“Chicago-based punk band, Capgun Heroes play fast, hooky pop-punk in the vein of the Ramones, Screeching Weasel, and Riverdales.”
“Chicago-based punk band, Capgun Heroes play fast, hooky pop-punk in the vein of the Ramones, Screeching Weasel, and Riverdales.”
In 2001, I moved to the Northern English city of Leeds, in part because of the live music venue, The Cockpit. This small venue put on all my favourite bands of the time, and had a long history of putting on great live music. I worked in another venue in the city on weekends, so Tuesday night was my big night out, and Tuesday nights were Slam Dunk at The Cockpit. A solid mix of ska punk, pop punk, emo, rock, metal and whatever else alternative kids were listening to in the early 2000’s.
So here I am, 21 years later. The Cockpit has long since shut down and whilst the Slam Dunk Club Night plays on at its new home, the Key Club, it’s the festival that I am at today. Now held across two cities with more than 50 bands, across five stages, things have really grown from that two room sweaty Tuesday night under a railway arch.
The lineup covers a wide range of punk and alternative music, but because I’m old and stuck in my ways, I’m mostly staying at the Dickies stage, which is the main stage this year, hosting The Suicide Machines, The Bronx, Hot Water Music, The Vandals, Streetlight Manifesto, Pennywise, The Interrupters, The Dropkick Murphy’s and headliners Sum 41.
I’d originally bought tickets on the basis that Rancid were headlining, but they pulled out for undisclosed reasons. Then support from the Mighty Mighty Bosstones collapsed along with the band. Things were looking bleak, and I actually looked into selling my ticket, only to have two of my close friends and original Slam Dunk allies to buy tickets, so it was to be a big day out for us old guys.
The venue for the festival is Temple Newsam House. For further personal historic links, this was the site of the first music festival I ever went to (V98), and a big part of my musical taste was formed in these park lands. The benefit of this location for me is that it is close to home, the downside is that it still takes an hour and a half to get in, as traffic is not well managed and everything is already getting expensive (£10 to park in a field, £10 for a bus), I’d planned to ride my bike to the event, but for three of us, that didn’t make much sense.
Inside the arena, the stages are far enough apart that there is little noise mix from bands and practicalities like bars, toilets and food concessions are plentiful, the addition of a separate “real ale” bar was a pleasant surprise, and I managed to spend an impressive amount in this tent after and before every band. The tent also provides some welcome shade from the unexpected sun that I was totally unprepared for!
So, on to the music…
Hot Water Music, a band that I’ve discovered backwards through Chuck Ragan’s solo work, come out impassioned and full of energy, although the crowd are a little flat with it being an early set. Despite this we get a solid effort from the band, though possibly things are held back a little by a lack of catchy hooks and sing along choruses in the songs performed. Finishing with “Trusty Chords” gets the crowd interested from hearing a song they know. Whether they know the song from Epitaph‘s Punk-o-Rama compilation, or it’s just a favourite is hard to say, but in a pre-internet world, compilations from Independent punk labels are how a lot of us discovered new bands, especially those that didn’t tour the small northern venues like the Cockpit!
A quick trip to the bar revealed the sound of Punk Rock Factory carrying on the wind from the Rock Sound Stage. I was familiar with the band from their Youtube videos of punked up, harmonized pop covers, and as a father of small children, I found myself singing along to “Let It Go”, whilst appropriately stood at a urinal. If I have to play Disney songs on long journeys, then at least they can have crushing guitars as well, and hopefully, like some kind of gateway drug, this leads my kids down the path of home made tattoos and living in a van (or some other punk cliché).
The Vandals took to the stage with a not too reassuring “We’ll do our best”, and whilst I appreciate their honesty and openness, first song “Café 405”, is out of time and out of tune.
Three songs in, things are starting to tighten up, “People That Are Going To Hell” gets people moving a little, but on the whole, the crowd remain static. “And Now We Dance” raises the energy, “The New You” keeps it going, but there’s just not enough there to hold the attention of the majority of the crowd. My friends desert me to hit the real ale bar, I hate myself for giving up on the mighty Vandals, but cold beer and the Cancer Bats on the Jagermeister stage lure me away. I’m not massively familiar with the Cancer Bats, but the wall of noise, that I could feel through the ground and see vibrating through my pint has led me to listen to more of their back catalogue.
I had a dream the night before Slam Dunk that I took all my family to see Streetlight Manifesto, but instead of their usual set list, they played a really challenging, four hour Jazz set, stopping only to enjoy a sit down meal, where they served soup from tea pots. I was trying desperately to convince my family that really, they’re a great band, whilst simultaneously enjoying the weird spectacle.
Fortunately, there’s no Jazz today as Streetlight Manifesto, a later addition to the bill, take to the stage. There’s a clear sense of excitement in the crowd as the eight piece tear through classic hits “We Will Fall Together” and “The Three Of Us” along with lesser known tracks with a level of energy normally reserved for headline shows. The crowd sings along, dances, moshes; it’s a perfect blend of everything you want on a summers day. The only slight letdown is Tomas Kalnoky shouting “this is the big finish!” and then promptly not playing “Keasbey Nights.” I get the reasons, and I support them in letting go of a song that doesn’t really represent the band, but for many in the crowd it’s the song they came to hear and there’s visible confusion as the band leave the stage, though encores aren’t really a thing at 16:30 on a festival stage are they?
I last saw Pennywise in 1999. So its been a while. Late last year I read Jim Lindberg’s book “Punk Rock Dad,” which renewed my interest in the band, so I’m excited to see this set, and if the number of Pennywise T-shirts I’m seeing are anything to go by, so are the crowd.
From the get go, the band are on full attack. There’s no sign of age in the band and the crowd are loving it. Covers of AC/DC’s “TNT” and “Breed” by Nirvana continues the energy. Early songs “Pennywise” and “Society” lead to Lindberg lamenting to having been “doing this for thirty years,” but it’s not slowing them down.
The crowd holds middle fingers aloft for “Fuck Authority,” and whilst it feels cheesy, a load of middle aged men swearing at the sky, its kind of cathartic, and hey, it’s a great song! Who doesn’t enjoy feeling like an angry teenager (teenagers maybe?).
