Following my review of Maria Mena’s album, White Turns Blue, I had the opportunity to dissect the brain of the clever songstress and the voice behind the popular single, “You’re the Only One.” She’s been tying up the phone lines of all enthusiastic fans of MTV’s TRL with requests for her single and steadily soaring to the height of modern music culture. She is in the midst of her mall tour around America, and is currently in San Francisco and is soon heading back to her homeland of Norway. About to enter the recording studio once more, Maria was kind enough to ring me up for a little chat despite a sore throat and the dizzying effects of Vicks Dayquil. The ever-honest and wise for her 18 years (kind of makes me wonder what the hell I’m doing with my life) shares her A’s to what I hope are insightful Q’s.
How did it feel doing a mall tour in America as a sort of burgeoning artists after you’ve done so many bigger shows and performances in Europe?
Mena: Well, at first it was pretty weird because, I think as Europeans we don’t have the same mall culture as in America; so when I heard about it I thought it’d be a good chance to do something good over the summer… but I found it really tacky. But then I started to do it and it was really cool, you know, there was no other way for my new fans to see me live so it was cool for me to just up there and perform for 20 minutes every Saturday and then sitting down and signing autographs for an hour to an hour and a half. I was really afraid that no one would show up and it would be a big disaster, but it seemed really really cool. I had no idea what to expect.
About your song writing technique, it’s been said that it’s kind of in your head and spontaneous; do you find it changing now as your music is evolving?
Mena: I don’t know- it actually hasn’t. It’s still the same way. I do have this sort of OCD thing that I can’t write songs unless I’m done promoting the album that’s out right now. So I do allow myself to write some songs now, but I’m trying not to because I’ll just have too much in my head and start concentrating on something completely different. But it’s more mature than it was and I think that’s very natural. I think I have a tendency to write about different subjects now. I used to be very much into discovering who I was with everybody else and I was extremely insecure at one time and I really use to use that a lot in my song writing. But now I think I’ve moved a little bit away from that; I’m still going to be the insecure person that I am because I guess I’ll never get away from that even though I try to- it’s very hard. I’m just insecure in different situations now and I guess I’m just going to have to deal with that, and I write about a lot of different people now and myself.”
Well, some of the best songs come out of insecurity.
Mena: Definitely. It’s funny because that’s when you usually write songs, is when you’re down and insecure. If you’re happy and up, you don’t want to write songs. You want to go out and be happy and up. I tend to only write songs when I’m depressed or just in a weird state of mind.
Do you think record execs or industry people are trying to change you since you’re becoming so popular and in the public eye?
Mena: It has happened. It’s kind of funny because they can change how I look- I won’t allow then to do that- but they’ve tried to do that before; it’s been going on for a long time. I wasn’t the typical, norm- like I wasn’t the teen queen kind of girl. I was always me and I was weird and nobody understood that, so they thought that since they’d never seen anything weird happen before, they thought, “let’s see if we can change her because this is what we know works- the teen queen stuff.” So, yeah, they’ve tried to do that; they’ve tried to sort of, before, market me as teen girl and I think me, my personality, when I talk to journalists or when I get in front of people, I realize that I’m not like that; I’m a bit creative so I get a different fan base.
Yeah, I think that’s a major factor of your success- that you’re not like everybody else.
Mena: Thank you, I’ll take that as a compliment.
Oh, it is.
Mena: Thank you.
A lot of people, when they try to get a grasp on what you’re about, compare you to people like Alanis Morisette or Michelle Branch. Do you think it’s a compliment or generalizing of your music?
Mena: It’s a compliment, definitely. I do admire those two, especially the first one. But I’ve always known I’m going to start to stick out after a while so I’m not very worried about that. I think that in general, in life, we have to sort of put people in boxes just to know where we have them because of the unknown- we’re always afraid of the unknown, and when we don’t really know where we have you it gets scary. So I’ll just let people do that now and they’ll just naturally progress into something that’s just- I just think that they’ll understand that I’m different, that I’m me and I don’t need to be like anybody else. It’s sort of funny because I don’t even know who I am. Especially musically, I have no idea where I’m going. It’s scary but it’s extremely fun as well, at the same time because there’s no end to what I can do. Well actually I’m just starting to realize that I can actually do whatever I want to do. And my voice has grown as well; it’s not the same as last year, so I can’t wait to go home and record an album… again.
Mena: Yeah, it really is. It’s kind of funny though because I have to wait a little while because I’m still doing promotion in Europe, but God, I can’t wait until I get home.
And like you’ve said before, you’ve grown through adolescence working on your music and finding out who you are; do you think school got in the way or that you missed out of anything?
