We brand our favorite musicians as heroes. We look up to them as they play their hearts out on stage, while we stand below them. The respect we hold for them and their ability to share their talents with us is justified. They sing the perfect words while they sing our perfect songs. But they are human, just like you and I. And sometimes, they hurt too.
Chris Conley, vocalist and guitarist of New Jersey’s Saves the Day, is twenty-four years of age, but he is a man far ahead of his number. When talking to him, it is as if you are talking to a man who has seen it all and lived it all; the good, the bad, and everything in between.
Having just released, Ups & Downs: Early Recordings and B-Sides, chronicling the history of the band, and preparing to record their next full-length, Conley gets personal and nostalgic with me about the individual hardships he faced during the early days of the band, the business, and the negativity surrounding some of his recent work and how the next album will be different.
As you are writing the lyrics and music for your next full-length, does staying current or hip with what other bands are doing at that time ever play into your mind and how do you exactly go about dealing with tempting trends so to speak in music?
Chris: Well you know what; I’ve never once deliberately tried to change the style of music. It all just happens as we evolve as people, and as our musical tastes have evolved, and as our musical abilities have evolved. It’s all been a very natural, gradual process. It all really has just flowed in a natural evolution. There isn’t any deliberate attempt to achieve anything or create anything. It’s just never been like that for me. I’m just writing these songs to get shit off my chest. Its just for me, it’s not for anybody else. I love sharing it with other people but when I’m creating it, it’s not for a single other person. It’s very cathartic. It’s not like I’m trying to create a craft or commodity or something that I want to sell a lot of records. In that moment when I’m creating the song, I’m just venting and honestly getting out my feelings.
You were able to hit some mainstream success after the release of Stay What You Are and played on the Pop Disaster Tour with Green Day and Blink 182. Were there any moments you felt out of place or awkward in any regard?
Chris: At times I would feel like “what I’m I doing here?” Why am I eating lunch in the same room as Blink 182 and Green Day every day? It was really fun and that was an amazing experience being on that tour. The bands were all sweethearts and the most genuine, down to earth guys. It was neat seeing how these guys can be these huge rock stars, and then not be rock stars.
With mainstream success come the people who criticize, and the message boards were filled with the outcry that you guys sold out by playing on that tour. How does one deal with that type of reaction?
Chris: I’ve learned a long time ago that you have to let other people’s hang-ups, be other people’s hang-ups, because if you start living by other people’s expectations, then you never find yourself in the whole mess of it all. So you just have to put the blinders on.
There was also quite a negative response to In Reverie as well.
Chris: Yeah, I know people talk so much shit about In Reverie, but there are some other people that like it, but in the end, it’s all just got to be a personal journey, and it can’t be for anybody else. If you’re making it for other people, then you’re sacrificing your true expression and your true voice. I just can’t … I mean I have in the past gone through phases, and I’ve gotten to a point where I just physically can’t allow myself to think about what that person and that person think. It doesn’t matter what other people think, it’s only for us. If we spent our lives living for other people we would be empty in the end.
How difficult was it getting to that point where you can just let go of all that and move on with life?
Chris: I have to tell you, when we first started out and put out Can’t Slow Down, and we were first playing shows to people who weren’t our friends, like we came up just playing for our friends or with friends so it was like a party… But then shows with strangers that didn’t know us… they just started saying the meanest things, because people do that to strangers almost as an excuse because they aren’t connected to your emotional sensitivity. So they just said the most horrible things, like really personal, terrible things, and I just barely turned eighteen and that’s really fucking young, I’m still young and I’m twenty-four and people were just saying things to specifically hurt my feelings. People were saying evil, mean things like how ugly I am, how I’m fat, and all these things centered on me and that was really, really, really hard and really painful and I took those things personally… So the only way I’ve come to where I am right now, where I just know that I can’t allow myself to dwell on what other people think about me is because I know that when your hung up on what someone else is hung up on, then it just eats away at you. So in order to keep going on and keep putting out music is something that I need to do, it’s not even a choice, and I can’t allow myself to dwell on what other people think.
