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Time Well Spent: An Interview with Engine Down

Engine Down are set to begin work on their follow up to 2002’s Demure. We chat about their recent tour and upcoming plans

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Having recently concluded their tour with the Dismemberment Plan, Engine Down are set to begin work on their follow up to 2002’s Demure. Featuring progressive sounds that compliments indie rock roots with more novel ideas, Demure cemented the guys from Richmond, Virginia (by way of Harrisonburg) into the echelon of charismatic sounds that translates well on record, as well as on stage. Make no bones about it; their impressive resume boasts not only fine records but relentless touring and an ethic equaled by few.

Surprising listeners isn’t their only forte; they’re also in the habit of surprising those who do all the asking. Yes, as you’re about to discover, Engine Down are far from just being another touring entourage, they’re quite the savvy individuals whose tour van is probably more ‘tripped out’ than Nelly’s. And who says you can’t watch DVDs, write music, make movies and drive all at the same time?

[Interview with Jonathan Fuller and Matthew “Cornbread” Compton]

Billy: You guys recently wrapped up a tour with the Dismemberment Plan, who, evidently will ride off into the sunset soon. How was the tour?

Jonathan: The tour was amazing, we became fast friends on a tour of the West Coast with them a few months ago, so it was a lot of fun. It was also great to play the bigger venues on the east coast that we can’t quite fill yet ourselves.

Billy: Was there a slightly different feeling during the tour, maybe knowing that this was one of their last? Did you guys take this as just another tour or something with perhaps, added nostalgic appeal?

Jonathan: We’re all D-Plan fans, so watching the band play every night was definitely nostalgic, but what really affected me was thinking about how I would feel if I were in their shoes. If I knew we were playing the last shows as a band, and that the touring, rock band chapter in my life was coming to a close. I think it was pretty bittersweet for them.

Billy: I can imagine how it must feel knowing that the curtain will close soon. Is touring your favorite part of being Engine Down or do you perhaps prefer another aspect?

Matthew: I think my favorite part of Engine Down is the time that we spend on the road. I think playing live is a truer way to express ones’ music. The audience is there specifically to hear your band and to be attentive to it, unless of course you are playing the Orlando and then everyone’s main goal is to take photos at the Bar-BQ-Bar. Also, I feel like I am finding out more and more about how lots of bands might work well professionally but as friends they totally clash. For us van rides are always a party because Keeley and I usually spend half of it on the computer making funny iMovies of the night before or thinking of little interactive things to do on our website for the next tour.

Jonathan: Reading your question made me nervous that anyone else reading it would think that the curtain was closing on US. Which is actually kind of funny, because we just got a couple calls from our friends in Cursive and Minus the Bear who saw posters for the D-Plan tour that said “Dismemberment Plan and Engine Down – Farewell Tour” and assumed that we were breaking up, but nothing is farther from the truth; it’ll be a while before the sun sets on Engine Down.

Back to the question – touring is pretty amazing because the five of us (including our roadie Travis) are great friends, and we manage to have a pretty good time on the road, as well as the fact that we’re sharing our passion with people every night. That’s not to say that there’s not a downside to touring, because as we reach a more and more “professional level” there’s much more sitting around at a stinky club in the middle of the day while we wait for sound check, wait for doors to open, wait for interviewer to show up…etc. But it’s still very fun and very worth it for those times when we really connect with the crowd, and create those electric moments.

As far as picking an aspect … I don’t think I can pick apart the experience, because there are things to love and hate about every aspect. And writing wouldn’t be as rewarding if you didn’t get to tour and share it with people, and touring would be as rewarding if you hadn’t spent 3 months laboring over the new songs…the short answer to your question is… no, I love all my children just the same.

Billy: For someone living in Indonesia (me), who has not been fortunate enough to catch you live, how would you best describe an Engine Down show to them in a few words/sentences?