Mena: About high school, I really don’t feel I missed out on anything. It just seems like a big drag. Really, it was hell. It was just full of people judging and me feeling like I didn’t fit in at all. And so I never felt a part of the whole pop culture, the whole teen thing, the girly thing. That was just me. A lot of people think that those were just coolest years of their life, and that’s cool for them. I just always felt that there was something else out there. And even though I didn’t really have friends at that time because I didn’t know anybody who I could respect and I thought was weird as well- so I just waited. And I think right now is when I’m actually discovering these people who I’m really starting to admire and respect and really want to know more about, so I’m getting a lot of new friends right now. But I don’t think I missed out on anything. My best friend just started school again, he had a year off- he started high school again- and putting myself in his situation, thinking about going back to school, I was thinking “Oh God, no.” it’s not because I don’t want to learn, that’s one thing- I definitely want to finish high school- I just could never see myself in that whole situation again, with all the drama. It’s just not worth it. So definitely this seems better than that.
So about performing and songwriting, do you think you prefer songwriting as to performing?
Mena: They’re very different things. But when I perform I sort of get to package and deliver my own music and I get to pull back into the feelings I had when I was writing the songs that I’m performing, and I get to share them with people- I actually get to see their faces; I get to see them sing back to me and get an idea of how they would listen to my music at home. It’s a gift in itself, just to actually see people connect with you, that I don’t even know them and that’s just scary for me because when you’re in your privacy writing this album, you’re sort of thinking “this is only for me,” but then you see all these people and all these faces singing back and you realize that they have actually probably gone through the same exact emotion or they’ve heard your deepest darkest little secret. Although they don’t know the details, it’s still my secret and it’s weird. But that’s the reason why I’m doing as well.
I do believe that I have the ability, and it’s only getting stronger, to put words to my emotions. And I remember as a teenager I really wished there were songs out there I could listen to to just make me feel less alone. So I’m not going to stop doing that, but in the studio you get this whole privacy thing where I get to tap into a lot of emotions. The reason why I write is it’s therapy. I get to know myself better and I get to analyze myself and I love analyzing. But it’s really bad for you though. I just got a boyfriend and there is no end to how much I’m analyzing him and thinking every single thing he does, I’m looking at him thinking he doesn’t love me or… it’s just bad, very bad for you. But that’s me.
Do you remember your first time performing, how you felt?
Mena: [big sigh] I was probably very very nervous. I didn’t really like it at first. I thought it was stupid. I really did. I didn’t understand why people would force me to do that. I just felt like I didn’t know what to do, I thought the songs spoke for themselves, I didn’t know where to put my hands. I didn’t want to be a distraction. I felt like I was standing between them and the music- that I was just this clumsy idiot standing there that was trying to play a song. But then I got more confidence; I started brainwashing myself thinking, I enjoy watching people live, why wouldn’t anyone want to watch me live? It’s just all about how I think. And I went up on that stage and I no longer felt that they can see through me. It was all up to me. I could actually stand there on stage and decide how they would actually see the song. And that’s actually- it’s pretty cool because, you know, I went up on that stage and I would only think about how nervous I was and how people could see that I’m nervous and how stupid it was to be there and how ugly I was and everything, but when I could go up there and just decide and be in charge- it was all about how I decided the music.
Do you think you’d ever want to perform with any particular artists?
Mena: I don’t know. I did once, on the Mellow album, which was this original album that we took away three songs but we added three songs from the first record. But the original second album, I had a song which another guy wrote, he’s a pretty big singer/songwriter in Norway, but it was really cool for me to see if I could interpret a song that wasn’t my own and it turned out really really good. Our voices really clicked together and it was just a really cool thing to do. But it was never performed live. And I don’t know who I would choose to perform with, or who would want to choose me. I have no idea.
Do you have a favorite song to perform?
Mena: Yeah, I usually sing Christmas songs. But I think “Sorry” is my favorite song to perform. Yeah, I just think that it’s one of those songs- it’s probably the most honest song I’ve ever written. Very emotional, and I still get very emotional when I sing it. And at a time I actually sort of decided never to sing it again live because it was just too emotional for me, because it’s not only talking about once specific incident, which it was- basically it was just me realizing or admitting to myself how extremely insecure I am when I let someone in. and I didn’t like performing it in front of people because I actually sort of started crying but then I realized that it was the one song people most wanted to hear. So I had to sort of force myself to sing it.
Do you think that’s the scariest thing you do, having to be so vulnerable in public?