A cover of “Stand By Me,” which closed 1992 album Wild Card/ A Word From The ‘Wise surprised me, as I was certain it was Lagwagon, so I learned something important today if nothing else.
Set closer “Bro-Hymn” has exactly the effect you’d expect. Huge “wooahs” from the crowd, that epic bass riff and impassioned singing along. Obviously it’s a great song, but I think it hits harder now, after the last few years and I think everyone can take some strength from this song and apply it to someone they’ve lost.
The Interrupters carry a strange position in my mind. I love their songs, they’re great live, but there’s just something not quite right. Something doesn’t sit right with me, and I hate myself for being so negative, but its all a bit too clean cut for me. Like it’s the soundtrack to Disney film where some hopelessly good looking, talented young people form a ska punk band and take over the world with a weird crusty mentor behind them (Called Tim?).
Opener “Take Back the Power” feels stronger than normal. Maybe its that they’re more established, or maybe my cynicism is fading? Either way I enjoy it for what it is, well polished, perfectly-performed ska pop-punk.
Ignoring a weird segue about how they all used to bathe together… “She got arrested” gets a great crowd sing along, and is probably my favourite of their songs, not least as it was my introduction to the band back in 2017 and a great example of the quality story telling in the lyrics of some of their songs.
A cover medley of “Keep ‘Em Separated”/ “Linoleum”/ “Ruby Soho” gets the crowd going before surprise high point for me, a cover of Bad Religion‘s “Sorrow,” which goes down well with the crowd (For reference Bad Religion played Slam Dunk in 2019, as did the Interrupters).
The band finishes with “She’s Kerosene,” keeping the party going, the crowd moving and generally capturing the moment nicely. People are drunk, its sunny, the people want to dance and the Interrupters deliver.
The Dropkick Murphys take to a stage with a full length riser, done out to look like a stone wall, but there is a notable absence. Al Barr, it is announced, has stayed home to care for his sick mother. Ken Casey steps up for lead vocal duties and the evening begins with the sound of bagpipes on the cool evening breeze.
“State of Massachusetts” gets the kind of crowd reaction you’d expect from a classic pop hit or a song about Yorkshire, such passion for such a challenging subject is strange, but hey, it’s a great song and the drunk, bouncy, dancey crowd are loving it.
“Barroom Hero” is introduced as the first song the band ever wrote, which is a bit of trivia I didn’t know, but I remember it from way back in the 90s, so I guess that makes sense. The crowd offer weak “Oi! Oi! Oi!” effort which is a disappointment, maybe the crowd aren’t as au fait with shouting Oi! as I’d like? Though I accept my drive to shout “Oi!” is probably higher than most.
The slip up begins with the instruction to sing along to the 1937 hit “I’ve Still Got Ninety-Nine” by the Monroe Brothers, which although an undeniably good song, probably isn’t too familiar to the crowd today. On the upside, we’re promised an acoustic album in September, which is one to look out for. Whether it’s new material or reimagined classics has not been confirmed, but hopefully there will be an associated tour.
“Rose Tattoo” brings the sing along from the crowd, but lacks the momentum to get the crowd moving. This is exacerbated by the big screen showing bored, static faces in the crowd for the first time. Fortunately, “I’m Shipping Up To Boston” brings the party back before the end of the set. I’ve never seen such passion for a missing wooden leg, as the crowd goes nuts, with crowd surfers from all directions riding above the waves of the crowd. All parties appear to have legs intact, so that’s good.
Headliners Sum-41 were a bit of a quandary for me. The first album was an important soundtrack to my late teens/ early 20s and I saw them play in Leeds twice in 2002, but I haven’t listened to their music since Does This Look Infected from the same year.
A bit of pre-show research suggested they have had seven further releases, including 2019s Order In Decline, but in the spirit of openness, I’ve not felt inspired to check these out.
The band come out to a stage with blood-soaked Marshall speaker cabinets, a giant skull, jets of fire and “Motivation” from the first album, All Killer, No Filler. More people than I expected are really into it, though competition with Deaf Havana and the Nova Twins is limited and the other stages have closed.
The stage is set for a night of big rock and I’d like to say I invested more effort into rediscovering Sum 41, but too much sun, too much beer and a designated driver who wanted to beat the traffic meant we made an early exit.
Remember back at the beginning of the pandemic when we all found ourselves with an overwhelming amount of unexpected free time and we told ourselves that we were going to be productive and work on ourselves and maybe pick up a new hobby? River Shook (who still performs as Sarah professionally and uses they/them pronouns) is one of the small percentage of the population who actually made good on those vows. They had been fresh off yet another busy year of touring with their main project, Sarah Shook and the Disarmers, when the world shut down for all intents and purposes. Instead of resting on their laurels or rearranging the pantry 37 times or whatever other mindless pursuits some of us undertook to pass the time, Shook stayed busy writing and recording. But this wasn’t their traditional writing and recording; Sarah Shook and the Disarmers’ most recent full-length, Nightroamer, was released in February of this year on Thirty Tigers but the recording process wrapped right before the world shut down.
Shook has been writing songs for a long time and while most of us are familiar with their work primarily with the Disarmers, there’s always been an “other” pile; songs that were solid and complete and yet didn’t quite fit the Disarmers’ rabble-rousing alt-country mold. A couple of those “other” songs found their way onto Nightroamer, albeit in reworked fashion. “When we went in for our last rehearsal before we went into the studio to record Nightroamer,” Shook explains, “we hammered out arrangements and got them record-ready, and we ended up putting two songs (“I Got This” and “Been Lovin’ You”) on the record that were not intended to be Disarmers songs.”
