DS Interview: Skottie Lobotomy (The Creeps) talks new album, songwriting, and confrontational escapism

In a matter of weeks, after lamenting a drought of new music, I received three albums that I couldn’t stop spinning. There was The Penske File’s Salvation, Spanish Love Songs’ Schmaltz, and The Creeps’ Beneath the Pines. I’ve purged my thoughts in reviews, countless listens, and dozens of personal recommendations, but still, these are the records I can’t shake—three distinct visions of what modern punk rock can be, built on the foundation of expert songwriting.

Beneath the Pines isn’t out yet, but it has a special place among the three. It shares members with Crusades, a fantastic band that shocked the punk community by announcing their departure earlier this month; and comes as the follow-up to Eulogies, an album that allowed the Creeps to stretch their chops and become known as one of pop punk’s foremost songsmiths. While the connection is inevitable, to say that The Creeps is Crusades’ little brother—a near consolation prize to fans—is to ignore the band’s twenty years playing, releasing, and evolving. Beneath the Pines is a great album, no matter its relation—a singular vision, powered by introspection, killer melodies, and the sort of songwriting that marks you for life. It’s at once melancholy and hopeful, and with a few deft lyrics, will endear the hardest hearts into a singalong.

I was lucky enough to exchange emails with vocalist/guitarist Skottie Lobotomy on the new album, his songwriting process, and what it means to be punk through introspection. Check out the interview below.

So, I hate to say it, but Beneath the Pines is my first Creeps experience. What do I need to know about you guys?

I’d find it hard to argue that there’s anything anyone needs to know about us, but since you’re the one asking the questions: we are a three-piece band from Ottawa, ON. We started making music together in 1999 which, preposterously, makes us nearly 20 years old as a band. None of us is yet 40 years old, so we’ve all been doing this for more than half of our lives, for better or worse.

The new record is Beneath the Pines, and although I hadn’t discovered you guys until recently, it’s becoming one of my favorites of the year. How does this new album fit into the Creeps catalog and what makes it different?

This is our sixth full length record, though we spent a lot of time in the early 2010s recording and releasing EPs and 7″s (to the point that a Collection LP called Old Crimes is being released by It’s Alive Records at the same time as Beneath The Pines), so our output isn’t quite as paltry as it appears at first blush. I struggle to describe our band at this point, but we started out playing a pretty reasonable facsimile of the pop-punk records we all listened to back then, and I think those roots are still probably well expressed on this record. As our taste in music has broadened, however, I think our sound has evolved to reflect that. While none of us are even remotely “proficient”  musicians, we’ve become slightly better players with each release, which increasingly lets us express ourselves musically in a way that’s truer to the idea that I think we have in our heads.

What struck me most about the new album was just how many great songs were on it. I know, that sounds like an obvious element of any liked album, but the point remains: it’s hard to write a good song, let alone a whole handful. Walk us through your songwriting process—did you have a specific vision for the direction of Beneath the Pines?—is writing a team effort or do you usually take the lead?

Well that’s very nice of you to you say. It’s always our goal to make a record full of songs that we’re happy with, but it’s maybe notable that this was the first time that we wrote and rehearsed more songs than ended up being on the album. Some of the songs that didn’t make the cut just weren’t working as well as those that we ended up keeping. I write pretty sporadically, so in the past, we’d have maybe just tried to make those other songs work if it meant we’d reached the magic number of songs required to make a record. This time we were a little more patient and deliberate. In terms of process, I basically write the songs and then bring them to the guys to fine tune them, at which point it becomes very collaborative. After all these years, we’ve developed a pretty elaborate shorthand for conveying ideas to one another and we’re all generally on the same page for how each song should sound, so it’s a pretty quick and painless experience.

Pop punk is known for its melodicism, almost to the point of being taken for granted. One of the things I really loved on this album were the vocal melodies. I remember in our short Crusades interview, you mentioned focusing in on a lot of the vocal melodies for that band. With The Creeps, I hear your contribution to Crusades louder than I ever have before. There are gorgeous melodies everywhere on this album. As someone with an ear for the process, what goes into writing a strong melody?

I really only care about vocal melodies in music, and that’s always been the case (in the early-90s, at a time when so many seminal records were being made, I asked my parents for the Boyz II Men cassette—a decision I stand by). Much to the chagrin of some of my various bandmates, and to the surprise of people who know I play music, I can’t really hear the rhythm section in bands, generally. Bass and kick drum are just not elements my ears pick up easily. In terms of songwriting, I also find guitar playing for its own sake to be pretty boring. I basically only pick up a guitar to write once I have a vocal melody in mind. That’s changed a little bit on this record, which explains why I’m occasionally playing something other than very standard chords, but I remain pretty singularly driven by the idea of writing something cool to sing. As for how to do it, I have no idea, but I suspect it’s somewhat less mathematical than, say, writing a perfect drum part or a great guitar lead. I can think of particular bands whose songwriters I’m certain hear music similar to way I do, and generally those are the bands I’m most drawn to.

I’d be interested to hear what songwriters inspire you. Do you take a lot of inspiration from punk rock, or do you look outside it? What songs and artists formed your early picture of what makes for good music?

