Category: Interviews

NOFX’s Fat Mike on Australia, ‘Double Album’ and the power of pegging

Credit: Susan Moss

It’s around 4pm on a Wednesday when Michael “Fat Mike” Burkett hops on our Zoom call, visibly sweating. The iconoclastic NOFX leader has just finished moving into his new digs – an almost jarringly lavish manor in Las Vegas – where he and Get Dead singer Sam King are slaving away on the logistics for their latest passion project, the world’s first-ever Punk Rock Museum. There’s a lot for us to talk about – not the least of which being his band’s fast-approaching Double Album – but having just learnt that this writer is non-binary, Mike’s first port of call is to address his own (perhaps intentionally) murky relationship with gender.

“I think I’m binary,” he muses, taking a long pause as thoughts visibly flood through him, “but I identify as a boy-girl. I spend half of my life very feminine.” He walks us through hallways of unpacked boxes and lounging punks to inspect his three (3) wardrobes of lacy pink dresses, ruffled skirts and high heels (and of course, bondage gear – this is Fat Mike, after all). “Laura Jane [Grace, transgender frontwoman of Against Me!] came to my house the other day, and I was wearing a blue latex dress. And she was like, ‘Oh my God, what are you wearing!?’ I was just like, ‘Oh, you don’t know? I’m a transvestite.’ And she said, ‘You mean crossdresser?’ And I was like, ‘I’m a sweet transvestite, Laura. I identify how I want to.’”

Mike opts to label himself a “transvestite” – with “boy-girl” being a more nuanced sub-identifier – in part as a tribute to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which he proudly says “changed [his] fucking life” and spurred him on to get a brash tattoo down his forearm reading ‘DON’T DREAM IT, BE IT’. Last April, he explained in an interview with Inked: “Those words have always stuck in my head. I wasn’t a public crossdresser until I was 45. I really felt like such a coward that I wasn’t living my life the way I wanted to live it. I’d hear that song and it would make me sad. I got that tattoo because those words really pushed me.”

Ten years on, Mike has gradually come to be more open with his gender expression. Notably, in the song ‘Fuck Euphemism’ – a standout cut from last year’s Single Album – Mike delivers two bold lines that speak to his ever-evolving identity: “I’m not a cis, I’m a sissy,” and, “Call me ‘per’ for the night.” The latter refers to a neopronoun – a third-person identifier that eschews from the eponyminal standards of ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘they’ – that Mike asserts to us is now how he wants to be referred to exclusively (hence why, from this point onwards, this article will use the pronoun ‘per’). 

“I’m sick of people getting it wrong,” Mike says. “My pronoun is per – short for person. ‘I love per’. ‘Per is great’. ‘I slept with per last night’. When you say, ‘I slept with them last night,’ it sounds slutty. But per is so sweet – and it works in every fucking sentence! Because I am a person. Binary, non-binary, trans – whatever – I’m a person, call me per.”

As it tends to with Mike, the conversation shifts to sex. Unprovoked, per declares: “I’m not bisexual, but I love fucking fake cock.” Per beams at a casual mention of pegging – which also gets a shoutout on ‘Fuck Euphemism’ (where per asks a dive bar dweller to “cis butt fuck my cis clit”) – raving that “pegging is the fucking best! I just think real cocks are gross. It’s like… The money shot? Cock barf. Eugh.”

Pegging is often viewed as demasculinising – an emulation of gay sex, even if the pegger were a cishet woman – which Mike argues is laughably absurd. “If you’re a real fucking man,” per says (with no pun intended), “you can do whatever the fuck you want. You can suck a cock, you can take a cock up the ass… Guys are always saying, ‘Oh, I could never take a cock up my ass!’ But you like a finger, right? Everyone likes a finger. But do you like taking a finger-sized shit? No, that doesn’t feel good in the morning – you want a fucking cock-sized shit in the morning! And that’s what getting pegged is, right? It’s just a great shit, in and out for 20 minutes.”

Pegging is incredibly relevant to this discussion, Mike assures us, because on December 2 – the day NOFX play the Melbourne date of this year’s Good Things festival, directly coinciding with the release of Double Album – per will celebrate the monumental occasion with Mistress Tokyo, one of the most renowned dommes in Australia’s BDSM scene. Mike implores us to “look her up”, declaring her to be among the cream of the crop for corporal punishment. And there’s certainly no shortage of options along the Australian east coast – “there’s a great dungeon in every city,” per notes, however those hoping to bump into per at one over the week of Good Things (again, pun not intended) will be disappointed. “I’m not going to any clubs,” per chuckles slyly. “The shit I do is illegal in clubs.”

At the festival itself, NOFX are billed with the sidenote that they’ll perform their iconic 1994 album, Punk In Drublic, in its entirety. The band have done that just once before – in June of 2015, when they played it to 4,000 fans in Birmingham, England – and being their all-time most successful album, local punks are expectedly hyped to see Punk In Drublic played in full on Australian stages. But Mike is apathetic towards them. “We’re not gonna do it,” per says boldly. When its pointed out that “Punk In Drublic played in full” is billed as one of Good Things’ key selling points, per notes: “I know. I don’t care. They asked us to do it – or they asked someone in our [camp] – but we never agreed to do it.”

Mike is unable to let us know what NOFX will perform at Good Things, because not even per knows. The band don’t believe in traditional setlists – “we play different songs every night,” per says, noting that song choices are often pooled together within hours of the band’s showtimes, if not during the shows themselves. This has long been one of NOFX’s own biggest selling points, and something that’s made them nigh-on iconic amongst their peers. Mike tells us of the time one of per own personal idols, Brian Baker (of Minor Threat and Bad Religion fame) tailed NOFX on every date of the 1998 Vans Warped Tour: “He poured himself a drink, sat himself down on the speakers and watched our entire set, every single say. 

“And he’s fucking Brian Baker – Minor Threat was a band I grew up on, and I fucking love Bad Religion – and he’s just off to the side, rocking out with us for the whole Warped Tour. One day he came up to me and he was like, ‘Man, I never know what’s gonna happen with you. You always play different songs, you always do different stuff… There’s no way I could miss it.’ And that really pushed me [to go as hard as possible] at every show we played after that. Because it matters to us, what our peers think about NOFX. What the kids think of us? [Scoffs]. Last thing on the list. But people like Brian fucking Baker…”

Seemingly out of nowhere, Mike starts to tear up. Like a tonne of bricks, it hits per that these memories are finite – and for NOFX, they’ve only got another year or so to make them. At the start of September, Mike revealed – in an off-handed Instagram comment, of all things – that NOFX would embark on a farewell tour in 2023. The plan, per confirms to us, is for the band to play 40 shows across the US, where in “every city we play, we’re gonna be doing 40 songs a night, and they’re all gonna be different. We’re playing two-hour sets, playing through every song we’ve ever recorded, and it’s going to be very fucking special… And very fucking emotional.”

Midway through that tour, Mike says, NOFX will release another new album. “It’s called Everybody Else Is Insane, and it’s fucking good. I challenged myself a lot on it. One of the songs has 54 chords in a row, and it’s everyone’s favourite track on the album. The melody stays the same – it’s kind of like ‘Eat The Meek’, where people don’t understand how complicated ‘Eat The Meek’ is, but every verse has a different chord progression.”

Before we can get too wrapped up in the hype of NOFX’s 16th album, there is the small matter of its predecessor. Mike is relieved to finally have Double Album out in the world; it was written and recorded at the same time as Single Album, per says – and the two records were originally intended to be released as one two-disc epic – but if that were to be the case, “it would’ve sucked”. Per elaborates: “I think Double Album is perfect as it is, and I’m glad we’re putting it out. But if they came out together, this one would have made Single Album look bad. It would have minimised the impact that Single Album has.”