Initially, Shook’s plan was to turn some more of the “other” tracks into more polished songs. As Shook tells it, that plan changed…and for the better. “I had a few in the works and at some point, I realized that if I changed a couple things and improved my methods in a few different ways, I could hypothetically make an entire album.” In addition to their normal role as guitar player and vocalist, Shook took to programming drums and beats and samples on their new material, with the newfound goal of keeping the material for themselves. “I sort of changed my perspective as far as being a little bit more serious and treating it more like a job instead of just something to pass the time,” Shook explains. “I have a tendency to hyperfocus, so I would wake up in the morning, make coffee, and start working, start building tracks. One of the things that I had the most fun with on that project is how many layers there are on every song. And being able to orchestrate that myself and not being accountable to anyone else, it was just me and my brain and our relationship working together to make this record happen.”
The project quickly picked up steam as Shook realized the extent of their home recording capabilities. “Realizing that (recording quality-sounding audio from their North Carolina home) was an option and knowing that I had maybe $1200 for my entire budget for the album,” Shook expounds, “I told myself that if I did absolutely everything that I could possibly do on my own, and then use all of that money to hire Ian Schreier to mix it and Brent Lambert from Kitchen Mastering to master it.” The latter point meant reuniting with the team that put the finishing touches on the Disarmers’ first two studio albums, Sidelong and Years. It was sort of an ‘if it wasn’t broke, don’t fix it’ decision, and one that they were empowered to make completely on their own. “One of the things that I love most about (this project) is that I’m not accountable to anybody. It’s all me. On one hand, it’s very liberating, and on the other hand, it’s intense, because I had to start a small business, and all of this stuff is new for me.”
The end result of those writing sessions was Mightmare. It’s a new project; stylistically, lyrically, all of the above. It’s elicited labels like “dark pop” or “sludge rock” or “brooding rock” and it’s most definitely loosely defined as ‘indie rock’ and it’s definitely a radical stylistic departure from the Disarmers and especially from River’s prior project, Sarah Shook and the Devil. And so when it came time to find a label to release the Mightmare project on, it meant looking outside the normal alt-country channels. “Kill Rock Stars was my number-one pick,” states Shook rather emphatically. If you’re going to release an indie rock album, there probably aren’t many better options, as the iconic has been home to some iconic records by the likes of Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney and The Decemberists and Mary Lou Lord.
Oh, and of course Elliott Smith, Shook’s own personal introduction to the label. “I was maybe seventeen or eighteen and a coworker at the Wegmans in Geneva, New York loaned me an Elliott Smith CD, and this was, mind you, probably the fourth or fifth CD I ever listened to that wasn’t Christian music,” she notes. Shook’s strict religious upbringing has been covered in depth in other sources (like our chat earlier this year surrounding the release of Nightroamer – check it out here), but suffice it to say that Smith’s voice and lyrics and the label’s logo served as keystone moments in the building of what became their musical foundation. “I remember seeing the Kill Rock Stars logo on the CD or on the back jacket, and that’s a name that just sticks with you. When I gave the CD back to my friend, I thanked him profusely and said “if you have any more material from this person…this is what I want to be listening to!’.”
After some initial back-and-forth, Kill Rock Stars was on board, and the album, entitled Cruel Liars, had a release date of October 14th. Next came the task of booking some record release shows. There’s one small caveat that should be fairly apparent: “I talked to my booking agent Chris Rusk, and I was just like “it’s coming out on October 14th, and we need to do like a two-week tour around it,” and Chris was like “who’s ‘we’…you don’t have a band?!?” It’s here that we remind you that save for a few bass tracks recorded by Aaron Oliva, Shook performed and recorded all of the music on Cruel Liars on their own…meaning there wasn’t exactly a “band” to take on the road. They continue: “I was like “you worry about booking the tour, I’ll worry about putting the band together. I’ve never let you down, I will have something, it’ll be awesome, I’ll make you proud!”
The rounding out of the band that became Mightmare was done during small breaks between Disarmers tour runs. Real small breaks. The first call wasn’t exactly a long-distance one; it was to none other than newer Disarmers guitar player Blake Tallent. Shook’s longtime North Carolina scene veteran friend Ash Lopez joined on bass, and after auditioning some less-than-ideal candidates for drummer, along came Ethan Standard, who was previously unknown to Shook but had played with Tallent in previous projects from time to time. What followed was a crash-course in all things Mightmare as the band prepared to head out on a two-week tour that was not only its first headlining tour, but its first-ever shows.
“Basically, the Disarmers got home from a tour and we had four days of back-to-back rehearsals with Mightmare, and then Mightmare went out for two weeks,” explains Shook. “The four days that we all had rehearsing together, we made minute changes to the arrangements, took crazy notes, and committed stuff to memory. And I’ve got to tell you, I don’t know that I’ve ever felt the anticipation and excitement that I had playing that first Mightmare show…maybe that’s because I’m sober and more present.” Shook, as followers of theirs will know, got sober a few months before the pandemic kicked off, and has been an outspoken advocate of mental health resources like Open Path Collective, in addition to being a tireless champion of LGBTQIA+ causes. While we’ve used genre labels like “indie rock” and “alt-country” and “dark pop” to categorize both Sarah Shook and the Disarmers and Mightmare throughout the course of this story, we’ve got to say that being a queer, non-binary, sober singer/songwriter and champion of mental health causes is about as “punk rock” as it gets.
You can check out Mightmare’s debut, Cruel Liars, below, and keep scrolling to read our full Q&A!
(The following Q&A has been condensed for clarity and content purposes.)
Dying Scene (Jay Stone): So thanks for chatting again! I was looking through my list a little bit ago, and it’s been roughly ten years that I’ve been doing artist interviews, and I think in the 160 or so that I’ve done (editor’s note: the actual number is 188. Yikes.) I think there is only one other time where I’ve interviewed the same person twice in the same calendar year (*both laugh*). And never for two different projects. (Editor’s note: bonus points awarded if you can guess who the other one was. It was in 2016, but that’s all you get for a hint.) So this is cool! We talked at the beginning of the year for the most recent Sarah Shook and the Disarmers album, and now we have Mightmare. I feel like I think I knew at the time that this was coming, but now that people everywhere have gotten to hear it, this is a really cool and different record!
River Shook: Thank you!
And so I have to assume that that was the goal; that stuff that ended up as Mightmare couldn’t be turned into Sarah Shook and the Disarmers songs, right?
