DS Interview: John of Dead Bars talks new album, slice-of-life songwriting, and dreamin’ big

For years now, Seattle’s Dead Bars have been releasing killer music on a small scale. Now, the band is poised to release their first full-length on No Idea Records, joining a legacy that includes Radon, Against Me!, Hot Water Music, The Tim Version, and many, many more.

I was lucky enough to hear the new record and talk to chief songwriter and vocalist John Maiello via e-mail. Click here for the interview.

First off, before we get too deep, who are you and what do you do in Dead Bars?

I’m John. I’m the singer and songwriter for Dead Bars. I write the words too. I started this mess a few years ago…

The new record, Dream Gig, is out digitally March 10th. Can you tell us a little about the record and the recording process?

Dream Gig was an odyssey. Let’s see..where do I start? The idea of writing and recording a Dead Bars LP was never really part of the plan. All the early Dead Bars stuff was written years before we recorded it and before I even put a band together, so by the time the EP and Split with Sunshine State came out, those songs were already 3 years old. All of a sudden we went from not being a band, to kind of being a real band. The problem was that up until that point the songs that were on the No Idea releases were not just 6 Dead Bars songs; they were the only 6 songs I had ever written in my entire life. And early on, No Idea expressed interest in doing an LP with us, so I was like fuck it and just started writing more songs. It took a little while, and along the way there were some good distractions… like putting out the ‘Emergency’ single on Eager Beaver Records in Japan.

‘Dream Gig’ was the final song I wrote for the album. Lyrically, it projects my feelings about playing music and being a naive dreamer with youthful enthusiasm and spirit while also realizing that a lot of my friends grow up, moved on and chose a different path. But I’m never going to stop rockin’. It makes me happy, and I’ll just keep dreamin’ forever. I thought the theme of that song was also kind of the overall theme for the album so we called the album ‘Dream Gig’.

So we finally went to record in 2015. We recorded them with different people in different places over a few months. When we finished it, I listened to it and was like “This album sucks.” It was discombobulated and didn’t feel right. So we took a whole year and went back to the drawing board; cut some songs and thought it would be a good idea to record it all live in C.J.’s living room. So we did.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing you guys play live a handful of times in the past couple of years, and a I recognize a good amount of the songs on Dream Gig from your live set. Some of the times, you’d ask the crowd for feedback after the show. Did any of that feedback ever make it onto the record? And how does the live setting shape your recorded output in general?

We like playing new songs at shows right away. We like testing them out in a live setting, and seeing if anything especially clicks with people. Its really good because sometimes we find out that even if it sounds good, it might not be fun to play. Or it might be fun, but there ain’t nothing special about it for people to grab onto and take away. To me, that’s what makes a song great. When you can play something once and a fan can walk out of the show with a special feeling and knowing all the words. The whole goal is to make the set fun so that everyone can jump up and down and sing along.

The song “Earplug Girl” works for me through the many small, human details within it. It’s like a vignette of a night, a night many of us have probably had, but it’s pieced together with simple statements and actions and details and by the end of it, there’s this feeling of bigness that eclipses the relatively minor interaction that gave it birth. An older song, “Los Marineros,” has a pretty similar approach. What makes you gravitate towards these slices-of-life when songwriting?

There’s something fun about identifying a moment in your life that might seem meaningless and discovering beauty or pain within that experience. It feels so good when I write a song and I transcribe what literally happened to me, and I look down on the page and there is a much bigger story being told.

Dream Gig is a concise, cohesive, and catchy album. But, at only eight tracks, with one of them an overture, it’s pretty short for a full-length– maybe even to its benefit. Was this a conscious decision? And do you believe that the ‘short, fast, and loud’ ethos of punk rock should be applied as generously to the macro-level (the album) as the micro (the song)?

The good and bad aspect of taking a long time to write and record this album was that we were tucked away out here in the Northwest without any real direction or timeline for completion from an outside source i.e. management, label, etc. So we just got really fucked up and decided to make a concept album with audio clips and extended outs etc. We wrote and recorded a handful of really weird and experimental stuff. But when it was done, we realized that we might have gone a little too far. The 8 tracks being released are the actual real ‘songs’ when all is said and done. Luckily, No Idea shares our vision of complete sickness, and will be including a special “Director’s Cut” edition download of the original ‘Dream Gig’ with the purchase of vinyl. It’s for the freaks. As for ‘short, fast, and loud’ ethos..I don’t really believe in any of that. Be true to yourself and rock the way you wanna rock.

