pretty cohesive in sort of experimenting and branching out like this?
Yeah. All four of us write, and I think we were enabled to just enjoy it. Jake was apprehensive about doing an acoustic record, but he put that aside and gave his 100%. I really respect that, you know? I gained a new respect for the guys in my band.
I think a thing that gets a bit overlooked because it’s “punk music” or whatever, but is just how great as musicians the guys in Strung Out are…
Fuck yeah, dude! All three of them are the best guitar players in punk rock, to me. They’re phenomenal. I’m in awe of those guys. I shake when I have to show them an idea (*both laugh*). You know?
That’s been a really fun thing that Chris has done on his Instagram feed lately, where he sits down with a guitar and shows how different riffs were written. He’s the bass player in the band, but people might not have realized that Chris is a phenomenal writer and guitar player as well.
Yeah, he is. I love watching those guys fingers move. I gave up a long time ago trying to be a real guitar player (*both laugh*). If you can’t get close to those guys, why even bother? I’m just an idea guy!
Exactly! I don’t understand the physics behind what they’re doing half the time.
Yeah! I’ll just come up with a bonehead idea, like “here’s the chords…I’m not gonna even try!”
How easy was it to take the reins off and really be different on this album. I know that an acoustic guitar is a different instrument for Strung Out, but there are some other textures underneath everything. It’s not just acoustic renditions of Strung Out songs; there’s some layers and some other sounds in there. Was that the plan all along?
I think when you’re going through something, you come to music as a place that’s safe. Like in Footloose, when Kevin Bacon is frustrated and he does this crazy, emotional dance scene to Kenny Loggins. That’s a stupid analogy (*both laugh*) but it’s a place that you find joy in everything that’s going on. I think that’s what this is. It’s not about anything more than the joy of making music together. I believe in ghosts in music. I believe that people that create things are just instruments. It’s impossible to comprehend what’s flowing through you. I know that sounds ridiculous, but when it’s flowing through you, you’re almost not aware of what it is until you see how people react to it.
Have people been reacting to it pretty cool to it so far?
Dude, social media is such a fucking mindfuck. I think when you play these songs in front of people is when you understand their impact. People and their opinions…you’re already vulnerable enough; the whole process is a mindfuck. But when you play the songs in front of people, that’s what it’s all for.
Is the plan to spread these songs throughout a setlist?
We’ll do a chunk. We’ll do a chunk because it’s a pain in the ass to do otherwise. I think it’ll create more of a show atmosphere if we do set sections.
You guys just toured with Pennywise, right?
Yeah, we knew better than to bust them out during that tour. People were still making fun of the idea during that tour. We were catching a lot of shit. But now that people can hear it, we’ll start playing them.
I think that people will really be maybe blown away is a little strong, but I think they’ll really be into it. Like I said before, it is a Strung Out record. I feel like “Duke Of Sorrow” could have been a Howl song, it has a sort of double-time, country feel to it. But the rest of it is a Strung Out album. It’s dark!
That song is a driving at night song, man. When we’re done, we’ll have a song for every moment of your fucking day!
Once this project really grew wings and took off between the four of you, did it make writing an album like this any different or better or worse than a traditional album?
I think the chains are off now. RJ, fuck, man, he’s such a breath of positive energy and ideas. It’s been seamless. It’s quick and on the fly, the ideas are just out — boom, boom, go. We know each other so well that we don’t need time to react or discuss. I’m pretty grateful that in this part of my life, I can experience that with people that are my brothers. I’m very fortunate to have that.
Do you get nervous the week before putting out an album still? Especially where one like this has been in the works for so long? Are you nervous to have people hear it, or are you like “Jesus Christ, let’s put it out already”?
(At some point) you already ask yourself what right do I have to even do this? I need to get a real job, what gives me the right to do this? What am I thinking? I’m stupid! Why would anybody like this? It’s a mindfuck. It’s a total mindfuck. And then when you see that the songs have been accepted, they’re not yours anymore. People have taken them and lifted them from you. It’s not a burden to you anymore, they’ve grown wings. It’s not yours, it’s just like watching them fly around, like a bird that leaves the nest!
Is every album like that? That sort of pre-release doubt?
Yeah! Yeah, I don’t want to write a bad record, but I also don’t want to write a mediocre record. It has to hit you somewhere. It doesn’t have to knock you out, but it has to give you a good punch. Otherwise, what’s the point?