Even during the promotional cycle for Double Album, Mike can’t help but gush over last year’s release – which, by a fair margin, remains NOFX’s most ambitious and considered effort. “It’s a special album,” per asserts. “Critics loved it so much – we’ve never had an album reviewed so well – and it means so much to me because I really do love that album. Like, ‘The Big Drag’ – that song is just epic, and there’s no other song like it. Every chord progression is in a different time signature; it doesn’t make any sense, but goddamn, it’s fulfilling. And ‘Birmingham’ – I mean, those lyrics are fucking heartbreaking.”

After 40 years of punk-rocking havoc, NOFX are much more excited by the songs that push them outside of their comfort zones. And although their touring days are almost over, Mike says the band will continue to thrive behind closed doors. “I would say it’s probable that we keep recording [after the final tour ends],” per says, revealing that even after they drop Everybody Else Is Insane, the band have two more albums in various stages of post-production. Beyond them, per says per has “something like 240 songs written”. 

Per explains: “I’ll always keep writing songs. That’s just what I do. I mean, I’m definitely on the spectrum – my brain just does not turn off. But [NOFX is] not going to play again after this tour. We’re not like Mötley Crüe, we’re like The Beatles… There’s just one problem we haven’t been able to figure out.”

As tempting as it is to leave Fat Mike of NOFX hanging (per’s long had a turbulent affair with the press, so goddamn, what a power move it’d be), we have to bite: what is the band’s one lingering roadblock?

“What to do with Australia.”

Though Mike and co. are eagerly counting the seconds until they touch down for Good Things, per is bitter at the prospect that it might be the last time per ever performs here: “It’s not fair that our last shows in Australia are at this fucking festival,” per says, wiping back more tears. “It’s not fair. It’s not our shows, some other band is coming on after us… Fuck that shit. I want to fucking play for hours and thumb-wrestle with every fucking person in the front row… I want to say goodbye to everybody. I want to say goodbye to everybody.”

A run of headline shows is far from guaranteed, but Mike swears to us that per’ll “figure something out”. Good Things sideshows are sadly off the cards – “I’m gonna be too busy with the dommes,” per clarifies – but per is adamant that “playing this festival isn’t good enough [of a send-off] for what Australia has given us for so many years”. Per apologies for crying, conceding: “I’m really emotional about the whole thing. I just want people to know that it’s not a joke. I want to say goodbye to everybody. I want to give our best performance, and our worst performance, and let everyone know how much they mean to me…

“We should come back and do four shows. I think we have to. There’s no way around it.”


Huge shoutout to Dave Jiannis for making this happen!
Double Album is out now via Epitaph Records. Check it out here.

Note: this article was also published on the Australian Guitar website.

Aaron West And The Roaring Twenties, or “professional wrestling, but make it emo”

A promotional photo of Dan Campbell, taken to promote his project Aaron West And The Roaring Twenties
(I couldn’t find a photographer credit for this, sorry!)

Hi, hey, hello!

Issue #151 of Australian Guitar hit shelves yesterday. The first third of it, as always, is full of cool shit I’ve scribbled up (or coordinated) over the past three months – including an interview I did with Dan Campbell of The Wonder Years, Aaron West And The Roaring Twenties, Clear Eyes Fanzine, and probably like 30 other projects that are yet to materialise (he also has a really cool solo project where he writes love songs for couples that commission them).

Our interview ties in to the promo cycle of The Wonder Years’ just-released seventh album, The Hum Goes On Forever. As such, that’s all you’ll be able to read about in the Australian Guitar feature (linked above, if you didn’t notice). But word counts be damned, because I caught Dan at the very end of his phoner block, he was gracious enough to give me a little over half an hour of his time – which I’m especially thankful for because he’d just finished a super busy day and very clearly needed some sleep – so I wasn’t going to just sit there and not ask about Aaron West.

I think Aaron West might be my favourite Dan Campbell vehicle – it has all the cerebral grit and raw emotion of The Wonder Years, but a bendier and more colourful, folk-tinged musical palette that allows Dan’s lyrics to really shine. Routine Maintenance was absolutely one of the top five best albums of 2019 – so, as we come up on its four-year anniversary next May, I’m naturally curious about what Dan has planned for album number three (if he even has one planned).

He was hesitant to give me any concrete details or expound on his concepts, lest they shift in the months to come, but he was happy to chat about his vision for the project.

There was a five-year gap between Routine Maintenance and the first Aaron West album, 2014’s We Don’t Have Each Other, but I’m truly hoping that isn’t the case for the next record. It may well be – 2023 is shaping up to be a huge year for The Wonder Years (with an Australian tour on the cards, to boot), and Dan has a bunch of other really cool shit in the pipeline, like a graphic novel, in addition to being a dad for his pair of toddlers.

Whatever the case, there is a future for the Aaron West project, and I’m excited to see it. If you’re reading this, you probably are too. So, just for you, here are the offcuts from my interview with Dan, where we chatted about Aaron West 3: The Revenge Of Rosa & Reseda. (not the actual title… unless?)


Have you started chipping away at Aaron West LP3 yet?
Not quite yet. I was supposed to start over the summer, but I got really busy with another project. I’ve had this idea for a graphic novel for, like, almost a decade now. And I was on tour with Aaron West, playing a show, and suddenly, in the middle of the set, the third act [of the novel] – which has eluded me for years – kind of just hit me all at once. So I was like, “I’m gonna work on this all summer!” I put in a bunch of work on that, and then I had to stop because we were getting closer to album time [for The Wonder Years] and I had a lot of other responsibilities.

That’s a long-winded way of saying, “I have some ideas for Aaron West LP3, but I don’t think I’ll be able to sit down and start writing them out in earnest until… Probably December.”

So where do you see the project – and the story – heading next?
Well, I don’t want to give too much away about the story, but I think [Aaron West And The Roaring Twenties] is a really interesting thing because it’s almost a singular art form – which I know sounds very up-my-own-ass, but here’s the thing: it is a band, yes, and it’s telling a story – a narrative story – and other bands have done that, sure. But I do the live show in character too, which makes me think, “Okay, well, maybe this is musical theatre.” Think about it: you’re performing music in character, the monologues are in character too… It’s basically a play at that point, right? But it’s not musical theatre because musical theatre is static – the story is the story, it’ll be performed the same way every night, and that’s it. 

If on a Friday night, one of the cats from CATS dies… Which might be a part of the musical? I actually don’t know… My wife is going to kill me, she loves CATS… But you know, if one of the cats dies in the show, the next day, the story resets and that cat is alive again. But that’s not the case here, right? The story is dynamic because of what happens on stage. And in that way, I think it’s more like professional wrestling – that’s the only art form I can think of where it’s performed live in front of an audience, and what happens on one night furthers the story for the next night. Can you think of a different type of art that would be corollary to that?

No, which makes it a really interesting comparison! How does that inform your songwriting process?
When I started the project, it was only supposed to be one record – but then people liked it. So if you listen to Routine Maintenance, there are references to all these things that happened on the first record’s tour. I took calendars and I highlighted dates, like, “This is when I was on tour here, this is when I played that one show here,” to make sure that if Aaron West was standing on a stage in St. Louis, Missouri on a particular date, then on the record – in the canon of the story – that’s where he was on that date. 

Things have happened [since Routine Maintenance came out] that are obviously going to be a part of the story going forward, because they are as they happened on stage. Like, “Aaron’s sister Catherine has joined the band to play piano” – that actually happened at a real show, in front of people! And that obviously has to be part of the story going forward. But the only thing I know for sure about the next record is that I want to make it with the biggest band I’ve made a record with. I think I’m looking at a 14- or 15-piece band.

I love that the narrative is informed by the band’s actual trajectory, too – I didn’t know that. I feel like I’m going to have so much more appreciation for Routine Maintenance when I revisit it now. Thank you for that!
Yeah, you’re welcome. There’s a few moments on it where I had to, like, zhoosh some things around because they weren’t supposed to happen the way they actually happened. I wasn’t supposed to make another record to begin with, so I had to retcon a few things to make it work. But yeah, it’s all there. And there’s actually a few little inside jokes in there – I’ve never told anyone what they are, but I want people to find them someday. 

