DS Exclusive: Jason Cruz on Strung Out’s triumphant “Songs Of Armor And Devotion” and his Upcoming Children’s Book, “There Are Such Things As In Your Dreams”

When last we spoke with Strung Out frontman Jason Cruz, it was a couple of days prior to the release of his iconic band’s acoustic EP, Black Out The Sky. The album marked a bit of a departure, a change of pace album more than two decades into the band’s history of pioneering a blistering punk/metal hybrid. The album had been a bit delayed – its predecessor, Transmission.Alpha.Delta was already three years old and was, itself, the band’s first new album in six years at the time – and came at the end of a tumultuous two-year period that found long-time drummer Jordan Burns exiting the band, replaced by Runaway Kids’ RJ Shankle.

Fast-forward a less than eighteen months, and we caught up with Cruz again, this time on the heels of a new, fully-plugged-in full-length. On August 9th, the band released their ninth studio album, Songs Of Armor And Devotion, on Fat Wreck Chords, and from the first moments of the album’s opening track, “Rebels & Saints,” the new music finds the quintet firmly, aggressively, planting their battle flag as an ongoing force to be reckoned with nearly three decades into their career. That’s a concept that is certainly not lost on Cruz. “I think that we’re all still working class dudes. We’re still hungry. I feel like we still have to fight for every little thing that we’ve got and everything that we do. Nothing is easy for us, so I think that that in and of itself adds to the gravity and the sincerity of what we do,” he explains. “We earned the right to still be here. I think that if you’re going to do this – to do anything – you have to earn the right to keep doing it.”

Cruz notes that even with so many releases under their studded belts, the band experiences collective anxiety in the last period of time before an album officially drops, and the tone of that anxiety has shifted as much as anything else over the course of their career. “Up until the time it gets released, you’re wondering, especially with social media and everything that’s going on these days, everyone’s got an opinion and everyone feels their opinion needs to be heard, and they start throwing around how they think you should write the songs.” This forces the band – somewhat less-than-reluctantly – to pull back moreso than usual from social media outlets and to let their own collective consciousness steer the ship. It’s the quality that’s lead the band to continue producing material that’s as hungry and vital as ever. “I think that if you believe and something, do it or act it or live your life around it or just be it, and if people are inspired by it, good, if they’re not…I don’t worry about it.

Cruz’s songwriting has never been the type to shy away from sociopolitical issues, and that’s certainly no different on Songs Of Armor And Devotion given that the period we find ourselves in is ripe for commentary. However, Cruz’s songwriting is also the type that’s not going to beat you over the head with on-the-nose references. Instead, he opts for more of a storyteller’s role, allowing the listener to make her or his own connection with the music. That, of course, is by design. “I think music is more intimate than that, and the way it affects you when you first listen to something, or you first put on a CD or you have a moment…music is something so personal and intimate,” he explains.I think a problem with our generation, or just this time, is a lack of intimacy with all things, you know? Everything is so fast and mass-produced and gamma rays in your face and radiation in your face and instant gratification, but there’s no intimacy with anything anymore.

2019 finds Cruz not only assuming his storyteller’s role for Strung Out again by way of writing lyrics and creating artwork, as he’s now done for the bulk of the band’s releases; he’s now branching out into the world of author of children’s books! October 25th at the Copro Nason Gallery in Los Angeles, Cruz will be throwing an art show that serves as the launch for his debut book, There Are Such Things As In Your Dreams. The title was developed by one of Cruz’s daughters and inspired the central theme of the book. “It’s a simple children’s poem with some cool pictures. It’s trying to explain to a kid what dreams are.” In fact, There Are Such Things As In Your Dreams is the first of three books that Cruz has lined up. “The first one is basically a nursery rhyme or a kids’ poem with pictures. The second one is a little bit darker. The third one is a motherfucker…but that’ll wait ’til (his daughter is) a little older!

*excerpted artwork from There Are Such Things As In Your Dreams courtesy of Cruz himself*

As a songwriter, Cruz has not shied away from digging around in some dark places and exploring themes that might be awkward or strange or uncomfortable, and that won’t be different when it comes to his career as an author of kids’ books. “I am who I am in front of my daughter; sometimes I write about dark stuff, but I think at the core of everything I do is love,” Cruz notes. “I think if you read anything I write, it’s about love. I’m not a hateful person, I don’t write about hateful things. Everything I do comes from love, so naturally this book comes from love and dreams.” To that end, Cruz approached the process of creating the art and storyline for a children’s book in much the same manner that he approaches creating music, be it for Strung Out or another project like Jason Cruz and Howl. “To me, a children’s book is just like a song,” he explains. “They’ve both got rhythm, they’ve got imagery. It’s a simplified, poetic approach to telling a sorry or a thought or a theme, you know?

