DS Interview: Trever Keith opens up on “Protection,” rejoining Fat Wreck, and Face To Face’s Econo-Live ’17 tour

As I write this, the East Coast leg of Face To Face‘s Econo-Live ’17 tour had just came to a close, and the band will have a little over a week off before round two kicks off in Salt Lake City (dates here). The tour marks their first lengthy string of dates in the US in the more than fourteen months since the release of their latest album, Protection, which itself marked the band’s triumphant release to their former label home, Fat Wreck Chords. We’ve caught up with Face To Face’s founding frontman Trever Keith on numerous occasions throughout the years, but last week in Boston (well, Somerville, but close enough) marked the first time we sat down for an in-depth, face-to-face (pun obviously intended) chat about the current state of things in the legendary SoCal punk rocker’s camp. Suffice it to say, we had a lot to talk about.

If you’re not familiar with the Econo-Live ’17 tour, allow us to catch you up to speed. If we rewind the tape Face To Face Band History tape a couple of decades, we’ll come to their initial Econo-Live tour in 1996, a quick run of shows in which the band packed into a van and played a handful of smaller clubs around the country. The project was recorded at various stops along the way and turned into the now highly-sought-after Econo-Live EP. Given that we just rounded the corner on twenty years since the original, it seemed to Keith to be a good time to dust off those particular cobwebs and try it again in a way that seems equal parts fresh and familiar. “When you’re a kid,” says Keith with more than a little youthful exuberance still in his voice, “you’re just like “I just want to play shows! I don’t care! I’ll play every night!” After you’ve been doing it for a while –  we want to play shows that matter.” Between the increased amount of entertainment options and the increasing responsibilities that come along with being a forty-something punk rock fan (never mind bandmate), it’s an understatement to note that the live music scene circa 2017 is a bit of a different animal than it was in 1992. “We want to be more strategic about when and where we play and make sure that it’s something that is going to be an event that will get 40-somethings off the couch! (*both laugh*) I’m guilty of the same thing for bands I love. You’ve got to do something that’s a little bit above and beyond, so if you don’t have the package, you do something like we did here.

The package he’s referring to is a VIP experience that more and more bands have been incorporating in recent years. Specifically in this case, the tour combines some of the ideas that were represented by a few limited-run Face To Face tours over the last couple of years that a majority of their fan base clamored for a chance to experience: their acoustic Ignorance Is Bliss set, and their “Triple Crown” shows that highlighted the band’s immensely popular first three studio albums. In addition to a meet-and-greet and autograph session, each of these shows finds the four-piece playing an eight- or nine-song acoustic pre-set before doors open to the general public. The results have been positive, particularly among the band’s dedicated fanbase, which maintains an ever-growing online presence through a closed Facebook group maintained by a small handful of hardcore, longtime fans and collectors. That’s an amazing thing,” Keith comments, with genuine appreciation in his tone. “It’s totally taken on a life of its own, no credit to us. We’re thrilled that there’s such a supportive, tight-knit community of Face To Face fans and collectors. Jack (Cohenour) has been great, and some of the other people like Jessica (Sakolinsky, who also co-runs the Mable Syndrome podcast) are people that run that thing day-to-day and organize events. It’s really, really cool.”

“Really, really cool” also seems to sum up the general consensus concerning not only the band’s latest album, Protection, but their return to Fat Wreck Chords after an extended period of time bouncing between labels of various shapes and sizes. Being on a label — almost any label — in 2017 doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing that it used two a quarter-century ago when Face To Face first appeared on Fat. So what does their return mean now? “It means one thing and one thing only: it means community,” says an emphatic Keith. “That’s something that we missed by hopping around from label to label.” Going the “major label” route could have spelled the kiss of death for the band in the long-term, though their seemingly never-ending label purgatory seems admirable in hindsight, as it kept the band playing by their own, internal set of rules. “All the old punk rockers said “don’t go to a major label! You’re going to sell out! They’re going to fuck you!” explains Keith, quickly adding “I had to learn that for myself. I wasn’t going to listen to anybody and take their word for it!

