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.]
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.