Head below to check out our full Q&A with Jason Cruz…or at least the first 22 minutes of our conversation before my recorder miraculously shat the proverbial bed. If you’re going to be in Southern California the last week of October, you can RSVP to the above-mentioned art show/book launch here; it’s free, and it will also feature guest artist and skateboarding icon Steve Caballero and an acoustic performance by Strung Out!

 

Dying Scene (Jay Stone): Congratulations on the new album, man!

Jason Cruz: Oh cool, thank you.

I think when we were initially slated to talk, it was the night before the album was due out. Now that it’s been out for three weeks or so, you must be pretty proud of what you guys created this time. I think you leveled up.

You know, I’m happy every time we get together and we write something or we do something together. I think that working together on anything…I’m proud every time we learn a song or complete a tour and get home safe, you know? I don’t think we ever put out shit, so it’s not like this one’s any different from the one before it or the one before that. In our minds, if we’re going to put it out there, it’s the best that we can possibly do at the time when we’re doing it, you know?

Oh I didn’t mean to imply that the last few sucked…

Oh I know what you mean!

It just feels like you raised the bar again for yourselves, and it’s pretty awesome that a band can do that thirty years into a career, you know what I mean?

I look at it like, we earned the right to still be here. I think that if you’re going to do this – to do anything – you have to earn the right to keep doing it. That’s the one thing I’m always afraid of, like “am I going to fail this time? Am I going to not deserve to do this or to be heard?” That’s all I really care about.

I think last time we talked was right before Black Out The Sky came out, and you were talking about how if you look at the arc of your career like a song, you have to slow it down down and then ramp it up again for the last big verse or whatever – it seems like you really, really honed in on that this time. This album feels even heavier in ways than Transmission.Alpha.Delta was. Was that still a conscious thing, or did it just end up that way?

It was 100% a conscious thing. I knew that after Transmission.Alpha.Delta, we couldn’t write the same record. We couldn’t go write something as intense or as electric as that was. We had it in our minds for a long time to do something like the acoustic record. I think it was the perfect time, you know? It was the perfect response to (Transmission.Alpha.Delta), and this record is the perfect response to (Black Out The Sky). You’ve gotta do that with everything in your life. You have to live it, like you said, like it’s a song. You’ve got to understand where you came from, where you’re at and where you’re going and how they all relate to each other, you know?

How long did it take for you guys to put this album together? It wasn’t all that long after Black Out The Sky that we started hearing that a new album was upon us. That seems like a quicker process than you guys have been in the last handful of years.

You know, everybody is so creative that we have to fight for ideas. Rob came to the table with like eight songs, and within a month, everyone was fighting for their ideas. Until the day that dries up, I think we have to rally. It’s a natural thing for us, and I’m very thankful to the gods or muse or whatever that we can still keep creating.

Was this all stuff that was written specifically post-Black Out The Sky?

Yeah, yeah. Last January, we booked studio time and then got together every day and banged this out. 

Again, that seems like a pretty quick turnaround from the past. That’s another thing that I think is pretty impressive that I think not a lot of people that’ve been around for three decades of creating can actually do.

I think that we’re all still working class dudes. We’re still hungry. I feel like we still have to fight for every little thing that we’ve got and everything that we do. Nothing is easy for us, so I think that that in and of itself adds to the gravity and the sincerity of what we do.

Does it feel the same when an album comes out now, with nine full-length albums under your belt over the last twenty-five years? Is there a level of either anxiety or being curious how people are going to respond once an album is out in the ether? 

There’s a lot of that. There’s a lot of anxiety until you get an idea of how it effects people. You want to know that you’ve earned the right to be here and that you have something to offer, and I think peoples’ response validates that. Up until the time it gets released, you’re wondering, especially with social media and everything that’s going on these days, everyone’s got an opinion and everyone feels their opinion needs to be heard, and they start throwing around how they think you should write the songs… It’s an interesting time to be somebody that creates stuff. Anxiety is a part of the game, I guess.