Mena: Yeah, very much. One of the scariest things now actually is that I realize now that people are watching me. And I don’t like it. I’m a very private person- I’m very honest and I’m very open when there’s someone, you know, but I like to turn that off as well. But I’ve realized that people are really watching and analyzing, and I see it on my message boards- people really wanting to know every little stupid detail about me and it freaks me out.
Just wait until the paparazzi come.
Mena: Heh, it’s kind of a fun culture that I’m addicted to, this whole paparazzi gossip magazine culture, which is very a fascinating life of course because you want to know how they live, but you never picture yourself in there, like, grocery shopping.
Yeah, that must be weird… Er, a bit off-topic, but you know those one-hit wonder pop stars that just rocket to fame on other people’s songs- does that frustrate you, knowing that you’ve worked so hard to be where you are and they just sort of float by?
Mena: It’s definitely annoying sometimes, but you know what? I just think to never underestimate your fans. That’s one of my mottos basically, because they’ll seek you out, and I think it’s cool to people to cover songs and make great hits with them because then I guess people will see the fact that I’m different, you know; there’s room for me as well. If everyone was real and honest and intense, then I guess it would be boring. I’m pretty happy that they’re different. I just thought that I could sort of do my thing and have it be different.
Did you ever think that with your popularity, I mean, you’re pretty big in Europe- it’s pretty inevitable that you’re going to become a role model for young girls. Is that something you would want to take responsibility for?
Mena: It seems to me, especially in America, that you’re not supposed to be yourself; you’re supposed to be this very cookie-cutter perfect girl. I hope to be a role model for young girls and I hope to be the exact opposite of that. I hope to be the human role model. I hope to be the girl who makes mistakes and who sins, but who admits to herself that she’s not perfect and no one is. I wish I had a role model like that when I was young because I was striving to be perfect because that’s what all the people in the magazine were, and I realized after a while that you don’t have to be. And I wish to be a role model like that; if anyone wants me as a role model, I hope that they see that I’m human and that’s still ok and we all make mistakes. As long as we’re open with ourselves and as long as we try to be open with other people and we’re not ashamed of who we are and we try to be happy- I think that’s the most important thing.
So remembering when you were just getting into the music industry, what was your main concern about the endeavor, I mean, that’s a pretty big step?
Mena: Oh I think the first thing we were really scared about, me and my dad- he had to sign the record deal with me- was I think that we didn’t want them to market me as this pop idiot. I think that was the first thing we really discussed. I wanted freedom to, pardon my language, fuck up before they treat me like a fuck-up. I wanted to be able to create music and have them leave me alone, especially because the record company always wants to stick there noses in where they aren’t supposed to be, and I just wanted time to create and be creative and make a record, and then see if they would at least be happy with it then before actually just deciding that we’ll just send her in to the studio with producers that already have songs made for her. So I started writing songs, and I had a lot of songs ready and it took about a year and we just recorded and recorded and recorded and the record company was extremely happy. So the next time around when I recorded the second album they just didn’t even care, they just said “Ok, Maria’s going into the studio- it might take two years, who cares.”
And now in America, where everyone’s just starting to get to know you- you’ve just been on Letterman recently- and you have albums going platinum and all that in Europe, do you have plans now that you have the opportunity to do them with your fame and all?
Mena: I do, I think. Especially because I’m flying to Norway, that’s where my record deal is and that’s where the record company knows me best, so I definitely do I think. But it’s going to take a little bit longer than I thought. I thought I was going to promote for like six months or a year but it’s going to take longer than that because you sort of have to start in a new area where- I really need time off when I record. I don’t know why. I do know there are people out there who able to record and promote at the same time. I can’t see myself doing that; I’d just be too distracted. So I just wait until everything just quiets down and then I can go back to the studio and be creative.
Yeah, I’d think that’s a very personal time. So one last question- what’s currently in your CD player or mp3 player?
Mena: Um, I have a thing about listening to music- I don’t really listen to music a lot when I’m working because it’s too much sometimes. You just get fed up. It’s like if you work in a chocolate factory, you wouldn’t eat chocolate for a couple years after that. It’s really the same thing for me with music. But I do still listen- I just don’t have my favorite albums which I listen to when I really feel creative or need something to distract me. It’s just basically Jeff Buckley with Grace– that album is amazing- and this new artist called Joe Firstman. He has a record out now and it’s called The War of Women. It’s very very good.
Sounds interesting, I’ll have to check that out.
Mena: Yeah, it’s really good.
So that’s all the questions I have.
Mena: Thank you so much.
No, thank you. I hope your voice feels better.
