DS Interview: Sammy Kay on mental health, being a Jersey boy in Kentucky, his powerful new EP “Inanna” and more

When last we heard from Sammy Kay on the pages of Dying Scene, the world – both his and ours – looked very different. It was the back half of 2019. The original Dying Scene website hadn’t yet crashed, and Kay was releasing civil/WAR, his most recent full-length record. The record was funded primarily through a Kickstarter campaign and, while it found him once-again recording with Pete Steinkopf at Little Eden Studio in his ancestral homeland of New Jersey as he had on 2017’s Untitled and 2014’s Fourth Street Singers, it represented a stylistic departure from the ska and roots-rock that had marked the earlier stages of his music career. Instead, civil/WAR found the gravelly-voiced Kay backed primarily by his own acoustic guitar, the subtle textures putting more emphasis on the weighty, at times heart-wrenching lyrical subject matter.

A fast-forward to the present day finds a Sammy Kay that is in very different places in both the literal and figurative senses. To wildly oversimplify things, there’s been a wedding and a move from Jersey to California and a divorce and a move to Raleigh and a move to Cincinnati and a global pandemic and a hiatus from and then return to sobriety and a better grip on some lifelong mental health concerns. Oh, and now, thankfully, there’s new music.

Kay signed with A-F Records for a full-length record that’s due out this fall. That’s a conversation for another day. In the very near future, however, there’s Inanna. It’s an EP that’s comprised of a few B-sides from the full-length sessions. There are reworked versions of a couple previously-revved up rock-and-roll songs from the earlier records. And then there’s a cover. But it’s not just any cover. It’s Kay’s funeral dirge-like take on The World/Inferno Friendship Society’s “My Ancestral Homeland, New Jersey,” a song that comes across both as an ode to that band’s recently-departed frontman Jack Terricloth, and a reflection on Kay’s own old stomping grounds. It’s haunting and forlorn and pitch-perfect enough that if you didn’t know it was a cover of a waltzy circus-punk tune, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a Sammy Kay original.

We caught up with Kay over Zoom a couple of Mondays ago, and in order to make the timeline work, Kay had to take an early exit from his normal Monday night online self-help meeting. (The writer in me was super appreciative; the friend and the person who’s worked in and around the recovery field for two decades in me said “NOOOO WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?!”) One of the more positive things to have come out of the pandemic has been the new and creative ways that people have come up with to stay engaged with and connected to their life preservers. Online self-help meetings, FaceTime counseling sessions. Dropbox file-sharing songwriting sessions. Back-to-basics Nebraska-style bedroom four-track recordings. DIY artwork. TikTok. They’ve all allowed people to help overcome some of the boredom and isolation and monotony and separation that the pandemic created, and they were all put to use in positive ways by Kay as he has navigated whatever we’re calling the ‘new normal.’ Okay, maybe not TikTok, but still.

Read out chat below. It’s open and honest and raw and funny and so, so Jersey…even if Kay has started to establish a bit of a foundation (dare I say roots?) 640 miles from home. It’s a revealing look at a pretty intense and at times chaotic journey that has resulted in Kay seemingly in a more peaceful spot than we’ve seen from him. Oh, and pre-order Inanna here before its April 28th release, and stay tuned for more about the full-length this fall.

Dying Scene (Jay Stone): So yeah, let’s talk about the new record. When’s the official release day?

Sammy Kay: The 28th of April. Yeah. Inanna.

Are you excited? Do you still get excited after however many official records under your belt at this point?

There’s six. There’s six Sammy LPs, plus all the other bands growing up. It feels different. It’s a little weirder. Press is more of a thing now. When I was a kid, it was more like ‘I just hope people listen to it.’ And I still hope people listen to it, but also I hope there’s a good write-up about it. Because the internet is real, and you have to look cool on the internet. 

That is a thing, isn’t it? 

Oh it is a THING!!

Because as much as some of us want it to not be a thing – and I realize I say that as somebody who owns a website – but it really is a thing. You do have to pay attention to that shit, don’t you?

Yeah, and it’s weird because post-Covid, (song) premieres aren’t really a thing, and video premieres aren’t really a thing, and write-ups are kinda gone. There’s only a couple things that’ll happen. Some places do like a song-a-day, and it’s real cool and it’s a good little write-up, but because so many publications and websites are scaling back, the people that have always done stuff with me just don’t have time because everybody is trying to get to them. So it’s a little weird.

Yeah, and I feel like production of videos, at least the traditional way of making them, sort of shut down for a long time too. Some people were obviously making their own DIY things, but there weren’t really even videos to premiere anymore.

