The giant cavern that is the music industry has trapped and buried musicians and artists across all genres. It’s an endless pit, a deep dark grotto into the roller coaster journey of superstardom. Few can boast that they’ve been in that endless pit, taken that ride and have escaped with their passion of music still intact; Paul Brill is one of the lucky few. With the release of his latest album “Halve the Light”, Brill has shown that you can experience the music industry, get courted by deep pockets and still keep the identity and enthusiasm that fuels his creative brilliance. Not only has he continued to write fantastic songs, record and tour but he has used that industry knowledge to his advantage.
Describe the sound of Paul Brill and share with us a little bit of history.
It’s been a bit of a meandering road. I’ve been writing songs and performing for many years, and my songwriting style has evolved somewhat drastically during this time. I call my style, “Post-Country Heartache,” a self-fashioned term that hopefully sums up what I’m writing now: some strange blend of Americana and Pop/Folk Rock, with a dark/melancholic tinge, lyrically at least. I think my latest CD, “Halve the Light,” captures this mix fairly well. I’ve been in several phases when I was writing straight-up Country/Bluegrass music or Rock songs. I think I’m at a point now where the two styles have fused.
How did you first get started writing music and at the time, what were your important influences?
Writing was somewhat of a revelation: I discovered one day after playing guitar for a few years that it was ok for mortals to write music, too. I had always written poetry and short fiction, but songwriting always seemed so distant and exclusive to the Rock gods, and it never occurred to me to try it, even though I have played instruments nearly all my life (Piano, Clarinet, Guitar). My big early influences? Bob Dylan, the Clash, always the Beatles, Hard-Bop Jazz, Neil Young, Velvet Underground, so much.
Have those influences changed and what would you say influences you to write the songs today?
Not surprisingly, most of the artists I mentioned above are still influences and heroes of mine; however, there are so many more elements influencing my writing now, from music to literature to people. The things that influence me now are so disparate and seemingly random and have a subtle effect on my music. I just discovered Hawaiian slack key guitar music – which is crazy good; I went through a period of obsession with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan; listening a lot lately to people like Rufus Wainwright, Nina Nastasia, Astor Piazzolla, Al Green, Perez Prado, Joao Gilberto, Sea and Cake, Joe Henderson, etc.
How important was your experience with Envelope and how has it shaped you as an independent artist?
Playing in Envelope, which ended being called SF Envelope following a name dispute, had everything to do with my current artistic identity. I cut my teeth with that group. The people in that band were like brothers – we toured together in a van for 3 years – did something like 6 coast-to-coast tours and dozens of trips to the Northwest (we were living in LA/SF back then). We booked our own tours, did our own promotion, ran our own record company, secured distribution – all DIY. Through the Envelope experience, I saw how the whole industry worked, particularly on the business/promotional end, which has helped me immeasurably as I market my current material. On the flip side, I became very disillusioned with the business of music following the whole record industry/management swindle saga. At a certain point, the business can take over and sully the whole musical experience. For Envelope, the end came when we were playing every show for industry people, everyone dangling carrots, and I simply wasn’t enjoying the music we were making anymore. It took a long time to rebound from that experience, but, in the long run, it was very useful in helping me educate myself about the pitfalls of the music business and how to navigate my career now. I’ve learned that the music is paramount and must remain so.
Your new album “Halve the Light” features an eclectic blend of musical styles, what was the experience like working on this album and how did it differ from the previous album’s you have worked on?
Halve the Light, like most of my CDs, was a complete accident; that it became an international release is a huge surprise. I began the project largely at the behest of my co-producer Dave Camp and his partner Nancy Hess, who work out of Portland, Oregon. I’ve played with them for years, and they would press me to get my music out – to make a CD that represented my songs accurately. So I flew Dave in to NYC, and we spent about a week tracking 10 songs. We didn’t have a great sense of where the recording was going, though we did think through arrangements and song selection. The players in my band at the time, Milkweed (which was pretty much a bluegrass/old time country group, about 8 members), backed me on the recording, and we did it at Tin Pan Alley right up the street from where I live. I was very fortunate in finding that studio, because not only did they cut me a deal, but the engineer, Giovanni Fusco, was super talented (and now is the drummer in my current band). Halve the Light was similar to everything else I’ve ever recorded in a studio in that it was a rush job. Whenever you are paying for studio time yourself, you have to push on through no matter what or else you end up with unfinished songs and no more money. I’ve recorded a few previous CDs at home on the four-track, which is always hit or miss. A landmark moment for me came recently when one of my oldest 4-track recordings, made with a crappy drum machine, made it on to a film soundtrack. That’s Punk Rock.