Mena: Oh, me too. I’m going to have to perform two times today so I’ll just have to drink my throat coat and see if I feel better. That Vicks thing has really gotten me high.
You should probably lay off of that.
Mena: Heh, well good luck with college and everything.
Oh Thanks, and best of luck with everything.
Mena: Thank you.
Weight of the World: An interview with Good Riddance
We talk to Russ Rankin about these new ballads from the revolution
The influence of Santa Cruz’s Good Riddance is a far-reaching one. Their music of hope, loss, frustration, and anger packed into their hard-hitting brand of melodic hardcore has traveled far since the release of their acclaimed 1995 debut For God and Country. Their music was the gateway to socio-political punk for many, leaving an indelible mark on listeners across the globe. One of those was a young, wide-eyed kid who, having grown up in the dictatorial landscape of Indonesia’s pre-democratic society, yearned to hear and learn about something new. That kid was me, and while my story is one of many, it began with Good Riddance’s seminal 1996 album A Comprehensive Guide to Moderne Rebellion. That album sang of about inequality, human despair, and the complicated and fragile systems in which we live in- and it was the perfect tonic for living under a military dictatorship. There was hope in the messages they sang about; that whenever there is the struggle, there are those willing to fight for better.
More than 20 years since, Good Riddance are still fighting strong, fresh off the release of their brand new album Thoughts and Prayers. The record, their ninth studio album, is just as explosive, fire-breathing as anything they’ve released- a record as timely as it is encompassing of relatable issues no matter where you live.
It was daunting to talk to vocalist and songwriter Russ Rankin about the music he’s written. Not just because their influence was such an important part of who I was and who I am, but because I was nervous about not sounding like a buffoon while trying to carry some weight and importance to the questions I asked. The truth is, part of this was a thank you, and part of this was finally getting a chance to get insight into the music that has played a vital part in influencing many punks across the globe.
I really enjoyed the new album- how do you guys feel two albums back after some time away?
Rankin: It feels like we are back in the swing of things, as far as having the mindset of continuing to create new material. When we first began playing again, we were focused mostly on playing older songs that us and our fans wanted to hear. We still love those songs, and we enjoy playing them live, and it also feels really good to be creating new music as well.
When did you guys start the writing process for Thoughts and Prayers? Was this album any different, easier, more difficult to write than any other?
Rankin: I started working on this material in late 2016. I basically forced myself to pick up the guitar every day, and, for whatever reason, I was inspired a lot, and the bulk of this material came together rather quickly. I used Logic Pro to put demos together, which I then sent to the other guys. When we had enough songs, that everyone agreed on, we started scheduling practice time.
And the title, it’s very timely, but also a potent title that speaks on many levels. When/how did you know this was the right title?
Rankin: I had thought for a long time that it would be a good title. As an American who doesn’t believe that thoughts and prayers are a sufficient answer to the scourge of gun violence in my country, I thought it would be a good reminder about the tepid responses given by the people we send to Washington, D.C. to shape policy for us. It fits as an album title and is also symbolic of the social and political detente we find ourselves in.
I’ve always loved GR album titles- not just because they feel significant, but because they’re also poetic in a way. Do the titles come way after all the songs are done and you see how the songs come together as one?
Rankin: Oddly, I can’t really remember the timelines, as far as which came first historically. I mentioned my idea for this title to Chuck as we were boarding a flight home from Las Vegas, Nevada on January 1, 2018. By that time, a lot of material had already been written. I have always enjoyed taken phrases or word groupings which have a traditionally patriotic flavor and turning them on their heads, using them out of context.
I grew up in Indonesia, and when I first came across A Comprehensive Guide to Moderne Rebellion, I was immediately intrigued. Because it felt important, rebellious, and eye-opening. At the time, true democracy (in Indonesia) was at its infancy and most of my childhood was spent living under a military dictatorship. I know you recently spoke about the influence and effect of your music, that at the very least it has opened minds. How important is that to you- that your music spoke to people, not just in the US, but around the globe?
Rankin: I think I had always approached music with the hope that it could inspire people, but I’m sure I had no idea the extent of it. Even with our modest success, the number of people who have reached out to me personally, either at shows, on the street, by mail, and, these days, via social media, to tell me about the tremendous, positive, impact our music has had on their lives, is incredibly humbling and gratifying. I was inspired and, to a degree, radicalized, by the bands I grew up listening to, so I know exactly how that feels.
Do global issues shape your writing? Or at the very least, do you write so that some kid in Indonesia for instance, can connect to your music?