The most fun thing about doing Aaron West is that the people who play in the band with me are not people that are, like, touring professionals. They’re just my friends, from home or from school or whatever, that are really talented and great performers, but never got a shot in the industry – for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which being this is a very difficult and cutthroat industry. But I get to be like, “Hey, you guys want to come and tour England with me? Wanna come play all over America?” And when I’m onstage and I look to my right and left, and I see the joy on their faces, stoked to be out and playing and hearing people sing along, it’s really fucking awesome. That’s why I just want to bring more people in – more and more and more!

You’re not worried about it getting too cluttered?
Well you know, not everybody would be playing all the time. Right now when we play live, it’s myself playing acoustic guitar and singing, and then we’ve got people on electric guitar, bass, drums, piano, accordion, trumpet, saxophone and trombone – so that’s nine. Sometimes we play with a lap steel, which is ten. The 11th instrument that gets played live is a banjo, but we usually have the sax player or the trumpet player on it – but if we were doing it as a 15-piece, I would have a separate banjo player. So that’s 11. And then if we bring in a string quartet, that’s 15 right there.

So like, say you’ve got a 30-date Wonder Years tour lined up, and there’s a block where you got four days off – will you go, “Hmm, I’m bored, and I’ve got the energy… I’ll do an Aaron West show!” Or is that not possible with the setup you have?
I’ve done it. But you know, it’s very rare that we’ll ever have that many days off on a Wonder Years tour [laughs]. It’s happened a few times. It happened in the UK once and we played an Aaron West set as a four-piece, because Nick [Kennedy] from The Wonder Years plays drums in Aaron West; and LJ, The Wonder Years’ guitar tech, plays guitar in Aaron West; so Casey from The Wonder Years filled in on bass and we played as a four-piece. It also happened once in in Australia – that wasn’t even an off-day, we just had time to kill before the show so I played a set in a record store in Melbourne. That was really cool. And once on the West Coast, I did a couple of solo shows… So yeah, it can happen. But my preference is to do shows with the band, the way that it is intentionally structured.

You should bring that to Australia.
I would love to! But [the band] is one of the many things that makes it so challenging – I looked at The Wonder Years and said, “Hmm, not enough members!” Like, it is so fucking expensive for The Wonder Years to tour Australia. We were about to lose a bunch of money to play at the Full Tilt festival – which we were fine with, because we fucking love coming to Australia – but like, the flights are crazy right now. So to be like, “Yeah, I’m gonna bring this minimum-seven-piece band to Australia…” I’ve gotta find someone who’s willing to pay for that!


P.S. You can also read my Wonder Years interview with Dan here, or in Australian Guitar #151 (which is available here).

L.S. Dunes: Travis Stever’s yang to Frank Iero’s yin

Image credit: Mark Beemer

Travis Stever talks a lot.

That’s not an insult – the 43-year-old New Jerseyan just has a lot to say, and virtually all of it is fantastic. He’s impressively storied: most would know him as the lead guitarist in Coheed And Cambria, but he’s popped his head through many a musical window over some three decades: side-projects include Fire Deuce, The English Panther, Davenport Cabinet and Zero Trust (per Wikipedia, but I’m certain there’s more out there), and he also played lap-steel on My Brother’s Blood Machine, the 2006 debut from The Prize Fighter Inferno, the solo folktronica project of Coheed frontman Claudio Sanchez.

Stever’s latest project is L.S. Dunes, a post-hardcore supergroup* I can only accurately describe as “every mid-to-late 2000s emo fan’s wildest pipe-dream come true”. Stever plays guitar alongside Frank Iero (of My Chemical Romance, and his own mountain of side-projects), while Anthony Green (Circa Survive, Saosin) sings, Tim Payne (Thursday) plays bass, and Tucker Rule (also Thursday, but for a short time, Yellowcard too) plays drums. I write “supergroup” with an asterisk because although L.S. Dunes are a supergroup, etymologically, when I interviewed Stever for Australian Guitar #151, he fucking hated that I called them one. 

Nevertheless, we got along like a house on fire, and I had a blast chatting with him about his new band and their debut album, Past Lives (out now on Fantasy Records). It was hard not to be engaged with everything he said: watching him wax lyrical about his impenetrable love for music, even over Zoom with our video link presenting him at approximately three pixels per inch, the glimmer in his eyes and wideness of his smile made it clear, Stever is living his dream. He’s just a kid that fell in love with rock ‘n’ roll, started jamming out for the hell of it – not to make bank, but simply because it was fun – and somewhere along the way, wound up turning it into his full-time gig (no pun intended). 

It doesn’t seem to have gotten any less fun for him since then, either. Usually artists with careers as weighty as his appear at least a little burnt out on the music industry. You can tell when someone’s passion is genuine, and Stever’s certainly is.

The proof in the pudding, for me, was just how goddamn much Stever had to say about any and every topic. Our interview in Australian Guitar #151, spanning five questions across a hair over 1,000 words, was cut down from a transcript about four times as long. His unedited answers to those questions ran a solid 600-850 words apiece – well over 1,000 for the first – and there were still a few topics that we had to shave off for page space. One of those was actually my favourite from the entire chat: the creative chemistry that L.S. Dunes unlocked between Stever and Iero.

I opted not to run with that in the printed story because what did make it to the page is a lot more relevant to the origin story of L.S. Dunes and how that led to Past Lives shaping up in the way it did – which is ultimately the story I wanted to centre. But I think what Stever said about his creative dynamic with Iero – and how they each pushed the other to venture outside their comfort zones – adds a lot to the narrative surrounding L.S. Dunes. It also adds a twinge of contextual colour to songs like ‘Blender’ and ‘Sleep Cult’, which makes for a more gratifying listen when you really stop to soak in and digest Past Lives.

Ultimately, I think one of the coolest things about the “supergroup” concept is how idiosyncrasy can germinate when two artists of similar mind collaborate. Both Stever and Iero come from backgrounds of punk, rock and post-hardcore – even if their writing and playing styles are quite dissimilar – but when they joined forces to form L.S. Dunes, they started writing music that neither ever thought they would. And that’s so fucking cool.

So below is Stever’s commentary on his chemistry with Iero, as well as a couple of other offcuts from my interview with him. I’ve included those as well because at a base level, as a fan of music at the end of the day, I love reading about my favourite artists’ plans for the future – even if they never come to fruition – and about how they feel in the lead-up to a major release. I know that latter topic is now entirely irrelevant, because Past Lives came out a week ago, but, like, fuck it, it’s my blog, I make the rules.

You should read the Australian Guitar piece before you hit the jump, because it offers some solid context on exactly what L.S. Dunes is, how their collective ethos plays into everything, and why Stever and I were even talking to each other in the first place – and because the latter two of the three questions here were asked after the ones printed in AG, and some lines might be a bit confusing without that context.


So we’re about a month away from getting our hands on Past Lives. How does it feel to be here in the home stretch?
You know, you’re always going to feel a little on edge when you’re about to release something that you poured your heart and soul into, no matter how much you believe in it. It’s exciting, but at the same time, you can feel the the vibes of danger – the danger of exposing the art that you created with your brothers, you know? And knowing that people are going to judge it. But that’s the gig, right. That’s the game. You know people are going to receive it however they choose to – but I’ve gotten nothing but positive feedback from everybody I’ve showed it to, so that’s a good sign!

Being the two guitarists in L.S. Dunes, how did you and Frank coalesce in the creative process?
It goes back to what I was saying before, how there was no expectation. It’s really intriguing, because we communicate with each other through the guitars. And we were doing it over streams, online, through email [and] text – and we just knew, as soon as we started sending each other ideas, that it was going to work. And then, you know, it was just as relieving to get into an actual room together and be able to know that the spark was there [in real life], too.