As you might imagine, the band changed their own way of doing things yet again on Protection. Due to Keith residing in Nashville at the time that writing was taking place, he and Shiflett wrote and demoed largely on their own, the latter from his Los Angeles home, before coming together briefly to put ideas together. If you’ve spent any time with Keith and Shiflett, together or independently, you’re probably familiar with how their personalities differ. Those differences, of course, balance out the songwriting process: “(Shiflett) will write a seven-minute song, and I’ll write like a one-and-a-half minute song. We’re kind of opposites that way. I need him to come in on my ideas a lot and write a middle eight or a bridge or even flesh out a pre-chorus or a chorus more. I’m like, super economical to a fault, where the songs can be a little too boring, and Scott comes in and adds a little bit of that sauce and some of that flavor and a little bit more depth. And with him sometimes, he’ll just demo with no filter. I think he wrote maybe twenty-eight or thirty songs for Protection!

For years, Keith and bassist Scott Shiflett were not only the primary writing team, but manned the lion’s share of production duties as well. On Protection, they took a different route, choosing to work with Descendents’ drummer and long-time punk rock producer extraordinaire Bill Stevenson at his Blasting Room studio in Fort Collins, Colorado, for the first time. “Bill is super talented,” says Keith with noted reverence for the backbone of one of his own long-time favorite bands. “He just hears these pop melodies and pop arrangements, and it’s good to have someone outside the band who can trim the fat.”

Keith and I (and, at times, Shiflett) covered a lot of ground during our chat, including some fascinating “Inside Baseball” type information surrounding the record labels they bounced between in the first half of their career as a band. Head below to check out our full discussion!

 

Dying Scene (Jay Stone): Thanks for actually sitting down and taking some time for us. This has been a long time coming.

Trever Keith: Well, Dying Scene has been a long time supporter of the band, and I’ve known you since well before Dying Scene even started.

Yeah…I saw Scott in town a couple of weeks ago with the Gimmes, and I think it was the same venue almost nineteen years apart from the first time that I met you guys…

Wow…

Yeah, I don’t remember if it was a Reverend Horton Heat tour or if you were just opening a one-off. Late 1990s….Anyway, so I was initially going to line something up when Protection first came out, but for whatever reason it never materialized. So now we’re just passed the one-year mark of Protection, and also the seventeen-year mark of Reactionary is this coming week, and that’s my favorite Face To Face record (*editor’s note: admittedly, it’s tied with How To Ruin Everything for a few different reasons*)

Oh wow! Glad we snuck a song in there for you.

I was totally not expecting that, but in a lot of ways, I sorta view Protection as “Reactionary II,” because Reactionary obviously came out after Ignorance (Is Bliss) and people obviously thought Ignorance was a left turn, and I feel like the public response to Protection has been a lot like the public response to Reactionary. Like they were both seen as “throwback records” or people said the band was returning to their punk rock roots. So to me, it’s kinda been a follow-up, fifteen or sixteen years later. If that makes sense whatsoever.

If it makes sense to you, other people must think the same thing too. It never occurred to me that way, but I get what you’re saying. The difference being, before Protection, we didn’t really release an Ignorance Is Bliss album. Three Chords (And A Half Truth) was a little bit off the beaten path, but I feel like it had a lot more in common with our How To Ruin Everything record. With Reactionary, we got right back in the studio. That’s the quickest we’ve ever put two records out. We got right back in the studio, we made another record, we tried to cover up the residue of Ignorance Is Bliss because it was so caustic for us when we first put it out. I think a lot of people overlooked Reactionary because of that…

Really? You broke the internet for a while on the voting for that album…

Ha! We kinda did, yeah. That was one of those wacky ideas that I had. I don’t think we really got millions of votes, because people were able to vote multiple times, but it was new. It was a new thing to invite your audience to vote and it was cool. It was a good experience. I’m proud of the record still, I think it’s got a lot of really good songs on it still. But, I think Protection is a better record. (*laughs*) Bands say this stuff with new albums..