Yeah, and it feels like a lot of people went and learned how to do that during Covid. I am currently trying to learn how to TikTok and I am not having fun. (*both laugh*)

I will never learn how to TikTok. I kinda drew a line in the sand there. And I have a 15-year-old, so I kinda should know, but I just can’t…

Yeah, Morgan can do it! Buy her ice cream and let her do your TikToks. She’ll do it for you!

I don’t know, man. It’s a whole other world. And I get that there are people who are good at it, I just can’t wrap my head around it. 

Yeah, it’s one of those things that…I don’t obsess, but I study the algorithm and see what works, and right now, if there’s any sort of text in your image, it gets shadowbanned. And if you use the word “premiere” or “new song,” it fucking gets shadowbanned. “Come to my show” is like a shadowban term. I’ll watch my visibility drop to like a quarter of whatever it is if I say, like, “hey, we’ve got a new record coming out.” Just like that. Done. So it’s weird, and it’s a lot of sending notes like “hey, we’ve got a new record out, hope all is well. Love for you to give it a listen.”

Do you just have to flood the market with reminders that shit is coming out to make up for the fact that if you put one thing out there, maybe nobody will see it? I feel like you have to just be on top of it all the time.

Yeah. My visibility right now is a fifth of my followers, since we announced the record. And it’s not a lot. I’ll get like 250 views on a post, whereas the week before I posted something dumb about a cannoli and I got like 30,000 views, you know? (*both laugh*) I’ll look at the Reels or the TikToks or whatever and I’ll be like “Glenn Danzig is okay, and here’s a song about a breakup” and it’ll get 80,000 views or 120,000 views. Then the next thing is a song I actually wrote and it’s like 2,000 views, 4,000 views. The internet is a weird thing.

Do you obsess over it? 

Jay Stone, you know me pretty well. I obsess over everything! (*both laugh*) There’s no not obsessing!

Is there a healthy way to obsess over it, is maybe a better question to ask? I mean, I do the same thing on the website end.

No. I mean, I sit and I refresh and it’s like “why is there only 17 people listening to the song right now?” and it’s like “well, it’s 12:45 in the morning and the song just came out, what’s the problem here?” (*both laugh*) The problem is me. I’m the problem. (*both laugh*) But I’m stoked. The songs are cool. Do you know the secret about Inanna

I don’t feel like I do, but even if I did…remind me!

It’s the B-sides. I wrote with a sort of algorithm in mind. I was writing these twelve-line kinda sonnets…12 to 16 lines depending on if there’s a repeated tag or not. No repeating chorus. But as we were doing it, they were full-length songs with a chorus that hits two or three times, and a second or a third verse. And we had this cool little tape setup, this little Tascam that we kinda rigged to run but also ran as a pre-amp in the same vein as Nebraska, with just a cheap mic and a plate reverb. And we just kinda did this thing. Our buddy John Calvin Abney was sending us parts, so we recorded maybe thirty-five (songs). About 7 or 8 never left the acoustic guitar and scratch-singing floor. They’re there. They’re rough. The weird thing about a tape machine and minimal microphones is if it was fucking raining that day, there was just a buzz. We couldn’t get the buzz out, and we just said “fuck it, that song’s kinda done.” But you get gems. Like one song there’s a line about walking down the highway, and a fucking car lays on the horn outside and that gets picked up, right? Or there’s a real quiet part on “Couple Cardinals” on the EP and you hear the kids at the school across the street coming out for recess, and you hear them laughing and hollering and playing. It’s the perfect ghost.

So this tape machine was kind of a fickle beast, and we recorded probably about 28 or 29 that were done. That Misfits EP, the Bad Religion thing, those were all on this Tascam tape machine, this cassette portastudio 4-track. We kinda figured out the record, and then there were these songs that didn’t fit that twelve-line sonnet thing. There were a couple songs that we revisited, like “You Ought To Know,” I always had in my head like this quiet, delicate song, and when we did it with Pete (Steinkopf) ten years ago, it became this big rocker, and it partially became a big rocker because I didn’t know what “soft” or “delicate” meant. And in fact, I still don’t, but we were able to do a quieter, ‘after dark’ take. I think “Reservoir” always had a Greenwich Village folk feel in my head, and it came out as this big heartland rocker, and I love it, but I wanted to revisit it and see if we could do a quiet take of it. So there’s two old songs, three new songs, and then…I grew up seeing The World/Inferno Friendship Society, and I’m a big believer in that band and the cult that it is – and I use the word “cult” lovingly – the inclusivity and the welcoming-ness of the Infirnites. I always heard “Ancestral Homeland” as a song to be played at a funeral versus this waltzy, polka, punk thing, and being out here in Kentucky, I started fucking around with flat-picking, bluegrass picking, and we kinda turned it into this quieter, graveside song. And like with the Misfits thing, or throughout the years we’ve always done covers…I like to just take the chords and the words and forget everything else. Just the skeleton of the song. I was able to deconstruct it and turn it into this letter to Jack as a thank you and, if I was at the funeral, that’s what I would have done to pay my respects. Those lines “When I die, they’re going to bury me in Jersey” fucking resonate strong! 

