Interview: Joel Hixon (Absent Minds) talks cello-punk, the Northwest scene, and song meanings

Absent MindsThe Misery of Correcting Past Mistakes is one of the best punk albums of the year. A bold statement? Sure. But, it’s one I can stand by without hesitation. There’s something so inherently appealing about Absent Minds’ fast-paced melodic punk with cello that it’s hard not to dish out praise by the truck load. I was recently lucky enough to trade e-mails with Absent Minds’ vocalist/guitarist Joel Hixon to chat about the new record, the band’s sound, and DIY punk in the 21st century.

Click here for the full interview!

Dying Scene (Carson Winter): The cello is a pretty unique instrument for a punk band, there’s no real precedent for how it should be used in that context either, and yet it adds a lot to Absent Minds’ sound without coming off as gimmicky. How did the idea of starting a punk band with cello start? And how do you approach incorporating it into the band’s overall sound?

Joel: Honestly we didn’t really set out to start a punk band with a cello. It’s one of those straight up punk rock stories that we all read about sometimes. I was attending Portland State University and had pretty much given up on playing in bands after doing it for a long time in my youth. I was working at a cafe in the basement of the student union and this guy that played violin like a bad ass started working there and mentioned that his little brother liked punk and was a cellist. Next thing I know and Isaac is working at the cafe and he and I started playing music backing another guy in some indie rock outfit that played one show. After all of that I had my confidence back and started writing a shit ton of music and Isaac was right there with me so the cello just kinda incorporated itself. Basically how it works now is I write a song with something vague in mind and Isaac just works out a part then we all toss it around for a while and eventually it becomes the final version.

Epitaph and Fat Wreck are clearly a source of inspiration for Absent Minds, and one of my favorite things about the band is that it manages to capture the energy of 90s melodic punk without being a slavish recreation. What bands did you guys grow up listening to, and how did they influence your sound?

We all come from slightly different musical backgrounds. I personally got into punk in the late 90’s when stuff was really kick ass and I think I always wanted to recreate that feeling that I got when I first discovered punk music as a kid. I always loved Nofx, Operation Ivy, Lagwagon, and actually a lot of 90’s pop-punk like Homegrown and dare I say Blink 182, but then there was a big shift for me when I discovered hardcore and old-school punk. I got all spiky haired and crazy and I think that is a big influence on the way I still write songs because I love the gritty nature of punk but I like melody and harmony a lot too. Davey grew up in Juneau, Alaska and strangely enough he brings a love of east coast punk to the table which has had a definite influence lately. He loves Lifetime, Paint it Black, Saves the Day, and all that really fun stuff. DJ is older and grew up on old school punk. When we found him he had just quit playing in a Misfits cover band. Isaac is all over the place with music from Baroness to Bach.

The video for the song “Krusty Kids” has become one of my favorite music videos and was one of the first things I ever saw of you guys. Could you describe what went into making the video? Where did the concept come from?

Basically we had talked about a few ideas for the video but nothing was really standing out. We knew we wanted to incorporate different locations around Portland like Burnside skate park and Pioneer Square and our favorite bar/venue Katie O’ Brien’s and DJ just came up with the idea to dress his son up like a crusty punk that was trying to get to a show. Then we just took him out on the street and he basically did the rest of the work. It was really fun. Our good friend Joe Kirkland filmed it for us and did an awesome job. There were some challenges like actually making it look like he was riding the bike because he was still too little to actually pedal.Basically we just had fun cruising around town filming whatever crazy antics we could.

What’s the story behind the song “Crazy Eddie”? Is it based on a real person?

Crazy Eddie is a real person. I used to work at a bar on Foster Road here in Portland and he would always be hanging out in front of the closed down bar across the street causing some kind of a ruckus. Sometimes he would put glass all over the street or he would hang cans of “Joose” up on the telephone poles and then he would post up and act like he was shooting cars with a machine gun or missile launcher. One of the best things I saw him do was prop a porno magazine up on the air conditioner unit of the building and whenever anyone would go by he would point at it or yell something incoherently. He’s a fairly harmless guy but I think he’s got some serious mental illness sadly. He did slash a tire on our van once and he finally got in trouble with the cops for causing trouble in front of the bars. Everything in the song is pretty much true though. He really did ride a bike with no seat. 

What are the challenges and rewards of being a DIY punk band in the 21st century?

There are a lot of challenges when it comes to being in a DIY band. For starters we’re all always broke and it’s tough to keep forging ahead when we all worry about eating food or keeping a roof over our heads. Paying for merch and gas and maintaining a vehicle and instruments is really expensive and you don’t see a lot of return on that kind of thing. We try to do everything we can DIY too– we do our own screen printing and make our own buttons and stuff like that which saves us a ton of money. We really want to put the record out on vinyl but the costs are so high that it’ll probably be a while before that happens. I think the biggest perk of being DIY is the freedom. We can do what we want when we want. For example we can take forever to make a record. Which is exactly what we did with TMOCPM.

As a fellow Northwesterner, I’ve found the Northwest punk scene to be more diverse, scattered, and under-the-radar than most other places. That being said, while sonically the music is incredibly different, there is still a sense of shared ethics. Is there a feeling of regional unity in the Northwest punk scene that transcends musical similarities? If so, do you think the de-emphasis on musical conformity has allowed for more daring punk rock across the region?

Yeah totally, I think most people are into making art or music or doing something in the NW and the punk scene is no different. People definitely have been supportive but the scattered nature makes it unique in that you might see a band or play a venue and then it’ll be gone and the bands will all break up and it’s like a new scene every few years but it winds up being with a lot of the same people. I usually chock up the diversity among punk and music in the region to people being locked inside due to the rain but I think your answer is better. I think people in the NW want to be free and want to do what they want and we express that in every way including through our music.

What bands have you guys been digging on these days?

I’ve really been into our friends Pageripper’s EP that just came out, we all dig the fuck out of Off With Their Heads newest album and I know Davey and I are still rocking Failed State by Propagandhi. I love the Damage Done from Seattle. Their record from last year is still one of my favorites. We played with Masked Intruder not long ago and that was a real good time and their record is hilarious and I wanted to say that to piss off all of my friends that hate that band. There are probably a billion bands that I will want to mention later but we’ll leave it at that for now.

Do you have any plans to tour this year?

Yes and no. We will likely do some small scale regional stuff this year, hopefully we’ll make it down to the bay area for the first time in a long while but our drummer’s wife is expecting a child and that will make things tough. We do hope to record an EP in the next year and to follow that up with a full US tour. 

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