Not necessarily. When we went in for our last rehearsal before we went into the studio to record Nightroamer, I think there were twelve songs that we had worked up, essentially. We had hammered out the arrangements for (them) and got them record-ready. We ended up putting two songs on the record that were not intended to be Disarmers songs – intended is not the right word, but they were two songs that kind of just went into the “other” pile, versus songs that are very clearly Disarmers. Those were “I Got This” and “Been Lovin’ You.” It’s interesting; I feel like I’m in this spot where writing songs that aren’t Disarmers songs is nothing new per se, but now that I have this outlet, I’m in a position where I’m learning to sort of assign songs to one project or the other. Which is interesting.
Are there other songs that became Disarmers songs over the years that didn’t necessarily start out as Disarmers songs but that you had to sort of shoehorn into the Disarmers mold? Because I feel like one of the fun things about Mightmare is that you can totally forgo any sort of semblance of a mold, really. You’re not pigeonholed into a style because it’s a brand new thing entirely.
The only song that I would say really fits into that category would be “Been Lovin’ You” and possibly “I Got This” but I guess that’s just an indication that while I was writing all of these songs that to me were very clearly falling under the Disarmers umbrella, I was also writing a ton of other songs that in the pre-Mightmare days, I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do with. But if I wrote a song that I felt was worth saving and worth hanging on to but that wasn’t a good fit for the Disarmers necessarily, I’d make a pretty rudimentary demo of it on my MacBook with Garageband and sort of catalog it that way in case I wanted to come back and reference it, or in case I wanted to try to make it fit within the Disarmers context. But I feel like there’s always been enough material being written to satisfy both projects, so at this point in time, it’s kind of like full circle and I have two outlets and everything has a place!
Do you write differently for them? Or have you started to write differently for them? What was your normal Disarmers writing process? Was it the sort of standard you and an acoustic guitar and see where it goes from there?
No, I’ve never been a disciplined writer, and any time that I have taken up a pen and paper and an instrument with the intention of writing a song, nothing good ever comes out of it. (*both laugh*) Nothing worth keeping anyway. (*both laugh*)
Yeah, I don’t ever have, like, an agenda or a plan when I write a song. I’m kind of just going about my day and I have to be in the right place at the right time. Typically I have to be alone, although since we started touring heavily a few years back (before Covid) I can sort of get songs going even if there are other people around, I just have a different process. But yeah, I go about my day and if the stars align and I’m able to, I sit down with a notebook and a pen and a guitar and typically I’m done with a song within like thirty minutes. There might be some light touching up or changing one or two words, but it’s pretty much the whole thing all at once and it’s the lyrics, the melody, the chord progression and a loose arrangement, and that is what I either take to the Disarmers to start working collaboratively at that point. Everyone has a say and we work out “well let’s do this for the nitro or the outro, or let’s put the solo here instead of here…” All of that stuff is decided together. In Mightmare, I have sort of unlimited time to get all of that stuff together. It’s a different process in terms of the actual logistics of it; I don’t have to go anywhere, I just sit on my couch and do everything myself.
The Mightmare stuff sort of started, if I have read correctly from other places, during Covid, right? Because Nightroamer was essentially finished right before the world shut down. So is Mightmare all stuff that came after you were done writing Nightroamer?
Not necessarily. I had a lot of demos just kind of sitting around and when I actually started making the album, that isn’t even what I thought I was doing at the time. My plan was to sit down and make more polished versions of one or two of the demos I had to make them a little more in the neighborhood of what I was looking for. I had a few in the works and at some point, I realized that if I changed a couple things and improved my methods in a few different ways, I could hypothetically make an entire album. And again, this was in the Covid isolation at the beginning of the pandemic, so realizing that that was an option and knowing that I had maybe $1200 for my entire budget for the album – because I knew I was going to be out of work indefinitely – I told myself that if I did absolutely everything that I could possibly do on my own, and then use all of that money to hire Ian Schreier to mix it and Brent Lambert from Kitchen Mastering to master it…those were the guys that worked on Sidelong and on Years, and I had wanted to work with both of them again on Nightroamer, and it just kind of happened that Pete Anderson was interested (in the latter project) and this was kind of my way to say “I kinda want to get back to this other format, because I feel like if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And I’m really happy with the work that these people do, so it was cool to be able to make that decision for myself, too. One of the things that I love most about Mightmare is that I’m not accountable to anybody. It’s all me. On one hand, it’s very liberating, and on the other hand, it’s intense, because I had to start a small business, and all of this stuff is new for me.
That’s daunting, isn’t it. Because if it sinks or swims…but ESPECIALLY if it sinks…that’s all on you, right?
Yeah! Exactly. And it’s really hard, too, because I feel like most creative people really don’t have a business mindset, we don’t have a capitalist mindset. We’re not like “oh, I have to write this song so it appeals to the most people so I can make the most money.” That’s not what you’re thinking when you’re writing a song. You’re thinking “I need to express myself to kind of A) get something off my chest and B) hopefully be able to look at what I’ve written and be objective about my own situation. There’s so much more meaning in that than in making a quick buck.
Oh but there certainly are people who are in the business for those reasons and who do write music for commercial appeal…not that that music usually appeals to me.
Yeah! And their cars are much nicer than my car too! (*both laugh*)
How long into the process of realizing that you could record not just demos but essentially full songs did you realize that it was going to be a full record right out of the gate?
Once I had the realization that I could tweak a few things and make something that was a quality worthy of being a record, that instantly became the goal. I made the necessary adjustments; I sort of changed my perspective as far as being a little bit more serious and treating it more like a job instead of just something to pass the time, I have a tendency to hyperfocus, so I would wake up in the morning, make coffee, and start working, start building tracks. One of the things that I had the most fun with on that project is how many layers there are on every song. There are SO MANY LAYERS! And being able to orchestrate that myself and not being accountable to anyone else, it was just me and my brain and our relationship working together to make this record happen. It was snap decision after snap decision, and by the time I was done with it; by the time it was ready to take in to get mixed and mastered, I really thought it could actually be something. Kill Rock Stars was my number-one pick. My manager was talking to them but things weren’t really going anywhere. There were a couple other labels that expressed interest that I just didn’t feel were very good fits for the project. And then, at some point, Kill Rock Stars came back and they were like “hey, we know this is done, but if you can wait til next year to put this out, we can make it work.”