That is a song that you can tell resonates strongly with you, and that’s without hearing your version of it. Obviously I’ve heard your version of it a bunch, and I think you did an amazing job with it. That’s a song that sounds like it could have been a Sammy Kay song. 

Yeah, “never trust a man who don’t drink’ my papa told me” … “The sun was shining the day I drove out of New Jersey and the girls all flashed me a smile.” It’s such a well-written song, in the sense of those great little descriptive lines. It just flows. And being from New Jersey – you know this being in Boston, the Southie kids and the Jersey boys, we’re not too far apart – out here there’s the good old boys. We’re all kinda cut from the same cloth. That hometown pride is strong.

When did you realize that you had it, though? Because that’s a thing that I’ve sort of been looking at a little bit differently the older I get, and the longer that I live in Massachusetts versus New Hampshire, where I grew up…and now having a kid who is growing up differently but in this part of the world still. When did you realize that you weren’t just from Jersey, you were FROM Jersey, and did it take leaving to realize it?

When I left…I left to go on tour young, and I was like “yeah, I’m from New Jersey, whatever, fuck you.” But when I moved to New York, I started saying “oh, I live in New York.” And then “Oh I’m in LA, I’m hanging out living in California.” I did New York, I did LA, I came back to Jersey, I did Texas for a minute…I jumped around. I’ve always been pretty nomadic. But I think once I got a job, even within music, where I had to bust my ass like my old man did. Once I realized I was saying the same shit my dad would say about the fucking day. Like “how’s your day going?” “It was a fuckin’ day, man.” You know? And also, I talk pretty, pretty, pretty Jersey…

Yeah, but you personally don’t know that until you get outside of Jersey!

Right, I didn’t know that at all! And it’s funny, I’m in Kentucky right now, right on the Ohio border, just outside of Cincinnati, just across the river, and these fucking people tell me I have the worst accent ever, and I’m like “what are you tawkin’ about?” (*both laugh*) You say “crick…” (*both laugh*) But starting to live south-ish, south adjacent – even Bakersfield too. A lot of the Bakersfield accent and the way people talk, the dialect, they’re Okies. They’re Oklahoma folk or Texarkana folk. Because when the Dust Bowl happened, a lot them emigrated to the Kern River Valley because of the sooil there. A lot of those Okieisms are pretty strong, and Okieisms and Jerseyisms are the same but different. I didn’t let the concept of “Jersey” …we’ll use the word “define.” Being from New Jersey, the pride I have for my state definitely defines a lot of who I am, from the working hard, to the history of art and growth in all facets of life. Like, the things that were developed in that state, from shit like the lightbulb to Einstein figuring out nuclear physics post-Manhattan Project at Princeton. I’m pretty sure fucking peanut butter is from New Jersey, you know? (*both laugh*) It’s just a cool thing, and gentrification aside, I can count the things I don’t like on one hand about that state. I mean, I can’t afford to live in New Jersey. I can’t be an artist while living there. There’s no way to go on tour, there’s no way to create, so I left New York City. 

Yeah, we see that up here in Boston, especially with the art community. I don’t know that the stuff that made Jersey Jersey for so long, particularly in an artistic sense, I don’t know that it exists anymore, just like I don’t know that it exists about Boston either. 

Yeah! I think…there’s glimmers in Jersey as well as in Boston and even in New York…like, I’m playing a show next week, and I am fully going to talk shit right now and I don’t give a FUCK because it’s real dumb…but I’m playing a show next week in a city that rhymes with Shmos Shmangeles and they are charging every band like $200 for a sound fee. It’s just like the New York City rooms, but it’s a room that you go and play. It’s a notorious room. But the amount of shit…like, we asked if we could get in and do a rehearsal and they were like “yeah, we need to get paid.” And it’s more money than we’ll make for the night, to be able to go in there for an hour before soundcheck to just practice acoustic.


Yeah. Like, fuck that. LA, New York…

Is that like the new version of pay-to-play, which maybe enough people have given places shit about that this kinda took over?