I’ve got to be honest, after working with Frank [on this record], I had to go back and revisit a lot of the things he did in My Chem, and even a lot of his solo stuff – not that I didn’t fully respect everything he does before, but you know, after you see a person in a new light, you understand their musical language more. And I am so honoured to be in this band with him. He comes up with these riffs that are completely different from anything I’ve ever heard before. They’re all over the map – because you can say, “Oh, he comes up with these, really awesome, like, edgy punk riffs,” but that’s not true. 

There’s a song at the end of the album that he wrote, ‘Sleep Cult’, where Anthony’s vocals almost have a doo-wop kind of feel. Frank had written that chord progression – that fingerpicking kind of thing – and I heard it while I was working on other guitars; we were in pre-production, getting ready to go over to Will Yip’s, and it was at the end of the session, we’d been working all day, and all of a sudden, he started playing this really beautiful chord progression. And so we recorded that, just as a rough little idea, but we wound up rolling with it. I just added some lap steel and some really delicate chords to it, just to give it a little nuance. 

There are numerous parts on the album like that, which I think are probably the best parts of it. Another one that started out with Frank – which is probably my favourite [track] on the album right now – is ‘Blender’. I don’t want to get too dorky about it, but you know, that song is a really good example of what it was like to work with him. I sent him the guitar parts, and he really liked them – I think he was already fine and excited with everything I’d laid down… Because you know, that can always be a touchy thing. I mean, he pretty much had a hole-in-one with the ideas I would send him, and I always loved what he was playing – but I was open to him switching whatever he wanted.

In this case, I had written all the guitars that I was going to play, which was based on what he was playing and what Tim was playing. There were no vocals yet. And I’m so glad that we took our time with that song, because at the very last minute, I just switched it up completely, and I wound up harmonising a lot of the guitars [Frank] was playing instead. It was a completely different approach. That’s one of the things I loved about working on this record – the amount of time we were able to take to really think about it.

I’m not going to speak for Frank, but I think he was probably able to step out of his comfort zone [on this record]. Because there’s things he played on it where someone would probably be like, “Wow, I’ve never heard him play like that!” And for me, that feels really special because I got to [work with him] on those songs. And the same goes for me – there are a lot of [parts] on the record that are very different to [the parts] I would usually write.

We’ve already gone way over time, but I want to wrap up by looking to the future: what are your plans for Australia, and what’s the vibe on a second L.S. Dunes album?
Believe me, we want to tour everywhere we can. I can only hope that we’re able to bring [L.S. Dunes] over to Australia – that would be amazing. As for other material… I mean, like I said, there’s just been an endless flow of material. There’s no shortage of stuff that we’ve been sending back and forth, and we already have a lot of surprises up our sleeves. But I just want to pay my respects to the album we’ve already created before we move on to the next thing, you know? I think it’s important that we get out there and show people what we can do on the live end… When everybody’s able to! And if we were able to bring that over there to Australia… I mean, yeah, of course we will!

Past Lives by L.S. Dunes is out now via Fantasy Records – click here to check it out.
The print edition of Australian Guitar #151 is out on November 28th – keep an eye out for that here.

A heaps rad chat with Tim and Craig of LOSER

PHOTO CREDIT: IAN LAIDLAW

Okay, so I’ve been staring at this little WordPress CMS text module thing for like 20 minutes at this point, and I still can’t think of anything to write here. It is a Sunday afternoon and I’ve just finished a bullshit hectic week, and my brain is just totally caramelised. My writing skills are definitely not in tip-top shape right now.

Y’know what is in tip-top shape, though? Melbourne-based alt-rock band LOSER.

Yeah I know, that segue was shit.

Y’know what’s not shit, though? Melbour-NO DON’T CLICK AWAY, I’LL STOP!!!

But yeah, the new LOSER record – All The Rage, due out September 10th on Domestic La La, the label I’m pretty sure is just physically incapable of putting out a bad release – slaps so hard. Thematically, it hits super hard and cuts straight down into the soul; but musically, it’s just so much fun. It’s like an amalgamation of everything great about ‘90s and ‘00s pop-rock – there’s a little Weezer in there, a bit of the Pumpkins, a dash of Nirvana – all spun through an ultra-crispy, tightly produced web of modern slickness.

In short: ‘s’a pretty fuckin’ good time, eh.

I got to write the official bio for the record, too, which was really cool. I really enjoyed listening to it approximately 600 times in the span of a week (I know that reads as sarcasm, but it honestly isn’t), and I especially enjoyed getting down to the wire about it with vocalist/guitarist Tim Maxwell and bassist Craig Selak. I only wound up using about 200 words from our chat in that bio, so there existed about 4,000 words of their wisdom just gathering dust on my harddrive…

UNTIL NOW!

The band (and their absolute legend of a publicist, shoutout to Abbey!!!!) said they were cool with me posting the full transcript here, so… Here we are ¯\_(ツ)_/¯


It honestly feels like it was just a few months ago that Mindless Joy came out. How did All The Rage come together so quickly for you guys?

Tim: It didn’t, really! We’ve been writing this for… What, like a year and a half now? I mean, the first song and the next single, they were literally written in 2018. So we’ve been working on it for a while. We pretty much wrote another album before we wrote Mindless Joy, and most of those songs just didn’t really fit, or we thought they would be too far removed from what we were doing at the time.

We figured that people wanted to hear something a little bit more simplistic and more like Weezer – stuff in that pop-punk sort of vein – rather than jump straight into the stadium rock sort of thing. So we held off on that and we chose a few songs that we wanted to work on, and then we wrote some more, and so on. I mean, during COVID, what else could you do?

In my honest opinion – and I’m cautious about this coming off as an insult, but I mean it in a totally positive way – I think on this record, your influences are a little less forward-facing, and you guys really come into your own as a band. A song like “Generate” on Mindless Joy, for example – I dig it a lot, but I listen to it and I’m like, “Yeah, this could 100 percent be a Weezer song!” But every track on this album is just… It sounds like LOSER. Do you agree that you’ve sort of galvanised your own identity more on this record?

Tim: Yeah, I feel like the way I’d explain it is that Mindless Joy was like our trendy ‘90s record – y’know, I was listening to all of those bands like Weezer, The Smashing Pumpkins… I actually didn’t grow up listening to all of that, that was Craig’s bread and butter, but I got into that at a later stage and that’s what inspired me to start LOSER. 

But for this record, I went back more to the 2000s, I started watching Video Hits and all that, and I was listening to all the bands that I know and love. And I feel like a lot of that shows in [All The Rage]. It’s still a good combination of all that ‘90s stuff, but with a bit more of the 2000s.

Craig: Yeah. We definitely didn’t take any offence to that comment, by the way – it’s totally true. I remember, there were a couple of moments during the writing and recording of Mindless Joy where we would be like, “This part reminds me of Alice In Chains, let’s go more down that path,” or, “This is kind of Weezer-y, let’s put some more of that energy into it.” But this time around, it was much more about what we were feeling personally and what felt good to us, and a bit less of a focus on any of that stuff. 

Which I guess is probably a combination of having grown into our own as a band, and the fact that having been a band for longer, and having Mindless Joy on our belts already, we feel a bit less worried about how it’s all going to come across. We’re more comfortable in expressing ourselves.

Did that confidence lead to you feeling more inspired?

Tim: Yeah, we definitely felt more inspired. The last band I was in was like instrumental, ‘70s rock sort of stuff. And I guess I’ve always sort of been… Not really a frontman, but writing the songs and sort of leading the band and stuff. So yeah, it was cool to come into our own.

What is it about those big, anthemic ‘90s and ‘00s rock bands that you wanted to channel? Or what is it about that style that resonates so much with you?

Tim: I think it’s the catchiness – it’s universally pleasing to everybody. I feel like the 2000s are coming back pretty strong at the moment, y’know what I mean? I basically wanted to give the kids of 2021 an opportunity to feel what I felt back in the day, when I would hear bands like Green Day for the first time and just lose my mind. 