Inspiration is a way more interesting concept than influence to me, so I’m glad you’ve framed it that way. Not that we sound anything like them, really, but the last couple records by The Sidekicks were sort of our touchstone as we were writing this record. I remember we were “blasting” Runners in The Nerved World through someone’s phone in our hotel room late at night after our show at Pouzza Fest a couple of years ago and I drunkenly proclaimed that, “we need more reverb on everything.” Haha. Generally speaking, I think the best band ever is The Smiths, the best “punk” singer is Dan Andriano and my favourite songwriter currently is Greg from the Menzingers. All of that said, I basically only listen to Drake.

I’ve heard the Creeps have a horror punk association, and from what I’ve gathered, that influence has diminished over the years, culminating into what we have now—the personal, melancholy, and wonderful Beneath the Pines. I recently read a quote from one of my favorite authors, Thomas Ligotti, that calls horror “confrontational escapism.” I mulled that over for awhile and realized that the phrase could be just as easily applied to punk rock. For some reason, I can’t help but think overt horror elements in music actually diminish the level of confrontation, and become pure escapism.  Do you feel personal ties to the genre? Why did your songs move away from horror? Does the best of both horror and punk hinge on the idea of confrontational escapism?

Yeah, I think you’re right. Though I’ve never considered it in such clear terms, I definitely moved away from writing lyrics that were purely fiction because such escapism stopped being compelling. Though I suspect that Ligotti was referring to the audience in that quote, I think it equally applies to the artist/writer. In confronting ideas and themes that are more personal to me on the last couple records, and especially this one, I think I’ve found the right balance between both concepts again. As for the “horror” genre more generally, I avoid it because I find it too scary.

So, what about the lyrics this time around? Both sonically and lyrically, The Creeps have changed over time. I hear a lot of lyrics that sound pretty personal and specific over the course of the album. One of my favorite songs, “Bottom of Things,” contains the line: “Eye contact—I practice everything. Except sleeping, I don’t do that much these days.” Another favorite of mine is “Bodies,” which, to me at least, expresses a lot of discomfort with the mechanical nature of our existence, that we are a sum of our biological processes. I think writing about our own wiring is great a way to sublimate what we can acknowledge as our shortcomings, and in fact, I think this sort of personal exploration is another form of that fabled ‘confrontational escapism.’ What were you thinking about when you wrote these songs, and were you aware of the thematic connections at the time?

I think that personal exploration is definitely the ultimate form of (self-) confrontation and that maybe writing about that exploration lyrically is where the ‘escapism’ part comes in, for me at least. I have always been introspective, and probably overly so, so when you ask what I was thinking about when I wrote the songs, my answer is basically, “what I’m always thinking about”. I’ve written personal lyrics in the past, but I think they lacked specificity. Not that it was, like, an explicit goal I set out before writing this record, but I guess my challenge to myself was to be a bit more (self-) confrontational and to get more specific. Certain songs—”Even” and “Full Shook” are good examples—are well past the line I’d have previously drawn in the sand in terms of how much of my real life I was willing to share.

There’s something serene about the music The Creeps make, and I think it’s reflected in the album’s title Beneath the Pines. How did you choose the title and what does it mean to you?

The title comes from the lyric in “Fall” that goes, “I feel we’re all just fated to these capsules of time, like memories of pure bliss beneath these sky tall pines”, which I think does well to encapsulate the theme of “loss” that permeates the record—in this case the loss of memory as we age. But this is also a good example of a specifically personal lyric, which is actually captured visually in the album’s cover art. The lyric refers to the pines you see in the photo on the front cover that surrounded my grandparents’ cottage that I spent time at during the summers as I grew up. Some of the memories that I’m certain I will retain even as my mind fails me in old age (provided I make it that far) come from those summers and beneath those pines.

Your other band, Crusades, announced their last shows recently, and will be sorely missed. I didn’t want to spend too much time on this topic, only because the last article we ran was long enough to cover most of my Crusades-related thoughts for the next year—but I did think it’d be a mistake to not get your personal feelings following the announcement. So, with Crusades ending, what’s on your mind? Do you have any other projects we can look forward to filling the void Crusades left behind?

It’s obviously a little bittersweet, but I mostly just feel gratitude. I’m grateful that I got to make music with those guys and all that I learned in doing so, grateful for all the experiences we had (good, bad, or just downright crazy) playing the songs for other people, and grateful that we’re calling it quits on our own terms with the four of us remaining best of friends. In terms of other projects, I am happily abandoning to whole playing-in-multiple-bands thing for the first time in probably 15 years, so at this point my plan is to just focus on The Creeps. Maybe I’ll get restless, though—who knows.

What do we have to look forward to regarding The Creeps this year? Any big festival dates or tours?

We’re old and tire easily, so we don’t really “tour”, but we’re playing some record release shows in Ottawa, Toronto and London in the coming months and we’re playing Pouzza Fest in Montreal next month, as well. We’re also playing Ottawa Explosion Weekend, the best weekend of the summer, in June, and that’s all we’ve announced to date, I believe. Jordy and I will be in Florida for FEST in October with Crusades and Ian plans on coming along for the ride, so perhaps there will be another announcement forthcoming.

Thank you so much for talking to me. In my humble opinion, Beneath the Pines is an incredible album and an early runner for best of the year. I’ll give you the last word here. Anything you wanna say to our readers before we sign off?

My pleasure. Thank you for your thoughtful questions and kindness. No final words of wisdom from me—just hope everyone digs the new record!

Beneath the Pines and Old Crimes are out May 4th on It’s Alive Records. Pre-order here. 

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