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Perfect 10: An interview with Jeff Whalen

We spoke to Jeff Whalen about the new album, the difference between writing solo and writing for Tsar, his “perfect 10” records, working with producers like Rob Cavallo and Linus of Hollywood, and how he got into this crazy thing called “rock n’ roll”.



Los Angeles. Home to the Sunset Strip and to America’s rock n’ roll dreams past and present. Los Angeles is also home to Jeff Whalen, lead singer of rock band Tsar and now, solo artist and new power-pop hero. He is no stranger to the great heights of rock n’ roll. With Tsar, he released two albums on Hollywood Records and toured with the likes of Social Distortion, Eve 6, the New York Dolls, and Juliette and the Licks. He’s lived those rock n’ roll dreams.

Whalen recently released his new solo album, Ten More Rock Super Hits; ten fantastic power-pop songs that traverse the rock n’ roll spectrum, demanding repeated listens. On the back of its release, we spoke to him about the new album and how his approach to writing for it. Whalen touches on the difference between writing solo and writing for Tsar, his “perfect 10” records, working with producers like Rob Cavallo and Linus of Hollywood, and how he got into this crazy thing called “rock n’ roll”.

Congrats on the release- how does it feel now that the album is out and available to the public?

Thanks! It’s super-great to get it out there. Releasing a record is definitely an unusual feeling—you have such hopes and dreams put into it, yet so much of what happens to it is out of your control.

Records are like kids or whatever, you know? They are who they are. You try to raise them right, give them the tools they need to give them the best chance to succeed out there in the crazy old world. But you can’t control who they are or what happens to them. And I think, like a lot of parents, especially back in the major label days, I think we put a lot of our own hopes and dreams and sense of identity into what happens to them, kinda living through them. Which isn’t really fair, probably.

Now, with this record, I don’t really have any expectations—I just want the record to be happy. I want it to do whatever it wants to do and feel confident and happy being what it is.

Jeff Whalen

Ten More Rock Super Hits

“a compelling mix of rock n’ roll and power pop coated with the mesmerising appeal of 60’s beat.”

I love the variety of styles you’ve got on Ten More Rock Super Hits, from glam, to pop rock, to power pop, to rock n’ roll. How did you approach the songwriting to the album?

Well, on some level, the record is like a K-Tel record, kinda, so the moving around, style to style, is part of it, maybe? I hope there’s a consistency to the proceedings, so that it all feels of a piece, or whatever, but it definitely moves around.

Some of the songs fall into a “type” kind of thing, which was fun to do. I’d never intentionally done that before. Like “Shanghai Surprise”—it’s one of those old-timey kind of songs from vaudeville times or whenever that bands back in the day used to put on records. The Beatles, Monkees, 1910 Fruitgum Company. As I was getting ready to start recording this record, I happened to have a couple albums in rotation that had that kind of song on it. The Crazy Horses album by the Osmonds was one. Great album, by the way. The old-timey one on that record isn’t super-duper old-timey, but it’s super McCartney-y, and old-timey in that way. Cool song. Anyway, it seemed to me when an album has one of those old-timey songs on it, it kind of subconsciously signals what kind of aspirations the album as a whole has. Kinda classes up the joint.

But mostly, I just wanted to have a good time writing without worrying too much about how it all fit together.

How did it differ to when you were writing songs for Tsar, was there a little more freedom with this being a solo record?

Songwriting is fucking weird. There are times when it seems so easy, that anything could be a song. That’s where you wanna be. Like, “Walk Like an Egyptian,” for example, was on the radio the other day and I was thinking, that guy—whoever wrote that song—that guy was in the fucking zone, you know? The confidence is amazing, effortless. You can feel it. It’s like he’s saying “Watch this! I can do fucking anything right now! Watch! All the cops in the donut shops say way-oh, way-oh, way-oh, walk like an Egyptian. See?” Amazing.

And there are definitely, definitely, definitely other times when it seems impossible. It feels like a weird dream, another life, when you were able to write a song. And you have to work through that. You have to just plow. Take every hard-fought minor victory and keep working.

This not being a Tsar record, I felt I could take some different approaches in order to get where I needed to be. There was a certain part of me that wanted the whole record to be by a character, some kind of alter ego. So I started writing from the point of view of a made-up actor who had, in my fantasy, made a record that had been a surprise commercial and critical hit—kind of a Rick Springfield or David Essex kind of guy—and now he has to make his follow-up record and he’s super-jaded and freaking out. He wants to be arty and a real rocker, but he’s worried he’s a fraud and he’s just oh so tired. “Soylent Blue,” “Ground Game for Worm,” “The Eye of the Spider”—those ones came from that idea.

On some level, I enjoyed not having to worry about the new songs fitting into a Tsar context or whatever. I mean, I think they’re in the same rock and roll multiverse as Tsar, but not precisely Tsar, somehow.

Of all the music I’ve listened to in the past few months, “The Alien Lanes” is the one that sticks in my head more than any other. I just find myself singing that fantastic chorus/hook. What’s the story behind “The Alien Lanes”?