I was going to ask how the Kill Rock Stars thing came about, because as a child of the 90s, Kill Rock Stars was HUGE obviously. So many legendary bands and legendary albums recorded like all of their work on that label, so I had wanted to hear it anyway obviously, but when I heard that Kill Rock Stars was involved, I went “ooh! This is going to be different (than Disarmers music).”
Yeah! Absolutely! They provided the opportunity to release it the same year, but it wouldn’t have made as much sense to release it with only a couple months of lead time. It needed to have basically a year of preparation to get various ducks into various rows.
Do you remember the first Kill Rock Stars album you had? I was looking back at their discography knowing that this interview was coming up and I was trying to remember where they first came onto my radar, and I think it was Bikini Kill. I know I have like every Sleater-Kinney album too, but I think the first was Bikini Kill. Do you remember what yours was?
Oh yeah it was Elliott Smith!
I’m embarrassed to say but I got into Elliott Smith weirdly late. I don’t know how I sort of missed him when he was, uh, alive…I was definitely more Bikini Kill, Hovercraft, Mary Lou Lord…
I think I was also introduced to him posthumously. I was maybe 17 or 18 and a coworker at the Wegmans in Geneva, New York, he loaned me an Elliott Smith CD, and this was, mind you, probably like the fourth or the fifth CD I ever listened to that wasn’t Christian music, so I was very early into discovering what for everyone else was normal music. But I remember seeing the Kill Rock Stars logo on the CD or on the back jacket, and that’s a name that just sticks with you. When I gave the CD back to my friend, I thanked him profusely and said “if you have any more material from this person…this is what I want to be listening to!” I remember him giving me I think two burned CDs that had a big giant mix of Elliott’s songs, and with that, he gave me an actual newspaper clipping that covered his death, which I actually have to this day. Twenty years later or whatever I still have that. That was a very keystone moment for me.
We have referenced CDs and newspapers in the last few minutes…that’s a sign of dating ourselves. (*both laugh*)
I prefer to think of it as nostalgia! (*both laugh*)
Fair enough! Getting back to the music a little bit, did you have different influences, not so much lyrically but sonically, when it came to writing the material that would end up on the Mightmare project, especially with all of the layering that you were talking about? Was that influenced by things you’d been listening to or was that more a product of just experimenting and seeing what you could do?
I really don’t have influences. From the press that I’ve seen likening Mightmare to other artists or bands or projects, I honestly haven’t recognized any of them.
That’s awesome, actually.
Yeah, I know that it’s very common – pretty much industry standard – to sort of have a reference list. I’ve made records in the past where the producer has asked for a list of reference songs and I’m just like “there is no reference! There’s no reference, this is its own thing entirely!” I don’t want it to sound like us. Especially with the Disarmers having their own distinct sound, we don’t need to try to sound like anybody else! (*both laugh*) I feel like Mightmare has that as well. It has a very distinct personality, and everything is done in service to the song. Every decision that I made for every single track, and every tiny, minute little portion of a melody line or a sample…all of that, the only goal is to make the best decision for what is going to make the song shine the most, for lack of a better way to say that. Everything is to illuminate and emphasize the lyrics and kind of bastion them.
Especially the layering thing…and thinking bigger picture than just your role as a guitar player or a vocalist, but when it came to adding all of those layers and textures and instrumentation yourself, does that stuff get addictive for a while, for lack of a better phrase? Once you learn all of the little tricks that you can do and things that you can add, does that become an addictive thing and make you think “ooh, what else can I do next?!?”
Because I feel like it was a really fun record to make in that regard, especially to make by yourself.
Yeah, absolutely. I think there were one or two songs I had to go back through and choose one or two tracks to omit, even though it fit with what was going on, it was crowding this other more important melody line, or it needed to be removed to give this other part more room to do its own thing. Yeah, if I could make my living sitting in my living room for eight hours a day and never have to talk to another human…(*both laugh*)…I would probably be okay with that!!
So how did the experience go with playing that stuff live. Because once you formulated the album, did you have “the band” in mind, or did you have to go through a list of people to fill out the sound, and then, how did that stuff to you translate into the live show? Getting all of those sounds to come out of a rock band…how did that process go?
Well let me tell you, bud…(*both laugh*)…when I started putting this together and it became clear that I was going to sign with Kill Rock Stars, I talked to my booking agent Chris Rusk, and I was just like “it’s coming out on October 14th, and we need to do like a two-week tour around it,” and Chris was like “who’s ‘we’…you don’t have a band?!? (*both laugh*) What exactly is the lineup? Is it you and one other person with laptops and a light show?”
Yeah, you could totally envision that. I could see that!
Yeah, but that was never what I had my heart set on. I was like “dude, it’s supposed to be indie rock, and it’s supposed to be even more indie rock than the album sounds, and the only reason the album sounds the way it does is that I had to program beats instead of using a live drummer. Otherwise it would have been a totally different animal.” I was like “you worry about booking the tour, I’ll worry about putting the band together. I’ve never let you down, I will have something, it’ll be awesome, I’ll make you proud.”
That is awesome. Talk about punk rock, by the way. (*both laugh*)
And mind you, the Disarmers are incessantly touring this entire time, so I have these tiny, tiny little windows at home where I’m scrambling to find players and trying to audition people. There was one such window where I held some auditions at a local studio, and I had one drummer who was really just kind of weird and talking about God and church a lot. I think he was just trying to get me to be like “hey I’m queer, and if that’s not a good fit for you that’s fine. I’m non-binary, I do a lot of work in the LGBTQ community as far as activism goes,” and as soon as I said that, he was like “yeah, I don’t think this is going to be a good fit.” That was my first time being blatantly discriminated against (*laughs*) but it’s not going to be something that holds me down. I know it’s not like I’m doing anything wrong. But it was just something else in the pile of dead ends that lead up to Mightmare as the band that it is now. The Disarmers were actually on tour with a new-to-us guitarist, Black Tallent, and we’d been out a couple times and I remember talking to the Disarmers drummer Jack Foster and I was just like “dude, I think I’m going to ask Blake if he wants to be Mightmare’s guitar player and I’m so nervous.” He was like “why are you nervous, he’s going to say yes!” And I said “I don’t know why I’m nervous…maybe I’m nervous because he IS going to say yes!” And so I asked him and he said yes and he became the first official member.