There’s a lot of bands out there who are just trying to jump on what’s trendy at the time, and we’re pushing something that’s not really trendy at the moment. And, like, it takes longer, y’know? Not many people want to listen to guitar solos and stuff – songs have to be under three minutes long, they need to be short and simple… And don’t get me wrong, we did a lot of that – I mean, there’s not a one song over three-and-a-half minutes long on this record, I’m pretty sure.

Craig: I think some of the inspiration, too, just comes from those full-circle moments. It might be different for Tim, but as I get older, I’ve started to become a lot more relaxed in who I am, and anything I got into when I was 11 to 14 years old is now just sacred. Each year seems to become more and more influential. 

The first live gig I saw was Silverchair, Magic Dirt and Something For Kate, and it was like, I’d gone from Queen to that, and then straight into the grunge stuff, and then once I started meeting friends at school and playing in different bands, I got into more punk and ska and everything like that. And that’s where all the Bennies stuff came into it – which was just great, I mean, playing with those guys was amazing, they gave me some of the best moments in my life – but then you get to a point where Tim sends you a song called “Phase Me” and it sounds exactly like the first things you ever loved, and you’re like, “Woah!” 

It was like I was plugging back into the source, y’know what I mean? And I think the more you indulge in that, the more it just fills you up… It’s all about the love we have for this kind of music, and wanting to push forward with it in our own way.

You want it to be so that if 15-year-old Craig could hear this record, he’d be fucking stoked!

Craig: Exactly! You want to write a song that you would have liked, y’know?

With “On The Edge”, Tim, you noted that you wanted to write a song that would have a universal impact. Do you reckon you achieved what you set out to do, or tick the boxes you wanted to?

Tim: Totally, yeah, I think I did! I mean, it’s been played on the radio every day, and I didn’t think that song would be picked up to begin with, so that’s fucking awesome. I literally spent weeks and weeks just watching Video Hits and going, “Alright, cool, so I want a Ben Folds, ‘Rockin’ The Suburbs’ sort of verse, and then this weird, almost rap-ish verse, and then the chorus has to be real simplistic, but still punches you in the face…”

So in terms of the lyrical themes you guys explore on this record, I could be totally misreading it all here, but it feels like there’s an overall theme of self-affirmation and overcoming adversary – whether that’s inflicted by other people or by your own mental headspace. Was there an intentional theme of optimism you wanted to embrace, or was the goal to write an album that people could listen to as a tool of encouragement?

Tim: It was mostly about how bad my mental health was going – especially that song, “On The Edge”. Mindless Joy hid away a lot of those things, and I wasn’t being as sincere when I was writing those songs. Whereas [on All The Rage] there’s some really deep lyrical moments. Especially the song “So”, too, where I’ve written it like a storyteller-songwriter thing, where it’s just like, “He could not be any more obvious about what’s going on in his life.” 

When Craig and I were tracking, I think it was two songs – “On The Edge” was one of them – and it was like… That’s the first time I’d ever broken down in the studio. I didn’t know what was wrong with me – I felt like half my body was numb. And I think you can really hear that through a lot of the vocal tracking and the lyrical content.

Is it important for you to maintain the human side of it, and allow yourself to get to that point where it can be very cathartic?

Tim: Totally, yeah, that was mostly the point of it – being real open and honest. And y’know, hopefully people can relate to that and feel the same way, and the songs can be cathartic for them too.

Craig: I feel like when the songs were written, there wasn’t a cohesive theme in mind. It wasn’t until we put them all together that we realised what was going on with the album. And coming up with the name All The Rage – it felt really fitting for what we were saying, and what Tim was saying, because it was a response to being in an environment where there’s a lot of rage. 

It was less about the pandemic and more about just being a young person in an environment where people are rewarded for outrage, and it actually makes people more popular and more wealthy; the more they can bring rage out in people, the more engagement they receive. And these songs the a reflection of somebody looking inward, whilst also being inside a larger environment where it’s all about stoking the fire.

I think it was cool when we sort of picked up on that. It was like, “Wow, each song has kind of got this thread running through it! This is what’s happening, but this is how I’m feeling, and I want to talk about how I’m feeling, not what’s happening.” Y’know what I mean?

I guess it comes down to that authenticity of, like, when you’re putting all of yourself into a record and you’re not trying to force anything, there can end up being an overarching theme that runs through all of the songs subconsciously. Because that’s how life itself works, and a good record about one’s life is just a snapshot of a period of time in that life.

Craig: Absolutely. And this was a really clear snapshot, so I’m glad that’s come across. Because yeah, there were definitely moments where y’know, Tim was super vulnerable – particularly in tracking it. I think a lot of the writing is subconscious and emotional, and then when you get down to going, “Alright, let’s nail this part, how are you feeling? Let’s track it!” That’s when it becomes real. And then I’m sitting there while Tim’s singing and I’m just like, “Shit, man! He’s pouring into it!” That was a nice thing to try and capture.

Speaking of the tracking, what was it like building Restless Noise Studios from the ground up?

Tim: Yeah, it was awesome! My parents were just super supportive and awesome, and they were like, “Hey, we’re buying our old house, and there’s a six-by-six metre shed, and we want to turn that into a studio for you. We’ll pay for it.” And basically, I had a mate from Tassie come up and help me build that, and we built it over, like, two or three weeks. When do you think we started actually working in there, Craig? It would have been a while after we finished building.

Craig: Yeah, we did the first round of tracking for the album a year ago – it would’ve been May. So when we started, the first drum tracks were recorded via satellite, because at that point we were still in lockdown. So the studio kind of fired up and had a warm release, with Tim in there by himself and me in this exact room, sending bass parts and tracking vocals. 

And then there was that mid-year period where everything opened up again for about a month and a half, and that’s when we really got in and the studio and really came into its own, and we started pounding out the rest of the songs because we thought things might lock down again – and they did, so then we couldn’t really finish the album until late last year, early this year, once everything had opened up again. 

So we had to take a couple of runs at it, but in that whole time, Tim was just working away on the record. Because he was basically living at the studio during lockdown, just adding bits and pieces and working it through. And it was a really strange and awesome experience – I’d never recorded an album over such a long period of time. 

Tim: We’d be on Facetime with each other for hours. Because me and Craig produced it; we had a lot of input on Mindless Joy as well, but we were under the guidance of somebody else, and the whole band was in the room. But this one was mostly just me and Craig, and y’know, we’d pull apart the songs and play around with them. 

There were so many songs that had to be faster and so many songs that had to be slower, and we were like, “Ah, this is boring,” and, “Ah, here’s a fresh song” – we had so much time to work on it, and we took advantage of every second.

Craig: But then by the end, we got to the point where we were just like, “Okay, let’s not overthink it now!” We’d done so much overthinking that we came full circle and went, “Let’s just vibe it!” And then we ended up just flowing right to the finish line. It was a pretty strange way to do an album, but I feel so proud of how it came out, and pushing through all that weird stuff.

So you spent months and months working on this record, but you were still just going with the flow and maintaining that essential looseness.

Craig: Yeah! We’d just put out an album, so we didn’t feel pressured to rush it. But also, we didn’t want to just wait for that – for everything to happen again, y’know? There was no finish line at this time last year, for when things were going to happen again. 

So we were like, “Well, [Mindless Joy] has come out, that’s happened, that’s great – but we’re still feeling this itch we’ve gotta scratch, so let’s keep going.” And then we just kept pushing, and it ended up blowing out, y’know? It’s funny – you think about some of the classic albums that were recorded over a year or something like that, but this was not like that!

Tim, did you find that having your own studio to work in gave you more freedom to experiment, or explore your ideas in more depth?

Tim: Totally, yeah. Because most other times, we’d work with this guy named Sam Johnson, who’s an absolute legend. But y’know, when you’ve got someone else’s workflow, things happen a certain way, and you have to sort of do everything their way to keep the family happy together. Whereas this was just like, “Alright, cool, I can work on whatever song I want, whatever part I want, whenever I want.” 