With Success getting signed to Red Scare and Dead Bars becoming a part of the No Idea Records legacy, I keep thinking how cool it is that band’s that live in my neck of the woods are getting noticed on the national level. How did you guys end up on No Idea and what are some other sweet bands we should take note of?

Success are great, and I’m really excited for them to get such great opportunities. For us, all we want when dealing with labels is for the people there to believe in us. At No Idea, it’s Var and Jennifer. They heard ‘Funhouse Monday’ and the rest is history. There are a lot of great bands in Seattle we play with. We don’t always play with punk or pop bands tho. There are great bands in every genre. Ramona, Dopers, Sharkie, Charms, TacocaT, Choke the Pope, The Exquisites, Young Go-Hards, Bobby’s Oar, Bad Future, The Crap.

I like the idea of Dead Bars being a band that plays punk rock music without ever being too slavish to it. I think that’s pretty sick. I can get behind playing with a variety of genres and rocking how you wanna rock. The song “Dream Gig” is kind of a testament to that ideal, at least to me. It’s the longest song Dead Bars has written, at seven and a half minutes, and packs a huge punch. It’s one of those songs that can distill an entire album into a thesis. When “Dream Gig” starts playing, it feels like a mission statement. But besides the lyrical content, it also carries a lot of musical weight with its instrumental interludes, something that wouldn’t be out of bounds in a Fucked Up or Titus Andronicus record. How did the musical portion of that song, along with its structure come to be? And do you see Dead Bars experimenting with form and longer songs in the future?

I agree. “Dream Gig” is actually my favorite song on the album because its so different. We really wanted the song to take the listener on a journey; a roller coaster of sounds and emotions. It actually started off with just the guitar lead, a verse, and a chorus…and then I didn’t really know where to go with it. I remember showing it to C.J. during a late night jam sesh, and that’s when he picked up the guitar and we just started playin’ it together to see where it would take us. He’s the one that came up with the whole ending. It’s perfect. It sounds like how it feels to be out on a Friday night; when order and sobriety degenerate into sloppy drunken bliss and then it all just fades away.

And now that I think about it, it was also the point that C.J. and I both realized that we had a really good chemistry when it came to song structure and working on the dynamics. He’s such a great songwriting partner. In fact, he played all the lead guitar in addition drums on the recording which I know he’s really excited about. At one point he just started playing guitar with a half drank wine bottle while having the amp completely feedback. That’s as much his song as it is mine. A true collaboration. With David on second guitar, Ray on bass, and our friend Mike on the sax it went to a whole new level. As a band, I think we view ‘Dream Gig’ as our ticket to get away with anything in the future.

If I remember correctly, you’re from New Jersey, right? I was checking out Mi Barrio the other day, and thought it was pretty cool. Did you write songs for that band? And how does writing for a hardcore band differ from something more melodic like Dead Bars, does one come more naturally than the other?

Actually, C.J., Blom, and I are all from New Jersey. I played drums in punk and hardcore bands out there for a long time, but the only band I was ever a singer for before Dead Bars was Mi Barrio. It was really just a band I did with my friends for fun but in hindsight it was instrumental in me becoming more aware how to write a song. I never wrote any music for Mi Barrio but I wrote all the lyrics. It had a similar style (stream of consciousness/ real life type songs), but it just wasn’t a focused idea or style like Dead Bars. We just wanted to be a punk band and write weird songs, but as I look back, there would be no Dead Bars without Mi Barrio. It was a learning experience.

You mention in the title track that you want to play with the Souls. The Bouncing Souls and Dead Bars is a strong lineup, but not enough to fill out a bill. Who else is playing your Dream Gig and how soon can we expect it?

The Bouncing Souls started their band as best friends in high school and haven’t stopped touring all over the world and releasing great albums for the last 30 years. I think every young kid who starts a band in the basement has that dream. I think as you grow up, however, those dreams and goals you set when you start a band change. Now, we’re just happy to get out there and play whenever and wherever we can. And we want to share our music with as many people as we can. That’s all that matters. But it is still important to dream. I’m 30 years old, and still my only real goal as a musician is to open for The Bouncing Souls.

As for the other bands on the gig, I think it depends on time and place. You were right in your earlier assessment that ‘Dream Gig’ is a mission statement. In fact, it’s more like a manifesto. It’s what I want to do for the rest of my life. Of course there will be doubt and failure along the way, but if we dream big, then one day we’ll get that dream gig.

Thank you so much for chatting with me. The new record Dream Gig is super awesome and I’m sure everyone will love it as much as I do. Any last words for our Dying Scene readers?

Thanks to all the freaks who believe in us, and catch us rockin’ all over the world, one dead bar at a time.

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