…well it’s been a year now, so you don’t HAVE to say it anymore…

Yeah! I think Protection stands out as one of the notable albums in our catalog, even though it’s a later, newer record, because even though it was something that was influenced by the early era of Face To Face, because we’re completely different people and a different band to some degree — new members and whatnot — think we managed to get a sound that’s familiar to people that have been listening to us for a while, but we also managed to do something slightly different that we hadn’t done before, and I think that’s what makes Protection kinda cool.

(*Editor’s note: At this point, bassist Scott Shiflett enters the room and mostly just hangs at the table for a while) Did you know it at the time when you were writing…

No!

…that this was cool and different? No?

Not really. Scott and I wrote independently on this record because I lived in Nashville at the time and he’s in LA. He demoed up a bunch of songs, I demoed up a bunch of songs, we didn’t really mix stuff together until we both had a pretty decent body of work. Then we started collaborating, and that period was kinda brief to tell you the truth. We got a rehearsal studio in Denver, and the band worked out our songs for, I don’t know, Scott, three or four days?

(Scott) Just about?

If even that long? And then we went up to Blasting Room in Fort Collins where Bill (Stevenson, obviously) had us do another round of pre-production. It was just essentially him going through our demos and saying “yeah, I like that” or “yeah, change this part out.” By the time we made it to Blasting Room…

(Scott) …we were 99% done.

Yeah, he would go “oh, you should drop that one verse in that song” and we were like “we already did, bro.” (*laughs*) We had just been working on it, and we had a chance to once-over it, and then Bill gave it a once-over, and I think something that was different about making this record – and something that made it better – was working with someone who was a creative input. That’s really what a producer does, outside of being someone who gets your sounds, it’s someone who sits with you on your arrangements and your songs. Scott and I had been on the reigns for that really since album three, so it’s the first time we really gave up some of that control.

That’s a big leap of faith twenty-something years into it.

It is, but I couldn’t have given it to a better person. There’s no secret I’ve been a LONG time Descendents fan, even from our second album when we covered “Bikeage.” And that’s when it wasn’t cool to like Descendents…nobody had any idea who Descendents were in our age group in the 90’s…it took them coming back with Everything Sucks and all that. So having that outside influence – and Bill is super talented. He just hears these pop melodies and pop arrangements, and it’s good to have someone outside the band who can trim the fat. Not that Scott and I are overly super-precious with our songs. I mean (*points to Scott*) HE will write a seven-minute song, and I’ll write like a one-and-a-half minute song. We’re kind of opposites that way. I need him to come in on my ideas a lot and write a middle eight or a bridge or even flesh out a pre-chorus or a chorus more…

(Scott) I keep the seven-minute songs for Viva Death (*all laugh*)

I’m like, super economical to a fault, where the songs can be a little too boring, and Scott comes in and adds a little bit of that sauce and some of that flavor and a little bit more depth. And with him sometimes, he’ll just demo with no filter. I think he wrote maybe twenty-eight or thirty songs for Protection (*both laugh*)

At seven minutes a piece?!?

Some of these aren’t punk rock. There’s nothing Face To Face on it…there’s trumpets or what have you (*all laugh*). I’m kidding, it didn’t get that crazy, but it’s great because he doesn’t edit himself at all and that leaves more to the process of creativity. Where I tend to self-edit maybe a little too much because twenty-six years into this, I still have a weird insecurity about some of the stuff that I write, and he can help bring that out of me. It’s a good pairing, but even with that, it’s GREAT to have that third party. Someone who’s not in the band and who really has nothing at stake to be a completely impartial third-party and who can be, like, “well, I was listening to the song and I wouldn’t put that verse there.” A few times it really blew our minds a little bit, but then we were willing to give it a try and work it through. So THAT’s why I think Protection stands out a bit more. That’s something we can’t entirely take the credit for, although we did do the work. We know how to make records at this point in our careers and our lives as musicians. But it’s always fun to collaborate, I think.