Rankin: I think that global issues shape everything I do, as far as the ways I interact with the world. As an American who has had the opportunity to travel, I can’t help but see how interconnected we all really are, and how my country could learn a lot by taking a step back and observing the ways other countries approach things. Americans are fond of self-aggrandizing, and shameless chest-beating, but we are falling well short of achieving a truly just society.
As a listener, I’ve always thought that your music resonated because so many of the songs could be relevant in 1996, 1998- but also now, in 2019. Has that been an important part of your songwriting?
Rankin: It has. As much as I love the Dead Kennedys, so much of their music is about specific events, which tether the material to a singular moment in time, which can lose its relevance to a listener who was perhaps born before that event occurred. I prefer to write about ideologies, dogma, and characteristics of the human condition, which have in the past, and sadly will in the future, contribute to the ongoing struggle for equality and justice. I believe these explosive moments, events, and polarizing figures, are merely symptoms of a greater ill which underlies everything else.
Has this been the most disappointing time you can remember politically in the United States?
Rankin: I was a teenager during the Reagan presidency, and I didn’t think anything could be worse than that. The saddest part of it, to me, is the crippling apathy. Less than 38% of eligible U.S. voters bothered to turn up and be heard in our last election. The white, fascist, nativists will always turn out to vote, so the rest of us had better show up as well, but we don’t. Civics cannot be a spectator sport, at least in my opinion. The loss of a free press is a big part of it. So many people end up feeling marginalized or detached from the whole process, and the culture industry keeps us passive and distracted, chasing artificial wants.
Your music is more than just politics. In your recent conversation with Kerrang, you talk about the songs of Thoughts and Prayers. There are political songs, but also songs about being human, connections, introspection, fragility, hate, love- what are some of your lyrical influences that still influence you to this day? Were they other musicians, books, poets?
Rankin: My biggest influences, as far as songwriting, would be Greg Graffin from Bad Religion, Richard Butler from the Psychedelic Furs, Billy Bragg, and, perhaps more than anybody else, Rhett Miller from the Old 97s.
The lyrics, even from For God And Country, always had an almost poetic tone to them. Did you find that you were a good writer early on, before you started writing music?
Rankin: Writing has always come naturally to me. English classes in school were relatively easy (conversely, math was never my friend). I enjoy writing and have the opportunity to write regular columns, as well as numerous op-eds for magazines and websites.
A few years ago you were speaking to Punknews and were talking about how important and significant you felt Symptoms of a Levelling Spirit was/is to you. Do you still feel the same? Especially now the last two albums after the hiatus.
Rankin: I think there is always an interesting push/pull dynamic, as a band achieves some degree of longevity. How can they continue to progress, and challenge themselves musically, while staying true to the legacy they’ve established, and which their fans expect? For me. Symptoms Of A Leveling Spirit will always hold a special place because it was the first time I felt comfortable and confident as a songwriter. It felt as though I had finally arrived, and was the first time I believed I had found my voice, so to speak. I was also in a really good place in my personal life during that time, so I associate a lot of positive memories with it. It was also the apex of the Good Riddance career, as far as the biggest we ever got. Fat really got behind that album, and there was a tangible push for us that entire year of touring.
Songs about love and relationships have also been important to the GR discography. Do you find writing songs about these connections any different to the more socio-politically driven ones? (“Jeannie” and “Not With Him” are still some of my favorite punk love songs- can I call them love songs, is that accurate at all?)
Rankin: I don’t really make a distinction. I write about my experiences and my observations about the human condition. The Descendents made it okay to write punk songs about love, loss, and heartbreak, and bands like Jawbreaker took it even further. If it’s genuine, I think it can be just as inspiring or comforting as a political song, depending on the listener’s experience.
You’ve worked with Bill (Stevenson) and Jason (Livermore) again on the record. What is it about them and the Blasting Room that you guys connect with both as producers and as artists who understand what you guys are looking for sonically?
Rankin: Bill has two aces up his sleeve when it comes to producing us: he comes from and was a seminal figure in, the scene which directly inspires us, and he is also a brilliant sound engineer. Add to that the fact that, over the last 20 years, we have become good friends, and the entire process becomes easier, more relaxed, and a lot of fun. He knows the buttons to push to get the best performances out of us, and he knows which bands and players to reference to help us visualize the aesthetic he is after.
You’re heading to Europe in August, then a few days in Canada- will there be more opportunities to see you guys live at the end of the year and all through next year?
Rankin: Given that this iteration of the band will necessarily tour a lot less (jobs, families, etc) than we did at our height, expect Good Riddance to have a busier year than the last couple of years.