Yeah, it’s pretty prevalent in the folk/American world. Rockwood Music Hall is like that, all those Lower East Side rooms that used to be where alternative music bred, they’re like “you wanna play? It’s $200. We take the first $200, you get a portion of what’s left.” It’s pretty fucked that even those rooms that back in the day were rooms where a working musician could make a couple bucks don’t kinda exist anymore. With Jersey…god bless Mike Lawrence, who passed the torch down to Joe Polito (Asbury Lanes). House of Independents. Andy Diamond and Lee at Crossroads, which is great because it’s in the center of the state, but it’s not part of that Asbury Park community. Tina Kerekes and Danny Clinch are really the last of the holdouts. I heard The Saint closed. The (Stone) Pony isn’t booking locals. It happens once a year, that’s it. Bu the city of Asbury Park has been completely priced out of art. 

That’s sad. We really only started going there right at the beginning of all of that shit changing. We never saw the real old Asbury Park and we kinda missed most of the 90s/00s Asbury Park, and it’s different just since we started going down there maybe a decade ago.

Yeah, I went home in December and I did not know my city. But that’s how it goes. I left that city almost five years ago, and change is inevitable, especially in a gentrifying world. But yeah, even Allston by you…I would hang out there when I started touring with Westbound Train. Their practice space was there, and all the places that I used to go, almost 17-20 years ago, they’re gone. Like, the Sunset Grill is gone. That was a staple! I remember going there and seeing, like, a Bosstone at one table, and like Amy from Darkbuster at the bar, and it was just like “oh my god!” It was one of those places where you’d see all these people in bands and when those places start to go, that means the community is hurting. Same thing with the brewery in Asbury Park. That was a hub, especially in a post-Lanes world. 

Maybe that’s why there are pockets of places like Ohio, like Colorado, like maybe Chicago, places in Tennessee, where there are these pockets of people that maybe aren’t originally from there but they move there and then start another scene there because you can’t afford to do it on the coasts. 

Yeah! Like Ohio…I’m not trying to talk shit on Cincinnati because I genuinely love it here. The amount of phenomenal bands in this city that are gigging regularly, for the most part, and studios…DIY, home-built studios that are churning out amazing records. I’m a water guy, right? Everything good comes off the water. There’s definitely something beautiful here in the last ten years, from what I can tell. Like, we go see music five nights a week.

Is the scene made from locals or is it made from people like yourself who are transplants from other places?

90% of it are from Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus, Covington. There’s a couple Louisville kids, which is only 80 miles. Lexington’s only 80 miles. Indy is only 80 miles. There’s like one guy from England, this kid Jaime, who is in a bunch of bands that are really great. That band Vacation fucking rules. Anything Jerry (Westerkamp) touches is fucking amazing. Tweens. And then there’s DAAP, which is an art school, and there’s a bunch of kids. There’s a band called Willie And The Cigs that’s gigging a couple nights a week. And the hardcore scene, bands like Corker and Louise. Piss Flowers fucking rule. They’re one of those bands that, like Black Flag in ‘85, they start with their shirts on and then by the end of the gig the whole band is just shirts off. This guy John sings in it; he’s in a bunch of other bands. That’s the thing, everyone here is so fucking creative. John does folk stuff, he’s in a gnarly hardcore band, and he’s like a hell of a comedian too. Everybody is like…so and so is a hell of a painter, and this guy does photography as well as writing…the punks are fucking poets too. It’s fucking great. It seems like every other fucking person has a silk screen rig in their basement, or a dark room, and they’re creating. The fucking scene here is just beautiful.

Is that how you found it?

No, I just threw a dart at the map. I called Jonny Dopamine and told him I was looking for a job. I was supposed to move to Nashville, and the house I was supposed to move into got sold. And I was supposed to get a job some place, and the same thing happened. They announced they were closing like two days before I was supposed to leave, so I was like “I’m not going to go.” I called a friend of mine (in Cincinnati) who I knew had an apartment, and this is like twenty hours before I was supposed to move to Nashville. I called a buddy of mine and I was like “hey man, you still got that basement apartment? Can I crash there for a minute while I figure something out?” And he was like “yeah, yeah, yeah, you gotta find a job though.” I was like “hold on a second,” and I hung up the phone and I called Jonny because he owns the (Northside) Yacht Club too, which is like a rock and roll gastro pubby venue-ish, and I was like “yo man, let me get a job,” and he was like “you live here?” and I was like “if you give me a job I do!” (*both laugh*) And he said “when are you going to be here?” and I was like “tomorrow, I think, hold on a sec.” So I hung up the phone and I called my other buddy who I was going to stay with and I was like “yeah, I got a job, I’ll see you on Saturday!” and he was like “okay, cool, that was quick.” And then I called Jonny back and I was like “so I’ll start Tuesday yeah?” and here I am, eighteen months later in Cincinnati. 

That’s wild.

Yeah, but you know me, everything’s a little wild. Nothing’s easy. 