I can tell those times were really harsh times for you, but looking back, are you kind of thankful you were able to learn things and grow from them not so happy moments and experiences?
Chris: I feel so fortunate that people said such mean things and people continue to say mean things, because you know, it puts me in my place and reminds me that I’m the only person that validates my existence and I can’t need other people to validate my existence to give me positive reinforcement all the time because the world doesn’t work like that, the world constantly is trying to beat you down and it’s just unhealthy.
Are there times when you have or you do take those moments and use them to fuel your fire to succeed musically and in everyday life as well?
Chris: It’s grown to really be a part of me. I live with a little thicker skin then I did in the past and I don’t view that as a negative thing. I’m just more able to live my life without constantly being wounded by other people’s words and that feels good. Thank God life allowed me to learn these lessons because I wouldn’t be able to keep playing music, I don’t even think I would be able to be a functioning human being. So I feel very blessed to have gone through those things.
Staying with the topic of negativity, being involved with music for several years, has the business side of music irritated you or turned you off in any ways?
Chris: At the moment, we’re not on a label, so its not hard to not worry right now because we are very fortunate and blessed to have a great fan base where we can tour on our own independently, which is really nice because we can just be a band and go about our own business. So now, we are going to wait till we have enough songs to record an album, and then were going to record it by ourselves and then explore our options. We might give it to a label to put out, or we might decide to put it out ourselves, we’re just leaving all the options open. But it’s very important to remember that while we are musicians we do work in the music business, and the music business has nothing to do with music and everything to do with business. In order to continue being a band for longevity sake, you have to abide by the rules and do the dance to a certain extent and its up to each band to choose for themselves how much of the dance they’re willing to do and still feel comfortable going to sleep at night… comfortable with all the things they’ve done and all the compromises they’ve had to make in order to try to get to the top.
Did the business side of things get in the way of In Reverie at all and was the whole process of recording that album to releasing it, a new challenge and learning experience for you?
Chris: After going through In Reverie and having it not do as well as Stay What You Arein the industry standards, at first it was devastating but yet again, it was a real hard time that now I feel I’m very fortunate to have gone through because now I realize, no matter what label your on, people are going to like your music or they’re not going to like it. So having gone through In Reverie and having it crash and burn, it kind of allowed me space from the industry because all of a sudden we had an album that was dead in the water and no one was really doing anything about it … none of the labels that promised us they would do things … that showed me it’s kind of left up to us to just make our records and continue to tour on them and go with the punches and go with the flow.
You have a chance to go back and change the past here Chris. Along your musical journey with Saves the Day, is there anything you would have approached or done differently based on what you know now?
Chris: I would have done the layout to Through Being Cool different [laughter]. Oh god, we didn’t pull off the joke appropriately and everyone thought we were being serious and it was supposed to be totally sarcastic and really campy, so it wasn’t executed properly… much like the songs on In Reverie… I would also put a little bit more “oomph” into the vocals of In Reverie.
So what is going to change in terms of style and substance for the next album; will there be more of a return of that aggressive rock from the early days?
Chris: Well, it won’t be as fast as Can’t Slow Down, because we don’t have that in our blood anymore or the desire to play that fast. It just doesn’t feel as natural. I think the thing that made In Reverie seem less powerful was just the performance. We didn’t deliver as a band. I don’t think the songs alone would have made people think twice about the record if the delivery would have been there with a lot of power behind it. I think that’s what’s going to come back on the new record: a little bit more fire.
With the general, negative response to In Reverie, are you hoping your fans and the masses accept the new album in a more positive aspect?Chris: If people don’t love our next record, that’s okay. Hopefully we will get to make another one, and if we get to make another one, we will just continue to make music… but we can’t allow ourselves to worry about having a hit single that’s going to sell a million records, because that ultimately is unfulfilling and at the end of the road and at the end of the day, the music is what’s going to last.
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.