Jonathan: I think that we’ve been playing together for so long, that when we play live we have this non-verbal communication between us, almost like a charge of electricity, that reflects how much we love and care about what we’re doing. We definitely strive to make the live performance a notch higher than the records, energy wise. Also, you can download a live video from the front page of our website and see for yourself.

Billy: Would a trip all the way over to Indonesia seem something Engine Down would look forward to? (We just got Starbucks this year and our McDonald’s serves porridge)

Jonathan: I’d be totally stoked to come over (and I’d probably be even more stoked if you hadn’t gotten Starbucks and McDonald’s)…we’re always up for traveling to interesting places, but I guess we would have to be able to break even. Since this is our job, we can’t really afford to lose money.

Billy: What is the band currently up to now that the most recent tour is over?

Jonathan: The long answer is: When ‘Demure’ first came out, it really missed the publicity boat, so we made a conscious decision to tour the record for a long time and get people to hear the songs that way. So, after more than a year of constant touring, we are starting to write songs for our next record. We’re all very very excited about this next record, we have always tried to push our limits on each record, and this one will be no different.

Billy: Speaking of ‘Demure’, how was recording and writing that record different to the previous records you’ve written and released?

Matthew: The new approach when writing ‘Demure’ was Keeley and I going in and forming some ideas with a couple of different parts and then having Jason come in and work close with the drums and Jonathan arranging and telling us what was too loopy and what we should keep.

Jonathan: We were actually jokingly talking about this the other day, because we’ve written every record in a different space. ‘Pretense’ was written in my basement in Harrisonburg, ‘To Bury…’ was written in a band mall in Charlottesville, ‘Demure’ was written in a refinished garage in west-end Richmond, and we’ve just started writing songs for our next record in a huge, sweltering, old car-detailing shop with big, industrial looking tools around us — if we follow the analogy: ‘Pretense’ was our angry, loud, basement show-type record, ‘To Bury…’ was the record where we figured out where we fit as a band, ‘Demure’ was a bit more polished and neat, so…our next record should be huge, scary and hot.

Billy: And are you approaching the new album from perhaps, a different perspective?

Matthew: One thing that is weird about al of our albums, which I am not sure what this affects, is that they have all been written in different practice spaces. Which in my opinion seems to add to the change of the music. I don’t know there is something that no one knows. Anyway, we are going to work with the same formula but definitely have a different plan as to what sound we want to generally produce on this record.

Billy: You all have been Engine Down since 1996 – it’s been 7 years – does that ever sink in, that you’ve been able to do this for so long? Most bands today don’t last a few months; is there a secret ingredient to your longevity?

Matthew: Holy crap, 7 years!! I guess it does sort of seem like a slow build. You have to understand that our band has never been given anything and we are still working hard to get the distribution and attention that we feel we need. So I guess the secret ingredient is hard work.

Jonathan: We’re really great friends, and we really love making music. If we were doing this for any other reason, we definitely would have broken up by now, because it’s hard work. We still consider ourselves lucky that we have this opportunity. Whenever I complain to my fiancé about not having enough time at home with her, not having enough money … she humbles me really quickly by reminding me how lucky I am to be doing what I love all the time.

Billy: I think a lot of fans really appreciate the hard work; does it ever get to the point of near exhaustion? Times where you just want to go home?

Jonathan: We’ve definitely had near exhaustion, like when Cornbread got whooping cough in Japan and we thought he was going to die, and he had to take some pills that he couldn’t read or understand, or when I got the stomach flu in California and threw up ‘Stand By Me’ style in front of the line of kids waiting to get in to see us and Q And Not U, or when Keeley racked his shin so hard while playing in Salt Lake City that his whole leg was swollen for weeks afterward, or when Jason got appendicitis on the first day of a short tour and had to go to the ER for emergency surgery. But we’re figuring out how to stay healthy on tour. Mentally, there is usually a point on tour about 3/4 of the way through when I hit a wall, and just want to go home (this usually coincides with the point on tour when we’re on our way back east from the West Coast: the drives are long, and the shows are mediocre) but I always know it’s coming, and recognize it when it does, so it’s really not that bad. So for the few people that happen to have caught us on one of those nights (you know who you are, Lubbock TX, Boise ID, San Antonio TX) I apologize.