It’s been a year since the album came out, and this is certainly the first time you’ve been on the road to this extent – or at least in the Northeast anyway. Knowing that it’s a great, or even the best, album, were you chomping at the bit to get back out on the road? That seems like it would be a natural reaction.

We were. I think we all wanted to get out and tour on this album, but to be honest with you, it was more of waiting for the perfect package or the perfect tour or the perfect opportunity. That old adage – I think it’s in a John Lennon song – that life happens while you’re busy making plans (*editor’s note: It’s from the Lennon solo track “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)” from his 1980 album Double Fantasy and yes, I Googled that*).  That’s kinda what happened to us. In all of this planning, time marched on before we knew it. You’ve got to plan several months out, and the way the market particularly for punk rock in the United States has changed, there’s SO many bands all fighting for the same club space. You have to be six, nine month, maybe sometimes a year out to even book. So if you don’t have your shit together in your camp, it can take a year to get out on the road. We were working through some internal things that we were trying to straighten out, and we were trying to figure out the right way to do this.

When you’ve been doing it as long as we have, we used to just march into any situation. When you’re a kid, you’re just like “I just want to play shows! I don’t care! I’ll play every night!” After you’ve been doing it for a while, at least for me – though I think the guys agree – we want to play shows that matter. We want to be more strategic about when and where we play and make sure that it’s something that is going to be an event that will get 40-somethings off the couch! (*both laugh*) I’m guilty of the same thing for bands I love. You’ve got to do something that’s a little bit above and beyond, so if you don’t have the package, you do something like we did here. You put it back in the smaller venues where people are like “Oh, I want to see them in a 300-seater!” or you do the VIP thing like we’re doing, or various other things. You have to give concertgoers a good reason to turn off Netflix for a night and make the effort to come out flail around for a couple hours! (*both laugh*)

When did the Econo-Live 2 – wait, no Econo-Live 2017 – when did that ball start to get rolling?

It got rolling…I was doing something online…I forget, I was going through the catalog and I was reorganizing something with Antagonist (Records), trying to get the songs back up when we were doing the reissues. And it occurred to me that we were right around the 20 year mark of the original Econo-Live thing, and when I realized that, I was like “oh, that’s kind of a cool idea.” At first, I was like “I want to do a small club tour and call it “Live in A Dive,” but Fat Wreck Chords had already used that for their live record series.” So I was thinking about what would be a cool name, and when I realized Econo-Live was about a twenty-year thing, I thought “let’s just resurrect that.” So it really just kinda dawned on me. That part actually came together pretty quick. What I wanted to do was maybe find a really great support tour with bands that are way larger than us, or put together an amazing package tour…

(Scott, in faux British accent): We couldn’t find any bands that were bigger than us!

Yes, we are the largest (*all laugh*) When you see great package tours, I don’t know if people appreciate how difficult they are to put together. All these bands are used to headlining and making headlining money. So unless you really raise the ticket price, it’s hard to figure out how to cut that up and make it economical. I don’t think it’s impossible. I think bands like us and bands that we would play with and vice versa, we have to start thinking a bit differently about “do we headline and draw this many people, or do we pool our efforts, put it in a bigger room, maybe raise the ticket price” – the ticket price issue was a big deal in the 90s, when it was punk to have low ticket prices.

Sure, but I think people get it now.

Yeah. People in our age group have jobs. It’s not a huge inconvenience to pay $30 instead of $25, and that little bit extra can go a long way as far as putting together a package. So we’ll see what we’ll be able to do. You’ve got to really do something cool in order to get people out. (*clears throat*) I might have waited a little too long for just the perfect thing and time went buy, and that’s why we’re here a year later.

But this seems like a pretty cool thing, though?

It is, and I’m hoping that the core fans that this brings out, a lot of people that have been following us for twenty-plus years

(Scott) Besides, timing was never our strong suit! (*all laugh*)

They’ll talk about it and we’ll talk about it and people like Dying Scene will talk about it and hopefully more people will get out to it next time around.