Nervous because if he said yes, then it’s like a real official “thing”?
Yes! Yeah! Like, “now I’ve gone and done it!” And then the one good result of the auditions is that my friend Ash Lopez who I’ve known for years and we’ve run in the same circles here in the Carrboro/Chapel Hill area, he auditioned on bass, and I sent him the music and asked him to learn three songs and he showed up and we played the three songs and I was like “do you want to go over any of that again?” and he was like “do you want to go over anything else, I learned everything.” I was like “well, shit, cool!” And then the final audition was Ethan Standard, who I had never met and never played with, but he was a friend of Blake’s and Blake has worked with him on various musical projects. So, basically, the Disarmers got home from a tour, and we had four days of back-to-back rehearsals with Mightmare, and then Mightmare went out for two weeks, and then the Disarmers immediately went out for two weeks. I just got home from all that. We had these four rehearsals and because the Disarmers had been on the road so relentlessly, Blake and I had maybe one or two practices together, and there’s only so much you can do with two guitars and no drums or bass. We accomplished what we could in that respect. Then the four days that we all had rehearsing together, we made minute changes to the arrangements, took crazy notes and committed stuff to memory. And I’ve got to tell you, I don’t know that I’ve ever felt the anticipation and excitement that I had playing that first Mightmare show. I’ve never felt that with another band. And maybe that’s because I’m sober and more present…
I was just going to ask that!
Yeah! Sarah Shook and the Devil was an “I want to get drunk with my friends at a bar and get paid in beer” band. The Disarmers, I kinda got dragged into kicking and screaming. I was afraid of commercial success, I didn’t want any of that stuff. With Mightmare, I get to choose my own idea of success, which is not money. As long as I have enough to pay the bills and pay the people that work for me, Mightmare is what I think I referred to in another interview as my little rebellion from the Disarmers. And that tour was really, really special, and really fucking empowering, especially to go on a two-week run headlining, with no tour history, playing some pretty significant venues. Like, Empty Bottle is an institution. There were definitely some Disarmers fans there that were like “hey, I like this too!” And then there were some new faces who only know us as Mightmare, they don’t even know the Disarmers exist.
That’s pretty amazing at this stage of a project.
Yeah! The whole thing just feels like this continuing roller coaster of discovery and new things, and it’s a pretty great feeling.
Does playing that stuff live influence how you may write going forward as a band, and knowing what the band can do, and do you think that for Mightmare things, you’ll still program things or do you think that it’ll turn into a full band recording thing? Or is that giving away too many secrets about what’s coming down the road? (*both laugh*)
I wish I could tell you. I will say that about a week into the Mightmare tour, I was already like “we have to record this. We have to at least run it through a board and mix it down later. We have to figure out how to capture this. Or, we just have to go into the studio for four days and cut Cruel Liars as it was meant to be.” But I’m not totally sure. I feel like moving forward, Mightmare is a band now, it’s not just me. Much as I do all the songwriting for the Disarmers, I’d probably do all the songwriting for Mightmare and then get into collaborating as the other instruments go. If that’s the case, there might be a point in the not-too-distant future where I have the Disarmers and Mightmare and those bands are live and recording as groups and I still need to do my own little thing over here.
A third project…why not?! (*both laugh*) I’m so used to seeing you in Disarmers mode playing full-body Guild or Loar guitars, but in Mightmare, did I see you playing a weird little Harmony?
Oh yeah! It’s like a 1980s Korean Harmony Rebel. I found it on Craigslist a couple years ago, and this guy was selling it for like 300 bucks, which is nothing! Somebody on this past run was just telling me that during the pandemic guitar nerds went crazy for 1980s Rebels. I don’t know why, but I love that guitar. And yeah, for Disarmers tours, I have two Loar guitars that I take out and for Mightmare I have smaller-body guitars that I can wear hire and sort of closer to my body. Another unexpected thing about Mightmare is I basically had four days to completely change the pedal setup I was using, and also every single song, every single chord is a barre chord in Mightmare. I was having a lot of pain in my hands, because in the Disarmers, there may be like one every couple songs, but it’s not an every single chord of every single song situation. So there are a lot of things that I had to relearn and tweak and figure out how to do better, and having smaller guitars that I can wear higher is a lot easier on my wrist and my hands.
And it looks like an indie rock band! Like, seeing you with those smaller body guitars at first was jarring because you get so used to the big hollow bodies, but the “regular” and weird guitar was like “oh, this really is a totally different band!”
Yup, lean and mean!
We’ve made it to the end of 2022, comrades! In some ways, it feels like it was long year. It was certainly a year that was chock-full of great releases, almost overwhelmingly so. In part, that’s because we’ve started to hear the fruits of the labors that songwriters and bands and artists cooked up while they were in Covid-related lockdown. A lot of really talented people had a lot of time on their collective hands and had to get creative about how they wrote and recorded and released their material, and it was to all of our benefit.
And so here we go. The top 25 of 2022. You know the drill (at least you know MY drill): studio full-lengths only; no EPs or singles or live albums. All “punk rock,” although the older I get, the more I identify with the concept of punk rock being less about three chords and Les Pauls and Marshall stacks and more about and more about people making music that’s true and authentic and that doesn’t care about fitting into sonic boxes but does care about speaking truth to power and holding mirrors up to society. If you want a broader listen to the full scope of stuff I dug this year, that playlist is here. Without any further ado…
#25 Thick – Happy Now
I don’t remember when Thick first came on my radar, but I’m glad they did. The Brooklyn-based trio followed up their dynamite 2020 album Five Years Behind with the even more dynamite Happy Now. It’s smart and it’s fun and it kicks you right in the teeth and it’s exactly the kind of record that I’m glad Epitaph got back to putting out.