Live While You Can: An Interview with Much the Same
Much the Same have lived the ups and downs of life and are realising they are right where they need to be
Returning from a long hiatus is never easy; music rarely stays still, life changes, and people move on. For punk band Much the Same, returning from their 8-year hiatus meant more than just getting back together to write music again. For the members of the band, it was about overcoming some of life’s most difficult obstacles to find that while so much had changed, one thing stayed constant; their love for creating music together. And although the process itself has evolved since their initial run through the mid-2000s, Much the Same found new ways to create.
Now 13 years after their last full-length album, Much the Same have just released Everything Is Fine; a collection of punk rock melancholia, introspection, and overcoming the downs of life with three-chord hopefulness and soaring guitar solos. A joint-release by Thousand Islands Records, Pee Records, and Lockjaw Records, Everything is Fine is the band’s most accomplished album.
We had a chat with vocalist and guitarist Chris McGrath and talked about living the moments, overcoming battles with cancer, the changing landscape of being in a punk band in 2019, and Dexter Holland’s hot sauce.
I really enjoyed the new album. How does it all feel, for everyone, that the album is done?
McGrath: I think there’s an overwhelming sense of both excitement and relief. I just looked it up and we first began writing new songs in 2009, two years after we’d broken up and two years before we even got around to playing a single reunion show together. For me, personally, I felt that we set the bar very high for ourselves with our 2006 album, Survive, and I just kept hoping it wasn’t a fluke and that we were still capable of writing music like that, especially since we have never gone back to being a full-time band. I’m happy to say that I’m quite satisfied and have been overwhelmed by the positive response to the singles. I can’t wait for the whole thing to be out in the world.
The album is a massive accomplishment- but it’s also very personal right? It’s part celebration for Dan (O’Gorman, guitarist)’s victory over cancer?
McGrath: Yes, Dan wrote most of the songs on this album, lyrically and musically. In the past, Dan primarily contributed music, but in the midst of some very dark times in his life, he found his lyrical voice and the songs just started flowing out. So when he got cancer, and then as it traveled throughout his body, things started looking really bad. We tried to stay positive and hopeful, but I was preparing myself to lose my friend. I thought it was pretty likely he wouldn’t live to see the album finished. I kept that to myself for a long time, but one day just had to ask him if these songs he wrote were important to him at all, or if in the face of death it was all meaningless, and he assured me that he really wanted them out in the world even if he wasn’t around by then.
So we pressed on with the writing, even as he was in the hospital receiving treatments, and miraculously, he had all the cancer removed! There is one song on the album about those dark days, called “In the Event of…” and the album title and cover are a reference to that song. We’re just ecstatic that he’s still here to celebrate this accomplishment, even though his life is obviously worth so much more to us than any music.
You guys got back together in 2015- was it a natural process- did someone reach out to someone first, how did it work out?
McGrath: There’d been a couple of attempts to write music together again since our breakup, but between us living far apart from each other, and everyone being involved with new families, school, and careers, it took many years to finally come together. Since Jevin, our drummer, lived in California and we were all in Chicago, we ultimately recruited our friend Mike, the drummer from Break The Silence, to play with us and help us write new music. We booked a show very shortly after that, which was probably a bad idea because our infrequent practices became more focused on being ready for shows than writing, but it was exciting to have the opportunity to be in front of people again and see that our fan base had grown in the 8 years we’d been apart.
After a couple of years and some cool international trips, it became clear that no matter how awesome Mike was, our band was just not “much the same” without Jevin. He was like family and a crucial part of our songwriting and sound, so we brought him back in despite the long-distance and things felt right again.
What kept you all busy in-between?
McGrath: Three of us got married and had kids, two went back to college and got teaching degrees. The other guys all eventually started their various careers and I continued my career in software development that I’d been doing the whole time we’d been a band. Marriage, young kids, jobs, mortgages to pay… all this stuff keeps a man very busy!
Dan, Frank, and Mike had a band together for a while called The Culling Song that never materialized. Jevin had a band called Unit91 with Jared from Counterpunch and Josh from his old band Form Follows Failure, they put out an EP you can find on Bandcamp. Frank eventually started another band called Burn Rebuild, which has put out a couple of EPs and is still together and playing shows around Chicago. My only musical endeavor was joining my church choir for a couple of years, which was really fun.
What was the first song you guys wrote once you got back together? Was it “Seasons Change”? Like riding a bike?
McGrath: “Seasons Change” was actually the last song we wrote together before the breakup and was released on the Japanese edition of Survive back in 2007. It has been floating around the internet since then, but with the new digital publishing technology available we finally put it up on all the stores and streaming platforms not too long ago.