Why, thank you! The song’s about a girl who kind of goes crazy listening to music in her room. There’s a madness there, for sure, but a freedom, too, in rock and roll obsession.

And that awesome video, how did that come about?

Thanks again! Yeah, I dunno! Who knows these things? I was at the library and I was flipping through a book and a piece of paper fell out and it said, “The action of God is now flowing through you in a pattern of success.” And I thought, well of course it is! Who can argue with that?

I met with Thad Bridwell and Dan Cleary, these video director friends of mine, and we talked about The Secret and positive thinking and affirmations and slogans and creativity and fear and whatnot and it kind of went from there.

It was really fun to make, at least from my perspective. I mean, the band and I just danced around in front of a green screen for a while. I put on a fake mustache and typed on a typewriter. The directors, especially Thad, put in who knows how many hours creating everything you see. Of the handful of videos I’ve been in, it’s definitely my favorite.

Watch the video for “The Alien Lanes”:

It’s my favorite song on the record. Do you have a favorite?

Ah, I dunno if I can say! I don’t want to make any of the other songs jealous! It’s a bit weird, but the songs on the record that I find myself listening to the most often are ones that came out different than I had expected them to, like “10 More Rock Super Hits.” I had crazy, crazy demo-itis with that one. I felt so connected to the demo, but felt almost like the album version was by someone else somehow? Totally weird. So I find myself listening to that one a lot. It remains a mystery to me, almost like I’m listening to a cover of the song.

You’ve worked with big name producers like Rob Cavallo, and now with Linus of Hollywood. What was it like working with them and what were some of the things that differed between the two?

Those two guys are very different from each other. Though one characteristic they share is a near-virtuoso level of musicianship.

Rob told me about being a teenager and recording demos where he played all the instruments—drums, everything—at 15 or something. He said he had been playing a cassette demo for his dad, who at the time was Prince’s manager, and had left the tape in the car stereo. Later, Prince got in the car and turned on the stereo, and there was Rob’s demo. And Prince turned it up and was digging it, saying something like, man, your kid’s got chops, or something. That’s gonna be something you remember, you know, Prince digging your demo when you’re 15. As a point of comparison, that never happened to me.

Linus told me about learning to play guitar in his room, copying guitar parts from records. He learned the guitar intro part to “Welcome to the Jungle” so that he could play it and make it sound perfect without using a delay pedal, which is of course insane, since the delay pedal is how the riff works. As a point of comparison, I danced around with a tennis racket, lip synching Shaun Cassidy’s version of “Do You Believe in Magic?” well into my 20s. Actually did that a couple weeks ago, in real life, by the way.

So they both bring a humbling, and freeing, command of the music-making process. They both always have ideas for what notes to hit for harmonies, what the piano should be doing, a million other things. They both say things like “OK, good, this time, though, on that G, add the 9th diminished with the minor augmented” or whatever. And then I stare blankly. And then they sigh and say, “put your pinky on the third fret,” or whatever.

They both—and I mean this in a good way—strived to focus me toward the middle. I tend to want to subvert expectations maybe too much, and I kind of rely on a relationship with the producer where I’m free to try to do the weirdest stuff possible and their job is to keep me focused on the strongest elements of the song. This only works with someone I respect a great deal, and I do respect those guys a great, great deal.

So, all that said, Rob and Linus are very different people. Rob is coming from a record executive point of view and regardless of how much you connect, you will not be his friend. He is other. He is business. Not that that is totally a bad thing all the way through, but it’s a particular kind of relationship. It’s built on a distance between the roles. I don’t know if this is the experience every band has with him, but I bet it’s the default.

With Linus, on the other hand, we became friends through the recording experience. Lots of running jokes, lots of drinking coffee and eating candy and talking about the Zombies and rock and life. I only knew him a little before we started the record and by the end I felt I had made friends with a truly good, truly funny, truly interesting person. I’m very much looking forward to making another record with him.

In a previous interview, you talked about the strict upbringing you had with your family. How did you get into rock n’ roll?

Yeah, we had a born-again Christian thing going on. That shit’s brutal. As I got into my teens, I definitely traded religion for rock. I’m sure that’s not uncommon—a young person, pummeled with religion from an early age, losing their faith and putting their focus in art instead. For as often as I think I think it happens, you really don’t see the concept tackled too much in books and movies and whatever. The best thing I’ve seen on it is this autobiographical graphic novel called Blankets by a guy named Craig Thompson. When I read it, I recognized so much of what the author went through as a kid and young person—family, church, youth groups, rock and roll, art—that it kinda whomped me emotionally.

So yeah, I traded the one for the other, though I probably didn’t see it that way at the time. I probably didn’t think at the time that I was into Motley Crue because of the satanism and pentagrams and whatever. I probably thought it was because of their songs, their look. OK, and their codpieces, maybe. Codpieces, you know, can be very persuasive to a 13-year-old boy.

It was a slow process, Christianity to rock. Getting heavy into the Beatles in high school was helpful in enabling the process, since being a Beatles fan is a bit of a religion itself.