But that also didn’t help in a way, because we were still in lockdown, and I’d have to be tracking this stuff by myself, there’s no one else there to jam out with, and I’m just like, “Is… Is that good enough?” I don’t know, y’know what I mean? Like, you can spend as long as you want on something, but it’s still gotta be sincere and not over-produced.

Was there anything you learned from making Mindless Joy with Sam that you were able to adapt to your production techniques on All The Rage?

Tim: Yeah. Mindless Joy was all heavily doubled and tripled, vocal-wise, and we learned a lot more about, like, having a signature character to make the songs flow a lot better. Other than the choruses and things like that, there’s just the one voice running through the whole thing. So we tried to put a lot of attitude and character into that, and really push for that. 

I think it was while we were working on “Upside Down”, we were watching all these Max Martin interviews about tracking vocals, and we spent probably six hours on a 30-second intro, and it was so shit. We got the intro out, and I was like, “Yeah, let’s not track the vocals like that, man, that’s gonna suck!” 

Craig: Like you say, we did learn from our time with Sam. It’s funny how we talk about keeping the family happy, because that worked both ways; Sam definitely compromised his own style for what we wanted to do, and we really did want those double-tracked, triple-tracked vocals on the last album. And that’s not always the way Sam works, as you will have heard with The Smith Street Band or Camp Cope or stuff like that, where he really lets the vocal hang out. 

We were coming at it from a totally different perspective, and I do think that when it was just us and there were no training wheels from Sam in the producer’s chair with us, we were able to really embrace what we learned from him. And I’m glad we did, y’know? We took it to the places where we felt comfortable, and it was really cool.

What was the most fun you had making this record?

Tim: One of the moments I remember, which we’ve got on video, was when we recorded the song “Skyward”. We did one practise take, and then that whole song was sung in one go. I think that was one of the moments where we were just like, “Holy shit! This is awesome!” We were all high-fiving… And other than that, probably when we were making “Wrong”. 

That song came pretty late to the party. I was listening to a lot of Max Martin and Taylor Swift, and I was just like, “Alright, I’m gonna write this poppy-as-fuck melody!” I kept throwing these wild ideas to Craig – I’m like, “Yeah, I want radio vocals, backups doing this, and then this pop-punk thing!” And he was like, “Really? Do you actually want this? …SICK!” 

It was like we were finally coming into one and moulding this big ol’ pop-punk baby, y’know what I mean? I think those were my two favourite moments for sure.

Craig: I love the drum track for that opening song, “Head First”. During the recording process, Chris Cowburn left the band, and then our guitarist, Jake [‘Cutter’ Farrugia], became our drummer – and that was the first song he drummed. So there’s four tracks that are Cutter, and the rest are Cowburn. And I mean, we love Chris too, that was very much an amicable… Like, he’s a dad now, he’s a label manager, and when the pandemic hit, he was just like, “I need to step back from performing, I think I’ve had my time.” 

But we were lucky, we we had another, superior drummer just waiting to step in. The first drum fills he tracked were for this song “Head First”, and I think he just ripped it up. I felt really proud and excited for him, to see him switch roles and not miss a beat – no pun intended – and just dominate it. 

Tim: I remember Craig in the studio, when Cutter was doing that outro – like, Pumpkins-as-fuck snare rolls at the end of “Head First” – and he was like, “Our drummer can do that! That’s our guy! He plays hyper-speed!”

Craig: I always just love any time there’s a guitar solo in a song, too. I love being in the room when Tim and his Brother Will – a.k.a. Dragon – are playing guitar together. The solo in the song “Meant To Be” was like Tim’s “Slash out the front of the chapel, ‘November Rain’ guitar solo” kind of moment. And I just love that shit, y’know? Anything with a guitar solo in it.

I don’t know if I can think of any other questions, is there anything else you think people should know about this record, or anything else you wanna say about it?

Craig: I hope there’s something on this album that people feel like they can relate to. Even a song like “Skyward” – I mean, it’s about aliens, but it’s also about feeling like when shit’s hitting the fan, you can step out and just focus on yourself.

I think that’s the overarching theme of the album: you don’t have to step away and hide from the world, you can look within and find something that makes you feel more comfortable. And that really sums up the personal growth we all went through in trying to record this album, learning not to overthink things, and Tim’s personal journey with his mental health over the pandemic. 

I hope people feel at home in these songs, and that it’s reaffirming on some level… And, also, I like the guitar solos [laughs].

All The Rage is set for release on September 10th, 2021 via Domestic La La. Click here to pre-order.

AFI: Keeping The Flame Alight (an interview with Jade Puget)

PHOTO CREDIT: JACOB BOLL

Good morning! I went to bed at 2am last night and woke up at 6am, but for some strange reason, I feel incredibly well-slept. Coming from someone who can sleep (and has slept) 18 hours straight and still feel tired, that’s pretty fucking phenomenal – especially considering I am so far behind with AG #144 and I really could use every second I’ve got. 

But ANYWAY, last month I had a really nice chat with Jade Puget of AFI. I found him incredibly insightful and very bubbly, easy to riff off of and carry the interview along. I’d shopped the story around for a few weeks before their latest record Bodies came out, but I sadly couldn’t get an outlet to bite on it. The record has been out for a hot minute now (it streeted on June 11th), so I figure it might just work best to throw this piece up here and let it shine on its own merit. 

Cheers!


AFI: KEEPING THE FLAME ALIGHT

When they formed in the hazy Californian winter of ’91, AFI were nothing if not enthusiastic. None of the four wide-eyed ragamuffins knew how to play an instrument (no, literally – they didn’t even own any), but that hardly stopped them from thrashing away to their hearts’ content, in time making their full-length breakout with 1995’s Answer That And Stay Fashionable. Co-produced with Rancid members Tim Armstrong and Brett Reed, the record was, by and large, your stock-standard hardcore punk affair: loose, gnashing guitars, scatter-paced drum fills, and scratchy yelled vocals dripping with venomous teen angst. 

Looking back on the record in 2021, it’s… Well, it’s something. It’s hard to believe Answer That And Stay Fashionable was bashed out by the same AFI that made Bodies – the band’s kinetic and kaleidoscopic 11th LP, due June 11th on Rise Records. On the new record are glimmers of the crunchy, mosh-ready mania that AFI cut their teeth on, but there’s also a tinge of the seedy, soul-gripping emo they dipped their feet into on 2003’s Sing The Sorrow, and a solid dose of the effervescent new-wave vibes they’ve explored in recent years. There are also tracks that sound unlike anything else AFI have ever done before; it’s a triumph of the band’s storied past, but also a defiant charge ahead in their eternal pursuit of innovation – it feels purpose-built to celebrate AFI’s 30th anniversary.

Except according to guitarist Jade Puget, the impending milestone never even grazed his mind until last month. As far as he’s concerned, every AFI record is the debut effort from a new incarnation of the band. Reinvention is crucial, he stresses, lest they lapse into a soul-sucking cycle of half-assed insipidity. As Puget ruminates to [insert outlet name here], Bodies is a snapshot of AFI in the present day, and there’s no telling where they’ll go – let alone who they’ll be – from here.

One of the really exciting things about being an AFI fan is that you never know what’s going to come next. You’ve gone from hardcore to goth-rock, to pop-punk, to indie-rock… You’ve been everywhere, man. How much of that creative process is just throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks? Do you see a value in experimentation?
I do! As a songwriter – and y’know, as a musician and an artist in general – I think stagnation really is the death of creativity. If we were to just remake our most popular albums, or try to replicate the formula that sold us the most records, I don’t think we would still be a band. Because sure, you might make more money or sell more records, but it’s just so soul-crushing. Even if you fail or people don’t like it, to strike out in a new direction is still more artistically rewarding. 