Do you have to tune that stuff out while you’re writing, so that it doesn’t start to creep in?

Oh yeah. That doesn’t even exist. You have to make it a point to go into a deeper place than anything like that. That stuff is like the froth at the top of the milkshake, and the stuff you need is at the bottom. All the resin that’s at the bottom, that’s where you’ve got to be when you’re writing.

Has that part changed maybe as much as anything in the music industry over the years you’ve been in it? That sort of instant feedback, everyone’s-a-critic thing? I feel like it’s more prevalent than it really was every before.

Yeah, it is. I don’t pay attention to it much anymore. I don’t. It’ll drive you crazy and it’s pointless. I think music is more intimate than that, and the way it affects you when you first listen to something, or you first put on a CD or you have a moment…music is something so personal and intimate. Why let it degrade to that? I think a problem with our generation, or just this time, is a lack of intimacy with all things, you know? Everything is so fast and mass-produced and gamma rays in your face and radiation in your face and instant gratification, but there’s no intimacy with anything anymore. I think that is part of our band; maybe lyrically and the way we work together, there’s an intimacy to the way that we work together that’s hidden behind all those crazy stars.

Was it an easier album to write this time out than maybe Black Out The Sky was?

Black Out The Sky was a fun one. That was easy too. We were all on board and it was super fun and therapeutic. Once everybody got behind it, it was nice, because we didn’t know exactly what we were doing, and once Rob got behind it, we had some killer percussion guys come in, it was fun! We got our friends involved. Transmission was really difficult. I don’t really know why it was so difficult, it’s just that every record is a relationship. It’s like a marriage. 

Well and with Transmission, there was like six years between Agents Of The Underground and Transmission or something like that, right? I feel like Transmission was an album that we heard about coming out for a long time, maybe a year or so, before it actually came out. This time, Black Out The Sky came out last year and Bam!, another album is in your face already. 

It needed to happen. We had a major shift happen in the band, and the band was reborn in a way, so here we are.

I don’t want to dig too much into song material, because I think it’s important for people to take on their own ownership of songs and make them their own, but it feels like you kind of address where the band is now and the sort of turmoil that you went through over a couple years there right out of the gate. The first song, “Rebels & Saints,” seems to address that stuff pretty head on, and not just saying that you deserve to still be here, but kinda planting your flag for the Strung Out family and the people that stuck with you through it. Again, I don’t want to read too much into it, but that’s sort of my take away from that song right from jump street.

Yeah, that’s nice. That song being first and the song “Bloody Knuckles” being last, everything is just kinda weird. I don’t want to get too mystical, but the way things kinda accidentally fall into place…when I listened back to that song, and it being the first song, exactly what you just said pops into my head. I didn’t mean it like that. You don’t know what you’re doing, but I think that’s the cool thing about writing, to let yourself not know what you’re doing at times, but know that “alright, this is something,” and listen to it later, like months or years later, and go “god, that’s exactly what I was going through, and I was trying to explain it, but you can’t always explain what you’re going through, you know?” It’s cool to put words together that don’t really go together to create a different context. It’s fun, it’s like something else speaking through you. Exactly what you said, too. It’s cool how things reveal themselves.

And again, I’m not pretending to know what that song is about, but if you listen to it with that context, it sounds like you declaring that you’re still fucking here, and as vital as you’ve ever been. I think it adds a really adds a strong emphasis to the album right out of the gate. 

Yeah, that’s rad! Rad!

There’s a handful of moments that sound like they’re addressing the sort of sociopolitical bullshit that we’ve been in the last handful of years, and I get the sense that a lot of the stuff going on at the border has crept into the songwriting. Do you feel like it’s important to sing about that stuff, and to address that stuff in your songwriting? Are these important issues that everybody needs to talk about?

To me, what everybody has to talk about doesn’t matter. I gave up on trying to influence people or worry about what people need to do. I think that if you believe and something, do it or act it or live your life around it or just be it, and if people are inspired by it, good, if they’re not…I don’t worry about it. I look a lot at what’s going on in Venezuela or what’s going on in Hong Kong…people not having a country, and not knowing you you are…I think that’s a big theme in Strung Out, trying to establish who we are. A person in any country can feel that, and to try to gain some sort of cultural identity…it’s a “searching” thing. Like, when I listen to Miles Davis, I feel like he was always searching for something, and I think that’s a cool thing about our music, that it’s always kind of searching for something, feeling around in the dark.