The very first song we put together for this album was called “Haunted”, and we started that way back in 2009. Dan and Frank wrote it together and brought it to my house to work on. We finished it off but didn’t really have any way to do anything with it at that point. They recorded an acoustic version with our friend Chris Walsh singing, and then we did pretty much nothing for 7-8 years!
The first song we wrote once we were officially back together was called “Homecoming”. I wouldn’t say it was like riding a bike, though, because in a way we had to learn how to write all over again.
Has there been a different approach to Much the Same songwriting today than when you guys were writing the songs for Survive and Quitters Never Win?
McGrath: Definitely. With Jevin living far away and having so many other priorities like family and careers, everything is very different. We used to practice together once a week, get together randomly and show each other parts and work them out together before practice. It was extremely collaborative. On this album, most things were done individually and recorded on our phones, emailed back and forth, LOTS of texting (we almost never talk on the phone or see each other in person).
Thankfully, recording technology has become cheap and accessible so we were able to piece these songs together by recording demos, something we’d never been able to do before. It gave us the chance to try things that would have been impossible just standing around a room and playing them live. And as I mentioned, Dan became a songwriting powerhouse for a while, so it was a big change to have most of the songs being written pretty much singlehandedly by one person. That took some getting used to.
What’s been the aspect of Much the Same you’ve enjoyed the most since getting back together, and what’s been, say, the least fun?
McGrath: For me, I have loved being creative again. I really missed that outlet of songwriting and having projects to work on. When one of the guys would send over an idea I’d often obsess over it and spend hours working on demos to flesh it out, whenever I could find the time. It’s also been very exciting having a fan base that has grown enough that we really feel like people are as excited as we are that we are a band! For so many years it felt like we were the only ones who cared–us and a very small selection of dedicated fans. Flying to other countries to play festivals and touring with bands we grew up on has been a 20-year-old dream come true.
The least fun could easily be said to be Dan’s cancer battle, but that’s obvious and already been discussed. I’d say doing this whole thing long-distance and not getting to see each other every week to keep our relationships going and work from a shared energy and excitement has been very tiring and bittersweet. I miss just getting to stand in a room with these guys and play our instruments. We’ve had exactly one band practice in the past two years. I can’t wait to do 9 shows in a row with these guys!
I loved your cover of Lagwagon’s “Making Friends”- and it’s such a different Lagwagon song to cover- was there a reason for “Making Friends”? Will there be more covers on the horizon?
McGrath: When the A Fat Wreck documentary was being made, they put out a call for covers of Fat bands. We weren’t together at the time but decided to do something. Lagwagon has, of course, been a huge influence on our songwriting, but we also knew that a lot of the standard favorites would be popular and that we might not be able to bring anything special of our own to them. Pretty quickly Dan suggested “Making Friends” and suggested the beat we used, so we went with it. If I had had more time to think about it I would almost certainly have suggested “Change Despair”, which is my favorite deeper cut of theirs. But I’m glad we did what we did.
The other three guys pretty much worked out all the details of the song without me and recorded it all before I heard any part of it. I was blown away by how it turned out, especially the basslines. I knew at that moment that I wanted to write more songs with these guys, so that was actually a major factor in us getting back together. The added vocal harmonies and changes to the melodies were just my natural inclination of what to do over what they’d recorded. It all turned out really well and I love playing that song live.
As for new covers, it’s probably not very likely that we’ll do more full-band covers because we would really want to bring something unique to it and our sound is not exactly very different from most skate punk bands! But I’ve got a shortlist of solo covers I’d like to do for our YouTube channel, so we’ll see if that ever pans out.
The new album SOUNDS great- where did you guys record, and who produced the record? Is this the happiest you’ve guys have been with the recording?
McGrath: Thank you very much! Nick Diener from The Swellers is an old friend and was an obvious choice for us to record with now that he has his own studio. Fantastic musician and songwriter who knows our music well, so we knew we’d be in good hands. Scott Hallquist from Ten Foot Pole recorded the drums at Ryan Greene’s studio. Both of these guys did a phenomenal job getting amazing tones from all the instruments. Nick steered us in good directions with the songs and even sang harmonies on one of them. He also pushed back pretty hard on the original arrangement for the last song, “Passengers”, which was a bit different. We took his feedback and tried some other things and the song came out so much better and I think it’s collectively our favorite on the album.
Survive and Everything Is Fine were both such different albums to write and record, and both Nick and Cameron Webb did so much for us, I’m not sure I could say I prefer one recording or process over the other, but I do think we sound our best on the new album. That bass tone, though. My God. I’ve never heard a bass sound so good on any album.