What’s the best thing about touring and releasing an independent record, how has the fan interaction and response been?
Touring is the best, even when it sucks. I have had some very low and very exultant moments touring. A lot of sleeping on fans’ floors (good and bad for obvious reasons), all-night drives, meeting and playing with great bands, honing your chops and seeing new people and places. Likewise for doing your own promotion: it is tremendously rewarding to see your hard work pay off in getting a record distributed, getting reviews around the country, booking shows, etc. Last summer we did a little tour of side-stage performances with James Taylor, KD Lang and Tony Bennett (pairing that made little sense, but I couldn’t complain) – that was great. We stayed in hotels, which was a first for me in touring. Certainly beats sleeping on the floor of some dysfunctional sound guy living with his mother in Laramie, Wyoming. We’ve been getting great response from “the fans.” People have been very supportive.
What would you say your biggest accomplishment is so far?
Having a fan tattoo our band name on her bottom.
With today’s available media, the Internet, mp3.com, do you think it has become significantly easier to reach some level of success?
I don’t know about that. Success on a level where I am able to promote my music endlessly and inexpensively and reach more people, maybe. Also having a support network for the indie music world. When I first started putting out indie records, I didn’t even own a computer; we were making 7-inch album sleeves at the local copy center. Things have changed so much – probably for the better, at least in music. While the music industry is so bent right now, fixed on working the most unimaginable fluff, cheap quality recording and unlimited Internet resources for musicians have led to this incredible underground surge of talent. Has there ever been a better time for music (artistically)? All this cool electronic stuff is way underground, and there are so many incredible bands and songwriters chipping away at the great monolith. It is just a matter of time before there is another breakthrough in the industry. Look at the incredible bands putting out indie records – Richard Buckner, Calexico, Pinback, Ida, now…Mariah Carey! It’s endless.
What are your plans for the future, will you continue touring and writing?
I’m working pretty hard right now promoting Halve the Light. We did a college radio PR campaign with a company called Team Clermont in Athens, GA, which was very successful – the album hit about #75 in North America. We are following some of that success with shows where the record received the greatest rotation. I’m currently recording a few demos to entice someone to pay for my next CD – I have about 3 albums worth of new material. It has been a good year or so for writing. My immediate goals are to make enough money to continue recording new albums – nothing too crazy.
You’ve experienced the music industry on both coasts of the United States, is there a difference between the two and if there is, which do you prefer?
That’s a good question. It is tough to gauge the difference – each has advantages/disadvantages. I was in California playing a heavier rock thing at a time when that was very celebrated. So we received a lot of attention from the wrong people. The East Coast response to my music has been very strong, but I am much more proud of the songs I am writing now, so again, tough to figure. As far as living, California is sweet and charming, but NYC rules!
What would you say are the most important things to know when being an independent songwriter? What sort of advice would you give to someone who wants to record and tour?
Well, for the aspiring songwriter – just write and write until you find your voice. Find and develop the things that are unique to you and your style. Be aggressive in promoting your work. Recording a lot is also very useful for honing your sound – get a cheap home recording player or pirate some computer software and record everything. As for touring, just go out there and tour. Call clubs and “BS” them. Convince them that you should play at their club. Be sure to have merchandise to sell. Drive carefully.
In the future, how would you like to be looked upon most, whether it be by your fans, family or friends?
I hope to be seen as a hard-working artist who hung on to his ideals and managed to scratch together a living playing music. And wrote good songs. Someone who persisted.
Dreams and Devotion: An interview with Strung Out’s Jason Cruz
For Strung Out’s Jason Cruz, art is more than just the music he’s known for. It’s the dreams and emotions he writes and paints as well.