I think they will, and like you said, the core of people, with the pretty cool thing you have going on with the fan page.

That’s an amazing thing. It’s totally taken on a life of its own, no credit to us. We’re thrilled that there’s such a supportive, tight-knit community of Face To Face fans and collectors. Jack (Cohenour) has been great, and some of the other people like Jessica (Sakolinsky) are people that run that thing day-to-day and organize events. It’s really, really cool.

Let’s talk about being back on Fat Wreck Chords, which is a pretty cool thing. And I love Mike and Erin, but I don’t know what being on a label really means anymore, aside mostly from the ceremonial part of being “on Fat Wreck Chords,” you know?

It means one thing and one thing only: it means community, and that’s it. That’s something that we missed by hopping around from label to label. It meant something different in the 90s. When we started, Fat was a great place to put out our first record. Doctor Strange didn’t really have a functioning label. He did spend some money, and he took a risk and he put us in the studio and did really cool stuff that I have always appreciated, but then it quickly became evident that he wasn’t going to have a support system to meet the demand. I think he was kind of in an “oh shit!” moment too. Not that we were blowing up like The Beatles or anything, but he thought “well, I can press a hundred records and it’s no big deal.” And we were worker bees, out promoting out there every weekend and playing shows. We started getting on his case and said “dude, we need records to sell! People want them at the shows!”

Finding Fat Wreck Chords at that early stage and jumping up to a functioning label helped us a lot. When I was twenty-something and I wanted to do this for a living, I had specific goals in mind. I wanted to do this for a living, and even though Fat was night and day from Dr. Strange, in the early 90s, they weren’t at the level of being able to give us an advance or tour support or what we needed to be able to quit work and go on tour. A lot of people are okay to do that with less and whatever, and I think it’s cool for everyone to set their own standard and do what they like. So we needed to do a major label deal to get that money. So we did (*clears throat*) and time after time we were let down by every major label we signed to. All the old punk rockers said “don’t go to a major label! You’re going to sell out! They’re going to fuck you!” I had to learn that for myself. I wasn’t going to listen to anybody and take their word for it.

Would you do it again that way?

I think initially, yes. I don’t think there was anything wrong with going to – well, in hindsight, I think it might have more sense for us to hold out for a better record deal at a better major. Victory/JVC was kind of an offshoot of a major, and we should have been going to A&M or Warner or something. One of the big labels, but we didn’t…

The self-titled record was on A&M though, wasn’t it?

It was on A&M kind of by default. Victory/JVC had a PolyGram distribution deal, and they kind of assigned A&M as a PolyGram label as their marketing company. After the second album, A&M went “yeah, we’ll take this band,” and they scooped us away because they had an upstream deal or whatever. So that wasn’t so bad. We probably would have stayed on A&M, but then they got gobbled up in that Seagram’s deal – this is all 1990’s Inside Baseball label shit –

Yeah, totally. I’m fascinated by that stuff.

So Geffen and a bunch of other labels including A&M got scooped together in the Seagram’s deal, and we knew bad things were going to happen for us. We actually went to the label head, Al Cafaro at A&M at the time, and said “please drop us, because if you don’t we’re going to get tied up in label limbo hell and never be able to release another record and it’ll be five years and the band will break up.” And he was cool enough to let us out. I wish that didn’t happen. I wish A&M didn’t get gobbled up. We might have released more records there, because even though we struggled a little bit on the self-titled record, we were making relationships and meeting people and working through the problems. Our NEXT album on A&M probably would have been more sorted. So that made us orphans. We went to Beyond, which was a nightmare. We kept living in this purgatory of not quite a major label, but the middle ground. And not a cool punk rock label that knows how to market, but this middle ground where “we kinda know how to sell records, but we don’t understand punk rock.”

Were there times through that period where Fat or Epitaph tried to get you back on?