#23 Michael Kane & The Morning Afters – Broke but not Broken
Michael Kane and The Morning Afters have been a staple in the Boston-area scene for a decade or so at this point. The lineup has solidified itself and the result of years of gigging and writing coalesced into Kane’s finest and most focused work to date. There are whispers of Petty and the Replacements and some old Boston street punk snarl.
I think No Trigger‘s last album, Tycoon, came out when I had only been with Dying Scene for like a year or so, and I think it was on like half the staff’s year-end best-of lists, and so I thought this would become a perennial thing. An effing decade later, the Worcester natives are back…and dare we say better than ever? Or at least weirder and more frantic and more diverse than ever, and that’s like the same thing. No wonder they’ve found a new home on Red Scare. This album takes a few listens to fully appreciate because there’s so much going on in it.
#21 Bartees Strange – Farm to Table
Bartees Strange first popped up on my radar when he appeared on Dave Hause’s Patty Smith covers EP, Patty, a couple years back. Strange’s sophomore full-length, Farm To Table, was released on 4AD this year and it’s as fun to listen to as it is hard to nail down genre-wise. It’s emo but it’s hip-hop but it’s R&B but it’s rock and roll, and it’s personal and it’s powerful and it feels important.
Sarah Shook and the Disarmers went into the studio to record a brand new album and then, as it turns out, the world closed down for a while. That, coupled with the demise of their former label home, meant that this album took a little longer than many of us had hoped for to finally make its way to our ears. The wait was well worth it. This is a grown-up record: focused and fun and personal and experimental. They might have cut their respective teeth in whiskey-and-beer-soaked barrooms but the future is much wider for Shook and company. Here’s our interview with Shook about the album!
#19 The Venomous Pinks – Vita Mors
The Venomous Pinks formed in 2012 and finally put out their debut full-length album in 2022 and holy smokes does it rip. It’s loud and fast and aggressive and cathartic and it finds the crew full of fire and brimstone. Let’s just hope they don’t wait another decade until their second album! Here’s our (*both laugh*) episode that featured all three of the Pinks!
#18 Tim Barry – Spring Hill
There are a few things in life that we can be certain about: death, taxes, and Tim Barry putting out a killer album of high-quality, working-class anthems every couple of years. There are gut-punches and tear-jerkers and anthemic singalongs, and Barry appearing as comfortable in his skin as he ever has.
#17 The Vandoliers – The Vandoliers
The Vandoliers put it all together on their self-titled record, so perhaps it’s perfect that it’s a self-titled record. They’ve been called “country punk” for years, and they are at the core, but they’ve really morphed into their very own thing: a marauding batch of shirtless, whiskey-infused bandits singing songs of love and heartache and, occasionally, good times!
#16 Mightmare – Cruel Liars
Realistically, this should be a top-ten album for sure, but that just speaks to the strength of the music that was released this year. In case you missed it, Mightmare is the side project of Sarah Shook and the Disarmers centerpiece River Shook. It’s a project that was birthed out of quarantine isolation and it takes some of the stylistic differences they’d been hinting at on Nightroamer to new and different heights. Dark pop and fiercely independent. Here’s our recent chat about the album!
#15 Donaher – Gravity And The Stars Above
I’ve been doing year-end best-of lists for Dying Scene since like 2011, so I’ve got a couple of hundred albums that have been present and accounted for, and yet I’m about 99.9% sure this is the first album to hail from the great State of New Hampshire, where I was born and raised and first introduced to this thing we call punk rock. Donaher play a super catchy, super fun, wicked joyful brand of power-pop that sounds like the Smoking Popes if they hailed from the Chicken Tender Capital of the World!
#14 Adeem The Artist – White Trash Revelry
Okay so holy shit this record is great. This record is great enough that it came out this month, after I’d already completed my year-end list, and forced me to completely reevaluate it. I can think of very few things as punk rock as growing up outwardly non-binary and pansexual in a Christian household in the working-class South. Adeem is unafraid to call out hatred and bigotry and at the same time to embrace love and compassion and has crafted a wonderful record that’s equal parts Against Me! and Homeless Gospel Choir but with, like, Will Hoge or American Aquarium’s pop-infused country melodies. If we re-rank this list a year from now, White Trash Revelry might end up quite a bit higher.
#13 American Aquarium – Chicamacomico
I remember first hearing American Aquarium a number of years ago and thinking “hey that’s kinda good but I think it’s a little too country for me.” The lineup has changed a few times and frontman BJ Barham has gotten sober and has himself a family and, with it, I think a newfound focus, and he’s become one of my favorite songwriters – and figures, really – in the scene. There’s a recurring theme here about people growing up in the South and yet not standing for the sort of traditional negative Southern stereotypes and railing against some of the bigotry and backwardness and I’m here for it. Also, the title track is one of my most-listened-to songs of the year.
#12 Frank Turner – FTHC
Hey, remember when Frank Turner put out the most “punk rock” record of his career and it also happened to be his first #1 album in his native UK, and then we spoke to him the morning after receiving that award for our quarantine-inspired podcast and coincidentally, the day before he announced his “50 States In 50 Days” tour which he told us about off the record after we stopped recording, so we knew about it first? That was just this year! (Also, yes, FTHC has the most nods to his hardcore past as any record in the Turner oeuvre, but his somber ode to the life of Frightened Rabbit’s Scott Hutchison is among the album’s standouts.)
#11 New Junk City – Beg A Promise
Okay so I get a lot of press emails. Like…A LOT of them, spread out through the various different Dying Scene email accounts. I have to say that I don’t always read beyond the headlines or the opening paragraphs, but this one caught my eye. I don’t know why I’d never heard New Junk City before, but I chalk it up to my history of not reading all the way through emails…but I’m glad I got this one. Anytime a band is referred to as “Tom Petty as played by Green Day,” I’m going to stop and honestly probably roll my eyes because really…but then I’ll also listen because what if it’s actually as good as that portends to be. And I’ll tell you what…New Junk City is exactly as good as that portends to be. It’s like the best parts of 90s alternative and early 00s emo but with a classic Americana rock filter.