For almost 30 years, Jason Cruz has been synonymous with the art he’s been crafting. That art of course, is his work as songwriter and vocalist for Simi Valley melodic punk rock outfit Strung Out, who since 1990, have been writing hard-hitting, emotionally-charged music that became part of the wave that brought punk’s into the mainstream consciousness in the mid-1990s. Strung Out’s three albums of that decade, 1994’s Another Day in Paradise, 1996’s Suburban Teenage Wasteland Blues, and 1998’s Twisted By Design, proved to be the perfect answer to those who sought out the deeper underground of punk that bellowed below the surface of Green Day’s Dookie and Offspring’s Smash.
For many listeners like myself, Strung Out and many of their Fat Wreck Chords and Epitaph brethren meant a world of new music wrapped in the subcultures of skateboarding, surfing, punk attitudes, and a vibrant urgency that echoed sounds of rebellion and independence. While pop culture acceptance for just about any form of art and music seems fleeting, Strung Out have never wavered from what they do; now three decades into their history and nine albums deep into an ever-impressive catalog. Songs of Armor and Devotion is perhaps the band’s finest work since they first burst onto the scene. Composed, yet still breathing fire, its tracks still exhibits that “debut album energy” but comes with the benefit of the wisdom of touring, writing, and experiencing the world three decades over.
However, for Jason Cruz, art is more than just Strung Out. He has quietly and not so quietly been honing his craft as an artist and a painter, coming to light on a musical front by painting the cover art to his band’s 2011 “Best Of” album Top Contenders: The Best of Strung Out, and NOFX’s 2013 EP Stoke Extinguisher. But one look at the wide spectrum of art he’s painted and you can see that it’s more than just album covers. His painted work, like his music, seems to come from the same passion and emotion that drives his lyrics and songwriting. Now he embarks on a new chapter as a children’s book writer, taking inspiration from his daughter to write There Are Such Things As In Your Dreams, a bedtime story born in dreams.
We spoke to Cruz not long after the release of the band’s new album to talk about the long-lasting influence of Strung Out and to discuss his art and how they share the same creative head space. We also spoke about his upcoming art exhibit and his new book and the toll and triumphs of the tour cycle.
Congrats on Songs of Armor and Devotion. It’s stellar work; how do you all feel about the release and response to the record?
Cruz: I’m glad people are digging the tunes. I’m anxious to get em out on the road and see what they turn into. See if I can keep up with RJ. It feels like another new level to explore.
But you’ve been busy with a lot of projects- tell us a little bit about the children’s book you have written? It was inspired by your daughter?
Cruz: The book is called There Are Such Things As In Your Dreams and it’s basically a bedtime story. My daughter just spoke the title one day as we hangin’ out having one of our talks and it stuck. I thought it was the most beautiful thing she ever said.
What’s the story of the book?
Cruz: It is basically a bedtime story trying to explain to a kid what the hell dreams are and how cool they can be. How the adventures you dream at night can only pale to the ones that await you when you wake kinda thing.
How long did it take to write and create the book?
Cruz: I worked on the story, which is more like a poem, and all the illustrations for just over two years. Anywhere I could set up and draw. In between shows, on planes, at the desk at home, wherever. Once I told the kid I was gonna do this book she made sure to ride me pretty hard about getting it done so she could take it to school and read it to the class.
What’s the approach like writing the book in comparison to writing songs for a new Strung Out record?
Cruz: Pretty similar process I guess since they both involve rhythm, flow and the use of imagery and imagination. With a song, it’s a collaborative process. Each member adds an element to construct this thing. With the book, it was all me. Inventing as I went along until I had enough elements to unify the idea as a whole. It’s a lot harder flying blind like that. I guess I kept this first attempt as simple as possible for that reason.
Where can we buy the new book?
Cruz: All the usual modern day outlets like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Baby. It will also be available on my site as well.
I’m looking at some of your art and I like how different the pieces are. For instance, the difference in emotion, style with pieces like “Choke”, “Rise & Fall”, and “Church Fix”. What are some of the things that inspire your art and what were some of the inspirations behind these pieces?