Matthew: There was a time like that, when I had a girlfriend, but now I would rather be playing out as much as possible. I love playing in front of people that have never heard us before.

Billy: That’s quite the list of tour related ailments. Do you find that after being on tour many times you develop some sort of immunity to such things?

Matthew: YES, I think I know exactly when I’m about to be sick and which OdWalla drink will help it. Really that stuff works, it says so on the label. Sleeping on any floor use to wreck me and my allergies but now I can fall asleep anywhere.

Billy: Having a wealth of tour experience, do you come to accept that often little mishaps [getting sick in Japan, throwing up in California] like these are just part of the touring?

Matthew: Of course, as dumb as it sounds usually you only get sick when you’ve been having lots of fun, like traveling non-stop, sleeping less, drinking.

Billy: Do you guys have a favorite part of America? A section of tour locations that you always say “we have to play there”. If I were ever to “tour” somewhere, I’d want to go through as many Southern and Midwestern states as I could. I’m not sure why.

Matthew: Yes, we love Gainesville because we have lots of close friends that live there. Also I think I’d add San Francisco and NYC because of the weight that those shows carry.

Jonathan: The West Coast is phenomenal … it’s like the promised land.

Billy: Are there any significant differences in regards to touring and/or releasing and writing since those earlier days?

Matthew: It was a different world. I guess some differences can be broken down to the fact that Jason used to book us, now Flower [Booking] does. If we were lost on tour, WE WERE LOST. Now we can afford cell phones and check MapQuest on a laptop in the van. A 15-passenger van with a trailer versus a piece of crap Dodge Van, which in the back seat had an uncomfortable couch and no windows or AC. Plus cell phones, we like to talk to our girlfriends and family. For recording we are able to work with a bigger budget than before which makes time in the studio a little less stressful.

Jonathan: Oh, definitely. At the beginning, it was about playing shows in whoever’s basement would have you, showing up in our old converted cargo van with a loft and no windows at 8 or 9 at night, loading down some sketchy wooden stairs after the band before you finished, and singing through one mice plugged into a combo amp. (Hopefully getting enough money to cover your gas) then staying at the house that you just played, which is trashed from the show. Now, we have a fantastic booking agent who helps us with that side of things. We are traveling more comfortably in a newer van with a trailer, playing venues with good PAs (most nights) where you can actually hear the vocals, doing a proper sound check, even staying in hotels about half of the time, and making enough money to cover expenses, and live off of (meagerly).

The way we release records has also changed in a similar way. In the beginning, it was kind of like, wow, Brian at Lovitt Records wants to put out a record for us, cool, I think we have enough songs. Record it in a couple of days, master it, release it, and see what happens. Now we write songs specifically for the next record, get more time in the studio to actually make sure the songs are represented the way we want, and actually time the release with press and publicity and touring. So sure, the way that we operate has changed a great deal, but we’re still just doing what we love.

Billy: Would you consider Engine Down to be a “tech savvy” band (or at least the members of)? I mean, when not working, on the road or performing, do you spend time with gadgets, computers and such?

Jonathan: Even on the road, we are pretty techy. In that van we have 3 laptops (one capable of wireless web in conjunction with a cell phone, so we can use the internet on the highway) 5 cell phones, 2 i-pods that we hook into the van stereo, 1 Game Boy Advanced, and an AC power adapter to plug all this crap in. Cornbread makes movies and music on his laptop in the van, Keeley works on album and website design for the band in the van, I keep track of money/business stuff on my laptop. At one point we even had a TV and an Xbox in the van, but we decided that was a little excessive (but there is something to be said for playing racing games while actually feeling the effects of the van moving and turning)

Matthew: You have no idea. There is so much I could say about his question that it’s hard to get out. Both Keeley and I graduated college with degrees in Graphic Design so we learned to get around very well on a MAC. It seems like most of my day is spent on the computer either working on design or sketching out songs with various programs. It’s pretty amazing how much more people can do now with computers than two years ago. I own both an i-pod and a digital camcorder so between the two I can always find something to do. If you want to see what I do in my free time go [here] or [here] and [here]. That should explain it.