That adds a little bit of interesting context even just to the album name itself, Songs of Armor And Devotion. It seems like that’s part of what we’re searching for too, something to love and be devoted to or something to keep our guard up so that we’re not revealing ourselves to everybody. When you put it like that, at least to me, it brings a little clarity to the whole theme of the album in general.  You did the artwork this time out again. Do you put as much pressure on yourself with the visual side of the band as you do with the songwriting and lyrical part of the band? Do they support and balance each other, or do they both create a different struggle?

I don’t know, I think I’m just a control freak sometimes. I’d rather get it done myself sometimes. I don’t know, when we’re writing and we’re making a record, sometimes I see a vision. In this record I had a lyric. It was the first lyric I had, and that lyric gave me the image of the horse. I guess it’s just in my nature, that everything’s visual with me. With Transmission.Alpha.Delta, I saw that, and it went with the cover. Sometimes it’s good to translate to somebody else to see what they come up with, and I love that. I love to let go. But sometimes, I know exactly what I see and what I want. I have to play it by ear.

Is it fair to say that you sort of approach the album as a theme and so they are connected, the artwork and the lyrics, and they’re all part of the same thing?

Yeah, it’s all under an umbrella. I think that’s super important. That kind of wraps it up in, I don’t want to say a theme, but it condenses a moment and creates like a sphere. I think you need those parameters to write sometimes, because if you’re too free, I don’t know, I think you need to sum up moments and bring them in, wrangle them in, and use those. If there are too many options and variables, you can go nuts, so you have to limit yourself and create themes.

Or at the very least, if there are too many ideas, you end up putting out a double album and there’s twenty-five songs on it, and nobody can pay attention that long anymore.

Yeah! Twenty-five Strung Out songs would be a nightmare. That would be a nightmare and I would go insane. 

You’ve got the art show and the children’s book coming out too. The art show I could sort of see coming, the children’s book I didn’t. Where did that idea come from; I think that’s really awesome.

They’re just like songs, you know? To me, a children’s book is just like a song. They’ve both got rhythm, they’ve got imagery. It’s a simplified, poetic approach to telling a sorry or a thought or a theme, you know? They’re just like songs, you know, and I think Strung Out songs are like a children’s book in a way, with their imagery and their rhythm. They’re poetic. It’s just so natural. My daughter came up with the title, and I thought it was a cool idea to try…I’m an adult man with a kid, I’m not a kid anymore, and I think I don’t have to pretend anymore that I am a kid. I think an important part of being a musician is acting and representing your age and what you’ve gone through and where you’re going, not trying to be something else. That’s who I am, and it just came naturally. 

I would assume though that it’s a different style of writing. Sure you’re still telling stories and crafting imagery, but if you want something that a kid can latch on to…there aren’t necessarily a lot of more recent Strung Out lyrics that a kid could latch on to, you know? So I feel like it would at least use and unlock a different part of your brain.

Not really, no. I don’t see any difference. I am who I am in front of my daughter; sometimes I write about dark stuff, but I think at the core of everything I do is love. I think if you read anything I write, it’s about love. I’m not a hateful person, I don’t write about hateful things. Everything I do comes from love, so naturally this book comes from love and dreams. It’s a simple children’s poem with some cool pictures. It’s trying to explain to a kid what dreams are. That’s reality, having to explain that, after trying to write about our friends in Caracas losing their country. It’s all in the same day. It’s all the same life. How do you differentiate it, you know what I mean?

I hadn’t really thought about it in the context of trying to explain to your kid what a dream is and talk to a friend in Venezuela or Hong Kong or wherever all in the same afternoon, overlapping.

Yeah, that’s life, you know? That’s life, and you have to be a dad. I started teaching my four-year-old about 9/11…she came home with some pamphlet on 9/11…and like how do you go there? Knowing what we know, how do you approach that? (*laughs*) Those are the tough things that people my age that are dads that are punkers too have to deal with!

Yeah, I don’t know if you’ve seen it yet, but being in the library at my daughter’s elementary school – she’s eleven now – and there’s this book called “I Survived 9/11” or something like that.

No way!

Yeah, and it’s part of a whole series of books – mind you, this is elementary school – called like “I Survived D-Day” or “I Survived Hurricane Katrina” and shit like that…it’s gnarly. And I just remember thinking “oh my god, I’m not ready for these conversations yet.”


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