Cruz: Oh I guess just the love of doing is what really inspires me. To be an artist. To challenge myself. To learn my craft and grow. I could never stick to a certain style or look very long because I’m just too moody I guess. I need the freedom to move around and explore. Always trying ‘get it right’ whatever that means.
Is creating art a completely private and solo process for you?
Cruz: Completely. I guess that’s why it can be so maddening at times and so fulfilling at the same time. Like what nerve do I have to even attempt this?!?! What is this whole art thing?!?! Is this good?!?! And somewhere in between all that doubt, there is joy and fun. Problem solving and improvisation.
What are some of the things when looking back at this 20+ year career with Strung Out do you hold as the most important to you? Is it the records? The consistency with the work or the influence you’ve had for listeners around the globe?
Cruz: To be able to keep living my life in a such a way is all I can ever hope for. Making true connections. As long as I am a good person, as long as I am good to my muse and never take anything for granted and always be awake and alive I am grateful.
Is there one album you look back as particularly important to the band and yourself? Say one that you felt like thing were heading in the right direction?
Cruz: For me, I’d have to say it was the pseudo acoustic record we did called Black Out the Sky. That record was super important in our development as a band and as human beings. It kinda loosened any restraints we thought we had and really showed our fans and ourselves the possibilities of our union as a whole.
I’ve always loved Suburban Teenage and Twisted By Design because I think both records hit at the right time for me (I grew up in Indonesia and discovering your music was a big part in who I was and am); plus I learned that bands could hit hard just as much as they sang with emotion- but I think Songs of Armor and Devotion is very much in the same vein. What was the songwriting process like for Songs of Armor… and when did you guys start writing the record?
Cruz: It all happened really quick. Once we set aside the time to write and record we wasted no time and the ideas all came very fast and effortlessly – for the most part. We had a lot of ‘pent up‘ energy and angst I guess you say.
I love the song “Crows”- did you feel like it was a great stand-alone song- were there reasons why you didn’t want to put it on a record?
Cruz: Who knows? Looking back I don’t even remember. It seemed like it didn’t really fit anywhere but it was too good to just let go, so yeah, that song is kinda like a sad pretty little island.
You’ve got an exhibit coming up in October that will showcase your art and your new children’s book. Is the process of creating a new exhibit the same for you as say, planning an upcoming tour? What can we look forward to at the exhibit?
Cruz: Luckily I have help from some really great people. I’ll be painting up until the last minute so any and all help is greatly needed and appreciated. Along with the illustrations from the book I will also have on display a series of new oil paintings.
Steve Caballero is also part of the exhibit, was it a natural process working together with Steve on this? How did this come together?
Cruz: Steve is a blossoming artist and a great human being. I guess I just got extremely lucky on this one.
Strung Out have a North American tour coming up with The Casualties. How’s life on the road these days, are you guys all still enjoying being on the road?
Cruz: Ask me that on the last week of the tour and you’ll get a different answer than now.
I got to see you guys twice the last couple of times you were down in Australia; will we see you here sometime next year?
Cruz: Yes, I believe something big is in the works for Spring.
Do you have a road map for the next few years or are you happy with playing things as they come?
Cruz: It’s more a map of the ocean and I am chained to the wheel.
Jason Cruz’s Fine Art Exhibition and children’s book launch takes place Friday, October 25th, 2019 at the Copro Nason Gallery in Los Angeles. Tickets can be booked here. More information can be found on Jason Cruz’s official website. Strung Out’s new album, Songs of Armor and Devotion, is out now on Fat Wreck Chords.
All Work and All Play: An interview with The Drowns
The Drowns prove that having the right work ethic goes a long way
It’s been a busy year for Seattle punks The Drowns. The band, whose individual histories stretch back some 20 years, are a rough and tumble blend of street punk bravado and positive attitude that found its footing with their 2018 debut album View From the Bottom. With tours, festivals, and new music already checked off in 2019, The Drowns put the “work” in working class rock n’ roll with no rest in sight. Fresh off the release of a new 7″ titled The Sound, the band are prepping for their first ever Japanese tour in October and are working on their new full-length album due in the near future.