So your previous album, 2006’s Survive, was released on Nitro. What was Nitro like- was Dexter and Greg around for the day to day of the label? Have you kept in touch? I know they’ve been pretty dormant for years.
McGrath: We landed at Nitro during what seemed to be their final attempt to keep the label going. They had A Wilhelm Scream, No Trigger, and Hit The Switch around the same time and I was really optimistic about the direction the label was going, building a great roster of skate punk and melodic hardcore. The A&R guy there, Sean, was an absolute gem of a human being and really believed in us. We only met Dexter briefly in the studio, but he said he liked our band, so that was enough! I’ve spoken to him briefly once more about some business stuff but by the time we were doing that he was really focused on his hot sauce, Gringo Bandito, which is GREAT. It’s the only sauce my wife or I will buy for the past 13 years. Nitro has since been bought by Craft Recordings, which is a catalog label that does reissues, and who just recently pressed Survive on vinyl.
I feel like Nitro had a great roster. What are some of the differences with being on a label in 2019 than it was back in 2006?
McGrath: Oh man, it’s so different. I can’t speak generally about all labels because I don’t know how they all work, and I’ve only heard bits and pieces about the business side with the more well-known ones. The main thing seems to be that labels don’t often give bands recording budgets anymore and take a lion’s share of the profits afterward, it seems to be a much more even deal between band and label regarding both financial and energy investment.
In our case, Nitro was an incredible opportunity because they paid for the album entirely and being on their roster gave us a lot more credibility. Survive would not exist as it does without Nitro, not even close, and it probably wouldn’t have survived (ha!) in the scene for years after we broke up.
With Everything Is Fine, we were determined to do the album ourselves and handle the digital distribution, now that that’s an easy thing to do. In 2006 we never could have expected to have that kind of reach without a label. From there we looked for labels that had interest in being involved and creating the physical products. If nobody had wanted to do that, we’d still have done the exact same album and just put it online to buy or stream.
Fortunately, Thousand Islands Records in Canada, Lockjaw Records in the UK, and Pee Records in Australia were all excited to work with us and get vinyl and CDs out into the world. So we have great partnerships with each of them that are mutually beneficial. It’s a lot less like being “signed” the way it used to be, and more just about a bunch of people helping each other out and sharing a love for music.
So it’s Europe in August- Netherlands, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovenia- what are you looking forward to most about the shows and touring Europe?
McGrath: I’m honestly just really excited to get back on stage with these guys for the first time in a year, and it’s a pretty different experience for us to go on tour and actually know there will be people there for us! We did South America with Face To Face two years ago, and we were stoked for the opportunity but had no idea going into it that we’d actually have a significant fan base at every show. That was honestly a shock, it had never happened before. So this time we get to be excited ahead of time!
Then it’s back for the 350V Festival- Me First, Suicide Machines, Naked Raygun, Bosstones- sort of like a hometown fest?
McGrath: Absolutely! 350 Brewing is a local brewery that our bassist, Frank, was working for, and so they knew we’d gotten back together when they were planning their first 350 Fest five years ago. That was our first show back. The event has grown massively in such a short amount of time, last year they had The Descendents, and this is the first year it’s a three-day event. I think it has been two years since we played in the Chicago area, so it’s going to be a blast to do that with friends at such a great festival, especially right on the heels of our album release and tour.
Has the Chicago scene changed much since the mid-2000s? Do you guys find it easier to be a band in Chicago these days?
McGrath: The scene is probably incredibly different, but I’m really no longer in it to even speak to it. We have our friends in other bands and all, but in the mid-2000s there was this booming punk scene with bands like Rise Against and Fall Out Boy coming up as peers. There were shows constantly and I could go to any show and know a dozen people there, sometimes a hundred. High school kids went to shows every week and were rabid about local bands, and we were single guys in our 20’s for whom music was the most important thing in life. I feel very fortunate to have been a part of all that. These days, I’m 40 and spend time with my family, and most of the people who like our style of music are in a similar stage of life, or they’re little kids of people who listen to us! Not a lot of teenagers at punk shows anymore, and that just changes the whole dynamic. Punk rock has become something of an older man’s game now, but thankfully not in that desperately-holding-onto-the-glory-days kind of way.
So no, I don’t find it easier to be in a band these days, especially since time and distance keep us from doing very much at all, and when we do we’ve somehow ended up in this very cool position where most of our shows are in other countries. I would never have believed that could happen if you’d asked me at any point since I started this band. We are incredibly fortunate and so thankful to all the people who have made it possible to keep doing this.