Through that whole time and in the lead-up to moving…it seems like you’ve been able to write a lot and produce a lot of music. Were you in a lull at all prior to moving there and did that sort of reignite you, or is it more of like ‘okay, now that I’m stable a little bit, I can start writing again’?

You know a little bit of my mental health. I have a really complicated brain that has some schizoaffective disorder in it, and some pretty extreme highs and lows and some pretty chronic anxiety and pretty chronic depression. At the time, post Civil/WAR, Covid happened and the world shut down. And I wasn’t doing well. I’m a social butterfly if I have the option, and so being trapped in a one-bedroom apartment is not my idea of a good time. I kinda lost it there for a little bit and I surrendered and said “I think it’s time to get some medicine and try this route.” The issue that we realized was that my personality and my creative side and everything that makes me me is the same part of my brain as the crazy, so the second we started medicating and trying to understand even the schizo thing, and the multiple personalities, we didn’t learn that until I was here.

So the second we started medicating, looking back, all the voices in my head, the chatter got really loud, and we just kept upping it and upping it, and this didn’t work so let’s try this, and up and up and up. I was just a fucking zombie. And that was the me side of life, the goofy, happy side. Like, I slept for four or five months straight. Through Covid. I just slept. I had to get up and work an hour on Zoom, and then I’d go back to bed. So when I lost my corporate, cushy job that I had, when I left California, I lost my insurance so I was just fucking raw-dogging life, and the second the meds left my system, I just vomited six songs. Everything I had been trying to say just came out. I was finishing stuff that I had as glimmers of ideas during Covid. I only really wrote four songs all of Covid. “Better/Worse,” “Methamphetamines,” “Waiting,” which just came out, and a song where I call the Proud Boys a bunch of assholes. That was it. Just four. I had glimmers of like a one-liner or like an idea for a chorus. At the time, we were working with Jon Graber and Reade Wolcott from We Are The Union. We were writing a lot together and working at Jon’s studio, and I didn’t have anything to present them. We never finished anything, because the lights were on but nobody was home. 

Or all the lights were on at the same time.

Haha, yes. We learned that I function better with all the lights on and everyone home. When I left California, I went to Raleigh, and the first song came out two days before I was leaving Raleigh, and it’s the last song on the full-length that’s coming out in the fall. And it was Cecillia’s voice, which was cool. She kind of came back and had this conversation with me again. I was kinda working on “no meds, therapy,” and we realized that Cecillia was actually one of the voices in my head. We went through all my songs, the whole catalog, and we realized that Cecillia shows up in “Secrets” on Untitled. That’s partially her voice and her story. That “I know your secrets…” that correlates to “Sweet Cecillia,” where it says “tell me about your life…” And she’s in the convenience store in “Silver Dollar” in the picture I painted in that world, because the character that “Silver Dollar” is about is another facet of my mind. I thought I wrote this record about characters but I really wrote it about all the unknowns in my head that are now still very unknown but we’re understanding them more. Then, “Better/Worse” I killed Cecillia off and that was the funeral in that song. But really, it was her sobering up in a nutshell. Her voice in my head is “it’s so damn hard to hide behind the scars/I just want a better way to breathe.” I was like “oh fuck!” It was cool, but it took twenty therapy sessions to realize that and understand it. 

When you say “we,” as in, “things that we’re working on…” and putting a name and a diagnosis to the things you were going through, the “we” refers to a therapist, yeah?

Multiple. Multiple therapists. (*both laugh*)

What got you to the point where you were ready to go to therapy? That’s obviously a big thing that especially guys – cis white males…

…with fuckin’ face tattoos!

Exactly! That’s not a thing that “we” do. So what got you into therapy and really diving into that piece?

It was just kinda time. I hate using a vague sentence like “it was time.” I was in therapy as a kid. My parents sent me because they didn’t know what was going on with me, and neither did I. So I went as a kid, and then I stopped and then I went back in high school because, you know, I lived the kind of life where a lot of my friends were dead by 15. Then as I got older, my mother still does not comprehend how many people that I know in my life are dead. At 33. So, childhood trauma, fucked up life, the road, a couple of really shitty toxic relationships. My ex-wife, when we talked about meds, she said “you should do therapy too.” At the time, I was also diving really heavy into Zoom AA because it was quarantine. Zoom AA is amazing. In fact, it’s what I was doing before this, my Monday group. It was like “alright, let’s find a guy, I’ve got good insurance.” I got a guy and we were talking and he was like “alright, this is what I think is wrong with you, and it is not my specialty, but this other guy can help.” 

Good for him for saying that, by the way.