Mike and Erin (from Fat Wreck Chords) have always been so cool and open-minded  about Face To Face, that I think that at almost any point, if I had got in touch with Mike and said “dude, we really want to come back to Fat,” he’d say…”weeeellll, okay.” I think he might be a little shitty about “why’d you go to A&M” or whatever, but in 2017, all that shit is irrelevant. So coming back to Fat, it’s a different record label now than it was in 1993, clearly. We came back around the time they were celebrating their 25th anniversary, and it was all just kind of a good fit. It was a good, planets-aligning moment of, what would you call it Scott, kismet?

Yeah!

Erin is fantastic, and I think she’s really our cheerleader over there, and she’ll make shit happen for us that maybe other bands wouldn’t really get. She’s great, Mike’s great. The people that RUN the record label, you can get them on the phone any time you want, you can have a conversation with them and they understand what you’re talking about. They know how to market punk rock records. They know how to have an effective publicist. It’s all the stuff that you want. The industry has changed so much, no one has gotten advances for a decade, so none of that matters anymore. I was really pleasantly surprised at really how welcoming not only the label people were, but the other bands on the label. Like I said, the advantage of being on a label like Fat is community, and the other bands welcomed us back with open arms. Everybody was super, super rad about it.

And I think that’s a thing that’s missing nowadays. It used to be that if an album came out on Fat or on Epitaph or Lookout or whatever, you kinda knew what the sound was, and then you could go to the record store and flip through and know you’d like it if it was on that label. And then, for the last decade or whatever that’s gone away…

(*both in unison*) except with Fat.

Yeah, they branch out a little, but Fat is a label with an identity. They never took a penny from gigantic distributors or suitors that wanted to invest and buy a piece or any of that. They stayed independent throughout, and you’ve got to respect that. In a lot of ways, we have too, even though we danced with the devil a few times. I have most of my catalog back. I control it through Antagonist, and I’ve been lucky enough to do license deals and things like that, so we’re not really tied up in that corporate label nonsense to a degree.

And like you said, that shit doesn’t really matter now anyway.

No, people largely don’t care about that. I mean, dude, we come from the 90’s. You weren’t punk if your shirt cost more than seven dollars, if your ticket cost more than seven dollars. If you had more than four colors on your shirt, you were corporate or a sellout. Everything would get you labeled a sellout for doing it, and it’s just so funny to me how that attitude has just gone by. I think we were sorta punk rock about it because we just went “fuck you, we’re gonna do what we want.” Call us corporate, call us sellouts, call us whatever you want, we don’t give a fuck. We’re gonna do what we want to do.

Scott: It was amazing how many rules applied to a group of people who were rejecting rules.

J&T: Yeah!

I never played into that anyway, but like we keep saying, totally irrelevant now.

Well thank you very much. This was a lot of fun, and I really dig the Econo-Live idea, especially for that tight-knit group of fans who didn’t get to see either the acoustic Ignorance Is Bliss shows a few years ago or the Triple Crown shows more recently. This is like the best of those worlds, combined with the new songs that fit pretty nicely into that repertoire.

I think as a band with any sort of longevity you have to come up with ways of repackaging what you do to make it appealing to people to want to come out and leave the TV or the internet or whatever.

Scott: We did something creative. We’ve put on a few extra pounds and we’re greyer and wrinklier in the face…that’ll get ‘em out!

Haha! They can look at us and say “hey, they’re still doing it, I can to!” (*all laugh*) What makes punk rock so great is the community and the people and the connection that you can have with people that you don’t even know. Music does that to a large degree anyway, but there’s something about being in a genre where people understand a certain mentality. And it doesn’t mean everyone needs to agree, but there’s an underlying mentality of individuality, doing things the way you want. If you have something to say, say it. Make your voice heard.

Especially now, and for a variety of reasons that we don’t have to go into now.

Yeah, and we’ve never been an overtly political band, but I think a lot of the messages in my lyrics that come through are more of improving your own ethics and trying to improve yourself as a person. Being aware of how important growth is and mistakes are. That’s kind of where I’ve lived lyrically since the first album, so it sort of became what I’m known for. I don’t vary too much outside of that!

Scott: Except for that one album about whiskey and women!


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