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Taken: Something to Believe In

Ray Harkins is the former vocalist for Taken and a veteran of the southern California hardcore scene. He amiably took time from his busy schedule to answer a few questions for me.

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There have been few times in my life when I have really cried—when a close friend of mine died, when my grandma died, and when my brother left for Iraq. Only certain pain can bring a person to cry in such a way that a dull knot forms in their stomach; in effect, losing complete control over the body. Taken’s Between Two Unseens, mimics such heartbreaking pain. Hearing the intense emotion brought those memories back to me; I could hear the pain in the music and was surprised by the effect that it had. Between Two Unseens will be Taken’s last release as the members have decided to go their own ways. The five-song EP was preceded by three farewell shows and serves as a goodbye to all of the band’s loyal fans.

Since the band has recently broken up, I feel that I have found a talented band just a bit too late. Ray Harkins is the former vocalist for Taken and a veteran of the southern California hardcore scene. In his free time he writes for Sound the Sirens, among many other magazines. He amiably took time from his busy schedule to answer a few questions for me. 

I read in an interview that, since the breakup, you have started working with some new musicians in the Orange County area. Is a new band in progress?

Harkins: I started talking to friends and people from local bands. A friend of mine from Iowa used to play in a band called Preacher Gone to Texas. He moved out here about a year ago and I have always wanted to play with him. It all came together and now we are just looking for a solid bassist. Basically the whole band is together and the name is Mikoto, which stands for beautiful in Japanese. We already have five songs written so we are pretty well underway.

How would you characterize the style of Mikoto?

Harkins: It is not exactly too far off from what Taken was doing. It still falls into the whole hardcore/punk umbrella. I would say comparatively speaking it is a little heavier and I have experimented more as far as vocals are concerned—I am singing more. 

What are your ambitions for future projects?

Harkins: My vision and goal for it is to just get out there. Without sounding clichéd and idealistic, I just feel like a lot of what people are being exposed to, as far as hardcore is concerned, isn’t the original intent of it. I’ve never sat back and just thought that I couldn’t wait until I could make a living off my band. So many bands now start up with the intensive purpose of getting signed after two months and getting labels interested; “We can get huge deals and tour the world after only being a band for two months!” There isn’t any sort of mediation with the band. They start up and immediately become huge. No one will remember most of these bands in 5 years. The important bands will stay around; the bands that build more organically and take their time with actually building their fan base while making real connections with kids. 

The most recent example I have seen is, not commenting on the music or the people, the new band Hawthorne Heights. Everything about that band and every reason they are popular is so stupid, so clichéd. The band sold 3000 records their first week out and honestly musically it is everything that is being done right now.  There is no variation in it. It is sad to see that band do it while bands that have been working really hard for four or five years get shuffled under the rug because they don’t fit that mold.


Ray Harkins on the current crop of popular bands: 

“… Hawthorne Heights … everything about that band and every reason they are popular is so stupid, so clichéd … it is sad to see that band do it while bands that have been working really hard for four or five years get shuffled under the rug because they don’t fit that mold…”


So, I guess my goal is to show that a band can be held in a high regard as far as popularity is concerned and still maintain some sort of independent DIY ethic.  Alexisonfire is a great example—they’ve done everything the right way. They did everything organically and never intended to become so successful. It is great to watch people who are still grounded and connected to that scene while being involved with a greater scene. I guess that is my goal.

What are your opinions of the current rise in the popularity of punk and hardcore music in mainstream media?

Harkins: It is like grunge in the mid-90s. It was huge and was bred from the same cloth that we were. It was a very DIY, independent scene. They did fine on their own and when they were introduced to mainstream culture and it just caught on. I think this type of music (hardcore) has more of a staying power because younger and younger kids keep getting into it. The grunge scene was older fanwise and bottomed out because of it. I also think that hardcore will bottom out and it will be funny and scary at the same time. A lot of the bands that have illusions of grandeur and have little experience will be dropped very quickly. Sincerity will certainly outweigh this trend in musical style. Bands like Thrice and Thursday will be sticking around. After the popularity bands like those will be remembered for doing something for themselves.

Have you seen a lot of original, distinctive bands that are not really getting the attention they deserve?