I like the way that “Matchbook” and “Unkoil” came out, and I really like the way that that main riff on “Matchbook,” when played on the acoustic guitar like that, might be one of my new favorite Strung Out things. I’ve heard that song a trillion times or whatever, but I like how bright and bouncy it came out. Hearing it differently like that really changes the meaning of the song. Why pick those two songs? I guess that’s the long-winded way to ask that…
It just seemed like a logical thing, a hit and an obscure song and see what happens. And there’s no more obscure song than “Unkoil”! What’s the song that would least-likely be translated into an acoustic song? “Unkoil” right? I’ve got to give it up to those guys. I’ve got to be reined in a lot with everybody; I get ahead of myself sometimes, but that’s cool, that’s who I am. I give it to those guys. I came in and I heard what Rob was doing with “Matchbook” and to see that kind of growth is inspiring, dude. It’s inspiring to see other people that you work with being brave and showing you something and moving up and forward; that’s rad!
Especially that song, the way he plays it changes the whole context of the song in a way I didn’t really expect. I don’t know enough about guitar, even though I’ve half been playing for my whole life…
That one, he did it in E. Everything else in Strung Out is in D for the most part, so that gave it a little more openness and air to it. And then I think my vocals were arranged a little different. Yeah, that tuning has a lot to do with it; it’s not as tight and constrained.
And then you mentioned “Unkoil,” the way that song starts on the album it’s got that long intro build-up to it, and on this one, you just kinda cut right to the chase; there’s no intro, you just dive in.
You know, with all the songs, once they’re out there, they’re not yours anymore. They’re something else. So to me, to do them the same just acoustic would have been like stealing, or being an “Indian giver.” Instead, okay, the bird’s fucking gone, we have to make it a new bird, same species but a different bird.
Oh yeah, and I feel like it’s so much cheaper to just do eight straight-forward acoustic renditions of Strung Out songs.
Oh god, that was my nightmare, you know? Bob Dylan used to do that all the time; he never performed a song the same way twice. I love that, because there was a thread that kept it familiar, like a balloon tied to the ground in a way.
Do you foresee that being the case with Strung Out now? Do you have visions of changing things around and doing more songs differently?
If there’s room. But you want to be generous to the people who paid for tickets and came to see you. You’ve got to be careful with that. And there’s not a lot of room for deviation in a lot of Strung Out songs. But, when it’s possible, we’ll see…
Did you use anybody as either guidance or inspiration when you committed to doing (an acoustic album)? There aren’t an awful lot of really solid punk rock albums that are acoustic, so what did you use as a guidepost for “hey, if we can be as good as this…” or does that really not factor into it?
I would say that when we described what we wanted to do, we would bring up Alice In Chains’ Jar Of Flies.
Not fully acoustic, but with electric overdubs. It’s still a rock record, it’s still menacing. That’s one of the most brilliant albums; it hits just as hard as Dirt or anything else. You don’t need heavy guitars to punch you, it’s the way you approach your instrument, whatever that instrument may be.
There are some really, really haunting things on Jar Of Flies and then…I’m trying to remember what order they came out, but I think it was Jar Of Flies and then the Unplugged album…
Oh man, that MTV one was so badass.
That was straight-up haunting at the time, and then to go back and listen to after Layne passed away. Legitimately haunting.
What people don’t understand is that singing over loud, heavy metal guitars constrains you. When you take that out of the equation and you can actually hear the timbre of the voice, you have so much more wiggle room. A lot more is discovered in the singer’s voice when everything is a little naked, you know?
Yeah. And you have to sing more, you know? And it’s the same with the guys in the band, they have to play more. You can’t just distort everything and play fast and loud…
Yeah, yeah. That’s spot on. To me, it’s harder to fill space in a slow song than it is to play a bunch of notes and chords and riffs real fast.
I said the word haunting when it comes to the Alice In Chains album, but in my notes that I took when I first listened to this album, that’s what I wrote next to the lyrics for “Requiem.” I just finally watched the video for the first time, and that’s a pretty badass video. But that song has a really haunting quality to it; the sort of breathy parts inside the verse, and then it punches you in the face in the sort of outro. I just wish that song was about four minutes longer.
If you were a part of this and could see what I saw, and how that whole thing manifested, I swear to God, I hate saying it, but a weird spiritual experience there. Moments that were bad or dark, and then “oh, what’s Chris playing over there?” or a word, or a phrase or a moment of spontaneity. I swear to god something scooped us all together and we were really just puppets.
And when you’re all on the same page and feeling it at the same time, that’s extra special.
That’s an extraordinary thing. It makes anything possible. If four guys that are so different and so stubborn can fucking keep it together and make things that are beautiful and rad and maintain that? Fuck, dude. Anything is possible.
Are you getting the itch to get out there in front of people and play these songs?
Yeah, yeah I am. It’ll be rad.
The next tour starts in a couple weeks, right?
Yeah, the 20th.
Is that going to be the plan for that tour? To start to work these songs into that set?
Probably just a couple, because we’re supporting. It’s Pennywise’s show, so we’ll probably play a couple. Maybe at the merch booth. We’re talking about getting together and playing some songs at the merch booth when we don’t have time to do it live.