Has there ever been a time where you’ve done something and then stepped back and gone, “Okay, shit, we might have taken it a bit too far here”?
I mean yeah, all the time [laughs]. I actually brought this up to Davey the other day and he doesn’t even remember it, but when we were writing for this record, we somehow ended up with a reggae song. Y’know, obviously AFI is not known for its reggae – and it certainly wasn’t what we set out to do – but that’s just the way the song happened. And at the end of it, we were just kind of looking at each other like, “…How did this happen!?” But it was a good song! I actually ended up finished it after the fact, and I really like it! I don’t think it’ll ever see the light of day, but y’know, it’s fun to explore those paths less travelled when the opportunity comes up.

So where did the inspiration for this album’s thematic palate come from?
There wasn’t any particular thing where it was like I went through some traumatic experience, or had a bad breakup, or anything like that. It’s more just that at this point, I’ve been writing songs for a long time, so I just take everything in. It could be the weather, or a movie I just watched, or a book I’m reading… Y’know, you just kind of internalise everything that’s happening in your life, and then it somehow comes out in the music.

The stylistic ebb and flow on this record is truly something else. You’ve got tracks like Dulceria” and Tied To A Tree”, which are really deep and atmospheric, but then you’ve got tracks like Begging For Trouble” and Looking Tragic” which are really bright and energetic – and the way they all gel together is magical. Is the dynamic of mood something you were very conscious about?
I’m glad it happens that way, but when we sit down to write, we really have no plan for what we’re going to write. At the end of that process, it’s just like, “Okay, what are the ten best songs we have here?” But with a song like “Tied To A Tree”, you can’t write too many of those in a row or you’ll just be incredibly depressed. So you have to write something like “Begging For Trouble” to sort of cleanse your palate.

Is that diversity a testament to your creative chemistry as a band?
Yeah, even though I write all the music, I don’t try to take over it with all these crazy guitar theatrics. In fact if you listen to our records throughout the years, you can actually hear that I’ve become less and less interested in making my guitar any sort of focal point. To me, the guitars have just become another tool in my arsenal of songwriting techniques, and it just needs to be in its place and have its time. You don’t need to have these giant stacks of guitars constantly assaulting you. If you let the guitar have one cool moment in a song, that will be more impactful than having it hit you over the head for the entire song. So now I can create space for Hunter [Burgan, bass] to have his moment, for the vocals to have their moment… For everyone to have their moment. 

Is that something you’ve found has come more naturally to you with time? 
Yeah. I think as I’ve become a little more adept at songwriting, I’ve realised that making a good song isn’t about having everything sounding huge all the time. I think on this record especially, you can see that those spaces in the music can be just as impactful and as powerful as 13 layers of guitars.

Do you ever trawl through the catalogue and reflect on AFI’s evolution, or is your focus always set on the next chapter of the journey?
I’m always just trying to move forward – and I think Davey feels the same way. Y’know, sometimes I’ll sit down with my guitar and I’ll try to be like, “Okay, I’m gonna write a fast song!” Or, “I’m gonna write a song that sounds like something from The Art Of Drowning!” But when you try to force something like that, it never tends to work. It feels inauthentic. It feels uncreative. Now if that was to happen naturally – if I was to write some fast old-school punk song because that’s what I had stuck in my head – I would be all for it. And sometimes we do write that kind of stuff, and it’s okay, because it came to us naturally. But I’m not really one to reflect on our past; I’m certainly not one to throw on an old AFI record and rock out to my own music.

Do you have any plans to celebrate AFI’s 30th anniversary this year?
Yeah, we’re trying to figure that out at the moment. We’ve gotta do something cool, right? It is a big milestone – I don’t think very many bands get to 30 years – so we’re trying to think up something cool for the fans, a way that we can celebrate the whole history of the band and all the records we’ve put out. 

How strong would you say the band is right now? Could you see AFI kicking on for another 30 years?
I mean, I hope to die well before that [laughs]. But if it does happen, I won’t be complaining. I think as long as we’re able to make music that excites us, we’ll keep it going. That’s really the key to everything. If at some point there’s nothing left in the tank and we start retreading old stuff or it’s just not fun anymore, that will be when we call it a day.

I like that vibe. Sometimes you’ve just gotta go with the flow.
Yeah! I mean, that’s how we started. When we were kids, we never had any master plan – we were never looking forward to the ten-year anniversary or thinking about a five-album plan, or going, “What are we going to do after this record?” It’s always just been about taking it one day at a time.

Is that harder to do when you’ve got label contracts and expectations to meet?
No, because strangely enough, I really feel like all four of us still operate on the same wavelength; we still have the same approach [to AFI] that we did when we were a DIY punk band. We’re not going to do anything because we owe it to a label, or because we need to make money. It’s never going to be about that. Whenever we go to make a record, we have to ask ourselves, ‘Is this real for us? Is this authentic? Are we having fun?’

Well if the energy isn’t there for an AFI record, you’ve all got side projects to channel your creativity into.
Yeah, exactly. Blaqk Audio is my main side project, and that’s always a fun escape. In fact, Davey and I are writing a new Blaqk Audio record right now, so we’re hoping to record that soon!

A very belated chat with Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins

Towards the end of the cataclysmic shitstorm that was 2020, a few weeks before The Smashing Pumpkins released their towering 11th album, CYR, I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with the band’s notoriously enigmatic and elusive frontman, Billy Corgan. This was for the January issue of Australian Guitar (#141 – read more about that here). 

We had a 15-minute phoner booked in, and knowing Corgan’s general reluctance towards the press and tendency to give tight, concise answers, I’d fully expected it to be a quick in-and-out type situation. But much like a good chunk of their discography, our call went on for way longer than it realistically should’ve. I think I caught Corgan on a good day – he was very animated, very friendly, and happily waxed lyrical about topics I thought he’d brush off entirely. 

However, due to the pitfalls of print and the onerous word-counts we have to abide by, lest the magazine look like a crowded mess of crammed-in text, most of our chat wound up on the cutting room floor. Usually when an interview runs longer than it’s supposed to and I end up with a kilo or two of leftover copy, there are two routes I can take: I can either ditch what doesn’t make it to print (which I do when all the extra stuff is superfluous or waffly, or not interesting enough to justify bothering with), or I can scribble up a second feature to pitch to another publication.

I was really quite stoked with the 2,000 words of content I had left over from my call with Corgan, so I held on to it, my intention being to write a second article with it and sell that to a publication that didn’t have their own feature to plug CYR. And there ended up being a publication onboard to buy it! 

The only thing is, the timing couldn’t have been worse. The editor I was in contact with wanted authorisation from the Pumpkins’ publicist to run the piece, and by the time that came though, we were both on our holiday breaks, and I missed the green-light landing in my inbox. By the time I came across it, CYR had been out for over a month, it was right after Christmas, and I’d just kind of accepted that our plans for the handover had fallen through the cracks. 

I’d just been paid for the last issue of Australian Guitar, too, so I wasn’t super fussed about missing out on that extra payday. My plan was to wait until I’d started easing back into ‘writing mode’ at the start of the new year, and make this transcript the first thing I posted on my blog for 2021. But alas, thanks to the fact that I have the memory of a fucking tadpole, it ended up buried in a folder on my MacBook until five whole months later

But, like, fuck it, right? I put effort into planning this interview, studying for it, doing it, transcribing it, and cleaning that transcript up – so I’m not letting it die. 

So, in short, here is about half of a chat I had with Billy Corgan around the time The Smashing Pumpkins’ (unfairly maligned) latest album CYR came out. If you’d like to (see: please?) read the other half, you can click these few words of bold text right here to read it on the Guitar World website (or track down a copy of Australian Guitar #141 if you’re all about that physical mag life).

PS. I was honestly really surprised to see this record get slapped with such a mediocre reception. Shit bangs hard.

For a great deal of this record, it sounds like you’re using the guitar as a tool to complement the synthesisers, as opposed to vice versa. But at the same time, you’ve managed to maintain this very analogue, full-band sort of sound. How did you go about striking that balance?
It’s just a lot of layering. I don’t talk about this stuff in public a lot, but I’m a big fan of layering sounds. When people listen to the record for the first time they assume there’s no guitar in there, which is not true. There’s actually a lot of guitar on this record, but it’s kind of hidden in the layers. 

