Los Angeles has played a vital role in the history of punk rock in America. From the resurgence of hardcore in the early 80s to iconic local scenes like Nardcore, Los Angeles’ music underbelly has always been a welcome contrast to the city’s glamorous (and commercial) sheen of the pop industry. Through the 90s it became the hotbed for the punk explosion, as labels from Epitaph Records to Reprise Records found incredible success from the goldmine of California punk. Their artists became the sound of the genre’s mainstream persona that would end up changing the landscape of popular music.
Punk in LA continues to thrive amongst the gloss, a scene ever-changing with the city but one that remains close to its roots. LA-based punk band Failing Up have called the city home since their formation in 2015, and have found that even though it is filled to the teeth with artists trying to establish themselves, they have found community and comradeship amongst LA’s punks.
Fresh from the release of their new EP, the terrific Sword and the Wall, we spoke to Tanya, Adam, and Ben from the band and corresponded about Los Angeles, the importance of community, their new EP, and what it is like being a punk band in 2019 LA.
Congrats on the new EP- how does it feel now that it’s out?
Tanya: Feels good now that we are finally done and it’s out. We put a lot of work into it, and we are really looking forward to continuing to write more music.
The reception to the EP has been good so far- how do you all respond to the positive feedback?
Ben: I have trouble dealing with praise sometimes. I guess that’s a thing for a lot of artists, to be super self-critical. But I’m getting better at it.
Tanya: It has been surreal. We put a lot of hard work into Sword and the Wall and we are super proud of this release. It has a lot of cool sounds that represent us as a whole and it is a good push to write more.
Tell us how Failing Up came together. How did you all meet? Are you all originally from Southern California?
Ben: We all come from different places, but we met here in LA. I met Tanya in 2015, when I auditioned for a band that she was singing for called The Newports. We played in that band together for just under a year, until things sort of fell apart. After she quit, she approached me and asked if I wanted to collaborate on a new project. I said yes, and we got to work right away writing what would become the first Failing Up songs. Adam joined shortly after, and that’s when our sound really started to take shape.
Adam: I saw Ben and Tanya play in a band opening up for our buddies Rayner from my hometown, Las Vegas, and was impressed with their vocal delivery. A few months later, I saw an ad they posted for a guitarist in a new project, and I hit them up. The rest is history as they say.
Tanya: Adam came to audition, and we hit it off super well. We played with different drummers in the past, but it was just last year when Andy joined Failing Up, and he blew me out of the water with his versatility and style. I grew up in Puerto Rico, so punk music wasn’t necessarily the norm on such a small island. I’m super stoked to be in this small DIY scene.
How did you get into punk? What were the bands and the records?
Tanya: When I first started listening, I was only exposed to mainstream punk bands. It was only several years ago that I was introduced to the DIY scene that I love so much now.
Adam: For me it started with Green Day’s Dookie, The Offspring’s Smash and Bad Religion’s Against the Grain. There are countless other records that have influenced me but those 3 were the first!
Ben: I started listening to punk back in the sixth grade. It was the first genre of music that I really felt connected with. Misfits, Operation Ivy, Dead Kennedys, and NOFX were all in heavy rotation. I’ve grown to appreciate other types of music over the years, but punk will always be my first love.
Failing Up have been around for a few years only, but from the first release you seem to gel really well together. What would you say has been working really well for you?
Tanya: Personally, I think the ability to communicate and respect each other’s creative ideas has worked really well for me in the past, and I try to incorporate that in our newer releases.
I was in LA a few years ago- as a tourist, doing tourist things- but I found it very sprawling. I used to live in Stockton (terrible place), so it was tiny in comparison. I know LA has a historic place in punk history, but what is it like for bands and punks today?
Ben: It’s very cool to be in a place with so much history. But it can also be tough sometimes because there’s so much going on. On any given night, there might be multiple punk shows happening across town. So it can be hard to get people’s attention.
Tanya: It can definitely be challenging for DIY punk bands to grow within the scene. But we have a lot of friends who are in LA-based punk bands and that makes the community awesome.
Is it a good place for young bands to record, play shows and meet likeminded people?
Ben: Definitely a great place to meet like-minded people. We are really fortunate to have so many talented friends in the scene, and we all try to support each other whenever we can.
Tanya: LA has a lot to offer in terms of venues that cater to live music. There are so many rad places where you can go record, whether it’s a live video at a studio, or recording some awesome material for future band work. We have a lot of friends in the scene who are down to earth and likeminded. Any of the DIY punk events that you go to in LA allow for opportunities to meet other musicians or people who genuinely enjoy the music and company.
Next time I’m in LA, where do I go to check out some bands or even do simple things like, find a cool record store?
Tanya: Support the local scene! My advice is to look through any local shows nearby on social media.
Ben: Five Star Bar or The Redwood are good places to check out local bands. Amoeba is king of the record stores. But also make sure to check out Headline Records on Melrose. It’s a small shop, but they have a lot of hard-to-find punk and hardcore.
You guys recently played with Naked Aggression- how was that?
Tanya: It was a great experience. They are awesome people who have great energy both on and off stage and are super solid musicians.
Ben: They’re veterans on the scene, so obviously we look up to their work ethic and their ability to stay relevant. Plus, they’re super nice people! We’ll be doing some more shows with them for sure.
I love the album art on your records- they were done by Amy Pate?
Adam: Yes! Thank you. Amy is an old friend of mine from Las Vegas. We used to play shows together with my old bands. Check out her art on Instagram @tattooer_amy_pate, and her bands, Sounds of Threat, Candy Warpop, and Child Endangerment.
Musically, Sword and the Wall is an absolute punch in the face (like “Deal With This”) but you also switch things up a little with tracks like “The Method”. Did you approach the songwriting a certain way, wanting to get a specific sound, how did it all come together?
Ben: I always liked the idea of having some variety in the sound. I don’t want Failing Up to easily fit into any subgenre of punk. We all contribute to songwriting so that helps to mix it up a bit.
Adam: I actually wrote the core music for “The Method” about 5 years ago, and it had a few different renditions before it found traction in Failing Up. We have different ideas and interpretations as musicians that make everything sort of fall into place, rather than achieving a specific “sound”.
Do you guys do everything DIY? Booking, marketing, merch, etc?
Tanya: Absolutely, all aspects are a collective effort amongst the band. It can be challenging sometimes, but it is a good learning experience and you get to meet such amazing people that are always willing to help, whether they help you set up a show if you’re touring, or even housing you for the night.
Ben: We get by with a little help from our friends, but we have no manager or anything like that.
I know the EP just came out, but is there a full length in the works, and what are some of your plans for 2019?
Tanya: We are currently working on new music for a full-length album. We have some shows coming up locally, as well as a mid-summer tour on the West coast. Writing the full length this year is a priority, while also working on the momentum of shows and potential tours for the rest of the year.
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.