Yeah! I still see him once a month. He’s just my general catch-up guy. I see him once a month and if I’m having a rough go of it, I go every other week. I have three therapists; I have the one that’s just a general catch-up guy, like if there’s anything I’m struggling with, we talk through it. I have one that I see about once a month that is an addiction specialist within the music industry. A buddy of mine in Nashville (connected me) and he sees people for free. He has his own practice and you get an hour a month. He’s real great and I bitch to him about the industry and the struggles that I have navigating it. And then I have one that’s for the heavier sides of my schizoaffective disorder and also disassociative identity disorder, which is essentially multiple personalities. That’s what they used to call it. So we work on that and the schizoaffective and the borderline personality disorder. It’s like bipolar disorder with the depression and the highs and lows and it’s very much a roller coaster. It’s like a light switch. 

Rapid cycling, yup.

Yeah, that’s what I’m looking for. I’ll be real stoked on life and then *finger snap* I’ll be in bed for two weeks or shut down, or I do reckless things like quit my job or yell at my boss. And then I have a therapist that I see that we kind of navigate the voices and the personalities in my head and figure out what their story within my mind is and how they correlate. Like, I turned to Sarah, my girlfriend, and I was like “what do you want for dinner?” and in my head I was like “I think we should have Chinese food? No, Thai food. Why do you want Thai food? Do you even like Thai food? Why are you saying Thai food, I don’t even like Thai food, leave me the fuck alone.” That’s what the voices in my head are saying. And then there’s one that says “why don’t you just go do heroin? You want junk food? I’ll give you junk…” So yeah, I have a therapist that I see for that. I haven’t seen him so much lately because we kinda said “alright, let’s give it a month and see how you do. We’ll do a check-in.” I think we’ve done two sessions in three months, compared to doing two a week. We kinda have it under control and I’ve been trying to eliminate as much stress as possible in my life. I’m very much a stress guy. Stress and Catholic guilt make me go crazy, so I kinda have this new rule where if I’m at work and you’re stressing me out more than you pay me hourly, I just leave. My boss gets it. I say “alright, I’m gonna split for the day.” I’ll go in early the next day and get the job done. I work at a print shop in the morning and I work at a bar at night. The bar is pretty easy, but the print shop…if they’re doing dumb shit, I’m like “I’m not getting paid enough to be here right now and to deal with this, so I will see you.”

It’s not an entitlement, I just can’t afford to have my mind go crazy and unleash over bullshit deadlines because you’re selling the company I work for. Like, yeah, sorry, you fired me. If you’re stressing me out, I’m out. I’ll roll with you to the end of the line, but I’m not going further with you. Don’t ask me to pick up a power tool, but I’ll print t-shirts for you. (*both laugh*) As long as I’m being creative, I’m getting better – and I hate saying this, but I’ve been cutting a lot of folks out of my life that I’ve known for a long time. It’s shitty. We’re having adult breakups, because they don’t understand or realize and do these things that like…”I love you, but that thing you do to me every time we talk about life sends me in a spiral for two weeks. I love you, I love your wife, I love your kid, but I’ll catch up with you in six months, bud.” You know? It’s been shitty but needed. I’m not saying that they were toxic or negative, it’s just like I love you but this isn’t healthy for me right now. Just like a relationship that isn’t going great or a band that’s breaking up. “I’ll talk to you in six months and we’ll figure it out. For right now…I’ll see you around.” It’s kind of taking inventory. I’m working on my Fourth and Fifth Step of the program now.

That’s a lot. 

Yeah, I told myself that when I finish the record, I need to do it again, so that’s real fun (*both laugh*)

The Fourth Step is a tough one. It’s not the First Step, but it’s a tough one and it’s one that people want to half-ass, or want to fast-forward to and then realize that they did a half-ass job on the first ones and then you set yourself back further.

Yeah. I’m in the process of a Fourth Step now, and it probably will end up back in heavier therapy to understand the conversations that need to be had but that at the end of the day will better myself and will better my relationships with my friends and my family and the people I love and we’ll grow. That’s it. We’re human beings. We need to grow and we need to become better people and work on what we need to work on. I’m seeing what my flaws are now for the last couple years and I’m trying to fix them. 

You seem like you’re in a good spot. Some of that comes from social media and obviously we’ve texted a bunch and stuff over the years, but you seem like you’re in a good spot. 

Yeah, who would have thought that Kentucky was the place where I’d thrive! (*both laugh*) Fucking Kentucky! I’m from New Jersey. It’s funny…it’s partially the money thing. It’s inexpensive to live here, whereas New York or LA or even Jersey, I was working a sixty-hour week. Like in New York, we were working sixty hours to be able to go drinking one night a week. We could afford like thirty dollars worth of PBRs, right? And we were working just to cover our asses to survive. LA was the same thing. We were working to be able to go out a couple nights a week if we wanted, or go to a show. Out here, it’s like…I’m not rich. I’m making the same money I was making, but the cost of living is so low. Even the cost of car insurance is a hundred dollars cheaper than New York or LA. Everything is substantially cheaper. What’s that Big D song…”will this check support this tour, or will this tour lose my job?” That “LAX” song is so great, that line or that bridge or whatever it is has always been in my head. 