There’s a thing I call ‘masking’ – Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys used to do it a lot – where let’s say if you have a piano and a guitar, you have the guitar sound like one thing and the piano sound like another, but if you put them together in a certain way it creates a different type of instrument; you’re not quite sure what you’re hearing. That’s what I mean when I talk about layering – it’s this game of trying to put instruments together in a way that sounds unfamiliar, but tonally isn’t strange. It’s all familiar range, but you’re reacting to it differently because it’s not the typical sound you’re used to hearing. I’m really into a lot of boring stuff like that.

I’m curious about how that will translate to the live set, because there’s three guitarists in the band between James [Iha] and Jeff [Schroeder], but with a lot of these songs, you’ve got long stretches where the guitar is at most a minimal element.
Well when we play live and we do songs like that from over the band’s 30 years – songs like “1979” and “Eye” – we just use backing tapes, and we kind of play the guitar intertwined. That’s been a really effective strategy. So in essence, we kind of do a variation of the song that’s more guitar-voiced for the stage, with the backing tapes filling in the blanks. And it sounds fine.

I feel like because of how much musical ground the Smashing Pumpkins have covered over the past 32 years, you are one of those few bands that can truly get away with anything without ever seeming inauthentic. Do you feel like you have that true creative freedom to do whatever the fuck you want?
Pretty much, yeah. But it’s not been an easy thing to do, y’know? Because the music business is not set up for bands like us – the music business is set up for a band that does this and a band that does that. And those bands market those sounds, and consistently build on that marketing year after year, until people get bored. I, from the beginning, never wanted that – and it’s caused a tonne of problems. I wouldn’t change it for the world, but it’s definitely not been the easiest path to take. 

Do you still have that attitude of wanting to rebel against the music industry, or the labels you were given by people like me?
I think it’s more about rebelling against perception. I won’t include you in this, but I think throughout the years there’s been a lot of lazy takes about the Pumpkins. It’s like when people call Zeppelin a rock ’n’ roll band or Sabbath a doom band – it doesn’t really sum up all the nuance of those bands’ sounds. [The Smashing Pumpkins] is very much a product of its time, and we were always quite comfortable with being chameleonic. 

I mean, I still have snippets of reviews we got from before our first album came out, where they said we sounded like The Black Crows, REM and The Cult. I like all those bands, but that’s not even remotely close to what we were going for. But they said that because they couldn’t figure out where we were coming from, and those were the closest names to lump us with. I don’t know how many studio albums we’ve released at this point, but y’know, we’ve always been a fairly dominant musical unit, as far as our ability to generate music in a bunch of ways for a bunch of different eras. 

But the rap on the band tends to be about other stuff – mostly drama about me that isn’t reflective of who I actually am. So it’s kind of a weird thing – the best argument I can make is just to keep achieving musically; I could argue with you about how the media perceives me, but that’s kind of a losing argument because at the end of the day, you’re the one writing this article, not me. Y’know what I mean? I’m not saying this to you personally, but it’s like, I’ve lost the battle many times already – I’m not going to change anybody’s minds, especially if they already have some sort of bias against me – so the best I can do is just keep achieving musically. 

And I believe that eventually, through streaming, through new generations of fans, and through a different world which is in many ways more beneficial to my way of doing musical business, it’ll just all sort itself out. But yeah, I still have a chip on my shoulder, y’know? 

Well, I like that you’re able to approach that side of the argument with some optimism.
I feel very lucky, y’know? I feel like I’ve had a great musical life. I was even thinking about it today, before I did all these interviews, that I don’t have anything to complain about. As a musician, I’ve lived every dream I’ve had and I’ve done everything I’ve ever wanted to do. There was one period in my life where I worked with Tony Iommi, I played a concert with David Bowie and I interviewed Eddie Van Halen. Those were all childhood heroes for me, and I got to put myself on their level. That’s an incredible life to live. 

I think I’ve been mistreated many times, sure – but I’ve also been a part of the arguing, so that’s okay. I don’t feel like a victim. I have two healthy children, a lot of great fans… The fact that someone like you is interested in what we’re doing right now is great! And there’s no “dot dot dot”, there’s no asterisk – it’s been a great thing. It’s been certainly more great than bad.

So as the next chapter in the Shiny And Oh So Bright era, how does this record continue the story that you started telling with No Past. No Future. No Sun.?
It’s a bit convoluted because when the band got back together with James, I wanted to do a musical, but there wasn’t a lot of energy in the band to do it. So I’d written some songs for the musical that ended up on No Past, and that kind of set me off on this narrative pace. It’s like the dream of the character versus the story of the character; right now, we’re working on a sequel album to Melon Collie and Machina, which is like a continuation of the characters’ stories that we explored on those albums. 

But I think the Shiny And Oh So Bright story is ultimately more about the band’s journey… It’s going to be hard to talk about it until the third volume comes out. We’re three quarters of the way done with that, and I think once it comes out, it’ll explain why I did what I did. But right now, I think it would just confuse people if I tried to explain it. 

How does the Shiny And Oh So Bright narrative continue past this album?
Well y’know, we’re doing the Machina reissue soon, and when that comes out it’ll explain the whole narrative of that project. I’ve never explained the Machina narrative. The Melon Collie one is much simpler in the sense that it’s just the rise and fall of a star – it’s pretty simple rock ’n’ roll stuff – but Machina is way more convoluted and crazy. And I think once I explain the concept behind that, it’ll become more evident where [Shiny And Oh So Bright] is going. But it’s hard to talk about that before it’s done. 

Y’know, we live in a clickbait world, so if I say one thing about it, it’ll be twisted into a million other things and everybody will expect something different to what was implied. I have a funny story about that, actually: when we were doing Adore, somebody asked me what kind of album we were making and I jokingly said, “We’re making a techno album.” Next thing you know, there were headlines all around the world like, “Pumpkins Announce Techno Album”. Then every interview was like, “So Billy, you’re making a techno album?” And I’d have to be like, “No!” I’ve been burned too many times by running my mouth early [laughs].

I suppose CYR would be the closest you’ve come to making a techno album. It just took a while!
[Laughs] That’s a good point! The BPMs are a little too slow for techno, but we’re getting there.

What is it that you like about having these bigger, more expansive conceptual projects that span several albums, like Shiny And Oh So Bright or Teargarden By Kaleidyscope?
I think it just engages my creativity at a higher level. Let’s say you’re in the band, right, and tomorrow we’re going to start a new Smashing Pumpkins album – the weight of expectation on that is too much for me to deal with. The expectations are usually in people’s minds – it’s not my version of The Smashing Pumpkins, it’s everyone else’s. So I need something to lean into that balances expectation, reality and my own creativity. 

I have to allow myself a very wide berth to express myself. And generally speaking, if people let me do that and support me in that, they’d get more of me that they like. But if I’m stuck in a computational frame where I feel like I have to limit myself, I think I end up with records that are… Not my best. It doesn’t mean they’re not good, they’re just not my best. 

Do you find that you get creatively wrapped up in those worlds like a method actor would with a specific role?
I’m bad in that I go totally into it, and then I never want to hear it again. It’s a bit whorish, but it works for me. 

Do you like when it takes a few listens for an album to really make sense?
I do. People like to tell me that they don’t really understand my records until they smoke some pot, because it allows them to hear all the layers that are in there. That’s what I was talking about earlier with tonal stacking and layering and all of that. If you look closely at a great painting, you’ll see there’s a lot of depth in the work. You can look at it for five seconds and go, “Oh, it’s a lady on a couch,” but if you really look, you’ll see shades and tones and an emotional quality – and that’s the way I perceive music. 

There should be a romantic quality that you have to peer into it to find. Unless it’s strictly primitive by design. I do like a lot of primitive music as well, but when it comes to my own music, I’m much more interested in exploring the other side of the spectrum: those highly produced, highly controlled, yet still organic atmospheres, of which I have a lot of control.