On top of the globe trotting, the band will take part in this year’s Rock The Ship Festival, their label’s annual punk rock escapade on the high seas, anchoring a lineup that includes noted bands like Cock Sparrer, CJ Ramone, and Subhumans. We spoke to vocalist Aaron Rev about the new 7″, the terrific street punk anthem “The Bricks of Ol’ Rainier”, and what they’re looking forward to next to cap off an already packed 2019.
I really enjoyed the new 7”- how has the reception been, and how are you guys feeling about these new songs?
Rev: Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it. So far, so good. The reception has been incredible. And we love the new songs. We just got back from a month and a half tour, and the new jams went over great.
It sounds like the band is very in tune right now and that things have continued to go strong since the debut album?
Rev: Totally. We also have a pretty intense work ethic, so right when we are finished with something we are already working on what’s next. Just keeping the ball rolling.
The songs on the new 7” SOUND amazing- where did you guys record and produce the record?
Rev: We working with our brother Jesse O’Donnell from the band Noi!se at his studio the Autopsy Room in beautiful Tacoma WA. Working with Jesse was great. He’s a great guy, and a great engineer. He’s really got an ear for this type of music, and he pours his heart in to it.
What’s the story behind “The Bricks of Ol’ Rainier”?
Rev: I live in the south end of Seattle. Years ago I moved to a neighborhood called Georgetown. It was incredible. Tons of artists living in a kind of shitty area, just for cheap rent so they could keep creating. When I’d first moved there, it really was one of the greatest points in my life. I was surrounded by incredible people who inspired me to create. But, we all started to see the gentrification coming, because nothing that great could last forever. The Georgetown neighborhood has a huge building in the middle of it called Rainier Cold Storage, where they used to make and store Rainier Beer. They ended up tearing part of the building down, and for me that symbolized the beginning of the end of what we had. When they were tearing it down, I broke in at night and stole some bricks for the old building, and when I have them around, they serve as reminders to carry the spirit of what we once had along with me wherever I go.
You’ve been playing a bunch of shows over the last few months- how have they been? How are these new songs translating to the live setting?
Rev: The shows have been CRAZY! We’ve gotten tons of support and a great reception to all of the new material. It was a killer tour.
For those who may not be familiar yet, share with us a little history of the Drowns.
Rev: We were all friends in different bands, and we’ve all been in the game for 15-20 years a piece. Our respective bands started to slow down, so we all decided to start a project together. Also, not many bands we knew of were playing the style we wanted to play. So we got together, started writing, and just haven’t stopped.
Are you guys splitting time between Seattle and LA?
Rev: Our drummer Jake lives in LA so we just fly him back and fourth to accommodate, and we head down there. With the internet, it’s surprisingly easy to keep a long distance band going these days.
Speaking of Seattle, I saw on your Twitter that some of you were at a Sounders game- is soccer the sport of choice for The Drowns?
Rev: Totally. Huge soccer fans. MLS and Premier League. Some of us are big hockey fans too.
It’s funny because I felt that “The Bricks of Ol’ Rainier” has that stadium anthem feel to it (at least in my head), that its a great song for thousands of people to sing together.
Rev: Hell ya. I’ve worked with the Sounders in the past with my old band. I’d live to have The Downs work with them. It’d be a perfect fit.
Pirates Press has been releasing some great music this year; you guys are in great company. What were some of the reasons for choosing Pirates Press as the new home for your music?
Rev: First and foremost, they are incredible people over there. You be hard pressed to find any other label active right now that gives a shit as much as they do. They are hands on, they are passionate, and they care about the bands, and the music, and the fans. They are truly a great example of how a label should be run.
You were at Punk Rock Bowling this year- how was it? It’s such a massive looking festival from the outside- Did you guys have fun?
Rev: It was KILLER! The lineup this year was insane. The setup of the festival this year was perfect. And, we were crazy surprised when we started playing at 3:30pm and right after we hit that opening chord and turned around, there was a sea of people! We felt so humbled by how many people cane to see us. It was insane.
Are there already plans for a new full-length to follow View From the Bottom? What are the plans for the rest of the year?
Rev: We are definitely always working. So you can bet that you’ll hear about new material soon. But for now, we are going to hit Europe and Japan later this year. And keep on moving.