Maybe when I don’t have a kid I have to steer through school. Once she graduates and we can go wherever, there’s been talk about where that wherever is.

She’s what, thirteen now?

Fifteen. So she’s in high school, and college is a-comin’. 

Yeah, you probably won’t be able to afford this part of the world then. I feel like I’ve got a year left before it’s like “fuck, okay, I didn’t buy a house…” Like, you can still buy a house in the hip neighborhoods for like $300,000. 

You can’t even buy a one-bedroom condo here for anything under $550,000. 

Yeah. I think Asbury Park, the going rate for a one-bedroom condo is like $800,000. Like, I could afford ot buy a house here as a fucking barback if I really figured it out. But I’m not. (*both laugh*) Roots don’t exist in my life. 

There was a thing I wanted to talk about, and I’m trying to think of how to even ask it.

Just dive in!

As you know, I tend to ramble, which is really just me processing the question as I’m asking it, but as we were talking before, you mentioned how Cecillia for sure and I’m sure it’s true of other characters too. I’ve always felt – and I think that I’ve told you this before – that you strike me as a very honest songwriter and a lot of your stuff sounds very personal. Except that when we’ve had conversations about this before, you’ve told me that some of the story, for example, of what Civil/WAR was about, and they sound like they could be your stories, but sometimes you’re just telling the stories of other people. Now that you have started to put a name to and work through some of the mental health stuff and created a better picture of what that is, does that change the way that you write and that even how you interpret some of your own songs?

It definitely has provided insight on songs. Civil/WAR also contained a bunch of weird foresight, deja vu shit. A lot of the themes that I was writing about, when I was writing and recording, with the massive changes and then more massive changes…that whole story of that record ended up happening over Covid. That chapter was very weird and amazing but terrible at the same time. Now, I wanted to write the new songs about myself, my thoughts on the world, and tell stories of my friends. So, by the time, this comes out, “Double Nicks” is going to be out. I took my friend Jen Cooley to see Jeff Rosenstock. That’s her band. She’d never seen them, but she loves Jeff and she loved Bomb (The Music Industry) and Antarctigo (Vespucci). And Catbite played. I call them family. I spent years in a van with them. They were playing. (Jen) Cooley drank a large Twisted Tea and she was like “I don’t know if I’m drunk, but this band” – referring to Catbite – “makes me feel like I’m an astronaut.” I was watching her disassociate in the moment. Her eyes went blank, and she was just taking this moment in, and she said “this band makes me feel like an astronaut” and I was like “what the fuck does that mean?” and she said “it means I’ve got the whole world in front of me.” That song is a revisit of something that me and Alex Levine and Tim (Brennan) from the Murphys did a long time ago. The only thing that stayed were the chords and the chorus. It’s the same concept – the chorus is just “let me go, you can find me by your memories.” And I was watching her in this moment and I couldn’t tell if she was disassociating or in love with this and taking it all in, and I started writing this song about that feeling, and relating it to when you’re sitting on your couch daydreaming with your wife or with your partner or whoever, and I was telling the story and that line kept resonating. This feeling that I have when I sit next to whoever I hold close at the time, and knowing they’re fully engulfed in TikTok. The verses are like “there’s bullet shells on the boulevard / I just called to say good night // Now you don’t play games with love no more / But I think about those nights.”

You think about those times when you’re daydreaming about your high school crushes or your Teen Beat, Tiger Beat crushes, whatever. “Those nights and days they seem like they’re impossible to breathe // Cuz she makes me feel like an astronaut with the world in front of me.” It rambles about the shit that goes through your head, and then it goes into “The secrets in these sidewalks…” that’s the bullshit of TikTok, right? And the internet, and disassociating ahead. “They say fear is just a false relief with hopes you just don’t know” that’s just me trying to sound cool. (*both laugh*) “You were tired of daydreaming and I was tired of letting you know,” that’s when you’re on the couch and you’re trying to watch The Last Of Us, don’t check out, right? “Just let me go / you can find me in your memories,” that’s like “alright, I’m gonna go do something else.”