#10 Lenny Lashley’s Gang Of One – Five Great Egrets
It’s a pretty remarkable thing when a person who has been in the game for as long as Lenny Lashley has continues to raise the bar for themselves musically and professionally, but that’s what we’ve got on Five Great Egrets. There’s nobody quite like Lenny, who can write a gut-wrenching song about relationship troubles and then a ballad dedicated to Boston-based 1930s comic Eddie “Parkyakarkus” Cantore, and have them both come across as genuine and sincere.
#9 Will Hoge – Wings On My Shoes
We’re starting to get into the territory where o the right day and in the right light, any of these albums could realistically be #1 on the list. Will Hoge might be alt-country or just Americana or Southern rock-and-roll or he might be all of those things together. What he definitely is is a guy who can write a down-and-dirty concise rock song and he can also write a lengthy narrative that’s both smart and thoughtful and razor-tongued and that will make you appreciate it more the more times you listen to it. Plus, the very first line on the album is “Meatloaf and mashed potatoes/Jesus Christ ain’t gonna save us” and that’s about the most John Prine intro to a song that wasn’t written by John Prine.
#8 Proper. – The Great American Novel
Every now and then you come across an album that becomes a benchmark moment for you; like, life existed before that album and then the world shifted and things weren’t the same after that. My own personal list includes the likes of: Vs. Recipe For Hate. Question The Answers. Badmotorfinger. The ’59 Sound. The Low End Theory. Stay Positive. 36 Chambers. Caution. 1372 Overton Park. And now, realistically, The Great American Novel.
Leave it to the greater Philadelphia area to come out with another one of those “where have you been all my life” bands. Where The Heart Is came out in May and I was maybe a little slow on the uptake at first but I’ve since made up for lost time. This band rules. This album rules. It’s poppy (in a good way, not a cheesy overproduced way) but it’s also super intense melodic hardcore and it fills a lot of gaps in my catalog that I didn’t know existed.
#6 Mercy Union – White Tiger
Whether through The Scandals or his solo career or now Mercy Union, we’ve been big fans of Jared Hart’s musical output since the earliest days of Dying Scene. White Tiger raises the bar on that previous output in every possible way (in no small part due to the noted presence of fellow scene vets Rocky Catanese and Nick Jorgensen and, in his last appearance on a Mercy Union record, Benny Horowitz). Much like the Sweet Pill record above, it fills a gap in the record catalog that you didn’t necessarily know existed, blending a sort of Americana rock with hook-infused late-90s alternative rock. A wonderful amalgam of styles and big swirling guitars and vocal harmonies for days.
Okay so I know that the idea of scene vets putting out their best work this deep into their respective careers is a bit of a recurring theme twenty albums deep into this list, but this might be the best example of that yet. You’d think that writing and recording the album from the comforts of your own garage/practice space/studio might make you develop lazy habits, but on In The Wild, The Interrupters managed to pull off an album that remains true to the band’s stylistic roots but does everything better. It doesn’t hurt that Aimee wrote her most personal – and powerful – songs to date.
#4 Hot Water Music – Feel The Void
Yet another dynamite album that found a group of veterans having to switch up their normal processes during quarantine and having the results bear serious fruit. Hot Water Music reconnected with producer Brian McTernan (whose own band, Be Well, put out my favorite EP of the year, Hello Sun) for their first full-length since Chris Cresswell joined the ranks and turned the forever four-piece into a five-piece. Hot Water Music have expanded their sound in myriad ways over the years, and on Feel The Void, it sounds like they’re still having fun doing so.
#3 Kayleigh Goldsworthy – Learning To Be Happy
If I weren’t using the base ten number system, this album might actually be #1a or 1b. If you’ve been a fan of the punk and punk-adjacent scenes at any point over the last, say, decade, you know doubt know Kayleigh Goldsworthy from her Revival Tour spots or for filling out the sound in Dave Hause and the Mermaid for a while or for Frank Iero and the Future Violents or with Bayside or with Kevin Devine, and she’s a wonderfully talented addition to each and every project she joins. But all of that glosses over the fact that she’s also been a powerhouse songwriter in her own right for a long time, and that shines as bright and as focused as ever on Learning To Be Happy. It’s honest and it’s melancholy but it doesn’t wallow in the dark parts, but it instead cherishes the bright parts and life’s harmonies. Opening track “Losing My Mind” is probably my favorite song of the year, and “Little Ghost” and “You’re Good” aren’t far behind. Probably should have actually reviewed this album when it came out so I didn’t have to spend 500 words extolling its virtues at the end of the year.
#2 Cory Branan – When I Go I Ghost
It’s been just about 20 years since Lucero’s “Tears Don’t Matter Much” was released; in it, Ben Nichols states emphatically that “Cory Branan‘s got an evil streak / and a way with words that’ll bring you to your knees.” I’m not sure that’s ever been more true than it is on When I Go I Ghost. The haunting parts are more haunting; the evil parts are more sinister (see “The Pocket Of God,”) and the rare occasions where he’s writing about his on life (see “That Look I Lost”) are gut-punches, albeit with Memphis horns to lighten up the mood. Read our recent interview with Cory here.
#1 The Flatliners – New Ruin
Okay, so we’ve reached the pinnacle. Numero uno. The Album Of The Year (AOTY if you’re nasty). It of course belongs to none other than The Flatliners. The Flats’ career arc has been really impressive to behold. From starting out as upstroke-infused punk rock whippersnappers to signing to Fat Wreck and sharpening their teeth in the process for a series of increasingly caustic, anthem-driven albums, to the stylistic left-hand turn that was Inviting Light to the absolute kick-in-the-teeth that is New Ruin right from the time you drop the needle on track one. More than two decades into their career, Canada’s finest are as sharp and focused and targeted as ever, and have another benchmark album to show for it.