If you had to list 4 records you can say are perfect 10s, what would they be?

Great question! OK, I’m gonna skip all the Beatles and Bowie and all that, because, you know, there’s probably not a lot of surprises there, and who wants to hear somebody talk about Hunky Dory? I’m also gonna skip one of my favorites, Million Seller by the Pooh Sticks, which was a heavy inspiration for this album, but I feel like I’ve been talking about it in every interview. So, OK, in no particular order:

Olivia Tremor Control – Dusk at Cubist Castle

I had a fairly hipster roommate back in the day who had this record and I liked it a lot. Over time, it has quietly hung in there for me. I almost never go through a period where I’m down on it. It’s a ‘90s lo-fi record of super-melodic ‘60s-ish psychedelic pop, but even as I say that, I feel like that really doesn’t give it enough credit. It was supposedly recorded, at least in part, on a cassette 4-track recorder, though it sounds full and complete to me. It’s a triumph of style and hipness and coolness, but it totally delivers the goods on the pop side, too. And it has this really enduring charm of a band trying to do all the Beatles or whoever harmonies on a cassette 4-track. Great record.

1910 Fruitgum Company – Goody Goody Gumdrops

This is probably my favorite bubblegum record, though the record by The Fun and Games is amazing, too, kind of like if the Zombies or the Association were a bubblegum band. But, yeah, Goody Goody Gumdrops. Great fucking record. Most bubblegum records only have the one or two or three good songs—and then the rest is some terrible blues or something they threw on there as filler, clearly played by some different band, different singer, totally different sound. But this record is solid bubblegum all the way through. Super chewy. In the getting-signed days, Tsar used to cover the title track—it’d been covered by both the Pooh Sticks and Teenage Fanclub, so that seemed like a good idea.

Ugly Kid Joe – America’s Least Wanted

This album never got its due. You know how when some military pilot guy is talking about seeing a UFO and he says that the thing moved this way and that way and changed directions and had incredible bursts of acceleration and then stopped impossibly fast? And its purpose and nature cannot be determined? That’s what this record is like. I mean, it’s an insane record. It’s all pretty catchy, some of it really catchy, but mostly what sticks with me is the attitude. In some moments, it’s clear that this is satire, joyful and funny, almost Spinal Tap-y in its take down of heavy metal. Other times, it seems just as clear that they mean the banality of it all completely sincerely. He’s so nihilistic—that’s probably the clearest thing you get from the singer, that he hates everything and everybody—but then he starts talking about how we’re all the same deep down in this bizarre, trying-to-be-funky fake singalong. Bizarre. It’s kind of a snapshot of the exact moment when hair metal sincerity was wrapping up and being replaced by grunge-y irony, a kind of Gen-X distance in which nothing can be understood. It’s got that cover of “Cats in the Cradle” which defies understanding. Songs like “Busy Bee” are mysteries that cannot be solved, and then it kicks back in with this Slash-y guitar and Axl-y singing, so strange. I don’t often have this album on heavy rotation, but whenever I put it on, it’s always an interesting, enjoyable experience. There’s something to this record that literally nobody is asking, but I think it deserves some thinking about.

MGMT – Oracular Spectacular

This record fills me with a kind of rock desire that few records can. Is there a better let’s-start-a-band manifesto than “Time to Pretend”? Embracing the realness of the fakeness as a glorious inevitability. I got heavy into the record and was listening to it pretty constantly for a few weeks and then one night for the first time I watched the videos for “Kids” and “Time to Pretend” and “Electric Feel” and I was gut-punched. I could barely speak the next day. When you see the dude for the first time like a minute or two into the “Kids” video—which starts by the way with that Nietzsche abyss quote misattributed to Mark Twain, brilliant somehow—and you see him standing in the bushes and he’s wearing this silver suit with silver gloves and he’s got silver paint on his eyes and he looks totally drugged up and out of it as he’s singing and the whole band is dressed like that and you go, “AHHHH! Fuck! Fuck fuck fuck!” and start laughing. Incredible. The whole record is like that for me. It’s like they started the group as a joke about rock and rock stars and rockness and then were overtaken by it and embraced it for realsies in all its radness and glory and ridiculousness.

What are your music plans for 2019?

Well, I have a couple band projects that are in the mixing stages. Hopefully they’ll be coming out later this year. And I want to start a new solo record, too. I’m kind of jazzed right now to try to get as much stuff out there as possible—it’s more fun to put stuff out. I’m also hoping to discover some new bands to like. Any ideas?

Jeff Whalen’s Ten More Rock Super Hits is out now via Supermegabot Music Concern. Pick up your copy from their website. We recommend it.


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. 

good riddance

Thoughts and Prayers

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.

The new Good Riddance album Thoughts and Prayers is out now on Fat Wreck Chords. Good Riddance tour dates and ticket information can be found on the Good Riddance website.

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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. 

Much the Same

Everything is Fine

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.

Much the Same’s new album, Everything is Fine, is out now on Thousand Islands Records, Pee Records, and Lockjaw Records.

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