A lot of that now is telling a story of that moment with Jen or…I got in a fight with a guy over the summer, and I’m not proud of it, but he was a racist piece of shit and I heard him running his mouth. I’m an anti-fascist pacifist that has no problem punching a Nazi in the face. Or a racist. Or a bigot. Whatever. We’ll use the blanket term “asshole.” Some dude was running his mouth and I smushed him and threw him to the ground. He was a 40-year-old man, it was his birthday. He said “I’m gonna call the cops” and I’m like “I ain’t afraid of going to jail. Fuck off.” And that turned into the line “I’m not afraid of dying.” I will stand up for my fellow human being. I would tell these stories. And some of them are dumb. Like there’s a line “I just want to get stoned and listen to “Love Song.” My boss was yelling about that he wanted to smoke a bong and listen to “Disintegration.” And he’s a sober guy! He’s like “I don’t know what to think, but I just want to get high and listen to The Cure.”

Some of them are bullshit. Some of them are always bullshit. But some of them, like “Couple Cardinals” on this record, a friend of mine, her grandparents passed, and she was telling me about this swing on their front porch in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and she sent me this picture of it and I wrote what I saw. The second verse was her driving home from Tulsa to Kentucky. To Cincinnati. And the third verse is that she was telling me that at the funeral, two cardinals showed up. Some of them are just “this is the story. Thank you for telling me about your life, I want to tell the story with your permission.” That’s why the covers of the singles that are coming out are all photographs that I’ve taken of people who I know or moments that correlate to the songs, right? Like “Double Nicks” … I talked about Jamie before, he’s from England and he lives out here. I was on the corner trying to finish that song in my memos, and I was taking pictures to try to paint a picture without words, and I caught Jamie and his partner walking up the street. It all correlates because that was the same day that I really wrapped my head around that song. The imagery of him holding her close and that feeling – because I caught her at a moment where she was looking away – it was that feeling.

The next single is “The Reservoir” and I played at The Merc and there was this older woman sitting at the bar with her feet up drinking a Miller Lite with a straw, and there’s a flier on the wall that has something similar to a word in that song, and it fit. We’re just trying to tell the story of the last eighteen months and the people that I’ve met and the people that I’ve learned. They’re all these little hymns or sonnets and they’re short and sweet. The glory of these short songs is that you write a descriptive line. (*picks up guitar and it’s out of tune so he picks up a different guitar*) “I’ve seen it before a thousand times / the way you light the cigarette inside my mind.” That’s one line of this twelve-liner. “And I’m just hoping for this slim slim chance / that slim slim chance here that you’ll say yes.” Because they’re so short, you have to set it up and then fucking drop a line. There’s no filler. “Drinking coffee while the sun goes down / I said “black two sugars” you threw three dollars down.” “The hardest part about where you’re from / is trying to figure out how fast to run.” There’s no room to fuck around. It’s kind of like, I’m going to tell you this story and I would sit and elaborate and tell you, but the glory of being a folk singer, is only you know what’s real. Embellishing is like half the story. And I try not to embellish at all, to the extent that over the summer I went to a rodeo, just so I could straight up be honest when I said “this is not my first rodeo.” Like, I literally went and spent twenty dollars at the county rodeo just so I could not fucking lie when I said “this isn’t my first rodeo.” I’m a big believer in ‘say what you mean/mean what you say/don’t fuck around.” These songs, I wanted to tell the story of me and the shit going on in my life. Since the last record: marriage, divorce, three massive country moves, I completely wrecked my hand – cut the tendon and the muscle clean off my thumb – I started drinking again. I took a sabbatical, I went to therapy and I thought I was healed and I could have a beer. I am an alcoholic! I cannot have a beer. I went two weeks of ‘responsible drinking’ before I said “I am ready to start being a maniac again!” Went right back to the fucking program. All these things happened. I finally opened up my mind to starting to date again, and the second I started dating, boom, you’re going on tour, I’m done. Meeting people, closing doors, opening doors, it’s a lot.

There was a lot of life in the last eighteen months and I don’t want to write a song that had no meaning to me and that was just a story. That’s why this one is very much no holds. There’s no embellishments. If I mention a name on this record, that person is real. And I said “hey, I’m using your name in a song about something we did!” I finally got to write about my grandfather, which I’d been having trouble with for years. And my old man. I’m telling the story of my family, which I never really did. And where I came from and where I want to fucking go. I think I told you this about Civil/WAR, but I don’t know if there’s going to be another record! I might make one, I might not put it out, but at this point, I don’t fucking know. It’s expensive. It takes a lot of time. You have to go on tour to be able to pay for it and make record labels and everybody happy. I don’t know if I want to fucking do it again, so let’s do this one and see what happens! I write a song every other day, so if it works out, there’s songs! If it doesn’t, there’s going to be some one-minute TikToks with some cool dancing frogs and some light effects…

And that’s how you’ll make it! Twenty years of living in a van and you’ll get famous from TikTok after you quit music.

King Khan and BBQ Show, baby! I read something that he made more money off the one song that became a TikTok than he did his whole career playing music. 

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