Harkins: This band called The Backup Plan from Long Island. They put out a record on this New Day Rising record label. They are a combination of a few styles I have always loved. They are a mix of Kid Dynamite meets Lifetime and the whole Jade Tree type stuff. They are incredible and nice dudes as well. As well as underrated in general. I think a lot of the stuff Jade Tree is putting out is going to be really awesome. They are putting out the new Breather Resist record, and that band is supersonically devastating. They will definitely bring a whole different perspective to a lot of mainstream music journalist after listening to it. Also the band These Arms Are Snakes, Jade Tree is releasing their record as well. A lot of the stuff Jade Tree is doing is very commendable because they have always stuck to their guns. I also think Level Plane records are doing amazing stuff as well. They are releasing new records from Hot Cross, LickGoldenSky, and Anodyne and a lot of bands of the heavier genre. They are a great label that has always stuck to what they believe in.  They know that these records may not sell tens of thousands of copies but they don’t care. As long as it does enough to break them even then it that’s fine. A lot of labels don’t have that sort of perception these days.

How do you feel about political messages, such as veganism, straightedge, liberalism and so forth, which are tied in with the hardcore scene?

Harkins: Kids see these bands that are up there singing about absolutely nothing.  They are being exposed to something that isn’t really what I personally perceive as being an independent act. 

I think it is really important that bands, whether or not they take a political stance with their lyrics, that they actually live up to their position; especially when it comes to straightedge or vegetarianism because a lot of kids like to claim things like that because it is cool in the scene right now. You really have to back up what you say.  When you are speaking and showing yourself through your actions you should definitely mean what you say. I see a lot of people who aren’t standing for anything at all and then there are bands that use clichéd slogans to get people interested in what they do. Being active no matter what you involved in is important. That is what differentiates the punk/hardcore scene from everything else that’s out there.

How do you feel about the emerging “look” in the hardcore scene? Bands like Atreyu and AFI wearing eyeliner and tight pants? 

Harkins: It is just one of those things; I personally don’t like it at all. When I see bands doing it I am bummed. I just don’t really see where it fits in. There is something to say about being stylish or whatever because I don’t want people to be looking like slobs. As long as it is done tastefully then I don’t have a problem with it.  You can look at bands like Refused and Elliot—they dress up when they play. They have the whole suit and tie thing going on and it creates a very blank canvas. If you’ve never seen Refused and you see these 5 dudes get on stage and it’s like who are these squares, what is this? They proceed to blow your mind and become your favorite band. I really like the whole aesthetic as far as creating a blank canvas.  When a band walks on stage wearing a lot of makeup and paper tight jeans you can imagine what they are going to sound like and play into. It takes away the guesswork. It is just one of those trends that is just going to die out. I will be a little more thankful when the fashion side of hardcore fades out. It has always been my rule of thumb that whatever you wear that day to work or wherever, you can wear to a show. 

As a record label employee, has working at Abacus influenced your perception of the label/band relationship?

Harkins: Everyone is seeing now that this whole market of music is an untapped resource. Everyone is knocking, major labels are taking interest. When people see that bands like Underoath can do better than major acts than the labels are pouring a ton of money into promotion and whatever it takes for the band to get to the next level. I think record labels in general are doing pretty well as far as promotion is concerned. They are basically just forcing stuff down kid’s throats and that is what it takes now. I see a lot of money and faith put into marketing and advertising. 

How do you want fans to remember Taken?

Harkins: After being in the band for six years I have watched people react to us, the people who have supported us, and it is really amazing. While I feel that we didn’t really hit that level where massive amounts of people knew about us, there were still so many people that were insanely genuine about what we were doing both musically and lyrically. People would attach themselves so emotionally. I never thought I would do anything greater than myself as far as this was concerned.  People have come up to me crying at shows. It is one of the most intense experiences I have ever had. I think if people were to fondly look back on us, I think that is all I can ask for, is that we were a great band. We weren’t following trends; we were doing our own thing straight from the heart. That is all I can ask for.

Photos by: Mark Keraly

[Disclaimer: As you may be aware, Ray Harkins is a writer for Sound the Sirens, and I was actually afraid that I would have nothing nice to say to my peer about the hard work that his band put into its last release. In fact, the opposite has turned out to be true.  I want to reiterate that I am attempting to be unbiased in this article. I actually feel some sort of duty to criticize the work more than I have due to the circumstances.] 

Interviews

Weight of the World: An interview with Good Riddance

We talk to Russ Rankin about these new ballads from the revolution

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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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Interviews

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

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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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