Billy: That’s one high tech tour van. I’m afraid to ask; do all the gadgets and gizmos detract from the driving? Who drives?

Matthew: I do most of the night drives and I love to watch DVDs and make music; lots of fun when you’re trying to stay awake.

Billy: For the new record, do you guys have a producer/engineer lined up yet, maybe a location for recording?

Jonathan: We’ve been talking to Brian McTernan who did the last record, he’s a great guy, did a phenomenal job with the last record, and has lots of good insight.

Matthew: At his studio, Salad Days.

Billy: Do you have a favorite in-studio moment?

Jonathan: Generally I’m pretty stressed out in the studio, because there’s never enough time, and I’m the type of person who likes to have everything lined up perfectly before I start … so I kind of wig out. But, there’s some great footage of us cutting up in the studio at Inner Ear on the Lovitt DVD that’s coming out soon.

Matthew: I think when the phrase “Jaah” got introduced into my life. When recording with Brian McTernan he would answer us with “Jaah” and we took to it so fast. It was all we said for the next year.

Billy: Are the majority of the songs formed before entering the studio or does plenty of writing and rewriting occur during the recording process?

Jonathan: Oh yeah, typically everything is totally written and just goes to tape the way we wrote it. We usually try and play the new songs live before we record them, so they develop a little of that live energy. Sometimes we put additional stuff on songs, and that is written in the studio, but we never have the luxury of enough time in the studio to rewrite anything.

Matthew: Thinking about writing in the studio totally stresses me out. We really haven’t ever had the time to do that in the past. ‘Demure’ was done in two weeks and that is the longest we have ever had in the studio, and we were still worried about having enough time to finish it. Hopefully this time we will have more time in the studio and this will allow us to have more time to be experimental. We’ll see.

Billy: How does the design process work (whether it is album artwork, websites, promotional material) and how involved is the band with it all (seeing as Cornbread and Keeley are graphic design alums)?

Matthew: KEELEY DOES IT ALL. He does the website, artwork, merch. It’s all his. We kind of have a strict identity that we like maintain when representing our band.

Jonathan: We all have input, but it’s kind of his baby. Cornbread has designed a couple of things for Engine Down and lots of stuff for other people and bands, and his stuff is totally amazing.

Billy: Is there a tentative date for your new album and once it is released, what will you guys be up to?

Jonathan: We’re looking at recording this winter, then releasing late spring or summer 2004, once it is released we are going to tour like MAD.

Matthew: We have been working with some big rock ideas for the new album. I’m nervous with excitement to talk about it.

Billy: Finally, hypothetical situation: Engine Down adopts a little Asian kid for an entire tour and grows extremely attached. Time is now up, the tour is finished and the little kid has to go home – what piece of advice/thought/opinion do you leave him/her with?

Jonathan: I’d think I’d give him a totally lame fortune cookie tidbit like: “From listening comes wisdom and from speaking comes repentance.”

Matthew: Damn Asian kids are cute. I actually feel like I have already been in this situation. In Japan we met this kid Taka who we took with us just because we loved him SO SO much. I really want to adopt him even if he is a few years younger than me. When we left Japan it was like leaving one of your own. But I guess the advice I would leave for any other Asian baby that might adopt would be, “Don’t let the good ones go. If you’re in a relationship (as friends or whatever) with someone then don’t take it for granted. It’s hard to find other people you work well with. And, take care of your fingers. I have hit mine about 1 million times and scarred them from playing so much that I dread opening a jar of peanut butter in 10 years.

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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